Kalev’s Anti-Blog: Aristotle, Strauss, Pythagoras, and Hippodamus

We must imagine that Pythagoras has been summoned by the tyrant of Phliasians, Leon. By this time, Pythagoras was absorbed knowledge from Egypt, communed with Zoroaster and absorbed the wisdom of the Chaldeans, and initiated into the Orphic circles. He is a striking man, with very unusual views on everything from mathematics to music to what kind of diet a man must eat. Leon the tyrant asks him who he is. Pythagoras replied, “A philosopher.” Pythagoras is the first man to characterize himself with this word. His influence in philosophy is little understood, but Pythagoras and his followers who were specially initiated into the secret society of Pythagoreans were a huge impact on Plato and Aristotle and on the rest of philosophy. The first man to call himself a philosopher does so before the tyrant.

One of his intellectual heirs is a man known as Hippodamus, of Miletus, but also known as the Thurian, whose extant works are two fragmentary texts, “On Felicity” and “On a Republic.” He is not so famous for these two short works, but because Aristotle made of him a special case in this Politics. As Aristotle’s is a political philosopher, his quest, Leo Strauss tells us, is to find the political order that is best everywhere and “always.” Strauss explains, “The first political philosopher will then be the first man not engaged in political life who attempted to speak about the best political order. That man, Aristotle tells us, was a certain Hippodamus. Before presenting the political order proposed by Hippodamus, Aristotle speaks at some length of Hippodamus’ way of life. Apart from being the first political philosopher, Hippodamus was also a famous town planner, he lived, from ambition, in a somewhat overdone manner in other respects as well (for instance he paid too much attention to his clothing), and he wished to be learned also regarding the whole of nature.”

Although Strauss’s last sentence above is grammatically incorrect (it is a run-on), he establishes something very important here by not mentioning the obvious: Aristotle, too, want to know the whole of nature. Plato, too, wanted to know the whole of nature. In what way do they differ from the Pythagorean?

Strauss continues: “It is not Aristotle’s habit to engage in what could even appear to be slightly malicious gossip. The summarized remark is the only of its kind in his entire work.”

Hippodamus’s character is very important, in part because it violates the Pythagorean symbol: “Roast not what is boiled.”

“Shortly before speaking of Hippodamus, when discussing Plato’s political writings, Aristotle describes ‘Socrates’ speeches, (i.e., particularly the speeches occurring in the Republic and the Laws) by setting forth their high qualities; but he does this in order to legitimate his disagreement with those speeches; since the Socratic speeches, especially those about the simply best political order, exert an unrivaled charm, one must face that charm as such. When speaking of Eudoxus’ hedonistic teaching, Aristotle remarks that Eudoxus was reputed to be unusually temperate; he makes this remark in order to explain why Eudoxus’ speeches were regarded as more trustworthy than those of other hedonists. We may therefore that Aristotle did not make his remark about Hippodamus’ way of life without a good reason.”

Strauss leaves it to us to figure out what the charm is.

Strauss continues: “Whereas the first philosopher became ridiculous on a certain occasion in the eyes of a barbarian slave woman, the first political philosopher was rather ridiculous altogether in the eyes of sensible freeman.”

Strauss alludes to Thales, the first philosopher who didn’t call himself a philosopher, but was known as a sage. Thales is said to have been so focused on watching the heavens one night that he fell into a well, much to the amusement of the slave woman. But Strauss does not point out, except in a footnote, that Aristotle explained that Thales had quite the wisdom when it came to practical and political affairs, including a much loved story that Thales countered the notion that philosophy is useless by using his knowledge of the heavens to see that there would be a good olive harvest. So, Thales bought up all the olive presses cheaply, and then, using the power of monopoly, to sell the use of those presses at a high price, making himself rich. He also was politically astute.

Hippodamus was unable to make himself “credible” (that awful use of the word today), because his ostentatious way of life does not inspire confidence. Yet, Hippodamus was the town planner responsible for the rebuilding of the Piraeus, using a modern grid-system for streets. Sometimes one feels that there is a great disconnect here between what he really did and what Aristotle says about him.

Strauss comes to the notion: “The fact indicates that political philosophy is more questionable than philosophy as such.”

We are not facing biography. What makes political philosophy problematical is that it deals with the here and now, the temporary, and not the eternal. To understand the here and now from the point of view of the here and now is impossible or insane. But, then, one has to establish exactly what the connection to the eternal and timeless has to the here and now.

“Aristotle thus expresses in a manner somewhat mortifying to political scientists the same thought Cicero expresses by saying that philosophy had to be compelled to become concerned with political things,” Strauss writes. “Aristotle’s suggestion was taken up in modern times by Pascal who said that Plato and Aristotle, being not pedants but gentlemen, wrote their political works playfully: ‘this was the least philosophic and the least serious part of their life…they wrote of politics as if they had to bring order to a madhouse.’ Pascal goes much beyond Aristotle, for, while admitting there are things which are by nature just, he denies that they can be known to unassisted man owing to original sin.”

Philosophy, like the philosopher king in some sense, must be compelled to deal with politics for two basic reasons. The philosopher, of course, enjoys his study of eternal things and it is much more pleasant than to have to deal with the here and now. However, who compels the philosopher to deal with political things, the problem of justice, for example? Who compelled it? Who compelled Socrates to take up these human things? I would have to say no one but Socrates. After all, the world of politics is a madhouse and mad men do not call on philosophers to straighten out their world. Moreover, it appears that Plato and Aristotle wrote about this world playfully, because it is a madhouse, because to do is just. You cannot tell the inmates of the asylum to be reasonable. In fact, if the political is as insane as it appears, then there is no reforming it. In a rather delightful anti-Christian dig, Strauss notes that Pascal’s religion makes it impossible to know anything about what is truly just, in effect, making political life even more insane. The sanity of philosophy must be compelled to study and offer just speeches about the insane. The world is delightfully farcical.

We finally get to the actual plan of Hippodamus: “The best political order proposed by Hippodamus is distinguished by unusual simplicity: the citizen body is to consist of 10,000 men and of 3 parts; the land is to be divided into 3 parts; there are only 3 kinds of laws, for there are only 3 things about which lawsuits take place; regarding verdicts in lawcourts provision must be made for the 3 alternatives.”

To get a sense of what this passage is about, it is easy simply to let Hippodamus speaks for himself: “I say that the whole of a polity is divided into three parts: the good men who manage public affairs, those who are powerful, and those who are employed in supplying and procuring the necessities of life. The first group is that of the counselors, the second in the auxiliaries, and the third that which pertains to the mechanical and sordid arts…Of these parts, however, each again receives a triple division.”

What the Pythagoreans did was to equate the metaphysical order of things with numbers and their manipulation. For the Pythagoreans, the number one is the number of unity, the unity of all things. The number two is the dyad, the first true number. The dyad is all things that are in contraries or complements or represents something like that subject and object of knowledge. To the Pythagoreans, the triad, 3, is the principle of harmony that joins the dualities and the dyad and unity together. Two is the number of strife, three of harmonious peace.

It should also be noted that the one is also the undifferentiated reality or unlimited, the non-numerical infinite, out of which all things come to be and pass away. When it becomes differentiated as a unity, a one, it becomes the dyad. In other words, the whole of things has a dyadic structure. Now, that kind of thinking is metaphysically plausible. So what is Aristotle’s objection?

Strauss continues: “After considering this scheme which seems so clear, Aristotle is forced to note that it involves great confusion: the confusion is caused by the desire for a kind of clarity and simplicity which is alien to the subject matter. It looks as if as if some account of ‘the whole nature’—an account which used the number 3 as the key to all things—enabled or compelled Hippodamus to go on toward his plan of the best political order as that political order is entirely according to nature.”

Hippodamus believes that the cosmos and the heavenly order of things to be a certain way and that all he has to do is to make the city reflect that reality. What he understood to be the essences of things are numbers, in particular the number three of harmony and peace. This problem goes throughout Plato and his Pythagoreans. They create orders based on heavenly orders and they literally create horrible tyrannies like the ones we find in the Republic and Timaeus.

The basic problem is that the city is not according to nature to begin with. A city may imitate the timeless and eternal, but that doesn’t mean that it is a good place to live. In effect, Aristotle is saying there is no heavenly Jerusalem by which we can model an earthly city.

Strauss continues: “But he merely arrived at great confusion because he did not pay attention to the peculiar character of political things: he did not see the political things are a class in themselves. In spite or because of his ambition, Hippodamus did not succeed in founding political philosophy or political science because he did not begin by raising the question ‘what is political?’ or rather ‘what is the polis?’This question, and all questions of this kind, were raised by Socrates who for this reason became the founder of political philosophy.”

The “what is” question essential differences between things and their harmony may not be in threes. The great Pythagorean confusion is looking at the whole as if it were a model that one can put in one’s hand and define its characteristics apart from it. To speak of a unity, one, or an unlimited and undifferentiated reality, for example, is to speak abstractly about something that cannot be abstracted. What compelled Socrates when he was young to change his point of view, evidently very Pythagorean, was the realization that you can’t speak of the whole of nature and the whole of man as if some kind of image or pattern. It is clear that man’s life is reflective of a metaphysical order it is not the same way as numbers are ordered. There may be a unity of all things, but to bring order to man’s life through that unity requires something much more than the fact that things are countable and even orderly when counted. It appears that there is no systematic way to understand or move the inmates of the madhouse. Each and every moment requires a particular solution to a particular problem. You can’t just divide things into threes for the sake of peace.

Toward the end of his life, Pythagoras encountered terrible envy and hatred and persecution both personal and political. He fled one city to another. According to Porphyry, the end came in the following ways: “Pythagoras fled to the temple of the Muses in Metapontum. There he abode forty days and, starving, died. Others, however, state that his death was owing to grief at the loss of all his friends who, when the house in which they were gathered was burned, in order to make a way for their master, threw themselves into the flames and made a bridge of safety for him with their own bodies, whereby he escaped.”

The number 40 is a combination of the 28 lunar mansions and the 12 signs of the zodiac. The number can be divided by 1, 2, 4, 5, 8, 10, and 20 (whose addition is greater than the original number, 50). It is a number of preparation and completion. It is a number of fate.

About Kalev Pehme

I am an icastic artist and a Straussian. I am not a conservative or neocon Straussian. Sadly, there are too many of them. My interests are diverse, however, and sometimes quite arcane. I have a deep interest in Daoism, Indo-Aryan religion, Buddhism, Plato, Aristotle, and whole lot more. I love good poetry. I also enjoy all things ancient. And I would like to meet any woman who is born on May 29, 1985.
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6 Responses to Kalev’s Anti-Blog: Aristotle, Strauss, Pythagoras, and Hippodamus

  1. Luke says:

    I’m trying to understand more precisely your understanding of where Hippodamus erred.

    Would it be fair to state it like this: knowledge of the whole cannot simply be translated to knowledge of the part, because insofar as the whole is a unity it has no parts? (And insofar is it is not a unity we can have no knowledge of it.)

    Less cryptically, when we talk about something like politics we are not talking about the whole, we are talking about a distorted fragment, so whatever knowledge we may form about it cannot be derived from any supposed knowledge of the whole?

    Just trying to grasp your comments a little better.

    • icastes says:

      Hippodamus, like Pythagoras, believes that the whole can be understood through numbers and that the essence of the parts of the whole are numbers. The difficulty here is that the wholeness of the whole is undifferentiated with a dyadic structure, which means that while we can derive numbers, the many, from the whole; yet, we cannot simply use numbers to describe the whole as numbers differentiate and determine specific things. A number is always a particular, not a general or universal.

      Political philosophy, however, can in truth do what Pythagoras and Hippodamus want to do, Hippodamus never asks the right questions; he only applies a mathematical model to human life. When you ask the right questions, you direct your ignorance to an answer and finally to understand the whole of something. For example, a city is a whole, but it is not a whole that has being. There is no heavenly city, an idea of the city. The city is an analogue for non-being. It turns out that the investigation of the city and man actually reveals the true metaphysical character of all of nature.

      You might say this, Hippodamus is the digital, while Aristotle is the analogue.

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  4. apollodorus says:

    I think that Aristotle’s response to Hippodamus reveals the answer of what is at fault with the scheme. Hippodamus fails to take into account that “law has no strength with respect to obedience apart from habit, and this is not created except over a period of time,” and accordingly he does not distinguish between founding and ruling.

    This can be reduced to a false notion of homogeneity of nature. Aristotle himself wants to say something about the whole of nature, but what marks out political philosophy is this need for law to have force apart from its reasonableness. Furthermore, we have this from 3.12: “Equality in what sort of things and inequality in what sort of things—this should not be overlooked. For this involves a question, and political philosophy.” Hippodamus does not consider this question at all; he neglects the heterogeneity of nature, the many different kinds of ruling and being-ruled. Aristotle does not.

    Hippodamus does not understand what is specifically political; he resembles a modern city planner or technocrat, who takes a special understanding to conclusions beyond its power– “through ambition.”

  5. icastes says:

    Still, there is an amazing attraction that consistency and an order have in city planning. The actual plan of Hippodamus as I have seen it is very modern. It has a grid system for roads, for example, which we have all over the world now, but was not common in ancient times.

    In any event, the problem with the Pythagoreans is that they had a separate realm of noetic order based on numbers and ideal figures and they thought that these things could be imposed on the world to bring out true order for man. But this kind of activity also comes about not just through technocrats, but from all law givers and other ambitious men. Take, for example, the very sharp and very unnatural divisions Solon imposed on Athens. It is exceptionally difficult and requires great wisdom to be able govern in a natural way where people live more naturally and simply. Thus, instead, numbers, divisions, harsh laws, and so on are used instead.

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