Archive for the ‘Greeks’ Category

Why study the Greeks

Aside from Shakespeare and the Bible, the books that have helped me the most to understand the world and my place in it were nearly all written by three kinds of people: serious Christians, black Americans and the ancient Greeks.

The Greeks make the list for three reasons:

  1. Along with the Bible they are what the West was built on.
  2. The Greeks valued the truth. They questioned things and took nothing at face value. It was not enough for an answer to sound good or be respectable – it had to make sense and stand on its own.
  3. Like Shakespeare and the Bible, the Greeks are universal: you can read them and they sound like they are writing about people you know, about your time and place.

An excellent example is Thucydides. He wrote a history of a war between Athens and Sparta. Reading about a forgotten war sounds like a waste of time – and it probably would have been if Thucydides wrote it like a White American: full of self-serving lies, concerned more in making himself and his country look good than in the truth.

But he did not. Instead he wrote it like he lived in the very same crappy part of New York that I lived in. Yes. A place which none of the American schoolbooks or television shows helped me to understand – but which Thucydides did.

He could do that because he stuck to the truth, particularly the truth of human nature and the nature of power. He knew full well that in a hundred years no one would care about the war, and yet he knew people would still be reading his book – because people are the same all down through history.

If I lived in China I would read the oldest Chinese books I could find. Because they would lie at the root of what makes China China. But I live in the West, so I read its oldest books instead: the Bible and the Greeks.

Some dismiss the Greeks as DWEMs – Dead White European Males – while others use them to prove how great white people are.

The Greeks did not think of themselves as white. They divided the world not by race but language: if you spoke Greek you were Greek, if not you were barbarian. Racism is not as “natural” as racists like to think. All these white people who try to claim the Greeks for the glory of the white race are, yes, barbarians. It is pretty laughable – and sad. Especially since Greek “whiteness” seems to be less than 200 years old – but that is another post.

Further, Greek achievement was built mainly on top of thousands of years of Egyptian achievement. We are taught not to notice how culturally Egyptian they were.

On the other hand, just because they were “white” and “male” that does not mean they were incapable of true greatness. That would be just as racist as saying people of colour are no good. The truth is both are equally human.

Thanks to Macon D of Stuff White People Do for kind of suggesting this topic.

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Reading Plutarch


Plutarch in his book “Parallel Lives” compares the lives of famous Greeks and Romans. Always a good read. He tells of the lives of people like Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Pompey, Solon, Pericles and so on.

What I liked best were the lives of Brutus, Cato the Younger, Pompey, Antony, Crassus, Pericles, Alcibiades, Nicias, Lycurgus, and Theseus. Sometimes it is the man I like (Brutus), sometimes it is the times he lived in (Alcibiades), and sometimes it is the tragedy of his life (Crassus).

Plutarch writes about men’s lives to see how their virtue and vice, their moral decisions, their character – what we  in our time call “values” – affected their lives. If I had read Plutarch when I was younger he would have affected me more deeply.

The book is about long as the Bible and, surprisingly, makes a far better case for living a moral life. The Bible’s case is based mainly on fear of God and has few down-to-earth examples to model your life on (King David comes the closest). Even though Plutarch’s examples are generals and statesmen, they seem far closer to everyday men than do Moses or Jesus. Plutarch’s feet are planted on this earth, and that too makes him easier to believe.

Although he is a follower of Plato, he also makes a better case than Plato himself, and for the same reasons: he writes about this earth and its men and their lives, not all this hot air about a higher plane of being.

Things I learned from Plutarch:

  1. Sometimes it’s safer to be brave than not.
  2. Philosophy, like religion, can be a way of life and not simply a way of making sense of the world. (The respectable religions of his day were worn out.)
  3. Moral character  rests on a base of self-control.
  4. Men are defined by their actions, not by their position or property. But then the Bible tells that too.
  5. One of the best things about television is that it shows the terror and waste of war far more than its glory. Plutarch is blinded by the glory. He tells the story from the general’s camp, not from the streets that run with blood.
  6. That maybe Sparta, not Athens, was the crown of Greek achievement.
  7. That war and prison are true tests of a man’s character. I used to hate prison films. No more.

Like the earlier Greeks, he places a lot of value on courage, especially the physical kind. Like them, he sees the glory of war far more than its blood and waste – and this even though he knows from his grandfather’s knee what Mark Antony put Greece through in his failed attempt to rule the world.

Yet unlike the earlier Greeks, Plutarch  does not have the tough, clear mind they had, people like Sophocles, Thucydides and Aristophanes. His thought is based more on hopes and feelings than on reason and a clear eye.

– Abagond, 2008.

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ancient Athens

Athens was one of the great cities of Europe in Greek and Roman times. It reached the height of its glory under Pericles in the -400s. Even under Roman rule, when Greece was poor and broken, Athens was still a great seat of learning.

Today Athens is the largest and greatest city in Greece, but for a over a thousand years Constantinople, not Athens, was the centre of the Greek world, from the 300s till the 1400s. It was not till the 1800s that Athens was back on top.

In the middle of Athens is a long hill with a flat top: the Acropolis, the high city. Its sides go straight down in cliffs. On top are the remains of ancient temples, the biggest and most famous one being the Parthenon.

The Parthenon was the temple to the virgin goddess, Athena. Later it became a Christian church and then a Muslim mosque. In the 1600s the roof was blown off during a war between Venice and the Turks. In the early 1800s in the time of Napoleon the British carted away parts of it and put them in the British Museum (losing some of it at sea).  But even so it is still a thing of beauty.

The Parthenon was built in the -400s taking the place of an older temple to Athena. It was partly painted in red, blue and gold. Inside was a huge statue of Athena made of gold and ivory. Its columns are not all straight and the same but are made so the temple “looks right” when viewed from the ground. That is what makes it look more graceful than most temples.

So many people have visited it over the years that some of the rocks nearby have become smooth enough that you can slip on them.

The Parthenon was built when Athens was a great sea power, the centre of an empire. Athens sold olive oil and pots. It had a silver mine, university-level schools and some of the greatest thinkers and writers of all time. People like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, like Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.

Because of its writers, Athenian or Attic Greek became the way to write Greek for a thousand years. And because of its writers we know more about Athens than almost any other ancient city.

Athens could not grow enough of its own food. It was fed by wheat grown by Scythians on the shores of the Black Sea. So its food came from over the seas. That meant Athens needed to be a sea power: without control of the seas an enemy could cut off its food. Which is what did in Athens in the end.

After enjoying great wealth and power it overreached itself and found itself locked in a fight to the death with Sparta. Sparta won. Yet Athens shined brightest when it fell: those who lived through those times, like Plato, Thucydides and Aristophanes, produced some of its greatest works.

– Abagond, 2008.

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St Nicholas

Picture of St Nicholas from the early 1200s

Picture of St Nicholas from the early 1200s

Saint Nicholas (early 300s) was the Christian saint that Santa Claus comes from. He is one of the best loved saints, especially among the Eastern Orthodox. Because of him Nicholas is a common name. Because of him people get presents on Christmas.

Nicholas once knew a nobleman who was poor. He had three daughters but no money to marry them off. Nicholas could have just given him the money, but he was too proud to accept it.

Nicholas had an idea. In the middle of the night he secretly put gold into the daughters’ stockings that hung by the fire to dry. They all got married off.

This is where the idea of Christmas stockings come from. It is the one bit of Christmas that comes from the life of Nicholas.

The Dutch in New York gave their children gifts on St Nicholas’s Day, December 6th. The English liked the idea but did not believe in saints. So instead they gave their children presents three weeks later on Christmas. And over the years St Nicholas himself was changed from a Christian saint into a department store Santa.

St Nicholas was bishop of Myra in Lycia on the southern coast of what is now Turkey. In those days, before the Turks came, it was a Greek land ruled by Rome.

He was the only child of rich parents. They died when he was a boy. The ships that came from Egypt carrying grain to Rome stopped at Myra. One day they brought a terrible disease from Egypt. The plague killed his parents but not him. His uncle, the bishop, brought him up.

When he was a young man his uncle died too. The other bishops of the region came to Myra to choose a new bishop. One of them had a dream: God told him to choose the first man named Nicholas who came to church the next morning. That was how Nicholas became bishop even though he was so young.

In his day some still worshipped Diana, the old Greek goddess. They did it under a particular tree that was sacred to her. Nicholas had the tree cut down.

To get back at Nicholas, the story goes, Diana assumed the appearance of a holy woman and gave oil to some pilgrims on their way to his church. She told them to paint the walls of the church with it.

It was a trick. Just then a man who looked like Nicholas appeared and took the oil and threw it into the sea where it burst into flames, burning on the water for hours, saving the church and the lives of the pilgrims.

Most of his miracles were just like that: he appears at just the right time to save the day – to save men about to be lost at sea, to save princes about to have their heads cut off, and so on. But these appearances were just that: appearances. Nicholas himself was always far away at the time.

Feast day: December 6th.

– Abagond, 2007.

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Hipparchus (-190 to -120) was the greatest ancient Greek astronomer. He took astronomy almost as far as it would go before the invention of the telescope some 1700 years later.

Ptolemy is more famous but most of his astronomy is warmed-over stuff he got from Hipparchus, whom he called a great “lover of truth”.

Hipparchus was born in Nicaea and lived on the island of Rhodes where he studied the Sun, the Moon and the stars.

Hipparchus was the first to find out how far away the Moon is. In order to work out the answer, he came up with a new field of mathematics: trigonometry.

Hipparchus made the best star map of ancient times, with some 2,000 stars.

  • It was so good that his practice of using latitude and longitude has been used to map the heavens and the earth ever since.
  • It was so good that it had Uranus on it, a planet that was not discovered till 1900 years later.
  • It was so good that he discovered the precession of the equinoxes: that the sun does not appear in quite the same position on the first day of spring every year. Instead it moves backwards against the background of the stars, going all the way round in 26,700 years.

He started his map in -134 after seeing a new star in the constellation of Scorpio. He thought it was new, but could not be sure. He checked the star maps of Eudoxus and Erastosthenes. They did not have the star, but then he saw how bad their maps were. So he made his own.

The Greeks thought the heavens were perfect and unchanging, so finding a new star was a serious matter.

Hipparchus was the first to measure stars by their brightness. The 20 brightest stars he called first magnitude stars, the next brightest stars he called second magnitude and so on.

Most of what you see in Ptolemy comes from Hipparchus. Those circles within circles (the epicycles) and even most of the numbers. Hipparchus put the Earth at the centre because that is what the best science of the day said: Aristotle’s.

The Earth-centred model of Hipparchus was so good at working out where planets would be on any given day that few doubted it.

His model was just that: a model. But it worked so well that most mistook it for the truth.

Hipparchus and many others knew that Aristarchus had put the Sun at the centre, but it went against common sense (the Earth does not seem to be moving), the best science (Aristotle) and, besides, no one had worked it up into a model as good as that of Hipparchus. Not Aristarchus, not even Copernicus himself over 1600 years later.

Hipparchus was not overthrown till the 1600s when Aristotle was overthrown by Newton. And not until Kepler made some changes to the model of Copernicus.

All but one of his books are lost. Most of what we know of his work comes through Ptolemy.

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Archimedes (-287 to -212) was a Greek mathematician from Syracuse, Italy, back when the city was still Greek. He was one of the greatest minds of the ancient world. He gave us the word “Eureka!” and worked out how levers work, but most of all he showed us how you could use numbers to do science.

His use of numbers in science did not catch on in his own time, but it did later when his writings came out in Latin in 1544. Galileo read them and used the same approach, which led to the rise of Western science and our faith in numbers.

Even today Archimedes is worth reading because of how sees and understands the world through number and shapes, through geometry.

He used number and measurement to work out how levers work and how strong they are in different cases. From this he knew there was no limit to what they could do. He said he could move the whole world if he had a place to stand.

Archimedes worked out pi to two places: 3.14. He knew it was somewhere between 3.141 and 3.143.

The word “Eureka!” comes from the time when the king asked Archimedes to find out whether his crown was made of pure gold.

Gold was the heaviest metal known in those days: for a given size, nothing else was so heavy.

The easy way to find out if the crown was pure gold would be to melt it down to a block and compare it to a block of pure gold of the same weight. If the melted down crown was larger, then something was added to the gold. It was not pure.

But Archimedes could not destroy the crown. So he had to find out how much space it took up some other way.

But how?

One day as he was getting into his bath he saw the water flow over the sides.

When he saw that he jumped out of his bath and ran through the streets naked shouting “Eureka! Eureka!”, which is Greek for “I have found it! I have found it!”

Meaning he had found out how to measure the size of the crown: by putting it in water and seeing how much water it pushes out. The water it pushes out had to be the same size as the crown.

Archimedes found out the crown was not made of pure gold and the king put the goldsmith to death.

Later the Romans made war on Syracuse for siding with Carthage. To defend the city Archimedes came up with different inventions, like one that turned over ships. It came from his work with levers. The Romans grew to fear him.

When Syracuse was falling, Archimedes was drawing circles in the sand, working on something in geometry. He asked a Roman soldier not to mess up his circles. In spite of orders to take him alive, the soldier killed him.

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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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The Olympic games (-776 to +393, and since 1896) take place every four years. Men and women come from all over the world to see who is the best at different sports, like running, jumping, swimming and many others.

Those who come in the true spirit of the Olympics come not for love of money but for the glory of achievement, to be the best.

The next Olympic games will be in Beijing, China in the summer of 2008. After that in London in 2012. A different city hosts it each time.

These days over 10,000 come to take part, two million come to watch and more than half the people in the world see at least some of it on television. The money for the games comes from selling the television rights.

It is one of the few times the world feels like a family.

First prize in an event is a gold medal, second prize, a silver and third, a bronze. What the Nobel prize is to science, an Olympic medal is to sport.

The games have been played every four years since 1896, except for 1916, 1940 and 1944 when there was world war.

The games were held in ancient times.

Since at least the days of the Trojan war, Greeks honoured the gods and the dead with games. Of these the largest and most important games took place at Olympia in honour of Zeus. Olympia had the the largest temple of Zeus in the world, one of the seven wonders of the world.

The ancient games lasted for over a thousand years: winners were recorded from -776 to +393. They were outlawed in 394 by Theodosius I as non-Christian. From about -250 to +450, some Greek historians used Olympiads to date history.

In the ancient games the winner won a crown made of olive leaves and had his name recorded for the ages. He was famous for life.

Cities all over the Greek-speaking world sent men to the games, even those as far away as Spain and Egypt. In most cases, war stopped during the games: the Olympic peace.

The spirit of the games were much the same as now, but the old games were not quite like ours:

  • There were events for boys
  • One of the main events was a chariot race
  • Only naked, free-born Greek-speaking men and boys took part: no foreigners, slaves or women.
  • Married women were not allowed to watch.
  • A 100 oxen were sacrificed

In ancient times women had games of their own: the Heraea in honour of Hera.

At first the Olympics was only a footrace. Later other events were added. The pentathlon came in –708. Now there are 28 sports and 301 events.

There was no Marathon race in the ancient games. That was created for the new Olympics in 1896.

The Olympic torch is a new thing too: the games do not begin till runners arrive with a torch lit at Olympia. It starts a fire that burns till the games end.

– Abagond 2007, 2015.

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Saint Luke

Saint Luke (000s) was a Christian saint who wrote the book of Luke and Acts in the Bible. The book of Luke is one of the four gospels, which tell of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. St Luke was the first person we know of who used the word “Christian”.

Luke was a Greek doctor from Antioch in Syria. He was not Jewish. As a follower of St Paul his gospel is, in effect, the gospel according to Paul. When Paul talks about the gospel as a written thing, he is probably thinking of the book of Luke.

Luke travelled with Paul as he spread the Good News of Jesus Christ along the roads and ports of the Roman Empire. Even when Paul was thrown in prison, Luke stuck by him when few would.

It is from Luke that we get the stories of the Three Wise Men, the Prodigal Son, the Road to Emmaus, the Annunciation (where the angel Gabriel visits Mary) and many others.

Luke wrote more about Mary than anyone else in the Bible. He wrote things that only Mary would know. If you read his gospel it seems like he met her when she was old. Some say he even painted pictures of her (icons).

Some say Luke was one of the two men on the road to Emmaus. Luke names one man, Cleophas, but not the other. So some think that the unnamed man is Luke himself. If so, then Luke saw Christ after he rose from the dead.

Apart from that, Luke never met or saw Jesus. Because he wrote one of the four gospels, some assume that he was one of the Twelve Apostles. Not so. But he did know people who knew Jesus when he was alive on earth.

By closely comparing the book of Luke with the other three gospels we know that he had the gospel of Mark, but not Matthew or John. He also had Q, the lost book of the sayings of Jesus.

He wrote in Greek. Some say he wrote the gospel in Achaia (Greece). If so, then he probably wrote it in the 50s. Some scholars say he wrote it in the early 60s where the story in Acts suddenly ends. Acts and the book of Luke seem like they were written at the same time. Others say he wrote it in the 70s or later.

He was a virgin all his life and died at the age of 84. Jerome says he died in the Holy Spirit in Bithynia, now known as northern Turkey.

A thousand years later when the Turks made war on his hometown of Antioch, a man in white appeared to those praying in the church of St Mary of Tripoli. They say it was Luke. This gave the Christians the strength to hold out against the Turks.

St Luke is the patron saint of doctors and artists. His feast day is October 18th.

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Here are the seven books that have influenced me the most. Note that “influenced” is not the same as “like” or “love”. I loved “The Lord of the Rings” and “Raisin in the Sun”, but I cannot say they  influenced me much.

In the order in which I first read them cover to cover:


1. Sophocles, “Antigone” (written in the year -441)

My sister had this book. One afternoon I read it, end-to-end, straight through without stopping. That day I fell in love with the Greeks. At university people thought I went to some school that made me read the Greeks. They wished they had gone there. Well, it was not like that. At school I was made to read Dickens and Hardy and will not touch them even now.

Antigone showed me that there is more to life than making money and keeping out of trouble, that men are more than talking animals.


2. Thucydides, “History” (-395)

I read this in the wonderful Hobbes translation, which is currently out of print.

Thucydides taught me that human nature is the same in all countries and all ages. That men are driven chiefly by self-interest, that they use morals and fine words to dress up their sins. That you have to read between the lines. That empire has its dark and monstrous side.


3. Aristotle, Complete Works (-322)

Aristotle showed me that simply believing what you hear people say all the time is not enough. You need to reason things out for yourself. The world should and can make sense.

He showed me that from small beginnings you can put together grand systems.

From reading Aristotle I learned how to read long books. This made it possible for me to read the Bible (#4) and the Summa (#7) in full.


4. Bible (+367)

Before I read the Bible I was a materialist: I thought everything was just matter in motion, that science, in the end, could explain everything.

Till I read the Bible it was easy for me to assume that it was full of pious fables, that there was no need to take any of it seriously. But once I read it, I found it difficult to explain away. For three years I tried but failed.


5. Plotinus, “Enneads” (+250)

Plotinus blew a hole in my comfortable materialism. I thought only materialism could explain life, the universe and everything. Plotinus showed me that Plato’s idealism could do it too.


6. Chesterton, “Orthodoxy” (1908)

In the New York I lived in Christianity was not intellectually respectable. It was assumed that anyone with enough intelligence, education and freedom from his upbringing could not possibly believe in it. Chesterton showed me otherwise. So did Augustine, C.S. Lewis and:


7. Aquinas, “Summa Theologica” (1274)

Aquinas puts Aristotle and the Bible together into one complete system of thought. I did not always agree with Aquinas, but I did see that Christian thought was not merely respectable, it was much better than anything I knew. Certainly much better than the mix of Marxism and science that I lived by.

– Abagond, 2007.

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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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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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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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