Archive for the ‘philosophers’ Category


Thales (-640 to -562) was the first Greek philosopher and scientist. He was the first to try to find out how the world works through observation and reason, not through old stories about the gods.

Thales said everything comes from water in the end, just as we say everything is made of atoms in the end.

He was wrong about the water bit, but that style of thinking, of looking for a root natural cause of everything, is still with us and it started with him.

He was on everyone’s list as one of the seven wise men in ancient Greece. So was Solon, the great lawmaker of Athens, who lived at the same time across the Aegean sea. We still have a letter that Thales wrote to him.

Thales was the first to say “Know yourself”. He said it was the hardest thing in the world to do. The best way to make yourself better is to avoid the faults you see in others. Time was the wisest thing of all because it brought all to light.

But Thales was less interested in men than in the stars. He was the first Greek to know when an eclipse would take place. He said there would be one on May 12th -585. On that day, right in the middle of a battle, the moon covered the sun just like he said it would. It made him a wonder in the Greek world.

He wrote little. We know of only two books, both on the motion of the sun: “On the Solstices” and “On the Equinox”. Both are lost.

Perhaps he wrote so little because he was too busy travelling the world to learn all he could: Crete, Egypt, Asia and throughout the Greek-speaking world.

Although to the Greeks he seems to have made great discoveries about the sun, the moon and the stars, it is likely that he “discovered” most of them not in the skies but in talking to the priests of Egypt, who even then had records going back thousands of years.

Even so Thales did not find philosophy and science being practised anywhere in the world. They are his invention. He certainly did not find it in Egypt, a land ruled by priests.

Thales came from Miletus, a town Athens settled on the other side of the Aegean sea. It was then a part of Ionia, which ran down the west coast of what we now call Turkey. It produced most of the early Greek thinkers, even Pythagoras who later moved to Italy. Athens did not become the centre of Greek thought till 200 later in the time of Plato and Socrates.

He once measured the height of a pyramid: he waited till his shadow was as long as he was tall. Then he measured the shadow of the pyramid.

Some say he died by falling into a hole while looking up at the stars.

– Abagond, 2007.

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Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936) was a Spanish writer and thinker from the early 1900s. He stood between two Spains: the old Spain of faith and the new Spain of Western science and reason. He was torn between the two – neither fully satisfied him. His thought was an early form of existentialism. He said, “Faith without doubt is dead.”

Unamuno was the head of the University of Salamanca, where he had once taught Greek. Twice he stood up to the generals who wanted to rule Spain. The first time he was sent to the Canary Islands, later escaping to France. The second time, against Franco, he was put under house arrest but died a few months later just as the civil war was starting.

His greatest work was “The Tragic Sense of Life” (1913). Unamuno said the root of every philosophy and every religion – in fact, of every human action and thought – is the fear of death and the desire for immortality, to live forever. It why people have children, why they want to get rich, why they want to be famous or powerful. The fear of the death and the desire to live forever drives them, whether they know it or not. It stands behind everything like a shadow.

In the past men have tried to prove that the soul is immortal, using reason alone and not religion. Aquinas tried, so did Spinoza and others. They failed.

Because it cannot prove immortality, reason becomes the enemy of man, of life. What is more, reason, which began as the golden road to the truth, in the end destroys the truth through doubt and scepticism.

Like Tolstoy, Unamuno wished he had the simple religious faith of country people. But he does not. Reason has destroyed his faith. Yet reason itself has also destroyed the truth and any hope for an afterlife. It is a dead end.

His head could not believe in Christianity, but his heart still did. In the end he followed his heart and his faith over his head. It did not make sense, but it was the only way out that he could see.

Unamuno once wrote a story about a country priest called “Saint Manuel the Good, Martyr” (1931). Every Sunday he told the simple country people about the afterlife, but he believed none of it. Yet he did not have the heart to tell them the truth – it would kill them, he said. The story tells about his fight between faith and doubt in his own soul. Just like Unamuno himself.

Unamuno also wrote an excellent character study of Don Quixote. Of course, it was about more than just a character in a book. It was about Spain itself.

Some wanted all of Spain to become like Castile in the centre of Spain. Unamuno, being a Basque, opposed it.

Unamuno knew 14 languages. He learned Danish so he could read Kierkegaard in his own language.

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Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was a British thinker from the middle 1600s, the godfather of the banana republic. In his book “Leviathan” he argued that democracy would never work. He is famous for saying that man’s life is naturally “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

Hobbes was a private teacher for the powerful Cavendish family in Britain. He also translated Thucydides into English. Thucydides wrote about the war between Athens and Sparta, showing how men were driven by self-interest alone, however they may dress up their actions in fine words.

Later Hobbes saw Britain itself torn apart by war when Cromwell and the Roundheads rose up against the king. He fled with the Cavendish family to Paris to wait out the war. There he taught the future king, Charles II, and wrote his master work, “Leviathan“. He also met some of the best minds of Europe, like Descartes and Gassendi.

When his book came out in Paris in 1651 the Catholic Church was not pleased. The “Leviathan” seemed to have little room for God; man was little more than a machine. Hobbes was no Catholic, but he left Paris and went back to England.

“Leviathan” lays out Hobbes’s philosophy about nature, man, history, morals, power and the state. It planted two seeds into Western thought:

  1. The power of the king comes not from God, as everyone up till then believed, but from the will of the people. Power and rights in society come from a social contract, an agreement among the citizens of a state at its founding that binds future ages. The contract is often taken for granted, not written down.
  2. Nature is a machine. Not just the stones and the stars, but even living plants and animals and man himself. Even the mind itself is nothing but a machine.

Hobbes saw man as driven only by self-interest. Out of fear of death he will give away his rights to a king. The king then has all the rights and power of society, his subjects are left with none – they gave them away. The king is above even the law.

Kings grew powerful not by divine right, as they said in those days, but by force. His power came not from above but from below, from his subjects.

But even though Hobbes used this sort of thinking to support the right of kings, Jefferson would later use it to argue for democracy: since the king got his power from the people, the people had the right to overthrow him.

Hobbes thought that democracy would never work: it makes decisions too slowly and changes its mind too often. This makes it completely unsuited for war. In time the kings would overthrow any democracies that took root. Democracy is one of those bad ideas spread by the Greeks.

Few accept Hobbes’s philosophy, but his way of thinking has become common. Like reasoning from history instead of from the nature of man. It has especially affected Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Rousseau, Bentham and Mill.

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Hegel (1770-1831) was a giant of Western philosophy in the 1800s. He affected much of the philosophy of the time, especially that of Marx, who read history in light of his thinking.

As a boy Hegel studied the great works of the Greeks and Romans and wanted to become a Protestant minister. So he went to study at Tubingen. There he became friends with Schelling and Holderlin. Schelling would later make his mark in philosophy and Holderlin became a famous poet.

Hegel changed his mind about becoming a minister and became a private teacher instead. But then when he was 27 his father died. Hegel became rich and never had to work a day in his life again. He studied philosophy and in time taught it first at Heidelberg and then at Berlin, where he became famous.

Hegel taught that a simple process, the dialectic, governs everything – not just nature, but art and society too:

thesis + antithesis -> synthesis

In the beginning is the thesis, but before long this brings about its opposite, the antithesis. A period of disorder follows as the two battle, trying to get the upper hand. Neither wins. Instead a new order arises: the synthesis. It puts the thesis and antithesis together to create something newer and better. That is how history progresses, how things get better over time.

But the synthesis now finds that it has become the new thesis, which brings about a new antithesis. And so on.

And so by this process earth becomes plant, plant becomes animal, animal becomes man, man becomes the state and so on. It is how worship of nature became Christianity. (Hegel saw Christianity as a sort of Hegelianism for the masses.)

And so from bad and simple beginnings come good and wonderful things. Things are always changing but, in the long run, getting better. Much better.

This process comes to an end in what Hegel called the Absolute Spirit when we will know everything and see God.

Marx saw history in these terms: the capitalists, the rich moneymen, would bring about their opposite, the workers. The two would battle and in the end communism would arise to replace them both and bring an end to their division:

capital + workers -> communism

Hegel was deeply affected by the Greeks, Spinoza, Rousseau, Kant, Fichte and his friend Schelling.

Hegel himself affected not just Marx but also Kierkegaard, Sartre, Dewey and Royce and, of course, the Young Hegelians, who wanted to unite Germany.

Hegel is still important, given how often his works are still cited, but he is no longer the giant he was in the 1800s. His chief influence now comes through Marx.

His books:

  • 1807: Phenomenology of Mind
  • 1816: Science of Logic
  • 1817: Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences
  • 1821: Philosophy of Right
  • 1837: Philosophy of History
  • 1838: Philosophy of Art

In the “Phenomenology” he first presented his new philosophy and in the “Encyclopedia” he laid it out in detail.

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Lao-tzu (老子)

Lao-tzu (-500s), also called 老子 or Lǎozǐ, was a wise man who lived in China in the time of Confucius. He founded Taoism which, along with Confucianism, became one of the two great schools of philosophy of ancient China. It later became a religion. Zen Buddhism is Buddhism interpreted according to Taoism.

Lao-tzu wrote the Tao-te-Ching (in Chinese: Dàodé Jīng or 道德經), the classic book of the Tao (the Way) and its Te (power). It is short, just 5,467 words. It is the sort of book you can read in a half hour but take a lifetime to understand.

Apart from the Bible, no book has been translated more times.

Lao-tzu worked in a government office in Luoyang. As an old man he had had enough of man and his world. He got on the back of a black ox and headed west. At a mountain pass a military guard stopped him. He asked Lao-tzu to write a book. So he wrote the Tao-te-Ching and then disappeared into the west.

Some say he made it to India and taught a prince. Others say he died in China.

Experts in our time say that he wrote nothing – that the Tao-te-Ching was written during the centuries after his death by his followers.

The book is about the Tao. The Tao that you can put into words is not the Tao – the Tao is beyond words. It gave birth to the heaven and the earth and all of creation. These things developed out of it naturally, not as something consciously made.

The Tao is not a person like the Christian god. It is a force without a face. Its effect and manner you can see in the actions of heaven and earth, but not in the actions of men.

Men are always fighting against the Tao. They are always doing this or that, always seeking something: wealth, honour, power, knowledge, even holiness. They never sit still. But all this running about goes against the Tao and so it is bound to end in tears. We think we can have it our way. Wrong.

The true wise man acts and lives according to the Tao. Strangely enough, he acts by not acting – called wú wéi (無為) in Chinese. He does not even try to be good or wise. He trusts in the Tao and acts according to it and everything falls into place.

The wise man has three jewels: mercy, humility and moderation. Going against any one of these goes against the Tao.

If you think of the Pooh stories, Pooh Bear acts in a Taoist manner, while Rabbit is completely the opposite.

After his death, Taoism was developed by his follower Chuang-tzu (Zhuangzi) in the -300s.

In time Taoism became a religion, complete with gods, priests, rites, temples, all of it. Even Lao-tzu was a god. It had the support of the emperors down through the ages. But then in 1911 the last emperor fell. In time the communists took over China under Mao and destroyed most of Taoism from 1949 to 1980. China is now about 1% Taoist, while never-communist Taiwan is about 33%.

– Abagond, 2007, 2021.

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Karl Marx (1818-1883) was a German political philosopher who founded the school of Marxism, known also as communism. Marx said the workers will overthrow the capitalists, the moneymen. They will set up a society with no private property, no rich and poor. Even government itself will wither away in time.

Many saw this as the wave of the future and so it was:
in the 1900s many countries ordered their societies according to Marx’s ideas, in whole or in part:

  • In backward countries, the communists overthrew the government and remade society according to Marx’s ideas. There was no more private property – the government owned all the land, all the mines, all the businesses, all the houses, everything. There was no more freedom of religion, no more free political thought. Those who disagreed with the government and would not shut up were taken away. Examples: Russia, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Ethiopia.
  • In democracies, socialists formed parties to represent workers. When they got in power they used the government’s power to tax to take from the rich and give to the poor. They gave money to those too old to work, made businesses pay workers fairly, gave workers the right to strike, provided money for higher education, and so on. Examples: Britain, Sweden, Chile under Allende, Israel.

In 1991 communism fell in Eastern Europe. It no longer seemed like the wave of the future, but a bad period in history. Yet even today Marx’s ideas live on in left-wing political thinking:

  • The purpose of government is to bring justice through equality, doing away with rich and poor.
  • To improve man you must improve society.
  • Man can be understood by his material conditions alone: to understand man, follow the money.

When Mother Theresa was in India helping the poor, some laughed at her because she only helped one poor person at a time. They said she should work to change an unjust society instead. Mother Theresa thought like Jesus Christ, those who laughed at her thought like Karl Marx.

In the old days land was power, so the great landowners ruled society. Then came the rise of traders and bankers – the capitalists. Power moved from the land and farming to money and industry. The capitalists overthrew the old ruling class, the landowners.

Marx, who spent his days studying history in the British Museum, said this was going to happen again, only this time the workers will overthrow the capitalists.

The power of the capitalists came from profits made from putting money into businesses. But where did the profits come from? From underpaying workers. As soon as the workers understood this, they would overthrow the capitalists and take power for themselves.

Marx did not believe in God. He said religion was “the opium of the people.” – something to keep them from feeling the pain of living in an unjust society.

Marx was influenced by the philosophy of Hegel. Like Hegel he saw history in terms of opposites creating something new and better. Thus progress.

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David Hume (1711-1776) was a Scottish philosopher of the Enlightenment who pushed Locke’s and Berkeley’s school of empiricism to the breaking point, resulting in scepticism.

Hume wanted to be a great writer and saw himself as a moral philosopher, but today we read Hume mostly for his theory of knowledge in his book “Human Understanding” (1748).

Hume, as everyone knew, did not believe in God, not even when he was dying. He was the first famous deathbed atheist in the West. His housekeeper, however, said he did not die with peace of mind.

Hume doubted not just God, but everything – even the existence of the mind, self and the material world. Although he believed the sun would rise tomorrow, he saw it as just that: a belief, nothing more. You cannot prove it. Much of our knowledge is just like that: physical laws are just another way of saying what always seems to happen. So are cause and effect: we suppose that cause leads to effect, but there is no way to prove it. It is just what seems to happen, but we really do not know why.

Ideas and words are the same: they can only be about those things that always seem to go together. They are just names we stick on things, there is no inner truth to them.

We think of the world as being predictable and based on rules, but that is just the bit of reality that we can understand. Reality goes far beyond that.

Hume argued against the existence of miracles. Miracles by definition are highly improbable events. Which only means that it is more probable that any report of a miracle is a lie or an error than that the miracle really took place.

Hume said that religion and theology are not based on reason.

Hume’s moral theory was based not on God or religion but on the pleasing and useful consequences of our actions. This was later developed by Bentham in his philosophy of utilitarianism. It was Bentham who said “the greatest good for the greatest number.”

Hume’s ideas also influenced John Stuart Mill, Comte and others. The philosophy of Kant was partly in answer to Hume.

Hume received his education in Edinburgh in the 1730s, but soon after moved to Paris, where he spent much of his life. There he became friends with Rousseau, whom he later helped to flee to Britain with some money to live on. Rousseau was not grateful.

Hume’s history of Britain was the top book on the subject for many years. His facts were not always right, but his writing was wonderful.

Hume’s science writing is among the best in the English language. It is as clear as glass, uncoloured by his emotions.

Some say he wrote to shock in order to become a famous writer. Still his thought does hold together and is not easy to overthrow.

If you wonder about the truth of religion, science or atheism, then read Hume.

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Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was an English philosopher who was a founder of Western science along with Galileo and Descartes. He did this by adding induction to Greek science.

While many thought that Aristotle and Holy Scripture already had all the answers, Bacon saw that man was only at the beginning of what he could know.

Bacon laid out his ideas for the future of science in two books: “De Augmentis Scientiarum” (1623) and “Novum Organum” (1620).

The “Novum Organon,” or New Organon, was his master work. The old Organon was a book by Aristotle in which he laid down the rules for thought and science.

Aristotle said that one starts out with facts and axioms. An axiom is a statement whose truth requires no proof because it is self-evident. It becomes the starting point for all other proofs. By applying his rules of thought to these you can prove other statements true. These in turn can be used to prove yet other statements true. And so on.

This is called deduction. It sounds wonderful but Bacon said it was not enough. For example, it cannot prove whether the sun will rise tomorrow.

Therefore Bacon added induction: if two things always seem to go together, like night and day or smoke and fire, then if one exists you can conclude that the other exists too. So if it is night, then you can conclude day will follow.

Bacon drew up induction tables to show when an induction was a good one.

Induction is not as certain as deduction, but neither is it as limited: you can find out a lot more using induction. And even if it was not the royal road to truth, Bacon believed it would get you close enough as a starting point.

With induction the knowable becomes what you can see or make happen over and over again. This led to the experiment becoming the heart of science. It also led in time to intellectuals like Hume and Jefferson doubting the existence of miracles.

With induction science moves from seeking the whys of nature to predicting and later controlling nature. Bacon said that knowledge is power, its purpose “the relief of man’s estate.”

Bacon was a hero to Hooke, Boyle, Comte, Jefferson and even Kant. He was later attacked by Joseph de Maistre.

While later ages justified Bacon’s faith in science, in his own day he was regarded chiefly as a king’s minister who was a good writer, famous for his books of wordly wisdom like his “Essayes” (1597) and “De Sapientia Veterum” (1609).

But even in his time he made science respectable among philosophers and fashionable among gentlemen. His book “Nova Atlantis” (1626) gave such gentlemen the idea of forming the Royal Society.

Bacon did not believe in Copernicus: he could not see the earth moving through space like that.

Francis Bacon is no relation of Roger Bacon, an English philosopher of the 1200s.

His best books:

  • “Essayes” (1597)
  • “Novum Organum” (1620)

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Rene Descartes (1596-1650) was a French philosopher. In Latin his name is Renatus Cartesius, from which we get the word “Cartesian.” He moved Western philosophy beyond Aristotle, created analytic geometry by applying algebra to geometry and was a leading light of the new science.

Descartes is the one who said “Cogito, ergo sum”, Latin for “I think, therefore I am”.

Descartes said that if you really want to know the truth, then at least once in your life you must doubt everything. From this universal doubt he knew that he existed because he doubted! “I think, therefore I am.” From there he proved that God exists, using the proofs of Anselm and Aquinas. But God would not deceive us, therefore we can trust our senses too. And so on.

Descartes reasoned from truths he could not doubt to new truths and then reasoned from these new truths to derive yet other truths and so on through a process of deduction.

Descartes did to philosophy what Euclid had done to geometry, building it from the ground up. So had Aristotle, but Descartes was far more thorough. It was quite unlike Bacon’s science by induction.

Descartes founded the school of rationalism. It said that man’s knowledge is based on reason and certain inborn ideas. This was later opposed by the empiricism of Locke.

Descartes saw the body and all of nature as matter in motion, as moving parts working together. The human mind, on the other hand, was something completely different. The mind was not material, it was not an ordinary part of nature. You could not see it or touch it. We only know about minds because we all experience them.

This is known as mind/body dualism, where the world is divided into mind and body. Most philosophers in the English-speaking world see it as a false distinction.

Descartes wondered where the mind was connected to the body. So he cut open dead animals and he cut open dead men and looked. Only man had a pineal gland, so he thought that was it. Years later, however, the pineal gland was found in other animals.

Descartes was a pious Catholic and, like Galileo, saw himself as helping the Church into the new age of thought. The Church did not see it that way.

While Descartes was writing his master work on science, “Le Monde”, the Church condemned Galileo for teaching the theory of Copernicus as true. That is just what Descartes had done in “Le Monde”! He stopped writing the book and never put it out. Instead he came up with his theory of vortices. It had some following till Newton proved Copernicus right once and for all.

In 1649 he went to Sweden to teach philosophy to the queen. The cold was too much for him and he died of pneumonia a year later.

His best books:

  • Discourse on Method (1637)
  • Meditationes de prima philosophia (1641)
  • Principia philosophiae (1644)

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John Locke (1632-1702) was a British philosopher. The American system of government is based on his political ideas. He founded the school of empiricism against that of Descartes’s rationalism. In his day he was seen as the philosopher of freedom.

Thomas Jefferson said he was one of the three greatest men who ever lived. He got his political ideas from Locke, from his First and Second Treatises of Government.

In the “First Treatise of Government” (1690) he argued against the divine right of kings. Kings in those days said that their right to rule comes from God. Locke shows why this is not true.

In the “Second Treatise of Government” (1690) he argues that the chief purpose of government is to uphold property rights.

Locke saw man as naturally good and rational. Men are created equal and are willing to live and let live. They know that to do well in this world they will need to work with others. Men are born with certain rights, among these the right to life, liberty, health and property. Government exists to uphold these rights and it is only given power for this reason.

Government therefore serves the people, not the other way round. They are created as the result of a social contract to uphold these rights. Therefore when government destroys these rights, the people have the right to overthrow it. “Government rules by the consent of the governed,” Locke said.

To keep government from growing too powerful, Locke said there should be a system of checks and balances: The power of government should not be all in one man’s hand, but divided so that no one part of government can grow too strong.

Property rights are important because they allow men to enjoy the fruits of their labour.

Locke believed in freedom of religion and conscience for everyone – except for Catholics and atheists.

Locke’s political thought opposed that of Hobbes. It was later built on by Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill and put into practice by the American Founding Fathers, especially Thomas Jefferson.

In his “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” (1690) Locke lays out his ideas about the nature of human knowledge. In doing this he founded a new school of philosophy called empiricism. It opposed the rationalism of Descartes.

According to Descartes knowledge is produced by reason and certain ideas that are built into our brains.

Locke, on the other hand, saw the human mind as a tabula rasa – a blank slate. No ideas are built in. All it starts out with are the five senses and the power of reason. The senses working on our brain, with some help from reason and thought, produces the ideas we have about the world: space, time, colour and all the rest. The ideas are almost stamped into our brain through the senses.

Empiricism was later developed by Berkeley and Hume, who found holes in Locke’s thinking.

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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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Epictetus (55-135) was one of the leading lights of the Stoic school of Greek philosophy. He became a Stoic while still a slave in Rome. Later freed, he was kicked out of Rome with all the other Stoics by Domitian in 90. He went to Greece and started his own school. We have two of his books, the “Discourses” and the “Encheiridion”.

If you have read the Bible, you should read Epictetus: he is the missing chapter between Socrates and the New Testament. In the time of St Paul Stoic philosophy affected people’s everyday thinking like how Freud and Marx affects ours. Stoic thought was the mental background noise of the age.

Surprisingly, Epictetus often makes a stronger case for what we would call good Christian living than the Bible does – because he gives down-to-earth reasons for it, not those of heaven and hell.

At times in Epictetus it almost seems as if Christianity is just Stoic philosophy for the masses.

At times, because they part ways on two very important questions: sin and death.


Epictetus says that you can become a good person by an act of will, through self control and right reason. Christians say that is impossible: it takes an act of God – what is called grace. To a Christian, the whole point of the Old Testament is that man cannot make it on his own, that just knowing what is right and wrong and wanting to do good is not enough. If it were, we would all be Jews. Or Stoics.


Both Epictetus and Christians see that death is at the root of our fears and drives us to do senseless things. For example, people do not become famous, get rich, own large houses and fancy cars because they need them in and of themselves. At root, they do it because they are afraid to die. The fear of the abyss ruins our character. We will never live right, we will never be all that we should be, till we face death and somehow overcome it.

Part of what makes Christ stick out so much in people’s mind is how he was so unafraid of death and lived life accordingly.

Where the Stoics and Christians part company is how they overcome death. Christians overcome it through faith in God and his promise of a blessed afterlife for the faithful. Stoics, not believing in an immortal soul, have to come to terms with death head on.

Epictetus cares little about nature – for him the burning question for philosophy is how best to live. In this he is a child of his age. Yet his answer is hard to take since it means giving up everything we have built our lives on.

Epictetus, like Plotinus, unwittingly shows you how to put together the best of Greek philosophy with Christianity; how they are not really all that far apart.

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The Stoics were one of the five schools of Greek philosophy in ancient times. It is the one that most influenced the Romans and early Christians. Stoics valued virtue above all. Famous Stoics include Cato, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus.

For Stoics virtue, doing what was right, was the only thing that mattered, not health or wealth, family or friends or even life itself – which is why suicide is allowed, as in the case of Cato. Virtue is your only real possession, apart from your soul. Everything else comes and goes. A wise man, therefore, is indifferent to them – he is happy whether he is rich or poor, a king or a slave.

Virtue means being ruled by reason, not by your passions, which only leads to vice.

Life is an endless battle against vice, against one’s passions. To attain virtue a wise man seeks wisdom. Wisdom leads to virtue, virtue leads to peace of mind or what the Stoics called apathy, where all the passions are dead. Apathy leads to true happiness.

Stoics admired Socrates and Diogenes the Cynic and regard them as two wisest men who ever lived.

Stoics believed in fate and providence. God created and rules the world for the benefit of rational creatures like ourselves. Everything happens by necessity: what happens is meant to be and could not be otherwise. A wise man accepts this with good grace.

The Stoic school was founded by Zeno of Citium in 322 BC. He was a trader from Cyprus who lost his ship and all his goods. When he got to Athens he met Crates the Cynic outside a bookshop. Crates told him that material possessions do not matter. Zeno went around Athens to hear all the other philosophers. In time he started to teach his own philosophy in the Stoa Poilike in Athens, which is how his school got its name of Stoic.

Zeno divided philosophy into three parts:

  1. Logic – about reason and knowledge, how to think and know.
  2. Physics – about nature and how it works.
  3. Ethics – about virtue, how to best live.

By and large, Stoics did logic and physics only to get their ethics right.

Stoic logic comes from Aristotle. Everything we know in the end comes from our senses. Ideas exist only in the mind to help us understand what we sense; they have no reality of their own.

Stoic physics comes from Heraclitus. Everything is material, even our soul and God – both made of fire. God is to the world as our soul is to our body. Our soul comes from the fire of God. God at the same time is Logos – Reason itself.

Stoic ethics comes from Socrates and Diogenes. Since Reason rules the world so reason should rule our souls. This is what Stoics mean when they say “live according to nature.”

After 200 the Stoics were overtaken by the Neoplatonists and Christians. Christians carried on many Stoic ideas, but said that reason alone was not enough: you also need faith. Stoics came very close, but never quite said that.

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Epicurus (-341 to -270) of Athens founded the Epicurean school of Greek philosophy, one of the five great school of ancient times. Its glory days ran from about -300 to +200. It taught that the world is nothing more than matter in motion, that things happen by chance – not even the gods are in control. To live well in such a world and have peace of mind, one must avoid pain and seek pleasure.

Although the Epicureans later got a bad name as immoral pleasure seekers, Epicurus himself lived very simply as an example to his followers. He lived in a house in a garden where he taught his followers. His school was therefore called the Garden. It stood there in Athens from –310 to +529.

Epicurus said that the aim of life was peace of mind. To attain it you must seek pleasure and avoid pain according to the following principles:

  1. Fear no god: Gods exists, yes, but they want to live in peace. They do not care about us. The universe is ruled not by gods but by matter, motion and chance.
  2. Do not care about death: it does not hurt, you will not even know you are dead! You will be gone, even your soul. There is no hell to fear.
  3. The good is easy to get: Man does not need much – he can live on “water and barley cakes.”
  4. The bad is easily endured: if sickness or pain is horrible it is short-lived. If it is long-lasting, it is bearable.

Epicurus was against suicide because it goes against the fourth principle. Some later Epicureans, however, were for it.

For Epicurus there is no such thing as morals, as right and wrong – just pleasure and pain. Not just those of the flesh, but, even more important, those of the mind.

To attain peace of mind it helps to be just, prudent and honourable. So does friendship. Family and political affairs, on the other hand, do not.

The Stoics also sought peace of mind, but looked for it in duty, not pleasure.

Epicurus’s physics was based on the atoms of Democritus. Democritus said that everything was made up of atoms: very small bits of matter – too small to see and too small to cut up into smaller parts. They are uncreated and eternal.

The universe is just atoms moving about. To some degree they follow the rules of physics, but there is also an element of chance as well. There is certainly no divine design or purpose to it all.

Epicurus said that even the gods were made of atoms. While his universe does not require gods, either to create it or rule it, he believed they existed because it is a universal belief among mankind. Gods should be worshipped out of respect not fear.

Famous Epicureans: Cassius, Lucretius, Lucian, Lorenzo Valla, Gassendi, Thomas Jefferson.

Influenced by Epicurean thought: Virgil, Horace, Locke, Boyle, Newton.

Against it: Cicero, Plutarch, Origen and Augustine.

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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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