Greek Discovery of Mind, Socrates, notes


The intrusion of the systematic exigence into the realm of common sense is beautifully illustrated by Plato’s early dialogues. Socrates would ask for the definition of this or that virtue. No one could afford to admit that he had no idea of what was meant by courage or temperance or justice. No one could deny that such common names must possess some common meaning found in each instance of courage, or temperance, or justice. And no one, not even Socrates, was able to pin down just what that common meaning was.1

Socrates (470-399 BC), age 70 at the time of his death (as recorded by Plato) had a father who was a mason; his mother, a midwife. He was known to be extremely ugly: potbellied, with bulging eyes, and a snub nose although the inside was said to be “perfectly delightful.”2 “You can seek him in the present, you can seek him in the past, but you will never find his equal.” He never wrote anything. He lived in Athens during her bloom around 450 BC and at the time of her decline toward the end of the century. He was a strong enigmatic figure who spent most of his time talking with people in the marketplaces and squares of Athens and who was subject at times to fits of abstraction lasting for hours on end: on the value of understanding the world of physical nature, “the trees in the countryside can teach me nothing.”3 As a young man in his 20’s, he turned away from cosmological speculation to an interest in the problem of man since he felt that what Anaxagoras had to say about mind or nous did not go far enough. Citing Cicero on Socrates: he “called philosophy down from the sky and established her in the towns and introduced her into homes and forced her to investigate life, ethics, good and evil.”4 While initially he was thought to be a sophist, in fact, he became or was their bitterest opponent in his belief that , indeed, “there really was such a thing as justice and injustice, right and wrong, truth and falsity” and that “they were supremely important” and “could be known.”5 For Socrates, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”6

Calling himself a “philo-sopher” as “someone who loves wisdom,” he began to go his own way, noting to himself: “One thing only I know, and that is that I do not know anything.” The Oracle at Delphi had said to him: “None is wiser than Socrates” which he, in turn, interpreted as meaning that he is wisest who realizes that, like Socrates, he has little wisdom. He would try to make his fellow men aware of his own ignorance by asking questions and meeting objections. For instance, Socrates said that, if there was an afterlife, he would pose the same question to the shades in Hades. He wanted to base all argumentation on objectively valid definitions which focused on knowing who man is. Since he was a man who would listen to his own inspiration and who in turn inspired others, he had more followers than students. Hence, he was a danger to the establishment. He claimed to have a “divine voice” inside him. He refused to be involved in condemning people to death and to inform on political enemies. A parallelism exists between Socrates and Christ:7 both were enigmatic; neither wrote anything forcing us to rely on accounts written by their followers; both were masters at the art of discourse; both had a personal sense of authority; both believed that they spoke on behalf of something greater than themselves; both challenged the power of the community; and both died as martyrs after trial (in both cases, with the possibility of evasion).

Our knowledge of Socrates is beset by the Socratic problem of sources that differ much on him. Hence, where do we go for an accurate portrait of Socrates’s character and ideas since he wrote nothing himself? There are four main sources given as follows.

(1) Plato was the most important source since he was a student of Socrates when Socrates was in his 50’s. Through his dialogues, the early and middle dialogues supply much of the information that we have on Socrates. But, there is a problem: according to Aristotle, Plato uses Socrates in conversation as an instrument for presenting his own ideas, employing a literary technique that was often used at that time (a technique that was also employed by the students of Pythagoras). It is difficult to distinguish between Socrates and Plato. Two schools of thought exist on who was the real Socrates. On the one hand, Copleston argues that the Platonic Socrates was not the real Socrates since we must trust what Aristotle says. Since Aristotle had been first trained in Plato’s school where the doctrine of ideas as taught occupied a central place, he must have known what was actually Plato’s teaching. But, on the other hand, Burnet and Taylor argue that neither Xenophon nor Aristotle sufficiently understood Plato since Xenophon was too simple in his journalism and Aristotle erred in his views of Plato. While Plato could have been somewhat poetical in his expression, this is no argument in favor of inauthenticity. Only in his later dialogues does Plato develop his own ideas. The metaphysical doctrine of the forms was Socratic essentially although it received a Platonic development. In conclusion, while Copleston prefers the Aristotelian Socrates, most historians argue for some sort of compromise between these two positions. Mlle De Vogel argues that Plato tried to give a realistic portrait of Socrates but that Plato was less of an historian and more of a poet. Aristotle should not be neglected.

(2) Xenophon as a journalist (and also as a general) reported conversations with Socrates in his Memoirs of Socrates although perhaps he did not understand Socrates correctly.

(3) Aristophanes as a playwright of comedies who caricatured Socrates in The Clouds as a comic figure of the late 5th Century. He presented Socrates pejoratively as a sophisticated sophist.

(4) Aristotle knew Plato (d. 348 BC) but did not know Socrates and thus the question arises if he truly understood the witnesses of Socrates. He made a few remarks that are important since they help us determine what Socrates’s actual teaching was: he claimed that Socrates did not separate the forms which make the doctrine of separate forms a distinctly Platonic contribution.

On the character of Socrates, Plato knew him best as a person. As noted, physically Socrates was an ugly little man. As a former soldier, he was physically fit and was known for courage in battle. He was somewhat ascetical in his way of living although he could drink. He was shabbily dressed and always barefoot. He loved to spend his time arguing in the market-place and streets of Athens. He possessed a strong moral character and was fearless about what he said. Since he said what he believed to be true, he got into trouble as a non-conformist. He was deeply concerned with asking ethical and moral questions and he looked for universal definitions with respect to the just, the true, and the good. Philosophy was a way of life for him and not simply a profession.

At his trial, he comes across as the victim of an anti-intellectual spirit in Athens where he was charged with teaching false doctrines, impiety, and corrupting the youth at the end of the 5th Century BC. He was brought to trial by a number of powerful figures in Athens who had hoped to humiliate him by forcing him to grovel and beg for mercy. But, instead, he humbled his persecutors and angered the unruly jury of 500 by lecturing them about the extent of their ignorance and selfishness. Also, when asked to suggest his own punishment, he recommended that the Athenians build a statue in his honor and place it in the main square. The enraged jury, by a slim margin, condemned him to death by a vote of 280 to 220. While the jury soon was ashamed of their act and embarrassed that they were about to execute their most eminent citizen and while they were prepared to look the other way when Socrates’s prison guard was bribed to allow him to escape, he did not flee when he could have done so since he had always insisted on obedience in his life and therefore he would not flee despite the pleas of his friends. He claimed that if he were to break the law by escaping, he would be declaring himself an enemy of all laws. Therefore, he drank the hemlock and he philosophized with his friends until the last moment, talking with them about the immortality of the human soul and the blessings of death when now a philosophic soul is able to enter into a realm of being where wisdom is found in all its clarity and fullness.8 In death, he became the universal symbol of martyrdom for the sake of Truth.

On the elements or the tenets of Socrates’s thought that we are sure about (the conclusions or the beliefs that are to be associated with his life and work), the following four points should be mentioned:

(1) Man is to be equated with his soul since man is his soul (it is the source of all truth). In describing the soul as the intellectual and moral personality of man, Socrates became the first philosopher to give a clear and coherent conception of the soul, the word he used being “psyche,” a term previously used by poets before the Pre-socratic philosophers but referring to a general live force which is needed for life that, as a substance, penetrates everything. Socrates transformed it from that which had existed as a shadowy reality to become a personality where thus man’s first task is to care for his soul. To harm the soul through an unjust act of evil deed is far worse (we inflict a greater injury on ourselves) than to harm or hurt our bodies.

For Plato, the soul and its care was the only important part in man. In the context of his own thought, Plato later gave a metaphysical explanation of the soul in terms of its pre-existence and so education serves to remind us of what we have seen in a previous life.

(2) Man takes care of his soul when he knows what is good. “Knowledge is virtue and ignorance, vice.”9 In attempting to try to define what is good by asking questions that elicit universal definitions, Socrates emerged as the father of moral philosophy. “The crown of all philosophy, of all wisdom, is a philosophy of morals.”10 Knowledge enjoys a kind of prior necessity since to have a good personality requires a prior knowledge of that which is good.

(3) When you know the good, you will act well and do good (ignorance or lack of knowledge being the overriding cause of Evil): “He who knows what good is will do good.” Here we have the Socratic paradox in a statement that sounds contradictory: the wise man is virtuous since no one is voluntarily evil but, to do good, one has to know the good. Knowledge of the good is both the necessary and the sufficient cause for doing the good although, since Socrates was not stupid, such a claim causes us to ask about what Socrates could have meant when speaking about “knowing the good.”

To explain a bit more here: apparently, in terms of his own personality, for Socrates, knowledge does not exist as a purely intellectual thing since another form of knowledge exists which is charismatic or inspirational. In deference to the teaching of Bergson, it is claimed that Socrates had an intuitional contact with virtue that attracted people to him. Since he was in contact with virtue, he stressed the value of education through virtue which, for him, consisted of words and a certain inspiration that united the intellectual aspects with an intuitive dimension. Hence, virtue is knowledge which cannot simply be taught by a teacher unless the teacher also inspires his pupils toward virtue, a life of virtue. Socrates’s theory of knowledge existed as a kind of midwifery where the teacher seeks to awaken something which is inside a student since truth is something that sleeps in our souls from the time of birth until later teaching makes it conscious and then the student begins to learn. Real understanding must come from within a person and, by using our innate reasoning, we can begin to grasp the being of philosophical truths. In general, in the kind of education that we have in Socrates, in education we have both an implanting and an awakening. Knowledge of good and evil lies within an individual and not within a society.

(4) In Socrates one finds belief in immortality, Socrates being the first Greek philosopher to believe in immortality as can be seen in Plato’s Apology of Socrates which recounts the story of his trial where he declares his hope of seeing his friends again in another life though he also voices an agnostic touch when he says “I hope” and “maybe.” For the first time in Greek philosophy, the final good is related to the being of another, other life.

On the significance of Socrates’s methodological achievements as this refers to the development of a form of scientific inquiry as this applies to a possible understanding of who or what we are as human beings, in the structure or the form of Socrates’s Socratic dialogue, a species of method or technique is employed within the practice of philosophy (and thus within science) where “knowledge was to be sought [from] within the [dynamics or the life of the individual human] mind.”11 Distinguish a “way of thinking” as one form or mode of human cognition from a “way of observing” external data as this is given to us through our different acts of human sensing (a second form or mode of human cognition).12 With respect to the way of thinking that is to be associated with the kind of analysis which exists in Socrates, a positive relation or a connatural relation can be admitted if we admit that, in the concerns and interests of mathematics, in the ingress and development of mathematical speculation as we find this among the Pythagoreans and their work in mathematics, a degree of distance or a distancing is assumed or it is undertaken from the mere givens of sense and perception when mathematicians work with imagined numbers and figures in order to raise questions and solve problems that are not immediately applicable or which are not immediately relevant to any function or purpose which exists for us within the context of our concrete human living. In the kind of adaptation that we find in the structure of Socrates’s method (in his characteristic mode of inquiry), a dialectical form of argumentation that distinguishes between the truthfulness of a particular thesis and the probable error or wrongness of another teaching or thesis is joined to displays of irony within the structure of this form of argumentation. An ironical form of argumentation exists within the general form of the dialectics of Socrates’s argumentation. Throughout, thus the ultimate aim or purpose is (1) to expose fallacies which exist in all false claims to wisdom and knowledge and then, from there, (2) to encourage or move a person towards a new way of thinking which could possibly lead or internally engender a knowledge of man’s human nature in a way that would be undoubtedly true and not false (although, for Socrates and perhaps also for ourselves, apprehensions and realizations of truth are only possible for us after much hard work in the context of a life that is given to an ongoing, lifetime quest that is geared toward a possible discovery of universal definitions that can articulate the meanings of terms or concepts whose meaning or intelligibility is desired or sought by us within the context of our own inquiries). As Socrates had noted toward the end of his life at the time of his trial in 399 BC, “Athens is like a sluggish horse and I am the gadfly trying to sting it into life.”

In a method of inquiry that consists of questions and answers, a dialectic of questions and answers (where, like a midwife, Socrates attempts to draw truth from within a person – from within their individual minds – incrementally, through a logical ordering of a series of questions which are posed),13 three constitutive divisions or three constitutive elements are to be distinguished within the range or the compass of the kind of procedure which Socrates applies and employs.14 (1) A problem or question is first posed. For instance, what is justice? What is virtue? What is truth? What is beauty? What is piety? What is democracy? Feigning ignorance in a use or a display of Socratic irony, Socrates would become excited and enthusiastic whenever, apparently, he would find someone who claimed to know something which was allegedly true. (2) He begins then to find “minor flaws” in his companion’s proffered definition and slowly he would begin to unravel it, forcing his dialogue partner to admit his own ignorance. In one dialogue, for instance, Socrates’s partner dissolves into tears. (3) An agreement is reached by the two conversationalists who admit, to each other, their mutual ignorance and who agree to pursue the truth in a serious manner, wherever it leads. The object is a species of universal definition for a given concept, term, or reality which always applies or which always holds whenever a given concept or term is invoked or employed within a given context – whenever the reality in question is being referred to. Instead of a meaning which is somehow added to an understanding which we already have or which enlarges or augments a meaning which is in some way already known, the object is another kind of meaning which has yet to be discovered. A difference in quality is to be adverted to as we move from pragmatic conceptions of meaning and understanding toward a technical formulation of meaning and a species of theoretical understanding which can withstand any possible criticisms that could be launched against its truth or validity.15 A scientific type of knowledge is to be entertained. It is to be desired and worked towards.

In the employment of this methodology, however, almost all of the Socratic dialogues end in an inconclusive manner since Socrates himself cannot give to anybody any definitions or truths that have been conceptualized into definitions since he does not know these truths himself although, as a consequence of the discussions which have occurred, we should all begin to realize and know that certain laws exist on a higher plane, laws that we might not directly know about through our own acts of understanding but, yet, laws which point to the being or the existence of natures, intelligibilities, or truths which, in their own way, always hold. They are always true and at no time can they ever be false. In this context thus we can understand why, in the context of his day, the Oracle of Delphi referred to Socrates as the “wisest man in Athens because [among Athenians] he was the only one who knew that he did not know anything.”16 As we have already noted, inI our search for truth, we must each try and find this from within ourselves, within our minds. We cannot be simply told or informed of this truth by other persons as good and as necessary is the help of other persons. We cannot attend

On the influence of Socrates, besides a pervasive influence in the rise of western philosophy since his death, he also exerted some direct influence within the inner dialectic of Greek philosophy not only with reference to Plato but also in a number of small schools that appealed to Socrates’s direct influence even if Socrates’s views were often combined with other elements to suggest, at times, a superficial connection with Socrates’s thought. There are three schools to be distinguished:

(1) the School of Megara (near Corinth) where Euclid, its head, seems to have been an early disciple of Socrates and was apparently present at his death. Though little traditional friendship existed between Athens and Megara, it seems that Plato and other disciples of Socrates fled to Megara to seek refuge after Socrates’s death. Euclid combined certain insights from Socrates and Parmenides (of the Eleatic school) that accepted one universal principle now called “the moral good.” A speciality of the school was dialectical controversy which involved games of reasoning for the reasoner which reminds one Zeno of Elea.

(2) the Cynic School (founded around 400 B.C.) given the fact that, allegedly, one day Socrates stood gazing at a stall selling all kinds of wares and said: “What a lot of things that I do not need.”17 Its name perhaps came from the fact that its founder Antisthenes (445-365 BC) taught at Athens in a room called the “Kynosarges” or “Hall of the Dog” since Antithenes was not of pure Athenian blood. Antisthenes was a friend of Socrates who admired his independence of character in terms of money and riches although Socrates was as he was because he was concerned with the greater good of obtaining wisdom. Since Antithenes regarded such a freedom from wants and desires as an end in itself, he equated it with virtue and happiness in such a way that it led him to posit virtue as complete self-sufficiency for its own sake (which differs with Socrates’s view of self-sufficiency as a means to something else). Since Antithenes was interested only in the practical side of morality, he opposed the kind of knowledge that Plato looked for in terms of the reality of objectively existing ideas: “I see a horse, not horseness!” He wanted to be able to live independently and he argued that it was impossible to make significant statements. Diogenes (c.350 BC), a pupil of Antisthenes, succeeded as head of the Cynic School at a later date by exaggerating Antithenes’s position into a contempt for current morality which led him to repudiate all civilized customs. He lived a life as primitive as a dog: hence, the Greek kuvikos, meaning “dog-like” from which we derive the word “cynicism.”18 Legend has it that he lived in a tub, and reputedly owned nothing but a stick, a cloak, and a bread bag. To show contempt for public opinion, he masturbated in the marketplace. Allegedly once visited by Alexander the Great who asked him if he could do anything for him to which Diogenes replied: “Yes. Stand to one side. You are blocking the sun.”19

(3) the Cyrenaic School (of Cyrene in north Africa) where Aristippos, its head, advocated a hedonism of the moment despite having been in the Socratic school since he seems to have been more influenced by Protagoras’s claim that only sensations give us certain knowledge in life. Although Socrates had claimed that the good must be the goal of one’s life if one is to be happy, Aristippos defined the good only in terms of pleasure and in obtaining as many pleasures as possible: “the highest good is pleasure; the greatest evil is pain.”20 Since the aim of life is to attain the highest possible sensory enjoyment, one’s way of life should seek to avoid pain in all forms.

1Lonergan, MIT, p. 50.

2Gaarder, p. 63.

3Gaarder, p. 63.

4Gaarder, p. 67.

5Sullivan, Introduction to Philosophy, p. 29.

6Osborne, p. 11.

7Gaarder, p. 66.

8Sullivan, Introduction to Philosophy, p. 38.

9Sullivan, Introduction to Philosophy, p. 31.

10Socrates, as cited by Maluf, Philosophia Perennis, p. 98.

11Collingwood, Philosophical Method, p. 10; p. 17. Please note Collingwood’s argument to the effect that “Socrates…found in mathematics a model for dialectical reasoning.” Developments in mathematics with respect to how mathematics is done in its way of thinking and reasoning as one moves from principles that are postulated to conclusions that are reached leads to possible methodological developments within the practice of philosophy and science. The way of thinking in mathematics suggests a way of thinking that can also exist within the practice of philosophy and science even if it should be the case that the way of thinking which exists within philosophy and science is not to be identified with the way of thinking which exists within mathematics even if it is to be admitted that, at the hands of some philosophers, mathematical ways of thinking have been promoted as the best way to think and reason if, in other contexts, we are to engage in the work of thinking and reasoning. Within this context, we can think about the work of the French philosopher, René Descartes (d. 1650), who had advocated mathematical forms of reasoning within the practice of reasoning in philosophy and science.

12Collingwood, Philosophical Method, p. 12.

13Osborne, p. 12. James Joyce suggested that Socrates learned this method of useful discovery from his wife, Xanthippe. In his “Insight Revisited,” in A Second Collection: Papers by Bernard J. F. Lonergan, S. J., eds. William F. J. Ryan, S. J. and Bernard J. Tyrrell, S. J. (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1974), p. 258, Bernard Lonergan suggests that, with respect to this mode of inquiry which consists of questions and answers, we have evidence which points to the validity of an argument that would claim that Plato is to be regarded as a methodologist. As Lonergan attempts to speak about it, Plato’s “ideas were what the scientist seeks to discover” and “the scientific or philosophic process toward discovery was one of question and answer.”

14Palmer, p. 54.

15Collingwood, Philosophical Method, p. 11.

16Sullivan, Introduction to Philosophy, pp. 31-32.

17Gaarder, p. 130.

18Osborne, p. 22.

19Gaarder, p. 130.

20Gaarder, p. 132.

Manent, The City of Man, Ch. 4, pp. 137-155, Parts 15-23



Locke does not deny that man has an essence or a substance but claims, in fact, that it is unknowable. Man’s being is enclosed in the opaque tautology: “X = X.” Man is the being who defines himself by the fact of having rights, but man is not defined and rights are not defined, other than to say they are “human rights” (which brings us back to our first difficulty). Before “the great instauration” or the establishment of the liberal regime, anthropology was necessarily ontological or ontocentric, while ontology was necessarily anthropocentric. Locke and other moderns separate thought about being from thought about man. Manent remarks that the pure ontology that was conceived was nothing other than modern science. Manent wishes to show in what follows how anthropology emancipated itself from ontology.




Locke is “the most explicit and formal witness to the formal decision to declare man’s being unknowable,” leaving us with “X = X.” The presupposition of the being of man and its simultaneous dismissal as an object of thought led the way to a second tautology: the whole of man’s humanity is contained in his rights and in the fact that he has rights and that these rights are exhaustively defined by the fact that they are human rights. This is a “pure anthropology.” By it, man forgets Being.




Severed from being, the notion of human rights lacks ontological density. There is nothing under the moon that is not capable of becoming the occasion and matter of a human right. The man who has rights is like a pure, self-contained activity, having no need of an end outside of him, and containing all rights, including the yet unconceived (eg. the right of a biological man to go into a women’s bathroom unmolested). At the same time, the man is pure passivity, having nothing to do, no arete to pursue, already being the entitled holder of the totality of rights.




The most serious philosophic critique ever directed against the modern idea of human rights was that by David Hume. But Hume continues and radicalizes Locke’s critique of substance by offering an internal critique of human consciousness. Hume contends that Locke confuses the idea of property and the idea of the right to property by assigning them the same origin. Property in general is founded on urgent and evident necessity in society, but the right to property is often based on frivolous foundations. Though basing property on the interest of society, Hume does not, like Aristotle, make property depend on political justice. Hume observes that one cannot attach the individual’s right to property to one idea, as Locke attempts to do with the idea of labor, because every idea necessarily entails other ideas, and ideas take form as a society does.

Locke’s idea of power confuses two ideas: the idea of unknown qualities and the idea of the necessary connection between an antecedent and a consequent idea. These two ideas are distinct, the first being insignificant but the later having meaning.

For Hume, moral notions were in no way founded upon the nature of things or of man, but their cause cannot be discerned, leaving them as absurd as the ideas of superstition, albeit useful superstitions. There is thus no meaning at all in wanting to attach a “natural” right to the individual. Both Locke and the modern attitude say that there is no essence or substance, that man has no nature or ends. Hume’s critique requires us to acknowledge an unbridgeable gap between the idiom of rights and the idiom of ideas. Locke’s mistake is in assuming that the idea of human rights was not an idea like other ideas. The entire domain of ideas and moral valuation, indeed, the properly human world as a whole, is suspended by the philosophers.

In Locke, the skepticism of ideas is combined with the dogmatism of rights, but in Hume there is an even more radical skepticism which does not spare the notion of rights but leads to a dogmatism of the common occurrences of life. In Hume’s view, reason cannot condemn or approve anything morally.

The source of the moral sentiment is within the frame of our human nature, which is unknown to us.

The language of rights is the only reflexive principle of a man who has no ends. Does the “moral sentiment” provide a satisfactory principle of action when the imperious sentiment dictates action but the observer sees there is no justification for it in reason? An abyss stretches between practical sentiment and theoretical reason. There is no common ground between the viewpoint of the observer and the agent. The philosopher must forget the fatal secret that annihilates good and evil before he returns to the world of action. Hume embodies the precocious twilight of the Enlightenment which, in critiquing superstition, finally falls under its own critique, “admitting” that all ideas are equally superstitious.




“Not leaving a single stone unturned when it comes to obtaining the recognition and guarantee of his rights at home, Western man is often marvelously complacent when he views societies whose ways are foreign to his lifestyle and he even rejects the right to judge them…Thus liberal dogmatism and sociological or anthropological relativism divide our souls between themselves.” The doctrine of human rights faces the least obstacles in the United States, where Hume’s argument has the smallest chance of spreading. “On the tabula rasa of the continent, the appeal to rights gets carried away and loses patience, bursts of strident indignation disperse the already thin topsoil of human tradition; and from one side to the other, all the elements of the human world are attacked in the name of human rights.”




The one-sided assertion of rights in the United States in a sense represents the victory of Locke over Hume. Rights and ideas make up the twofold determination resulting from the rejection of human essence and produced by the analysis of human substance. But human rights take the place of human nature. The state of nature concept is important because it posits that man has no “innate ideas.” If man had ideas which he did not author, he would first have to bring to light what they contain or imply about himself and his condition. Man would have rights, but they would be subordinated to the recognition of the objective order of his ideas.




There is a contrast in the spirit of modern democracies between reforming activism under the banner of universal human rights and scientific passivity in the name of cultural diversity. An example is the denouncing of the lot given to the women in the West in the name of human rights while simultaneously accepting the lot of women in the Islamic world in the name of the sovereign particularity of each culture.

The doctrine of rights and the theory of culture both issue from the rejection of the “substantial” definition of man. The two propositions that man is the being who has rights and a cultural being both compress the same movement of thought, though specified in different ways. Man is presupposed in his indetermination, his idealess reflexivity. Then, on his own, he comes out of the indetermination and defines himself and explicitly fashions himself under a particular law which eventually shows little concern for his rights.




The two propositions that man is a being who has rights and a being of culture are born of the dissolution of the notion of substance. Both propositions are part of a movement of thought for which the notion of human nature appears cumbersome and sterile, and appears to denote an arbitrary halt in the movement of thought.

Human nature is a synthesis between the particular and the general, being only real when it is particular. With the dissolution of substance these two aspects come to be viewed as two moments that cannot coexist, necessarily successive. [Manent is describing a deep schizophrenia in modern man]. The separation of the two moments has major effects on the perception of the human world. Bringing in human nature as a foundation and an explanation short circuits the coming and going from indetermination to determination. It is a style which paralyses analytical thought by placing it before a reality that is always too and too little determined  [infinite (but really finite) evasion of the real?].




Early modern philosophy replaced the real simultaneous presence of the particular and the universal in substance with the two successive moments of presupposition and determination. Existentialism begins by confirming the duality and tension between presupposition and determination, between implicit and explicit humanity. Man is enjoined to understand that the process between presupposition and determination makes him what he is, and that he truly exists when he is conscious of this process. “The modern scheme presupposes man’s humanity; but this presupposed humanity is never present to itself…In order to be free and powerful and wise, modern humanity is organized on the active forgetting of itself.” Modern man is the parasite of his hidden double, the one who makes culture and the diversity of rights.

Self-affirmation of the presupposed self consists of the dormant double taking a hold of himself and, freed of past, present, motives, projecting the self toward the future. The precedent of early modern thought prevents self-reflection, as there is an equivocal lack of clarity whether it has posited the nonexistence or only the unknowability of human nature.

“Modern consciousness – it seems to me that I have written this book only to make this point – comes into itself in the two moments of the presupposition of ‘X’ and the objectification of ‘X.'” Existentialism is the resolute affirmation of X but X is a hidden person or thing. Dasein, or liberty, takes the place of “man.” Modern consciousness makes its most heroic efforts in overcoming its own duplicity in moderns like Martin Heidegger.

Manent, The City of Man, Ch. 4, pp. 126-137, Parts 8 – 14


 John Locke agrees that man is different from the animals, distinguished by his power of abstracting. It is only that we do not know what his substance is and only know that for certain that he is an animal. We assume that man is man, but that simply means for us that “X = X.” Locke is neutralizing the effects of uncertainty over human essence in order to proceed. He does this by drawing a line between the perfectly clear, such as that man is an animal, and the decidedly obscure. We then proceed with the assumption that we do not know X and we never will. The way is cleared to construct a human order that is beyond criticism. This is not at all like ancient skepticism in that we are not invited or constrained to refrain from judgment and action as the ancient skeptic was, but on the contrary, we are urged to forge a just society that is founded on demonstrative moral theory.

Locke holds that moral notions are arbitrary creations of man and that right, first and foremost the right to property, is a creation of the individual who is strictly isolated from his fellows. The human “X” is the tacit companion of this deduction of rights. The superiority of “X” is not denied, but is considered in his animal locus. Rather than reducing the higher to the lower, Locke acknowledges that everything that is part of man, including the animal in him, is nothing but man. Locke and the Moderns do not reduce the higher to the lower, but envelope the lower in the higher and absorb it.

“Modern thought despairs that men will ever agree on what is proper to man, on human substance and ends, and thus it wants to bracket the question of what is proper to man.” Locke conceptualizes a way for man to take his bearings from what is not human but animal, in order to make a human world that is independent of human opinions where man can affirm himself without knowing himself. 


Although Locke would thus dispense with human essence, it is difficult to pursue this line of reasoning to the very end as it irresistibly gives rise to propositions about substance despite itself. Hence, labor becomes for Locke, modern philosophy, and modern man generally the “essential” characteristic of man. One cannot completely dispense with giving an account of human motives, even if refraining from advancing such propositions. What incites man to labor? We want an answer. Locke cannot escape the necessity of at least sketching a description of action, an analysis of human motives.

The fundamental formula of Locke’s “anthropology” is that “desire is always moved by evil, to fly from it.” For Locke, the primary question raised by the tradition, what is the supreme good of man?, by which the tradition was divided according to the various answers given by the schools, sects, and religions, is a perfectly idle question. For Locke, the question of the good is inseparable from the question of human essence and both are unanswerable. These two questions are two expressions of a sterile vanity. Once  moral choice comes to be regarded as intrinsically arbitrary, classing it as a matter of animal taste is nothing to take exception to.


 Hobbes had already denied the fact that there is a summum bonum and had said that good and evil only have meaning with reference to the person involved. Locke is distinct from Hobbes by what is encapsulated in his writing that “the greatest present uneasiness is the spur to action.” Man according to Locke does not have great desire or magnanimity. He is neither Christian nor Greek, but the tireless laborer and consumer, the man with no ambition who moves and stirs modern society. He takes it as a truism that man flees first and foremost the evil he experiences in the present and present ill being is always stronger than a future good. According to the tradition, man always seeks the good through a thousand obstacles and illusions but according to Locke, man always flees from evil in spite of a thousand inclinations to the good.


 Locke’s though takes him a long way from Christianity, but he openly preserves the basic tenet of Christian doctrine that God is the supremely desirable supreme good. Man is motivated in his schema by evil and threat, not the good and promise.


 Locke’s analysis, however, does not contradict his need to bracket human nature and suspend any analysis of it. He is confined to a hazy presupposition of it. If man is always moved by the most urgent ill-being, the first principle of his action will be the uneasiness of the animal in him, which he strives to appease by labor. Rational organization of labor takes the place and function of “the policeman God.” The fear of God is retained as a fallback for those incapable of conducting themselves by reason.


 Locke’s fundamental propositions are that man fashions his moral notions, that he has rights, and that he labors. Historically, these three propositions became separated and were even sometimes opposed to each other. However, at the present time, they show themselves to be quite compatible elements of the moral atmosphere of democracies. These groups of notions have a common fount in Locke, and they are three ways of saying that the question of human essence has no solution or meaning, or that man has no ends. They are ultimate propositions which cannot be ranked and cannot be deduced from one another.

 Labor does not determine the human organization that would correspond to it, nor does “culture” or “values” help in this role. It is only by defining himself as the one who has rights that man can finally embrace the tautology by which he wants to affirm himself: “X = X.” In this tautology, man already has and is since it is his right to have it or be it.


 Ends are an indispensable element in the human dynamic of ethos. By pursuing ends which we think fulfill our nature, we seize up our identity in the pursuit, while recognizing we have not attained that which we pursue. “This intermediary character of man opens a space where he can reflect on himself and recognize himself as a man.  But for the one who no longer has ends but rights, how shall this indispensable distance be opened, this interior space that allows man to think and speak for himself?  For him, there is no longer any differential tension between empirical and completed being, between potency and act, between what is fulfilled and what is desired.”

Whether the rights of man are respected or scoffed at changes nothing in the conditions or state of man as a possessor of rights. This contrasts with natural ends and law and grace because right in this new sense does not modify in any way, whether it is violated or guaranteed, the condition of man as a possessor of rights.

Pierre Manent’s City of Man, chapter 4, notes

Notes on Manent’s The City of Man, Chapter IV: The Hidden Man


Manent has described thus far the three major spheres in modern man’s self-consciousness: History, Society and Economy. Each of these has two facets, a homogenous set of facts and the science which concerns itself with these facts. These spheres can crisscross in unlimited, kaleidoscopic combinations. The constraints of the science of these spheres are more formal than real. Within these constraints, the scholar is absolute sovereign over his province of “facts.” However, he is formally forbidden to connect these facts to the whole. “How fortunate these scholars are to be spared the sole true difficulty of knowledge!” Manent declaims facetiously. Underlying these modern practices is a despair of philosophy, the science of the Whole. Yet there is nothing that requires one to despair of the cause of unity, for it was philosophy itself which deliberately dismembered the unity, so why would philosophy not be capable of reunifying the whole?


Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza and Locke implacably destroyed Aristotle’s doctrine of “substance,” which had been adopted by Catholic doctrine. It was in the English line, from Hobbes to Locke to Hume, that this destruction of substance was linked most clearly to the construction of the new body politic. In Aristotle, nature provides the moving force, impulse and ordering of a human world, but the world is described in all its complexity thanks to a dialectical analysis of opinions and to a phenomenology of the passions. In contrast, there is a narrowing and a compression in Hobbes’s concept. Human diversity and complexity is reduced to a single fundamental passion and the political order is deduced entirely from this passion. In Hobbes’s view, once the desire for power is held in check by fear of the absolute sovereign, the exercise of that desire will soon be celebrated as liberty. The homogenization of the diverse human faculties and passions that is exhibited in Hobbes presupposes a prior work of abstraction and denaturation. The philosopher speaks of “power” while normally men speak with natural spontaneity about wealth, science, honor and glory. This supposed quintessence of human desire is next dissolved into the nonhuman homogeneity of power.


In John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, power is expelled from the place where in Hobbes it played the most striking role. Power is conceived of as an intermediary stage on the road that leads from the world of substance to that of relation. One of the principle intentions of Locke’s Essay is to discredit the notion of substance. In Hobbes, power had taken the place of substance as the universal idiom capable of giving an account of the world. In Locke, man’s “artistic” character devours his “natural” character. Everything particular to man now appears as an effect produced by man. In this view, man is the result of his own production, but where was he before he resulted? “Thus man is labor.” What is human in man comes to be viewed as the result of labor.


Locke goes so far in his treatment of man as man’s artifice that he deems the idea of murder an “arbitrary” idea. Manent writes of this, “One has the feeling that the world of ideas is unraveling, that ideas are being trivialized…We have the feeling as it were of a moral violence at work in this intellectual decomposition of a notion.” Locke’s contention that the idea of killing has no more rapport with the idea of man than with the idea of a sheep is formally “unimpeachable, but is also substantially untenable.” Only by violent abstraction is the idea of killing treated in this fashion. The idiom of ideas which Locke’s Essay develops in European philosophy always gives a serious and plausible air to whatever thesis one may put forth. Locke’s decomposition of the wholes that give meaning to human experience makes diversity without any unity.


Hobbes’s emphatic concentration of man’s nature in the desire for power liberated the world of ideas from every natural and ontological bond.” Locke is a continuation of this gulf between ideas and reality. He elaborates moral notions as obeying rules that are governed merely by convenience for the sake of social communication. For Locke, the rules for constituting the human world are fully analogous to the rules for fabricating a table or a chair. Chairs have to be fitted enough to the nature of the man so that they can be comfortable or convenient. However, in the case of Locke’s conception of moral notions, what is fabricated is the constitution itself of the human world. Hence, the convenience of human nature cannot determine this in the same way. Locke rigorously preserves the formalism of “conveniency” against a resort to human nature. Conveniency maintains an equivocation between the universal and the particular and it is a rule without foundation or reference point, able to vary indefinitely.


Locke’s analysis of the constitution of the human world is so amorphous that it seems to preclude the establishment of a political philosophy. Moral notions are interpreted as arbitrary constructs regulated by conveniency, whatever way it is understood. However, Locke avers that a political theory as rigorous and demonstrable as mathematics is possible. If man is unknown as a substance, he is known to us by his powers and his relations. In fact, in developing political philosophy, Locke ends up presupposing the nature of man and his substance, avoiding making it the object of investigation. Unfortunately, or inevitably, Locke does not move beyond his general affirmation of the possibility of constructing demonstrative moral doctrine. Locke formulated the requirement of a rigorous moral and political doctrine while at the same time emphatically rejecting inquiry into the nature or substance of man. If he was mistaken, then our regime of modern democracy is devoid of a sure foundation since it was built on his formulation.


Locke erected the lofty structure of the liberal and democratic state on the puny base of the solitary animal in search of food.. The only teaching of nature that he does not leave open to question is the injunction of animal necessity, for survival. Locke uses a term, labor, which is proper only to man to designate an activity within reach of and characteristic of an animal because he sees in human consumption the first expression of human rapport to nature. He presupposes man in his quest for the foundations of human right. According to Locke, the human individual has in himself the necessary and sufficient foundation of property, and from that starting point, of law in its entirety. Law is said to not have its primary source in the conditions and consequences of the common life but in the isolated individual’s rapport with nature and with himself. Law according to Locke’s conception of it can only be founded on individual animality in its solitary rapport with external nature and with itself. However, if his reasoning is correct, the animals who exist also as biological individualities would also know about property and law and hence, political order.

Greek Discovery of Mind, the Sophists, notes

Philosophies of Man

The Sophists were the next group of philosophers although they were not really philosophers as such since they are better described as rhetoricians who became known as sophists (a sophist is defined as “a wise and informed person”).1 They originally worked as itinerant teachers, traveling about the Greek city states and giving lessons to whoever would pay them,2 charging fees for admission to their lectures that dealt with the nature of power and persuasion (not reality or truth). The sophist name does not predate the 5th Century.3 The need to impart a series of skills that make for success in the world explains the many different subjects which the sophists taught. The arts of public address, or rhetoric, formed the staple of the sophist curriculum. As traveling teachers, they appeared in the milieu that first surrounded Pericles since, in the background of Athenian democracy, they found an environment which favored their teaching for the following three reasons: (1) there existed a need for intellectual training for political life since, in rule by the people, only more educated and clever men could get power through the new democratic institutions such as the assembly of the people (eloquence and the power of the word were needed in order to acquire skill in the arts of persuasion and dialectical power or the power of forming arguments was necessary in the need for skill in being able to defend a thesis as required); (2) there existed a tendency in Athens toward relativism in moral and religious beliefs since, in contrast to the little prior questioning which had existed in the practice of traditional Greek religion and morality, with the rise and practice of democracy, people could talk and apply their critical reason to the questions and concerns of the day; and (3) a greater cosmopolitan spirit grew out of expanded commercial ties. Three traits characterize the sophists:4 (1) like the physical philosophers, they criticized the traditional mythology which had existed as ways of speaking about world (possibly in some way explaining it by telling stories of one kind or another); (2) they evinced skepticism and even cynicism by rejecting the value of any philosophical speculation that were seen to be fruitless5 i.e., man cannot know the truth about the riddles of nature and the universe since no absolute norms exist for determining right from wrong, truth from falsehood, although, here, Socrates tried to show that some norms are absolute and universally valid; and (3) they had a practical interest and a concern for the art of living within society despite the kind of form or organization which existed within a given society.

As transition figures, they made a number of positive contributions. First, they directed attention in philosophy to man, the subject, as men became interested in understanding themselves. This represented a shift in an interest in ethics away from a focus on the cosmos since the sophists focused on problems that differed from man to man to encourage a kind of subjectivism against which Socrates reacted. How can man do things for himself? Second, they founded the first pedagogical system of training in the west which consisted of two parts. The first consisted of formal training in grammatics, rhetoric, and dialectic (all having a democratic origin). One learns how to argue both sides of any given argument. The second consisted of a certain amount of intellectual baggage about what needed to be known: mathematics, largely pertaining to formal numbers borrowed from Pythagoras, which later was much used by Plato who regarded it as central for the training of philosophers since mathematics involved a degree of abstraction; geometry; astronomy; and music. In conclusion, this training tried to train human minds in how to think and not what to think. Third, they connected culture with politics for the first time since, for them, education had a practical function in a tradition that long remained with the Greeks. Many of the sophists were skilled politicians who contributed to the history of democracy.

Protagoras (c.480-410 BC), a native of Thrace in northern Greece,6 the most famous and least cynical of the Sophists, was an essentially practical man and a friend of Pericles who made successive visits to Athens (coming there in middle age) and who, according to Diogenes Laertius, was eventually forced to flee Athens on a charge of blasphemy. Apparently, his book on the gods was publicly burned in Athens. He was known as a lawyer who could win cases in any trial.

He taught that the way to success was through a careful and prudent acceptance of traditional customs not because they are true but because an understanding and manipulation of them is expedient if we are to get on with life and function in society.7 He is famous for the phrase: Homo mensura or “Man is the measure of all things, of those that are that they are, of those that are not that they are not.” Controversy exists over the meaning and application of this phrase in two questions. Does man refer to the individual or the society as in a state? Do the “things” refer to the objects of sense perception or to other fields such as ethical values? According to Copleston, Plato’s testimony in the Theaetetus depicts Protagoras as referring in the first case to the individual man and secondly only to the objects of our sense experience. In a speech by Socrates, it is noted that when the same wind blows one may feel chilly and the other not, or one may feel slightly chilly and the other quite cold. Protagoras supplies the basis of relativism by noting that neither are mistaken since both are right. Truth exists as a private, individual possession.8 However, since Plato’s Protagoras does not depict Protagoras as applying the above dictum in an individualistic sense to ethical values, the question of application arises although Copleston notes that sense perception and the intuition of values do not necessarily stand or fall together in relation to certain knowledge and truth for all.

Protagoras’s teaching in regard to ethical judgments and values can be summarized in the following terms. First, according to the Theaetetus, sense perception in each individual is equally true: the opinion of an object of sense is equally worthy. Since the human subject and objects of perception continually change, knowledge of the senses is historical or, in other words, relative. Second, things are in so far as they are perceived by man since man is the only standard. Real knowledge of really existing things is not possible given the reasonableness of a skeptical attitude about the value and possibility of appealing to truth as the means of settling any disagreements.9 In this context, the rationalism of the early Greek historians reflects the rationalism, the attitude, of the early Greek physicians. According to Alcmaeon of Croton (c.480-440 BC), the first great doctor in Greek medicine and author of a book on Natural Science, questions involving certainty in knowledge best belong to the gods:

Of things invisible, as of mortal things, only the gods have certain knowledge; but men can only follow the signs [traces] given to them in the visible world and by interpreting them feel their way towards the unseen.10

Third, Protagoras distinguished between that which is natural in law and that which is conventional in law (laws which are socially induced given the influence of “custom, climate, and self-interest”).11 Law in general is necessary since it is founded on certain ethical tendencies that are implanted in man as human beings although individual varieties in law, as one finds them in particular states, point to a relativity that exists with respect to specific determinations. For instance, modesty is first and foremost a matter of social convention. No law of one state is truer than that of another state although certain laws can be sounder and wiser. Though particular laws may be conventional, in general men are obliged to obey the laws of their respective communities since human existence is not possible without laws and the obedience which should be given to laws. Since man cannot live without laws, however, and since some laws can be better than other laws, this distinction hints or points to possibilities which later lead to the development of a theory of natural law which seems to come to us from the observations and beliefs of Hippias of Elis (b.c.460 BC), a younger contemporary of Socrates and Protagoras, who had believed in the reality of an existing universal brotherhood, to the effect that “all men are by nature relatives and fellow citizens, even if they are not such in the eyes of the [conventional] law.”12 In other words, citing words that come to us from Alcidamas (fl. 4th Century BC), “God made all men free; nature has made no man a slave.”13 Hence, with respect to mankind in general and the existence of human rights that all human beings share in, within the context of our moral lives as human beings, we can conclude that certain things are only right or good because they are right or good by nature in terms of how they exist in themselves and not because they are legally prescribed, legally right or legally good.14 In other words that allegedly come to us from Hippias of Elis: unconventional “unwritten laws” exist in an “eternal and unalterable” way. They “spring from a higher source than the decrees of men.”15 In conclusion then we can believe that, in the foundations of sophist philosophy as this comes to us from the teachings of Protagoras, the relativism which we find in Protagoras is not to be regarded as a species of absolute. The relativism that is present is not radical or total.

Fourth, Protagoras manifests an agnostic attitude toward belief in God: “With regard to the gods, I cannot feel sure either that they are or that they are not, nor what they are like in figure: for there are many things that hinder sure knowledge, the obscurity of the subject and the shortness of human life.” Yet, as with law, despite deficiencies, we cannot get along without religion.

In conclusion, Protagoras’s emphasis on subjectivity, relativism, and expediency can be regarded as the backbone of sophism in general as a school of thought although, the claim that objective truth is something which does not exist is “itself a claim to know an objective truth.” Hence, “all relativism is self-destructive.”16 Among prominent sophists, we find as follows:

Thrasymachus argued that “justice is the advantage of the stronger”17 or “justice is in the interest of the stronger.”18 He drew “might is right” conclusions as a result of his utter relativism. All discussion about morality is useless except as it is about struggle for power.

Gorgias (c.483-375) seems to have wanted to de-throne philosophy in order to replace it with rhetoric and so focus on the importance of training persons on how they should debate and argue.19 In his lectures and in a book or three books, he “proved” the following three theses: (1) there is nothing; there is no truth; (2) if there were anything, even if there were truth, no one could know it; and lastly (3) if anyone did know it, if truth were known, no one can communicate it to anyone.20 The point, of course, is that, if you can “prove” these absurdities, you can “prove” anything.21

Callicles, again “might makes right,”22 who has been viewed as one of the most cynical of the sophists, claimed that the traditional morality is just a clever way for the weak masses to shackle the strong individual.23 The strong should throw off these shackles since doing so is somehow “naturally right” given that what matters is power, not justice. Power is good because it conduces to survival which is itself good because it allows us to seek pleasure in food, drink, and sex (the goal of the enlightened man which he seeks qualitatively and quantitatively). The traditional Greek virtue of moderation is for the simply and the feeble.

Critias, who was to become the cruelest of the Thirty Tyrants, overturning democracy and temporarily establishing an oligarchical dictatorship, taught that the clever ruler controls his subjects by encouraging their fear of non-existent gods.24

In the criticisms of the sophists which were later offered in the history of Greek philosophy, Socrates did not like their uncertainties in his search for certainties nor did he like their subjectivism, their skepticism, and their nihilism and their emphasis on the values of manipulation and expediency. Plato mentions them critically and once called them “shopkeepers with spiritual wares” since he and others were angered by their habit of destroying ethical values for payment. To meet the demands of an energetic and ambitious clientele, the sophists developed a method of interpretation that, for problems encountered when reading texts or reciting verse, encouraged a dexterous use of one’s reasoning for the purpose of then articulating solutions which could win another’s attention because of the ingenuousness that attended a proffered explanation.25 A Sophist interpretation was to be clever but it need not be right or correct. The object was not truth but a meaning whose expression would attract notice and win a measure of worldly acclaim. The reasoning of interpretation serves purposes beyond itself and for ends that often serve base motives even if it is true, at times, that a sophist interpretation can serve a pedagogical purpose in helping to train the mind. For these reasons, Plato strongly criticized the sophist approach; the method merits rejection. In one section of dialogue taken from the Protagoras, Protagoras, Prodicus, Hippias, and Socrates discuss an apparent contradiction in lines of verse that are taken from Simonides of Ceos (c.556-468 BC), a famous poet of lyrics and elegies.26 Protagoras alleges a contradiction but Socrates appeals to Prodicus for a way to prove that the contradiction is only apparent. Prodicus responds by affirming that a real distinction exists between “being” and “becoming.” Socrates then gives a lengthy interpretation of his own: Simonides’s poem should be read as an attack on a saying of Pittacus of Mytilene (c.650-570 BC) who had said that “Hard is it to be noble.” Should he succeed in making this saying look ridiculous, he would establish a reputation for himself and “become the favorite of his own day.” Socrates then supplies an ingenious explanation which is not necessarily true, and his explanation bluntly illustrates the case that no interpretation of poetry, however ingenious, can necessarily effect an agreement on what could be the meaning of a poem. He closes by stating the following principle:

No one can interrogate the poets about what they say, and most often when they are introduced into the discussion some say the poet’s meaning is one thing and some another, for the topic is one on which nobody can produce a conclusive argument. The best people avoid such discussions…27

In conclusion, at best, the sophist approach produces no meaningful results even if, when used, it does not seek to mislead or to deceive another person. A third criticism notes that their skepticism encouraged bad habits and degrees of cynicism.

1Gaarder, p. 62.

2Oxford Classical Dictionary, 2nd ed., s.v. “Sophists,” by Guy Cromwell Field.

3According to Kathleen Freeman in Ancilla to The Pre-Socratic Philosophers: A complete translation of the Fragments in Diels, Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1978) p. 125, sophistes originally meant “skilled craftsman” or “wise man” but, by the end of the 5th Century, it had come to have the special meaning of “professional teacher.”

4Gaarder, p. 62.

5Palmer, p. 42.

6Sullivan, Introduction to Philosophy, p. 26.

7Palmer, p. 43.

8Sullivan, Introduction to Philosophy, p. 26.

9Osborne, p. 11.

10Diogenes VIII, 83; Chester Starr, The Awakening of the Greek Historical Spirit (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1968), p. 113.

11Sullivan, Introduction to Philosophy, p. 27.

12Heinrich A. Rommen, The Natural Law: A Study in Legal and Social History and Philosophy, trans. Thomas R. Hanley (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998), p. 8.

13Rommen, The Natural Law, p. 8.

14Rommen, The Natural Law, p. 8.

15Rommen, The Natural Law, p. 8.

16Andrew Beards, Philosophy The Quest for Truth and Meaning (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2010), p. 53.

17Osborne, p. 11.

18Palmer, p. 46.

19Palmer, p. 45.

20Maluf, Philosophia Perennis, p. 97.

21Palmer, p. 45.

22Rommen, Natural Law, p. 8.

23Palmer, p. 47.

24Palmer, p. 47.

25Atkins, pp. 41-42; Pfeiffer, pp. 32-35.

26Plato Protagoras 339-347.

27Plato Protagoras 337.

Pierre Manent’s City of Man, ch. 3, Notes

Notes on Manent’s The City of Man, Chapter III, “The Economic System”

by David Alexander


Where Montesquieu cautiously established the English experience as a new authority, Adam Smith accepted it as an established authority. Smith explains economic growth in England and Scotland in his day as the result of “the desire to better one’s condition.” He universalizes this experience and says that it is human nature to always be striving for “progress,” and hence improvement is the general law of history. His faith in this principle permits him to forego his usual empirical rigor and assume its presence in opaque areas of history. He treats political institutions as only being able to place negative limits on improvement.


Thomas Hobbes posits mankind’s fundamental inclination as being a restless desire of power after power. Smith develops and simplifies Hobbes’s simplification, converting the desire for power into the desire for purchasing-power. Smith evinces a belief in the possibility of a dialectical linear deduction of “history” starting from “nature.” The fundamental human desire is reduced first to being the desire to better one’s condition, and then to the desire to increase one’s purchasing-power. Nature and history come together into what is called the “economy.”


The desire to better one’s condition is conceived as quite complex in the work of Smith. It changes significantly in his two great works from The Theory of Moral Sentiments of 1759 to An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations of 1776. In the first, the human desire for betterment is essentially vanity, which is defined in relation to others. In the later, the reference to the social bond is excised.

In the desire to better one’s condition is presupposed a certain image of the better conditions, a phantasm of the imagination. So the imagination is perforce given a central role. Smith indeed puts imagination at the heart of his first book. Smith holds that our interest in money and power, and the arts and sciences, is driven by attraction essentially to beauty. When we pursue utility, it is really vanity we seek, and when we give into vanity, we are attracted by beauty.

The concept of the “invisible hand” remains the same in its definition in the two aforementioned works but it differs greatly between them in content. In Theory, human beings are ruled by their imagination and vanity but in Wealth, the imagination and vanity disappear and human behavior is cast as being motivated only by gain and interest. Between the two is a chasm stretching between the prestige of the imagination in an society of unequal people and the prosaic and rational pursuit of gain in an egalitarian society.


Smith’s account of how inegalitarian, feudal society gave way to the egalitarian character of commercial society, for all the breadth and serenity of his masterpiece The Wealth of Nations, and for all its status as received wisdom in liberal societies, appears to rest on the slender, insufficient base of an epigram: The feudal lords bartered away all their power and authority for diamond belt buckles and such.


Manent criticizes Smith’s portrayal of the psychology of the feudal landlord as implausible and inconsistent. “When Smith yields to epithets of increasing indignation in characterizing it, he is only trying to mesmerize his own uncertainty and our vigilance.” Smith posited two different human concerns that led to the revolution, childish vanity in the great proprietor, represented in Theory, and interest and gain in the merchant and artisan, represented in Wealth. Smith’s explanation of the childish vanity of the feudal landlords does not explain why they would choose to give up the prestige of their position. Smith so greatly desires to deduce the institution from the economic conditions that he asserts that the proprietor rules over his clients because he feeds him. But this reasoning may be flipped to the conclusion that the proprietor obeys his clients because he feeds them. While some might respond that the two need not be exclusive, Manent drives home his point that, as with the sociological point of view, the language is “shallow and vain!” He rejects Smith’s idea of a feudal lord as preposterous, as a strange phantasm of the mind in which a person inexplicably saddles himself with hundreds of dependents. A tenable explanation must render the appropriation of surplus and the support of dependents intelligible.


Smith tells the story of the advance of commercial society without telling a truly human story. Smith, unlike Montesquieu, does not refrain from identifying a fundamental passion in human nature behind progress but presupposes the irresistible desire to better their condition.. But if they know what they want and attain it, why speak of an “invisible hand”? Manent holds that the spirit of commerce so ruled Smith that he equated it with human nature.

Manent returns to his criticism of Smith’s psychology of the feudal landlord as inadequate, something that blinks on just at the point of its dissolution, and then blinks off. He says a more serious look at the landlord’s soul shows that he does not barter away his power and prestige for trinkets, which Smith holds he does, reviling him for it. Rather, it is because he is powerless before the centralized royal power of the sovereign already that his childish “vanity” increases. Because Smith does not look at the landlord from the political angle, the landlord’s action becomes preposterous to him, when really it is Smith’s imputed psychology which is preposterous.


Smith’s conception of the imagination is one in which the desire for power, wealth, and the products of technical ingenuity are all rooted in the same aesthetic idea. It is the imagination, not utility, which gives things their value, makes them desirable, and associates them with human nature. But the imagination liberates man from the constraints of his nature in order to subject him to its own nature. The imagination is unaware of its own value as the value giver and, so, unaware of qualitative differences from one regime to another and one epoch to another.


To the extent that the idea of utility exercises and satisfies the imagination, it rules over economic man. For the participants in the market, the role of the imagination tends to disappear into the artifacts, but from the spectator’s point of view, the imagination’s role becomes very prominent. There is the perspective of the citizen acquiring the new watch and there is the perspective of Smith, admiring and seeking to make perfect the economic system so that it runs undisturbed, with regularity of motion.


In the new society, the imagination becomes formalized and individualized. The observer sees in it, not individuals acting in ways liable to moral judgment, but rather a harmonious system where the natural motives of individuals are as obscured as the inner workings of a watch. The system produces effects corresponding to the idea of utility.


The commercial imagination reduces all things to useful things as far as they embody the idea of fitness, but it seems clueless when it comes to establishing their relative value. The imagination cannot appear as a measure of value in the commercial society except as labor, which hence becomes the sole locus of value. (It has left no leisure for contemplation). All value resting on labor, labor becomes of ever greater value.

Once labor is exalted in this way, the imagination, as a universal human faculty capable of embracing the Whole of the cosmos, shrivels into inconsequence. The economic viewpoint, which is in no way a “conception of the world,” then settles in and in effect, the Creation is renounced. All that is left is the vital principle and untiring motor of commercial society. The one great object retained by the imagination is the harmonious system of production and consumption. The splendor of God’s glory bright, in the radiance of the Son, and in the Creation created through the Son, is effectively occluded. “Man as economist is the pure spectator of man become homo oeconomicus.”


The Economy writ large is motivated toward homogeneity since only equal values can be exchanged. “Commercial society nurtures and contains the immanent utopia of a powerless society, a depoliticized society.” However, the power of purchasing labor subsists. The economic process, in which labor is embodied in objects and services, is driven by a profit motive. Economic man works to make capital bear fruit. Without profit, the Economy quickly becomes a “valley of industrial dry bones.” Only profits proportionate to capital give life to the Economy. “Profit, not religion, is the spirit of this spiritless world where one must overwork in order to live: the commercial society.”


Some object to the notion that surplus is not institutionalized in a capitalist society like it is in earlier societies. Surplus, like profit, is appropriated in private property, the institution par excellence. Yet Manent replies, “The noninstitutionalized, underdetermined, floating character of surplus is most clearly revealed in the choice left to the capitalist to use it for his own consumption or for investment.” The nature of profit revealed itself in the discretionary choice it offered between consumption and investment. The imagination and capital make things felt worldwide. Only the owner of capital can conceive endlessly the new correspondences which constitute the life of the Economy. Authoritarian or planned investment petrify the network of social valences and the movement of the imagination.


The freeing and the founding of the economy took place at the same time and, from that time forward, it cannot be properly said that the economy is distinct from society. The body politic itself becomes merged with and indistinguishable from the economic system. Imagination rules over labor, yet labor constrains the imagination to produce only ideas which display the idea of usefulness and that are liable to encourage labor. One now works only to work, to carry out the useful ideas the imagination endlessly conceives. Labor never rests. But there has been a dastardly trade-off: The imagination has lost all sense of glory.

Greek Discovery of Mind, Parmenides and Zeno, revised notes, 2nd ed.

Notes on Parmenides and Zeno

Lonergan Institute for the “Good Under Construction” © 2016

Where Heraclitus emphasized process, Parmenides denied both multiplicity and motion. Though his expression revived the myth of revelation, his position at its heart was a set of arguments. While he could not be expected to formulate the principles of excluded middle and of identity, he reached analogous conclusions. For he denied the possibility of “becoming” as an intermediary between being and nothing; and he denied a distinction between “being” and “being” and so precluded any multiplicity of beings. While his specific achievement was only a mistake, still it provided a carrier for a breakthrough. Linguistic argument has emerged as an independent power that could dare to challenge the evidence of the senses. The distinction between sense and intellect was established. The way lay open for Zeno’s paradoxes, for the eloquence and skepticism of the sophists, for Socrates’ demand for definitions, for Plato’s distinction between eristic and dialectic, and for the Aristotelian Organon.1

Parmenides of Elea (c. 515- c. 480 BC), who has been cited in one way or another as the father of rationalism in philosophy,2 discovered the form or the meaning of being (what being is; how it differs from non-being or how it differs from the condition of becoming) and, on this basis, he became the father of the problem of being (being versus becoming). As a well respected thinker, he was a contemporary and, allegedly, a successor of Heraclitus although it is said about him that, in his early years, he was a follower of Ameinias, a Pythagorean.3 Historically, he was the most important philosopher who belonged to a group that was centered in Elea in southern Italy (the Eclectics). It was rumored that at age 65, he went to Athens and that, allegedly, Socrates listened to him there.4 Plato refers to three meetings with Socrates. Elea itself, on the west coast of the Italian peninsula, was founded in 540-539 BC. It possessed Ionian roots since its refugee settlers came from Phocaea, the most northern city of Ionia.

Parmenides’s famous writing (later referred to as On Nature) is a poem that was partially preserved in a book entitled the Physics, written by Simplicius in the 6th century AD. There are two basic components to the poem, both of which are preceded by an introduction, known as the Proem, that describes Parmenides’s journey to the place of the sun where he is instructed by a goddess who tells him to learn the truth which is opposed to opinion and the apparent kind of knowledge which is commonly found among human beings who, as human beings, for all intents and purposes, know nothing.5 As similarly with Hesiod, through a form of religious revelation, Parmenides is “borne aloft into the presence of an unnamed goddess, and inspired by her with knowledge of all things, both of the undaunted, convincing ‘Truth,’ and of the ‘Opinions [doxai] of mortals.’”6 While the way of thinking to which Parmenides is to be initiated is unfamiliar to most men, this new unusual way is a path or a road whose following is sanctioned by Right and Justice.7 This road, allegorically, is an “uttering many things.”8 The mares drawing his chariot represent “pondering many things”; justice, the “manifold avenger” who holds keys which unlock heavenly gates.9 The reference to “many things” seems to refer to the changing data that are sensibly experienced; by working through the changing, shifting world that is presented through the senses, our cognition can arrive at a world which transcends the human senses.10 Light symbolizes the goal of this special journey where, within this light, truth is revealed to ourselves and to Parmenides. In his own journey, Parmenides is “carried up into the light, [he is] guided by the sun maidens who toss aside their veils, while the chariot’s axle blazes in its sockets.”11

The first way of inquiry is the Way of Truth, the way of reasoning as pure thinking or as “pure thought,”12 or, alternatively, the Way of Being where, by following in this particular way, by moving beyond the kind of initial knowing which exists in our acts of sense perception or, in other words, by engaging in “sheer thinking,”13 we are led to a Parmenidian notion of being: being as distinct from becoming and change and as it exists with a transcendence that does not belong to the immanence or the immediacy of becoming and the experience of change which we always have through the perceptions which immediately exist for us through our different acts of human sensing.14 Pure thought or pure thinking leads to pure Being.15

To understand what could be meant by “sheer thinking” or “pure thinking,” try to distinguish between two basic views or two basic takes on the nature of our human cognition. A first view notes or opines that our human acts of cognition are constituted by acts of sensing which are combined with acts of intellection that are commonly referred to by us as “acts of the mind” (or “acts of the intellect”). However, it is a major task to distinguish each of these acts and to determine how these acts are all related to each other in a way which acknowledges the due weight or the role which is played by each act. The second view separates acts of sensing from acts of thinking (from the intellectual acts which exist as our mental acts, our acts of the human mind). Within the coutours of this approach, some prefer to associate the dynamics of human cognition with sense (with that which exists for us as our different acts of human sensing); others, with intellect (with that which exists for us as our different acts of thinking or reasoning). For empiricists or positivists, the real is that which is sensed or that which can be sensed. Where human thinking or reasoning exists, no real contribution to be ascribed to how they exist or to the tasks that are performed by our various acts of thinking and reasoning. For rationalists, however, the real is that which is thought or it is that which is conceived by our thinking and thought, our acts of thinking leading us to the formation of concepts and definitions. If empiricists and positivists denigrate the role of thinking and reasoning and if they prefer not to move in a direction which could lead them into our acts of thinking and understanding, rationalists prefer to not move in a direction which could lead them toward our various acts of human sensing and the kind of data which exist if we should refer to the givens which come to us through our various acts of human sensing. While, for the empiricists and rationalists, a proposition is true if it directly relates to or if it mirrors the content of an act of sense, for rationalists, a proposition is true if, from the subject of a proposition, its predicate is somehow immediately given or, in some way, it is implied. The predicate exists within the terms of meaning which belong to the being of a given subject. Given what a subject is, certain consequences follow. For a simple example, we can say perhaps that “all men are mortal” or that “man is a rational animal” although, upon reflection, we would have to admit that the truth of these propositions would seem to suggest that, ultimately, our evidence comes to us from the data of our human experience, the kind of experience that is given to us through our various acts of human sensing and the data which accompanies these acts. Hence, a better example of the kind of truth that can be known without having to refer to specific acts and data of sense would seem to be the teaching of a law in logic which says about contraditions that “a thing cannot be and not be at the same time, or a thing must either be or not be, or the same attibute cannot at the same time be affirmed and denied of the same subject.”16 Propositions are true if their meaning is articulated in a way which points to their obviousness or their self-evidence, the obviousness or the self-evidence of meaning immediately pointing to the reality of their truth (the obviousness or the self-evidence of truth). The definition of a circle in mathematics always points, for example, to all the attributes which must belong to the being of any kind of circle in mathematics. The definition of a square similarly points to all the attributes that must belong to the being of a square. Conversely, it is impossible, in any definition, to speak about the meaning or the intelligibility of a square circle. Absence of truth is implied by absence of meaning or by absence of intelligibility. In the kind of thinking or the kind of discovery that we find in Parmenides, the thinking power of the mind is discovered in a way which surpasses the capability or the capacity which exists within our various acts of human sensing. While, undoubtedly, Thales used his mind (his reasoning, his thinking) to argue that water should be regarded as a fundamental first principle in the existence of our world as it is (his discovery is not to be correlated with an act of sense, it does not exist as an act of sense, although his discovery is to be supported by many different acts of sense), on the other hand, it was Parmenides who discovered that the human mind has a power or an authority which exists independently of anything that could be given to us directly from our various acts of human sensing. Our acts of sense always belong to us as living human subjects. We begin our lives with our acts of human sensing. However or hence, it is the rare person, it is not given to everyone that we should all individually know about the power of our individual human minds and what our minds can grasp and know independently of anything that can be directly given to us through our various acts of human sensing. The kind of apprehension which exists for us through our various acts of human sensing is not to be identified or correlated with the kind of apprehension which exists for us through our various acts of thinking and understanding. The lack of identity points to tensions which can often exist between these two orders of human cognition and, if some kind of reconciliation or complementarity is to be reached, some other kind of cognitive act must be invoked in order to establish where positive relations exist between our different acts of human sensing and our different acts of human thinking, reasoning, and understanding.

Succinctly put: on the basis of our thinking and reasoning and the kind of contemplation and revelation which exists within our thinking and reasoning, we realize that, from non-being or nothing (from the condition of nothingness), we cannot get being (the condition of beingness) and, conversely, from being (from beingness), we cannot get non-being or nothing (the condition of nothingness). In being or from being, we cannot get non-being. Being excludes non-being. Within being, non-being does not exist. An order of mutual exclusion exists between being and non-being, a form of mutual exclusion which excludes any kind of positive relation that could conceivably exist between being and non-being. Each totally excludes the other. Hence: “Being, the One, is, and…Becoming, change, is illusion.”17 Change is impossible if, for any kind of understanding that we would have about change, we would be working from a basic premiss which would say that change requires being to arise from non-being or from the condition of nothingness. From nothingness, nothing can ever arise.18 According, however, to another way of speaking which also tries to summarize the principles teachings which come from Parmenides’s insights:

Everything which is is a being. If a thing is not a being it is a non-being, nothing. But change could come about only through a mixture of being with something else – with nothing, in other words. Change, therefore, is impossible. [Change is an illusion, a trick of the senses].19

In this Way of Truth thus, its central theme is: “Only Being is” and “Not Being [nothing] cannot be.” From a judgment or an affirmation that avers being, Being emerges as an immediately determinate concept. It is an idea having a definite meaning which one can put into words. One can derive specific properties; specific presuppositions; and specific consequences. It is not really possible to think that that which is is, in fact, not. Non-being and being mutually exclude each other. Whatever is cannot be apart from being. One cannot think about pure non-being (about nothingness). Non-being or nothingness is unthinkable. It is unintelligible. It is not to be confused with any kind of notion which would want to think about the existence of an empty space.20 Conversely, we cannot think that “that (what is) is not” given the problem of a self-contradiction which would exist in saying that what is or that which exists is not or that it does not exist or, more simply, we have self-contradiction when we say that nothing exists.21 Not-being cannot be or exist. It is not. As privation of being, it is nothing. Existence or an act of being or existence can never be properly predicated of non-being or nothingness. According to one explanation which argues that we cannot properly think about that which does not exist (since all thinking, by its very nature, is directed to being in terms of something which is or exists):

The one, that (it) is, and that (for it) not to be is not possible, this is the way of conviction, for it follows truth: the second, that (it) is not, and that (for it) not to be is of necessity, which is a path, I tell you, that is entirely outside the scope of inquiry; for you could neither recognize (that which) is not, for this is not possible, nor could you express it. For that which it is possible to think is the same as that which can be.22

Thinkability or apprehensions of possible intelligibility are to be associated with being and not with non-being. Quoting Parmenides, “it is the same thing that can be thought and that can be.”23 The thinkability or the possibility of being immediately points to the reality of its being or the being of its being because, if something could possibly be, it would exist not in a condition of being but in a condition of nothingness and, from non-being or nothingness, we cannot get being. Hence, possible being does not exist. To speak about possible being is to be speak about absence of being or nothingness and this is an unintelligible way of speaking. Nonsensical. Possible being, because it exists as an inner contradiction, is something which is unreal (it is lacking in intelligibility). The unintelligibility of anything which could exist as some kind of possible being accordingly points to the necessity of being in things which happen to exist. The lack of contingency or any form of becoming points to an absolute givenness of being which, in turn, points to its necessity (a conclusion or a point of view which jives with a commonly accepted belief among the ancient Greeks that the world or the universe does not exist as a created, contingent thing; the world or the universe is something which has always existed in an eternal way).24

With respect then to the properties of Being or “what is,” Being is (1) uncreated (since being cannot emerge from not-being); (2) indestructible (since nothing apart from being can arise from being); (3) complete and entire (since a complete identity exists between subject and being: “there is not and will not be anything else apart from being”25); (4) eternal; (5) indivisible (since any trait or characteristic as existing would have to be or exist and this would coincide fully with being); (6) immobile (since changes of location suggest becoming and ending); (7) unique; (8) one; (9) spherical; (10) indivisibly whole; (11) fully perfect; and (12) perfectly self-identical, or equally real in all directions, homogeneous (since being is fully determinate or complete and not lacking in any kind of way).26 All these characteristics function as signs or marks of truth in the Way to Truth.27 All designations that are developed to refer to gradations that are experienced in the visible world are artificial constructions which all refer to Being.28 As noted above, Being necessarily exists. It is not possible for it not to be. “(For it) not to be is impossible.”29 With respect to what is not, “(for it) not to be is of necessity.”30 Necessarily, it either is or is not. It cannot become. It lacks gradations. Therefore, as being, it cannot have any holes or a vacuum, and there is no place where Being is not. No distinction is made between a subject and the fact of its existence as being.31 Hence, change or motion is impossible since change would mean that Being would have to go from where it is to where it is not, but this is not possible, since Being is everywhere. Our senses tell us about change and variety (becoming and plurality), but these are illusions. However, our minds alone know the truth, and this truth is that “Being is.” Hence, the human mind can never cut itself off from being; it is always fully united to all the being of the universe, whether it is visible or invisible.32

Parmenides was thus the first thinker, the first philosopher, to clearly advert to a dichotomy that exists between sense and intellect (the world that is known by the senses, our acts of human sensing, and the world that can be known by the mind, our acts of understanding and judgment). Something is obvious if we limit our acts of cognition to our acts of human sensing but something is not obvious if we begin to think things out and so notice that, between being and non-being, a relation of mutual exclusion is to be adverted to. A mutual exclusion exists (a real distinction). So, in the history of Greek philosophy or in the development of Greek philosophy as the position of one school triggers the thought and the insights of another school, where the Milesians sought Being in matter, and the Pythagoreans, in form, in our current context, Parmenides emphasizes Being where Being is reality. Being is “the basic stuff of reality.”33 It is something which is “somehow material”34 and hence, finite. It is “unorginated, [and] indestructible.” It cannot not be since from nothing comes nothing. Being cannot emerge from its lack or absence; as noted, it cannot emerge from non-being.35 Conversely, as we have already noted, from being, one cannot get an absence or a privation of being; one cannot get non-being or nothing or obtain non-being or nothing. From an absence of being one cannot get that which exists as a being. Succinctly put in another way, through the use of a syllogism, Paremenides’s argument can be framed in a manner which runs as follows:

The new or different being would have to come either (a) from being, or (b) from non-being.

But not from being, for if it comes from being it already is and there is no real becoming.

Nor from non-being, for if it arises out of non-being, then non-being must already be something for being to be able to arise out of it. But, this is a contradiction.

Therefore change, becoming, movement are impossible. “It” [Being] is.36

Being can be understood perhaps as a particular kind of form where to say that something is means only or simply that something exists.37 What is especially significant about the world, even the physical world, is the fact that it exists.38

The second way of inquiry is the Way of Belief,39 the Way of Seeming,40 the Way of Opinion, the Way of Mortals, or the way of appearance which somehow tries to view being or reality as a combination of being and non-being which is illogical and self-contradictory since not-being cannot have the status of being at the same time.41 The goddess notes that here one ceases to follow the Way of Truth if one relies on ordinary experience and the testimony of one’s senses.

At this point I stop giving you my reliable account and thought about truth; from here on, learn of things as they appear to mortals, listening to the deceptive construction (cosmos) of my words.42

Human beings employ two forms for thinking and knowing that contradict each other. One is legitimate and the other is false. The varying combination accounts for human thinking.

They have established (the custom of) naming two forms, one of which ought not to be (mentioned): that is where they have gone astray.43

The first form is fire, flame, or light which is to be identified with being since its characteristics are the same as those belonging to being.

They have distinguished them as opposite in form, and have marked them off from another by giving them different signs: on one side flaming fire in the heavens, mild, very light (in weight), the same as itself in every direction, and not the same as the other.44

The second, opposite form is earth, night, darkness, or non-being (given its characteristics which are the same as those belonging to non-being).

But this too is by itself the opposite, unknowing night, dense and heavy in form.45

In combining these two forms in an ever varying, changing proportion of light and darkness, the logical result is an illogical or irrational view of the world since light cannot be truly mixed with darkness.

But since all things are named Light and Night, and names have been given to each class of things according to the power of one or the other (Light or Night), everything is full equally of Light and invisible Night, as both are equal, because to neither of them belongs any share (of the other).46

Darkness combines with light in varying proportions “to make that which is appear as men ordinarily see it.”47 Variations in the constitution of an individual’s thinking and knowing subsequently act to modify the kind of world or reality that a person will know or thinks that he knows. True knowledge transcends a knowing of appearances. Reality is only grasped in moments of special inspiration and illumination through a self-transcendent form of light which reaches all things instantaneously and which goes beyond the life and activity of the senses.48 While “that which is” is identical with the sensible world, the reality of the sensible world is only grasped or known by the mind or reason functioning through the form of light.49

The result is a world characterized by plurality and change, a world in terms of how it appears to mortals. One will speak about and be interested in points and the void (rather than the sphere of Being) such as the Pythagoreans. While some scholars think that this second way is simply a collect of erroneous opinions, others that it presents earlier views that Parmenides once had but which later he transcended. Some say he added this section because some account of the world of appearance had to be given since it was such an obvious fact. To overcome the pitfalls which are caused by overly relying on the evidences of human sense, one must come to being by engaging in rational judgments that employ reasoning (logos) in painstaking arguments characterized in terms which speak about “with much contest.”50 As Parmenides’s goddess advises him on how he must act and behave: “Do not trust sense experience….but judge by means of the logos the much-contesting proof which is expounded by me.”51 Hence, later on, when speaking about Parmenides and the significance of his insight on the stability of what the human mind perceives, Aristotle notes that no knowledge of the sensible world can ever truly occur unless some unchanging things are present.52

Zeno of Elea (born c. 495-490 BC), the alleged founder of dialectic (in Aristotle’s judgment), was a disciple and associate of Parmenides about whom little is known. He perhaps taught in Athens. He built up arguments to support the Parmenidian denial of motion and plurality. He proved the impossibility of motion by using the method of reductio ad absurdum: begin by accepting your opponent’s premises; then, demonstrate that they lead logically to an absurdity or contradiction. This makes the initial premisses look ridiculous. This indicates that the arguments of opponents are even more absurd that anything taught by Parmenides as difficult as it might be initially to accept the basic premisses of Parmenides.

He uses arguments against plurality.53 He begins by supposing that the quantitative nature of all existing things.54 Being is correlated with quantity: with more and with less. Plurality makes things both finite and infinite in number. Finiteness derives from the fact that any given number of them (however numerous) is always determinate or finite. Infinity simultaneously derives from the possibility of always being able to divide every material thing into parts ad infinitum. Real quantity is not distinguished from abstract, mathematical quantity. This position is internally incoherent. Moreover, plurality implies that things will be infinitely large and lacking any size at all. Bisection into an infinite number of parts implies that a thing is infinitely large which is internally incoherent. At the same time, things will become so small that they will come to have no size.

…each must have some size and thickness and each part of it must be at a distance from the other. And the same reasoning holds good of the one that precedes it; for that also will have size and there will be one preceding it. It is the same, then, to say this once and to say it always; for no such part of it will be the last, nor without proportion to another. So if there are many things, they have to be both small and large; so small, on the one hand, as to have no size; so large, on the other, as to be infinite.55

In order to speak of plurality or many, one must have a notion of unit, but, if things are ultimately divisible, one can never arrive at a unit which would allow one to speak of plurality or many. A unit or “one” that would function as a constituent cannot be identified.

He uses a number of arguments to argue against the reality of motion. A first argument relies on a notion of place which regards it as a thing that is located in a material container.56 As Aristotle queries, “if place is something, in what will it be?”57 The argument is as follows: what is moving moves either in its place or in a place where it is not located. But, if it is located in its place, it is a rest and so not moving. On the other hand, if it is not in its place, it “it is just not there to move or to do or undergo anything at all.”58 Motion is an illusion.

Aristotle cites four riddles or paradoxes that are employed by Zeno to argue against the reality of motion. First, in the Riddle of the Racecourse or Stadium, a moving object can never cross over.59 In crossing a stadium, granting motion, one can never reach the other side since, before getting to the other side, one must go halfway, but before going halfway, one must go halfway of the remaining halfway, but before going halfway, one must go halfway ad infinitum. Since the argument never ends, motion must be impossible even if it were possible. Where, in mathematics, one can speak of a length that is infinitely divisible, this notion is applied to a material length which has a definite measure in terms of so many units. A material notion of length is blended with an abstract mathematical notion of length.

Second, in the Riddle of Achilles and the tortoise, the tortoise has a head start and Achilles tries to overtake him, but as he reaches one point, the tortoise has moved yet further, ad infinitum. Given the hypothesis of motion, Achilles can never catch him. As before, an abstract, mathematical notion of length is combined with a material notion of length and the attribution of definite measures for length. However, in this argument, instead of lengths of space being divided into equals, lengths are divided proportionally.60

Third, in the Riddle of the Flying Arrow, according to Pythagorean theory, the arrow should occupy a given position in space at any given moment, but since, to do so, it would have to be at rest, the flying arrow is at rest which is a contradiction. This argument presupposes a material notion of space that Aristotle criticizes but, more importantly, it invokes a notion of time that consists of a series of indivisible units described as instants or “atomic nows.”61 At any given moment, an arrow is in a definite place and its flight is constituted by “a series of motionless moments.”62 But, from a series of montionless moments, we cannot get movement. We cannot move from a condition of immobility to a condition of mobility. For a more apt, contemporary example that illustrates the point of Zeno’s arguments here, think about the being of a modern motion picture. The term “moving picture” is an illusion. What we have is a series of still photographs and when they are displayed to us in a sequence, we get an illusion of movement in the images that are shown. The illusion of movement is constructed from images that, in fact, exist in a condition of rest.

Fourth, in the Riddle of the Moving Rows, in the middle of a stadium three rows of bodies of equal length are lined up, parallel to each other. Each row is divided into four segments of equal length. The top row is stationary. Below, the second row is located to left of center. Beneath this second row, the third row is located right of center. At the same time, the second row moves to the right which the third moves to the left, and when the motion is completed, the second and third rows are perfectly lined up beneath the first row. During the time of motion, the first B passed 4 C segments and 2 A segments. In the same length of time, B went twice as far in C units than in A units although all these units are of equal length. If time is measured in terms of local motion, distance traversed by an object in motion, half a given time equals the whole of a given time. This contradiction again indicates that motion is an illusion. The thesis of motion leads to contradictory conclusions. An exact correlation exists between indivisible, discrete units of length and indivisible, discrete units of time. Each unit of length is correlated with a unit of time.

In conclusion thus with respect to Zeno’s arguments, fidelity to human reasoning reveals internal contradictions in the common sense understanding of ordinary human experience. For instance, men tend to assume that given lengths are composed of definite parts or units which are constitutive and, at the same time, they assume that given lengths are indefinitely divisible.63 But, for purposes of coherence and to avoid contradiction, we cannot have it both ways. According then to the wording of one explanation that is given about why, hypothetically, in a race between the two, Achilles can never catch up to a Tortoise who has been given a head start in the race that is being run:

Before Achilles can catch the Tortoise, he must cover half the distance between himself and the Tortoise. But before he can reach the halfway point of that distance, he has to cover half the first half. But half that distance has to be covered first, and so on and so on. It may be infinitesimally small, but there is always a first half of some distance to be covered before any of the further points can be reached. Achilles, then, cannot even get going, let alone reach the Tortoise.64

In the same way too, an arrow cannot reach the midpoint of its supposed flight.65 At any given moment, it is always in a condition of rest.

Summary: Notice how the Pythagoreans attended to what is known by understanding, and began a type of search seeking the “form” of something. The Eclectics attended to characteristics that belong to Being, which is known in judgment. Both groups began to attend to a dimension of the human mind and to reality that was not recognized before. Notice, that the discovery of forms and of Being, which are components of that which we know, simultaneously brings about a discovery of the human mind.

In conclusion, while the Ionians tried to say what one could see by experience (accepting plurality and trying to seek a unifying immanent principle), the Eleatics of southern Italy tried to indicate what could be perceived through reason which involved getting behind appearances. While both the Pythagoreans and the Milesians asserted plurality, the Pythagoreans spoke of a plurality that practically excluded the One which was more abstract because of an anti-sensualistic base. While Heraclitus tried to do justice to the two traditions by his concept of unity-in-diversity with his logos, he was uneasy as far as the stabilizing function of the logos was concerned. On the other hand, the Eleatics claimed that one must be radical and claim the one, not trusting in experience but using reason. Thus, a number of philosophical problems were posed by this whole development: first, the relation between the One and the Many (typified by the conflict between Parmenides and Heraclitus); here, Parmenides and Zeno forced a re-evaluation of the monistic presupposition accepted by all Greeks heretofore i.e., the view that reality is composed on one thing since such a view led directly to Parmenides’ untenable conclusions; second, the relation between reason and experience; here also, Parmenides and Zeno caused a crisis in Greek philosophy since they forced the thesis that a strong distinction be made between information based on the five senses and that based on pure reason, a distinction which later developed into two schools of philosophy, Empiricism and Rationalism;66 third, the tension between the intelligible and the sensible worlds; and fourth, tthe tension between being and becoming, stability and change. While later Plato spoke of two worlds with a line drawn between the two, Aristotle spoke of change and stability in the same world where one is not obliged to sacrifice change for stability or stability for change since one can be loyal to reason and not deny the data of sense through a reconciliation effecting synthesis. As a result, the later Presocratics (sometimes known as the “pluralists”) tried to resolve these new problems inherited from the Milesians and the Eleatics. There were two directions: one, let us examine anew the physical world (for example, the atomists), and two, let us turn from the physical world and start to reflect on man.

1Lonergan, MIT, pp. 91-92.

2Sullivan, p. 22.

3Owens, p. 57.

4Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy Volume I Greece and Rome (New York: Image Books, 1993), p. 47.

5Bruno Snell, The Discovery of the Human Mind in Greek Philosophy and Literature (New York: Dover Publications, 1982), p. 147.

6Owens, pp. 58-9.

7Owens, p. 59.

8Fr. 1.2, quoted by Owens, p. 60.

9Owens, p. 60.

10Owens, p. 60.

11Owens, p. 60.

12Snell, p. 149.

13Collingwood, Idea of Nature, p. 69.

14Bernard Lonergan, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, eds. Frederick E. Crowe and Robert M. Doran (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988), pp. 388-389.

15Snell, p. 149.

16Cf. (accessed January 11, 2016).

17Copleston, Greece and Rome, p. 48.

18Edward Feser, Scholastic Metaphysics A Contemporary Introduction (n.l, Editiones Scholasticae, 2014), pp. 31-32; The Last Superstition A Refutation of the New Atheism (South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press, 2008), pp. 52-53. As Feser goes on to argue, however, in one sense, Aristotle accepts the teaching of Parmenides. From non-being you cannot get being. Being cannot be derived from that which is lacking in being. It cannot be derived from something which does not exist. Nothingness and being always exclude each other. In the analysis thus which we find in Aristotle, potency cannot be reduced to act from the standpoint of that which exists as potency or, in other words, that which exists in a condition of potency cannot shift into a condition of act by means of itself (through some kind of self-realization that would somehow allegedly exist within potency), potency being that which is lacking in determinations of one kind or another or potency as that which is lacking some kind of being which, possibly, it could have. However, in another sense, Aristotle does not accept the teaching of Parmenides since, in the kind of analysis which Aristotle uses, change is considered not in terms of non-being and being but in terms of potency and act, potency and act referring to two different kinds of being that a given thing can have without risk of some form of self-contradiction. “There is being-in-act – the ways a thing actually is; and there is being-in-potency – the ways a thing could potentially be.” Cf. Feser, Scholastic Metaphysics, p. 32. Aristotle takes the kind of absolute notion that he finds in Parmenides’s notion of non-being and he adapts it. He relativises it. Into it, he introduces a distinction or a differentiation which refers to differing degrees or different kinds of non-being. A given thing exists with the being which it happens to have. It exists in a certain way. Hence, a being exists in terms of being-in-act. But, at the same time too, this being-in-act conditions or it accounts for why, in the factuality or the beingness of its existence, a given thing is susceptible to experiencing changes or realizations of one sort or another that would come to it from sources, acts, or actualizations that are other than potency, existing outside or beyond a given potency, or existing in an external manner relative to the being of a given potency. That which exists as being-in-potency depends on that which exists as being-in-act since a given thing undergoes changes in a way which does not destroy its proper being or its proper existence, its being-in-act, if all changes occur in a way which is entirely suited or which is connatural with how a given thing exists in terms of how it exists within a condition of act. All potencies are known through their acts which would reduce or convert them into a condition of act. If, by means of being-in-act, certain potencies can never be realized or reduced through a transition that would move from a condition of potency to condition of act, then, within this situation, these absences of being are to be regarded as instances or as illustrations of non-being. Employing an example or an analogy which comes to us from Feser, the roundness of a rubber ball refers to its being-in-act; its squareness, non-being; and its flatness or squishyness, being-in-potency. All three exist at the same time, simultaneously. Cf. Scholastic Metaphysics, pp. 32-33; Last Superstition, p. 53.

19Sullivan, Introduction to Philosophy, p. 20.

20Collingwood, Idea of Nature, p. 69.

21Owens, p. 63.

22Owens, pp. 60-61.

23Copleston, Greece and Rome, p. 49.

24Copleston, Greece and Rome, p. 49.

25Fr. 8.36-37, quoted by Owens, p. 65. As Copleston frames the kind of argument that Parmenides was apparently using: Being cannot be added to because if it is not one and complete in itself but in fact divided within itself, then this division would require some kind of cause that would be other than being. In some way, it would have to exist outside of being. But, this is a contradiction in terms since Being as Being is all encompassing. It includes everything which exists. Citing Copleston on Parmenides: “Being cannot be divided by something [that is] other than itself” because, besides being, “there is nothing,” nothing which exists. Cf. Greece and Rome, p. 50.

26Lonergan, Insight, p. 388, citing F. M. Cornford, Plato and Parmenides (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1939), pp. 28-52. As Copleston, p. 50, argues with respect to the intelligibility of Parmenides’s arguments: if Being is equally real in all directions, then, from this, we can understand why Being is spherical in shape.

27Owens, pp. 63-4.

28Owens, p. 66.

29Parmenides, quoted by Owens, p. 62.

30Parmenides, quoted by Owens, p. 62.

31Owens, p. 62.

32Fr. 4, cited by Owens, p. 65. Since the human mind is always fully united to Being, it is thus suggested that the human mind does not need to move toward Being or truth through any kind of inquiry which would move from lack of understanding and knowledge to an experience of understanding and knowledge. However, as Steward notes, p. 133, when the illusionary nature of becoming or change is compared with with the fullness of reality which exists in being, questions about the nature of human cognition are raised and introduced. Parmenides’s poem speaks about the difference between truth and opinion as this is communicated by way of divine revelation. But, with the reception of this kind of apprehension as this exists among human beings, questions are raised for philosophers to address and talk about.

33Stewart, p. 132.

34Stewart, p. 132. Please note here, with respect to the distinctions that one finds in Parmenides, that the postulation or supposition of a real distinction is to be distinguished from the beginnings or the origins of that which exists as a real distinction. In Plato’s philosophy, matter and form exclude one another. The two should never be confused. But, while, amongst the presocratics, different philosophies speak here about matter and there about form, the postulation of a real distinction between matter and form is a different type of question. Its early existence is a conclusion or a postulation cannot be too readily assumed. We look at the past from an understanding of philosophical principles which we already have and so, for us, a real distinction exists between matter and form. But, amongst the Greeks, time, study, and discussion had to occur before a refinement of meaning could possibly occur and then, from there, reach an understanding and judgment which can speak about a real distinction between manner and form (materiality versus intelligibility).

35Please note that, if we jump centuries ahead into Aristotle, we can begin to understand why, in his metaphysics, we cannot get act from potency. If something is in a state or a condition of potency, a lack of determination, that which is in a state or condition of potency cannot realize or move itself into a condition of being which is known as act (act in metaphysics).

36Stewart, p. 132. Citing the text of other words that have been used to explain the kind of reasoning which exists within Parmenides’s arguments (as this is given to us by Copleston in his Greece and Rome, p. 50):

Why do we say “more accurately, It is [Being is]?” For this reason: If something comes into being, it must arise either out of being or out of not-being. If if arises out of being, then there is no real arising, no coming-to-be; for if it comes out of being, it already is. If, however, it arises out of not-being, then not-being must be already something, in order for being to be able to arise out of it. But this is a contradiction. Being therefore, “It” arises neither out of being nor out of not-being: it never came into being, but simply is. And as this must apply to all being, nothing ever becomes. For if anything ever becomes, however trifling, the same difficulty always recurs: does it come out of being or out of not-being? If the former, then it already is; if the latter, then you fall into a contradiction, since not-being is nothing and cannot be the source of being. Change, therefore, becoming and movement are impossible. Accordingly “It is.” “One path only is left for us to speak of, namely, that It is. In this path are very many tokens that what is, is uncreated and indestructible, for it is complete, immovable and without end.”

37W. K. C. Guthrie, The Greek Philosophers: From Thales to Aristotle (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), p. 48.

38Owens, p. 71.

39Collingwood, Idea of Nature, p. 68.

40Lonergan, Insight, p. 388.

41Owens, p. 63.

42Fr. 8.50-53, quoted by Owens, p. 67.

43Fr. 8.53-54; tr. Freeman, quoted by Owens, p. 67.

44Fr. 8.55-58; tr. Freeman, quoted by Owens, p. 68.

45Fr. 8.58-59, quoted by Owens, p. 68.

46Fr. 9; tr. Freeman, quoted by Owens, pp. 68-9.

47Owens, p. 74.

48Owens, p. 70.

49Aristotle, Metaphysics, IV, 5,1010a2-3; DK, 28A, 24; Oxford tr., cited by Owens, p. 71.

50Fr. 7.5 quoted by Owens, p. 63.

51Fr. 7 quoted by Snell, p. 149.

52Aristotle, On the Heavens, III, 1,298b15-24; DK, 28A, 25, cited by Owens, p. 73.

53Owens, pp. 81-4.

54Owens, p. 81.

55Owens, pp. 82-3.

56Owens, pp. 84-5.

57Aristotle, quoted by Owens, p. 85.

58Owens, p. 84.

59Owens, p. 85.

60Owens, p. 86.

61Owens, p. 86.

62Sullivan, Introduction to Philosophy, p. 22.

63Owens, p. 89.

64Sullivan, Introduction to Philosophy, p. 21.

65Sullivan, Introduction to Philosophy, p. 22.

66Palmer, p. 31.

Pierre Manent, City of Man, chapter 2, notes

Notes on Chapter 2 of Manent’s The City of Man

“All literature, all philosophy, all history abounds with incentives to noble action, incentives which would be buried in black darkness were the light of the written word not flashed upon them. How many pictures of high endeavor great authors of Greece and Rome have drawn for our use, and bequeathed to us, not only for our contemplation but for our emulation! These I have held ever before my vision throughout my public career, and have guided the workings of my brain and my soul by meditating upon patterns of excellence.” -Cicero in Pro Archia Poeta

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice.” -Philippians 4:8-9 (NIV)


For contemporary society, history has become the way, the truth and the life. The feeling of living “within society” is the effective expression of living “within history,” and it has given rise to the novel and to the science of sociology.


After the French Revolution, three great schools of political thought, the liberals, the sociologues, and the socialists are unified by a notion of society, as distinct from the state and political institutions, and in the idea that society is the locus of the irreversible and irresistible movement of history. “The sociological viewpoint penetrates and dominates all modern political thought.”


Guided by Emile Durkheim, sociology cuts the ties with a praxial, practical focus and sets the parameters of sociology’s ethos by training it on being pure theory and a study of something independent of the will of man called “society.” Sociology depends for its form and existence on a deliberate refusal to take man’s nature as its object of study. [Contrast this with the aforementioned two quotations which provide instances of Ancient and Christian emphasis on emulation].


The sociological viewpoint is that of the spectator and its wrests, from the agent, initiative and reason and vests all force and causality in “society.” [The way Manent describes it, it seems like society is made into a kind of idol and we become like the idol by surrendering our humanity to it]. There is a resultant twofold dynamic: a deliberate and forceful distancing from what is real to attain the height of Science- a willful self-alienation-, and an equally deliberate and forceful effort to recover familiarity.


Montesquieu and the sociologist start from and emphasize the “infinite diversity” of human things only to then erase it. The affirmation of sociological causality is to be equated with the denial of chance, but one who grants primary causality to human nature can give chance a large role to play. “Is it even possible to stop, once the human world is only comprehensible as a causal chain without a first cause?” When man’s nature is posited only as an effect, or as an epiphenomenon, and not as a cause, a first cause is denied, and the result is that sociological studies constantly offer causes which are not truly causes. However, if they once admit man as a cause, then sociology as a science is called into question. In a sense, only the sociologist believes in the science of sociology, and that only while doing his job. Man understood as an agent by nature is best addressed by a “practical science” or an “art,” not by a science which is motivated to suppress his primal questions and occult his nature.


The deliberate ignoring of the real human agent poses problems for the sociological viewpoint. The requirement of scientific neutrality raises difficulties for the researcher which must be scrutinized. The sociologist avoids speaking about the universal, seeks to speak of the particular, and strives to elaborate a new general law, crucially only after the suppression of the pre-theoretical man’s apprehension of universals. All the mind’s focus of attention that the sociologist deems legitimate is trained on relations, but once this happens, even the memory of the most essential questions bearing on the human meaning of each of the elements that it is supposed to connect with begins to be lost. Can the sociologist speak of sociology in good conscience as a science of man?


For the Ancients and classical philosophy, man as nature and soul is the cause of the human phenomenon. As soon as this integrating principle is abandoned, the human phenomenon becomes a pure plurality. In their diversity without principle, sociological parameters are necessarily equivalent to each other, or whatever the individual sociologist can make out of them. The sociologist fails to perform the essential Socratic questioning which defines precisely the objects he is trying to relate to each other. The sociologist believes he knows what he is doing because he does not know what he believes. “The scholar’s refinements hang on the faith of the coal miner.”


Manent examines Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism as a case in point. Weber admits, in one of the last sentences, modern man’s inability to give religious ideas a significance for culture and national character that they deserve.


The sociologist who observes diverse societies cannot, as a scholar, evaluate the merits of values and place them in a hierarchical order. Manent asserts that the sociological grasp of the world is “necessarily mutilated and confused.” Sociological man cuts himself off from the great Whole and limits himself to a false Whole. “No effort of methodological refinement will succeed in opening the eyes of an intellectual discipline that seeks to interpret the world by bringing into play one or the other, and one and the other, of two definitions of man.”


Manent uses Montesquieu’s listing of climate as one of the things that govern man as an example of the sociological viewpoint. He notes of the sociologist that, whatever his individual nature, he as a sociologist has already prepositioned himself in relation to the question about what is proper to man. He has placed himself in a position of essential superiority by claiming that he knows what is stronger than man’s nature and what determines it. Implicitly, he claims to know more than if he knew man himself. The sociologist as a scholarly spectator “knows” the determinability of the causality of our nature. He affects to have knowledge that is superior to the very nature of man. But is the vaunted superiority in truth a diminishing cage?


The refusal to say or know anything about man except where and when he is the effect of a social cause ought to have discredited the science of man that imposes this refusal on itself as a matter of conscience. Instead, sociological language has become “the official vernacular of modern democracy.” This is because social science plays a decisive role in the deathblow to nature that characterizes our regime. Paradoxically, conceiving man as determined is simultaneous with and involved in the ascendency of the conviction that the true nature of man is to be free. “The sociological viewpoint is constituted the moment the notion of liberty becomes the cornerstone of the human world…”

Manent notes how Montesquieu separates the government of mores from the government of laws and says that, in fact, we can only “do sociology” about mores that are “free” in this sense. More and more slips away from the hold of the political actor until the critical moment when religion severs itself from political law or is sundered from it.


Montesquieu re-conceptualizes counsels of perfection as something akin to taste that those who love perfection may pursue. For both Christian theology and Greek philosophy, the perfection of being is the raison d’etre of every human being, not just a hobby available for a few who like that kind of thing. Montesquieu’s separation ruptures this continuity.


In Europe for the first time, a religion loses strength over a long period of time at the same time that the body politic grows strong, without any new religion appearing to replace the first. In becoming purely political by way of the sociological divisions, the law raises itself irresistibly above the contents of life. How does this happen by reducing the importance of politics to a mere parameter among others? It does so by requiring that all other regimes be considered in another perspective. Because politics is so elevated and so separated in the sociological distillation, all other regimes appear confused. According to Montesquieu, the law extricates itself from confusion with nature by dividing it into two halves. One part emancipates itself from nature and becomes absolute sovereign. The other part reabsorbs itself into human matter which becomes the dense and opaque chain of social causes accessible only to the sociological viewpoint. These two extreme poles can be apprehended in terms of the other.