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Ancient Philosophy

Updated on March 9, 2011

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Where did philosophy come from?

Philosophy, as an investigation into the nature of reality, distinct from both the empirical sciences and from religious belief, first becomes explicit and self-conscious with the Greeks. To the early Greek philosophers from Ionia, in Asia Minor, scientific investigation was still, to some extent, mixed with philosophical investigation. By empirical observation, some things are seen to be made out of other things, e.g. ice from water. The Ionian philosophers, therefore, pre-supposing that there is some primary stuff or material out of which everything is formed, went on to ask: Of what is the world as a whole made?

Thales (c. 625-550 B.C.), for instance, held that water is the primary material and that everything is made of water in various states, e.g. ice is water in a frozen state, clouds are water in an evaporated state. Anaximander (c. 610-545 B.C.) sought also for the primary material of all things, but decided that it could not be any one element like water, because water itself is a determinate thing and made from something else. The primary stuff then, Anaximander concluded, must be completely indeterminate, i.e. capable of giving rise to every determinate thing. Anaximines (c. 590-525 B.C.), held that air, being the principle of life, is the primary material, and becomes different things by condensation and rarefaction. Anaximines' notion of air suggests (a) that the primary material, though invisible itself, can give rise to visible things, and (b) that ultimately things are all the same and differ only in their shape or extension, i.e. that there are only quantitative differences between them. The importance of the lonians lies in the fact that they raised the primary philosophical question, "What is the ultimate nature of things?" and not so much in their attempted solutions of that question.

Pythagoras (c. 570-500 B.C) was an Ionian who founded a school in Southern Italy. It was apparently a religious brotherhood, influenced by the teachings of the Orphic religious sect, but also with a strong scientific spirit. The study of mathematics was looked on as a valuable training for the soul. Since all things in the world can be numbered, and the relations between things expressed numerically, e.g. the intervals on the musical scale, the Pythagoreans, according to Aristotle, went so far as to say that all things are numbers. Thus, it seems, they identified numbers with geometrical figures, and then proceeded to show how everything is made up out of these figures, e.g. a line is made up of several points, a surface of several lines and a body of several surfaces. A similar mathematical explanation of the universe has been suggested in modern times by Sir James Jeans. Plato was deeply influenced both by the mathematical speculations of the Pythagoreans, and by their emphasis on the importance of the soul.

With Heraclitus (c. 540-475 B.C.), philosophy was less confused with scientific speculation. He was principally concerned with the philosophical question of how things change and how there can be many things in the world, and also how both change and multiplicity can be reconciled with the permanence and oneness of the world. Everything is constantly changing, he said; but this change is of the very essence of reality itself, for things only exist by maintaining a kind of tension between opposite elements. Fire, according to Heraclitus, is the best illustration of this because it exists only by ceaselessly changing other things into itself.

Parmenides (540-450 B.C), saw that change or "becoming" involved the passage of a thing from "not-being" to "being", e.g. for this water to become hot it must pass from being "not-hot" to being "hot". Thus change seemed to him to involve the derivation of being from not-being. But this, he argued, is absurd, for something cannot come from nothing. Therefore change is self-contradictory and cannot take place; what is seen as apparent change is an illusion. It follows, also, that the world must be one, because it cannot separate out, or become many different things. This philosophical doctrine of the absolute oneness of everything is sometimes called Monism. Melissus (470-420 B.C.) seems to have held similar ideas to Parmenides. Zeno of Elea (c490-420 B.C), in an attempt to reduce Parmenides' opponents to absurdity, demonstrated by a series of paradoxes, e.g. Achilles and the tortoise, that change and motion were impossible.

The Atomists, Empedocles (475-435 B.C.) and Anaxagoras (500-425 B.C.), put forward the view that the primary material is composed of elements which, mixed together in various proportions, make up all things in the world. The cause which brings about this mixing of the elements is described as "Love" and "Strife" and "Nous" Cor "Mind"). With Leucippus (499-430 B.C.) and Democritus (460-360 B.C.), this idea was made more plausible by the theory that there are an infinite number of indivisible units, or atoms, which in various combinations, constitute the things in the world. This has as its corollary that everything is explicable in terms of matter and motion.

Of the Sophists, the most notable were Protagoras (450-410 B.C.) and Gorgias (483-379 B.C.). They were concerned rather with the training of good citizens than with philosophical speculation. They made a feature of teaching their disciples how to argue and debate. Gradually their teaching became debased to the level of mere dialectical trickery. Hence "Sophist" came to mean one who can make what is false appear true. In so far as the Sophists held any consistent philosophical position, it was that of subjectivism and relativism. Thus Protagoras asserted, "man is the measure of all things", meaning that whatever appeared true and good to man 1003 true and good.

Socrates (470-399 B.C.) was not a systematic philosopher and was content to teach mainly by informal discussion, using the Socratic method of feigning ignorance and asking questions of people so as to expose their own lack of real knowledge. Socrates did not write anything, but Plato reports much of his teaching in his early Dialogues. It seems that Socrates had studied the speculations of the Ionians and the Atomists about the nature of the world, but had been disappointed by them and so had turned to the study of man himself. In this concern with moral questions Socrates is, in a sense, a descendant of the Sophists. Moreover, he makes use of the dialectic method of the Sophists, though with him this method is always used in the service of the truth. The Socratic Method assumes a trust in reason and objective truth (Socrates even went to the length of saying, "virtue is knowledge", i.e. immoral actions are simply due to ignorance of what is good for one), and emphasizes that one must, in acquiring knowledge, begin by being humble before reality.

Plato (428-347 B.C.) carried on Socrates' interest in moral questions and based his Dialogues on the Socratic method of question and answer. Like Socrates he was concerned to show that there were objective standards of right and wrong and that justice was not just a matter of convention. Plato also continued the speculations of the pre-Socratic philosophers on change, and endeavored to . reconcile Heraclitus' doctrine with that of Parmenides through his famous doctrine of the Forms. Thus Plato believed, with Heraclitus, that the things of the world are subject to change and impermanence. but that these things, observed by the senses, are participations in ideal Forms, which exist apart from the material world and are unchanging and, as such, known only by the mind. According to Plato, because the things in the world are only participations, they are subject to change, but, because they are participations in the Forms, they have a certain permanence and unity, e.g. because Tom, Dick and Harry, though subject to change as individuals, all participate in the one unchanging Form of "man-ness", they have a certain permanence and can be known and called by the common name of "man". True knowledge, in the Platonic view, consists in the knowledge of the Forms (only the Forms are universal and permanent enough to be known), and not of particular participations in the Forms. Again, since the Forms are themselves participations of one ultimate Form (the Form of the Good), the highest knowledge is knowledge of the Form of the Good. It is not clear whether Plato identified the Form of the Good with God or not. Plato applied his philosophical conclusions to moral conduct, politics, and even to art.

The early works of Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) were Platonic in spirit, and it was only gradually that he came to take up an independent position and to criticize the Platonic theory. Aristotle was the first to study in a systematic way the method and the scope of philosophy as a distinct branch of inquiry, and it may be said that, with him, philosophy becomes fully self-conscious. His theory of Logic still remains substantially the basis of that sphere of philosophy. Seeing the insufficiency of the Platonic doctrine of the Forms as an explanation of change or becoming, Aristotle proposed his celebrated distinction between "potential being" and "actual being" to solve the Parmenidean dilemma. Thus, in his work the Physics, he notes that change involves the passage of a thing not from a state of not-being to a state of being, but from a state of potentially being something to actually being that thing, e.g. water only becomes actually hot because it can be hot, or is potentially hot. This distinction, applied to the things in the world, gives rise to the theory of "matter and form". For anything to exist it must exist as a determinate thing; but, at the same time as it exists as this determinate kind of thing, it can potentially be another kind of thing, e.g. water is cold, but it can be hot. This principle of indeterminacy, a capacity for taking on new determinations, Aristotle calls matter; the principle of determinacy, that which makes a thing to be actually what it is, he calls form. Thus, knowledge of man comprises knowledge of the form apart from the individual subjects in which, in real existence outside the mind, the "form" exists.

In the Metaphysics, Aristotle shows that there is a distinct branch of philosophy — theology, or first philosophy, as he calls it — which has for its object everything which exists, being qua being; in other words, it investigates what it is for a thing to be or to exist or to be a thing. It is, therefore, the most universal kind of inquiry, since every thing, in so far as it is a thing, has being or existence; and it is the most ultimate kind of inquiry, since the fact that it exists is the most ultimate fact about any thing. The Nicomachean Ethics and Politics treat of the principles governing man's social and private conduct; the Rhetoric investigates the modes of persuasive argument, and the Poetics studies the nature of literary tragedy. Aristotle also wrote several scientific works showing considerable powers of scientific observation, e.g. On the Parts of Animals, The History of Animals and The Generation of Animals. In all spheres, Aristotle's philosophy has been one of the most important formative influences on Western thought.

With the death of Alexander the Great (323 B.C.) Greek culture decayed and there was little original philosophical thinking; speculation was mainly restricted to the sphere of ethics. The Stoic school, founded by Zeno (336-264 B.C.), returned to pre-Socratic philosophical notions in their description of the world. Human happiness, said the Stoics, consists in living according to nature, i.e. according to the divinely appointed order of the world. Man has to fight against his feelings and endeavor to attain a state of apathy, or unfeelingness; he must become independent of all externals. This doctrine was later taken over by the Roman Stoics, Seneca (d. 65 A.D.), Epictetus (50-138 A.D.) and the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 A.D.).

Epicurus (342-270 B.C.), declared all scientific knowledge, not connected with the conduct of life, to be useless. According to him, sense-knowledge is the fundamental basis of all knowledge. Thus the feeling of pleasure is the criterion of what is morally good, and pain of what is morally bad. Epicurus denied the existence of the gods and applied the atomistic theory of Democritus to the soul to show that it was simply a material thing. Man's ultimate happiness, he held, consists in pleasure, but one must calculate what gives the most pleasure in the long run. This theory is sometimes called Hedonism. Lucretius (95-51 B.C.) used Epicureanism as the basis of his philosophical poem, De Rerum Natura.

Pyrrho of Elis (360-270 B.C.) was the founder of the school of Scepticism. Just as the Stoics and Epicureans looked to knowledge as a means to peace of soul, the Sceptics sought the same end by denying the value of all knowledge. So they held that nothing can be known for certain, there being no criterion of truth or falsity, or of good and evil.

Of the Eclectics, Antiochus of Ascalon (d. 68 B.C.) held that the fact that a majority of philosophers agreed on any doctrine is a criterion of the truth of that doctrine. He tried to show that the Platonic, Aristotelian and Stoic systems are in essential agreement with each other. Cicero (106-43 B.C.) is perhaps the most famous Eclectic philosopher; he selected parts of Stoicism and Skepticism to form a composite theory of his own.

Philo (28 B.C.-40 A.D.) shows the influence of Greek thought on the Jewish mind. He maintained that the same essential truth is found in both Greek philosophy and the Jewish scriptures and tradition. He stressed the transcendence of God over the world and emphasized the dualism of soul and body in man. Man's task, he believed, is to become as like God as possible.

Plotinus (203-269 A.D.) expounded a theory which is largely an extension of Plato's doctrine (hence sometimes called neo-Platonism). God is absolutely transcendent: he is the One above all change and beyond our knowledge. Since God must eternally be the same, He must necessarily have created the world. According to Plotinus, the thought of God (Notts), is in some way an emanation from God. The World-Soul in turn emanates from Nous and individual souls from the World-Soul. Below the sphere of soul is the material world, furthest removed from the oneness and intelligibility of God.

St. Augustine began as an adherent of Manichaeism, according to which there are two ultimate principles in the world, the one responsible for good, the other for evil. Certain neo-Platonic works, however, convinced him that evil was not something positive or an entity in itself, so that the fact that there is evil in the world does not contradict the existence of God. Although after he became a Bishop he was mainly concerned with theological questions, he remained interested in philosophy and discussed problems connected with our knowledge of ourselves and of the external world, e.g. in his Soliloquies. Anticipating Descartes, St. Augustine held that thought cannot be deceived in thinking that the thinker exists. The mind, he declared, can know eternal truths which are independent of it, and these eternal truths bear witness to the fact that there must be an eternal being—God. These eternal truths, in fact, represent the ideas or exemplars in the mind of God by which He creates things. The human mind can see these eternal truths only by a divine illumination, though it is not clear if St. Augustine thought of this as a special supernatural gift or not.

At the end of the 5th Century, the Pseudo-Dionysius, whose exact identity is unknown, but who was probably a 5th Century Christian monk, tried to reconcile the neo-Platonic doctrine of the One with the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, and the idea of "emanation" with the doctrine of creation. Concerning the knowledge we have of God through philosophy, Dionysius distinguished two ways of thinking, negative and affirmative. Thus, man knows God in the first way by knowing that He must be not-changeable, not-composite, etc., because change, composition, etc., pertain to material things only. On the other hand, God is wise because wisdom is compatible with the nature of an infinite spiritual being. Dionysius also held that evil is not something positive, but rather a privation of some good. Both these doctrines were to have a profound effect upon the philosophical thinking of the Middle Ages.


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