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Enlightenment – Cultural Binaries & Contextual Origins

What’s up! I’m excited for this series on binaries, starting with cultural binaries and contextual origins. Let us continue on our dailyphilosophic journey toward unlocking modern enlightenment:)

Our bread and butter is reading historical source texts, primarily in philosophy and religion, but in many other fields as well. This is without question the numero uno priority… yet we must also strive to stay connected with the constant stream of current information in our present time. We want to merge these two horizons as best as we can. Perhaps you’re thinking, “Doesn’t this mean reading some Descartes or Aristotle action in the morning before work and then checking the news during the day on my phone, or some shit like that?” Well yes… and no:)

While these do represent the kinds of actions we want to be engaging in, it doesn’t quite capture how we will be doing it. It doesn’t capture the analytical detail, nor get to the root of the specific questions we’re seeking answers to, or envision the ways in which we will be thinking about the historical information we get from Descartes or Aristotle as well as the current information we get from the news (or other more modern sources such as TV, film, books, etc.). We need to be able to make some connections, some inferences between the two so that we can begin the process of actively thinking for ourselves… transcending our thoughts, actions, and decisions in the current moment using the power of contextual understanding and past ideas.

This is a challenging path, it’s not for the faint of heart. It will take some effort, even for those of us who are passionately committed to it:) We will need to document how this process is changing us dialectically so that we can build momentum and see the development of our world views over time. Essentially, this feeds into the ongoing goal of enhancing our perspective.

Further, enhancing our perspective means increasing it while also taking action to reduce any potential limitations of it. This brings us to binaries, or binary relationships. Awareness of these relationships can assist us in navigating the world, but we must use caution as these relationships can also act as a constraint regarding the goal of expanding our perspective of the world. Given all of this, let us now begin to examine some of the most critical culturally driven binary relationships as well as some methods of analysis that we can try to use to overcome their inherent limitations. [Reminds me of an Eclipse:)].

Cultural Binaries and Binary Relationships

Good vs. bad, yes vs. no, positive vs. negative, true, vs. false, right vs. wrong, us vs. them, accept vs. reject, include vs. exclude, strong vs. weak, fast vs. slow, start vs. stop, win vs. lose, success vs. failure, love vs. hate, clean vs. dirty, happy vs. sad, rich vs. poor, reward vs. punish, light vs. dark, alive vs. dead (just to name a few). Take a minute and think of what the words within these relationships (both individually and in combination with one another) mean to you on a personal, micro level. And then take another minute and think of what they mean with regards to the grand scale, macro level, of things. [If you’d like, you can write down these thoughts for later reference, up to you:)].

Yes these are just words, but somehow if we scratch just deep enough beneath the surface, there seems to be a latent abundance of interlinked emotions just waiting to emerge.

But how do we learn the meaning of cultural binary relationships?

Good vs. Bad

We train our children to develop an awareness of cultural binary relationships in numerous different ways, and starting in their earliest stages of life. Take potty training. My child’s mindset is, “going potty in the toilet is good, if I potty in the toilet successfully, then I’m a good kid/person and everyone is happy and life is good.” No, they don’t communicate this directly via verbal speech… as parents we must infer, yet these inferences seem to be even more authentic. Instead of crying and screaming and arguing, they smile and laugh… They are excited to be getting it right. It’s visible within their emotions.

From here it seems children begin to understand the meaning of the words good and bad and start to test the limitations of what is good and bad. This then seems to lead them, through parent and community guidance and discipline, to understand binary relationships through the prism of a spectrum as opposed to a false dilemma logical fallacy wherein there are only two extremes. Essentially, things are not black and white. There is a gray area wherein things can be partially bad and partially good.

Before we get to the question of, “could there possibly be more than just a gray area?” Let’s start by asking what the ultimate derivative of culturally driven binary relationships is. Perhaps we are driven to obtain one idea or object within a binary relationship over another based on the external perception that it is better overall (more socially acceptable) within the culture that we live in and may even lead to the potential fulfillment of our internal desires. And yet, perhaps it’s equally if not even more probable that we strive for one idea over the other out of a deeply rooted internal and/or external fear, wherein we perceive that one of the two ideas or objects will result in less stress, anxiety, pain, or suffering. 

The “Good Tree”

One way in which I like to think about the good vs. bad binary relationship is as an analogy, the “good tree” analogy.

Let’s suppose that the branches of a tree represent all kinds of different binary relationships, and that all of these ancillary binary relationships ultimately stem from the trunk of the tree, represented by the pervading strength of the good vs. bad binary relationship. The trunk of the tree supports all of the ancillary tree branch binary relationships (some much thicker / stronger than others). It is also connected with the life force of the tree. The roots, or human culture.

Over time things will inevitably change, forcing the roots of the tree (culture) to adapt in order to survive. This may in turn also change the internal structure of the tree trunk, the meaning of what is more good / less bad in the good vs. bad binary, and similarly the internal structure of the tree branches, thus also changing the ancillary binary relationships. 

Extending this analogy, there are hundreds of different types of trees and each tree is unique, yet interconnected in that they are all trees… similar to humans. Trees are awesome:)

The Context of Good – The Golden Age of Greek Antiquity

Our first exploration of historical culture, events, and ideas begins through the prism of the binary relationship and the question of what is good as we examine a period in Greek antiquity known as “The Golden Age” which takes place between ~ 480 and ~325 B.C. This period also roughly corresponds with an illustrious succession in Greek leadership, starting with the birth of Pericles, including the life of Philip the Great, and ending with the death of Alexander the Great.

This is a story of how, amidst the barbarous landscape of constant strife, conflict, and wars, the Golden Age of Greece still manages to bloom. A flowering light of cultural goodness that managed to find its way through the violence and darkness and to first flourish in Athens, Greece and eventually spread throughout the entire ancient world.

The good inherent within this “Golden Age ” is one that begins with a sonorous ring of freedom via the Greeks collective victory over the Persians during the Greco-Persian Wars (~ 499 – ~ 479 B.C.). Collective because for once, the scattered internal Greek city-states (in Greek, “polis”), most importantly the rivals of Athens and Sparta, united to fight the invading Persians. The result of this alliance would be a series of legendary Greek military victories over Persia including the Battle of Marathon and the Battles of Salamis (of which included Thermopylae “300”).

Though heavily outnumbered by the Persians, the combination of Athens’ stoutly naval fleet of powerful trireme ships and Sparta’s elite fighting force of warrior hoplites in their lethal phalanx formations, were able to defeat the tremendous onslaught of Persian forces and their torrential downpour of arrows, thus securing freedom for all of Greece in 479 B.C. 

This included winning back the strategic sea trade post called the “Hellespont” in the Aegean Sea which Greece had previously won (according to the Greek historian Herodotus) ~700 years earlier through the Trojan wars with Troy. They also won back the freedom of Ionia (who were under control of the Persian satraps). These two elements were key as they, coupled with Greece’s new found confidence and vigor, secured their homeland and enabled the culture of Greece to re-establish itself within as well as gain enough momentum to eventually begin to expand.

However, after defeating the Persians and gaining a giant boost in confidence as a nation, internal strife would soon take over. Essentially Sparta became jealous of the relatively rapid rate in which Athens began to prosper both culturally and economically. They were fearful of losing their grips of power and control within Greece. This fear drove the onset of the long and arduous Peloponnesian War (~ 460 – 404 B.C.).

Additionally, another tragedy would strike ancient Greece in the form of a plague in ~ 430 B.C. The primary city-state that suffered from the plague was Athens as they had built a large wall around the city as a defensive measure against the Spartans. Although it was effective for military purposes, it had the unintended consequence of trapping its citizens within the walls during a devastating plague, which would go on to kill a ~20-25% of their total population, including their leader Pericles, in 429 B.C. 

Athenian Cultural Prosperity  

Even with the powerful external factors of war and plague threatening their way of life, Athens was able to persevere and enjoy one of the most culturally prosperous times of any human civilization throughout all of history. How? To me, it seems that at the heart of it was a genuine mutual agreement between the vast majority of leadership and citizens of Athens regarding the central idea of what they believed to be good. Thus the roots of their good tree were firmly planted. And with it they could then begin to focus on achieving their mutually aligned goals. They could flourish. And Pericles would spare no expense in striving to ensure that all of these mutually agreeable cultural values, especially his cherished democracy, flourished to their fullest extent. What a good fucking time to be alive! Amazing:)

In terms of the particular aspects of Greek culture (Hellenism) that prospered into pinnacles of greatness, one could find many including art, literature, military, architecture, business, science, democracy, law and most importantly, for our purposes, philosophy. And, via the ancient historian Thucydides, the Athenian ruler Pericles (~ 495 – 429 B.C.) embodied all of these cultural values from his childhood as an aristocrat, through his 30 years of visionary leadership (~460 – 429 B.C.) within the Athenian democracy.

According to Thucydides (~460 – 400 B.C.), one of the major reasons why Pericles shined so brightly within Greece’s democratic form of government, aside from the respect he earned from the citizens of Athens as demonstrated by his annual re-election as the strategos autokrator (commander in chief), was due to the combination of his vision for a forward looking Athens via democracy as well as his eloquence as a persuasive speaker. Every year a politician was selected to give a funeral oration to the Athenian families of the fallen soldiers from the Peloponnesian War. It was during these speeches that Pericles found his calling as he was repeatedly selected to give these sensitive speeches.

In at least one of his famous funeral orations, he spoke not of the individual soldiers that passed or the legend of past victories, but of what their deaths meant in terms of furthering Athens and its people. Apparently this was a very novel approach. Their deaths meant that the Athenian people were able to appreciate finer things, such as the recently built Parthenon (431 B.C.), the literature of the amazing tragedian writers Aeschylus (the father of tragedy), Sophocles and Euripides, the amazing work of the sculptor and artist Pheidias, as well as the depth and breadth of their heralded Greek philosophy both before and during their time… but most of all it meant the Athenian people could rejoice in the freedoms that their democratic government provided them as it opened up the opportunity for them to “not only to live, but to live well.”

The Lion’s Roar, Macedonian Momentum

After Pericles death in 429 B.C., there would be a ~75 year gap until the arrival of Alexander the Great (356 – 323 B.C.). During this interim period, the ongoing Peloponnesian Wars would be fought until their bitter end in 404 B.C. Resulting in a severely weakened Athens and a shifting of Greek leadership back to Sparta. However, Sparta would soon become despised by a growing number of its fellow Greeks for repeatedly allying itself with Persia during several military excursions, as well as allegedly trying to sign a peace treaty (that no one else wanted) between all of Greece and Persia. Meanwhile Athens would be slowly trying to rebuild its economy, and its ego, primarily through its championed naval fleet so that they could retake control of their trade routes via the Aegean Sea, which Sparta had also won control of as a result of winning the Peloponnesian Wars. 

In ~ 359 B.C. the brave lion Philip the Great (~382 – 336 B.C.) became the King of Macedonia and began his rule by drilling his troops into the finest and fiercest military unit the world had yet to see. His vision was to unify Greece into one all powerful nation by unleashing the might of his Macedonian military, if needed, against any opposing Greek city-states. His military had improved upon even the Spartan hoplite phalanx with his own unique version of the phalanx battle formation featuring the addition of a superior weapon, the much longer sarissas (~ 15 foot long spears). 

The first of his military engagements was to strengthen Macedonia, which meant putting down several internal conflicts. Once these were quelled, he proceeded to take over a large portion of the northern Greek city-states including Amphipolis, Pydna, Potidaea, Methone, and Olynthus between ~ 357 – 346 B.C. Then, in 346 B.C. he answered a cry for help from the Amphictyonic League (Boeotia, Locris, Doris and Thessaly) in the Sacred War (~356 – 346 B.C.) against the Phocians, Spartans and Athens. Although his assistance helped the Amphictyonic League to victory,  Athens would continue to put up a fight against the Macedonians as they did not want to lose their freedom, via their cherished democratic form of government, to Macedonia’s aristocratic monarchy. 

Having been taken prisoner by Thebes as a youth, Philip’s fury for retribution and vision for a united Greece seemed destined when he secured a major military victory at Chaeronea in ~337 B.C., against an alliance of Thebes and Athens. Although he never fought on Athens’ soil because he so desired their cooperation, via the power of their navy, in his vision to conquer Persia. After this victory, finally, Athens would welcome Philip’s rule, in large part due to the crumbling of their economy as a result of long ongoing class wars between their impoverished lower class and their elite upper class (the upper class was apparently fearful of a revolution).

Thereafter Philip struck a deal with the leaders of all the Greek city-states (except Sparta as they seemed like a lost cause) called The League of Corinth which assured a collective pledge to honor his rule and fight by his side. With Athens having re-secured the Aegean sea and re-established their naval fleet, Philip finally had the combined strength through a newly united Greece to pursue his ultimate dream, invading Persia.  

Alexander’s Ascension Into Leadership

Just one year after becoming the leader of all Greece, Philip was assassinated by one of his bodyguards in 336 B.C. However, no one knows exactly why Philip was assassinated, nor if the assassination was ordered by someone else. Only pure speculation exists. It may have even been that Alexander and his mother Olympias were responsible due to their potential exclusion from Philip’s grand plans as he had just married a pure Macedonian woman. And if this woman were to have a pure blooded Macedonian child it could have potentially prevented Alexander’s right to the throne. Regardless of what may or may not have happened, Alexander ascended to the throne after Philip’s death in 336 B.C.

This was, as most people know, quite typical of antiquity. For a leader or king to be dethroned, or usurped, via assassination. Yet, we do not have a reliable source during the times of Phillip and Alexander. In terms of the ancient western historians around this time, we have Herodotus and Thucydides before, and then we have Plutarch and Arrian after. This makes the horizon mergers regarding the times of Philip and Alexander much more challenging than even that of Pericles. Perhaps it is also a reason why these specific moments in history have played such an integral role in the development of future cultures, their values, and their ideas of what is good. So intriguing, and so malleable.  

The man, The Legend

Let us start then, by taking a plunge into one of the grayest areas of antiquity, the conquests and life of Alexander the Great. Alexander, like his father Philip, was brutal. He conquered all who impeded his pathway to glory or interfered with his belief that he was destined for greatness. He was universally seen as invincible. His men would die for him without blinking an eye. He never lost a battle. He was, by all accounts, quite attractive and relatively well spoken (especially in war and politics) as well as extremely adept physically, and an expert fighter.

Sometimes his charisma seems so perfect. It’s as if the history surrounding him was deliberately lost in order to create a more modern day mythological figure. One that had the power to not only conquer the majority of Asia, but also create a bridge between Europe and Asia… to begin the process of uniting humanity. 

The nature and nurture aspects of his psyche are equally fascinating. The qualities of his character. Growing up with constant war and a father that was a fucking badass must have made quite the impression, for in battle is where Alexander seems to have been in his finest element. 

For some reason, I can’t help but think of an amazing athlete on the field of play… enjoying the purity of each individual moment, each breath, each movement. Smiling as he played the game, because it came so naturally, so effortlessly. When it’s this great, when mind and body are acting together so harmoniously, any inkling of dormant art emerges. Others must have just been in awe, watching him in action.

This happens in modern day sports. With Aaron Rodgers evading a pass rush and somehow making a seemingly impossible yet perfect pass, Michael Jordan gliding through the air for a perfect dunk, Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo making a series of amazing moves and scoring a goal. If you were able to freeze the exact moments in time when Alexander was engaged in battle, and see the emotion in his eyes and on his face. Possibly then we would’ve unveiled some type of deeper truth regarding his time as well as our own:).

The Question, How Do We View His Actions

One of the ultimate questions posed regarding this is if we should frown upon the excess of violence inherent within Alexander and his actions (and Philip for that matter). From a safe distance, in today’s technologically civilized age where we can drop bombs through the use of a computer, sure. But, if we were living in a time of up close combat, in a time where extreme barbarity seemed necessary to survive, let alone thrive (especially his time)… perhaps we wouldn’t.

If we think about this question in terms of a horizon merger, I could say that I have a prejudice as a result of the current civilization that I live in as well as the experiences that I’ve had within it, that violence is usually not the preferable way as it inevitably causes harm to another individual which we deem to be bad, or not good. Yet, in Alexander’s time, perhaps there was a certain acceptance to it. That a certain level of violence will inevitably have to be engaged in at some point, even if one preferred not to fight, because of the relative strength and priority of cultural values within his time and civilization (bravery and courage for example). Perhaps this would help us to see through the surface level savagery as well as the seemingly imperialistic desire to conquer and appreciate his greatness both on and off the battlefield for what it was.

We shall soon examine this idea, as well as many others, further when we explore the ancient Greek philosophers during this period in time. For now, let us look to his documented influences and experiences and continue onward.

The Myth

To tame the biologically wild beast within Alexander, it’s believed that Philip specifically sought out the great Macedonian philosopher Aristotle to tutor Alexander. Yet, the impression that Aristotle was able to make would only be over a period of ~2 years, and the extent of his tutoring is also debated in terms of if it was 1-1 or if he was part of a class of students that Aristotle taught.

Either way, Alexander at least got some exposure to philosophy, which in ancient Greece was thought to complete a man. Whereas Philip had not received any educational training to curb his barbarity, and the aristocrat Pericles grew up learning philosophy at a young age and valuing it to such a high degree that he would even leave his family to be with Aspasia (a very highly respected female philosopher during her time, even starting the first female philosophical school). 

From Aristotle he began to love learning, and from his childhood he gained the treasured cultural values of his mother, most especially an appreciation for ancient Greek mythology. Perhaps Aristotle saw Alexander’s inclination toward tendencies of extreme passion and sought to curb them through his philosophies. Yet, the combination of his mother’s extraordinary whimsical belief that he was descended from the Greek mythological heroes Achilles and Hercules, along with his father’s success as a practical yet intensely ruthless ruler, is said to have fueled the great ambition within the core of Alexander’s psyche. 

It may have required a lifetime of Aristotle’s tutoring to overcome the intensity of his passionate upbringing, and even then there is no way of knowing how much more of a difference it would’ve made. Instead, Aristotle is said to have given Alexander a copy of Homer’s The Iliad as a gift for him to take on his conquests east. Perhaps he knew he could only hope to be a guide for Alexander’s judgment and decision making. Alexander is said to have memorized it, and slept with it under his pillow, along with a dagger to remind him of his purpose. 

Yet one admirable trait of Alexander that seems to have been unique to him, and that shone through his propensity for violence, was an intrepid open-mindedness. A lack of fear regarding the unknown during his many conquests. This was depicted by the way he ruled. Instead of subjugating all the people he conquered to live under the thumb of Greek culture, he would make an attempt to learn and appreciate their culture. He was inclusive. Perhaps this was just an amazing military tactic as some have suggested, but it seems more likely not, as he married three different Persian wives, two of whom were apparently descendants of Persian royalty. One a daughter of Darius III and another a daughter of Artaxerxes III.

Descension into Disillusion

But his inclusiveness, as with everything about Alexander, seemed also prone to excess (or at least the perception of excess) as he began to worship the Gods of the civilizations that he would overtake and even come to call himself a god. This made his own men question his sanity as well as their loyalty to him. Although the idea of a divine ruler was a common oriental religious theme that we will be coming back to numerous times, it was not a trait that the democratically minded Athenian (or even Macedonian) shared at this particular time.

All this said, during Alexander’s rule of Greece he never stopped in his conquests east. He supposedly traveled for ~11 straight years conquering the eastern Mediterranean, Persia, Egypt, Babylon, Elam, and parts of India. Unbelievable. And he only stopped because his own men refused to go on. He was forced to stop. Unfortunately, it seems the speculation regarding the end of his life is as gray as his ascension was to the throne.

Some believe that he drank himself to death, especially after the death of his beloved friend Hephaestion (similar to Achilles and Patroclus from Homer’s The Iliad). Others think he may have been assassinated by his own men, as a means to put an end to Alexander’s ceaseless conquests. And yet others think he may have just died from a combination of all his war wounds and some type of disease. Regardless, it’s believed that when his men asked him who his successor should be if he should die, he answered, “the strongest.” 

Connections – Prelude

With some historical context now laid, we can begin to think about the major philosophical ideas that took place within it, hermeneutically. We can try our hand in developing some good prejudice via Gadamer’s horizon merger. We can also take note of the fluidity and changes within Greece via the dialectic process of Hegel. Let us bear these ideas in mind, as well as those of the cultural binary and the quintessential question of what is good, as we continue the preparation phase of our journey.

Next we will be examining the lives and ideas of the three primary philosophers of all western thought, all of whom lived within the golden ages of Greece, between Pericles and Alexander the Great and each of whom would go on to influence virtually all of the ideas of the world we live in today in their own unique ways. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

Good times!!!

Thank you for joining me on this philosophic journey!

Next blog post: Enlightenment – Cultural Binaries & Philosophical Underpinnings

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