From “Science’s End”

There was no “Greek miracle.” The real nature of the unitary wisdom of the first Greek philosophers is explained by its socio-historical context. The post-Homeric practical and spiritual emancipation that took place in the 6th century BC was essentially based on two key factors: the development, amid domestic activity, of crafts and commerce at the instigation of the merchant and technician Solon, and the gradual formation of Athenian democracy at the expense of the landowning eupatrid caste. The fact that at this period technics were not yet distinct from the art of living of the new caste of craftsmen is expressed in the unity of a “naturalist” knowledge directly derived from technical activity on nature (tekhne). If pre-Socratic philosophy found itself obliged to refer to a First Principle, this latter nevertheless remained inherent in the physis itself.

The industrialization of crafts and the extension and institutionalization of slavery in the 5th and 4th centuries give rise to a more distinct social division of labor and a correspondingly sharper separation in the act of knowing. Xenophon notes that in the cities “one often sees a considerable specialization”; and though not himself opposed to the accumulation of wealth, he adds: “The ‘mechanical arts’ bear a social stigma and are rightly despised in our cities. For these arts injure the bodies of those who work in them or run them, forcing them into a sedentary and confined life, in some cases obliging them to spend entire days beside fire. Such physical degeneration also leads to a deterioration of the mind.” (The Economist.)

This mental atrophy, which was still rather na├»ve in the physiologoi, appears fully in Plato, the forefather of metaphysics in the strict sense of the word. In Phaedo Socrates expounds the merits of discursive logic, which approaches “each thing as much as possible with thought alone.” This development of a pure reason rejecting the “entire body” as impure, which characterizes the birth of separate individualistic thought, is inseparable from the democratic ideal of a mercantile society divided into independent families. Even if Athenian democracy was officially restricted to the citizens, the socio-spiritual disintegration that its egalitarian principle gave rise to is perceptible in the century of Pericles in the loosening of the basic relations between citizens and slaves. “In Athens the slaves are accorded an incredible degree of liberty,” says Xenophon; and he even goes on to mention the appearance of a proto-wage-labor form of remuneration, certain slaves receiving, along with the strict necessities of their survival, a surplus in money. The moralist-rationalist false consciousness of Athens, which while having need of a slave class no longer has the full conviction of its necessity, is also discernable in the philosophical efforts of Plato and Aristotle to discursively justify slavery. Feeling obliged to prove that slaves are such “by nature,” Aristotle simply takes the opposite moral viewpoint to those of his contemporaries who “claim that the law alone makes them so.” In The Republic, Plato points out that law does not aim at the exceptional happiness of one class but “strives to realize the happiness of the entire city by uniting the citizens through the persuasion and constraint” of an impersonal state.

The socio-historical disintegration of unquestioned royal power and of myth broke up the unity of knowledge: If the early philosophers to a large extent still identified with the collective life of Hellenism, “after Socrates come the sects. Little by little philosophy gives over the reins to science” (Nietzsche). But to retrospectively interpret pre-Socratic philosophy as embodying an idyllic unitarism would be a mistake — a mistake that Nietzsche himself, in Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, doesn’t always seem to avoid. Socrates and his disciples were only a clear expression of the advanced state of separation between the mind and the senses, between Apollo and Dionysus, a separation that was already embryonic in Heraclitus, for whom “the eyes and ears are bad witnesses if the mind does not interpret what they say.” But the falsification that gives the common man the illusion of duration and immobility is not the fault of the senses in themselves; it is produced by the social use of their testimony. Moreover, Heraclitus himself, no doubt conscious of the originality and difficulty of his system, observes: “Among all those whose discourses I have heard, not a one has succeeded in understanding that wisdom is unlike all other things.” In the period of the first Greek thinkers, the gods begin to be transferred outside the world so that men can better discern all things.



First thesis of Jean-Louis Moinet’s book Fin de la Science (Paris, 1974).

Translation by Ken Knabb (revised from the 1976 translation that was later included in Public Secrets).

No copyright.

[Original French version of this text]