Peter Jones

The Greeks wouldn’t have accepted Cambridge’s ‘respect’ policy either

[Getty Images]

Professor Toope, the vice-chancellor of Cambridge university, had proposed a motion ordering all members of the university to ‘respect’ each other, or else.

But significant numbers of members argued strongly against it, and rightly so: ‘respect’ is an emotional term implying deferential regard or special concern or solicitude for someone, a response more in line with the world of counselling and social welfare than with rigorous academic debate. Further, if ‘respect’ became justiciable because an academic appealed against dismissal from his job on that account, where would that end?

Thankfully Professor Toope failed, as history suggests he should have. On the ancients’ intellectual agenda, respect had to be earned. Rival Greek thinkers on matters medical, scientific and philosophical constantly kicked lumps out of each other. The philosopher Heraclitus said: ‘Much learning does not teach intelligence. If it did, it would have taught Hesiod and Pythagoras.’ Laertius wrote that Epicurus, inventor of epicureanism, ‘used to call Nausiphanes a jellyfish who was illiterate, a cheat and a whore, Plato a sucker-up to tyrants, Aristotle a waster who, after he spent his inheritance, became a mercenary and drug-dealer’.

But there was more to this than name-calling. These thinkers backed up their claims by arguing their cases against those of others, both in their writings and public forums. Socrates’s love of publicly tying fellow Athenians in intellectual knots went some way to leading to his execution. Doctors put on shows ‘to make the public goggle’ with their new ideas: fancy bandaging, or fixing a prolapsed uterus by tying the patient to a frame, turning it upside down and jiggling it. When Plato presented Socrates’s definition of man as a ‘featherless biped’, Diogenes brought a plucked fowl into Plato’s Academy and announced: ‘This is Plato’s man.’ From this throwing of hypotheses back and forth in vigorous public debate, there gradually emerged notions of empirical research and axiomatic deductive reasoning.

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