From Materialism to Idealism -|- Educational Philosophy Theory

From Materialism to Idealism

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The period of the ascent of ancient Greek philosophy was characterised by a profound crisis of society, marked by a general questioning of the old beliefs, including the established religion. The crisis of religious belief gave rise to atheist tendencies, and the birth of a genuinely scientific outlook, based on materialism. However, as always in society, the process took place in a contradictory way. Alongside the rationalist and scientific tendencies, we also see the opposite—a growing trend towards mysticism and irrationality. A very similar phenomenon occurred at the time of the crisis of Roman society, in the last period of the republic, with the rapid spread of oriental religions, of which Christianity was originally only one among many.

To the mass of peasants and slaves, living in a time of social crisis, the gods of Olympus seemed remote. This was a religion for the upper classes. There was no prospect of a future reward for present suffering in the after-life. The Greek underworld was a cheerless place inhabited by lost souls. The newer cults, with their mimetic dancing and choral singing (the real origin of Greek tragedy), their mysteries (from the verb "myo," meaning to keep your mouth shut), and the promise of life after death, was far more attractive to the masses. Particularly popular was the cult of Dionysius, the god of wine (known to the Romans as Bacchus), which involved drunken orgies. This was much more appealing than the old gods of Olympia.

As in the period of decline of the Roman empire, and in the present period of capitalist decline, there was a spread of all kinds of mystery cults, mixed with new exotic rites imported from Thrace and Asia Minor and possibly Egypt. Of particular importance was the cult of Orpheus, a refinement of the cult of Dionysius, with many points in common with the Pythagorean movement. Like the Pythagoreans, the followers of the cult of Orpheus believed in the transmigration of souls. They had rites of purification, including abstaining from meat, except for sacramental purposes. Their view of man was based on dualism—the idea of the cleavage of body and soul. For them, man was partly of heaven, partly of earth.

So close are these ideas to the Pythagorean doctrines that some authors, such as Bury, maintain that the Pythagoreans were really a branch of the Orphean movement. This is an exaggeration. Despite its mystical elements, the Pythagorean school made an important contribution to the development of human thought, especially mathematics. It cannot be dismissed as a religious sect. Nevertheless, it is impossible to resist the conclusion that the idealist conceptions of Pythagoreanism are not just an echo of a religious world outlook, but stem directly from it. Bertrand Russell traces the development of idealism back to the mysticism of the Orphean religion:

"This mystical element entered into Greek philosophy with Pythagoras, who was a reformer of orpheanism as Orpheus was a reformer of the religion of Dionysius. From Pythagoras Orphic elements entered into the philosophy of Plato, and from Plato into most later philosophy that was in any degree religious." (Russell, op. cit., p. 39.)

The division between mental and manual labour reaches an extreme expression with the growth of slavery. This phenomenon was directly related to the spread of Orphism. Slavery is an extreme form of alienation. Under capitalism, the "free" worker alienates himself from his labour-power, which presents itself to him as a separate and hostile force—capital. Under slavery, however, the slave loses his very existence as a human being. He is nothing. Not a person, but a "tool with a voice." The product of his labour, his body, his mind, his soul are the property of another, who disposes of them without regard to his wishes. The unfulfilled desires of the slave, his extreme alienation from the world and himself, gives rise to a feeling of rejection towards the world and all its works. The material world is evil. Life is a vale of tears. Happiness is not to be found there, only in death, which gives release from toil. The soul, freed from its prison in the body, can become free.

In all periods of social decline, men and women have two options: either to confront reality, and fight to change it, or to accept that there is no way out, and resign themselves to their fate. These two contrasting outlooks are inevitably reflected in two antagonistic philosophies—materialism and idealism. If we desire to change the world, it is necessary to understand it. We must look reality in the face. The cheerful optimism of the early Greek materialists was typical of this outlook. They wanted to know. Later, all that changed. The break-up of the old order, the rise of slavery and a general sense of insecurity led to a certain introversion and pessimism. In the absence of a clear alternative, the tendency to look away from reality, to seek individual salvation in mysticism, gradually gained ground. The lower orders looked to mystery cults, like those of Demeter, giver of corn, Dionysius, giver of wine, and later the cult of Orpheus. But the upper classes were not immune to the problems of the period. These were troubled times. Prosperous cities could be turned to ashes overnight, and their citizens killed or sold into slavery.

The city of Sybaris, Croton’s powerful commercial rival, was renowned for its wealth and luxury. So wealthy were the upper class that all kind of tall stories were told about the "sybarite" life style. A typical example was the young Sybarite who, upon rising, complained of a crumpled rose-leaf in his bed. It is said that they piped their wine to the quay. Allowing for an element of exaggeration, it is clear that this was a most prosperous city, where the rich lived a life of great luxury. However, the growth of inequality gave rise to a ferocious class struggle.

This was a period in which the division of labour was enormously intensified, accompanied by the rapid growth of slavery, and an ever-increasing gulf between rich and poor. The industrial and residential quarters were completely segregated. But high walls and guards did not save the rich citizens of Sybaris. As in other city states, a revolution erupted, in which the "tyrant," Telys, seized power with the support of the masses. This gave Croton the excuse to declare war on its rival, at a moment when it was weakened by internal divisions. After a seventy day campaign, the city fell into their hands. A. R. Burn comments: "They utterly destroyed it, turning the local river across its site, while survivors scattered, largely to the west coast. The particular savagery of this war is more easily understood when it is seen as a class war." (A. R. Burn, op. cit., p. 140.)

It is in this specific context that we must see the rise of the Pythagorean school of philosophy. As in the period of decline of the Roman Empire, a section of the ruling class was filled with a feeling of anxiety, fear and perplexity. The old gods offered no solace or hope of delivery, either to rich or poor. Even the good things in life lost some of their appeal to men and women who felt they were sitting on the edge of an abyss. Under such conditions of general insecurity, when even the strongest and most prosperous states could be overthrown in a short time, the doctrines of Pythagoras struck a chord with a section of the ruling class, despite their ascetic character, or even because of it. The esoteric and intellectual nature of this movement gave it no appeal to the masses, where the Orphic cult had gained a huge following.

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