Paul Budde's History Archives

The Poets and the Ancients

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 on life and the 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. They did that by bringing in external magical forces, gods, and deities.

Once the hunter gatherers started to settle in more permanent places and the family groups grew into larger tribes. 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 tribe 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.

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.

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 was a great philosopher who used paradoxes (like the race between the tortoise and Achilles)

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.

While I am not venturing into this area, Pythagoras  brought us mathematics, it can’t be stressed to much how enormous his contribution is 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. The latter argues that as there are no gods; make the best out of life here on earth by maximising happiness.

Others in Athens followed that principle of reasoning and the most famous ancient philosophers are Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Here we actually see the first philosophers that are addressing human nature and ethics.

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 continuously in flux and the Forms (ideas) which 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 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 into natural physics: physics, metaphysics, poetry, theatre, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology, he was a true polymath.  He was the first one to systematically approached these issues, tackled logic and categorised valid forms of argument.

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 what we might call philosophers in the sense of what we nowadays call philosophers.

Athens Acropolis

Athens Acropolis 2004

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

  • Platonism – dualism, the distinction between reality and what is perceptible.
  • Empiricism – experience based
  • Sceptics – answers to metaphysic questions are simply impossible – is knowledge achievable?
  • Stoicism – accept dualism but live in accordance to nature – they talked about a ‘world soul’.
  • Epicurism – (hedonism) perusal of happiness (intellectually pleasure) is most important in life

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

It is also important to mention Neo Platonism here, as it was developed by Plotinus 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.

Secular philosophy was driven into exile