Archive for the ‘300s BC’ Category


Diogenes of Sinope (-412 to -323), philosopher dog and citizen of the universe, was a Cynic philosopher who lived in a tub in Athens. He went about the streets with a lamp lit in the middle of the day looking for an honest man. Alexander the Great admired Diogenes so much that he offered him whatever he wanted. Diogenes, who was sunning himself at the time, asked him to move out of his light.

Diogenes was a Cynic. The Cynics were one of the five schools of Greek philosophy. He did not found the school – that was done by his teacher Antisthenes, a friend of Socrates. He was, however, its most famous member.

No one is sure how the Cynics got their name – Cynic means “like a dog” in Greek. Most likely because Diogenes himself lived like a dog: in the street, having no bodily shame whatsoever, doing everything in public. Yes, everything. Yes, that too. And that. Plato said he was like Socrates gone mad.

The influence of Diogenes was so great that he even affected the Stoics, another school of philosophy. The Stoics count him as one of their own. They see him and Socrates as the two wisest men who ever lived.

His influence extends more through the Stoics than through his own Cynics. That is because the Stoics went on to influence the Romans and Christians.

What Diogenes taught both Cynics and Stoics:

  1. Live according to nature, which means living according to reason. This leads to virtue which leads to happiness.
  2. The distinction between outer goods, like wealth, power and even health, and the inner goods of the soul. Outer goods come and go, so it is foolish to pin your happiness on them. Inner goods are the truest, highest and most lasting goods of all.
  3. The best way to train the soul is to live simply, to do without, to live in poverty. It is the only way to be truly free.
  4. Ethics, how best to live, is the chief concern of philosophy.
  5. Men and gods are all part of a commonwealth that
    extends far beyond any city or country. Diogenes said he was a citizen of the universe.

From here the two schools part ways.

Diogenes and the Cynics took living in poverty far more seriously. When Diogenes gave up everything he kept his cup. But when he saw a boy drink with his hands, he gave up his cup too.

The example of nature that the Stoics lived by was God and his will. God is the creator and soul of nature. Diogenes, however, followed the dog as his guide to nature.

By living like a dog he opposed nature and reason to human custom and vanity. He showed up the false sort of life that most of us live.

Diogenes said that a good chorus master will sing a bit too high to train his chorus to sing at the right note. Diogenes’s life was like that.

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Plato (-429 to -374) founded the Academy, one of the five schools of Greek philosophy. Through Augustine it became the one that most influenced the West from 400 till 1250. From 1250 to 1650 Aristotle, through the work of Aquinas, became more important.

Plato and Aristotle together laid the foundation of philosophy in the West.

Unlike Aristotle, Plato trusted mind and reason over the senses.

Plato was taught by Socrates, who turned Greek philosophy from questions of nature to questions about man. That is why so much of Plato is about virtue, justice and law.

Plato wanted to create the perfect society. He wrote about it in his book the “Republic”.

In the “Republic” a philosopher-king rules through a military made up of both men and women who have their property and children in common and their lovers chosen, it seems, by lot. The good of society is put above the good of the individual. Homer and other great works are rewritten to serve the needs of the state since, as they stand, they will ruin the young with the wrong ideas. Rulers tell “noble lies” to their subjects for the good of society.

In the course of telling us about his perfect society – which Plato does to find out the true nature of justice – he tells us along the way about the nature of man and of reality.

For Plato man is an immortal soul put in a mortal, material, corruptible body. Man is born neither good nor evil – he is whatever his education has made him. So the key to creating the perfect society is education. He who controls education controls the future. That is why Homer has to be rewritten.

After death the soul goes through the river Lethe where it forgets everything. It then enters a new body.

Plato’s picture of reality is given in his story of the cave. We are like men living in a cave who only see shadows on the wall. We think that is real life. We cannot see what is causing the shadows much less the light.

And so what we see about us is only a shadow of a higher reality, which Plato called the Forms or Ideas – the things causing the shadows.

For example, when we see horses, they are mere shadows or imperfect instances of the true Horse, which is idea or form of horseness in all its purity.

This is called idealism. It speaks to our sense that there is something beautiful and pure at the root of this very imperfect world.

Plato wrote his books in the form of dialogues or discussions. This is because Socrates taught by close questioning to test ideas and seek definitions.

Plato’s dialogues discuss the deepest questions of life:

  • The Republic: What is justice? What is real?
  • Parmenides: What is being and nothingness?
  • Theatetus: What is language?
  • Timaeus: How is the world put together?
  • Phaedo: Is the soul immortal?
  • Symposium: What is love?

And so on.

– Abagond, 2006.


The ancient road to Plato’s Academy


What is left of Plato’s Academy.

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Aristotle (-384 to -322) was a Greek philosopher, the founder of the Peripatetics, one of the five schools of Greek philosophy in ancient times. His teacher was Plato and he in turn taught Alexander the Great. Although Plato has been more important through most of the history of the West, Aristotle’s philosophy was on top from about 1250 to 1650, a period that saw the birth of Western science.

Aristotle was more down to earth than Plato. Unlike Plato, he trusted his senses and did not see this world as only the shadow of some higher reality. But like Plato he saw reason as the royal road to the truth.

For Aristotle a field of science starts with a set of axioms – statements whose truth is self-evident. One builds on top of this by observation and reason. This was how science was done until the time of Galileo nearly two thousand years later.

Aristotle saw the earth as a place of ceaseless change, birth and destruction. The heavens, however, were perfect, changeless and eternal.

The universe is made up of five elements: earth, water, air, fire and quintessence. Earth is the heaviest element so it sinks to the middle of the universe. That is how the earth itself came to be. Water is the next heaviest, making the seas, then comes the air. Above the air is a region of fire and above that are the heavens made of quintessence. Quintessence moves in perfect circles.

That is why the sun, moon, planets and stars all go round the earth.

Aristotle said that nothing could be physically infinite, that it was impossible for anything real to go on forever. That meant that the chain of causes that make up the universe cannot go on forever. There must be some starting point. That first uncaused cause he called the Prime Mover. Aquinas would later develop this argument into his proof of God.

Aristotle said that each physical thing or substance, like a man or a horse or a table, is made up of essence and accidents.

An essence are the parts of a thing that belong to its definition. Man, for example, is a rational animal. So his reason and animal body are part of his essence. He could not be a man without them. Accident, on the other hand includes those things that make one man different from the next, like his colour or weight, but which do not make him something other than a man.

This is only some of what he taught. He also wrote about the soul, virtue, reason, cause, motion, being, animals, the earth, government, rhetoric, theatre and much else.

Aristotle came down to the West chiefly through the Arabs. When his works appeared in Europe in the 1100s the Catholic Church at first saw him as a threat. But in the 1200s Aquinas was able to explain Christian theology, even the Eucharist, in terms of Aristotle’s philosophy. This in turn laid the groundwork for the rise of Western science.

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