Aristotle and Democritus: Knowledge and the Atom

Having established the premise of his thesis, what appeared to be clear cultural borrowing of mythological and cosmological themes between and among the ancient Western civilizations, themes which crystalized and evolved into monotheism as it spread throughout the West after the death of Christ, it still wasn’t clear to Charlie where this hard distinction and separation between the objective world and its associated means of perception which is related to the subject or perceiver of objects.

Aristotle’s teachings, which formed the basis of philosophical doctrine into and even beyond the Middle Ages, explored the nature of the physical or natural world and its divisions into fields of knowledge, fields which evolved into the branches of science as we know them today.[1]  He even explored the nature of being itself as it related to knowledge, and concluded that the basis of all knowledge rested on the understanding of the various causes, or purpose (aition, or aitia in Greek) of a thing which existed – the essence of his esoteric notion of being qua being, or that which provided the basis upon which we can say that a thing exists.  His theory of knowledge rested on the notion of substance, ousia in Greek, the distinction between the matter and form of a thing, the form of a thing being associated with its ultimate purpose (telos or final cause).

Aristotle’s worldview rested on the assumption that there was a cause, a purpose, to everything, the understanding of which was a prerequisite for any sort of knowledge of it, upon which its existence in fact rested.  For in his model knowledge and existence were two sides of the same coin.   In his exploration of and attempt to define being qua being, he comes up with the idea of “substance”, which is closely tied to being and existence itself.  His notion of substance however, which clearly his notion of what we might call “reality” today depended upon to no small extent, is ascribed features of both matter (hulê) and form (eidos or morphê), and covered the animate as well as the inanimate world.  In other words, it wasn’t simply the material world or objective reality that defined existence in Aristotle’s philosophy, existence had an underlying purpose which established the parameters within which “reality” could, and in fact had to, be understood in fact.

It is also from this exploration of what substance might actually be, the definition of which represents a good chunk of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, that our word for “essence” ultimately derives.  For in order to try and find a definition for substance, a term which clearly he finds critical in his description of reality and how we are to understand the world around us, Aristotle uses the phrase to ti ên einai, literally “the what it was to be” for a thing, or a shorter variant to ti esti or “the what it is” of a thing, to try and describe what substance, ousia, might be.  Both of these phrases were translated into the Latin with an altogether new word, essentia, given their obscure meaning in the source Greek which of course is where our English “essence” comes from.  It’s interesting to note that with all of our building and construction of science, fields of knowledge or knowing, which rest in no small measure on the work and terminology of Aristotle, this notion of “essence” has been completely lost and perhaps best replaced by properties or attributes that can be measured or empirically verified which determine the reality of a thing, an entirely empirical view of reality and one which is a significant departure from the theologians and philosophers of the past three thousand years.  The same view of reality posited and held so fastly to by Niels as well, the perspective which denied the reality or relevance of the mystical experience or any other subjective experience which could not be empirically verified or measured for that matter.  And yet the notion of essence along with the concept of purpose or causation and its relevance in defining being qua being which had at its core this notion of substance, went well beyond the material definition of a thing in his model of reality, the very same intellectual framework within which knowledge itself has come to be defined over the ages.

Aristotle diverged from Plato’s theological premise of a divine, intelligent creator as laid out in the Timaeus and interpreted by subsequent philosophers (what Aristotle refers to as Plato’s “unwritten teaching”) as the “One” on the basis that Plato’s metaphysical foundations were weak and inconsistent and did not stand up to rational and logical criticism, with particular emphasis on the weakness of Plato’s Theory of Forms.  But Platonic doctrine, in its written or unwritten form, while albeit perhaps resting on weaker metaphysical and rational foundations than Aristotle’s theory of knowledge which rested squarely on causation or purpose, had no clear notion of separation between subject and object at all, simply a grand overarching nous or intellect from which these abstract Forms and Ideas emerged and therefore could ultimately be grasped or understood.

Aristotle breaks things down much more completely and thoroughly than his predecessor no doubt, and perhaps establishes the groundwork upon which subject and object are completely distinguished which is such a marked characteristic of modern day materialism, but even in Aristotle’s profoundly rational and logical metaphysical model the distinction between the object and perceiver of said object is not clearly made, and is most certainly not emphasized in any way.  And more importantly the notion of the individual’s place in society and the establishment of the criteria which should formulate the basis of good living, i.e. ethics and morals, notions that were also critically relevant to Plato and even Socrates, were a core part of his philosophical doctrine.  These were elements of practical philosophy from his perspective and they had a place in his teachings that was as important and relevant as his other philosophical works such as his Physics, Metaphysics, On the Heavens, On the Soul, and even his logical treatises that historically became grouped together as the Organon (Categories, On Interpretation, Prior Analytics, Posterior Analytics, Topics and Sophistical Refutations).

Aristotle’s teachings, along with Neo-Platonic doctrine and the notion of the One and its emanation into the many, formed the basis of the intellectual understanding of not only philosophy and the natural sciences as they were taught well into the Middle Ages, but also theology as well as these metaphysical doctrines were integrated and synthesized with the interpretation of the Scripture of the Abrahamic religions as they developed and evolved in their respective intellectual communities.  Aristotle’s teaching, which later became blended with Platonism in the 3rd century CE with the teachings of Plotinus as reflected in the Enneads[2], was preserved first by the Romans and then by the Muslims, and in the Middle Ages came to represent the core part of a classical curriculum of sorts, a curriculum which included not just philosophy and theology, but also medicine, biology, astrology, ethics, political philosophy, logic and mathematics as well.  And the words and terminology, and overarching structure of the fields of knowledge and the approach to their study, had been established by Aristotle in the 4th century BCE and even persist into the terminology and language we use to describe philosophy and physics even to this day.

But nowhere in these systems of belief, be they purely philosophical or theological, could Charlie see a clear distinction between the source of the existence of a thing – the creator God of the Jews, Muslims and Christians, the ultimate or final cause or primary mover of Aristotle, or the One from which all things emanated in Neo-Platonism – and that which was created, this objective world which was the focus of all the sciences of modern times and which had come to define reality itself.  This mechanistic world view of modern times rested on the reality of the objects of our senses along with those forces which acted upon this reality, forces which incidentally also had their roots in Aristotle’s system of knowledge as he (in Physics and Metaphysics) emphasized the importance of the role of movement, or locomotion (kinesis), as a key defining element of reality.  Movement which connected the potential state (dunamis) of a thing and its actual state (energeia, or entelecheia), and were bound by the notion of Time and Space which were integrally related to this movement.  Sounds an awful lot like modern physics does it not?

This idea that this objective world, as defined by the constituents of an object combined with the forces that acted upon it, was the one and only reality was clearly a modern invention however.  All of these ancient and what we might call outdated systems of philosophy and theology as they developed well into the Middle Ages incorporated not only what we would call today systems of physics, natural philosophy and even theology, but also extensive theories of the soul and the relevance of ethics and morality in living a “good” life which were completely integrated into their doctrines, either as “laws” as handed down by God in the Abrahamic religions, or as very well thought out and rational extensions into the philosophic doctrines themselves as handbooks for harmonious living.

For example Aristotle’s theory of happiness (eudaimonia) which is what he proposes is the ultimate goal of life, the telos of the soul in fact, is tightly related to the notion of the pursuit of, and ultimate understanding of, virtue or excellence (aretê), the subject of two of his most prominent extant works, Nicomachean Ethics and Eudemian Ethics.[3]  Ethics and morality, their importance and relevance in human life and happiness, their relevance to the proper and healthy functioning of the state and society as a whole, rested on the fundamental belief in the reality of the soul as the “form” of man, i.e. that which gave him purpose or was his ultimate goal or end (telos).  The belief in the soul as a key element of reality in fact (be it immortal or not) was and is a major and consistent theme of all of these ancient belief systems, be they philosophical or religious, and the moral and ethical foundations which were embedded in them weren’t divorced from their doctrines as they are so markedly from the sciences today.

In some sense, Charlie mused, language itself could be viewed as the beginning of this separation, the beginning of the bifurcation that characterized our collective, individually mutual exclusive and yet at the same time fundamentally interdependent (according to the Eastern philosophical systems at least), universal reality that defined the world in which we all lived and breathed.  The development of language itself, the bedrock of civilization as it were, required the notion of separation, required the concept of objectivity; objectivism to some degree was in fact a necessary precondition for the development of language.  For every word, which is some combination of strewn together syllables that has meaning in one language or another, can only be understood relative to some other idea or concept – the metaphor or analogy being used – or conversely could be understood in contrast to some idea or concept which represents the opposite of the meaning of the word in question, that which something is not.  For it is the world of opposites in which we live, which the great Indian sages tell us that the infinite lives beyond, and yet at the same time the greater the abstraction of a word or concept, the closer we come to truly understanding, and identifying with this unified existence.[4]

Take the term Satchitananda from the Indian philosophical tradition for example; the word used to describe the essential nature of the non-dual ultimate experience of Brahman from which all things emanate that is described at great length in the Vedas, the Upanishads in particular.  Satchitananda is a composition of three Sanskrit words: the present participle of the Sanskrit verb “to be” or sat, combined with the nouns cit, meaning “consciousness” and ānanda meaning “bliss” or “absolute bliss” in this context.  Satchitananda is a word meant to convey the concept of or idea of “the existence of a pure essence that is present and active, and consists of pure consciousness and absolute bliss”, an analogy in the Platonic school to the penultimate Idea or Form in Plato’s world of Forms and Ideas which emerges from the divine creator described in the Timaeus, and the core Aristotelian teleological (causal) principle which gives purpose and form to everything that exists, being qua being.

But here’s the catch, and Charlie almost smiled wryly when his mind went down this road, that the word itself, Satchitananda in this case, a word ironically intended to describe a state of being that was beyond words and the world of name and form, it’s manifestation – spoken or thought – implied that there is a thing, something that exists, and something whose essential nature is the essence of bliss and consciousness, even if it was in its purest and most essential form, and of course some perceiver or subject who experiences this state.  Duality, or at least the existence of a perceiver and that which is perceived, was even implicit in the term Satchitananda, and to take it one step further to its Neo-Platonic form, there must exist a meta or supra Platonic Form or Idea that rests behind or above the notion of Satchitananda that lends its understanding.

Although not so clear how we modern intellectuals latched so religiously on this mechanistic world view, it was clear however that as these ancient peoples evolved and progressed, a cultural melting pot emerged that facilitated the exchange of ideas, both of a religious and intellectual nature, as well as technology advancements that led to increased urbanization which further reinforced an environment conducive to the more rapid exchange of thought and ideas.  Individuals transitioned into more specialized and “civilized” roles in their respective societies and civilizations, allowing for the progression of metaphysical and theological development beyond the prevailing mythologies and pantheistic traditions that had reigned supreme for thousands of years prior to the advent of civilization in the Mediterranean and in the East.  This specialization and evolution of thought ran parallel to the expansion of trade and cultural exchange that developed as civilization emerged in the Mediterranean and Near East, marked most notably by the advent of successive empires and cultures in this region:  notably

  • the Persian Empire in the first half of the first millennium BCE in the Near East,
  • the period of Hellenic influence marked most notably with Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Eastern Mediterranean into the Near East, marking the rise of Greek influence(and philosophy) in the Mediterranean,
  • the period of Roman and Latin (and predominantly Christian) influence in the West starting at the end of the first century BCE that carried into the second millennium CE; the rise and fall of the Roman Empire and then the persistence of the Byzantine Empire in the Near East which carried forth a Greek intellectual and philosophical bent albeit Christian in faith, and lastly
  • a period of Islamic influence in the Near East beginning in the latter part of the first millennium CE and extending into the second millennium CE driven by the teachings and empire of Mohammed.

This melting pot and theo-cultural exchange continued well into the Middle Ages until the advent of what historians today call the Renaissance (14th and 15th centuries CE), the Scientific Revolution (16th and 17th centuries CE) and the Age of Enlightenment (17th and 18th centuries CE) from which eventually emerged what we would today call science which reinforced a more literal and materialistic form of atomism and mechanism which, for the belief in the atom at least, is first associated with the Greek philosopher Leucippus and his student Democritus in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE who are credited with the formulation of the concept of atomism and the void which it depends on.  It was in this time period of accelerated civilization growth toward the end of the Middle Ages when the influence of all these competing cultures and theo-philosophies that had been developing for centuries, for millennia really, were analyzed again within a more pure socio-political context, akin to Plato’s Republic or Al-Farabi’s Virtuous City, rather than a purely religious context as they had been with Christianity and Islam throughout the first millennium CE and beyond.

Even with the axe to grind from all the different competing religious systems that developed during this extended period of civilization development and evolution in the West, each of these religious systems assimilated and incorporated the Hellenistic philosophical principles in order to rationalize and justify their creeds, for even into the period of Christian and Islamic influence in the West, the Hellenic philosophers were considered to be the torch bearers of reason and were still looked upon as pillars of philosophical and theological thought.

The prominence of Hellenistic metaphysical and philosophical thought extended even well into the Middle Ages and through the period of the Age of Enlightenment, speaking to the power of the traditions and disciplines that emerged in Ancient Classical Greece.  These ancient Greek philosophical systems from the Hellenistic era were integrated into these subsequent theological systems (mostly Abrahamic) and in each of them there existed a belief in a single Creator of the universe, a universe which in the Platonic sense emanated from an anthropomorphic God the Yahweh of the Jews, the God of the Christians, and the Allah of the Muslims

Each of these Abrahamic religions, religions which dominate even today’s religious landscape, views the universe’s existence as the result of the will of a benign and omniscient creator upon whose existence the universe depends.  Once integrated into their respective religious traditions, the Hellenic theo-philosophical traditions provided for a much more rational foundation for not only the existence of the One, but also for the existence of its laws which established the rules for proper ethics and moral conduct in these religious traditions, leaning on the extensive metaphysical, fundamentally rational, foundations created by the Greeks and subsequent interpreters of their teachings and then incorporated and synthesized into the mythology of the Old Testament and in turn leveraged establish and reinforce the legitimacy of the teachings of each respective religious school’s founder – Mohammad of the Muslims, Moses of the Jews, and Jesus of the Christians.

Charlie without a doubt believed that religion, particularly after the fall of the Roman Empire straight through the Christian Crusades of the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries, accounted for more death, suffering and destruction than any other source in the history of mankind, and even no doubt accounts for much of the conflict that we see in the world today with fundamentalist Islamic factions taking moral and ethical stands against the materialism and sensualism which is so prevalent in the Western world today whilst the Jewish community still desperately tries to defend what they consider to be their homeland and birthright that took them millennia to (re)establish from outside interlopers and invaders since the dawn of Western civilization.

But Charlie did believe, that if you could cut through the religious dogma and literal interpretation of Scripture that “believers” seemed to get so hung up on, that all of these religions of the West contained inherent in them a fundamental a notion of wholeness and unity, stemming from their faith in a creative and anthropomorphic God that was intrinsic to each of their respective traditions, albeit in allegorical form, even if this faith in a unified creative whole was exclusive and intolerant of alternative points of view which was the source in Charlie’s view of so much conflict for the last two thousand years or so.

This belief in the existence of a single, anthropomorphic deity that was such a marked characteristic of the religious development of Western civilization has come under fire in the 20th and 21st centuries as science has advanced to the point where the creation of the universe itself could be explained in a rational and deterministic framework, as reflected in Big Bang theory which sits atop widely accepted astronomical and physical empirical data and evidence, providing the cornerstone for atheistic belief systems which have attacked the foundations of organized religion.

And it was this altogether abandonment of religion as a tool of faith structure for morals and ethics that Charlie had a problem with, because whether or not you belied in their dogma, or its exclusionary and almost arrogant tenet that their way, their path, was the one and only way, once you abandoned religion entirely, something was lost.  The soul had been cast aside as a tool of the Churches, Mosques and Synagogues to control their believers along with.  And along with the belief in the soul itself, the natural extension of the importance and relevance of a morals ethics for this soul’s happiness and ultimate liberation, the establishment of a moral and ethical society within which to promote this happiness, the inherent psychological and socially constructive value of the narrative of the soul, i.e. myth, and the soul’s essential link and connection to being itself had all been thrown out with it.  Talk about throwing out the baby with the bath water.

But as Charlie parsed through and studied the great philosophers and theologians that crafted and evolved these sophisticated and complex theological systems that sat behind this faith in a single, unified and anthropomorphic God over the last three millennia, this notion of unity and interconnectedness which came from the philosophy espoused by Plato and Aristotle was not lost, it was integrated into these religious systems.  And to understand how science, materialism, emerged from this age of imperialism and religious dogma that marked the two millennia after Socrates was executed for questioning authority, for espousing reason over faith, you had to look at how these theological systems evolved, who affected their evolution, and from what basis the rational and metaphysical platforms from which Descartes, Newton and the other prolific ground breaking thinkers that followed in their footsteps firmly established us in this current age of Science and Reason – a world where Science is the prevailing Religion, and Faith in the fundamental reality of the objective world, a world defined by that which can be measured and perceived by our senses and the instruments we have designed as an extension thereof, predominates intellectual thought.  For in modern times, faith in science (for good reason one might argue) has far eclipsed and overshadowed our faith and belief in religion, or God; a transformation driven by the intellectuals, scientists and learned scholars of the last few centuries which has relegated religion to the corners of the ignorant, uninformed and uneducated, and almost completely absent from academic study altogether.

There were centuries of thought and philosophical and theological inquiry that took place between the time of Plato and Aristotle’s original writings in Classical Greece, writings which broke from the reigning traditions of belief in the prevailing theos and mythos of their time, and the ensuing interpretations of their work which evolved and were assimilated into different cultural and religious systems not only throughout the Hellenistic and Roman eras which lasted well until the 5th century CE and beyond, but well up until the Renaissance which was marked by revolutionary thinkers such as Galileo, Descartes and Newton who challenged the reigning Christian belief systems which had had a choke hold on the Western civilization throughout much of the Middle Ages.  Running parallel to this development in the West was the evolution of Eastern theological and metaphysical systems which had their roots in Vedanta which reached as far back into antiquity as the first half of the second millennium BC[5] and continued to evolve and affect Eastern religious and philosophical development through the second millennium CE, marked most notably by the advent of Buddhism as professed by Siddhartha Gautama in the 5th and 4th centuries BC, and the exposition of Vedanta philosophy by Shankara in the 8th and 9th centuries CE.

Alongside the Hellenistic philosophical traditions which were thriving at the time of Christ, there existed all of the religious and theological traditions that were brought into India by conquering nations and immigrants over the first and second millennium CE, most notable of which were Islam and Christianity, both of which flourished and were accepted side by side with the native Hindu and Buddhist cultures that had at their core the acceptance of the Many, alongside the One, both being perceived as various reflections of the same unified Brahman, or in the case of Buddhism the belief in no godhead but simply the way.

Ironically, it was most probably the polytheism that was inherent to the Hindu tradition, the belief in the joy and beauty of the celebration of the many different aspects of the divine, that allowed the Indian society to be so tolerant of other theological and religious systems over the centuries, or at least so it appeared to Charlie from where he stood in the beginning of the third millennia AD.  But this polytheism that was such a core tenet of the Hindu religion was married to a core, fundamental belief of the direct perception of non-dual realty that was the goal of all religious and spiritual traditions, the Satchitananda of the Vedas (a concept which Charlie looked at as a de-anthropomorphized Yahweh of the Jews, God of the Christians, and Allah of the Muslims) that created the foundation of tolerance from which all these religious systems could thrive and flourish side by side.

Religious belief systems as espoused by Islam and Christianity, as seen in juxtaposition to the teleological, epistemological, and non-anthropomorphic theological pursuits that characterized the Greek philosophical tradition, clouded some of these philosophical and metaphysical developments surely, but even in these religious systems there existed an undercurrent of philosophical inquiry that provided for the foundation of further pursuit of natural philosophy that took hold in the middle of the second millennium CE, culminating in what historians call the Age of Enlightenment a thousand or so years after which of course marks the end of what present day historians call the Dark Ages.

And yet what Charlie was searching for, now that his thesis had been fairly well established, was where this fundamental and immovable faith in the reality of the world of the senses, the world that exists only if it can be empirically measured or perceived by the senses or some extension of the senses, which stood in contrast (at least in its most modern interpretation) to the belief in a divine creator, found its unquestionable foothold.  But he couldn’t find it, at least not in the theo-philosophical traditions of the Ancient Mediterranean and certainly not in the Abrahamic monotheistic faiths that emerged thereafter in the West.  He found great philosophers and profound and extensive theological systems, he found great religious figures who professed illumination and direct communion with the divine from which the great Islamic and Christian religions sprung forth, and even great theologians and religious figures through the Middle Ages who attempted to integrate the profound metaphysics of the Ancients with their own religious creeds and belief systems like St Augustine (354-430 CE), Averroes (1126-1198 CE), and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 CE) among others, but none of them professed the supremacy of the material world over the spiritual, and none of them certainly dismissed the idea of a principle of a divine or otherwise omniscient creator.  This was clearly a much, much later development.

Materialism at some level did have its roots in the Hellenic philosophical landscape however, albeit one that did not dominate ancient thought as the Platonic, Peripatetic (Aristotle) and Stoic schools did in antiquity, but one that had a place nonetheless and one that established if nothing else some of the semantics and language upon which modern science developed.  Namely in the Epicurean school founded Epicurus toward the end of the fourth century BCE in Ancient Greece who expanded and expounded on the philosophical work of his predecessors Leucippus and his student Democritus who postulated that all things of the world were made up of atoms which is an English word derived from the Greek atomos which means “uncuttable” or “indivisible”.  In this school of thought, the atom represented the fundamental, indivisible building block of everything in the known universe, animate as well as inanimate, and originated out of the great void or ether[6].

This system of belief as passed down by Epicurus and his followers represents the first real materialistic philosophical school, materialistic in the sense that they did not believe in any teleological, or first principle, foundation of the universe or belief in any sort of creative or divine principle as put forth by Plato or his followers.  The Epicurean school sat in contrast to the Platonic and Peripatetic philosophical systems that still held that there was some core principle, or first cause, upon which the physical (and spiritual) universe sprung forth.  From the Epicurean standpoint, the world was made of objects, indivisible entities that interacted with each other than in their composite form made up the known universe and no further teleological explanation was necessary, rendering the idea of free will a mere human construct lacking any rational foundation.

But it was important to not confuse the Epicurean philosophy of atomism, what we might call today a precursor to materialism, which exists alongside mechanism, or the belief that the known universe is simply a compilation of substances and corporeal objects that interact with each other and are governed by laws of science or mathematics.  Although the notion of movement and substance as fundamental principles in reality and the description of existence did have a core place in Aristotle’s Physics, this mechanistic philosophical development, an offshoot of the materialism of Democritus, came much later, in the Age of Enlightenment stemming primarily out of the work of Descartes (1596 – 1650 CE) and then followed by Newton (1642 – 1726) and then many other great thinkers and authors, true lovers of wisdom, of the Scientific Revolution and who started to discover deeper laws of the natural order of the universe, laws based upon mathematical principles and the establishment of the supremacy of empiricism upon which any notion of reality must be constructed.  In their eyes, Truth can indeed be known, but it was grounded in the notion of law and the ability to predict and understand the behavior of the objective, material world.  The penultimate discovery which characterizes this development, was that the laws that governed planetary motion pointed to a universe where the Earth, God’s penultimate creation where mankind held a profound place, was not in fact the center upon which the sun and stars revolved around, overturning and bringing into question centuries held belief that shook the very foundations of monotheism.

But Epicureanism, like its Ancient Greek theo-philosophical counterparts Platonism and Stoicism, was developed to attempt to primarily to establish a system of ethics and way of life based upon a more reasonable foundation than its mythical predecessors, a belief system which people could comprehend and understand, and a belief system that rejected the notion of any sort of divine creative principle that lacked intellectual capacity.  This was the concept of nous, Mind or Intellect, that was first established by Anaxagoras and then was incorporated into Neo-Platonism as the name for the core principle which brought the world of the many into existence, from which the world as we know it emanated.

Epicureanism, like Platonism and Aristotle’s philosophy, was an answer to the “why we’re here” and the ultimate purpose of existence in a rational and logical framework of understanding, providing for a rational foundation to a system of ethics and morals that was created in juxtaposition to the belief in mere god heads or straight mythology, or even in the seemingly rationally absent belief in “salvation” through the belief in the revelations of one prophet or another depending upon which major religious faith you ascribed to.  Plato attempted to answer the same questions, he simply presented them in an open ended form, dialectic, which was meant to be used by his students as a tool for understanding.  In its essential form, Epicureanism rejected the notion of the reality of gods (theos) at all, or even the existence of the soul, teaching its followers that the right and correct path was the pursuit of moderate pleasure, or the absence of pain, boiling life down to a pleasure optimization problem within which the notion of judgment upon death was absent.

In the words of the renowned Latin Epicurean poet and philosopher Lucretius from the 1st century CE, we can find the rational underpinnings for the belief in atomism, a precursor to materialism, as well as to why a belief in the underlying materialistic and objective reality, a world which consisted at its most core basic level as atoms acting and reacting upon each other, would leave no room for any sort of divine creative principle as a natural conclusion.

And yet it is hard to believe that anything in nature could stand revealed as solid matter.  The lightning of heaven goes through the walls of houses, like shouts and speech; iron glows white in fire; red-hot rocks are shattered by savage steam; hard gold is softened and melted down by heat; chilly brass, defeated by heat, turns liquid; heat seeps through silver, so does piercing cold; by custom raising the cup, we feel them both as water is poured in, drop by drop, above.[7]

So in none of these ancient theo-philosophical systems, not even in the Epicurean school, could Charlie find this notion of true separateness which underlies today’s predominantly mechanistic world view, this notion that the world around us was distinct from the individual who lived and was.  Epicureanism reflected a belief in atomism for sure, that much was clear, but this atomistic philosophy underpinned a system of ethics that espoused a path of the greater good, or lesser evil, which implied a holistic view of man’s place in society and mankind’s place in the world around him.  Atoms were the indivisible component of the universe in the Epicurean view no doubt, and man and all animate creatures were made of these indivisible atomos, but this principle was subsumed in the ethical framework within which it sat rather than the primary driving force of the theo-philosophy as is the case with mechanism which predominates the thinking of modern man in today’s technologically advanced world.

Despite this ancient atomic worldview of the Epicureans, this relegation of the realm of the divine, religion as it were, as completely a figment of mankind’s imagination, this break between science and religion, was a much later development, a development whose roots could be found in the Age of Enlightenment which swept up the socio-political and intellectual establishment of Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.

But Charlie found as he dug into the intellectual developments that occurred in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries in Western Europe, categorized by later historians as the Age of Enlightenment or Age of Reason, despite its strong anti-establishment and anti-religious roots, still did not profess true mechanism, which is a more modern term (post Newton) that implies a strong atheistic bent combined with a fundamental belief that all reality has a purely mechanical explanation.

Both Platonic philosophy and Aristotelian metaphysics both played a significant role in the development of theology and epistemology in the centuries that followed their published works, developing and maturing into what modern scholars call Neo-Platonism – “neo” in the sense that it represented an assimilation of some theological principles from both Ancient Judaic and Egyptian circles, combined with a broader interpretative and commentated tradition based off of the original work attributed to Plato or Aristotle exclusively.

Neo-Platonism, which in turn exerted a strong influence on the development of early Christian theology, as well as on Muslim and Jewish theology well into the Middle Ages, has its roots in the teachings of Plotinus (204/5-270 CE) and Porphyry (234-305 CE) in the 2nd and third centuries CE, some six or seven centuries after Plato and then Aristotle lived, taught and authored, speaking to the depth of their teachings and their fortitude.  The Neo-Platonic teachings represent the first truly deep metaphysical framework that center around monotheism, in much more direct and explicit way than in previous philosophical traditions which allude to and elaborate on a single unified creative principle, developments which ran parallel with the monotheistic developments that were occurring in the Mediterranean and Near East at the time with the spread of Christianity in the region.  [The primary reference text for Neo-Platonism is the Enneads, authored by Porphyry but essentially consisting of a compilation of Plotinus’s teachings with an introductory section on the life of Plotinus[8]In the Enneads, we find the first true monotheistic theological and metaphysical framework that rests alongside a system of ethics and morality based upon the concept of hierarchical system of virtues.]

Alongside Neo-Platonism which provided for the theological and metaphysical link between the theo-philosophical systems of the Ancient Greeks to Christian theology, it was the Peripatetic school founded by Aristotle which provided for the language and categorization of study of the pursuit of knowledge (epistêmai in Greek) in general, Greek categorization and intellectual frameworks which, translated into Latin, were used to provide an intellectual framework to students of the Middle Ages, providing for the underlying metaphysics for virtually all of the monotheistic traditions that followed.

To Aristotle, there were three main branches of knowledge: 1) “theoretical” knowledge of which first philosophy (what became to know as metaphysics given that in this school it was meant to be studied after “meta” his Physics) and natural philosophy belong, 2) “practical knowledge” which included the knowledge and intellectual pursuits in the ethical, moral and political spheres, and 3) “productive knowledge” which included those disciplines that contributed toward the creation of beautiful and useful objects, of more practical consideration if you will.

And it was with Aristotle that we find the categorization of the fields of knowledge (or sciencia in Latin which is the translation for the Greek word epistêmai which is the word that Aristotle used in his writings) which carried down through the Middle Ages well into the Age of Enlightenment, providing for the semantic framework within which truth and knowledge itself was to be explored, providing the semantic framework first in the Greek, which was then translated into Latin and then in turn into the rest of the Romance languages that followed, English of course being one of them.

Aristotle’s epistêmai, what came to referred to as sciencia, provides the basis for the categorization of the research that is performed branches of knowledge start to mature and evolve in the Age of Enlightenment, culminating from a natural philosophical perspective in Newton’s great work Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, or Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, which marks the beginning of science as we know it today.


[1] The word “science” in fact is the English translation for the Latin sciencia which literally means “to know” and is the direct translation of the Greek word epistêmai which is the word Aristotle uses for knowledge in his teachings.

[2] The Platonic doctrine of the notion of the One, or the demiurge, from which the phenomenal world emanates via the nous or intellect, was developed by Plotinus (204/5 – 270 CE) and then encapsulated in the Enneads written by his student Porphyry (234 – 305 CE), which passed into the Muslim/Arabic philosophical tradition under the title The Theology of Aristotle, came to be known much later (19th century or so) as Neo-Platonism and represented a synthesis of Platonic and Aristotelian doctrine, espousing the belief that the essence of each of these seemingly at odds philosophical teachings were not in conflict but complemented and were consistent with each other if their true and essential tenets were properly understood.

[3] These titles, Nicomachean Ethics and Eudemian Ethics, were not used by Aristotle himself and were a later editorial addition to these works either in dedication to or by his son Nicomachus and his friend Eudemus respectively.  He refers to the principles therein in his Politics (1295a36) using the phrase ta êthika, which denotes the study of ethics and morals in general, which in Aristotle’s system of philosophy came with a connotation of their role in not only the development of individual character, but also the importance of the individual practice of ethics and morals as it related to the proper functioning of society as a whole.   See Aristotle’s Ethics by Richard Kraut 2012, published in the Winter 2012 edition of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2012/entries/aristotle-ethics/

[4] Aristotle asserts basically the same thing in his Metaphysics where he attempts to establish the first principles, determining that at the very least there are three – a pair of opposites, or contraries, that are complemented by a substratum of sorts that underlies the two and gives them a platform for existence.  His notion of the importance and relevance of three in the first principles of the universe is reminiscent of the three established by Neo-Platonists some 6 or 7 centuries later albeit Aristotle doesn’t name or establish the three, he simply deduces that three is the most likely candidate for the number of first principles.

[5] The Rig Veda is one of the oldest extant texts in any Indo-European language.  With philological and linguistic evidence indicating that it was composed roughly between 1700–1100 BC, known as the early Vedic period.

[6] This belief in the void is one of the philosophical concepts that Aristotle attacks as lacking a sound and coherent ration foundation in his Metaphysics.

[7] Lucretius, De Rerum Natura; Book I, lines 487-496.  ‘De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) is a didactic poem intended to explain Epicurean philosophy to a Roman audience. The poem, written in some 7,400 dactylic hexameters, is divided into six untitled books, and explores Epicurean physics through richly poetic language and metaphors.  In it Lucretius presents the principles of atomism; the nature of the mind and soul; explanations of sensation and thought; the development of the world and its phenomena; and explains a variety of celestial  and terrestrial phenomena. The universe described in the poem operates according to these physical principles, guided by fortuna, “chance”, and not the divine intervention of the traditional Roman deities.’  – from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/De_rerum_natura

[8] Porphyry tells us (Cf. Life of Plotinus, chapters.24-26) that the First Ennead deals with Human or ethical topics; the Second and Third Enneads are mostly devoted to cosmological subjects or physical reality; The Fourth concerns about Soul; the Fifth to knowledge and intelligible reality; and finally the Sixth has for topics Being and what is above it, the One or first principle of all.  Outside of his Enneads, Porphyry was prolific author and philosopher in his own right.  He wrote an introductory work on ancient philosophy and logic called the Isagoge for example, which in its Latin translation form represented the standard textbook on logic and philosophy that was taught to students well through the Middle Ages and even into the Renaissance and Age of Enlightenment in the West.



Categories: Metaphysics, Philosophy, Physics

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  7. I’d like to focus on Aristotle’s discussion in Book V Chapter 4. He settas that: It makes no difference whether a decent man has defrauded a bad man or visa versa, or whether it was a decent man or a bad man who committed adultery. The only difference the law considers is brought about by the damage: it treats both parties as equals and asks only whether one has done and the other has suffered wrong, and whether one has done and the other has suffered damage. As the unjust in this sense is inequality, the judge tries to restore the equilibrium. (1132a:2-9)This discussion of the job of judges in settling disputes according to the effects of their actions and not the character of their person naturally points to a rule of law and not of man. The rule of law refers to some higher law that remains constant no matter what men are in power and no matter what circumstances that government finds itself facing. Interestingly, though, the judges look at the actions of people, not whether they are actually just or unjust. Aristotle suggests that there is a difference between actual justice or injustice and just or unjust acts. I take his discussion of the responsibility of judges to find “equilibrium” between gains and losses in the actions of the citizens to be a symbol of our own individual responsibility to judge whether we are either just or unjust. The judges are supposed to judge on what they see—judging on the gain, which is “more good or less evil” (1132a:16-17), and the loss, which is just the opposite. This does not take into consideration intentions, past actions, or the opinions of the men on trial. It relies solely on the law, looking at what has been done to cause inequality and what must be done to correct that. This perhaps explains why it is so importance to know what the greatest good is and how to best achieve it. If we are to be the judges of our own soul, as the judges are to judge the city as a whole, how is it that we will know which way we are going and what kind of person we are if we do not have a previous understanding of what end we are working for and how to reach that? I think this is why Aristotole, like Plato, emphasizes the moral education which must start in early childhood and which must become the foundation of all knowledge gained. Without this, one who is “morally weak” will have no concept of how to use the knowledge and where to point it to find happiness. They will become more destructive than an ignorant man and will take their knowledge, which naturally points to the good, to bring evil into their souls and into the city as a whole. The responsibility of the judges is to stop unjust actions which threaten the justice of the city as a whole, while the individual’s job is to prevent injustice in the soul which would detract from their journey to find happiness and would make them a victim to the execution of the law by judges in the city. What a perfect combination! In Socrates’ discussion of the perfectly just city, he admits that it is hard to find justice if a certain education isn’t forced on the people. A specific moral then intellectual education is necessary, but if judging the city as a whole is left to the judges and judging the soul is left to the individual, it is possible to find both justice in the soul and in the city at the same time. In fact, this combination gives people more incentive to find justice within themselves, not only for the good it will bring them, but for the good it will bring the city.

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