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

The Soul of Plato: The Seat of Logos

The lasting contribution of the Greeks to the West is not only in their political philosophy, they are of course given credit for the creation of democracy, but with their philosophical tradition in itself, from which their politics emerge really. In other words, their political philosophy and modes of governing were closely tied to the more broad tradition of philosophy (literally “love of wisdom”) from which it emerges. This link is clearly seen in Plato’s Republic where the connection of philosophy, virtue and the ideal city state is outlined in detail and in his less well known treatise Laws, a work believed to have been written by Plato toward the end of his life which also addresses political philosophy and the role of law in society in particular. Aristotle’s work, most notably in Politics, also addresses political philosophical issues through the same link that Plato uses, notably in the exploration of the ideal man and the role of ethics and virtue in governance in general.

This tradition, this revolution really, of the supremacy of Reason and Logic over myth and tradition is what marks the Greek philosophical tradition more so than any other characteristic, and it is this tradition that marks their lasting contribution to Western civilization. And underlying this tradition is that it is the Mind, mankind as a thinking being, which distinguishes it from the rest of the creatures that roam the Earth.

While neither the works of Aristotle or Plato address or analyze the mental faculty directly in their works, the role of Mind, characterized most notably by Reason and the ability to deduce or induce facts that stand up to the test of intellectual coherence and consistency, i.e. cannot be refuted or at least are difficult to be refuted, is the common theme to really all of their work. And it is this thinking faculty that is called out as the distinguishing and special characteristic of man. Aristotle not surprisingly is the first to outline explicitly these faculties of man, and thinking in particular, within the context of his exploration of the Soul, or that which animates living things, in his work entitled On the Soul (De Anime in Latin).

But before we look at the view of Plato and Aristotle on the Mind and the thinking faculty and how they influenced Western thought down through the millennia that followed, it is important to draw attention to the work of Anaxagoras, a pre-Socratic philosopher who is best known for putting forth the role of Mind, in the cosmic capacity perhaps best described as the collective and ethereal Mind, at the forefront of not only his cosmological worldview, I.e. how and by what means the universe has come into existence, but also in his metaphysics as the primary principle which governs and balances the physical universe, a principle which sits outside of and independent of any of the basic elements which make up the universe itself. Even though Plato and Aristotle reject the metaphysics of Anaxagoras, it clearly influences their philosophy, if only to serve as a counterpoint to their theories of Mind, and in turn Soul to which the thinking faculty of man is closely related[1].

 

According to Diogenes Laertius, Anaxagoras acquired the nickname Mr. Mind (DK 59 A1); his view that the cosmos is controlled by nous, mind or intelligence, first attracted and then disappointed Socrates (Plato, Phaedo 97b8ff.). Plato and Aristotle applauded Anaxagoras for using nous as the first principle of motion, but both criticized him for failing to be consistent in that use, arguing that once he invoked Mind to set the original mixture in motion, Anaxagoras reduced later causes to mindless mechanism.[2]

 

 

Before we delve into the role of the intellect, or mind within the context of Platonic doctrine and extant works, or even the Corpus Aristotelicum it is important to (re) visit the close correlation between what today we might call the “cognitive faculty” of man, perhaps best viewed as the derivation of Descartes’s cogito ergo sum, and what the ancients looked at as the notion of Soul. The concepts are very closely related, particularly in the Platonic and Aristotelian traditions, and in fact it is through their philosophical developments in particular that the cognitive faculty of man, thinking and discernment we might call it, start to evolve as separate and distinct qualities that are somewhat independent of the notion of Soul itself.

We can perhaps best see this when we look at the word psychology itself and how it has come to be synonymous with the study of mind in modern day nomenclature and usage. The root part of the word however, “psyche”, comes from the Greek word for soul “psyche” or “psuche”. From the online etymology dictionary we have the following etymological description for the term ‘psychology”:

 

psychology (n.)

1650s, “study of the soul,” from Modern Latin psychologia, probably coined mid-16c. in Germany by Melanchthon from Latinized form of Greek psykhe- “breath, spirit, soul” (see psyche) + logia “study of” (see -logy). Meaning “study of the mind” first recorded 1748, from Christian Wolff’s “Psychologia empirica” (1732); main modern behavioral sense is from early 1890s.[3]

 

So we can see clearly this close connection between the study of mind, study of the human intellect, and the notion of the human soul, and this correlation, this connection goes back to the Greek philosophical tradition, speaking to the profound influence that this tradition has had on Western thought even some 2500 years after its inception. Today we clearly view psychology as the study of the human psyche, but we forget the etymology and derivation of the term from our ancient Greek ancestors.

Keeping this in mind then (no pun intended), when we look for how Platonic and then in turn Aristotelian doctrine and philosophy framed this notion of mind, the thinking faculty of man, we must look at their conceptions of the Soul, and to what extent they viewed this thinking faculty of man, mind in the individual sense, as independent of the soul. And in so doing, what we find is that the notion of the soul itself undergoes transformation and evolution in the Ancient Greek world, as first put forth and reflected in the works of Homer, and then in the Pre-Socratic philosophical tradition (Heraclitus, Anaxagoras who has already been mentioned, Pythagoras, etc.), then in the philosophy of Plato and then in the philosophy of Aristotle[4].

 

The unique characteristic of Plato’s writings is, as has been well documented and explored by scholars throughout the ages, is his style, the format within which he explores and presents his ideas – namely through dialogue and what has come to be known as dialectic. From the Wikipedia entry on dialectic we are presented with the following definition:

 

Dialectic (also dialectics and the dialectical method) is a method of argument for resolving disagreement that has been central to European and Indian philosophy since antiquity. The word dialectic originated in ancient Greece, and was made popular by Plato in theSocratic dialogues. The dialectical method is discourse between two or more people holding different points of view about a subject, who wish to establish the truth of the matter guided by reasoned arguments.[5]

 

The method itself, the modus operandi through which Plato presents his teachings, had lasting effects on the development of Western thought, and teaching of philosophy in general, that lasted well throughout the middle ages, continuing to be used as the means of teaching to a greater or lesser extent as it evolved into its more modern form which came to be known as scholasticism which was used as the teaching methodology for many of the earliest universities that cropped from the 11th century onwards up through the Enlightenment era.

The format that Plato uses throughout all of his works is one of the presentation of differing points of view of an argument by various characters in his dialogues in order to explore, and ultimately conclude, various philosophical points. The common thread throughout these dialogues is the supremacy of Reason, the use of logic and argument, to establish various points of view as well as basic philosophical and metaphysical positions, upon which what we know today as Platonic philosophy is presented to the modern reader.

It is commonly assumed that the doctrines and philosophical positions that Plato lays forth in his dialogues represent his philosophical position more or less, and many of the characters and (alternative) points of view and positions that are explored in his dialogues represent to some degree more or less some of the varying philosophical positions that were presented and common place in the philosophical community and era within which Plato writes – for example the views of Anaxagoras, Parmenides, etc who are all presented as characters in his dialogues that to at least some degree represent the positions of the various competing philosophical schools that Plato is attempting to refute. Furthermore, in almost all cases Plato’s views and positions are presented through the voice of Socrates, who remains a consistent and esteemed character in virtually all of Plato’s dialogues through which Plato’s philosophical positions, and his arguments to back up these positions, are argued from.

There remains some question of course, and Charlie found surprisingly little debate among scholars around this point, as to whether or not Plato is presenting his own views through the voice of Socrates in his dialogues, or if he is in fact regurgitating Socrates’s teachings through his own voice. It is safe to presume that is some combination of the two, or perhaps better put, the voice of Socrates in Plato’s dialogues represents Plato’s interpretation of the philosophy of Socrates that he learned and understood from him as his disciple, which there is no doubt that he was[6].

Plato’s works are typically referred to as the Socratic Dialogues, not only due to the fact that Socrates is a prominent character and voice of the philosophical tenets which Plato’s puts forth, but also alluding to the fact that the assumption is typically made that the philosophical principals that Plato establishes in his dialogues are assumed to be the documentation and transcription of the philosophical principals which he learned from Socrates himself. But outside of second hand accounts, we have no direct works from Socrates so for the most part we know of Socrates and his philosophical beliefs and metaphysics through the words of Plato.

These are important backdrop and contextual items that must be kept in mind when looking at Plato’s works and discerning what his “philosophy” truly was, and how much of it was his interpretation of Socrates and how much of it was his own workings and reformulations of the teachings which he presumably received from Socrates himself. We see for example that Aristotle, who studied at Plato’s Academy and presumably was a disciple or at the very least a very close student of Plato’s, differs from Plato on several key, metaphysical points and principles and it’s not until we see Aristotle’s work, and the school of philosophy which he founded (the Peripatetic school) where we find a much more thorough and complete (and certainly what Aristotle would deem more coherent) philosophical system that although shares many common characteristics and principles of his predecessor, differs from him on several key points – differences that were the subject of debate of subsequent scholars for centuries to follow (millennia in fact).

But again, when trying to discern or determine “Plato’s philosophy”, or Platonism in its early stages as it is sometimes referred to, it is important to remember that perhaps Plato’s most lasting contribution to Western thought was not necessarily the philosophy that he presented, the one which he assume he learned from Socrates, but the means by which he presented and explored these philosophical principles – through dialogue and debate, i.e. dialectic – a method which was much more profound and lasting in and of itself than the doctrines and belief systems that we infer to be contained or found in Plato’s works and a method which rested on the supremacy of Reason, and argument and logic to a great extent, over myth or blind faith. A constant theme in all of Plato’s dialogues then is the method of teaching itself, a method which spoke to the power of the mental faculty of man moreso than any of his predecessors, predecessors which had for the most part relied on poetry and mythology as tools of exposition and explanation (and to some extent even mysticism in the sense of direct “divine revelation” and the absence of reason or logic from which poetry can be seen to have derived) and the establishment of truth.

It also relevant of course that this method of teaching, the philosophical system of “learning” that Plato is classically given credit for founding, led to the formulation of the first true academic center of learning itself, namely the Academy in Athens which Plato founded circa 387 BCE and persisted for some three centuries after his death, Aristotle of course having studied there for some twenty years before moving on and starting his own school the Lyceum[7].

In light of these facts, when we look for Plato’s theory of mind, or at least how he perceived and viewed the mental faculty through which the physical world was perceived, we must look at his body of work as a whole and discern from it what his principles and beliefs and philosophical tenets were with respect to not only the mind and cognitive faculty specifically but also his notion of the Soul which was very closely correlated to the notion of mind from his perspective.

Whereas Aristotle laid out a system of metaphysics and set of teachings that were broadly categorized by topic and were for the most part at least logically organized (with some overlap of course), in studying Plato and discerning his, or by extension perhaps Socrates’s, philosophical positions we must look at his body of work in toto. And like any philosopher, or like any individual for that matter, his views matured over time and adjusted and evolved somewhat, which is why historians have divided Plato’s works into what they believe are the order, the timing, which they were written – his Early Dialogues, his Middle Dialogues and then his Late Dialogues which are considered the most dense and sophisticated of his works. These categories are not concrete and definitive of course, and are open to a great deal of scholarly debate, but for the most part it is a generally accepted division of Plato’s work where we can at least have the opportunity to view the evolution of his views and philosophical principles over time. It is from the Middle Period that we find his exploration of the notion of Soul, first in Phaedo which delves into the nature of the Soul and whether or not it persist beyond the death of the body, a work almost solely devoted to this topic, and then in his famous Republic which deals with the notion of Justice, which in turn is looked upon as the perfect state of the Soul, within which the role of Reason is called out specifically as an attribute of the Soul and a more thorough treatment of the Soul and its parts is given relative to the work on the Soul in Phaedo.[8]

 

Plato’s greatest contribution to Western philosophy is no doubt 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 is based. It is from this premise and starting point that we must begin to try and grasp Plato’s perspective on the role of the human mind, the act of perception, and ultimately his views on the Soul which are very much inextricably linked to his views on the mind and the means by which we can truly understand or comprehend anything.

In this context we must view his argument of the immortality of the Soul in Phaedo, which hinges off of the immortal and undying existence of intelligibles, upon which the Soul consists of and is characterized by. His notion of intelligibles is contrasted with his view of particulars, which could be best described as specific characteristics and qualities of things, of substances, which have some existence in physical reality. These particulars exist as extensions of, characteristics again, of those things which have an existence in time and space, which are perishable in fact. The Soul however deals in and exists in the contemplation of imperishable Ideas and Forms, these intelligibles which exist beyond time and space and do not indeed perish. It is with this intellectual and metaphysical dualistic type of reality that Plato establishes his argument for the immortality of the Soul – for how can Soul which is so closely correlated and associated with intelligibles which in and of themselves are not perishable, perish in and of itself at death? This is the essence of what is sometimes called Plato’s affinity argument, so called because it establishes the Soul’s affinity of and to the imperishable world of intelligibles and therefore must and should share the same characteristics of this imperishable phenomena, i.e. is imperishable and immortality, in and of itself.[9]

What is implied in this description of, and argument around the nature of the soul of course is the idea that, the implicit belief, that the Soul is a thinking thing, or perhaps better articulated that the Soul is that which contemplates intelligibles, or more specifically that which contemplates Ideas or Forms. Although Plato doesn’t directly call out the connection between his Forms and intelligibles in Pheado it is not that big of a leap to derive the connection, for his Theory of Forms is articulated and laid out most clearly in the Allegory of the Cave in the Republic, which is in all likelihood and later more mature work of Plato’s.

What is also presumed in this argument in Phaedo is of course that it is the Soul which gives life to the body, a presumption that permeates the work (and virtually all of Greek philosophical doctrine before and after Plato in fact). This is perhaps best illustrated by the notion that the idea of “being alive” in classical Greek is typically and broadly described by the word ensouled, or “empsuchos”. And the Soul, throughout Homer’s work as well in the Pre-Socratic philosophers straight through Plato’s and Aristotle’s work, is not only presumed to be that principle which gives life to animate things, but also that which is the source of a variety of basic moral and ethical constructs which characterize the human condition, namely courage, valor and other human characteristics that are aspired to in the not only the Homeric tradition, but then as we see in Plato’s Republic, the notion of Justice as well.

In the Republic, perhaps the greatest if not one of the greatest works attributed to Plato, his intention is to lay out and describe the notion of Justice, and how that in turn is related to the individual, happiness in general, and the implications for the ideal state of governance, a topic that was of great importance to the ancient peoples of the Mediterranean at the time period when this philosophic revolution takes place, being that the majority of Plato’s young life was marked by extreme political strife and war, namely the Peloponnesian conflict which pitted two very different forms of government against each other, i.e. the tyranny of Sparta against the democracy of Athens.

In the Republic, or On Justice, Plato is forced to come up with a somewhat more coherent view of the Soul relative to what we find in Phaedo, to describe its facets in a more detailed and thorough way than he does in Phaedo, primarily because he is not simply (not that there is anything simple about it) dealing with the establishment or discussion of the immortality and imperishable nature of Soul, but dealing with the idea of whether or not there is an ideal state of the Soul that individuals should aspire to, a concept which Plato attaches to and feeds into his concept of Justice, which he perceives to be or even defines as, the ideal state of the Soul, from which the ideal state itself ultimately derives.

In this conception of the Soul, which is thread and alluded to throughout the Republic, particularly in Book 1, Book 4 and then less directly in Books 8 and 9 which deal with the corrupt forms of state and soul, Plato outlines not only the Soul’s basis in giving life, animating the body, but also its role in establishing order, or reason (logos) in the life of the individual, as well as being the source of what he refers to as spirit (loosely defined as the guiding force of individuals to seek honor and respect by their peers and is naturally aligned to reason to a great extent), and appetite which is described as the desire for food, drink and sex. In toto then what we find in the Republic is a coherent view of the Soul as the source of the basic driving needs of man, the alignment or proper direction of which leads to the living of a just, and in turn a happy, life, from which collective justice and collective happiness of the state can be derived or found. The proper functioning and use of the deliberative and rational faculties of man is called out as the source, the pillar, from which the just man, the happy man, is derived:

 

Then next consider this. The soul, has it a work which you couldn’t accomplish with anything else in the world, as for example, management, rule, deliberation, and the like, is there anything else than soul to which you could rightly assign these and say that they were its peculiar work?” “Nothing else.” “And again life? Shall we say that too is the function of the soul?” “Most certainly,” he said. “And do we not also say that there is an excellence virtue of the soul?[10]

 

Perhaps the most definitive and mature view of Plato’s Soul, and the explicit relationship to God (or gods, “theos” as the case may be), is provided to us in Laws, what is viewed as his last and perhaps greatest work. In Laws, Plato explores the nature and origin of law within the state, in many respects covering ground that has already been covered in the Republic, but with perhaps a more cynical, or realistic point of view, reflecting perhaps his perspective on the ideal state toward the tail end of his life after coming to grips with the limits of philosophy within the sphere of power, i.e. politics. It can be looked at as perhaps a more practical treatise on political philosophy where the ideal state of the individual, i.e. Justice, and its attainment and relationship to the ideal state is somewhat abandoned in lieu of the role, and source, of law that is required to govern a state’s citizens that perhaps are incapable of, or are ultimately flawed, in their pursuit of Justice and virtue.

As the nature and origin of laws are explored in Laws, the question of imposing piety toward God (or again “gods”, “theos” as the case may be) is brought up and therefore the discussion as to whether or not the God/gods can be said to exist is naturally covered. Leaving aside the question of whether or not Plato’s view of God in Laws specifically (which arguably records the penultimate views of Plato toward the end of his life) is monotheistic or polytheistic in nature – the latter of course being he more likely interpretation even though it is not alluded to specifically – Plato does appear to take a firm stance in theism proper, i.e. the belief that the Gods do in fact exist. His argument is at it turns out one based upon the existence of the Soul, the Soul being defined again as the source of movement of the body, or of a body, for he abstracts the notion of the human Soul to astral elements as well, moving up the chain to argue that if we indeed believe in the individual, human Soul, and in its nature as the source of movement, of life and order, for the individual, then we must in turn believe that the stars, the planets, the universe itself also has a Soul with the every same attributes. Good and evil are aligned, as they are in the Republic within the context of the discussion of Justice, with the proper balance and well functioning of the Soul – the important connection being made between good, balance, order, and reason, hence establishing perhaps Plato’s greatest contribution to the West, the clear distinction of reason and order above all else as the primary agents of human society and civilization.

 

Yes, very true; the soul then directs all things in heaven, and earth, and sea by her movements, and these are described by the terms-will, consideration, attention, deliberation, opinion true and false, joy and sorrow, confidence, fear, hatred, love, and other primary motions akin to these; which again receive the secondary motions of corporeal substances, and guide all things to growth and decay, to composition and decomposition, and to the qualities which accompany them, such as heat and cold, heaviness and lightness, hardness and softness, blackness and whiteness, bitterness and sweetness, and all those other qualities which the soul uses, herself a goddess, when truly receiving the divine mind she disciplines all things rightly to their happiness; but when she is the companion of folly, she does the very contrary of all this. Shall we assume so much, or do we still entertain doubts?[11]

 

 

[1] Philosophical elements of the Anaxagoras’s Nous can also be seen in the Derveni Papyrus, a work which is tied to the Orphic cosmological tradition from the 5th century BCE.

[2] Anaxagoras by Patricia Curd, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Fall 2011 edition, pgs 16-17. Full text can be found at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/anaxagoras/.

[3] http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=psychology

[4] For a very detailed overview of the Ancient Greek conception of the Soul throughout the Homeric and Pre-Socratic period as well as in the works of Plato and Aristotle, see Ancient Theories of the Soul by Hendrik Lorenz, published in the 2009 edition of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which can be found here: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ancient-soul/.

[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dialectic

[6] Plato was present at Socrates’s final hearings of judgment, as we find in the Apology, which is Plato’s account of the Socrates’s defense which he lays out to his Athenian council members where he stands accused of “corrupting the youth and of not believing in the gods of the Athenian state”, a crime punishable by death apparently to which Socrates willingly accepts. His reasoning for the acceptance of this judgment is related in the Crito which is an account of a conversation between Socrates and Crito while Socrates awaits his death sentence in his cell which covers the topics of justice and injustice among other things.

[7] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Platonic_Academy

[8] Plato’s Phaedo and Republic were alternatively referred to in antiquity as On the Soul and On Justice respectively, speaking to the prominence of these two themes in the works themselves.

[9] For a more detailed look at this “affinity argument”, see Ancient Theories of the Soul by Hendrik Lorenz, published in the 2009 edition of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, pgs. 10-14 which can be found here: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ancient-soul/.

[10] Plat. Rep. 1.353d. Text from http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text, Republic Chapter 1 section 353d.

[11] Plato Laws, X. Translation by Benjamin Jowett. From http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/plato/laws/laws09.htm.

Socrates, Plato and Aristotle: First Philosophy

Leaving aside the Indo-Aryan Vedic tradition, representing the root philosophical and religious tradition of the East, the emergence of philosophy as a branch of thought ran parallel with the advent of Ancient Greek civilization.  What was unique about this development, unique in fact even from the Vedic tradition, was that it emerged as a branch of thought complete divorced from any religion tradition, or mythology and theos, as the Greek philosophers and mythologians more commonly referred to it[1].

In Ancient civilizations such as the Sumer-Babylonian culture, Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, and even Ancient Judaism, there existed a very strong correlation between religion and authority.  The priesthood classes in these civilizations had a vested interest in keeping the well-established order of society, and ensuring that access to divinity was kept out of the hands of the general population.  In other words, religious authority and political power were very closely tied in these ancient civilizations, and in almost all cases political authority was connected to a divine right, leaving open persecution to those that did not ascribe to this belief system or those that rebelled from it in any way.  The religious traditions of these cultures then, both the cosmological as well as mythological aspects, were designed to establish this authority and reinforce it, and even formed the basis of the political power[2].

The Ancient Greeks however stepped away from this very ancient pre-historical connection between the ruling class and its connection to divine authority, and arguably this development represented their greatest contribution to Western civilization.  This divorce of religion from philosophy, or more aptly referred to as the development of metaphysics, i.e. the pursuit of knowledge and truth for its own sake, and in turn the establishment of the concept of the logical separation from church and state which naturally grew out of this development, gave rise to not only philosophy and metaphysics, but also math, geometry, logic and even democracy which form the basis of modern Western civilization to this day.

Like any great discovery or evolutionary change however, this development did not happen naturally and without resistance from those who considered the developments as a threat to their authority.  And from Charlie’s perspective, this revolution – for it was in fact a revolution in the true sense of the word – was embodied in the life and times of Socrates, who died for his beliefs at the hands of the Greek council and authority in much the same way that Jesus was put to death by the Jewish priestly authorities some five centuries later.

The word “philosophy” comes from the Greek philosophia, which translated into English means literally “lover of wisdom”.  The term itself is supposedly to have originated with Pythagoras[3], the ancient Greek mathematician and philosopher who is based known for his Pythagorean Theorem which established the relationship between the three sides of a right angled triangle, namely, , but who also was a philosopher and metaphysician in his own right.  In Ancient Greece, philosopher was used to describe those teachers of wisdom and knowledge that disseminated such learning with no financial exchange involved, the dissemination of wisdom and truth for their own sake if you will, as juxtaposed to the sophists[4] who at the time were noted for the exchange of such learning for money and carried with them a negative context from the society at large.

Pythagoras, beyond his mathematical genius, was a philosopher and mystic as well who lived circa 570 BC to 495 BC, overlapping with the life of Socrates for some thirty years or so.  He not only contributed to mathematics and philosophy, but also founded a religious movement called Pythagoreanism which among other things had a fairly well developed cosmology that departed from the traditional mythological and cosmological traditions which rested on the belief of the gods as the creators and benefactors (or malefactors in some cases) of mankind.  It is believed that Pythagoreanism also held that the soul was a a more permanent construct than the body and existed beyond natural death, i.e. belief the transmigration of the soul which diverged from the concept of the Ancient Greek notion of hell as reflected in their mythological tradition of Hades or the underworld which was prevalent in much of Ancient Greek mythology.

Although the specifics of Pythagorean philosophy and metaphysics is debated by modern scholars given the scarcity of his extant work (much of what we know of Pythagoras and Pythagoreanism comes to us via indirect sources such as Aristotle and Plato among other ancient authors), it is safe to assume that his metaphysics and cosmological world view had a strong mathematical basis, setting the stage for further development of the role of mathematics, and in turn reason, in the philosophy and metaphysics of Plato and Aristotle, reinforcing the notion that mathematics played a crucial role in mankind’s understanding of the universe (kosmos in Greek), principles that permeate not only modern day Western metaphysical beliefs, but also of course modern day physics in both its theoretical and classical forms[5].

One of the best indications of the influence of Socrates on the development of philosophy, his ideas being primarily represented by the writings of his best known pupil Plato, is the more modern delineation of philosophical systems into pre-Socratic philosophy to the philosophical and metaphysical systems of belief that came after Plato, marked most notably by Aristotleanism and Neo-Platonism among other philosophical systems.  In other words, in terms of the evolution of what the ancients termed philosophy, which provides the basis for all of the branches of knowledge that today we would categorize as science, biology, ethics, metaphysics, socio-political theory, and even psychology, current historians and scholars basically divide philosophical history into pre-Socratic, Platonic, and Aristotelian, and then post-Medieval philosophy as represented by the works of Aquinas, Descartes, Kant, and Newton among others.

The gap in centuries between the Ancient Greek contributions to philosophy down through the centuries following the introduction of Christianity into the Western world illustrates just how broad and far reaching an influence the Ancient Greek philosophers had on the development of the Western mind and even on Western civilization as a whole given the broad scope of the topics covered in their works.  The advent of Christianity in the centuries following the death of Jesus however, traditions which had their own underlying mythological and cosmological beliefs (much of which were borrowed from the Jewish traditions from which Christianity was born, i.e. the Old Testament), predominantly replaced, or at least were superimposed upon, the philosophical and metaphysical systems that were developed by the Ancient Greeks.  It was not until many centuries, and even millennia later, not until the power of the Church and the associated threat of persecution for non-believers in the Western word began to wane, that the work of Plato and Aristotle could begin to be expanded upon and drawn from in a purely metaphysical, and even scientific, context.

Having said that, despite the influence of Christianity in the millennia or so after the death of Christ, the work of Plato and Aristotle was not completely abandoned by Christian theologians and philosophers.  Of course Christian religion had a profound influence on the theology and metaphysics (if you could call it that) of the Western world in the centuries following the death and crucifixion of Jesus, the metaphysics and cosmology as laid out by Aristotle and Plato did have some influence later Christian scholars and theologians, if for no other reason as providing the metaphysical and logical framework from within which the Holy Trinity and the divinity of Jesus could be established.

This influence can be seen in the development of Neo-Platonism which took shape in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD and incorporated Egyptian and Judaic theology into the metaphysics of Plato and was also espoused most notably by St Augustine (354-430AD) who incorporated Judeo-Christian theology with Platonic thought.  Gnosticism, which also flourished in the few centuries following the death of Jesus and in many respects can be seen in contrast to some of the more dogmatic Christian beliefs of the time, borrows some of its theology and metaphysics from early Christianity but also from some of the more esoteric components of the Zoroastrianism and some of the Greco-Roman mystery religions of the day.  Scholasticism, a mush later development which is reflected most notably in the works of Thomas Aquinas from the 13th century AD, dominated the monastic teachings of the Christian Church for the few centuries after the turn of the first millennium AD and not so much reflected a particular world view, or philosophy, but more so a mode of learning adopted from its Greek predecessors, focusing on the use of reason and dialogue, i.e. dialectic and inference, as the means to arriving at truth.

From Charlie’s perspective then, the Dark Ages, as marked by the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century AD until the advent of the Renaissance in the late 14th century some one thousand years later, could be categorized to a certain extent as a step backwards with respect to the establishment of the supremacy of reason and metaphysics over theological and mythological beliefs, reflecting the reinforcement of the use of religion and theology to establish and protect the power of the elite and ruling class which in this case was The Church and the ruling class whose authority rested on the Church.  In brief, from Charlie’s perspective, it was the re-establishment of religion as reflected in the dogmatic belief systems of the Church as the basis for authority (and even law), which stifled pure metaphysical and philosophical pursuits throughout the Dark Ages, ironically enough having exactly the very opposite effect that Jesus intended when he rebelled against the Jewish religious authorities of his day, namely the establishment of the divine as every individual’s right: “Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:21)

Although none of the complete works of pre-Socratic philosophers survive today in full, we do have excerpts and references to their work that allude to who these philosophers were and to some extent their metaphysics, theology, and philosophy.[6]  Furthermore, it is clear from the works of Plato and Aristotle that at least to some degree they were influenced by them, even if only within the context of disagree with their fundamental tenets or conclusions.  Socrates himself, even if he did not espouse to any of the specific doctrines that were laid out by contemporary or pre-historical philosophers, at the very least laid the groundwork from which subsequent philosophers could freely teach and proselytize their respective doctrines.

All of these pre-Socratic philosophers, and Socrates himself if we are to believe the portrayal of him by Plato, shared the common principle of the rejection of the hitherto traditional mythological and cosmological explanation of reality that permeated ancient thought, and to a great extent all of them attempted to answer such fundamental questions of the origin of the universe and the nature of reality in a more rational, reasonable fashion as contrasted by the traditions that came before them and were predominant in their time[7].

Although Socrates didn’t author any works himself, at least none that are extant and survive down to us today, his teachings and life do survive in the indirect accounts of his final days by his most prolific disciples, namely Plato and Xenophon, as well as in indirect accounts and references in the works of other semi contemporary Greek authors such as the Greek satirical playwright Aristophanes[8], along with of course references in the works of Aristotle, the most prominent student of Plato and an alumnus of the Academy which Plato founded.

Socrates life’s end is marked by his execution by Greek authorities for, at least according to Plato, corrupting the minds of youth and challenging the legitimacy of the gods as well as the established authority of the aristocracy of Greek society of the day.  Both Plato and Xenophon wrote works describing the last days of Socrates and the trial specifically, where Socrates attempts to defend his position as simply a seeker of wisdom and man of virtue, almost enticing his accusers to sentence him to death rather than banish him to some foreign land.

Plato was by far the most prominent of Socrates’s disciples and was a prolific author, all of his writings however coming after the death of his mentor and therefore at best represent at least one generation removed of the actual life and times of the great martyr who as the story goes sacrificed his life in the name of truth and knowledge[9].  Plato however is named specifically in the Apology by Socrates himself as being present at the day of the trial however, so there is some evidence, albeit disputed by some scholars, that at least some of Plato’s accounts of Socrates in his dialogues represent first-hand accounts by direct witnesses of events.  But taken as a whole though, the life and times of Socrates, from whose example stemmed the great lives and works of both Plato and Aristotle must be looked at through the rose colored lens of his successors who clearly held him in great esteem.

Socrates then personifies what we conceive of today as the prototypical philosopher, despite the contributions of the men that came before him.  However what the ancients considered philosophy and what we consider philosophy today, and in turn the field of metaphysics, are conceptually similar but at the same time very different things, the ancient term being much more broadly used to cover a wide variety of topics and branches of thought.  The ancient philosophical doctrines of Socrates (as reflected in Plato’s earlier work), the works of Plato himself as reflected in his later works that most scholars agree represent Plato’s own philosophical and metaphysical beliefs, and the works of Aristotle not only explored concepts which we today would consider fall under the category of philosophy, but also covered topics such as theology, ethics, the underlying principles of logic and reason, as well as what we today would call metaphysics, or the study of the nature of reality and knowledge itself.  All of these topics fell under what the ancients termed “philosophy”, or more specifically what Aristotle referred to as epistêmai (which is typically translated as “sciences” but is the plural of the Greek word for knowledge).

It must be kept in mind, when looking at and reviewing the authors of Plato and Xenophon in particular who both wrote what are considered to be direct accounts of the last days of Socrates, that the political backdrop was a time of war, a war that affected the entire Greek realm at the time.  The Peloponnesian War was the great conflict between Athens and her empire and the Peloponnesian League led by Sparta at the end of the 5th century BC (431 to 401 BC), the termination of which marked the end of the golden age of Athens, after the loss of which was relegated to a secondary city-state in the Ancient World.

This conflict raised many questions as to the nature of political systems in general to the great thinkers of the day, as Sparta’s form of government differed in many respects to that of Athens, and given the war that had such a significant impact on all of Ancient Greece and its bordering city-states at the time, much of the philosophical works of Plato, as well as Aristotle in fact, analyzed the competing socio-political systems of the day and proffered up opinions, philosophical and otherwise, upon which system of government was the best.  From Charlie’s perspective, it was from this socio-political self-analysis and introspection, stemming from the great perils and destructive force of war, that democracy in its current form was forged.

Therefore the role of the state, the exploration into the ideal form of government, and the role of the philosopher within the state, topics that would not be classically consider as philosophical inquiries today, is the main topic that runs through Plato’s Republic, arguably one of his most lasting and prolific works.  In this text, Plato explores the various forms of government prevalent in ancient Greek society and specifically delves not into the meaning of justice and virtue.  He also, through the narrative of Socrates, explores the role of the philosopher in society, even going so far as to speak of the utopian form of government being one that is led by the “philosopher-king”.[10]

In a broader sense, The Republic portrays Socrates, along with other various members of the Athenian and foreign elite, discussing the meaning of justice and various forms of government, and examines whether or not the just man is happier than the unjust man by comparing and contrasting existing regimes and political systems, as well as discussing the role of the philosopher in society.  All of these themes must have crystallized in Plato’s mind and life after the death of his beloved teacher Socrates given the socio-political context within which he was put to death.  Plato’s concern with the ideal city-state, reflected in the title of the work that was given to it by later historians and compilers of his work on this topic, i.e. The Republic, focused on the value and strengths and weaknesses of democracy as it existed in Ancient Greece, again an important topic of the day given the broad impact of the Peloponnesian War on the world of Ancient Greece at the time and the competing forms of government each side of the conflict espoused.

Another example of the importance of the state in the early philosophical works of the ancient Greeks comes from Aristotle’s Politics.  Here Aristotle continues Plato’s exploration into various forms of government and their pros and cons, looking specifically at the government of Sparta in one passage, describing it as some combination of monarchy, oligarchy and public assembly/senate of sorts, all of which were combined to balance power, in many respects similar to the balance of power as reflected in the House, the Senate and the office of the President in the United States today.

Some, indeed, say that the best constitution is a combination of all existing forms, and they praise the Lacedaemonian [Spartan] because it is made up of oligarchy, monarchy, and democracy, the king forming the monarchy, and the council of elders the oligarchy while the democratic element is represented by the Ephors; for the Ephors are selected from the people. Others, however, declare the Ephoralty to be a tyranny, and find the element of democracy in the common meals and in the habits of daily life. At Lacedaemon, for instance, the Ephors determine suits about contracts, which they distribute among themselves, while the elders are judges of homicide, and other causes are decided by other magistrates.[11]

So government then, its role and purpose, as well as the role of the individual citizen, were clearly very important topics of the early Greek philosophers and you’d be hard pressed to believe that to at least some extent they influenced the development of various political systems in their day.  But their most lasting contribution arguably was their devotion to the pursuit of knowledge and truth for their own sake, as opposed to the pursuit of knowledge to establish the legitimacy of authority and the ruling class which had been the pattern that had existed for centuries if not millennia before them, as well as their creation of institutions of learning from which this new field of study could be practiced and taught, passing its tenets down to later generations not only orally but through a written tradition for further enquiry and analysis by subsequent students, as reflected in the works of Plato and Aristotle which survive to this day.

Plato, and in turn Aristotle, then should be considered the first metaphysicians in the modern day sense of the word, a metaphysician in this sense being defined as someone who attempts to create and describe a framework within which reality can be described, as well as the boundaries which knowledge and truth can be ascertained, the prevailing characteristic of such a quest being the implementation of reason and logic as opposed to myth or any theological framework which rested on faith.  They called this search and exploration philosophy, but the meaning of the term in Greek implied not only at the study of the true nature of knowledge and reality, but also the source of virtue and ethics and their relationship to society at large.  In the much quoted words of Alfred North Whitehead, a prolific and influential philosopher and mathematician of the early twentieth century:

The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.  I do not mean the systematic scheme of thought which scholars have doubtfully extracted from his writings.  I allude to the wealth of general ideas scattered through them.[12]

Plato’s works are classically divided into three categories – his early dialogues, more commonly referred to as the Socratic dialogues, which focused on the last days of Socrates along with what are presumed to be a summary of Socrates’ philosophy, the Middle dialogues where most scholars agree Plato starts to explore his own philosophical systems of belief, and his Late dialogues where Plato explores his metaphysics, philosophy, theology and cosmological views in greater detail.  It is from Plato’s early dialogues that much of what we know about the life and times of Socrates survives to us today.

Plato wrote in dialectic[13] form, exploring theoretical and metaphysical concepts by the use of a narrative or dialogue between various characters, some of whom were verifiably historical and others whose place in history is unknown, exploring esoteric and metaphysical topics from varying points of view in order to arrive at some sense of truth or essence of the topic at hand.  Plato believed, and this view was inherited to a certain degree by Aristotle, that the most direct and powerful way to arrive at truth or the essence of an abstract topic was through dialogue, and so almost of all of his writings were drafted in this form.  From Plato’s perspective, it was only through dialectic, through the bantering and discussion of varying points of view by several individuals, that the truth or wisdom of a certain topic could be revealed.  This form of writing and exposition by Plato can be viewed as evidence of Plato’s insistence that pure, absolute truth is unknowable, but can be explored or better understood by evaluating all sides of an issue or topic and using reason and logic to arrive at understanding, even if absolute truth is elusive.

Socrates plays a significant role in many of Plato’s dialogues, and although it’s not clear to what extent the narratives that Plato speaks of are historically accurate, Plato does make use of a variety of names, places and events in his dialogues attributed specifically to Socrates and others that lend his dialogues a sense of authenticity, be they historically accurate or not[14].

Taken as a whole however, given the philosophical and metaphysical nature of the topics Plato explores in his extant work, historical accuracy isn’t necessarily an imperative for him.  In other words, Plato is not attempting to provide any sort of historical narrative but attempting to lay out alternative points of view on a variety of topics to yield knowledge and truth regarding esoteric topics that had hitherto been unexplored.  In other words, given the purpose of Plato’s dialogues and extant work, the veracity of the individual beliefs of the persona in his dialogues, or even the accuracy of events which he describes, are of less importance and relevance than the topics which he discusses as well as the means by which he explores the topics – namely dialectic or dialogue.  So although it is safe to assume that the life and teachings of Socrates formed much of the basis of many of the philosophical constructs that Plato covers in his extant work, particularly in his early, or Socratic dialogues, just as in the analysis of any ancient literature or culture, the historical and political context within which the works were authored must be considered when trying to determine their import and message.

The essence of Plato’s metaphysical world view is probably best encapsulated in his theory of forms, as elucidated in the allegory of the cave buried deep in The Republic, a metaphor supported by his analogy of the divided line, the sum total of which lays out his view of the nature of reality in its progressive forms as shadow, form, the light upon which the world of name and form reveals itself, and then the source of all knowledge, i.e. the Sun.  His analogy of the divided line is the beginning of his explanation into this world of Forms and their relationship to the what he considers to the be illusory, or less real, world of the senses:

Now take a line which has been cut into two unequal parts, and divide each of them again in the same proportion, and suppose the two main divisions to answer, one to the visible and the other to the intelligible, and then compare the subdivisions in respect of their clearness and want of clearness, and you will find that the first section in the sphere of the visible consists of images.  And by images I mean, in the first place, shadows, and in the second place, reflections in water and in solid, smooth and polished bodies and the like…

Imagine, now, the other section, of which this is only the resemblance, to include the animals which we see, and everything that grows or is made.…

There are two subdivisions, in the lower of which the soul uses the figures given by the former division as images; the enquiry can only be hypothetical, and instead of going upwards to a principle descends to the other end; in the higher of the two, the soul passes out of hypotheses, and goes up to a principle which is above hypotheses, making no use of images as in the former case, but proceeding only in and through the ideas themselves (510b)…

And when I speak of the other division of the intelligible, you will understand me to speak of that other sort of knowledge which reason herself attains by the power of dialectic, using the hypotheses not as first principles, but only as hypotheses — that is to say, as steps and points of departure into a world which is above hypotheses, in order that she may soar beyond them to the first principle of the whole (511b).[15]

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, paving the way for further mathematical conceptions of reality brought forth by Aristotle among others.

In in the Allegory of the Cave[16], Socrates describes a group of people who have been chained to a wall in a cave for their whole lives, a chain which does not allow their heads to move and therefore they can only see what is directly in front of their field of vision.  There is a fire behind them, which casts shadows upon images and forms that are moved behind the chained souls on the top of a wall, much like a puppet show casts characters across the field of a wooden stage.  So the chained souls can see shadows in front of them, or forms, projected to the wall in front of them off of the fire that blazes behind them which they cannot see.  Hence these people know only shadows and forms their whole lives, although they believe this to be the one and only reality and source of truth for they know nothing else.  Socrates then goes on to explain that a philosopher is like a person who is freed from this cave, and is let out into the light of the sun, where he sees and realizes that everything that he has thought to be real, has only been a shadow of truth and reality.[17]

Plato’s ethics and world view centered on this Theory of Forms, or Ideas as reflected by the allegory of the cave and his analogy of the divided line.  His belief in the immortality of the soul and its superiority to the physical body, the idea that evil was a manifestation of the ignorance of truth, that only true knowledge can revealed by true virtue, all of these tenets stemmed from this idea that the abstract form or idea of a thing was a higher construct than the physical thing itself, and that the abstract Form of a thing was just as true and real, if not more so, that the concrete thing itself from which its Form manifested.

It is in the Timaeus however, one of the later and more mature works of Plato, that 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 many respects, the ideas and postulates of the Timaeus represent an expansion on Plato’s Theory of Forms which he introduces in The Republic via his Allegory of the Cave.  In the Timaeus, Plato makes a distinction between the physical world which is subject to change, and the eternal and changeless world which can only be apprehended by use of the mind and reason, i.e. is not perceivable by the senses directly.  He also attempts to establish via a logical argument that the world and nature itself are the product of the intelligent design of some creator, and that mortals, given their limitations, can conceive only of that which is probable or “likely” and that the essential truth is perhaps unknowable.  The passage itself in the Timaeus is profound enough to quote in full.

First then, in my judgment, we must make a distinction and ask, What is that which always is and has no becoming; and what is that which is always becoming and never is? That which is apprehended by intelligence and reason is always in the same state; but that which is conceived by opinion with the help of sensation and without reason, is always in a process of becoming and perishing and never really is.  Now everything that becomes or is created must of necessity be created by some cause, for without a cause nothing can be created. The work of the creator, whenever he looks to the unchangeable and fashions the form and nature of his work after an unchangeable pattern, must necessarily be made fair and perfect; but when he looks to the created only, and uses a created pattern, it is not fair or perfect. Was the heaven then or the world, whether called by this or by any other more appropriate name-assuming the name, I am asking a question which has to be asked at the beginning of an enquiry about anything-was the world, I say, always in existence and without beginning? or created, and had it a beginning? Created, I reply, being visible and tangible and having a body, and therefore sensible; and all sensible things are apprehended by opinion and sense and are in a process of creation and created.  Now that which is created must, as we affirm, of necessity be created by a cause. But the father and maker of all this universe is past finding out; and even if we found him, to tell of him to all men would be impossible.  And there is still a question to be asked about him: Which of the patterns had the artificer in view when he made the world-the pattern of the unchangeable, or of that which is created? If the world be indeed fair and the artificer good, it is manifest that he must have looked to that which is eternal; but if what cannot be said without blasphemy is true, then to the created pattern. Every one will see that he must have looked to, the eternal; for the world is the fairest of creations and he is the best of causes. And having been created in this way, the world has been framed in the likeness of that which is apprehended by reason and mind and is unchangeable, and must therefore of necessity, if this is admitted, be a copy of something. Now it is all-important that the beginning of everything should be according to nature. And in speaking of the copy and the original we may assume that words are akin to the matter which they describe; when they relate to the lasting and permanent and intelligible, they ought to be lasting and unalterable, and, as far as their nature allows, irrefutable and immovable-nothing less. But when they express only the copy or likeness and not the eternal things themselves, they need only be likely and analogous to the real words. As being is to becoming, so is truth to belief. If then, Socrates, amid the many opinions about the gods and the generation of the universe, we are not able to give notions which are altogether and in every respect exact and consistent with one another, do not be surprised. Enough, if we adduce probabilities as likely as any others; for we must remember that I who am the speaker, and you who are the judges, are only mortal men, and we ought to accept the tale which is probable and enquire no further[18].

Plato then goes on, through the narrative of Timaeus in the dialogue, to describe the establishment of order by what he refers to as a divine craftsman, dêmiourgos, applying mathematical constructs onto the primordial chaos leveraging the four basic elements – earth, air, fire, and water – to generate the known universe, or kosmos.  Note that the view espoused by Timaeus is that the world was not created by chance but by deliberate intent of the intellect, nous, as represented by the divine craftsman.  Although one might conclude that this would imply Plato’s belief in an anthropomorphic principle of creation, akin to our Judeo-Christian God, there is no evidence that Plato would have been exposed to that theology as he lived some 4 or 5 centuries before Jesus and the Judaic theology was not nearly so wide spread in the centuries before Christ.  Furthermore, one of Plato’s underlying premises for all of his work, is that the principles of reality or the known universe are most certainly worth exploring, again via dialogue and dialectic, but that absolute truth or knowledge is not something that he attempts to be putting forth, and in fact that absolute knowledge and facts are comprehensible by metaphor or analogy at best.

In the Timaeus, Plato attempts to describe the nature of the soul and its purpose within the context of this creative universe, describing the kosmos as the model for rational souls to emulate and try to understand, restoring the souls to their original state of balance and excellence.  Therefore Plato, although clearly establishing the supremacy of reason and rationality in the search for truth and the nature of universe, as well as a mathematical and geometrical framework from which this demiurge crafted the world which permeates much of the Timaeus, did not completely abandon theology in his world view.  Theology, in an anthropomorphic context, was the source from which the natural world was born in Plato’s view, even though he points directly to the fundamental unknowable nature of the universe, stating that we can only know what it is “like” rather than its true nature.  Furthermore, by establishing the critical and comprehensive role of the soul, both of an individual and for the world at large, Plato rooted his ethical and moral framework within his cosmological narrative, i.e. a reason to be good that did not relay on a concept of an afterworld or hell as motivation.[19]

Plato’s most famous student by far was Aristotle, who is best known for his work on formalizing some of the basic principles of logic and reason, as well as a further development of the incorporation of mathematical concepts into philosophy and metaphysics among other things.  He is also known for being the tutor for Alexander the Great, the great Greek empire builder of the 4th century BC, although the extent of the influence that he had on Alexander is debated by scholars[20].

The term metaphysics is first associated with Aristotle as the title of one of his works on the subject, although this was not a word that Aristotle used or titled any of his works himself, but was coined by later editors of his work who viewed the material in Metaphysics as that which came after (meta), or should be studied after, his work on Physics.  Aristotle called the subject matter in question first philosophy or the study of that which defines that which is (specifically the term he uses is being qua being which as you can imagine is difficult to translate directly into English), but the term metaphysics has stuck over the centuries and has taken on to be a much more specific meaning in modern day usage as the fields of science, philosophy, biology, etc. have evolved into their own separate disciplines.

Just as Plato’s work covered much more than what is today considered philosophy, Aristotle’s extant literature explored many concepts outside of the realm of what we would classify as metaphysics or philosophy as well, topics such as biology, physics, logic, mathematics, and even geology.  He also explored more in depth than Plato such concepts that relate to classical physics such as theories of motion and causation, setting the stage for centuries of analysis and thought which culminated in the branching off of science and empirical method from philosophy as reflected in the works of Descartes and Newton some two millennia later.

There are thirty-one surviving works that are attributed directly to Aristotle by modern scholars sometimes referred to as the Corpus Aristotelicum.  Throughout these works, he refers to the variety of fields of research that he studies and writes about as epistêmai, or “sciences”.  Although epistêmai is typically translated into English as “knowledge”, in the context of Aristotle’s work the word is classically translated to “science”, science in the broader and more modern sense of the term, e.g. the sciences.  Note that It wasn’t until much later in history, not until the end of the Renaissance in the 17th and 18th centuries, that scientific method transformed what Aristotle deemed natural philosophy into an empirical activity whose basis derived from experimental results, thereafter distinguishing science from the rest of philosophy proper and the term science coming to mean those fields of knowledge and study that could be verified empirically by means of experimentation.  Thereafter metaphysics denoted philosophical enquiry of a non-empirical character into the nature of existence.[21]

Although classification and grouping of Aristotle’s extant work is open to interpretation, for the most part it is agreed that Aristotle divided these “sciences”, into three basic categories, from which all of his philosophy and world view is structured.  The first category, and the one of most interest to Charlie given the context of his inquiries into the historical development of theology and its divergence into philosophy and science proper, is what Aristotle refers to as the theoretical sciences, or what Aristotle calls first philosophy.  Aristotle’s first philosophy includes his work in metaphysics, philosophy and theology, and also includes what he calls the natural sciences or natural philosophy which is reflected in his research and analysis in fields such as biology, astronomy, and what we would today call physics (e.g. the analysis of bodies of motion and their relationships in time and space) all of which have a more empirical basis as juxtaposed with his metaphysics which is purely theoretical in nature[22].

His second category of “science” he called practical science, which includes the analysis of human conduct and virtue and its effect on society at large, or ethics from both a personal and societal perspective.  Much of his work in this area built off of the foundation provided by his teacher Plato, in his The Republic for example.  The third classification or area of research of Aristotle was what he termed the productive sciences, which included exploration into such topics as rhetoric, agriculture, medicine and ship building as well as the arts of music, theater and dance[23].

Note that this broad range of topics that Aristotle explored, all of which he clearly felt strongly required further examination and analysis relative to the work of his predecessors, covered not only how the world is to be viewed or framed, with respect to identifying those qualities or attributes that described reality or being, i.e. his metaphysics, but also the foundations for society at large, ethics and virtue, as well as establishing the framework within which natural philosophy could be analyzed and explored, i.e. his elaboration and exploration of the principles of reason and logic which bled into geometry and mathematics.  All of these fields of research were related from his perspective, just as they were by his predecessor Plato.  One could not simply just create a logically framework for reality in and of itself, one needed to provide the framework for ethics and the relationship of the individual with the state and society within which he lived, and this connection needed to be well established in the metaphysical framework which described reality, and in turn mankind’s place in it.  In other words, one must look at Aristotle’s extant work in toto to come to a complete understanding of how his metaphysics and world view related to his sociological and cosmological stances, for all the pieces of his metaphysical framework fit together.

In order to provide the theoretical and logical framework within which all of the sciences could be explored and established, Aristotle also authored many works on what we might call the basis of logic or reason.  These constructs, which he expounds in his Categories, which provides his stratification of the building blocks of his metaphysical framework, as well as his treatises Prior Analytics and Topics where he delves deeply into the building blocks of analysis and reason itself, all fall into this category.  His works in this area are typically categorized as the Organon, which comes from the Greek word for “tool”, signifying its foundational basis for the rest of Aristotle’s metaphysics and philosophy.  In today’s nomenclature, these works could be loosely classified as the works which represent Aristotle’s epistemology, or the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope of knowledge itself, or that which can be known.

His Category Theory, as it is typically referred to, is covered at length in The Categories.  This basic framework of reality forms the foundation of his metaphysics so it’s important to have some idea as to what the different categories or the basis of reality are from his perspective, and what their relationship to each other is.  The list of categories is meant to be exhaustive, in the sense that realistic construct must fall into one or more of the categories that he outlines and in turn anything that one would deem to be “real” must be able to be described through some articulation of its relationship to his Category Theory[24].  Aristotle divides the known world up into 10 different conceptual groups, the most important of which was his concept of substance, or ousia.  These categories then provide the building blocks upon which all of his sciences, or epistêmai, are constructed.  Below is an excerpt from Categories where he outlines not only what he considers to be his exhaustive list of “things” which are, or things which exist, but he also calls out the critical nature of that which is typically translated as substance, or ousia in Greek.

Of things said without combination, each signifies either: (i) a substance (ousia); (ii) a quantity; (iii) a quality; (iv) a relative; (v) where; (vi) when; (vii) being in a position; (viii) having; (ix) acting upon; or (x) a being affected. (Cat. 1b25–27)

All other things are either said-of primary substances, which are their subjects, or are in them as subjects.  Hence, if there were no primary substances, it would be impossible for anything else to exist. (Cat. 2b5–6)

 

Translating ousia to “substance” in English does not express the full meaning of the term the way Aristotle intends however, and given the critical importance of this term in Aristotle’s metaphysics and philosophy, and in turn Aristotle’s influence on Western philosophy, science and metaphysics over the ensuing centuries, it is worth exploring this term ousia and how it’s relationship to its Latin derivative substantia or essentia, from which its English counterpart substance originates.

 

Ousia (οὐσία) is the Ancient Greek noun formed on the feminine present participle of εἶναι (to be); it is analogous to the English participle being, and the modern philosophy adjectival ontic.  Ousia is often translated (sometimes incorrectly) to Latin as substantia and essentia, and to English as substance and essence; and (loosely) also as (contextually) the Latin word accident (sumbebekós).

Aristotle defined protai ousiai, or “primary substances”, in the Categories as that which is neither said of nor in any subject, e.g., “this human” in particular, or “this ox”.  The genera in biology and other natural kinds are substances in a secondary sense, as universals, formally defined by the essential qualities of the primary substances; i.e., the individual members of those kinds.

Much later, Martin Heidegger said that the original meaning of the word ousia was lost in its translation to the Latin, and, subsequently, in its translation to modern languages. For him, ousia means Being, not substance, that is, not some thing or some being that “stood”(-stance) “under”(sub-).[25]

As shown above, the term ousia that Aristotle uses to describe the cornerstone of his metaphysics and world view is far from straight forward to translate into English, and the word “substance” does not really yield its true significance and much is lost in translation.  From Charlie’s perspective this was a perfect example of the non-trivial task to try and translate some of these ancient esoteric ideas from Ancient Greece to the Indo-European, Romance languages in particular, languages that derived from the Latin translation of the Greek and then into the destination tongue, i.e. at least two transliterations away from the original source.  This was true not only when attempting to translate some of the works of the Ancient Greek philosophers into English, but also when translating some of the extent Judeo-Christian literature into English which in many cases was also authored in Greek, or in many cases from an even more distant relative of English, Hebrew.  To make matters worse, the Greek language itself was not necessarily designed to handle these esoteric and philosophical ideas that Aristotle, Plato and others were trying to articulate.[26] 

Contrast this with the Indo-Aryan tradition who from earliest times had a language framework, namely Sanskrit, from which their esoteric and metaphysical, and of course theological, principles and constructs could be articulated to the reader.  A reflection of this translation difficulty is that much of the Indo-Aryan philosophy, and many of the key terms that are used, are NOT in fact translated into the English when being described or conveyed to the modern reader, i.e. English has adopted some of the original Sanskrit terms for there is no English equivalent.  The terms Atman and Brahman for example, and their relationship in the human body-mind construct as described by the chakras and Kundalini yoga, are all Sanskrit terms that represent core Vedic philosophical and theological constructs that have no English counterpart.  These terms, and others such as Satchitananda, typically translated into English by modern Sanskrit and Vedic scholars as “Existence-Knowledge-Bliss-Absolute”, or even Samadhi, the state of emergence of the individual soul Atman into the essence of the source of all things or Brahman which is the eighth and final limb of the Yoga Sutras attributed to Patanjali, both are examples of esoteric terms that have a deep philosophical and psychological meaning in the Vedic tradition and have no direct English translation.

These Sanskrit terms, and many others, have made their way into the English language over the last century as Yoga has been introduced to the West as the most accurate way to describe these principles and to a great extent this provides for a better direct communication of their true underlying meaning.  Samadhi has no English equivalent; the state which it refers to is best understood within the context of the Yoga Sutras within which it is described and the seven limbs that come before it, all of which also have their own Sanskrit counterparts and also have no direct English translation.  Not so for the Greek and Judeo-Christian esoteric words that were used by the ancient philosophers and theologians, these words in almost all cases have been transliterated into English and in so doing have lost at the very least some of their meaning and context, and in some cases the original meaning intended by their original authors may have been lost altogether.

In many respects the best way to understand the underlying theology of Aristotle, or what scholars have later termed his teleology, or the postulate that some underlying final cause must exist in nature, is to contrast his metaphysical or theological beliefs with those of his teacher Plato, specifically as represented by the cosmology he outlines in his narrative in the Timaeus and his Theory of Forms as outlined in The Republic.  For from Charlie’s perspective, it was not too much of a stretch to presume that it was the influence and works of his predecessor Plato that provided the impetus to Aristotle’s work and teaching, even if it was to establish his disagreement with his teacher.

Aristotle didn’t necessarily directly attack Plato’s belief in the existence of a divine creator per se, Plato’s demiurge, but he did argue, rightfully so from Charlie’s point of view, that Plato’s Theory of Forms lacked the sophistication to truly explain the totality of existence, or being qua being to use Aristotle’s terminology.  That is to say, Plato’s Theory of Forms, despite being a powerful metaphor to describe the what he considered to be the underlying illusory nature of reality, the transformation and relationship of a Form or Idea into a thing which we would perceive as existing in and of itself is not fleshed out at all in Plato’s metaphysical framework.  Aristotle’s metaphysics fleshed these concepts out in much more detail, and by providing the rational underpinnings of this more fleshed out Theory of Forms if you could call it that, he was able to build a rational and metaphysical framework that could extend not only the explanation of the underlying principles of ethics and virtue, but also to the world of natural philosophy, providing for the foundations of modern science as it were.

Although Aristotle’s theological beliefs are debated by modern scholars, it is certain that Aristotle disagreed with Plato’s cosmological and theological belief system in the sense that he believed that one must formulate a more rational underpinning for the explanation of reality, theological or otherwise, than what Plato puts forth in his body of work.  Aristotle’s metaphysics, along with his work on defining logic and reason itself, represents a challenge to Plato’s belief, or faith as you might call it, that the underlying beauty of the world combined with the supremacy of Forms over the world of shadow as reflected by sensory perception as Plato describes in his Allegory of the Cave, is justification enough to establish the existence of an intelligent or divine creator, i.e. the demiurge or divine craftsman that Plato puts forth as the source of the kosmos.

In order to try and comprehend Aristotle’s cosmological or theological stance, you must not only comprehend his Category Theory, but also understand his causal framework for adequacy upon which his entire metaphysics rests.  It is this framework, sometimes referred to as his four-causal explanatory scheme[27], that he describes the basis for all of his explanations of reality, or perhaps more aptly put, all things that which are said to exist.  In other words, the existence of a thing, its substance, must be underpinned by his four-causal explanatory scheme in order to fully understand the attributes of a thing which exists.  Although this may appear to be a metaphysical nuance at first, in this causal framework rests Aristotle’s fundamental metaphysical building blocks upon which any theological or teleological interpretation of his work must be viewed.  He describes this causal framework quite explicitly in Physics:

One way in which cause is spoken of is that out of which a thing comes to be and which persists, e.g. the bronze of the statue, the silver of the bowl, and the genera of which the bronze and the silver are species.

In another way cause is spoken of as the form or the pattern, i.e. what is mentioned in the account (logos) belonging to the essence and its genera, e.g. the cause of an octave is a ratio of 2:1, or number more generally, as well as the parts mentioned in the account (logos).

Further, the primary source of the change and rest is spoken of as a cause, e.g. the man who deliberated is a cause, the father is the cause of the child, and generally the maker is the cause of what is made and what brings about change is a cause of what is changed.

Further, the end (telos) is spoken of as a cause. This is that for the sake of which (hou heneka) a thing is done, e.g. health is the cause of walking about. ‘Why is he walking about?’ We say: ‘To be healthy’— and, having said that, we think we have indicated the cause.[28]

From this we can gather that Aristotle’s causal metaphysical framework for reality is made up of four distinct but related causes, the second of which corresponds loosely to Plato’s Forms.

  1. the material cause of a thing or that from which a thing is made,
  2. the formal cause of a thing or the structure to which something is created (loosely corresponding to Plato’s idea of Forms or Ideas),
  3. the efficient cause of a thing which is the agent responsible for bringing something into being, and
  4. the final cause of a thing which represents the purpose by which a thing has come into existence.

Although it is open to debate whether or not Aristotle presupposes that all four causes must be present in order for a thing to exist (in fact in some cases he cites examples of which all four causes are not present but yet existence of said thing is still adequately explained[29]), this idea of a required efficient cause is unique to Aristotle relative to the philosophers that came before him and forms the basis upon which much of his theory of natural philosophy rests.  This efficient cause of Aristotle can also be seen as representing the connecting principle of Plato’s concept of Forms to Plato’s illusory realm of the senses, representing the expansion of Plato’s metaphysics as reflected in the Theory of Forms rather than a complete abandonment of it[30].

Aristotle does not however, go so far as Plato as to believe in the existence of some divine, intelligent creator as being the source from which humans, or souls even, are born.  It is clear however that from Aristotle’s point of view, there must be a final, or penultimate, cause in order to establish the firm existence of thing, or substance, in reality – at least in almost all cases.  The complexity and importance of this issue of final cause is not lost on Aristotle, and he addresses the specific case of the explanation of the final cause of the natural world specifically in a subsequent passage in Physics, resting on the notion of formal cause as basis enough for the justification of a final cause in nature, as circular an argument as this may seem.

This is most obvious in the case of animals other than man: they make things using neither craft nor on the basis of inquiry nor by deliberation. This is in fact a source of puzzlement for those who wonder whether it is by reason or by some other faculty that these creatures work—spiders, ants and the like. Advancing bit by bit in this same direction it becomes apparent that even in plants features conducive to an end occur—leaves, for example, grow in order to provide shade for the fruit. If then it is both by nature and for an end that the swallow makes its nest and the spider its web, and plants grow leaves for the sake of the fruit and send their roots down rather than up for the sake of nourishment, it is plain that this kind of cause is operative in things which come to be and are by nature. And since nature is twofold, as matter and as form, the form is the end, and since all other things are for sake of the end, the form must be the cause in the sense of that for the sake of which. (Phys. 199a20–32)[31]

Aristotle’s metaphysics, or view of reality, then for the most part built off of the platform established by Plato’s Theory of Forms or Ideas, but Aristotle looked at the objective world perceived by our senses as more of an integrated manifestation of substance and its related attributes, combined with the notion of the prerequisite of his four-causal theory rather than espousing the material world as distinct and separate from the world of Forms, or in fact less real than the world of Forms and Ideas, as Plato espoused.  This is a subtle distinction but an important one as what as what we find in subsequent philosophical and metaphysical systems after Aristotle (leaving aside theological and/or religious systems of belief as illustrated in Judaism, Christianity or Islam) is a departure of the conception of the world of the senses as simply a shadowy representation of true reality into a belief in the fundamental existence and reality of the objective world, the world of substance, a notion that has evolved into today what we might call materialism.  To take this one step further, Charlie looked at Aristotle’s metaphysical constructs and belief system as the first step toward the departure of a theological conception of the basis of reality in the Western world.

So as the Greek society recognized and affirmed the role of the philosopher in society, due in no small part to the contributions of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, the branch of thought known as philosophy, as seen separate and apart from theology and religion, was born.  And as this development occurred, the cosmological and mythological views of the ancients started to take a back seat to the more abstract constructs laid out by these ancient philosophers, leading at the very least to the introduction of a more rational and metaphysical foundation for theology and cosmology as well as providing a foundation for a more critical and scientific world-view as these new metaphysical frameworks started to become more widely accepted.

Reason, logic and mathematics then were all born at the same time as philosophy, and it required a civilization that allowed these ideas to reign freely, what we might call today freedom of speech, in order for these fields of knowledge and branches of thought to flourish and grow.  If we are to believe the accounts of Plato and Xenophon, and Charlie saw no reason not to, Socrates gave his life in order to demonstrate his firm belief in the supremacy of truth, knowledge, wisdom, virtue, and the rule of law, over one’s own personal belief systems or blind faith in the mythological and cosmological constructs that underpinned Greek authority and politics in his day.  With his execution then, and this was a critical step in the evolution of science from Charlie’s perspective, came the beginning of western man’s faith in the power of reason and mind over religious dogma and mythology.

So if we are to look for the birth of philosophy and metaphysics, and we are to believe Plato’s depiction of Socrates as reflected in the early dialogues of Plato, we must conclude that it is Socrates who established the supremacy of knowledge, truth and virtue over religion or theology, doctrines which had hitherto been questioned only at great peril.  Socrates died, again if we are to believe Plato’s account of these events, in order to establish this new world order, or at least to create an environment in which these abstract ideas and constructs could be more freely explored.

In Plato’s Apology, where Socrates defends himself against the charges of “corrupting the young, and by not believing in the gods in whom the city believes”[32], Socrates tries to explain the meaning of the Delphic Oracle’s anointment of him as the most wise man in Athens, as well as explain the lengths to which he will go to establish the supremacy of wisdom over blind religious dogma.

This investigation has led to my having many enemies of the worst and most dangerous kind, and has given occasion also to many calumnies, and I am called wise, for my hearers always imagine that I myself possess the wisdom which I find wanting in others: but the truth is, O men of Athens, that god [theos] only is wise; and in this oracle he means to say that the wisdom of men is little or nothing; he is not speaking of Socrates, he is only using my name as an illustration, as if he said, He, O men, is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing. And so I go my way, obedient to the god, and make inquisition into the wisdom of anyone, whether citizen or stranger, who appears to be wise; and if he is not wise, then in vindication of the oracle I show him that he is not wise; and this occupation quite absorbs me, and I have no time to give either to any public matter of interest or to any concern of my own, but I am in utter poverty by reason of my devotion to the god.[33] 

It was Plato then who carried on this tradition began by Socrates into the search for wisdom and truth for their own sake.  Plato’s Academy was founded to train men in this art of the pursuit of knowledge, and teach its students the means by which these lofty ideals could be ascertained, as illustrated in his dialogues, all of which challenged the reader to look at various points of view of a certain topic or idea, and come to their own conclusions about the truth or what was right.  Plato’s emphasis on dialectic, a rational tool that even Aristotle did not abandon, represented the cornerstone of Plato’s teachings from Charlie’s perspective, for it implied that reason and logic were more relevant and more important when trying to ascertain wisdom or truth.  And it was within this framework of dialogue within which he presented his readers and students his metaphysical world view and its loosely coupled philosophical foundation, namely his Theory of Forms and his belief in the existence of some type of anthropomorphic God, not as indisputable facts of reality but as theses and hypotheses that were to be analyzed, thought through and molded by later students of his work.

It was Aristotle however, who spent decades learning from Plato and others in the Academy which Plato founded, who expounded upon Plato’s thin metaphysical framework and created a much richer and fleshed out rational foundation to describe the world around us, or that which could be considered real, along with the rational and mathematical building blocks with which the all subsequent branches of knowledge were to be constructed upon in the centuries to follow.  And even though Aristotle’s theological beliefs are not explicitly stated anywhere in his work, it is safe to say that he does not anywhere put forth any specific theological stance or dogma, the absence of which could only have been by design.  Furthermore, it is not too big of a leap of faith to state that Aristotle’s theology, or his faith if you will, rested in reason itself as the instrument from which truth and knowledge can be born.


[1] Note that in the Greek, there is no direct translation of the English monotheistic conception of God.  Deus in Latin is the original etymological construct from which God originated.

[2] The delineation of a priesthood class survives to this day even in Hindu society, namely the Brahmin class of the Hindu caste system, albeit it in a less formal and strict form given the democratic form of government.  See https://snowconenyc.com/2012/07/25/ancient-sumerian-cosmology-order-out-of-chaos/ for a look at Sumer-Babylonian ties between cosmological beliefs and authority and https://snowconenyc.com/2012/07/21/the-cosmology-of-the-egyptians-religion-and-power/ for a review of the connection between the priestly class of the Egyptians, namely the pharaohs, and their cosmological or religious system of beliefs.

[3] From CiceroTusculan Disputations, 5.3.8–9.

[4] Sophists were known for teaching debate and rhetoric along with what we would consider today to be philosophy in exchange for money, and therefore eventually became associated with the bending of truth and argument for political or other personal gain: hence the modern day definition of sophism which implies the use of argument with some level of underlying deceit and cunning.  Although Socrates was reputed to have been taught by several sophists, he later shunned their methods as exclusive and unethical.  Prominent Sophists in Ancient Greece include Protagoras (490-420 BCE) from Abdera in Thrace, Gorgias (487-376 BCE) from Leontini in Sicily, Hippias (485-415 BCE) from Elis in the Peloponnesos, and Prodicus (465-390 BCE) from the island of Ceos.

[5] Although you could argue that the notion that all of reality was related to and underpinned by mathematics and numbers was first propagated by Pythagoras, given his place in history and the lack of first-hand accounts regarding his theological and philosophical teachings however, there is not much direct evidence that points to this as an immutable fact.  It is safe to say assume however, citing references to Pythagoras by Plato and Aristotle among others, that many of his ideas influenced Socrates and in turn Plato and therefore through Pythagoras has had at the very least an indirect influence on the development of reason and science in Western civilization.

[6] References to these pre-Socratic philosophers and their work comes from the extant literature of of AristotlePlutarchDiogenes LaërtiusStobaeus and Simplicius, as well as from early theologians, especially Clement of Alexandria and Hippolytus of Rome.

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

[8] Socrates plays a significant role in Aristophanes Clouds, a satirical play of the sophist and philosophical traditions of late 5th century BC Athens.  He is primarily depicted as a bit of a buffoon in the play, but if nothing else it reflects the broad cultural and socio-political impact that the philosophical and sophist traditions of his day, Socrates and Plato reflecting the most prominent school, and therefore the easiest targets to be made light of.

[9] Plato lived and wrote in the latter part of the 4th and early part of the third century BC (circa 424 to 327 BC), and in his later life founded the Academy of Athens, the first known institution of higher learning in the Western world that persisted until the beginning of the first century BC, the same Academy from which Aristotle was schooled.  Thirty-six dialogues have been ascribed to Plato, and they cover a range of topics such as love, virtue, ethics, and the role of the philosopher in society.

[10] The Republic (GreekΠολιτείαPoliteia) is a Socratic dialogue written by Plato around 380 BC concerning the definition of justice and the order and character of the just city-state and the just man.  The work’s date has been much debated but is generally accepted to have been authored sometime during the Peloponnesian War which took place between Athens and Sparta at the end of the 5th century BC (circa 431 to 404 BC).  The Republic is arguably Plato’s best-known work and has proven to be one of the most intellectually and historically influential works of philosophy and political theory since the dawn of civilized man.  See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Republic_(Plato) for more detail.

[11] The Politics of Aristotle, trans. Benjamin Jowett (London: Colonial Press, 1900).

[12] A. N. Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 39

[13] Dialectic is a form of intellectual pursuit and authorship reflected in a dialogue between two or more persons where various positions on the topic in question are posited and rationally expounded upon, a yielding of the truth via reason and logic where both sides of an argument are explored and stood behind by individuals, be they fictitious or real persons.  This is the basic structure of Plato’s Socratic Dialogues, a selection of works authored by Plato and Xenophon, the other prominent disciple of Socrates, being so categorized because Socrates is a characterized in the work not due to the content of the dialogues themselves.

[14] The exception to this would be Plato’s Apology which by all accounts is Plato’s attempt to describe the actual events of Socrates trial and Socrates’s actual defense and to a lesser extent the Crito which is Plato’s description of the final conversation between Crito and Socrates concerning justice where Crito attempts to convince Socrates, unsuccessfully, that he should flee his cell and Athens to avoid his impending execution.

[15] PlatoThe Republic, Book 6, translated by Benjamin Jowett.

[16] Also sometimes referred to as the Analogy of the Cave, Plato’s Cave, or the Parable of the Cave.

[17] In its simplest interpretation, the allegory of the cave can be viewed as outlining and defining Plato’s belief in the supremacy of forms or ideas over knowledge derived from sensory perception or the material world, i.e. his theory of forms[17], and 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.

[18] Benjamin Jowett translation.  From http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/timaeus.html.

[19] For a more comprehensive look at the Plato’s Timaeus and its import, see the Stanford Encyclopedia entry, Plato’s Timaeus, which can be found at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/plato-timaeus/.

[20] Aristotle is known to have been Alexander’s tutor for at least two years, from when Alexander was 13 to 15, but then Alexander was commissioned to the Macedonian army and therefore any later influence by Aristotle is brought into question.

[21] The branch of philosophy called Epistemology stems from the same root as epistêmai, i.e. meaning “knowledge” or “understanding” combined with logos, meaning “study of”.  This field of study is concerned with the nature and scope of knowledge itself, and arguably is the best description of Aristotle’s work in toto.  Epistemology questions what knowledge is, how it is acquired, and to what extent it is possible for a given subject or entity to be known.  The term was introduced by the Scottish philosopher James Frederick Ferrier (1808–1864) and the field is sometimes referred to as the theory of knowledge.  See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epistemology for more details.

[22] ‘Prior to the modern history of science, scientific questions were addressed as a part of metaphysics known as natural philosophy. The term science itself meant “knowledge” of, originating from epistemology.  The scientific method, however, transformed natural philosophy into an empirical activity deriving from experiment unlike the rest of philosophy.  By the end of the 18th century, it had begun to be called “science” to distinguish it from philosophy.  Thereafter, metaphysics denoted philosophical enquiry of a non-empirical character into the nature of existence.  Some philosophers of science, such as the neo-positivists, say that natural science rejects the study of metaphysics, while other philosophers of science strongly disagree.’  From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metaphysics.

[23] There are a variety of ways to categorize Aristotle’s extant works but this categorization seems most intuitive and is taken from the Standard Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Aristotle.

[24] Note that despite the critical role that Aristotle’s Category Theory plays in his metaphysics and world view, he does not anywhere describe the rational foundation as to why the world should be broken up into the ten categories that outlines.  This of course leaves much of his metaphysics open to criticism by later scholars and interpreters of his work given the lack of rational underpinning for such a critical metaphysical construct that permeates virtually all of his extant literature.

[25] From Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ousia.

[26] A classic Judeo-Christian example of this transliteration problem can be found in the Gospel According to John, or simply John, the fourth of the Canonical Gospels of the New Testament and the Gospel unique to the other three Synoptic Gospels in many respects.  The oldest extant examples of the John were authored in Greek, and in particular the opening verse which is classically translated into English as “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

[27] As outlined in the Standard Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s interpretation of Aristotle’s work in Aristotle, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle/.

[28] Physics 194b23–35 as taken from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Aristotle at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle/.

[29] See Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Aristotle at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle/ pages 41-43 for a more detailed description of Aristotle’s view on the necessary and sufficient attributes of his four causal theory.

[30] It is however, very clear that Aristotle most definitely deviates from Plato’s view that the world of Forms is real and the world of the senses is simply illusory, which does in fact represent a significant divergence from Plato in his world view of reality akin to the dualistic view of reality in the Vedic philosophical tradition.

[31] From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Aristotle.   Found at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle/.

[32] Plato’s Apology (24b).  Apology in this context coming from the Greek meaning “defense” or “explanation”.

[33] From Plato’s Apology.  Jowett’s translation at http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/apology.html.

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