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The Quest for Truth in the Early Period of Western Civilization

Boorstin (1998) in The Seekers outlines the development of thought in the Western civilization. He begins his book with a phrase from Cervantes stating, “the road is always better than the end” (qtd in Boorstin, 1998, p. 1). This corresponds with the title of his work as he states that human fulfillment lies not so much in the end but in the experiences attained during the process of reaching the end in mind. The same precept is heeded by Socrates as he presents a normative guide for human experience.

In The Apology, Socrates states that “the unexamined life is not worth living”. Clearly, Socrates belongs to the period within which he was born, habituated and cultured, that being ancient Greek society. It is important to note that ancient Greek society may be characterized as a society, which adopts several variants of virtue ethics. Socrates’ statement [his apology] clearly manifests his philosophical view of the good and what the good life is. This is evident in his utterance that “the unexamined life is not worth living”.

By the aforementioned statement, one may infer that the statement in itself provides us with an estimation of the value or worth of life. This is to say that eudaimonia [in lack of a more appropriate English term, happiness] entails not only the pursuit of desires such as physical pleasures but also [and more importantly] intellectual pleasures. There is thus, a need to develop our own most human function or excellence, that is, our rational capacity. For Socrates thereby, happiness may be conceived as the pursuit of the discovery of the self.

Such a discovery, however, necessitates the existence of freedom of thought as well as freedom of speech. Socrates recognized that the existence of constraints upon an individual’s liberty leads to the failure to develop the self. Such a failure will later manifest in the corruption of the minds of the youth and hence the corruption and destruction of society as we know it. Within this context, the quest for truth, for Socrates lies in the knowledge of the self for only when one has attained such knowledge will one be able to attain knowledge of the world.

As opposed to this, his student Plato adhered to a metaphysical conception of truth. Heidegger notes that Plato’s ontology presents the beginning of “the double meaning of the concept of truth” (2002, p. 12). This is evident if one considers that Plato’s ontology is characterized by a dualist conception of reality, which necessitates the separation of material entities from mental entities. Such a conception of reality can be traced to his Theory of Forms, which states that the realm of abstract reality transcends the ordinary world of particular objects.

Such a conception of reality is characterized by a metaphysical epistemology wherein the intellect supervenes the senses. Such a theory of knowledge must be understood in line with Plato’s conception of reality. For Plato, the realm of abstract reality is only accessible to the intellect since the realm of the senses [ordinary world of particular objects] is privy to imperfection. The double conception of truth here lies in the initial “hiddenness” to the “correctness” of truth (Heidegger, 2002, p. 13).

This characteristic intertwining of truth as hiddenness to truth as correctness evident in Plato’s epistemology can be best understood in line with Plato’s Allegory of the Cave at the beginning of Book VII of the Republic. Within the aforementioned section, Plato compares knowledge acquisition to the travel from darkness to light. This is evident if one considers that Plato perceives man [at the initial level of knowledge acquisition] as privy to the deception caused by the images within the world of the senses.

Plato states for human beings [within the world of the sense], “the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images” (1984, p. 312). The similarity between Socrates and Plato’s conception of truth may be traced to the importance they ascribe in the process of knowing truth. Both philosophers agree that the attainment of truth requires the individual’s ability to transcend the trivialities of the world. Aristotle, in the same vein, places emphasis on the perfection of the self.

He recognizes the different potentialities that lie within each individual and the necessity for each individual to actualize these potentialities since it is only through this actualization that one may achieve eudaimonia. Hence, Aristotle placed importance in the development of metaphysics and physics in itself within his Academy which served as the bastion of knowledge in the early Greek civilization. As it is outlined in Boorstin’s The Seekers, the similarity between the three philosopher’s conception of truth thereby lies in the emphasis on the necessity to attain mastery of the self.

It is through this mastery of the self that one may attain truth as well as eudaimonia. As Boorstin recounts, the lessons imparted to us by early Greek civilization lies in their recognition that it is in the process of seeking that one attains and/or discovers the meaning of life. References Boorstin, D. (1998a). The Seekers: The Story of Man’s Continuing Quest to Understand His World. Virginia: U of Virginia. Heidegger, M (2002). The Essence of Truth: On Plato’s Cave Allegory and Theaetetus. New York: Continuum. Plato. (1984). The Republic. Trans. W. Rouse. Eds. E. Warmington & P. Rouse. New York: Mentor Books.

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