A Critical History of Greek Philosophy [Halls of Wisdom] - W.T. Stace - ebook

It is natural that, at the commencement of any study, one should be expected to say what the subject-matter of that study is. Botany is the knowledge of plants, astronomy of the heavenly bodies, geology of the rocks of the earth's crust. What, then, is the special sphere of philosophy? What is philosophy about? Now it is not as easy to give a concise definition of philosophy, as it is of the other sciences. In the first place, the content of philosophy has differed considerably in different periods of history. In general the tendency has been to narrow down the scope of the subject as knowledge advanced, to exclude from philosophy what was formerly included in it. Thus in the time of Plato, physics and astronomy were included as parts of philosophy, whereas now they constitute separate sciences. This, however, is not an insurmountable difficulty. What chiefly militates against the effort to frame a definition is that the precise content of philosophy is differently viewed by different schools of thought. Thus a definition of philosophy which a follower of Herbert Spencer might frame would be unacceptable to an Hegelian, and the Hegelian definition would be rejected by the Spencerian. If we were to include in our definition some such phrase as "the knowledge of the Absolute," while this might suit some philosophers, others would deny that there is any Absolute at all. Another school would say that there may be an Absolute, but that it is unknowable, so that philosophy cannot be the knowledge of it. Yet another school would tell us that, whether there is or is not an Absolute, whether it is or is not knowable, the knowledge of it is in any case useless, and ought not to be sought. Hence no definition of philosophy can be appreciated without some knowledge of the special tenets of the various schools. In a word, the proper place to give a definition is not at the beginning of the study of philosophy, but at the end of it. Then, with all views before us, we might be able to decide the question..._____[Halls of Wisdom] From Buddha to Confucius to Plato and down the spiral of time to Kant, Nietzsche and Russell, the Halls of Wisdom are filled to overflowing, yet barely full. Explore the cavernous teachings of the masters, get lost in the art of wonder, and fall in love with wisdom.The only thing you can lose are your chains.

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W.T. Stace


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[Halls of Wisdom]

From Buddha to Confucius to Plato and down the spiral of time to Kant, Nietzsche and Russell, the Halls of Wisdom are filled to overflowing, yet barely full. Explore the cavernous teachings of the masters, get lost in the art of wonder, and fall in love with wisdom.

The only thing you can lose are your chains.



IT IS NATURAL THAT, AT the commencement of any study, one should be expected to say what the subject-matter of that study is. Botany is the knowledge of plants, astronomy of the heavenly bodies, geology of the rocks of the earth’s crust. What, then, is the special sphere of philosophy? What is philosophy about? Now it is not as easy to give a concise definition of philosophy, as it is of the other sciences. In the first place, the content of philosophy has differed considerably in different periods of history. In general the tendency has been to narrow down the scope of the subject as knowledge advanced, to exclude from philosophy what was formerly included in it. Thus in the time of Plato, physics and astronomy were included as parts of philosophy, whereas now they constitute separate sciences. This, however, is not an insurmountable difficulty. What chiefly militates against the effort to frame a definition is that the precise content of philosophy is differently viewed by different schools of thought. Thus a definition of philosophy which a follower of Herbert Spencer might frame would be unacceptable to an Hegelian, and the Hegelian definition would be rejected by the Spencerian. If we were to include in our definition some such phrase as “the knowledge of the Absolute,” while this might suit some philosophers, others would deny that there is any Absolute at all. Another school would say that there may be an Absolute, but that it is unknowable, so that philosophy cannot be the knowledge of it. Yet another school would tell us that, whether there is or is not an Absolute, whether it is or is not knowable, the knowledge of it is in any case useless, and ought not to be sought. Hence no definition of philosophy can be appreciated without some knowledge of the special tenets of the various schools. In a word, the proper place to give a definition is not at the beginning of the study of philosophy, but at the end of it. Then, with all views before us, we might be able to decide the question.

I shall make no attempt, therefore, to place before you a precise definition. But perhaps the same purpose will be served, if I pick out some of the leading traits of philosophy, which serve to distinguish it from other branches of knowledge, and illustrate them by enumerating—but without any attempt at completeness—some of the chief problems which philosophers have usually attempted to solve. And firstly, philosophy is distinguished from other branches of knowledge by the fact that, whereas these each take some particular portion of the universe for their study, philosophy does not specialize in this way, but deals with the universe as a whole. The universe is one, and ideal knowledge of it would be one; but the principles of specialization and division of labour apply here as elsewhere, and so astronomy takes for its subject that portion of the universe which we call the heavenly bodies, botany specializes in plant life, psychology in the facts of the mind, and so on. But philosophy does not deal with this or that particular sphere of being, but with being as such. It seeks to see the universe as a single co-ordinated system of things. It might be described as the science of things in general. The world in its most universal aspects is its subject. All sciences tend to generalize, to reduce multitudes of particular facts to single general laws. Philosophy carries this process to its highest limit. It generalizes to the utmost. It seeks to view the entire universe in the light of the fewest possible general principles, in the light, if possible, of a single ultimate principle.

It is a consequence of this that the special sciences take their subject matter, and much of their contents, for granted, whereas philosophy seeks to trace everything back to its ultimate grounds. It may be thought that this description of the sciences is incorrect. Is not the essential maxim of modern science to assume nothing, to take nothing for granted, to assert nothing without demonstration, to prove all? This is no doubt true within certain limits, but beyond those limits it does not hold good. All the sciences take quite for granted certain principles and facts which are, for them, ultimate. To investigate these is the portion of the philosopher, and philosophy thus takes up the thread of knowledge where the sciences drop it. It begins where they end. It investigates what they take as a matter of course.

Let us consider some examples of this. The science of geometry deals with the laws of space. But it takes space just as it finds it in common experience. It takes space for granted. No geometrician asks what space is. This, then, will be a problem for philosophy. Moreover, geometry is founded upon certain fundamental propositions which, it asserts, being self-evident, require no investigation. These are called “axioms.” That two straight lines cannot enclose a space, and that equals being added to equals the results are equal, are common examples. Into the ground of these axioms the geometrician does not enquire. That is the business of philosophy. Not that philosophers affect to doubt the truth of these axioms. But surely it is a very strange thing, and a fact quite worthy of study, that there are some statements of which we feel that we must give the most laborious proofs, and others in the case of which we feel no such necessity. How is it that some propositions can be self-evident and others must be proved? What is the ground of this distinction? And when one comes to think of it, it is a very extraordinary property of mind that it should be able to make the most universal and unconditional statements about things, without a jot of evidence or proof. When we say that two straight lines cannot enclose a space, we do not mean merely that this has been found true in regard to all the particular pairs of straight lines with which we have tried the experiment. We mean that it never can be and never has been otherwise. We mean that a million million years ago two straight lines did not enclose a space, and that it will be the same a million million years hence, and that it is just as true on those stars, if there are any, which are invisible even to the greatest telescopes. But we have no experience of what will happen a million million years hence, or of what can take place among those remote stars. And yet we assert, with absolute confidence, that our axiom is and must be equally true everywhere and at all times. Moreover, we do not found this on probabilities gathered from experience. Nobody would make experiments or use telescopes to prove such axioms. How is it that they are thus self-evident, that the mind can make these definite and far-reaching assertions without any evidence at all? Geometricians do not consider these questions. They take the facts for granted. To solve these problems is for philosophy.

Again, the physical sciences take the existence of matter for granted. But philosophy asks what matter is. At first sight it might appear that this question is one for the physicist and not the philosopher. For the problem of “the constitution of matter” is a well-known physical problem. But a little consideration will show that this is quite a different question from the one the philosopher propounds. For even if it be shown that all matter is ether, or electricity, or vortex-atoms, or other such, this does not help us in our special problem. For these theories, even if proved, only teach us that the different kinds of matter are forms of some one physical existence. But what we want to know is what physical existence itself is. To prove that one kind of matter is really another kind of matter does not tell us what is the essential nature of matter. That, therefore, is a problem, not of science, but of philosophy.

In the same way, all the sciences take the existence of the universe for granted. But philosophy seeks to know why it is that there is a universe at all. Is it true, for example, that there is some single ultimate reality which produces all things? And if so, what sort of a reality is it? Is it matter, or mind, or something different from both? Is it good or evil? And if it is good, how is it that there is evil in the world?

Moreover every science, except the purely mathematical sciences, assumes the truth of the law of causation. Every student of logic knows that this is the ultimate canon of the sciences, the foundation of them all. If we did not believe in the truth of the law of causation, namely, that everything which has a beginning has a cause, and that in the same circumstances the same things invariably happen, all the sciences would at once crumble to dust. In every scientific investigation, this truth is assumed. If we ask the zoologist how he knows that all camels are herbivorous, he will no doubt point in the first instance to experience. The habits of many thousands of camels have been observed. But this only proves that those particular camels are herbivorous. How about the millions that have never been observed at all? He can only appeal to the law of causation. The camel’s structure is such that it cannot digest meat. It is a case of cause and effect. How do we know that water always freezes at 0° centigrade (neglecting questions of pressure, etc.)? How do we know that this is true at those regions of the earth where no one has ever been to see? Only because we believe that in the same circumstances the same thing always happens, that like causes always produce like effects. But how do we know the truth of this law of causation itself? Science does not consider the question. It traces its assertions back to this law, but goes no further. Its fundamental canon it takes for granted. The grounds of causation, why it is true, and how we know it is true, are, therefore, philosophical questions.

One may be tempted to enquire whether many of these questions, especially those connected with the ultimate reality, do not transcend human faculties altogether, and whether we had not better confine our enquiries to matters that are not “too high for us.” One may question whether it is possible for finite minds to comprehend the infinite. Now it is very right that such questions should be asked, and it is essential that a correct answer should be found. But, for the present, there is nothing to say about the matter, except that these questions themselves constitute one of the most important problems of philosophy, though it is one which, as a matter of fact, has scarcely been considered in full until modern times. The Greeks did not raise the question. [Footnote 2] And as this is itself one of the problems of philosophy, it will be well to start with an open mind. The question cannot be decided offhand, but must be thoroughly investigated. That the finite mind of man cannot understand the infinite is one of those popular dogmatic assertions, which are bruited about from mouth to mouth, as if they were self-evident, and so come to tyrannize over men’s minds. But for the most part those who make this statement have never thoroughly sifted the grounds of it, but simply take it as something universally admitted, and trouble no further about it. But at the very least we should first know exactly what we mean by such terms as “mind,” “finite,” and “infinite.” And we shall not find that our difficulties end even there.

[Footnote 2: The reasoning of the Sceptics and others no doubt involved this question. But they did not consider it in its peculiar modern form.]

Philosophy, then, deals with the universe as a whole; and it seeks to take nothing for granted. A third characteristic may be noted as especially important, though here no doubt we are trenching upon matters upon which there is no such universal agreement. Philosophy is essentially an attempt to rise from sensuous to pure, that is, non-senuous, thought. This requires some explanation.

We are conscious, so to speak, of two different worlds, the external physical world and the internal mental world. If we look outwards we are aware of the former, if we turn our gaze inwards upon our own minds we become aware of the latter. It may appear incorrect to say that the external world is purely physical, for it includes other minds. I am aware of your mind, and this is, to me, part of the world which is external to me. But I am not now speaking of what we know by inference, but only of what we directly perceive. I cannot directly perceive your mind, but only your physical body. In the last resort it will be found that I am aware of the existence of your mind only by inference from perceived physical facts, such as the movements of your body and the sounds that issue from your lips. The only mind which I can immediately perceive is my own. There is then a physical world external to us, and an internal mental world.

Which of these will naturally be regarded as the most real? Men will regard as the most real that which is the most familiar, that which they came first into contact with, and have most experience of. And this is unquestionably the external material world. When a child is born, it turns its eyes to the light, which is an external physical thing. Gradually it gets to know different objects in the room. It comes to know its mother, but its mother is, in the first instance, a physical object, a body. It is only long afterwards that its mother becomes for the child a mind or a soul. In general, all our earliest experiences are of the material world. We come to know of the mental world only by introspection, and the habit of introspection comes in youth or manhood only, and to many people it hardly comes at all. In all those early impressionable years, therefore, when our most durable ideas of the universe are formed, we are concerned almost exclusively with the material world. The mental world with which we are much less familiar consequently tends to appear to all of us something comparatively unreal, a world of shadows. The bent of our minds becomes materialistic.

What I have said of the individual is equally true of the race. Primitive man does not brood over the facts of his own mind. Necessity compels him to devote most of his life to the acquisition of food, and to warding off the dangers which continually threaten him from other physical objects. And even among ourselves, the majority of men have to spend most of their time upon considering various aspects of things external to them. By the individual training of each man, and by long hereditary habit, then, it comes about that men tend to regard the physical world as more real than the mental.

Abundant evidences of this are to be found in the structure of human language. We seek to explain what is strange by means of what is well-known. We try to express the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar. We shall find that language always seeks to express the mental by the analogy of the physical. We speak of a man as a “clear” thinker. “Clear” is an attribute of physical objects. Water is clear if it has no extraneous matter in it. We say that a man’s ideas are “luminous,” thus taking a metaphor from physical light. We talk of having an idea “at the back of the mind.” “At the back of”? Has the mind got a front and a back? We are thinking of it as if it were a physical thing in space. We speak of mental habits of “attention.” “Attention” means stretching or turning the mind in a special direction. We “reflect.” “Reflection” means bending our thoughts back upon themselves. But, literally speaking, only physical objects can be stretched, turned, and bent. Whenever we wish to express something mental we do it by a physical analogy. We talk of it in terms of physical things. This shows how deep-rooted our materialism is. If the mental world were more familiar and real to us than the material, language would have been constructed on the opposite principle. The earliest words of language would have expressed mental facts, and we should afterwards have tried to express physical things by means of mental analogies.

In the East one commonly hears Oriental idealism contrasted with Western materialism. Such phrases may possess a certain relative truth. But if they mean that there is in the East, or anywhere else in the world, a race of men who are naturally idealists, they are nonsense. Materialism is ingrained in all men. We, Easterns or Westerns, are born materialists. Hence when we try to think of objects which are commonly regarded as non-material, such as God or the soul, it requires continual effort, a tremendous struggle, to avoid picturing them as material things. It goes utterly against the grain. Perhaps hundreds of thousands of years of hereditary materialism are against us. The popular idea of ghosts will illustrate this. Those who believe in ghosts, I suppose, regard them as some sort of disembodied souls. The pictures of ghosts in magazines show them as if composed of matter, but matter of some thin kind, such as vapour. Certain Indian systems of thought, which are by way of regarding themselves as idealistic, nevertheless teach that thought or mind is an extremely subtle kind of matter, far subtler than any ever dealt with by the physicist and chemist. This is very interesting, because it shows that the authors of such ideas feel vaguely that it is wrong to think of thought as if it were matter, but being unable to think of it in any other way, owing to man’s ingrained materialism, they seek to palliate their sin by making it thin matter. Of course this is just as absurd as the excuse made by the mother of an illegitimate child, that it was a very small one. This thin matter is just as material as lead or brass. And such systems are purely materialistic. But they illustrate the extraordinary difficulty that the ordinary mind experiences in attempting to rise from sensuous to non-sensuous thinking. They illustrate the ingrained materialism of man.

This natural human materialism is also the cause of mysticism and symbolism. A symbolic thought necessarily contains two terms, the symbol and the reality which it symbolizes. The symbol is always a sensuous or material object, or the mental image of such an object, and the reality is always something non-sensuous. Because the human mind finds it such an incredible struggle to think non-sensuously, it seeks to help itself by symbols. It takes a material thing and makes it stand for the non-material thing which it is too weak to grasp. Thus we talk of God as the “light of lights.” No doubt this is a very natural expression of the religious consciousness, and it has its meaning. But it is not the naked truth. Light is a physical existence, and God is no more light than he is heat or electricity. People talk of symbolism as if it were a very high and exalted thing. They say, “What a wonderful piece of symbolism!” But, in truth symbolism is the mark of an infirm mind. It is the measure of our weakness and not of our strength. Its root is in materialism, and it is produced and propagated by those who are unable to rise above a materialistic level.

Now philosophy is essentially the attempt to get beyond this sort of symbolic and mystical thinking, to get at the naked truth, to grasp what lies behind the symbol as it is in itself. These inferior modes of thought are a help to those who are themselves below their level, but are a hindrance to those who seek to reach the highest level of truth.

It is often said that philosophy is a very difficult and abstruse subject. Its difficulty lies almost wholly in the struggle to think non-sensuously. Whenever we come to anything in philosophy that seems beyond us, we shall generally find that the root of the trouble is that we are trying to think non-sensuous objects in a sensuous way, that is, we are trying to form mental pictures and images of them, for all mental pictures are composed of sensuous materials, and hence no such picture is adequate for a pure thought. It is impossible to exaggerate this difficulty. Even the greatest philosophers have succumbed to it. We shall constantly have to point out that when a great thinker, such as Parmenides or Plato, fails, and begins to flounder in difficulties, the reason usually is that, though for a time he has attained to pure thought, he has sunk back exhausted into sensuous thinking, and has attempted to form mental pictures of what is beyond the power of any such picture to represent, and so has fallen into contradictions. We must keep this constantly in mind in the study of philosophy.

In modern times philosophy is variously divided, as into metaphysics, which is the theory of reality, ethics, the theory of the good, and aesthetics, the theory of the beautiful. Modern divisions do not, however, altogether fit in with Greek philosophy, and it is better to let the natural divisions develop themselves as we go on, than to attempt to force our material into these moulds.

If, now, we look round the world and ask; in what countries and what ages the kind of thought we have described has attained a high degree of development, we shall find such a development only in ancient Greece and in modern Europe. There were great civilizations in Egypt, China, Assyria, and so on. They produced art and religion, but no philosophy to speak of. Even ancient Rome added nothing to the world’s philosophical knowledge. Its so-called philosophers, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Epictetus, Lucretius, produced no essentially new principle. They were merely disciples of Greek Schools, whose writings may be full of interest and of noble feeling, but whose essential thoughts contained nothing not already developed by the Greeks.

The case of India is more doubtful. Opinions may differ as to whether India ever had any philosophy. The Upanishads contain religio-philosophical thinking of a kind. And later we have the six so-called schools of philosophy. The reasons why this Indian thought is not usually included in histories of philosophy are as follows. Firstly, philosophy in India has never separated itself from religious and practical needs. The ideal of knowledge for its own sake is rarely to be found. Knowledge is desired merely as a means towards salvation. Philosophy and science, said Aristotle, have their roots in wonder,—the desire to know and understand for the sole sake of knowing and understanding. But the roots of Indian thought lie in the anxiety of the individual to escape from the ills and calamities of existence. This is not the scientific, but the practical spirit. It gives birth to religions, but not to philosophies. Of course it is a mistake to imagine that philosophy and religion are totally separate and have no community. They are in fact fundamentally akin. But they are also distinct. Perhaps the truest view is that they are identical in substance, but different in form. The substance of both is the absolute reality and the relation of all things, including men, to that reality. But whereas philosophy presents this subject-matter scientifically, in the form of pure thought, religion gives it in the form of sensuous pictures, myths, images, and symbols.

And this gives us the second reason why Indian thought is more properly classed as religious than philosophical. It seldom or never rises from sensuous to pure thought. It is poetical rather than scientific. It is content with symbols and metaphors in place of rational explanations, and all this is a mark of the religious, rather than the philosophical, presentation of the truth. For example, the main thought of the Upanishads is that the entire universe is derived from a single, changeless, eternal, infinite, being, called Brahman or Paramatman. When we come to the crucial question how the universe arises out of this being, we find such passages as this:—"As the colours in the flame or the red-hot iron proceed therefrom a thousand-fold, so do all beings proceed from the Unchangeable, and return again to it.” Or again, “As the web issues from the spider, as little sparks proceed from fire, so from the one soul proceed all living animals, all worlds, all the gods and all beings.” There are thousands of such passages in the Upanishads. But obviously these neither explain nor attempt to explain anything. They are nothing but hollow metaphors. They are poetic rather than scientific. They may satisfy the imagination and the religious feelings, but not the rational understanding. Or when again Krishna, in the Bhagavat-Gita, describes himself as the moon among the lunar mansions, the sun among the stars, Meru among the high-peaked mountains, it is clear that we are merely piling sensuous image upon sensuous image without any further understanding of what the nature of the absolute being in its own self is. The moon, the sun, Meru, are physical sense-objects. And this is totally sensuous thinking, whereas the aim of philosophy is to rise to pure thought. In such passages we are still on the level of symbolism, and philosophy only begins when symbolism has been surpassed. No doubt it is possible to take the line that man’s thought is not capable of grasping the infinite as it is in itself, and can only fall back upon symbols. But that is another question, and at any rate, whether it is or is not possible to rise from sensuous to pure thought, philosophy is essentially the attempt to do so.

Lastly, Indian thought is usually excluded from the history of philosophy because, whatever its character, it lies outside the main stream of human development. It has been cut off by geographical and other barriers. Consequently, whatever its value in itself, it has exerted little influence upon philosophy in general.

The claim is sometimes put forward by Orientals themselves that Greek philosophy came from India, and if this were true, it would greatly affect the statement made in the last paragraph. But it is not true. It used to be believed that Greek philosophy came from “the East,” but this meant Egypt. And even this theory is now abandoned. Greek culture, especially mathematics and astronomy, owed much to Egypt. But Greece did not owe its philosophy to that source. The view that it did was propagated by Alexandrian priests and others, whose sole motive was, that to represent the triumphs of Greek philosophy as borrowed from Egypt, flattered their national vanity. It was a great thing, wherever they found anything good, to say, “this must have come from us.” A precisely similar motive lies behind the Oriental claim that Greek philosophy came from India. There is not a scrap of evidence for it, and it rests entirely upon the supposed resemblance between the two. But this resemblance is in fact mythical. The whole character of Greek philosophy is European and unoriental to the back-bone. The doctrine of re-incarnation is usually appealed to. This characteristically Indian doctrine was held by the Pythagoreans, from whom it passed to Empedocles and Plato. The Pythagoreans got it from the Orphic sect, to whom quite possibly it came indirectly from India, although even this is by no means certain, and is in fact highly doubtful. But even if this be true, it proves nothing. Re-incarnation is of little importance in Greek philosophy. Even in Plato, who makes much of it, it is quite unessential to the fundamental ideas of his philosophy, and is only artificially connected with them. And the influence of this doctrine upon Plato’s philosophy was thoroughly bad. It was largely responsible for leading him into the main error of his philosophy, which it required an Aristotle to correct. All this will be evident when we come to consider the systems of Plato and Aristotle.

The origin of Greek philosophy is not to be found in India, or Egypt, or in any country outside Greece. The Greeks themselves were solely responsible for it. It is not as if history traces back their thought only to a point at which it was already highly developed, and cannot explain its beginnings. We know its history from the time, so to speak, when it was in the cradle. In the next two chapters we shall see that the first Greek attempts at philosophising were so much the beginnings of a beginner, were so very crude and unformed, that it is mere perversity to suppose that they could not make these simple efforts for themselves. From those crude beginnings we can trace the whole development in detail up to its culmination in Aristotle, and beyond. So there is no need to assume foreign influence at any point.

Greek philosophy begins in the sixth century before Christ. It begins when men for the first time attempted to give a scientific reply to the question, “what is the explanation of the world?” Before this era we have, of course, the mythologies, cosmogonies, and theologies of the poets. But they contain no attempt at a naturalistic explanation of things. They belong to the spheres of poetry and religion, not to philosophy.

It must not be supposed, when we speak of the philosophy of Greece, that we refer only to the mainland of what is now called Greece. Very early in history, Greeks of the mainland migrated to the islands of the Aegean, to Sicily, to the South of Italy, to the coast of Asia Minor, and elsewhere, and founded flourishing colonies. The Greece of philosophy includes all these places. It is to be thought of rather racially than territorially. It is the philosophy of the men of Greek race, wherever they happened to be situated. And in fact the first period of Greek philosophy deals exclusively with the thoughts of these colonial Greeks. It was not till just before the time of Socrates that philosophy was transplanted to the mainland.

Greek philosophy falls naturally into three periods. The first may be roughly described as pre-Socratic philosophy, though it does not include the Sophists who were both the contemporaries and the predecessors of Socrates. This period is the rise of Greek philosophy. Secondly, the period from the Sophists to Aristotle, which includes Socrates and Plato, is the maturity of Greek philosophy, the actual zenith and culmination of which is undoubtedly the system of Aristotle. Lastly, the period of post-Aristotelian philosophy constitutes the decline and fall of the national thought. These are not merely arbitrary divisions. Each period has its own special characters, which will be described in the sequel.

A few words must be said of the sources of our knowledge of pre-Socratic philosophy. If we want to know what Plato and Aristotle thought about any matter, we have only to consult their works. But the works of the earlier philosophers have not come down to us, except in fragments, and several of them never committed their opinions to writing. Our knowledge of their doctrines is the result of the laborious sifting by scholars of such materials as are available. Luckily the material has been plentiful. It may be divided into three classes. First come the fragments of the original writings of the philosophers themselves. These are in many cases long and important, in other cases scanty. Secondly, there are the references in Plato and Aristotle. Of these by far the most important are to be found in the first book of Aristotle’s “Metaphysics,” which is a history of philosophy up to his own time, and is the first attempt on record to write a history of philosophy. Thirdly, there is an enormous mass of references, some valuable, some worthless, contained in the works of later, but still ancient, writers.



THE EARLIEST GREEK PHILOSOPHERS BELONG to what in after times came to be called the Ionic school. The name was derived from the fact that the three chief representatives of this school, Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes, were all men of Ionia, that is to say, the coast of Asia Minor.


As the founder of the earliest school in history, Thales of Miletus is generally accounted the founder and father of all philosophy. He was born about 624 B.C. and died about 550 B.C. These dates are approximate, and it should be understood that the same thing is true of nearly all the dates of the early philosophers. Different scholars vary, sometimes as much as ten years, in the dates they give. We shall not enter into these questions at all, because they are of no importance. And throughout these lectures it should be understood that the dates given are approximate.

Thales, at any rate, was a contemporary of Solon and Croesus. He was famous in antiquity for his mathematical and astronomical learning, and also for his practical sagacity and wisdom. He is included in all the accounts of the Seven Sages. The story of the Seven Sages is unhistorical, but the fact that the lists of their names differ considerably as given by different writers, whereas the name of Thales appears in all, shows with what veneration he was anciently regarded. An eclipse of the sun occurred in 585 B.C., and Thales is alleged to have predicted it, which was a feat for the astronomy of those times. And he must have been a great engineer, for he caused a diversion of the river Halys, when Croesus and his army were unable to cross it. Nothing else is known of his life, though there were many apocryphal stories.

No writings by Thales were extant even in the time of Aristotle, and it is believed that he wrote nothing. His philosophy, if we can call it by that name, consisted, so far as we know, of two propositions. Firstly, that the principle of all things is water, that all comes from water, and to water all returns. And secondly, that the earth is a flat disc which floats upon water. The first, which is the chief proposition, means that water is the one primal kind of existence and that everything else in the universe is merely a modification of water. Two questions will naturally occur to us. Why did Thales choose water as the first principle? And by what process does water, in his opinion, come to be changed into other things; how was the universe formed out of water? We cannot answer either of these questions with certainty. Aristotle says that Thales “probably derived his opinion from observing that the nutriment of all things is moist, and that even actual heat is generated therefrom, and that animal life is sustained by water, ... and from the fact that the seeds of all things possess a moist nature, and that water is a first principle of all things that are humid.” This is very likely the true explanation. But it will be noted that even Aristotle uses the word “probably,” and so gives his statement merely as a conjecture. How, in the opinion of Thales, the universe arose out of water, is even more uncertain. Most likely he never asked himself the question, and gave no explanation. At any rate nothing is known on the point.

This being the sum and substance of the teaching of Thales, we may naturally ask why, on account of such a crude and undeveloped idea, he should be given the title of the father of philosophy. Why should philosophy be said to begin here in particular? Now, the significance of Thales is not that his water-philosophy has any value in itself, but that this was the first recorded attempt to explain the universe on naturalistic and scientific principles, without the aid of myths and anthropomorphic gods. Moreover, Thales propounded the problem, and determined the direction and character, of all pre-Socratic philosophy. The fundamental thought of that period was, that under the multiplicity of the world there must be a single ultimate principle. The problem of all philosophers from Thales to Anaxagoras was, what is the nature of that first principle from which all things have issued? Their systems are all attempts to answer this question, and may be classified according to their different replies. Thus Thales asserted that the ultimate reality is water, Anaximander indefinite matter, Anaximenes air, the Pythagoreans number, the Eleatics Being, Heracleitus fire, Empedocles the four elements, Democritus atoms, and so on. The first period is thus essentially cosmological in character, and it was Thales who determined the character. His importance is that he was the first to propound the question, not that he gave any rational reply to it.

We saw in the first chapter, that man is naturally a materialist, and that philosophy is the movement from sensuous to non-sensuous thought. As we should expect, then, philosophy begins in materialism. The first answer to the question, what the ultimate reality is, places the nature of that reality in a sensuous object, water. The other members of the Ionic school, Anaximander, and Anaximenes, are also materialists. And from their time onwards we can trace the gradual rise of thought, with occasional breaks and relapses, from this sensualism of the Ionics, through the semi-sensuous idealism of the Eleatics, to the highest point of pure non-sensuous thought, the idealism of Plato and Aristotle. It is important to keep in mind, then, that the history of philosophy is not a mere chaotic hotch-potch of opinions and theories, succeeding each other without connection or order. It is a logical and historical evolution, each step in which is determined by the last, and advances beyond the last towards a definite goal. The goal, of course, is visible to us, but was not visible to the early thinkers themselves.

Since man begins by looking outwards upon the external world and not inwards upon his own self, this fact too determines the character of the first period of Greek philosophy. It concerns itself solely with nature, with the external world, and only with man as a part of nature. It demands an explanation of nature. And this is the same as saying that it is cosmological. The problems of man, of life, of human destiny, of ethics, are treated by it scantily, or not at all. It is not till the time of the Sophists that the Greek spirit turns inwards upon itself and begins to consider these problems, and with the emergence of that point of view we have passed from the first to the second period of Greek philosophy.

Because the Ionic philosophers were all materialists they are also sometimes called Hylicists, from the Greek hulé which means matter.


The next philosopher of the Ionic school is Anaximander. He was an exceedingly original and audacious thinker. He was probably born about 611 B.C. and died about 547. He was an inhabitant of Miletus, and is said to have been a disciple of Thales. It will be seen, thus, that he was a younger contemporary of Thales. He was born at the time that Thales was flourishing, and was about a generation younger. He was the first Greek to write a philosophic treatise, which however has been unfortunately lost. He was eminent for his astronomical and geographical knowledge, and in this connection was the first to construct a map. Details of his life are not known.

Now Thales had made the ultimate principle of the universe, water. Anaximander agrees with Thales that the ultimate principle of things is material, but he does not name it water, does not in fact believe that it is any particular kind of matter. It is rather a formless, indefinite, and absolutely featureless matter in general. Matter, as we know it, is always some particular kind of matter. It must be iron, brass, water, air, or other such. The difference between the different kinds of matter is qualitative, that is to say, we know that air is air because it has the qualities of air and differs from iron because iron has the qualities of iron, and so on. The primeval matter of Anaximander is just matter not yet sundered into the different kinds of matter. It is therefore formless and characterless. And as it is thus indeterminate in quality, so it is illimitable in quantity. Anaximander believed that this matter stretches out to infinity through space. The reason he gave for this opinion was, that if there were a limited amount of matter it would long ago have been used up in the creation and destruction of the “innumerable worlds.” Hence he called it “the boundless.” In regard to these “innumerable worlds,” the traditional opinion about Anaximander was that he believed these worlds to succeed each other in time, and that first a world was created, developed, and was destroyed, then another world arose, was developed and destroyed, and that this periodic revolution of worlds went on for ever. Professor Burnet, however, is of opinion that the “innumerable worlds” of Anaximander were not necessarily successive but rather simultaneously existing worlds. According to this view there may be any number of worlds existing at the same time. But, even so, it is still true that these worlds were not everlasting, but began, developed and decayed, giving place in due time to other worlds.

How, now, have these various worlds been formed out of the formless, indefinite, indeterminate matter of Anaximander? On this question Anaximander is vague and has nothing very definite to put forward. Indeterminate matter by a vaguely conceived process separates itself into “the hot” and “the cold.” The cold is moist or damp. This cold and moist matter becomes the earth, in the centre of the universe. The hot matter collects into a sphere of fire surrounding the earth. The earth in the centre was originally fluid. The heat of the surrounding sphere caused the waters of the earth progressively to evaporate giving rise to the envelope of air which surrounds the earth. For the early Greeks regarded the air and vapour as the same thing. As this air or vapour expanded under the action of heat it burst the outside hot sphere of fire into a series of enormous “wheel-shaped husks,” resembling cart wheels, which encircle the earth. You may naturally ask how it is that if these are composed of fire we do not see them continually glowing. Anaximander’s answer was that these wheel-shaped husks are encrusted with thick, opaque vapour, which conceals the inner fire from our view. But there are apertures, or pipe-like holes in the vapour-crust, and through these the fire gleams, causing the appearance of the sun, stars, and moon. You will note that the moon was, on this theory, considered to be fiery, and not, as we now know it to be, a cold surface reflecting the sun’s light. There were three of these “cart wheels”; the first was that of the sun, furthest away from the earth, nearer to us was that of the moon, and closest of all was that of the fixed stars. The “wheel-shaped husks” containing the heavenly bodies are revolved round the earth by means of currents of air. The earth in the centre was believed by Anaximander to be not spherical but cylindrical. Men live on the top end of this pillar or cylinder.

Anaximander also developed a striking theory about the origin and evolution of living beings. In the beginning the earth was fluid and in the gradual drying up by evaporation of this fluid, living beings were produced from the heat and moisture. In the first instance these beings were of a low order. They gradually evolved into successively higher and higher organisms by means of adaptation to their environment. Man was in the first instance a fish living in the water. The gradual drying up left parts of the earth high and dry, and marine animals migrated to the land, and their fins by adaptation became members fitted for movement on land. The resemblance of this primitive theory to modern theories of evolution is remarkable. It is easy to exaggerate its importance, but it is at any rate clear that Anaximander had, by a happy guess, hit upon the central idea of adaptation of species to their environment.

The teaching of Anaximander exhibits a marked advance beyond the position of Thales. Thales had taught that the first principle of things is water. The formless matter of Anaximander is, philosophically, an advance on this, showing the operation of thought and abstraction. Secondly, Anaximander had definitely attempted to apply this idea, and to derive from it the existent world. Thales had left the question how the primal water developed into a world, entirely unanswered.


Like the two previous thinkers Anaximenes was an inhabitant of Miletus. He was born about 588 B.C. and died about 524. He wrote a treatise of which a small fragment still remains. He agreed with Thales and Anaximander that the first principle of the universe is material. With Thales too, he looked upon it as a particular kind of matter, not indeterminate matter as taught by Anaximander. Thales had declared it to be water. Anaximenes named air as first principle. This air, like the matter of Anaximander, stretches illimitably through space. Air is constantly in motion and has the power of motion inherent in it and this motion brought about the development of the universe from air. As operating process of this development Anaximenes named the two opposite processes of (1) Rarefaction, (2) Condensation. Rarefaction is the same thing as heat or growing hot, and condensation is identified with growing cold. The air by rarefaction becomes fire, and fire borne aloft upon the air becomes the stars. By the opposite process of condensation, air first becomes clouds and, by further degrees of condensation, becomes successively water, earth, and rocks. The world resolves again in the course of time into the primal air. Anaximenes, like Anaximander, held the theory of “innumerable worlds,” and these worlds are, according to the traditional view, successive. But here again Professor Burnet considers that the innumerable worlds may have been co-existent as well as successive. Anaximenes considered the earth to be a flat disc floating upon air.

The origin of the air theory of Anaximenes seems to have been suggested to him by the fact that air in the form of breath is the principle of life.

The teaching of Anaximenes seems at first sight to be a falling off from the position of Anaximander, because he goes back to the position of Thales in favour of a determinate matter as first principle. But in one respect at least there is here an advance upon Anaximander. The latter had been vague as to how formless matter differentiates itself into the world of objects. Anaximenes names the definite processes of rarefaction and condensation. If you believe, as these early physicists did, that every different kind of matter is ultimately one kind of matter, the problem of the differentiation of the qualities of the existent elements arises. For example, if this paper is really composed of air, how do we account for its colour, its hardness, texture, etc. Either these qualities must be originally in the primal air, or not. If the qualities existed in it then it was not really one homogeneous matter like air, but must have been simply a mixture of different kinds of matter. If not, how do these properties arise? How can this air which has not in it the qualities of things we see, develop them? The simplest way of getting out of the difficulty is to found quality upon quantity, and to explain the former by the amount or quantity, more or less, of matter existent in the same volume. This is precisely what is meant by rarefaction and condensation. Condensation would result in compressing more matter into the same volume. Rarefaction would give rise to the opposite process. Great compression of air, a great amount of it in a small space, might account for the qualities, say, of earth and stones, for example, their heaviness, hardness, colour, etc.

Hence Anaximenes was to some extent a more logical and definite thinker than Anaximander, but cannot compare with him in audacity and originality of thought.

Other Ionic Thinkers

We have now considered the three chief thinkers of the Ionic School. Others there were, but they added nothing new to the teaching of these three. They followed either Thales or Anaximenes in stating the first principle of the world either as water or as air. Hippo, for example, followed Thales, and for him the world is composed of water, Idaeus agreed with Anaximenes that it is derived from air. Diogenes of Apollonia is chiefly remarkable for the fact that he lived at a very much later date. He was a contemporary of Anaxagoras, and opposed to the more developed teachings of that philosopher the crude materialism of the Ionic School. Air was by him considered to be the ground of all things.



NOT MUCH IS KNOWN OF the life of Pythagoras. Three so-called biographies have come down to us from antiquity, but they were written hundreds of years after the event, and are filled with a tissue of extravagant fancies, and with stories of miracles and wonders worked by Pythagoras. All sorts of fantastic legends seem to have gathered very early around his life, obscuring from us the actual historical details. A few definite facts, however, are known. He was born somewhere between 580 and 570 B.C. at Samos, and about middle age he migrated to Crotona in South Italy. According to legend, before he arrived in South Italy he had travelled extensively in Egypt and other countries of the East. There is, however, no historical evidence of this. There is nothing in itself improbable in the belief that Pythagoras made these travels, but it cannot be accepted as proved for lack of evidence. The legend is really founded simply upon the oriental flavour of his doctrines. In middle age he arrived in South Italy and settled at Crotona. There he founded the Pythagorean Society and lived for many years at the head of it. His later life, the date and manner of his death, are not certainly known.

Now it is important to note that the Pythagorean Society was not primarily a school of philosophy at all. It was really a religious and moral Order, a Society of religious reformers. The Pythagoreans were closely associated with the Orphic Sect, and took from it the belief in the transmigration of souls, including transmigration of human souls into animals. They also taught the doctrine of the “wheel of things,” and the necessity of obtaining “release” from it, by which one could escape from the weary round of reincarnate lives. Thus they shared with the Orphic religious Sect the principle of reincarnation. The Orphic Sect believed that “release” from the wheel of life was to be obtained by religious ceremonial and ritual. The Pythagoreans had a similar ritual, but they added to this the belief that intellectual pursuits, the cultivation of science and philosophy, and, in general, the intellectual contemplation of the ultimate things of the universe would be of great help towards the “release” of the soul. From this arose the tendency to develop science and philosophy. Gradually their philosophy attained a semi-independence from their religious rites which justifies us in regarding it definitely as philosophy.

The Pythagorean ethical views were rigorous and ascetic in character. They insisted upon the utmost purity of life in the members of the Order. Abstinence from flesh was insisted upon, although this was apparently a late development. We know that Pythagoras himself was not a total abstainer from flesh. They forbade the eating of beans. They wore a garb peculiar to themselves. The body, they taught, is the prison or tomb of the soul. They thought that one must not attempt to obtain “release” by suicide, because “man is the property of God,” the chattel of God. They were not politicians in the modern sense, but their procedure in practice amounted to the greatest possible interference in politics. It appears that the Pythagoreans attempted to impose their ordinances upon the ordinary citizens of Crotona. They aimed at the supersession of the State by their own Order and they did actually capture the government of Crotona for a short period. This led to attacks on the Order, and the persecution of its members. When the plain citizen of Crotona was told not to eat beans, and that under no circumstances could he eat his own dog, this was too much. A general persecution occurred. The meeting place of the Pythagoreans was burnt to the ground, the Society was scattered, and its members killed or driven away. This occurred between the years 440 and 430 B.C. Some years later the Society revived and continued its activities, but we do not hear much of it after the fourth century B.C.

It was largely a mystical society. The Pythagoreans developed their own ritual, ceremonial and mysteries. This love of mystery, and their general character as miracle-mongers, largely account for the legends which grew up around the life of Pythagoras himself. Their scientific activities were also considerable. They enforced moral self-control. They cultivated the arts and crafts, gymnastics, music, medicine, and mathematics. The development of mathematics in early Greece was largely the work of the Pythagoreans. Pythagoras is said to have discovered the 47th Proposition of Euclid, and to have sacrificed an ox in honour thereof. And there is good reason to believe that practically the whole of the substance of the First Book of Euclid is the work of Pythagoras.

Turning now to their philosophical teaching, the first thing that we have to understand is that we cannot speak of the philosophy of Pythagoras, but only of the philosophy of the Pythagoreans. For it is not known what share Pythagoras had in this philosophy or what share was contributed by his successors. Now we recognize objects in the universe by means of their qualities. But the majority of these qualities are not universal in their scope; some things possess some qualities; others possess others. A leaf, for example, is green, but not all things are green. Some things have no colour at all. The same is true of tastes and smells. Some things are sweet; some bitter. But there is one quality in things which is absolutely universal in its scope, which applies to everything in the universe—corporeal or incorporeal. All things are numerable, and can be counted. Moreover, it is impossible to conceive a universe in which number is not to be found. You could easily imagine a universe in which there is no colour, or no sweet taste, or a universe in which nothing possesses weight. But you cannot imagine a universe in which there is no number. This is an inconceivable thought. Upon these grounds we should be justified in concluding that number is an extremely important aspect of things, and forms a fundamental pad of the framework of the world. And it is upon this aspect of things that the Pythagoreans laid emphasis.

They drew attention to proportion, order, and harmony as the dominant notes of the universe. Now when we examine the ideas of proportion, order, and harmony, we shall see that they are closely connected with number. Proportion, for example, must necessarily be expressible by the relation of one number to another. Similarly order is measurable by numbers. When we say that the ranks of a regiment exhibit order, we mean that they are arranged in such a way that the soldiers stand at certain regular distances from each other, and these distances are measurable by numbers of feet or inches. Lastly, consider the idea of harmony. If, in modern times, we were to say that the universe is a harmonious whole, we should understand that we are merely using a metaphor from music. But the Pythagoreans lived in an age when men were not practised in thought, and they confused cosmical harmony with musical harmony. They thought that the two things were the same. Now musical harmony is founded upon numbers, and the Pythagoreans were the first to discover this. The difference of notes is due to the different numbers of vibrations of the sounding instrument. The musical intervals are likewise based upon numerical proportions. So that since, for the Pythagoreans, the universe is a musical harmony, it follows that the essential character of the universe is number. The study of mathematics confirmed the Pythagoreans in this idea. Arithmetic is the science of numbers, and all other mathematical sciences are ultimately reducible to numbers. For instance, in geometry, angles are measured by the number of degrees.

Now, as already pointed out, considering all these facts, we might well be justified in concluding that number is a very important aspect of the universe, and is fundamental in it. But the Pythagoreans went much further than this. They drew what seems to us the extraordinary conclusion that the world is made of numbers. At this point, then, we reach the heart of the Pythagorean philosophy. Just as Thales had said that the ultimate reality, the first principle of which things are composed, is water, so now the Pythagoreans teach that the first principle of things is number. Number is the world-ground, the stuff out of which the universe is made.