THE BLOG
02/13/2017 06:51 pm ET

Teaching the Greeks and Critical Thinking -- Part 21: Facts as Safety Net

The Greek Way, Chapter 6, Question 7: Why were facts important to the Greeks?

For thousands of years truth has been defined as "adaequatio intellectus cum re" or "the conformity of the mind with facts/reality." Greek philosophers rejected, for instance, the mythological view of the universe because they wanted to face reality as it was, and not as people wished it to be.

The myths brought ancient man comfort by allowing him to cope with his fears. By fitting every event into a pre-established interpretive scheme, they assigned meaning to whatever occurred and enabled him to deal with it. The myths were his shield against the terror of life, his defense against his doubt that, behind each disaster, there might be no purpose at all.

These philosophers rejected this comfort in favor of what they thought was a factual understanding of life. They wanted to survive in the real world, and to do this they needed real information. They felt that they had to accept things as they really were, for refusing to do so would be courting misfortune, disaster, or even extinction.

One thousand years of Greek philosophy catalyzed antiquity with a wide range of answers to understand the cosmos and the human person. Some were empirical or metaphysical in nature; others were materialist, religious, or mystical; and still others skeptical, agnostic, or atheistic.

Some philosophers thought that the mind could know everything, and others that it could know nothing. Some taught self-control as the key to happiness and that an eternal purpose cradled the cosmos, while others thought that pleasure in moderation was the secret to life and that cosmic purpose was a comforting fiction.

What united them all was their deep conviction that they spoke the truth; that an ethical life was all-important; and that peace and happiness came from within.

The Greek playwrights also explored the enigma of life by using the myths but reinterpreting them in metaphorical or "heretical" ways. Their dramas, with their incomparable poetry, spectacle, music, and dance, explored a mysterious universe teeming with questions:

Do we have any ultimate meaning or purpose? Are we free when even the gods are subject to Fate? Do the gods themselves ever do evil? Why are they so inscrutably silent? Why do they make us suffer, especially small children and animals who do no wrong? Should we obey the laws of men when they conflict with those of the gods? How do we live a noble life? What if there's nothing beyond the grave? Such questions are the great universals that speak to all times, conditions, and cultures and go to the heart of what it means to be human.

For these reasons Greek drama still enthralls us today, posing questions rarely asked in our culture. These plays introduce us to a world where there are no clear answers to the enigmas of life; where there is no progress or hope for tomorrow, no happy endings, just an endless cycle of eternal return, as we grope our way darkly while the gods mutely look on.

Some read these plays for their profound human wisdom; others for their fearlessness in rejecting tradition; and still others for their haunting questions which, while admitting of no right or wrong answers, themselves open up still other disturbing far-reaching perspectives.

However, it was in the bracing arena of life that the Greeks showed their true singularity. They felt that beginning with facts was the only way of insuring a sane and healthy view of the world. Facts put them in contact with what was real in all its starkness and brute factuality. The hard facts of life were their safety net, their medicine and therapy without which the allure of languorous fantasies might enter their souls. Facts kept them strong and bound to the earth, rooted them in the here and now lest they lose themselves to the siren song of their ancient neighboring cultures.

During the centuries of their emigration, they were forever uprooting themselves, with adversity as their constant companion. If they were hungry for want of arable farmland, they set sail into the unknown to found new colonies, having no other choice but starvation. Life for them was a dreadful affair, which drove them to the limits of their strength and endurance.

With the two Persian invasions of Darius and Xerxes, the Greeks didn't say, "This cannot be happening!" They had to face facts. So, vastly outnumbered, they prepared for war as Herodotus tells us and left examples of incredible valor at Marathon, Thermopylae, and Salamis -- and were reborn as a people.

The "trigger warnings" and "safe spaces" of some colleges today would have struck these Greeks as the supreme betrayal of the young. Everything, especially ideas, should be faced with courage. "The unexamined life," after all, "is not worth living."

The Greeks would never have run from defending themselves. For what they believed was their very selves, their very essence, and if they ran from that, they would have never forgiven themselves or found peace for the rest of their lives.

We owe it to ourselves to defend who we are and what we believe, for this is how we become real persons. It is only by defending our beliefs, and by suffering for doing so, that they become truly ours.

The heart of education is critical thinking, an essential survival-skill in this world. Colleges should not be "safe spaces" for their students, but training grounds for defending themselves.

Flavius Josephus once described the Roman legions' relentless training for war: "Their drills are bloodless battles and their battles bloody drills."

Colleges should be teaching their students the age-old Greek art of critical thinking for the battles that await them later in life.

To be continued . . .

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