Thursday 15 Nov 2012
This is a passage deleted from the text of 'Poseidon's Realm'
Having been inspired by the peaceful Minoan civilization on Crete, I was somewhat dismayed by the militaristic nature of the Mycenaeans and the endless conflict which followed them in the Aegean. As we sailed back from Pylos to Kalamata in the southern Peloponnese, I discussed this with David Lea, an architect and sailing companion from North Wales.
It occurred to me that there may have been one unexpected beneficial consequence of the conflict which became a way of life in ancient Greece. The war of arms may have been reflected by a war of ideas without which Western philosophy and science may not have got off the ground so early.
‘It’s mainly through the clash of opposing opinions that truth emerges and intellectual progress takes place’, David observed.
‘Yes’, I replied, ‘even Socrates’ method of arguing was a form of war on an intellectual level. In the Platonic dialogues, Socrates, who had once been a foot soldier, pretends to retreat and give ground only to attack and finally kill off the ideas of his opponents!’
With a steady wind behind us and wishing for nothing more or less, I observed: ‘Perhaps the enlightened and rational person is beyond passions, beyond good and evil’,
‘For me justice is an absolute value’, David countered. ‘We need to fight for it, to support the good against the bad’.
‘But who is to say what is good or what is bad? What is good for one person is bad for another.’
‘Bad can be defined as doing harm to others.’
‘That certainly is bad. But what about the passions? Surely we should not be a slave to them, especially as we grow older and wiser?”
‘I don’t want to give up my passions or desires’, David said, his steady hand on the tiller and keeping an eye out for other boats. ‘I am prepared to accept suffering in order to appreciate joy, to exchange pain for pleasure. I desire to be loved by another.’
‘So you cling passionately to this life?’
‘There’s nothing wrong with that. I believe that there’s no life after death, no individual consciousness lives on.’
‘So we are absorbed into nothingness like a drop of wine in the ocean?’
We fell silent for a while. Then David said as an afterthought.
‘I shall continue to strive for excellence until I die. I am not content with contentment.’
He certainly stood in a long tradition for arete or excellence was the fundamental driving force of the ancient Greeks in all they did, whether in architecture, art, literature, athletics or warfare. In Homer’s time, it was principally seen as courage in adversity but later took on a more general sense of realizing one’s full human potential, in body, mind and soul.
I had attempted this, with varying results, all my adult life. But as I grew older I became increasingly interested in cultivating ataraxia , peace of mind, which many Greek thinkers came to see as the principal aim of philosophy. Sailing in a gentle breeze on that warm autumn evening up the Gulf of Messenia towards Kalamata, it was not difficult to achieve.