Then philosophy migrated from every direction to Athens itself, at the center, the wealthiest commercial power and the most famous democracy of the time [ note ].
Socrates, although uninterested in wealth himself, nevertheless was a creature of the marketplace, where there were always people to meet and where he could, in effect, bargain over definitions rather than over prices. Similarly, although Socrates avoided participation in democratic politics, it is hard to imagine his idiosyncratic individualism, and the uncompromising self-assertion of his defense speech, without either wealth or birth to justify his privileges, occurring in any other political context.
If a commercial democracy like Athens provided the social and intellectual context that fostered the development of philosophy, we might expect that philosophy would not occur in the kind of Greek city that was neither commercial nor democratic.
As it happens, the great rival of Athens, Sparta, was just such a city. Sparta had a peculiar, oligarchic constitution, with two kings and a small number of enfranchised citizens. Most of the subjects of the Spartan state had little or no political power, and many of them were helots, who were essentially held as slaves and could be killed by a Spartan citizen at any time for any reason -- annual war was formally declared on the helots for just that purpose.
The whole business of the Spartan citizenry was war. Unlike Athens, Sparta had no nearby seaport. It was not engaged in or interested in commerce. It had no resident alien population like Athens -- there was no reason for foreigners of any sort to come to Sparta.
Spartan citizens were allowed to possess little money, and Spartan men were expected, officially, to eat all their meals at a common mess, where the food was legendarily bad -- all to toughen them up. Spartans had so little to say that the term "Laconic," from Laconia, the environs of Sparta, is still used to mean "of few words" -- as "Spartan" itself is still used to mean simple and ascetic.
While this gave Sparta the best army in Greece, regarded by all as next to invincible, and helped Sparta defeat Athens in the Peloponnesian War , we do not find at Sparta any of the accoutrements otherwise normally associated with Classical Greek civilization: Socrates would have found few takers for his conversation at Sparta -- and it is hard to imagine the city tolerating his questions for anything like the thirty or more years that Athens did. Next to nothing remains at the site of Sparta to attract tourists the nearby Mediaeval complex at Mistra is of much greater interest , while Athens is one of the major tourist destinations of the world.
Indeed, we basically wouldn't even know about Sparta were it not for the historians e. Thucydides and philosophers e. Plato and Aristotle at Athens who write about her. In the end, philosophy made the fortune of Athens, which essentially became the University Town of the Roman Empire only Alexandria came close as a center of learning ; but even Sparta's army eventually failed her, as Spartan hegemony was destroyed at the battle of Leuctra in by the brilliant Theban general Epaminondas, , who killed a Spartan king, Cleombrotus, for the first time since King Leonidas was killed by the Persians at Thermopylae in A story about Thales throws a curious light on the polarization between commercial culture and its opposition.
It was said that Thales was not a practical person, sometimes didn't watch where he was walking, fell into a well according to Plato , was laughed at, and in general was reproached for not taking money seriously like everyone else. Finally, he was sufficiently irked by the derision and criticisms that he decided to teach everyone a lesson. By studying the stars according to Aristotle , he determined that there was to be an exceptionally large olive harvest that year.
Borrowing some money, he secured all the olive presses used to get the oil, of course in Miletus, and when the harvest came in, he took advantage of his monopoly to charge everyone dearly.
After making this big financial killing, Thales announced that he could do this anytime and so, if he otherwise didn't do so and seemed impractical, it was because he simply did not value the money in the first place. This story curiously contains internal evidence of its own falsehood.
One cannot determine the nature of the harvest by studying the stars; otherwise astrologers would make their fortunes on the commodities markets, not by selling their analyses to the public [ note ]. So if Thales did not monopolize the olive presses with the help of astrology, and is unlikely to have done what this story relates, we might ask if he was the kind of impractical person portrayed in the story in the first place.
It would not seem so from all the other accounts we have about him. The tendency of this evidence goes in two directions: First, Thales seems to engage in activities that would be consistent with any other Milesian engaged in business. The story about him going to Egypt, although later assimilated to fabulous stories about Greeks learning the mysteries of the Egyptians who don't seem to have had any such mysteries, and would not have been teaching them to Greeks anyway , is perfectly conformable to what many Greeks actually were doing in Egypt, i.
Indeed, the Greeks had another basic export besides olive oil and wine, and that was warriors. Since the Greek cities fought among themselves all the time, the occasional peace left many of them seeking to continue the wars by other means. Indeed, the kings relied so heavily on Greek mercenaries, and there were so many Greek traders swarming over Egypt, that considerable tensions arose. The Egyptians basically didn't like foreigners, and the Greeks, although awed by Egypt, also found the Egyptians more than a little strange and ridiculous.
Their references to things Egyptian were sometimes mocking: As a colony, Naucratis was a little unusual, existing under the sovereignty of Egypt, and also because several Greek cities joined in the founding.
As it happened, Miletus was one of the founders of Naucratis. The degree of involvement with Miletus in Egypt thus makes it more than probable that Thales, engaged in the ordinary business of his fellow citizens, would have found himself there, probably more than once.
This is then consistent with the story of Thales discovering how to measure the height of the pyramids [ note ] -- and also with the story of Thales learning navigational techniques from the Phoenicians.
Since the Phoenicians were secretive about their affairs, especially to rivals, this reinforces the report, mentioned already, that Thales was of Phoenician derivation. The second insight into Thales's activities comes from the account of his work for King Alyattes of Lydia. A dreamer who goes around falling into wells does not sound like someone to hire for military engineering projects; but that is the account from Herodotus that we have of Thales, who is supposed to have actually diverted a river around behind the Lydian army so that it could avoid too deep a ford.
The war between the Medes and the Lydians, during which Thales accompanied the Lydian king, also provides us with the one solid date that we have for Thales's life.
That is because the climactic battle between the Medes and Lydians, at which Thales would have been present, was stopped by a total eclipse of the sun. The date of the eclipse can now be calculated precisely: The path of the eclipse can even be inspected using computer software on home computers. The eclipse, indeed, was later said to have been predicted by Thales. That is clearly impossible. To predict an eclipse, one must know what an eclipse is -- the moon getting in the way of the sun -- and no Greek knew that for some time to come; and one must have records of eclipses for some centuries to understand the relationship of the moon's orbit to the ecliptic the apparent path of the sun in the sky -- the Greeks had no such records perhaps until the Pythagoreans.
Although Thales could not have predicted the eclipse, it could have been predicted at the time -- by the Babylonians. Consequently, if the story about Thales was not made up out of whole cloth, the only explanation is that he heard, perhaps on his travels, that there was going to be an eclipse. The Babylonian priests were in the habit of publicly announcing astronomical events, as the priests in Jerusalem also announced things like the beginning of the month and occurrence of Passover; but, in the absence of newspapers, radio, wire services, CNN, etc.
If Thales heard of the prediction, and then reported it back home, it may not have been remembered that he merely reported, rather than originated, the story. The overall impression of Thales then is more of a man of affairs, sometimes very serious affairs e. But if that was the case, why would the story about Thales and the olive presses have been told in the first place? Because, indeed, such disdain for money would be characteristic of later Greek philosophy.
Where Socrates was simply unconcerned with the ordinary commercial life of Athens, while he flourished right in the middle of it, philosophers like Plato and Aristotle had become actively hostile to it and removed their own activities to closed schools outside the walls of Athens. Only one great school of philosophy, Stoicism , remained in the marketplace, taking its name from the characteristic open-faced building, often called a "porch," a , stoa, that was to be found there, and in one of which Zeno of Citium established himself.
Plato distrusted commerce, detested democracy, and also came to believe that teaching philosophy to just anyone was dangerous. A tradition of ethical argument arose that questioned whether engaging in trade was even moral, since merchants did not produce their commodities and so did not contribute to their intrinsic value. Some philosophers, indeed, perceived that the value of products also depended on their location, so that trade was useful in moving things to where they were needed or wanted; but then someone like Plato was also distrustful of that service, since a lot of superfluous trade goods could engender "unnecessary desires" and distract people from their duties and more sober pursuits.
But as late as the 5th century, St. Augustine was still advising that trade was not a profession that could be practiced without moral harm. Comparing Athens and Sparta, a philosopher like Plato was unmistakably a Spartan sympathizer. Yet even he realized there was a problem: Plato realized that philosophy had no place there, and he was concerned lest the rulers in his ideal Republic exhibit those characteristics.
So Plato never tried to sell his thought at Sparta. He did entertain a hope, however, that if a tyrant could be "converted" to philosophy, then his ideas would be implemented. During one trip there, however, in , Plato so infuriated Dionysius, evidently, that he was sold into slavery and had to be redeemed by his friends and family. Naturally, he gave up on tyrants after that experience.
So, although Plato had no love for the democracy at Athens, he "voted with his feet," as they say, in its favor. The attitudes in Greek philosophy towards Athens and Sparta, as well as sympathies and actions comparable to those of Plato, can also be seen in the Twentieth Century. Henry Kissinger, President Nixon's foreign policy adviser and later Secretary of State, is supposed to have remarked once, privately, that the United States was liable to lose the Cold War to the Soviet Union in the same way and for the same reasons that Athens lost the Peloponnesian War to Sparta.
While America, presumably, was enervated by the political squabbling characteristic of democracy and by the crass materialism of capitalistic consumerism, the Soviet Union was lean, disciplined i. Spartan , morally upright no pornography or gay rights demonstrations there , unified, and remorselessly purposful [ note ]. At the same time, it was not uncommon in the United States for leftist academics and intellectuals to harbor much admiration for the Soviet Union, or later for Communist China, Cuba, Vietnam, or Nicaragua, despite widespread knowledge of the police state apparatus of those regimes, of the mass murders, slave labor camps, torture, brainwashing, false confessions, etc.
Nevertheless, like Plato, most sympathizers voted with their feet to stay in the United States [ note ]. Despite the Fall of Communism, much disdain for commercial democracy remains.
As Greek philosophy never came to appreciate the social, political, and economic context in which it originated, grew, and thrived, many modern intellectuals continue to despise the very kind of society in which they are uniquely to be found -- uniquely in great measure because the kind of society they evidently want would actually not allow them to express their own opinions, or to subsidize such expression so lavishly, either at state expense e.
So, although the Soviet Union is gone, like Sparta, and its vast experiment in common ownership and economic planning failed utterly, as well as being drenched in the blood of its victims, one would hardly know this listening to contemporary leftists and Marxists. The planning of a command economy still sounds like the wave of the future to them.
Ironically, Marx himself may provide the best key to this phenomenon: Intellectuals may like the idea of command and control for a society and for an economy because they see themselves in control.
Not surprisingly, Plato thinks that the problem of politics is that the wrong people are in charge, and the rulers in his ideal Republic are people like him. Intellectuals have a "class interest" which means a self-interest -- for people who otherwise say they detest "self-interest" in promoting this idea. They see their own lofty achievements as entitling them to the rule of others -- a self-interest now described by the theory of rent-seeking.
In this way, the crypto-socialist economist John Kenneth Galbraith fulminated against advertising as producing, just as Plato would have said, "unnecessary desires. This kind of arrogance will soon probably produce the prohibition of tobacco, as it disastrously produced Prohibition of alcohol in the 20's.
But one of the clearest lessons of the Twentieth Century is that this self-serving fantasy of rule by Academia is the most bitter folly: Absolute power, once unleashed, slips from the hands of timid professors and is seized by ruthless monsters like Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Castro, etc. The intellectuals get silenced, killed, or, almost worse, become fawning mouthpieces for tyranny. Too many intellectuals were already mouthpieces for tyranny, even when they didn't need to be, as when the New York Times reporter, Walter Duranty, received a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on Stalinist Russia, even while he was helping to suppress the truth about Stalin's terror famine in the Ukraine -- the starving to death of millions of peasants perhaps 5 million just because they had been too successful on their private farms.
Success made them class enemies, "Kulaks. Indeed, it is a distressing and sobering new truth of history, little suspected before our time, that a vast educated class may, by its very nature, be hostile to freedom, democracy, and the creation of wealth for everyone -- though China was similarly ill served by the scholar Mandarins.
The truth is not enough. As Thomas Jefferson said, "All know the influence of interest on the mind of man, and how unconsciously his judgment is warped by that influence.