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Learning Greek with the Ancients: Noesis

by February 17, 2021

Written by Visnja Bojovic, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

It is old news that ancient thinkers were constantly questioning human learning, morals and behavior. Greek perceptions of the mind or soul were very different from contemporary views, which can make them all the more difficult to grasp for the modern reader.

However, we will make an effort to understand quite a complex concept in the ancient Greek thought: mind. Considering that the mind is quite a broad topic, I decided to focus on what it meant to just one philosopher—Plato.

Mosaic from Pompeii (1st c. BC) showing Plato’s Academy.

Starting as early as Homer, ancient thinkers began differentiating learning through perception or sensation from the learning that comes through awareness. Even though we can claim with certainty that this distinction existed, these two ways of learning were never clearly defined, and a lot of things about them remain obscure.

One thing we do know for sure is that learning through perception or sensation in Greek was called aisthesis (αἴσθησις) and that learning through awareness was always related with nous (νοῦς).

The meaning of nous depended on the concept it represented, as well as the philosopher who used it, but, roughly put, we can say that it meant ”mind”.

Aristotle claimed that the Presocractic philosophers did not make this distinction between learning through the mind and learning through perception. There were, however, some attempts.

Heraclitus, for example, in his teaching about logos, agrees that the senses are unreliable, but he does not clearly explain how logos (the truth, the essence) is revealed to us. He does relate it with nous, though.

Plato sheds new and slightly clearer light on the concept of learning through his theory of knowledge as presented in Phaedo. He puts the soul in the center of this theory, making all cognitive activity the result of the operation of the soul. He characterizes sensation as the perception of the soul through the body, whilst reasoning is made by the soul itself.

However, in Phaedo, this distinction comes through in terms of the objects perceived/understood. There is no further clarification regarding how these processes function nor the differences between them.

Marble statue of the ancient greek philosopher Plato

Marble statue of Plato

In the Republic, on the other hand, these concepts reappear in a much more complex manner through Plato’s famous analogy of the divided line (γραμμὴ δίχα τετμημένη). In a short discourse (509d-511c), Plato’s Socrates presents an epistemological theory that later proved fundamental to Plato’s metaphysics. In this discourse, he describes the four levels of existence and, more importantly, the four corresponding ways of knowing these levels of existence—i.e., the four ways of accessing knowledge.

Plato visualizes this as a line that is divided into two, unequal parts, which are then further divided into two parts each. These four parts represent four different states of mind, as well as four ways of acquiring knowledge. The fact that these parts are unequal is important.

The first part, the smaller one, consists of the visible world, the world we perceive through senses, or the physical world, if you will. This physical world is just a series of passing reflections of the other world, the world of ideas.

This corresponds with the lowest form of learning, called eikasia (εἰκασία) (opinion-imagination). In this realm, the eye makes guesses whilst observing the likenesses of the visible things. Another part of this world is pistis (πίστις) (opinion-belief), in which the eye makes predictions based upon observing physical, visible things.

For us, the second part is far more relevant and interesting, because in it, Socrates claims that the knowledge we have of the forms is of a much higher importance than the knowledge of the particulars of the perceptual world. He refers to this as dianoia (διάνοια), which Plato characterizes as knowledge (thought) that recognizes some ideas and makes hypotheses, similar to mathematical reasoning.

Socrates teaching

Alcibiades being taught by Socrates (detail), by Marcello Bacciarelli c. 1776

The highest realm and the highest form of knowledge is our noesis (νόησις). This is considered philosophical understanding, containing ideas and truth given by the Good itself.

It is not accidental that noesis is represented by the largest part of the line, given that Plato thought that few people understood the world of ideas. This is elaborated further in his allegory of the cave, which most readers are probably already acquainted with. Understanding noesis can make it much easier for us to understand Plato’s epistemological theory.

Through reading about this, we may (and probably will) agree with Socrates that we know that we know nothing, as the highest truth is quite difficult to grasp. However, learning about the questions that the ancient philosophers were discussing and grasping the concepts that they came up with will hopefully take us one step closer to understanding of noesis itself and the greater world in which we live.


Phaedo, Plato

Republic, Plato

Greek Philosophical Terms, F. E. Peters

Psychology, Philosophy, and Plato’s Divided Line, John S. Uebersax


The Undermined Valentine

by February 12, 2021

Written by Nickolas Pappas, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

There’s a story about love in Plato’s Symposium that captures the feeling of romantic love superbly, like a Valentine to everyone who’s ever had that experience. This may be why the story is one of those pieces from a Platonic dialogue (like the Atlantis legend) that people know about even if they don’t know it’s from Plato.

Within the Symposium the story is told by Aristophanes, in real life a comic playwright, in this dialogue also someone relaxing at a dinner party with Socrates and others and wondering where love comes from. He says the first human beings were double creatures: a big head on each one, with two faces looking in opposite directions, and a spherical, four-legged, four-armed body.

These first people were contented things but they thought they could conquer heaven, and to punish them for their arrogance the gods decided to weaken them. Zeus and Apollo cut every happy four-legged double-faced human into a pair of single-faced bipeds—needless to say, unhappy ones. Misery defines existence for people like them, which is to say people like us. You have had half of you amputated. You’re all phantom pain.

Image source: Sapardanis Kostas

The story slides out of mythical past into the literal lives of those hearing it. You’re only half alive until you come upon that one that you used to be joined to. No wonder you embrace each other, trying to go back to your original condition.

Sex is part of that reunion. The gods planned it that way by moving the first split humans’ genitals around to their front sides, so people could stimulate each other as they hugged and find some relief. And yet, as Aristophanes tells the other guests at this dinner party, sex isn’t everything even in this earthy tale. These couples want something else when they find each other. They may not have the words for their yearning, but what they most crave (isn’t this romantic?) would be to find themselves reconnected into a single being.

Wedded, by Sir Frederic Leighton

There are other notable details in the story. It seems to acknowledge sexual orientation as few works did before the modern age. For this reason there’s a musical number based on the story in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. But even though Plato is unembarrassed by same-sex desire, the taxonomy of sexual identities is an addition to the story, whose main message is that love comes from a crisis long ago. You used to be half of a large complete person, and you never will be again.

Later in the Symposium Socrates offers an alternative theory about thoughtful lovers’ redirecting their erotic desire to worthier objects like social institutions, and then every species of learning, on up to the philosophical understanding of beauty itself.

But even without this theory, Plato’s readers have dashed cold water on the fantasy from Aristophanes. How would you ever find that Ms or Mr Right, if this were true? You don’t know what to look for. It’s impractical to try embracing everyone in the world to see if it will give both of you that special spark.

Idyll, by Sir Frederic Leighton

Let’s say you find someone special. You might reach for words that justify your love – witty, kind, sings like an angel – but according to this story, they’re excuses. The vital decision of whom to join with for life is a decision you made for no other reason than that this is your missing half. Maybe this explains why some long-time couples can only shrug and say they grew up together.

That seems to be the end of it: some recognition of romantic passion on one side, unsexy common sense as the alternative. The true romantic isn’t really silenced by these reasonable objections, because after all, everyone knows the right person is hard to find. (What else would it mean for there to be a right person?) You can still go on dreaming the dream of romance. There’s no law that says you have to be reasonable.

But Plato has more tricks up his sleeve than common sense. He’s more of an underminer than a naysayer. What if the danger with the story of Aristophanes were not that you never get together with the right person, but that you might?

Look at three details in the story that could seem extraneous. Imagine Plato putting Aristophanes on the couch in the psychoanalytic sense instead of the couches that the ancient Greeks reclined on to eat. As Aristophanes spelled out his myth, the double creature that was divided to create you and your special lover had two faces that looked very much alike.

When those first beings were cut in half, Apollo stitched them up leaving only one scar, the navel, and he turned their faces so that they would always look down at themselves and see this reminder of their old separation.

Turning their faces meant that they no longer saw their sex organs (this was prior to their movement, so they were on the other side), meaning these half-people pined for each other without hope for relief, and not knowing what to do together when they did meet up. So then the gods put them through a second operation, moving their genitals to the front side where people could see them. Romantic longing then acquired the new accompaniment of sexual intercourse.

If you were this storyteller’s shrink, you might circle back to some of these points. The story works fine without them, so what are they doing there? Romance is still romance, and the picture of someone you desire as someone you share a body with continues to be a compelling fantasy. “So why did you throw in the part about looking down at your belly button?”

Aristophanes shrugs it off. A fun detail. You tell a story like this and you throw in a little reality as if it’s supporting evidence. The gods cut you apart from your other half so they leave a scar. “It’s a joke!”

But the navel really is a scar, you point out, and it really does show where you were separated from someone else, namely your mother.

“I wasn’t thinking of that!”

“Wait a minute.” You’re not the type of therapist who interrupts, but you want to stay on track. “Why did you say the two faces were alike? People fall in love all the time with people who don’t look like them. But you know who does look alike? A mother and her child.”

Things never move this fast in real-life treatment. For dramatic purposes I’m having you resemble the type of analyst who shows up in movies with a gotcha question that rips away the veil of illusion. But then this Aristophanes is not a real-life character. Plato composed the story that Aristophanes told, making it up out of thin air or taking elements from someone else’s invention. He planted these clues in the story, hints that this is not really about a mythical past and other kinds of beings. If you try to tell a story about powerful one-on-one romantic feeling that goes beyond explanation, you will end up telling the story of returning to your mother.

Plato didn’t know the kinds of things that modern psychologists know. He had little idea of how the brain works. (He did know that thinking happens in the brain, and that a disease like epilepsy, despite being called “sacred,” had its origin in the brain’s material physiology.) But he had made close studies of the people around him, and he observed the characteristics of those who struck him as unbalanced – the form that inner conflict took in such people, or the socially unacceptable sexual desires that lurked in people’s souls and often appeared in their dreams. He had the delicacy to pick up on the resemblance between unquestioning erotic love in adulthood and the infant’s unquestioning mother-love.

Roman Relief of Mother and Child at Aphrodisias, Image Source: Fine Art America

Anyway, Plato didn’t have to be all that original in ascribing incestuous wishes to people. A year or two before he was born, the Athenians watched Sophocles’ great tragedy about Oedipus, whose mother/wife Jocasta says “Men have long slept with their mothers in their dreams”—not as if she were revealing anything new, but as something commonplace.

Bringing this revelation into a description of romance is a way of saying that this man or woman you feel so in love with is a substitute. The story had warned that you might need to find a replacement to love, because common sense says that you might not ever find your other half.

By linking it to infantile desire, Plato changes the whole image of falling in love. Instead of the long familiarity of growing up together, we’re talking about an older familiarity that says “I never grew up.”

What about the third detail? It’s awkward and it slows down the action to say that people were split in half, only later to have their genitals moved around so that they could see this fact about themselves, becoming sexual creatures in the process. As part of a streamlined narrative, it is clunky. But it does click as psychobiography. After the first separation from your mother, you languish, helpless. As a child you experience yearning without knowing where it comes from. Only in puberty do you become aware of yourself sexually, as if for the first time seeing your genitals for what they are.

Sure, it’s impractical to think that there is a single person just right for you. From philosophy’s point of view, as Plato understands philosophy, those other attacks on romance still hold true. But he is also canny enough to write a rival’s tale of romance that spills the beans about the forbidden desire behind it. If you want to see what’s wrong with that cult of romantic love, he’s saying, listen critically to the stories that people tell about it.

The legacy of romantic love is an old one. Valentine’s Day reminds us of that fact every year. Plato reminds us that there’s also an ancient legacy of exposing romantic love as something very different indeed.

Valentine’s Day Advice from Aristotle: Love Yourself

by February 9, 2021

Written by Alex Barrientos, Senior Editor, Classical Wisdom
What does it mean to love yourself—to practice self-love (Philautia)? It’s not uncommon to see self-love being lumped in with selfishness: we see someone who is greedy, who only cares for his own advantage, often at the expense of those close to him, and we say, “He doesn’t love anyone but himself.” In this way and others self-love is used in a derogatory manner.
Aristotle, however, thought this needn’t be the case. He argued instead that “the good man should be a lover of self.” Perhaps you find such a claim rather shocking. After all, couldn’t the world use a little more selflessness? What need have we of more people loving themselves?
Well, hold onto those questions and hear me (well… Aristotle) out.
A Dialogue on Self-Love
Aristotle: Do you agree with the view that one ought to love best one’s best friend?
Xenocrates: Why, yes.
aristotle and alexander

Aristotle tutoring Alexander, illustration by Charles Laplante, 1866.

Aristotle: And do you agree that a man’s best friend is one who wishes well to the object of his wish for his sake, even if no one is to know of it?
Xenocrates: Why, by Zeus, I would say so.
Aristotle: Well then, is it not the case that these attributes are found most of all in a man’s attitude towards himself, and so are all the other attributes by which a friend is defined? And, furthermore, is it not the case that the proverbs support this, e.g. ‘a single soul,’ and ‘what friends have is common property,’ and ‘friendship is equality,’ and ‘charity begins at home’; for all these marks will be found most in a man’s relation to himself, will they not?
Xenocrates: That certainly seems to be the case.
Aristotle: Then, it follows that man is his own best friend, and therefore ought to love himself best.
Xenocrates: Perhaps you are right. But before I assent to your conclusion, I must ask, is it not the case that self-love is destructive of virtue? Is it not true that those lovers of self assign to themselves a greater share of wealth, honors, and bodily pleasures? Such things, you must agree, are not signs of virtue, much less things the good man ought to busy himself with!

Roman copy in marble of a Greek bronze bust of Aristotle by Lysippos, c. 330 BC, with modern alabaster mantle

Aristotle: I agree that such things are not signs of virtue nor things the good man ought to busy himself with, but I disagree with you on what you define as self-love. Certainly, you have described what most people desire, and wrongly consider to be the best of all things (which is why they become objects of competition). But people who grasp at such things are only gratifying their appetites and in general their feelings and the irrational element of the soul. And, since most men are like this, self-love has become an epithet of disgrace—taking its meaning from the prevailing type of self-love, which is a bad one.
Xenocrates: What then, dear Aristotle, defines the good kind of self-love? Is there such a thing?
Aristotle: Indeed, there is, and this I will explain. But first, I must respond with a question to you.
Xenocrates: Go on.
Aristotle: Would you reproach a man who was always anxious that he himself, above all things, should act justly, temperately, or in accordance with any other of the virtues, and in general was always striving to secure for himself the honorable course?
Xenocrates: Certainly not.
Aristotle: Perhaps you might even praise him?
Xenocrates: I would say so.
Aristotle: And yet, few would be willing to describe such a man as a lover of self, though he seems to me to be more a lover of self than the man you described!
Xenocrates: How so?
Aristotle: He assigns to himself the things that are noblest and best, and gratifies the most authoritative element in himself and in all things obeys this; and just as a city or any other systematic whole is most properly identified with the most authoritative element in it, so is a man; and therefore the man who loves this and gratifies it is most of all a lover of self.
Aristotle at Freiburg

Bronze statue, University of Freiburg, Germany, 1915

Xenocrates: What is this most authoritative element you speak of?
Aristotle: Reason. A man is said to have or not to have self-control according as his reason has or has not the control, on the assumption that this is the man himself ; and the things men do from a rational principle are thought most properly their own acts and voluntary acts. That reason is the man himself, then, or is so more than anything else, is plain, and also that the good man loves this part of himself most. The lover of self you described lives as passion dictates, satisfying base desires, and therefore does not love that which is best in him, and so is not truly a lover of self; whereas he who lives according to reason—that most authoritative element in himself—desires what is noblest and best, and can truly be called a lover of self.
Xenocrates: I think I am beginning to see clearly what you mean. Though, I wonder, does anyone benefit from this self-love besides the lover of self?
Aristotle: An important question! To which I say that the good kind of self-love I have described is most beneficial for our neighbors and fellow citizens. Those who busy themselves in an exceptional degree with noble actions all men approve and praise; and if all were to strive towards what is noble and strain every nerve to do the noblest deeds, everything would be as it should be for the common weal, and every one would secure for himself the goods that are greatest, since virtue is the greatest of goods. And so when I say that the good man should be a lover of self, this is not only because he will himself profit by doing noble acts, but because will benefit others as well.
Xenocrates: A quite excellent point my dear friend. What an unfortunate state of affairs that more do not think of self-love in this way!


Becoming Your Own Friend
Now, of course, no such dialogue took place that we know of. The above arguments from Aristotle take place in his Nicomachean Ethics, Book IX, chaps. 8-9. Long story short, we’ve been under quite the misunderstanding when it comes to self-love. And this Valentine’s Day, whether you have someone to celebrate it with or not, I say we listen to Aristotle and make sure that we celebrate the love we ought to have for ourselves.
Yet, it is difficult, if not impossible, to appreciate what Aristotle has to say about self-love if you don’t view yourself as your own friend.
“[H]e is his own best friend and therefore ought to love himself best.” 
In one of his letters to Lucilius, Seneca writes the following:
“Meanwhile, since I owe you the daily allowance, I’ll tell you what took my fancy in the writings of Hecato [of Rhodes] today. ‘What progress have I made? I am beginning to be my own friend.’ That is progress indeed. Such a person will never be alone, and you may be sure he is a friend of all.” Letter VI
We know the Stoics were familiar with Aristotle, and indeed this sentiment mirrors that of Aristotle’s above. It is not only important for your own well being to cultivate this friendship with yourself, but important for those around you. He who has done so can truly be a friend to others, since he has learned how to be a friend to himself. Similarly, he who has cultivated the good kind of self-love, in striving towards what is noble and doing the noblest deeds, contributes towards the common good.
So, let us become our own friends—let us cultivate self-love!

Aristotle’s Soul ‘Psyches’ and How to Understand Them

by January 26, 2021

Written by Emma Coffinet, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

From the meaning of life to the art of politics and the nature of friendship itself, the iconic Greek philosopher Aristotle imparted much wisdom. So much of the great man’s work, penned over two thousand years ago, remains relevant, interesting, and inspiring to this day.

Countless texts and articles have been written on Aristotle’s views and ideas across all kinds of subjects. His influence has spread throughout the ages, even penetrating multiple religious bodies of thought in the process.

Indeed, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity all took influence from the man known to many as ‘The Philosopher’, and some of his most intriguing comments concern the subject of the soul, a concept that has been envisioned and interpreted in countless ways over the years.


Here we break down Aristotle’s view of the soul and his breakdown of it in three distinct ‘psyches.’

An Etymological Introduction

In order to fully understand Aristotle’s views of the soul, we must first pay close attention to the words he chose to use and how we interpret those words. The Latin title of his famous treatise On the Soul is De Anima, but the original Greek title is Peri Psyches.

Aristotle, however, has a very specific definition in mind when he makes use of the word ‘psyche’ or ‘soul’. He argues that there are three types of substance: matter, form, and the compound of both matter and form.

On the Soul focuses on living beings, such as plants and animals. In Aristotle’s view, living beings have souls and these souls are what makes them alive. For Aristotle, the soul or psyche can be classified as ‘form’. It is a living entity, that which essentially makes it a living thing.

A Soul in Heaven, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (November 30, 1825 – August 19, 1905)

The Three Psyches

For Aristotle, a soul is not an interior, ghostly agent acting in a body. It is an integral part of every living entity, and such an entity may be a plant, an animal, or a human. This is where Aristotle’s ‘hierarchy’ or categorization of the psyches comes into play. He postulated that there were three main types of psyche:

  • Those of plants
  • Those of animals
  • Those of humans

We can look at these three forms in a different way:

  • Nutritive – For Aristotle, a nutritive soul could only be found in plants and was essentially the most basic kind of soul, focused purely on growth, nutrition, and reproduction.
  • Sensitive – Sensitive souls represent the next level for Aristotle. Aside from being focused on growth and survival, they also incorporate movement and perception of the world around them, via sensory experiences. Animals can see, feel, hear, and so on, and so have sensitive souls.
  • Rational – The rational soul, found in humans, is the highest tier of psyche. It involves all of the aforementioned abilities and processes, including growth, locomotion, reproduction, and perception, but also include intellect, thought, reasoning, and rationality into the equation.

Essentially, the simplest way to look at Aristotle’s so-called soul psyches is to think of them in the form of a hierarchy of living beings, ordered by cognitive abilities, with humans at the top, animals beneath them, and plants at the base.


In Aristotle’s view, all of these different living beings have souls or psyches, which make them alive and drive them to remain alive by nourishing themselves, reproducing, moving, and so on, but these souls can come in different tiers, or levels.

The more advanced souls, found in humans, are capable of more functions and processes than those found in animals and plants, while those of animals are more capable than those found in plants. The rational soul is the highest form, followed by the Sensitive soul and then the Nutritive soul.

It’s also interesting to note that, unlike many of his contemporaries and other philosophers throughout history, Aristotle felt that the soul cannot exist independently of the body. He argued that it is not a body in and of itself, but rather that it ‘belongs to a body’ and must therefore always be present in that body. Should the body cease to exist, the soul goes with it.

Aristotle’s interpretation of the soul makes for fascinating reading and his treatise continues to be read and closely studied by scholars and students the world over. The soul may forever remain something of a mystery, but it’s clear that the great philosopher had a clear view of what it was to him.

Author’s Bio:

Emma Coffinet is a content creator for a range of sites and blogs, responsible for writing articles, social media content, white papers, essay paper examples, and contributes to the platform “write my thesis”. She likes to share the benefits of her experience with others by offering assignment help to students.

Three Degrees of Wisdom: Epicureanism, Stoicism, and Neoplatonism

by January 22, 2021

Written by Bruce J. MacLennan, PhD, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

Ancient philosophy was a way of life, a pursuit of wisdom in order to live well. As such, the philosophies of the classical world have much to offer us today. But modern students are confronted with the same dilemma as ancient ones: which should you choose? Epicureanism? Stoicism? Platonism? Instead of picking one, I suggest you view them as stages in philosophical initiation.

Although these ancient philosophies often saw one other as opponents, if we concentrate on their spiritual practices, they form a natural progression, each focused on one of the three parts into which Plato divided the soul. These are (1) the appetites and desires (which we may call the “belly”), (2) the will, feelings, and impulses (the “heart”), and (3) the rational and intuitive mind (the “head”).

This is the perspective I take in my book, The Wisdom of Hypatia: Ancient Spiritual Practices for a More Meaningful Life (Llewellyn, 2013), in which I teach these philosophies as “three degrees of wisdom.” As suggested by the title, the highest degree is the Neoplatonic philosophy of Hypatia.


In contrast to its modern connotations, the goal of Epicureanism is tranquility, which is achieved by moderating our desires, not by indulging them; it teaches us to understand our needs and desires so we can live a happy life.

Therefore, Epicureans classify human desires as either natural (part of human nature), or non-natural (e.g., power, fame, fortune). Of natural desires, some are necessary (food, shelter, rest), others are unnecessary (gourmet food, friendship). The true Epicurean, then, can be happy because the necessary natural desires are generally easy to satisfy, and the unnecessary ones can be satisfied in moderation.

Moderating desire leads to self-sufficiency, which leads to freedom. Moreover, the Epicureans observed that pleasures are either active — if they require some effort to maintain (which is a sort of pain) — or passive, if they do not. In consequence, the greatest pleasure is an absence of pain, a state of tranquility: the goal of Epicurean philosophy.

The Epicureans also taught that the gods are happy in their heaven and can’t be bothered with mortals, so they don’t harm us. Moreover, when we die we cease to exist, so there is no pain (or pleasure) afterwards. Therefore they taught the Tetrapharmakos or “Fourfold Cure” to our concerns:

“God presents no fear, and death no worry. The good is easy to obtain, but evil easy to endure.”

Of course, these ideas are easy to state and perhaps even to believe, but it takes various spiritual exercises—which the Epicureans taught and which must be practiced— to internalize these attitudes and reactions so that we can actually live this tranquil Epicurean life.

Epicureanism is very valuable for our time as an antidote to consumerism and to some of our pointless striving, but aside from enjoying visits with our Epicurean friends, it does not encourage social engagement. “Live hidden” is a well-known Epicurean maxim.


Boethius and Philosophy, by Mattia Preti, 17th century

When we recognize that humans are by nature social and political beings, we need a new philosophy: Stoicism.

Stoicism teaches us the true nature of our freedom and how to live an authentic, socially engaged life. Stoic philosophy has become quite popular in recent years, with a flourishing of books, webinars, and conferences dedicated to the subject. In fact, it is the basis of modern cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Therefore, I don’t need to say too much about it here.

Stoic practice is organized around three interrelated disciplines. The discipline of assent focuses on what is true or not; its goal is to assent to the true, to dissent from the false, and to suspend judgment on the uncertain, which frees us from habitual reactions, for our ultimate freedom lies in our mental assessment of things.

The discipline of desire addresses what is good or not, and teaches that the only truly good thing is moral goodness, the only truly bad thing is moral badness, and all else is fundamentally indifferent. Therefore, the truly good is always obtainable and the truly bad always avoidable, because we can always strive to do what is right (even if we don’t succeed). Whatever the outcome, we must therefore submit to destiny (accept what happens), and then act appropriately the next time.

The discipline of impulse focuses on what we should or should not do, and addresses social obligation, justice, and fate. Regarding social obligation, Stoicism teaches altruism (the recognition that we are made for each other), how to deal with difficult people (who are like us in their basic needs and desires), and true friendship (which should be based on a common commitment to the good).

Regarding justice, Stoicism teaches that we should prefer actions, people, and things that promote the good. Finally, regarding fate, it teaches that a moral choice is successful in itself, even if its intended outcome is not achieved. The sage desires what destiny dictates.

As with Epicureanism, many of these things are easier to say than to do, because in order to enjoy their benefits, we must reprogram our minds and emotional reactions, and that is the point of ancient Stoic spiritual practices and exercises, which are still effective today.


The School of Plato, by Jean Delville, 1898

Although not technically atheistic, Stoicism is essentially materialistic and doesn’t teach us how to obtain the divine guidance we need to pursue larger personal and social goals. For this we need Platonism (and especially Neoplatonism), which teaches us about the gods, how to contact them, and how to be more like them.

In more modern terms, it helps us understand the archetypal structure of human experience and how to live an authentic human life that respects our inner divinity, or higher self.

Platonism is a continuous spiritual tradition that is at least 2700 years old, with roots in the philosophy of Pythagoras (c.570–c.495 BCE), a spiritual teacher with many of the characteristics of a shaman. It is named, of course, for Plato (427–347 BCE), who established an Academy in Athens (c.387), which continued to function for 400 years.

“Neoplatonism” refers to the further development of this philosophy by Plotinus (204–270 CE) and his successors. It continued to be taught in the Neoplatonic Academy, which was established c.410 CE and survived until Emperor Justinian I banned Pagan schools in 529 CE.

Hypatia of Alexandria (c.350/370–415 CE) was the most famous female philosopher of the ancient world. She was also an accomplished mathematician and astronomer. (You might have seen the excellent 2009 movie Agora about her.) In addition to teaching her private students, she gave public lectures and was an advisor to the governor of Alexandria. Her students and contemporaries called her “the most holy and revered philosopher,” “our divine guide,” and “the blessed lady.” Unfortunately, she was cruelly murdered by a mob stirred up by the Christian bishop Cyril, who called her “that Pagan woman”; other Christians accused her of witchcraft.

Although none of Hypatia’s philosophical writings survive, we can be reasonably confident about her philosophy. Contemporaries said she “taught the philosophy of Plato and Plotinus,” whose writings we have. We also have texts from her immediate Neoplatonic predecessors, Porphyry (c.232–c.305 CE) and Iamblichus (c.204–c.325 CE), and her successors, Hierocles (fl. 430 CE) and Proclus (415–485 CE). We can triangulate among them and make a good educated guess about her teachings.

Central to Platonism is the notion of an objective realm of ideal Forms or Platonic Ideas, each of which is the eternal and perfect principle of some class of objects. The most familiar examples are mathematical objects, such as numbers and geometrical figures, but Platonists were also interested in moral Ideas (e.g., Truth, Beauty, Justice).

Neoplatonists conceived the Ideas to exist in an eternal and universal “cosmic mind” (Grk. nous), an immutable realm of Being, and they identified the Ideas with the gods who govern our world and our psyches. Above the realm of Being (of duality, of what is and is not) they identified an ultimate principle of unity, which they called the Ineffable One; it transcends all the opposites and is therefore indescribable in words. Below the eternal cosmic mind is the “cosmic soul” (the Anima Mundi), which brings the Ideas into manifestation in space and time in the “cosmic body,” which is ordinary physical reality, the realm of becoming, in which everything is in flux.

Illustration of the cosmos featuring Anima Mundi in the center, “Integra Naturae Speculum Artisque Imago” (“mirror of the whole nature and image of art”), from “Utriusque Cosmi maioris scilicet et minoris metaphysica atque technical Historia,” by Robert Fludd, 1617

All this is the macrocosm, the greater cosmos in which we exist, but each of us is also an image of it, a microcosm. Thus we each have an inner One, an intuitive mind (nous), a soul (including reason and animate life), and a physical body. Your nous grasps intuitively the Ideas in their timeless connections, and your inner One is your highest or true self, the god-image within.

From the perspective of the analytical psychology of Carl G. Jung, the gods are archetypes, the unconscious psychological structures common to all humans, resulting from our evolution; they reside in the collective unconscious (the cosmic nous) and in its image in each of us (your individual nous).

Neoplatonism contains spiritual practices for ascending to the divine realm for guidance, for becoming more godlike, and even for uniting with the Ineffable One (the only way to truly know it). Because the One exhibits beauty, wisdom, and goodness, there are three corresponding ways of ascent to the One: the paths of love, truth, and trust (or faith). Each of these ascends through four levels: awakening, purification, illumination, and perfection (or union).

The path of love appears in Plato’s Symposium and ascends through contemplation of beauty in, successively, the body, the soul, the mind, and the One. The path of truth uses meditation on inspired texts (e.g., Homer, Hesiod) and contemplation of nature to grasp the Ideas in the cosmic mind. The path of trust uses theurgy, the use of symbolic rituals for interacting with gods and subordinate spirits for spiritual insight, guidance, inspiration, and assistance. The techniques are closely connected with active imagination, as practiced in Jungian analytical psychology.


Although there is a natural progression from each of these philosophies to the next, we do not abandon the earlier practices when we progress to the more advanced ones; we build on them. Epicurean practices are still useful for Stoics, and Stoic practices are relevant for Neoplatonists. They provide different remedies for different situations. Together they offer an arsenal of spiritual tools to help us live more happily, to deal with life’s troubles, and to achieve our spiritual goals.

Additional Reading:

Addey, Tim. The Unfolding Wings: The Way of Perfection in the Platonic Tradition. Somerset: Prometheus Trust, 2003.

Deakin, Michael A. B. Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr. Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2007.

Dzielska, Maria. Hypatia of Alexandria. Trans. F. Lyra. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1995.

Hadot, Pierre. Plotinus or the Simplicity of Vision. Trans. M. Chase. Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 1998.

Hadot, Pierre. Philosophy as a Way of Life. Ed. & intro. A. I. Davidson. Trans. M. Chase. Blackwell, 1995.

Hadot, Pierre. What is Ancient Philosophy? Trans. M. Chase. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 2002.

Hines, Brian. Return to the One: Plotinus’s Guide to God-Realization. Salem, OR: Adrasteia, 2009.

MacLennan, Bruce J. The Wisdom of Hypatia: Ancient Spiritual Practices for a More Meaningful Life. Llewellyn, 2013. For more on my book, including study guides, please see also

Remes, Pauliina. Neoplatonism. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2008.

Wallis, R. T. Neoplatonism, 2nd ed. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1995.

Pre-Socratic Atomists: Pioneers of Modern Science

by January 19, 2021

Written by Ed Whalen, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

The pre-Socratic Atomists were a group of ancient thinkers who proposed a materialistic theory of the cosmos. Among the first to propose a mechanistic view of the universe, the Atomists argued that the world was composed of atoms. Their work was crucial in the development of ancient philosophy and modern science.

The Origins of pre-Socratic Atomists

Bust of Parmenides of Elea

Parmenides of Elea was a pre-Socratic philosopher from what is now Southern Italy. Possibly the first monist (monism posits that all things derive from oneness), Parmenides argued everything was part of a single, unchanging mass. His denial of change greatly influenced the first Atomists.

Leucippus is regarded as the first true Atomist. Living in 5th century BC, Leucippus was likely born in Miletus, which is located in modern-day Turkey, and later moved to Abdera, a wealthy Greek city on the Thracian coast. Many, including Aristotle, claimed the Leucippus was the most important Atomist.

Democritus was born in the city of Abdera in about 470 BC into a wealthy family. He was very well travelled, and may even have even visited Babylon. When Democritus returned to the Greek settlement in Thrace, he conducted numerous scientific experiments and wrote several works on the theory of atoms.

Democritus was a polymath and in ancient sources was portrayed as the ‘laughing philosopher’ because he was always mocking the stupidity of his fellow citizens. Despite this, he was hugely respected in his home city and is credited with the founding of the influential School of Abdera.

The Theory of Atomism

Image: © Shutterstock

The pre-Socratic Atomists, especially Democritus, held that the world was made of atoms — defined as the smallest elements in the universe. Atoms had several characteristics: they were invisible to the naked eye, indivisible and eternal. It was believed that atoms could come together and form complex structures, making them the building blocks of the entire world.

For the Atomists, the world consisted of matter which followed specific patterns and laws. Democritus argued that the atoms moved in a void and that all change was a result of them coming together and breaking apart. There were a variety of different atoms that explained the variety and dynamism observed in the natural world. Atoms thus explained natural events and phenomenon. Democritus and his followers believed that the world came about as a result of a collision of atoms.

For the Atomists, there were only naturalistic explanations of reality. This has been likened to 19th-century scientific ideas about the world, and for this reason many see the atomists as the forerunners of modern science. The Atomists were very interested in observing nature and may have developed early scientific theories. For instance, Democritus developed the theory of epistemology, which held that all knowledge derived from sensory experiences. In this way, he can be regarded as a forerunner of the empiricists.

Democritus among the Abderitans, by François-André Vincent

For Democritus, the faculty of reason existed to interpret sensory data, creating true knowledge of the world. Interestingly, the philosopher also believed that humans had a soul, but that this too was made out of atoms. He held that many cultural institutions were the result only of our mental cognitions and had no basis in reality. As a result, cultural institutions and beliefs could be changed for the benefit of humanity. Because of this, many scholars have seen Democritus and members of his school as early humanists. Indeed, Democritus and his followers believed that the ancient gods were a human invention.

The Atomists believed that humans originally lived like animals but developed societies and technology in order to survive. Sadly, there is much we do not know about the pre-Socratic philosophers, as nearly all their works have been lost.

The Influence of Atomism

The pre-Socratic Atomists had a huge influence on later philosophy, especially in the Classical World. Aristotle was very familiar with the works of Democritus, but he opposed the Atomists. However, the School of Abdera influenced the Epicureans, who held that only rational pleasure was the only virtue. Their materialism and metaphysics are based on Atomist teachings.

Many Christian scholars believed that Democritus and his followers were atheists. Historians believe that the School of Abdera contributed to the widespread doubts among the elite and intellectuals about the existence of the gods.

The Atomists also appear to have influenced the Sophists. The great Sophist Protagoras came from Abdera and his relativist philosophy was possibly based on Democritus’ epistemology. Another school influenced by the Atomists were the Sceptics. Anaxarchus, another citizen of Abdera, was a philosopher who accompanied Alexander the Great on his conquests. Anaxarchus’ unique interpretation of Atomism led him to doubt the reliability of knowledge. This is regarded as an important influence on Pyrrhonism and its teachings of philosophical skepticism. During the 17th century in Europe, many scientists were inspired by the Atomists and revived their teachings.


The pre-Socratic Atomists were revolutionary thinkers. Among the first in history to propose a materialistic and mechanistic theory of the universe, their theory of atoms promoted a scientific and rational view of the world. Many feared them, but they were very influential. They not only inspired later philosophers such as the Epicureans, but they may also have laid the foundation for modern science.


Russell, Bertrand (1987). History of Western Philosophy. London: Routledge.