Science and the liberal arts (literature, history, painting, sculpture, ethics) were already beginning to undergo a divisive split during the Hellenistic period (323 B.C.—26 B.C.)—a couple of millennia before C.P. Snow wrote of the “Two Cultures.” Plato and Aristotle had both attempted, throughout their careers, to preserve the undivided unity of the sciences (including mathematics) and the arts—because of their shared conception of philosophy as a comprehensive attempt to account for the whole in terms that embraced the entire human being. It may be profitable for us to take a close look at this initial divergence of science and the liberal arts within the peculiar cultural/political context of Hellenism. We know, for instance, that with the decline and eventual demise of the polis (along with the spread of a comparatively leveling cosmopolitanism), aristocratic forms and vertical (“top-down”) ways of rank ordering rapidly gave way to more “lateral,” plebeian modes of thought and feeling.
Examples are abundant. Sculpture becomes increasingly ornate, sentimental, and even melodramatic—very different, indeed, from the austere, Apollonic ideals of the classical period. Menander’s comedies provide a prototype for the modern sitcom—homely characters in often farcical predicaments drawn from everyday life. These plays (like the story of Jason and the Argonauts) are meant primarily to entertain and amuse a general audience. The comedies of Aristophanes, by contrast, though certainly funny even by today’s standards, were culturally substantive and politically serious in their use of satire. Comparing Aristophanes’ The Birds or The Clouds to a comedy by Menander is a bit like comparing a movie like “Network” to “The Forty Year-old Virgin.” The two principal philosophies of the Hellenistic era—Stoicism and Epicureanism—have frequently been characterized as more or less dignified stratagems for escape. Escape from what? From the uncertainty, the anxieties, and the general sense of disorientation endured by so many persons after the decay and collapse of the old religious and political orders.
Very much like our own era, it was a time marked by cultural decomposition, with the concomitant leveling of traditional forms and hallowed values from a magnificent past. Such a situation permits the release of social, political, economic, and psychological energies that had formerly been blocked or held in check during the more repressive and socially restricted aristocratic scheme that exclusively favored a limited ruling elite. The variety, mobility, and fluidity of Hellenistic society made for a very different mental and cultural context than that inhabited by Aeschylus and Sophocles—and even later, during the careers of Plato and Aristotle, when troubling signs of cultural-political decay were already quite conspicuous.
Is there a possible historical parallel between ancient Macedon’s role in the spread of Hellenism and present-day America’s role in the spread of modern Western (European-rooted) culture? In the ancient case, we have a provincial, outlying Greek nation of warrior-adventurers led by a “world-conquering” leader who envisions a cosmopolitan, Greek-speaking empire. In the modern case, we have a “rough and ready” former colony equipped with the practical, economic, communicational, and military might required to establish and temporarily maintain a global, U.S.-dominated, English-speaking empire. Both Hellenism and American capitalism-consumerism operate by absorbing and recruiting the natives of conquered territories (or markets) into their institutional-educational schemes—reshaping and adapting these local cultures, usually in as non-destructive a manner as possible (as the Romans would do after the Hellenistic model, and the British would do after the Roman model) into cooperative dependents.
One way of backing up the claim that philosophy should be at the summit of human activities or disciplined pursuits—higher in natural rank than physics, mathematics, chemistry, biology, medicine, and all the many arts and practical activities which are taught in our universities and polytechnic institutes—is to demonstrate that philosophy is not only more comprehensive than all these other disciplines, but that, in overseeing all of them, it seeks to determine how these noble but lesser arts and sciences contribute to the overall good of humanity—and what that good consists in. Moreover, the philosopher—or “lover of wisdom”—is not inclined to profess (and by no means to preach!) that there is a simple or final recipe for the “overall good of humanity.” Nevertheless, unlike the physicist, the biologist, and the physician, who—in their official capacities—confine their attention to material, biochemical, and physiological phenomena, the philosopher concerns himself with a much broader array of questions, problems, and phenomena. These include the phenomena dealt with by scientists, of course, but they extend to arenas for which the powerful but restricted methods of science are inappropriate and often quite ham-fisted. Not that scientists haven’t intrusively meddled, now and again, in such inappropriate domains as ethics, politics, psychology, and history. Fortunately, the blunders and follies of scientism have had a chastening and cautionary effect upon many who might otherwise be tempted to misuse scientific methods outside the ample, but by no means infinite, domain wherein they are fit to be employed.
The diplomatic passport of the philosopher, when it has been justly earned, entitles him to freely enter domains that are either closed off to the various subordinate disciplines or which have little or nothing to offer to him. This universally honored passport of the philosopher which enables him to take the totality of phenomena, questions, and perspectives within his purview and speculative embrace is earned only by virtue of his commitment to take the whole seriously into consideration over the course of his life career.
If we begin with the working hypothesis that cultural epochs are born, develop, ripen, and then decay after the manner of living creatures—as various students of history and culture have claimed before us—then, it follows that we can derive a number of useful insights which may profitably guide our understanding and our action in the particular “phase” we happen to inhabit. Put simply, modes of thinking, feeling, and acting that are properly suited to the youthful or adolescent stage of a culture (here regarded as a vital organism with a lifespan that roughly resembles that of a man) are quite unsuitable for middle and old age, when the organism begins to wane in vitality and to gradually—or abruptly—fall apart.
If there is a centripetal and coagulative tendency evident in the first half of a culture’s lifespan, the second half is comparatively centrifugal, dispersive, and eventually decompositional. At a midpoint, these divergent modalities would be relatively poised in a condition of equilibrium. This polaristic scheme entailing growth and consolidation, on the one hand, and decay and decomposition, on the other, transcends human reason and human will—collective or individual—in terms of scope and determining power. As humans, we are its children and its servants—not the other way around. Being governed by the overarching life cycle of the cultural organism that we are part of, rather than governing and determining it—is it not both in our own collective interests and that of the unfolding culture itself to coordinate, as best we can, our thoughts and actions with the requirements and conditions of the phase we happen to inhabit?
And yet, here we run into a very interesting problem. While it is true that these symptoms of youth and age can be observed in the field of temporal or historical events, they are also archetypal and therefore are manifest to some degree or another, at all times. If we look, for example, at the well-documented life cycle of Greek culture, we find Bronze Age Homeric heroes at the founding (or childhood) phase and Epicurean and Stoic copers during the foundering, Hellenistic phase, near the end. To carry this illustration further, we might position the tragedians (Aeschylus and Sophocles, but not Euripides for reasons that will be apparent to anyone who has studied Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy) and the Pre-Socratics (especially Pythagoras, Anaximander, and Heraclitus) at the prime point of equilibrium. It is perhaps also worth noting that when an “anomalous” representative appears (who is conspicuously out-of-step with his/her own phase or background, like the black spot in the white hemisphere of the yin-yang symbol), he or she commands a disproportionate amount of attention. Alexander the Great, who appears in the dotage of that life cycle known in its entirety as “Hellas,” was in certain respects a throwback to the Bronze Age of the Homeric epics. It took the strangely incongruous figure of this reincarnated Achilles to consolidate and preserve for posterity the legacy of the long growth cycle that has entered its sunset with his career. He may be likened to a supernova. (Nietzsche says much the same thing about Napoleon with respect to modern European culture—that he was an atavism, an anomalous recurrence of Roman virtú, out of season.)
These anomalous figures who are born out of season possess an almost magical potency vis-à-vis their own times. Why is this? Because they are complementary to (and, in a sense, the polar opposites of) their times. They fill in the many blanks that are produced by the one-sidedness of the collective attitude. In this sense, the complementary men (and Nietzsche, I believe offers an excellent example of this in his own anomalous career) embody all those virtues, vices, perspectives, inclinations, and dangerous possibilities that are unconsciously repressed or neglected in accordance with the general requirements of the culture at its particular stage of unfoldment. If we use youth and seasoned maturity (or old age) as illustrations of this complementarity, we see that now and again the energetic and ambitious young man at once desires and resists the companionship of the wise elder—and vice versa. The young man—because he is dimly aware that he has a good deal more energy and enthusiasm than wisdom—may recognize the value and importance of the elder’s advice and guidance. Nevertheless, another part of him wants to proceed alone, learning and discovering everything for himself—even if that means risking some big blunders and setbacks that may be easily prevented by heeding the elder’s wise counsel. The elder, on the other hand, instinctively wishes to pass on to the younger generation whatever wisdom and insight he may have gathered over a long lifetime. Moreover, the company of the young is vitalizing and pleasant to him. But, by the same token, the years of hardship and disappointment (which provided both the soil and the grapes from which the wine of wisdom was fermented) have left him with his share of bitterness and with a certain impatient disdain for the foolishness and the thick-headedness of youth. He must temper this bitterness and disdain before he is a fit guide for the young.
 Certainly I am not recommending some slavish conformity to conventional trends or values—the sort of conformity that is inimical to individual development and unfoldment. Rather, I am merely suggesting that we strive to establish our (intellectual and ethical) bearings within the culture and epoch (that fate has seen fit to plunge us into) as they actually are constituted, rather than as we would ideally prefer them to be! The way towards liberation from the blind spots and prejudices of our culture and age begins, I would argue, with our conscious adaptation to the reality of our situation and not with its wholesale denial and dismissal.