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Demomotus (c. 545 BC - c. 510 BC) was a lesser-known classical Greek philosopher.
Inundated by concepts from the likes of Plato, Pythagoras, Socrates, Aristotle, Thales, and Zeno, few students ever get a chance to learn of philosophers whose ideas have not been academically recounted for centuries.
An example of one such neglected philosopher is Demomotus, a modest Pre-Socratic author and deliberator. Some modern philosophy professors uphold that Demomotus was ahead of his time, though most softly dismiss his arguments as poor and his writings as jumbled. Despite their complaints about Demomotus’s work, very few will deny the eventual influence those arguments had on Plato’s view of the human soul.
Much like they did with Leucippus, modern philosophers and historians debated whether Demomotus ever really existed. Today, though, enough works have been unearthed to show that, though his followers were few, his writings flourished for a time around 515 BCE. As the heir to a large fortune, Demomotus was able to distribute his writings to a sizeable audience despite vocal contemporaries that painted him as an aristocratic crackpot. One unknown contemporary once wrote after hearing a speech by Demomotus, “Paltry still are those [thoughts] of Demomotus.”
Demomotus did not live to see his ideas gain much of a foothold in Greek society. He died quite young (by means that are unclear), never inheriting his father’s holdings. After his death, Demomotus’s brothers made a great effort to circulate some of the unpublished theories; pieces of these writings constitute the majority of fragments that have survived.
Through the recovered documents and a few secondary sources, some specific views became available for study. Among those, his most famous and well-argued discussions were on his Strong-Hearted Doctrine. This theory’s central proposal is that man’s facilities are wholly controlled by his emotions. Taking it a step further, Demomotus believed that no decision is possible if the emotion or appetite is not in complete control of it. He attempts to bring his points home with the tale of the legendary hero Pycerus.
As Demomotus tells it, an early Epirote tribe was at one time brought under the rule of a charismatic leader named Pycerus. One day, while Pycerus was feasting with another nearby tribe, some of his outlying lands were attacked. The elders sent word at once for Pycerus to come to defend his home. Upon Pycerus’s return, his elders and warriors were grieving. When Pycerus asked why, they told him that though they had driven off the invaders, Pycerus’s fair daughter was kidnapped in the confusion. They informed him that the soldiers were clothed in the manner of those in a distant city.
Very saddened by this news, Pycerus rode out alone and pondered over a course of action. After some time, he returned and ordered all of the men to gather timber and all the women to stretch skins for drums. In two days, he decreed, one hundred warriors of his tribe would begin the march to the city.
In three week’s time, the warriors had finished the trek across the hills to the valley north of the city. Pycerus bid that, in the dead of night, each man should build two separate campfires at distanced points throughout the valley. Once each man had blazed their second fire, they should begin sounding their drums in rhythm with the others. Before long, campfires spread as far as the eye could see in the valley. The pounding of the drums echoed for many miles in all directions, horrifying the city already alarmed at the vast field of flickering campfires.
Pycerus and ten of his largest warriors made their way to the city gate. Pycerus then announced that he had marched thousands of men into the valley and, unless his daughter was returned immediately, his army would burn their city to the ground.
With pounding drums and an impressive host suddenly in their midst, the decision was easy for the hastily awoken leaders of the city. If this terror would depart by returning the maiden to the warlord, then, with haste, she must be released. Immediately the captive was given her freedom and Pycerus returned home with his daughter, leaving the city dwellers to their morning embarrassment.
Demomotus begins his argument here. What brought this clever plan to Pycerus? Why did he not attempt this mock onslaught earlier to obtain an expensive tribute? Surely, whenever he wished he could have directed his tribesmen to terrify a city in this manner. Gold and goods would have been very useful for his tribe, and would have brought Pycerus himself more power within his lands. Given the periodic wars with other tribes, additional power would have surely been welcome (and at times would even have seemed necessary). Instead, says Demomotus, Pycerus’s plan was only hatched when grief and rage demanded it. The spirit wished to avoid emotional tragedy, and the intellect was driven to oblige. The emotions had a desire and thus logic found a way.
For those that would counter that Pycerus did not previously use the faux siege for material or political gain because the plan would be too risky, Demomotus dashes that point quickly. He argues that the emotions and spirit must indeed be mighty if they can mobilize the intellect and body to be neglectful of personal risk. If Pycerus thought it too risky for practical gain, why would he risk so much for only an emotional reward? The only conclusion we can reach, Demomotus says, is that the emotional side commands the soul—up to and including the rational mind.
In this way Demomotus argues against his contemporaries that championed wealth and greed (i.e. appetites) as the ultimate drivers of human action. The emotions drive not only basic human desires, but also direct man’s logic and actions. He provides examples of emotional control over animal appetites, such as how a man might starve himself to protest injustice. Further, Demomotus explains that throwing oneself before a spear aimed for one’s brother is an example of spirited emotion controlling the rational.
Up to a point, the views of later philosophers agreed with Demomotus. For instance, Plato takes up the position that the soul has a similar three-tiered structure. He describes three divisions of the soul: an appetitive portion driven by animal needs, a spirited side, and a rational side. Just as in the Strong-Hearted Doctrine, these aspects of the soul all work together to define what a human being can and will accomplish.
While the Doctrine’s overall division of the soul is in line with what Plato later describes, his logic leads him to a different conclusion on their roles. Plato contends that the spirited piece is not the controlling aspect of the soul. Instead, in his Republic (and other works), he argues that the rational has the power to control all other aspects of human action and motivation. Lesser individuals are often under the control of their emotions; even lesser are those driven by their appetites. The soul’s full potential is only available to the few that can rule their lives with philosophy and rationality.
Thus, we have two very different views of the soul. Demomotus believes that noble sacrifice and spirited emotion are what define a human. For Plato, the ability to use logic and rationality elevates man above the beasts. Both are refuting the position that humans are only driven by lust, greed, and hunger, but their competing theories place the controlling forces in different camps. Unfortunately, very few of Demomotus’s arguments have survived to weigh whether he provided as much ammunition as Plato needed in supporting his own position.
Despite his modern obscurity, it is evident that Demomotus was a powerful thinker of his time. His idea that our emotions direct our actions was not likely a revolutionary concept, but his arguments shed a lot of light on human behavior. In addition, his views gave Plato firmer ground to rest his ideals on, though few of his contemporaries (nor modern philosophers) appreciated his work. As more studies of Demomotus are made available, hopefully a better picture of this philosopher will form and lead to a greater appreciation of his arguments.
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