Ancient Philosophy is often thought of as a theoretical procedure, involving ageing academics who argue over absurd propositions concerning knowledge, truth, justice and existence. I’d like to challenge this commonly held notion with the following series of videos in which I hope to bring the ideas of these ancient sages to life. The main aim being to demonstrate that (in the words of Wittgenstein) philosophy is an activity rather than a theory. I’d like to start with the pre-Socratic philosophers because I feel that in spite of the lack of surviving works from this period, the central doctrines of these thinkers are clearly represented. All of these thinkers deal with cosmological questions, such as
What is the origin of the Universe?
What is the shape and size of the Universe?
Is its existence necessary?
What are the ultimate components of the Universe?
Does the Universe have a purpose?
Does the existence of consciousness have a purpose?
We will start with Thales who is often referred to as ‘the first philosopher’, though he was also an accomplished mathematician and scientist. Thales is renowned for being a ‘monist’ who claimed that the Universe is ultimately only made of one substance: water. He also stated that ‘there is no difference between the living and the dead’ as he believed all matter was alive in some sense.
Anaximander is known as ‘the Father of cosmology’, and he is responsible for bringing ‘the indefinite’ into philosophy, which was an eternal and unchanging realm, from which all things were born, and to which all things returned upon death. In this way he spilt existence into two. The world was now composed of concrete, definite things which were always changing on the one hand. But on the other hand it was composed of an indefinite mass which never changed, but always remained the same.
Heraclitus looked at the cosmology of Anximander and decided that he was mistaken in his analysis of existence. For Heraclitus only those things which were constantly changing, or in flux, could be considered real. The indefinite and eternal world was merely an illusion. In reality nothing stays the same, although things may appear otherwise. As such, the most fundamental and basic element was fire/lightning (rather than the water in Thales’ philosophy) as it was always changing, and it could be shown to be at the basis of all other elements. This brings us on to two competing philosophies of time: presentism (only the present moment is real; past and future are imaginary) and eternalism (nothing ever changes; but past present and future are all real at once)
Parmenides took the other side of the debate which was started by Anaximander. For Parmenides, the world of change in Heraclitus was an illusion. Only the eternal unchanging world was real. This led Parmenides to some odd conclusions, such as movement being impossible, empty space being unreal, as well as birth and death being mere illusions of the senses. Nonetheless, we see parallels between this cosmology and the theory of relativity, and so there is still strong support for such ideas in modern science.
Empedocles introduces two more concepts in ancient philosophy: love and strife. Love tried to bind things together, while strife separates them. The Universe of Empedocles was driven by these two forces (of attraction and repulsion), and as such the shape of the universe was a spiral, with one force bringing things together in the centre (love) while the other force drives things apart to the edges (strife). The four elements were considered to be the most fundamental unchanging units of nature (the roots of all things), and different materials were simply mixtures of these four basic elements. Clearly Empedocles anticipated the later ideas of Democritus and the atomists
Anaxagoras starts with the startling proposition ‘everything is in everything’. Like most of his predecessors, Anaxagoras was concerned with answering the question (originally asked by Parmenides) of how something can come from nothing, and this idea that all things were contained in everything else (in seed form) allowed him an original perspective. In this way Anaxagoras is a pluralist rather than a monist, as the Universe is composed of multiple elements in seed forms. The mind is also introduced into this cosmology, and it is introduced as the cause of motion. As such, his Universe was both mechanistic, but also teleological. Motion was caused by mind, which is an agent of purpose.
Democritus, characterized as the ‘laughing philosopher’, was the first philosopher to develop a theory of atoms as the smallest part of the Universe, stating that ‘atoms and void are all that exist’. Obviously such a model of reality is close to the one found in our science text books, and so it is worth looking at the reasons Democritus came to certain conclusions regarding the nature of substance. Most of his surviving work actually deals with Ethics, rather than atoms, and I hope to show that his ethical doctrines were also hugely influential too.
Diogenes is the first philosopher who comes after Socrates, and so we have already finished ‘the pre-socratics’. Diogenes was a cynic philosopher who wrote very little, preferring to demonstrate his philosophy through activity rather than words. His main concern was ethics, and he is famous for denouncing wealth and luxury as completely unnecessary, and even harmful. He is perhaps one of the first philosophers to carry out ascetic practises on himself, in order to attain spiritual improvement. And he is still notorious for being utterly shameless in regards to bodily functions.
Zeno and the stoics
The Stoics separated Philosophy into Logic, Ethics and Physics, and they compared these three parts to the shell, white and yolk of an egg. They understood the world as being composed of both passive and active substances which were inseparable. The active part was associated with divine reason, while the passive part was inert matter. All inert matter was animated by the principle of divine reason, and as the amount of matter was finite, the world was condemned to repeat itself in an endless chain of causality. These cosmological ideas were the basis of Stoic ethics, which have been admired by thinkers of many different religions and philosophies. The ethical principles of the Stoics include the idea that no-one commits crimes or sins willingly (this opinion goes back to Socrates). They also denigrated emotional reactions to external events in favour of self control and good judgement.
Epicurus developed the atomistic doctrines of his predecessor, Democritus, and it is the works of Epicurus which demonstrate how well these theories were already developed. Epicurus held that the universe is infinite in size, as well as in the number of atoms. He also held it is eternal, for like many other sages he agreed with Parmenides that ‘out of nothing comes nothing’: the universe must have always existed, and will always exist. His main disagreement with the physical doctrines of the stoics was with their determinism. Epicurus believed that all atoms ‘swerved’ randomly, and as such he left room for thought and free will, arguing against determinism. His ethical doctrines were also at loggerheads with the stoics, for he believed that pain and pleasure were the ultimate criteria for virtue and vice. Although he has been attacked for this position, his arguments have been admired by a wide range of modern thinkers.