The Greeks have a very nimble sense of the way context colors the meaning of what is said or thought; that is what makes the aphoristic writings of Heraclitus so dark and daunting–they have no more context than we are capable of generating for them, out of their own intrinsic implications. To an enriched mind, these sayings speak volumes; to an impoverished mind, they are obscure and mystifying. The Greeks’ keen sense of natural order, of the primal idioms that mark the language of nature itself, makes them sensitive to the root-systems underlying everything, culture, language, action, human nature.
We believe as moderns in an abstracted or disincarnate way of “knowing,” a non-intuitive or anti-intuitive “science”; and all our concrete emplacement is just so much obstruction getting in the way of that panoptical abstract knowing. “Cosmopolitanism” is to moderns not a tediously constructed work of self-cultivation, but something to be achieved in abstracto, by a masterstroke of technology or computation or a form of education or information that just transplants wholesale some new content of knowledge into our minds. Nothing is reasoned out integrally with our own utmost inner preconceptions or presuppositions, as it was for the prodigiously subtle and connoisseurial Greeks such as Aristotle. Education is something grafted onto our minds extraneously, extrinsically. Modern cosmopolitan personality is not so much a matter of mastered understanding but rather an abstracted attitudinalism; it is more like ancient Gnostic alienation, motivated by the profoundest (but nonetheless self-uncomprehending) sense that we do not really viscerally belong in this limited and imperfect world.
Our modernized mass-society is this alienation writ large, entire continental populations devoid of a sense of specific belonging, a sense of having grown out of what they naturally are into what they could potentially become, a sense of traditional trade or profession that fits them into a lineage and a nation, an intimate relation to a growing historical culture. The modern uses of language graphically illustrate this abstractivism–hardly any moderns feel that they need to master the literature of precedents, of paradigmatic displays of genius with the palette of words; in writing or speaking or thinking, moderns just shoot from the hip, devil take the hindmost, and God knows who may understand what they ultimately mean, since they themselves certainly don’t.
The Greeks understood the desperate need of even the most excellent individuals to thrive upon social and political metabolism, the need for nourishing mythoi that prefigure the clarifications of rational insight, the need for a benign Babel of agon or cultural strife in order to raise the spirit of excellence to its galvanizing temperature. Neither rationality, consciousness or values can arise apart from such an enriching matrix; it is fatuous and inane hybris to imagine otherwise. Man was never naturally formed with the kind of hardened being that would enable him, like a God or an animal, to live and be his best just on his own. This kind of isolationism or atomism is however integral to modern egologism, the idolatry that takes ego as an absolute metaphysical principle unto itself. Moderns do dearly love the myth of Robinson Crusoe, of the rugged pioneer, of the proprietary and private Atlas and Fountainhead who is not only himself a self-made man but even in his profession and accomplishments owes nothing to anyone else. True individualism is not such an arrogant act of self-delusion but rather an achievement in medias res, a beachhead of conscience and vision within some extremely potent political and social organism. Concreteness is everything, ripeness is everything; but abstractivism is the opiate of egos infatuated with the oblivion of hybris.