Plato’s Metaphysics: Being and Becoming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The thing that can be thought and that for the sake of which the thought exists is the same; for you cannot find thought without something that is, as to which it is uttered.  And there is not, and never shall be, anything besides what is, since fate has chained it so as to be whole and immovable.  Wherefore all these things are but names which mortals have given, believing them to be true—coming into being and passing away, being and not being, change of place and alteration of bright color.  [R. P. 119].[7]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parmenides of Elea: What Is Versus What is Not

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


The thing that can be thought and that for the sake of which the thought exists is the same; for you cannot find thought without something that is, as to which it is uttered.   And there is not, and never shall be, anything besides what is, since fate has chained it so as to be whole and immovable. Wherefore all these things are but names which mortals have given, believing them to be true—coming into being and passing away, being and not being, change of place and alteration of bright colour. R. P. 119.

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fisherman and the Net: Geometric Symbolism in the Gospel of John (II of II)

The full geometric symbol of the Jesus and fish catching parable from left to right with the Net consisting of two tetraktys, 16 (17) squares in all, each of which is 153 in width and in total each, 612 in length for each side (the gematria value for Zeus)

The full geometric symbol of the Jesus and fish catching parable from left to right with the Net consisting of two tetraktys, 16 (17) squares in all, each of which is 153 in width and in total each, 612 in length for each side (the gematria value for Zeus)


What we’re left with if we are to believe this geometric formulation of the miraculous tale of Jesus and the fishes with his seven disciples in the Sea of Galilee in the Gospel of John is a geometric figure – if transposed from top to bottom rather than left to right is one which the inner circle represents the boat and includes circles of circumference of 1925 (gematria value of “Simon Peter”) representing each of the seven disciples, with Simon Peter being in the central location of the seven disciples within the circular boat, the boat itself having a diameter of 1224 which is the gematria value of “Fishes” and “The Net”, and a radius of 612  which is the gematria value of “Zeus”.  The net, again cast to the right of the boat by the disciples for the catching of fish and represented by another vesica piscis with a width of 612 and a height of 1060.  Furthermore, each of the rhombus squares within the net have a width of 153, there are 17 rhombuses in total (including the encompassing rhombus), and the numbers 1-17 when added together also equal 153.  The perimeter of the net in its entirety is 2448, or 153 x 4 x 4.

The final geometric construct has a top portion whose dimensions are determined by the gematria value of the gematria value for “The Fisherman’s Coat” (1060 again) as well as the gematria value of “Simon Peter” (1925).  This figure rests above the circle representing the disciples in the boat whose dimensions again are determined by the gematria value of “Simon Peter” (1925).  The final figure, now at the bottom of the figure, representing the net that was cast by the disciples to the side of the boat, contains a vesica piscis shape precisely equivalent to the one that contains Peter’s coat at the (now) top of our figure, the net having a perimeter of 2448 and consisting of 16 rhombus squares, each 153 in width, and whose vesica piscis width is 612, the gematria value for “Zeus”.


Geometric Transliteration of the tale of Jesus and the miraculous catch of 153 fish showing the three distinct and yet related perspectives on reality of which the Soul, via the Logos, bridges the two to provide for the ascent of the Soul into the upper realms.

Geometric Transliteration of the tale of Jesus and the miraculous catch of 153 fish showing the three distinct and yet related perspectives on reality of which the Soul, via the Logos, bridges the two to provide for the ascent of the Soul into the upper realms.

Here the inner circle includes the seven disciples with the boat, where each inner circle has a circumference of 1925 (“Simon Peter” gematria value), the diameter of the overall circle representing the boat having a value of 1224 (gematria value of “Fishes” and “The Net”) a radius of 612 (the gematria value of “Zeus”), with the net itself having a width of 612 as well and therefore a height of 1060, again closely related to the gematria values for both “Apollo” and “Pleroma” which is calculated using the square root of 3, of which 153 is an important factor as established quite clearly by Archimedes, and where each of the rhombus squares within the net are 153 in width and where the perimeter of the net in its entirety is 153x4x4 or 2448.

The final geometric construct, in our diagram placed on top of the whole figure, is sized by the gematria value of Peter’s coat (1060 again) and is placed precisely above the circle representing the disciples consistent with the circle representing the net below the disciples boat, with a vesica piscis shape exactly like the one that contains the net below the circle representing the boat, and containing within it a circle of diameter 612 and cut in half by presumably Peter’s coat, resembling the setting Sun, again a significant symbol in the mystery and esoteric traditions that flourished in classical Greek antiquity.

Leaving aside for a moment skepticism that might arise from the construction of this geometric diagram simply from the number 153 combined with the gematria values of some key terms in the language itself from which the shape is constructed, one must keep in mind that the Gospel of John more so than any other Gospel, is the one that contains the most explicit references to the Greek philosophical tradition that preceded it, most notably with its reliance on the Logos as a primordial construct from which the universe first emanates and which is associated with Jesus himself as the Logos incarnate in the world of man.


But the symbology of the geometry embedded in the story is not finished yet however, for there is a whole other level of geometric values and relationships that can be drawn out of the diagram if you extend it a bit further.  Drawing on metaphysical theories of a divine triad which reflected the complete cosmic world order and specifically mankind’s place in it, once can view the top most circle – the one representing Peter – as representing the ultimate reality, the One of the Neo-Platonist tradition which had begun to take shape at around the same time that New Testament canon was established – most notably with Plotinus, Porphyry, Iamblichus and Proclus who although were not Christians, still were able to flourish before the pagan traditions were wiped out as the Christian orthodox Church consolidated power.

In this extrapolation of the cosmology embedded in Plato’s Timaeus, and in a tradition that synthesized not only Stoic principles but also Peripatetic (Aristotle) philosophy, the Monad, Dyad and Triad of the Pythagoreans had evolved to reflect the indivisible One from which all of creation emerged, the divine Intellect, or Mind which albeit a reflection of the One was the source of the Dyad, or the multiplicity that was found in the material universe, and then the Soul which was contained attributes of both, both divine and sensual, the goal of life being the ascent of the Soul into the realm of the Good, the abode of intelligibles of Forms, until ultimately a union of the Soul with the Demiurge was possible, consistent with the mystery traditions of Greece, and Egypt, which came before them.

In this sacred geometry than can be gleaned from the parable of Jesus and his disciples and the miraculous catching of the 153 fish, the bottom-most geometric figure which constructed from the gematria values of “Fishes” and “The Net” represents the material world to which our bodies are bound, via the metaphor of the Net, which requires grace, or in this case the messiah Jesus Christ (the Logos in the flesh to the early Christian communities), to release us from this bondage.  The message of the symbology is then that through the belief and faith in Christ and his teachings, as reflected in the middle tier of circles representing the disciples of Jesus who carried forth his message, that this transition from the material world to the spiritual world could in fact be realized.

The connection between Jesus and the Temple at Delphi and Apollo is further crystallized by the fact that if you draw a full circle around the entire diagram, all three circles symbolizing the disciples in the boat, the net and fish, and Simon Peter, the circumference of the circle itself is 7690, 769 being the gematria value of “Pythios”, the holy name for Apollo at the Temple of Delphi.  In this larger geometric symbology, the connection between Jesus the new savior and the Temple at Delphi and Apollo, the historically most significant religious center in the ancient Hellenic world, is born out by the fact that if you draw a full circle around the entire diagram – all three circles symbolizing the disciples in the boat, the net and fish, and Simon Peter – the circumference of said circle is 7690, 769 being the gematria value of “Pythios”, the holy name for Apollo at the Temple of Delphi.


Full view of the geometric form of reality encoded in the parable if the miraculous fish story in John which derives the ultimate connection of the three realms with the Temple of Delhi, namely Pythios whose gematria value of 769 is the circumference of the all-encompassing circle.

Full view of the geometric form of reality encoded in the parable if the miraculous fish story in John which derives the ultimate connection of the three realms with the Temple of Delhi, namely Pythios whose gematria value of 769 is the circumference of the all-encompassing circle.

Furthermore, the underlying mathematics that illustrate this divine triad can also be seen by starting with a square with width of one side of a square with equal to 1, representing God the Father of the Christian and the One of the Neo-Platonists.  The diagonal line within this square where each side is again of width 1 is equal to the square root of 2, or 1.415 – the approximate gematria value for “The God Apollo” (1415).  This level of reality is represented by the Nous, or Intellect of the Neo-Platonic triad, the Logos of the Hellenic philosophical which is referred to directly in in John 1, representing the intermediary principle that facilitates and mediates the divine/spiritual and material worlds.  And then the material world, Plato’s World Soul, represented by the Net, or the Holy Spirit in the Christian tradition represented by the height of the vesica piscis that is constructed with a width of the square root of 2, the diagonal of our initial square with each side having a length of 1.  The height of this final vesica piscis is equivalent to the square root of 2 x the square root of three.

The identification of the One which corresponds to the upper portion of the geometric figure which is constructed above with the side of a perfect square, the identification of the bridge between the one and the many (the Logos) as the diagonal within the perfect square whose value is equivalent to the square root of two – 1.415 roughly equivalent to the gematria value of “The God Apollo” which is 1415 – and then the height of a vesica piscis which is constructed from the same dimension of the perfect square whose diagonal is the same width as the vesica piscis from which can be derived the height of the vesica which yields the square root of two times the square root of three, or 2.448, the perimeter of the net in the geometrical symbology above which again is the gematria equivalent to “Fishes” and “The Net” in the story as related in the Gospel of John, a value and shape (of the net) which not surprisingly he equates to Plato’s World Soul.

In its essential mathematical form then, the parable of the story of Jesus and the miraculous catching of fish by his disciples after he is resurrected can be boiled down to the symbolic representation of the three fold view of reality which was prevalent in esoteric and mystical traditions in the Hellenic world at the time of Christ, starting with a square of sides of 1, corresponding to the Neo-Platonic One and underlying unity of all creation (God the Father), the square root of 2 which is the geometric mean between 1 and 2 (the Monad and Dyad respectively) which in the Greek world was symbolized by Apollo (“The God Apollo” gematria value of 1415), the mediator between the heavenly and earthly worlds presiding over the Temple of Delphi, and then lastly Plato’s World Soul, the “Net” of material reality to which we are all bound denoted by the number 2448 (gematria value of “Fishes” and “The Net”) which is almost precisely equivalent to the square root of two times the square root of three (actually 2.448) and represents the height of the vesica piscis which encompasses the net whose width is equal to the diagonal length of the square with sides of 1 (square root of 2).

These Neo-Platonic esoteric elements can be mapped directly to the Christian theological doctrine of the Trinity, where the One of the Neo-Platonists corresponds to the Father of the Christian, the net of the World Soul corresponds to the Holy Spirit which manifests in the material, sensory world, and the Son of God – Jesus – as the mediator between the two worlds, the Logos of the Hellenic tradition who is manifest in the flesh for the salvation of mankind.  Note that this connection to this Greek philosophical tradition and to the Logos doctrine specifically is called out in the opening verse of the Gospel of John itself – “In the beginning was the Word [logos], and the Word [logos] was with God and God was the Word (logos)”[1].  This Logos construct in many respects represents the penultimate theological bridge between the divine and material worlds in the synthesized and most evolved form of the Greek philosophical tradition, at least how it was absorbed and adopted by the early Christian theologians (and Gnostics).  In the Neo-Platonic tradition which continued to evolve somewhat independently of early Christianity, it was referred to as Nous, or the divine Intellect, but the concept was the same – it was the means by which the supernatural could become materially manifest, implying order and reason behind the construction itself and at the same time not being an independent force as it were but one which was metaphysically equivalent with its ontological parent, the One, as well as its ontological child, the (World) Soul[2].

It is not inconceivable then, especially given the first marginalization and then later persecution of the Gnostic sects which attempted to bridge the Hellenistic philosophical doctrine with the interpretation of the meaning of Christ and his message, that the authors of this particular Gospel would try and encode the esoteric and symbolic messages that had been passed down through Pythagoras, Plato and then others within the text itself, burying the meanings in hidden relationships in a story and parable, related to fish of course, that all of the followers of Christianity could glean something from, while at the same time glorifying Jesus as one who was raised from the dead and as a performer of miracles.



[1] Translation directly from the Greek, i.e. literal translation taken from

[2] This triad, in both the Neo-Platonic tradition as well as in the early formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity, were described as being of one substance, or of one underlying essence, where three hypostases in one ousia (substance or essence) came to be accepted as the standard and orthodox position regarding the Trinity in early Christianity.  See

As Easy as One, Two, Three

Numbers are an interesting thing really
One could, elementarily (both figuratively and definitively)
Break down the Western and Eastern ways of thinking
Into as easy as 1, 2, 3 – A, B, C

Pythagoras starts with the Monad,
From which the great dichotomy arises
These are the great forces of Yin (female, receptive)
And Yang (male, creative) of the East
The worlds of Heaven and Earth
The Darkness and the Light

But it is just as telling as to what is missing
As what is part of these ancient systems
No Monad exists in the East
From which the two archetypical forces emerge
While our Western tradition (Judeo-Christian)
Speaks of a great and benign spirit
That breathes life onto and throughout
The watery abyss (Apsu of the Egyptians)

This Monad became our God
And closed the universal boundaries with it
From One to Two
And to Two a third Force was added
To give us the Holy Trinity
The Greek Logos
Universal Mind – Nous
An underlying world order
The Maat of the Egyptians
Plato’s Good

And then this Three transforms to the base
Of the Perfect of all geometric forms
The equilateral triangle
The three become Four
And the structure of the Tetractys (the Decad) is complete
Earth, Air, Water, Fire
The elements that make up creation
Draw the final boundaries of the universe
All embedded and interwoven
Into the grandest of all gifts of the human mind

But While Yin and Yang have their counterparts in the West
What developed there was a very different thing really
Not a cosmological creation story that bound the universe
With a beginning, middle and end
That needed a Creation Story, a Messiah and a Line of Prophets
That chain the word of God along the generations of men
Until one day a final judgment comes
And the end of the world as we know it is before us
And our Creator Judges us each and every one

What developed in the East
Was a manual, a guidebook on how to live
A manual that reflected the universal world order
That the worlds of Heaven, Earth and Men were intimately connected
And that one must search for balance and harmony
Between and among these seemingly disparate worlds
This is the what we call in the West the I Ching
Or also named The Classic of Changes (Yi Jing)

This is how the trigrams were originally conceived
As broken (Yin) and solid (Yang) lines
Denoting various combinations
Binomial combinations in base 2 and 3
Of yin and yang lines
That have motion and have being
And have status and material existence
But in a fleeting sort of ethereal way
For everything is always changing (Yi)
In this Eastern view of the world
The only thing that can be said to truly exist in fact
In this system of thought that reaches far back into antiquity
Is Change (Yi) itself and a Way (Dao or Tao) to follow it or traverse it

So in the Eastern Cosmological system
If we can even call it that
After Darkness and Light are created
Yin and Yang come together
To form the four basic elemental states of being
Greater Yin, Lesser Yin, Lesser Yang, Greater Yang

This is how it is handed down to us
According to the Ten Wings
That Confucian epilogue to the Zhouyi (I Ching/Yi Jing)
Which were attempts by later scholars
To make sense of the esoteric and ancient symbolism
That came forth from the River Lu (Lo Shu)
On the back of a great tortoise
And walked out of the Yellow River (He Tu)
Carved in Jade on the back of a great horse

And from these four states
The eight trigrams come forth (Bagua)
As each of the four elemental states
Is connected with a third line
That is either broken (Yin) or solid (Yang)
To form a band of eight symbols
Three lines each – the trigram

Which when all connected and drawn out
With their dark and light, yin and yang, broken and solid lines design
Into a wheel, a circle
That has no beginning and has no end
But has various formulations
Like the Earlier Heaven sequence of Fu Xi
Or the Later Heaven sequence of King Wen

But in the East there is no Monad
There is simply the interplay of these two opposing forces
Constantly searching and striving for balance
And the Two are not acted on by a third force
There is no Logos or Nous that brings order to the world
Simply the greater combinations of Yin and Yang
Which serve to add flavor and color
To the play of the basic forces of dark and light
Creative ad Receptive
Expansive and Retractive
Inbreathing and Outbreathing of Brahman
The Vedic sages (Rishis) would call it

In the Yi Jing it is said that
Two to the power of One
Transforms into Two to the power of Two (Four)
Greater and Lesser Yin – Greater and Lesser Yang

And then these Four (again Two to the Power of Two)
Becomes the Bagua (literally ‘eight symbols’)
Two to the Third or Two Cubed
Which forms the holistic cosmological world order
Hence rests all of Chinese philosophy
Who mind you adopted Buddhism and called it Zen

But the Daoist lives on
In Medicinal circles mostly now
For the Zhouyi (I Ching) is not consulted
As it once was
But it is left as an artifact of days gone by
When witchcraft was practiced
And astrologers were thought
To have great powers of sight

And with Two to the Power of Three
One is given Eight – the Bagua
Laid out in various circular arrangements
That describe the workings of the universe
The creative, destructive and structure of balance and imbalance
The passage of the seasons throughout the year
The context of the family and social unit
Which is meant to guide our every day life
And human society at large

All within the context of the three-pronged belief
That the worlds of Heaven, Earth, and Man
Are intrinsically, deeply, spiritually and physically connected
In ways beyond comprehension
Of the small human mind
But yet could be mapped out and understood
In a very basic and elemental way
Based upon solid and dashed lines
Working their energies against and with each other
Which inspired Leibniz
Some two thousand years later
To come up with a binary system of 1s and 0s
That now forms the basis of all automated processing
Of every machine created by man
That now touches every corner of the globe
And every human being

So what we have from the East then
Is the Fu Xi (Earlier Heaven)
And King Wen (Later Heaven) circular sequences
Of the grand Bagua
The forces of Heaven, Lake, Fire and Thunder
Acting and Balancing the forces
Wind (Wood), Water, Mountain and Earth

Laid out in a whirlish dervish sort of fashion
Which yielded the great Yin/Yang symbol we know so well today
The Symbol of Daoism (Taoism) and Yin/Yang Philosophy
Black and White molded together
In a grand and endless circle
Each with a sprinkle of the other that sits within its center
That looks like one white and one black fish
Each with an eye of the color of its sibling
Swimming around endlessly in a small fish bowl
Within which the universe is encapsulated and fulfilled
All at once and at the same time

The Chinese way then
Starts and ends with the idea of Change
As the ceaseless and only thing that can be said to truly exist
In various forms and states, indicated by trigrams and then hexagrams
States leading to states and balance leading to disharmony
And then back to balance and harmony again
In this constant struggle and exchange
Between opposing and complementary forces
The Creative and Receptive,
Dark and Light
Forces which rest within and without and everything in between

Its Eastern immanence
Versus Western transcendence
And it starts with those very basic numbers
One, Two, Three
And how they are combined
And constitute the manifested universe as we perceive it
As it truly can be said to exist
And the A, B, Cs behind it
That explain the world order

For both the Eastern and Western ancient mystics
Saw and Believed
That it was through the the most beautiful construct
Conceivable by the human mind
Numbers and Geometry
And their successive progression and combination
Into more and more beautiful symmetry
And more and more complex combinations
To which the natural universe
Has a deep mystical esoteric connection
That is only barely fathomable
By the mind of man

Or so they thought
And so it was written
And here we are

Stoic Philosophy in Antiquity: Its Origins, Metaphysics and Ethical Principles


Consistent across all of the Hellenistic philosophical schools was the importance of the Soul, the distinction of the human soul as having the capability to reason (what came to be known as logos, a very important term in early Christian theological circles), and the special importance and connection of the human Soul with the Cosmic Soul – an idea incidentally that had/has many strong parallels with the Vedic philosophical schools to the East, namely the notion of Atman and Brahman .

These core theo-philosophical concepts and their relationship are typically attributed to Plato, particularly in interpretations of his Timaeus, but the intellectual and fundamentally mystic tradition of man being created in the image of God goes much further back in antiquity than Plato[1] no doubt.  Plato surely drew on the mystery/pseudo-religious traditions that were prevalent in his day not only in Greece (Orphic, Dionysian, etc.) but also in Egypt that had a strong mystic, cultish and wisdom tradition closely guarded by their priests that was known to the early Greek philosophers as well.  Plato was further influenced, as we all Greeks really, by the mythic and poetic (hymnos) traditions of his day reflected in the works of Homer and Hesiod.  This latter influence can be clearly seen in the various mythical references throughout his dialogues, the sum total of which represented the content and knowledge from which Plato and his followers and successors drew.

Origins of Greek Philosophy: Plato and Logos

Clearly one of the most unique and lasting contributions of the Platonic philosophic tradition is the establishment and elucidation of the notion of Reason, and of course the foundations of Reason itself – namely dialectic, logic and mathematics (number theory and geometry) – as the means by which the fundamental truths of these ancient mystic traditions could be known or brought to light.  Here we have the foundations of modern western scientific reason laid out for us, even if it was some two thousand years later that the Scientific Revolution cemented these views in stone.  He also 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 core tenets of Hellenistic philosophy as it spread throughout the ancient Western world in antiquity.  He further established the semantics, in Greek, through which these topics could be discussed and explored, a linguistic and intellectual development whose importance cannot be overstated.  For before Plato the language of philosophy was shrouded in myth, analogy and metaphor, and after Plato the Greek philosophic schools and practitioners that followed him now had – even if they disagreed with him on various issues – a semantic and philological framework through which these esoteric ideas and concepts could be further explored and elucidated upon.

Platonic ideas and concepts surrounding the Soul and the role of Reason, put forth primarily in the Phaedo, Republic and Timaeus is presumed to have been strongly influenced by his teacher Socrates, and then was interpreted through his successors in the Academy, Aristotle being the most notable of these of course.  Upon this philosophic foundation Hellenic philosophy in all its forms, along with arguably all Western theological traditions to date, rests.  Although there emerged disagreement and debate on various philosophic tenets that he put forth in the Academy itself as well as between the Platonic school and alternative philosophic disciplines (Stoicism and Epicureanism for example which diverged from Plato’s doctrines in many respects) the basic tenets and language put forth by Plato regarding the human Soul, the role of the intellect or Reason, and the existence of the One along with the World Soul remained consistent themes throughout all the later philosophic and theological doctrines that followed him.

Aristotle, Substance and Causality

Aristotle criticized many Platonic themes and premises, and Aristotle most definitely takes pains to point out the places not only where his tenets and beliefs differ from Plato, but also where he felt that Plato’s teachings were inconsistent or incoherent and in need of not only significant further clarification but also in some cases in need of substantial revision.  In particular Aristotle was not comfortable with the coherence and completeness of Plato’s cosmological and epistemological framework, mostly outlined in the Timaeus, which was predicated on Plato’s notions of “Being” and “Becoming” and the ontological supremacy of the realm of Ideas over the realm of the sensory and material world – the Craftsman working off of an intellectual model which was essentially his metaphor for universal creation (see for details).

Aristotle put forth what he felt was a much more comprehensive and coherent metaphysics based upon his notion of hylomorphism and causality, essential concepts throughout his teachings but certainly most prevalent in the his Physics and Metaphysics.  [Despite these core metaphysical differences between these two early great minds, interestingly later Platonists, most notably with Plotinus, Porphyry, and Proclus some six or seven centuries later, found the teachings of Aristotle and Plato much more aligned and consistent than Aristotle himself did, or the followers of his Peripatetic school which he founded.]

Matter versus Form

The period of philosophical development just after Plato and Aristotle, as the influence of the Greek culture somewhat waned and the period of Roman (and Latin) culture began to take root in the Mediterranean and Near East, two alternative philosophic schools rose in prominence that challenged some of the fundamental tenets of Plato’s system, in particular challenging the skeptic bent that was characteristic of the Platonic school and the Academy after Plato’s passing referred to most commonly in the academic literature as Academic Skepticism.  For Plato’s Ideas and their relationship to his ethics, and to a lesser extent his physics, naturally led his followers to suggest – as Socrates is believed to have done more directly and for which perhaps more than any other reason was brought to trial for ”impiety” and “corrupting the minds of youth” and eventually killed – that there were significant intellectual limits upon that which could be known, given that according to Plato true knowledge and understanding (epistêmai) rested on the existence of, and fundamental reality of, pre-existent and abstract Ideas (Forms) from which any understanding of the physical world depends upon.

According to Plato’s model, this realm of Ideas exists within the logos, or Intellect (Nous), of the One and connects the individual human Soul, via his intellect, with the World Soul metaphysically.  This is the essence of Plato’s metaphysics and the source of major philosophic debate in Hellenistic philosophy after Plato – an epistemological debate about the source of knowledge, either through abstract Ideas as espoused by Plato and his followers (as well as early Judeo-Christian theologians) versus the ontological superiority of of the world of sense perception – i.e. the substance (ousia) of Aristotle which was reflected in the in the Stoic and Epicurean traditions which became fairly widespread in Greek and then Roman antiquity.

Both the Stoic and Epicurean traditions were heavily influenced by both the teachings of the Academy as well as the Peripatetic school founded by Aristotle (and in the case of Stoicism by the Pythagorean tradition as well) and rose to prominence in no small measure by directly challenging some of the basic epistemological assumptions of the Platonic school taught at the Academy.  These schools took an altogether opposing stance on the primary intellectual building blocks of nature, and in turn man, positing the supremacy of the material world over the intellectual world.  The Stoic and Epicurean philosophic schools were very popular and influential throughout the ancient world in the last few centuries BCE of Hellenic influence right up until the period of Christian influence in the Mediterranean region some six centuries later, after which all of these Greek philosophical schools were branded pagan, their followers ostracized, and their active, practicing traditions waned considerably, Neo-Platonism perhaps being the one exception which flourished independent of Christianity at least until the 5th century CE.

Epicurus and the Sources of Stoic Doctrine

Epicurus (341-270 BCE) was the founder of the Epicurean school and he based his teachings, at least from a cosmological and physics perspective, on the atomic doctrine that was espoused by Democritus some hundred or so years earlier.  But the Epicurean system was popular for its ethical, way of life, based tenets more so than its physics, teaching that although the world of the gods existed and was true, these gods were too busy in their own world to be bothered with human affairs and therefore supplication to them was of no consequence.  He further espoused the belief, consistent with his atomicist physical doctrines and contrary to Plato and more consistent with Aristotle, that the Soul was not in fact a material substance and therefore perished upon death of the body, constructing a system of beliefs that was based upon the optimization of pain and pleasure to achieve peace and tranquility in this life and effectively removing the concern about judgment and the afterlife from the equation as it were.  Epicureanism was influential through Roman times as evidenced by its significant treatment and faithful transmission of doctrines through the philosopher/historian Diogenes Laertius (3rd century CE) who devotes a full chapter on Epicureanism, from which much of our knowledge of the original teachings and metaphysical underpinnings are conserved in fact.

The Stoic tradition more so than Epicureanism was perhaps the most influential doctrine outside of Platonism in Hellenistic Greece and throughout the Roman Empire, providing for an alternative, and more intellectually palatable approach to metaphysics and ethics perhaps, being juxtaposed with the seemingly complex and ethereal, and perhaps even mystical, nature of Platonism.  Stoicism in particular had a fairly advanced view of the Soul and the Mind, one which although was more materialistic than Plato from a certain perspective, was nonetheless theological in nature in citing the existence of one true and omnipresent God (theos, Plato’s Demiurge) through which the universe itself not only came into existence but through whom the existence of the universe was looked after and kept in balance.

Stoicism was founded by Zeno of Citium (335-263 BCE) in the third century BCE and although differing from Platonism in many respects and on some important key points, as it evolved and matured was nonetheless very much influenced by not only Platonism but also the Peripatetic school (Aristotle) as well.  Zeno, having been born on the island of Samos off the coast of modern day Turkey, is believed to have spent his most prolific studying and teaching years in Athens, where at the time the Academy was flourishing and the legacy and teachings of Pythagoras were still fresh in the minds of the Greeks.  The Stoic lectures and teachings were said to have been held in public in Athens, specifically in the Agora under a “painted porch” (stoa poikilê), hence the name of the school.  The fact that the lectures were open to all and not kept secret or only taught to the initiated is believed to be one of the key factors  as to why Stoicism resonated so well with the Greek populace at large.

Zeno was succeeded by his pupil Cleanthes (331-232 BCE), who was in turn succeeded by perhaps the most notable and prolific Stoic philosopher in antiquity Chrysippus (c. 280-207 BCE) through which the Stoic doctrine matured and became more formalized having had several generations of adaptation and revision and having evolved subject to attacks and criticisms of the Skeptic tradition that was predominant at the Academy during this time.  These three teachers are sometimes referred to as the ‘Old Stoa’ and although their works survive only in fragments and pieces, the Stoic doctrine along with specific and relevant Stoic quotations from the Old Stoa do survive through the likes of

  • Cicero (106-43 BCE), the Roman/Latin statesman and philosopher who although primarily a politician did author some philosophic works that were exemplary in their own right (notably On Ends and Academics which surveyed the predominant philosophies of his era from various perspectives of which Stoicism of course was well represented),
  • Plutarch the Middle Platonist (c. 45-120 CE) who was highly critical of Stoicism but wrote several works covering its doctrine nonetheless, the Roman/Latin Stoic philosopher, statesman and dramatist Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE),
  • the Roman philosopher Epictetus (c. 55-135 CE) whose teachings were captured by his student Arrian in his work Discourses of which some fragments survive,
  • the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE) whose diary entitled Meditations provides interesting information about the life of a practicing Stoic, and
  • through the writings of Diogenes Laertius the 3rd century CE author of Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers who although (seemingly) of Epicurean bent was sympathetic to Stoic doctrine and covered its philosophy and history in some detail.

It is through these writings, much of which is in Latin as well as Greek, that the Stoic doctrine survives down to us, and modern interpreters of the tradition must not only wade through the transliteration and translation of terms from not only Greek and Latin, but also try and piece together some of the more esoteric cosmological and physical elements of the doctrine which are much less well documented as they were not the main focus of some of the later Stoic philosophers whose work we have in toto.  As the later Stoic tradition as reflected in the works that we have were more concerned with the ethical portions of the doctrine, those which espoused right reasoning and its relationship to virtue and happiness in life, rather than the physical, logical or cosmological portions of the doctrine on which the ethical foundations were laid by the Old Stoa.

Stoic Metaphysics and Cosmology

During this period of six or seven centuries where Stoicism flourishes in the West before being eclipsed by Christianity, there is a somewhat symbiotic evolution that takes place between Platonic thought and doctrine and Stoicism proper, arising from the well documented philosophical disputes between the Skeptic tradition as reflected by the Academy on the one hand, and the materialist Stoics (and to a lesser extent the Epicureans) on the other.  The Stoics held that not only can fundamental truth and knowledge be ascertained via the senses and proper functioning of the rational mind, in direct contrast to the Academic Skeptics, but that in fact perfection in wisdom could be achieved when this rational faculty of man (ἡγεμονικόν, or hêgemonikon) was completely aligned with Reason, or Nature (Logos).  Their adage “living according to the laws of Nature” summed up this belief to a great extent.

With respect to the immortality of the Soul, although the Stoics did not consider the Soul to be immortal as Plato espoused given his doctrine of eternal and ever present Ideas of which the Good was the ultimate level of abstraction and of which the Soul was an elemental part, they did ascribe to the persistence of the Soul somewhat beyond the death of the body, particularly associated with perfect Stoic sages.  However, they did not have as materialistic a conception of the Soul as the Epicurean school did, the latter having adopted Democritus’s atoms as the primary building blocks of the universe of which to them the Soul was no exception, albeit consisting of finer matter than basic material objects.  These ideas that the competing philosophical schools had with respect to the nature of the Soul fundamentally shaped their ethical doctrines as well as the tools which they described to achieve happiness, which was the end (telos) of all the philosophic traditions in antiquity.  To the ancients of course, philosophy was a practical art which intended to lay out the rational foundations of how to live, upon which the bedrock of a happy life sat, hence the predominant role of Ethics in the Hellenic philosophical traditions.

In many respects borrowing from Platonism, Stoic cosmology speaks of two primary principles (archai) which are eternal and exist throughout the universe, the first being the Creator who is identified with intelligence or reason (logos) and is an active principle, and the second inert, inactive, and acted upon principle which is acted upon by the Creator which corresponds roughly to what we today call matter – again Aristotle’s substance (ousia).  God in this context (and keep in mind that these ancient philosophic schools did not think of God in the monotheistic sense, this is all pre-Christianity) is identified with an intelligent force, or fire (a doctrine associated with Heraclitus although not directly attributable to him necessarily) which structures the physical world of matter according to its plan, beginning at the creation of the cosmos first with the generation of the primary elements – fire, air, water, and earth respectively; the first two principles being active in nature and the latter two of which are passive and acted upon and then followed by the subsequent creation and preservation of the known universe which consists of corporeal elements, and then finally the inevitable destruction or devolution of the universe back into the primary fire from which it initially emerged.  This is cosmological universal order espoused by the Stoic tradition more or less, the universe being an endless cycle of creation, preservation and destruction – eerily similar to the Vedantic tradition to the East in fact.

Although the Stoics diverge from their Platonic and Peripatetic predecessors on many points, particularly with respect to physics, ethics and psychology (again literally the “study of the soul”), from a cosmological perspective they share many similarities, and with the Stoic tradition in particular Pythagorean influences can be seen as well.  To the Stoics as well as to the Platonists, the material universe originates from a single, living divine force, what came to be known as God in the Christian tradition and was known as Yahweh in the Jewish tradition.  Out of the Platonic One which the Stoics equated with God, is established the basic building blocks of the universe, again archai.  For in both traditions, as was true in nearly all of the cosmological traditions in antiquity in fact, it is via the movement or combination/mixture of an active (male) force which comes from the One (for everything must derive from the One) upon the inactive or passive (female) force which is associated with matter, which is the Same of Plato or in the Stoic tradition is described as the “unqualified substance”, from which the four elements earth, air, water and fire are created and in turn from which the entire physical universe emerges.  This active force is seen as the application of order, or reason – the hand of God if you will – upon the unqualified material from which the universe is made – Plato’s Good and the Stoic Logos[2].

In the more mature Stoic psychological doctrine as put forth by Chrysippus, the two active elements (fire and air) combine to form the basic constituents of universal matter which consisted of and were governed by various types of pneuma, meaning “breath” or “spirit” or “soul” depending upon the context.  Pneuma to the later Stoic tradition was a key concept to their physics and represented the basic building block of their corporeal world which was not only active in principle, i.e. subject to being acted upon or acting in and of itself and subject to change, but fundamentally intelligent at all levels of the cosmos from start to finish.  The God of the Stoics was present in all of creation, not just the manifestation of the hand of the divine craftsman as was typically interpreted to be the case in the Platonic tradition.

Where these cosmological traditions diverge is the combination and primacy of the four elements and in the underlying mechanics at work within the World Soul and the human Soul, from which the two significantly different metaphysical and psychological systems derive – the Platonic tradition resting on the epistemological significance of the realm of Ideas and the power of the Intellect to discern fundamentally Good characteristics such as virtue and justice from which happiness derived, whereas the Stoic tradition believed the physical world of the senses, combined with proper functioning of the rational faculty of man (hêgemonikon) that was the source of virtue and in turn happiness.

Stoic Ethics: The Harmonious Intellect

Another distinguishing characteristic of Stoic psychology is the role of what they refer to as sugkatathesis, a word typically translated into English as “assent” but within the context of Stoicism implies an approval or agreement of a collection of facts, or what they refer to as “presentations” or phantasiai.  These presentations make impressions upon the commanding faculty of the mind, hêgemonikon.  The analogy that was used by early Stoa to describe this relationship was imprint (tupôsis), like the way a signet ring imprints its shape into soft wax.  Alternatively, some later Stoic philosophers described impressions as an “affection” (pathos) of the Soul, or as “alterations” (alloiôsis or heteroiôsis) of the commanding faculty (hêgemonikon) of the Soul.  Regardless of the metaphor used, the implication is that to the Stoics the sensory perceptive experience, what today we might refer to as cognition, was not necessarily simply an intellectually or mental grasping of the simple qualities and attributes of the objects of perception, but a collective experience of cognition between the subject and object of experience which impacted and affected the Soul in some way.[3]

The senses, which included the reproductive faculty, were subservient to this “commanding faculty” and their proper management or temperance was the goal of the Stoic philosopher.  In their psychological scheme, the mind receives sensory information and processes the information accordingly, but unlike the alternative psychologies offered by Plato and Aristotle which broke the Soul out into rational and irrational parts, the Soul of the Stoic was entirely governed by reason and therefore pure wisdom, infallible judgment, was not only possible but was in fact the goal, or end, of the Stoic philosopher.  True wisdom for the Stoics was in harnessing and utilizing this commanding faculty which was unique to mankind to “assent” only to rational impulses, thereby living according to Nature, or God, which again was a purely rational entity from their point of view.  By purifying the mind and attaining wisdom, one’s “commanding faculty” could be honed to perfection and no false judgment or “assent” (sugkatathesis)[4] could be possible, hence the ideal of the perfect Stoic sage.

To the Stoic then, although the universe was governed by Reason and to a certain extent was predetermined given God’s pervasiveness throughout the universe (God is referred to sometimes in this tradition as Fate), an individual did have Free Will to the extent that they had control over their commanding faculty, which again fully assimilated and absorbed the senses (these were not fundamentally irrational impulses), to which proper rational adjudication of assent to truth and reality was the key to virtuous and happy living which, consistent with all of the Greek philosophical traditions, was the goal of life and the purpose in fact of philosophy itself.  The Stoics taught to live according to the laws of Nature, laws which were based upon Reason and Logic and if adhered to and understood properly could lead to perfect wisdom which facilitated and was synonymous with a virtuous, and in turn happy, life.  In the Stoic tradition, logos then was viewed as the rational and active principle of God that permeated the universe and gave it life and characterized both the world Soul and the individual human soul, and again when harmonized and understood properly, and with proper attunement of the instrument of logos, was the secret to divine happiness and the core of their ethics.

This Stoic principle of assent then, as adjudicated and applied by the commanding faculty of the Soul, hêgemonikon, along with the complementary system of logic (which incidentally was closely associated with language and propositional logic which enabled for the establishment of truth versus falsehood) allowed the Stoics to develop a system of ethics that had a sound rational and metaphysical foundation that rested, in contrast to the Platonic tradition, on the presumption of the fundamental reality of the “corporeal”, or physical world which in turn mirrored the corporeal universe, each element of which was governed by the same principle of reason or logos and which was also characterized by “pneuma”, the divine spirit, which permeated and was subsistent throughout the universe and was governed by logos, reason.  For in the Stoic tradition, the notion of “corporeality” extended not only to the physical world, but also to the abstract world such as the Soul and even to abstract concepts and ideals such as Virtue, Justice and Wisdom.

Stoic Physics: Divine Corporealism

The Stoic pneuma was the “sustaining cause” (synektikon aition in Greek or causa continens in Latin) of all material entities, animate creatures included, and was characterized by both an inward as well as outward motion which was the source of both the external qualities of a “thing” or “body” (again inanimate as well as animate) as well as that which provided for unity of existence to that object or entity.  In the concept of pneuma to the Stoics also rested their hierarchy of substance, akin to the hierarchy of Souls laid out by Aristotle but with some notable differences which again had a strong influence on Stoic ethics.

Pneuma existed in various forms; in inanimate objects where it was characterized primarily as that which gave the object unity or held it together (hexis or “holding”), in the plant kingdom where pneuma was characterized by a more active principle referred to as “nature” (phusis or physis in Greek), in animals where it is characterized by a more complex structure where it was associated with Soul (psychê)[5], and then finally in rational animals, i.e. man, where pneuma is given the (divine) attribute of Reason, what they referred to as the “commanding faculty” or hêgemonikon in Greek which was the guiding principle of their ethical system.[6]

Within the Stoic tradition pneuma was the essence and binding force of the material universe, somewhat akin to Aristotle’s substantial form and certainly very similar to the intelligent force that permeates the universe espoused by the Middle Platonists.  This pneuma exists throughout the universe in a continuum existing in inanimate matter, the plant and animal kingdom, and culminated at the top of the universal hierarchy in the man which had the distinguishing, and fundamentally divine, capability of Reason (logos), a distinguishing characteristic which as it turns out the Stoics associated very closely with language and propositional logic.

Only human beings and gods possess the highest level of pneumatic activity, reason [logos]. Reason was defined as a collection of conceptions and preconceptions; it is especially characterized by the use of language. In fact, the difference between how animals think and how humans think seems to be that human thinking is linguistic — not that we must vocalize thoughts (for parrots can articulate human sounds), but that human thinking seems to follow a syntactical and propositional structure in the manner of language. The Stoics considered thinking in rational animals as a form of internal speech.[7]

In this sense Stoic physics which was based upon the supremacy and reality of the physical world as perceived by our senses and the role of the active principle of intelligence that permeated through the eternal universe (logos), not only deviated from the supremacy of Platonic Ideas (Being) over Becoming, or that which was subject to change, but also from Aristotle’s doctrines of being and essence which although more broad than Plato still distinguished between the material world, which to him depended upon intelligibles as well as particulars as reflected in his doctrine of hylomorphism, and the world of Soul which included both form and matter alike and from which all virtues and vices emanated.

The Origins of Stoic Metaphysics: Conclusion

Having pointed out where the Stoic physical doctrine diverges from its predecessors, it’s fair to say that it still rested on their philosophical shoulders to a large degree, as Stoic physics and cosmology most certainly have antecedents in both the Platonic as well as Peripatetic schools.  For example in Plato’s description of the primary cosmic principles of Being and Becoming, the latter is defined by “that which has the power to act or be acted upon”[8], a definition which is adopted by the (later) Stoic tradition and once extended to Stoic corporealism (pneuma) provides for the metaphysical grounding and synthesis of not only the physical world as governed by the senses but also the world of the Soul which is although governed by Reason is still corporeal and divine in nature.

In Aristotle’s doctrine of Substantial Form, the Stoics also find an antecedent for the metaphysical bridge from which (Plato’s and then Aristotle’s physics which is defined by change or motion) metaphysical constructs such as the Soul and even virtues themselves could be considered to be “corporeal” in this sense as they could in fact be acted upon or changed, well beyond Aristotle’s original conception of course, and inconsistent with his view of the Soul as presented in De Anime, but nonetheless standing on the shoulders of his metaphysics to at least some degree.[9]

So Plato’s doctrine of Being and Becoming which rested on the supremacy of Ideas over what we would call today physical reality which Aristotle criticized and led to his formulation of the theory of causation which bridged the gap between Forms and Substance to a large extent, were both precursors to, and were influential on, Stoic physics and in turn psychology.  But the unique contribution of Stoicism to antiquity is perhaps their unique interpretation and transformation of the traditions and teachings of their philosophical predecessors, the result of which leads to some very unique and distinctive characteristics of Stoic philosophy which influence not only the evolution of Hellenic philosophy through the period of Roman influence, but also the formulation of early Christian (and Jewish) theology.

In conclusion, it appears that the origin and development of Stoic cosmobiology was no simple process. The fundamental idea that the cosmos is a living, sentient, intelligent animal was firmly enunciated by Zeno and perpetuated by his successors. This idea, rooted deeply in the mind of the ancient world, Greek and non-Greek alike, was first stated by Zeno in Platonic terms, after Theophrastus had shown that Aristotle’s attempt to eliminate the world soul had left it as firmly implanted in the cosmos as Plato had believed it to be. Cleanthes continued to support Zeno’s doctrine and to buttress it with new arguments. In so doing, he expanded the concept of the world soul to embrace Aristotle’s three psychic functions; and he identified the world soul with the heat of the cosmos, an identification that Zeno must also have made, but to which Aristotle’s physiology now seemed to give further support. Chrysippus, noticing that medical theory had left his school behind, updated Stoic cosmobiology by identifying the world soul with the pneuma (air-fire mixture) that permeates the cosmos. To this pneuma he assigned the three psychic functions that Cleanthes had taken from Aristotle, but he broke up the nutritive function into growth and a new function called hexis or cohesion {συνεχεία). This last function he used, probably following the precedent of Cleanthes, to explain the cosmological problem of the survival of the cosmos in the void. The ultimate result was that the Stoic cosmos had a biological as well as physical side. Though each side owed its existence to the ideas of others, the total integration of the physical and the biological sides of the cosmos resulted in a totally new cosmology, one that can only be characterized as purely Stoic.[10]

[1] As seen quite clearly in the Jewish tradition as reflected in the Old Testament for example.

[2] Note the similar themes in Genesis 1:1-1:2; “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.  And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.  And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” setting the stage for the connection between the Stoic Logos and Plato’s Good to Philo of Alexandria’s Logos and the Word (again Logos) of God in the Gospel of John (John 1:1).

[3] See the Internet Encyclopedia entry on Stoic Philosophy of Mind for a more detailed account of Stoic psychology from which some of this material is drawn.

[4] The Greek word sugkatathesis denotes a “putting together” or “joint deposit” hence the derived meaning of “assent” or “approval” in this philosophical context.

[5] Note the deviation from Aristotle here where animals are associated with Soul.

[6] Note the parallels here to the “commanding faculty” of the Stoics and the Vedic philosophical notion of “buddhi”, or “intellect” is that which discriminates and processes thoughts or actions, distinguished from “manas” which is the cognitive faculty of the mind or that which merely thinks.  The parallels to Stoic psychology are striking.

[7] Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, entry on Stoic Philosophy of Mind by Scott Rubarth.

[8] Plato, Sophist, 247D.  From Wikipedia entry on Stoic physics,

[9] The parallel to the notion of Stoic corporealism could be seen in Aristotle’s notion of substance, or ousia (οὐσία in Greek) which has come down to us in English as “substance” or “essence” given the common practice in Roman/Latin times to translate the Greek term into the Latin “essentia” or “substantia”, neither word properly covering the semantic relevance or underlying metaphysical meaning of the term in Aristotle’s Physics but the best translation we have in English regardless.

[10] David E. Hahm, The Origins of Stoic Cosmology, Ohio State University Press, 1977.  Pgs. 173-174

The Gnostics: Jesus as the Revealed Logos

In contrast to what we would consider the more orthodox interpretation of Jesus through the doctrine of Logos, and incorporating the Wisdom tradition of the Jews at the same time, we find another influential Gnostic teacher who comes from the academic and intellectual milieu of Alexandria, namely Valentinus (c. 100 – 160 CE). Although born and educated in Northern Egypt and Alexandria, Valentinus spends his most productive years teaching in Rome and at one point, according to Tertullian, was considered for the position of the Bishop of Rome but started his own group after he was passed over.

Although none of Valentinus’s writings are extant, we know of the popularity of his school (Valentinianism) as well as many of its tenets and beliefs from Clement of Alexandria, who writes that Valentinus was a follower of Theudas and that Theudas in turn was a follower of St. Paul, from the early Christian theologian and apologist Irenaeus (c. early 2nd century – 202 CE) whose best known work, Against Heresies (c. 180), is a five volume work of which only fragments of the supposedly original Greek text exists but a full Latin version is extant which defends (what has come down to us as) orthodox Christianity against the various so-called heretic Gnostic schools that were prevalent at the time, with a special emphasis on the school started by Valentinus and the Gospel of Truth:


But the followers of Valentinus, putting away all fear, bring forward their own compositions and boast that they have more Gospels than really exist. Indeed their audacity has gone so far that they entitle their recent composition the Gospel of Truth, though it agrees in nothing with the Gospels of the apostles, and so no Gospel of theirs is free from blasphemy. For if what they produce is the Gospel of Truth, and is different from those the apostles handed down to us, those who care to can learn how it can be show from the Scriptures themselves that [then] what is handed down from the apostles is not the Gospel of Truth.[1]


The copy of the Gospel of Truth, which Irenaeus refers to explicitly in his Against Heresies and is attributed to the Valentinian School, was discovered in the Nag Hammadi Library collection in the second half of the twentieth century and is believed to have been authored in the middle of the second century CE, in Greek. In this Gospel, the life and tribulations of Jesus are not called out specifically as they are in the four canonical Gospels, and instead there is a focus on the creation of the known universe in error (in personified form), and the delivery of Jesus (a messiah) to the earth to show us eternal life – to (re)establish the wisdom of gnosis, “knowledge”, which in itself grants salvation. This salvation, this blessing of eternal rest, comes to those who have experienced “gnosis”, a transcendental state of awareness where the object of worship “knowledge” is merged entirely in the worshipper. The gnostic tradition no doubt, for all intents and purposes reflects a deep esoteric and mystical teaching that was said to have come straight from the master (Jesus) himself – the “secret” teaching. This was the pinnacle state of Plato the mystic, where the man once bound in the cave to perceive shadows, is released from his prison and shown the true divine realm which was illuminated by the Sun, of which the images in the cave were but shadows.

The Gnostics were true mystics, but faithful to the worship of Jesus in their own way, not in his physical form as having been born in the flesh, liberated oneself, and then was crucified in the flesh by Pontius Pilot, but his message of immortality. He was Logos personified, and in that sense he could never have been born, every present since the beginning of time. This idea of the dichotomy of God the father and Jesus the Son, which theologically speaking is the most radical notion that we find in the Gospels themselves, and the very reason why he was put to death in the first place (he refused to admit otherwise).   But to the Gnostics, in contrast to the as of yet germinated orthodox interpretation of Jesus’s life, with a focus on the life of the flesh, it was what Jesus taught was inside of all of us, our birthright in fact, if we could just merge ourselves into knowledge itself – the blessed Gnostic. The philosophy shared some Platonic features as well to be sure, for it was the existence of the One, Being itself, that the Gnostic could truly know. Logos was still the key, the connecting force and principle that bound the eternal cosmos to the individual Soul, in whose image it was created.

The metaphysics behind Gnosticism, despite being poorly documented given the mystical and esoteric nature of the movement, nonetheless must have sat on a sound Peripatetic and Platonic foundation, but Plato’s hidden mysticism was drawn out and put at the forefront of the message, for it was Plato’s Good and Same, his Being and Becoming, his One, that could upon constant contemplation and reflection could be fathomed, and in so fathoming one could become One, and the Indefinite Dyad could cease to Be. The world of Forms and Ideas whose penultimate source and final end was the Good, the Sun of gnosis in outside of Plato’s cave, through which the shadow of the greatest and perhaps most brutal of persecutions could be seen as the greatest salvation for mankind.


That is the gospel of him whom they seek, which he has revealed to the perfect through the mercies of the Father as the hidden mystery, Jesus the Christ. Through him he enlightened those who were in darkness because of forgetfulness. He enlightened them and gave them a path. And that path is the truth which he taught them. For this reason error was angry with him, so it persecuted him. It was distressed by him, so it made him powerless. He was nailed to a cross. He became a fruit of the knowledge of the Father. He did not, however, destroy them because they ate of it. He rather caused those who ate of it to be joyful because of this discovery.[2]


But to the Gnostics the manifestation of the eternal Logos in the flesh meant that there was an element of imperfection in the universe, at least from our lowly perspective. Christ was the consort of Sophia, our Jewish wisdom goddess who was associated with the Isis, the savior, of Egypt. It was the tradition of Wisdom, and the vengeful God of the Jews that the Gnostics could not recognize as the state of universal affairs. And in so doing, they associated Yahweh with the Demiurge of Plato, who thought he mastered and created the whole universe but in fact there was another layer of heavens and gods above him, from which Sophia and Christ emerge, and in so doing rectify the erred and flawed condition of the universe of man. Sophia and Christ her consort is the mythology that is created to explain the possibility that the Logos of God could actually appear in the flesh. Their conception of Jesus as the Word in the flesh was established to provide the theological bridge between world of men and the world of God which had been drawn asunder since mankind was cast out of the Garden.

This was the rift between the orthodox interpretations of Christ and Gnosticism. Leaving the mystical bent of the Gnostic tradition aside, which in and of itself threatened the emerging authoritarian structure of the Church, there was still a major theological divergence, from a cosmological perspective, that it spoke to major rifts in the two seemingly compatible faiths. There were two seemingly juxtaposed interpretations of the message of Christ in the centuries that followed his death – the one orthodox view that his life, in its divine character, its extraordinary and miraculous beyond belief story line, was in itself his message. And his life should be worshipped, and sanctified and celebrated. And to accommodate this they needed a Father, a Son, and a Holy Spirit which moved the waters at the beginning of time itself, must be of the same “substance”, of the same nature, undivided and ontologically equivalent and yet different manifestations of the great unified force of the undivided One, hence the doctrine of the Trinity which has come down to us. The Gnostic view looked more upon his life not as existing actually but took more of an esoteric and mystical vantage point, where the Christ was not actually born and did not die but in fact lived eternally as a manifestation of the Logos.


Another Gnostic classified teacher from Alexandria around this time was Basilides who flourished from approximately 117 to 138 CE, a contemporary of Valentinus, whose teachings he must have been exposed to at least some extent, as well as Justin Martyr whose life was spent further to the East somewhat outside of Alexandrian influence. He claimed to have inherited his teachings from the apostle Matthew, is known to have been one of the first commentators on the Gospels (entitled Exegetica) – although his work exists only in fragments and quotations from detractors unfortunately – and is also known for having developed a cosmology and world order that differed quite significantly, at least according to Irenaeus, from the majority of the other “Gnostic” traditions. His teachings must have been popular however for it is said that his followers, known as Basilidians, persisted for at least two centuries after his death in Alexandria.


The Christian philosopher Basilides of Alexandria (fl. 132-135 CE) developed a cosmology and cosmogony quite distinct from the Sophia myth of classical Gnosticism, and also reinterpreted key Christian concepts by way of the popular Stoic philosophy of the era. Basilides began his system with a “primal octet” consisting of the “unengendered parent” or Father; Intellect (nous); the “ordering principle” or “Word” (logos); “prudence” (phronêsis); Wisdom (sophia); Power (dunamis) (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.24.3, in Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures 1987) and “justice” and “peace” (Basilides, Fragment A, Layton). Through the union of Wisdom and Power, a group of angelic rulers came into existence, and from these rulers a total of 365 heavens or aeons were generated (Irenaeus 1.24.3). Each heaven had its own chief ruler (arkhôn), and numerous lesser angels. The final heaven, which Basilides claimed is the realm of matter in which we all dwell, was said by him to be ruled by “the god of the Jews,” who favored the Jewish nation over all others, and so caused all manner of strife for the nations that came into contact with them—as well as for the Jewish people themselves. This behavior caused the rulers of the other 364 heavens to oppose the god of the Jews, and to send a savior, Jesus Christ, from the highest realm of the Father, to rescue the human beings who are struggling under the yoke of this jealous god (Irenaeus 1.24.4). Since the realm of matter is the sole provenance of this spiteful god, Basilides finds nothing of value in it, and states that “salvation belongs only to the soul; the body is by nature corruptible” (Irenaeus 1.24.5). He even goes so far as to declare, contra Christian orthodoxy, that Christ’s death on the cross was only apparent, and did not actually occur “in the flesh” (Irenaeus 1.24.4)—this doctrine came to be called docetism.[3]


But this somewhat superficial reading of Christ’s message had deeper levels of meaning to the Gnostic community, a community which also boasted close lineage to the Apostles themselves – Valentinus to St. Paul and Basilides to Matthew. Both these early Gnostic teachers were from Alexandria of course, and their doctrines focused less on the physical life and death of Christ but the eternal message that lied within his secret teachings. This was a mystic uprising, one that had many heads and many variations in practice, but they were at the least united on Christ as the consort of Sophia, and that it was the flawed Demiurge who needed to be bailed out of his self-created predicament by Christ the savior. But their worship of the prophet was consistent, but they disagreed on how his message was to be carried on. To the Gnostics, and even to Clement of Alexandria (among others such as Irenaeus most notably) who spoke against them, it was Jesus who was the new song for the new age. They just disagreed on the song itself, but their tune was not altogether different. The message spoke of eternal life, and Christ’s role in granting it to all of mankind, but how Christ fit into the eternal celestial and cosmological structure that underpinned creation itself, well this was a major theological divide between the two early competing interpretations, if one could simplify the various schools under two separate banners, of the message of Jesus of Nazareth.

The Gospel of Thomas, one of the other great finds in the Nag Hammadi Library collection of scrolls, is non-canonical, and contains what are thought to be quite early sayings and teachings of Christ, much of the material being found in the canonical Gospels pointing to either a common source of all of the material or perhaps to the earlier origins of the Gospel of Thomas work, or to the existence of an even earlier source, a source given the code name “Q” from which the Gospel of Thomas and the synoptic Gospels drew on heavily. The latter view is probably the most dominant one amongst early Biblical scholars, that is the existence of an earlier source Q from which all these Gospels drew, but it is also believed that perhaps the Gospel of Thomas had ties with Syria where sentiment for Thomas was strong.

The Gospel itself is composed of 114 sayings which are attributed to Jesus, almost half of which strongly resemble similar passages in the canonical Gospels, the others being of perhaps more Gnostic origin as they are not found in any of the canonical Gospels. In all likelihood however, it does appear that the Gospel of Thomas, although categorized as Gnostic given its exclusion from standard biblical canon and its existence in the Nag Hammadi Library texts which at some level define what we now refer to as Gnostic literature, does represent a valid and very close connected tradition to the teachings of Jesus himself, and this Gospel, like the majority of the other Gnostic texts, does not emphasize the great prophet’s death and resurrection and its meaning for the salvation of mankind, but on the notion of the knowledge which he revealed to his followers, hidden in secret teachings and rituals which the masses could not understand or comprehend – a notion that clearly found few proponents in the early Christian Church Fathers.


Jesus saw some babies nursing. He said to his disciples, “These nursing babies are like those who enter the (Father’s) kingdom.”

They said to him, “Then shall we enter the (Father’s) kingdom as babies?”

Jesus said to them, “When you make the two into one, and when you make the inner like the outer and the outer like the inner, and the upper like the lower, and when you make male and female into a single one, so that the male will not be male nor the female be female, when you make eyes in place of an eye, a hand in place of a hand, a foot in place of a foot, an image in place of an image, then you will enter [the kingdom].[4]


The theme of the Gospel of Thomas runs from esoteric teachings of inner, hidden knowledge as evidenced from the quotation above, but reference to a variety of other parables some of which are also found in the canonical Gospels, speaking to the validity of the tradition represented by the Gospel of Thomas as well as the varying interpretations of the message of the historical Jesus that existed in the few centuries after his death. In this gospel, Jesus’s divinity is not explicitly referred to, nor is the story of his death by crucifixion or resurrection from the dead, the theme of the Gospel is the “hidden words that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas wrote down”, as is stated in the introduction, the hidden and secret nature of the teaching lended itself to Gnostic classification, and clearly it circulated in Gnostic like esoteric and mystical communities as evidenced by it being found in the Nag Hammadi Library, which also contained an excerpt from Plato’s Republic mind you.

Another Gnostic classified text which is worth mentioning is the so-called the Apocryphon of John from the second century CE (it was known to Irenaeus and mentioned in his Against Heresies) which survives in four extant manuscripts in varying lengths, three of which were found in the Nag Hammadi Library, and narrates an alternative story of creation which can only be looked at as an attempt to the synthesize the Demiurge of Plato, the Yahweh of the Jews and the one true God the Father that Jesus speaks of in some sort of coherent story line. The cosmological account describes the single unified and eternal principle of the Monad from which all creation comes forth and from which the Aeons emerge, Light (which is synonymous with Christ) and Mind being some of the basic constituents of the early creation and from which further Aeons and powers are created. Eventually one of these Aeons, Sophia, without consent of the Monad and without the aid of a male companion brings forth an entity named Yaltabaoth, who is the first of a series of fallible and less that purely divine heavenly creatures called Archons and from which our heavenly and earthly creation is formed and from which salvation, via Christ, is required in order that eternal life and balance to the universe be restored.

The Pistis Sophia, a Gnostic text of somewhat later origin from maybe the third or fourth century CE, relates the gnostic teachings of Jesus to his disciples after he is resurrected from the dead, alluding to period of 11 years that he taught his disciples after his death by crucifixion. In this text Sophia also plays a prominent role and is associated as the consort of Christ, the revealer of mysteries, the Heavenly Mother, the Psyche of the world and even as the female aspect of Logos. The Pistis Sophia describes the highest realm of the light, the nature and subsistence of souls after death, and the way of salvation through initiation into the mysteries of Christ. This book quotes from Psalms, from prophets of the Old Testament, as well as from some of the canonical Gospels and despite its Gnostic bent retains some of the core Christian theological features that survived in the orthodox Christian theology, with an altogether esoteric and mystery cultish bent consistent with the Gnostic sects and schools of thought from which it must have emerged.

Although it’s hard to sum up and categorize the position of the various Gnostic sects which from a certain vantage point sat in opposition to the more orthodox interpretations of Christian theology as espoused in the Epistles of Paul and the canonical Gospels of Mathew, Mark, Luke and John, it is clear that this tradition represented some sort of threat to the growing power of the Christian authority which chose to focus less on his “mystery” and “secret doctrine” and more on his birth, teachings and resurrection as relayed in the canonical Gospels, and the reliance on his words as captured therein that spoke to Christ the savior as being the only gateway to heaven.


According to the Gnostics, this world, the material cosmos, is the result of a primordial error on the part of a supra-cosmic, supremely divine being, usually called Sophia (Wisdom) or simply the Logos. This being is described as the final emanation of a divine hierarchy, called the Plêrôma or “Fullness,” at the head of which resides the supreme God, the One beyond Being. The error of Sophia, which is usually identified as a reckless desire to know the transcendent God, leads to the hypostatization of her desire in the form of a semi-divine and essentially ignorant creature known as the Demiurge (Greek: dêmiourgos, “craftsman”), or Ialdabaoth [Yaltabaoth], who is responsible for the formation of the material cosmos. This act of craftsmanship is actually an imitation of the realm of the Pleroma, but the Demiurge is ignorant of this, and hubristically declares himself the only existing God. At this point, the Gnostic revisionary critique of the Hebrew Scriptures begins, as well as the general rejection of this world as a product of error and ignorance, and the positing of a higher world, to which the human soul will eventually return. However, when all is said and done, one finds that the error of Sophia and the begetting of the inferior cosmos are occurrences that follow a certain law of necessity, and that the so-called “dualism” of the divine and the earthly is really a reflection and expression of the defining tension that constitutes the being of humanity—the human being.[5]





[1] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.11.9. Quotation from

[2] Gospel of Truth, translation by Robert M. Grant. From

[3] Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry for Gnosticism.

[4] Gospel of Thomas, verse 22. Translation by Stephen Patterson and Marvin Meyer, from

[5] Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Gnosticism.

The Seeds of Christianity: The Hellenization of Judaism

With light and insight shed on the competing philosophical and theological systems from the 3rd century BCE to the first few centuries after the death of Christ and the advent of early Christianity, Middle Platonism and Stoicism in particular, we now have the intellectual building blocks from which we find the foundations of early Christian theology are constructed and through which the canonical Gospels in particular, which encapsulate the core life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, are viewed and interpreted by early Christian theologians and apologists. In this period of theological history, the focus turns toward interpretation of these books which stemmed from the tradition surrounding Jesus’s life and teachings from which the New Testament canon was constructed by the early Church, as well as the Old Testament on which this tradition squarely rested, in light of Hellenistic philosophy which was the intellectual philosophic standard of the times.

In the works of the early Christian apologists and theologians, we find the exploration of the notion of good and evil, fate versus free will, salvation, the meaning of Christ and his resurrection, the role of wisdom and law, etc. as reflected in the Old Testament canon and the New Testament books all within the philosophical and metaphysical framework of the Hellenic tradition that preceded it. In these early phases of Christianity, before the doctrine of the Trinity is established, the role of Reason – Logos – is seen as the hand of God so to speak, and then only later, as the doctrine of the Trinity becomes more mature and is firmly established in Christian orthodoxy, Christ himself is looked upon as a manifestation of this Logos in human form, the so-called Word of God in John (which was written in Greek of course as were all the Gospels), whose first 18 verses, i.e. the Prologue, encapsulate this Hellenic philosophical interpretation of the meaning of (the Jewish) Christ perhaps more so than any other New Testament language:


1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 This one was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and apart from him not one thing came into being that has come into being. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of humanity. 5 And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

6 A man came, sent from God, whose name was John. 7 This one came for a witness, in order that he could testify about the light, so that all would believe through him. 8 That one was not the light, but came in order that he could testify about the light. 9 The true light, who gives light to every person, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him, and the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to his own things, and his own people did not receive him. 12 But as many as received him—to those who believe in his name—he gave to them authority to become children of God, 13 who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of a husband, but of God.

14 And the Word became flesh and took up residence among us, and we saw his glory, glory as of the one and only from the Father, full of grace and truth. 15 John testified about him and cried out, saying, “This one was he about whom I said, ‘The one who comes after me is ahead of me, because he existed before me.’” 16 For from his fullness we have all received, and grace after grace. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came about through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has seen God at any time; the one and only, God, the one who is in the bosom of the Father—that one has made him known.


In this oft quoted passage, we see here not only very close references and analogues to Genesis[1], but also a classically Stoic, or perhaps better put a classically Hellenistic philosophical interpretation of the birth and teachings of Jesus, ignoring the reference to John the Baptist which plays a central role here clearly in John’s conception of setting the stage for the tale of the life of Jesus. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke – known collectively as the synoptic Gospels because they share many of the same characteristics and story line – are distinct from the Gospel of John in many respects, especially given the clear Hellenic philosophical influence we see in John.

Within the context of later Christian theological development, we see a clear shift away from the view of the supremacy of Reason over God, and a focus more on salvation through Christ. The tradition almost inverts the priority with the doctrine of the Trinity, where Reason is not the pinnacle of metaphysics as it is in the Neo-Platonic tradition quite explicitly and in the Peripatetic tradition implicitly, but Reason – or more specifically what has come to be known as the Word – is looked upon as a medium through which the power of the Trinity moves through man, and is personified in the Son of God, Jesus, who is the one and only savior of mankind.

In exploring this notion of what has come down to us as the “Word” in New Testament and Christian canon and theology, and its place within the tripartite theology of the Christians (the Trinity), it’s important to have a clear notion as to the history and context of the term as it used by the author of John, and its meaning within the philosophical community from within which it emerges in the first few centuries after Christ, particularly in the Gnostic tradition which was shunned by later Christians as heretical but which exerted at least some influence over early Christian theological development, even if only as a point of reference for its critics.[2]


Perhaps the most fleshed out philosophical notion of Logos in the Judeo-Christian tradition can be found in the work of Philo of Alexandria (c.20 BCE – 40CE), a Jewish philosopher who synthesized the tradition of Moses as reflected in the Old Testament directly into the Hellenistic philosophical tradition, landing on the idea of Logos as one of the core theological and philosophical principles upon which his theological scheme rested, a scheme which placed Moses as the most revered and esteemed of all philosophers in antiquity. [Interestingly, Philo’s works were mainly conserved in the Christian theological tradition despite his Jewish heritage and that the main thrust of his teachings were the legitimization and synthesis of the teachings of Moses (Old Testament) into Hellenistic philosophy, even going so far as to suggest that the Greek philosophical tradition borrowed from the Jewish sage rather than emerging independently.]

Philo’s work can be roughly categorized between his Old Testament exegesis and commentary and his more philosophical treatises that dealt with more classical philosophical problems such as ethics, free will, the nature of the soul, etc. A good summary of his doctrine of Logos and its influence on subsequent Christian theological development can be found in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Philo:


The pivotal and the most developed doctrine in Philo’s writings on which hinges his entire philosophical system, is his doctrine of the Logos. By developing this doctrine he fused Greek philosophical concepts with Hebrew religious thought and provided the foundation for Christianity, first in the development of the Christian Pauline myth and speculations of John, later in the Hellenistic Christian Logos and Gnostic doctrines of the second century. All other doctrines of Philo hinge on his interpretation of divine existence and action….

In the Septuagint version of the Old Testament the term logos (Hebrew davar) was used frequently to describe God’s utterances (Gen. 1:3, 6,9; 3:9,11; Ps. 32:9), God’s action (Zech. 5:1-4; Ps. 106:20; Ps. 147:15), and messages of prophets by means of which God communicated his will to his people (Jer. 1:4-19, 2:1-7; Ezek. 1:3; Amos 3:1). Logos is used here only as a figure of speech designating God’s activity or action. …

The Greek, metaphysical concept of the Logos is in sharp contrast to the concept of a personal God described in anthropomorphic terms typical of Hebrew thought. Philo made a synthesis of the two systems and attempted to explain Hebrew thought in terms of Greek philosophy by introducing the Stoic concept of the Logos into Judaism. In the process the Logos became transformed from a metaphysical entity into an extension of a divine and transcendental anthropomorphic being and mediator between God and men. Philo offered various descriptions of the Logos.[3]


The general consensus is that Philo’s philosophical and allegorical work is less innovative and more reflective of the current thinking among Jewish scholars in his day. Philo was a product of the intellectual melting pot of Alexandria which we know had strong ties to Hellenistic philosophy, his writings show clear signs of this. But at the same time, Philo is first and foremost a Jewish scholar. His work is an exegesis of Jewish tradition, mythology and history in the light of Hellenistic philosophy which was considered to be the intellectual benchmark of the times. His work to a large extent is meant to establish Moses as one of the great philosophers of antiquity and his allegorical interpretation of Genesis for example follows the lines of the Greek philosophic tradition of interpreting mythology allegorically, a tradition that was well established by the time of Philo.

With Philo we do have a significant break from the more orthodox Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament however, a well-documented tradition that is reflected in the (Hebrew) Old Testament that covers the history of the Jewish people roughly from 2000 BCE to 350 BCE or so, starting from the moment of creation in Genesis, to the world of primordial man/woman and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, to the time of Moses and the Exodus of the Jewish people out of Egypt (circa 1280 BCE), through the construction of the First Temple dedicated to the worship of Yahweh (Elohim) by King Solomon around the 10th century BCE, through the period of Babylonian captivity and exile to the (re) construction of the Second Temple under Persian rule circa 530 BCE. This long period of Jewish history effectively comes to an end with the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth, his life and teachings, and the (orthodox) interpretation thereof of course captured in the New Testament scripture, works that reflect a significant Hellenic influence not just linguistically (there were written in using the Greek language) but also theologically as subsequent theologians incorporate the mysterious role of the living Christ into their Abrahamic monotheistic tradition, i.e. enter Christianity.

All of this history, representing the lineage and trials and faith of the Jewish people is captured in the Old Testament, In Hebrew, and in it we find the core tenets of the Jewish faith stemming in large part from the covenant that Yahweh makes with Moses when he leads the Jewish people out of Egypt, i.e. the Ten Commandments, and the introduction of the Torah or “law” which is captured primarily in the five Books of Moses and is established to guide the Jewish people, a people that are distinguished by their long history of trials and tribulations and exile from, and re-establishment of their homeland in modern day Israel and their three thousand year relationship with the Temple of Jerusalem, a place that not only plays a significant role in the Old Testament but also of course continues to play a significant role in Middle East politics even today.

It is in the Torah that we find seeds of all of the Abrahamic religions which are so prevalent in the world today, representing more than two-thirds the global population. But this history and culture, the language (Hebrew), the mythology, etc. becomes deeply Hellenized starting in the 3rd century BCE after Alexander the Great conquers Israel/Judea and incorporates the land into the Macedonian Empire, marking the beginning of the period of Greek influence over the Middle East and Northern Africa (Egypt primarily) and establishing the social and political foundations for Western civilization.


This Hellenization process of Judaism, which lays the groundwork for the later interpretations of the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and the advent of Christianity, has essentially two parallel transformations that take place in the last half of the first millennium BCE. The first path is represented by the writings that are accepted within the orthodox Jewish community that reflect (relatively later) interpretations of the Torah. These texts were primarily written in Hebrew (and to a lesser extent Aramaic as with the later books such as Daniel and Ezra) and were the last works to be incorporated into the Jewish canon as the Ketuvim (Writings) between the 1st century BCE to the second century CE. This is the so-called Wisdom tradition that has Jewish roots but is essentially adopted and incorporated into the Christian tradition albeit transformed theologically and otherwise into the doctrine of the Trinity and the deification of Jesus.

The second parallel track of the Hellenization of Jewish theology takes place primarily in Alexandria and starts with the commissioning of the translation of the Old Testament from the Hebrew into Greek proper, a work commissioned by the Ptolemaic Dynasty that takes place starting in the 2nd century BCE supposedly by seventy Jewish scholars (hence the name of the work as the Septuagint or simply LXX). The lasting import of this translation cannot be over stated as it represents not just the beginning of the direct availability of Jewish history and theology in the Hellenic world but also represents the beginning of the interpretation of Jewish theology into the more modern and widely accepted Greek philosophical framework and syntax which had evolved independent of the Semitic/Hebrew culture for at least a thousand years. It is from the tradition of the LXX that not only the influential pseudo-Christian theologian Philo of Alexandria comes from, but also from which the New Testament and its interpretation of the life and teachings of Jesus are crafted and squarely rest.

The LXX categorized a good portion of what were later to be incorporated into the Ketuvim as the “Wisdom Books”, a categorization stemming primarily due to the significant Hellenic philosophic influence that is displayed that marks a departure from earlier Jewish canon, characterized primarily with the role that Wisdom (the Greek σοφία or Sophia) plays as one of the defining features of Jewish history and theology. The books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs which are all part of the Ketuvim fall into this Wisdom literature category, along with the Sirach and Book of Wisdom which were included in the LXX and therefor in almost all Christian Old Testament literature, but are not included in the Jewish Old Testament (Tanakh).[4]


In the main, wisdom was greatly valued and eagerly sought during the Second Temple, and the wise became the teachers of the young and the models of the old. An extensive Wisdom-literature, of which large portions may have been lost, sprang up in continuation of the Proverbs of Solomon. Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) proves, on analysis, to be a compilation of writings which belong in part to an older generation; and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, which recent research has reclaimed for Jewish literature, may also be classed among these Wisdom-books.

In all these books wisdom is extolled and invested with divine attributes (Ecclus. [Sirach] i. 1-26, iv. 11-29, li. 13-30, and especially xxiv. 1-29, where it is identified with the law of Moses; Test. Patr., Levi, 13; Enoch, xlii. 1-2). The book on astronomy and cosmography in the writings of Enoch is described as celestial wisdom (Enoch, xxxvii. 2, xlix. 1-3, lxxxii. 2-3; comp. Book of Jubilees, iv. 17, xxi. 10), and Noah’s book on healing (Book of Jubilees, x. 13) belongs to the same class.

Under the influence of Greek philosophy wisdom became a divine agency of a personal character (Wisdom vii. 22-30), so that Philo terms it the daughter of God, “the mother of the creative Word” (“De Profugis,” §§ 9, 20), while as the creative principle of the world, wisdom occurs in Targ. Yer. to Gen. i. 1 (comp. Ḥag. 11b; Gen. R. i., where the Torah takes the place of wisdom; see also the midrash on Prov. iii. 19 in Jellinek, “B. H.” ii. 23-39, v. 63-69). In Christian and Gentile Gnosticism, wisdom became the center of speculation (see Gnosticism). The so-called Fourth Book of Maccabees, a philosophical sermon on self-control with reference to the seven martyred sons of the Maccabean heroine, is another contribution to the Hellenistic Wisdom-literature.[5]


This Wisdom tradition, which again has its roots in Jewish philosophy, represents at a very basic level a synthesis of Greek philosophical thought and Judaism, with some strong connections that can be drawn, particularly with the Book of Wisdom or the Wisdom of Solomon and Isis, the ancient Egyptian Goddess that was associated with the throne and royalty, eternal life and salvation, light and order – maat to the Egyptians, kosmos and/or nomos to the Greeks and the torah of the Jews – all characteristics that are attributed to Wisdom in Old Testament scripture, again particularly in the Book of Wisdom which is a fairly late (1st century CE) work[6]. This salvation attribute to Sophia, which runs as a consistent theme in Jewish Old Testament commentaries and interpretations of the Second Temple Period as Yahweh personified as Sophia is looked upon as the savior of the Jews, along with her association with light, order and the Sun, is to gain significant traction in the Gnostic tradition that takes root after the death of Jesus and his life and teachings are adopted and interpreted by various schools and sects throughout the Mediterranean, particularly in Alexandria which is the source of many of the Gnostic sects which are prevalent in the first few centuries after Jesus is crucified and before Christian orthodoxy takes shape.

Although at first glance this slight shift in emphasis in the interpretation and analysis of Torah into an albeit simplified pseudo-Greek philosophic framework might seem inconsequential, it marks the beginning not only of a new phase of Jewish exegesis, but also establishes the philosophical framework from which Christianity in all its forms is constructed, Gnosticism included.

Another important figure in this Hellenization of Judaism leveraged by the early Christian Church Fathers and theologians is Josephus, a first century CE Jewish scholar and historian who initially fights against Rome during the First Jewish-Roman War (66-73 CE) when the Second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem is destroyed and is later adopted by the Roman Emperor Vespasian first as a hostage and interpreter and then later granted freedom.

In his first major work entitled The Jewish War, or Judean War, Josephus accounts the struggles of the Jews in Judea from the capture of Jerusalem by the Seleucid (Greek) ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes in 164 BCE to the fall and destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE by the Romans. His second major work, which is authored in Greek and is oft cited by Christian theologians as evidence for the historical Jesus as well as John the Baptist, is entitled Antiquities of the Jews (circa 94 CE) and covers Jewish history back from the Garden of Eden up to the 1st century CE Jewish War against Rome. The last major work by Josephus which is extant is Against Apion, a defense of Judaism as a classic religion and philosophy addressed to detractors and critics of the Jewish faith which were presumably prevalent at the time, Apion and Manetho specifically.

The Jewish literature that is extant from this period – from the Wisdom Books that come down to us as part of the Old Testament literature which personify Wisdom as the agent of salvation, order and knowledge to the Jews, to the work of Philo the philosopher and theologian who applied a classically Greek philosophic lens to Old Testament interpretation, resting on Stoic and Platonic themes and language to explain the true meaning of the Old Testament to the Greek intellectuals and authorities of the time, to Josephus the Jewish historian who interpreted the Jewish tradition from an historical perspective for the Greeks and Romans during the first century CE – all established the foundations, set the stage almost, for the interpretation of the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, in all its forms, which was to provide the theological and historical foundations of Christianity, perhaps the most influential religious (and political) movement of all time. A movement ironically enough which diverges significantly from the prevalence of truth and order as prime metaphysical and philosophical building blocks as had been so well established by the Greeks (and to a lesser extent Jews) to the rise in prevalence of the role of salvation and eternal life, through Christ, as the core tenets of faith.


[1] Genesis 1:1-1:5 “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth— 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters. 3 And God said, “Let there be light!” And there was light. 4 And God saw the light, that it was good, and God caused there to be a separation between the light and between the darkness. 5 And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.” Lexham English Bible, from

[2] Much insight into early Gnostic philosophical development was gained with the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library in 1945 and the subsequent translation of the texts therein. In the twelve leather-bound papyrus codices that were discovered as part of the Nag Hammadi library were mostly texts labeled as Gnostic, but also some works belonging to the Corpus Hermeticum as well as a partial translation of Plato’s Republic speaking perhaps to the eclectic philosophical milieu within which philosophic schools, and in turn libraries, evolved during this time period (circa 4th century CE).

[3] Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 BCE-40CE) entry.

[4] Sirach and the Book of Wisdom are referred to as deuterocanonical, a term used to describe certain passages or books of the Christian Old Testament that are not included in the Hebrew/Jewish Bible proper.

[5] Jewish Encyclopedia, entry on WISDOM –

[6] For a detailed account of the similarities and parallels between Isis and Sophia in the Book of Wisdom see Isis and Sophia in the Book of Wisdom, Harvard Theological Review by John S. Kloppenborg (1982), 75, pp 57-84 and for a more broad picture of Second Temple Period Wisdom literature and themes in The Way of Wisdom: Essays in Honor of Bruce K. Waltke (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House), pgs 212-225 – chapter on Wisdom of Solomon and Biblical Interpretation in the Second Temple Period.

%d bloggers like this: