This article was published in a number of magazines. Just my thoughts on the Human Condition of Civilization – and nothing that hasn’t been said before


The civilized world of Man is based on our understanding and application of three principles; three ideals, if you like, that provided the ground on which that civilization grew, and because of which it continues to exist and function today. Those principles or ideals are science; technology, which necessarily implies the application of all the aspects of science that have contributed to the material fabric of our civilization; and our certain, yet often disparate—and demonstrably separate and several—ideals of human nature and moral and social conduct.

The ancient Greeks understood and believed in the importance of all of them; and that’s not surprising, because they created the first two, and—like us—they considered all three to be the raw materials and foundations of civilization. But where the third is concerned, however, and by comparison with us, they had a much clearer idea of what life itself should be.

Those early Greeks, like most ancient peoples, were curious about the world in which they lived, and were puzzled, intrigued, and fascinated by the heavens. Early Man struggled to understand the essence of the sun, moon, and stars—to find a rational explanation of the universe—and we have to remember that the first Greek scientists were born into a world in which mankind believed that the sun and moon were gods. They had to start with ‘magic’; ‘magic’ as applied to making rain and growing crops, and they had only their instinct and intelligence to rely upon. Yet they moved on to great discoveries,—and to create a civilization based on the scientific attitude to life. That scientific attitude to life was probably the greatest intellectual achievement of man, and they went on to expand their new-found knowledge,—using it as the basis of all progressive civilization.

Although time tends to dwarf the scientific discoveries of the past, there’s no way anyone can disparage or overlook such staggering discoveries as Aristarchus’ heliocentric theory, Archimedes’ principles of hydrostatics, Eratosthenes’ calculation of the circumference of the earth, Democritus’ concept that the universe is made up of atoms in infinite space, Anaximander’s belief—anticipating Darwinism—that ‘man originated from animals of different species’, or Antiphon’s prophetic statement to which medicine paid more and more attention in the twentieth century—that ‘in all men the mind controls the body, for good health and for bad’.

The ancient Greeks were obsessed by the passion to know,—and that obsession is the impetus of all discovery. Democritus said: “I would rather discover one scientific fact than become the king of Persia”; and “…the happiness of man lies not in the body or in the wealth, but in rightness and richness of understanding”. Yet he also had the humility to write: “Do not seek to know everything or you will be ignorant of everything”; and Heraclitus left us a warning: “Abundance of knowledge”, (for which we might well read, in our own time, ‘stuffing our heads with facts and figures’), does not teach men to be wise.”

The Greeks were the first to realize that the progress of civilization is in direction relation to human effort and advancing knowledge. The early speculation of Greece was obsessed with the physical world and the problems of cosmology. Socrates himself was once absorbed by it. “When I was young,” he said, “I was passionately attracted by what is called Physical Science: I thought it a splendid thing to know the causes of each thing, why it comes into being, why it exists, and why it perishes. I was always worrying over these problems.” And yet it was Socrates, more than anyone else, who shifted the attention of interest from Nature to Man. After him Greek science went on with unabated enthusiasm,—but the human soul and human conduct became the most important, urgent, and absorbing problems of inquiry. In the Gorgias of Plato, Socrates states: “The noblest of all investigations is the study of what man should be and what he should pursue.”

And so Socrates put aside his study of science because he felt that its explanations, not of the cosmos but of human nature and conduct, were unsatisfactory and superficial, and he went on to teach his countrymen a lesson they never forgot. And that was, and is, a lesson that we, too, must never forget. At present it certainly is not given the pre-eminence it should have in our consciousness and awareness of life. Yet if we can only understand it and assimilate it, we’re well on the road to a more fulfilling and happier life.

Socrates taught a simple and all-embracing truth for all mankind: that life is essentially a human problem.

As in their view of Nature, so in their philosophy of life, the Greeks began with primitive beliefs in a world where a hero sacrificed captives at the funeral of his friend, and where gods lived, loved, and quarrelled on a high mountain. From this world of ideals as expressed by Homer, they progressed to that of Plato. And this story of progression is much more than one of war and economic growth and political experiment, or of literary and artistic achievement. It is the story of finding and developing the concept of an ideal for and of Man.

Through the centuries during which Hellenism shaped the lives of thinking men — the Greek and later the Graeco-Roman world — this ideal provided the system of conduct that Archimedes sought in physics: a fixed and stable structure on which human nature could take its stand and build a spiritual life; and the passing of more than two thousand years has not even begun to make it obsolete. It still offers us the solid ground we need.

It is an ideal embodying the features of a great moral system which is entirely disinterested, which is progressive, which is free from narrowness, prejudice and bigotry, and which compels men to accept, desire, and pursue it. It has the power to draw men away from lesser aims in order to follow it. It has the power to enable Man to develop from lower to higher conceptions of good, which is progressively refined and enriched as human experience expands. It has the power of enriching and fulfilling the ideal of life to which it leads, especially in its freedom from the narrowness and provincialism that have plagued other systems. It has the disinterestedness of its ideal, leading men to desire the good, in all its forms, not for results or accidental advantages, but for itself, and so driving them on past the lesser ideals of money, position, and power: to be content with nothing less than the best of which human nature is capable. It is the essence of ‘the best’ that is desired and sought, and striving for that ‘best’ stirs the mind out of its torpor. Excellence is what we’re after… ‘virtue’, if you prefer the term.

And once we admit excellence as an ideal, it is impossible not to desire it for itself. The athlete is rewarded by the perfection of his bodily powers, not by prizes or applause; the poet or scientist by his own achievements, apart from fame and money. It is enough for the thinker to see the world as it is, and for the artist to enjoy it for itself. The same is true of every faculty: its perfection is its own reward. It is true, even more so, in the ‘virtue’ of Man as Man.

A life based on ‘virtue’ must be rich and multi-faceted. There is nothing restricted in the Greek conception of human excellence. From the first it was free of the narrowness that has troubled and often endangered Christianity, and that has left its mark in different ways in different ages: in the contempt for literature and learning; in the extravagances of ascetics, in the broken statues of English cathedrals, in the life of Victorian Non-Conformity. There is nothing of this in Greece. Everything has its ‘virtue’, and each ‘virtue’ is admirable and desirable. Above all, however, is the ‘virtue’ of Man, and this is entirely different from his ‘virtue’ in any other sphere of activity. ‘Specialism’ is not enough. Success in politics, scholarship, business, or sport, do not make the perfect life of the complete human being.

The Greek view of life, based on the concept of ‘virtue,’ grew slowly and under various influences. It began in ages of war and disorder, when those who survived were those who had the courage never to submit or yield. In the social misery and lawlessness of the succeeding centuries the ideal of justice was born. Aristocracy contributed its splendid and picturesque virtues. In Ionia, wealth, leisure, and contact with foreign peoples stimulated and fostered intellectual curiosity, and the sense of adventure and enterprise that Greek colonists across the Aegean carried them into new and stranger realms of thought.

The composite and slowly fashioned ideal that resulted may be called Humanism. It is the belief that man is more important than his environment or his possessions; and that his fundamental business is not to understand nature, though that is one of his problems, nor to earn a livelihood, though that is one of his duties, but to lead his life in order to make the best of human nature.

The Greeks, at their best, came nearer than any other people to the perfection of unaided humanity,—of the natural man. That is the pattern they show us. Man master of possessions, creations, and instruments, not their slave; and an ideal for man that develops and makes supreme in him his highest capacities. As Aristotle said: “By human ‘virtue’ we mean excellence of soul, not excellence of body, and by happiness we mean activity of the soul.”

Never, in spite of our great knowledge, scientific and technological achievements—and wealth—did Mankind need the Humanist tradition more than now. We have only to consider how it involves two of our most prominent activities: politics and economics, where Man occupies centre-stage. Humanism holds that political problems are human problems, and that the state exists so that its members may lead ‘the good life for man’. And this should be our creed, too. Yet when election time comes around, one would be hard-pushed to suppose that it is… The concept of ‘the good life’ dissolves, as a wraith, behind the phrases that the needs and aspirations of the moment inscribe on the banners and pamphlets of the political parties.

But the reader of Plato and Aristotle is never allowed to forget that the object of politics is a human good. “The state originates for the sake of life.” “Political societies exist for the sake of noble actions and not merely of a common life”. “The chief task of politics is to produce a certain character in the citizens and to make them good and capable of noble actions.”

While one merit of Greek Humanism is to point out that the goal of politics is human good, another is to understand that it can only be reached by human means. Although this may seem a truism, it is not the attitude of today. The modern state, (so vast and unmanageable by comparison with the small City States of Greece), with the powerful influences of science and technology, encourages us to seek our ends through the use of political machinery and manipulation. The responsibility for International Peace and government is given over to the United Nations or the Brussels administration of the EEC, and economic stability is to be achieved by governmental juggling taxes, currency manipulation, exchange controls, trading restrictions and privileges, and so on…. Man is to be saved in spite of himself and apart from himself; as a mere pawn in the convoluted game of clever manipulation of institutions, techniques and policies as conceived and administered by government,— and the burgeoning governmental bureaucracies of states.

But these systems of salvation are fallible, and recent history has highlighted the truth of Plato’s warning: “Do you think that political constitutions spring from a tree or a rock?” he asked, “and not from the dispositions of the citizens that turn the scale and draw all else in their direction?” We could have saved untold suffering and countless lives if we had remembered that institutions are designed for the uses and molded to the nature of those who conceived and use them, and that men are, ultimately, saved by their virtues and not by any form of political machinery. It has been said that the problem of politics is, given a world of self-interested ‘tricky-dickies,’ to educe a common honesty. But if that’s the case then, in Plato’s view, and in the cold and dispassionate overview of the history of reality, the problem is inherently insoluble. “States can only reflect the character of their citizens. The world can be no better than its inhabitants, and it may well be worse.”

Here we are considering politics in their widest sense, and Aristotle’s common sense condemns communistic schemes for social reform on the same ground and for the same reason expressed by Plato. “Such legislation,” Aristotle says, “has a specious appearance of benevolence. An audience accepts it with delight, supposing, especially when abuses existing under the present political system are denounced as due to private property, that under communism every one will miraculously become every one else’s friend. But the real cause of these evils is not the absence of communism, but the wickedness of human nature.” Aristotle believed that society must be reformed by changing men’s hearts rather than their institutions. “The state is a plurality which must be united into a community by education.”

And Aristotle echoes Plato, in his ‘Republic.‘ Plato took, as his main theme, the doctrine that the world can only be improved by improving man. And although Plato believed that the political problem is a human problem, he did not imagine states to be capable of existing without laws. States cannot survive by ideals alone, and he never forgets that the citizen’s character is the deciding factor in politics. Today we might say “A country gets the government it deserves,” or—to be more particular—”A totally enfranchised democracy elects the government that reflects its general views and moral attitudes, and the levels of education and intelligence, of the majority of its citizens.”

Human Nature provides the opportunity for statesmen to use and abuse it, according to their political colour and their personal goals and ambition. That being so, it seems to me that there must always be a means by which elected politicians can regularly be held accountable and answerable to the electorate. We are all only too well aware of the manner in which elected politicians can ride condescendingly roughshod over the opinions and desires of those to whom they owe their positions of power; and it can be argued that four-or-five year periods of unaccountability can be disastrous, particularly when — short of revolution — opposition to an elected government is ineffective or unable to intervene to limit its policies and power. Yet politicians will often patronize their electorate by claiming that four-or-five years of their particular form of elected government is hardly long enough to put right the catalogue of disasters wrought by their predecessors.

Plato also believed and wrote that: “Of all human possession, the soul has most natural capacity to shun evil, and to hunt for and seize the supreme good; and having seized it to make it a lifelong companion. It is human weakness that is responsible for all political disasters.”

And so, by clear and irrefutable logic, Plato leads us to the great revelation that the key to all political problems is education. And if the world of mankind can only be saved by an improvement in human character, education remains its only hope. Following the same argument, Aristotle’s ‘Politics’ ends with a discussion of it…

“No one will doubt,” he wrote, “that the legislator should direct his attention, above all, to the education of youth… Always, the better the character, the better the government.” For Plato and Aristotle, education is fundamentally a training of character, and they were never confused about its aims. Nowhere is the clarity of the Greek mind better seen than in their conception of education. It contrasts dramatically with our fumbling uncertainty about the place in education of science, the classics, mathematics, computer science, athletics, languages, handicrafts &c. Of course the Greeks knew that a technical education was necessary; but they also realized that, by itself, it did not make an educated man. They knew that the true aim of education was, and is, to produce human ‘virtue’, and the measure of its success is whether it does or not.

“We must not be indefinite in our view of education,” Plato writes in the ‘Laws’. “At present in our criticism or praise of a man’s upbringing we describe one of ourselves as educated and another as uneducated with reference sometimes to retail trade or the shipping business… But this is not the view of education, that training in ‘virtue’ from youth up which makes a man passionately desire to be a perfect citizen, knowing how to rule and to obey justice. This, I think, is the training for which alone we should reserve the term education, regarding the training which aims at wealth or some bodily strength or any other accomplishment apart from reason and justice as mechanical and illiberal and entirely undeserving of the name. Let us then not dispute over a word, but agree to our present conclusion, that properly educated people in general become good, and that we must in no way disparage education, which is the first and finest of blessing to the best of men.”

International politics are an ongoing problem of our world today, and trade and industry are another. It is still possible that our civilization will be destroyed by war, but it is just as likely to be choked and brought down by machines and commerce. Countries and alliances are threatened by the first of these dangers, and individuals by the second.

If the spectacle of Greek life and its artistic achievements is a challenge to us, so is its theory as passed down to us by Plato and Aristotle. When we, in the press of economic competition, are led to believe that production and marketing are major problems, we might profit by recalling that the Greek dream of a civilization was not one motivated and driven by the desire and need for power or money, but one in which a human ideal was paramount; an ideal in which men, before anything else, desired to be men; and that any occupation, even if a necessity of the moment, was not the end of life.

The civilization of the ancient Greeks is a constant reminder that there is such a thing as human ‘virtue,’ and it leads us to consider what that ‘virtue’ should be. Further, it allows us consider how, in our impersonal, mechanized, industrialized, computerized, commercialized existence — where Identity Cards and Social Security and National Insurance numbers are our means of identification — it can be achieved.

But we will only know it to have been achieved when we have reached a point of social awareness and understanding of our individual roles within that society,— of tolerance, self-discipline, and right-thinking—when we realize that we can begin to lop-off the tentacles of the massive octopus of bureaucracy; that we can cut down to minimal size the numbers and powers of the seething hydras of centralized government; and that we can confidently and safely curb the increasing and ever-present armies of police needed on the streets of our towns and cities… That point will only be reached after Man takes more responsibility for himself.

And that point can only be reached through education, for it is still our one and only hope. But our present concepts of education of the young will need to be comprehensively re-thought and planned; and that re-thinking and planning must allow for and embody the basic and seemingly timeless concepts of the ancient Greek Humanists; concepts that understood and revered the true ‘virtue’ of Man.

As Socrates pointed out: Life is a human problem.

Copyright Robert Weatherburn 2015