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Hypatia: The Last Academic – Part One

by February 1, 2019

By Mary Naples, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
They came to her by land. They came to her by sea. They came to her from the farthest reaches of the Roman Empire and they came to her from close by. Amongst the literati, Hypatia (355-415 CE), acclaimed philosopher and leading mathematician, was a rock star.
She was bold, she was beautiful, but most of all, she was brilliant. Her students, many of them adherents in the burgeoning new religion, Christianity, adored her and flocked to hear her every word. Congregating not only in the classroom but in the public square and even at her home—just to hear her speak. Hers was the school all serious students throughout the empire wished to attend. But students weren’t the only ones who were captivated by her brilliance. Amongst academics from near and from far, she was the one with whom they sought council.
Portrait of Hypatia

This fictional portrait of Hypatia by Jules Maurice Gaspard, originally the illustration for Elbert Hubbard’s 1908 fictional biography, has now become, by far, the most iconic and widely reproduced image of her.

But how did Hypatia, a woman in a deeply misogynist society, earn such high acclaim? By the tender age of thirty, Hypatia had become a legend within academic circles for fusing the two apparently disparate disciples of mathematics and philosophy together in the classroom. Although well-versed in both disciplines, academics tended to be trained as either philosophers or mathematicians and had schools in one discipline or the other but not in both. Hypatia’s school was the exception.
Weaned on mathematics by her father, Theon (335 CE-405 CE), the foremost mathematician in Alexandria, Hypatia would become his best pupil even assisting him in the seminal writings of Euclid and Ptolemy. In fact, Hypatia was so gifted, that her father ceded his school to her—retiring at only fifty-five years of age—when it became apparent that she surpassed him in ability. But for all her mathematical acumen, Hypatia had a strong affinity for philosophy which she believed led to the highest truth. Her robust background in mathematics and philosophy made her school a perfect venue for students who wanted to learn how the two disciplines were unified.
Ptolemaic System

Hypatia is known to have edited at least Book III of Ptolemy’s Almagest, which supported the geocentric model of the universe shown in this diagram.

But it’s important to have an understanding of what was meant by mathematics and philosophy in ancient times. Today, what two disciplines are more at odds than mathematics and philosophy? Though one is considered practical and useful, the other is considered metaphysical and without merit in our highly technical world. While both were thought to be sacrosanct by the ancients, a debate ensued between scholars over which of the two disciplines led to the highest truth.
Mathematics, which encompassed arithmetic, geometry, algebra, as well as astronomy, was irrefutable and as such was considered sacred and a path to a higher being or what the ancients termed “the One.” Meanwhile philosophy, a less demonstrable field, was a study employed to instill honor, wisdom and integrity within an individual. The philosophical goal being that this moral code could impart a oneness with the divine. Thus, the goal of both mathematics and philosophy was a transcendent affinity with the sacred, making them both more akin to our notion of religion.
Conic Sections

Hypatia wrote a commentary on Apollonius of Perga’s treatise on conic sections, but this commentary is no longer extant.

Neoplatonism, the type of speculative philosophy that Hypatia taught, espoused a renunciation of the material world in favor of spirituality. Neoplatonists believed that the materiality of the body and the world in general are things to be overcome. Hypatia herself was exemplar of this creed, choosing to remain celibate so she could focus her energies on scholarship and the satisfaction of the incorporeal world. One famous vignette has her thwarting the unwelcome advances of a student by showing him one of her menstruation rags, quipping “Is this what you love, young man?” Unsurprisingly, his desire for her was quelled.
Hypatia’s severe rejection of his advances illustrates how fundamental repudiation of the material world was to Neoplatonism. In this way, it was a philosophy not inconsistent with the essential tenets of Christianity. On account of this compatibility, many of Hypatia’s students were both Neoplatonists and Christian. Although a pagan, Hypatia was nonpartisan and endowed all her students to honor and respect one another and others in the world, regardless of religious affiliation.
Hypatia illustration

The play Hypatia, performed at the Haymarket Theatre in January 1893, was based on the novel by Charles Kingsley.

Forasmuch as peaceful coexistence was the order of the day in Hypatia’s school, Alexandria was a tinderbox with disparate factions in conflict with one another; Christian against pagan and Jew, orthodox against heterodox, sectarian against non-sectarian and finally religious authority against civil authority.
To Be Continued….

The American Cincinnatus

by January 29, 2019

by Kayla Kane, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
If you want to study George Washington, then you should first know Lucius Quinctus Cincinnatus of the early Roman republic. Rendered a cultural icon in his own era and indeed today as well, Cincinnatus achieved fame through unconventional means. Although he provided selfless service to his Republic during times of crisis, the classical hero is most storied for his tendency to surrender his power once the crisis had been eliminated.
Rome became a republic in 509 BC, however, at certain times a dictator was appointed in order to make quick decisions and defend the state at war. Livy reflects on Cincinnatus’ military service in his lengthy history of Rome Ab Urba Conditia. Livy recalls an iconic moment in his country’s history: “They sent for consul Nautius; in whom when there seemed to be insufficient protection, and they were determined that a dictator should be appointed to retrieve their embarrassed affairs, Lucius Quinctus Cincinnatus is appointed by universal consent.”
Sculpture of Cincinnatus

The sculpture of Cincinnatus in Vienna’s Schönbrunn Garden

As a retiree, Cincinnatus lived at the bank of the Tiber river and tended to domestic duties on his farm. However, when twice Rome was called to fight against a foreign invasion (in 458 BC and 439 BC), Cincinnatus suspended his retirement to serve his treasured Republic.
The historian Rob Hardy describes the unique situation; “Cincinnatus was living in retirement on his four-acre farm outside of Rome and representatives found him in his field. When he learned of the emergency facing Rome, he left his plow standing in the field, bid farewell to his wife, and led the Romans to victory against the Aequians. Fifteen days after assuming the dictatorship, Cincinnatus resigned and returned to his plow.”
Painting of Cincinnatus

Juan Antonio Ribera’s c. 1806 Cincinnatus Leaves the Plough to Dictate Laws to Rome

While this selfless, self-sacrificing service was worthy of universal recognition, what rendered Cincinnatus a universal legend came after this military service. Having assumed victory over the Aequians, citizens wished to make Cincinnatus their king. Rather than accepting this famed title, Cincinnatus refused, and instead retreated to his farm. In so doing, Cincinnatus maintained Republican values rather than allowing Rome to descend back into a monarchy.
This brings us to our main point: the anti-monarchical leader of America’s infancy, George Washington, was lauded for his leadership tendencies similar to those of Cincinnatus.
Sculpture of Cincinnatus in Ohio

The statue of Cincinnatus at his plough in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The American public has long regarded George Washington as a champion of the common good. As the first American president, Washington became a pioneer in limiting the presidential reign to two terms, allowing the office to evolve with popular opinion.
He, like Cincinnatus, was renowned for his voluntary surrender of power, particularly in three incidences: his retirement from the British Army, the Continental Army, and the Presidency. Washington became a hero in both public service and in his ability to resign when the service had been fulfilled.
Illustration of Washington

Major Washington, 1754, Hadden, James, 1845-1923 – Washington’s expeditions (1753-1754) and Braddock’s expedition (1755) with history of Tom Fausett, the slayer of General Edward Braddock Page 9

With hindsight of the Roman Republic guiding politicians of the revolutionary era, many historians credit Washington’s devout public focus to Lucius Quinctus Cincinnatus, his classical counterpart. Having presided over the American Society of the Cincinnati, it is evident that Washington was knowledgeable of Cincinnatus’ history as a retired Roman consul and war hero. Due to this knowledge, Washington not only knew the Greco-Roman classics, but utilized them for the sake of political achievement, the common good, and personal reputation.
Like Cincinnatus, Washington’s most famed quality was not his accomplishments as a statesman, but rather, his refusal to accept further political honors beyond his targeted feats. It is thus fitting that Washington’s retirement became a symbol of his self-sacrificing virtue as a political figure.
1759 marked Washington’s first “retirement,” in which he left his military career from the French-Indian Wars and began his life as a planter in Mount Vernon. After serving as commander-in-chief of the Virginia forces, Washington first “retired” at the ripe age of 26. Seeing that a sustainable career in the British army was not open to him, he decided that he must make his way in private life.
Painting of Washington as a Soldier

“Washington the Soldier” Painting of Lt. Col. Washington on horseback during the Battle of the Monongahela — Reǵnier, 1834

It is critical to observe that Washington’s initial withdrawal from public service was uniquely unlike his penultimate and ultimate retirements. Therefore, it is perhaps logical to separate this young, uncharacteristic resignation from the collective narrative of Washington’s retirement. Washington’s initial retirement lacks the motives of Roman virtue that his other two embody, which brings into question whether historians should consider the end of Washington’s first career a “retirement” at all.
Washington’s second retirement seeks and deserves far more recognition than his first. This iconic resignation followed Washington’s role as the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, from which he resigned, accepting no pay, prize, or office. The revolutionary historian W.W. Abbot states that, “this act of retirement was perhaps the single most important action of his career.” Washington’s exit with no reward shocked the American and European consciousness while giving America a symbol, one of unity, with which the nation could define itself.
Painting of Washington as a Colonel

Colonel George Washington, by Charles Willson Peale, 1772

Through this retirement, Washington exemplified the quintessential, selfish selflessness of his political career. Washington accepted his role as a symbol, and furthermore sought not to overstep political necessity. As Abbot aptly states, “It made the Cincinnatus of the west a great man: great in the eyes of the world, in the eyes of his countrymen, and, in a very real sense, his own.”
Washington’s selfishness came from his satisfaction with his idealized image, an icon even in “his own” eyes. Despite the public benevolence with which he retired, Washington was playing a typical, self-righteous revolutionary role of classical emulation.
It is impossible to fully comprehend Washington’s final retirement without an understanding of his farewell address. He defines patriotism along the criteria of his own actions. The president stresses, “I have the consolation to believe that, while choice and prudence invite me to quit the political scene, patriotism does not forbid it.” Like his retirement itself, Washington’s farewell address was a highly-calculated testament to his noble reputation, one which, he hoped, his country would remember past his presidency.
Following his farewell address, Washington’s third retirement was an anxiety-ridden pursuit unlike any other American political undertaking. Although Washington left his eight year presidency to return to Mount Vernon, he remained politically engaged in the background. Ignorant to what the role of ex-president should entail, Washington requested the secretary of war, James McHenry, to notify him of developments in US international relations.
The ex-president, via a letter, pleaded, “Let me pray you have the goodness to communicate to me occasionally, such matters that are interesting, and not contrary to the rules of your official duty to disclose, we get so many details in the Gazettes, and of such different complexions, that it is impossible to know what credence to give any of them.”
Painting of Washington as Commander of the Army

General Washington Commander of the Continental Army

If Washington cared so deeply about America’s foreign policy, why did he retire from public office? The historian John H. Rhodehamel precisely answers, “[Washington] was well aware of the effect that his resignation would have. He was trying to live up to the age’s image of a classical disinterested patriot who devotes his life to his country, and he knew at once that he had acquired fame as a modern Cincinnatus.”
Seeing the positive effect of power withdrawal from Roman history and from his penultimate retirement, Washington set a noble precedent through his resignation. Thus, the two-term tradition was born out of Washington’s desire to become a symbol of American democracy, one in which leaders release the reins of power so that the office might evolve with public interests.
The precedential nature of Washington’s role in the revolutionary period called for a mentor, ancient and renowned, to guide his political decisions. Cincinnatus became just that: a moral compass and an exemplary reputation: a symbol of what Washington could become. Cincinnatus became the archetypal leader that Washington set out to emulate, and drawing on the Roman statesman, Washington took executive actions to benefit the common good.
Although Washington’s benevolent intentions were undoubtedly present, there existed a crucial self-interested nature to these acts. Washington believed that in order to reach a reputation of similar caliber to the classics, one must nearly become a classical figure… And clearly he did.

Epicurus – Proto-Scientist, Secular-Saint, and Sophisticated Hedonist

by January 18, 2019

By Jacob Bell, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
There is probably no other ancient Greek philosopher who has been so misunderstood in our modern era. Nowadays his philosophy is associated with excess and drinking and food apps… but the reality is, he preached the exact opposite. Indeed, his name should connote moderation, science, atheism, death…and happiness?
Who are we talking about? None other than Epicurus.
Epicurus Bust

Bust of Epicurus

A radical thinker of his time, Epicurus was a philosopher of the Hellenistic period, living from 341-271 BCE. Living in accordance with his philosophy, which came to be known as Epicureanism, he lived a rather simple, peaceful, and relaxing life. He utilized his garden as a classroom, and relied heavily on donations to survive. Aside from the occasional college party, Epicurus and his students lived mostly on bread and water.
The Epicureans adopted empiricism as their theory of knowledge and atomistic materialism as their theory of the cosmos. They developed an egoistic hedonism as their theory of ethical values, and aside from specific cases, the Epicureans ignored politics and valued friendship above all other human relations, even familial ones. If you ever thought that friends were god’s apology for family, then you might actually be a follower of Epicurus.
Epicurus developed his philosophy with a practical aim in mind, and so employed the use of logic and rationality as a means to happiness, rather than as tools for uncovering the truth for truth’s sake. Rejecting the importance of mathematics and purely scientific pursuits, he was interested in logic insofar as it served physics, and interested in physics insofar as it served ethics. Epicurus viewed many philosophers with a feeling of antipathy, denounced religious dogmatism, railed against the skeptics, and argued for a secular world. In sum, it’s surprising that he didn’t meet the same ending as Socrates!
Death of Socrates

The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David, 1787

For the Epicureans, the senses are fundamental and at the basis of our knowledge. Senses have dominion over reason, because reason relies first on sense perception. We can only reason about something once we have gathered data from our senses about the thing in question. According to Epicurean theory, we should then judge this information according to our feelings or passion, and we should choose that which gives us pleasure, and avoid that which gives us pain.
Does this mean that we have a justified theory of excessive drinking and eating? Don’t grab for that second bottle of wine just yet. Although Epicurus outlines a hedonistic ethic, it is a sophisticated theory that encourages moderation. After all, we won’t be happy tomorrow when we wake up to a throbbing head, sour stomach, and purple lips… especially if there is photographic evidence.
First identifying with Aristotle’s notion that happiness is the highest good, Epicurus then couples this with the idea of pleasure, concluding that pleasure is the only manner from which to obtain happiness. Epicurus’ view of choosing the best pleasure consists in contemplating the future and choosing the option that will provide sustaining contentment and absence of pain. We must look to the future to determine what will be the cause of more pleasure and less pain. With this in mind, in the final analysis, we will gain more pleasure from moderating our intake of wine, and we will endure less pain by going to the dentist and getting that toothache taken care of… you know, before you need that root canal.
Epicurus qupte
Just as important to the Epicurean ethic is a reduction of desires. If we want less, we will be happy with less. The Epicurean path to happiness is not a result of an excess of external pleasures or material goods. Live simply, and without an excess of wealth or luxury, says Epicurus, and with that proclamation he very well may lay claim to the title of “first western minimalist!” Moderation, temperance, and cheerfulness are Epicurean virtues; unbridled luxury and feverish desire Epicurean vices.
In a seeming contradiction to a hedonistic ethic, Epicurus believed that it was more pleasurable to do a kindness for someone rather than receive one. He also held that we should attempt friendship with all of mankind, and if this is not possible, at least don’t make enemies, and if this fails, and we make an enemy, avoid interacting with them.
Friendship was the highest human relationship for Epicurus because it provided security, tranquility, and pleasure. He also urged against the rat race, because a race for wealth, fame, or power would destroy tranquility and peace by placing the contestant at the mercy of chance, public opinion, and disrupt the enjoyment of friendship. For similar reasons, a man who seeks to be happy should stay out of politics unless he has such an urge to a political career that he couldn’t be happy without it… and let’s be honest… those people probably shouldn’t be politicians in the first place.
Friendship

To Epicurus, as well as Aristotle, Friendship is an important key to happiness

Being concerned with the pragmatic value of philosophy, and against truth for truth’s sake, it may again seem contradicting that Epicurus held so many proto-scientific views. He adopted, with a few changes, Democritus’ atomistic theory of the cosmos. Epicurus believed that the universe was made up of the void (empty space) and an infinite number of small indivisible bits of matter in motion called atoms. These bits of matter make up the world by coming together to form the objects of the world, including us. Because of this, Epicurus also believed that the mind could be found in the body, and he argued against the idea of an immaterial soul that might live on once our body has died.
He sought to discredit the mythological concepts of the world and its creation, and so proposed a purely mechanical explanation for our world coming into existence. Through the use of mechanical and atomic explanations of the natural world, he denied any interference of gods within human affairs. He also claimed that our world is just one of an infinite number of worlds, and that worlds come into existence, grow for awhile, decline, and eventually perish. With this, Epicurus became one of the first proponents of the multi-verse theory!
Now, you might be wondering, how do these theories align with the idea of happiness being the highest good man can achieve? How can these theories help us live a better, happier life? After all, Epicurus has seemed to abandon the idea of god as a creator, the immaterial-eternal soul, and the idea of an afterlife.
Epicurus quote death
Well, for Epicurus, the existence of gods interfering in our world, and the possibility of punishment after death, was a great source of anxiety. Therefore, by justifying the world without need of a god, soul, or afterlife, he believed that he would relieve himself and others of this anxiety. Furthermore, he argued that death is nothing to be fearful about, because it does not concern us. Defending this notion, Epicurus stated that, “death is nothing to us; for that which is dissolved is devoid of sensation, and that which is devoid of sensation is nothing to us”.
Imagine the eternity before your birth… the eternity of nothingness. That doesn’t seem scary; you didn’t experience that nothingness. That same kind of eternity is what comes after death, according to Epicurus, and so we shouldn’t be afraid of that either.
In addressing his peers, Epicurus announces the benefits of his secular system of philosophy: “…They anticipate or have forebodings of the eternal terror related in the myths, or even fear the absence of sensation in death as if it concerned them… But tranquility belongs to him who frees himself of all these misconceptions and has a continuous remembrance of the whole and the most important truths.”
And here, as I address you all, these most important truths, more than any food app or extra bottle of wine, can give us true happiness.

Xenophon: A Biography of the Historian, Poet and Military Strategist

by December 15, 2018

By Eldar Balta, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Xenophon’s Early life
Not much is known of Xenophon from his early years, except that he was son of Gryllus, a wealthy citizen of Erchia, a suburb of Athens. He was born circa 430 BC, and not much is known of his life up to 401 BC. This is when he was, according to his work Anabasis, invited by his friend Proxenus to join the military expedition…one that marked his life and lifetime work. He became a mercenary for Cyrus the Younger against his elder brother, King Artaxerxes II of Persia.
There was, however, one small problem. He was not aware of that fact.
Statue of Xenophon

Xenophon in front of the Austrian Parliament Building in Vienna

Xenophon’s Career

Xenophon and his Ten Thousand men
This endeavor was hugely influential for both Xenophon, as well as military leaders throughout history. In the end, it provided important lessons on military logistical operations, flanking maneuvers, feints, attacks in specifics and retreat, in general.
Why retreat, you ask? Well, mostly because that’s exactly what the Greeks did. They were expecting a much easier obstacle, a Persian satrap named Tissaphernes (do not forget this name, we will come back to him later). Instead, they faced a great Persian army. Moreover, soon into the expedition the main financial and logistical provider, Cyrus, was killed in the middle of a battle. The chain of events got even worse when shortly thereafter, Greek leaders, generals, and captains were invited to a peace conference… where they were betrayed and executed.
So, the Greek army was left with a simple plan. One, retreat. Two, have Xenophon lead the way back home.
Map of Xenophon's retreat

The Route of Xenophon’s Ten Thousand Men

Anabasis, one of Xenophon’s greatest works, is where you can read in detail his struggles and strategies. This epic adventure is the reason why “the centuries since have devised nothing to surpass the genius of this warrior”, as quotes military historian Theodore Ayrault Dodge. We, however, will cut the story short here and say that he got his men safely back home.
Tissaphernes – a name we told you not to forget
Tissaphernes was a Persian satrap and a historical knot that entangles many individual destinies as well as the regions Persia, Athens, and Sparta, among others.
First, he got in between two brothers – Persian King Artaxerxes II and his younger sibling Cyrus the Younger (a price he will pay with his life to their mother Parysatis). After first betraying Cyrus, and later killing him at the Battle of Cunaxa, Tissaphernes pursued Xenophon and his Ten Thousand men in retreat with a vast force. We already said that Xenophon brought his men home, but Tissaphernes became an enemy of both Sparta and Athens because of all the events mentioned above.
Now, it’s important to remember at this moment that Athens and Sparta were not particularly friendly to each other… indeed, they were sworn enemies. Despite this, Xenophon of Athens (as he was called) did not hide his profound admiration for Sparta and Spartan leaders (Agesilaus II and Lysander, in particular).
Coin of Tissaphernes

Coinage of Phokaia, Ionia, circa 478-387 BC. Possible portrait of Satrap Tissaphernes, with satrapal headress.

But Tissaphernes was the main reason why Xenophon came to respect the military wisdom of the Spartans. While he was seeking refuge from Tissaphernes, he noticed the respect Spartan leaders had for one another while successfully fighting the Persian satrap in Asia Minor.
So much, in fact, that he mentioned them extensively in his works Anabasis, Agesilaus, Polity of the Lacedaemonians, and Hellenica.
Excerpt from Agesilaus, Xenophon:
«It would be hard to discover, I imagine, anyone who in the prime of manhood was as formidable to his foes as Agesilaus when he had reached the limit of mortal life. Never, I suppose, was there a foe-man whose removal came with a greater sense of relief to the enemy than that of Agesilaus, though a veteran when he died. Never was there a leader who inspired stouter courage in the hearts of fellow-combatants than this man with one foot planted in the grave. Never was a young man snatched from a circle of loving friends with tenderer regret than this old graybeard.»
illustration of Xenophon's friend

Spartan King Agesilaus

Excerpt from Hellenica, Xenophon shows the relationship between the Spartan Rulers, in particular the king Lysander and king Agesilaus:
“But here was Lysander back again. Everyone recognized him and flocked to him with petitions for one favour or another, which he was to obtain for them from Agesilaus. A crowd of suitors danced attendance on his heels and formed so conspicuous a retinue that Agesilaus, anyone would have supposed, was the private person and Lysander the king.
«All this was maddening to Agesilaus, as was presently plain. As to the rest of the Thirty, jealousy did not suffer them to keep silence, and they put it plainly to Agesilaus that the super-regal splendor in which Lysander lived was a violation of the constitution.
«So when Lysander took upon himself to introduce some of his petitioners to Agesilaus, the latter turned them a deaf ear. There being aided and abetted by Lysander was sufficient; he sent them away discomfited.
«At length, as time after time things turned out contrary to his wishes, Lysander himself perceived the position of affairs. He now no longer suffered that crowd to follow him and gave those who asked him help in anything plainly to understand that they would gain nothing, but rather be losers, by his intervention.
«But being bitterly annoyed at the degradation put upon him, he came to the king and said to him: “Ah, Agesilaus, how well you know the art of humbling your friends!” “Ay, indeed,” the king replied: “Those of them whose one idea it is to appear greater than myself. If I did not know how also to requite with honour those who work for my good, I should be ashamed.”
«And Lysander said: “Maybe there is more reason in your doings than ever guided my conduct” adding, “Grant me for the rest one favour, so shall I cease to blush at the loss of my influence with you, and you will cease to be embarrassed by my presence. Send me off on a mission somewhere; wherever I am I will strive to be of service to you.”
Illustration of Lysander

The multitude saluting Lysander with loud acclamations.

Apostle of Socrates
From Xenophon’s excerpts on Sparta, as well as from other historical facts, we must understand two things before we can go to one of the most important roles Xenophon played in the history of humankind.
One, Athens was on its decline and the trial of Socrates only illustrated how Athens represented, or rather failed to represent, a pedestal of democracy. Sparta, on the other side, as Xenophon underlines “even though among the most thinly populated of states, was evidently the most powerful and most celebrated city in Greece. And I fell to wondering how this could have happened. But when I considered the institutions of the Spartans, I wondered no longer.”

The Death of Socrates

Second, Sparta was admired as a whole, envied because of its unity. Athens, however, produced magnificent individuals, who were free to question, write, and influence one another, even if it meant an inevitable fall in the end, as Socrates clearly demonstrates.
Thus, it is very important to appreciate this polarity both in general and with regards to Xenophon specifically. Xenophon had the opportunity to perceive both sides and thus produce works that reflect a wider, more honest, spectrum of Ancient Greece.
Painting

Thalatta! Thalatta! (The Sea! The Sea!) — painting by Bernard Granville Baker, 1901 – A famous scene from Xenophon’s works

Xenophon’s admiration for Sparta was only equalled by his love for his mentor, the first moral philosopher of the Western ethical tradition of thought, Socrates.
Memorabilia, Apology, Oeconomicus, and Symposium were all Xenophon’s gospels to Socrates. He admired his teacher very much (along with fellow protege Plato). So much so that some conjecture that Socrates would not have been sentenced to death if Xenophon had been in Athens instead of on a military expedition in Persia.
Per Diogenes Laërtius, a biographer of the Greek philosophers:
“They say that Socrates met Xenophon in a narrow lane, and put his stick across it and prevented him from passing by, asking him where all kinds of necessary things were sold. And when he had answered him, he asked him again where men were made good and virtuous. And as he did not know, he said, ‘Follow me, then, and learn.’ And from this time forth, Xenophon became a follower of Socrates.”
Socrates Illustration

Drawing of Socrates

Xenophon’s Works
Xenophon was greatly prolific. Of the 14 works we know of, they can be broadly categorized into three categories. His ‘Historical and biographical’ works include: Anabasis, Cyropaedia, Hellenica, Agesilaus, and Constitution of the Lacedaemonians.
Next are his ‘Socratic’ works, which are: Memorabilia, Apology, Oeconomicus, and Symposium. Finally his ‘other’ works are: Hiero, On Horsemanship, Hipparchikos, Hunting with Dogs, and Ways and Means.
Xenophon’s Death
There is no firm record on how Xenophon spent his last days. There is one version of him being exiled (or self-exiled) from Athens to Scillus and later in Corinth. It is estimated that he died circa 354 BC.
It is recorded that he had two sons, Gryllus and Diodorus, who fought at the Battle of Mantinea as members of the Athenian army.
Bust of Xenophon

Xenophon, Aphrodisias Museum

Xenophon’s Achievements and Legacy
Aside from what we have previously mentioned, it is important to emphasize that Xenophon was a sort of practical philosopher. This is what made him a successful military strategist, leader, soldier, politician, poet, and historian.
His Anabasis was used as a field guide by none other than Alexander the Great during the early phases of his expedition into Persia. Moreover, Memorabilia had a huge and important impact on the Founding Fathers of the United States, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, in particular. Clearly Xenophon’s influence on mankind can not be overstated.

Euclid: The Father of Geometry

by December 12, 2018

By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
We all know the varsity team: Einstein, Newton, Pythagoras, Descartes. These names are drilled into our heads all through grade school math and history classes, and possibly accompanied by an under-the-breath curse from a disgruntled calculus or physics student. However, another mathematician should receive our attention: Euclid of Alexandria.
It is difficult to underscore enough the importance and significance of Euclid and his impact on mathematics for the subsequent 2000 years. Nonetheless, we will try.
Portrait of the Mathematician Euclid

Euclid of Alexandria

Euclid’s Early Life
The documentation of Euclid’s life is scant, at best. While we have a great deal of his work in extant, facts about Euclid as a person come down to us mainly through little snippets by Proclus and Apollonius (among others). Proclus, a Greek philosopher living in the 5th century CE, writes retrospectively and so his information must be taken with a grain of salt. He writes that Euclid taught in Alexandria, Egypt during the time of Ptolemy I Soter (4th-3rd century BCE). This places him as younger than Plato, but slightly older than Archimedes. Euclid was likely born around 300 BCE and resided in Alexandria, Egypt for most, if not all, of his life. Some historians think that he might have studied for a bit at Plato’s Academy in Athens, but this is conjecture based on his style of teaching. Past this, nothing is known of Euclid.
Map of Alexandria, Egypt, birthplace of Euclid

Map Showing Alexandria, Egypt, birthplace of Euclid

Euclid’s Career
Often called the “Father of Geometry,” Euclid was a teacher of mathematics, cultivating a school of pupils not unlike the style of the Academy. Proclus writes that Ptolemy once asked Euclid if there was a “shortened way to study geometry than the Elements, to which Euclid replied that there was no royal road to geometry.” This would suggest that not only was Euclid noteworthy among mathematicians and scientists in Alexandria, but was prominent enough to have an audience with the ruler of Egypt. As with details of his early life, we don’t know specifics regarding his career, save for his extant works and the fact that he was a prominent teacher in Alexandria.
Euclid’s Works and Achievements
Euclid likely wouldn’t have reached his level of renown if his works didn’t survive to such an incredible extent. His main work, The Elements, is a proto-textbook of 13 sections pulling together definitions, theories, and constructions of mathematics at the time. He covers geometry, number theory, and incommensurate lines- all subjects that have proved to be invaluable over the development of mathematics.
Book cover of Euclid's work

The cover of Euclid’s Elements

The Elements consisted of five general axioms and five geometrical postulates. Euclid provided the basic model for mathematical argument that follows logical deductions from initial assumptions. For those of us (including myself) who are not so mathematically inclined to understand the nitty-gritty details of Euclid’s Elements, Sir Thomas Heath sums them up in his 1908 publication The Elements of Euclid:
The 5 Axioms of Euclid:

1. Things which are equal to the same thing are also equal to one another
2. If equals are added to equals, the whole (sums) are equal
3. If equals are subtracted from equals, the remainders (differences) are equal
4. Things that coincide with one another are equal to one another
5. The whole is greater than the part

The 5 Geometric Postulates:

1. It is possible to draw a straight line from any point to any point
2. It is possible to extend a finite straight line continuously in a straight line
3. It is possible to create a circle with any center and distance
4. All right angles are equal to one another
5. If a straight line falling on two straight lines makes the interior angles on the same side less than two right angles, the straight lines, if produced indefinitely, will meet on that side on which the angles are less than two right angles.

Other important contributions from Euclid is his proof of Pythagoras‘ Theorem, providing us with formulas that calculate the volumes of solids like cones, pyramids, and cylinders, as well as identifying the first four ‘perfect numbers,’ among a dozen or so other theories and proofs.
Euclid's Proposition 1.47

The most famous proposition from The Elements, Proposition 1.47. Also known as the Pythagorean Theorem.

In addition to the Elements, five other works of Euclid have come down to us and have been able to be interpreted: Data, dealing with the nature and implications of “given” information in geometry; On Divisions of Figures, dealing with the division of geometrical figures into two or more equal parts or into parts in given ratios; Catoptrics, dealing with the theory of mirrors and the images formed in plane and spherical concave mirrors; Phaenomena, a treatise on spherical astronomy; and Optics the earliest surviving Greek treatise on perspective.
Euclid’s Death and Legacy
Portrait of Euclid

Euclid of Alexandria

We can assume that Euclid died in the mid-3rd century BCE in Alexandria, but that is all we know. However, he left behind a legacy that has survived almost two and a half millennia. His work on geometry and theory is still in use today, governing even advanced models of dimension mathematics. He is considered one of the greatest mathematicians to have ever lived, and a European Space Agency’s spacecraft was even named in his honor, the Euclid Spacecraft.

Thales of Miletus and the Birth of Western Philosophy

by December 4, 2018

Living sometime between the 8th and 6th century BCE, Thales of Miletus is often considered one of the very first of the Greek philosophers. It was Thales who initially attempted to decipher the world without reference to mythology, and he was impressively influential in this respect. Indeed, almost every pre-Socratic philosopher followed his thinking as they tried to unravel the universe. For this, many say ‘Greek philosophy begins with Thales’.
Around this time period, the people of the ancient Greek peninsulas began to settle into established city-states. They developed a structured system of counting, as well as created an alphabet. But it was Thales who revolutionized a way of reasoning and endeavored to explain the world around him.
Until this time, Greek men and women lived by the whim of the gods. All natural phenomenon such as rain, thunder and even earthquakes were believed to be the result of temperamental and powerful deities. Thales, however, being the bold individual that he was, concluded that the universe was logical, rational… and even predictable.
Solar Eclipse

Solar Eclipse

While the rest of Greece prayed to the gods for healthy crops and peaceful seas, Thales diligently studied geometry and astronomy. Subsequently, through the power of his own observations, he accurately predicted a total solar eclipse in 585 BCE.

As you can imagine, this foresight meant he was considered something of a demi-god or sorcerer. Never before had a man been capable of predicting the erratic nature of the universe! For Thales, however, the solar eclipse only cemented his belief that the universe behaved with predictable tendencies.
Thales’ conviction in order and reason had additional benefits, something that separated him from the rest.
You see, one of the most common criticisms of philosophers was that they provided no influence or solutions to everyday problems. It was said that these thinkers kicked up dust and then complained that they could not see. Indeed, it was noted that Thales, while walking one night with his head turned up to the stars, fell face-first into a ditch.
Aside from being embarrassing, this would appear to be evidence that philosophy distracts us from our earthly condition and that it holds no sway in practical matters. And yet, Thales is still a shining example of a man who used philosophy as a means to arrive at a very practical and profitable end.
Olive mill

An olive mill and an olive press dating from Roman times in Capernaum, Israel.

For instance, Thales deduced that good crops were due to favorable weather conditions, and not the result of the gods. Thales used this knowledge to predict a high yield of olives one harvest year. He bought out a large number of olive presses at a low price early in the season. Several months’ later farmers indeed were met with a bountiful supply of olives. Thales, being the owner of a majority of olive presses, was able to rent and sell the equipment at a considerable mark up. The man made a substantial profit and proved that philosophy, in fact, could lead to success in business.

While Thales had many intellectual successes, he also had a few ideas, while influential, that were eventually dismissed.
It had occurred to Thales that the state of the universe was due to natural causes. Consequently, he set about to try to understand the world… but first, he needed an original principle from which to work.
Thus the question he posed was this: ‘what is the basic material of the cosmos?’ He believed there must be a common denominator of sorts that could accurately compose all of matter. Surely there was some first substance from which came all other materials.
And to Thales, that substance was water.
This idea, that the entire universe is composed of one fundamental element, is known as “Monoism”. It is a branch of metaphysics that was very popular in ancient Greece, and indeed, many of Thales’ followers would build on his idea that the universe is composed of one essential substance.
It is not hard to imagine why Thales drew the conclusion that everything was made of water. He believed that the fundamental material of the universe would have to be something from which all life could be formed. It would be a material necessary for sustaining life. Additionally, it would have to be a substance that was capable of motion and change. Water satisfied all of these criteria.
Living in the Greek peninsulas, the world very much appeared to come from water. Men traveled upon boats in the rivers and the oceans, and in fact all land ended at water. Much of the food in ancient Greece was fished from the sea. The livelihood of the farmers was determined by the rainfall of that season. Water was life, and to Thales, it was also the universe.
But it is not because of his assertion that everything was made of water, that we remember Thales. His claim might seem far-fetched by the standards of modern science, but for the time period, it was a dramatic leap forward in the arena of critical thinking and scientific study.
Of course we can’t be sure, but this initial step of challenging institutionalised ideas might have helped to blaze the way for the next controversial thinkers. By seeking rational explanations for observable phenomena, he laid the foundation for future philosophical and scientific thinking. For this reason, Thales of Miletus was one of the first pair of shoulders on which a long line of philosophers would stand…
“Thales of Miletus and the Birth of Western Philosophy” was written by Van Bryan