The century 600 - 500
B.C. seems to have given birth to a quite amazing number of
great thinkers and teachers in many parts of Asia, and in
Greece. Almost all the great religions and philosophical
traditions of the following millennia begin with them. We need
only consider some names and dates:
Jeremiah: died c.585
Second Isaiah: fl. c.539
Ezekiel: fl. c. 600 - 570
Zarathustra/Zoroaster: 630 - 553
Lao-tzu: 604 - 550 (?)
Kung Fu-tzu/Confucius: 551
Siddhartha/Gautama Buddha/Shakyamuni: 550 - 479 (?)
Thales: 624 - 546
Anaximander: 610 - 545
Anaximenes: 586 - 526
Xenophanes: 570 - 475
Pythagoras: 581 - 497
The greatest of the Old
Testament prophets, who inspired the Jews at the time of
the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian Exile, the
founders of Zoroastrianism, of Confucianism, of
Taoism, of Buddhism, and the pioneers of science
and philosophy in Greece, were all alive at the same
moment, or at least within a few years of one another.
this list may be added another, purely of Greek philosophers,
for the next generation:
Heraclitus: 544 - 484
Parmenides: 515 - 445 (?)
Anaxagoras: 500 - 428
Empedocles: 490 - 430
Zeno of Elea: 490 - 450 (?)
Protagoras: 485 - 415
Democritus: 460 - 380 (?)
Socrates: 469 - 399
Plato 427 - 347
Aristotle 384 - 322
Consider also this
list of the period's Greek poets and artists :
Archilochus c.650 Iambic, elegiac poet
Stesichorus c.600 Lyric poet, heroic ballads
Sappho of Lesbos b.612 First great lyric poet(ess)
Anacreon 580 - 495 Light lyric poetry
Aesop d.564 Fables
Hipponax c.540 Satiric iambic poet
Pindar 518 - 438 Odes
Thespis c.534 Originator of acted tragedy
Aeschylus 525 - 456 Tragedies
Cratinus 520 - 421 Comedies (lost)
Sophocles 496 - 406 Tragedies
Euripides 484 - 406 Tragedies
Aristophanes 450 - 387 Comedies
Herodotus: 485 - 424 Historian
Thucydides 460 - 400 Historian
Phidias 490 - 420 Sculptor
Pericles 495 - 429 Citizen of Athens
For the following
generation we should add :
Menander 342 - 290 Comedies
Hippocrates 460 - 377 Father of medicine
Praxiteles 400 - 330 Sculptor
Theocritus 320 - 250 Bucolic (pastoral) poet
Euclid fl. 300 Formulated geometry
Epicurus 340 - 271 Founder of Epicureanism
Zeno of Citium 335 - 263 Founder of the Stoic School
The Early Greek
Although Babylon and
Egypt, as well as China, and other peoples too, developed
remarkable skills in astronomy, mathematics, and technology, the
Greeks have a unique claim to be at the origin of what we now
call Science and Philosophy. Until recently these
two activities were not distinguished; the Natural Sciences
(Physics, Chemistry, Botany, Biology) were called Natural
Philosophy in England until the nineteenth century. If there is a key to
why this is so, it may lie in the constant Greek concern to find
simple answers to complex questions, and the conviction that
such an answer existed.
Already in Hesiod's Theogony,
we saw a narrative clearly intent on tracing back the
multiplicity of cosmic forms and phenomena to a single unified
beginning. Hesiod's mythological explanations depended
largely on the metaphors of copulation, engendering and birth,
seen as a purely mechanical process explained by the latent
fertility of the material world, and employed the personified
figures of Love and Strife to evoke the
mechanisms underlying change, growth and death, union and
division. One characteristic feature of Greek thought is its
fondness for (or even dependence on) the use of metaphor and
personification. Words designating abstract and general
properties (Love, Strife, Justice...) very easily take on
independent existence, as though such 'realities' subsist in
themselves, and not simply in human language.
After Hesiod, the
first names that have been transmitted are those of the Milesian
school of thinkers (based in the Ionian city of
Miletus in what is now Turkey), with their monist
concern to identify the one fundamental substance out of
which the entire Cosmos is composed. One main characteristic of
such men is their curiosity about a wide range of phenomena.
Thales of Miletus (624 - 546) is reported to
have predicted an eclipse of the sun in 585, and to have
measured the height of the Great Pyramid by comparing the length
of its shadow with that of a stick. He taught that all matter
was basically water, with the dry ground floating on
water. Just as important, he believed that the whole material
Cosmos was animated by an inherent moving force, rather like the
soul that gives life to the human body. This marks a basic change
of question, from "How did the universe arise?" that Hesiod
tried to answer in largely mythical ways, to "What is everything
made of? What is the essential substance?" One of the main
characteristics of these thinkers was the basic conviction that
although the universe is full of different kinds of things,
everything is essentially made of the same material. The
thinkers were always in search of a unified theory that
would explain everything. Modern theoretical science continues
to pursue that same task.
Until we come to
Plato, in what follows we are evoking the names and ideas of men
whose works are only known to us through fragments, often single
phrases quoted by some later writer. None of their works has
survived intact, and some never wrote but only taught; almost every phrase
describing their teaching ought to be qualified by "It seems
likely that he taught...".
Anaximander (610 - 545) was a disciple
of Thales; he too looked for a primal substance, but preferred a
negative definition: the Limitless or Boundless,
something infinite and undefined, eternal and indestructible,
not any single substance known to us. This definition is
remarkable for its abstract nature. The Limitless, he thought,
is in perpetual motion, always changing, with opposites
separating out: hot and cold, moist and dry. He thought of the
world as a cylinder floating free in empty space, and was the
first to develop a
theory to explain the motion of the stars. He had a notion of
evolution, thinking that life began in the sea, and that man
developed from fish. He
wrote of the aggressive nature of natural processes and his book
was perhaps the first work of European prose.
Anaximenes (586 - 526) followed
Anaximandros, but identified his master's Boundless with air,
which has many of the properties of the Boundless and was also
believed to be the substance of the life-giving soul. He
suggested that everything developed from a condensation or
rarefication, a warming and cooling, of the original air. He was
the first person to state that the moon's light derives from
that of the sun, and to propose that eclipses have a purely
natural explanation. Until him, eclipses were always seen as
supernatural warning signs. Equally important, he explained that
the rainbow is the result of sunlight passing through a mist; in
Homer and in popular thought, the rainbow was the sign of Iris,
one of the messengers of the gods. He begins the 'demythologizing'
process that was soon to be developed further by Xenophanes.
These three form the
so-called Milesian School that inspired the later Ionian
of them is concerned with identifying the one original
substance. They do not tackle the question of how the great
diversity of the natural world emerged, and the entire problem
of the origin of change is left untouched. The Eleatics
now turned their attention to problems such as 'the One and the
Many,' 'Being and Becoming,' 'Rest and Motion.'
Xenophanes (570 - 475) was born into a poor
family in Colophon (now in Turkey). He heard Anaximandros teach, but left
his native Ionia when the Persians took power in 546. He went
travelling to the West, and in Sicily he may have met Pindar and Aeschylus; he too was a
poet. Finally he settled in Elea, in the south of Italy. Perhaps this
experience of life in a variety of lands taught him the relative
nature of cultural phenomena. He was critical by nature, mocking
in satires the luxurious and effeminate lifestyles of the
Ionians; more important, he attacked the anthropomorphic gods
found in Homer and Hesiod. He was also hostile to the importance
people attached to athletics. He was a historian, an
ethnologist, and a naturalist, but he always went beyond mere
observation to develop a philosophy in each of these areas. He
considered them all to be aspects of the one Cosmos, and he
looked for an underlying spiritual unity. He examined fossils in
Malta and Sicily and explained them in much the same way as we
do today, as signs of great evolutions and change in the shape
of land and sea. Above
all, he is the first Greek to assert that the gods of Homer and
Hesiod could not possibly be real. He was repulsed by their viciousness,
called the stories about them 'prehistoric fables' and
recommended that instead of believing them, people should strive
to live in purity, piety, and justice. He affirms a pantheistic
vision, declaring that everything forms a single All-One,
in which inheres the God without beginning or end, unchanging,
who is omnipresent thought.
Fossils led him to believe
that all things had come into being by a combination of earth
and water, by natural processes. Beyond that, he had little to
say about the shape or substance of the world. Another immensely
important new idea he formulated involves the development of
culture and civilization. He is the first thinker to say that
humanity has evolved its own culture (including religion)
without the help of supernatural beings. As he says, 'in their
gods, people depict themselves.' Thus Xenophanes affirms the
value and capacity of the Human at the same time as he
purifies the concept of the Divine. He rejected popular
religion, with its superstitious sacrifices and fortune-telling.
Instead, he stresses the importance in human life of moral
thought and conduct. God and Nature are for him inseparable, and
morality is therefore a matter of living in harmony with nature.
Above all, perhaps, he is the first to perceive the distinction
between thought and feeling (sense-perception),
and to assert that while thought (reason) is reliable, we cannot
be sure of knowing things correctly by our senses.
Pythagoras (581 - 497) is famed as a
mathematician, and a mystical theologian, he is said to have
originated the word "philosopher" by saying that only God was
wise, while he and people like him were seeking union with God who
was wisdom in their thought; they were simply "lovers of wisdom" (philosophoi).
and his contemporary thinkers, including Plato, were generally
termed 'Sophists'. Very little indeed is known about Pythagoras's
life, or thought. He left his native Samos and went to live in
Italy, where he founded a kind of religious society modelled on
the secretive Orphic mystery religions. His teaching was centered on
the notion of the transmigration
of the soul and his followers seem to have sought liberation
from material existence through various magic taboos ('do not poke
a fire with iron,' 'do not eat beans'). The Pythagoreans
considered the body with its sensual nature to be something evil.
The process of pure thought enabled individuals to fulfill their
destiny by rising above and mortifying their sensual material
nature before death. In addition, since all living creatures, even
plants, were inhabited by soul-daemons, the whole living universe
was one and equal. Women were admitted to the Pythagorean order as
equal with men. The soul returned to new bodies after death,
rising progressively higher through the practice of thought, and
human life culminated as bard, physician, or prince. Beyond that,
the soul was released from the wheel of incarnation and returned
to the divine bliss. The dualism of body and soul
was reflected in their cosmic dualism of matter and form,
unlimited and limit. Numbers, shapes, and what is known as
theoretical geometry, were the focus of their scientific studies.
It seems likely that the Pythagoreans were the first to state that
the earth is a sphere, and that Parmenides (who was the first to
write that) learned it from them. Some later Pythagoreans were
among the first medical doctors.Pythagoras was fascinated by numbers,
and believed that the Cosmos was shaped by numeric proportions.
His followers transmitted his ideas, he wrote nothing. It was
surely from him that Socrates and Plato learned the soul-body,
mind-matter division which echoes the idea found in other
Pre-Socratics that the visible universe is essentially unreal
(because it moves and changes) while the real is not discernable
by the material body's senses.
Homer and Hesiod have ascribed to the gods all things that are
shameful and disgraceful among us, stealing, adultery, deceit of
People think that gods are born as they are, have clothes like
them, voices and shapes.
If cows, or horses, or lions had hands and could paint and produce
works of art as men do, horses would portray their gods as horses,
cows as cows, and make their bodies in the image of themselves.
The Ethiopians make their gods black and snub-nosed, the Thracians
say theirs have blue eyes and blond hair.
One is god, the greatest among gods and men, like us neither in
shape nor in thought... Seeing everywhere, thinking everywhere,
hearing everywhere... Effortlessly ruling all things by thought...
Remaining ever in the same place, not moving since it is not
proper for him to go here and there.
living in solitude in the shrine of Artemis in Ephesus, Heraclitus
(544 - 484) was also stating the impermanence of material
existence, with the famous line "You cannot step twice into the
same river" (because the water is always changing). He wrote in
an obscure, intuitive style suggested by the way that oracles
of the natural world led him to agree with Xenophanes that all
was a unity and that there was a non-material spiritual reality
inherent within the material universe. This divine presence,
Heraclitus called the Logos (reason). At the same time,
he followed the Ionic liking for an original substance. He said
that all things developed from fire, and returned to
fire, eternally, since the material world had no beginning or
end other than fire. Thus his world-view differs by
incorporating change and motion as its fundamental law and
principal. Everything is involved in a process by which it
becomes its opposite, and all things contain their own
contraries. "Strife is justice, and war is the father and king
of all things." He combines strife and harmony by the rule of
universal Reason (Logos). The human soul, according
to Heraclitus, is a spark of the universal fire so that the
individual is in some sense an image of the cosmos ("I have
sought for myself"). When the body dies, the spark returns to
the world-fire, there is no individual survival. He sees true
happiness as contentment, something which depends on the
individual. He stressed that the world of reality is the same
for all, not a matter of varying private responses, while the
same reality can be both good and bad, as with the sea which is
good for fishes but fatal to humans. He too rejected the anthropomorphic
gods of the myths, and taught a single divine spirit who "is day
and night, summer and winter, war and peace, fullness and want".
It is wise to listen, not to me but to my Word, and to confess
that all things are one.
If you do not hope, you will not find the unhoped-for that is
beyond search and reaching.
Nature prefers to hide.
Wisdom is one: to know the thought by which all things are
directed through all things.
This world, the same for all, is made by neither
gods nor men; it was ever, is now, always will be, an ever-living
fire, with measures of it kindling and measures of it expiring.
The transformation of fire is sea, half the sea is land, half is
All things are exchanged for fire, fire for all things, like goods
for money and money for goods.
Fire is lack and excess.
Fire lives the death of air, air lives the death of fire; water
lives the death of earth, earth the death of water.
Fire will come and judge and overtake all.
You cannot step twice into the same river, for fresh water is ever
The way up and the way down is the same.
In the circle, beginning and end are one.
I have sought for myself.
We step, and do not step, into the same river.
We are and we are not.
The cosmos is held together in a tension of opposites, as in a
lyre or a bow.
The people must fight for its law as for its walls.
In Heraclitus we find
the beginning of the modern doctrine of the 'unity of opposites' (the
central category of dialectics),
for Hegel said that he got the idea from Heraclitus. Marx learned it from
fragments of Heraclitus's writings are poetic, intuitive,
deeply suggestive. He is the most widely-studied of the
He was admired in the early Christian church where his
vision of an end in fire seemed to echo images found in the
Christian Apocalypse. He
stands at the point when the curiosity about matter (ontology
and Science) and more abstract general questions about knowledge
(epistemology and most modern philosophy) were
Xenophanes as an old
man taught Parmenides (540 - 470) in Elea; they are the
founders of the Eleatic School. Parmenides was
a mystic, deeply marked by an experience of the Real,
a realization that "It Is".
Since this Reality is thought, and omnipresent, he
came to the apparently logical conclusion that there can be no
real motion; since Being simply is, there can be neither
past nor future. Here
the question of the validity of sense-perception, the
difference between appearances (illusion) and reality
becomes acute. Parmenides
and Heraclitus agree that the senses are unreliable, but in
opposite ways. Where Heraclitus taught that what is apparently
the same river is in fact always changing, that beyond
apparently unchanging appearances lies changing reality,
Parmenides taught (in conscious opposition) that although
everything seems to be moving and limited, Real Being cannot
move and is limitless. Above all, Parmenides
begins to use logical argument to support his views, instead of
making bare assertions as his predecessors mostly did. Still,
his total idealism, his stubborn insistence on a vision of
reality which completely contradicts all perception and
experience, could not last. Those who followed, such as Empedocles,
agreed that although fundamental substance (whatever it was)
could not come into being or cease to exist, there were equally
fundamental processes of change and becoming, combination and
separation, on an individual level, that could not be denied as
unreal. Parmenides also stressed very strongly the separation of
sense and reason or thought, in itself untenable but leading to
the dualism expressed in Platonism.
IT IS: what is is uncreated and indestructible, for it is
complete, immovable, and without end.
Nor was it ever, nor will it be; for now IT
IS, all at once, continuous, one.
It is immovable in the bonds of mighty chains, without beginning
and without end; since coming into being and passing away have
been driven far away...
The thing that can be thought, and that for which the thought
exists, is the same; for to think is the same as to be.
There is not, and never shall be, anything besides what is, since
fate has chained it so as to be whole and immovable.
Wherefore all these
things are only names which mortals have given, believing them to
be true: "coming into being," "passing away," "changing place,"
the need for paradox, since the logical conclusion of
his ideas is that nothing of what we can perceive has any
essential reality. This love of paradox was developed by his
disciple Zenon of Elea, whom Aristotle called
"the inventor of dialectic". Zenon was particularly
intrigued by the difficulty of describing the motion of objects
You cannot reach the other side of a racecourse.
First you must get
do this, you must get halfway to the halfway point... You can
never start at all.
Achilles, chasing a tortoise, can never catch up with it.
First he must reach the
point from which the tortoise started, but by then the tortoise
will have covered some
By the time this distance has been covered...
An arrow in the air is motionless.
At any given moment it must occupy a space equal to
(Therefore Parmenides is right, there is only continuum.)
Empedocles (490 - 430) from Sicily
wrote two poems, in one of which he offered a vision of the
cosmos in response to that of Parmenides. According
to him, four elements, or roots, air, earth, water,
fire (or the qualities light, heavy, moist, dry)
are brought together and divided by a conflict between Love
and Hate. Generation
and decay are the result of this, things change while the
essential elements remain unchanged in themselves. The
theory that these four elements combining in precise ratios to
form complex material substances remained powerful in Europe
until the late 17th century, at least. The name 'elements' has
continued to be used to refer to the pure atomic substances
which took the place of the old four as the building-blocks of
the universe. In a sense, he is the founder of all Chemistry.
Empedocles explained the process of growth and decay in ways not
so far from Hesiod; he taught that Love brought together and
Hate divided. Like Pythagoreans, he believed in the existence
above the material world of a realm of pure spirits in a
state of bliss; if a spirit loses its purity, it is condemned to
life in the material world as a punishment. The last stage of a
spirit's purification is life as priest, medical doctor, or
prince; from there they may return to their immaterial bliss.
Here is radical dualism, with the pure realm of spirit
contrasting starkly with life in the impure material world. He
also had a very exalted notion of a divine All pervading
the entire cosmos with its thought.
One of the last and
greatest of the Ionian natural philosophers, Anaxagoras
was welcomed in Athens and spent thirty years there, supported
by Pericles. He
considered that a life entirely devoted to deep thought needed
no other justification. He too felt that there was no "primal
matter" but that "in everything there is a portion of
universe he sees as a chaos of mingled elements out of
which worlds arise, with men and animals, thanks to the work of
immaterial Mind (nous), infinite and uncombined
but immanent in the material cosmos and forming the living
thinking soul of each person. However, unlike most dualists,
Anaxagoras did not despise the material world; he was a true
contemplative and it was said "the visible disclosed to him the
view into the invisible".
In 467 a great
meteorite fell and Anaxagoras suggested that the sun too was a
mass of incandescent stone, not a god as was generally believed;
the moon, too, he thought to be a mass of stone similar to the
earth. He too
explained the moon's light as a reflection of the sun, and
taught Pericles about the mechanical nature of eclipses,
rejecting the 'superstitious' fear of them that was linked to
the belief that the sun was a living being, a god. In old age he
had to leave Athens because of his criticism of conventional
Leukippos and his much greater pupil
Democritus (460 - 370) together produced the atomic
theory in response to the Eleatics (Parmenides etc.) who
accepted the paradox that there could be no empty space, and
therefore no motion. Only
the Real (Parmenides' Being) exists, says Democritus, but it is
divided; there are particles of Being, all the same, eternal
substance, solid, small, though of varying shape and size,
separated by empty space.
These atoms are from eternity moving, not static;
they combine to form material objects by chance, not
design, then separate again.
Democritus was a polymath like Aristotle, interested in
everything; he explained the development of human civilization
as the result of necessity or need. He considered that the human
soul was a material substance, similar to fire, and as
perishable as the rest. Like most, he had reservations about
sense-perception and none about pure thought. Democritus was
probably the first to develop a philosophical discussion of
ethics, insisting on the need to use one's reason in order to
discover what action is good. Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics
rejected this modern, entirely materialistic view in
favour of a finite, eternal cosmos dominated by an invisible
world of mind or soul.
Democracy in Athens
meant long debates in the Agora about many subjects;
democratic justice too involved a need to establish clearly the
facts of the case by debate. Whether the question was
about action or about a person's guilt, the most important
elements in the discussions had to be arguments that could
persuade: 'because' and 'therefore'. Logic thus
became a matter of daily importance. The main claim of each
speaker was 'the best action is this' or 'this is true'
so that it is hardly surprising that Athenian philosophy
developed around questions about what is good, true, just,
right. Where the older philosophers and rulers had taught and
ruled by simple affirmation, the citizens of the democratic
city-state demanded to be convinced of the rightness of what was
being said, they wanted reasons and proof.
As a result of this
popular interest in words, logic, and debate, philosophy was
ready to come down into the streets. At the same time, the
themes underwent a great change. Thoughtful people began to
realize that the discussion about original substances could
never find a basis allowing thinkers to reach a conclusion.
Meanwhile the stress on pure thought, and the rejection of
sense-perception as illusion, led to a fundamental skepticism
as to the possibility of ultimate knowledge of the truth about
Sophism arose from a quite
different current. In Ionia, especially, and on the edges of the
Greek-speaking world, people had begun to do 'research'
(in Greek 'history'; the word 'history' originally meant
research) and accumulate information on the customs and laws of
other peoples and cultures, both the advanced cultures in Egypt
and Babylonia, and 'primitive' ones among Scythians, Thracians,
or Lybians. Sophism was essentially a philosophy of civilization,
of comparative cultural studies, instead of being a
philosophy of nature. The differences between societies and
cultures made people reflect on such institutions as language,
religion, ethics, esthetics. What was considered good in one
place might be thought wrong in another. The fundamental
question was whether such things were in accordance with Nature,
and therefore sacred, or whether they were the result of human
conventions (nomos), capable of change and improvement.
The philosophers of
nature, although often interested in direct observation and
deduction about phenomena, were obliged to use speculation
in their search to formulate ideas about original substances and
the immaterial essence of things. The Sophists began by
accumulating detailed knowledge on all sorts of topics, then
went on to formulate general theories about origins and
development, or draw practical lessons from what they had found.
This method is best described as empirico-inductive.
Perhaps the greatest
difference lay in the final purpose pursued. The old
philosophers almost always believed they were purifying
themselves from the material world by thinking, and this
ultimately self-centered view meant that if they taught, their
aim was to encourage the same withdrawal in their disciples. By
contrast, the Sophists wanted to teach people how to live more
effectively in society, how to gain control of their lives. The
Sophists saw their knowledge as a commodity that the demands of
complicated public life in a democracy made necessary and
therefore valuable. Young men could no longer be content with
family traditions, gymnastics and counting for their education.
They had to learn to think, speak, control themselves, dominate
others and convince an audience, not only by their words but
also impress and even dazzle them by their elegant style. The
Sophists were perhaps the first educators in the modern sense;
they advertised lectures on a variety of topics and received
payment for their teaching. In so doing they challenged the old
order, by which a young man learned by absorbing unquestioningly
the traditions of his family and society. Sophists inevitably
made the young question the old ways and want to follow new
was the first and the greatest Sophist. His most famous
saying is "Man is the measure
of all things." This is not as 'humanistic' as it
sounds. He is saying that there is no absolute truth, no
absolute good; what seems to be good to an individual person is
good for that person; there are two sides to any question, both
may be right. He
is completely agnostic about the fundamental questions: "Of the
gods, I cannot say either that they exist or that they do not. It is a very
difficult subject and life is not long enough."
At the same time, he
and other Sophists taught the art of public speaking, of
rhetoric. This too suggested a relativistic approach, since by
mere technique a false statement might sound like a true one and
the citizens be misled about morality. Other Sophists were saying that "Nomos
is king of all". "Nomos"
means law, but also custom, convention. Then there is no
clear code of absolute right and wrong; each person, group, or
culture may follow different moral codes. What is obvious for
one group may be shocking for another. It was into this context of doubt and
relativism that Socrates came with his
We only know about
Socrates (469 - 399) through Plato's
writings, since he himself wrote
nothing. The words that Plato gives to Socrates in the
early Dialogues, and especially in the Defense,
may perhaps be a faithful echo of his voice and approach.
However, in the later Dialogues it seems clear that Plato is
making Socrates say things that Plato himself would wish to say,
that Socrates himself would not have said. It is therefore
difficult to know just what Socrates himself said and taught. It
seems that he was not interested in general systems, and not at
all preoccupied with the general question of primal substances.
we find in Plato a Socrates who has been challenged by the scepticism
of the Sophists. He sees that much of what has been taught
traditionally may not be true, and that further thought is
needed. At the same time, he refuses to accept that all values
are relative. His greatest contribution lies perhaps in the way
he changes the focus of thought to the definition of
certain moral values. For Socrates, philosophy ought to
be concerned with helping people to live better lives. The Defence
shows him enquiring about the exact definition of words such as
'justice,' 'good,' 'truth'. Socrates seems to have thought that
virtue was the fruit of knowledge and that when people did
wrong, it was because of their ignorance of what was right. His
goal in life was to help people think more deeply, so that they
could come to a better knowledge of what was good. In that way
the city would become a better place.
Socrates' refusal to
accept 'ready-made' and badly-thought definitions was to lay the
foundation of the discipline of philosophy. His scepticism was
systematic, but at the same time he claimed to hear an inner
voice (his 'daemon') that told him what was the right thing to
do or say. He did not share the fundamental scepticism of the
Sophists, who did not recognize any need to look for ultimate
answers to ethical questions. Rather he was an idealist not
satisfied by anything less than the perfect answers, which he
could never find. His fundamental system was to persistently
challenge what others said with questions like, "What precisely
do you mean by ...?" This method of debate by brief question and
answer is known as Socratic elenchus.
Socrates shared earlier thinkers' negative opinion of the
ethical standards shown by the gods of Homer, and may have
spoken mockingly of them. The religious question was not his
main concern, however. Still, his challenging attitude was
popular among the young, but must have been deeply offensive to
the older generation. He had many enemies, and Aristophanes
may have helped turn opinion against him by mocking him in
Clouds. We see in the Defense a man who cannot
tolerate unthinking, foolish replies to serious questions, and
his tongue must have been biting. In 399, a charge was made
"That Socrates does not believe in the gods in whom the city
believes but introduces other and new deities; also, that he
corrupts the young." The penalty demanded was death. Plato has given us a
text of his Defense (Apology)
before the citizens' court, and in the Phaidon an
account of Socrates' last day. Plato was not there, but his
account of how Socrates refused to run away, and nobly drank the
hemlock (poison), comforting his friends to the end, has
given to many a deeper understanding of what "humanism" means. We probably cannot
find anything as powerful until we come to the Gospel stories of
the death of Jesus. Socrates
was nearly seventy years old, with him the Golden Age of Athens
From Socrates' Defense (Apology) (by Plato)
"You know Chaerephon, of course.
He was a friend of mine from boyhood, and a good democrat
who played his part with the rest of you in the recent expulsion
you know what he was like; how enthusiastic he was over anything
he had once undertaken.
one day he actually went to Delphi and asked this question of the
god (as I said before, gentlemen, please do not interrupt) he
asked whether there was anyone wiser than myself.
The priestess replied
that there was no one....
Please consider my object in telling you this.
I want to explain to
you how the attack upon my reputation first started.
When I heard about the
oracle's answer, I said to myself 'What does the god mean?
Why does he not use
only too conscious that I have no claim to wisdom, great or small;
so what can he mean by asserting that I am the wisest man in the
He cannot be
telling a lie; that would not be right for him.'
After puzzling about this for some time, I set myself at last with
considerable reluctance to check the truth of it in the following
I went to
interview a man with a high reputation for wisdom because I felt
that here if anywhere I would succeed in disproving the oracle and
pointing out to my divine authority 'You said that I was the
wisest of men, but here is a man who is wiser than I am.'
Well, I gave a thorough examination to this person (I need not
mention his name, but it was one of our politicians that I was
studying when I had this experience) and in conversation with him
I formed the impression that although in many people's opinion,
and especially in his own, he appeared to be wise, in fact he was
Then when I
began to try to show him that he only thought he was wise and was
not really so, my efforts were resented both by him and by many of
the other people present.
I reflected as I walked away: 'Well, I am certainly wiser than
It is only
too likely that neither of us has any knowledge to boast of; but
he thinks that he knows something which he does not know,
whereas I am quite conscious of my ignorance.
At any rate it seems
that I am wiser than he is to this small extent, that I do not
think that I know what I do not know.' (... )
After I had finished with the politicians, I turned to the poets,
dramatic, lyric, and all the rest, in the belief that here I
should expose myself as a comparative ignoramus.
I used to pick up what
I thought were some of their most perfect works and question them
closely about the meaning of what they had written, in the hope of
incidentally enlarging my own knowledge.
Well, gentlemen, I hesitate to tell you the
truth, but it must be told.
It is hardly an exaggeration to say that any of the
bystanders could have explained those poems better than their
soon made up my mind about the poets too: I decided that it was
not wisdom that enabled them to write their poetry, but a kind of
instinct or inspiration, such as you find in seers and prophets
who deliver all their sublime messages without knowing in the
least what they mean. (... )
The effect of these investigations of mine, gentlemen, has been to
arouse against me a great deal of hostility, and hostility of a
particularly bitter and persistent kind, which has resulted in
various malicious suggestions, including the description of me as
a professor of wisdom. (...) But the truth of the matter,
gentlemen, is pretty certainly this: that real wisdom is the
property of God, and this oracle is his way of telling us that
human wisdom has little or no value.
It seems to me that he is not referring
literally to Socrates, but has merely taken my name as an example,
as if he would say to us 'The wisest of you men is he who has
realized, like Socrates, that in respect of wisdom he is really
the eloquence of his defence, Socrates was convicted. He had
then to speak again, before the jury decided on the sentence. He
refused absolutely to acknowledge that he had done anything
wrong, rather blaming the citizens for their persistent
blindness and ignorance; as a result, the number of jurors
voting for his death was higher than the number that had
declared him guilty. He could not be executed at once, since a
sacred boat had just left for Delos and there was a tradition
that until it returned, in a month's time, no executions could
From Plato's Phaedo: The Death of Socrates
(Socrates is talking about what happens to the soul after death
"Those who are judged to have lived a life of surpassing holiness
are released and set free from confinement in these regions of the
earth, and passing upward to their pure abode, make their dwelling
upon the earth's surface.
of these such as have purified themselves sufficiently by
philosophy live thereafter altogether without bodies, and reach
habitations even more beautiful, which it is not easy to portray
(nor is there time to do so now).
But the reasons which we have already described provide
ground enough for leaving nothing undone to attain during life
some measure of goodness and wisdom; for the prize is glorious and
the hope great."
With these words he got up and went into another room to bathe;
and Crito went after him, but told us to wait.
So we waited,
discussing and reviewing what had been said, or else dwelling upon
the greatness of the calamity which had befallen us; for we felt
just as though we were losing a father and should be orphans for
the rest of our lives.
when Socrates had taken his bath, his children were brought to see
him; he had two little sons and one big boy; and the women of the
talked to them in Crito's presence and gave them directions about
carrying out his wishes; then he told the women and children to go
away, and came back himself to join us.
It was now
nearly sunset, because he had spent a long time inside.
He came and sat down,
fresh from the bath; and he had only been talking for a few
minutes when the prison officer came in, and walked up to him.
'Socrates,' he said,
'at any rate I shall not have to find fault with you, as I do with
others, for getting angry with me and cursing me when I tell them
to drink the poison, carrying out Government orders.
I have come to know
during this time that you are the noblest and the gentlest and the
bravest of all the men that have ever come here, and now
especially I am sure that you are not angry with me, but with
them; because you know who are responsible.
So' now, you know what
I came to say, goodbye, and try to bear what must be as easily as
you can.' As he spoke, he burst into tears, and turning around,
went away. (... )
Crito made a sign to his servant, who went out and after spending
a considerable time returned with the man who was to administer
the poison; he was carrying it ready prepared in a cup.
When Socrates saw him
he said 'Well, my good fellow, you understand these things; what
ought I to do?'
'Just drink it,' he said, 'and then walk about until you feel a
weight in your legs, and then lie down.
Then it will act of its own accord.'
As he spoke he handed the cup to Socrates, who received it quite
cheerfully, without any change of colour or expression, and said,
looking up under his brows with his usual steady gaze, (... ) 'I
suppose I am allowed, or rather bound, to pray the gods that my
removal from this world to the other may be prosperous.
This is my prayer then;
and I hope that it may be granted.' With these words, quite calmly
and with no sign of distaste, he drained the cup in one breath.
this time most of us had been fairly successful in keeping back
our tears; but when we saw that he was drinking, that he had
actually drunk it, we could do so no longer; in spite of myself
the tears came pouring, out, so that I covered my face and wept
brokenheartedly-not for him, but or my own calamity in losing
such a friend.
had given up even before me, and had gone out when he could not
restrain his tears.
Apollodorus, who had never stopped crying even before, now broke
out into such a storm of passionate weeping that he made everyone
in the room break down, except Socrates himself, who said:
'Really, my friends, what a way to behave!
Why, that was my main
reason for sending away the women, to prevent this sort of
disturbance; because I am told that one should make one's end in a
tranquil frame of mind.
yourselves and try to be brave.'
This made us feel ashamed, and we controlled our tears.
Socrates walked about,
and presently, saying that his legs were heavy, lay down on his
back-that was what the man recommended.
The man kept his hand upon Socrates, and
after a little while examined his feet and legs; then pinched his
foot hard and asked if he felt it.
Socrates said no.
he did the same to his legs; and moving gradually upwards in
this way let us see that he was getting cold and numb.
Presently he felt him
again and said that when it reached the heart, Socrates would be
The coldness was spreading about as far as
his waist when Socrates uncovered his face-for he had covered it
up-and said (they were his last words): 'Crito, we ought to offer
a cock to Asclepius.
to it, and don't forget.'
'No, it shall be done,'
sure that there is nothing else?'
no reply to this question, but after a little while he stirred;
and when the man uncovered him, his eyes were fixed.
When Crito saw this, he
closed the mouth and eyes. Such, Echecrates, was the end of our
comrade, who was, we may fairly say, of all those whom we knew in
our time, the bravest and also the wisest and most upright man.
Plato was born in
Athens in 427. His family was aristocratic and he received a
fine education in the traditional arts, including poetry and
drama, He was already a skilled poet and had composed tragedies
which he was intending to submit for the festival competitions
when he met Socrates in about 407. He thereupon stopped writing
poetry and burned his tragedies, although the radical hostility
to the 'imitative' arts he expresses in the Republic may
have developed only later. He was ill in 399 and was not present
at Socrates' last moments. He seems to have been so upset that
he left Athens and went travelling, perhaps to meet the
Pythagoreans in Italy. In 389 he visited Syracuse
(Sicily) for the first time. There he met the tyrant Dionysios,
and his minister Dion. Returning to Athens, Plato bought a small
garden outside the walls of Athens, near the shrine of Academos,
to be a place where those interested in study and reflection
could live a simple life in community, listening to his lectures
and discussing together thoughtfully. This marks the beginning
of the Academy, the Platonic university which lasted
until it was closed by the emperor Justinian in A.D. 529. It taught various
doctrines at different periods of its history, dialectical
skepticism and Neoplatonic mysticism being the two main ones,
but it was always "Plato's Academy." Plato returned to Syracuse
later, in the 360s, hoping to educate the son of Dionysius into
the perfect philosopher-king, but that was not possible, and he
became part of plots that led to the murder of his friend Dion,
works have come down to us complete. They are among the
masterpieces of Greek prose. Apart from the poems, and the Defense
they consist of some 25 dialogues, discussions
between a number of speakers, usually including Socrates, from
which the readers have to go on to think for themselves. Plato did not teach
any fixed doctrine, for, he wrote, "Philosophy is not a thing
that can be put into words, like other lessons for learning. But from a long
communing over the thing itself and from living together,
suddenly as though from a flame leaping a gap, a light kindles
in the soul; and after that, it finds its own nourishment."
Dialogues (Apology, Laches, Charmides, Crito, etc)
offer portraits of Socrates with his attractive, dynamic
character and his ugly body, conversations that pass from the
simple to the essential, in the quest for knowledge and virtue,
which is the greatest good.
The dialogues raise questions about the essential
nature of some vital quality, and end in a failure to find any
The great middle
period works (Phaedo, Symposium, Republic,) are
narratives describing an earlier conversation, with vivid
details in the descriptions.
They culminate in the Republic, one
of the great works of world culture, with its imaginary
'alternative society' that inspired Mores Utopia as well
as many other utopian works and satires. The middle period
works often discuss the nature of the essential, real and
invisible Ideas or Forms (also called "archetypes" or
figures), of which the supreme is that of the Good,
which is close in some ways to the Christian God.
The later works
(Sophist, Statesman, Timaeus, Laws) are more obscure. The Sophist is
about metaphysics, the Statesman about government. The Timaeus was
the only work of Plato's that was translated into Latin and read
in the Middle Ages, it discusses the relationship between the
visible world and the invisible, body and soul, what in the West
came to be seen as Macrocosm (the world of invisible forms) and
Microcosm (the visible world reflecting it). The Laws return
to the nature of government.
Because of the variety
of opinions expressed in them, Plato's Dialogues do not express
a single complete system, yet the entire history of Western
thought after him is deeply marked by what is usually called Platonism.
Essentially, Plato was a dualist, who considered the changing,
material world to be an impermanent reflection of the eternal,
invisible, immaterial 'real' world. The same dualism is found in
his view of the human, with the eternal immaterial soul enclosed
and imprisoned in the mortal, physical body. Socrates had first
shown him that the question of Virtue and the Good depended on
knowledge. The Pythagoreans suggested the dualism of mind and
matter, with mathematics serving to link the two. The Eleatics,
especially Parmenides, taught him that the world perceived by
the senses was illusory, but that there was a fixed, unchanging
Real Being of pure Mind, and
that a major question was the nature of the link between the One
and the many. At the same time, Plato felt obliged to oppose
Heraclitus's theory of flux, since it meant that there could be
no certain knowledge of anything, there being no unchanging
characteristic of Plato's approach is the way it insists on the
need for clear thought (dialectic) while suggesting that
knowledge of invisible realities can only come by some kind of
inspired intuition. In this way, Plato prepared the way for
strict Aristotelian logic, and suggested its ultimate limits at
the same time. Out of his fundamental dualism, with its focus on
the transcendental soul, he deduces the basis for ethics and
politics, aesthetics, and physics. Plato is convinced that
when we recognize that something is good and true, this is not a
personal opinion or a distinct quality, but a knowledge common
to us all, derived from a recollection (anamnesis) of
the experience our souls had before birth of the super-celestial
world of pure thought (mind) where the original Idea
or Form (eidos; archetype) of each particular
worldly reality exists in itself. The one Idea or Form gives
rise to the many things we see, instructs us in our actions, and
enables us to bring order into the multiplicity of phenomena.
The highest value is the Good, and in Plato's universe,
the Good is identified with the divine, with God. Thus
in Plato's thought, human ethics is an imitation of the divine
by means of thought and will, which are actions of the soul.
Plato's philosophy is mystical, since in striving to know what
is good and true, we are rising toward God and that is what
gives meaning to life, and brings true happiness.
Texts from Plato
From Book VII of
The Image of the Cave:
"Imagine mankind as dwelling in an underground cave with a long
entrance open to the light across the whole width of the cave; in
this they have been from childhood, with necks and legs fettered,
so they have to stay where they are.
They cannot move their heads round because
of the fetters, and they can only look forward, but light comes to
them from fire burning behind them higher up at a distance.
Between the fire and
the prisoners is a road above their level, and along it imagine a
low wall has been built... Bearers are carrying along this road
all sorts of articles which they hold
projecting above the
wall, statues of men and other living things, made of stone or
wood." (... )
"What a remarkable image," he said, "and what
"Just like ourselves," I said.
"For, first of all, tell me this: What do you think such
people would have seen of themselves and each other except their
shadows, which the fire cast on the opposite wall of the cave?"
"I don't see how they could see anything else," said he, "if they
were compelled to keep their heads unmoving all their lives!"
"Very well, what of the things being carried along?
Would not this be the
"Of course it would."
'Suppose the prisoners were able to talk together, don't you think
that when they named the shadows which they saw passing they would
believe they were naming things?"
"Indeed I do."
"If so," said I, "such persons would certainly believe that there
were no realities except those shadows of handmade things."
"So it must be," he said.
"Now consider what their release would be like, and their cure
from these fetters and their folly; let us imagine... One might be
released, and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn round and to
walk and look towards the firelight; all this would hurt him, and
he would be too dazzled to see distinctly those things whose
shadows he had seen before. What do you think he would say, if
someone told him that what he saw before was foolery, but now he
saw more rightly, being a bit nearer reality and turned towards
what was a little more real?
What if he were shown each of the passing things, and
compelled by questions to answer what each one was?
Don't you think he
would be puzzled, and believe what he saw before was more true
than what was shown to him now?"
"Then suppose he were compelled to look towards the real light, it
would hurt his eyes, and he would escape by turning them away to
the things he was able to look at, and these he would believe to
be clearer than what was being shown to him."
"Suppose, now, that someone should drag him up the rough ascent,
the steep way up, and never stop until he could drag him out into
the light of the sun, would he not be distressed and furious at
being dragged; and when he came into the light, the
brilliance would fill his eyes and he would not be able to see
even one of the things now called real?"
"That he would not," he said, "all of a sudden."
"He would have to get used to it, surely, I think, if he is to see
the things above.
he would most easily look at the shadows, after that the images of
mankind and the rest in water, lastly the things themselves.
After this he would
find it easier to
night the heavens themselves and all that is in them, gazing at
the light of the stars and moon, rather than by day the sun and
the sun's light... Last of all, I suppose, the sun; he could look
on the sun itself by itself in its own place, and see what it was
like, not reflections of it in water or as it appears in some
"And only after this he might reason about it, how this is he who
provides seasons and years, and is set over all there is in the
visible region, and he is in a manner the cause of all things
which they saw."
H. D. Rouse)
At the same time as Plato
was teaching, another school, that of Isokrates (whom
Milton called an "old man eloquent"), was teaching rhetoric,
a form of diplomacy, and the means of exercising power in
practical politics in a society so governed by debates. Throughout his life,
Athenian sculptors and artists continued to produce great
masterpieces, most of them now lost, but Plato was not sure of
the moral value of art, and in his Republic, poetry is
given no place. Never
a democrat, Plato seems to have become increasingly totalitarian
in his social vision, as his experience of human weakness
increased. He died
at his desk in 347.
Aristotle was born in
384; his father was a medical doctor. Aristotle studied at the Academy until
Plato's death in 347 but when he was not chosen to succeed Plato
as its head, he left and went
travelling. He was
called to Macedonia to teach the young Alexander; he
stayed there until about 340.
Returning to Athens after Alexander became king,
Aristotle founded his own school in a park near the temple of
Apollo Lykeios, whence its name : the "Lyceum".
He liked to teach small groups while walking together under the
trees, so they were called Peripatetics (walkers). After Alexander's
death Aristotle fled to Chalkis where he died in 322.
Although he absorbed
Plato's teaching deeply, and in his early works taught the
doctrines of the immaterial world of Ideas and of the
immortality of the soul, Aristotle did not have Plato's love of
speculation; rather he was interested in observations of nature.
Later he replaced Plato's Ideas (which are deemed to have
independent existence) with the non-transcendent notion of
'concept'. His mind was that of a scientist. Aristotle was
interested in encyclopedic knowledge about "things", and in
systematizing what could be known about the physical world. The library of
collected manuscripts in the Lyceum is the model for all later
may have been a "Natural History Museum" too. The Lyceum
was a research community: Aristotle organized the collection of
the Constitutions of 158 Greek states, for example, while other
scholars did work on botany, music, physics and the history of
science, mathematics, astronomy, theology...
works have all been lost, although they survived into Roman
times. What we have are extensive notes of his lectures. Logic, rhetoric,
ethics, political science, physics, metaphysics
(presuppositions), biology, were among his courses, and among
the most famous of his "works" are the Analytics, the Physics,
the Metaphysics, the Nicomachean Ethics, the
Politics, the Rhetoric, the Poetics. These texts were long
hidden after his death, then they were discovered in a cellar in
Athens and taken to Rome by Sulla in 84 BC.
Aristotle is not interested in the invisible and the
prefers to list and classify the visible realities, he has a
love of categorizing things into neat systems. He invented some of
the most important words used in philosophical reflection:
"universal and particular", "premise and conclusion", "subject
and attribute", "form and matter", "potentiality and actuality".
Where Plato's God was the embodiment of a fundamental moral
principle, the Good, Aristotle's was an abstract scientific
explanation, the First Mover. Aristotle stressed that we can
only have certain knowledge of the things we can observe with
our senses; he therefore excluded God and the soul from his
field of study and seems not to have believed that the human
soul had eternal existence.
works were not available in the early Middle Age in Western
Europe; they had not been translated into Latin. In the twelfth
century, scholars learned Greek from the Arabs of Spain and
obtained from them, as well as from the Eastern
Mediterranean, the texts of Aristotle's works. The result was a
radical transformation in Western thought, as Aristotelianism
challenged the Neo-platonism of Augustine and the other
Church Fathers. On
the basis of Aristotle's methods the new universities of
Paris and Oxford developed a logical methodological approach to Philosophy and
Theology called Scholasticism and in the 13th century Thomas of
Aquinas in his Summa produced a totally new
synthesis of the Christian faith while other students began to
see a justification of atheism in the same sources.
(from the Poetics)
Epic poetry agrees with Tragedy in so far as it is an imitation in
verse of characters of a higher type.
They differ, in that Epic poetry admits but
one kind of metre, and is narrative in form.
They differ, again, in
their length: for Tragedy endeavours, as far as possible, to
confine itself to a single revolution of the sun, or but slightly
to exceed this limit; whereas the Epic action has no limits of
Tragedy is an imitation (mimesis)
of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain
magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic
ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the
play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and
fear effecting the proper purgation (catharsis)
"language embellished," I mean language into which rhythm,
"harmony," and song enter.
"the several kinds in separate parts," I mean, that some parts are
rendered through the medium of verse alone, others again with the
aid of song.
Now as tragic imitation implies
persons acting, it necessarily follows, in the first place, that
Spectacular equipment will be a part of Tragedy.
Next, Song and Diction,
for these are the medium of imitation.
By "Diction" I mean the mere metrical
arrangement of the words: as for "Song," it is a term whose sense
every one understands.
Again, Tragedy is the imitation of an action; and an action
implies personal agents, who necessarily possess certain
distinctive qualities both of character and thought; for it is by
these that we qualify actions themselves, and these-thought and
character-are the two natural causes from which actions spring,
and on actions again all success or failure depends.
Hence the plot is the
imitation of the Action, for by Plot I here mean the arrangement
of the incidents.
Character I mean that in virtue of which we ascribe certain
qualities to the agents...
Most important of all is the
structure of the incidents.
For Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action
and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of
action, not a quality.
S. A. Butcher)
Another master living
at the time of Aristotle was Diogenes, whose own master
had been impressed by the austerity of Socrates' life. Alexander
is said to have visited Diogenes in 335 at Corinth, but Diogenes
only asked him not to keep the sun from him with his shadow. He
lived on the streets or in a storage pot, and this was such a
striking contradiction for an age when everyone wanted to
be rich and powerful that many idealistic young men followed
him. They termed
this approach to life Cynic (dog-like), taught by means
of "diatribes" and "homilies" (Latin sermo) from the
roadside, criticizing the insincerity of the world. Their life of
renunciation, their rough clothes and beards, continued to
appeal as an 'alternative lifestyle' until Roman times, but had
A quite different
direction was indicated by Epicurus (341 - 270), who
taught in Athens from 306. His school was known as the Garden.
He taught that pleasure, the perfect harmony of mind and body, was the highest
good. Following the materialism of the atomists, he did not
believe in an immortal soul.
Despite the modern sense of 'Epicurean' he did not praise
the pleasures of sensuality, but valued the higher
sensibilities, virtue, the simple life, goodness to friends,
freedom from worry. The
gods, he said, lived in the spaces between the worlds and have
no concern with us, so that there is nothing to fear from them:
there is no punishment for sin after death, for example, since
there is no enduring soul. The Roman poet Horace
professed Epicureanism, like many Roman gentry, and it is at the
origin of Lucretius's Latin poem De Rerum Natura ("On
the Nature of the Universe") left unfinished when he died in 55
The most influential of
all the Athenian schools was that founded by Zenon of Kition
(now Larnaka, Cyprus) who came to Athens soon after the death of
Alexander. He first
followed the Cynics, but found them too eccentric. Having no money, he
taught in the public colonnades (stoai, whence Stoic)
on the question of how to live well. He was attracted by the philosophy of
Heraclitus, with its vision of fire, the spirit of man being also
a spark that will, if well kept, return to heaven so that the goal
of life is not pleasure but the preservation of being, that which
is truly natural. Man's
natural function is to do his duty in the places God has put him,
even in power, though public life may be hard and painful. The Stoics did not
favour retired living, but they did allow suicide when things
became impossible. The
world was seen as the expression of the divine Reason (logos),
so all is fated to happen as it does.
Stoicism taught the
ethics of the cosmopolis, the world-city, not just of the
Greek city-state, and praised all who favour the good, of whatever
culture or class. Out
of that evolved the notion of the universal brotherhood of
humankind. It had a deep impact on Rome, and from there on
of Zenon's followers came from the city of Tarsus in Asia Minor,
where St Paul was later born. The Romans Seneca and Cicero were
deeply influenced Stoicism and the Meditations of the
emperor Marcus Aurelius are among its best-known expressions.
Any history of the Greek
influence on Western thought must include mention of Plotinus (A.D. 205-270), Longinus, and Dionysius the Areopagite, all
of whom have had an immense influence.
Plotinus, born in Egypt, after
studying in Alexandria went to teach in Rome in A.D. 244. He only
began to write after he was 50.
He was a very "spiritual" man, a mystic, whose writings are
philosophical essays grouped into 6 groups of 9 essays (Enneads). Following Plato,
he considered the body and the visible world to be prisons that
the soul longs to be free of.
The universe is seen as a hierarchy rising from matter to
soul, soul to reason, reason to God (pure, abstract Being). Reality is the
contemplation of the spiritual world by Reason, the physical world
has no real existence. He
encouraged a discipline of self-purification, the soul rises by
love and enthusiasm until it is united with the One in "ecstasy".
had a great influence on Christian thinkers, it is contained in
Eusebius' Preparatio Evangelica and represents one of the
great creative syntheses in the history of philosophy. Western
Neoplatonism depends very largely on Plotinus.
Longinus is the name given to the
author of a work known as "Longinus on the Sublime" written in the
first century of our era. This Peri Hypsous is one of the
great works of literary theory, trying to determine what
constitutes "greatness" in literature, its moral function,
and its "sublimity". It
was translated by Boileau (1674) into French and many times after
that into English. It
had enormous influence on late 17th and 18th century European
is equally a name without substance. The name is given in the Acts of the
Apostles to a philosopher (?) converted by Paul. The Christian works
ascribed to him are to be dated around 500, and they are
fundamental for the history of Neo-Platonism
in the Christian West in the Middle Ages. His main works,
especially The Divine Names, had a great
influence on medieval mysticism.