Food or Philosophy?

Two thousand and five hundred years ago, the Persian Empire’s ambition of expansion surpassed its vast area. The empire considered cities, such as Sparta and Athens, as disloyal, and that they must return to the empire’s rule.
Ancient Persian armies began marching towards the young cities of the West. The rulers of those two cities, which were in constant enmity, realized that, without joining forces, they wouldn’t be able to defend their entities against this mutual giant enemy.

Thus, the Greeks had fought several fierce battles and, although they suffered many losses, their courageous men were able to inflict a crushing defeat on the Persian army and destroy its navy—considered legendary at that time.

When the Greek armies returned to their cities, poverty was looming in their communities. War had exhausted their capabilities, claiming the lives of many of their men and ruining their financial prospects.

The situation in Sparta, was particularly dire, as its people were not people of trade or industry. They were primarily concerned with armament–related issues, just like their fellow Athenians, with the latter focusing on wisdom and cunning art of politics and economy, rather than war.

After the war, the Athenians converted their fleet to a commercial one and began to use it to transport goods through the Mediterranean, thus turning Athens into a significant commercial city. In contrast, Sparta had been fighting war after war, until its name began to fade in history books, to be replaced by the name of Athens, the beacon of wisdom and philosophy.

When we read the history of philosophy, we can hardly find a philosopher from Sparta, although Sparta defeated Athens and imposed, for a period of time, ‘oligarchy’—a form of government that vests all power in a few individuals or in a dominant class or clique—in an attempt to crush the spirit of democracy in that great city. Nonetheless, Athens became a centre for global trade. It paved the way for the rise of Greek wisdom, which is still considered the foundation of the human philosophy.

That period in history witnessed the rise of a considerable number of renowned philosophers and sages, such as Socrates, Plato, Xenophon, and Aristotle, whose words and ideas are still the subject of debates and discussions among contemporary philosophers. During that epoch, the Athenian society was not poor, and although it was undergoing many political and intellectual changes at the time of Socrates, the Greek wisdom originated within a rich democratic society.
Aristotle, for example, who was the teacher of Alexander the Great, was granted by the latter a thousand men to travel around the world and come back with every strange animal or plant, in order to observe and examine them, writing down his observations and discoveries. Thus, Aristotle opened new dimensions for the natural philosophy, which was not tackled by any philosopher before him.
As Will Durant notes in his book ‘The Story of Philosophy’, “Aristotle finally settled in the quiet Gardens of the Academy”—in reference to the Academy of Plato, where he taught philosophy and wisdom.
In the Islamic history, scientific inventions and increased literary output was invigorated only when the state’s economy had grown, political stability was achieved and infrastructure developed.
It is rare to find a group of thinkers or writers who established their names in the history, but lived in a prosperous society, or in an era, that had all prerequisites for literary and intellectual production. Al-Asma’i, for example, grew up with a group of writers and poets during Al-Rashid caliphate, all of whom contributed significantly to Arabic literature.

Towards the end of the twelfth century, the Italians adopted the slogan “Food must come before philosophy, and wealth before art.” They lifted restrictions on internal trade, and secured the goods that passed through their towns, located in the middle of the trade route. They also reduced taxes on traders, and provided food and lodging for traders, who sold or shipped their goods from the Italian cities.
As trade and industry flourished, cities such as Venice, one of the most important industrial cities in the world, and Florence, one of the most important commercial cities, thrived, thus providing painters and sculptors with a well-to-do environment to sell their art, encouraging and attracting business that was unaffected by the passage of time.

If you look around, you’ll find that cities that sell millions of books and novels a year are rich cities with a growing economy. Look for the museums, you will find them next to the banks and trade centers. Ask for the theaters, and you will often find them in crowded big cities.

If you walk in London, New York, Paris or Tokyo, you will easily find a museum or a stunning theater. Moreover, you can rarely find a street without a bookshop at each corner. Thus, you have the right to wonder, “Why do these landmarks rarely exist in our Arab cities?”

The answer is that we, in the Arab cities, are trying to sell novels to those who cannot afford to buy medicine for their children, and we ask those who work in three jobs a day, just to make ends meet, to attend a play in the evening.
As for those leading a luxurious and affluent life, their shallow culture dictates that museums are a waste of their time, the time they prefer to spend in the stock or the real estate markets.

Before we build a museum, we have to pave the road that leads to it, and before we build a library, we have to provide the electricity that provides it with lights. Before we build opera houses, we should build residential houses for the members of the community. In the words of the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, “Philosophy is more useful, when built on reality.”

writer by : Hareb and Elarassi

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