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Greek Philosophy

  Our western philosophical tradition began in ancient Greece in the 6th century BCE.
The first of these philosophers are called "Presocratics" which designates that they came before Socrates. The Presocratics were from either the eastern or western regions of the Greek world. Athens -- home of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle -- is in the central Greek region and was late in joining the philosophical game. The Presocratic's most distinguishing feature is emphasis on questions of physics; indeed, Aristotle refers to them as "Investigators of Nature". Their scientific interests included mathematics, astronomy, and biology. As the first philosophers, though, they emphasized the rational unity of things, and rejected mythological explanations of the world. Only fragments of the original writings of the presocratics survive, in some cases merely a single sentence. The knowledge we have of them derives from accounts of early philosophers, such as Aristotle's Physics and Metaphysics, The Opinions of the Physicists by Aristotle's pupil Theophratus, and Simplicius, a Neoplatonist who compiled existing quotes.

Philosophy was first brought into connection with practical life by Pythagoras of Samos (about 582-504 BCE), from whom it received its name: "the love of wisdom".
Regarding the world as perfect harmony, dependent on number, he aimed at inducing humankind likewise to lead a harmonious life. His doctrine was adopted and extended by a large following of Pythagoreans, including Damon, especially in Lower Italy.

A new period of philosophy opened with the Athenian Socrates (469-399 BCE).
Socrates made the thoughts and opinions of people his starting-point; Socrates questioned people relentlessly about their beliefs. He tried to find the definitions of the virtues, such as courage and justice, by cross-examining people who professed to have knowledge of them.
His method of cross-examining people, the elenchus, did not succeed in establishing what the virtues really were, however; they simply exposed the ignorance of his interlocutors.

Socrates was an enormously magnetic figure, who attracted many followers, but he also made many enemies. Socrates was sent for trial for corrupting the young of Athens and for disbelieving in the gods of the city. These proceedings led to Socrates' being sentenced to death by drinking the poison Hemlock. This philosophical martyrdom, however, simply made Socrates an even more iconic figure than would have been otherwise, and many later philosophical schools took Socrates as their hero.

Many aspects of the genius of Socrates were transmitted Plato of Athens (428-348 BCE), who also combined with them many the principles established by earlier philosophers, and developed the whole of this material into the unity of a comprehensive system. Plato had been a pupil and a friend of Socrates. The groundwork of Plato's scheme, though nowhere expressly stated by him, is the threefold division of philosophy into dialectic, ethics, and physics; its central point is the theory of forms.

The school founded by Plato, called the Academy (from the name of the grove of the Attic hero Academus where he used to deliver his lectures) continued for long after. In regard to the main tendencies of its members, it was divided into the three periods of the Old, Middle, and New Academy. The chief personages in the first of these were Speusippus (son of Plato's sister), who succeeded him as the head of the school (till 339 BCE), and Xenocrates of Chalcedon (till 314 BCE). Both of them sought to fuse Pythagorean speculations on number with Plato's theory of ideas.

The most important among Plato's disciples is Aristotle of Stagira (384-322 BCE), who shares with his master the title of the greatest philosopher of antiquity. But whereas Plato had sought to elucidate and explain things from the supra-sensual standpoint of the forms, his pupil preferred to start from the facts given us by experience. Philosophy to him meant science, and its aim was the recognition of the purpose in all things. Hence he establishes the ultimate grounds of things inductively -- that is to say, by a posteriori conclusions from a number of facts to a universal.

The followers of Aristotle, known as Peripatetics (Theophrastus of Lesbos, Eudemus of Rhodes, Strato of Lampsacus, etc.), to a great extent abandoned metaphysical speculation, some in favor of natural science, others of a more popular treatment of ethics, introducing many changes into the Aristotelian doctrine in a naturalistic direction. A return to the views of the founder first appears among the later Peripatetics, who did good service as expositors of Aristotle's works.

The Peripatetic School tended to make philosophy the exclusive property of the learned class, thereby depriving it of its power to benefit a wider circle. This soon produced a negative reaction, and philosophers returned to the practical standpoint of Socratic ethics. The speculations of the learned were only admitted in philosophy where serviceable for ethics. The chief consideration was how to popularize doctrines, and to provide the individual, in a time of general confusion and dissolution, with a fixed moral basis for practical life.




Introductory quotations
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"Central" mysticism insights
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"Other" spiritual wisdom
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"Central" poetry insights
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"Other" poetry wisdom
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Spirituality & the wider world


 

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