The Poets and the Ancients

Communal thinking based on tribal structure

Once humans started to become more conscious some 70,000 years ago, they started to ask deeper questions about human life, the nature around us, the stars above and the incredible universe. Our forebears were in awe of their environment as we are now. They would were sitting around their campfires and philosophised about life and the environment they can up with their own interpretations, knowledge that has been passed on over the millennia through their stories and many of their observations and interpretations did find their way into religious belief systems and knowledge systems that we inherited from them. Today we can still learn a lot from indigenous people in relation to their philosophises in particular on how to live in harmony with our environment.

But for most of those 70,000 years, there was no scientific understanding of the natural world around us. As many of their experiences and observations were well beyond their comprehension it made sense for them to put external powers in place to explain phenomena beyond the extent of their knowledge. We are calling this Animism. This is the belief that objects, places, and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence. This happened through external magical forces. This didn’t change much once the agriculture revolution started to change society and cities started to emerge. A more structured approach with gods, and deities started to replace Animism. A more formal religion fitted the more hierarchical structures that emerged in these cities.

This was the time when the so-called Poets arrived on the scene. They were the messengers of the gods. Through oral and later written tradition, they passed on the knowledge from the past to the future. To make this easier to learn and to transfer they did this in the form of poems. They could recite the mythological stories which contained the ‘knowledge’ of the tribe/city, the history, creation, and origin of the tribes/kings/cities. They also could recite the laws of the group and they were often required to attend assemblies where the chiefs/kings held court. Their mythological knowledge was widely accepted as the truth. Iceland had such a law-speaker until the 13th century.

Þingvellir - Lögberg
Iceland – Þingvellir – Lögberg 2018 – Law Rock. The Lawspeaker, elected for three years at a time, presided over the assembly, and recited the law of the land.

The Greek Philosophers

This situation started to change when learned people started to arrive on the scene. With a booming Greek ‘economy’ it became possible for the well off to spend time on learning, at that early stage that was largely self-taught.

This period starts with the so called Presocratics (600-450BCE). The next three philosophers: Socrates, Plato and Aristotle (450-300BCE) – while building on their forebears – provided a quantum jump in philosophical thinking. There is significant overlap between the life and teaching periods of the various Greek philosophers and also with the ones that followed them. Many met and discussed issues between them, there were teachers and scholars who than became teachers and so on. They greatly influenced each other and as such were able to improve and extend their thinking and their knowledge. The Roman philosophers who followed the Greek basically continued in their footsteps. In total we have an uninterrupted period of over  1000 years where philosophy flourished in the western world. While it was pushed away in what became the Christian world. For the next 1000 years it were the Arab philosophers and scholars who took the torch and expanded human knowledge and human thought. Thanks to them we can still read and enjoy the Ancient Philosophers.

The Presocratics

One of the first self-taught philosophy pioneers was Thales who lived around 600BCE in Miletus (now Turkey). He was more interested in the natural philosophy (what we now call science). Within the emerging Greek culture, it was possible to separate this natural philosophy from religion. Thales invoked the concept of theory: ‘that what can be tested’, through reasoning, argumentation, and observations of natural phenomena. Together with his followers Anaximander and Anaximenes (known collectively, to modern scholars, as the Milesian School) they began to speculate about the material constitution of the world, and to propose speculative naturalistic (as opposed to traditional, supernatural) explanations for various natural phenomena. Parmenides talked about the undivisable universe, a theme that we also find back in Spinoza 2000 years later. Zeno of Elea was a great philosopher who used paradoxes (like the race between the tortoise and Achilles). These early philosophers differed from their forebears, many of them who would have undoubtedly also noticed some of those phenomena. Unlike their predecessors the Greek stood still and started to question these phenomena.

Central square Miletus
Central square Miletus

Heraclitus is the first known person that started to investigate the concept of ‘knowledge’. His most famous saying is “No man ever steps in the same river twice”. He unified his thoughts on knowledge under the concept of ’Logos’ that can be interpreted as reason.

Pythagoras  brought us mathematics, it can’t be stressed too much how enormous his contribution has been to science. Than there were the atomists who figured out that every element in the cosmos was made out of atoms. Knowledge comes from atoms not from our senses. Key people here are Leucippus, Democritus and Epicurus.

Socrates, Plato and Aristotle

Here we actually see the first philosophers that are addressing human nature and ethics. These philosophers, perhaps for the very first time in history, started to express thoughts based on them thinking for themselves as individuals (reasoning).  They are using their individual consciousness to investigate the big philosophical questions, the ones that we are still debating.The questioning and experimentation of these pro-scientist was not always welcomed by the authorities and the Athenian people and several of them were prosecuted, banned or had to pay with their life. Socrates paid the ultimate price and had to conduct suicide,  Aristotle was twice exiled from Athens.

Socrates was acquiring all his life knowledge of moral concepts and still proclaimed I know nothing. Just before he was sentenced to death he supposedly have said:” The unexamined life is not worth living”. The death of Socrates shows that despite the Athenian freedom, one could still upset the vested interests. It still remains one of the great, be it sad, events in history.

Plato (400BCE) established the concept of dualism between the natural phenomenon of space and time, which is continuously in flux. He also invented the theory of Forms (ideas) which he claimed are eternal.  Forms led to the concept of The One (Good). This concept was carried forward into Christianity and is still with us today (Good became God). All great Christian thinkers of the next millennium basically used Plato as the starting point of their learnings: Luke, Paul, Augustine, Boethius, Anselm, Ockham, and many others. They were assisted in this with the works of Plotinus who revived the works of Plato and started Neo-Platonism (this term only arrived in the 19th century).

Aristotle (350BCE)   accepted Plato’s views but wanted to take them further to the test by questions where these ‘Forms’ are and what proof there was that they existed and where did they come from. He defines metaphysics as “the knowledge of immaterial being,” or of “being in the highest degree of abstraction.” He refers to metaphysics as “first philosophy”, as well as “the theological science.

Aristotle also went much further than the others, using what we now call empirical science to investigate physics, metaphysics, poetry, theatre, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology, he was a true polymath.  He was the first to systematically approach these issues. He tackled logic and categorised valid forms of argument. For the first time a different world view started to emerge as being different from the predominant view of the world based on the gods/religion.

Aristotle also had something to say something about us, humans. This view – 2500 years on – is still very relevant for our society. His view was that in the end we all work towards being happy and that our thoughts and desires are hard wired to achieve this.  Aristotle saw this very much in the context of society and not in the context  individuals. In other words to achieve happiness a society would put its thoughts and desires towards that goal. While I call it a goal he thought that creating happiness was a never ending process and that you actually achieve happiness from the process itself. Of course we do have to note that Aristotle talked about rather small societies at that stage there was no Greece but a collection of individual rather small city state societies. This in itself opens up a different discussion should we go back to city states, where it might be easier to reach happiness?

Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle are perhaps the greatest philosophers ever. Just to paraphrase…the rest are footnotes. This might be a bit exaggerated, however, it clearly shows the incredible importance of these philosophers. Obvious in those days that included a whole area of proto-science.

The third level of philosophical development in Greece happened in the following Hellenistic period. Again a very strong link with their forebears, we see the arrival of a range of philosophical schools. They broadened the field and started to specialise around specific philosophical thoughts: Epicureans, Stoics, Cynics, Sceptics and later on also the above mentioned Neoplatonists.

These schools lasted well into the Christian era and in one way or another  influenced the early Christian philosophers, Stoicism is still recognisable in Christianity and especially in Calvinism.

The Stoics

The Stoics school was established by Zeno of Citum and became one of the longest lasting phonological (global awareness) schools.  It became the most popular philosophical movement in the Hellenistic and Roman period. They even had Roman Emperors amongst their scholars. They had the largest number of followers and are often contrasted with the Epicurean. Their ethics are based on living according to nature and resign to fate. Live in the present and live in harmony with nature, they coined the famous expression that there is a spark of divinity in each of us.  While Fate controls everything outside of human beings, we can still control our thoughts. This allows us to take the things in life as they come and react to that accordingly through reasoning. The Stoics had little time for emotions, which has been shown in more modern philosophical times to be unrealistic and also detrimental to humanity. Nevertheless at that time the y developed technics that strengthened the sense of individuality. Self-examination, self-awareness, self-expression, self-knowledge are all key element of the strain of philosophy.

The Stoics had taken up the ideas’ of consciousness from the earlier philosophers. They however, took it much further and through them consciousness received more attention. A key reason for it was that developed therapeutic models around the concept of consciousness.

They also believe that pneuma ( ancient Greek word for “breath)  is the active, generative principle that organises both the individual and the cosmos. The highest form of pneuma is the human soul which is connected to the gods (Zeus). Unlike the Epicureans, the Stoics do believe in the gods, however there is no indication that they linked that to religious doctrines.

Christianity that followed the Roman period was very much based on the faith of the individual (rather than tribal faith) and the Stoic philosophy nicely fitted into that religion.

It is not too difficult to link the ideas of the Stoics to for example Spinoza he used the word Nature instead of God, and this fits in nicely with the way the Stoics looked at Nature and the fact that we as part of Nature should behave as being an element of this (not standing outside or beyond of Nature).  Spinoza mentioned a level of  determination. Things happen in a cosmic sense as they happen we have no influence over this, this comes close the fate in the teachings of the Stoics. If we look at the Stoics in this way their philosophy starts looking very modern.

For me the key lessons from the Stoics are: be virtuous, avoid anger, don’t worry about things that are outside your control, avoid anxiety and live in the present.

The Stoics met in the Athenian market place the Stoa (hence their name).


This school was established by Epicurus (341-270BC). We know most about this philosophy thanks to the Roman scholar Lucretius (c 99-55BC). Epicurus philosophy was that there are no gods, so we have to make the best out of life here on earth by maximising happiness. He set up his famous school in the Garden – just outside Athens -where he lived together with his followers the Epicureans and also his teaching are still reverberating. This set them aside from the Stoics who were very much involved with Athenian life and politics.

Epicurus built on the knowledge of his forebears. He also was an atomic materialist and he developed theories that are very close to what nearly 2000 years later would become Darwin’s theory of the Origin of Species (1859). Lucretius had figured out for himself that the cosmos was not made by gods but that it had evolved through a random process of atoms combining and splitting, whereby the best, strongest and speediest survived and continued. He did not believe in the duality of mind and body; the mind was equally developed from atoms. He was the first to come up with the three-age system. This is the periodisation of history into three time periods: The Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age (only be confirmed in 1836). He also challenged the assumption that humans are superior to animals. We can read about all of this in Lucretius’ work “On the Nature of Things”. He presents this in one unified work with all of the core arguments and theories of Epicureanism.

Epicurus’ materialism led him to a general attack on superstition and divine intervention. He believed that the greatest good was to seek modest, sustainable pleasure through knowledge of the workings of the world and limiting desires. He was a man of very modest material needs. The combination of these two states constitutes happiness in its highest form. Correspondingly, Epicurus and his followers shunned politics because it could lead to frustrations and ambitions which can directly conflict with the Epicurean pursuit for peace of mind and virtues. A key element of Lucretius epicureanism was the pleasure of obtaining knowledge. Epicureanism unfortunately received a bit of a bad name in the 20th century as it was seen as hedonism, but this is wrong, as mentioned Epicures  promoted modesty.

Personally I like the combination of these two philosophies. It is important to use the talents that you have and to take personal responsibilities and don’t indulge in extravaganza (Stoics).  However, at the same time it is as important to enjoy life and pursue happiness as we only get one opportunity of life (Epicureans).

The Roman era

After Greece was conquered by the Romans, its culture and education was greatly admired by them and became more incorporated in Roman life, especially at court levels.  In relation to philosophy especially Stoicism, Scepticism and Epicurean were popular studies. Famous Roman philosophers include Zeno of Sidon, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius.

It is also important to mention Neoplatonism here, as it was developed by Plotinus (204– 271 AD) in Alexandria. He talked about the Trinity: The One, The Intellect and The Soul. He argued that the body was not important it was all about the Soul. This became the bridge between the Greek philosophers (especially Plato) and Christianity. A bridge with Aristotle followed a thousand years later.




Athens Acropolis
Athens Acropolis 2004

Looking back at the key Ancient Philosophies they can be categorised as followed:

  • Socratism – an intense ethical devotion combined with the development of the inductive method, and the conception of knowledge or insight as the foundation of virtue.
  • Platonism – dualism, the distinction between reality and what is perceptible, actual things are copies of transcendent ideas (Forms) and that these ideas are the objects of true knowledge, The One (The Good)
  • Aristotelian  –  facts derived from experience (science), recognition of the “why” in all things through induction. Logic either deals with appearances, and is then called dialectics; or of truth, and is then called analytics.
  • Stoicism – accept dualism but live in accordance to nature – they talked about a ‘world soul’. Fate (determinism) rules the cosmos.
  • Epicurean – (hedonism) perusal of happiness (intellectually pleasure) and avoiding pain is most important in a  life lived in modesty.
  • Sceptics – answers to metaphysics questions are simply impossible – is knowledge achievable?
  • Neoplatonism – largely followed Plato. Christians used ‘The One’ as an argument that Plato was a pre-Christian.


With the arrival of Christianity, the various philosophical schools were closed and a large proportion of the ancient philosophers was lost for ever.  For the next 1000 years philosophy was based on the principle of faith. While this era also produced incredible scholars they were not allowed to venture outside the foundations of faith.  It was only with the arrival of the Renaissance that there was renewed interest in Europe in the Greek philosophers. Parts of the writings had been rescued by the Arab scholars. Amazingly we are still discovering lost documents. Thanks to new technologies chard documents in the ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii are made readable again.

If we look at the works of these early philosophers and proto-scientist one wonders what would have happened if that level of inquisitive philosophy and science would not have been stopped for 1500 years. What would have happened if that level of intellect could simply have been allowed to continue.

We most likely would have seen people such as Darwin, Spinoza, Hume, Newton, Einstein, and others appearing on the world stage hundreds of years earlier. The thought processes of these philosophers without access to the level of science that only started to evolve during the Enlightenment is just mind-boggling and it shows the power of reasoning. The giants of the Enlightenment and beyond most certainly were standing on the shoulders of the Ancients. When the work of the Ancients was rediscovered by the newcomers, they found a wealth of knowledge on which they could build and take society further on the road of social and economic development.

While there is in our age an enormous focus on rationality and empirical research it is important to state that emotions are perhaps sitting at the source of that. As David Hume (1711-1776) states it is our emotions that are allowing us to come up with ideas, thoughts, ethics, and the desire for knowledge, it also gives us passion. Seeking is perhaps the core emotional tool that we have. When that gets suppressed by religious or political doctrines, we enter periods of dark ages.

Secular philosophy was driven into exile