Sucking up to the Sophists:

Novack on the origins of materialism

by Pete Brown
(from Communist Voice #6, Jan. 15, 1996)

. Review of The Origins of Materialism: The evolution of a scientific view of the world, by George Novack. Published by Pathfinder Press. First edition, 1965.

. George Novack is a theoretician associated with the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party. I picked up this book at SWP's Pathfinder Bookstore in Detroit to provide some background for our local study of Marxist philosophy. I found the book interesting. It does a pretty good job of introducing the elements of a materialist world view and distinguishing that from an idealist world view. Novack stresses that materialism arose gradually. It didn't spring forth with a ready made solution to all theoretical problems. Materialist philosophy arose in conjunction with developments in society, technology and science. As progress continued in all these areas, materialist philosophy also made headway. But when the ancient (Greco-Roman) society went into decline, so did the materialist world view. Idealist philosophy, transmuted into the Christian religion, then came to dominate the Mediterranean world.

. Novack's book covers the era from 600 B.C. to 200 A.D., from the time of Thales, the first philosopher, to the Latin satirist Lucian. A positive feature of the book is that it brings out that materialism first arose as a new, oppositional current of thought, swimming against the tide of magic and religion that held humanity in mental bondage. Novack explains how the new world view and the old had some apparent similarities, but in fact were quite different:

. "Homer had attributed the origin of all things to the god Oceanus. Thales, the founder of materialism, taught that water is the origin of everything. There is something alike in these methods of explanation since both connect the beginning of things with this liquid. But there is a world of difference between the two.
. "In his theory the philosopher dispensed with any magical, mythical or allegorical agents. His primal substance is a visible part of the experienced world, a purely natural element. Between the god Oceanus as the first parent, and water, the physical thing, as the basis of explanation, is the decisive shift from animism to materialism, from religion to philosophy.
. "This same contrast stands out in respect to the Babylonian and Egyptian legends of the origins of things. Thales agreed with these that everything was once water. But he maintained, in opposition to them, that the earth and everything else had been formed out of water by purely natural processes, similar to the silting up of deltas at the mouth of rivers." (pp. 86-87)

. Novack surveys the Greek materialist thinkers -- the first "substance" philosophers, the dialectician Heraclitus, and the atomists. Then he describes the counterattack of the idealist philosophers, culminating in the Athenian school -- Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Novack does a good job of clarifying the two basic trends in philosophy, and gives quotes from ancient philosophers that show they, too, were conscious of this. This clarification helps in sorting through the bewildering variety of ancient philosophies.

. Novack also ties philosophical developments to social and political history. This is fairly sketchy, and instead of settling all questions only whets the appetite for more information. But what information he gives seems accurate. For example, he clarifies the three major political parties in 5th-century B.C. Athens, and that Socrates and Plato were affiliated with the conservative party.

. Novack brings in some material from disciplines outside philosophy to show the rise of a materialist world view among the Greeks. Especially interesting is a 20-page chapter devoted to medicine and history, with quotes from the Hippocratic writings and from Thucydides. This makes the issue of materialism vs. idealism much more concrete, since it shows the importance of scientific knowledge. When it comes to having a correct diagnosis of some deadly disease, and having it in time to effect a cure -- this shows the importance of having a materialist analysis of anatomy, physiology, disease history, and so forth. And the same goes for pressing political issues. Thucydides wrote his history at a time of great crisis in Athenian politics, when its citizens were striving to understand the earth-shaking events going on around them. This compelled Thucydides to set aside myths and chauvinist "cheerleading"-type stories, and to try to clarify historical events in a realistic way.

A balanced judgment of idealism?

. Another notable feature of Novack's book is his attempt to give a balanced judgment on the big guns of idealism -- Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Novack is dissatisfied with what he considers a narrow, sectarian approach to these philosophers by some people who consider themselves Marxists. He mentions Bukharin's book on historical materialism, and a book by B. Farrington on Greek Science, as guilty in this regard. He emphasizes that the idealist philosophers and their schools made significant contributions to science and culture, and they should not be classed as simply reactionaries or religious fanatics.

. The trouble is, in trying to do justice to the idealists, Novack gets disoriented. For example, he emphasizes that there's a lot of difference between a mystic or animist, a "primitive" religious person, and a sophisticated intellectual like Plato. Plato developed religious views into theology, which Novack considers a logically integrated system with theses, arguments, etc. rather than simply emotional or mystical guesses. Of course Novack considers theology only a pseudo-science. Nonetheless, he says, there's a lot of difference between someone who argues rationally about religion, logically examining different points of view (as, he says, Socrates does in Plato's Dialogues), and a simple-minded mystic or animist. Mystic irrationalism is missing from these great theoreticians, according to Novack.

. But in fact mysticism is a recurrent theme in Plato's Dialogues. It dominates "Symposium," a discussion of Beauty. It comes up in "Republic," where the philosopher-kings have a mystical vision of Goodness. It's present in Socrates' discussions of immortality, the soul, and God. Novack attributes the mysticism of the Platonic school to the neo-Platonists of a later, degenerate era, but in fact there's a heavy strain of mysticism in Plato from the beginning. Plato is also an animist; even in his last dialogue, "Laws", he insists that all motion in the universe is generated by souls.

. It's also misleading to characterize Socrates, the chief character in the Dialogues, as a neutral examiner of different doctrines. This is the persona adopted by this character in Plato's writings, but clearly it's just a big put-on. Socrates knows exactly where he wants every argument to go, in every dialogue; and he manipulates the so-called "scientific discussions" to go in that direction.

Is idealism logical?

. In general, Novack overstates the logicality, or rationality, of the idealists. He warns us not to restrict rationality to people sympathetic with the lower classes. Perfectly reasonable people, he says, can still be on opposite sides of the class struggle and develop logically coherent systems to justify their stand. This doesn't mean they would agree. They will be on opposite sides, though each side has a logically coherent body of arguments backing it up. But in arguing this way in defense of the idealists, Novack credits them with being perfectly logical and coherent, even though of course he will say they expressed the ruling class line in their politics. This makes it sound like one's general world view could be set apart in a logically tight compartment separate from one's politics.

. Marxism teaches that ideologies are a superstructural reflection of the economic base in society. Of course any thinker who limits himself to a narrow range of observations may produce a coherent body of ideas, giving a correct and materialist analysis, even though he also has some idealist prejudices in his views of other things. But when someone tries to generate a general ideology covering society, ethics, the human relation to nature, etc., such a general world view inevitably reflects the social base. This means, for ruling class ideologists, that it inevitably reflects an attempt to justify exploitation and the division into classes.

. Novack covers this up. For him Plato is a perfectly logical metaphysician who was also a political conservative. His politics were backward, but he made "important contributions" to logic in developing his metaphysics. Novack obscures the fact that giving a conservative defense of ruling-class politics actually limits the extent of one's rationality; and when one is trying to generate very broad, world-embracing justifications, these limitations inevitably generate contradictions, logical problems at the heart of one's world-view.

Contradictions in Plato

. Plato himself recognized these contradictions. For example, in his dialogue "Parmenides" the character Zeno generates a number of arguments against Plato's metaphysics, among them the famous "third man" argument. These are killer arguments for the character Socrates in that dialogue. He admits he cannot answer them. Yet, bullheadedly, he insists on continuing to believe in his otherworldly realm of ideal Forms (Truth, Beauty, Goodness, Justice, etc.). And why? Because, Socrates says, he wants to. It makes him feel better to believe in this "higher world." This is the mystic irrationalism that lies at the base of Socrates' philosophy, which Novack considers a paragon of logic.

. So Plato recognized the contradictions in his own metaphysics. Yet he persisted in believing and promoting it. This doesn't seem like the actions of a perfectly "logical" truth-seeker. What it reveals, instead, is that Plato had deep ideological motives for hanging onto his metaphysics. These motives are obvious to a Marxist: Plato's realm of Forms, relative to the material world, is an ideological reflection of the ruling class and its relation to the lower classes, those engaged in material production. Plato insisted on believing in the reality, eternity and legitimacy of such a realm, even if it involved him in logical absurdities.

. In fact Plato's writings abound in contradictions. Novack himself quotes Plato's argument for immortality, that the soul is simple and cannot change. Far from being a "neutral investigator," the character Socrates insists on defining the soul as "simple" and "unchanging." Novack praises Socrates for developing the science of definitions, but in fact there's nothing scientific about this procedure -- Socrates is simply bulling over objections to his views by defining terms the way he wants. When he wants immortality, the soul is "unchanging." But of course he also wants to emphasize the importance of the soul, and attributes to it all the intellectual faculties -- learning, thinking, making decisions, etc. And to emphasize that the soul "rules" the material body, he insists that the soul also animates the body, provides it with life. So when he wants to show that the soul is of universal importance and rulership, he stresses all the things it does. (But aren't these changes?) But then when he wants to emphasize its eternity, he says it "never changes." This doesn't add up at all.

. It only makes sense if we recall that the soul, like the Forms it contemplates, is another reflection of the ruling class. Plato wants to argue both that this class is of universal import, animating all other classes and giving them all proper guidance, and that this class is "simple" -- i.e., small, select, an elite that is necessarily "unchanging" (no room for social mobility here).Again, it's a contradiction in his metaphysics. And it's not just a logical slip on Plato's part, something he could cover over with another of his tricky definitions. It's an inescapable feature of his metaphysics, because his metaphysics reflects his class outlook.

. The same sort of contradiction extends to Plato's theory of knowledge, which is a theory of the soul accessing the realm of Forms. In "Meno" Plato wants to emphasize the omnipresence of Forms, that they're present as innate ideas in everyone's mind. So he argues that even slaves have ready access to the world of Forms, can carry through mathematical reasoning, etc. But in "Republic", when he wants to argue for rule by an intellectual elite, he conveniently forgets this argument; instead, his view is that some people are by nature suited for accessing Forms better than others. But didn't Plato say the soul was simple? Then how could it be different in different individuals? Again, none of this adds up. What it shows is Plato trying to argue for both (a) the omnipresence, omniscience, and omnipotence of the ruling class -- it must guide and direct everything; it must be the prime beneficiary of all material production, and to justify this must be considered the animator of all material motion; but also arguing for (b) the ruling class is totally divorced from material production, doesn't soil its hands, is numerically very small, restricted to an elitist core, etc. This is a reflection and conservative justification of Athenian society, not an independent, logical development of theory.

Sucking up to the Sophists

. A surprising feature of Novack's book is his enthusiasm for the Sophists, who were itinerant paid philosophers in Socrates' day. Sophists were hired by rising young politicians to teach them how to argue any side to any question. And they developed a world view that corresponded with this occupation. They taught that all truth is relative; that human interests override attempts at science; and that "might makes right" in politics. This was a cynical, manipulative philosophy. It roughly corresponded to the pragmatism of 20th-century American philosophers like William James and John Dewey.

. But Novack only sees a positive side to this school. He says they were humanistic, man-oriented, and unbelievers in the old religion. They were not impressed by old traditions, rituals, and beliefs; and they helped undermine conservative values. This is what earned them the bitter enmity of Plato. Novack even guesses that some of them must have played progressive roles in Athenian politics.

. Trying to orient the Sophists in their social and political milieu helps us understand their role and come to a balanced view of them. But I still think it's stretching things for Novack to classify the Sophists as part of the materialist trend in philosophy, or to guess that they were politically progressive. It's common for philosophical skeptics and relativists to take a conservative stand in politics, their argument being, "Since no one knows what's right, one shouldn't stand for anything or try to bring about anything new; just go with the status quo." Some extreme relativists of recent times, such as William James, were quite backward politically; and James even promoted religion on a cynical pragmatic basis: "If it makes you feel better, go ahead and believe."

. Even if the Sophists were politically liberal pragmatists like John Dewey, that wouldn't justify Novack's gushing enthusiasm for them. Perhaps the key to this can be found in a footnote on p.202, where he expresses enthusiasm for John Dewey's "accent upon morality and social problems", and describes Dewey's philosophy simply as "the philosophical instrument of the Progressive movement in the United States." For a Marxist, the fact that Dewey took an interest in social problems and played an active role in politics makes it important to clarify the difference between liberal pragmatist "humanism" and Marxism. But instead of trying to clarify this difference, Novack only expresses enthusiasm for Dewey's stand and thus covers over the difference. This betrays a tendency to suck up to the liberal professorial stratum in U.S. society, a stratum that roughly corresponds to the Sophists of 5th-century B.C. Athens.

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