Plato’s Metaphysics: Being and Becoming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

dividedline-svg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[1] Plato Republic Book 6, 509d – 510b.  From Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vols. 5 & 6 translated by Paul Shorey. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1969.  http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0168%3Abook%3D6%3Asection%3D509d

[2] AC represents knowledge of the material or “visible” world and CE represents knowledge of the “intelligible” world.  Image From Wikipedia contributors, ‘Analogy of the divided line’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 19 October 2016, 05:17 UTC, <https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Analogy_of_the_divided_line&oldid=745083560&gt; [accessed 19 October 2016]

[3] See Plato Republic Book 6, 510c-511e.-  From Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vols. 5 & 6 translated by Paul Shorey. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1969.  http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0168%3Abook%3D6%3Asection%3D511e and Wikipedia contributors, ‘Analogy of the divided line’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 19 October 2016, 05:17 UTC, <https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Analogy_of_the_divided_line&oldid=745083560> [accessed 19 October 2016]

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

[5] Plato’s Demiurge, the so-called “Divine Craftsman” that he describes in the Timaeus, becomes one of the cornerstone theological principles in the Hellenic theo-philosophical tradition and one which bleeds, and fits quite nicely, into the Judeo-Christian (and Islamic) anthropomorphic conception of God.  The English Demiurge comes from the Latin Demiurgus, which stems from the Greek Dêmiourgos (δημιουργός), which means “craftsman” or “artisan” but of course morphed into the more theological notion of Creator within the Hellenic theo-philosophical tradition itself.  See Wikipedia contributors, ‘Demiurge’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 18 December 2016, 18:44 UTC, <https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Demiurge&oldid=755542807&gt; [accessed 18 December 2016].

[6] Plato Timaeus.  27a-28a.  Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 9 translated by W.R.M. Lamb. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1925.  http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0180%3Atext%3DTim.%3Apage%3D27

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

[8] For a more detailed description of the philosophy of Parmenides and analysis of the existent fragments of his work On Nature, see “Parmenides of Elea: What Is Versus What is Not”, by Juan Valdez 2016 at https://snowconenyc.com/2016/09/30/parmenides-of-elea-what-is-versus-what-is-not and Parmenides entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy at http://plato.stanford.edu/cgi-bin/encyclopedia/archinfo.cgi?entry=parmenides.

[9] Plato Timaeus.  28a-28c.  Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 9 translated by W.R.M. Lamb. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1925.  http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0180%3Atext%3DTim.%3Apage%3D28

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

[11] Plato Timaeus.  29a-29d.  Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 9 translated by W.R.M. Lamb. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1925.  http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0180%3Atext%3DTim.%3Apage%3D29

[12] Plato Timaeus.  30a-30d.  Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 9 translated by W.R.M. Lamb. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1925.  http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0180%3Atext%3DTim.%3Apage%3D30

Pythagoras and Plato: From the One to Many

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

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

 

Pythagorean Philosophy as Expressed in the Tetractys

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Porphyry: On the Life of Pythagoras

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Conclusion

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

Sacred Geometry in Plato’s Timaeus

After Pythagoras, the next in line in the propagation of core mathematical constructs, not just numbers themselves but again geometry as well, as key elements of the universal world order, is Plato.  It is said that outside of the Academy which was founded by Plato was inscribed “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter”, and although whether or not the inscription actually existed cannot be confirmed, it is very well consistent with the philosophical system that Plato sets out in his dialogues, especially the Republic and the Timaeus which cover his Theory of Forms, its relationship to numbers and mathematics in general, and his theory of Platonic solids which underlies his physical cosmology.

And particularly with the Platonic school, believed to have been influenced by the Pythagoreans who preceded them, we see a prominent role for numerology and geometry that is hinged not onto the cosmological and physical view of the school – how the universe came to be and is maintained – but how the universe itself in all its grand mystery could be understood.  The gift of mathematics, geometry, as a sacred science was not invented by the Greeks no doubt, but its emphasis along with much of its breadth and early explanation, is a legacy of the Greeks.

The influence of mathematics and numerology on Plato’s philosophy can probably best be seen by later interpreters of his works, as his Being and Becoming, and his notion of the Good which represents the Form of Forms is transformed into the One of the Neo-Platonic tradition, the principle being very squarely aligned with the Pythagorean Monad.  Furthermore, in interpretations of passages in the Republic, reference to numerical and mathematical constructs as things that can be conceived of only in thought, i.e. examples of Forms or Ideas[1].

In Plato’s Timaeus we have a more systematic outlining of the role of mathematics and geometry in the universal world order.  Here we can find not only some traces of Pythagorean thought (as much emphasis is given to the role of triangles in the formulation and construction of the physical world, one of which is Pythagorean so to speak) as well as the role of geometry in general as he outlines a core set of geometric shapes which have come to be known as Platonic solids that form the basic shape and building blocks of the four primary elements – earth, air, water, fire – from which the physical universe is constructed.

In the Timaeus Plato describes a universe that is living in and of itself, i.e. the World Soul, which is governed by a fundamental order, i.e. Pythagoras’s kosmos.  The universal order that Plato speaks of one which akin to eternal Being but yet is in motion, and is governed by time which in turn is governed by number and basic mathematical principles.  This concept of time, its association with number and the movement of the heavenly bodies themselves, is a core characteristic of the World Soul, the universe, and is one of the key attributes of the kosmos itself.

Plato further outlines a hierarchy of beings in the kosmos, one which sits with the Demiurge at the top of the hierarchy and under him you have the various gods who are associated with the heavens and then the world of mortals which are manufactured by the gods, all of which are created via the Demiurge and which represent manifestations of nous, or the intellect of the Demiurge, a principle which came to be known as Intellect itself in later Neo-Platonic interpretations of the Timaeus and which encapsulated the world of Forms and Ideas which represented the core of Plato’s metaphysics[2]

In Plato’s “likely account” (eikôs logos) or “likely story” (eikôs muthos) of the universal creation described in the Timaeus, the Demiurge or World Soul, fashions the corporeal world from the two primordial substances of the universe – what are referred to by most translators as the “Same” and the “Other” denoting one’s (the Same) indivisible nature and the Other’s divisible nature – and an intermediary substance between the two and created two great circles, the outer of which he made the motion of the Same and the inner of which he made the motion of the Other, each moving in opposite directions.  The inner circle he then split into seven parts to yield the 7 celestial spheres, or 8 counting the outermost sphere of the fixed stars, i.e. the circle of the Same.[3]

After the model itself and its motion has been established, Plato then places the divine creatures themselves, i.e. the gods, planets (“wanderers”), into their respective orbits that the Demiurge had fashioned for them, to look after and create the construct of time, mirroring the eternal and unchanging in a movable model fashioned by the Demiurge himself.  The gods, or planets, as they shone in the sky were mostly made of fire, and were the most divine of all beings that were created, and subsequent to them the Demiurge created creatures of the earth, the air and the water, following the four basic elements of the material universe and each partaking in the divine and intelligent harmony of the universal creation, all moving according to number and making up mankind’s notion of Time.

Time, then, came into existence along with the Heaven, to the end that having been generated together they might also be dissolved together, if ever a dissolution of them should take place; and it was made after the pattern of the Eternal Nature, to the end that it might be as like thereto as possible; for whereas the pattern is existent through all eternity, the copy, on the other hand, is through all time, continually having existed, existing, and being about to exist. Wherefore, as a consequence of this reasoning and design on the part of God, with a view to the generation of Time, the sun and moon and five other stars, which bear the appellation of “planets,” came into existence for the determining and preserving of the numbers of Time. And when God had made the bodies of each of them He placed them in the orbits along which the revolution of the Other was moving, seven orbits for the seven bodies.[4]

After outlining the creation of the heavens and living beings in what Plato refers to as the “operations of Reason”, he then outlines what came into existence via “Necessity”, starting again with the four elements (earth, air, fire and water) which are the basic constituents within the “receptacle” of the universe, the nurse of all Becoming and that which houses the copy of the World Soul. 

Given that these four elements have depth and exist in three dimensional space, Plato, influenced no doubt by the atomicist Democritus and Pythagoreans before him, posits that these basic elements at their core consist of geometrical shapes, of which the triangle is the most “fair”, or most perfect.  The rectangular isosceles triangle and the rectangular scalene are the ones which he uses for the basic building blocks of the elements, for from these, geometrically speaking, all other triangles can be constructed.  In turn from these triangular shapes, he describes the construction of what have come to be known as the Platonic solids, each of which are assigned one of the basic elements.  The solids are the tetrahedron, or pyramid which is associated with fire, and the octahedron which is associated with air, the icosahedron which is associated with water, and the cube which is associated with earth.[5]

[1] Plato, Republic 7.526a. 

See http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0168%3Abook%3D7%3Asection%3D526a

[2] See https://faculty.washington.edu/smcohen/320/timaeus.htm for a good summary of Plato’s cosmology as outlined in the Timaeus.

[3] The actual dimensions, or more properly put lengths, of the substance that was used to create the different circles can be viewed as a slight variant of Pythagoras tetraktys (the numbers 1, 2, 3 and 4 laid out as the dimensions of a triangle in descending order) as Plato uses the same series of digits except a power of 2 for even numbers and power of 3 for odd numbers to create the series, as his basic dimensions for the different circles that are fashioned by the Demiurge to construct the celestial spheres are 1, 2, 4, 8 and 1, 3, 9 and 27 respectively, albeit not in that order.  See Plato Timaeus 34a ff. at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0180%3Atext%3DTim.%3Asection%3D34a.

[4] Plato, Timaeus 38b-38c.  Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 9 translated by W.R.M. Lamb. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1925.  From http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0180%3Atext%3DTim.%3Asection%3D38c

[5] Timaeus 53c -56c.

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.

Aristotle and Democritus: Knowledge and the Atom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Socrates, Plato and Aristotle: First Philosophy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In this section of The Republic, which precedes his more graphic metaphor of his Theory of Forms as told in his Allegory of the Cave, albeit wrapped up in the middle of a socio-political work, does represent from a Western standpoint the one of the first prolific and well-articulated forays into the world of metaphysics, i.e. the exploration of the true nature of reality that underlies the world of the senses, and attempts to explain our place in this world and the illusory and shadowy nature of the objects of our perception independent of any religious or theological dogma.  It also illustrates the prevalence of geometry and mathematics as a one of the primary means to which this reality can be understood, paving the way for further mathematical conceptions of reality brought forth by Aristotle among others.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

[3] From CiceroTusculan Disputations, 5.3.8–9.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[17] In its simplest interpretation, the allegory of the cave can be viewed as outlining and defining Plato’s belief in the supremacy of forms or ideas over knowledge derived from sensory perception or the material world, i.e. his theory of forms[17], and taken one step further can be interpreted to mean that Plato is espousing a doctrine of the illusory nature of reality much like the Vedic tradition and its concept of Maya.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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