Eggs, Atoms & Emanations: A Survey of Ancient Greek Cosmologies



A Survey of Ancient Greek Cosmologies


Updated Spring 2013

























Fred Duell Blackburn


San Diego Christian College



Preface.. v

The Greeks. v

The Ionians: The Monists. 1

Thales of Miletus: Water. 2

Anaximander:  The Indeterminate. 6

Anaximenes:  Air. 9

Pythagoras:  Numbers. 11

Heraclitus:  Fire. 14

Parmenides:  It Is. 17

The Pluralists. 21

Empedocles 22

Anaxagoras. 28

Leucippus of Miletus:  The Atomists. 36

The Age of Socrates. 39

The Sophists. 40

Protagoras 42

Gorgias 44

Conclusion. 46

Socrates:The unexamined life is not worth living. 48

Plato (428/7-348/7 B.C.) 52

Epistemology. 53

The Myth of the Cave. 55

Ontology. 64

Aristotle (384/3-322/1 B.C.) 70

The Metaphysics. 71

The Hellenistic Philosophers. 82

The Stoics: Zeno. 83

The Epicureans: Epicurus 87

Physics and Epistemology. 88

Ethics. 88

Neo-Platonism: Plotinus 91

Metaphysics. 91

Order of Emanations: 94

The Great Chain of Being: 96


PHILOSIPHERS………………………………………………………………………… ………….104

Works Cited.. 107



The Greeks

While philosophical thought is quite likely as old as mankind itself, credit is due to the Greeks for being the first systematic formulators of philosophical concepts.  It is among the Ioneans that we see the flowering of both literature and philosophy which would have a lasting affect upon the “Western mind.” From Homer to Hesiod we can see the formulations of the Greek cosmogonies steeped in anthropomorphic polytheism.  Yet, out of these primordial depths come the roots of subsequent investigations which transcend their mythological beginnings and branch into the various forms of philosophic speculation.

Why was Greece, rather than Egypt, Babylon or Palestine, the birthplace of philosophical thought?  What enabled the Greeks to move beyond superstition and/or religion to a level of intellectual inquiry with no equivalents in other contemporary societies?  Perhaps it was Greek individualism and their keen observation of nature which contributed to thoughts of self-sufficiency.  Perhaps it was due to a higher level of autonomy without the overwhelming theological restraints placed on other contemporary societies, which allowed for the development of humanism and the resulting view of man’s ability to comprehend the cosmos on human rather than divine terms.  While the causes may provide fuel for continuing debate and speculation, the results are concrete, leaving the Greeks as the foundation upon which the edifice of “Western thought” has been built.

Who were the Greeks and what were the distinctives that separated them from the other cultures of the ancient world?  Geography perhaps played a role in keeping the Greeks isolated and contributing to their strong sense of independence.  Yet, can physical isolation completely explain the psyche of the Greeks?  The Greeks were a paradox in many ways: noble yet savage, rational and emotive, lovers of freedom and makers of slaves, skeptical and superstitious, innovative and traditional.  These psychological traits have been compared to the Greek gods in the personas of Apollo and Dionysius.  Apollo, representing harmony and order, is in eternal conflict with Dionysian frenzy and excess.  These conflicting movements are seen both individually and collectively in the Greek experience.  The desire to subdue and overcome and the desire to stabilize and preserve are both found striving within the same breast.  It is out of this dynamic conflict that the Greek philosophical tradition was born.

The internal Greek paradox of pessimism and optimism and the external conflict between the transitory and the permanent led to an intellectual struggle which attempted a reconciliation of opposites and the quest for an understanding with which to bridge the apparent contradictions.  It is out of this quest—for an understanding of what lay behind the veil of the world—that the first philosophical movements appear.  What, if anything, is fixed or essential in a world full of flux and change?  Is it the gods or other forces such as nature or free will that direct the lives of men?  Thales of Miletus first addressed these questions, and our long journey begins with him.




The Ionians:

The Monists & the Search for Urstoff[1]


The early Ionian philosophers have also become known as monists[2].  For some the underlying substance was air for others fire or water, but the bond connecting them all was the abstract conception that there was some unity underlying the framework of the physical world.  This speculation went beyond mere empirical scientific observation and posited questions and solutions from purely abstract concepts.  The monists were looking for a physical substance as an underlying principle, but they also believed the universe was a place of law and order—a cosmos as opposed to ungoverned chaos.  For the most part, the early Greeks were monistic materialists[3].  The eternality of the material universe also helped set the perimeters for early Greek philosophic speculation.  It is out of these presuppositions that the Greeks began their philosophic/scientific inquiries and it is from this starting point that the “Western” philosophical tradition begins.



Thales of Miletus: The Birth of Philosophy  (Sometime around Noon, May 28, 585 B.C.)



Tradition tells us that Thales accurately predicted a solar eclipse at the close of the war between the Medes and the Lydians.  Herodotus assures us that everyone was quite impressed.  Modern astronomy’s ability to provide us with the most likely date of when the above-mentioned eclipse occurred is also impressive.  No doubt, Thales had done a bit of philosophizing before the grand event, but it is nice to have a symbolic birthday in which to recognize a bold new movement in human understanding.

So what sets Thales apart from his contemporaries and all those who came before him?  Astrological predictions and divinations were nothing new to the Greek mind or to others of the ancient Mediterranean world.  Yet, Thales’ prediction was qualitatively different from the countless prophesies and omens which preceded him, for his foresight was based on observation and the understanding of causal principles at work in the cosmos.  Thales prediction came from the observations of a man, not the revelations of a god; and this is, in great part, what makes Thales so novel and accords him the grand title of Father of Philosophy.

At the time of Thales, the sixth century B.C., the Greeks were steeped in a polytheistic paradigm.  Their world was governed by a host of gods and goddess, mostly anthropomorphic in character with a vast range of powers and purposes.  The sixth century Greek was literally at the mercy of the whims of the gods, who were often capricious in their dealings towards man.  For the most part, polytheism[4] appears to have emerged out of an older animistic world-view[5].  This not only would include animate objects or what the modern mind would consider as sentient beings, but rocks, rivers, winds, and even coffee mugs, etc. would all contain a living soul.  Obviously, this would greatly affect how one related to the world; and, depending on the power of the entity in any given object one might be wise to tread lightly or make certain supplications lest one offend a spirit that could do great harm.  Now the spirit of one’s coffee mug may be able to do little more than to fracture itself and scald you, or refuse to keep your beverage warm, but spirits of things like the Mediterranean Sea could cause catastrophic events if sufficiently riled or ignored.  By the time of Homer the Greek pantheon had been fairly well established—while many might hold to forms of earlier animistic beliefs, it was simply impractical to worry about every single spirit in the world.  Emphasis was placed on the big ones like the spirit of the heavens[6] or the spirit of the seas[7].  Not only were physical entities recognized as containing spirits, but certain abstract ideas and natural principles were also personified[8].  These greater spirits were given the status of gods; yet, even with an abbreviated list focusing on the major spiritual forces behind nature, it was not uncommon for a Greek or later Roman village to have upwards of over thirty thousand separate deities.  Needless to say, a full time job at supplication would be required if one hoped to avoid offending all of them.  Most people simply settled on a few powerful favorites and counted on them to preserve them from the rest.  Thus we see the patronage of certain gods throughout the Mediterranean world, and the fortunes of the gods would rise and fall with the exploits of those who worshipped them.

So what made Thales so special?  First of all, without overly offending the religious sensibilities of his contemporaries he was able to observe and speculate on various cause and effect relationships.  For example, if pious Priscilla, agnostic Anton and blasphemous Bob sail their ships in the Mediterranean during the winter months they all are most likely going to suffer the loss of life and property regardless how many sheep they sacrifice to Poseidon or curses they shout into the wind.  On the other hand all three merchants will most likely have smooth sailing and good fortune if they plan their travels in the summer.  All things being equal, Thales would account the seasons, rather than gods and goddesses, for traveling success or failure, regardless of one’s level of devotion or lack of piety.  Although Thales was a long way away from the materialism of the twentieth century, he at least set out on a path where reason and observation could perhaps be every bit as impressive as superstition and religious devotion.

Aside from Thales’ willingness to look for other- than- theological explanations, he also sought an underlying principle of unity[9].  Thales wanted to know what the eternal and unchanging reality behind the transitory nature of the world of appearances was.  His guess of water as the underlying substance is generally considered wrong by most scientists and philosophers alike, yet that does not take away the profundity of the question.  This question of underlying unity would preoccupy the Greek mind and the future course of philosophy until the time of Socrates.  Besides, water is not a bad guess.  Water can be a gas, liquid, or solid.  Moisture seems to be associated with growth and seeds, water brings about fertility, and dryness brings about desolation and death.

Was Thales also the father of Naturalism[10]?  Perhaps he opened up the door in the long run, but he was quite different from the naturalists/materialists which would come to dominate science and, to a large degree, philosophy in the 19th and 20th centuries.  According to Aristotle, Thales claimed all things are full of gods and the soul of the magnet is what attracts iron.  Perhaps he was just using the jargon of the day in an attempt to reach his audience, but more likely there were some elements of animism still lingering on in the sixth century B.C. mindset, Thales’ included (Copleston 23).  Whatever his belief on the matter he remains the progenitor of seeking an explanation other than the one handed down by tradition, myth and religion and, in their place, showing the power of human thought and exploration, which would ultimately shake and cast down the pillars of Olympus itself.


Anaximander (610-456 B.C.)

The Indeterminate


Anaximander was another Milesian who appears to have been a younger “associate” of Thales (Copleston 24).  Like Thales before him, he was searching for the ultimate reality which lay hidden behind the multiplicity of forms.  He expanded on the theory of opposites and how each would strive to bring about harmony and balance.  Heat would exceed in summer and cold in winter, but fall and spring would be periods of greater balance and harmony between the two overcorrecting excesses.  Anaximander had a hard time accepting Thales’ super-substance of water.  For is not water itself the opposite of land and wet the opposite of dry?  How could one of the opposite manifestations be the ultimate reality?  Should not the ultimate source of all matter be beyond opposites?  Should not the place of ultimate unity from which the multiplicity of forms spring and the dynamic of opposites appear be in its essential core a place of no opposition or distinction?  Well, yes! And since it is beyond distinctions we cannot name it beyond calling it the unnamable or the indistinct.

Very heady esoteric stuff for a sixth century Greek philosopher or scientist.  Yet, Anaximander was not alone in his thinking; and, although he was most likely quite unaware of another great sixth century mind on the other side of the world thinking quite similar thoughts, we can make the comparison from the vantage point of the twenty-first century.  Lao Tzu opens his great work the Tao Te Ching as follows:

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.

The name that can be named is not the eternal Name.


The unnamable is the eternally real.

Naming is the origin of all particular things.


Free from desire, you realize the mystery.

Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.


Yet mystery and manifestations arise form the same source.

This source is called darkness.


Darkness within darkness.

The gateway to all understanding.


Was Anaximander a Greek Taoist?  Probably not, yet he probably would have been quite comfortable with the concepts of the Yin and the Yang and their ultimate unity in the Tao, which transcends all distinctions and yet from which all distinctions come.  Anaximander perhaps reached too high for his contemporaries, for while the unknowable was embraced in the East, it was spurned in the West in exchange for the more concrete, empirical explanation of the world.  The Indefinite was just a bit too nebulous for the fledgling Greek philosophers, yet the concept would not die with Anaximander but would be revisited as philosophy matured and was willing to soar to greater heights.

Other views ahead of their time but later to find much support and acceptance among the scientific and philosophic communities were his ideas on the formation of the universe and the development of life on the planet.  Anaximander believed that the universe was in eternal motion and that out of its swirling come the stars and the planets.  The heavier objects like earth and water tended to be forced towards the center while the elements of fire and air seem to have been forced to the outside.  Anaximander’s theory is perhaps not the big bang, but it does hold many of the key elements of modern scientific cosmologies.  Anaximander also provided an early model of evolutionary theory.  “Life comes from the sea, and by means of adaptation to environment the present forms of animals were evolved” (Copleston 25).  Anaximander makes a clever guess as to the origin of man.  He also says that in the beginning man was born from animals of another species.  Other animals quickly find nourishment for themselves, but people need a lengthy period of suckling.  If people had been as they are now from the beginning, they could never have survived (Copleston 25).

So Anaximander was into the Tao, the Big Bang and Evolution—all in the sixth century B.C.; very impressive and quite a leap from Thales’ attempt at placing water at the center of the cosmos.  The Indeterminate, while appearing vague, is quite appropriate for the notion Anaximander was trying to convey.


Anaximenes (585-528 B.C.)



Anaximenes was a student of Anaximander and was also a Milesian.  Yet unlike Anaximander, he found the Indeterminate a bit too non-descript for his reasoning mind.  Anaximander at first appears to regress back to basic physical core elements like Thales before him, but rather than choosing water as the Urstoff, he chose air.  The choice of air can easily be justified as we relate breath to life.  Yet, Anaximenes’ air was all encompassing, ranging from fire to water.  “Just as our soul, being air, holds us together, so do breath and air encompass the whole world” (Copleston 26). The range of form that air can achieve and how this range is brought about demonstrates the creativity of Anaximander’s mind.

Air as the underlying principle seems little more reasonable than water and just slightly less ethereal than the Indeterminate, yet it is how air makes up the world that adds weight and value to Anaximenes’ theory.  It is through the dynamics of condensation and rarefication that the world experiences its multiplicity of forms out of the primacy of air.  Warmth is associated with rarefication, and as air expands and drifts away from the center it finds its ultimate rarefied form in fire; this is why we see the sun and stars at the edge of the cosmos.  On the other hand, condensation is associated with coldness and can be seen in the condensed forms of air as manifested in water and earth.  Condensed air is also heavier and will gravitate down or towards the center of the cosmos, resulting in the physical earth and sea at the center of universe.

The main new twist that Anaximenes gave to monism was his representation of quality based on quantity.  The quantity of condensed or rarefied air will result in the various manifestations of form, fire being the lightest to metals being the heaviest of these representations.  Heat rises and cold descends.  Man is made up of a combination of air densities, his soul being akin to fire while his flesh is related to earth.  Air becomes the logical median point between earth and fire.

While Anaximenes is not quite talking about atomic weight and the amount of electrons that make up various elemental atoms and molecules, it is easy to see how his thoughts would set a precedent for future scientific inquiry.  Were the Milesians materialists?  Yes and no.  Yes, in that they all sought to give a physical basis for the cosmos, but no in the sense that this did not exclude the concepts of gods or spirits.  This is largely due to the non-distinction between spirit and matter, so the question was never raised as it is in a modern sense.  For the Milesians the soul was every bit as material as a rock and, at least according to Anaximenes, simply less dense.  It is the Greek presupposition of the eternality of the world and the primacy of this world as the only world that kept their thinking within certain bounds.  The earth was flat, eternal and at the center of the universe.  All subsequent scientific observation or philosophic inquiry would stem from these presuppositions, at least until the next paradigm shift.

Pythagoras (572-500 B.C.)


Pythagoras and the Pythagorean School of Thought, which he founded were much more than just a philosophic or scientific community.  They had all the elements of a religious cult or commune.  Copleston points out the connection between Pythagoreanism and Orphacism, not only in their religious initiations and communal way of life but even to the central tenant of transmigration of souls[11] (Copleston 30).  Since it is the soul which lives on, the soul rather than the body becomes the true essence of man and care must be taken for its growth and purification.  Thus the Pythagoreans avoided the eating of meat, and supposedly, even meat like vegetables such as beans.  Yet, in addition to the taboos, there was a wide range of positive practices with which to enrich one’s soul life[12].

It is in this esoteric pursuit that the Pythagoreans added their own claim to the Urstoff crown.  Aristotle tells us, “the Pythagoreans, as they are called, devoted themselves to mathematics, they were the first to advance this study, and having been brought up in it they thought its principles were the principles of all things” (Copleston 32). The Pythagoreans noticed the importance of numbers to the world and how location, relation and form could all be expressed numerically.  One of their most notable discoveries was the relation of pitch in musical instruments to number.  The length of string in the lyre was directly related to its tone.  The resulting application of this Pythagorean insight was the octave scale.  This application, however, was not limited to musical instruments, but also found expression in the ordering of the cosmos, where even the courses of the planets themselves were placed in scale resulting in the doctrine of “the Music of the Spheres” (Palmer 18).  We can now add the concept of numbers to the list of monistic speculations about the underlying cosmic substance.

But what exactly did the Pythagoreans mean by claiming all things are numbers?  Surely they were not speaking literally.  The masculine number three and the feminine number two, which caused marriage to be equated with the number five, could hardly have implied that men and women were a compilation of numerals and marriage was the sum of the added parts.  If we understand, however, that the Pythagoreans viewed numbers spatially it helps clear up some of their conceptions.  “One is the point, two is the line, three is the surface, four is the solid” (Copleston 34). Essentially all forms could be related to points in space resulting in a numerical description of all events by graphing their location and all matter through geometrical plotting of their various and asundery surface areas or internal volumes.  It is perhaps not the modern wonders we have seen with computer programming, which have reduced the input of all data to a series of zeros and ones[13], but rather the ability to describe “reality” in numerical formulas.

Another important contribution of the Pythagoreans was their use of numbers to describe the infinite and the finite, the unlimited and the limited.  Odd numbers represented the finite world, while due to division the even numbers represented the infinite.  This distinction will be taken up in different form in the latter philosophies of Heraclitus and Parmenides.  It is also quite remarkable that the Pythagoreans did not view the earth as the center of the cosmos.  They were not heliocentric either, for they believed the earth, moon, planets and stars, as well as the sun itself revolved around a central cosmic fire.   It is interesting to note that the central fire of the universe is given the designation of number one.  One, however, is finite and limited in the Pythagorean designation of numeric values, and thus this central fire is not the ultimate source and substance of the cosmos as it would be for Heraclitus and later, the Stoics, but was simply numbered one—the prime one of the universe though.

The mathematical-metaphysics of the Pythagoreans adds an interesting new dimension to the history of Western thought.  From their religious practices and transmigrational beliefs, they could appear to be quite pantheistic[14].  However, they also appear, in some sense, to be mathematical-materialists, reducing the physical substance of the universe to mathematical equations.  Yet, even this explanation is incomplete, for the geometry of the Pythagoreans is still in the realm of ideas or mind although it can have, at least, symbolic physical expression.  It seems that a case could be made for both a materialistic and idealistic view of the Pythagorean movement, which lasted around four hundred years (Copleston 37). It can at least be said that the Pythagoreans gave a new distinction to monism, for the One was both finite and infinite, limited and limitless within their mathematical-monistic paradigm.  It would be the task of those who preceded them to work out the apparent contradiction.

Heraclitus (470 B.C.)

The Dark One


Heraclitus was born into a noble house of Ephesus around the end of the 5th century B.C.  He did not have a high regard for the people of his city or for men in general.  He was full of pithy statements and quotable quotes.  The most notable attributed to him being “all things are in a constant state of flux” or similarly put, “the only thing that doesn’t change is change itself.”  While these sayings may not be the exact words of Heraclitus or the central tenant of his philosophy, they provide a strong undercurrent to his loftier themes.  Unity through diversity and diversity in unity is the core of Heraclitus’ world-view.  “It is wise to hearken, not to me, but to my Word, and to confess that all things are one” (Copleston 40).

There appears to be a bit of a prophetic tone in Heraclitus’ speech, and he expects the wise to heed his deep sayings.  On the surface, it would appear that pantheism had found yet another champion among the pre-Socratic Greeks.  Like Anaximander before him, he stresses the underlying principle and unity of the one.  Yet, unlike Anaximander, who saw division and conflict in opposition to the one, Heraclitus believed that conflict and strife are essential to the underlying unity of all things.  For it is out of conflict and division that the multiplicity of forms issue forth and have their being.  If the universe were at perfect peace and rest, abiding in undifferentiated unity, the world as we know it would cease to exist.  “We must know that war is common to all and strife is justice, and that all things come into being and pass away through strife”(Copleston 40). Whereas Anaximander saw strife and division as a great injustice, Heraclitus saw the same activities as the dynamic catalysts which allow for growth and change within the confines of the one.

So for Heraclitus, Reality is the One, but unlike the more metaphysically minded pantheists, who equate the one with god or spirit, Heraclitus, like the other Greek monists before him, attributes the one to a physical substance.  For Heraclitus the one is fire, as it would be for the Stoics, who incorporated his primal substance into their own cosmology.  Fire is an excellent choice for Heraclitus in the way it provides the perfect illustration for his central thought.  “‘Fire is want and surfeit’—it is, in other words, all things that are, but it is these things in a constant state of tension, of strife, of consuming, of kindling and of going out” (Copleston 41).  Fire, however, in a Heraclitian sense is a bit different than how fire is normally perceived through sense perception.  For Heraclitus, fire gives as much as it takes.  In a way this is akin to the modern concept of the law of conservation of energy[15].  To illustrate the point we can use the example of burning incense.  While the fire burns and consumes the stick, it simultaneously gives off the aroma contained within and thus frees it to fill the whole room.  Thus fire destroys and creates, gives and takes, while remaining unchanged within itself.  This changing of form from the condensation or distribution of energy corresponds with Heraclitus’ upward and downward paths.

“He called change the upward and downward path and said that the cosmos comes into being in virtue of this.  When fire is condensed it becomes moist, and under compression it turns to water; water being congealed is turned to earth, and this he calls the downward path.  And, again, the earth itself liquefied and from it water comes, and from that everything else for he refers almost everything to the evaporation from the sea.  This is the upward path.”  (Copleston 1).

Not being a physicist, I may not be qualified to critique Heraclitus’ observations, but through sense perception I have never seen fire condensed into water or water congealed into earth or visa versa.  Yet, the illustration not only allows for a strong metaphysic, if not taken too literally, but also paves the way for a Heraclitian Ethic.

For Heraclitus those things which promote dryness lead to the higher path, while those that dampen the soul lead one downward.  The soul comes from rarefied water, and as the Stoics would later observe, is akin to fire.  The flesh or body, on the other hand, is a mixture of water and earth.  Therefore, those things which tend towards the drying of the soul[16] lead to the higher path, whereas those things which dampen the soul[17] lead to the lower path.  It would appear that Heraclitus has given us our first for-taste of philosophical dualism, yet its full presentation would have to await Anaxagoras.



Parmenides (515-440 B.C.)

It Is


As is often the case, we find the disciple attempting to go one step beyond the teachings of the master, and so it is with Parmenides’ expansion on Heraclitus’ theme.  “You can never step in the same river twice” becomes “you can never step in the same river once.” This seems like clever nonsense at the surface but encapsulates the core of Parmenides’ thought.  For Parmenides, like the other monists before him, there is only one thing.  This Urstoff continues to be a material substance, placing Parmenides in the ranks of monistic-materialism rather than pantheism.

What distinguishes Parmenides from the monists before him?  It largely has to do with the quality of Parmenides’ one.  For, in this case, the one is absolute and does not brook change.  It Is!  The one is eternal and without differentiation; it can neither be created nor destroyed, enlarged or diminished.  “Being, the One, is, and that Becoming, change, is illusion.  For if anything comes to be, then it comes either out of being or out of not being.  If the former, then it already is—in which case it does not come to be; if the latter, then it is nothing, since out of nothing comes nothing. Becoming is, then, illusion.  Being simply is and Being is One, since plurality is also illusion” (Copleston 48).

The concept of change being equated to illusion and the unalterable one being reality runs parallel to the philosophic underpinnings of pantheism.  For the pantheist, change, motion, and multiplicity of forms all represent Maya, or illusion.  The distinction still remains, however, for the pantheist would even include the physical world in the realm of illusion, while the monistic-materialist would conceive the one as a physical thing.

Perhaps you are thinking to yourself, What foolish madness!  This is what happens when you have too much time on your hands and think too much.  Any fool on the street can see that things are constantly changing and did not Heraclitus himself articulate the nature of flux quite convincingly?  Indeed, but this is the high point of Parmenides’ philosophy, for this is where he draws a distinction between things as they appear and the thing as it is.  Truth and appearance are not synonyms for Parmenides, but rather antonyms.  It is exactly the fool on the street, who bases his beliefs on a sense experience type of knowledge that Parmenides is trying to rise above.  Sense experience, while providing insights into things as they appear, is not sufficient for understanding how things actually are.  It is this distinction that led Parmenides to proclaim the unchanging nature of the one even though all sense experience seemed to indicate otherwise.  For Parmenides it was through reason alone that we could truly understand the nature of reality—and sense experience must be brought under submission to the mind.

So was Parmenides the father of idealism[18]? No, for although Parmenides elevated thought and reason to new heights, he still regarded ultimate reality as a physical thing.  Singular, though it was, it still was material and thus ultimately Parmenides remains a materialist, not an idealist.  Reason was the means by which one could comprehend the one, yet the one was physical.  This one, however, is unchangeable, indestructible and eternal.  This presupposition is the cornerstone of materialistic thought, and it is upon this foundation that the subsequent atomist theory of Democritus and Leucippus was built.  Yet, it is not only the materialist who drank from the spring of Parmenidean thought, for we can see the bubbling forth of ideas which would later lend their flow to the great rivers of Platonic idealism and deterministic materialism.



The Pluralists


            Unlike the monists before them who were in search of the Urstoff, that ultimate substance of the universe, the pluralists were much more apt to see a multiplicity of building blocks upon which the cosmos was erected.  The pluralists were also much more ecclectic than their monistic counterparts, for they were willing to mix and match the ideas of those who came before them instead of starting afresh.



Empedocles (490-430 B.C.)

Earth, Air, Fire, and Water


Empedocles is novel among the pre-Socratic philosophers because he attempts to reconcile rather than to contradict those who came before him.  Specifically, Empedocles tried to bridge the great gulf between Heraclitian fluctation and Parmenidean permanence.  Yet, in his proposed solution, he also incorporated the ideas of many of those who came before him, such as the use of the Urstoff propositions of his predecessors.  He had Thales’ water, Anaximenes’ Air, Heraclitus’ Fire, and the underlying unity of Anaximander and Parmenides.  Perhaps, offering Earth as one of the four basic elements was Empedocles’ own contribution to the primordial soup, but his true genius lay not in his formulating of another Urstoff claimant but rather his ability to take that which was offered before him and present it in a cohesive whole.

For Empedocles, like Parmenides before him, Being simply is; it can neither be created nor destroyed.  Yet, like the other monistic materialists, he believed being is made up of matter, and it is this that is eternal and from which all things come and shall return.  For unlike Parmenides, Empedocles saw the changes that occurred to physical objects not as mere illusion of the senses but rather as real change was taking place in a cyclical movement that would continue eternally.  The basic elements will never change, but the way they are arranged will change over, and over, and over again into what later became known as The Law of Eternal Recurrence.

“Hear first the four roots of all things: shining Zeus, life-bringing Hera, Aidoneus and Nestis whose tear-drops are a well-spring to mortals.

[…] uncreated.

And I will tell you another thing. There is no substance of any of all the things that die, nor any cessation for them of depraved death. They are only a mingling and interchange of what has been mingled. Substance is but a name given to these things by people.

But they hold that when Light and Air chance to have been mingled in the fashion of a human, or in the fashion of the race of wild beasts or of plants or birds, that that is to be born, and when these things have been separated once more, they call it wrongly woeful death. I follow the custom and call it so myself.

Avenging death.

Fools! for they have no far-reaching thoughts, who deem that what before was not comes into being, or that anything can perish and be utterly destroyed. For it cannot be that anything can arise from what in no way is, and it is impossible and unheard of that what is should perish; for it will always be, wherever one may keep putting it.

And in the all there is nothing empty and nothing too full.

In the all there is nothing empty. From where, then, could anything come to increase it?” (Kolak)


Although it is quite poetic, it is also quite clear by the above fragments that Empedocles shared the view of Parmenides regarding universal permanence, that of which nothing could be taken away from or added to. And in the proceeding passage he shares what constitutes the material world.  Here, he shows his own mark; for, rather than having only one substance or element, he has four.  Each in its turn, being distributed in various quantities to make up the variety of plants, animals and other material objects which fill the cosmos.

I will tell you a twofold tale. At one time it grew to be one only out of many; at another, it divided up to be many instead of one. There is a double becoming of perishable things and a double passing away. The coming together of all things brings one generation into being and destroys it; the other grows up and is scattered as things become divided. And these things never cease continually changing places, at one time all uniting in one through Love, at another each carried in different directions by the repulsion of Strife. Thus, as far as it is their nature to grow into one out of many, and to become many once more when the one is parted asunder, so far they come into being and their life abides not. But, inasmuch as they never cease changing their places continually, so far they are ever immovable as they go round the circle of existence.

But come, listen to my words, for it is learning that increases wisdom. As I said before, when I declared the heads of my discussion, I will tell you a twofold tale. At one time it grew together to be one only out of many, at another it parted asunder so as to be many instead of one; Fire and Water and Earth and the mighty height of Air; dread Strife, too, apart from these, of equal weight to each, and Love in their midst, equal in length and breadth. Her do you contemplate with your mind, nor sit with dazed eyes. It is she that is known as being implanted in the frame of mortals. It is she that makes them have thoughts of love and work the works of peace. They call her by the names of joy and Aphrodite. Her has no mortal yet marked moving round among them, but do you attend to the undeceitful ordering of my discussion.

For all these are equal and alike in age, yet each has a different prerogative and its own peculiar nature, but they gain the upper hand in turn when the time comes round. And nothing comes into being besides these, nor do they pass away; for, if they had been passing away continually, they would not be now, and what could increase this all and from where could it come? How, too, could it perish, since no place is empty of these things? There are these alone; but, running through one another, they become now this, now that, and like things always” (Kolak).

Unlike the monists who came before him, Empedocles did not believe that, for example, earth could become air or that water could be rarefied into fire.  Elements could certainly be mixed—as in the human body which is mostly made up of water and earth, yet these elements remain earth and water even though they are, for a time, molded into a human shape.  The elements do not turn into other things, but rather they are the roots of all things and from them everything that has form owes its material parts.

Empedocles, in trying to explain the apparent movement of objects in the physical world, believed some mechanism must be responsible.  Like Anaximenes and Heraclitus before him, he saw strife as an active dismantler of the physical world, yet like them he also believed there was a balance and harmony which took place, for strife had an equally powerful counter movement in the cosmos, the effect of peace.  Love, hate, attraction, repulsion, these antonyms were the catalysts which constantly reshape the primordial elements.  Love holds the elements together in unity so as to prevent individuation and movement, while strife inter-mingles the elements so thoroughly that no life or form can be distinguished.

Come now, look at the things that bear witness to my earlier discussion, if so be that there was any shortcoming as to their form in the earlier list. Observe the sun, everywhere bright and warm, and all the immortal things that are bathed in heat and bright radiance. Observe the rain, everywhere dark and cold; and from the earth issue things close-pressed and solid. When they are in strife all these are different in form and separated; but they come together in love, and are desired by one another.

For out of these have sprung all things that were and are and will be-trees and men and women, beasts and birds and the fishes that live in the waters, yea, and the gods that live long lives and are highest ranking in honor.

For there are these alone; but, running through one another, they take different shapes — so much does mixture change them. (Fragment of Empedocles 21)


Even though there is so much coming and going, so much mixing and mutation between the seasons of the cosmos, where in the summer of love nothing can be distinguished and in the winter of hate all becomes desolate and fractured, yet in the spring and fall of these cosmic movements, life and form flourish in variety and fullness.  Yet, the process is eternal and cyclical, almost a Ying-Yang whirlpool of events.  For although all things change and are in a constant state of flux, the elements of the mixture always remain the same, never being.

“For they prevail in turn as the circle comes round, and pass into one another, and grow great in their appointed turn.

There are these alone; but, running through one another, they become people and the tribes of beasts. At one time they are all brought together into one order by Love; at another, they are carried each in different directions by the repulsion of Strife, till they grow once more into one and are wholly subdued. Thus in so far as they are wont to grow into one out of many, and again divided become more than one, so far they come into being and their life is not lasting; but in so far as they never cease changing continually, so far are they always, immovable in the circle”  (Kolak).

Empedocles may have even incorporated some of the teachings of the Pythagoreans, at least their distaste for beans, but of more interesting note is this quote from his work, The Purifications: “For I have already been in the past a boy and a girl, a shrub and a bird and a fish which lives in the sea” (Kolak).  To be consistent with Empedocles’ other statements, however, I don’t believe he’s speaking in the sense of a Hindu Yogi, remembering his past life and the progression of his Dharmic path, but rather, the material substance that then made up Empedocles’ physical form, was once, no doubt, a fish, a bird, a tree, a boy, a girl, etc.   Thus it may very well be that we ourselves carry within us the very particles of primordial matter that were once used for a season by the ancient Greek himself.



Anaxagoras (500-428 B.C.)


Anaxagoras shared much of the world-view of both Parmenides and Empedocles.  Like his predecessors he saw matter as eternal and infinite.  Nothing could be added to or taken away from the material world for all was contained within all.  He chose the path of Empedocles, however, when it came to explaining the apparent physical changes within the cosmos.  While Parmenides maintained that these apparent changes where illusion, Anaxagoras like Empedocles before him saw these changes as real and attempted to explain them in context of an unchanging whole.

Anaxagoras believed his contemporaries were quite confused as to the nature and construct of the cosmos.  For Anaxagoras there is no creation or destruction, but rather mingling and separation of that which already and forever was.

“The Hellenes follow a wrong usage in speaking of coming into being and passing away; for nothing comes into being or passes away, but there is mingling and separation of things that are. So they would be right to call coming into being mixture, and passing away separation” (Kolak).

If matter is indeed eternal, then what appears to be creation is rather a mingling of pre-existing particles, and what appears to be destruction is nothing more than the separation of these particles from their present state.  Matter itself, however, is indestructible.

Like Empedocles, Anaxagoras conceived of opposites, which worked upon the material world causing perceptual changes.  Rather than love and hate being the active forces to join or separate matter, Anaxagoras chose condensation and rarefication for his yin and yang.  As material particles are condensed they appear to our sense perceptions –what we see is the element of highest concentration.  When objects are destroyed, their material base does not cease to exist; rather, its particles are divided until we can no longer see them as part of the whole.  Yet within the cosmic whole all things remain the same.  The material substance of the universe is constant in quantity yet varies in its manifestations.

“All things were together, infinite both in number and in smallness; for the small too was infinite. And, when all things were together, none of them could be distinguished for their smallness. For air and ether prevailed over all things, being both of them infinite; for among all things these are the greatest both in quantity and size.

For air and ether are separated off from the mass that surrounds the world, and the surrounding mass is infinite in quantity.

Nor is there a least of what is small, but there is always a smaller; for it cannot be that what is should cease to be by being cut. But there is also always something, greater than what is great, and it is equal to the small in amount, and, compared with itself, each thing is both great and small.

And since these things are so, we must suppose that there are contained many things and of all sorts in the things that are uniting, seeds of all things, with all sorts of shapes and colors and tastes, and that people have been formed in them, and the other animals that have life, and that these people have inhabited cities and cultivated fields as with us; and that they have a sun and a moon and the rest as with us; and that their earth produces for them many things of all kinds of which they gather the best together into their dwellings, and use them. Thus much have I said with regard to separating off, to show that it will not be only with us that things are separated off, but elsewhere too.

But before, they were separated off, when all things were together, not even was any color distinguishable. For the mixture of all things prevented it–of the moist and the dry, and the warm and the cold, and the light and the dark, and of much earth that was in it, and of a multitude of innumerable seeds in no way like each other. For none of the other things either is like any other. And these things being so, we must hold that all things are in the whole.

And those things having been thus decided, we must know that all of them are neither more nor less; for it is not possible for them to be more than all, and all are always equal.

And since the portions of the great and of the small are equal in amount, for this reason, too, all things will be in everything; nor is it possible for them to be apart, but all things have a portion of everything. Since it is impossible for there to be a least thing, they cannot be separated, nor come to be by themselves; but they must be now, just as they were in the beginning, all together. And in all things many things are contained, and an equal number both in the greater and in the smaller of the things that are separated off.

[…]So that we cannot know the number of the things that are separated off, either in word or deed” (Kolak).

There are no particles of matter that are beyond division.  This concept echoes back to the paradoxes of Zeno of Elea.  The presupposition that matter could be infinitely divided made it infinitely large, even the smallest of particles.  Matter becomes not only eternal, but also infinite.  That which is small can always be divided yet again, and that which is large can be doubled.  It is from this presupposition that Anaxagoras posited the belief that all things contain elements of everything else, for how else could things appear to the senses lest they had the elements of the observable object within themselves?

All perceptible things, however, have varying amounts of the universal particles, and through condensation of particular elements, we perceive these elements with the senses.  For example we perceive trees as a combination of bark, wood, and leaves, yet a tree does not grow out of a woodpile when leaves are scattered upon it.  Trees grow out of the earth when provided with water and light.  Anaxagoras reasons that the soil, light, and water all contain elements or particles of wood, bark, and leaves.  Yet, because of the rarefication of these particles in so vast of objects such as earth, air and seas, one cannot perceive the bark, wood, and leaves within them.  When, however, the particles of bark wood, and leaves are condensed into a single object of perception, the form of a tree appears until its elements are once again rarefied and separated into the whole.  Yet the tree has never left the whole but is rather a manifestation within it.

Theophrastus, in giving a commentary on Anaxagoras, makes the ancient Greek sound like yet another ancient Taoist.  It is out of opposites that perception and movement takes place, while in condensation or merging one returns to stillness and the whole.  Even awareness itself can only occur in the context of opposites, for how would one know wisdom without folly, how would one know truth without falsehood, and how could one perceive beauty without ugliness?  Through opposites one may perceive the world; through unity one may enter its wholeness.

But Anaxagoras says that perception is produced by opposites; for like things cannot be effected by like. He attempts to give a detailed enumeration of the particular senses. We see by means of the image in the pupil; but no image is cast upon what is of the same color, but only on what is different. With most living creatures things are of a different color to the pupil by day, though with some this is so by night, and these are accordingly keen-sighted at that time. Speaking generally, however, night is more of the same color with the eyes than day. And an image is cast on the pupil by day, because light is a concomitant cause of the image, and because the prevailing color casts an image more readily upon its opposite.

It is in the same way that touch and taste discern their objects. That which is just as warm or just as cold as we are neither warms us nor cools us by its contact; and, in the same way, we do not apprehend the sweet and the sour by means of themselves. We know cold by warm, fresh by salt, and sweet by sour, in virtue of our deficiency in each; for all these are in us to begin with. And we smell and hear in the same manner; the former by means of the accompanying respiration, the latter by the sound penetrating to the brain, for the bone which surrounds this is hollow, and it is upon it that the sound falls (Kolak).

Up to this point, Anaxagoras has done little more than restate the philosophy of Empedocles with a few interesting variables, such as all things contain particles of all other things.  Aside from this, however, it is not much of a novel philosophical invention.  Anaxagoras, however, did have another aspect of the material cosmos which would provide great fodder for future philosophical speculation.  His contribution was the concept of Nous[19] into the realm of the cosmos.

In everything there is a portion of everything except Nous, and there are some things in which there is Nous also.

All other things partake in a portion of everything, while Nous is infinite and self-ruled, and is mixed with nothing, but is alone, itself by itself. For if it were not by itself, but were mixed with anything else, it would partake in all things if it were mixed with any; for in everything there is a portion of everything, as has been said by me in what goes before, and the things mixed with it would hinder it, so that it would have power over nothing in the same way that it has now being alone by itself. For it is the thinnest of all things and the purest, and it has all knowledge about everything and the greatest strength; and Nous has power over all things, both greater and smaller, that have life. And Nous had power over the whole revolution, so that it began to revolve in the beginning. And it began to revolve first from a small beginning; but the revolution now extends over a larger space, and will extend over a larger still. And all the things that are mingled together and separated off and distinguished are all known by Nous. And Nous set in order all things that were to be, and all things that were and are not now and that are, and this revolution in which now revolve the stars and the sun and the moon, and the air and the ether that are separated off. And this revolution caused the separating off, and the rare is separated off from the dense, the warm from the cold, the light from the dark, and the dry from the moist. And there are many portions in many things. But no thing is altogether separated off nor distinguished from anything else except Nous. And all Nous is alike, both the greater and the smaller; while nothing else is like anything else, but each single thing is and was most manifestly those things of which it has most in it.

And when Nous began to move things, separating off took place from all that was moved, and so much as Nous set in motion was all separated. And as things were set in motion and separated, the revolution caused them to be separated much more.

And Nous, which ever is, is certainly there, where everything else is, in the surrounding mass, and in what has been united with it and separated off from it” (Kolak).

The Nous of Anaxagoras is not a creator but rather a mover, it is this principle of Universal mind, like the Logos, that orders all things.  Nous permeates the cosmos, yet none of the other elements are within it; it transcends the physical elements, but paradoxically, Anaxagoras describes the Nous itself in physical and spatial terms:  “For it is the thinnest of all things and the purest, and it has all knowledge about everything and the greatest strength” (Kolak).  This is fascinating, for Anaxagoras has described matter as infinite, and the Nous as infinite, yet they are not intermingled but standing apart, the Nous over and around all other material substance; and Nous is even within some objects, yet no objects are within Nous.  Every physical manifestation is unique, and all Nous is the same.

In many ways, Anaxagoras is opening the door for a dualistic world-view—what has become know as the mind/body distinction.  Yet, perhaps due to the cultural and philosophical presuppositions of his time and place, he could not conceive of Nous or Mind as a non-material thing.


Leucippus of Miletus (460-? B.C.) and Democritus of Abdera (460-370 B.C.)

The Atomists


Leucippus and Democritus consolidated many of the ideas of the Pythagoreans, Parmenides and Empedocles.  While they did not necessarily add any new elements to the search for the ultimate substance of reality, they did take the theories of Empedocles to their logical conclusion and fill in the gaps where Empedocles was vague concerning particles.  They also did away with any mechanism for moving the particles, aside from the inherent movement within particles themselves.  The concepts of a Universal Mind[20] were not required in the Atomists’ system; instead, matter was its own cause and effect.  Materialism found its champions in the voices of these Greeks and their school.

            Whereas Empedocles broke down the basic building blocks of the perceptual world into four specific elements: earth, air, fire and water, the Atomists claimed that the particles of matter were infinite in number and imperceptible because of their small size.  Unlike Empedocles, however, they claimed that these particles were indivisible and had no particular quality besides solidity or impenetrability.  These particles were called atoms; and, although they varied in size and shape, they had no weight and moved about endlessly in the void.

            The void was the Atomists’ view of empty space, yet it was considered to be just as real as corporal objects.  Parmenides had denied the reality of empty space and the Pythagoreans embraced a similar concept in which their monads could move.  Atoms moving through space would eventually collide, and these collisions would form new unions of atoms, which over time would amalgamate to the point of gaining enough volume to be perceived.  The world and every perceptible thing in it were thus formed from the collision of atoms.  Physical objects cease to appear when their atoms are broken apart into fragments that are no longer perceivable.  The atoms themselves, however, are indestructible and will continue to move through space, colliding and breaking apart throughout eternity.

            The Atomists are unique in that they require no mechanism for the movement of atoms outside of the atoms themselves.  There is no prime mover or uncaused cause for Leucippus or Democritus; instead, matter itself is a sufficient cause to explain its own existence and movement.  Materialism had finally matured out of the depths of the superstitions and religious lingering of its Greek past.




The Age of Socrates

            The early Greek philosophers were, for all intents and purposes, cosmologists.  Each sought in their own particular fashion to discover the ultimate substance or substances underlying physical reality.  Although they arrived at various solutions, they also shared many presuppositions.  Reality is physical, the underlying substance or Urstoff is physical, and the basic substance, or substances, of the cosmos as eternal.  Also, they focus on objective truth or empirical data.  While there were notable exceptions such as Parmenides, who believed sense perceptions were illusion and only reason could lead to ultimate truth or reality, even he believed an ultimate objective reality existed.  The ancient Greek philosophers shared the view that objective truth existed, but their constant squabbling and counter arguments over what this ultimate objective reality was left many people skeptical.  This skepticism formed the direction of the Sophists.  If no consensus could be reached regarding objective reality, perhaps the search had been in the wrong direction.  The Sophists’ interest and development of subjective truth represented a bridge between the objective truth seeking of the past and the more universal philosophies of Plato and Aristotle.  Subjectivism and its relativistic ramifications helped usher in a new era and style of philosophy where both objective and subjective aspects of reality were seen as necessary parts of inquiry if one wished to understand the whole.




The Sophists


The Sophists arose in Greece around the fifth century B.C. This was a time where the art of rhetoric[21] had become paramount in the pursuit of wealth and legal protection as well as prosecution in the form of lawsuits.  It was customary at the time for disputants to speak for themselves without the recourse of legal aid or representation.  If a plaintiff could not articulate his position well enough, he, even if in the right could suffer losses of life, position or property.  It was out of this climate that the art and teaching of the Sophist gained momentum, for the Sophists did not pretend to offer ultimate truth like those philosophers who came before them, rather they offered the skills required to defend a position or point of view, whether it was true or not.

The Sophists hawked their wares by putting on public performances, where they vehemently argued a position or lambasted an opponent’s view.  The Sophist then, with equal passion, could switch positions on the subject at hand, and argue just as forcefully the opposite proposition.  This ability came out of the Sophist’s presupposition that ultimate truth could not be known.  Everything was relative to the perceiver’s perceptions, and truth became a matter of subjectivity.  Since truth could not ultimately be known, the ability to argue the merit of one’s own views became the focus of their teaching and practice.

The Sophist, while often offending the propriety of the state or religious community, enthralled the youth with their eloquence and clever repartees.  The Sophists would verbally tear apart the foundations of custom and traditions and even undermine the sacred teachings of the religiously minded.  By establishing the non-existence of absolutes, the Sophists were able to demonstrate the importance of their craft, for if truth or objective fact was unknowable, it could not save one in disputation.  Therefore the art of speaking articulately and convincingly became paramount in a society where absolutes had become suspect.


Protagoras (481-? B.C.)



Protagoras ushered in a whole new era of thinking for the Greek mind, which would have a profound effect on man’s relationship to himself, society and even the gods.  One of the best known quotations of Protagoras establishes him as the father of humanism: “Man is the measure of all things, of those that are that they are, of those that are not that they are not” (Kolak).  It has been argued as to whether or not Protagoras meant man as an individual or as a community as the measure of all things and to whether or not he was referring to abstract as well as concrete things.  It seems certain that as far as sense perception is concerned Protagoras was speaking of the individual, but he also proposed a type of ethical relativism with regards to the customs and beliefs of the society in which a man lived.

If nothing were absolute aside from one’s own perceptions, which are themselves subject to change, it would still be foolish to disregard the norms and convictions of those around you.  Even if it is your perception that a law is unjust or that a social convention is outdated, it does not prohibit people from taking action against you who believe you are acting inappropriately or illegally.  It may be true that you perceive the gods as nothing more than projections made in the likeness of man; but—since nothing is absolute—why take the chance of incurring the anger of those gods if they do exists and, even if they don’t, the sure anger of those who believe they do.

All things are subjective, but since subjects live within the presence of other subjects in a community. It is wise to follow the norms of the land.  If through wisdom and argument a man can show the merit of his perceptions over those that came before him, it is possible that the norms may be changed.  Until that time, however, it would be wise to conform at least in deed to those conventions that are accepted by the community.  In a sense it could be said that Protagoras believed all perceptions are true, yet he also believed some perceptions were better than others.  If indeed all things are subjectively true, then it becomes clear why the ability to propose and defend one’s perceptions articulately and convincingly become so important.



Gorgias (483-374 B.C.)



          Gorgias, although a contemporary of Protagoras who shared in many of the latter’s subjective ideals, seemed to have reached an opposite conclusion.  Whereas Protagoras proposed that all things are subjectively true, Gorgias seems to imply that nothing is true or at least that nothing can be known.  Gorgias was influenced by the teachings of Zeno, and the effect produced was a skeptic.  Gorgias produced a work, Not being of Nature, in which he used his skills in rhetoric to demonstrate the foolishness of objective and subjective knowledge.  Gorgias left his philosophical inquires after his disenchantment with the possibility of knowing ultimate truth and took up the art of rhetoric instead.

“Nothing exists, for if there were anything, then it would have either to be eternal or to have come into being.  But it cannot have come into being, for neither out of Being nor out of Not-being can anything come to be.  Nor can it be eternal, for if it were eternal, then it would have to be infinite.  But the infinite is impossible for the following reason.  It could not be in another, nor could it be in itself, therefore it would be nowhere.  But what is nowhere, is nothing.

If there were anything, then it could not be known.  For if there is knowledge of being, then what is thought must be, and Not-being could not be thought at all.  In which case there could be no error, which is absurd.

Even if there were knowledge of being, this knowledge could not be imparted.  Every sign is different from the thing signified: e.g. how could we impart knowledge of colours by word, since the ear hears tones and not colours?  And how could the same representation of being be in the two persons at once, since they are different from one another?” (Kolak ).





The Sophists changed the intellectual climate of their day with their propagation of subjectivism and relativism.  Their claims that truth was not knowable, or that all truth is subjective and therefore relative, changed the emphasis away from the acquisition of knowledge to the acquisition of persuasive speech.  Yet the Sophists also emphasized the importance of the individual and the power of perception.  Self-truth and knowledge became something worth striving for and perhaps lay within reach.  The great quests of those who came before them were too inconclusive or had equally convincing detractors to provide merit.

To realize the relative nature of all things and to apply this knowledge to practical endeavors became a leading attribute of the Sophists.  They were able to see beyond their cultural and religious biases and incorporate the views and beliefs of those around them.  They helped broaden and deepen the Greek mind, and above all they showed the importance and the power of individual perception.

On the negative side, the subjectivity and relativism of the Sophists lead many to skepticism or philosophical nihilism.  It was easy to become cynical in light of the self-serving models stripped of their authority by Sophist rhetoricians.  Many Sophists used their verbal skills in a degrading or unethical manner, which brought the charge of sophistry.  It was this latter use of Sophist skills that Socrates and Plato attacked.  Socrates took the best of what the Sophists had to offer while refusing to succumb to their nihilistic views of knowledge and truth.  It was Socrates who let the way to a new type of inclusive and far-reaching philosophy—one that was not only concerned with cosmologies and ultimate substance but also with the importance of the perceptions and actions of man.

Socrates (470-399 B.C.)

The unexamined life is not worth living



In many ways Socrates found his place among the Sophists.  In a famous account, the Oracle of Delphi proclaimed Socrates to be the wisest of men.  When Socrates heard this proclamation, he reasoned that is was due to his awareness that he did not know anything, while other men only thought they knew something.  Socrates, however, was not a cynic or a skeptic and was very far from being a nihilist. He had a sincere desire to understand universal truths.  He believed knowledge was possible and that it would lead to virtuous living.

Socrates presupposed that man was good by nature and that evil was the result of ignorance.  If man could gain true and universal knowledge, he would be able to live a virtuous life, for according to Socrates no man did evil knowingly.  These assertions led him on his quest for knowledge and truth.  They were largely pursued through the use of dialectic.  Socratic dialectic involved conversation, a serious of questions and answers, whereby the participants in the dialogue tried to approach true definitions and distinctions and, thereby, true knowledge on any given subject.  Socrates was the perpetual seeker after truth, and although he was regarded as a great teacher, he saw himself as the eternal student.

Socrates’ method of inquiry and instruction came through dialogue rather than through lecture.  He would mingle with the citizens of the city seeking those who claimed to have knowledge on one subject or another.  Socrates would then engage the “knower” in conversation, attempting to get a clear understanding of whatever particular truth the person claimed to posses.  Through a series of questions and answers it became clear to both Socrates and his dialectical victim that the supposed knower didn’t really know after all.  Yet Socrates was not using his dialectical skills to show that no one knew anything. He sincerely hoped that through mutual investigation all parties would come closer to discerning universal truth.

Socrates used an inductive type of dialectic, in which he would start with particular examples[23] in the hopes of finding universals[24].  Socrates tried to move the conversation from loose and often contradictory definitions to ones that were clear and unique to the topic at hand.  Socrates did not pursue his inquiries with the intent of embarrassing, but rather with the genuine desire to lead others as well as himself to true understanding.  Yet the attainment of true understanding itself was not the ultimate goal, but that true understanding would be applied to each individual’s life.  Through this application, Socrates hoped to foster a life of virtue.  If ignorance did bring about moral weakness, then knowledge would bring about moral excellence.

Socrates believed that mankind shared in the universal reason or Nous, and it was because of this connection that man was capable of knowing universal truths.  Socrates also saw the value of the individual subject and the power of our subjective experiences.  He used his skills to draw forth from individual subjects’ concepts of truth, instead of trying to impose his beliefs on them from the outside.  Socrates was a type of husbandman for the soul, pruning off that which was useless and dead to foster new growth and the ensuing fruit of true knowledge.  Knowledge was the sought after fruit, but man was the garden in which this fruit came to maturity.

It is difficult to discern where the philosophy of Socrates ends and the thoughts of Plato begin, for Socrates taught by dialogue, not through discourses or the writing of books.  All we know of Socrates comes from other writers, most notably his disciple Plato.  Yet it is hard to discern when Plato is using Socrates as a literary device to promote his own views and when he is accurately portraying the views of his great teacher in their own right.  We do know that Socrates, like the other Sophists of his time, did act as a bridge between the monistic and pluralistic materialist of the past and the more broad philosophical theories which would come after him.  Socrates helped usher in the importance of man himself as a subject worthy of philosophical inquiry, and Plato and Aristotle would couple this emphasis with the philosophies of the past to produce truly epic philosophical systems, which have come down to the present day.


Plato (428/7-348/7 B.C.)


Plato is known by the grand title of “Father of Idealism.”  He taught it was ideas rather than objects which were the true bearers of reality.  Ideas are eternal and indestructible, and is in them that Parmenidean permanence is found.  Concepts and objects, however, are mutable.  The world of physical forms is transitory, for objects will be created and destroyed; nothing physically perceived is permanent.  The realm of Ideas, however, is eternal.  For Ideal forms are beyond the scope of time and the decay of change.  Ultimate truth and universals, therefore, must be sought in the realm of Ideal forms, rather than in their manifestations in the physical world.  This realm of Ideas could only be accessed through reason, for sense perception was deceitful and varied among people.  The realm of Ideas, however, is absolute and not dependent on the abilities of the perceiver to attain its reality.

Like Socrates, Plato believed that knowledge was possible and obtainable by mortal man.  Knowledge also was objective and universal, not subject to the tastes and perceptions of individuals, but real in its own right.  True knowledge is eternal and infallible; and, as men’s perceptions align with these truths, their knowledge of the absolute takes form.  All men have access to eternal truths and the archetypal forms which make up reality, yet some men are more closely aligned to these forms than others.  Plato believed education could help guide minds to a clearer understanding of the eternal forms and was a process of bringing to remembrance what the student already innately knew.





Plato presupposes that knowledge is possible and focuses his inquiry into what is the ultimate object of knowledge.  Plato presents both positive and negative aspects in his inquiry after knowledge.  Plato shows negatively what knowledge is not and positively the true nature of knowledge.  Plato believed that knowledge of truth was eternal and universal; in other words, truth and knowledge would be the same for all people in all places at all times.  This went contrary to the Sophists’ belief that knowledge was subjective and therefore relative to each individual.  Plato sought to show the errors of the Sophist position while promoting the virtues of his theory of knowledge.  For Plato, true knowledge must be infallible and immutable.

Plato challenges the Sophists’ theory of knowledge in general and  Protagoras’ in particular.  Protagoras claimed that “man is the measure of all things” or, in other words, that man’s perception equals reality.  This is the presuppositional foundation of subjectivism and its relative view of truth and knowledge.  Plato found this view completely unacceptable for it denied an underlying universal, which was for him the pedigree of true knowledge.  The perceptual knowledge of the Sophists’ is not infallible or universal; it also does not tell us what reality is in and of itself, but only how it is currently being perceived.  According to Plato, this negates perception as a means to understand ultimate truth.

Since objects of perception are always in a state of flux following the Hereclitean model, it is obvious that they are not absolute and universal.  Since absolute and universal are synonyms for true knowledge, it is clear that perception does not qualify.  All objects of perception are in a state of becoming, as opposed to pure being; it is then impossible to discern ultimate being from objects that are in a state of becoming.  Perceptual knowledge of objects in the flux of becoming is therefore subject to change and not the type of certain, eternal knowledge Plato is seeking.

Sense perception is inadequate for it does not contain within its bounds the whole spectrum of knowledge.  There are many things we know outside of sense perception.  It is not sense perception that enlightens us to the true size of these objects, but reason, which takes into account past experiences and adjusts the data received by our senses accordingly.  Also, many mathematical propositions cannot be directly perceived but are abstractions of the mind.  How can perception be the source of knowledge of that of which it cannot perceive?

Sense perception is also insufficient in itself in that it needs the mind or reason with which to evaluate sense data.  If I were to say one object appears smoother than another does, I am using reason as a grid by which to make such a value judgment.  Concepts of beauty, while they may appear relative, are gauged against a standard of beauty already existing in the mind independent of the current object of perception.  In order to say something is ugly or beautiful, I must already have a concept in mind as a point of reference with which to evaluate the object currently being perceived.


The Myth of the Cave


In Republic, Plato presents us with an allegory which shows his view of a hierarchy of knowledge and reality.  In many ways, however, this is more than epistemology; it also provides an ontological sense of what Plato had in mind when referring to ultimate reality.  Plato’s analogy of the cave shows that knowledge from the human perspective is a process of enlightenment in which the seeker moves from the shadows of ignorance into the full light of day, which represents ultimate truth.  This mythological representation can be used as a template in which to examine Plato’s view of various types of knowledge.  Plato’s myth also seems to allude, in its conclusion, to his great teacher, Socrates, for he describes how the ignorant would react to the words and teachings of one who had been enlightened.


Allegory of the Cave[25]

“‘And now,’ I said, ‘let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened: Behold! Human beings living in an underground den, which has a mouth open toward the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.’

‘I see.’

‘And do you see, I said, men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall? Some of them are talking, others silent.’

‘You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.’

‘Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?’

‘True,’ he said. ‘how could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?’

‘And of the objects which are being carried in like manner they would only see the shadows?’

‘Yes,’ he said.

‘And if they were able to converse with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them?’

‘Very true.’

‘And suppose further that the prison had an echo which came from the other side, would they not be sure to fancy when one of the passersby spoke that the voice which they heard came from the passing shadow?’

‘No question,’ he replied.

‘To them,’ I said, ‘the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.’

‘That is certain.’

‘And now look again, and see what will naturally follow if the prisoners are released and disabused of their error. At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look toward the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows; and then conceive someone saying to him, that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, when he is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned toward more real existence, he has a clearer vision–what will be his reply? And you may further imagine that his instructor is pointing to the objects as they pass and requiring him to name them–will he not be perplexed? Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him?’

‘Far truer.’

‘And if he is compelled to look straight at the light, will he not have a pain in his eyes which will make him turn away to take refuge in the objects of vision which he can see, and which he will conceive to be in reality clearer than the things which are now being shown to him?’

‘True,’ he said.

‘And suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged ascent, and held fast until he is forced into the presence of the sun himself, is he not likely to be pained and irritated? When he approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled, and he will not be able to see anything at all of what are now called realities.’

‘Not all in a moment,’ he said.

‘He will require to grow accustomed to the sight of the upper world. And first he will see the shadows best, next the reflections of men and other objects in the water, and then the objects themselves; then he will gaze upon the light of the moon and the stars and the spangled heaven; and he will see the sky and the stars by night better than the sun or the light of the sun by day? ‘


‘Last of all he will be able to see the sun, and not mere reflections of him in the water, but he will see him in his own proper place, and not in another; and he will contemplate him as he is.’


‘He will then proceed to argue that this is he who gives the season and the years, and is the guardian of all that is in the visible world, and in a certain way the cause of all things which he and his fellows have been accustomed to behold?

‘Clearly, he said, he would first see the sun and then reason about him.’

‘And when he remembered his old habitation, and the wisdom of the den and his fellow prisoners, do you not suppose that he would felicitate himself on the change, and pity him?’

‘Certainly, he would.’

‘And if they were in the habit of conferring honors among themselves on those who were quickest to observe the passing shadows and to remark which of them went before, and which followed after, and which were together; and who were therefore best able to draw conclusions as to the future, do you think that he would care for such honors and glories, or envy the possessors of them? Would he not say with Homer, “Better to be the poor servant of a poor master,” and to endure anything, rather than think as they do and live after their manner? ‘

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I think that he would rather suffer anything than entertain these false notions and live in this miserable manner.’

‘Imagine once more, I said, such a one coming suddenly out of the sun to be replaced in his old situation; would he not be certain to have his eyes full of darkness?’

‘To be sure,’ he said.

‘And if there were a contest, and he had to compete in measuring the shadows with the prisoners who had never moved out of the den, while his sight was still weak, and before his eyes had become steady (and the time which would be needed to acquire this new habit of sight might be very considerable), would he not be ridiculous? Men would say of him that up he went and down he came without his eyes; and that it was better not even to think of ascending; and if anyone tried to loose another and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death.’

‘No question’, he said.

‘This entire allegory, I said, you may now append, dear Glaucon, to the previous argument; the prison house is the world of sight, the light of the fire is the sun, and you will not misapprehend me if you interpret the journey upward to be the ascent of the soul into the intellectual world according to my poor belief, which, at your desire, I have expressed–whether rightly or wrongly, God knows. But, whether true or false, my opinion is that in the world of knowledge the idea of good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort; and, when seen, is also inferred to be the universal author of all things beautiful and right, parent of light and of the lord of light in this visible world, and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual; and that this is the power upon which he who would act rationally either in public or private life must have his eye fixed’”  (Kolak).


In the first part of Plato’s analogy we are presented with chained and bound prisoners who were forced to look at the back of the cave from their infancy onward.  It is easy to draw the comparison between the chains as portrayed in the cave and personal and cultural biases which we carry from our youth.  Enculturation is the tie that binds, limiting our perceptions concerning the true nature of reality.  Those who are bound have only a limited view and are able to see only shadows and vague images in the darkness.  For Plato, this is the lowest form of knowledge and is referred to as opinion.  It is this type of knowledge the Sophists dabbled in and to which the vast majority of humanity was bound.

The second level of knowledge alluded to in Plato’s cave comes when an individual works himself free from his bonds and turns around to see the source of the shadowy projections upon the wall.  What he sees is a fire in the cave, and in front of the fire people move carrying various objects, which are thereby cast as shadows for the bound prisoners to see.  At first, the newly freed prisoner will be blinded by the light of the fire, and the physical object will appear less clear than the shadows on the wall.  As his eyes adjust, however, the physical objects will become clearer and he will realize that they are the source of the shadowy figures he had once taken for true knowledge.

In Plato’s analogy the fire represents the physical sun and the objects paraded before it the physical objects of sense perception.  He does not tell us who those are who parade the objects before the fire, thus projecting images for the masses, but it is easy to make conjectures.  The Sophists would be prime candidates, for they have seen beyond cultural norms and are not bound by the shadowy appearance of things and can thus manipulate physical data to produce various and desired effects upon those gazing at the wall.  Certain sages, teachers, political and religious leaders could also be seen as shadow casters, some of which have become quite adept at manipulating in order to affect the perceptions of the masses.

Plato’s representation, however, does not end in the cave, but continues onward and outward until at last the freed prisoner comes into the full light of day.  Yet, how much more blinding is the sun than the fire in the cave, and it brings pain and confusion until his eyes have a chance to adjust.  At first, only shadows and reflections are accessible to his sight, but with time he is able to look around him and see things in the full light of the sun.

The sun represents true knowledge for Plato, and the objects seen in its light are actually contemplations of the Ideal.  The sun is the realm of Ideal Forms, and although the freed prisoner cannot yet directly look into the face of the sun, he can perceive through reason a much clearer form of reality than had ever been available before.  The former prisoner has now moved from mere opinion and shadowy images into the realm of the real.  Objects are still not entirely “real,” but he is well on his way up the path to true knowledge.

Finally, the prisoner will be able to look at the sun itself; and, when his eyes have adjusted, he will be able to see things as they truly are.  This is the absolute or realm of Eternal forms from which all other objects are made manifest.  This is also the realm of true knowledge, far removed from shadowy conjecture and opinion.  It is this realm that Plato seeks, for it is absolute and universal and here that perfection can be seen.

This journey of knowledge also proceeds from the visible to the invisible realm, from physical objects to the realm of pure ideas.  The shadows on the wall and the objects paraded in front of the fire are various degrees of physical objects.  The objects observed in the full light of the sun are actually concepts, relating to their absolute forms.  For example, in the full light of the sun, one might be able to comprehend the idea of circles, true circles, not ones projected on the wall at the back of the cave, which must in some aspect be imperfect.  In the true light of day one can contemplate the nature of circles. Yet in the ultimate realm of forms there are not circles but the archetype of circle, or circularity.  In this realm of forms one cannot speak of circles, for there is only one form or circle from which all concepts of circularity spring.

Plato concludes his analogy with the question, “Would the one who had thus been enlightened not take pity on those who were still trapped in the cave?”  The answer is given in the affirmative, but then Plato gives an account of what would happen to one who had seen the light if he tried to re-enter the cave and free those bound in the darkness.  When the enlightened man entered the cave he would not be able to see because of the darkness and would appear to those inside as one who was blind.  In time, his eyes would adjust, and as he groped forward in the darkness he would still appear weak and inferior to those who had excelled at living and perceiving in the darkness.  Those that tended the fire and controlled the projection of images on the wall would see him as a threat to their power over the masses and their positions as teachers and leaders of the unlearned.  Those gazing at the wall would perceive him as a madman who had lost all touch with reality, for he questioned and disparaged the very reality they could see with their own eyes.  Such a one would not be long for the cave, for he would either flee, be driven out, or, more likely, be executed by those whose sense of reality had been offended, hence the fate of Socrates.



Plato’s ontology rests on the concept of the Form or Idea.  For Plato, ideas are not merely abstract thoughts, but rather the underlying objective reality.  For example, goodness could be seen in a variety of actions or objects, but essential goodness was found in the Form or Idea of the Good.  This is the absolute Good from which all other forms of goodness arise.  Plato also taught that the realm of Ideas existed in a context outside of common awareness.

Plato’s Ideal forms or underlying essences are not objects of sense perception.  Whereas objects, which imitate or participate in various ideas or essences, can be observed, the essences themselves are beyond the time-space continuum.  The Ideal forms are transcendent and beyond the affects of creation and destruction.  They are immutable, eternal, neither coming into being or suffering change.  Yet they are also immanent, for it is not as if they were in some other location, but rather permeate all things.  For example the Ideal of truth can be contained within an individual who is being truthful but in an absolute rather than in a subjective sense.

Plato recognized an innumerable number of ideal Forms, but saw the need to discover an underlying unity.  Plato proposed several solutions to this underlying reality.  In Eudemian Ethics, Aristotle claims Plato called it The One. In Republic, this unity was called the Absolute Good, and in Symposium, the Absolute Beauty.  The One, the Good, and the Beautiful could be used as synonyms for what Plato was seeking.  The status of quality for the One, the Good, or the Beautiful far exceeds that of the other Forms.  “The good is not essence, but far exceeds essence in dignity and power,” and it is “not only the source of intelligibility in all objects of knowledge, but also of their being and essence” (Kolak).    As Plato continued to develop his idea of the underlying unity of all things, it became more and more difficult to speak about the subject at hand.  He was entering into a realm beyond human thought and language and coming to a point of ineffability where he was no longer able or willing to speak about the nature of the unifying principle.

The neo-Platonists identified the One with God, and it appears there was precedent in Plato’s own writings to do so.  In Timaeus, Plato comments on God, “It is hard to find the maker and father of the universe, and having found him, it is impossible to speak of him to all” (Kolak).  Plato also makes a distinction between God, as being beyond predicates and the underlying principle of all things, with the nature of the Demiurge.  The Demiurge appears to have been a manifestation of universal reason and was the mechanism or craftsman behind the construction of the physical world.  The Demiurge stood outside of or was separate from the forms, but he used these forms as a template by which to create the physical world.  Plato appears to make a distinction between God and the Demiurge, as did the neo-Platonists who came after him.  “In his second letter, Plato says that it is a mistake to suppose that any of the predicates we are acquainted with apply to the “king of the universe,”  Now, if the “Captain” is the Demiurge, the “Father” cannot be the Demiurge too, but must be the One; and I think that Plotinus was right in identifying the Father with the One or Good of the Republic”  (Copleston 178).

If, as Plato maintains, the realm of Ideas is as unique and high above the realm of sensible objects as the light of the sun outshines the light of a lantern, how are people to gain true or absolute knowledge?  Part of how Plato solves this problem is found in his teachings regarding the soul.  He believed the soul existed before its union with a human form.  The soul dwelt among the ideal forms and beheld their pure essences.  Because of the nature of the soul, it is able to comprehend the nature of the ideal forms.  Knowledge is more an exercise in recollection than in acquiring new knowledge.  True understanding is the ability to perceive the universals rather than having opinions about sense perceptions.

Plato maintains his separation between the realm of the Ideal forms or universals and the objects of sense perception in this world.  Whereas the Forms are perfect and can be thereby defined, the realm of sensible objects is flawed and lacking and must in some regards remain indefinable.  Plato presents us with a hierarchy of reality.  The Ideal forms are the most real or ultimate reality, followed by conceptualizing or contemplating on the Ideal forms[26], then comes the realm of sensible objects, which are transitory in nature and thereby less real than their ideal prototypes.  Copies or images can be made of sensible objects and are even less real than the objects of sense perception.  Plato is not suggesting that the physical world is not real and does not exist; however, he makes it quite clear that the objects of sense perception are less real than the objects of thoughts, and these in turn are less real than the objects of Ideal form.

Plato’s ontology raises the question of the relationship of the One to the many, or the Ideal to the particulars.  If we are speaking of abstract concepts like the Beautiful, we can see how it may participate in the sense perception of a variety of beautiful objects.  Yet if we speak of things like man, a tree, or a coffee mug, it becomes more difficult to conceive how the particulars can share in the nature of the absolute Idea.  Plato suggests through the voice of Socrates in Parmenides that this relationship can be understood in two ways.  First, the particular object of sense perception is participating in the corresponding object of the Ideal.  Secondly, the object of sense perception is imitating the corresponding object of the Ideal[27] (Kolak).  Plato seems to prefer the imitation theory and presents the realm of Ideal Forms as archetypes from which the realm of sensible objects are made.  The closer the sense object conforms to its Ideal Form, the better that object can be said to be, the more it diverges from its archetypal form the more imperfect the sense object.

Plato gives his creation account in Timaeus, in which the Demiurge acts as the great cosmic craftsman, bringing order, even to the point of geometrical shapes, into the realm of space and time.  For Plato, an atheist was one who did not believe in reason or in an orderly, created cosmos, as opposed to chaos.  In Republic, Plato speaks of God being the creator of all things; this would include the essences which were used by the Demiurge in constructing the sensible world.

To sum up Plato’s cosmology, it would appear that the Ultimate reality is the One; this could be related to the concept of God.  God is beyond predicates and cannot be named among the eternal Forms; it is more likely that the Forms themselves proceed from the mind or intelligence of God.  The Demiurge and World Soul are seen as personifications of Divine Reason and act as agents of creation.  They do not create out of nothing, but rather use the Ideal Forms as templates in bringing about objects of sense perception.  Plato’s hierarchy of reality would thus follow this order:



The Ideal Forms; The Demiurge and World Soul

Pure thought or contemplation of particulars in search of the Ideal

Particular thoughts or objects of sense perceptions[28]

Images, shadows or reflections, copies of sense objects


In his theory of forms, Plato created a major synthesis of the Greek cosmologies which had proceeded him.  He was able to embrace the One of Parmenides while still allowing for the flux of Heraclitus.  He understood the importance of subjectivism and the worth of individual perception but did not give into the relativism or nihilism of the Sophists.  Plato also departed from the strict materialism of the monists and pluralists.  He imbued the cosmos with mind and soul.  He maintained that reason was transcendent and immanent, thereby Eternal and immutable, yet also active in the world of sense perception and in the lives of men.  Plato presented us with the One, out of which flowed the many, and, from the many, imitations produced to give us the world in which we live.  The wise man though will not be content with gazing at the imitations when he has the means within his own soul to gaze upon the true forms and to know what is perfect, everlasting, and true.





Aristotle (384/3-322/1 B.C.)


Aristotle was perhaps the greatest disciple of Plato, not because he followed and expounded upon his teachers great ideas but because he established his own philosophy, which at first glance often appears to be antithetical to the views of his teacher.  Aristotle is known as the “Father of Realism,” and it could be said that he turned Platonism on its head.  For Aristotle saw the objects of sense perceptions as containers of the essence.  By knowing the particulars one could contemplate the universals (unlike the Platonic idea that by knowing the universals one could thereby understand the particulars).  Aristotle, however, was not completely contrary to Plato.  In many regards Aristotle held true to the Metaphysics and Ethics of his master.  Both philosophers were concerned with universals and ultimate truth, and both believed reason was the means by which these truths could be perceived.

Aristotle, like Plato, often combined his epistemology with his ontology.  His views on the nature of knowledge and the nature of being can be found in both his Physics and Metaphysics.  Aristotle is interested in ultimate truth or final causes but also spends a great deal of time and thought exploring the mechanisms of change.  Part of Aristotle’s criticisms of Plato come from his view that Plato simply manufactured a parallel universe of Forms to go along side the universe of sense objects.  Aristotle did not take seriously the Demiurge’s role in bringing about change and looked for a series of causes which could explain the apparent movement seen in the physical world.  Aristotle did not deny Platonic essence, but he refused to accept that essence existed apart from the objects of sense perception in some idealized realm.


The Metaphysics


Aristotle begins the Metaphysics, “All men by nature desire to know” (Kolak).  Curiosity and wonder are the parents of philosophy, for out of their desire for explanations the love of wisdom is born.  In the Metaphysics Aristotle presents a hierarchy of knowledge.  The first type of knowledge comes through experience.  All men are capable of this type of knowledge since it is presented to us through our senses.  Memory allows man to access the experiences of the past, learn from them, and apply them to current situations.  A man of experience subjectively knows what things are, but he does not know why things are that way.  He simply experiences them as is.

The next rung on the ladder of knowledge is the man of art, for the artist not only sees things as they are but also knows the cause behind the thing.  For example, a man of mere experience may perceive the color green in a painting; the artist, however, knows the particular shade of green was produced from varying amounts of blue and yellow pigments.  The ditch digger knows how to dig a ditch, but the construction master knows why the particular ditch is being dug and why it needs to be a certain length and depth and go in a particular direction.  The artist or craftsman can perceive both experiential and causal knowledge.  The artist uses knowledge to accomplish various actions and is thus superior in his thinking to the man limited by mere experience.

The highest form of knowledge, however, is not utilitarian, but knowledge for its own sake.  Aristotle called the desire to know things for their own sake science, for science is the study of first causes.  This science of first causes or principles is known as Metaphysics.  Metaphysics therefore becomes the supreme end of wisdom for its goal is not achieved through experience, or the ability to understand the causes of certain events for their usefulness, but rather through the study and understanding of all things for the simple love of wisdom.

“Since we are seeking this knowledge, we must inquire of what kind are the causes and the principles, the knowledge of which is Wisdom. If one were to take the notions we have about the wise man, this might perhaps make the answer more evident. We suppose first, then, that the wise man knows all things, as far as possible, although he has not knowledge of each of them in detail; secondly, that he who can learn things that are difficult, and not easy for man to know, is wise (sense-perception is common to all, and therefore easy and no mark of Wisdom); again, that he who is more exact and more capable of teaching the causes is wiser, in every branch of knowledge; and that of the sciences, also, that which is desirable on its own account and for the sake of knowing it is more of the nature of Wisdom than that which is desirable on account of its results, and the superior science is more of the nature of Wisdom than the ancillary; for the wise man must not be ordered but must order, and he must not obey another, but the less wise must obey him.

Such and so many are the notions, then, which we have about Wisdom and the wise. Now of these characteristics that of knowing all things must belong to him who has in the highest degree universal knowledge; for he knows in a sense all the instances that fall under the universal. And these things, the most universal, are on the whole the hardest for men to know; for they are farthest from the senses. And the most exact of the sciences are those which deal most with first principles; for those which involve fewer principles are more exact than those which involve additional principles, e.g. arithmetic than geometry. But the science which investigates causes is also instructive, in a higher degree, for the people who instruct us are those who tell the causes of each thing. And understanding and knowledge pursued for their own sake are found most in the knowledge of that which is most knowable (for he who chooses to know for the sake of knowing will choose most readily that which is most truly knowledge, and such is the knowledge of that which is most knowable); and the first principles and the causes are most knowable; for by reason of these, and from these, all other things come to be known, and not these by means of the things subordinate to them. And the science which knows to what end each thing must be done is the most authoritative of the sciences, and more authoritative than any ancillary science; and this end is the good of that thing, and in general the supreme good in the whole of nature. Judged by all the tests we have mentioned, then, the name in question falls to the same science; this must be a science that investigates the first principles and causes; for the good, i.e. the end, is one of the causes” (Kolak).

Aristotle believed the science of first principles was more exact and knowable than the objects of sense experience.  Even though first principles require a great deal of abstraction, all other things can be known for it is from first principles that all other things proceed.  To understand first principles is thereby the most efficient way to understand particular examples.




  1. The substance or essence of a thing.
  2. The matter or subject.
  3. The source of motion.
  4. The final cause or good.

In Physics, Aristotle lists the four causes which are the objects of philosophical study:

Aristotle believed that all the philosophers who came before him had neglected the importance of causality.  Some did not deal with cause at all, and, at least according to Aristotle, Plato only accounted for essential or material causes.

In Metaphysics, Aristotle is concerned with being in and of itself.  Aristotle hoped to find some underlying unity in all being.  To say that something is implies that the thing is one.  Aristotle sees the principle of unity and even goodness as underlying principles that unify the metaphysical realm.  He also made distinctions, however, for not all substance is the same.  He categorized substances as changeable or unchangeable.  Since metaphysics deals with first principles, it is the realm of unchangeable substance.  Aristotle presupposed that an infinite regress of causes was not possible.  He postulated the idea of a prime or first mover, an uncaused cause as it were.  This uncaused cause sets everything else in motion while remaining unchanged.  It has the attributes of deity, and in this regard Aristotle’s metaphysics is akin to theology.

Metaphysical Substances



Three Types of Substance

  1. Sensible and perishable
  2. Sensible and eternal
  3. Non-sensible and eternal

Aristotle believed that substance primarily existed in the material form; from the objects of sense perception we could subjectively think about the underlying universal essence of any particular object.  Aristotle believed that it was only through knowledge of particular things that we could think about their underlying essence; in this method he takes the opposite approach of Plato.  Aristotle is looking for universals by means of the particulars.  Unfortunately the particulars which posses physical form are also subject to change and transitory.  The subjective universal remains the same, even when particular physical objects perish.  For example, it is through the observation of particular roses, that we can subjectively understand the essence of the rose.  Particular roses will come and go, but their underlying essence will remain the same.  In this sense, substance is the primary form, yet the only substance not subject to change is the one that is immaterial.  Physical roses are also substances, but they are not primary substances since they come and go.  Only non-material substances are eternal and not subject to change.  This would apply to non-material substances, such as God or the intelligence of man.

Aristotle also postulated the concept of prime matter, from which all other material elements spring.  It has no distinguishing qualities in and of itself, but through its alteration and actualization it forms all things.  Physical changes can be seen as they alter modified prime substance, which has already achieved some form.  Prime matter always exists within the context of form; it is in the particular that prime matter is actualized and knowable— never in and of itself.

Aristotle also made a distinction between the actual and the possible.  Potentiality and actuality became additional categories when discussing substance.  Aristotle gives the example of the acorn, which contains within it the potentiality of becoming an oak.  The acorn is not an oak and the oak is not an acorn, but with sufficient cause the potentiality within the acorn will actualize into its final cause, the oak tree.

In discussing change, Aristotle reminds us of the first two categories of form and matter but now also includes the principle of privation.  Privation is the negative element in the process of change—something wants to change, needs to change, and will change, but is unable to change at the moment.  Privation, form, and matter thereby form Aristotle’s three presuppositions in the dynamics of change.

Aristotle also adds a new dimension to the distinctions of actuality and potentiality.  He adds the condition of potency.  A piece of wood has the potential to become a piece of furniture, but the wood does not contain the potency to bring this change about.  The carpenter, however, has within him the potency to affect change in the form of a piece of wood.  Potency is the power to affect change in others or in oneself.  It is seen as being in a place between nothing and actuality.

In regard to the actual, the potential, and the potent, Aristotle shows how the three are interdependent and flow in and out of each other in a type of cosmic loop.  In some ways the actual always proceeds potency, for it is out of an actual object that potency receives its power to affect change.  The actual itself, however, is produced by the potential, yet the potential itself must eventually be traced back to something that is already actual.  In this regard, the actual proceeds the potential.  The greatest example of this process would be God.  “God, for example, exists necessarily, and that which exists necessarily must be fully actual: as the eternal Source of movement, of the reduction of potentiality to act, God must be full and complete actuality, the Unmoved First Mover” (Kolak).  According to Aristotle, eternal things must be good: there can be in them no defect or badness or perversion.  Badness means defect or perversion of some kind, and there can be no defect in that which is fully actual.  It follows that there can be no separate bad principle since that which is without matter is pure form.  “The bad does not exist apart from bad things” (Kolak).  It is clear from this that God took on something of the character of Plato’s Idea of the Good, and indeed he remarks that the cause of all goods is the good itself (Kolak).  “The First Unmoved Mover, being the source of all movement, and as final cause, is the ultimate cause why potentiality is actualized, i.e. why goodness is realized” (Copleston 310-11).

Aristotle uses his categories of change[29] to answer Parmenidean postulations of permanence.  Parmenides claimed that something could not come from nothing, and that being could not produce being since being already exists.  Aristotle uses his categories to address Parmenides’ arguments.  Aristotle would say something comes into being because of privation.  This does not mean out of nothing but out of something that is momentarily deprived of becoming something else.  It also does not mean that one thing is becoming another for it is not the thing in and of itself that is changing, but rather the privation within that thing is being actualized into what it will become.  Act, potency, and privation become the mechanisms for change, using neither non-being or being as their source.  Instead, they serve as a bridge between what is not, what will be, and what is.

Aristotle’s distinction between actuality and potentiality reflects back to Plato’s view of a hierarchy of existence.  This is very similar to the great chain of being, which will appear among the neo-Platonists and can be easily reconciled with Plato’s view of the Forms.  The following is Aristotle’s hierarchy of existence:


Intelligence of the spheres

Active intellect of man[30]

Physical bodies of living things

Inorganic bodies[31]

Earth, Air, Fire, Water

Prime Matter[32]

Aristotle has mentioned formal and essential causes, yet he adds another category, the efficient cause.  The efficient cause can be either internal, external, or both in relation to the object in which it is affecting change.  Some movements are natural or inherent even within the most basic of elements, while other movements must be initiated from the outside.  For example, a stone must be moved by an outside source to be shaped into a keystone; the stone however is internally moved in a downward motion which is contained within itself.

In addition to the efficient cause, Aristotle adds the final cause[33].  Many times the formal efficient and final causes will lead to the same result. The essential cause of an oak tree is contained within the acorn, which is internally motivated to move towards its final cause, that of the mature tree.  Although Aristotle sees the importance of the final cause, he maintains some things can only be explained by material or efficient causes.

God is ultimately the first and the final cause.  He is the first cause since God is the Prime Mover or the one who set everything else in motion.  Aristotle’s concept of God is not a creator, like the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition, for Aristotle presupposed the eternality of matter.  God, for Aristotle, is more of a catalyst of movement who set the universe in motion without being moved by the universe.  The Prime Mover who remains unmoved, the First cause which draws all things unto himself, the Great thought that thinks of itself—these are Aristotle’s views of the divine, a cosmic force rather than a cosmic personality.

Aristotle did not present God as one who could be served or worshiped, or even known.  There would be no point of devotion or supplication to the Aristotelian deity, for in its perfection it could contemplate only itself, and in its movement it draws all things inward rather than reaching out.  “In the Magna Moralia Aristotle says expressly that those are wrong who think that there can be a friendship towards God.  For a) God could not return our love, and b) we could not in any case be said to love God” (Copleston 317).

In addition to Aristotle’s cosmological argument for the existence of God, he also presented a teleological and a line based argument.  The teleological argument points out the purpose and order in the universe and how all things are directed towards a final goal or purpose, this final cause being known as God.  The line argument deals with the concept of good, better, best or hot, hotter, hottest; it is an argument of degrees.  The line argument is used to argue from imperfection to perfection.  Anselm, Descartes, and others develop this argument into the ontological argument.  The basic premise is that if man being a finite, imperfect being can conceive of an infinite, perfect being, the concept cannot come from man himself for it is greater than man; therefore, man’s conception of God must come from the craftsman as his signature on the heart of his creation.



The Hellenistic Philosophers

            The philosophical systems of Greece took on a new perspective after the time of Aristotle and his warlord pupil Alexander.  The days of the Greek city-states were over and with it the myopic perspective that had influenced Greek philosophy and culture.  Alexander was a universalist and rejected the racial and social prejudices of his teacher and his nation.  Alexander sought to break down the barriers between Greek and barbarian; he sought a homogenous empire in which all citizens would be seen as equals rather than split between the conquerors and the conquered.  It was Alexander’s dream to Hellenize[34] to the known world.  He advocated intermarriage between nations and races of men and an eclectic mix of ideas.  His dream was realized in part through the spread of Greek language and culture throughout the Middle Eastern world, yet upon his death his empire fractured and was plunged into perpetual war.  It was out of this fracturing and conflict, coupled with influences from the east, which brought the next change in Greek philosophy.  The new philosophers sought out the best ways to live in this New World.  Ethics took precedent over cosmologies, and people were seen as either citizens of the world or as individuals.  The idea of a person’s place and meaning being found in his city-state was over; the Greek horizon had been spread too far to maintain a provincial worldview.


The Stoics (336/5-264/3 B.C): Zeno


            The founder of the Stoic school was Zeno of Citium.  The school received its name from the Stoa where Zeno and later Stoics would often lecture.  Zeno was a great admirer of Socrates—both his manner of life and his use of reason and the dialectic.  Zeno believed that Crates the Cynic resembled Socrates and became his disciple.  He founded his own philosophical school in Athens around 300 B.C., but only fragments remain of his own writings.

The Stoics were the consummate individualists of the ancient world.  They rejected the Ideal Forms of Plato, along with the physical world of Aristotle.  The Stoics maintained the importance of the individual and the particular.  The Stoics believed all knowledge is gained by the individual through sense perception.  These perceptions form memories, which remain after the object is removed.  The human mind is an empty canvas upon which sense impressions are placed.  The recollection of these impressions is where we have access to the particular objects the individual has experienced.

The Stoics where empiricists in their epistemology, yet they also maintained the importance of reason.  It was only through reason that the particulars could be formed into a comprehensive reality.  But data was gained through sense experience, arrangement through reason.  Reason is the means by which sense perception is made acceptable to the soul.  The Stoics held to a universal reason or Logos that ordered the affairs of the universe.  The Logos externally directed inanimate objects, such as planets or minerals.  Animate objects, and particularly people, were directed by an inner logos which was connected to the universal Logos.

Along with the concept of the Logos, the Stoics borrowed largely from Heraclitus’ cosmology.  Like Heraclitus, the Stoics saw the Urstoff element as fire.  The Stoics saw the universe as divided into two basic principles.  The passive principle is material substance whereas the active principle is the Logos, or God.  The Stoics, however, were not dualists, for both the active and passive principles of the universe were material in substance.  The Stoics, like the vast majority of the pre-Socratic philosophers, were monistic-materialists.

The god of the Stoics is seen as the great cosmic fire, manifesting itself in a variety of forms.  The fire takes on many shapes and experiences but is always one and the same fire.  The active principle of God is immanent throughout the cosmos, just as the soul is immanent throughout the body.  In a manner of speaking the Stoics viewed the cosmos as God’s body, and God’s reason was immanent throughout like the soul.  The Stoic god was not personal and could not be petitioned, yet he filled and directed all things, even to the point of indwelling man with a part of the universal reason or logos.

The Stoic fire expels itself throughout the cosmos, then falls back within itself again.  The process is eternal, and the universe is perpetually renewed and destroyed.  Everything that is once was, that which is now has been and will be, and that which is to come already is.  This is a view of expansion and contraction, otherwise known as the Law of Eternal Recurrence which kept old Nietzsche up at night.  Because of this belief the Stoics were materialistic determinists.  They believed providence or fate had ordered all events, and the only freedom left to individuals was internal.  A man could embrace or fight his fate, but his fate would remain the same.  The wise man found contentment in the way things were instead of trying to change them.  The Stoics described fate as a cart headed down the road, and man was tied to a leash behind it.  Man had the choice to walk behind willingly or be drug like a dog; either way the man would go where the cart took him.  The wise man, therefore, walked along willingly, while the fools went through life kicking and screaming, being drug through the dust.

The Stoics also put a great deal of emphasis on intention over utility.  Due to the predetermined nature of the cosmos, no act was good or bad of itself—it simply was.  Where moral culpability lay was in the internal attitudes, motivations and intentions of man.  The Stoics had a form of Natural Law theory, that is, the man who followed and conformed himself to the eternal laws of the cosmos would live the life of the blessed, while those who struggled against the eternal order where damned.  Not that there was a belief in heaven or hell, but those who conformed would find contentment, while those who refused to accept their lot in life would always be miserable.

The Stoic ethic is similar to the Hindu concept of Dharma, in that each individual is given a set path and duty in this life which they must fulfill.  Those who adhere to their Dharma will be blessed and rewarded, while those who struggle against it will harm themselves.  If a man is born a king, he needs to be the best possible king he can be.  He must do the duties of the king and enjoy the pleasures as well as meet the obligations implicit in his role.  If a man is born a slave, he too must embrace his position, not desiring freedom but being the best slave possible in word and deed—this is how he will find happiness and contentment.  The dreams of physical freedom will only make him miserable, and he will forget that freedom is an inner condition of mind.

The Stoics believed that virtue was the only thing that was truly good of itself.  Only through virtue could a man hope to find happiness.  The major Stoic virtues consisted of moral insight, courage, self-control, temperance and justice.  It was believed that these formed a whole; a man possessed all, or none of the virtues.  Stoics sought to control the passions and any vice which would bring them into bondage.  Things such as pleasure, sorrow, depression, desire, and fear were considered to be irrational and against nature.  The Stoics sought to develop an attitude of apathy by which the passions were held at bay and a person could be guided by reason.

Reason over the passions, contentment over striving; these were the jewels of the Stoic crown.  How similar it sounds to the teachings of Buddhism.  Desire brings pain, striving brings conflict and suffering.  Detachment coupled with self-control brings contentment and peace, thereby producing a happy life.  All men are internally free, and it is only through desiring what we do not have that we place ourselves in bondage.

In addition to their ethic, the Stoics also held a high regard for man.  Each individual was indwelt by the logos, and in a sense all people were equal and the children of God, who is the Father of all.  The Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man was a high mark in Stoic egalitarian thinking, in which the king and the slave shared a common origin and fate.  This pragmatic philosophy of the Stoics held great appeal to the later Roman population which would encounter it.  It appealed to their sense of order and reason and was not as mysterious or esoteric as the mystery religions which sought to comfort through the ecstatic rather than the well ordered life.

The Epicureans: Epicurus (342/1-? B.C.)


The Garden of Epicurus became the place where Epicurus opened his own philosophic school.  After his death it was bequeathed to his disciples, who maintained it and his philosophy with almost religious rigor.  Epicurus, like the contemporary Stoics, sought the good life or the means by which to have applicable knowledge.  He also was concerned with ethics over cosmology.  As the Stoics had borrowed their fiery cosmology from Heraclitus, Epicurus borrowed his from the Atomists, notably Democritus.  This led Epicurus to postulate a materialistic determinism.  Even the gods and the souls of men were made up of invisibly fine material fragments.  At death the body and soul were redistributed throughout the cosmos and the individual passed away, the cosmos being eternal.

Epicurus sought to free his followers from the whims of the gods and the fear of death.  The gods, although real, were not concerned with human conduct.  They were too far removed in their own realm to give notice to worship or offenses.  Man was on his own for better or worse.  This did not mean that Epicurus promoted impiety; rather, he saw religion and worship as more of a cultural norm and tradition with redeeming social value.  As long as one kept this in mind and did not rely on or fear the gods, all would go well.  The other area in which Epicurus sought to alleviate man’s fears was in the realm of death.  “Death is nothing to us; for that which is dissolved is devoid of sensation, and that which is devoid of sensation is nothing to us” (Copleston 404).  At death the atoms of the body return to their pre-human state and are thus the ready raw material available to be used in future amalgamations.  Perception equals reality for Epicurus, and at death perception ends—and so with it, the reality of that particular individual.

Physics and Epistemology

          Epicurus was a materialistic determinist and therefore believed all knowledge came through empirical observation and sense perceptions.  Even reason itself gains data on which to operate through the senses.  Without sense experience man would be unable to reason.  Perception is the ultimate criteria for truth.  Perception is never fallible, it is only when judgments are made on what has been perceived that error can take place.  Coupled with perception is the realm of concepts or memory.  When a repetition of perception brings to mind the same type of object we for a concept.  These concepts are also infallible for they are truly perceived, like sense perception.  The concepts are never false of themselves; only when opinion or judgment are introduced can there be error.  The final condition of knowledge comes through feeling or passion.  The desire for pleasure tells man what to choose, whereas the feeling of pain tells man what to avoid.  “Thus Epicurus could say that the criteria of truth are the senses, and the preconceptions, and the passions (Copleston 403).


            Epicurus’ ethic comes under the category of hedonism:  pleasure is good, and pain is evil; or, put into the negative, the absence of pleasure is bad, whereas the avoidance of pain is good.  Epicurus sought that which would produce the least amount of pain in a human’s life, insuring the individual the greatest amount of pleasure.  Epicurus realized that pleasure and pain must be viewed with their long-term consequences in mind, for many are the pleasures that are sweet for a season but bite like an adder in the end.  Also, there are many temporary and necessary pains in life, which by their guidance or endurance greater happiness will be achieved.  Epicurus sought how to maximize long-term pleasure and limit long-term pain.  Epicurus believed the truly pious man was one who thought correctly.  Thinking correctly leads one to the realization that tranquility of soul is the highest pleasure available.

How does one achieve tranquility of soul?  Tranquility comes through moderation, self-discipline and independence.  By living a simple life and having modest needs, man can be spared a great many troubles.  Epicurus made a distinction between natural and unnatural pleasures.  Then he made a further distinction between natural necessary and natural unnecessary pleasures.  Man should pursue only pleasures that are both natural and necessary if he wishes to have tranquility of soul.

Natural Necessary Pleasures

  1. Food and drink
  2. Clothing and shelter
  3. Rest and sleep
  4. Repose


Natural Unnecessary Pleasures

  1. Sex
  2. Sensuality

If man will limit his desires and pursuits to natural necessary pleasures and enjoy them in simplicity and moderation, he will have time and energy for the greatest pleasure of all.  This comes through repose, in which man may contemplate and ponder to his heart’s content.  Those who desire rich foods or drink, fancy clothes and dwellings, entertainment and titillation, and the joys of physical contact, will also reap the consequences of their indulgences.  Rich food costs more and affects the health, fine apparel must be earned and protected, a fine home is expensive and may cause envy and theft, and the joys of human sexuality also involve the struggle of intimate relationships, the pain of childbirth, the responsibility of children, and the need to provide for those thus produced.  Epicurus advocated a mild form of asceticism by which one lived simply and found contentment in the basic things of life.  Good friends, deep thoughts, and the beach and sunsets are available to all and will not lead a man into bondage.


Neo-Platonism: Plotinus (203/4-269/70 A.D.)


Plotinus was the great synthesizer of the ancient world.  Although listed among the ranks of the later Platonists, his philosophy embraced the teachings of many of his intellectual predecessors.  In Plotinus, the philosophies of Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and the Pythagoreans are all brought into harmony.  He was a great eclectic and was not afraid of the religious ramifications of his philosophical thought.  Due to Plotinus’ disciple Porphyry, who edited his master’s work, there exists a large body of Plotinus’ writings under the compilation called the Enneads.  Plotinus consolidated the philosophies which came before him and was used by later generations as a format to express their own ideas, both religious and philosophical, in a systematic way.  The medieval Christian philosophers and theologians[35] made great use of Plotinus’ teachings, which had many parallel themes to Orthodox Christianity.  The Gnostics were another group who adapted Plotinus’ system to their own ends[36].


Plotinus had a great gift for consolidating and integrating the philosophers which preceded him.  He took Plato’s triplicity of the soul and built upon it.

“Thus Plato knows the order of generation—from the Good, the Intellectual-Principle; from the Intellectual-Principle, the Soul […] Earlier, Parmenides made some approach to the doctrine in identifying Being with Intellectual-Principle while separating Real Being from the realm of sense” (Kolak).

Parmenides, however, contradicted himself in supposing that intellectual activities did not imply movement. Plotinus would maintain that the One was even beyond thought.

“Anaxagoras, again, in his assertion of a Mind pure and unmixed, affirms a simplex First and a sundered One, though writing long ago he failed in precision.  Heraclitus, with his sense of bodily forms as things of ceaseless process and passage, knows the One as eternal and intellectual.  In Empedocles, similarly, we have a dividing principle, ‘Strife,’ set against ‘Friendship’- which is The One and is to him bodiless, while the elements represent Matter.

Later there is Aristotle; he begins by making the First transcendent and intellective but cancels that primacy by supposing it to have self-intellection. Further he affirms a multitude of other intellective beings—as many indeed as there are orbs in the heavens; one such principle as in- over to every orb- and thus his account of the Intellectual Realm differs from Plato’s and, failing reason, he brings in necessity; though whatever reasons he had alleged there would always have been the objection that it would be more reasonable that all the spheres, as contributory to one system, should look to a unity, to the First” (Kolak).

Plotinus uses the philosophies of his predecessors as a framework on which to build his own cosmology.  He chooses that which appears in accordance with reason and points out and corrects the contradictions.  For Plotinus, the One is completely transcendent and thus ineffable.  The One is beyond thought, distinction, or description; it is a complete Unity—not subject to movement, change, or division.  It is beyond all being, essence, and predicates; yet from it all things proceed.  The One of Plotinus must not be confused with the Judeo-Christian concept of a transcendent Creator-God, for even the act of creating out of nothing still implies movement and change.  The One of Plotinus does not create but rather emanates the cosmos into existence.  Metaphorically speaking, the cosmos could be described as descending, or outward rungs of reflection from the ultimate source of unity in the One.  The One is ultimate reality, and those reflections, which reflect the One, most clearly are more real than the reflections, which are diminished.  The illustration of ripples in a pond serve as a type of picture for what Plotinus is talking about.  The rings closer to the center are more real than those on the periphery, the hierarchy of reality proceeds from what is most real at the center, e.g., pure being, to that which is less real, or even non-existent beyond the last ripples, e.g., non-being.

The One of Plotinus is the source of all Being yet beyond Being.  Due to the absolute transcendent nature of the One, it cannot be described or given any attributes.  Plotinus does call the One “God” or “the Good,” and he affords it unity, but all of these names or qualities are only an analogy—the One simply is.  “All we can say is that the One is—though, indeed, God is beyond being, One, indivisible, unchanging, eternal, without past or future, a constant self-identity” (Copleston 466). The One is beyond thought, for thinking would require a distinction between the thinker and the thought.  The One is even beyond self-reflection for this would involve an internal distinction.  No thought, no will, no creative activity, no self-reflection, simply absolute non-distinction[37].  Plotinus set the precedent for describing God as only what he is not, which was later adopted by Eastern Orthodox Christianity in the form of the via negativa.

If the cosmos was not created as such, then how did it come about?  Plotinus offers the mechanism of emanations or reflections.  This is a path between the theistic concept of a transcendent Creator-God and the pantheistic views that God and Nature are inseparable.  The One did not create multiplicity, yet multiplicity is dependent on or flows from the One.  All things are dependent upon the One, yet the One is self-sufficient and undiminished.  The realm of emanations could theoretically increase or decrease without affecting the unity of the One.

Order of Emanations:

The One


Thought or Mind (The Nous)

Soul: World Soul Higher and Lower[38] Forms

The Material World (the antithesis of The One)


Plotinus’ Hierarchy of Being led to the medieval concept of the Great Chain of Being.  God, or the One, emanates the cosmos and provides an underlying unity of all things.  The One is not diminished or moved in its emanations, nor does it give thought or direct will or desire to this end.  The emanations occur of their own necessity from Pure and Absolute Being.  The following emanations proceed from pure Being, ontologically rather than spatially, for the One exists outside of or beyond space time limitations.  Those emanations which are closest to the One ontologically are more real than those which are secondary or tertiary.  The first emanation is Thought or Mind, this is also known as the Nous and is associated with the Demiurge of Plato and Aristotle.  The Nous, or Demiurge, contains within it all the primary forms.  It has a connection to the One and to itself.  The Nous contains within itself the multiplicity of Forms, and so it is the place or concept where distinctions first appear.  From the Nous comes the World Soul, both a higher and lower order of being.  The higher order is an intermediary between the World Soul and the Nous; the lower order of World Soul is equated with Nature.  The human soul proceeds from the World Soul and is tripartite in nature.  The higher element of the human soul is connected to the Nous.  The lower element of the human soul is connected to the body.  Plotinus also believes there is an intermediary element of the soul, which mediates the two natures.  Plotinus also believed in the pre-existence of the human soul and its survival after the destruction of the human physical form.

Next comes the emanation of the material world, which places man in a precarious position since mankind dwells between the emanation of the Soul and the emanation of the Material.  Man has a physical form, yet an immortal soul, and this arrangement is seen as a type of fallen state by Plotinus and can also explain some of the struggles faced by mankind.  The Material world itself would later be subdivided into its own hierarchy as the heavenly realm was.  Man is the crowning glory of the Material world—but not entirely of it.  Animals would come next, and they in turn could have their own hierarchy of being.  Plants come after animals, and, finally, the mineral or inorganic elements of the physical world take up the last rung of Being.  Beyond this realm of physical objects comes Non-Being or nothing.  Hegel would later use this model, but by definition he described Pure-Being and Non-Being as synonymous, which produces a type of cosmic loop.

  The Great Chain of Being:

God (The One, Pure Being, The Good, Absolute Unity)

Intelligence, Thought, Mind (The Nous or Demiurge)

Soul (The World Soul, Higher[39] and Lower[40] aspects)

Man (a higher[41] and lower[42] nature)

(The horizon between the intelligible and physical world)



Minerals (including all inanimate or inorganic matter)


  Later adaptations were made to this model and the rungs of ontology from Pure-Being to Non-Being could be filled with a host of representations.  Angels or demons could fill the space in a variety of forms and power in-between the Demiurge and man.  Mankind itself could be seen as a hierarchy—those who attend to the soul would posses more reality than those who attended only to the lower nature or flesh.  Animals could be classified from the king of the beasts down to the lowest of the crawling things, and likewise plants could start with the great trees of the forest and end in molds and fungi.  Minerals could be classified into a hierarchy by rarity or hardness, from diamonds to dust.  And ultimately past matter would be the realm of non-Being.  Plotinus viewed the physical world as evil, not in any inherent sense of the word, just as the One could be considered good, but not inherently.  The physical world was evil through privation[43].  Plotinus, however, did not disparage the physical world and saw the entire cosmos as a unity bound up and emanating from the One.  Plotinus refuted the Gnostic notion that the physical world was evil of itself, thereby turning the Demiurge into a very naughty character indeed for bringing it about.  Rather Plotinus saw the physical world as less real than the unintelligible world, which in turn was less real than the One.  All, however, are images of the Absolute; some are simply more removed than the others.


TERM                        DEFINED

A Posteriori After experience, scientific, tangible.
A Priori Before experience, gained through reason, intuition.
Aether Fiery gaseous substance associated with spirit.
Agnostic Not sure if there is a God. Does not believe there is enough evidence either way.
Allegory One group of things used to represent another (parables).
Animism Everything has a soul or spirit, including inanimate objects.  Collective spirit or soul-Innua (ants, seals, fish, etc.)
Anthropomorphic Applying human traits to non-human things e.g., plants, animals or even to God.  E.g.,  the face of God; His right hand.
Antinomianism Your own experiences are the highest authority.
Antinomy Two apparently contradictory truths.
Atomist In the tradition of the Greek philosophers Leucippus and Democritus.  Epicurus regarded the universe as infinite and eternal, consisting only of bodies and space.  Everything is made up of invisible, indivisible atoms.  It is similar to modern atomic theory, but instead of a basic element chart the Atomists believed atoms were microscopic versions of what could be seen. Early form of naturalism, believed that life originated in the sea and crawled onto land.
Cartesian Dualism Mind & body.  Mind effects mind (God soul spirit) and body effects body.  Mind, however, cannot affect matter and matter cannot affect mind.  This eventually leads to a separation of God from the world and a type of Deism.
Cultural Relativism Is descriptive.  It simply points out that in diverse times and places people do things in different ways and have different values and beliefs.
Deism Detached God.  God created the world, but has left it largely to its own devices.  There are many different degrees of deistic thinking.
Demiurge Craftsman made material things out of eternal ideas.
Ecosystems Ecological community of organisms interacting with their environment.
Empirical Facts, hard observable evidences.  Knowledge is gained through sense perception.
Environment Education, family, culture-norms.
Epicureans Pleasure is the highest good, get rid of fears of gods, death, afterlife.
Epignosco Experiential knowledge
Epistemology Theory of knowledge.  How do we gain knowledge?  Are there absolutes?  Can we know things? How?
Eternal Recurrence After the Big Bang has reached its furthest point of expansion everything will begin to contract or “The Big Crunch”.  This is an eternal cycle and implies that everything that has happened will happen again and again and again.  It also implies that everything that happens has already happened an infinite amount of times.
Ethical Relativism Is prescriptive.  Values and morals are based on the culture in which you are living.  “When in Rome…”
Ethics Study of moral judgments -How do we determine right and wrong, good and evil?
Existentialism Experientially based knowledge.  Only what you have or are experiencing is what you “truly” know.  Emphasis is placed on the individual, free will, personal responsibility, living an authentic life and searching for meaning and purpose through the despair and meaninglessness of the universe.  Angst refers to existential dread, which is a composite of fear and anxiety, over no one knows what.
Fideism Faith over reason. Faith is a Gift from God and is more certain and can give you greater knowledge than reason.
Gaia Mother earth, mother goddess, white goddess, fertility goddess etc.
Gnosco Intellectual, knowledge.
Gnostics A first century philosophical\religious movement, which was very eclectic in forming a synthesis of all know beliefs and wisdom held by men including the “mysteries”, which would be revealed to the initiated as they climbed the ladder of spiritual enlightenment and perfection.  This is similar to what we find in the New Age movement today.  The main distinction of all the various flavors of Gnosticism is its emphasis on Dualism. E.g., Spirit=Good, Matter=Evil.
Helenization Greek influence on language, dress, religion and all other aspects of culture.
Idealism Reality is in the mind. IDEAS=REALITY. Plato is considered the father of Idealism.



God permeates the universe.  God fills all things; there is no place where God is not.  This emphasizes the omnipresent and omniscient qualities of the Godhead.
Innate Qualities or attributes that are part of a being at birth.  Innate traits are givens, they are neither learned or acquired, rather they are pre-existing conditions of human beings e.g., the ability to learn or develop a language, the concepts of space and time, the ability to distinguish between this and that and to make value judgments.
Logos Universal consciousness, mind and soul.  Cosmic consciousness.  Universal reason.  That, which gives order, design and purpose to the cosmos.  Sentient beings have the logos within e.g., their soul or consciousness.  Minerals, planets and stars are directed by the logos externally.
Macrocosm The great world or universe.  The BIG picture.
Materialism Matter=Reality.  Doctrine that all existence is reducible into matter or into an attribute or effect of matter.  Matter is the ultimate reality; the phenomenon of consciousness is explained by physiochemical changes in the nervous system.  Antithesis of idealism.
Metaphor Used as a description
Metaphysics Beyond physics.  Above, after or beyond the physical.  Metaphysics deals with everything outside the realm of the tangible, therefor concepts such as God, soul, spirit, mind etc. would all be included in metaphysics.  Theology itself is a sub-category of Metaphysics.  Origins also become a metaphysical topic since no one was around to see the creation or evolution of the world.
Microcosm A miniature version or reflection of the entire universe.  E.g., Horton hears a Who.  Or in William Blake’s example of “eternity in an hour” or “the universe in a grain of sand”.
Monism God = Totality of reality.  All is in God.  Monism can also mean that reality only consists of one thing e.g., water, wind, earth fire etc. as in the case of the ancient Greeks.
Naturalism Nothing supernatural or metaphysical.  Everything can be understood by science, utilitarianism (good = right), all that exists is matter.



Neo-Platonism Type of idealistic monism in which the ultimate reality of the universe is held to be infinite, unknowable, perfect One.  From this One emanates nous (pure intelligence), which in turn is derived the world soul, the creative activity of which engenders the known world.  Neo-Platonism is also known for its spiritual hierarchy and its development of the great chain of being.
Newtonian Physics Last paradigm before quantum mechanics and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.  Newton-envisioned a mechanical universe, in which, God had set everything in motion and held it fast by His immutable laws.  Newton also saw the Universe as a great machine and God as the ultimate mechanic.
Noumenon Things in and of themselves (as they are).  Noumena cannot be perceived by the senses and are therefore unknowable at least to man.  This way of thinking led Kant to believe that Metaphysics was an impossible study for human beings since we could only know what we could observe.
Nous Intellect, reason, pure intelligence.
Numena True essences, can’t know it, only God can.
Objective How God views things since he in all-knowing, absolute truth, detached, suspended judgment, reason and logic not influenced by emotions and feeling.
Ontology Study of being.  Theory on being.
Panentheism All is in God.  God is greater that the sum of His creation.  God is in everything.
Pantheism All is god, nature is god, the world soul. “All is God, God is all, All is one, Everything exists inside God!”  Came out of polytheism. MONISM
Paradigm Outlook, model, worldview.
Perception Interpreting and synthesizing our senses.
Phenomena That which is perceived, senses (as they appear).
Philosophy Philo (love)/Sophia (wisdom).  Love of wisdom.
Physics Tangible, scientific method, hypothesis, theory (Aristotle).
Polytheism Many gods.  Evolved from the many spirits of Animism.




Presuppositions Preconceived ideas.
Quantum Mechanics A theory based on using the concept of the quantum unit to describe the dynamic properties of subatomic particles and the interactions of matter and radiation.  Objects are not linear is space and time.  Solid objects appear to be made up of waves.  The physical world is dependent on a perceiver.  The subatomic world is made up of potentialities that are brought into actuality by sentient observation.
Rationalist TRUTH IS THE RATIONAL.  Age of reason & enlightenment – destroyed all the pillars of the Scholastics.  They assumed that all the eternal truths are false and non-existent since reason could be brought against it.
Realism What is out there is real; reality is self-existent apart from our perceptions.
Scholasticism 12-13 Century. God determines all events. God is that which nothing greater than can be conceived.  A God that exists in reality and not just in our minds, is greater that a God that exists only in the mind, therefore there is a God.
Sensation Taste, touch, feel, smell, sight/emotions.
Stoicism Opposed to Epicureanism, developed from Cynics, Socrates, divine reason, logos, duty is highest good.  Follow the natural way. (Big bang)
Subjective How everyone but God views things, viewed from my knowledge.
Theism Personal God, immanence, transcendence.
Transcendence God is not contained
Urstoff The primitive element, substance or stuff of which the universe is made.





NAME                        Timeline & Beliefs


Thales 640-546BC

Father of Philosophy (Greek). Correctly predicted solar eclipse, rational explanation of natural events.  Water is the foundation of everything.

Anaximenes 585-528BC

Air is the foundation of everything. Hypercondenced or rarified air.  SUBSTANCE

Pythagorus 582-507BC

Reality = numbers.  Pure, true, and logical.  Music and sounds can be numeric.

Heraclitus 575-535BC

Believed essential reality of all things was fire, whose nature is constant change.  Nothing stays the same.  Logos = universal reason.  You can never step in the same river twice.  “Everything is in a constant state of flux”

Paramenides 5th century

You can’t step in the same river twice” because there is no movement.  Division is illusion.  There is only ONE thing.


Zeno Used paradoxes to substantiate Paramenides theory.




NAME                        Timeline & Beliefs


Leucippus 460-370BC

Credited with founding the atomic theory of matter, later developed by his pupil, Democritus. ATOMIST


Democritus 460-370BC

Greek philosopher, developed the atomic theory of the universe which had been originated by his mentor, Leucippus. ATOMIST


Socrates Man is the measure of all things.  “Be true unto self”


Plato 427-337BC

Father of idealism.   Ideas = reality.  You already know everything . . . you spend your life “realizing” what you already know.  (Can be realism)  concepts are eternal, materials are not.  *Major Impact on Western Civilization throughout the Middle Ages.


Aristotle 384-322BC

Father of Realism.  The tangible or physical = reality.  Form and function determine what an object is.  Concepts are secondary . . . formed from the physical world.  Logical proofs for God – cosmological cause & effect, God is the end of the chain of events, the uncaused cause the prime mover etc.


Plotinus 205-270AD

Roman philosopher who founded Neoplatonism (new Platonism). Ideal forms.  God is pure spirit, pure goodness. All things from God’s emanations.


Augustine 354-430AD

Baptized Plato, Idealism + Christianity.  Synchronized Christianity w/Platonism.  Wrote “City of God/City of Man.


Aquinas, St. Thomas 12-13th Century

Baptized Aristotle, Realism + Christianity. Introduced reason to religion


Descartes, Rene 1600

Father of modern philosophy.  I think, therefore I am.  (Cogito Ergo Sum) Radical doubt, question everything!  Recognized the importance of presuppositions:  2+2=4. CARTESIAN DUALISM He opened the door for Deism.


Newton, Isaac Universe is a machine, planetary motion, natural laws, and physics.  God is the mechanic; the world is the machine.
Kant, Immanuel 1700

Synthesized Locke & Berkley (idealism and realism).  We only perceive.  We give order to the world.  Time & space are reality.  Phenomena and Numena.  God knows the numena.


Berkley, George To be is to be perceived.  God perceives absolutely EVERYTHING!  IDEALISM


Hobbes, Thomas Empiricist.  Came-up w/solution for Cartesian Dualism: get rid of the mind.  First modern materialist, only matter for the physical universe exists.


Locke, John Tabula Rasa” Latin for “Blank slate”.  We are all born w/clean minds and are a product of your environment.  REALISM
Bacon, Sir Francis


Scientific method: hypothesis, test w/observation & experimentation.  Repeatability/theory/repeat/law.
Hegel, George 1700

Dialectic.  Thesis/Antithesis/synthesis (triangle). Being means that of which cannot be added to or taken away from — complete within itself.  He used the same definition for both being and not being.  Geist (spirit).  PANTHEISM


Marx, Karl Marxism.  “Dialectical Materialism” – communism (replaced God with man).


Kierkegaard, Soren Father of Existentialism. (Danish) “What must I do to be a Christian?”  Quest to understand God! Defined faith as an intimately personal, passionate pursuit of God. GNOSCO & EPIGNOSCO





Works Cited

Copleston, Frederick S. J. A History of Philosophy. Vol. 1. New York: Doubleday, 1993. Print.

Kolak, Daniel. The Philosophy Source: 100 Classic Masterworks on CD-ROM. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2000. Computer file.

Palmer, Donald. Looking at Philosophy: The Unbearable Heaviness of Philosophy Made Lighter. 2nd ed. New York: Mayfield, 1994. Print.

Tzu, Lao. Tao Te Ching. Trans. Gia-fu Feng and Jane English. New York: Vintage, 1972. Print.


  [1] The primitive element, substance or stuff of which the universe is made.

[2] Those who believe that there is essentially only one underlying substance of reality

[3] They believed that there was essentially one substance and that substance was physical–even the gods themselves and other metaphysical concepts such as soul and spirit were material in nature

[4] The belief in many gods

[5] Everything is alive and has a spirit or soul

[6] E.g., Zeus

[7] E.g., Poseidon

[8] E.g., Eros and Aphrodite were spirits of love and fertility while Athena and Mars were personifications of war

[9] Something that appeared diverse yet arose from a common substance

[10] A natural or physical cause alone is sufficient to explain all phenomena

[11] The belief that the soul outlives the physical body and passes from one temporal abode to another

[12] E.g., the study of mathematics and music and the development of one’s mind through philosophy

[13] E.g., 00100011000011011, etc

[14] All is god, god is all

[15] That energy is neither created nor destroyed although it may change form

[16] E.g., thought, reason, philosophy, etc

[17] Food, drink, sensuality, etc

[18] Thought or ideas = reality

[19] Mind

[20] Logos or Nous

[21] The ability to speak well

[22] Man is the measure of all things

[23] E.g., what is a courageous man

[24] E.g., what is courage

[25] Between Socrates and Glaucon

[26] The realm of thought

[27] Sense-objects are spoken of as imitation

[28] The physical world or thoughts of particulars in and of themselves

[29] Form, matter, and privation

[30] Unmixed with matter

[31] Minerals, etc

[32]This never exists apart from form but it is the basis from which all form comes

[33] The end purpose or result of change

[34] To bring Greek culture

[35] Most notably St. Augustine

[36] Plotinus, however, attacks them by name and refutes their use of his philosophy


[38] Lower Form associated with Nature

[39] An intermediary with the Nous;

[40] Synonymous with Nature

[41] Associated with the Nous

[42] Associated with the physical body

[43] Due to an absence of light

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