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The Cult Of Pythagoras

by on July 21, 2014

Not much is really know about the Pythagoreans or their rather mysterious founder, PythagorasPythagoras. Several different accounts of the Pythagoreans have come down to us from antiquity. Plato and Aristotle both reference the Pythagoreans throughout their philosophical writings. Even still, the true nature of the “cult of Pythagoras” is often shrouded in mystery.

The questions abound: Who were they? Where did they come from? What did they believe? And most importantly, were they a cult?

A rather interesting question, don’t you think? Well, I certainly think so. I’ll just assume you do as well.

That sort of question is not only interesting, it is terribly complicated. In the context of our modern world, we might consider a group of individuals who worship mathematical harmonies as not only being a cult, but also prime candidates for a straight jacket.

However, in the context of ancient Greece it was not uncommon to attribute great importance, even divine importance, to profound philosophical formulations.

Thales of Miletus, for example, attributed great importance to water;
he claimed that it was the foundation for all of the universe. Socrates, during the course of his philosophical investigations, eventually came to believe that there was a heavenly voice in his head (a daimon)
that compelled him to pursue true knowledge no matter the cost.

These examples, however, do not grant the Pythagoreans a free pass. While Socrates, Thales, and others did attribute great importance to their discoveries, the Pythagoreans outright worshipped their philosophical beliefs, going so far as to sacrifice an ox after discovering the 47th Proposition of Euclid.

It was said that Pythagoras and his followers settled in Crotona in South Italy around 530 BCE and went about making a society for themselves that reflected their, let’s just call it, unique ideals for life.

A central tenant of the Pythagorean belief system was the transmigration of the soul. This included the transmigration of human souls into the bodies of animals. It is perhaps for this reason that Pythagoras strictly forbid the consumption of meat, resulting in his followers becoming some of the earliest known vegetarians.

A strange side note of the Pythagorean diet is that they were forbidden to eat beans. The reason behind this is not entirely known. A funny anecdote tells us that Pythagoras believed that a human being lost a part of his or her soul whenever passing gas.

They wore a specific garb that was common only amongst their followers. Abstinence of the flesh was insisted upon. However, this seems to have been a later addition. We do know that Pythagoras himself did not die a virgin.

When it came to their philosophical beliefs, the Pythagoreans were extremely superstitious and mystical. They believed that the human soul was trapped in a continuous cycle of death and reincarnation. It was taught that the only way to free ourselves from this cycle was to obtain a higher understanding of the universe through introspective thought and philosophical study.


And so when examining the nature of the universe, a rather difficult brand of philosophy known as metaphysics, the Pythagoreans concluded the objects within reality could be differentiated by the qualities that they have. Certain things are different shapes, colors, or sizes.

These qualities range dramatically and they are by no means universal. A leaf, for instance, might be green. However, not all things are green, some things in this universe do not even possess a perceivable color. The same can be said for smell, size, or shape.

The Pythagoreans concluded that the one universal quality of all things in the universe, the one thing that everything had in common, was that it was numerable and could be counted. We could perhaps imagine a universe without smell or taste. However, the idea of creating a hypothetical universe without numbers is very much impossible.

PythagorasAnd here we see the basis of the Pythagorean philosophy. They believed that numbers were the underlying substance of reality much in the way that Thales believe water to be origin of being in the universe.

However, not all numbers were treated equally. Some were considered more holy than others. For instance, the Pythagoreans attributed great importance to the number one.

This is probably due to their ideas on the formation of the universe. It was proposed that there once existed chaos and disorder within an unstructured, infinite universe. Then, limitations were set upon the universe and the world as we know it fell into order; objects became numerable, the cosmos became perceivable. In this way the universe came from a sort of chaos and took on a oneness that was previously unknown. This idea of a harmonious, single universe would be echoed by the likes of Parmenides and Zeno of Elea.

The Pythagoreans paid close attention to the idea of harmonies. They concluded that harmony was a balancing of opposites. The most important of these opposites were the ideas of the limited and the unlimited, which was represented by odd and even numbers respectively.

How they arrived at such a conclusion is uncertain. It is believed that since even numbers can be divided by two again and again before inevitably reaching one, they were representative of the idea of unlimitedness.

On the other hand, odd numbers cannot be divided by two, and therefore sets a limit to bipartition. In this way they were said to represent the idea of limit.

Other opposites included masculine and feminine, right and left, rest and motion, light and dark, good and evil, square and oblong.

The Pythagorean philosophy begins to grow drastically arbitrary the more you examine it. They believed that the number eight was meant to represent justice while the number seven represented wisdom. This sort of thinking does not appear to be based on any real philosophical principle and as a result becomes distasteful.

All in all, they were a mystical society that placed great importance on the mathematical relations of the universe. There is no denying that they contributed greatly to the area of mathematics and philosophy. One needs only to reflect on the Pythagorean theorem, a mathematical principle said to have been discovered by Pythagoras himself, to appreciate the profound impact they had on the development of scientific thought.

Were they a cult? Perhaps. They certainly had all the usual symptoms of being a cult. After living according to their ways for some time, it is believed that the Pythagoreans attempted to pressure the ordinary citizens of Crotona into adopting their unique lifestyle. This, rather unfortunately, did not end well for the Pythagoreans. When the plain citizens were told that they must not eat beans and that they must, at all costs, abstain from eating meat, it was too much to bear.

A general persecution of the Pythagoreans occurred. Many of the followers were killed or driven away. The Pythagorean meeting place was burned to the ground and Pythagoras was forced to flee with his followers around 480 BCE.

It is believed that the society regrouped and continued their activities, but not much was heard from them after this time. It is possible that they simply faded away, leaving behind their rather perplexing legacy of mathematical genius tempered with mysticism and superstition.

Pursuing the Gorgon Medusa

by on July 16, 2014

By John Mancini

The Gorgon Medusa, with her serpentine hair, lolling tongue and deadly gaze, is one of the most recognizable icons in mythology. Her popularity not only predates Classical Greece, but also extends through The Middle Ages, and can still be felt today. A mythical motif for centuries of artists, the Gorgon image appears in countless sculptures and paintings, especially in the Mediterranean – adorning everything from doorways of temples to sarcophagi of kings…

But was she seen as a Sea Monster or a Mother Goddess?


In the Greco-Roman world, the Gorgoneion-bearing aegis was a protective amulet, similar to the “evil eye” of witchcraft, appearing on the shields of Athena and Zeus. Its power could be transferred to whoever possessed it, an attractive feature to both gods and men. Apollo, for instance, harnessed the power of the Gorgoneion and used it to fight the Achaeans, while the mythical Perseus famously used the entrancing magic of the Gorgoneion gaze as a weapon, turning his enemy Polydectes to stone.

Real men, too, desired the deadly effects or protection of the Gorgon. Indeed, some of the earliest depictions of the Gorgoneion in Greece appear on the shields of warriors in the mid-fifth century B.C. where she is represented as a goat-bearded monster with tusks rather than a female demon.

Most contemporary readers, however, know the Gorgon as the snake-haired goddess from the myth of Perseus-Medusa in which she is one of three sisters, a trio of sea nymphs who occupy an island at the far edge of the ocean.

According to the poet Hesiod, after her defeat at the hands of the hero Perseus, Medusa’s blood spilled from her severed head and created the coral reef of the Red Sea, which tormented ancient mariners.


While the “Gorgoneion” was a popular motif in ancient art long before the Greek story of Perseus-Medusa, it only caught on rapidly in the sixth and fifth centuries BC. This is when the full-bodied Gorgon began to appear on temples to Athena and Artemis, as well as on coins, where she has been pictured opposite the owl of Athena or sun god Apollo.

Around 415 BC in Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, the Gorgon is portrayed as three swanlike snake-haired sisters who share one eye and loathe mankind. By contrast, Pindar claimed that Medusa was in fact “fair-cheeked” and Ovid later confirmed that she was irresistible to whomever encountered her.

So… was she hideous or beautiful?

Like Hermes advised Heracles when he pursued the Gorgon in the Underworld – it depends very much on how you look at her. Clearly, her description has changed over time and from poet to poet… but what was the first depiction? From where did this mysterious creature originate?

Well, the Gorgon Medusa is thought to have been a sea goddess born of Cetus and brought to Greece by way of seafaring tribes from Babylonia. In these early myths, she was a female deity who shared lineage with Artemis, Demeter, Cybele and Rhea.


The Gorgons represented a fear of and reverence for the awe-inspiring wildness of nature and animals. To the Greeks, the Gorgon’s challenging grimace was the very personification of Fear itself: Phobos. And in tracing the origin of the Gorgon, archeologists have linked her to just about every natural phenomenon imaginable, including the roar of the ocean, the eruption of volcanoes, the crack of thunder-clouds – as well as beasts such as boars, lions, cephalopods and of course, owls.

Although Greek depictions of the Gorgon monster did not properly appear until after the Geometric Period, the sisterhood of demonic winged snake-goddesses extends to ancient Phrygia, Phoenicia, Babylonia and Persia. This includes not only the great nature goddesses of Asia Minor, like Artemis, but also those from farther east, such as the multi-armed Hindu Goddess Bhavani, the wrathful counterpart of Parvati.

Perhaps most direct influence to the Greeks was the Babylonian Humbaba, a demonic grinning monster that guarded the mythic cedar forest and was slain by the hero Gilgamesh.

The Gilgamesh-Humbaba legend provided the model for the Perseus-Medusa myth, while visual elements from other Babylonian deities, like Abzu and Ishtar, which were also incorporated and re-interpreted by the Greeks. The fact that “sacred prostitution” was an ancient custom in Babylonian temples devoted to Ishtar may shed additional light on how the story evolved in Greece – in particular, the detail of Medusa’s rape by Poseidon in Athena’s temple.

Medusa’s appearances in Greek art during the 7th century B.C. in early Corinthian pottery were influenced by Assyrian art.

In these examples, the Gorgon is often pictured with a snout and tusks of a boar, as well as horns or wings, in addition to the snakes that traditionally crown her head.

One only has to look at the Mesopotamian terracotta plaque from 1750 B.C. known as the Burney Relief, which depicts Ishtar as a vampire-like goddess with wings, clawed feet and a serpentine halo of hair, to see an obvious resemblance to the Medusa of Archaic Greek art.

Although Medusa’s character may have become more distinct in the Greek myths, she still retained the features of the original nature goddess. As mentioned, she was related to Artemis, the patroness of wild animals, whose encounter with Actaeon was extremely bloody. Actaeon caught Artemis and her nymphs bathing in a wooded spring, which resulted in his transformation into a stag and subsequent demise at the jaws of his own hounds.

However, Actaeon only transformed once, while the Gorgon went through many alterations over the centuries. In The Middle Ages, the Gnostics christianized Medusa by surrounding her head with a halo of biblical scripture. In folktales she became the mermaid Melusine who transforms into a fierce sea creature after she is caught bathing – for to gaze on the naked goddess uninitiated has always been considered a profanation of the mystery of nature, one worthy of ultimate punishment.


In the late 20th century, the mermaid Melusine experienced worldwide resurgence in popularity when Starbucks chose her as its company mascot, and the Versace clothing company also adopted the Roman Gorgoneion as its logo.

It is Sicily, however, that still has the longest running claim to the Gorgon Medusa. Since 300 B.C. that Western Island basking in the Mediterranean sun has consistently incorporated the Gorgoneion into coinage and door handles, temples and sarcophagi. Sicily has even used the Gorgon on its flag since the 13th century. It can still be seen there today, surrounded by the triskelion, the three running legs of the Gorgon, as well as three shafts of wheat.


But perhaps one of the most compelling depictions of Medusa is an earlier one from the Temple of Artemis at Corfu, an island on the western coast of Greece. Dating back to 580 B.C., the temple was one of the largest of its kind. There, the winged Medusa resides prominently on the western pediment, flanked by two lions, as well as her offspring, the flying horse Pegasus and Chrysaor the warrior. Larger than Zeus, who hurls a lightning bolt over at the far end, her authority is unmistakable, and the power of her dual nature can be more clearly understood.

She is the Earth Mother, guardian of the natural world – both demon of the oceanic unconscious and mistress of wild beasts. To a soul worthy of her gaze, one need not worry about having the mirrored Athenian shield… as long as one approaches her with equal amounts of courage and respect.

In Search of Asherah: The Lost Hebrew Goddess

by on July 12, 2014

By Mary E. Naples, M.A.

Did God have a wife? Was a female deity revered alongside the monotheistic Hebrew god, the one most of us in the West know from the Old Testament? It may sound like an outlandish notion, but perhaps there was a lost Hebrew Goddess that, at times, reigned supreme in the ancient Mediterranean cultures.

Goddess Asherah

Asherah, called Athirat in Ugarit, figures prominently as the wife of El, the supreme god, in cuneiform alphabetic texts, dating back to the fourteenth century BCE. Before Abraham (ca 2200-1700 BCE) migrated to what would become known as Israel, Asherah was revered as Athirat, Earth Mother and Fertility Goddess. Upon entering the region, the ancient Israelites adopted her and gave her the Hebrew equivalent name of Asherah. The Ugarit excavation, a second millennium “Canaanite” port city (in today’s northern Syria), put Asherah the goddess, on the map again after having lost her place for thousands of years.

Of course the presence of a Hebrew goddess immediately begs the question: how monotheistic were the pre-exilic Israelites and Judeans? Certainly, the very notion of polytheism is inherent in the quest for Asherah.

Additionally, the many artifacts representing Asherah, and her cult from the region, belies the biblical prohibition against the creation of idols.

At this juncture it is important to make a distinction between the book religion of the ruling classes in the metropolis and folk or popular religion as it was practiced in rural communities, for which most Israelites were a part.

Moreover, it should be remembered that in rural communities of the ancient world, literacy was close to non-existent. Indeed, even rudimentary writing did not become widespread until the eighth century BCE, at which time some were able to write their names, numbers and a few commodities for trade… This was certainly a long way from being able to read or write the literary achievement that we find in the Hebrew Bible!


Thus, the book religion practiced in the cities would likely have had little meaning in the lives of those inhabiting the outlying areas. Instead, the rural communities had their own religious beliefs and practiced their faith locally, even at home using statuary and other artifacts. It was very likely that some form of folk religion had been passed down through the generations, making homespun beliefs an integral part of their everyday lives. Indeed, one scholar defined folk religion as everything that those who wrote the Bible condemned.

By way of contrast, an affinity between the intellectual community and the aristocracy produced a masterful text, which was written entirely from the perspective of the upper or ruling classes.

So if the Bible was authored by and large for the ruling class, then how do we know the way common people worshipped? As mentioned above, there are artifacts from the region to help piece the puzzle into place, but it is also ironically in the Bible itself that we can also find many of the rituals practiced by the rural communities. Indeed, Asherah is mentioned in the early Hebrew Bible some forty separate times, although most often as an object of derision.

For the most part, the biblical writers were unhappy that Asherah, or the “Queen of Heaven”, shared the same platform with their male deity, Yahweh, and repeatedly tried to dissuade their union.

Forasmuch as the ruling elite tried to inhibit Asherah and Yahweh’s “marriage,” their union appears solidified in an ancient blessing seen with some regularity at a number of archeological sites in the region. This is particularly apparent in Kuntillet Ajrud, a 9th-8th century BCE Israelite caravanserai with an attached shrine, which was excavated in 1975-76 near the river of Egypt in northeast Sinai (by Judah’s south border).


The text and drawing of the two deities found there sparked a lively debate within the academic community. The inscription reads: “I have blessed you by Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah.” The same text was found a number of times in other locations, such as Samaria, Jerusalem and Teman, where there were known sanctuaries to Yahweh.

More evidence is found in Khirbet el-Qom, an ancient burial site dated to ca 750 BCE, excavated in 1968. The following inscription was found on the tombstone of a wealthy man: “Blessed by Uriah by Yahweh, Yea from his enemies by his Asherah he has saved him, By Onah, By his Asherah and by his Asherah.”

Indeed, the phrase “Yahweh….and his Asherah” must have been a fairly common expression in the region, as sixty miles separates Khirbet el-Qom from Kuntillet Ajrud, not an easy jaunt considering the limited transportation options available at the time.

Moreover, the notable phrase “Yahweh and his Asherah” is in an obscure blessing in the Hebrew Bible itself. The cryptic blessing is in Deuteronomy 33.2-3, in an earlier rendition when Asherah’s influence had not yet been fully subordinated.

The full hymn reads:

“YHWH came from Sinai and shone forth from his own Seir, He showed himself from Mount Paran. Yes he came among the myriads of Qudhsu, at his right hand his own Asherah, Indeed, he loves the clans and all his holy ones on his left.”

However, as the book religion solidified, Asherah became increasingly marginalized in the scriptures… to the point of being reduced to her cult object—the stylized tree or wooden pole which became known as asherah or asherim. Trees were revered as symbols of life and nourishment in arid regions, and so became associated with Asherah and her cult.

Interestingly, many scholars believe that Asherah’s tree functioned in the Garden of Eden parable. Because Asherah’s name was increasingly tied to Yahweh’s in the folk religion of the area, the patriarchal elite may have found it necessary to propagandize against goddess worship by integrating the story of the fall of mankind to the tree which was clearly associated with Asherah.

Asherah’s influence may not have been immense, or even positive, in the official or book religion, but her presence clearly loomed large in the rural communities.

Although we have no text or sacred scriptures from the folk religion of this considerable group of people, we do have much in the way of figurines from the region. To be sure, aniconism was, and still is, inherent in the Hebrew Bible, but ample archaeological evidence suggests that those who lived outside the metropolis—and indeed sometimes right inside it—idolized statuary and cult objects as part of their popular or folk religion.


Anthropomorphically, Asherah is represented many times in various forms scattered throughout the region; the most prolific of these is the pillar figurines. These figurines first started appearing in the late tenth to ninth century BCE and had become common from the eight through seventh centuries. The term “Images of Asherah” is used often in the Hebrew Bible, and it is believed that the pillar figurines are what the writers of the bible had in mind.

But what were these figurines meant to convey? Symbolizing the nurturing aspect of the mother goddess, the breasts are exaggerated with the hands more or less supporting them. The pillar figurines were predominantly found in private houses, suggesting their domesticity, and many scholars contend that the figurines represented fertility to women in a region beset by hardship and drought. Sadly lactation and fertility concerns are indicative of some type of famine for which the region was prone. Considering survival was the ultimate burden for the average Israelite/Judean, apprehension about fertility in general was likely widespread.

Was their concern for fecundity what attracted the rural Israelites and Judeans to the goddess Asherah? Reasonably, in a land prone to famine and drought, Asherah may have been linked to the almighty Yahweh because of her association with abundance.

Fascinating as it is, examining a topic that dates back three millennia has its distinct disadvantages. While there are voluminous artifacts and articles associated with Asherah from the region, there are still a number of pieces missing in the puzzle. This, of course, doesn’t prohibit us from attempting to bring the discussion into greater focus, with the distinct hope for further scrutiny and more scholarship to come.

Romania: Citizens of Rome

by on July 11, 2014

By Anya Leonard

Most people don’t think of the Ancient world when they hear ‘Romania’, despite the obvious name.

Modern day connotations often include Vampires and Gypsies, Soviets and Slavs… but all this modern history cloaks its classical past.

Indeed, the takeover of the ancient ‘citizens of Rome’ marked a pivotal point in the rise and fall of arguably the greatest Empire of the western world.

The main clue to its crucial role is the modern Romanian language, steeped in latin, belying the territory’s profound period of Romanisation. Quite a bit of its archeological evidence, unfortunately, was ruined at the hands of conquerors.

But let’s go back. Who, in fact, were the Dacians?

To start with, they weren’t always referred to as Dacians; that was the Roman term. The Greeks described them as the Getae, a northern branch of the Thracians. Herodotus wrote in his Histories Book IV XCIII, that the Getae were, “the noblest as well as the most just of all the Thracian tribes”. Meanwhile Thucydides reported in Peloponnesian Wars, Book II: “[Getae] border on the Scythians and are armed in the same manner, being all mounted archers”.

Map of Dacia

It was between 82 and 44 BC, however, that the Dacian Kingdom reached its peak, under the reign of Burebista (Boerebista), a contemporary of Julius Caesar. To do so, he pushed forward a few extreme changes, not least of which was convincing the people to cut their vines and give up drinking. He then reorganized the army, conquered Greek towns, and extended the Dacian territory. Burebista also centralized the money control, suppressing indigenous minting of coins and implementing the Roman denarii as a monetary standard. Finally, he established the Geto-Dacian capital at Sarmizegetusa.

Indeed, the Dacians appeared so formidable at the time that Caesar contemplated an expedition against them, but was prevented from doing so by dying in 44 BC.

Coincidently, Burebista was murdered in that same year, and the kingdom was divided into four (later five) parts under separate rulers.

The nice thing about ancient history is how conveniently everything slots together, at least in hindsight. So, it should come as no surprise that one of these five entities was Cotiso’s state, to whom Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, betrothed his own five year old daughter, Julia.

Indeed, Augustus’ reign was peppered with Dacian interaction. It was in this period their northern neighbors were compelled to recognize Roman supremacy, albeit very grudgingly. So much so, that the Dacians could hardly have been described as ‘subdued’, seizing every opportunity to ravage Roman cities in the province of Moesia by crossing the frozen Danube.

This did not put the Dacians on good terms with their Roman overlords, and instead placed them on the ‘agenda’, the ‘to take over properly’ list. And this task was finally picked up and completed by the Emperor Trajan.

The Romans had several wars with the Dacians in order to achieve this goal.

The trophy of victory went back and forth, each side taking swipes at each other. First the Romans were victorious in the Battle of Tapae in 88 AD. In 87 AD, however, they were defeated by the Dacian general, Decebalus. Then the Second Battle of Tapae in 101 AD saw the Romans victorious. Decebalus rebuilt his power yet again and attacked Roman garrisons in 105 AD. In response, Trajan marched into Dacia once more, attacked the capital in the Siege of Sarmizegethusa, and razed it to the ground.

Dacia was finally quelled.

Trajan Column

The country was occupied and Decebalus committed suicide in 106 AD. Trajan captured Decebalus’ treasure and took control of the Dacian gold mines in Transylvania, refurbishing his coffers. The whole account was recited by Cassius Dio, and depicted beautifully on the famous Column of Trajan.

But what exactly did all this mean for Rome?

Well, quite a lot in fact. The Romans had conquered and destroyed the ancient Kingdom of Dacia, but their conquest also sparked an unbalance in power. See, a larger section of the land remained outside of Roman Imperial authority, which was a catalyst for a renewed alliance of the Germanic and Celtic tribes and kingdoms… against the Roman Empire.

You could say Dacia was the Roman annex that broke the Empire’s back. Well, maybe not exactly – or at least so quickly.

Dacian Prisoner

In fact, the Romans were in Dacia for a while, ensuring the peoples were properly Romanized. The region’s rich ore deposits brought colonists from all over the empire for work, introducing Vulgar Latin and giving birth to the Proto-Romanian language. Tribes of Goths came and went. By AD 336, there were Dacians still to be conquered, this time by Constantine the Great. He even took the title Dacicus Maximus or ‘Great Victor over the Dacians’ when he ‘restored’ Dacia to the Roman Empire. You can even find Dacians prisoners on the Arch of Constantine.

It was only when that famous Christian Roman Emperor died, that the Romans finally and permanently abandoned Dacia… which was forever changed by the occupation.

Anaximander’s Boundless Universe

by on July 7, 2014

Anaximander is often considered to be the first philosopher, at least in some circles. The more anaximanderpopular opinion, which is shared by your associate editor, is that the first philosopher was Thales of Miletus. As Bertrand Russell states in his History of Western Philosophy…

“Philosophy begins with Thales.”

However, Anaximander, Thales’ pupil, might take the title as “the first philosopher” simply because of his attempts to construct the type of philosophical argument that we have come to know and love. Thales, though we love him so, declared that all things are made from water and then provided no real clarification to support this statement.

On the other hand, Anaximander attempted to construct a series of arguments to support his hypothesis that the universe was born from an unknowable, unobservable substance known as Apeiron, which loosely translates to “the boundless” or “that which has no limit.”

The question of who was truly the first philosopher of Greece, Thales or Anaximander, will never fully be answered. However, that is not our concern today. Today we are interested in this mysterious first substance that Anaximander so eloquently named “the boundless.”

The Milesian philosophers were a group of early presocratic thinkers who lived in Miletus, a coastal town on the shores of what is now modern day Turkey. The Milesian thinkers were primarily concerned with one question and one question only:

Why and how does the universe exist?

Heavy stuff, right?

More specifically, the Milesian philosophers were interested in the underlying substance that constituted all of existence. They believed that there existed a common denominator from which all things come to be. This primary substance was known as Arche and it translates roughly to “the source.”

Keep in mind that this type of metaphysical philosophy is something that modern readers might not be very familiar or even comfortable with. We can happily recount the periodic table of the elements or observe the structure of an atom under an electron microscope.

However, metaphysics is often uncomfortable for us. It does not bother with the specific happenings of the universe. Metaphysics aims at understanding being qua being, the underlying principles of all things. Put very simply, if physics is the study of existence, metaphysics hopes to answer the question, “what is existence?”

Ultimately, Anaximander wanted to know where the universe came from. He wanted to explain the origin of reality as we know it. The philosopher did so with the Apeiron.

Before we go any further, we must first recognize that the ancient Greeks held the belief that the world was constructed form the four primary elements: earth, water, wind, and fire.

anaximander reliefWhen considering the underlying foundation of the universe, Anaximander came to the conclusion that this world has the capacity for infinite plurality; meaning that the things within our universe are unique. Every rock, tree, and drop of water is different from any other rock, tree, or drop of water that ever was or ever will be.

In short, nature is unlimited in its ability to produce variation and change.

Building upon this, we can see that if there exists the potentiality for infinite variation, there must logically exist the potentiality for an infinite amount of matter. Epicurus would come to a similar conclusion when he wrote…

“The sum of things is infinite. For what is finite has an extremity, and the extremity of anything is discerned only by comparison with something else.” -Epicurus (Letter to Herodotus)

So we see that our universe, at least through this argument, has no limit upon it and is actually infinite. Therefore, Anaximander concluded that none of the four primary elements could possibly function as the Arche of the universe. For how could it be said that any one substance, which is concrete and discernible, is responsible for the unlimited variety that exists within reality.

And so Anaximander appeals to what is known as the Apeiron, an unobserved substance (substance being a rather generous description for it) that has no limits placed upon it. It is this prime substance, this endless primordial essence, that all things are born from and, in time, all things will disappear into.

“Anaximandros of Miletos, son of Praxiades, says that the first principle of things is the infinite; for from this all things come, and all things perish and return to this. Accordingly, an infinite number of worlds have been generated and have perished again and returned to their source…” -Aetius of Antioch

So we see that Anaximander believed that the boundless, the infinite Apeiron, was the source of all existence. It was the active cause through virtue of which reality as we know it can be.

However, we are still left wondering what exactly “the boundless” is. What, precisely, is the Apeiron? Anaximander gives us no definite answer to this question, a frustration which is expressed by the 1st century philosopher Aetius of Antioch…

“…but he fails to say what the infinite is, whether it is air or water or earth or some other thing. He fails to show what matter is, and simply calls it the active cause.” -Aetius of Antioch

anaximander statue
Well, it seems like we might have an answer. However, we are no closer to understanding precisely what this answer means. We cannot grasp upon the notion of an Apeiron.

However, one possible solution exists – a conclusion that would be supported by the renowned philosopher, Aristotle.

You see, dear reader, there is one hypothesis that states that the word Apeiron does not translate to “the boundless” but rather to “the indefinite.”

Anaximander believed that the world was composed of two pairs of opposites: the hot and the cold, and the wet and the dry. These unique qualities would correspond to the four primary substances: fire, earth, water, and wind.

It is possible that Anaximander believed that these four elements were once combined within the Apeiron and that they took on shape and form after leaving the Apeiron, creating the world as we know it in the process.

Therefore, we must understand that the Apeiron is an unknowable quantity. It is neither hot nor cold, nor is it wet or dry. However, it has the potential to be all of these things at once, and at the same instance it is none. In other words, the Apeiron is that which is indefinite.

This is a rather difficult idea for people to wrap their heads around. How can it be that there exists some boundless substance that at once has the qualities of all things while simultaneously having no qualities at all?

Aristotle would come to a similar conclusion in his Metaphysics when considering the idea of matter and form. When attempting to understand the essence of an object, Aristotle would conclude that the substance is the hylomorphic compound of matter and form.

Hercules StatueThat is to say that a bronze statue of Heracles (insofar as it is a bronze statue of Heracles) is only so because it is composed of matter (bronze) and form (Heracles). These two predicates combine to create the essence of the statue.

However, if we were to separate matter and form (in thought) then we would struggle to comprehend the result. In truth, we simply cannot comprehend matter without form.

When considering the example of the statue, we might say that if we were to separate the matter (bronze) from the form (Heracles) then we might be simply left with a pile of bronze. However, we must recognize that we have not removed form from this compound. The matter has simply taken on a new form (a pile of bronze).

So we begin to picture a type of matter that has no shape, substance, or dimensions. This type of substance is usually referred to as “prime matter,” and it is unique in that it is ,all at once, nothing at all while simultaneously having the potentiality to be all things.

Whether we have come to accept Anaximander’s Apeiron as the prime substance of the universe, or simply decide to shake it off as interesting food for thought, there is no denying the allure and mystery of such an idea. It is the idea that from the infinite void there came, for a time, a discernible universe. It is the idea that our universe will some day return from whence it came – back into the abyss, into the infinite, into the boundless reaches of the Apeiron.

Man Is The Measure

by on July 7, 2014

PericlesAs democracy came about in Athens during the 5th century BCE, the city grew into prosperity. With the leadership of Pericles, Athens ushered in a “Golden Age” of scholarship and culture that would be marked with several advancements in the area of philosophy, literature and politics. During this time there was an established system of law which, like our modern legal system, guaranteed an individual his right to trial. Any man brought to court was allowed to plead his case before a collection of judges who would consider an appropriate ruling. And while there was nothing in the way of formal legal representation, there slowly emerged a group of legal advocates that, for a fee, would act as advisors to the accused. It was opportunities such as these that gave birth to the group known as “The Sophists”.

The sophists were a collection of wandering teachers that roamed Greece during the late 5th century, dispensing wisdom and lectures for a fee. And while many of them would find work as legal advocates, many others lectured on subjects such as literary criticism, poetry, and grammar. Still, their chief aim was to provide training in rhetoric, persuasion, as well as the art of winning over a crowd. And while the sophists are often criticized, there remained great need for their services.

With the decline of aristocracy and the sudden rise of democracy, rhetoric became extremely important to those with political ambition. Early politicians like Themistocles, were trained in the art of rhetoric and persuasion and would gain lofty political titles because of it. Public speaking was also important to the average citizen who always ran the risk of being brought to court where he, and he alone, would be forced to defend himself with only the power of his words.

Still, the sophists are often remembered with disdain. Harsh criticisms were brought against them by the likes of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. They were accused, and perhaps rightfully so, of relying on persuasion and rhetoric to appear wise, without actually pursuing any form of knowledge. They could excite a crowd with their eloquent prose, and persuade their listeners to agree with them, even when possessing a weaker argument. All the while they were accepting the coins of their students, becoming rich from their lectures that often dispensed untruth.

That isnt to say that all the sophists were thieves and con men. Many of them were men who happened to possess a particular mind set that had drawn them to sophism. At the heart of sophism their is a universal understanding that possessed them; it pushed their movement onward. It was the belief that all truth is relative. It was this singular idea that possessed the sophists. Many of them used it as an excuse, validation for making weaker arguments strong while collecting a fee all the while. Others saw the philosophical implications of such an idea.

“If you are ignorant of [what a Sophist really is], you cannot know to whom you are entrusting your soul—whether it is to something good or to something evil.” -Plato (Protagoras)

ProtagorasProtagoras was born in Abdera, in northeast Greece. He would spend much of his life traveling, lecturing to anyone who could afford him. He would eventually travel to Athens and become the advisor to the ruler Pericles. A man who was a self proclaimed sophist, Protagoras would put forth several ideas that expanded on the loose doctrine of sophism. These ideas would expand to all areas of human nature and would partially be supported by later anthropological studies. Although he admits to being a sophist, Protagoras is often remembered more as a pre-Socratic philosopher who gave us the rather bold idea that man is the measure of all things.

As mentioned before sophism rejected the idea of objective truth. Protagoras expanded on this and began examining the essence of human nature and how it would relate to such abstract notions such as justice, virtue and wisdom. Having little to no interest in philosophical speculation about the substance of the cosmos or the existence of gods, Protagoras place humans at the forefront of his philosophical inquest.

By observing the sophists arguing amongst each other, each possessing different arguments yet each believing themselves to be correct, Protagoras concluded that truth was very much a matter of opinion. The worth or value of an idea is determined entirely by the person that holds it. There exists no universal measure with which we can compare ideas and accurately determine their worth, ideas and their value are of a subjective nature, changing just as quickly as a man changes his mind.

This might seem rather obvious when we take the time to reminisce about ideas that we once held in such high regard. As a child you undoubtedly thought it was a good idea to stay up late, watch television and eat copious amounts of candy. These ideas, at the time, were of great worth to you; they were regarded very highly.

Yet, we all grow older and these ideas that we once held in high regard are often eclipsed by our changing attitudes. Political alliances, attitudes about love, as well as commitment to a career are all aspects of ourselves that undoubtedly change over the course of our lives. And in this way we witness the subjectivity of knowledge, the ever changing landscape of truth.

“No intelligent man believes that anybody ever willingly errs or willingly does base and evil deeds; they are well aware that all who do base and evil things to them unwillingly.” -Plato (Protagoras)

There are some rather important implications to this idea of relativism. If knowledge and truth is subjective, then that would seem to suggest that ethical and moral behavior is also relative. And Protagoras again took this leap. The philosopher believed that nothing was inherently good or bad. Something is only ethical or right if a person or society judges it to be so. Actions such as murder, theft, even rape are immoral actions simply because our society judges it to be so. And if we take the time to deeply consider this idea, we are cast into a very dark place where all good and evil becomes equally accessible, morally defensible if you have the right, or wrong, mindset.

Socrates spent much of his life navigating the philosophical terrain of objective ethical notions. To Socrates, ideas such as justice and virtue were not just passing considerations that were reconfigured to meet one’s preference. They were ideals that existed eternally and without question or compromise. Socrates sought to find these answers through the numerous public lectures that he held throughout his life. And certainly there are some valid arguments against Protagoras’ ideas.

For instance, mathematical properties should exist eternally, regardless of the ideas of man. Protagoras dismisses this, concluding that mathematical principles do not necessarily exist in nature and are therefore abstract ideas which need not concern us. I can only assume that Pythagoras promptly rolled over in his grave. 

The confrontation between the philosophical ideas of Protagoras and Socrates come to a head in Plato’s Protagoras, a dialogue where Socrates and Protagoras, now an old man, face each other to discuss the nature of virtue. Protagoras, true to form, makes a very long, very dramatic speech where he recounts the creation of man by Prometheus.

Protagoras takes the stance that virtue can be taught, and that the sophists are doing a public service by educating the youth. Socrates, of course, engages in a debate with short, precise questions that he hopes will prove his own point. The two philosophers eventually concede to each other, complementing each other on their wisdom. Yet, it would appear that Protagoras has won in a subtle way. Each man still holds different truths that are validated by their own beliefs.

When Protagoras states that “man is the measure of all things” he concludes that all knowledge, virtue, or wisdom is determined by the the man or society that holds those beliefs. On a warm summer day in Athens, a man from Sweden will visit and comment that the climate is hot. A man from Egypt will visit and comment that it is so cold. And yet, both of them are right. This type of thinking was common within the legal and political system of ancient Greece.

Our modern legal system similarly deals in compromise, exceptions and reasonable doubts. There are no absolutes. The conclusion that Protagoras, as well as the sophists, drew was that there is nothing that is either right or wrong, but thinking it will make it so. There exists only man and the judgments that we cast on ourselves.