Category Archives: Philosophers[post_grid id="9786"]
Well, the person who demonstrates that there is a god demonstrates this either by means of something clear on its face or by means of something unclear. And there’s no way it can be by something clear on its face; for if what demonstrates that there is a god was clear on its face, then since what is demonstrated is conceived in relation to what does the demonstrating, and for that reason is grasped together with it, as we established, it will also be clear on its face that there is a god—that will be grasped together with what demonstrates it, which is clear on its face. [Note in reference to ‘as we have established’: this can be found in the discussion of demonstration in book II, which I have not included. But the very same point is made about signs at II.125; see n.5 in chapter 4. (The argument is just as fishy here.)]
Written by Nicholaos Jones, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Ancient Greek philosophy begins in Miletus, an illustrious Greek colony along the eastern shore of the Aegean Sea. Before the Milesian philosophers, however, there were the mythic poets. The history of ancient Greek philosophy is, in some sense, a history of breaking with the strategy these poets use to explain why things are they way they are.
Homer (c. 750 BCE) is the best known of the mythic poets. For purposes of comparison with the Milesians, however, Hesiod (c. 700 BCE) is more relevant. Hesiod’s Theogony offers an account for the origin of the gods—from the beginning of the world, through various battles among the gods, to the rise of Zeus and the birth of Zeus’ children. The explanatory strategy is genealogical.
First there is Chasm, a yawning gap or void space.
Earth appears as a flat disk within this gap, and the underworld appears beneath as an enclosed space to contain the roots of what might grow upon the surface. Love appears as well, a procreative force responsible for generating offspring from parents.
Then Chasm and Earth undergo parthenogenesis, reproduction without fertilization. From Chasm come Gloom and Night. From Earth, at first, comes Sky; then, soon after, Hills and Sea. Love’s intervention prompts incestuous union between Chasm and Night, begetting Brightness and Day. Earth and Sky give birth to the encircling Ocean and the brute, uncontrollable titanic forces that shape the land contained therein.
The titans, in time, beget the gods and goddesses. The divinities, in turn, intervene within the realm of mortals, enacting their whimsical and capricious wills.
Hesiod’s account is not scientific, in our sense of scientific. But it is systematic, because each begotten individual has its own powers and its own domain of rule. It is also explanatory; these powers account for phenomena such as earthquakes (Poseidon shaking the earth below the sea) and storms (Zeus hurling thunderbolts).
The history of ancient Greek philosophy is, in some sense, a history of breaking with Hesiod’s explanatory strategy. The first Greek philosopher whose writing we actually have is the Milesian Anaximander (610 BCE – 546 BCE).
Anaximander offers an account of the origins of the world that illustrates a new style of explanation—a philosophical, and perhaps even scientific, style. Unlike Hesiod, Anaximander does not invoke interactions among divine entities. Instead, he restricts himself to interactions among natural processes.
Anaximander calls the original state of the world apeiron. This he defines as a primordial stuff that secretes, or separates out, polarities such as hot and cold. These powers, unlike the primordial stuff, are definite and bounded. Because each one has a definite identity that excludes its contrary, these powers are thereby bounded (or limited) by its opposite. The apeiron, in contrast, excludes nothing and therefore has no definite identity or function.
After the apeiron secretes the contraries, it steers (kubernein) them into a structured order—akin to the way a pilot steers a ship in a specific direction, or a leader steers a group into a team. The result is a muddy nucleus surrounded by a layer of air and, further out, a shell of fire. When this structured mass bursts, the fire separates into a series of concentric rings of flame. The outermost ring is the sun; the middle, the moon; the inner rings, stars. Air surrounds the rings, making them mostly invisible. But the air contains holes. Fire from the outermost ring of the sun passes through the largest of these holes, separating the muddy nucleus into earth and sea. The holes also move, and their motion explains the regular appearance and disappearance of the celestial bodies.
Anaximander’s cosmogony retains significant parallels with Hesiod’s. According to Hesiod, creation proceeds from Chasm to Gaia, then onward to opposing powers which beget the separation of the celestial and terrestrial realms, and from there the structures of the earth. Although Anaximander abandons Hesiod’s mythological posits, he retains the general structure of Hesiod’s explanatory sequence, conceptualizing creation as proceeding from the apeiron to the separation of air from earth, onward to rings of fire and their separation into heavenly bodies, and finally to the separation of air from sea.
Despite this general similarity, there are significant dissimilarities of detail. For example, according to Hesiod, Chasm is dark, surrounds its creation, and persists within the creation. By contrast, according to Anaximander, the apeiron is none of these. Hesiod also conceptualizes three basic forces—Chasm, Gaia, and Eros. By contrast, Anaximander replaces Chasm with boundless, yet orderly, erotic attraction (Eros).
Moreover, Hesiod presents his account as authoritative because it comes from the Muses. Anaximander’s account, by contrast, derives its authority from the capacity of others to follow his reasoning, to assent or demur from the intelligibility of his conclusions without regard for divine inspiration.
We are prone nowadays to treat scientific inquiry as radically different from mythology. Comparing Hesiod and Anaximander reveals intimations of these differences. Hesiod grounds his inquiries upon private inspiration, and his explanations appeal to divine action. Anaximander, by contrast, grounds his inquiries upon public reason, and his explanations appeal to impersonal forces. Yet comparing Hesiod and Anaximander also reveals that Anaximander’s scientific approach is continuous with Hesiod’s mythological approach. Anaximander’s explanatory concerns closely resemble Hesiod’s, and the structure of Anaximander’s explanations imitates the structure of Hesiod’s. This is, perhaps, some reason for treating scientific inquiry as mythology matured rather than mythology abandoned.
Written by Ed Whalen, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Too often, students of philosophy are only aware of the great names in ancient Greek philosophy. There are many lesser-known philosophers who developed remarkable arguments that are still relevant today. One of these is the somewhat mysterious figure of Melissus of Samos. Not only was he a great thinker he was also a successful military man who even reportedly defeated the Athenians.
Life of Melissus of Samos
There are few details about the life of Melissus of Samos, but he was believed born on the Aegean Island of Samos about 500 BC. At the time of his birth, Samos was an important naval and trading power. It appears that Melissus was a student of philosophy and was also probably a member of the Samian elite. Sources indicate that he studied under the great Parmenides of Elea, founder of the Eleatic school. Melissus likely traveled to Elea (located in modern-day southern Italy) to study under Parmenides.
At some point he returned to Samos, where he became a military commander and is thought to have become active in local politics. In 440 AD, Samos was an independent state within the Delian League dominated by Athens. The Athenians had effectively turned the Delian League into an extension of their empire. That same year, the Athenians attempted to fully conquer the island. It appears that Melissus, presumably a member of the oligarchic party, was given command of the Samian navy.
He is reported to have inflicted at least one if not two defeats on the Athenians under Pericles. However, Athens ultimately triumphed. Samos was absorbed into the empire and a democratic government imposed on the island. It is not known if Melissus played a part in the failed oligarchic counter-revolution that, with Persian support, tried to oust the Athenians and their democratic allies.
It appears that Melissus also taught philosophy and among his students was the future atomist Leucippus. The date of the Samian philosopher’s death is not known. It appears that he was well-known in his own lifetime.
Philosophy of Melissus of Samos
Melissus wrote a short treatise called On Nature of which extensive fragments have survived. His theories were also referenced in works by other philosophers.
Melissus was regarded as the third member of the Eleatic School, alongside Parmenides and Zeno (best known for his paradoxes). This was a school of Pre-Socratic thought that was established in Elea in the fifth century BC in what is now Veila in southern Italy. Their ontological theory was that everything was one, a theory known as monism. The Eleatics, however, proposed a radical monism in which everything is considered part of a whole, including material, living things. For them, the one is eternal and indivisible. In a significant departure from other pre-Socratic philosophers, the Eleatics valued reason over observation.
By and large, Melissus followed Parmenides and the second great Eleatic, Zeno. Melissus’ philosophy was distinctive in that he believed his predecessors did not fully address the issue of motion or the distinction between being and non-being. Unlike Parmenides, he did not believe that the one was an unchanging present. Melissus held that the one was eternal, that it had always existed and was indestructible. He also argued that it was unlimited, stretching out in all directions and that void, or nothingness, did not exist.
Melissus was a pioneer in applying the deductive method of reasoning. His arguments were very rigorous. At times he seems to suggest that the one is identical with the non-material, referring to it as incorporeal and disembodied.
Influence of Melissus
Melissus’ work greatly contributed to the Eleatic School. However, some thinkers, such as Aristotle, ridiculed his claims. If it is true that Melissus taught Leucippus, this suggests he was influential in his own time, especially with the Atomists. The Atomists believed that the world was composed of tiny indivisible atoms and their arguments were clearly influenced by radical monism.
The Sophists were also inspired by Melisuss’ use of deductive reasoning; they used it to prove that nothing existed, as was typical of their nihilism. The Sceptics too were influenced by the deductions of the Samian and his distrust of empirical investigations. They used one of Melissus’ arguments to show that knowledge of the external world was unreliable.
Melisuss of Samos may not be a household name in Greek philosophy, but his contributions were real and substantial. He arguably presented the most logically rigorous version of radical monism. His method of reasoning was also important, influencing the theories of the Atomists, Sophists and Sceptics.
Barnes, Jonathan (1983) The Presocratic Philosophers. New York: Routledge.
Russell, Bertrand (1990) The History of Western Philosophy. London and New York: Routledge
Written by Ed Whalen, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Many ancient societies were deeply influenced by Graeco-Roman Civilization, including early Judaic culture. The exchange between them produced important thinkers in Judaism, among them the philosopher Philo. He is perhaps the most important representative of Hellenistic Judaism whose works had a decisive influence on later Christian thinkers.
The Life of Philo
The exact date of Philo’s birth is not known, but it may have been about 20 BC. He was born into an influential family in Alexandria, Egypt, home at that time to one of the largest Jewish communities in the diaspora. His brother went on to become one of the wealthiest men in the city and even had connections with the imperial family during the reigns of Nero and Claudius.
Philo was brought up in a pious Jewish household and would have studied the Bible and Jewish scholarly works. Alexandria was, at the time, a cultural melting pot of Greeks, Jews and Egyptians. Thus, Philo was deeply influenced by Greek culture and was a student of Hellenic philosophy. He was also a Roman citizen and could speak and read Greek, as was the case with St. Paul, with whom he has some affinities.
Philo was a devoted Jew and visited the Second Temple in Jerusalem at least once in his life. The only event that we know of in any detail is his role in an embassy to the infamous emperor Caligula. Rome’s Prefect in Egypt had ordered the Jews to worship Caligula as god, part of an empire-wide imperial cult. This, of course, was contrary to the strict monotheism of the Jews. The order also came at a time of conflict between the Greeks and the Jews in the city of Alexandria. In 38 AD, many Jews were killed in the city in what was possibly the first-known pogrom.
The Alexandrine Jewish community elected Philo, who was very well-respected, to lead a delegation to Rome and to plead with the Emperor to rescind the Prefect’s orders. Miraculously, Philo was able to persuade Caligula not to force the Jews to worship him or to set up his image in their temples. It is believed that Philo died about 50 AD.
The Theology of Philo
Philo was deeply influenced by Plato and like Plato, he believed that a life of contemplation was superior. The Alexandrine thinker was also influenced by the Stoics, Aristotle and the Cynics. Philo was something of a mystic, believing that a transcendent god could be known by intuition. He also believed that certain numbers, such as seven, had particular religious significance.
Philo believed the purpose of existence was to strive to know god. He held that a supreme being had implanted in humans an innate love of him, allowing humans to achieve a personal union with the divine.
Philo also believed that reason and religion were not incompatible. He used the concept of Logos, or reason, in a new way. It had long been argued that the Logos referred to the rational ordering of the universe. However, Philo argued that Logos, or reason, was begotten of god and was associated with him. In some of Philo’s works Logos is the mediator between the human mind and the divine. He believed that using reason to understand the world also allowed humans to comprehend the transcendent. The Alexandrine thinker also believed that fate could be suspended, allowing miracles to occur. Unfortunately, the philosopher was a poor writer, and his thoughts are often obscure.
Philo and the Bible
Philo was famous for his exegesis, or interpretation, of the Bible. He was very influenced by Greek philosophy—unlike many of his contemporary Jews, Philo did not reject it. He believed that the truths of Plato and the other philosophers were not incompatible with those of the Bible. He found an ingenious way to synthesize Greek thought with the Hebrew Bible, or Torah: allegory. Philo believed that interpreting the Torah and the Bible in an allegorical way allowed the deeper meaning of the texts to be discovered. His commentaries on the Jewish Patriarchs, such as Moses, were also widely read.
Philo was highly respected by the early Christians. His ideas on Logos were especially influential in Christianity; many consider Philo’s works instrumental to the development of the doctrine of the holy spirit, who along with the god the father and son form the trinity in Christian belief. His views on miracles were also influential among Christians.
Philo also wrote an account called De Vita Contemplativa about groups of Egyptian ascetics known as the Therapeutae, whom some believe were Buddhists monks. This work is believed to have greatly influenced the subsequent development of Christian monasticism. Philo’s belief that reason and faith were not incompatible had a profound impact on the development of Christian theology.
While many Jews reject Philo’s allegorical interpretation of the sacred texts, he did influence the Midrash school of Jewish exegesis, which led to the development of a large body of Rabbinic commentaries.
Philo of Alexandria was a man of two worlds who sought to harmonize Judaism and Greek philosophy. This proved very important, even radical. His concepts and ideas greatly influenced early Christianity. Finally, Philo’s ideas on interpretation also had an impact on both Christian and Jewish interpretations of the Bible.
Seland, T. (Ed.). (2014). Reading Philo: A Handbook to Philo of Alexandria. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing.
Written by Mariami Shanshashvili, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Plato’s Euthyphro is centered around Socrates’ attempts to examine and define the concept of piety. In the course of conversation, he develops a central and somewhat scandalous argument: what is holy is not the same as what the gods do or approve. In fact, the gods ‘sin’ and engage in immoral behavior a lot – they murder, steal, cheat, wage wars, and act out of spite.
Socrates often pointed out how Greece’s most beloved poets – Homer and Hesiod – depicted the gods as all too human, but the first ancient Greek thinker to make radical claims about this matter was Xenophanes of Colophon.
Although appearance of the first philosophers in ancient Greece was all about the emergence of unconventional and nontraditional ways of thinking, Xenophanes could still be justifiably viewed as one of the most – if not the most – unorthodox and even scandalous figure of his era.
There were two things an ancient Greek would never doubt: first, that the gods are in charge of everything and everyone, and second, that we know this because they themselves disclosed it to us. The sun, rainbows, and the very earth we are walking on were believed to be gods and goddesses. Every natural phenomenon was ascribed to some property of a deity; every historical event and fate of an individual race or man was explained as the result of the will of the Olympians.
And how did they know? Muses told them so. Invocation of the Muses served as a traditional and commonplace poetic tool: when a poet wanted to authenticate the truth of his claims, he called on Muses so they would act as witnesses and provide assertion.
This is how Homer opens both of his epic poems: he addresses divine agency. It should not be hard to guess that the ancient Greeks were not very fond of people who dared to doubt their undoubtable beliefs – think of the trials of Socrates or Anaxagoras – and unfortunately, this is exactly what philosophers tend to do.
The first thing the first philosophers did was ask for well-grounded, sound arguments for every claim. Appealing to divine authority did not strike them as a very compelling argument. However, some of the early Greek philosophers still partly accepted conventional religious teachings and even referred to the divine authority.
Anaximenes, for example, allegedly said that there are gods, exactly as Greek religion acknowledged, but that they come from air (his Cosmic principle) as well as the rest of the universe. And Parmenides, one of the most ahead-of-his-time thinkers, begins his poem by depicting a divine revelation.
So most of early philosophers did not entirely give up on the traditional gods and divination, but threw down a challenge to the conventional notion of the divine. As Cicero states, Xenophanes was the only one among the most ancient philosophers who, while basing his whole philosophy on the existence of the divine entity, launched a direct attack on the popular religion and “did away with divination from its very foundation.”
Xenophanes was an itinerant poet and philosopher from a small Ionian town of Colophon. He is reported to have had quite a storm-tossed life as he was banished from his homeland, was sold into slavery, and buried his sons with his own hands.
Despite his manifold interests, he is primarily remembered for his critique of traditional religious concepts, and as professor Peter Adamson aptly words it, “in doing so, he inaugurated a not-always-friendly rivalry between Greek religion and Greek philosophy that will persist right through Plato and Aristotle”.
Xenophanes found the traditional understanding of the divine to be inherently flawed and he chiefly blamed Homer and Hesiod for disseminating these widely accepted misconceptions. He writes,
“Both Homer and Hesiod have ascribed to the gods all deeds which among men are matters of reproach and blame: thieving, adultery, and deceiving one another” (Sextus Empiricus, Against the Mathematicians 9.193)
And indeed, it seems like the Greeks imagined their gods in their own image: the gods were born, wore clothes, ate, indulged themselves with sexual adventures, and looked like men, just much more beautiful and perfect. Realizing this, Xenophanes observes:
“If horses had hands, or oxen or lions, or if they could draw with their hands and produce works as men do, then horses would draw figures of gods like horses, and oxen like oxen, and each would render the bodies to be of the same frame that each of them have.” (Clement, Miscellanies 5.110;).
The point is that humans have a tendency to attribute their own characteristics to the divine entities; in other words, humans think of their gods as all too human. Xenophanes believed it was disrespectful to the gods to conceptualize them as being subject to human weaknesses and illicit acts. It is the same as ascribing imperfections to the perfect being – which, without doubt, does not make any sense.
The writings of Xenophanes are not limited to such criticism, he also offered a pretty systematic account of divine nature, which attracts special interest for its unique and ground-breaking perspective. How likely is it of a man from 6th century BC to develop ideas highly similar to the monotheistic understanding of the Christian god? Amidst the classical polytheistic convictions of his society, whose gods are born, have bodies, and resemble men, Xenophanes formed the notion of a god
“greatest among gods and men, not at all like mortals in body or in thought.” (Clement, Miscellanies, 5.109;).
Even though the reference to the “gods” in plural raises a question about whether Xenophanes was a monotheist or polytheist (some scholars even designate him as a pantheist), it is certain that Xenophanean image of the god is set apart from traditional polytheistic convictions and falls on the spectrum of the monotheistic paradigm.
It is more likely that he means lesser deities in the plural form of “gods”. Throughout the records of Xenophanes, only one god, a single divine entity, is presented as the perfect, almighty being who holds sway over the whole universe.
“. . whole [he] sees, whole [he] thinks, and whole [he] hears. . . (Sextus Empiricus, Against the Mathematicians 9.144;).
“Always [he] remains in the same [state], changing not at all, nor is it fitting that [he] come and go to different places at different times. . . but completely without toil [he] agitates all things by the will of his mind.” (Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics 23.10; 23.19;).
All of the characteristics Xenophanes ascribes to the god – omnipresence, omniscience, omnipotence, immobility, incorporeality (spirituality) – are the typical attributes of a monotheistic deity. He prefigured the ideas which still lay centuries ahead.
Another key aspect of Xenophanes’ philosophy is his remarkable contribution to epistemology (the theory of knowledge). He opposes the traditional understanding of divination by claiming that,
“by no means did the gods intimate all things to mortals from the beginning, but in time, inquiring, they discover better.” (Stobaeus, Selections 1.8.2;).
Xenophanes suggests that it is unreasonable of men to expect divine disclosure about the things they seek to know. Moreover, he raises questions about the nature and possibility of sure and certain knowledge. There he makes a fundamental distinction between knowledge and belief/opinion, a theme which will be later taken up, for instance, by Heraclitus, Plato, and Aristotle, and is one of the most important problems in philosophy as a whole.
“…and of course the clear and certain truth no man has seen. Nor will there be anyone who knows about the gods and what I say about all things. For even if, in the best case, one happened to speak just of what has been brought to pass, still he himself would not know. But opinion is allotted to all.” (Sextus Empiricus, Against the Mathematicians 7.49.110;).
It is important to note that by this, Xenophanes does not necessarily reject the possibility of any kind of knowledge, but rather reproves dogmatism and acknowledges boundaries of the dimension of human knowledge. Even though our epistemic status is limited, we can still form opinions and inquire about things. As F.R. Pickering notes,
“Xenophanes is a natural epistemologist, who claims that statements concerning the non-evident realm of the divine as well as the far-reaching generalizations of natural sciences cannot be known with certainty but must remain the objects of opinion.”
Ancient Greeks, on the one hand, had poets who provided answers for all of their questions and, on the other hand, had a poet philosopher who tried to awaken them from their ´dogmatic slumber´ by casting doubts on their answers and asking questions, the relevance of which would persist for centuries to come.
- Adamson, Peter. A History of Philosophy Without any Gaps: Classical Philosophy.
- Cohen, Mark, Patricia Curd and C.D.C Reeve. Reading in Ancient Greek Philosophy: From Thales to Aristotle. NOTE: all the passages of Xenophanes are cited from this book.
- Tor, Shaul. Mortal and Divine in Early Greek Epistemology.
- Lesher, James, “Xenophanes”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2019/entries/xenophanes/>
- Patzia, Michael, “Xenophanes”.