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.

dividedline-svg

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.  http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0168%3Abook%3D6%3Asection%3D509d

[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, <https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Analogy_of_the_divided_line&oldid=745083560&gt; [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.  http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0168%3Abook%3D6%3Asection%3D511e and Wikipedia contributors, ‘Analogy of the divided line’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 19 October 2016, 05:17 UTC, <https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Analogy_of_the_divided_line&oldid=745083560> [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, <https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Demiurge&oldid=755542807&gt; [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.  http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0180%3Atext%3DTim.%3Apage%3D27

[7] Early Greek Philosophy, translation with notes and commentary by John Burnet.  Chapter IV., Parmenides of Elea.  3rd editions (1920).  London.  From http://www.classicpersuasion.org/pw/burnet/egp.htm?chapter=4

[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 https://snowconenyc.com/2016/09/30/parmenides-of-elea-what-is-versus-what-is-not and Parmenides entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy at http://plato.stanford.edu/cgi-bin/encyclopedia/archinfo.cgi?entry=parmenides.

[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.  http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0180%3Atext%3DTim.%3Apage%3D28

[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: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-causality/.

[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.  http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0180%3Atext%3DTim.%3Apage%3D29

[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.  http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0180%3Atext%3DTim.%3Apage%3D30

Hellenistic Theo-Philosophy: Sowing the Seeds of Christianity

Despite his search through the evolution of thought from the dawn of civilization, particularly in the Mediterranean and Near/Far East, Charlie still had yet to find that marker, that break, where man had become so convinced of the reality of the empirical world, that reality which had laid its foundation on that which could be measured, weighed, seen or heard, the blind faith in materialism within which the world of objects was wholly distinct from and separate from the observer, their subject.

This to him was the fatal flaw of modern times, the religion of the world that justified selfishness and the blind pursuit of wealth and power and its natural subjugation of selflessness, service and commitment to one’s fellow man and the common good.  This was the same search that drove Robert Pirsig to insanity and led him to create a new metaphysics for the modern age, the Metaphysics of Quality; Quality in his framework being an intuitive state beyond subject and object from which all experience, subjective or objective, sprung forth naturally.

Charlie had looked at the cosmological traditions of the Ancient Sumer-Babylonian culture, the cosmology of the Ancient Egyptians, the cosmology of the Ancient Greeks, the Indo-Aryan theological and metaphysical tradition that was reflected in the Vedas, the cosmological tradition of the Judeo-Christian culture as reflected in the Old Testament, the birth of Western philosophy that was born from Ancient Greece, and even into the life and works of Sir Isaac Newton, and yet nowhere could he find a presumption of a clear distinction of the materialistic world within which we all live and breathe from the person with whom was doing the living and breathing.  Even Newton, despite the field of classical mechanics which stemmed from his seminal work Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica at the end of the 17th century, did not profess the reality of the objective world, but simply the mathematical principles that governed natural philosophy, harkening back to the fields of knowledge, or episteme, that were established by Aristotle two millennia prior.  And yet it was from Newton’s work that the basis and foundation for materialism was born clearly.

The cosmological traditions that grew out of the Ancient Mediterranean and Indo-Aryan civilizations centered around the development of order out of this chaos, a birth of the universe from out of the cosmic void by some central creative principle, be it anthropomorphic in nature or not.  And each of the cosmological traditions spoke of the this primordial order or law being the founding principle upon which the earth, heavens, seasons and other natural laws rested upon to provide for the foundations of human life.  These cossmological traditions spoke of the cycles that governed this order of the universe, cycles which reflected the Ancient’s dependence and observance upon the world around them – the cycles of flood and recession of water of their respective river systems, the passage of the stars throughout the sky throughout the course of the year that marked the seasons, the passage of the sun and moon across the heavens that marked the passage of the days, months and years, even the cycle of birth and death which bounded human life and the soul.

But each of these cosmological and cultural systems also contained complementary mythologies – the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh, the Greek journey of Odysseus, the myth of Ra and Horus of the Egyptians, the fables of Krishna in the Mahabharata – all of which made up what the later Greek philosophers deemed mythos, as distinguished from logos or reason.  These respective mythologies spoke to the ethical and moral virtues and qualities which the societies’ citizens should aspire to, wrapping ethical and moral principles in the blanket of fable and story, dipped in just enough history to make the myths credible.

In many cases however, these cosmologies and mythologies, collectively mythos, were also used to establish the legitimacy of power of the respective rulers and priestly classes of these ancient societies, tainting these traditions with some level of propaganda that reinforced this underlying societal order to which all individuals must confirm.  And this bastardization of the mythical and cosmological traditions was not lost on the ancient scholars and thinkers, particularly after the prevalence of writing which allowed scholars and philosophers to begin codifying and documenting their respective metaphysical beliefs.  And it was from this understanding, this knowledge, this rebellion against the lack of rational foundation of the prevailing mythos of these ancient cultures, from which ancient philosophy was born.  And more so than any other culture, it was the Hellenic philosophers that carried this first torch, who dedicated their lives to establishing the supremacy of reason and logic over faith in mythology or the reigning gods, theos, of the day.

During the height of Greek/Hellenic influence in the Mediterranean from the 6th century BC down through reign of Alexander the Great (356 – 323 BC)[1], his empire extending Hellenic influence well beyond the Mediterranean to the East, through the time of Roman influence through the Republic and then into the Roman Empire at the turn of the millennium that dominated the Mediterranean and beyond until at least the fifth century CE, Hellenic philosophical development took root and evolved in a cultural melting pot that included Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek, and Roman cultures.  And as it developed, their respective cultural theologies and mythologies were synthesized and each of the respective civilizations adapted and evolved the Greek philosophies to their own cultural and theological bent.

With the advent of the Macedonian Empire stemming from Alexander’s conquests, the spread of Greek culture moved beyond just the areas in and around Athens and the surrounding city-states.  Alexander’s empire at its height extended as far south as Thebes in Egypt to as far East as the Indus river in the Indian subcontinent.  This imperial conquest enabled Greek culture and thought to spread throughout the ancient world, at least definitively assimilated into Sumer-Babylonian and Egyptian culture, and at least some evidence that there was Hellenic influence exerted in the Indian subcontinent as well despite Alexander’s failed attempt to conquer the territories east of the Indus River in the Indian subcontinent[2].

Historically, this cultural intermixing and spread of – primarily Athenian – Greek culture into these foreign lands is referred to as Hellenization, and despite its imperial context, this cross-pollination of cultures contained the seeds of much of the philosophical and theological evolution that took place until Christianity took hold in the Western Europe and around the Mediterranean in the 4th and 5th centuries CE with the adoption of Christianity as the de facto religion of the Roman Empire.

This next stage of Western metaphysical and theological thought in the Ancient world after the decline of the influence of Athens as the cultural and intellectual center of the Ancient Mediterranean developed in a much more cross-cultural context than the tradition which preceded it where traditions developed in a much more insular and isolated fashion.  And Greek philosophic thought, more so than any other theo-cultural tradition, predominated in the centuries following Plato and Aristotle and took root not only in Ancient Greece, but also in Ancient Egypt and the Near East as well, albeit driven mostly by cultural assimilation forced by military conquest more so than anything else.

Running parallel to the maturation and evolution of Hellenic philosophy, to the East the Indo-Aryan civilization was going through a similar transformation from the prevalence of a polytheistic, priestly authoritarian and mythological based religious tradition based upon the ritualistic practices outlined in Hinduism complemented with the mythological traditions encapsulated in their two great epic poems the Mahabharata, and the Ramayana, to a more open and accessible philosophical movement which aimed to explain the universe and mankind’s place in it within the context of a more reasonable and rational framework.  This intellectual development was primarily driven by the analysis, commentary and interpretation of the more esoteric and philosophical aspects of the Vedas (or more specifically the Upanishads which according to most scholarship were transcribed in Sanskrit between the end of the 2nd millennium BC down through the middle of the first millennium BC), complemented by the spread of Buddhism which took hold in the Indian subcontinent in the 4th century BC.

Buddhism for example arose from the Ancient Indo-Aryan civilization as a reaction to the prevalent Hinduism and caste system of the day which Siddartha Gautama (c 563 – 483 BC) saw as exclusive and divergent from its true Hindu roots – at least as represented by the more esoteric aspects of Hinduism as laid out in the Upanishads – and lacking a true theo-ethical framework within which the all people of caste and creed may escape the world of suffering and endless chasing after worldly desire; the so-called Middle Way as laid out in his Four Noble Truths and Noble Eightfold Path, a path open to all seekers within which the bondage of suffering could be broken.

From Charlie’s perspective, no matter what dating of the Upanishads you wanted to ascribe to, either a tradition that went as far back as the early part of the second millennium BC or as late as the middle of the first, it was clear that the Upanishadic philosophical tradition of the Indo-Aryans preceded its Hellenistic counterpart by some centuries at least.  To what extent the Hellenistic philosophical systems that blossomed in the send half of the first millennium BC in Greece borrowed from their Indo-Aryan brethren, rather than arising independently and spontaneously as a result of the same rebellious forces to religious orthodoxy, was open to scholarly debate.  Nonetheless, it would very be hard to argue that both of these rich theo-philosophical systems did not spring from the same common quest for knowledge and understanding by use of reason and logic, rather than the predisposition to naïve faith and belief in mythology as had been predominant in the era before the advent of human urban civilization up until the turn of the first millennium BC[3].

The Indo-Aryan theo-philosophical tradition as reflected in the development of Vedanta in the first millennium BC is unique relative to its Hellenistic counterpart in that to a great extent Vedanta continues to flourish today thanks to its reincarnation with the teachings of Swami Vivekananda and the Ramakrishna Order, whereas the Hellenistic philosophical tradition, as primarily reflected in the works of Plato and Aristotle, was effectively swallowed by Christianity (and Islam) in the second half of the first millennium CE.

Unique to the Hindu tradition from which Vedanta springs, there existed in the ancient texts not only the establishment of the authority of the Brahmins and their role as priests and the presider over religious ceremonies and rites, but also a firm belief in the divine nature of the spirit, or Atman and its underlying unity with the penultimate creative principle of the universe, or Brahman.  In Hinduism, metaphysics as it were was baked into its religious tradition from very early on, albeit developing in parallel but part of the same tradition nonetheless, whereas to the West the metaphysics developed independent of religion per se.

Christianity and Islam incorporated some of the metaphysical and philosophical traditions that came before them, namely Hellenistic philosophy, but for the most part operate independently of these metaphysical traditions, as they continue to do so today.  Not so in the Eastern tradition, or at least not as much.  As a reflection of this, India today, despite its conquest over the millennia by a long list of cultures and their representative religions, retains a well-established and long standing tradition of spiritual and theological freedom from within which many religious practices and theological traditions have flourished alongside each other for centuries, stemming no doubt from the richness and depth of the teachings of the Vedas and their respect for individual realization.

And yet throughout all of this synthesis and assimilation, the Greek philosophical tradition still dominated the metaphysical landscape, even if the religious or theological underpinnings remained different depending upon the cultural context.  And this markedly Hellenistic philosophy was built upon and refined over the centuries, even with respect to the integration and utilization of various religious developments following the decline of the Roman Empire – namely Christianity, Judaism and even Islam.

So how did this synthesis of the Hellenistic philosophical systems occur?  The Eastern traditions have an unbroken link to their underlying metaphysics for the most part, the metaphysics and theology developed alongside each other, even the mythical tradition as reflected in the Mahabharata and the Bhagavad Gita ran complimentary to the underlying theology and metaphysics of the Hindus, but the Judeo-Christian tradition, and in turn the Islamic tradition which sprung from the same roots, was different.  These monotheistic religions and their associated theologies were born from the melting pot of philosophical thought which dominated the Mediterranean and surrounding areas at the time of Jesus’s teaching to the few centuries thereafter, culminating in the adoption of Christianity as the de facto religion of the Roman Empire.

Middle Platonism is the term historians and scholars give to the time period marked by the advent of Antiochus of Ascalon (c 125 – 68 BC), a student of the Academy which Plato founded who diverged from the skepticism taught at the Academy for the few centuries following its founding and integrated Stoic and Peripatetic (school founded by Aristotle) principles into Platonic philosophy, arguing that truth and falsehood could in fact be discerned and that the intellect was capable of making the distinction.  Middle Platonism extends until the development of what modern historians and scholars call Neo-Platonism, as put forth by Plotinus (c 204 – 270 CE) and then transcribed by his pupil Porphyry (c 234 – 305 CE) in his seminal work Enneads, which laid out a comprehensive monotheistic doctrine that built off the original Platonic philosophy.  Middle Platonism then covered some four of five centuries of development, all occurring against a backdrop of cultural assimilation marked most notably by the rise of the Roman Empire as well as the development of early Christianity.[4]

Much of what we know about philosophical development during this time, even as far back as the pre-Socratics from the 6th to the 4th centuries BC down through the establishment of the Academy by Plato and the Peripatetic school founded by Aristotle toward the latter part of the 4th century BC stems from the work of a Diogenes Laertius, a 3rd century CE biographer and historian who wrote Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, the primary extant source from which we understand the development of Greek philosophy in the ancient world and within which a summary of the doctrines of many ancient historic theo-philosophies are described in detail.

In this work, Diogenes divides ancient philosophy into Ionian and Italian schools, the former tradition represented not only by pre-Socratic philosophers such as Thales of Miletus and Solon, but also the Socratic tradition which of course included the works of Plato and Aristotle and others that followed them.  In the Italian school, he included the Eleatics, Atomists and Skeptics, expounding upon the life and works of such renowned philosophers as Pythagoras, Empedocles, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Zeno, and Democritus among others.

As Diogenes describes the tradition that evolved in and around the Academy after Plato, under the leadership of Arcesilaus in the middle of the 3rd century BC the school started to emphasize skepticism, or the denial of the possibility of knowledge of absolute truth, following to a great extent the Platonic tradition that rested on the principle that one might know what the source of all Forms or Ideas are “like”, but the full and complete comprehension of their essence was beyond intellectual capability of the human mind.  This development can be seen to some extent in contrast to the popularity of Stoicism, the tradition founded by Zeno in the 3rd century BC, which taught that destructive emotions came from ignorance, and the development of the intellect and a rigorous moral and ethical framework would lead an individual out of the suffering stemming from these unchecked emotions, i.e. the comprehension of truth and knowledge was possible and in fact was the way to the path of virtue and true happiness[5].

The Academy’s rich history ends with Philo of Larissa, the last undisputed head of the Academy from 110/109 BC until his death in 84/83 BC, whose student Antiochus breaks from the skeptical traditions that marked the Academy’s tradition in the prior few centuries and attempts to provide a broader metaphysical framework which rests more faith in the capacity of the intellect and the reality of the sensory and materialistic world than his Academic predecessors.

Middle Platonism and Stoicism, markedly Hellenic theo-philosophical systems set in motion by Socrates (c 469 – 399 BC) and Zeno of Citium (334 – 262 BC) respectively[6], had a broad influence on not only Hellenistic philosophy, but also extended into the period of Roman influence as well, challenging the prevailing polytheistic and mythological traditions of the respective cultures and providing for a rational framework of viewing the world which sat in contrast to mythological traditions and blind faith in the gods.  Each school not only attempted to open up religion[7] to the masses in their own way, but also applying its core metaphysical principles to subjective reasoning and logic.  Buddhism in turn sprung from the same forces in the East a century earlier.  Each of these belief systems at one level or another professed that a direct relationship to the divine was to be had by all, and could be understood, or known, and furthermore that the knowledge of the nature of the universe and man’s place in it was not the divine right of just a few selected, preordained priests or rulers.  Furthermore, none of these belief systems espoused an anthropomorphic deity per se, this was a later development stemming from Christianity (which had Judaic roots of course), and their genesis was a direct response to, a rebellion away from, the polytheistic and priestly religions which had dominated the ancient civilizations surrounding the Mediterranean for millennia[8].

These new systems of belief reflected by Stoicism, Middle Platonism and even Buddhism from further East weren’t just religions per se, they were holistic belief systems that attempted to not only explain the world around them in a rational and logical way (Aristotle’s natural philosophy), but also attempted to establish a rational, logical framework to describe the principles that sat behind the universe and what laws it was governed by (Aristotle’s first philosophy and principles of causality).  Furthermore, all of these theo-philosophical systems provided the synthesis of a way of living that prescribed a moral and ethical framework within which the goal of life was to be pursued, based upon principles such as virtue, excellence, reason, and compassion.  These were integrated systems open to all that attempted to provide a rational structure of the universe that was synthesized with a moral and ethical framework that ascribed to reason and logic as their foundations, divorcing themselves from the mythological belief systems that marked the pre-civilized era of human history.

With the fall of Athens as the socio-cultural epicenter of the Ancient Western world following the Peloponnesian War (431 to 404 BC), a new cultural and academic center developed in Alexandria in Northern Egypt a century or so later after Ptolemy (Ptolemy I Soter) consolidated his rule over Egypt in the decades following Alexander’s sudden demise.  The Ptolemaic Dynasty ruled Egypt and the surrounding Mediterranean areas for three centuries after the Macedonian empire collapsed until it was felled by the Romans in 30 BC.  During this time Alexandria served not only as its capital but also as a trading and intellectual hub of the Mediterranean and surrounding areas, reinforcing Hellenic influence in Egypt and the Middle East.

The Ptolemaic Dynasty and its associated Egyptian Kingdom/Empire was presided over by a Greek Macedonian family placed into power by Alexander toward the end of his reign in 323 BC.  Ptolemy I Soter, a former general in Alexander’s army, was the first ruler of the Ptolemaic dynasty and took the title of Pharaoh in 305/304 BC.  At its height, the Ptolemaic Kingdom extended as far west as Cyrene in Northern Africa and as far East as Mesopotamia and Babylon and despite its Egyptian heritage, reflected a predominantly Greek culture given the heritage of its rulers.

One of the lasting marks of the Ptolemaic Dynasty on not only Egypt but on the Western world as a whole was the construction and development of an academic center in its capital Alexandria commonly called the Royal Library of Alexandria.  The Ptolemaic rulers established and funded the Library along with its academics and scholars liberally, carrying forward the Hellenic tradition of academic scholarship and thirst for knowledge with them into Egypt.  It is said for example that the Ptolemaic rulers not only paid for travel, lodging and stipends for the academics, but their families as well, establishing an epicenter of learning and study that was unmatched for centuries.  As an intellectual center, Alexandria flourished for the next three centuries.  During this time the Ptolemaic rulers leveraged legal, financial and political means to bring scholars together and it became a place where not only ancient manuscripts were archived and translated, but also where prolific commentaries and other original works of scholarship were authored.

One of the great influential ancient works that came out of this intellectual hub was a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament called the Septuagint.  The work was commissioned by Ptolemy II (309 to 246 BC) in order to make the Old Testament more readily available to the general populace where Greek (Coptic Greek) was the lingua franca of the day.  This text had broad influence on not only the Judaic philosophical and theological development as this became one of the standard Old Testament texts, but it also influenced Christian development as well.[9]

One of the most notable philosophers and theologians that lived during the period of Alexandrian influence is the Jewish scholar and theologian Philo, or Philo of Alexandria (c 20 BC – 40 CE).  Philo is known primarily for his work in systematically synthesizing Greek philosophical traditions with Orthodox Judaism, particularly in his interpretations of the Books of Moses or the first five books of the Old Testament, sometimes referred to as the Pentateuch[10].  Although his most lasting contribution was his allegorical and classically Greek philosophical interpretation of the Pentateuch which was broadly adopted by the early Christian community, Philo also wrote on other topics such as the role of reason in the animal kingdom, the nature of God and Providence, and even a treatise called The Contemplative Life, or De Vita Contemplativa, which describes in detail the daily lives and rituals of members of a Jewish ascetic community living at the time in Egypt.  He also wrote extensively on Jewish law and custom, or Halakha.

Ironically, most of what we know about Philo comes from later Christian authors rather than the Jewish tradition, as Philo was looked upon by later philosophers and theologians as primarily Christian in belief and thought despite his clear Jewish heritage.  Jerome, the Roman Christian priest and theologian from the 4th century CE (c 347 – 420 CE) best known for his Latin translation the Bible, i.e. the Vulgate, for example even lists Philo as a Church Father.[11]

Philo was very well schooled in the Greek philosophical tradition and it is clear that he held Greek philosophers in very high esteem (Plato most notably) but his overarching premise was that Moses and his doctrines as laid out in the Pentateuch were the highest philosophy and that Hellenic philosophy, as well Hellenic law and epic poetry, all stemmed from a set of principles that were handed down to them by Moses.  His commentaries on the Pentateuch and other philosophical works, his interpretation of the Book of Genesis in particular, looked at the myth of creation and the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt through a symbolic and allegorical lens rather than a more literal interpretation of actual events, in very much the same way as many of the Greek philosophic schools looked at the mythical tradition passed down by Homer and Hesiod.

Philo was not necessarily significantly diverging from the views of some of the other Jewish scholars of his time however, as there were several Jewish historians and theologians before him who had argued that Moses was the source of Hellenistic philosophy and law – scholars such as the historian Artapanus and the philosopher Aristobulus of Paneas both from the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC for example.  So in this sense, Philo was merely carrying on and expanding upon the Hellenistic-Judeo synthetic tradition that had come before him rather than innovating along these lines, no doubt providing for a more deep and profound framework than those who came before him but consistent in basic approach nonetheless.

The Hellenistic theo-philosophies that evolved in the second half of the first millennium BC not only rested on a firmer rational foundation than the mythological and faith based traditions that preceded them, but were also designed as open and freely available faiths comprehensible and accessible to any person that could think or read, or even simply listen and understand, in contrast to the prevailing polytheistic and priesthood based traditions that held that access to the divine was the right of the exclusive few who had some sort of special access to the underlying truths and secrets of the universe.

In both the Stoic, Platonic and other Hellenic theo-philosophical traditions as they evolved during the few centuries leading up to the time of Philo, there existed then robust and consistent logical and rational frameworks that underpinned their respective metaphysics, as well as systems of ethics and morality that were all strewn together as cohesive belief systems, religions in fact in the modern sense of the term, except that they lacked an anthropomorphic conception of God as put forth in the Pentateuch which was a later primarily Christian development.  These traditions kept somewhat true to their polytheistic roots, despite their rejection of the prevailing religious establishment.[12]

The notion of god(s) in the Greek philosophical tradition, as reflected in their use of the term theos, did not deny the reality or existence of the different gods such as Zeus, Athena or Apollo, but rather asserted that each theos, each god, was a reflection or manifestation of a different aspect of the one single creative principle that sat behind the universe.  This principle can be gleaned even from the mythology of the Ancient Greeks, although an allegorical interpretation of the myths must be used in order to see this, i.e. the method used by the Stoics in interpreting the works of Homer and Hesiod and then in turn by Philo in his interpretation of the Old Testament.

This allegorical interpretation of myth was almost an a priori assumption to the majority of the philosophical and metaphysical development that came out of ancient Hellenistic culture, be it implied or explicitly called out in the various philosophical traditions[13].  Furthermore this polytheistic metaphysical context blended nicely with the Roman and Egyptian cultures which both had their own deep polytheistic roots, in turn facilitating the assimilation and integration of Hellenistic philosophical systems into Roman and Egyptian culture.

Poetry and mythology then, in particular the Homeric epics which encapsulated much of the Hellenistic mythos, were looked at as an integral part of the Hellenic intellectual framework, not cast aside as mere fantasy or as myth in the sense that we use the term today.  These epic poems and their respective cosmologies were looked at in a fundamentally allegorical context by the Greek philosophers, particularly when it came to interpreting the morals and ethical implications of the stories contained therein.

This synthesis of poetry, mythology and philosophy is probably best encapsulated in the work of Parmenides (early 5th century BC) in his poem On Nature, a work which had a profound influence on the Platonic and other Hellenic philosophical schools that came after him, even if only for its refutation as is the case in Plato’s dialogues, most notably the Parmenides which carries his name.  The poem narrates a mythical journey of the author to the halls of the Night led by the maiden daughters of the sun god Helios.  Passage through the gates is granted by the goddess Justice at the behest of the maiden gods which accompany Parmenides and the narrative that follows is a dialogue between him and the goddess Night about the nature of the universe and the paths of inquiry into truth[14].

On Nature proffers up two ways of inquiry for those seeking truth or knowledge; the first of which is called the Way of Conviction which describes “true reality” (alêtheia) or “what Is” (to aeon), and the second of which is described as the inferior way but a way nonetheless is the Way of Mortals or the way of myth and allegory.  The Way of Conviction is philosophical and metaphysical in content and it is this part of the work that influenced later Hellenic philosophical development, almost all of which is extant.  The second part of the work, the Way of Mortals, is only around 10% extant but it is clear that it outlined a mythical and cosmological narrative of the creation of the world, from its initial conception to the creation of the heavens and earth, all the way down to the creation of mankind and the animal kingdom, akin to the contents and approach of Moses’s Genesis or Hesiod’s Theogony from the Judeo-Christian and Greek mythological traditions respectively.[15]

On Nature then represents one of the earliest known attempts to bridge the gap between poetry & mythology and metaphysics & philosophy.  The form of the work itself, as presented as a classic Greek epic poem, reflects the core belief of the author in the power of the poetry and mythology as a means to communicating truth.  This cannot be denied.  So irrespective of contents, in much the same way that Plato (and Aristotle) held dialectic as the greatest and most powerful means for conveying truth, Parmenides held that poetry, and perhaps even mythology, was the most potent tool. 

Given that the poem does not exist in its source or complete form, particularly the latter part on the Way of Mortals, the interpretations of the work with respect to what Parmenides was actually trying to convey regarding the two seemingly contradictory means of inquiry is open to debate by later scholars and historians.  From Charlie’s perspective however, it was clear enough based upon what has survived, and the form of the medium itself, that Parmenides at least at some level intended to not only illustrate in toto what he thought was the true nature of the universe as juxtaposed against the backdrop of the prevalent mythos of the day (i.e. Way of Conviction), but also to state emphatically that a) the way of knowledge or reason is the higher and more clear path to knowledge and understanding, and b) that the way of myth and poetry, albeit leading to a lower form of understanding or realization, was also a relevant and alternate path, even complementary to a purely rational or philosophical approach.

The Way of Mortals portion of the work takes as its context and backdrop the prevailing Greek notions of mythos and theos, reflecting and interpreting the polytheistic and mythological traditions that had predominated Mediterranean civilizations for millennia, this much is clear. It draws from the same mythological traditions that Homer and Hesiod drew from, with an albeit distinct narrative.  Again from Charlie’s perspective, it would be very hard to argue that from Parmenides standpoint mythos did not have a significant role to play in the understanding of the world we lived in and the path of righteousness and virtue that people should follow, be it less true, or probably better put less accurate, than an intellectual framework based on the faculties of the mind and reason.

Outside of the relevance of the synthesis of myth and philosophy in On Nature, in the Way of Conviction Parmenides introduces the term logos to describe this rational foundation upon which knowledge and truth is to be known and understanding is to be gained.  Parmenides’s logos, as fleshed out even more in later Hellenistic philosophical development, particularly in the Stoic and Peripatetic schools, was looked at in juxtaposition to doxa, or “opinion”.  Although doxa is traditionally translated into the English word “opinion”, it more literally can be translated as “to expect” or “to seem”, in the Parmenides and Stoic context referring to the widely spread common mythological belief systems steeped as reflected in the poetic traditions of the time which had the appearance of truth.  Logos and in turn doxa as terms were picked up and expanded and expounded upon by later Hellenistic philosophic schools into broader metaphysical frameworks, but it is with Parmenides that the first lines, and terminology, with respect to logos and doxa are drawn[16].

For this view, that That Which Is Not exists, can never predominate. You must debar your thought from this way of search, nor let ordinary experience in its variety force you along this way, (namely, that of allowing) the eye, sightless as it is, and the ear, full of sound, and the tongue, to rule; but (you must) judge by means of the Reason (Logos) the much-contested proof which is expounded by me.[17]

In not only the Eleatic Philosophical school of which Parmenides was its founder, as well as the Platonic and Stoic philosophical traditions that arose somewhat after chronologically, detailed epistemological frameworks were developed that established the supremacy of reason and rational argument in the elucidation of truth and knowledge, moving well beyond even an allegorical interpretation of the Hellenic mythos as established by Parmenides.  They postulated, and even attempted to prove via the development of well-defined systems of logic and argument, that the one creative principle from which the pantheon of gods has and continues to emerge from was beyond the comprehension of the intellectual faculty of man, and that we must use reason, or logos, in order to begin to comprehend the nature of this all-pervading creative principle.

Plato’s Forms and his Allegory of the Cave in The Republic represent the most prolific and lasting metaphors and philosophical foundations for this notion, giving rise to the development of Neo-Platonism several centuries later after monotheism started to take root in the Mediterranean upon the broad adoption of Christianity.  In the Stoic tradition, there even developed a semantic and philosophical framework for perceiving and integrating mythology and poetry into its underlying metaphysics.  This integration rested on the underlying theory of language and poetry, where the term logos took on special significance to denote the underlying meaning implied by a word, in either spoken or written form.

Logos then, particularly in the work of Philo, takes on a crucial role in the evolution of philosophical development in the Ancient world, first in Ancient Greece and then spreading through the Mediterranean and into the Near East over the subsequent centuries as the Greeks and then the Romans established empires which provided the cultural foundations upon which these theo-philosophical developments could take place.

As the Stoics before him had looked to mythology and poetry not as truth in and of themselves but as allegories and stories from which truth, more specifically ethical and moral frameworks, could be gleaned, Philo latched onto this idea of logos, and wrapped his allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament books around it, developing an underlying, classically Hellenistic, metaphysics that underpinned the anthropomorphic concept of God that Moses laid out for the Jews in the Pentateuch.  Philo did espouse that the words of the Pentateuch were revelationary and of divine origin, but he also believed that the true understanding of the Books of Moses could only be had by looking past their literal interpretation and toward their allegorical meaning.  He even went so far as to debunk the anthropomorphic concept of God of the Jewish Old Testament, preferring instead a more Hellenistic theo-metaphysical framework where logos and theos, as put forth by the Eleatics, Stoics and Platonists before him, existed conceptually but the creator from which these principles originated was unknowable and indescribable[18].

For it is out of that essence that God created everything, without indeed touching it himself, for it was not lawful for the all-wise and all-blessed God to touch materials which were all misshapen and confused, but he created them by the agency of his incorporeal powers, of which the proper name is Ideas, which he so exerted that every genus received its proper form.[19]

In this way Philo attempted to try and put forth a Jewish philosophy that not only affirmed the place of the Books of Moses as the highest and first truth staying true to his Jewish heritage, but also to establish a richer metaphysical framework from within which the Jewish scriptures could be revealed, a conception of the world that was consistent with the scripture and was aligned with the rich Hellenistic philosophical tradition which was broadly accepted by the scholars and intellectuals of his time.  From Philo’s point of view, the Yahweh of the Old Testament was to be looked at in an allegorical context, and was beyond intellectual understanding.  But the stories, the mythology of the Old Testament, was true in the sense that it shed light on what Yahweh was like, how Yahweh wanted us to behave, and how mankind was to be viewed within the context of the universe as a whole.[20]

To Philo, the notion of logos represented the intellectual manifestation of the creative principle of the universe that emanated from the one and only God, the Yahweh who gave Moses the Ten Commandments.  But at the same time this creative principle was distinct from God in the sense that although knowledge of logos was possible to a certain degree, it did not necessarily imply that one comprehended, or had conceptually realized, God.  Logos in the sense that Philo used the term, had a clear ancient Greek philosophical heritage, particularly as reflected in the Stoic tradition, but Philo expanded and expounded upon its meaning within the context of his interpretations and commentaries of the Old Testament in order to connect its underlying mythology with the rational Hellenistic metaphysical frameworks that had taken root in the Mediterranean, providing for a rich framework that was then leveraged by the early Christian Church Fathers as one of the cornerstones of Christian theology[21].

Philo however went even further to try and synthesize directly Platonic ideas into his work and explicitly connected logos with Plato’s Forms, setting the stage for later Neo-Platonic and arguably even Gnostic development.  To Philo, logos represented the underlying Form of a thing in that it was from this Form that the mind or intellect could understand or know a thing.

It is manifest also, that that archetypal seal, which we call that world which is perceptible only to the intellect, must itself be the archetypal model, the Idea of Ideas, the Logos of God.[22]

Philo then established a metaphysical link between ancient Geek philosophy and Jewish monotheism, providing a sound metaphysical and philosophical foundation for Christianity in the centuries that followed, and setting the table for the broad adoption of Christianity that followed in the next few centuries.


[1] Aristotle tutored Alexander for at least a few years prior to his joing the army at age 15.

[2] There is some evidence that Hellenization under Alexander’s imperial efforts exerted an influence of the some of the Buddhist practices that developed in the years following Siddhartha’s death as well (Siddhartha Gautama Buddha (c 563 – 483 BC).  See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_the_Great#Hellenization.

[3] There is some historical evidence that suggests that Indian sages and Vedic philosophers visited Ancient Greece in the first millennium BC, and certainly one could argue that some of the ideas put forth in Plato’s Dialogues have Indian counterparts, but this connection is loose at best and does not rule out by any means that the metaphysical constructs and frameworks developed independently from each other.  See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Upanishads for details on common dating of the Upanishadic sources as well as footnotes and references for further study on scholarship that links the Vedic and Hellenic philosophical traditions.

[4] The Academy that Plato had established in Athens persisted until 83 BC and although many of the influential Greek philosophers of this period did study and teach at the Academy, philosophical development occurred all throughout the Mediterranean during this period.

[5] From its founding, Stoic doctrine had a popular following throughout the Hellenistic period and the period of the Roman Empire which followed.  Some of the most notable figures during this time that were strongly influenced by Stoicism include the Roman philosopher and statesmen Seneca (4 BC-65 CE) who was a tutor and advisor of the Roman emperor Nero, the Roman/Latin philosopher and statesmen Cicero (106-43 BC), and the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE).

[6] Not to be confused with the Zeno from Elea who was part of the Eleatic school started by Parmenides at the turn of the 5th century BC, which has a relationship with the Platonic school as reflected in establishment of at the very least an intellectual exchange between Parmenides and Socrates as represented in Plato’s Parmenides, a lengthy exchange between Parmenides and the younger Socrates where Socrates defends at length the Theory of Forms against a variety of intellectual attacks from the Eleatic school as narrated by Parmenides.  Socrates makes use of a series of what have come to be called “Deductions” to defend the Theory, a rational framework which later inspired Neo-Platonists such as Plotinus (c 204 – 270 CE) and later Proclus (412 – 485 CE) who saw in the Deductions the key to the hierarchical ontological structure of the universe.

[7] The notion and word religion actually has Latin roots, i.e. religio meaning respect for what is sacred or reverence for the gods, and had no counterpart in Greek, hence Aristotle’s notion of first philosophy.  See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion#Etymology,

[8] Plato posited the creative force behind the universe as akin to a divine craftsman, but nowhere does he espouse the existence of or belief in an anthropomorphic God, this was a later development of Christianity as borrowed from the Judaic tradition from which it was born.

[9] As the story goes, the Septuagint (literally “seventy” in Latin) was crafted by seventy-two Jewish scholars, six from each of the 12 tribes of Israel.  It is not only quoted from in the Epistles of Paul in the New Testament, but also by some of the Apostolic Fathers in the first and second centuries CE as well as later by some of the Greek Church Fathers.  See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Septuagint for more details.

[10] The Pentateuch, or “five books”, is the name given to the five first books of the Old Testament; namely Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

[11] Philo’s influence on Christianity is evidenced by his reference in the works of some of the most influential early Christian scholars and Church Fathers; authors such as the Christian apologist and philosopher Justin Martyr (100 – 165 CE), the Church Father Athenagoras (c 133 – 190), the famed Church Father and theologian Clement of Alexandria (c 150-215 CE), and Clement’s pupil and also a noted Church Father Origen also of Alexandria.

[12] Interestingly enough, even in the Old Testament, this anthropomorphic God, or Yahweh, had many names, speaking to the polytheistic roots of even the Judaic tradition in some sense.

[13] Although the Platonic tradition as reflected in his dialogues has many references as to an ongoing feud between poets and philosophers, alluding to fundamentally different world views of the two perspectives, Plato’s writings include many myths and allegories in and of themselves and his dialectic narrative form both speak to the relevance and importance of story, allegory and myth in his teaching philosophy.  See http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2012/entries/plato-rhetoric/ for a detailed look on the interpretation and view of rhetoric and poetry in Plato’s dialogues.

[14] On Nature is a traditional epic poem composed in hexameter verse of somewhere around 800 verses of which around one hundred and sixty verses survive, all of which come from the quotations of later authors speaking to the broad influence of the work.  The abode of Day and Night to which Parmenides alludes to as the destination of his journey and the place from within which the narrative takes place has its roots in Babylonian mythology as the abode of the sun and the place of judgment of souls after death.

[15] The Way of Conviction could be loosely categorized as Aristotle’s first philosophy, and the latter part of the Way of Mortals could be categorized as Aristotle’s natural philosophy, leaving aside the mythological components.

[16] Aristotle makes extensive use of the term endoxa, meaning “reliable opinion” from which his metaphysical foundation is constructed upon.  In other words, his method of elucidating truth and reality from falsehood starts with and builds upon endoxa, i.e. the sifting through of doxa to establish what can be more reasonably relied upon as starting points of truth and fact.  This is referred to sometimes as Endoxic method, see http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle/ for details.

[17] On Nature, B 7.1-8.2.  From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parmenides.

[18] Ironically enough, despite Philo’s belief that the Books of Moses represented divine revelation, and although it is believed he knew and could read Hebrew, it’s clear that his source material for the Old Testament was the Greek Septuagint, operating under the assumption that the Greek translation corresponded closely to its source Hebrew, which of course in many respects, be they subtle or direct, it did not.  See http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/12116-philo-judaeus.

[19] Philo, Legum Allegorium 1.329.

[20] Biblical Hebrew was written with consonants only, meaning that the name was written YHWH, the components of which are Y, meaning roughly “he”, and the consonantal root HWH, which is connected with acts of creation, or perhaps from the Arabic HWY which is connected with the concept of falling or causing to fall which would lead to Yahweh having storm god origins which is prevalent in some sections of the Old Testament.

[21] One could even make a strong case that Philo’s logos is the same principle that is laid out as the theological foundation of the teachings of Jesus as described in the first few verses of the Gospel According to John.

[22] Philo, De Opificio Mund, 25.

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