Theology Reconsidered: An Introduction

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

 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


[1] See Plato, Letters.  Letter 7, aka Seventh Letter 341c – 341d.  From Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 7 translated by R.G. Bury. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1966.  See http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0164%3Aletter%3D7%3Asection%3D341c.  While the actual authenticity of the letter by Plato is debated by scholars it does for the most part reflect the writing style and philosophy as presented by Plato from the author’s perspective and so while perhaps not written by Plato’s hand, still nonetheless seems to accurately represent something akin to what Plato would write, specifically with respect to the specific part of the work cited herein.

[2] The Psychology of peak performance was spear headed in the Nick Bollettieri Academy in the 70s and 80s by the now well renowned and prolific Dr. Jim Loehr, now founder and Chairman of the Human Performance Institute.  See https://www.jjhpi.com/why-hpi/our-people/dr-jim-loehr.

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

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

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

[6] The original paper by the author regarding the similarities between Pythagorean philosophy and the Yijing is entitled “Numerology and Arithmology in Pythagorean Philosophy and the Yijing”, published in 2016 and can be found at https://www.academia.edu/27439070/Numerology_and_Arithmology_in_Pythagorean_Philosophy_and_the_Yijing.

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

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

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

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

[11] See https://www.ramakrishna.org/ for information regarding the Rāmakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York.

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

Plato’s Metaphysics: Being and Becoming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pythagoras and Plato: From the One to Many

Philosophy to the Greeks not only helped them understand the cosmos, creation and destruction of the universe and the essence of the natural world, but also the harmony within which we as individuals should lead our lives, and in turn – as described by subsequent philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle and others – how the pursuit of excellence and harmonious virtue in our own individual lives corresponded to and aligned with a greater social good within which society as a whole could be organized.

In order to find this source of this “closed” view of the West, this almost obsession to break things apart and drill further and further into the constituent components of a thing until once can literally go no further, one needs to reach back to the beginning of development of thought, and language, in the West. To the ancient Greeks who laid down the intellectual foundations – linguistic, metaphysical and otherwise – that we have inherited in the West through language and culture down through the ages.

 

Pythagorean Philosophy as Expressed in the Tetractys

One can look at the beginning of this “bound” and “closed” systemic view of the world as having its roots in Pythagorean philosophy, a philosophy that as we understand it rested on the harmony and eternal co-existence of numbers and their relationship to each other, forming the underlying ground of all existence. It is from the Pythagorean tradition as we understand it, that Plato’s fascination with geometry – as reflected most readily in perhaps his most lasting and influential dialogues the Timaeus – was founded.

Pythagoras (c. 570 – c. 495 BCE) , or Pythagoras of Samos as he is sometimes referred to as, was born at the beginning of the 6th century BCE reportedly on the island of Samos in the Aegean Sea. While we don’t have any of his writings directly he was widely regarded as one of the most influential Ionian philosophers in antiquity and his views and beliefs greatly influenced the later philosophical schools of Plato and Aristotle among others. He is believed to have traveled widely throughout the Mediterranean in his youth, studying with the Egyptians, the Chaldeans and Magi, and even the Hebrews according to later biographers and interpreters of his school.

The Pythagorean school was known primarily for their obsession with, their identification with a complex and yet straightforward geometric symbol known as the tetractys – an equilateral triangle. The tetractys represented the core tenet of Pythagorean thought as understood by outsiders and later philosophical schools which either criticized and/or adopted some of its core principles, Plato being the prime example. The symbol, no matter how it is interpreted, represents the harmony of numerical order and relationships, and of course the underlying symmetry and geometry of the equilateral triangle, as reflected in the universe as a whole, the underlying symmetry and harmony of musical theory, and the underlying (or overarching depending upon your perspective) principle that sheds light on the comprehension of the universal order and in turn mankind’s place within it.

The Tetractys symbol is a perfect triangle of sorts that is classically viewed as a base of 4 equidistant points, on top of which a layer of three, then two and then at the top 1 point rested, altogether creating a perfect equilateral triangle with a base of 4 and a total of 10 total points in the system.

 

While there are a variety of ways to interpret the meaning of this geometric structure and how the Pythagoreans themselves understood it (no works from Pythagoras or his direct followers are extant), most later philosophers imposed a metaphysical transliteration of this geometric structure, applying some Neo-Platonic (actually Middle Platonic which integrated both Pythagorean/Italian philosophical elements with Peripatetic – Aristotelian concepts) principles onto the system, and looked at it as representing the cosmological world order.

At a very basic level of interpretation we have the top point of the triangle as the Monad, or the grand unifying principle from which the entire cosmos emanates, the next layer representing the Dyad or the grand opposing forces of nature within which the natural world comes into being, the third layer represents the great Triad of principles which culminates in later Hellenic philosophical development as the One, the Intellect and the Soul, and then at the base the Tetrad, or foundation of the world as represented by the four basic elements that the ancient Greek believed underpinned the entire physical world – earth, air, water and fire.

This geometric figure, along with the numerical and arithmological attributes associated with it, represented the finest layer of abstraction, the best explanation, of the underlying structure and order of the universe. The cosmos seen as having a beginning from the vast void comes forth, explained in the Judaic mythological tradition as “the spirit moving against the waters”, where the the One begets Two, and the Two beget Three the great Triad, and the Three rests on the foundation of the Tetrad (Four).

We can see this type of worldview all throughout the Mediterranean in antiquity in all the great schools of thought be they primarily philosophical or again theological. The foundational basis of the cosmos and its relationship to number and geometry was no doubt adopted by Plato from the Pythagoreans – “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter here” was said was to be inscribed on the Academy at its entrance. While Plato’s philosophical system was broad and far reaching as reflected in his dialogues, it is in the Timaeus where we find his cosmological world view put forth and geometry, and the tetrahedron specifically, came to represent one of the core foundational building blocks of the known universe.

 

Philo’s Exegesis of the Fourth Day of Creation in Genesis

While we again do not have direct sources of the underlying meaning and explanation of this geometric symbol according to the Pythagoreans themselves, we do have later interpretations of the symbol and its underlying meaning from later Hellenic philosophers. One of the best sources of this material is Philo Judaeus (c. 25 BCE – c. 50 CE), or Philo of Alexandria, who lived and wrote in the first century CE in Ptolemaic Egypt. Philo was first and foremost a Jewish scholar, but he was trained in the Hellenic philosophical tradition and read and wrote in ancient Greek, the lingua franca from the Mediterranean in antiquity prior to the prevalence of Latin as advanced by the Roman Empire.

Embedded in Philo’s extensive analysis and “allegorical” interpretations of the five books of Moses from Hebrew Bible, or Pentateuch (πεντάτευχος in Greek or literally “five scrolls”) , specifically in perhaps his most influential work which was a commentary on the beginning of Genesis entitled De Opificio Mundi, or On the Creation of the World, we find a fairly extensive description of the symbolic figure in his explanation of the establishment of the heavenly bodies on the fourth day, the text of which is quoted below :

14 And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years:
15 And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so.
16 And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also.
17 And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth,
18 And to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good.
19 And the evening and the morning were the fourth day.

This passage, which describes the creation of the Sun, Moon and Stars by God (Yahweh) on the fourth day of creation is interpreted by Philo from an intrinsically Hellenic philosophical perspective, and in particular Pythagorean, as he interprets these heavenly bodies and their importance in the theo-philosophical traditions of antiquity as representing the establishment, and ultimate representation, of time and order underlying the universe.

In his explanation of this part of Genesis, in particular on day Four of creation, Philo lays out the understanding of the importance of the number 4 within the context of the Hellenic philosophical tradition, a tradition marked quite clearly – at least from a numerological and arithmetic standpoint – by Pythagorean philosophy as embedded in the tetractys even though he does not specifically allude to the tetractys.

But the heaven was afterwards duly decked in a perfect number, namely four. This number it would be no error to call the base and source of 10, the complete number; for what 10 is actually, this, as is evident, 4 is potentially; that is to say that, if the numbers from 1 to 4 be added together, they will produce 10, and this is the limit set to the otherwise unlimited succession of numbers; round this as a turning-point they wheel and retrace their steps.

Philo describes the underlying perfection, or completeness, implied by the number Four as viewed within the context of the number Ten which he calls the most “complete” or “perfect” number (the sum of the four layers of the tetractys – 1 + 2 + 3 + 4) within classically Aristotelian terms of potentiality (4) and actuality (10). He also describes the sense of motion, or cyclical nature implied by this number 4, which actuates to the number 10, as a “turning point” and “wheel”, alluding to the base 10 that was used by the Greeks for counting and within which after the number 10 one begins to “count again”, starting with 11, 12 and so on.

He also describes the number Four as embedding within it three dimensional space, making it the perfect day (symbolically speaking of course) within which God should establish the foundations of the Heavens within which the world of man was thought to be governed in antiquity, and speaking to the importance the field of geometry held to the ancients, a tradition that became the hallmark of the West.

There is also another property of the number 4 very marvelous to state and to contemplate with the mind. For this number was the first to show the nature of the solid, the numbers before it referring to things without actual substance. For under the head of 1 what is called in geometry a point falls, under that of 2 a line. For if 1 extend itself, 2 is formed, and if a point extend itself, a line is formed: and a line is length without breadth; if breadth be added, there results a surface, which comes under the category of 3: to bring it to a solid surface needs one thing, depth, and the addition of this to 3 produces 4. The result of all this is that this number is a thing of vast importance. It was this number that has led us out of the realm of incorporeal existence patent only to the intellect, and has introduced us to the conception of a body of three dimensions, which by its nature first comes within the range of our senses.

And lastly, in reference to the four elements, and four seasons upon which the ground and order of human existence ultimately rests, Philo concludes with the following summation:

There are several other powers of which 4 has the command, which we shall have to point out in fuller detail in the special treatise devoted to it. Suffice it to add just this, that 4 was made the starting-point of the creation of heaven and the world; for the four elements, out of which this universe was fashioned, issued, as it were from a fountain, from the numeral 4; and, beside this, so also did the four seasons of the year, which are responsible for the coming into being of animals and plants, the year having a fourfold division into winter and spring and summer and autumn.

 

Porphyry: On the Life of Pythagoras

Another source of Pythagorean philosophy in antiquity is through the works of Porphyry (c. 234 – c. 305) and Iamblichus (c. 245 – c. 325 CE) who were contemporaries in 3rd century CE antiquity and who both wrote biographies of Pythagoras, who by that time had become a pseudo mythical figure. It is from Porphyry that we find the reference that it was Pythagoras who created and “would swear by” the Tetractys, what Porphyry referred to as the “eternal Nature’s fountain spring”.

Within Porphyry’s biography, he describes the fascination of the Pythagoreans with numbers, arithmology, and ultimately geometry thus:

49. As the geometricians cannot express incorporeal forms in words, and have recourse to the descriptions of figures, as that is a triangle, and yet do not mean that the actually seen lines are the triangle, but only what they represent, the knowledge in the mind, so the Pythagoreans used the same objective method in respect to first reasons and forms. As these incorporeal forms and first principles could not be expressed in words, they had recourse to demonstration by numbers. Number one [Monad] denoted to them the reason of Unity, Identity, Equality, the purpose of friendship, sympathy, and conservation of the Universe, which results from persistence in Sameness. For unity in the details harmonizes all the parts of a whole, as by the participation of the First Cause.
50. Number two, or Duad [Dyad], signifies the two-fold reason of diversity and inequality, of everything that is divisible, or mutable, existing at one time in one way, and at another time in another way. After all these methods were not confined to the Pythagoreans, being used by other philosophers to denote unitive powers, which contain all things in the universe, among which are certain reasons of equality, dissimilitude and diversity. These reasons are what they meant by the terms Monad and Duad, or by the words uniform, biform, or diversiform.

Here we see not only an explanation of the underlying geometrical formation of the Tetractys in terms of Platonic Forms, reflecting the underlying sentiment of the period that geometry and numbers are the best and most profound way to describe elemental reality, but also an explanation of the principles of the Monad (the One) and the Dyad (the Two) as the basic archaic elements of the universe from which all numbers, all of reality really, ultimately originates and emanates from.

Porphyry goes on to describe the meaning of the Triad, and in turn the Decad (Ten), which is formed from 1 + 2 + 3 + 4, the four layers of the Tetractys, and underpins the Pythagorean philosophical system which reflected in the Tetractys thus:

51. The same reasons apply to their use of other numbers, which were ranked according to certain powers. Things that had a beginning, middle and end, they denoted by the number Three, saying that anything that has a middle is triform, which was applied to every perfect thing. They said that if anything was perfect it would make use of this principle and be adorned, according to it; and as they had no other name for it, they invented the form Triad; and whenever they tried to bring us to the knowledge of what is perfect they led us to that by the form of this Triad. So also with the other numbers, which were ranked according to the same reasons.
52. All other things were comprehended under a single form and power which they called Decad [10], explaining it by a pun as decad, meaning comprehension. That is why they called Ten a perfect number, the most perfect of all as comprehending all difference of numbers, reasons, species and proportions. For if the nature of the universe be defined according to the reasons and proportions of members, and if that which is produced, increased and perfected, proceed according to the reason of numbers; and since the Decad comprehends every reason of numbers, every proportion, and every species, why should Nature herself not be denoted by the most perfect number, Ten? Such was the use of numbers among the Pythagoreans.

Here we see the direct metaphysical link drawn between Nature and Number, Ten being the reflection of the most perfect of numbers, upon which – to use Philo’s analogy – the (metaphysical) world turns. We also here can see the source of the Trinity, not in terms of the language and words that are used to describe it as defined by the early Church Fathers, but the underlying potency and perfection of the Triad as a symbolic representation of that which is most holy.

 

Conclusion

So with Philo and Porphyry, both of whom undoubtedly had access to knowledge regarding the Pythagorean philosophical school and their obsession with the tetractys that has subsequently been lost (even though later scholars indicate that his teachings were incorporated into those of the Hellenic philosophical tradition that followed), we find a full and complete explanation of the numerology and arithmology embedded in the Pythagorean philosophical system as manifest in the tetractys, a system which ultimately bounds the spatial dimensions of the material universe within it and from it, as well as enclosing it as it were with a beginning and an end as represented by the underlying numerology, arithmology, and geometry of the figure itself which represented to the ancient philosophers the best possible representation of the inherent cosmological world order.

Aristotle and Democritus: Knowledge and the Atom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hellenistic Theo-Philosophy: Sowing the Seeds of Christianity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[19] Philo, Legum Allegorium 1.329.

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

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

[22] Philo, De Opificio Mund, 25.

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