Pythagoras: The Father of Greek Philosophy

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

Although none of the complete works of Pre-Socratic philosophers survive today in full, we do have excerpts and references to their work that allude to who these philosophers were and to some extent what their metaphysical, theological, and philosophical premises and theses were.  References to these Pre-Socratic philosophers, quotations as well as summaries of their belief system and philosophies comes from of course Aristotle and Plato, the Middle Platonist Plutarch, the (Epicurean) philosophical historian Diogenes Laertius, from early Judeo-Christian scholars such Philo Judaeus, Origen and Clement of Alexandria and from 3rd and 4th century CE Neo-Platonist authors such as Iamblichus, Porphyry and Simplicius.

It is clear from the works of Plato and Aristotle that they were influenced by these Pre-Socratic philosophers; even if only within the context of disagreeing with their fundamental tenets or conclusions, or illustrating the supremacy of their intellectual premises or beliefs with their predecessors, all of which generally fall under the category of Pre-Socratics.  This can be seen for example in that many of the Pre-Socratic philosophers were characters and/or referenced in Plato’s dialogues – Pythagoras and Parmenides for example.  All of these Pre-Socratic philosophers, and Socrates himself if we are to believe the portrayal of him by Plato, shared the common principle of the rejection of the hitherto traditional mythological and Theogonical, i.e. divine, explanation of universal creation and order reality that permeated ancient thought, and to a great extent all of them attempted to answer such fundamental questions of the origin of the universe and the nature of reality in a more rational, reasonable fashion as contrasted by the traditions that came before them.

Of the Pre-Socratic philosophers, Pythagoras (c. 570 – c. 495 BCE) is undoubtedly the most influential and the most enigmatic.  He is the first supposedly to have called himself a “philosopher”, literally “lover of wisdom”, and as such it is probably not too much of a stretch to call him the father of western philosophy, although many might argue against this depiction.  Much of the modern academic literature surrounding Pythagoras, and the tradition which followed him as understood through his disciples, the sect that he founded, and his intellectual influence not only on other Pre-Socratic philosophers, but in the “Italian” philosophical tradition as it was defined in antiquity and looked upon as distinct from the “Ionian” philosophical tradition – as distinguished by Aristotle and Diogenes Laertius among other ancient authors – but also on the “Socratic” tradition as well as reflected on the works of Plato.[2]

Much of the modern academic literature surrounding Pythagoras focuses on what can truly be said to be “historically accurate” concerning his life and teachings.  This is a somewhat tricky problem because a) it is widely held that he authored no works himself, b) it is believed that his teachings were to be kept secret by initiates and c) because the biographies of his life that have survived are from authors that lived and wrote centuries after his death, most notably those of the Epicurean philosophical historian Diogenes Laertius who flourished in the early 3rd century CE, and the Neo-Platonists Porphyry and Iamblichus who are also 3rd and 4th century CE authors, some 9 centuries at least after Pythagoras is supposedly to have lived and taught, circa 6th century BCE (570 – 501 BCE).[3]

By the time these biographies were written however, Pythagoras had evolved into a semi-divine figure of fairly eminent heroic stature so the stories surrounding his life and teachings weave myth and history into a single narrative, making it somewhat difficult to ascertain the “facts” regarding not just his biography but also his specific teachings, their origins, and their true import and influence on the subsequent Hellenic intellectual landscape.  Diogenes Laertius in his most influential and lasting work Lives of Eminent Philosophers notably spends as much ink on the life and teachings of Pythagoras as he does on Plato and Aristotle, so if nothing else that should give the reader a good estimation on the relative import of this figure on the development of Hellenic philosophical tradition, at least as seen through the eyes of one of the most prominent Philosophical historians in Hellenic antiquity, a work which undoubtedly influenced our understanding of the early development of the Hellenic philosophical tradition as much if not more than any other work in the history of Western intellectual development.  It should come as no surprise then that Pythagoras was and is still widely regarded as one of the most influential Hellenic philosophers in antiquity, and certainly is one of the most, if not the most, influential and widely studied of all of the Pre-Socratic philosophers.

 

Pythagoras was reportedly born on the island of Samos just off the coast of modern day Turkey in the Aegean Sea.  This region of the Mediterranean at that time rested just on the Eastern Ionian border, and just on the Eastern borders of what was then the Persian (Achaemenid) Empire.  To this extent, and this is true of the cities of Miletus and Ephesus as well, both of which were centers of intellectual thought in the 6th and 5th centuries BCE during the time of the “Pre-Socratic” philosophical movement if we may call it such, it is fairly reasonable to assume some sort of Near Eastern, i.e. Persian and Chaldean, as well as Egyptian influence on the philosophy of Pythagoras.[4]

While Aristotle supposedly wrote a treatise On the Pythagoreans, it is unfortunately no longer extant, so that leaves us with scant relatively contemporaneous sources to look to regarding what can be determined to be “historically accurate” regarding the life and teachings of this famous historical figure from antiquity.  Both Herodotus (c. 484 – 425 BCE) as well as Plato (428 – 348 BCE) mention his “school” in passing, and Aristotle (367 – 347 BCE) does refer to a “Pythagorean School” or set of beliefs to which he was associated at somewhat greater length (more on this below), but even these authors write at least a century or two after Pythagoras died so we need to view their assertions and statements regarding what has come to be known as “Pythagorean” philosophy with a certain level of skepticism.[5]

However, what we can surmise definitively from the very early sources was that as an historical figure he did in fact exist, and that he was in fact the founder of a somewhat countercultural intellectual movement (again today what we would call a “sect” which involved some sort of secret initiations and various rights, beliefs and practices), and that he did consider himself to be a philosopher in the later Hellenic sense of the term, that he studied and travelled abroad throughout the Mediterranean and Near East prior to founding his “school” in southern Italy and that at the very least he was well known in antiquity, leaving the question of influence and how well respected he was within the later Hellenic philosophical community (if we may call it that) aside as evidenced for example by the criticism of Pythagoras in a quotation attributed to Heraclitus[6].

So it’s hard to discern fact from fiction as it were with respect to what Pythagoras actually taught versus what the subsequent philosophers that were influenced by him, his students, actually understood and interpreted his philosophy to be.  Especially when you’re dealing with a figure that clearly cultivated a semi-divine status and had a religious following of sorts that lasted some several hundred years after his death.  What is known is for certain is that he cultivated and promoted a way of life that was vegan, was a believer in the notion of metempsychosis – i.e. that the Soul lives on after death and passes into the bodies of other animate “things” such as plants or animals or even humans or deities depending upon its actions – and that his philosophical teachings were focused on numeric harmony and proportion, from which his association with the famed Pythagorean theory stems from even though he was not a mathematician per se.

All of the historical sources however are fairly consistent when speaking to the various “Oriental” influences on Pythagoras from a theo-philosophical perspective.  It is widely held for example that he travelled and studied with various priests and mystics throughout the Mediterranean during his life.  In particular it believed that he spent a good deal of time in Egypt, and is also believed to have been influenced and/or initiated by Chaldean and Persian (Magi) priests.  It is also believed by some later authors that he was exposed to the philosophy of the Hebrews as well which would not be altogether surprising given the geography and time period within which he lived and taught.  Evidence for influence from as far East as India is lacking however, despite many efforts to prove otherwise and despite the fact that his beliefs in reincarnation (metempsychosis) have a very “Eastern” and classically Indian (Hindu) theo-philosophical flavor.  Regardless however, Pythagoras for a variety of political and social reasons ended up after his studies and travels settling in Croton in Southern Italy where the bulk of his teachings and followers ensued, and where he eventually met his untimely death around 490 BCE, later being attributed as one of the founders of the so-called “Italian” philosophical school, at least as how Diogenes Laertius distinguished it specifically from the Ionian school as reflected by the teachings of Socrates and his followers to the East (the East of Italy at least).

It was in Persia to the East of Ionia during the time of Pythagoras and the Pre-Socratics that the Magi (the Greek designation for their priestly class during the Median, Achaemenid, Parthian and Sassanian periods of Iranian/Persian history) held such great influence over theological matters as well as presumably matters of state as well which was so often the case in antiquity.  These priests, again Magi, were often referred to in the Greek literature in classical antiquity, had a reputation for divination (telling the future) and astronomy, and were in fact the very same class of priests who were said to have come and witnessed the birth of Christ.  There is even a tale told by Diogenes Laertius in his Lives of Eminent Philosophers of a letter sent by Darius I, one of the rulers of the Achaemenid Empire, to Heraclitus asking him to join his court as a Greek emissary of sorts, an offer in which he declined apparently.[7]

While at times the Persians were the great adversaries of the Greeks in antiquity, as were at other times the Spartans and the Macedonians each who had their turns at imperial dominion of what later became the Roman Empire, this was the same civilization that had assimilated (really conquered) the Assyrian/Sumer-Babylonian peoples and the same people that adopted in one form or another what came to be known in Greek circles as Zoroastrianism.  Zoroastrianism in this context was the form of the worship of great god Ahura Mazda, as understood from the teachings of the legendary Persian prophet Zarathustra, teachings that were captured in the Avesta which held theological influence over the Persians/Iranians from at least the time of the Achaemenid Empire (c. 550 – 330 BCE) down to the time of the Sassanian Empire (224 – 651 CE), up until the overthrow of the Persian (Sassanian) Empire during the first half of the 6th century CE era when they were conquered by the Arabs/Muslims – so for almost 1000 years give or take.[8]

The earliest attested writings attributed to Pythagoras himself are the so-called Golden Verses, a set of aphorisms written in dactylic hexameter verse that are attested to have existed and been in wide circulation as early as the third century BCE, but only show up in the written records by Neo-Platonist authors and commentators in the 5th centuries CE.  The aphorisms themselves bear a striking resemblance to a Zoroastrian tradition called andarz[9], which follows a very similar mode of style as the Golden Verses where short sayings or proverbs are attributed to great rulers or teachers that facilitate the cultivation of religious or spiritual endeavors, providing further evidence of the connection between Pythagorean doctrine and Persian theology, i.e. the Magi.[10]

It is also widely held that much of Pythagoras’s numerological and arithmological philosophy, the philosophy of harmony and proportion for which he was so well known, was derived from the Egyptians and/or the Chaldeans.  For both the Chaldeans, which heralded from ancient Sumer and Babylon (aka Assyrian) as well as the Egyptians and Indo-Aryans in fact, had a long standing tradition and association with astronomy, mathematics, and geometry, as well as a longstanding belief in the mystical and divine nature of number, arithmology and geometry in general – ideas which played an integral part in what we have come to understand as Pythagorean philosophy.[11]

 

The earliest reliable reference we have regarding “Pythagorean” philosophy is of course from Aristotle, in particular from Book I of Metaphysics where in typical Aristotelian fashion he outlines (and typically criticizes) previous philosophical belief systems and teachings prior to establishing his own system.

At the same time, however, and even earlier the so-called Pythagoreans applied themselves to mathematics, and were the first to develop this science; and through studying it they came to believe that its principles are the principles of everything.  And since numbers are by nature first among these principles, and they fancied that they could detect in numbers, to a greater extent than in fire and earth and water, many analogues of what is and comes into being—such and such a property of number being justice, and such and such soul or mind, another opportunity, and similarly, more or less, with all the rest—and since they saw further that the properties and ratios of the musical scales are based on numbers, and since it seemed clear that all other things have their whole nature modelled upon numbers, and that numbers are the ultimate things in the whole physical universe, they assumed the elements of numbers to be the elements of everything, and the whole universe to be a proportion or number.

Well, it is obvious that these thinkers too consider number to be a first principle, both as the material of things and as constituting their properties and states.  The elements of number, according to them, are the Even and the Odd.  Of these the former is limited and the latter unlimited; Unity consists of both (since it is both odd and even); number is derived from Unity; and numbers, as we have said, compose the whole sensible universe.  Others of this same school hold that there are ten principles, which they enunciate in a series of corresponding pairs: (1.) Limit and the Unlimited; (2.) Odd and Even; (3.) Unity and Plurality; (4.) Right and Left; (5.) Male and Female; (6.) Rest and Motion; (7.) Straight and Crooked; (8.) Light and Darkness; (9.) Good and Evil; (10.) Square and Oblong.[12]

Here we see many of the classical elements of Pythagorean philosophy laid out, albeit in a manner that is not altogether clear whether or not the belief systems were held and taught by Pythagoras himself, or were espoused by later interpreters and/or followers of his teachings.  Regardless, these doctrines as Aristotle describes them come to be known as the fundamental attributes of Pythagorean philosophy as well as the founding principles upon which the “Italian” school, which Pythagoras is the founding member of, is based.

We have first and foremost the discipline of mathematics assigned to this school of thought, and through which they came to understand that mathematics – number and arithmetic and basic geometry – was basically the language of the universe, or the language through which the universal order, and moral and ethical order of the individual and society at large, could be best understood.  The far reaching implications of this belief in the relationship between number, mathematics, geometry and the universal order on Western intellectual developments cannot be overstated.  Furthermore, through this “mathematical” understanding of the cosmos, and in particular through their understanding of harmonic and music theory to which Pythagoras himself is closely associated, the Pythagoreans came to believe that harmony and proportionality, which in turn were based upon the relationships of the fundamental numbers between 1 and 10, could be used to describe the universe in its entirety – at least metaphysically and metaphorically speaking.

Furthermore, and this is perhaps where we start to shift more into Aristotle’s interpretation of Pythagorean philosophy rather than perhaps his teachings, or the teachings of his followers, is the leap between the universal harmonic order based upon numbers and their inherent (mathematical and geometrical) relationships, to numbers as “first principles”, which for the most part is what Aristotle is trying to establish in the context of the work which he is speaking about Pythagorean philosophy, i.e. Metaphysics or “first philosophy”.  In this context then, Aristotle lists the ten list of fundamental, opposing forces – Even and Odd, Darkness and Light, Good and Bad, Male and Female, etc. – each of which is ascribed a numerical value, and the sum total of which describe all of the elemental forces of the universe –i.e. again his “first principles”.

So we can see here, at least at some level, through the great analytical lens of Aristotle himself, the association of “Pythagorean” philosophy not only with numerology and harmony which is what it has classically come to be seen as predominantly focused on as universal and ontological “first principles”, or arche, but also – and somewhat less emphasized, or in fact altogether ignored, by later interpreters and expositioners of Pythagorean philosophy, is the belief in the universe or cosmos as an ordered structure of pairs of opposites, from which the underlying harmony and balance, i.e. proportion, of the cosmic world order can best be understood, or said another way how the underlying structure of the universe as we “experience” it can best be explained.

The description of Pythagorean doctrinal development by the Syrian Neo-Platonist Iamblichus is also worth mentioning as it is not only more consistent with more modern interpretations of Pythagorean intellectual developments, but it also explains to a certain extent why Aristotle refers to Pythagorean philosophy in the aggregate and avoids attributing the belief systems which have come to be understood as “Pythagorean”, even by the 4th century BCE, to Pythagoras himself.  That is to say why Aristotle uses the language the words “so-called Pythagoreans” which is quite different than how he refers to the belief systems surrounding first principles of Empedocles, Anaxagoras, Leucippus, Democritus, Xenophanes and Parmenides from the very same passage which are all described within the very same passage.[13]

In his work Life of Pythagoras, Iamblichus distinguishes between two different branches of Pythagorean thought – akousmatikoi and mathematikoi.[14]  The former was in all likelihood the topic of analysis and discussion of the now lost works of Aristotle On the Pythagoreans, as well as the somewhat more contemporary (contemporary to Pythagoras) work by Anaximander of Miletus (c. 610 – 546 BCE) entitled An Explanation of Pythagorean Symbola.  These works presumably described and analyzed not just the life of the famed figure Pythagoras himself but also presumably the sayings and aphorisms, i.e. symbola, which had been directly attributed to Pythagoras himself and which encapsulated his philosophical teachings.

These sayings or aphorisms, which dealt primarily with ethical and moral matters, as well as matters of theology and what later came to be known as “philosophy” (with respect to doctrines describing a way of life for example) in all likelihood were the original source of the later compilation of the Golden Verses which again we know circulated throughout the Hellenic intellectual community by at least the 3rd century BCE and which was attributed to Pythagoras himself.  The followers of these symbola were, at least in later Neo-Platonic intellectual circles, distinguished from the Pythagorean mathematikoi as akousmata, which according to Iamblichus at least had a musical element, a chanting aspect to them – hence the term.  The other branch of Pythagorean thought, i.e. the mathematikoi, were in all likelihood the ones that had the most influence over Platonic philosophy, in particular the underlying geometry of universal order as described in the Timaeus.[15]

 

What is also interesting and somewhat baffling is that Ovid’s recollection and reverence for Pythagoras is almost entirely left out of the academic literature in terms of it actually truly reflecting “Pythagorean” philosophy, even though a) he explicitly outlines what he means by Pythagorean doctrine, and b) he sits some two centuries at least before the later Neo-Platonist authors of Porphyry and Iamblichus that are typically cited as the most reliable sources for Pythagorean life and teachings, and c) Ovid himself is known to have been well schooled in philosophy and was born and raised in the very same region (Southern Italy) where we know Pythagoras spent a great deal of his later life teaching and where he clearly exerted great influence.

Ovid spends a good deal of his final Book of Metamorphoses covering Pythagorean teachings in fact, told within the context of the story of the founding of Crotone by Numa Pompilius (753-673 BCE), Rome’s legendary second king.  Crotone is where Pythagoras founded his “school” and herein Ovid takes the opportunity to run through Pythagorean doctrine as it were, as he describes the founding of the city by Numa and just before he closes his work with the deification of Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus.  After describing the vegan lifestyle, and the belief in the transmigration of souls (metempsychosis), both attributes of Pythagorean thought and doctrine that were and are widely held to be true, Ovid goes on to describe Pythagorean doctrine in more detail, aligning it squarely with his overarching theme for his work in fact, i.e. change or metamorphosis as the primary characteristic and qualification of existence.

‘Since I have embarked on the wide ocean, and given full sails to the wind, I say there is nothing in the whole universe that persists.  Everything flows, and is formed as a fleeting image.  Time itself, also, glides, in its continual motion, no differently than a river.  For neither the river, nor the swift hour can stop: but as wave impels wave, and as the prior wave is chased by the coming wave, and chases the one before, so time flees equally, and, equally, follows, and is always new.  For what was before is left behind: and what was not comes to be: and each moment is renewed.[16]

This is not typically the philosophical teaching that is attributed to Pythagoras, Pythagoras the mystical mathematician who espoused the belief in the underlying harmony of number and ratio as reflections of the divine universal order, and although Ovid clearly has an axe to grind to try and closely align one of the greatest Italian philosophers of antiquity with the overarching theme of change which permeates his work, the philosophy that he lays out however is very reminiscent of the philosophy and metaphysics that underlie the cornerstone of Far Eastern (Chinese) philosophy, i.e. the Yijing.

Ovid goes on to describe how the elements themselves are subject to change – earth, air, water and fire – describing a process of transformation that bears even more striking similarity to Yijing metaphysics as its described in the Ten Wings and the various bagua (trigram) arrangements.

‘Even the things we call elements do not persist.  Apply your concentration, and I will teach the changes, they pass through.  The everlasting universe contains four generative states of matter.  Of these, two, earth and water, are heavy, and sink lower, under their own weight.  The other two lack heaviness, and, if not held down, they seek height: that is air, and fire, purer than air.  Though they are distinct in space, nevertheless they are all derived from one another, and resolve into one another.  Earth, melting, is dilated to clear water: the moisture, rarified, changes to wind and air: then air, losing further weight, in the highest regions shines out as fire, the most rarified of all.  Then they return, in reverse, revealing the same series of changes.  Since fire, condenses, turns into denser air, and this to water, and water, contracted, solidifies as earth.

‘Nothing keeps its own form, and Nature, the renewer of things, refreshes one shape from another. Believe me, nothing dies in the universe as a whole, but it varies and changes its aspect, and what we call ‘being born’ is a beginning to be, of something other, than what was before, and ‘dying’ is, likewise, ending a former state.  Though, ‘that’ perhaps is transferred here, and ‘this’, there, the total sum is constant.[17]

So while relatively contemporary interpretations of Pythagorean doctrine most certainly include a references to a certain lifestyle and diet, as well as initiation into a private sect that clearly represented some sort of religious and/or mystery cult type of movement, as well as an association with sacred mathematical and geometric symbolism and a universal order based upon the interaction of a finite set of opposing, basic elemental forces, we also find with Ovid in particular an association of Pythagorean teachings with basic elemental change, as well as an integration and assimilation of the teachings in general to the more archaic and pre-historic Mythos of the Hellenic world to which Ovid’s entire work rests in in fact.

What we find in Ovid’s interpretation of Pythagorean teaching, is a more archaic form of theology as it were, and one that is hinged on the idea of change and flux being the primordial characteristic of existence, as well as – consistent with Aristotle’s interpretation of Pythagorean philosophy in terms of first principles – the idea or notion that the universe is best understood as the interrelationships and intermixing of a basic set of opposing forces, forces which are aligned with number, proportion and harmonic balance.  In total, in looking at the “philosophical” interpretation of Pythagorean theology and cosmology, and combining it within the mythological and more pre-historic narrative provided by Ovid and his notion of change as being the primordial elemental property of reality, we are left with a worldview, a theo-philosophical system, that looks very similar to that which is represented by the Classic of Changes, i.e. the Yijing, from the Far East, a view and a comparison which is rarely made – if ever – and one which begs the question as to where and why these similarities exist between two of the primordial philosophical systems that emerge from these geographically disparate and theoretically distinctive civilizations which we believe did not have any sort of cultural or social connection at this phase in their respective civilizational development.

 


[2] According to Aristotle, Platonic philosophy is for the most part “aligned” with and consistent with the “Italian” schools which came before him. of which Pythagoras is the most eminent and influential figure of course.  He also aligns Platonic philosophy with Heraclitus as well, specifically in reference to his doctrine of the whole sensible world being in a state of “flux”.  See Aristotle. Metaphysics.  Book I .987a from Aristotle. Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vols.17, 18, translated by Hugh Tredennick. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1933, 1989.at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0052%3Abook%3D1%3Asection%3D987a

[3] While references to Pythagoras can be found in the extant works of both Plato and Aristotle, it can be argued that neither of them assign him specifically with the establishment philosophical significance per se.  See Huffman, Carl, “Pythagoras”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2014/entries/pythagoras/&gt;.

[4] Miletus was the epicenter of the so-called Milesian School where Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes, all very prominent early Pre-Socratic philosophers heralded from, and Ephesus was the home of Heraclitus, the famed philosopher of flux and change which supposedly, according to Aristotle at least, heavily influenced the philosophic thought of Plato.

[5] Herodotus says that the Pythagoreans agreed with the Egyptians in not allowing the dead to be buried in wool in his Histories Book II, verse 81.  See The History of Herodotus, parallel English/Greek, tr. G. C. Macaulay, [1890], at sacred-texts.com at http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hh/hh2080.htm.  For the reference to the Pythagoreans in Plato’s Republic where Plato associates the Pythagoreans with a doctrine of universal harmony with respect to astronomical matters, see Republic 7.530d from Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vols. 5 & 6 translated by Paul Shorey. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1969 at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0168%3Abook%3D7%3Asection%3D530d.

[6] Much learning does not teach one to have understanding, else it would have taught Hesiod and Pythagoras, and again Xenophanes and Hecataeus.”  Quotation attributed to Heraclitus by Diogenes Laertius, Proclus and other ancient authors.  See Heraclitus of Ephesus, translated by G.W.T. Patrick 1889 at http://classicpersuasion.org/pw/heraclitus/herpate.htm.

[7] Lives of Eminent Philosophers. Diogenes Laertius. R.D. Hicks. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 1972 (First published 1925).  Book IX, Chapter I.  Verses 12-14.  See http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0258%3Abook%3D9%3Achapter%3D1.

[8] Affinities and similarities between the culture and theological beliefs in the Avesta literature and the Vedas of the Indo-Aryans is covered in detail in other sections of this work.

[9] See http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/andarz-precept-instruction-advice.

[10] For the full listing of 71 aphorisms, see Wikipedia contributors, ‘The golden verses of Pythagoras’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 23 February 2016, 20:59 UTC, <https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_golden_verses_of_Pythagoras&oldid=706531167> [accessed 28 September 2016]

[11] The opening passage to the famed Egyptian Rhind Mathematical Papyrus for example, a mathematical textbook which dates to the early part of the second millennium BCE more than 1000 years before Pythagoras was born, reads: “Accurate reckoning.  The entrance into the knowledge of all existing things and all obscure secrets.”.  From the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus.  Volume I.  Free Translation and Commentary by Arnold Buffum Chace.  Mathematical Association of America, Oberlin, Ohio.  1927.  Page 49.  The actual papyrus dates to around 1650 BCE and we are told is from a copy from an even older text dating from the 19th century BCE during the reign of Amenemhat II.  It was written in hieratic script and is a mathematical textbook of sorts which contains teachings and formulas on not just basic arithmetic and geometry, but also calculation of volume and area, fairly sophisticated algebraic equations and solutions, and other advanced geometry and mathematical topics that was clearly produced as a teaching tool.  The Indo-Aryans as well, at least with respect to geometry and basic mathematics and algebra as reflected in the Shulba Sutras, a text related to the construction of altars related to Agni (fire) worship and altar construction dated from the early part of the first millennium BCE.  For a deeper exploration of the connections between ancient Greek and Vedic geometry see “Greek and Vedic Geometry” by Frits Staal.  Published in the Journal of Indian Philosophy in 1999 by Kluwer Academic Publishers.  Vol. 27, No. 1/2, pg. 105.

[12] Aristotle. Metaphysics Book I 985b 986b.  Aristotle. Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vols.17, 18, translated by Hugh Tredennick. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1933, 1989.  From http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0052%3Abook%3D1%3Asection%3D985b

[13] Again see Aristotle Metaphysics 1.985a – 1.986b.  Aristotle. Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vols.17, 18, translated by Hugh Tredennick. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1933, 1989.  From http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0052%3Abook%3D1%3Asection%3D985a

[14] The Life of Pythagoras by Iamblichus.  Translated from the Greek by Thomas Taylor.  Theosophical Publishing House, Hollywood, CA.  1918. Page 62-64.

[15]  For a detailed treatment of the source and nature of these “akousmata”, as well as a description of the delineation between “akousmatikoi” and “mathematikoi” as described by the Neo-Platonist Iamblichus, see “The Pythagorean Akousmata and Early Pythagoreanism” by Johan C. Thom at https://www.academia.edu/15440495/The_Pythagorean_Akousmata_and_Early_Pythagoreanism

[16] Ovid’s Metamorphoses, translated by Anthony S. Kline, 2000.  Bk XV:176-198.  “Pythagoras’s Teachings: The Eternal Flux.”  From http://ovid.lib.virginia.edu/trans/Metamorph15.htm.

[17] Ovid’s Metamorphoses, translated by Anthony S. Kline, 2000.  Bk XV:237-258.  “Pythagoras’s Teachings: The Elements”  From http://ovid.lib.virginia.edu/trans/Metamorph15.htm.

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

Introduction

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 plato.stanford.edu/entries/plato-timaeus/ 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.  http://www.iep.utm.edu/stoicmind/

[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.  http://www.iep.utm.edu/stoicmind/

[8] Plato, Sophist, 247D.  From Wikipedia entry on Stoic physics, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stoic_physics#cite_note-2.

[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

Middle Platonism: Greek Philosophic Adolescence

Despite the emergence of metaphysics as we know it today in classical Greece, seen most clearly in the (interpretation of) the dialogues of Plato and then more clearly elucidated in the work of Aristotle, a product of Plato’s Academy, and the beginnings of the clear articulation of the role of Mind, and Reason, in not only distinguishing mankind from the rest of the species on the planet but also as the distinctive faculty of the human condition which can and should be leveraged for enlightenment, and on a more practical level happiness (eudaimonia), the rational aspect of the mind of man was looked at by the ancients as just one aspect of the Soul, the Soul in antiquity being the entity, the form, which encapsulates (ensouls) the human body and connects the individual to the cosmos as well as encompasses all of the faculties and functions of what we today call psychology or more recently cognitive science.  To the ancients, the act of perception and cognition, although identified with the mind, was the means by which man could lift himself up from the basic human condition and achieve peace and harmony.

With the Ancient Greeks, we see the establishment of philosophy from which derived what we would call today religion, philosophy as the study of wisdom in all its aspects, including not only the wisdom of the mystery traditions, but also the tradition of the mythic poets (Homer and Hesiod), all of which were stewarded and guarded by priests and the oracle based tradition – not only in Greece, but also in Egypt, Judea (Chaldean Oracles), and even Persia (the Magi).  Philosophy by definition was the attempt at establishing cohesive and complete metaphysical systems which were based upon Reason (Logos); Reason in this context being juxtaposed and complementary with direct revelation of the divine, a tradition which had been prevalent in the ages prior to written history across the Middle East, Egypt, throughout the Mediterranean and even to the East in Persia and India.  The Greeks, in many cases in threat of death and martyrdom, were the first to stop and say that that we should not believe these mystery and cult traditions at face value but that in understanding the role of Mind in the cosmos, the vehicle by which life itself manifested, Truth and order (maat to the Egyptians and again logos to the Greeks) when properly understood and harmonized with, could help man to understand how best to live in this world, in harmony, and even how best to govern and manage society as a whole.

The philosophical systems of Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, the Epicureans, and others included not only a cosmological system which presented alternative theories (or some might argue a recasting or reinterpretation of preexisting cosmologies) for the basic substrata of the universe (archai) as well as to how the foundational principles of the universe were created (the four elements), along with the basic building blocks of the physical world (physics) which described the world of change within which mankind coexisted, and in turn ethics which was based upon the goal of happiness or peace of mind which could be achieved through knowledge and wisdom of the cosmos, how it related to the physical world, and understanding how man could live in harmony and balance with it.  Philosophy in antiquity incorporated the ancient traditions of direct revelation and attempted to explain the role of the gods, through various cosmological mythologies, to the population at large through systems of ethics that were taught in the various philosophic schools.  In all these schools however, the supremacy of the mind, seen as a reflection of the divine Mind which emanated through and was the source of the cosmos, was preeminent.  The specific attributes and features of the mind itself, the role of cognition and perception, did not come to the forefront of philosophical development until the Enlightenment era however, some two thousand years later – most notably found in the work of Descartes encapsulated in his phrase “cogito ergo sum” – by which time the true meaning and import of the philosophies of antiquity had for the most part been lost in their transliteration and absorption into Christianity and to a lesser extent Islam.

 

Two of the most influential Greek philosophical traditions in antiquity, in both the Hellenistic period as well as the period of Roman influence and domination, were Stoicism and Epicureanism, the former of which exerted considerable influence on early Christian theology, which in turn was influenced by Jewish theological development during the same time, most notably seen in the work of Philo of Alexandria.  The Stoic and Epicurean philosophical systems survive down to us in fragments and pieces for the most part, in contrast to the more complete philosophical systems and works that survive down to us from the Platonic and Peripatetic (Aristotle) schools.  For example the (Middle) Platonic philosopher and historian Plutarch from the 2nd century CE, who incidentally was also a priest at Delphi, wrote a quite few works that criticize Stoicism from which we gain important insights into its underlying philosophy.  We also find material related to Stoicism and Epicureanism in the works of the philosophical biographer Diogenes Laertius from the third century CE who was the author of Lives of Eminent Philosophers, a comprehensive treatise which included extensive autobiographical as well as philosophical summaries of virtually all of the major ancient Greek philosophers and schools – Stoic, Platonic and Epicurean being three schools which he covers in great detail.

One cannot ignore the underlying socio-political context which drove these philosophical, really scientific, developments.  With the advent of first the Persian Empire and then the Macedonian Empire in the middle and latter half of the first millennium BCE, we see the lines of communication, exchange and trade routes open up which bridged the ancient populations of the Macedonians, the Romans, the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Chaldeans (Palestine and Israel region today) and of course the Persians[1].  The cultural and philosophical epicenters of these developments were, as they are today, forged in urban centers of learning, most notably of course first in Athens, then in Alexandria in northern Egypt, and then in turn in Rome as the Roman and Latin culture began to dominate the intellectual landscape in the first few centuries CE.

Alexandria in particular saw the development of profound intellectual and philosophical development, where most if not all of the most influential ancient philosophers and theologians lived and studied to a large extent between the second century BCE and the second century CE.  This was of course the home of the great Library of Alexandria, perhaps the greatest legacy of Alexander, and the place where the Hebrew Old Testament was translated into Greek, the famed Septuagint (or simply LXX), and where early Christian theology first took shape as reflected in the works the esteemed Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (also known as Philo Judea) who lived and wrote around the time of Christ, Clement of Alexandria who wrote and taught in the 2nd and third centuries CE, and Origen also of Alexandria who is believed to have studied with and was greatly influenced by Clement.  Clement and Origin were some of the first Christian theologians to interpret the Gospels in light of the Greek philosophical tradition, building on the work of Philo who had analyzed and encapsulated Old Testament wisdom in the light of Hellenic philosophy.

This period represented a melting pot of theological dialogue and development, perhaps best described as the enlightenment era of philosophy in antiquity and it is no accident that it is from this period that perhaps the greatest religious figure in the history of mankind emerges, Jesus of Nazareth.  It was a time when all of the significant religious traditions (philosophy) of the Mediterranean, Near East and Egypt were assimilated by some of the best minds in antiquity, an assimilation that occurred at the same time as advanced civilization was starting to blossom, and language and writing – and the existence of extensive libraries – began to manifest in the ancient world, giving philosophers and historians alike access to broad expanses of knowledge across an extensive cultural landscape, granting a perspective on history and theology, and science which at that time encompassed theology, that was unmatched in all of mankind’s history up to that point.  Perhaps it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that it was a time when Reason began to take prominence over ritual and myth as the predominant determining factor that shaped religious thought, where all knowledge was looked upon as a single system and body of work that must hang together cohesively, and where ethics was considered a branch of science just as important as physics.  This is the legacy of the ancient Greeks to the West.

The philosophers of this era looked upon the mythology of the ancient peoples, their cosmologies that were wrapped in fable and epic poetry, as allegories for the ascent of the Soul, not as true stories that explained the inner workings of Nature as some modern historians would have us believe.  This was the “secret” that was kept by the priests of the major sects of the ancient world, with whom the philosophers studied, and what they attempted to encapsulate and describe in whatever form they deemed most appropriate.  Plato wrote in Socratic dialogue form, hiding more abstract and esoteric teachings to a large extent perhaps because he was concerned the same fate of Socrates might befall him or perhaps because he thought that the ancient wisdom he was trying to convey was most appropriately done wrapped in allegory and dialectic so that the wisdom and elegance of the teaching, which he believed was beyond words, could be conveyed as best as possible.  Aristotle was more direct in his approach, more scientific to the modern reader, and perhaps because of this not terribly popular to the everyday man in antiquity that still had an appreciation for myth and allegory – at least certainly not as popular as the Stoic and Epicurean schools which had significant followings in the aristocracy and the middle class of antiquity respectively[2].

What must be kept in mind when reading about the ancient Greek philosophical schools and their respective influence not only on the development of Christianity, but also on ancient interpretations of the Old Testament (which were of course incorporated to a large extent by Christianity) as well as Muslim philosophy, is that perhaps their most lasting contribution was not the philosophy itself, but the academic and intellectual bent that all of these schools shared which was handed down through the West all the way through the Middle Ages and survives to a large extent in the academic tradition that is a hallmark of Western education today.  It is no accident that our word academic derives from the name of Plato’s school in Athens – not to mention the influence Aristotle’s work has had on modern science at the very least from a semantic perspective in delineating the branches of science as well as the meaning of “science” itself, stemming from Aristotle’s epistemological focus even though this connotation has been all but lost on the modern student.

Although it is easy to get lost in the subtle distinctions between the most predominant ancient Greek philosophical schools, it is important to keep in mind that as Christianity begins to take root in the West in the second and third centuries CE, Hellenistic philosophy – at least through the eyes of outsiders – was looked at as a single branch or thread of thought and studied as a whole.  In other words, the scholars and students in Roman antiquity studied all of the Greek philosophic schools, and then went about applying their analysis and interpretation of philosophy in general (which again included ethics, physics and politics among other disciplines in antiquity) through whatever lens or school that they belonged to.  As the ancient Mediterranean became under predominantly Roman influence in the first few centuries CE, the philosophical record starts to become much more Christian than Hellenic as the teachings of Christ start to spread and Christianity takes root in the Roman Empire.  [The one notable exception to this is the Neo-Platonic developments in the third, fourth and fifth centuries by first Plotinus and Porphyry, and then Proclus some two centuries later, their work having significant influence on the development of early Christian theological development as well and perhaps at some level representing the pinnacle of Greek philosophy in and of itself.]

Having pointed out the similarities of the Greek philosophical schools and looking at philosophical development in general in this era as the evolution of philosophy proper into what we today refer to as “religion”, or perhaps more accurately described as “theology”, it is important to point out that there were of course distinctions in worldview, outlook and metaphysics in these competing schools, and these differences were the source of much consternation and academic concern in this period of flourishing theological and philosophical development, a period which effectively came to an end with the beginning of the long standing and well documented history of the persecution of “pagan” traditions/religions by Christian orthodoxy.  Many of the Greek philosophical schools, as well as some of the more esoteric teachings and interpretations surrounding the life of Christ – collectively referred to as Gnosticism – were the first to feel this wrath as Christian orthodoxy emerges toward the end of the fourth century CE.

 

As we look at Hellenic philosophical development during the last few centuries before Christianity takes root, despite the prevalence of competing philosophic traditions, Plato’s teachings as interpreted by his successors at the Academy not only influences succeeding Hellenistic philosophic schools but also continues to thrive in its own right.  Plato’s teachings and influence, although perhaps not quite as predominantly taught or practiced by its sister Hellenic philosophies which had become widespread and popular as previously noted, was still alive and well and still formed a core part of the philosophical education of the intellectual elite during this time, many of whom went on in the in the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE to become the first Christian apologists and theologians.

Plato again espoused the supremacy of the intelligible world over the reality of the physical world, as reflected in his powerful Allegory of the Cave (which incidentally shows signs of significant Pythagorean influence given its use of the Sun and Light as the metaphor for knowledge) and espoused a certain level of skepticism or cynicism toward the physical world, the world f change or Becoming that was perceived by the senses, leading to an orthodox interpretation of his teachings by his successors at the Academy on the limits of human knowledge itself, hence its association with skepticism.  This theme can be seen not only in his teachings themselves and their subsequent interpretation by his followers, but also in the method which he wrote and taught – i.e. Socratic dialogue, dialectic, which implied a sort of organic or exploratory nature of reality and truth rather than the exposition or elucidation of truth in hard and fast terms.  This skeptic tradition was a characteristic of the teachings of the Academy until Antiochus of Ascalon (c. 130-68 BCE) takes the scene in the first century BCE, heralding a new period in the development of Platonism[3].

Antiochus’s work marks not only a significant departure from, and an effective end  to, the tradition of skepticism which had been a hallmark of the Academy for several centuries prior, but it also showed clear influences of Stoic philosophy, epistemology in particular, Stoicism having become very influential in the Hellenic intellectual community in Antiochus’s time.  With Antiochus we have the beginning of what later philosophic historians have termed Middle Platonism, “middle” because it sits between the period of skepticism which is characteristic of the teachings of the Academy after Plato’s passing and the development of Neo-Platonism as reflected in the works of Plotinus, Porphyry and Proclus among others  which takes shape in the third century CE, roughly running parallel with early Christianity.

In Antiochus’s view, no doubt influenced by the well documented and ongoing debate between the Skeptic Academics and Stoic and Epicurean realist/materialist philosophic schools, was that in the analysis of Plato’s writings taking into account his so-called “unwritten doctrines” (which we can only assume continued to be passed down through the teachers at the Academy) the mind could in fact distinguish between truth and falsehood, bridging the epistemological divide between the Stoics and Academics to a large extent and setting the stage for further Platonic development for the next few centuries borrowing some ideas from its Hellenic philosophic brethren.  To Antiochus, Plato’s philosophy was in many respects in harmony with not only Stoicism – truth could in fact be discerned from falsehood – but also those of Aristotle to a large extent as well, thereby establishing a new phase of Platonic philosophical development which espoused an epistemological view that was more closely aligned with Stoicism and the Peripatetic schools than his Academic predecessors, as well as a system of ethics which combined classically Platonic elements with some elements of the Stoic and Peripatetic schools as well, reflecting the overall philosophic synthesis that was characteristic of this time period in antiquity.

In the interpretation of Plato’s cosmology during the Middle Platonic period for example, we see the two basic principles of the universe referred to as the One and the Indefinite Dyad (the Monad and the Dyad in the Pythagorean tradition), the former being the single monistic and unchanging principle from which the universe emanates latter being the pluralistic world which is brought into being by the intelligent aspect of the World Soul.  This corresponds to Plato’s doctrine of Being and Becoming in the Timaeus which lays out the basic principles of the universe (archai or ἀρχή which stems from the Greek verb “to begin”), the ordering and intelligent which combines the primary elements (earth, air, water, fire) from which the universe is constructed by the great universal craftsman.  The World Soul according to Plato, the demiurge of the Timaeus, mediates between the realm of Ideas and the realm of matter as characterized by the world of sense perception or that which is subject to change – what he refers to as “Becoming” vs. the principle of Same, or Being.  Plato’s Being and Becoming are the two primary aspects of Nature which are analogous to the One and the Indefinite Dyad in the Middle Platonic period.  And also out of this doctrine comes forth a notion of that which must mediate between the two archai, an intelligent organizing principle which is referred to as Intellect in the later Neo-Platonic tradition and is referred to as Logos in the Stoic school and in subsequent interpretations of first Judaic scripture (the Pentateuch) and then Christian theology as evidenced not only in the Gospels themselves, particularly John, but also in interpretations of the Gospel by early Christian apologists such as Clement and Origin of Alexandria.

In this cosmology we see many of the same characteristics and themes of not only the mystery/mystical traditions that were prevalent throughout Greece at this time, but also similarities to the cosmological systems of the Jews (which Plato may or may have not been exposed to) and most certainly those of the Egyptians[4].  This universal triad which emerges from Middle Platonic thought – the One, the Indefinite Dyad, and an active intellectual ordering principle responsible for the creation of the cosmos of which man reflected – was to have a profound impact not only Neo-Platonic thought, but also on philosophical and theological development in general for the next six hundred years or so, Christianity being no exception of course.

The Stoic cosmology was not that distinct from this Middle Platonic worldview, differing primarily in some aspects of the conception of Plato’s World Soul and how active and integrated it was within the universe which was its byproduct as well as the fundamental nature of the physical world and its constituents, focusing on fire and air being the active ingredients from which the primary governing element of the universe, the pneuma, originated.  Of course the Stoic focus on the primacy of the physical world over the mental and immaterial world of Ideas as Plato put forth was the source of its distinguishing psychological views which focused on the proper functioning of the individual mind via the discriminative faculty (hêgemonikon) rather than the meditation on the abstract principles in the realm of Ideas.

 

[1] Although Alexander the Great did get as far as India in his travels, and there are references in many of the ancient Greek philosophical works of the Indian gymnosophists (literally “naked sages”), the influence of the Indian philosophical systems on the West was minimal and marks from a cultural as well as intellectual development perspective the line between the East and West that is most commonly drawn today.

[2] Seneca a first century CE Roman statesman and the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius from the second century CE are both notable followers of the Stoic system.  Virgil the famed author of the epic poem about the founding of Rome entitled the Aeneid from the first century BCE, the poet and philosopher of the of the first century BCE Lucretius, and Diogenes Laertius the historian and autobiographer of the third century CE are all associated with the Epicurean school, the latter two authors being the source of much of our information about ancient Epicureanism.

[3] It is believed that Antiochus was one of the teachers of Cicero.

[4] Plutarch writing at the turn of the first century CE in fact authored a piece, On Isis and Osiris, citing the similarities and basic consistency of Platonic cosmology to not only Egyptian mythology (in particular the myth of Isis, Osiris and Horus) but also may of the other pre-Socratic Greek cosmologies as well as Chaldean and Persian (Zoroastrian) cosmological traditions.

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