Theology Reconsidered: An Introduction

What follows is the Introductory chapter from a newly published, two Volume work entitled Theology Reconsidered.  The book can be purchased from Lambert publishing via their website; Volume I here and Volume II here.


When looking at the first mythological and philosophical works from antiquity, it is very easy to get lost in the “facts” surrounding these ancient works and lose sight of their true meaning and import to the people and cultures within which these works emerged from and out of.  Much of the modern academic and scholarly literature concerning these ancient “theo-philosophical” works falls into this category.  To a large extent, the purpose of this work is to try and “recover” said meanings of these ancient works as much as possible, and to look at them within a much broader theological, mythological and philosophical narrative that we find throughout Eurasia in the first millennium BCE, the so-called “Axial Age” of modern man.

In order to do this, we take a primarily intellectual journey through the mind of ancient man, as he sees the world and as is reflected in the earliest literary evidence of man, trying to understand these works not only within the broader “Eurasian” context, but also trying to look at them through the eyes of the ancient philosophers, theologians, priests and scholars who wrote these ancient texts, or in many cases were the ones to “compile” or “transcribe” these longstanding theo-philosophical traditions, but also to try and understand them within the theological, intellectual and socio-cultural context within which these works arose.  This broader meaning we call knowledge, which from a modern philosophical perspective is referred to as epistemology.

This knowledge is what Philo Judaeus takes great pain to describe in his exegesis of the Pentateuch, Genesis in particular, what the Neo-Platonists take pains to describe in their literature which arises in defense of their doctrines as Christianity takes root and begins to supplant and snuff out their schools of learning and wisdom, it is what is alluded to in the so-called hidden, or unwritten, teachings of Plato and that which is hidden, kept secret, by the followers of Pythagoras  and also in the Eleusinian mysteries and the alchemical Hermetic doctrines attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, and also what the Upanishads refer to as Brahmavidyā, or knowledge of Brahman, that from deep antiquity is believed to be passed down from teacher to disciple – as Plato refers to in his Seventh Letter as that which is “brought to birth in the Soul, as light that is kindled by a leaping spark, and thereafter nourishes itself.”.[1]

After the author completed his first major work, the Snow Cone Diaries, we considered the writing “experiment” complete, the Work was done.  Following that exercise, and for reasons we cannot completely explain, we found it necessary to flesh out some of the ideas therein, reflecting a continued interest, and ultimately curiosity, concerning the advent, development, and evolution of what we term theo-philosophical developments of mankind which abound in the historical record, following the intellectual journey as it were up until modern times, what we refer to herein as the Information Age, where Information is at our finger tips, where activity is “informed” by its surroundings (Quantum Theory), and yet while we all for the most part (and in particular in Western academia) ignore the wisdom of the ancients.

The Snow Cone Diaries was somewhat manufactured in the sense that it was intentionally modelled after one of the most influential books that the author has read written by a modern self-proclaimed “metaphysician”, or philosophologer (i.e. one who studies philosophy) named Robert Pirsig entitled Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, initially published in 1974 but which the author encountered and read during the summer between his freshman and sophomore years in college, years of great tumult and change for most, the author being no exception.

After college, as is documented in Snow Cone Diaries, the author spent several years pursuing a career in professional tennis which in the end amounted to more so than anything else a time period of intense reading and personal analysis and introspection that led the author, in a manner that can perhaps best be described as “chance”, or if you believe in such things, Fate as it were, to Eastern philosophy and mysticism.  The author had been prepared for this adventure somewhat as he had majored in Ancient History as an undergraduate at Brown University and had written his thesis on the “Origins and Influence of Hermetism”.  In a sense then, the author’s initial, and now very persistent and long lasting, foray into Eastern mysticism was a natural extension of the intellectual pursuits of his undergraduate years.

The impetus and source of the author’s interest in Eastern philosophy, Kuṇḍalinī Yoga specifically in fact, stemmed primarily, at least at the beginning, from an interest in the mental and psychological demands of the game of tennis at the professional level, where many matches were determined by an individual’s performance at key points within a given match.  After spending a 6-9 months on the professional tour, mostly travelling in Europe, It became very clear that an individual’s success (which was of course almost entirely measured in Wins and Losses) while depending of course on physical attributes such as power, strength and fitness, at the same time very much depended upon what is referred to in sports as the mental aspect of the game.

This somewhat revealing and interesting component of the game, which arguably is an aspect of all professional sports but is more accentuated as it were in tennis given that it is mono y mono so to speak, became even more pronounced when two opponents were somewhat evenly matched as it were, and victory hinged upon just a few points – which as it turned out happened more often than you might think.  The author became somewhat intrigued by this phenomena, if we may call it that, and he became fascinated with what in professional sports is referred to as The Zone.

As such, it became very clear that in order to get into The Zone, there was a very well documented and well-studied connection between what peak performance and what we might call “clarity of mind.  In turn, this clarity was connected to, and in many respects seemed to be dependent upon, what are even in the sports psychological literature referred to as the development and cultivation of various rituals and practices, both on and off the court, before, during and after matches, in order to facilitate and/or “bring about” these states of mind where peak performance could be “attained”, or in Eastern philosophical parlance, realized.[2]

With this background then, the author while he was playing and studying, began writing – primarily about the so called “mystical experience” which was such an integral part of the Eastern philosophical tradition and its fundamental relationship to The Zone as it was understood in Sports Psychology.  The effort was centered around (and to a large extent this is also true for the Snow Cone Diaries as well as the current work) an attempt to establish a rational grounding, or intellectual footing as it were, within which these states of mind could be better understood and as such better integrated, or at least somewhat integrated, into what the author now calls the objective realist intellectual framework that underpins not just Western academia, but also is clearly the very rational ground of the Western mind, or psyche.

For despite all the author’s education and training, mental and physical gymnastics galore as it were, no one had ever even broached the topic or discussed with him this idea of peak performance and its relationship to the cultivation of clarity of mind, and the related states of consciousness that were associated to these “states” as it were, despite the fact that it appeared to be an almost empirically proven correlation between the two – at least in Sports Psychology circles.  It also became clear over time that this goal of peak performance as it were was not just dependent at some level upon these so-called states of mind, but in fact that that there seemed to be a very direct, causal relationship between the two.  Furthermore, these very same states of mind that were described in the Psychological literature around peak performance were not only clearly an exteremly significant, and somewhat undervalued and under practiced, component of competing as a professional athlete at the very highest levels, but that they were also an integral part of the mystical experience as well as it was described in almost all of the Eastern philosophical literature.  And of course, after some reflection, these states of mind seemed to be an integral component to success in life, however one might choose to define such a thing.

Following the model of Robert Pirsig then, and because the author felt strongly that the ideas that he was exploring, presenting and analyzing were best understood only within the psychological and mental context within which the author himself initially encountered and confronted such ideas, the author felt compelled to take his initial more “academic” works and wrap them around a loosely fictional character which he named Charlie, as well create additional (also loosely fictional) characters to which Charlie was “responding” and “reacting” to in order to try and establish the empirical reality and power of the nature of mind, and along with it the fundamental truth and power of the ancient art of meditation and mysticism to which it is integrally tied.  For perhaps the hallmark of the Eastern philosophical tradition is the emphasis and description of the art of meditation and its relationship to the attainment of these states of mind, what the author calls the Science of the Mind as it were, an altogether Eastern discipline.

Using Charlie as his mouthpiece then, we essentially argue in the Snow Cone Diaries, as Pirsig had done before him, that not only are our current (Western) intellectual models lacking in some very basic and fundamental ways – given the lack of emphasis and focus on the mind and experience itself as basis of reality as we understand it – but that these limitations had, again as Pirsig had argued before him as well, significant implications on how society in the West functioned and how individuals within that society behaved toward each other as well as the nature of the relationship between individuals and (Western) society as whole to the world around them in general.[3]

Given the level of effort and personal sacrifices that were made to publish Snow Cone Diaries, and given that the author is by no means a full time writer and first and foremost has a demanding professional career and responsibilities as a parent that were and are first priority, we never thought that he would embark upon a subsequent work.  We thought we were done.  However, our interest in ancient philosophy and the art of meditation did not dwindle, and the author’s meditation practice continued to flourish and grow and (as it is wont to do as any persistent and schooled meditation practitioner will tell you) the practice itself continued to have a profound impact on us in the following ways as it pertains to this work specifically:

  1. Our own personal conceptions of the nature of reality and the disconnect between it and commonly held and systematically taught “belief systems” which we are taught from early childhood and are presented as “empirically true” in the West,
  2. a continued and increased dissatisfaction of the current prevailing “Western” worldviews and belief systems,
  3. a deeper appreciation for the eternal truths that the very first philosophers from classical antiquity, as reflected in the term the Axial Age, were trying to convey and seemed to be missed or passed over in much of the scholarly work surrounding these ancient texts and authors,
  4. that in fact there were many more parallels and commonalities between these various belief systems that were compiled in classical antiquity throughout “Eurasia”, much more so than was reflected in most if not all of the scholarly and academic work surrounding these traditions, and
  5. the disciplines surrounding the study of the philosophers of deep antiquity were “siloed”, in the sense that the Sinologists (Chinese) weren’t collaborating with the Vedic or ancient Sanskrit scholars and the “Classicists” who studied the ancient Greek philosophers didn’t seem to be collaborating with either of these two disciplines either

Given these facts, and after studying the various traditions from antiquity, again as reflected in the so-called Axial Age, even from a layperson’s perspective it seemed that there were underlying similarities and patterns that were being missed primarily because these disciplines in and of themselves independently requires such a rigorous and deep level of knowledge about the specific domain.  Those that could understand and read ancient Chinese script were not necessarily the same people that knew and could read Vedic Sanskrit, and these people of course were not necessarily the same people that knew ancient Greek or Latin, and in turn these people were not necessarily the same people that could read cuneiform of the ancient Sumer-Babylonians or the hieroglyphs of the ancient Egyptians for that matter.

However, given that we now live in the Information Age, and that the translations of many of these texts, as well as the underlying meaning and etymologies of the various terms and words of the ancient languages themselves as reflected in the ancient writing systems that developed in the 3rd and 2nd millennium BCE throughout Eurasia, are now readily available, the time seemed to be ripe for a generalist of sorts to pull together the knowledge from all these somewhat disparate domains and bring them together in some sort of cohesive whole, in a more comprehensive and somewhat more scholarly fashion than had been done in Snow Cone Diaries, which was more of a personal journey tan it was an intellectual or academic one.

So given that the disciplines and domains of study and research described herein continued to impress themselves upon the author, and given our continued interest in ancient philosophy, and writing even after the publishing of Snow Cone Diaries, we ended up publishing two interim works thereafter that summed up and further explored some of the more esoteric and less well known aspects of Hellenic philosophy and their subsequent influence on the development and foundations of early Christianity, as well as an exposition of the philosophy of the Far East, the latter being and area of research that was relatively new to the author and that was not considered in the Snow Cone Diaries.[4]

The Far Eastern ancient philosophical tradition, what is referred to as ancient Chinese philosophy, which is covered in detail in the current work, is intriguing for many reasons but for the sake of brevity in this Introduction, suffice it to say that the Yijing, what is more commonly known as the I Ching, is arguably the most fascinating and intriguing theo-philosophical work from antiquity, hands down.  And the more the author studied it and was exposed to its origins and influence throughout Chinese history, the more impressed he was with its place as one of the greatest and most intellectual achievements in the history of mankind, one that reached far back into Chinese antiquity (3rd millennium BCE at least) and one that undoubtedly rivaled the Vedas and Avesta as representative of some of the oldest theo-philosophical treatises of ancient man.[5]

Furthermore, as the author began to understand more and more of the nature, content, structure and origins of the Yijing, the most prolific and influential of all of the ancient Chinese “philosophical” works, if we may call it that, it became apparent that its basic architecture, particularly from a numerological and metaphysical perspective, shared many common characteristics of ancient Pythagorean philosophy, in particular as reflected in the symbol that perhaps more so than anything else has come to represent said philosophy, namely the Tetractys.  Following this intellectual thread as it were, the author published what was supposed to be a small academic piece on the similarities from a numerological and arithmological perspective between “Pythagorean” philosophy, or what we know of it, and classical Chinese philosophy as reflected in the I Ching, what is referred to in this work as its more modern Romanized form, i.e. the Yijing.[6]


This work in its current form is to a large degree an outgrowth and evolution of the intellectual journey that is documented and mapped in the Snow Cone Diaries, and in particular an outgrowth of research done after Snow Cone Diaries was written exploring the nature and origins of early Hellenic philosophy and its relationship to early Chinese philosophy as well as ancient Vedic or Indo-Aryan philosophy as reflected primarily in the Upanishads, the latter of which was rigorously and systematically studied at the Rāmakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York under the guidance of Swami Adiswarananda to whom this work is dedicated to.

So while this work can at some level be considered to be extensive revision and expansion of the academic and intellectual pursuits that are reflected in the Snow Cone Diaries, it is distinctive from the author’s first major work in many respects and represents a much deeper dive into the material covered therein, as well as covers topics and areas of inquiry that are not covered.  Having said that, this work is much more “academic” in the sense that it represents – at least from the author’s perspective – a much higher level of scholarship than is reflected in the Snow Cone Diaries, and of course the personal narrative, Charlie himself, has been put to rest (God rest his Soul).[7]

Given the extent of the material covered in this work, the author in no way intends to represent it as an exhaustive study of any of the specific topics that is covered herein.  In fact, each chapter or section of the work could be covered, and is covered, in much greater length in a variety of works that are cited as references and for further study and research.  The author has however taken great pains to try and refer to, and directly cite, the most influential and comprehensive works that cover the various topics in question and of course the interested reader can follow these lines of inquiry and these references to learn more about any given topic.

The specific source material that is used is not only cited directly throughout as footnotes, but is also covered from a much broader perspective in the Sources and Bibliography section at the end of the work.  Perhaps more so than other works from before the 21st century, an era the author refers to as the “Information Age”, this work stands directly on the shoulders of many academics and scholars that have toiled and taken great pains to open up the world of antiquity to the modern Western reader and scholar through countless translations and historical books and records, many of which are now electronically available and upon which easy access the author has greatly relied.

There are no doubt particular sections or chapters which the author has glossed over in a manner that may be considered to be “superficial”, particularly by academics and scholars who have spent the better part of their professional careers studying and writing about the specific topics in question.[8]  However, each of the lines of thought represented in each Chapter of each Part of this work represent a coherent and cohesive whole and in their entirety, and of course for the sake of brevity (as ironic a term that may be given the length and scope of this work), is intended to show as complete a picture as possible in one text.

The approach from a reference and bibliography standpoint is to have significant footnotes and references directly within the material itself rather than, as is the case with most academic works, at the end of a chapter or even at the end of the work.  The footnotes, the explanations and small intellectual excursions which are reflected in the extensive footnotes that are included directly in the text not only serve to give credit to the reference material and the work and analysis put in by other academics and scholars on whose research and work mine ultimately depends and builds upon, but also as sidebar notes that may be of interest to the reader that provide direct links and references to works that the reader can refer to if they are interested in a certain topic that is not covered in detail in this work.[9]

The footnote style that is used is essentially adopted from the writings of Swami Nikhilananda (1895 – 1973), one of the foremost Sanskrit and Vedic scholars in the West in the 20th century.[10]  Nikhilananda’s works have in no small measure influenced the author, as he studied at the Rāmakrishna-Vivekananda Center which he founded in the middle of the twentieth century which was led by the author’s teacher, Swami Adiswarananda from 1973 until his passing in 2007.[11]

In this context, Vedānta, and more broadly what we refer to as “Indo-European philosophy”  in this work, is a central and constant theme throughout this work, in particular with respect to the modern conception of ancient Indian philosophy as it is presented in the teachings and works of Swami Vivekananda (1863 – 1902), one of the foremost proponents and most influential of the modern “Indian philosophers”.[12]  From the author’s perspective, Vedānta, as reflective of one of, if not the, oldest and richest of the Indo-European theo-philosophical traditions, can (and should) be leveraged as an intellectual and theo-philosophical benchmark of sorts for the recasting of the definitions of knowledge and reality in the West, one of the main thrusts of this work.


The work is divided into 4 major sections, Books or Parts, following more or less the intellectual development of mankind since the dawn of “history”, history in this sense being marked by the invention and widespread use of writing after which we have a “direct” or “first hand” exposure to the mind of man, or at least into the minds of the authors of the works that are covered herein.

  1. On Creation and On Metaphysics, Parts I and II: how the ancients looked at the world and defined reality and knowledge (),
  2. On Theology and Physics, Part III: how we came to our current, modern conceptions of reality and knowledge in the West (Part III), and
  3. On Ontology Part IV: a deeper and more comprehensive look at the nature of reality, Being in the sense that it was looked at by Aristotle and Plato as understood through a modern Western intellectual lens, and in particular in light of the knowledge of the East.

The chapters and sections in each of the respective Parts, or Books, are designed and written as much as possible to be modular as much as possible.  By “modular” we mean to say that they are written with the intention, again as much as possible, of being stand-alone essays or dissertations of their respective topics such that the reader can read a particular chapter without necessarily reading preceding chapters.  That is to say, the design of the work itself is such that it need not be approached or “read” in a sequential fashion from start to finish.  And of course as such, some material and content is repeated in the various sections and Parts of this work so that said “modular” design is achieved.  Given the breadth of the topics covered herein, this type of modular design is not only intentional but is almost required in order for the work to have value.  For if it is not read, it of course cannot have the intended impact or influence on modes of thinking which to a large extent the intended purpose of the work.

One of the main underlying themes of the work, especially in Parts I and II, is an exploration and analysis of the potentially shared origins of not just the mythology of the first “civilized” peoples in Eurasia, which the “Laurasian” Mythos hypothesis of Witzel, but also an expanded version of said hypothesis which analyzes and discusses the potential shared the origins of “philosophy” – what is referred to again as theo-philosophy throughout following the terminology of Snow Cone Diaries which brings attention to the fact that the earliest systems of “philosophy” from antiquity are not just analytical or rational systems of thought, but are also fundamentally theological in nature.

Parts I and II of this work are primarily focused on this area in history, the 3rd to 1st millennium BCE when we have introduced into the historical record evidence and documents that outline the Mythos of these early Eurasian peoples, specifically the creation narratives (what we refer to as cosmological or theogonical narratives), which is followed by a detailed analysis of the subsequent theo-philosophical tradition which emerges from, and is fundamentally and intrinsically related to, the underlying comsogonical narrative, i.e. again the respective Mythos.

Part III focuses on intellectual developments that take place in the West post classical antiquity from the intellectual developments that characterize Hellenic philosophy, through the advent of more orthodox religious or theological developments, straight through the Enlightenment Era and Scientific Revolution periods of Western intellectual history where effectively the worldview is overturned and Science, as we define it in more modern terms, begins to eclipse the dogmatic religious and theological worldviews that had dominated the intellectual landscape in the West for some thousand years prior, the so-called “Dark Ages” .

Part III then goes on to look at scientific developments in the 20th century, Relativity Theory and Quantum Mechanics in particular, which call into question our modern (and pervasive) notions of deterministic, objective based frameworks of reality, what we refer to collectively as objective realism, which represent from the author’s perspective a somewhat unintended byproduct of the Scientific Revolution and which, given their limitations with respect to understanding reality from a comprehensive or holistic perspective (i.e. ontology, or the study of the nature of being or reality), require – in the same intellectual spirit and intent pursued by Kant, Pirsig and other more modern Western philosophers – a wholesale revision in order for not only the two theoretical pillars of modern Science (Classical Mechanics and Quantum Mechanics) to be understood in any meaningful way, but also such that the knowledge and wisdom of the East is integrated into our conception and understanding of reality as well.

Part IV covers in detail much of the material that was first introduced in Snow Cone Diaries with respect to the fundamental incompatibilities of Quantum and Classical Mechanics, going into (theoretical) detail not just with Relativity but also Quantum Theory, as well as some of the philosophical, and ultimately metaphysical, implications of Quantum Theory, covering two interpretative models in particular that the author thinks are relevant to the ontological questions that are the topic of Part IV – namely the Relative-State formulation of Quantum Mechanics by Hugh Everett as well as the pilot-wave theory that is attributed to Louis de Broglie and David Bohm.  The Metaphysics of Quality as presented by Robert Pirsig is also offered up as an alternate model for ontological inquiry given its adoption and incorporation of the direct perception of “intuitive” reality directly into its metaphysics as it were.

Part IV then offers up various alternative interpretations of reality that attempt to present and synthesize what we understand about the nature of reality both from a scientific perspective, as well as from what we might term a mystical or spiritual perspective, models which directly incorporate experiential reality into account when defining reality or the extent of knowledge itself, i.e. what is referred to as epistemology in modern philosophical nomenclature.  The models and analysis in Part IV directly take into account the role of active consciousness, cognition and perception, what in Quantum Theory has come to be known as the act of observation which from a Scientific perspective, at least again from the author’s standpoint, must be taken into account in any formulation of reality and in any definition of knowledge.

The alternative approaches to defining reality and knowledge that are presented and described in Part IV basically synthesize typically “Eastern” and “Western” worldviews, and from the author’s standpoint, are far better suited than existing philosophical or religious intellectual frameworks to prepare us not just as individuals to survive and thrive in the modern, Information Age, but also are much better suited to serve the society as a whole, from a national as well as global perspective, given the level of interdependence and interconnectedness of not just the human race, but also the natural world within which we live and depend upon for our survival moving forward into the future.

The last several chapters of Part IV, much more so than the author originally intended in fact, are dedicated to a fairly lengthy discussion of a relatively modern debate surrounding different ways or approaches to interpret, how best to understand, the life and teachings of the 19th century Bengali (Indian/Hindu) sage Rāmakrishna Paramhamsa, a tradition of course to which this author is closely linked from a theo-philosophical perspective.  Rāmakrishna in this sense, and how he is perceived and approached in these final chapters of this work, is the full manifestation of, and in turn the perfect example of, the limitations of Western “thinking” and the implicit epistemological restrictions and assumptions that while true, are fundamentally limited in their capacity to deal with anything that falls outside of the realm of Science proper and as such is dealt with as a case study of sorts for the need to integrate the Science of the Mind as it were into any ontological framework that we are to choose that would include the knowledge of the East along with the knowledge of the West.

This so-called mystical, or supraconscious experience, which is the intended result of the practice of the ancient art of meditation as it has been passed down to us through various classically Eastern theo-philosophical traditions – in the Upanishads in particular but also implicit in the writings and teachings of Plato and Greek Eleusinian mystery and Orphic traditions and of course in the teachings of Buddha as well – are presented as a necessary and integral component of any “redefinition” of reality and knowledge which, following any sort of rational interpretation of Quantum Theory must take into account the role of the observer and the act of cognition i.e. perception, into account in any coherent and complete model of reality.

Along these lines, various intellectual frameworks and models which include direct experiential reality are explored and discussed at length in Part IV, as well as in the Epilogue, with specific chapters dedicated to the re-interpretation of Upanishadic philosophy as presented by Vivekananda in the early 20th century as well as an objective analysis of the experiences and interpretation of the life of Paramhamsa Rāmakrishna in particular who according to tradition of course was the primary influence and inspiration for Vivekananda’s teachings and life in general.

Rāmakrishna as a mystic then, and mysticism  in general – specifically defined by the practices and experiences associated with the direct perception of the ground of reality and existence itself which is the hallmark of Eastern philosophy – is not only one of the main, recurrent (and under emphasized) themes of ancient theo-philosophy in all its forms throughout Eurasian antiquity as reflected in the material in Parts I and II of this work, but also from an ontological standpoint represents one of the other main thrusts of this work which is covered in Part IV as well as summed up in the Epilogue which follows Part IV.

This “Western” view of Rāmakrishna, which is primarily represented in the book Kālī’s Child (a work which is critiqued at length in Part IV and the first section of the Epilogue as well) is from the author’s perspective a perfect illustration of the fundamental limitations of Scientific inquiry as we understand it in the modern Ear in the West.  An intellectual domain that rests squarely on the implicit, and very often left out, assumptions of not just empiricism and rationalism, philosophical modes of thought which characterized the Enlightenment Era for the most part, but also causal determinism and again objective realism, which provide the very basis for epistemology (i.e. our scope and understanding of knowledge itself) in the West, be they recognized as such or not.

Therefore when it comes to understanding, or again interpreting from a Western intellectual perspective, fundamentally Eastern theo-philosophical constructs such as Satcitānanda, Brahman, Purusha, Dao, or Nirvana, all words and terms that fall outside of Science proper in the West given their lack of empirical, objective reality and yet at the same time reflect concepts and ontological principles that are fundamentally required to come to any sort of understanding of any great sage, saint or prophet in the history of man – Paramhamsa Rāmakrishna included.  The choices we are left with given the modern Western intellectual landscape are the need to either study these domains specifically where these words and their associated meanings originate from, or alternatively expand our intellectual domain in the West to include some sort of corollary to these ideas, what they inherently mean and signify – the latter of which is the approach that Pirsig takes by formulating a new metaphysics which he calls the Metaphysics of Quality but what he unfortunately falls short of doing, a topic covered at length in the Epilogue as well.

This analysis of course lends itself to one of the core and final arguments of this work, namely that the intellectual and metaphysical model that is applied to reality in the West, i.e. our ontological framework, while being extraordinarily powerful from a natural philosophical perspective, i.e. Science, is in fact an inadequate conceptual framework for the comprehension of the full scope of reality and therefore  is in need of wholesale revision and/or significant expansion and extension metaphysically and theo-philosophically speaking in order to support a more broad definition of reality through which a more complete and fuller understanding of existence itself can be at least approached.  Hence the title of Part IV of the work, On Ontology.


[1] See Plato, Letters.  Letter 7, aka Seventh Letter 341c – 341d.  From Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 7 translated by R.G. Bury. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1966.  See  While the actual authenticity of the letter by Plato is debated by scholars it does for the most part reflect the writing style and philosophy as presented by Plato from the author’s perspective and so while perhaps not written by Plato’s hand, still nonetheless seems to accurately represent something akin to what Plato would write, specifically with respect to the specific part of the work cited herein.

[2] The Psychology of peak performance was spear headed in the Nick Bollettieri Academy in the 70s and 80s by the now well renowned and prolific Dr. Jim Loehr, now founder and Chairman of the Human Performance Institute.  See

[3] An overview of Pirsig’s work and his invention of a new mode of thinking to address some of the inherent limitations of the modern, Western worldview which he refers to as the Metaphysics of Quality are covered in some detail in the final section of this work.

[4] These works are Philosophy in Antiquity: The Greeks and Philosophy in Antiquity: The Far East respectively.  Both published by Lambert Academic Publishing in 2015.

[5] Tradition has it that Confucius is believed to have said that if he had fifty years to spare, he would spend it to contemplating and studying the Yijing.

[6] The original paper by the author regarding the similarities between Pythagorean philosophy and the Yijing is entitled “Numerology and Arithmology in Pythagorean Philosophy and the Yijing”, published in 2016 and can be found at

[7] Two interim works were published by the author covering Hellenic philosophy and Chinese philosophy specifically that were leveraged as source material for some of the content herein, specifically some of the content in Parts I and II of this work.  See Philosophy in Antiquity: The Greeks (2015) and Philosophy in Antiquity: The Far East (2016), both published by Lambert Academic Publishing in 2016.

[8] In particular the author cites the sections on Enlightenment Era philosophy as well as Arabic/Muslim philosophy as examples of Chapters which could be expanded upon greatly and to a large extent do not do justice to the actors and individuals, and the belief systems which they put forward in their writings, described therein.

[9] The footnotes also incidentally serve as reminders and reference points to the author himself so as sections of material are revisited and/or reworked and/or revised, the pertinent sources are readily available.

[10] Swami Nikhilananda is a direct disciple of Sarada Devi (1853 – 1920), the consort and wife of the 19th century Bengali sage Paramhamsa Rāmakrishna (1836 – 1886).  He is also the founder of and subsequent leader of the Rāmakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York from 1933 to 1973 and is one of the foremost interpreters (and translators) of Vedic philosophy into English in the 20th century.  He has authored definitive translations with extensive commentaries on the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gītā, and he is also known for providing the definitive English translation of the Srī Srī Rāmakrishna Kathāmrita, commonly referred to in the West as the Gospel of Srī Rāmakrishna, a monumental work covering detailed teachings and events of the last few years of Rāmakrishna’s life as seen through the eyes of one of his foremost (householder) disciples, Mahendranath Gupta (1854 – 1932), or simply ‘M’.

[11] See for information regarding the Rāmakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York.

[12] Swami Vivekananda was the first to introduce Yoga and Vedānta to the West at the end of the 19th century.  He was the foremost student and spiritual successor of Paramhamsa Rāmakrishna, a figure who is dealt with at length in Part IV of this work.  Vivekananda’s modern conception of Vedānta and Indian philosophy more broadly, is also covered at length in Part IV of this work.

Plato’s Metaphysics: Being and Becoming

Perhaps Plato’s greatest contribution to Western philosophy is the idealism embedded in his Theory of Forms, which in essence breaks down existence itself as not only a physical world of inanimate and animate objects, but a theory of knowledge and understanding which is based upon the notion that a) the understanding of a thing is predicated upon the existence of a true Form, or Idea of a thing without which the understanding, or even the thing itself, could not truly “exist:, and b) that such Forms or Ideas existed eternally as intellectual constructs upon which our understanding of the world around us was based.  It is from this premise and starting point that we must begin to try and grasp Plato’s perspective on not just reality and knowledge, but also ultimately his views on universal creation as well as his conception of the human Soul, all of which underpin not just his ethical philosophy but also his socio-political philosophy as reflected in the Republic and Laws most notably.

One of the primary themes that underlies all of Plato’s works, and can be especially seen in the Timaeus and Phaedo among other of his prominent works, is that the principles of reality or the known universe, and the very meaning of life and the pursuit of wisdom and understanding are not just worth exploring, but represent the very highest goal of life – the end of the philosopher.  His means of exploration, and perhaps the most defining characteristic of the Hellenic philosophical tradition which he so greatly influenced, is the role of reason and argument in the form of dialogue, logos and dialectic respectively, in ascertaining these universal truths, even if absolute truth or certainty is not completely possible given the limits of human understanding.  Whether or not he believed that absolute knowledge (sophia, phronēsis) was altogether possible or not is debatable and this is perhaps one of the great mysteries of Platonic philosophy as we try to understand it through the metaphors, analogies and arguments he presents and explores throughout his dialogues, the method and means of communication of these ideas and principles in fact lending itself to skepticism which was a hallmark of many of the philosophers which succeeded him at the Academy.

With respect to the nature of what can truly be known, from which any definition of reality can be drawn, Plato’s teachings as we understand them through his dialogues establish the first and foremost tradition of skepticism in Western – Indo-European really – thought.  This tradition, which starts with Socrates and clearly influenced Plato significantly, establishes the grounds of epistemology – the study of knowledge (epistêmê)– which is reflected in the philosophical tradition which Plato leaves behind at the Academy which he founded in Athens circa 387 BCE.  This tradition of skepticism” represented the core intellectual stream of thought emanating from the Academy subsequent to Plato which provided the basis for other currents of more materialistic and empiricist philosophical schools such as Stoicism and Epicureanism which has a much more broad definition of knowledge, each playing a strong role in the development of Hellenic philosophy in the classical Greco-Roman period.

Plato’s teachings were founded upon the principle, again believed to have been a legacy of Socrates himself, that there were significant intellectual limits upon that which could be truly known given that knowledge itself was predicated on the a priori existence of Forms or Ideas without which any understanding or comprehension of the physical world of matter comprehended by the senses is possible.  For Plato considered knowledge itself to be a type of “recollection”, which was part of his argument for the immortality of the Soul, which was the “form” of the body, one of the primary themes of the Phaedo, a dialogue which circulated in antiquity under the title of On the Soul.

Probably the most comprehensive literary expression of Plato’s notion of knowledge, the distinction he draws between the intelligible world (higher form of knowledge) and the visible world (lower form) comes from the Republic, expressed in what has come to be known as the analogy of the divided line.

“Conceive then,” said I, “as we were saying, that there are these two entities, and that one of them is sovereign over the intelligible order and region and the other over the world of the eye-ball, not to say the sky-ball, but let that pass.  You surely apprehend the two types, the visible and the intelligible.”  “I do.”

“Represent them then, as it were, by a line divided into two unequal sections and cut each section again in the same ratio (the section, that is, of the visible and that of the intelligible order), and then as an expression of the ratio of their comparative clearness and obscurity you will have, as one of the sections of the visible world, images.  By images I mean, first, shadows, and then reflections in water and on surfaces of dense, smooth and bright texture, and everything of that kind, if you apprehend.”  “I do.”  “As the second section assume that of which this is a likeness or an image, that is, the animals about us and all plants and the whole class of objects made by man.”  “I so assume it,” he said.  “Would you be willing to say,” said I, “that the division in respect of reality and truth or the opposite is expressed by the proportion: as is the opiniable to the knowable so is the likeness to that of which it is a likeness?”  “I certainly would.”

“Consider then again the way in which we are to make the division of the intelligible section.”  “In what way?”  “By the distinction that there is one section of it which the soul is compelled to investigate by treating as images the things imitated in the former division, and by means of assumptions from which it proceeds not up to a first principle but down to a conclusion, while there is another section in which it advances from its assumption to a beginning or principle that transcends assumption, and in which it makes no use of the images employed by the other section, relying on ideas only and progressing systematically through ideas.” [1]

Here we have Plato’s fundamental distinction drawn, in the analogy of a “divided line”, the world of the visible, that which can be perceived by the senses, and the world of intelligibles, i.e. thoughts and ideas divided into two unequal portions of a line, the intelligible portion being given greater emphasis and therefore greater (relative) size than its counterpart that represents the visible world.  Then each of these sections is divided again into two unequal portions of the same ration relative to each other, with the larger proportion of each subsection is sized based upon its relative clarity from an intellectual standpoint.

The smaller of the two segments of the visible portion of the line, i.e. the visible world, is made up of first images – shadows, reflections and the like – which are less “real”, more “obscure”, than the “things” which they represent in and of themselves, i.e. that which makes up the larger portion of the visible world part of the line because the “things” themselves are have more intellectual clarity or definition that the “images” or “shadows” of things.

Likewise, and analogously, the intelligible world is also divided into two unequal sections – of the same proportion.  The first of which, the smaller subsection, consists of the treatment of the images of things, and via various assumptions and conclusions various ideas or “theories”, abstract conclusions are drawn, i.e. “bottom up” or “deductive” reasoning of sorts.  The second section, the larger subsection of the intelligible world does not deal with things themselves, or even their images or representations but only deals with ideas in and of themselves and based upon pure intellectual reasoning – dialectic or logos – progresses from various assumptions or theses up to an ontological first principle or set of principles, i.e. bottom up logic or “inductive reasoning” of sorts.


Plato’s Epistemological worldview, i.e. the Analogy Divided Line[2]

Plato then goes on to use this analogy of the divided line as a representation, and relative worth or value, of four different types of knowledge, essentially using the divided line to describe his epistemological worldview.  Each section he describes as “affections of the Soul”, our perhaps better put, “capabilities” or “faculties” of the human mind.  The largest section of the line represents the clearest, the least obscure, and the closest depiction of Truth or Reality and is representative of conclusions drawn by use of pure Reason (logos), the faculty of the mind which deals only with ideas in and of themselves and reaches conclusions from principles up to the greatest and highest principle, i.e. the Good (segment DE).

This type of knowledge is followed then by lesser knowledge which is arrived at by the faculty of understanding, which draws various conclusions based upon “thinking” about not just abstract ideas in and of themselves but also about things and images as well (segment CD).  So although this type of thinking, like geometry for example, still deals with the intelligible world and therefore is of higher value than the “visible” realm of perception, is nonetheless of lesser value than conclusions drawn via pure reason and using pure ideas because this type of knowledge does deal with objects, even if they are simply images or representations of physical objects or things.

These two types of thinking that are categorized in the world of intelligibles are then followed by lower forms of knowledge which deal directly with objects of the visible world, the higher of which Plato refers to as “belief”, or “opinion” which deals with objects of the senses that exist within the world of visible world itself, what one might call the material world or the domain of  physics (segment BC), and then the lowest form of knowledge which he describes as “conjecture” or “imagination” (segment AB) which deals with not things in and of themselves but their shapes or images and deals with the likeness of visible things.[3]

In this section of the Republic, which precedes his more graphic metaphor of his Theory of Forms as told in his Allegory of the Cave, albeit wrapped up in the middle of a socio-political work, does represent from a Western standpoint the one of the first prolific and well-articulated forays into the world of metaphysics, i.e. the exploration of the true nature of reality that underlies the world of the senses, and attempts to explain our place in this world and the illusory and shadowy nature of the objects of our perception independent of any religious or theological dogma.  It also illustrates the prevalence of geometry and mathematics as a one of the primary means to which this reality can be understood, a marked characteristic of not just the Platonic philosophical tradition, but the Western intellectual tradition as a whole.[4]

It is in the Timaeus however, one of the later and more mature works of Plato where he expounds upon his view on the nature of the divine, the source of the known universe (cosmological view), as well as the role of the Soul in nature.  And although Plato, and Socrates as represented by Plato’s earlier works, rejected the mythological and anthropomorphic theology that was prevalent in Ancient Greece, Plato does not completely depart from the concept of a theological and divine or supra-natural creator of the known universe, at least as reflected in the words of Timaeus in the dialogue that bears his name.

In the Timaeus, Plato describes a “likely story” as to how the world was created, leveraging again reason (logos) and dialectic, and heavy use of analogy and metaphor, to describe the creation of the universe as a product of the intelligent design of a creator, his Demiurge.[5]  In many respects, the ideas and postulates of the Timaeus represent an expansion on Plato’s Theory of Forms which he introduces in Phaedo and the Republic but follows its intellectual development into the idea of the Good, and its role in the creation of the cosmos (kosmos), the material universe within which we live.

He starts again by drawing the distinction between the intelligible and sensible worlds, that which he calls Being and Becoming, two terms that have come to define Plato’s epistemological and cosmological worldview.

Now first of all we must, in my judgement, make the following distinction.  What is that which is Existent always [28a] and has no Becoming?  And what is that which is Becoming always and never is Existent?  Now the one of these is apprehensible by thought with the aid of reasoning, since it is ever uniformly existent; whereas the other is an object of opinion with the aid of unreasoning sensation, since it becomes and perishes and is never really existent.[6]

Here again Plato makes a distinction between the physical, or visible, world which is subject to change, and the eternal and changeless world of intelligibles, the Intellect (Nous) which can only be apprehended by use of the mind and reason, i.e. is not perceivable by the senses directly and can be discerned in the realm of the mind or thought.  He draws the basic distinction between that which is subject to change, the “visible” or “material” world (Becoming), and that which is eternal and changeless (Being).  Knowledge of the former, which falls under the category of the natural sciences which is the main thrust and emphasis of Aristotle’s reality, or sphere of knowledge, is not rejected outright by Plato but is held subservient – due to its constant fluctuating and changing state – to the world of ideas and thought which is apprehended by intelligence (Nous) and reason (Logos) and which is changeless and eternal.

The realm of Becoming is always subjected to perishing at some level and therefore never truly “is”, or can be said to “exist” within the context of Plato’s epistemological and ontological framework.  It is conceived of by what he deems “opinion”, alluding to the fact that perception is subjective in nature and what one perceives or experiences is not necessarily the same experience or perception of someone else, or some other being for that matter.  It is perceived via the senses, i.e. not by reason.  Whereas the latter realm always “is”, Being, is changeless and eternal, and is conceived of, apprehended as it were, by reason, mind and intelligence alone.  It is not subject to change and therefore according to Plato it truly can said to “be”, or can be said to “exist” within Plato’s epistemological framework, hence the term Being that he allots to it.

It is within this context of Plato’s distinction between the world of Being and Becoming, as he describes it in the Timaeus here, that the connection between Plato and Parmenides is drawn.  In many ancient philosophical circles, Heraclitus is said to be the mother of Plato’s teachings where Parmenides is said to be his father and it is his later works, and again specifically in the Timaeus, that we see this distinction along the lines of Being and Becoming clearly drawn, representing the most mature form of Plato’s’ intellectual conception of knowledge, i.e. what can be known, what philosophers call epistemology.

Parmenides (late 6th early 5th century BCE) is known for his one work, known by the title On Nature, written in hexameter verse which although does not survive in full, is believed to survive mostly intact through quotations and excerpts of later philosophers and commentators, reflecting its significant influence on early Hellenic philosophical development.  Most certainly Parmenides is one of the most influential of the “Pre-Socratics”, and it is through the interpretation of his philosophy through Plato really, that this determination is made.  He is believed to have been born in Elea in Southern Italy and therefore is historically categorized as part of the “Italian” branch of early Hellenic philosophy – as per Diogenes Laertius, the same branch as Pythagoras who represents the first and earliest of this tradition and as distinguished from the Ionian branch within which Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, as well as the Cynics and Stoics, belong to.

In Parmenides’s poem, he describes a pseudo allegorical journey up into the gates of Heaven driven by a golden chariot where he is initiated into eternal wisdom, i.e. the mysteries as it were, by the goddess of wisdom herself represented by the goddess Night, the very same goddess who plays a critical role in the unfolding of the universe in the in the Orphic mythological tradition.  [In later classical Greek mythology, she is personified as Athena, the goddess of wisdom and the daughter of Zeus, and it is no doubt she who most represents the notion of wisdom (i.e. sophia) as Plato perceives and describes it, in particular its illuminary nature from an intellectual perspective.]

In the excerpts that are extant from his poem On Nature, Parmenides distinguishes in very esoteric and almost mystical – and certainly cryptic – language that which is said to “be” or exist (to eon), or “true reality” (alêtheia), which he associates with thought and language and is wholly distinguishable from that which cannot in fact be said to exist in the same way, i.e. that which is not “real” and is wholly distinct from true reality (again alêtheia), due to its fluctuating and ever changing nature.

The thing that can be thought and that for the sake of which the thought exists is the same; for you cannot find thought without something that is, as to which it is uttered.  And 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 but names which mortals have given, believing them to be true—coming into being and passing away, being and not being, change of place and alteration of bright color.  [R. P. 119].[7]

In Parmenides, as we know him again through the quotations and comments of philosophers from the classical Hellenic period and later, we find what is believed to be the source of Plato’s epistemology where, in Vedic terms, the world of “name and form” which is in a constant state of change and flux, which falls in the domain of what Plato terms “opinion”, is held to be an inferior form of knowledge than the realm of the changeless and eternally existent world of ideas thought, as discerned by pure reason (logos), i.e. “true reality” which Parmenides calls alêtheia  and which Plato refers to as Being, again distinguished from that which is Becoming.  This bifurcation and sublimation of the material world for the ethereal or rational world ultimately provides the basis for Plato’s Theory of Forms and is the basis upon which he builds not only his theory of knowledge but also his cosmology as outlined in the Timaeus.

Furthermore, while Parmenides writes in hexameter verse, there is clearly a logical cohesion to his work, an argument or a case he is trying to make, to establish the grounds of being, in a classical philosophical sense, where he is attempting to justify and rationalize, and in turn provide the logical foundation for, his position of establishing that which “is” (to eon), or can be said to exist due to its eternal and unchanging nature which in turn again is distinguished from, and held to be of higher intellectual and philosophical value than, that which is subject to change and ultimate dissolution, i.e. the objective and material world.[8]

In this sense Parmenides work and philosophy that is represented therein is not only the forefather of Plato’s Being and Becoming as laid out in the Timaeus, but also the forefather of the means by which this distinction is established, i.e. by reason and argument which Plato presents in dialogue form using logic, or dialectic, which can be viewed as a more mature and evolved form of (written) communication of ideas and metaphysics than that which is used by Parmenides who follows in the footsteps of the earlier mythic poets Homer and Hesiod.

Transitioning back to Plato’s cosmology and its relationship to the worlds of Being and Becoming respectively in the Timaeus, we find a description which is markedly anthropomorphic in conception and yet at the same time rests upon his basic metaphysical delineation of reality between Being and Becoming – i.e. that which is permanent, eternal and unchanging and comprehended by reason (logos) and thought or ideas (eidôs), versus the sensible realm which is subject to change and “opinion” and therefore is characterized by an implicit creative and destructive process.

Again, everything which becomes must of necessity become owing to some Cause; for without a cause it is impossible for anything to attain becoming.  But when the artificer of any object, in forming its shape and quality, keeps his gaze fixed on that which is uniform, using a model of this kind, that object, executed in this way, must of necessity [28b] be beautiful; but whenever he gazes at that which has come into existence and uses a created model, the object thus executed is not beautiful.

Now the whole Heaven, or Cosmos, or if there is any other name which it specially prefers, by that let us call it, —so, be its name what it may, we must first investigate concerning it that primary question which has to be investigated at the outset in every case, —namely, whether it has existed always, having no beginning of generation, or whether it has come into existence, having begun from some beginning. It has come into existence; for it is visible and tangible and possessed of a body; and all such things are sensible, [28c] and things sensible, being apprehensible by opinion with the aid of sensation, come into existence, as we saw, and are generated.

And that which has come into existence must necessarily, as we say, have come into existence by reason of some Cause.  Now to discover the Maker and Father of this Universe were a task indeed; and having discovered Him, to declare Him unto all men were a thing impossible.  However, let us return and inquire further concerning the Cosmos, —after which of the Models did its Architect construct it?[9]

Here we see not only the implicit anthropomorphic, or perhaps better put anthrocentric, view of universal creation, but also the fundamental assumption of causality which rests at the heart of what is perhaps best terms his “theological” cosmological conception.  In other words, implicit in the existence of the universe as we know and perceive it, in fact implicit in the existence in anything, is some element of causality even if in this context he intends to mean “purpose” or “reason”, rather than a physical chain of causality which is how we have come to identify the meaning in the modern era of empirical science.[10]

Furthermore, he argues that the universe must have been “created” – i.e. has some sort of beginning in time and space as it were – because it exists within the sensible realm, the realm that is in and of itself defined by change, is apprehended by “opinion”, is subjectively perceived and is therefore – again by definition – in a constant state of flux which is bound by an implicit and eternally present creative and destructive process of Becoming.

[29a] Was it after that which is self-identical and uniform, or after that which has come into existence; Now if so be that this Cosmos is beautiful and its Constructor good, it is plain that he fixed his gaze on the Eternal; but if otherwise (which is an impious supposition), his gaze was on that which has come into existence.  But it is clear to everyone that his gaze was on the Eternal; for the Cosmos is the fairest of all that has come into existence, and He the best of all the Causes.  So having in this wise come into existence, it has been constructed after the pattern of that which is apprehensible by reason and thought and is self-identical. [29b]

Again, if these premises be granted, it is wholly necessary that this Cosmos should be a Copy of something.  Now in regard to every matter it is most important to begin at the natural beginning.  Accordingly, in dealing with a copy and its model, we must affirm that the accounts given will themselves be akin to the diverse objects which they serve to explain; those which deal with what is abiding and firm and discernible by the aid of thought will be abiding and unshakable; and in so far as it is possible and fitting for statements to be irrefutable and invincible, [29c] they must in no wise fall short thereof; whereas the accounts of that which is copied after the likeness of that Model, and is itself a likeness, will be analogous thereto and possess likelihood; for I as Being is to Becoming, so is Truth to Belief.

Wherefore, Socrates, if in our treatment of a great host of matters regarding the Gods and the generation of the Universe we prove unable to give accounts that are always in all respects self-consistent and perfectly exact, be not thou surprised; rather we should be content if we can furnish accounts that are inferior to none in likelihood, remembering that both I who speak [29d] and you who judge are but human creatures, so that it becomes us to accept the likely account of these matters and forbear to search beyond it. [11]

In this passage we find Plato, in the words of Timaeus in the dialogue, arguing that there must in fact exist a model upon which the cosmos (kosmos) is fashioned and that this model must be the “best” model, i.e. that which is eternal and changeless which he implies is the source of all things, i.e. the world of Becoming.  This model is based upon the Good, the Form of Forms, an eternal and changeless Idea which can only be apprehended – if it can be apprehended at all – by reason and thought and from which the world of Becoming is generated, or brought about from.

He equates the world of Being here to “true reality”, what he refers to as “Truth”, and the world of Becoming to the domain of “opinion” or “subjective belief”, lining up these two metaphysical principles which presumably derive from Parmenides squarely with his theory of knowledge. The former, the realm Being which is characterized by reason, thought and ideas, he considers to be the higher form of knowledge upon which the latter, the realm of Becoming which is forever changing and in a state of flux and is characterized by “opinion” and subjective belief, is molded from or shaped out of.

Plato then goes on, through the narrative of Timaeus in the dialogue, to describe in detail just how the divine craftsman, the Demiurge, establishes universal creation, what has come to be known as the “Cosmic Soul”, applying various rational, proportional, mathematical and geometrical (presumably of Pythagorean influence) constructs onto the primordial chaos out of which the four basic elements – earth, air, water and fire – as well as the heavens and earth and all living creatures therein came into existence.  But this world of Becoming, and the creative process which he outlines therein, attempting as best he can to provide a logical and rational account of creation in again what he refers to as a “likely” account, resting on and alluding to the limits of human knowledge in and of itself in understanding the reason and ultimate cause and process by which the universe comes into being, nonetheless presumes the universe to be crafted upon the model of the Good, a benign creator as it were that provides the foundation for the Judeo-Christian worldview.

[30a] For God desired that, so far as possible, all things should be good and nothing evil; wherefore, when He took over all that was visible, seeing that it was not in a state of rest but in a state of discordant and disorderly motion, He brought it into order out of disorder, deeming that the former state is in all ways better than the latter.  For Him who is most good it neither was nor is permissible to perform any action save what is most fair.  As He reflected, therefore, He perceived that of such creatures as are by nature visible, [30b] none that is irrational will be fairer, comparing wholes with wholes, than the rational; and further, that reason cannot possibly belong to any apart from Soul.  So because of this reflection He constructed reason within soul and soul within body as He fashioned the All, that so the work He was executing might be of its nature most fair and most good.

Thus, then, in accordance with the likely account, we must declare that this Cosmos has verily come into existence as a Living Creature endowed with soul and reason owing to the providence of God.   [30c] This being established, we must declare that which comes next in order.  In the semblance of which of the living Creatures did the Constructor of the cosmos construct it?  We shall not deign to accept any of those which belong by nature to the category of “parts”; for nothing that resembles the imperfect would ever become fair.  But we shall affirm that the Cosmos, more than aught else, resembles most closely that Living Creature of which all other living creatures, severally and generically, are portions.  For that Living Creature embraces and contains within itself all the intelligible Living Creatures, just as this Universe contains us and all the other visible living creatures [30d] that have been fashioned.  For since God desired to make it resemble most closely that intelligible Creature which is fairest of all and in all ways most perfect, He constructed it as a Living Creature, one and visible, containing within itself all the living creatures which are by nature akin to itself.[12]

We can see here that Plato sees the rational and ordered as of higher value than the chaotic and disordered, and he assigns the highest value to reason itself (again logos) which is attributed and ultimately equated with the divine or Cosmic Soul.  Furthermore, Plato perceives the universe, in very much the same vein as the Stoic tradition which was very influential in the Greco-Roman period and influenced early Christian theology (pneuma, the divine spirit), as a living, breathing entity which not only embodies, encapsulates as it were, all of the kosmos within it, but also is endowed with “Soul” and “reason”, just as the individual is at some extent.  God here, the Cosmic Soul, is fashioned in the image of man as it were as opposed to the other way around as it is presented in the Judeo-Christian account of creation.

At the heart of Plato’s philosophy was the belief in the ontological primacy of the rational faculty of man, Reason, along with the tools of the trade which reflected and were to be leveraged by this faculty – namely reason (logos), dialectic, logic and mathematics – as the means by which the fundamental truths of these ancient mystic traditions could be known or brought to light.  He was the first to establish the connection between cosmology, physics and ethics to a degree that had not be done before, a characteristic that became one of the primary characteristics of Hellenic and Roman philosophy and was even followed in the scholastic tradition up until the end of the Middle Ages.

Plato also established a good deal of the semantic framework, in Greek, through which these esoteric, complex and interrelated topics could be discussed and explored, a development whose importance cannot be overstated.  For before Plato the language of philosophy was shrouded in myth, analogy, and metaphor, and after Plato all of the Greek philosophic schools and practitioners now at east had a working vocabulary through which philosophic ideas and concepts could be further explored and elucidated upon, even if the various schools disagreed with each other on a variety of issues.

Plato’s unique contribution to theological development in antiquity then can be viewed as placing the rational faculty of man as the primarily tool through which any knowledge of the gods, or reality itself even, should be drawn.  His reach extended well beyond the theological domain however, extending into topics such as what could actually be known, psychological questions, systems of ethics and virtue, political philosophy, and most importantly the goal of life itself.  Many of his lasting contributions to the philosophic, and later scientific, development in the West are not necessarily the conclusions that he drew or solutions he put forth, but the tools and institutions which he established for their pursuit.

It can be said definitively however that with Plato the supremacy of reason and rationality in the search for truth and meaning in life as well as the nature and origins of the universe is firmly established.  To Plato the epistemological supremacy of the intelligible realm, the world of Being, over the sensible realm, or the world of Becoming, is the predominant characteristic of his metaphysics.  The former of which is characterized by Forms and Ideals from which the material universe as we know it, and all living souls as well, are ultimately “fashioned” from, all modeled and stemming from the belief that the Creator, if indeed he can be said to exist, must have fashioned things according to what is most fair and most just, i.e. the Good or Best.

[1] Plato Republic Book 6, 509d – 510b.  From Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vols. 5 & 6 translated by Paul Shorey. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1969.

[2] AC represents knowledge of the material or “visible” world and CE represents knowledge of the “intelligible” world.  Image From Wikipedia contributors, ‘Analogy of the divided line’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 19 October 2016, 05:17 UTC, <; [accessed 19 October 2016]

[3] See Plato Republic Book 6, 510c-511e.-  From Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vols. 5 & 6 translated by Paul Shorey. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1969. and Wikipedia contributors, ‘Analogy of the divided line’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 19 October 2016, 05:17 UTC, <> [accessed 19 October 2016]

[4] Taken one step further can be interpreted to mean that Plato is espousing a doctrine of the illusory nature of reality much like the Vedic tradition and its concept of Maya.  But buried within his allegory is also his dim and morbid view of the role of the philosopher himself, who is tasked with trying to shed light upon the true nature of reality to those steeped in ignorance.

[5] Plato’s Demiurge, the so-called “Divine Craftsman” that he describes in the Timaeus, becomes one of the cornerstone theological principles in the Hellenic theo-philosophical tradition and one which bleeds, and fits quite nicely, into the Judeo-Christian (and Islamic) anthropomorphic conception of God.  The English Demiurge comes from the Latin Demiurgus, which stems from the Greek Dêmiourgos (δημιουργός), which means “craftsman” or “artisan” but of course morphed into the more theological notion of Creator within the Hellenic theo-philosophical tradition itself.  See Wikipedia contributors, ‘Demiurge’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 18 December 2016, 18:44 UTC, <; [accessed 18 December 2016].

[6] Plato Timaeus.  27a-28a.  Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 9 translated by W.R.M. Lamb. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1925.

[7] Early Greek Philosophy, translation with notes and commentary by John Burnet.  Chapter IV., Parmenides of Elea.  3rd editions (1920).  London.  From

[8] For a more detailed description of the philosophy of Parmenides and analysis of the existent fragments of his work On Nature, see “Parmenides of Elea: What Is Versus What is Not”, by Juan Valdez 2016 at and Parmenides entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy at

[9] Plato Timaeus.  28a-28c.  Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 9 translated by W.R.M. Lamb. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1925.

[10] It is in this context of Plato’s notion of Being and Becoming, and his fairly loose but at the same time all-pervading implicit assumption of causality or purpose, within which Aristotle establishes his metaphysical worldview which is based upon substantial form and  causality – the material, formal, efficient and final–  all of which looks to better define that which can be said to “exist”, his being qua being.  Aristotle’s efficient and final causes represent Plato’s notion of “reason” or “purpose” which underlies existence whereas Aristotle’s material and formal causes represent the underlying principles for the material or sensible world.  For more detail on Aristotle’s theory of causality and how it relates to his metaphysical worldview, see the chapter on Aristotle in this work and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on “Aristotle on Causality” which can be found here:

[11] Plato Timaeus.  29a-29d.  Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 9 translated by W.R.M. Lamb. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1925.

[12] Plato Timaeus.  30a-30d.  Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 9 translated by W.R.M. Lamb. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1925.

Pythagoras: The Father of Greek Philosophy

Pythagoras, Thales of Miletus, Parmenides, Heraclitus, Xenophanes, Parmenides, Zeno, Empedocles, Anaxagoras, Leucippus, and Democritus all made contributions to Pre-Socratic philosophical thought and were referenced by later philosophers and historians to some extent or another.

Although none of the complete works of Pre-Socratic philosophers survive today in full, we do have excerpts and references to their work that allude to who these philosophers were and to some extent what their metaphysical, theological, and philosophical premises and theses were.  References to these Pre-Socratic philosophers, quotations as well as summaries of their belief system and philosophies comes from of course Aristotle and Plato, the Middle Platonist Plutarch, the (Epicurean) philosophical historian Diogenes Laertius, from early Judeo-Christian scholars such Philo Judaeus, Origen and Clement of Alexandria and from 3rd and 4th century CE Neo-Platonist authors such as Iamblichus, Porphyry and Simplicius.

It is clear from the works of Plato and Aristotle that they were influenced by these Pre-Socratic philosophers; even if only within the context of disagreeing with their fundamental tenets or conclusions, or illustrating the supremacy of their intellectual premises or beliefs with their predecessors, all of which generally fall under the category of Pre-Socratics.  This can be seen for example in that many of the Pre-Socratic philosophers were characters and/or referenced in Plato’s dialogues – Pythagoras and Parmenides for example.  All of these Pre-Socratic philosophers, and Socrates himself if we are to believe the portrayal of him by Plato, shared the common principle of the rejection of the hitherto traditional mythological and Theogonical, i.e. divine, explanation of universal creation and order reality that permeated ancient thought, and to a great extent all of them attempted to answer such fundamental questions of the origin of the universe and the nature of reality in a more rational, reasonable fashion as contrasted by the traditions that came before them.

Of the Pre-Socratic philosophers, Pythagoras (c. 570 – c. 495 BCE) is undoubtedly the most influential and the most enigmatic.  He is the first supposedly to have called himself a “philosopher”, literally “lover of wisdom”, and as such it is probably not too much of a stretch to call him the father of western philosophy, although many might argue against this depiction.  Much of the modern academic literature surrounding Pythagoras, and the tradition which followed him as understood through his disciples, the sect that he founded, and his intellectual influence not only on other Pre-Socratic philosophers, but in the “Italian” philosophical tradition as it was defined in antiquity and looked upon as distinct from the “Ionian” philosophical tradition – as distinguished by Aristotle and Diogenes Laertius among other ancient authors – but also on the “Socratic” tradition as well as reflected on the works of Plato.[2]

Much of the modern academic literature surrounding Pythagoras focuses on what can truly be said to be “historically accurate” concerning his life and teachings.  This is a somewhat tricky problem because a) it is widely held that he authored no works himself, b) it is believed that his teachings were to be kept secret by initiates and c) because the biographies of his life that have survived are from authors that lived and wrote centuries after his death, most notably those of the Epicurean philosophical historian Diogenes Laertius who flourished in the early 3rd century CE, and the Neo-Platonists Porphyry and Iamblichus who are also 3rd and 4th century CE authors, some 9 centuries at least after Pythagoras is supposedly to have lived and taught, circa 6th century BCE (570 – 501 BCE).[3]

By the time these biographies were written however, Pythagoras had evolved into a semi-divine figure of fairly eminent heroic stature so the stories surrounding his life and teachings weave myth and history into a single narrative, making it somewhat difficult to ascertain the “facts” regarding not just his biography but also his specific teachings, their origins, and their true import and influence on the subsequent Hellenic intellectual landscape.  Diogenes Laertius in his most influential and lasting work Lives of Eminent Philosophers notably spends as much ink on the life and teachings of Pythagoras as he does on Plato and Aristotle, so if nothing else that should give the reader a good estimation on the relative import of this figure on the development of Hellenic philosophical tradition, at least as seen through the eyes of one of the most prominent Philosophical historians in Hellenic antiquity, a work which undoubtedly influenced our understanding of the early development of the Hellenic philosophical tradition as much if not more than any other work in the history of Western intellectual development.  It should come as no surprise then that Pythagoras was and is still widely regarded as one of the most influential Hellenic philosophers in antiquity, and certainly is one of the most, if not the most, influential and widely studied of all of the Pre-Socratic philosophers.


Pythagoras was reportedly born on the island of Samos just off the coast of modern day Turkey in the Aegean Sea.  This region of the Mediterranean at that time rested just on the Eastern Ionian border, and just on the Eastern borders of what was then the Persian (Achaemenid) Empire.  To this extent, and this is true of the cities of Miletus and Ephesus as well, both of which were centers of intellectual thought in the 6th and 5th centuries BCE during the time of the “Pre-Socratic” philosophical movement if we may call it such, it is fairly reasonable to assume some sort of Near Eastern, i.e. Persian and Chaldean, as well as Egyptian influence on the philosophy of Pythagoras.[4]

While Aristotle supposedly wrote a treatise On the Pythagoreans, it is unfortunately no longer extant, so that leaves us with scant relatively contemporaneous sources to look to regarding what can be determined to be “historically accurate” regarding the life and teachings of this famous historical figure from antiquity.  Both Herodotus (c. 484 – 425 BCE) as well as Plato (428 – 348 BCE) mention his “school” in passing, and Aristotle (367 – 347 BCE) does refer to a “Pythagorean School” or set of beliefs to which he was associated at somewhat greater length (more on this below), but even these authors write at least a century or two after Pythagoras died so we need to view their assertions and statements regarding what has come to be known as “Pythagorean” philosophy with a certain level of skepticism.[5]

However, what we can surmise definitively from the very early sources was that as an historical figure he did in fact exist, and that he was in fact the founder of a somewhat countercultural intellectual movement (again today what we would call a “sect” which involved some sort of secret initiations and various rights, beliefs and practices), and that he did consider himself to be a philosopher in the later Hellenic sense of the term, that he studied and travelled abroad throughout the Mediterranean and Near East prior to founding his “school” in southern Italy and that at the very least he was well known in antiquity, leaving the question of influence and how well respected he was within the later Hellenic philosophical community (if we may call it that) aside as evidenced for example by the criticism of Pythagoras in a quotation attributed to Heraclitus[6].

So it’s hard to discern fact from fiction as it were with respect to what Pythagoras actually taught versus what the subsequent philosophers that were influenced by him, his students, actually understood and interpreted his philosophy to be.  Especially when you’re dealing with a figure that clearly cultivated a semi-divine status and had a religious following of sorts that lasted some several hundred years after his death.  What is known is for certain is that he cultivated and promoted a way of life that was vegan, was a believer in the notion of metempsychosis – i.e. that the Soul lives on after death and passes into the bodies of other animate “things” such as plants or animals or even humans or deities depending upon its actions – and that his philosophical teachings were focused on numeric harmony and proportion, from which his association with the famed Pythagorean theory stems from even though he was not a mathematician per se.

All of the historical sources however are fairly consistent when speaking to the various “Oriental” influences on Pythagoras from a theo-philosophical perspective.  It is widely held for example that he travelled and studied with various priests and mystics throughout the Mediterranean during his life.  In particular it believed that he spent a good deal of time in Egypt, and is also believed to have been influenced and/or initiated by Chaldean and Persian (Magi) priests.  It is also believed by some later authors that he was exposed to the philosophy of the Hebrews as well which would not be altogether surprising given the geography and time period within which he lived and taught.  Evidence for influence from as far East as India is lacking however, despite many efforts to prove otherwise and despite the fact that his beliefs in reincarnation (metempsychosis) have a very “Eastern” and classically Indian (Hindu) theo-philosophical flavor.  Regardless however, Pythagoras for a variety of political and social reasons ended up after his studies and travels settling in Croton in Southern Italy where the bulk of his teachings and followers ensued, and where he eventually met his untimely death around 490 BCE, later being attributed as one of the founders of the so-called “Italian” philosophical school, at least as how Diogenes Laertius distinguished it specifically from the Ionian school as reflected by the teachings of Socrates and his followers to the East (the East of Italy at least).

It was in Persia to the East of Ionia during the time of Pythagoras and the Pre-Socratics that the Magi (the Greek designation for their priestly class during the Median, Achaemenid, Parthian and Sassanian periods of Iranian/Persian history) held such great influence over theological matters as well as presumably matters of state as well which was so often the case in antiquity.  These priests, again Magi, were often referred to in the Greek literature in classical antiquity, had a reputation for divination (telling the future) and astronomy, and were in fact the very same class of priests who were said to have come and witnessed the birth of Christ.  There is even a tale told by Diogenes Laertius in his Lives of Eminent Philosophers of a letter sent by Darius I, one of the rulers of the Achaemenid Empire, to Heraclitus asking him to join his court as a Greek emissary of sorts, an offer in which he declined apparently.[7]

While at times the Persians were the great adversaries of the Greeks in antiquity, as were at other times the Spartans and the Macedonians each who had their turns at imperial dominion of what later became the Roman Empire, this was the same civilization that had assimilated (really conquered) the Assyrian/Sumer-Babylonian peoples and the same people that adopted in one form or another what came to be known in Greek circles as Zoroastrianism.  Zoroastrianism in this context was the form of the worship of great god Ahura Mazda, as understood from the teachings of the legendary Persian prophet Zarathustra, teachings that were captured in the Avesta which held theological influence over the Persians/Iranians from at least the time of the Achaemenid Empire (c. 550 – 330 BCE) down to the time of the Sassanian Empire (224 – 651 CE), up until the overthrow of the Persian (Sassanian) Empire during the first half of the 6th century CE era when they were conquered by the Arabs/Muslims – so for almost 1000 years give or take.[8]

The earliest attested writings attributed to Pythagoras himself are the so-called Golden Verses, a set of aphorisms written in dactylic hexameter verse that are attested to have existed and been in wide circulation as early as the third century BCE, but only show up in the written records by Neo-Platonist authors and commentators in the 5th centuries CE.  The aphorisms themselves bear a striking resemblance to a Zoroastrian tradition called andarz[9], which follows a very similar mode of style as the Golden Verses where short sayings or proverbs are attributed to great rulers or teachers that facilitate the cultivation of religious or spiritual endeavors, providing further evidence of the connection between Pythagorean doctrine and Persian theology, i.e. the Magi.[10]

It is also widely held that much of Pythagoras’s numerological and arithmological philosophy, the philosophy of harmony and proportion for which he was so well known, was derived from the Egyptians and/or the Chaldeans.  For both the Chaldeans, which heralded from ancient Sumer and Babylon (aka Assyrian) as well as the Egyptians and Indo-Aryans in fact, had a long standing tradition and association with astronomy, mathematics, and geometry, as well as a longstanding belief in the mystical and divine nature of number, arithmology and geometry in general – ideas which played an integral part in what we have come to understand as Pythagorean philosophy.[11]


The earliest reliable reference we have regarding “Pythagorean” philosophy is of course from Aristotle, in particular from Book I of Metaphysics where in typical Aristotelian fashion he outlines (and typically criticizes) previous philosophical belief systems and teachings prior to establishing his own system.

At the same time, however, and even earlier the so-called Pythagoreans applied themselves to mathematics, and were the first to develop this science; and through studying it they came to believe that its principles are the principles of everything.  And since numbers are by nature first among these principles, and they fancied that they could detect in numbers, to a greater extent than in fire and earth and water, many analogues of what is and comes into being—such and such a property of number being justice, and such and such soul or mind, another opportunity, and similarly, more or less, with all the rest—and since they saw further that the properties and ratios of the musical scales are based on numbers, and since it seemed clear that all other things have their whole nature modelled upon numbers, and that numbers are the ultimate things in the whole physical universe, they assumed the elements of numbers to be the elements of everything, and the whole universe to be a proportion or number.

Well, it is obvious that these thinkers too consider number to be a first principle, both as the material of things and as constituting their properties and states.  The elements of number, according to them, are the Even and the Odd.  Of these the former is limited and the latter unlimited; Unity consists of both (since it is both odd and even); number is derived from Unity; and numbers, as we have said, compose the whole sensible universe.  Others of this same school hold that there are ten principles, which they enunciate in a series of corresponding pairs: (1.) Limit and the Unlimited; (2.) Odd and Even; (3.) Unity and Plurality; (4.) Right and Left; (5.) Male and Female; (6.) Rest and Motion; (7.) Straight and Crooked; (8.) Light and Darkness; (9.) Good and Evil; (10.) Square and Oblong.[12]

Here we see many of the classical elements of Pythagorean philosophy laid out, albeit in a manner that is not altogether clear whether or not the belief systems were held and taught by Pythagoras himself, or were espoused by later interpreters and/or followers of his teachings.  Regardless, these doctrines as Aristotle describes them come to be known as the fundamental attributes of Pythagorean philosophy as well as the founding principles upon which the “Italian” school, which Pythagoras is the founding member of, is based.

We have first and foremost the discipline of mathematics assigned to this school of thought, and through which they came to understand that mathematics – number and arithmetic and basic geometry – was basically the language of the universe, or the language through which the universal order, and moral and ethical order of the individual and society at large, could be best understood.  The far reaching implications of this belief in the relationship between number, mathematics, geometry and the universal order on Western intellectual developments cannot be overstated.  Furthermore, through this “mathematical” understanding of the cosmos, and in particular through their understanding of harmonic and music theory to which Pythagoras himself is closely associated, the Pythagoreans came to believe that harmony and proportionality, which in turn were based upon the relationships of the fundamental numbers between 1 and 10, could be used to describe the universe in its entirety – at least metaphysically and metaphorically speaking.

Furthermore, and this is perhaps where we start to shift more into Aristotle’s interpretation of Pythagorean philosophy rather than perhaps his teachings, or the teachings of his followers, is the leap between the universal harmonic order based upon numbers and their inherent (mathematical and geometrical) relationships, to numbers as “first principles”, which for the most part is what Aristotle is trying to establish in the context of the work which he is speaking about Pythagorean philosophy, i.e. Metaphysics or “first philosophy”.  In this context then, Aristotle lists the ten list of fundamental, opposing forces – Even and Odd, Darkness and Light, Good and Bad, Male and Female, etc. – each of which is ascribed a numerical value, and the sum total of which describe all of the elemental forces of the universe –i.e. again his “first principles”.

So we can see here, at least at some level, through the great analytical lens of Aristotle himself, the association of “Pythagorean” philosophy not only with numerology and harmony which is what it has classically come to be seen as predominantly focused on as universal and ontological “first principles”, or arche, but also – and somewhat less emphasized, or in fact altogether ignored, by later interpreters and expositioners of Pythagorean philosophy, is the belief in the universe or cosmos as an ordered structure of pairs of opposites, from which the underlying harmony and balance, i.e. proportion, of the cosmic world order can best be understood, or said another way how the underlying structure of the universe as we “experience” it can best be explained.

The description of Pythagorean doctrinal development by the Syrian Neo-Platonist Iamblichus is also worth mentioning as it is not only more consistent with more modern interpretations of Pythagorean intellectual developments, but it also explains to a certain extent why Aristotle refers to Pythagorean philosophy in the aggregate and avoids attributing the belief systems which have come to be understood as “Pythagorean”, even by the 4th century BCE, to Pythagoras himself.  That is to say why Aristotle uses the language the words “so-called Pythagoreans” which is quite different than how he refers to the belief systems surrounding first principles of Empedocles, Anaxagoras, Leucippus, Democritus, Xenophanes and Parmenides from the very same passage which are all described within the very same passage.[13]

In his work Life of Pythagoras, Iamblichus distinguishes between two different branches of Pythagorean thought – akousmatikoi and mathematikoi.[14]  The former was in all likelihood the topic of analysis and discussion of the now lost works of Aristotle On the Pythagoreans, as well as the somewhat more contemporary (contemporary to Pythagoras) work by Anaximander of Miletus (c. 610 – 546 BCE) entitled An Explanation of Pythagorean Symbola.  These works presumably described and analyzed not just the life of the famed figure Pythagoras himself but also presumably the sayings and aphorisms, i.e. symbola, which had been directly attributed to Pythagoras himself and which encapsulated his philosophical teachings.

These sayings or aphorisms, which dealt primarily with ethical and moral matters, as well as matters of theology and what later came to be known as “philosophy” (with respect to doctrines describing a way of life for example) in all likelihood were the original source of the later compilation of the Golden Verses which again we know circulated throughout the Hellenic intellectual community by at least the 3rd century BCE and which was attributed to Pythagoras himself.  The followers of these symbola were, at least in later Neo-Platonic intellectual circles, distinguished from the Pythagorean mathematikoi as akousmata, which according to Iamblichus at least had a musical element, a chanting aspect to them – hence the term.  The other branch of Pythagorean thought, i.e. the mathematikoi, were in all likelihood the ones that had the most influence over Platonic philosophy, in particular the underlying geometry of universal order as described in the Timaeus.[15]


What is also interesting and somewhat baffling is that Ovid’s recollection and reverence for Pythagoras is almost entirely left out of the academic literature in terms of it actually truly reflecting “Pythagorean” philosophy, even though a) he explicitly outlines what he means by Pythagorean doctrine, and b) he sits some two centuries at least before the later Neo-Platonist authors of Porphyry and Iamblichus that are typically cited as the most reliable sources for Pythagorean life and teachings, and c) Ovid himself is known to have been well schooled in philosophy and was born and raised in the very same region (Southern Italy) where we know Pythagoras spent a great deal of his later life teaching and where he clearly exerted great influence.

Ovid spends a good deal of his final Book of Metamorphoses covering Pythagorean teachings in fact, told within the context of the story of the founding of Crotone by Numa Pompilius (753-673 BCE), Rome’s legendary second king.  Crotone is where Pythagoras founded his “school” and herein Ovid takes the opportunity to run through Pythagorean doctrine as it were, as he describes the founding of the city by Numa and just before he closes his work with the deification of Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus.  After describing the vegan lifestyle, and the belief in the transmigration of souls (metempsychosis), both attributes of Pythagorean thought and doctrine that were and are widely held to be true, Ovid goes on to describe Pythagorean doctrine in more detail, aligning it squarely with his overarching theme for his work in fact, i.e. change or metamorphosis as the primary characteristic and qualification of existence.

‘Since I have embarked on the wide ocean, and given full sails to the wind, I say there is nothing in the whole universe that persists.  Everything flows, and is formed as a fleeting image.  Time itself, also, glides, in its continual motion, no differently than a river.  For neither the river, nor the swift hour can stop: but as wave impels wave, and as the prior wave is chased by the coming wave, and chases the one before, so time flees equally, and, equally, follows, and is always new.  For what was before is left behind: and what was not comes to be: and each moment is renewed.[16]

This is not typically the philosophical teaching that is attributed to Pythagoras, Pythagoras the mystical mathematician who espoused the belief in the underlying harmony of number and ratio as reflections of the divine universal order, and although Ovid clearly has an axe to grind to try and closely align one of the greatest Italian philosophers of antiquity with the overarching theme of change which permeates his work, the philosophy that he lays out however is very reminiscent of the philosophy and metaphysics that underlie the cornerstone of Far Eastern (Chinese) philosophy, i.e. the Yijing.

Ovid goes on to describe how the elements themselves are subject to change – earth, air, water and fire – describing a process of transformation that bears even more striking similarity to Yijing metaphysics as its described in the Ten Wings and the various bagua (trigram) arrangements.

‘Even the things we call elements do not persist.  Apply your concentration, and I will teach the changes, they pass through.  The everlasting universe contains four generative states of matter.  Of these, two, earth and water, are heavy, and sink lower, under their own weight.  The other two lack heaviness, and, if not held down, they seek height: that is air, and fire, purer than air.  Though they are distinct in space, nevertheless they are all derived from one another, and resolve into one another.  Earth, melting, is dilated to clear water: the moisture, rarified, changes to wind and air: then air, losing further weight, in the highest regions shines out as fire, the most rarified of all.  Then they return, in reverse, revealing the same series of changes.  Since fire, condenses, turns into denser air, and this to water, and water, contracted, solidifies as earth.

‘Nothing keeps its own form, and Nature, the renewer of things, refreshes one shape from another. Believe me, nothing dies in the universe as a whole, but it varies and changes its aspect, and what we call ‘being born’ is a beginning to be, of something other, than what was before, and ‘dying’ is, likewise, ending a former state.  Though, ‘that’ perhaps is transferred here, and ‘this’, there, the total sum is constant.[17]

So while relatively contemporary interpretations of Pythagorean doctrine most certainly include a references to a certain lifestyle and diet, as well as initiation into a private sect that clearly represented some sort of religious and/or mystery cult type of movement, as well as an association with sacred mathematical and geometric symbolism and a universal order based upon the interaction of a finite set of opposing, basic elemental forces, we also find with Ovid in particular an association of Pythagorean teachings with basic elemental change, as well as an integration and assimilation of the teachings in general to the more archaic and pre-historic Mythos of the Hellenic world to which Ovid’s entire work rests in in fact.

What we find in Ovid’s interpretation of Pythagorean teaching, is a more archaic form of theology as it were, and one that is hinged on the idea of change and flux being the primordial characteristic of existence, as well as – consistent with Aristotle’s interpretation of Pythagorean philosophy in terms of first principles – the idea or notion that the universe is best understood as the interrelationships and intermixing of a basic set of opposing forces, forces which are aligned with number, proportion and harmonic balance.  In total, in looking at the “philosophical” interpretation of Pythagorean theology and cosmology, and combining it within the mythological and more pre-historic narrative provided by Ovid and his notion of change as being the primordial elemental property of reality, we are left with a worldview, a theo-philosophical system, that looks very similar to that which is represented by the Classic of Changes, i.e. the Yijing, from the Far East, a view and a comparison which is rarely made – if ever – and one which begs the question as to where and why these similarities exist between two of the primordial philosophical systems that emerge from these geographically disparate and theoretically distinctive civilizations which we believe did not have any sort of cultural or social connection at this phase in their respective civilizational development.


[2] According to Aristotle, Platonic philosophy is for the most part “aligned” with and consistent with the “Italian” schools which came before him. of which Pythagoras is the most eminent and influential figure of course.  He also aligns Platonic philosophy with Heraclitus as well, specifically in reference to his doctrine of the whole sensible world being in a state of “flux”.  See Aristotle. Metaphysics.  Book I .987a from Aristotle. Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vols.17, 18, translated by Hugh Tredennick. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1933,

[3] While references to Pythagoras can be found in the extant works of both Plato and Aristotle, it can be argued that neither of them assign him specifically with the establishment philosophical significance per se.  See Huffman, Carl, “Pythagoras”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <;.

[4] Miletus was the epicenter of the so-called Milesian School where Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes, all very prominent early Pre-Socratic philosophers heralded from, and Ephesus was the home of Heraclitus, the famed philosopher of flux and change which supposedly, according to Aristotle at least, heavily influenced the philosophic thought of Plato.

[5] Herodotus says that the Pythagoreans agreed with the Egyptians in not allowing the dead to be buried in wool in his Histories Book II, verse 81.  See The History of Herodotus, parallel English/Greek, tr. G. C. Macaulay, [1890], at at  For the reference to the Pythagoreans in Plato’s Republic where Plato associates the Pythagoreans with a doctrine of universal harmony with respect to astronomical matters, see Republic 7.530d from Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vols. 5 & 6 translated by Paul Shorey. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1969 at

[6] Much learning does not teach one to have understanding, else it would have taught Hesiod and Pythagoras, and again Xenophanes and Hecataeus.”  Quotation attributed to Heraclitus by Diogenes Laertius, Proclus and other ancient authors.  See Heraclitus of Ephesus, translated by G.W.T. Patrick 1889 at

[7] Lives of Eminent Philosophers. Diogenes Laertius. R.D. Hicks. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 1972 (First published 1925).  Book IX, Chapter I.  Verses 12-14.  See

[8] Affinities and similarities between the culture and theological beliefs in the Avesta literature and the Vedas of the Indo-Aryans is covered in detail in other sections of this work.

[9] See

[10] For the full listing of 71 aphorisms, see Wikipedia contributors, ‘The golden verses of Pythagoras’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 23 February 2016, 20:59 UTC, <> [accessed 28 September 2016]

[11] The opening passage to the famed Egyptian Rhind Mathematical Papyrus for example, a mathematical textbook which dates to the early part of the second millennium BCE more than 1000 years before Pythagoras was born, reads: “Accurate reckoning.  The entrance into the knowledge of all existing things and all obscure secrets.”.  From the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus.  Volume I.  Free Translation and Commentary by Arnold Buffum Chace.  Mathematical Association of America, Oberlin, Ohio.  1927.  Page 49.  The actual papyrus dates to around 1650 BCE and we are told is from a copy from an even older text dating from the 19th century BCE during the reign of Amenemhat II.  It was written in hieratic script and is a mathematical textbook of sorts which contains teachings and formulas on not just basic arithmetic and geometry, but also calculation of volume and area, fairly sophisticated algebraic equations and solutions, and other advanced geometry and mathematical topics that was clearly produced as a teaching tool.  The Indo-Aryans as well, at least with respect to geometry and basic mathematics and algebra as reflected in the Shulba Sutras, a text related to the construction of altars related to Agni (fire) worship and altar construction dated from the early part of the first millennium BCE.  For a deeper exploration of the connections between ancient Greek and Vedic geometry see “Greek and Vedic Geometry” by Frits Staal.  Published in the Journal of Indian Philosophy in 1999 by Kluwer Academic Publishers.  Vol. 27, No. 1/2, pg. 105.

[12] Aristotle. Metaphysics Book I 985b 986b.  Aristotle. Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vols.17, 18, translated by Hugh Tredennick. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1933, 1989.  From

[13] Again see Aristotle Metaphysics 1.985a – 1.986b.  Aristotle. Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vols.17, 18, translated by Hugh Tredennick. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1933, 1989.  From

[14] The Life of Pythagoras by Iamblichus.  Translated from the Greek by Thomas Taylor.  Theosophical Publishing House, Hollywood, CA.  1918. Page 62-64.

[15]  For a detailed treatment of the source and nature of these “akousmata”, as well as a description of the delineation between “akousmatikoi” and “mathematikoi” as described by the Neo-Platonist Iamblichus, see “The Pythagorean Akousmata and Early Pythagoreanism” by Johan C. Thom at

[16] Ovid’s Metamorphoses, translated by Anthony S. Kline, 2000.  Bk XV:176-198.  “Pythagoras’s Teachings: The Eternal Flux.”  From

[17] Ovid’s Metamorphoses, translated by Anthony S. Kline, 2000.  Bk XV:237-258.  “Pythagoras’s Teachings: The Elements”  From

Buddhist Philosophy Part II: Impermanence, Suffering and the Illusion of Self

The Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, the so-called Middle Way, for which Buddhism is perhaps most known for represent the very basic tenets of Buddhism in all its forms.  Within this philosophical framework are included not only a unique perspective on the nature of reality itself which distinguish it from all other theo-philosophical traditions in antiquity, and in modern times, but also the basic guiding principles upon which a good and fulfilling life, and ultimately liberation and “enlightenment”, i.e. nirvana, or the cessation of suffering, can be achieved.

These core Buddhist tenets are primarily understood through a set of sutras referred to as the Dharmacakrapravartanasūtram, or as it is sometimes translated, The Setting in Motion of the Wheel of Dharma.  These teachings can be found in the Sutra Pitaka, a section of Pali Canon which is believed to represent the earliest and most authoritative text of Buddhist philosophy.  This teaching, akin to Jesus’s sermon on the mount, is was said to be delivered to five ascetic monks (bhikkhus) with whom he had practiced austerities with after he had renounced his royal heritage and who became his first followers.

As the story is told, upon approaching his former ascetic brethren, given that they recognized that he was no longer following their extreme ascetic ways being that he was fully clothed and well fed, his former friends were at first reluctant to receive him.  However, after seeing him come closer, it was clear that he was a changed man, an enlightened and illumined being of sorts, and henceforth the monks sat and eagerly received his teachings.

Then the Realized One [Tathāgato], monks, in the first watch of the night agreed (to teach) by keeping silent, in the middle watch of the night he took delight in what was to be said, in the last watch of the night he addressed the auspicious group-of-five, (saying):

“There are these two extremes, monks, that one who has gone forth ought not to descend to, which is this: being joined and clinging to the pleasure in sense pleasures, which is low, vulgar, worldly, not very noble, not connected with the goal, not (helpful) for the spiritual life in the future, not leading to world-weariness, dispassion, cessation, deep knowledge, Complete Awakening, and Emancipation [Nirvana]; and this, which is not the middle practice: devotion to self-mortification, which is painful, not connected with the goal, painful in this very life and in the future where it results in pain.

Not having approached either of these two extremes, monks, the Doctrine of the middle practice [Middle Way] is being taught by the Realized One, which is this: right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right endeavor, right mindfulness, right concentration.

There are these Four Noble Truths, monks.  Which four?  Suffering, the arising of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the practice leading to the cessation of suffering.

Herein, what is suffering?  Birth is suffering also old age is suffering also sickness is suffering also death, being joined to what is not dear, being separated from what is dear, is suffering also not to obtain what one seeks for is suffering in brief.  The five constituent parts (of mind and body) that provide fuel for attachment are suffering.  This is said to be suffering.

Herein, what is the arising of suffering?  it is that craving which leads to continuation in existence, which is connected with enjoyment and passion.  This is said to be the arising of suffering.

Herein, what is the cessation of suffering?   It is the complete fading away and cessation without remainder of the birth of that craving, which greatly enjoys this and that, and is connected with enjoyment and passion.  This is [said to be] the cessation of suffering.

Herein, what is the practice leading to the cessation of suffering?  It is the noble eightfold path [Noble Eightfold Path], which is this:

  • right view [samyag-dṛṣṭiḥ],
  • right thought [samyak-saṁkalpaḥ],
  • right speech [samyag-vākright],
  • right action [samyak-karmāntaḥ],
  • right livelihood [samyag-ājīvaḥ],
  • right endeavor [samyag-vyāyāmaḥ],
  • right mindfulness [samyak-smṛtiḥ],
  • right concentration [samyak-samādhir-iti].[1]

What we find here first and foremost in the initial part of his teaching is the fundamental belief that the basic problem of life, the one essential aspect of being to which all mankind is afflicted, is suffering.  Furthermore, he outlines from the very start that his “revelation”, was not just that the nature of being or existence itself was essentially characterized by this notion of suffering (duḥkha in Sanskrit, or dukkha in Pali)[2], but that in fact he had “discovered” the source of this suffering, as well the specific practices and principles by which it could ultimately be eliminated, i.e. what he called the “cessation of suffering”.  These principles and this path, again the so-called “Middle Way”, are referred to as the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.

While The Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Noble Path represent the cornerstones of Buddha’s teachings, he also lays out a fairly sophisticated metaphysical framework upon which the intellectual foundations of his philosophy rests.  Herein lies the philosophic portion of Buddhism, where he defines what he believes to be the true nature of “reality”, the fundamental characteristic of “being” and “existence” itself, which when properly understood, hold the key to the liberation from what is sometimes called the “wheel of dharma”.

At its core, Buddhist philosophy is based upon the notion that it is from a very basic and fundamental misconception and misunderstanding of the true nature of reality which is the cause, or source, of suffering in all its forms.  It is fair to say then that Buddha’s teaching is based upon a fully rational and logical system of cause and effect, marking a stark departure – at least from his point of view – from the faith based theo-philosophical systems which dominated the intellectual landscape in the Indian subcontinent in the middle of the first millennium BCE and placing his teachings squarely within the philosophical intellectual revolution that sprung forth throughout Eurasian antiquity at that time – parallel to the Hellenic philosophical tradition to the West and the ancient Chinese philosophical tradition to the East.

The source of suffering according to Buddha’s teachings as interpreted and understood by his followers is based upon three basic “misconceptions”, or falsehoods, upon which he not only establishes his “worldview”, but also provide the rational foundation of his Four Noble Truths and in turn the Noble Eightfold Path, the basic practices and principles to be followed to end suffering once and for all.  These misconceptions are referred to in the Buddhist tradition as the “three marks of existence”, or tilakkhaṇa in Pali (trilakṣaṇa in Sanskrit).  They are:

  • anicca(anitya in Sanskrit), typically translated as “Impermanence”[3],
  • dukkhain Pali, duḥkha in Sanskrit, which is typically translated as “suffering” but a more literal translation might be “unsatisfactoriness”, and
  • anattā, anātman in Sanskrit, which means literally “non-self”, or more literally translated as the “lack of existence of self”, or perhaps more aptly put as the “illusion” of self.[4]

It is from these three fundamental “misconceptions” from which our experience of suffering originates according to Buddha, and upon which the intellectual foundations of his Middle Path are based.

From the Khuddaka Nikāya, or “Minor Collection”, section of the Sutta Pitaka called the Dhammapada[5], or “Way of Dharma”, one of the cornerstone texts in all of Buddhist scripture, we find the following description of these “three marks of existence” as they relate to the Noble Eightfold Path and Four Noble Truths:

Of all the paths the Eightfold Path is the best; of all the truths the Four Noble Truths are the best; of all things passionlessness is the best: of men the Seeing One (the Buddha) is the best.

This is the only path; there is none other for the purification of insight. Tread this path, and you will bewilder Mara.

Walking upon this path you will make an end of suffering. Having discovered how to pull out the thorn of lust, I make known the path.

You yourselves must strive; the Buddhas only point the way. Those meditative ones who tread the path are released from the bonds of Mara.

“All conditioned things are impermanent” — when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering. This is the path to purification.

“All conditioned things are unsatisfactory” — when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering. This is the path to purification.

“All things are not-self” — when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering. This is the path to purification.

The idler who does not exert himself when he should, who though young and strong is full of sloth, with a mind full of vain thoughts — such an indolent man does not find the path to wisdom.

Let a man be watchful of speech, well controlled in mind, and not commit evil in bodily action. Let him purify these three courses of action, and win the path made known by the Great Sage.

Wisdom springs from meditation; without meditation wisdom wanes. Having known these two paths of progress and decline, let a man so conduct himself that his wisdom may increase.[6]

The passage above come from the chapter called “Magga Vagga”, or “Maggavagga”, typically translated as “The Way” or “Path”, and while it most likely represents a compilation of sayings and teachings of Buddha that were only later organized under a single heading or chapter, it still nonetheless philosophically connects the Eightfold Noble Path, the Four Noble Truths, and the tilakkhaṇa, i.e. the “three marks of existence”, arguably the three most distinctive characteristics of Buddhist philosophy.

Here, anicca (change or impermanence), dukkha (unsatisfactoriness), and anattā (no-self) are described as points of contemplation which lead one along the “path of purification”, providing the rational basis as it were of the Four Noble Truths.  That is to say, it is the confusion surrounding the notion of the existence of Self (in particular as it was understood in Vedic philosophy), the illusion of any sort of permanent existence, and the recognition that anything that is “conditioned” or “qualified” in any way can only ultimately lead to a lack of satisfaction at some level, that form the backbone of ignorance from which the basic problem of human suffering originates from.  So these three elementary characteristics of “reality”, or again “being”, are presented as being necessary and critical to the “purification” process which underlies the means by which cessation of suffering can be achieved.  It’s important to note that the intellectual system is entirely rational, and in this sense it not only marks a significant departure from the theo-philosophical systems that preceded it in the Indian subcontinent, but it also places Buddhism squarely within the context of “philosophy”, particularly as it was understood in classical antiquity as reflected of Logos over Mythos, rather than “religion” as it is most often times viewed.

These three complementary and interrelated “marks of existence” permeate Buddhist philosophy and reflect the fact that according to Buddha’s teaching, it is ignorance, or lack of knowledge, that is the source of basic predicament of man, and conversely that “knowledge”, or the absence of ignorance, is the source of liberation, enlightenment or nirvana.  These elemental, and primarily psychic, “marks of existence” therefore constitute the intellectual basis upon which the Four Noble Truths are constructed, and through which as explained in this passage above, the bonds of “Mara”, the deity that personified desire and death which the Buddha directly encountered and overcame on his journey toward enlightenment, can be broken.

Impermanence is the cornerstone of these three principles really, as it is the common thread under which all three “illusions” or “misconceptions” can be understood.  It is mankind’s lack of recognition of the true nature of impermanence, as it relates to existence itself, which represents the fundamental ignorance, again the lack of knowledge, which is at the very root of the of the problem of human suffering according to Buddha.  It is the very core of the intellectual problem as it were, a problem which rests on the principles of reason and causality, and therefore represents the “thorn” which must be removed in order that this “chain of causality” which underlies the problem of suffering can be broken.  Impermanence then, is the basic metaphysical and philosophical tenet upon which all Buddhist philosophy fundamentally rests, the contemplation and full realization of which – again knowledge or lack of ignorance surrounding the true nature of – becomes the essential component of the attainment of nirvana.

From the Samyutta Nikaya portion of the Sutra Pitaka , we find further explanation of this notion of impermanence, anicca, and how it is directly associated to the principle of “non-self”, anattā.

The perceiving of impermanence, bhikkhus [monks], developed and frequently practiced, removes all sensual passion, removes all passion for material existence, removes all passion for becoming, removes all ignorance, removes and abolishes all conceit of “I am.”

Just as in the autumn a farmer, plowing with a large plow, cuts through all the spreading rootlets as he plows; in the same way, bhikkhus, the perceiving of impermanence, developed and frequently practiced, removes all sensual passion… removes and abolishes all conceit of “I am.” — SN 22.102[7]

The direct causal relationship between impermanence (anicca) and “suffering” (dukkha) is described as being caused by this illusion of self, this notion that “I am”, or that “I exist”, something that Buddha clearly saw as not only flawed, but totally based upon falsehoods and misconceptions surrounding the nature of reality.  But in this sense Buddha’s teaching is not all that revolutionary.  The idea that a misconception of the idea of self, or soul, or confusion surrounding the nature of existence was at the very heart of the philosophical revolution throughout the classical period of Eurasian antiquity.  But this intellectual connection between these misconceptions, and the full acceptance of the rule of cause and effect in not just the domain of philosophy but also theology, or metaphysics, is surely one of the very unique and lasting contributions of Buddhist philosophy.  Suffering then, is directly causally linked to impermanence itself, and once this is established and truly understood, it then becomes possible to eradicate it entirely.

“The body, bhikkhus [monks], is impermanent.  What is impermanent, that is suffering.  What is suffering, that is not-self.  What is not-self [should be considered as] ‘This is not mine,’ ‘I am not this,’ ‘This is not myself’: in this manner it should be seen according to actuality with perfect wisdom.

“Feeling is impermanent… Perception… Mental activities… Consciousness is impermanent.  What is impermanent, that is suffering.  What is suffering, that is not-self.  What is not-self, should be considered, ‘This is not mine,’ ‘I am not this,’ ‘This is not myself’: in this manner it should be seen according to actuality with perfect wisdom.” — SN 22.15[8]

Here, impermanence and suffering are not only “causally” equated, but the attainment of perfect wisdom, the end goal of Buddhist philosophy from which one can liberate themselves from suffering, is described as the practice of, and full and complete recognition and understanding of, the lack of existence of this notion of “self”, i.e. anattā.  It is this notion of “not-self” – in Sanskrit anatman – which in fact represents the major philosophical departure from the prevailing philosophical doctrines of the Vedic schools of philosophy which rest squarely not only on the existence of “self”, or atman, but also its indivisibility and ultimate unity with the cosmic Self, or Brahman, the existence of which Buddha also denies.  So impermanence and confusion regarding the idea of one’s one existence, become the cornerstone elements of Buddhist philosophy, ideas which are born out of the Vedic philosophical tradition from which Buddha is exposed during his journeying and wandering days, but which represent an almost complete inversion of the system itself, a system which is based upon reason, logic and causality rather than ritual, scripture or blind faith.

The important and relevant rational and logical deduction here however with respect to the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence and its relationship to suffering, and in turn the existence of a path or way by which suffering can be eliminated, is that this idea of self-existence itself is fundamentally flawed, hence the importance of the notion of “not-self”, anattā, in the Buddhist philosophical tradition, which when fully comprehended and “realized”, can form the intellectual basis upon which suffering itself can be completely, utterly, entirely and absolutely eliminated.  This belief system depends upon two assumptions of course, a) that the basic problem of existence is not god realization or the attainment of heaven after death or even immortality but the avoidance of suffering, and b) that reality itself is not only fully “rational”, but that it also rests entirely upon metaphysical and ideological principles, i.e. our reality is governed by our minds and beliefs.

[1] From Dharmacakrapravartanasūtram, The Discourse that Set the Dharma-Wheel Rolling, edited and Translated by Anandajoti Bhikkhu, August 2009 pgs 9-10.  According to the author this translation is from the Sanskrit text Lalitavistara (literally “An Elaboration of the Play [of the Buddha]”), one of the central texts of the Mahāyāna school of Buddhism which begins with Buddha’s decision to leave Heaven, and then follows the narrative of his birth life and practices until his Awakening, culminating with this final discourse delivered to his former 5 ascetic monastics which become his first disciples and to which he delivers his sermon on the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Noble Path, i.e. the Dharmacakrapravartanasūtra.  Note that while the text of the Sanskrit version is very close to the extant Pāḷi version of the Discourse, there are some variations albeit minor, speaking to the consistently of the transmission of the content of the discourse itself.

[2] Dukkha is opposed to the Pali or Sanskrit work sukha, which meaning “happiness,” “comfort” or “ease”.  See Wikipedia contributors, ‘Sukha’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 14 April 2016, 23:28 UTC, <; [accessed 14 April 2016]

[3] The Pali word anicca is a compound word consisting of “a” meaning “non” or “lack of”, and “nicca” meaning “constant, continuous, permanent”, denoting that which is literally “not permanent” or “not lasting”.

[4] See Wikipedia contributors, ‘Three marks of existence’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 6 October 2016, 10:04 UTC, <> [accessed 6 October 2016]

[5] The Pali word Dhammapada is a compound of two words, dhamma, which is equivalent to the Sanskrit word dharma, and “pada”.  Dhamma is not only a key Buddhist philosophical term, but also an important word and concept in orthodox Indian philosophy as well.  In the Buddhist tradition it is sometimes used to denote Buddha’s teachings as a whole, or alternatively it can mean simply “righteousness”, or “way” or “path”.  Pada means “foot” in Pali, and therefore in this context Dhammapada can be understood to denote the way of truth or righteousness.  The word is certainly reminiscent of the elemental Chinese philosophic notion of “Dao”, which is also typically translated as “way” or “path”.  The Dhammapada consists of 423 verses and is classically organized into 26 separate chapters or headings, all of which contain sayings and teachings which are attributed to the Buddha himself.  Many of the verses and passages in the Dhammapada can be found in other parts of the Pali Canon as well, signifying their importance within the context of Buddhist teachings as a whole.

[6] Dhammpadda.  Chapter XX, Maggavagga: “The Path”, pgs 273-289.  Translated from the Pali by Acharya Buddharakkhita, 1996. at

[7]Samyutta Nikaya, 22.102.  Translation by John D. Ireland 2006.  From

[8] Samyutta Nikaya, 22.15.  Translation by John D. Ireland 2006.  From

The Legend of Prince Siddhartha: Buddhist Philosophy Part I

Running parallel to the maturation and evolution of Hellenic philosophy, to the East the Indo-Aryan people were going through a similar intellectual revolution from the prevalence of ritual and ceremonial worship of gods and goddesses embedded in their mythologically steeped traditions as preserved in their Hindu (Vedic) scripture, to a more speculative and metaphysical mode of inquiry into the nature of reality and existence and its relationship to change, impermanence, and the immortality of the Soul, or Self (Atman) as it was referred to in the Vedas.

The aim of this inquiry, again just as it was in the West in the Hellenic philosophical tradition which was emerging at contemporaneously, was to explain not only the nature of reality, being, or “existence”, but also mankind’s place in as well as expound upon the goal of life, i.e. happiness, enlightenment, nirvana, liberation, moksha, eudaemonia or whatever other term the specific theo-philosophical tradition chose to denote this idea.  Unique to the Indo-Aryan philosophical tradition, which was also shared by Buddhism its close cousin, was that there existed a path to the ultimate liberation of the human Soul, by means of which death itself could be overcome.  This belief system was not just steeped in the notion of “realization”, or absolute knowledge (vidya), that which was spoken of by the great sages or seers of old, i.e. the Rishis, but also was characterized and underpinned by a system of metaphysics within which the nature of the Soul could be understood, and through which the means by which the Soul could be ultimately liberated rested upon.  This fundamentally intellectual development was driven not only by the analysis, commentary and interpretation of the more esoteric and philosophical aspects of the Vedas, or more specifically the Upanishads, but also by the teachings of Siddartha Gautama, the historical figure who is the founder of Buddhism.

Buddhism takes root in the Indian subcontinent toward the end of the 5th century BCE or so, originating in the northeast border between modern India and Nepal where Siddhartha Gautama was born (and where he presumably taught as well) at around the same time that the first of the Upanishads were compiled.  In modern academic literature, Buddhism is typically considered to be part of a broader philosophical movement that arose as an alternative to Vedic religion in the first half of the first millennium BCE in the Indian subcontinent called Śramaṇa.  This movement included Jainism, as well as other heterodox – i.e. not adhering to the Vedas as authoritative scripture – theo-philosophical schools of thought.[1]

The rise and influence of Buddhism then must be seen within the context of a broader intellectual movement that arose on the outskirts of the ancient Indo-Aryan civilization which reflected a basic and fundamental dissatisfaction with Vedic philosophy, culture and tradition as a means to liberation.  It represented almost a rebellion of sorts to the orthodox theological and religious dogma that was prevalent at the time which was encased within a very structured and elitist socio-political structure, i.e. Varna, which closely guarded theological study and knowledge by a specific class of society, i.e. the Brahmins, and which held that moksha, or immortality, was to be practiced only by the well trained and select few. Siddhartha, after much trials and tribulation, and after following many different paths and teachings, concluded that the prevailing orthodox Vedic philosophical system as a means to liberation or happiness was fundamentally flawed and after his Awakening, came up with an alternative philosophy (and underlying metaphysics) which became the basis of Buddhism in all its different variants today.

The popularity and spread of Buddhism in the Indian subcontinent in the last half of the first millennium BCE, which spread all the way into the Far East and regions of Chinese cultural influence in the first few centuries of the Common Era and beyond, along with the establishment of Vedic philosophy as represented in the Upanishadic literature, is in many respects directly analogous theo-philosophical development in the Hellenic world which arose out of the prevailing mythological and theological based religious traditions from which our modern (Western) notion of “philosophy” itself was conceived.  It can also be understood as analogous to the Christian revolution in the first few centuries of the Common Era as Jesus of Nazareth rejected the fundamental teachings of Judaism and proclaimed his new philosophy, i.e. the Gospel, for which he was ultimately crucified.  The teachings of Jesus, who later became known as Christ or Logos personified, as interpreted and compiled by his followers who founded Christianity as we know it today, not only rejected the religion of the Hebrews (of which Jesus was of course a member), but also the so-called “pagan” religions that were prevalent in the Mediterranean at the time, proclaiming that not only was there one true God as the Hebrews had done before him, but that this God was accessible to, and was in fact indistinguishable from, the very inmost essence of all mankind.

But Christianity as well, in its formation in the after the death of Jesus and as the Church and its associated religious dogma became codified and canonized into the Bible, also integrated Hellenic theo-philosophy as well, this element of Christianity being specially emphasized by the early Christian Church Fathers.  Just like Jesus then, Buddha rejected the religious traditions of his forefathers proposed not only an altogether different theo-philosophy, but also a fundamentally different worldview, i.e. metaphysics, as well as a completely different means and approach by which the ultimate goal of life could be reached, a goal which he defined as the cessation of suffering.  Buddhism then was born out of Hinduism just as Christianity was born out of Judaism, and Buddha was a Hindu just as Jesus was a Jew.

After searching for keys to unlock the secret of human suffering in his many years of wandering after he left behind his family and kingdom, Buddha ultimately came to find that none of the teachings he encountered answered his questions satisfactorily, and therefore he rejected Vedic philosophy in all its variations and after his “Awakening”, came to understand and teach a practical handbook of sorts for all seekers of Truth and Knowledge, a much more simplified and practical philosophy, a way of life really, than was then offered by the more traditional orthodox Vedic philosophical schools.


The mythical narrative surrounding the birth, life and death of the Prince Siddhartha is consistent with the narratives of most pre-historical heroic figures (Jesus, Hercules, etc.) and starts with stories of his immaculate conception into a ruling family in the foothills of the Himalayas in Northern India.  It is said that upon his birth, which his mother did not survive, he was visited by a great sage who predicted that he would either be a great ruler of men or a great religious teacher and reformer (holy man).  His early childhood and young adulthood was spent living the life of luxury within the confines of multiple palaces and exposed to all the pleasures that one might expect were accessible to a prince.  It is said that his father, given the prophecy upon his birth of the potential for his son to be a great religious prophet and teacher, took great pains to shelter him from any outside influences that would expose him to the suffering and harsh realities of the world which in turn might lead to his renunciation of his birthright.  It is said that he married and had a son and spent the first 29 years of his life in the sheltered and elaborate palace of his father where no desire of his was left unfulfilled.

In his late twenties, a story is told that one day he left the palace of his own volition to view his subjects and kingdom first hand, despite the misgivings and sheltering instincts of his father.  On this journey outside the palace walls, he was exposed to his first examples of the great suffering of the world, seeing first an old man on the verge of death, then a diseased man in great suffering and pain, followed by the corpse of a dead man, and lastly by an ascetic monk who had renounced the world in the classic Vedic monastic tradition which was prevalent at the time.  This experience is said to have completely transformed his view of the world and invoked feelings of tremendous and overwhelming compassion for the plight of his people, inspiring him to renounce his royal pedigree, leave his wife and child, and begin to live the life of an itinerant wandering monk to search for truth and the meaning of life, which was from his perspective the source and possible secret to the end of suffering.

Prince Siddhartha then spent the next several years following various forms of extreme Vedic asceticism and renunciation to try and find the true nature of existence and the path to illumination as prescribed by the teachings of the Vedas, with each successive path and teaching that he followed getting him no closer to the answers to the questions that he was seeking.  It is then said that after practicing these extreme forms of renunciation and deprivation that led him close to the edge of death, he finally gave up these practices as fruitless and settled down under a Bodhi tree (believed to be in Bodh Gaya, India), and resolved to sit in contemplation until either the solution to the nature of suffering and its ultimate liberation was revealed to him or die in the process.

After supposedly sitting in deep meditation for some 49 days, being tempted during his practice by various demons and gods with all sorts of worldly temptations to lead him astray (think Jesus’s 40 days and 40 nights in the desert having been tempted by Satan), at the age of 35 Siddhartha Gautama achieved Enlightenment and arose as the Buddha the name being derived from the root Sanskrit verb ”to know”, or “budh”, meaning “one who is awake”, i.e. the Awakened One.  The term Buddha, or Buddha nature, has come to represent the eternal and ever-present nature of truth and existence which he came to embody after his enlightenment experience under the Bodhi tree.

Upon emerging from this deep meditative and transformative experience, which was supposed marked by a great earthquake when his state of enlightenment was achieved and the eternal truth and knowledge of the nature of suffering and the path by which it could be overcome was revealed to him, Prince Siddartha became Buddha.  Although initially reticent to teaching this new found knowledge to the rest of mankind, believing that everyone was too steeped in ignorance and worldliness to understand, comprehend and ultimately practice the eternal Truth which was revealed to him, it is said that he was convinced by one of the great Indian deities, Brahma Sahampati, to at least try to teach for the good of mankind.

Thus began the teaching phase of his life from which the philosophical system of Buddhism as we know it today has been handed down to us.  It is said that he traveled throughout India and taught his Four Noble Truths and Noble Eightfold Path, as well as instituted the practices of Buddhist monasticism, for some 45 years until his death sometime in the 5th or 4th centuries BCE.  These teachings, sometimes referred to as his Buddha Dharma, or the Way of Buddha, represented a complete explanation and exposition of the laws of nature as they applied to the problem, and ultimate solution, of human suffering which was from his perspective the end goal of any theological or philosophical pursuit.  He taught how the great cycle of birth, disease, decay and dying could be overcome by proper understanding, or knowledge of “reality”, or more precisely the shedding of ignorance of the existence of the Self and attachment to which to Buddha attributed the source of suffering.

The historical figure we know today as Buddha was raised on the northern Indian/Nepal border in the foothills of the Himalayas as a prince from an affluent ruling family, living and teaching somewhere between the end of the sixth and early part of the 4th centuries BCE but dated by most scholars to the 5th century BCE.  What we know about the historical figure named Siddhartha Gautama who later became known as the Buddha, is from a corpus of textual material written that is handed down to us in in Pali[3], as well as somewhat later Sanskrit, Tibetan and Chinese transliterations of the Pali texts.  The Tripitaka, or Pali Canon, which is term used for the orthodox and authoritative Buddhist texts, cover not only his teachings, but also include biographic material as well, the latter of which is interspersed with a variety of mythical accounts that established him as a pseudo-divine figure who was born to deliver his message for the good of mankind.  Tripitaka (Tipitaka in Pali), means literally “three baskets”, and while the earliest parts of the canon are believed to have been compiled or transcribed within a few centuries after Buddha died, the biographic material is believed to have been incorporated into the corpus in the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE.

Siddhartha Gautama, or the “Awakened One” as he was referred to by his followers, is one of the most prominent and influential theo-philosophical teachers from antiquity whose influence has spread over the centuries from the Indian subcontinent throughout most of Asia and now in modern times to the West.  In many respects the Pali Canon and teachings of the Buddha which are contained therein can be seen as analogous to the Four Gospels which contain various narratives of the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and form the core part of the New Testament of the Bible which were written some decades after his death and were only later included as part of the Biblical canon.

According to most scholarly accounts, it is the Pali Canon that represents the oldest authoritative Buddhist scripture.  This strain of Buddhism that considers the Pali Canon to be the authoritative Buddhist scripture is referred to as Theravada Buddhism, Theraveda meaning literally “school of elderly monks” in Pali, as opposed to the slightly more possible and well known variant of Buddhism, at least in the West, called Mahayana Buddhism – of which the more widely known schools of Zen and Tibetan Buddhism are representative for example – and relies on a different set of scriptures than the Theraveda school referred to as the Agamas (“sacred work” or “scripture” in Sanskrit or Pali), which are written in Classical Chinese and referred to as the Chinese Buddhist Canon, or Dàzàngjīng (大藏經).

Mahayana literally means “Great Vehicle” in Sanskrit and focuses more on the monastic aspects of Buddha’s teachings and emphasizes the, rules, rites and practices for those who wish to pursue enlightenment for the good of all sentient beings as Buddha himself did.  These enlightened beings are called bodhisattvas, or “enlightened beings” in the Mahayana school and while the Mahayana school does not necessarily differ from the Theravada tradition (which precedes it historically) in terms of basic philosophical tenets and practices, it nonetheless developed a unique and relatively independent scriptural and philosophical tradition which codified and institutionalized specific doctrines, teachings and practices for the pursuit and attainment of enlightenment, what perhaps Buddhism in modern parlance is best known for.

Despite their differences in interpretation and practices, each adheres to the core basic teachings of Buddha as reflected in his Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, the latter of which outlines the true nature of reality and the causes of suffering and the former which outlines the intellectual and metaphysical basis for the basic precepts and practices which are to bring about the cessation of suffering and ultimately enlightenment and the end if the cycle of death and rebirth.  While Buddhism does not lay out a philosophic doctrine per se, at least not in the classic Western sense of the term, nor does it lay out any systemic laws or beliefs as is characteristic of the Abrahamic religions, it does however lays out basic fundamental precepts about the nature of life and reality from which it establishes a path, the so called “Middle Way”, which is the means by which the bonds of attachment which ultimately lead to suffering can be broken for good, resting on the fundamental assertion that not only is enlightenment possible, but that there is a specific path which can be followed which will ultimately lead to nirvana, the term given to the cessation of suffering and the end of the “wheel of dharma”.


When analyzing the teachings of Buddhism, as reflected in the various textual sources which were compiled by his followers sometime after his death, we are left with very similar challenges and pitfalls when studying the philosophy of all of the great teachers in antiquity.  While we can optimistically assume that his precise teachings and doctrines, words and phrases and terminology , were faithfully transcribed by his followers even if several generations of teacher and student transmission existed before any of the actual texts which codify his teachings were transcribed, we still nonetheless have to try and extract what he actually said and taught from the extant literature – for the texts were written in a variety of languages that a) in all likelihood do not reflect the actually language that he spoke, and b) we do know that he did not leave any written materials behind himself.

According to tradition, the transcription of the Pali Canon is the result of the Third Buddhist Council that was convened at the behest of the pious Indian emperor Ashoka Maurya (304-232 BCE) who ruled much of the Indian subcontinent in the third century BCE.  His intent for convening the council, much like the Christian councils that were convened in the 3rd century CE onward, was to standardize the teachings, texts and some philosophical elements of Buddha’s legacy from amongst the various factions that had sprung forth after Buddha’s death, leading to the existence of a variety of teachers and philosophic schools who disagreed on many aspects of the Buddha’s message and precepts.

As the tradition has it, the council lasted nine months and consisted of senior monastic representatives from all around the emperor’s kingdom who debated various aspects of Buddhist doctrine, culminating in the canonization of the scripture, i.e. the establishment of the Pali Canon, and formation of the foundational principles and practices of Theravada Buddhism.  After the council it is said that the emperor dispatched various monks who could recite the teachings by heart to nine different locations throughout the Near and Far East, laying the groundwork for the spread of Buddhist teachings and philosophy not just in the Indian subcontinent, but throughout the ancient world as far East to Burma and even as far West to Persia, Greece and Egypt.

The Tripitaka contain three major sections, (in Sanskrit) the Sutra Pitaka, the Vinaya Pitaka, and the Abhidharma Pitaka.  The Sutra Pitaka is the oldest of the three parts of the canon and is said to have been recited by Ananda, Buddha’s secretary at the First Council, a meeting of five hundred disciples of Buddha shortly after his death to compile his teachings.  It is divided into five sections of sutras which are grouped as nikayas, or “collections” – the Digha Nikaya or “Long Discourses”, the Majihima Nikaya or “Middle Discourses”, Samyutta Nikaya or “Connected Discourses”, the Anguttara Nikaya or “Numerical Discourses”, and the Khuddaka Nikaya or “Minor Collection”.  Another disciple of Buddha named Upali is said to have recited the Vinaya portion of the Tripitaka which deals mostly with rules governing monastic life, reflecting the strong undercurrent of renunciation and monasticism which was an integral part of Buddhism from its inception.  The Abhidharma portion of the is the youngest material and reflects the Buddha’s teachings regarding various deities in heaven during the final period of his Enlightenment and deals with various philosophical and doctrinal issues which help elucidate the some of the more esoteric and obscure aspects of the scripture.

It is from the Sutra Pitaka portion of the Pali Canon that we ascertain the core of Buddhist doctrine as it was understood by his followers and is interpreted by the various schools and practitioners throughout the world today.




[1] Śramaṇa (Samaṇa in Pali) is a Sanskrit word meaning “seeker”, or “one who performs acts of austerity”, or simple an “ascetic” and is used to refer to several Indian theo-philosophical intellectual developments that emerged in the first half of the first millennium BCE as distinct, and in opposition to, the more prevalent “orthodox” Vedic tradition which came to represent the basis of the Hindu faith, hence their categorization as “heterodox”.  These intellectual theo-philosophical developments and schools of thought ran directly parallel, and are believed to have influenced, the philosophy of the Upanishads.  Theo-philosophical traditions such as Jainism, Buddhism, as well as the lesser known traditions such as Ājīvika, Ajñana and Cārvāka are all considered to be part of the Śramaṇa movement.  Classical Indian philosophical conceptions such as saṃsāra and moksha are believed to have originated within these schools of thought, conceptions that were later integrated into some of the major Indian philosophical schools such as Yoga and Samkhya.  See Wikipedia contributors, ‘Śramaṇa’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 18 September 2016, 02:20 UTC, <> [accessed 18 September 2016] as well as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Buddha: Siderits, Mark, “Buddha”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <;.

[3] Pali is a Prakrit language native to the Indian subcontinent, believed to have originated in Northern India, and very closely related to Sanskrit, with most words existing in both languages with simple phonetic transliterations between the two.  Pali is a language in the Indo-European/Indo-Iranian language family whose main historical significance is that it is the language of one, if not the, main source of Buddhist scripture and philosophy

Parmenides of Elea: What Is Versus What is Not

(1) The car that bears me carried me as far as ever my heart desired, when it had brought me and set me on the renowned way of the goddess, which leads the man who knows through all the towns.  On that way was I borne along; for on it did the wise steeds carry me, drawing my car, and maidens showed the way.  And the axle, glowing in the socket—for it was urged round by the whirling wheels at each end—gave forth a sound as of a pipe, when the daughters of the Sun, hasting to convey me into the light, threw back their veils from off their faces and left the abode of Night.

There are the gates of the ways of Night and Day, fitted above with a lintel and below with a threshold of stone.  They themselves, high in the air, are closed by mighty doors, and Avenging Justice keeps the keys that fit them.  Her did the maidens entreat with gentle words and cunningly persuade to unfasten without demur the bolted bars from the gates.  Then, when the doors were thrown back, they disclosed a wide opening, when their brazen posts fitted with rivets and nails swung back one after the other.  Straight through them, on the broad way, did the maidens guide the horses and the car, and the goddess greeted me kindly, and took my right hand in hers, and spake to me these words:

Welcome, O youth, that comest to my abode on the car that bears thee tended by immortal charioteers!  It is no ill chance, but right and justice that has sent thee forth to travel on this way.  Far, indeed, does it lie from the beaten track of men!  Meet it is that thou shouldst learn all things, as well the unshaken heart of well-rounded truth, as the opinions of mortals in which is no true belief at all.  Yet none the less shalt thou learn these things also,—how passing right through all things one should judge the things that seem to be.

But do thou restrain thy thought from this way of inquiry, nor let habit by its much experience force thee to cast upon this way a wandering eye or sounding ear or tongue; but judge by argument [Logos] the much disputed proof uttered by me.  There is only one way left that can be spoken of…. R. P. 113.[1]


Such is the opening of the one and only treatise attributed to Parmenides, one of the most prominent and influential of the Pre-Socratic philosophers who flourished in the late 6th and early 5th century BCE from Elea, a town in Southern Italy which became one of the centers of philosophical development in the Hellenic world in antiquity, the so called Eleatic School.  The poem is believed to have been almost 800 verses in length, and although it only survives in fragmentary form through quotations and excerpts from later authors, it is believed that much of it – and specifically the part that pertains to the mode of inquiry which is to have a such a significant impact on subsequent philosophical development in and around the Mediterranean for centuries afterwards – has been preserved.[2]

In this passage above, Parmenides describes his journey on a chariot up to the gates of heaven led by the maidens of Sun god (Helios) up to the halls of Night, i.e. the realm of the dead, which is guarded by Justice herself.  The whole treatise therefore is rooted in ancient Mythos that is reflective of the general belief systems that permeated the Mediterranean at the time.  The language of the work entitled On Nature is Greek hexameter verse, the same linguistic form of the epic poems of Hesiod and Homer, speaking directly to the continuity of tradition, at least at this period of philosophical development in the Hellenic world, of the form of “inspired” writing and poetic verse which was a legacy of pre-historical antiquity.

The entire treatise in fact, is hinged ancient pre-historical language and terminology, not just with respect to language it is written in, but also in terms of the overall narrative which is steeped in references to the gods and goddesses which were so reflective of the prevailing Mythos of the time.  We have the abode of Night, and the very goddess who was so instrumental in establishing order and justice in the Orphic Theogony as the very same goddess who “reveals” the Way of Truth to Parmenides, and even a reference to the role of Eros as one of the primary forces of nature which speaks directly to the heritage of Hesiod’s Theogony.[3]

In particular, we see this notion of change explored in some detail, couched in what can only be deemed pre-historical terms of the assimilation and interaction of opposing forces – in this case dark and light and male and female, quite reminiscent of the mode of inquiry and metaphysical foundation of Far Eastern thought as reflected in the Yijing.


The thing that can be thought and that for the sake of which the thought exists is the same; for you cannot find thought without something that is, as to which it is uttered.   And 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 but names which mortals have given, believing them to be true—coming into being and passing away, being and not being, change of place and alteration of bright colour. R. P. 119.

Mortals have made up their minds to name two forms, one of which they should not name, and that is where they go astray from the truth.  They have distinguished them as opposite in form, and have assigned to them marks distinct from one another.  To the one they allot the fire of heaven, gentle, very light, in every direction the same as itself, but not the same as the other.  The other is just the opposite to it, dark night, a compact and heavy body.  Of these I tell thee the whole arrangement as it seems likely; for so no thought of mortals will ever outstrip thee. R. P. 121.

Now that all things have been named light and night, and the names which belong to the power of each have been assigned to these things and to those, everything is full at once of light and dark night, both equal, since neither has aught to do with the other. R. P. 123, 124

The narrower bands were filled with unmixed fire, and those next them with night, and in the midst of these rushes their portion of fire.  In the midst of these is the divinity that directs the course of all things; for she is the beginner of all painful birth and all begetting, driving the female to the embrace of the male, and the male to that of the female. R. P. 125.[4]


We can see in these different fragments and quotation from the work, not an altogether dismissal of the belief in the nature of the universe and its becoming into existence as the mixing and interaction of opposing forces, forces which emerge from and have their ultimate source in some divine being, a precursor to Plato’s Demiurge.  We see Parmenides elucidating (and not ignoring or dismissing) the existence of the basic elemental forces of dark and light, male and female, but a hint of a different perspective on how these basic universal attributes should be looked at if one is trying to understand the basic nature of reality, i.e. the nature of change.

For if nothing else, On Nature represents one of the first attempts in the Hellenic intellectual tradition to try to describe the attributes of “what Is” (to eon), a precursor to Aristotle’s notion of “being qua being”, as well as the process by which one can come to an understanding of “true reality” (alêtheia), i.e. reason or Logos, each of which comes to represent the basic hallmark characteristics of the Hellenic philosophical tradition – a tradition which we understand today as it is reflected primarily in the works of Plato and Aristotle and through later interpretations of their works by subsequent “philosophers”.  Both Plato and Aristotle in fact each alludes to and refer to Parmenides as one of the early expounders of philosophy, even if again his ideas are looked upon as incoherent or lacking insight or clarity in certain matters.  In the case of Aristotle in particular, it is Parmenides’s notion of change and its relationship to the definition of “reality” which he takes issue with, the detailed and systematic description of which represent the overarching purpose and themes of Aristotle’s works of course.[5]

Once Parmenides has been allowed into the abode of Night, the goddess begins to teach him the way of true knowledge, in language that is cryptic and full of contradictions that is reminiscent of the language and way of understanding that is presented by Laozi in the Far East actually.


(4, 5) Come now, I will tell thee—and do thou hearken to my saying and carry it away—the only two ways of search that can be thought of.  The first, namely, that It is, and that it is impossible for it not to be, is the way of belief, for truth is its companion.  The other, namely, that It is not, and that it must needs not be,—that, I tell thee, is a path that none can learn of at all.  For thou canst not know what is not—that is impossible—nor utter it; for it is the same thing that can be thought and that can be. R. P. 114

(6) It needs must be that what can be spoken and thought is;    for it is possible for it to be, and it is not possible for what is nothing to be.  This is what I bid thee ponder.  I hold thee back from this first way of inquiry, and from this other also, upon which mortals knowing naught wander two-faced; for helplessness guides the wandering thought in their breasts, so that they are borne along stupefied like men deaf and blind.  Undiscerning crowds, who hold that it is and is not the same and not the same, and all things travel in opposite directions! R. P. 115[6]


Here Parmenides describes “what Is” (to eon), as being related to that which can be thought or spoken of.  Here we have some of the beginning aspects of classical Hellenic philosophical inquiry presented with respect to the relationship of thought (which eventually morphs into Plato’s Forms), as well as the presentation of language, or speech, as the expression of thought (which becomes a key part of the Stoic epistemological tradition for example) herein established as the foundations upon which knowledge – that which can be known and in turn that which can be said to “exist” or is “real” – are put forth.  So while Parmenides presents his treatise in very pseudo-Orphic, illuminary context, i.e. that knowledge itself is “revealed” rather than “understood” or “taught”, he still nonetheless espouses the doctrine that a way of truth, as determined by reason, again Logos, does in fact exist and can, and should, be used to help define “true reality” (alêtheia).

While later interpretations of Parmenides’s thought are couched in terms of classical Hellenic philosophical inquiry, there are clearly significant remnants of pre-historical Mythos that permeate the work.  It should be kept in mind that the bulk of extant fragments from the poem that have been preserved have been done so to either prove or disprove various perspectives of philosophical inquiry by later authors, all of whom had some sort of axe to grind so to speak but regardless of which axe is being grinded they all are trying to prove or disprove certain points or aspects of philosophical inquiry.  Even in the modern academic literature, Parmenides is viewed in terms of the role he play in the development of classical Greek philosophy per se, not necessarily as a bridge between pre-historical Mythos – and the divine revelationary aspects to which it is fundamentally related – and Logos, which provides the intellectual foundations for all subsequent philosophical development.

In this context Parmenides and his poem On Nature does indeed represent one of the early milestones on the intellectual evolutionary journey of philosophical development in ancient Greece.  And despite the strong undercurrent of mythological and illuminary themes, the work does nonetheless represent a significant break in the Hellenic intellectual tradition by expounding upon the mode of inquiry into how an understanding and comprehension of true reality is to be arrived at from which the foundations of knowledge itself upon which it is based should be constructed.  This method of inquiry, what came to be understood as Logos, which was the standard method which was used to ascertain the properties of change which was never challenged as the ultimate property of material existence, was to be a hallmark of the philosophical tradition in the Hellenic world.


[1] Early Greek Philosophy, translation with notes and commentary by John Burnet.  Chapter IV., Parmenides of Elea.  3rd editions (1920).  London.  From

[2] See Palmer, John, “Parmenides”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <;.

[3] “(13) First of all the gods she contrived Eros. R. P. 125”.  From Early Greek Philosophy, translation with notes and commentary by John Burnet.  Chapter IV., Parmenides of Elea.  3rd editions (1920).  London.  From

[4] Early Greek Philosophy, translation with notes and commentary by John Burnet.  Chapter IV., Parmenides of Elea.  3rd editions (1920).  London.  From

[5] For Aristotle’s perspective on Parmenides’s “philosophy”, see Cael. 3.1.298b14–24; Metaph. 1.5.986b14–18, Ph. 1.2.184a25-b12.  References from Palmer, John, “Parmenides”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <;.  With respect to Plato’s perspective on the “philosophy” of Parmenides, he dedicates an entire dialogue to the topic, i.e. the Parmenides, where a discussion between Parmenides and Socrates is narrated and Plato’s Theory of Forms is defended at length through a series of lengthy deductive arguments.  See Rickless, Samuel, “Plato’s Parmenides”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <;.

[6] Early Greek Philosophy, translation with notes and commentary by John Burnet.  Chapter IV., Parmenides of Elea.  3rd editions (1920).  London.  From

Orpheus and Dionysus: The Mystery Cults of Ancient Greece

While Hesiod’ Theogony remains the standard, orthodox version of Theogony, the origin and genealogy of the gods, from Greek antiquity, there exists an alternate tradition attributed to pseudo-historical and somewhat mythical figure of Orpheus, a character whose life is shrouded in mystery and tales of great heroic journeys.  According to some legends and tales surrounding his life he is the son of the Muse Calliope and the god Apollo, the patron deity of the city of Delphi where the famed temple of the Oracle at Delphi was kept. Orpheus was a famed lyric poet who supposedly gained his lyre from a chance meeting with Apollo in the forest one day in his youth, Apollo having been greatly charmed by the boy’s voice.  It was there supposedly that Apollo initiated him into the great “mysteries” to which many of the practices and rites of the esoteric “mystery cults” of ancient Greece were associated.

But perhaps Orpheus is best known for his lyrical voice and the poetry which bears his  name, i.e. the Rhapsodies, a voice and music was known to tame even the most savage of beasts.  He is perhaps best known not only for his role in the tale of the Golden Fleece as the poet who tames the Sirens on their epic journey, but also his great love for the nymph Eurydice for whom he travels to the realm of the dead to save, only to have her lost forever when he turns his head to look back to her to make sure she is following him.[1]

With respect to the life of Orpheus, what we know comes to us down as legend and tales of old that speak of a child who is singing in the forests one day in Thrace who is found by Apollo who is charmed by his sweet voice.  As the legend goes, Orpheus was taught music (the lyre) by Apollo himself and was ultimately initiated into the “cult of the mysteries”, or divine knowledge, by him.  After a life of singing and divine inspiration, he fell in love and married the nymph Eurydice, who was his ceaseless companion and close confidante.  She, after being pursued through the woods by the god Aristaios, a deity also associated with Dionysus and Zeus, was killed by a poisonous snake and killed.  Orpheus was grief stricken, and with the assistance of the gods who empathized with his plight, travelled to the underworld to try and save his beloved.  He journeyed through the land of the dead and reached the throne of Pluto (Hades) and Persephone and begged them to let Eurydice live again.  Again his true love and plight was empathized with and they granted his wish, but under one condition.  He was not to look back at his beloved until they had completely left the realm of the dead, a test of faith as it were.  Orpheus, in one of the great tragedies of Greek mythology, looks back to be sure his beloved is behind him before leaving the land of the dead and so she is lost to him forever.  Orpheus is then said to have wandered the woods by himself and only sang to men after that, singing always about his lost love for Eurydice. There are different tales of his death but one story has him slain by Thracian women, (Mainádæs), women associated with the cult of Dionysus again, for luring their men away with his sweet music.  Orpheus is also associated with the myth of Jason and the Argonauts (the Golden Fleece) and is said to have saved the crew from the deadly Sirens on their journey with the charm of his music.

The religious practices and rites surrounding Orphism are closely associated with the life and legend of the mythical figure Dionysus, or Dionysus Bacchius or Zagreus as he was sometimes referred to.  Dionysus in mythical lore was the son of Zeus and Persephone, or sometimes Demeter or Semele depending upon the mythical variant.  As the legend goes he was murdered as a small child at the behest of Zeus’s jealous wife Hera.  His heart however was saved by Athena before he could be killed forever, and through this act of kindness and empathy he is born again.  This notion of rebirth and salvation was a main theme surrounding the worship of Dionysus and most certainly echoes themes we find much later in the life and teaching of Jesus.

The god, or cult, of Dionysus in ancient Greece – and through Roman times as well where he was worshipped as Bacchus – is closely associated with death and rebirth and divine ecstasy, which in turn was closely associated with wine, which in turn was associated with fertility and the spring, again rebirth.  Hence his, and less directly Orpheus’s, association with not only Persephone, the goddess of the underworld (death and rebirth), but also the goddess of the harvest and the spring, Demeter.  The close affiliation to the “divine mysteries”, to which the worship of Dionysius is closely associated with in antiquity, and to which Orphism in turn is also closely associated with, is evidenced by the many parallels and intertwined myths surrounding the two figures – Orpheus’s trip to the underworld and back to save his love Eurydice and Dionysus journey to the underworld to save his mother Semele for example.


What we know of the life of Orpheus as a historical figure, if in fact he did exist as an actual historical figure, is not much.  However, he is closely associated with the region of Thrace, both from stories around his birth and death, a region which lies just to the North of classical Greece and the Near East, lying in modern day Bulgaria which would explain why the stories and poems of his life were not integrated into classical Greece mythology until after Homer and Hesiod.  In many respects one can look at the historical figure of Orpheus just as one looks at the historicity of the Hebrew Moses.  In fact, the two traditions surrounding these two “prophets”, if we may call them that, come from basically the same period in ancient history albeit from two different, but closely related, regions. Moses from ancient Palestine/Middle East and Orpheus from Thrace/Greece/Near East.

Little is known about the life of this pseudo-mythical figure other than it believed by modern and ancient scholars alike that he was in fact an historical figure, the notable exception being Aristotle, who – depending upon how you interpret the quotations from later authors from whom Aristotle’s opinion is summarized – doubted not only his existence but also his authorship of the poems, the Rhapsodies, that bear his name.  Aristotle however, given his reputation as a scholar and the access he must have had to historical records and accounts from Greek antiquity is worth mentioning as a skeptic but having said that he was skeptical of the old mythical tradition from antiquity in general so perhaps it is not surprising.

According to later authors who are by all accounts are likely quoting from the same passages in Aristotle’s lost work De Philosophia, it seems likely that Aristotle believed at least that the compilation of hymns that bear the name of Orpheus was done by an Onomakritos, a scribe and counselor from the court of Pesistratos from the late 6th and early 5th centuries BCE who ruled Athens from 561 to 527 BCE.  As the story is related by Herodotus (who does not mention Orpheus specifically but indirectly as it related to the poems of the Muses) he tells us, consistent with Aristotle in fact (or perhaps Aristotle’s reference is from Herodotus) that these poems of the Muses (Musaios) were actually the works of Onomakritos, who inserted his own “forgeries” into the poems themselves and was therefore banished from Athens by the son of Pesistratos, Hipparchos.  After the family of Pesistratos was banished to Persia, Herodotus tells us that is by using the works Onomakritos that the great Persian king Xerxes I was convinced to lead an invasion into Greece.[2]

The earliest literary reference to Orpheus in the historical record is a two-word fragment of the sixth-century BC lyric poet Ibycus who simply refers to Orpheus as “the famous Orpheus”.  We also however find references and attestations to not only Orpheus himself but also the traditions surrounding the cult of mysteries or aspects of worship and initiation which were such an integral part of the tradition surrounding Orpheus from Herodotus as well as the tragic Greek playwright Euripides (The Bacchae), as well as Plato among others.  Plato in particular in one quotation from the Apology places Orpheus in the same category as Hesiod and Homer, as well as the Muses themselves, as having knowledge of divine mysteries as well as being objects of reverence.[3]  Having said that, with respect to what can be known about the historical figure of Orpheus if he did indeed exist, it is perhaps worth quoting a modern day scholar (and arguably a modern day “devotee”) on the subject, whose words sum up the situation quote nicely:

This alone may be depended on, from general assent, that there formerly lived a person named Orpheus, whose father was Œagrus, who lived in Thrace, and who was the son of a king, who was the founder of theology, among the Greeks; the institutor of their life and morals; the first of prophets, and the prince of poets; himself the offspring of a Muse; who taught the Greeks their sacred rites and mysteries, and from whose wisdom, as from a perpetual and abundant fountain, the divine muse of Homer, and the philosophy of Pythagoras, and Plato, flowed; and, lastly, who by the melody of his lyre, drew rocks, woods, and wild beasts, stopped the rivers in their course, and ever, moved the inexorable king of hell; as every page, and all the writings of antiquity sufficiently evince. Since thus much then may be collected from universal testimony, let us, pursue the matter a little farther, by investigating more accurately the history of the original Orpheus; with that of the great men who have, at different periods, flourished under this venerable name.[4]


Leaving aside the obvious questionable attribution of the inspiration and source of the works of Homer, Pythagoras and Plato being from Orpheus himself, this quite eloquent view of the figure of Orpheus does represent the view of the “inner circle” of Orphic believers in antiquity however, reflecting not only the great influence that his life and works were believed to have had, but also the “secret” nature of the “mystery cults” and rites that were so closely associated to the figure himself.  What we do however know for certain is that there existed a theology and “mystery cult” tradition surrounding the pseudo-mythical figure of Orpheus that was very influential on the development of not just theogony but also in turn philosophy in classical Greece.

Our primary textual evidence is from not only from the hymns which bear his name which survive for the most part intact, having in all likelihood been compiled in the last few centuries BCE, but also from references to the practices and rites surrounding Orphism in Herodotus as well as Plato and Aristotle (despite the latter’s noted skepticism regarding Orpheus as an historical figure) and prominently in the more recently discovered  by the Derveni Papyrus.  All of these point to a tradition that was not only widely known and practiced in classical Greece, but also one that was on par, albeit independent, from the Homeric and Hesiodic poetic/historical traditions which represented more “orthodox” Hellenic theological and mythological beliefs.  Notably however, Orpheus is not mentioned in either the works of Homer or Hesiod, speaking to an independent theological tradition, at least in the first few centuries of the first millennium BCE after which it was clearly integrated and synthesized into Hellenic mythological and cultural lore.

The Derveni papyrus was discovered in 1962 and is believed to have been compiled in the 5th century BCE.  While it’s a fairly damaged papyrus scroll, the bulk of the text has been recovered after much painstaking research and it consists of a running commentary on Orphic theogony, giving us insight and corroborating evidence of Orphic theogony proper, but also of a fairly early tradition of theo-philosophical interpretations of theogony in general, this one most likely coming from a school associated with Anaxagoras given the prominent role of “Mind” throughput the text.  The papyrus was discovered in a burial site from the 3rd century BCE around the time of the reign of Phillip II of Macedon around the area of Thrace/Macedon, a region closely associated with the stories surrounding the life of Orpheus.  This archaeological find allows us to date Orphic Theogony and cosmological narratives – and in turn practices associated with the tradition undoubtedly – to at least the time of classical Greece.  This material and belief systems reflected in the papyrus however, are undoubtedly representative of a theological and mystical tradition that is of much deeper antiquity, a tradition which bears many similarities and resemblances to what we know of ritual and theological traditions of Egypt, as well as those spoken of in the earliest Vedas and the Avestan lore, and one which was clearly of interest to the early Greek philosophers.[5]

Orpheus was believed to be the founder and prophet of the “Orphic mysteries”, as well as credited with the authorship of the so called “Orphic hymns”, a somewhat late Hellenistic compilation of poems addressed to the various gods and goddesses that were pre-eminent in the Orphic Theogony, a somewhat alternative representation of the divine order of the universe than presented by Hesiod.  The Orphic hymns include poems and commemorations to the gods and goddesses of Night, Heaven, Fire, and unique to the Orphic mythological tradition to the protogenital human, or Protogonus (Phanes).  Within this poetic compilation we also find verses dedicated to major “naturalistic” concepts that played an important role in early Hellenic philosophy such as Law, Justice, Equity, Health, etc. no doubt speaking to the interplay and interchangeability of the gods and goddesses in Greek mythology and the principals or “ideas” which they represented.[6]

Regardless of whether or not he existed as an actual person in history however, the life of Orpheus is not only very closely embedded in and related to classical Greek mythology, but also very closely associated with the so called “mystery cults” of ancient Greece.  These cults were closely affiliated with the with rites of initiation and rituals and the worship of Dionysus, worshipped as the “savior” of mankind through which the mysteries of divine union could be realized.  While these practices were shrouded in mystery and closely guarded within the “Orphic” community as it were, the Derveni Papyrus in particular reveals some insights into how these mythological narratives were interpreted by those within the tradition itself, a tradition which the author of the Derveni Papyrus was clearly intimately familiar.

Given Orpheus’s close connection with mystery cults and divine ecstasy which was closely aligned to the cults of Dionysus (not just in classical Greece but also in Roman times under the name of Bacchus) by studying Orphic theogony we can get a glimpse perhaps into a more archaic and alternative theological and shamanic tradition than the more structured and literary version presented by Hesiod.  For the Orphic theogony by definition carries not just a much more esoteric and “secret” meaning, but one which perhaps points to much more ancient origins given its close affiliation with ancient rites and rituals and initiation, very much reminiscent to the practices and rituals that are laid out in more detail in the Avestas and Vedas assuredly.


[1] Parallels to the story of Orpheus looking back upon his love as they leave the land of Hades can be drawn to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah where the city of Sodom is destroyed by the Lord for its wickedness but Lot’s wife looked back at the destruction of the city and was reduced to a pillar of salt.  Genesis 19.

[2] See Pausanias. Pausanias Description of Greece with an English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D., and H.A. Ormerod, M.A., in 4 Volumes. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1918.  Paus. 1.22.7 and Herodotus Histories Book VII Chapter 6 from Herodotus, with an English translation by A. D. Godley. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 1920 at and respectively for references to the account of Onomakritos in the court of Pesistratos and See Orpheus and Greek Religion by W. K. C. Guthrie, Princeton University Press 1993, pages 13-14 for the story of Onomakritos in Herodotus and pgs. 57-59 for his analysis and conclusions regarding the beliefs of Aristotle regarding Orpheus as interpreted from the excerpts of the (much later) Greco-Roman authors.

[3] While Aristotle reflects a more skeptic view of the Orphic tradition as well as the historicity of its founder, Orpheus, we find from Plato’s Apology the following quotation speaking to the high regard at least Plato had for the pseudo-mythical figure.  “Or again, what would any of you give to meet with Orpheus and Musaeus and Hesiod and Homer?” Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 1 translated by Harold North Fowler; Introduction by W.R.M. Lamb. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1966.  Apology, verse 41a from

[4] The Hymns of Orpheus, translation and Introduction by Thomas Taylor, 1792.

[5] The analysis of the text is fascinating and revealing into not only Orphic beliefs from the period of classical Greece but also an early commentary on “mystery cult” mythological and esoteric beliefs in and of themselves.  See The Derveni Papyrus: Cosmology, Theology and Interpretation by Gabor Betegh.  Cambridge University Press 2004 for a very detailed overview of the archeological find, a translation of the scroll (what can be recovered), a good summary of the analysis of the conclusions that can be drawn from the text itself as well as a reconstructed (Orphic) theogony which is embedded in the scroll.  Why it was buried with what appears to be a great and well respected warrior and aristocrat remains a mystery.

[6] For a complete translation of the ancient text/fragments, see Hymns of Orpheus, translated by Thomas Taylor, 1792.

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