Persecution of (Early) Philosophers

If you have taken a philosophy course, you probably have heard the story of Socrates, who as an old man was convinced of impiety and corrupting the youth in Athens in 399 BC, and was sentenced to drink the poison hemlock.  Instead of fleeing Athens to points unknown, Socrates abided by the decision of his homeland and refused attempts to smuggle him out of the country. He argued that as a loyal citizen of Athens, he should abide by her judgment, just as he had obeyed her laws all his life. By doing so, he made himself into a martyr and eventually, the same courts that had persecuted him; persecuted his accusers.

Socrates, armed with his quest to find someone wiser than himself, may have been the gadfly, irritating his fellow citizens and sometimes making them look like fools. However, he also comes across in Plato as the only truly loyal son of Athens, who with the irritation he caused woke up his fellow citizens, allowed them to see the errors in their thinking and correct those errors if they so desired. Socrates, being portrayed as the loyal son of Athens on the one hand, and the quintessential philosopher on the other, is the patron “saint” of philosophy, for he secured the position of philosophy in Athens and thus ultimately, in the world.

But why did philosophy need to be saved? Truth is; that since its beginning, philosophy was not too popular. Think of it, you are the citizen of an average Greek city, happy with the way things are done, which is the same way they have been done for the past thousand years, and here comes some new upstart, criticizing Tradition and Custom, advocating phusis or Nature, talking about the arche (overarching principle) of things. You may not be the high man on the totem pole, but you understand your place in the cosmos and are anxious about whether everything that makes sense is being overturned. You do not understand much of what this new-fangled philosopher is saying, but you do understand that he is not talking about the traditional gods or rather, the gods as they are traditionally understood. The whole entire city; with its political and cultural system are based on that traditional understanding. “Impiety” is a crime against the city.

So while you do not know exactly what the philosopher is saying, you do know that it is bad news and should be nipped off at the bud. Instead of putting up with the impiety and having the whole political and cultural system undermined, it easier to kill or exile or just chase offending fools out of town. That is what they often did, in Athens and elsewhere in the Greek world. Socrates’ treatment, far from being an exception to the normal treatment of philosophers, is merely the most prominent example of what often happened, the persecution of the philosopher.

On the death of Alexander, Aristotle fled Athens, “lest Athens sin against philosophy twice.” Of course, in saying “twice,” Aristotle was not counting the persecutions by Athens of Anaxagoras, Damon, Protagoras and Diagoras. Anaxagoras of Clazomenae was a friend of the Athenian leader Pericles, and was imprisoned and later, expelled from Athens. Damon the sophist, a friend and associate of Pericles and Socrates, was ostracized. Protagoras of Abdera, the sophist, was expelled from Athens and his books were burned in the agora. Diagoras, an atheist, was condemned to death and fled Athens. A talent of silver (26 kg) was offered as a reward to whoever killed him.

Xenophanes of Colophon was exiled. Zeno of Elea died defying a tyrant. Pythagoras, in some accounts, was killed by a mob. He also had left his home city of Samos, moved to Kroton and then moved again to Metapontum. We do not know how urgent these moves were, but they probably were not entirely voluntary. His followers, the Pythagoreans, were persecuted in Sicily, and there were two general uprisings against the Pythagoreans in Magna Graecia. In fact, what happened to Socrates was very much like what had happened to Pythagoreans or Sophists elsewhere before.

There was a general pattern, a philosopher would make himself unwelcome in a town and would either be chased out or thrown out. In many ways, it was easier for the philosopher to leave and perhaps start up somewhere else, than it would be for him to stay and fight the charges. The problem though is that while running, for example, a Pythagorean cell out of town, took care of that particular cell, it did not solve the issue of the underlying conflict between tradition on the one hand, and philosophers and sophists on the other. This kind of scene was repeated over and over again, throughout Greece until the trial of Socrates basically embarrassed people for the conviction of an old man who always had been loyal to his city, even though that loyalty was expressed in rather idiosyncratic ways.

In philosophy’s early days (c. 585-399), philosophers were often persecuted, but also philosophers persecuted other philosophers. Xenophanes and Heraclitus were highly critical of Pythagoras and his followers, while the Pythagoreans expelled and persecuted renegade members such as Hippasus. Plato was told that he should not bother burning Democritus’ books because there were too many to get them all. Plato also avoids any allusions to Democritus and the atomists in his dialogues. While Plato defines and co-opts other philosophers and sophists who preceded him, he wants to annihilate the memory of Democritus. He is not much better for Parmenides of Elea. A character in Plato’s Sophist (241d-242a), the Eleatic Stranger, talks about (theoretically) having to murder his father, Parmenides, in order to make way for a new critique. To the Greeks, patricide was the worst crime.

Of course, for “golden” Plato, all his sins are still nullified today by the quality and character of his writing. But, it is not only a matter of us overlooking the crimes of a man who through his art delights us. Plato’s “crimes” were done in wartime when philosophy was besieged, and in the end Plato’s work legitimatizes philosophy, establishes it and saves it from persecution. Plato’s work saves philosophy, but it also transforms it and in the process it loses something. Philosophy after Plato is not the same kind of beast that it was before Plato came along. Just in the last 150 years have we really started to realize that, showing how complete Plato’s vision is for us, even today.

But what does this have to do with cold fusion? Maybe just this: No matter how frustrating it is, trying to get cold fusion taken seriously as far as funding and publicity is concerned, it could be worse and it has been worse and also, we have gotten through that. The lesson of the persecution of philosophers in ancient Archaic and Classical Greece is that a thing which is an anathema one moment can become accepted and embraced the next. In fact, not only can that thing become embraced, the very existence that there ever was a conflict can become glossed over. Because of that habit of humanity to gloss over past events, we have been here much more often than one might guess. Because of this habit, one should not confuse the “map” (or formal history) of a thing, with the “territory” of the actual phenomena. By “territory,” here I mean cold fusion as a phenomena which has social and eventually, historical significances in addition to its scientific/technological significances.

That is not to say that scientifically cold fusion is “right,” and that it needs to be (socially) accepted as such. That is an issue ultimately for physicists and engineers to settle, as physicists and engineers, not as gatekeepers who protect the scientific status quo because they are strongly invested in it. At the same time, anyone who is curious about cold fusion should use their God given intelligence, and judge the matter for themselves of whether there is potential there and whether it is worth us as a society pursuing. If they decide there is, then welcome. If not, then I thank them for looking and I will trust that they have considered it in good faith. To me there is enough there to amaze about what has been found so far, and to wonder about what more might be possible.

This article benefits from Peter J Ahrensdorf mentioning of persecuted philosophers in his The Death of Socrates and the Life of Philosophy, (State U. of NY Press, Albany). His book is a close reading of Plato’s Phaedo in the light of the persecution.