A story which has shaped our time more than any other.
The Story Of Metaphysics begins a long time ago. Before there was even the concepts of subjects and objects in the way we see them now. It’s easy to understate and forget just how much the scientific progress of the last couple thousand years or so has shaped the way we see the world. Instead, two thousand years ago the Greeks looked out at the world in a dramatically different way. They lived in such a different time that even the basic distinction between who was a philosopher and who was a scientist hadn’t even begun. Indeed, the story of Metaphysics begins in 600 BC around the Aegean Sea where the ancient Greeks instead pursued and lived around something called arête.
Arête isn’t easily translated into our modern language. The closest words to arête we have now are excellence or quality. But there was a moral as well as an aesthetic component to arête which is why it can also be translated to virtue or beauty respectively. References to arête can be found in just about everything the Greeks did. From the arête of a sword being its sharpness to the arête of a well-rounded individual.
Such an arête individual is personified by Odysseus in Homer’s two famous poems, the Illiad, and the Odessy. Odysseus represented everything the Greeks liked in a man. He was a cunning, natural leader, and someone whose brilliance and all around versatility was matched by no other. The idea for wheeling the wooden horse into Troy? That was Odysseus.
It was within this culture that the world’s first 'philosopher-scientists' began to question whether it was only the Gods who had a permanent existence in the Universe. That is, they sought to find an Immortal Principle; something other than the Gods that would last forever in the world around them. As this first group sought to generally find the Immortal Principle in the physical world they have come to be known as the Cosmologists.
Amongst the Cosmologists was Thales, the first recorded philosopher who said that Water was fundamental to all things. While, Pythagoras called it Number and so was the first to call the Immortal Principle something non-material. Heraclitus said that it was Fire and that the Immortal Principle included Change as well; while contrarily Parmenides lead a group of philosophers who claimed that Appearances and Change were an illusion.
In opposition to the Cosmologists was a group of philosophers called the Sophists. Amongst the Sophists was Protagoras who famously said 'Man is the measure of all things'. Unlike the Cosmologists the Sophists didn’t pursue an Immortal Principle external to man - but instead understood like most Greeks at the time that all ideas are based on man’s experience and originate from him. In other words, they were the teachers of wisdom of ancient Greece. And the way they expounded their art was via arête speaking or Rhetoric.
But there was a philosopher who despised the Sophists and what he saw as their destruction of an Immortal Principle external to man. In fact, this was a philosopher who would have an impact like no other before or after him, and whose philosophical ideas are still impacting our lives to this day. That philosopher was Socrates.
To defeat the Sophists in his struggle for the Immortal Principle - Socrates saw it necessary to unify the Cosmologists who thought that the Immortal Principle was change such as Heraclitus and the Cosmologists who thought that it wasn’t - such as Parmenides. So, Socrates said that the immortal principle wasn’t either of these things, but both! The things which don’t change Socrates labeled as ‘forms’ and the things which do change he labeled as ‘appearances’.
‘Appearances, they can certainly be deceiving as Parmenides followers claim, but they still exist as imperfect reflections of the forms which generate them.’ (Socrates)
Having combined these two schools of Cosmology, Socrates then sought to include the Greeks beloved arête, into his theory of forms. He did this by claiming that arête wasn’t some afterthought - but the highest idea of all - second only to the truth of the theory itself.
Armed with his new philosophical viewpoint, Socrates would walk around Athens, barefoot, unwashed and disheveled and question everyone, particularly Sophists, about what they thought the meaning of arête and the good life was. At the time, such behavior was very unusual. Socrates hated the fact that the Sophists, many of whom were amongst the rich and powerful of the time, would charge a fee to teach their art. So, while he questioned everyone, he would go so far as to claim dishonestly that he didn’t know anything, including what was good, and that all he was interested in was the truth. Many of these disagreements with his fellow Athenians were then recorded by Socrates student Plato and are famously known today as the Socratic dialogues.
But it was this act, this act of being ignorant of what arête is before speaking or question someone of it, which set Socrates apart from his fellow Greeks and set us all on the path we are on today. A path in which everyone knows what truth is, but are confused and forever wondering if there really is such a thing as quality.
Take an academic Philosophy 101 course and it will begin by asking - what is good? How do we know that good exists? If Max says that the good is one thing and Bob says that it is another, isn’t that proof that there is no such thing as good? And on and on..
But finally, to complete this story of Metaphysics - there was Aristotle. Aristotle thought that Socrates wasn’t giving appearances as much importance as he thought they should be given. Instead, Aristotle said that the appearances of the forms clung to something. Something called substance. And it was at this point that our modern day Subject-Object Metaphysics was born.
Subjects can be dialectically questioned of how logical their ideas are and objects, well they are the things which are made of substance. Arête, Quality; what was known to Greeks as the source of everything, and to Plato as the highest form of all became a relatively minor branch of philosophy called ethics. Ethics, out of the way of Aristotle’s main concern - truth, logic, and knowledge.
‘We had better examine the universal good, and puzzle out what is meant in speaking of it. This sort of inquiry is, to be sure, unwelcome to us, because those who introduced the Forms are friends of ours; still, it presumably seems better, indeed only right, to destroy even what is close to us if that is the way to preserve truth. We must especially do this as philosophers; for though we love both the truth and our friends, reverence is due to the truth first’ - Aristotle destroying Quality - In his book Metaphysics.
Had Socrates, Plato, Aristotle or someone like them not come along it’s unlikely we’d be much further along in the great scheme of things than that of the ancient Greeks. The power of truth is undeniable - the technological advancement of the last few hundred years is a testament to this. But there is a growing sense that something is missing - a vital piece of the puzzle. What this story shows is that missing piece is the existence of Quality/Morality in our modern understanding of the world. Everyone and everything knows what it is but we just describe it differently because of our different life experience.
A solution to this is the Metaphysics of Quality (MOQ) which provides us with a beautiful, metaphysically sound language to discuss everyday issues of quality and morality. First expounded by Robert Pirsig over his two books called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Lila, the Metaphysics of Quality allows us to discuss these issues in a logical way which isn’t at odds with our differing life experience. This is because it draws on our shared billion year evolution - something the Greeks had little idea about.
Two Millenia after Socrates, Plato and Aristotle our Metaphysics is
starting to show its age.
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