Also, classical Athens was a city which produced an unusual number of people who became famous. It wasn't a typical city of the time. It's also not as though every classical Athenian century turned up major geniuses.
It would be more fair the ratio of people doing brilliant work in the whole ancient population to the whole modern world.
One more angle on greatness, though I'm not sure if it affects the odds: people with sustained fame seem to show up in groups-- presumably they need to play off each other and/or favorable background conditions.
As a further thing of note, isn't Athens the example of the ancient world that could be said to share the modern Western system more than any other ancient state?
Not completely of course, not by far, but with its proto-democracy and protecting the lives of even slaves (Xenophon complained that you couldn't even "just strike" slaves in Athens, and a citizen could be given the death penalty if they killed a slave), and its focus on citizen-produced art and philosophy, its society seems to me much nearer in values to us than Sparta or Macedon (or Persia or Ancient Egypt).
Edited at 2012-12-25 08:05 pm (UTC)
I'd disagree with you about Shakespeare, because I first read a play of his ("Hamlet", as it so happens) of my own accord when I was fifteen because all I knew about him was that he was A Great Playwright who wrote in verse.
From my experiences with the kind of verse that the school curriculum pushed upon us as being Great Writing, I expected that the language of "Hamlet" would be difficult, obscure, and most of all - dull and boring. However, I decided to give it a try because at least this was a version in modern English and how bad could it be?
And it blew me away. This is going to sound like hyperbole or a metaphor, but it's the literal truth: I heard bells in my head while I was reading it. The words were all striking against one another and chiming and I was gone. I expected a dull, worthy, boring Olde Tyme Authore and I got "This guy really is all they say he is!"
OTOH, not all of his plays are "Hamlet".
Sure, Ancient Athens may have given us some impressive dudes, but have you considered 20th century Hungary? Maybe it's just an earlier case of martians :)
2012-12-25 09:54 pm (UTC)
Explain? What is/was modern Hungary like?
I don't particularly get the impression that famous old writers are better than good modern ones. I have no idea if Neil Gaiman would, in the absence of a Singularity, someday be as famous as Dante. I do know Neil Gaiman is a vastly better writer.
As for Plato being a good philosopher, pardon me while I laugh myself into a coma, but I believe you pointed that out as well.
Bits of the Divine Comedy are lovely.
But something is really *wrong* with La Vita Nuova, as far as I can tell. Like, either he was thirteen or he was having a mental breakdown.
Plato was a wrestler. It's a bit like the words of Jesse Ventura making it to the next millenium.
Speaking of which sports analogies are probably useful for this argument, since high school athletes the world over probably demolish older world records on a routine basis. The dude who ran the first marathon collapsed and died after running it*, but we even let women (!) run them nowadays, despite the risk of their wombs falling out.
*To be fair he did fight in a pitched battle right before.
2012-12-25 03:10 pm (UTC)
Sports are a wonderful example, because they're a case where not only has improvement over time been massive and obvious, but it's still denied by nostalgic fans. If you can't convince people things are better in sports performance, you really can write them off as hopeless malcontents.
But classical Athens gave us, all within a single human lifespan, Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates. Within a single lifespan it gave us Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides. So if modern society were just as good as classical Athens, we should be producing a thousand Platos and Sophocleses a generation.
Another argument about this is to say that it's not really that amazing that Liverpool, withing a single decade, gave us John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, and Pete Best and Stuart Sutcliffe.
2012-12-26 07:32 am (UTC)
Another reason: Modern philosophy, math, and science often is much harder to read and of less general interest than ancient equivalents even though it's just as important. For example, I haven't read the Quantum Physics sequence because I don't think I care. Most people do not care whether or not eigenvectors have been invented. And don't get me started about traditional Modern Philosophy
One thing that the reactionaries might be right about is that recently a variety of philosophical fields may have self-destructed due to the realization of the Great Colonialist Mistake and the politicization of basically everything.
Suppose that in old days there are actually FEWER geniuses than today. If fame is a finite resource that must be shared, then it may appear that there are very few lastingly famous geniuses today when there actually are, but people stop caring about them after a generation.
Their success could be based on media they used. Moving away from clay onto papiri (not sure about spelling). All ancient texts including Bible, which we still learn are from this media type.
As for assessment of our age, the future generations will eventually move on, it is a matter of time when it will happen, so when 20th century becomes sufficiently ancient first space endevor still be a milestone
I forget which Plato I tried but I gave it up for the giant logical holes in it. Democritus and Epicurus seem much better but history didn't exalt them.
AIUI Shakespeare's status hasn't been continuously high.
I'm not in a position to judge the Greek plays. But I know there's a strong classicist component in elite Euroculture opinion, exalting the Classics and denigrating 'vulgar' alternatives.
2012-12-25 02:40 pm (UTC)
If you give up on platonic dialogues because there are problems in the reasoning then you're missing the point.
Would you give up on any other work of fiction because the characters make mistakes or have wrong ideas?
I don't actually buy the low-hanging fruit in the sciences, because I can *see* low-hanging fruit sitting around unplucked. I think there are things broken in the system.
I don't know about art, I'm less qualified to judge there, though I suspect we *have* artists of the caliber of the ancients, in even greater quantities, and it just goes unread because there's a huge backlog and attention is scarce.
I think average technique in some fields relentlessly gets better over time (athletics are a clear example; I believe also chess; possibly math -- at any rate the amount of math you're supposed to learn in school has got hugely more advanced). However we probably trade off technique and originality to a large degree. It's not so much that we don't have Pythagorases because geometry has already been invented; it's that the Pythagoras of *some other field* would be laughed off as not doing real math because he's playing with elementary, non-rigorous methods on a topic that nobody else was even studying.
Put it another way: we don't have aristocrats today.
Now, aristocracy was a pretty horrible thing on net because it kept most people peasants and slaves by force.
On the other hand, it was a pretty sweet deal for the aristocrats. They were encouraged to develop their skills to the utmost. In some cultures (Vedic India, classical Athens, the Royal Society in the late 1600s) the small group of people in an aristocratic culture were at a really high level intellectually and even physically and socially. And they were free (culturally/psychologically free, not just legally) to tinker around, to play intellectually, in ways that enabled some of them to invent whole new fields of science and philosophical paradigms. Aristocratic culture is focused on living well, being an excellent person, and doing things...it's what people would be like if there were no higher-ups left whose approval you could chase. But no matter how rich you get today, no matter how privileged, you can't join an aristocratic culture that gives you that focus on all-around arete and freedom. I haven't met the super-rich, but I went to college with some pretty rich kids...and they were just as needy and plugged into the system as anybody else.
We have enough wealth in modern society that we could probably afford to include more people in aristocratic cultures/communities, if anybody were willing to build them. It wouldn't necessarily have to include the whole serfdom/slavery aspect. You could sustain a free lifestyle on a lot less effort than most smart people usually spend making their living, if you managed to create a cultural reality where *you* and your pals were at the top of the food chain and there was thus no need to gain someone else's stamp of credibility (e.g. "I'll be a real professional if I become a lawyer.") If you could get 150,000 more-talented-than-average people to actually believe they were aristocrats, they'd probably perform more like Classical Athens.
Athens had a leisure class which was expected to fill its time with intellectual pursuits. You've got a very small population of citizens, who are supported by a very large underclass class.
You get a lot of stuff done in those cases.
If you want to get a lot of stuff done. You can also very easily get nothing done. See all the great intellectual accomplishments of the Roman Empire and its Latifundia system.
Modern society has many more pursuits where people people succeed in proportion to their intelligence. We don't have as many great philosophers as ancient Athens for the same reason ancient Athens didn't have as many great physicists, biologists, engineers, mathematicians, programmers, ... as us.
Engineers? Really? They built Ancient Athens. Compare it to modern Athens! Not to mention the ships and military stuff. I think they had a fair number of mathematicians, but their main job was inventing math, not impressive proofs.
Are you serious? I can't tell.
2012-12-25 03:16 pm (UTC)
Honestly, the Moldbuggian/NuReactionary/etc. cluster around Less Wrong/SIAI (at least in the case of Michael Anissimov), is one reason why I am very reluctant to ever give them a cent of my money.
I simply don't know what to make of any of it. I'm an economic historian, by training anyway. This (http://stevereads.com/img/per_capita_income_great_divergence_from_farewell_to_alms.png) is the world I live in. And when someone looks at that and says "Yep, monarchy is the answer" or "boy the Catholic church had a great thing going!", I don't just disagree but I'm left so utterly bewildered as to what they thing the problem is that it's difficult to even respond.
OK, let's talk about the real reason we know about Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Aristotle got this job tutoring a prince in a minor kingdom. The king conquered all the Greek city states, and the student, Alexander the Great, conquered a bunch more.
If Aristotle hadn't tutored Alexander the Great, wouldn't Socrates just be some pesky old man who used to annoy people in the marketplace and deserved what he got?
2012-12-25 04:01 pm (UTC)
low-hanging fruit in mathematics: Yes, it is hard to assess Athenian mathematics because mainly what they did was invent the idea of mathematical proof, which stayed invented. (In particular, they were not the first to state the Pythagorean theorem.) But moving out from Athens to the greater Greece, Archimedes seems very impressive. It took thousands of years to follow up on much of what he did, whether it continuously survived or recently resurfaced.
Wel, but there was one Archimedes. And then one Newton, one Gauss, one Ramanujan, one Grothendieck, one Gelfand, one Witten.
The problem with arguing about low-hanging fruits is that until they are picked they are hidden. To me it seems the only reasonable thing to do is look at the history of picking up until now. In that sense math seems to have fewer as time goes by - there are a lot of beautiful things discovered, but that's because people are climbing higher and higher up the tree.
As a side note, this is also why I'm a bit confused by celandine13
comment about low hanging fruits in the sciences. Perhaps she is referring to newer sciences - low hanging fruit in machine learning (something I know little about) would not usually be counted as low hanging fruit in mathematics. Ditto for other "new" science areas.
I will add that, historically, there is a tendency to overvalue the average merit of past works, because we only KNOW of the BEST past works. To take my own specialty, I have read some really great Interwar science fiction stories. Since I began producing and editing Fantastic Worlds, I have published some of them. And, I have also read some amazing garbage that managed to get published in the Interwar Era. I'd never encountered the bad Interwar science fiction before because I'd only read the anthologies, and only the better stories get anthologized.
Now, I'm drawing my stories mostly from Astounding and other major interwar sf magazines, no less. That means I'm picking from the best Interwar science fiction. There were far worse stories written, which ran in obscure magazines, fanzines, or didn't run at all. Ever wonder what it must have been like to be Harry Bates or John W. Campbell reading the slush? I think I know now why Campbell cultivated his famous "stable" of writers!
Also, whole genres get stigmatized or trivialized. I personally think that, for instance, J. R. R. Tolkien stands the comparison with the greatest writers of the 19th century and before. More controversially, I think that Dreamworks and other modern animation studios are producing comedy and drama as gripping and (sometimes) timeless as anything done by the Elizabethans or the Ancient Greeks.
I am currently reading Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky (1999), and I am awed at rediscovering the complex characterization, the elaborate worldbuilding, the complex plot (two major story lines, involving three disctinct civilizations, which weave together into one by the story's end), and the awesomely philosophical themes. It compares favorably with anything ever done by H. G. Wells or Jonathan Swift, to name two prominent writers of very different classic science fiction tales.
But do we (well, most of us) think of this as "great" on the same scale? Do we even think of it as being as good as, say, Isaac Asimov's Foundation series or Robert A. Heinlein's "Future History"? No, because we grew up awed by Sophocles and Shakespeare and Twain and Campbell and Clarke, whereas A Deepness in the Sky is so recent that a child born the same year would now just be beginning to form his opinions of literature.
More, do we think of Western science fiction as being "great" on the same scale as Elizabethan or Classical Greek drama? No, because we are living now in the time of its production, so we see it warts and all: we read anthologies including huge piles of steaming cliche-ridden crap and sometimes fail to notice the flowers that grow from the fertilized fields. Anyway, it's harder to make a mythic being out of a writer you can meet at a convention or argue with on Usenet than it is to idealize Jane Austen or Christopher Marlowe or Aeschylus.
Here is a Great Truth:
We are living in a Golden Age of Civilization, and not just a Golden Age but perhaps the most productive humanity has ever known.
And we won't realize it until it's over. Which hopefully will be long after my own time in life has ended.
Have you read Shippey's Tolkien: Author of the Century?
Athens had these well-known people in their top ten. We're a thousand times bigger than Athens, so how come we don't have ten thousand people in our top ten?
A bit facetious, but I think it illustrates your fame point quite well.
Another reason that I keep referencing people like Aristotle, Epicurus, and, later on, Marcus Aurelius, and other ancient philosophers from various cultures:
They're the basics. They're the ones that everyone else builds upon -- which means that their stuff is easiest to understand. Their stuff is LESS complex, LESS advanced than later philosophers'.
Epicurus is easier to reference than, say, Jeremy Bentham, because Epicurus' stuff is more basic. Jeremy Bentham's work includes all of Epicurus's stuff, and then builds on it, making it more complex.
Aristotle's work on rhetoric is still in use today, because it's solid, useful work. But you don't ONLY use Aristotle -- you use everyone else who build upon him. The Gettysburg Address is better than Pericles' Funeral Oration. MLK's "I Have A Dream" is better than Socrates' "Apologia". Peggy Noonan's best work is better than the best work of the ancient Greeks. Clinton's speech at the most recent DNC is going to go down in history as one of the greatest informational orations ever.
But that means that it's a good idea to start with Aristotle BEFORE going on to Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, JFK, MLK, Reagan (which actually means Peggy Noonan, along with some other brilliant people), and Clinton. So Aristotle gets more credit, because his stuff is subsumed into all the other things, too. They all studied Aristotle, and also studied people who studied Aristotle, and so forth. But that means that Aristotle can get partial credit for Noonan.
I give tons of credit to the Greek philosophers, and other ancient philosophers from the Chinese, Indian, and Jewish traditions, because their stuff is just plain easier to work from, because there is less of it.
Somewhat related to the low-hanging fruit issue is the fact that there are many, many more interesting problems for smart people to focus on today. Look at it this way: in the late 80s, there were three thousand distinct mathematical specialties, and an average working mathematician might be up to speed on three of them. So there's your thousand-to-one Pythagoras ratio sorted.
three thousand distinct mathematical specialties
How are you measuring that? MSC categories?
> There was an interesting experiment I can't find right now where they separated teenagers out into artificial communities and gave them various media of the sort teenagers like - let's say albums by different bands. After enough time, some albums had become popular in each community - had attained "classic" status - while others languished forgotten. But the "classic" albums were different in each community - it had less to do with any real quality and more to do with chance as popular people spread them and they became loved precisely for their familiarity.
2012-12-26 02:05 am (UTC)
Respected channels these days aren't good at creativity. Sticking to written fiction: Publishers have a huge incentive to go for the book most likely to make it big, not the book that'll likely fail but might become a classic but maybe only next century. Many excellent writers self-publish online, which makes fame difficult since it's only word-of-mouth.
Moreover, many currently blossoming genres are low-status. There's an astonishing number of stellar writers specializing in comedic pornographic Sherlock fanfiction. Try and make that look Sophisticated.
Lots of artistic movements were derided at first: novels were drivel by people who couldn't write an epic, 19th-century Romanticism was maudlin rhapsodizing by stupid kids, 20th-century Realism was ugly and prosaic whining by bleeding hearts. Wait fifty years and people will start fawning over early 21st-century slashfic.
2012-12-26 02:36 am (UTC)
The "ancients weren't really that great" is a terrible argument, I think. The main problem with it is that it assumes (and keeps blithely reusing that assumption) that the worth ascribed to the ancients is monotonically increasing with time. Once Plato's works are a thousand years old, they're very respected just by virtue of that, and it just keeps getting better for ol' Plato.
But it just doesn't work that way. Old authors and books keep getting in and out of fashion - and fame - all the time. It must be because they're somehow still relevant (or stop being relevant) to the new generations - if it was just accrued admiration and signaling, the admiration would just keep accruing and people would just keep signaling with it.
Plato used to be a tiny insignificant figure linked to the enormity of Aristotle's fame. Slowly this changed so much that Plato is now our go-to example of famous ancient Greek philosopher. People from the Middle Ages would be very puzzled to learn that.
Shakespeare wasn't Shakespeare for almost 200 years after his death. He wasn't even considered the best playwright of his time - Ben Johnson was more famous than Shakespeare, more read than Shakespeare, more alluded to than Shakespeare, right until the end of the 17th century. Have you read much Ben Johnson? He's pretty good, but - he's no Shakespeare.
I mean, this keeps happening *all the time*. In our time, too. Famous writers who top bestseller lists just vanish, ten years after their death no one remembers they existed; meanwhile, a novel ignored by readers, considered mediocre by critics and a failure by its author, is dredged up years after the author's death and becomes The Great Gatsby, the most famous American novel of the 20th century.
Today, essentially nobody reads Kant, including people who do read dead philosophers. 100 years ago, he's the unassailable giant of modern philosophy. 100 years ago, Kant was more important than Descartes, Locke and Hume combined. Today?
So what all this means for Plato is - when we see a famous ancient author, it isn't just a signal that people liked him a lot 2500 years ago. It's a strong signal that people kept loving him enough over and over again, for different reasons, enough to get him copied and not lost, for one thing. People loved Ben Johnson plenty during his life and 50 years after, but not all the way down to us. Nobody survives and stays famous just because they're old . It's so easy to verify because there are so many who are old, who were very famous, even for a long time, and we no longer care about them.
 I may be exaggerating slightly.
 Well, maybe some things of historical interest, like, I dunno, the epic of Gilgamesh would be studied and translated even if it was much more dull than it is. Just because there's nothing older. But even so, if it was very dull, only specialists would know about it.
Edited at 2012-12-26 02:39 am (UTC)
Today, essentially nobody reads Kant, including people who do read dead philosophers.
We are seeing a burst of creativity with indie PC games, indie tabletop RPGs, and fan fic today. Probably many other fields that I'm not aware of, too. So in the arts I'd say we are producing a thousand Shakespeares, they're just distributed over a wide variety of fields: I think the same to be true for science, which has way way way more subfields than the science of the Greeks or even the Renaissance folks ever did.
2012-12-27 01:29 am (UTC)
One effect extremely strong in arts and sciences is that modern stuff is extremely hard to understand. In 'high' arts, there are often signalling incentives to be hard to understand as well as unattractive to those who are themselves uninterested in signalling.
That Gwern thing is crazily interesting. One thing I think though is that a lot of the old art (including nearly everything pre-enligtenment) is, well, sexist and so on. (also, imagine, say, The Marriage of Figaro, but with the possibility for bisexuality or homosexuality, which might be unknown). A lot of old art has incorrect politics, but modern art is not really replacing it.
How about 5: Specialization of subject matters
I don't know how much you've encountered in your academic career, but I've met several groundbreaking mathematicians with dozens of published original works, and that's just in my tiny experience at a small private college in the middle of Massachusetts. I wouldn't necessarily call them Plato and Aristotle, but my point is that while I've heard of those several mathematicians, I haven't heard anything about the prodigies in e.g. physics, biology, linguistics, robotics, art... if there are a dozen candidates for mathematical genius in my school's small regional consortium, then certainly there are dozens of candidates for genius in other subjects, multiplied by the density of academic institutions... and even if among those dozen candidates only one qualifies as a true "genius" in her field, that still leaves us with a pretty big number
Moreover, we as a greater society recognize ancient philosophers as great because their works are the foundations of modern works, but your work can't be the foundation of a work that hasn't been developed yet. Certainly the aforementioned geniuses may be recognized by those in their own field, but probably won't get international recognition until their work turns out to grant the fundamental principle behind, oh, say, intergalactic travel.Edited at 2012-12-27 09:04 am (UTC)
A lot of this argument is recapitulating Murray's ON HUMAN ACCOMPLISHMENT and the responses to it.
A surprising source for some interesting thinking on these unusual clusters of talent that pop up here and there is Paul Johnson's ART: A NEW HISTORY.
Still, stuff like this is what makes me think there might be something to macrohistories.