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The Philosophy of Ancient Greece

For many, the philosophy of ancient Greece is the philosophy of par excellence. It is among the Greeks, in fact, that philosophy was constituted in the state of the autonomous discipline, distinct from both religion and the positive sciences. It is with them that it may have been raised to its highest point of completion. Greek philosophy begins around 600 BC. BC, and ends in the sixth century AD. Previously we had Gnomic Sentences but without any speculative character. In its 1200 years of development, Greek philosophy can be divided into three main periods:

1 ° from Thales to Socrates (from the 6th to the 4th century BC), a period to which Eduard Zeller, in the monument he elevated to Greek philosophy (Die Philosophie der Griechen (Leipzig, 1876, 5 vols in-8), gives the name of physical dogmatism. This term can be applied to some of the Presocratics but is no longer suitable for talking about the Sophists.

2°, from Socrates to the Alexandrian school (4th century BC), a period in which Zeller saw the time of the philosophy of concepts. She was born with Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and then articulated mainly around two great schools: the Academy, founded by Plato, and the High School, formed by Aristotle, which will soon give way to two other great currents: Epicureanism and Stoicism.

3° Alexandrian philosophy (from the fourth century BC to the sixth century AD), for which Zeller speaks of abstract subjectivity. This philosophy is developed in Alexandria and in the Alexandrian cultural space. It is represented by Eclecticism, which attempts a synthesis of earlier doctrines, and Neo-Platonism, which takes up the themes of Platonism in the context of mysticism.

The philosophy of the following ages is connected with it by the closest links.

Epicureanism and Stoicism, about a century before our era, introduced Greek philosophy to Rome; Cicero represented the Academy, Lucretius Epicureanism, and Seneca the Portico (Stoicism); in Rome, philosophy was classical-like literature. The philosophy of the Middle Ages simply reproduced the doctrines of Plato and Aristotle (Scholasticism); that of modern times resumed the great philosophical problems precisely to the point where the Greeks had left them and thus continued the work begun by them.

Suppose we try to mark the peculiarities of this philosophy, to say how it differs from others. In that case, we find ourselves in a great embarrassment, precisely because of the close relations which have just been pointed out if the other philosophies are hard that the reproduction or the continuation of the Greek philosophy, they pursue the same goal, are animated of the same spirit. It becomes difficult to point out differences. It may be said, however, with Eduard Zeller, that the characteristic of Greek philosophy is to consider the human mind and nature (or the subject and the object) as closely united. In the Middle Ages, on the contrary, the spirit declared itself alien and opposed to nature. In modern times, thought strives to return from this separation to union with nature, but without losing the intimate consciousness of the difference between the spiritual and the bodily. In truth, as Greek thought develops and systems succeed one another, the distinction between spirit and nature, subject and object, is more clearly marked: but they do not oppose each other. Never completely to one another, and even at the end of the Hellenic period, the separation is not consumed.

I – The Pre-Socratics Philosophy of Ancient GreecePhilosophy of Ancient Greece

The first period of Greek philosophy opens with the Ionian and Italic schools. The Ionians have for their oldest known representative Thales of Miletus; after him, we quote Anaximander, Anaximenes, and others less famous. In this period, philosophy is given the task of explaining the physical world, phenomena that fall under sensitive observation. Full of confidence in his strength, the mind does not think then to wonder if the problem is not beyond his reach and if he possesses the faculties necessary to solve it: he starts directly to work without doubting success: hence the name of physical dogmatism, given by Zeller.

1. The Lonian School

The first philosophers wondered what things are made of and what is the principle of being. The ancient Ionians gave this question various answers; they believed in finding this principle in water, Anaximander in the infinite matter (Apeiron), and Anaximenes in the air. The principal character of the Ionian school is to have conceived the first principle solely as material, without taking into account intangible things, and not having determined the principle of movement (Matter in Antiquity). Focusing only on phenomena, it admitted only the evidence given by the senses. To this solution, the physics of the problem is soon opposed to that of Anaxagoras, and then the mathematical solution of the Pythagoreans (Italic School), which explains all things by numbers.

2. Anaxagore

Anaxagoras differs from the Ionian philosophers in that he introduces intelligence as a principle of order without, however, depriving the school of its sensualist character. He brought the matter to an infinite number of similar elementary parts, the mixture of which gives rise to the various bodies and which, in the history of philosophy, are called homoeomeries. But, above this infinite plurality of nature, of this dissemination of being, he placed a sovereign unity, intelligence (Noûs). Matter, he said, is incapable of moving itself; the “Noûs” is the principle of the movement that animates it and the order it tends to achieve. Intelligence is simple, indivisible, without mixing anything else; it has two fundamental attributes, knowledge, and movement; she ordered the revolutions of the stars; it presides over universal circulation; it envelops and dominates the world.

3. The Italic School

The Italic (or Pythagorean) school, on the contrary, instead of stopping at phenomena, considers only their relations; hence its dual mathematical and astronomical character. So she was entirely spiritualistic for her; numbers were the principles of things: Causes. It is probable, because nothing remains of the first philosophers of the school, that by saying that the world had been formed in imitation of numbers, the Pythagoreans meant that everything came out of the primitive substance like the numbers are born of unity by continually adding to itself. God being unity, perfection consists in approaching it; also, the soul is a number; it is immortal and subject to metempsychosis. The school of Italy also differs from that of Ionia in its way of explaining the world system (it admitted that the Sun is fixed in the middle of the planets) and by its morality, which supposes a sanction after this life. It had as its founder supposed Pythagoras; the most renowned after him were Empedocles, who first admitted several elements; Epicharmus; Archytas of Taranto, also famous as a mathematician.

4. The Eleatic School

The Eleatic school can be seen as a development of the Pythagorean School; indeed, Xenophanes, and especially Parmenides and Zeno of Elea, came to deny all material reality, all variety, and to admit only absolute unity. The Eleates thus propose a metaphysical solution and invent the dialectic. They affirm the reality of the eternal being, one and immutable (be it extension or abstract being); they introduce into the philosophy that principle which will never come out of it: nothing is born of nothing; the being, in the true sense of the word, neither begins nor ends. From then on, it is no longer the very being that is to be explained but the becoming, the change, the multiple that the Eléates, consistent with themselves, have begun to deny.

5. Heraclitus

Heraclitus of Ephesus, who is related to the Ionian philosophers, placing himself in a diametrically opposed point of view, maintains that nothing in the world exists for a moment identical to itself. Living matter is, according to him, fire, but he is less struck by the substance of things than by their becoming: Nothing is, everything becomes. Everything dies, everything flows, everything becomes everything, and everything is everything. Everything changes constantly, from one opposite to the other, and the only thing that is immutable is the law of this eternal metamorphosis. These are the main affirmations of the philosophy of Heraclitus, which oppose it very clearly to that of Parmenides, who supported the unity and immutability of being. If everything becomes everything, each thing contains in it that which denies it; the law of becoming is none other than that of the identity of opposites. This constant change is not random.

“Heraclitus is the first,” says Eduard Zeller, “who energetically affirmed, on the one hand, the absolute vitality of nature, the incessant transformation of substances, the mutability and instability of all that is individual; on the other hand, the immutable uniformity of the general relations, the existence of a reasonable, absolute law, which governs the course of all nature. ”

The philosophy of Heraclitus exercised in the later Greek philosophy had a considerable influence. Pantheism / Stoicism received its theory of divine fire, the principle of all existence and all reason. In the Atomistic School, Plato and Aristotle themselves endeavored to reconcile the Heraclitean affirmation of the eternal becoming with the definition that Parmenides gave of being. But before them, the Sophists exploited a certain number of Heraclitean ideas on the value of human knowledge.

6. The Sophists

Finally, with the Sophists, we see concerns of a different order. Renouncing the explanation of physical phenomena, which we regard as impossible, we focus only on practical questions. We search for the means to succeed in life through education, eloquence, skill in all the arts, and in the conduct of human affairs. The advice given in this respect by Protagoras, a Gorgias, a Prodicus of Ceos is, moreover, purely empirical, without a superior principle that inspires them, without a rule which determines them. All these philosophers, taking the systems constructed by their predecessors, intelligently disentangling their negative sides and their weak places, opposing them to each other, arrived by confusion and contradiction to a sort of universal negation, of which Socrates, who is somehow the last of the Sophists, was soon to know how to make the most of this muddle.

II – The Classical Philosophy of Ancient GreeceSocrates represents a landmark of the Philosophy of Ancient Greece

1. Socrates

With Socrates begins, the second period. He turned the spirits away from the physical and astronomical, materialistic, and idealistic assumptions of the previous age. He gave a starting point to philosophy the knowledge of oneself; hence the essentially moral and human character of his doctrine. He introduced into philosophy a new element: the general idea or the concept. Concerned as the Sophists of practical and moral things, he wants to introduce certain principles and invariable rules; he wants, in a word, to apply to morality the idea of science which the first physicists had applied only to nature. Now this fixity, this stability that science demands, is not found in particular phenomena but only in the universal; hence this famous maxim: There is science only of the general, and with the aid of a new method founded on induction, definition, division, Socrates attempts to constitute all morality. Finally, he gives a method to philosophy and thus prepares for his bright future.

Several schools were born after Socrates: that of Megara, which confined itself to determining well in general, and to show that the finite could not be the truth; that of Cyrene, which is related to Epicureanism; and that of the Cynics, which went to melt into that of the Portique (Stoicism). But the true Socratic schools were those of Plato and Aristotle. Faithful to his doctrine but carrying once again to the explanation of the universe the principle that Socrates had applied only to morality, Plato and Aristotle constructed two great metaphysical systems.

2. Plato and the Academy

Plato, the founder of the Academy, embraced dialectics, physics, and morality at the same time, concentrating mainly on the data of reason. The particular notions are for him only a point of departure from which he rises, by the dialectic, to the ideas in themselves, eternal types whose reality in this world is only an unfaithful image. Ideas, i.e., the realized concepts, become hypostases, apart from the mind and sensible things, are, for Plato, the true reality. As a result, dialectic is the method par excellence. A supreme idea, the idea of good that is, of God, dominates and enlightens all others. An intelligible world, accessible only for a reason, rises above the sensible world and contains an explanation. Plato thus considers philosophy as the knowledge of things as to their essential notion, i.e. as to their true existence, as in the infinite and universal object of conceptions of reason. On the contrary, the notions which we have of things according to sensory perception and the simple phenomena of experience are deceptive notions. This theory, based on reminiscence, presupposed an earlier life in which the soul had seen these specimens more closely in God. As for Socrates, God is a providence, organizer, and king of the world; but Plato does not go to the absolute unity of the Eleate.

Plato is not idealistic;

But his immediate successors Speusippus, Xenocrates, Polemon, Crates, and Crantor lead the Academy to idealism and Pythagoreanism. After them, Arcesilaus, developing the seeds of skepticism hidden in the Platonic doctrine, founded the Middle Academy, whose principle was that the truth should be considered only as a simple personal conviction, a likelihood so that the human is, for so to speak, condemned to know nothing. Carneadi, by somewhat mitigating this proposition, pretended that there is no criterion of truth; thought, modifying the object, does not allow it to reach us as it is. Carneade was the head of the New Academy. There is a fourth, under the leadership of Clitomaque, who loudly proclaimed the helplessness of understanding anything. Shortly after, under Philo of Alexandria and Antiochus of Ascalon, she returned to dogmatism.

3. Aristotle and High School

With Plato, Greek philosophy had made immense progress, especially from a moral point of view; it was the same with Aristotle, the founder of the Lycée (The Peripatetic School), under the scientific report. If Aristotle is a great metaphysician, he is also a great physicist; with him, the human spirit finds and formulates the laws of deductive reasoning. It is the same with the poetics of eloquence and politics. With him, philosophy becomes really the science of causes and first principles. The idea he has of philosophy suffices to show that he is not a sensualist. It is, above all, the science of essence (ousia), the knowledge of the goal or the end, and that goal is the best in everything; but for him, this same goal is something real concrete, as opposed to Plato’s idea. Aristotle rejects ideas of separate and distinct existence. For him, only individual beings really exist. But in them are realized, actualized, essences or immutable ideas, while they are changeable, eternal, while they are perishable. The act, with the power that corresponds to it, thus replaces the idea. All these acts or forms are arranged elsewhere according to a hierarchical order, which goes from the least perfect to the most perfect and can be explained in the last analysis by an indefectible and always present act, the act of thought which thinks itself and who is God. This God, a stranger to the world, moves him without knowing him as a final cause by the attraction of his sovereign perfection. Developing and applying his principles, Aristotle constructs the largest and most complete system that may have ever been conceived, and that was to exercise such profound and lasting influence over the entire history of the human mind.

Aristotle is not a sensualist;

But his God without Providence, the soul whose personality does not survive the body, the preference it gives to the individual and the contingent, must lead to sensualism; this is what one saw among his disciples Theophrastus, Diceacon, Aristoxenus, Straton of Lampsacus. With them, as with the descendants of Plato, the great systems are transformed and make way for Epicureanism and Stoicism, about 300 BC. AD

III – The Late Developments of the Philosophy of Ancient Greece

The distinguishing feature of the third period, the longest of all, is that we begin by renouncing concepts: all knowledge is considered to be of sensible origin: nominalism triumphs. At the same time, we abandon metaphysics: there is no more immaterial reality that reason can reach. Nothing exists that is bodily. From then on, the true object of philosophy is no longer the explanation of the universe; moral preoccupations take precedence over all others: the crucial problem is to discover the means to be happy. The subject, without, however, completely separating himself from the object, takes himself as the goal of his study: hence the name of abstract subjectivity by which Zeller had proposed to designate this period.

1. Stoicism

There is in Stoicism, logic, and physics, but both are subordinate to morality. Logic aims to solve, from a sensualist point of view, the problem of certainty because finding morality requires a sure rule of truth. In the same way, the materialistic and fatalistic physics of the Stoics proclaims the unity of nature, the order of the world, and its identity with the God who penetrates and animates it so that this universal reason, present to all things serves as a model. to human conduct. This explains the maxim from which stoical morality flows: one must live according to nature. Neither pleasure is good nor pain is evil. The only good is a virtue conformable to universal reason; the wise man has no other ideal than to want what the thought that directs the world wants: and he will have to be as she is free from trouble and impassible.

2. Epicureanism

Epicureanism replaces logic with the canonical because it renounced knowing the necessary truth and deduced a priori: but it remains as firmly dogmatic as Stoicism, and the rules it gives to reach the truth are as absolute as those of Aristotle or Chrysippus. Suppose he borrows from Democritus, modifying it profoundly, the theory of atoms. In that case, it is in order to be able to deny the action of providence in the world and to rid humanity of the greatest evils from which it suffers, the fear of death and that of the gods. Morality prescribes the search for pleasure, but pleasure in repose, by which we must understand the satisfaction of the natural and necessary desires, that is to say. The quiet and sober life, free from the disorder of passions, vain desires, and vain fears.

3. Skepticism

A dogged opponent of dogmatism, both Stoic and Epicurean, Skepticism, in its various forms, appears at the same time as a result of the conflict of the earlier systems. Already he had announced himself with Pyrrhon (340 BC), but it was too early. True Skepticism is established with all its power in the person of Aenesidemus, who made it a regular system, giving it principles and a method. By this, he questioned every belief and every reality. This system was continued in Rome by Agrippa, who carried the doctrine at its peak, and Sextus Empiricus. The general process of the school consisted in opposing sensible ideas to the conceptions of reason to arrive at doubt by contradiction. Hence this formula summarizes all the practical skepticism of antiquity: “no more one than the other.” Pyrrho, Aenesidemus, and Carneadea ruined the theory of certainty based on the mere testimony of the senses. They disputed the value of the idea of the cause and denied that no proof was possible, in a word, ruined science in all its forms. But for practical life, they recommended conforming either to common sense or to likelihood, and it is ultimately, like their rivals, in ataraxy or apathy that they make the sovereign good.

4. The Alexandrine Philosophy

Such was, two centuries after JC, the state of Greek philosophy. Alexandria had succeeded Athens; it had become the home of science and literature. The different systems of philosophy met there and had become a cause of Skepticism, but this last system could not satisfy the human spirit; from there, the school of Alexandria was born. Its first character was eclectism, or rather syncretism, in which all the great conceptions of Greek philosophy are synthesized with elements from the East. According to the Eclectics, everything is in God and by God, and yet God is not confused with the world. After eclecticism, a second character came to dominate Alexandrian philosophy; it was mysticism: to explain the divine nature and the way in which it manifests itself, to ascend by ecstasy over the data of reason, such as the main object of the new school, which was also called Neoplatonic.

The Neoplatonic school of Alexandria is the last attempt in which the speculative effort of the Greeks to solve the great problems of philosophy has been launched.

Skepticism having victoriously fought sensualist dogmatism and proved that the human mind could not discover the truth either in itself or in things, it is out of itself and from the sensible world that it will have to look for it: he will find it in direct and mystical communication with the absolute, which is called ecstasy. Outside and above sensible appearances, there are, according to Plotinus and his disciples, ideas that are the models of things, as Plato had said. These ideas are realized in the world through an active principle, a soul of the world, a universal spirit living in things, and identical to the God of the Stoics. This very spirit, to which only the true existence must be attributed, for it is eternal and the particular beings are ephemeral, is attached to a principle, to a superior hypostasis, the pure intelligence, as defined by Aristotle. As this intelligence still implies the duality of the intelligible and the intelligence, we must recognize above it a still higher reality, the last term of the Alexandrine trinity, the absolute unity, ineffable principle and, truly divine, which one must not affirm any particular attribute because it possesses them all. It is from this principle one and superior to the essence, as already called by Plato, that everything emanates by successive degrees. And the new idea, borrowed perhaps from Oriental philosophy, which dominates all this system, is that the being can give itself without being lost, to spread itself in things without ceasing to be itself, to just as the rays of the Sun remain in the center while spreading throughout the universe.

With Plotinus and Porphyry, the Neoplatonic school had remained within the limits of mysticism, which distanced itself from philosophy, properly so-called, but which had nothing extravagant yet;

But with Jamblique and those who come after him, she fell from mysticism into theurgy; she practiced evocation, and she worked miracles. Before losing the right to speak in the name of paganism, Greek philosophy returned to the places where it had long ago shone and thrown a lively and last sparkle to Athens in the person of Proclus. Soon the doors of the school were closed by an edict of Justinian in 529. The last Greek philosophers had to take refuge in the court of Chosroes, king of Persia. (V. Brochard / G.L. and D.P.).

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