Greek philosophy & philosophers

Download 59.71 Kb.
Size59.71 Kb.

It was about 600 BC that ancient Greek philosophers deserted their old mythological concepts of the universe, human origins and history. At this time the Greeks began to think in different terms and set the basis for modern western thought and orientation.

What did the Greek philosophers think about? They thought about political philosophy, ethics, metaphysics (beyond the physical) ontology (existence and being), cosmology (origin and nature of the universe), logic, biology, rhetoric and aesthetics (nature, art, beauty and taste).

What is the issue at the bottom of philosophy? The question at the bottom of all philosophy and the task of philosophers is to answer the question, “What is real?” .

Greek philosophers are usually split into pre and post Socratic with Socrates being the central figure.


Before Socrates, philosophers were mainly concerned with cosmology, ontology (the nature of being) and mathematics. They were distinguished from non-philosophers by rejecting mythological explanations in favor of reasoned discourse.

The term pre-Socratic ultimately comes from Aristotle who distinguished the early philosophers as concerning themselves with substance.

Thales (Thael- iz) of Miletus (624-546 BCE)

You may never have heard of Thales of Miletus but his sculpture stands in the main façade of Union Station in Washington, DC.

Aristotle regarded him as the first philosopher. Bertrand Russell said that western philosophy began with Thales. John Burnet called him the first man of science because he gave a naturalistic explanation of the cosmos and supported it with reasons.

Thales was one of the first thinkers who thought more in the way of logos than mythos. Mythos concentrates around stories of holy origin while logos concentrates around argumentation. Mythical man explains the world based on gods and powers. Logos focuses on sensible and continuous argumentation and thus lays the foundation of philosophy and its way of explaining the world in terms of abstract argumentation.

Thales tried to explain ultimate substance and change and the existence of the world without reference to mythology. For example, Thales taught that earthquakes happen because the earth floats on water and quakes occur when the earth is rocked by waves an explanation that foreshadowed modern tectonic plate theory. Incidentally, Thales thought that all things had arisen from water and that the earth solidified from water on which it floated – change water to magma and you have the biblical account.

In another foreshadowing, the Milesian school was searching for a natural substance that would remain unchanged despite appearing in different forms and thus the first scientific attempts to answer the question that would lead to the development of modern atomic theory.

Astronomically and mathematically, tradition says he was able to predict an eclipse and taught the Egyptians how to measure the height of the pyramids which he deduced from the shadow of the pyramid when his own shadow was equal to his height. Thales also calculated some of the trigonometric functions such as cotangent and some of the basic axioms of geometry and mathematical logic.

From an historical viewpoint, Thales was involved in the conflict between King Croesus of Lydia and King Cyrus of Persia which again stresses the fact that the development of philosophy was co-incidental with the events of Israel’s captivity, exile and return and hence the subject matter of the prophet Zechariah. Because of Thales, Miletus obtained favorable terms from Cyrus while the other Ionian cities were subjugated by the Persians. Academically, Thales received instruction from an Egyptian priest.

The bottom line is that Thales had a profound influence on Greek thinkers and therefore on Western history. Many philosophers followed Thales in seeking for explanations in nature rather than in the supernatural – others returned to supernatural explanations but couched them in the language of philosophy instead of religion.

From a Judeo-Christian point of view, Thales was one of the first who did not want, as Paul said in Romans 1, to retain God in their knowledge.

Anaximander (610-546 BCE)

Anaximander argued there was only one God which was the world as a whole; he ridiculed the idea of anthropomorphism – which makes one wonder who affected who? Did Greek philosophical influence change the Hebrew anthropomorphism from ‘man in the image of God to the rabbinic concept of man in the image of angels?

Xenophanes (570-475 BCE)

He argued that each of the phenomena had a natural and not a divine explanation. Xenophanes made the Homeric gods superfluous or foolish and some claim is a representative of the total break between science and religion.

Pythagorus (570-495 BCE)

Pythagorus was born on the Island of Samos off the coast of Turkey and emigrated to Southern Italy about the age of forty. He was a philosopher or lover of wisdom, in fact the first to call himself a philosopher, mathematician and founder of a religious order called Pythagoreanism. Pythagorus might have travelled widely in his youth possibly visiting Egypt, Arabia, Phoenicia, Judea, Babylon and India and seeking wisdom. In Italy he moved to Croton which was a Greek colony and set up a religious sect where his followers followed religious rites and practices he developed as well as studying his philosophical theories. The society took an active role in the politics of Croton which led to their downfall. Their meeting places were burned and he was forced to flee the city.

Pythagorus made strong contributions to philosophy and religious teaching and exercised a marked influence on Plato. Perhaps his main claim to fame and pain today for the common boy and girl is the Pythagorean Theorem in geometry – the proposition that the square on the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides – the ‘Pons Assinorum’ or ‘Bridge of the Asses’ since it took the mental measure of many a schoolboy. Not much is known about Pythagorus which I think is largely due to the fact that his philosophical school was essentially a secret society in a day when men seem to have been able to keep secrets and he had a method for making sure they did. Mathematics, science, philosophy, religion and ascetism all appear to have been part of the Pythagorean System.

Pythagorus made scientific and mathematical discoveries but it was the religious element that had the biggest impact on his contemporaries. He is said to have practiced divination and prophecy. He followers established a select brotherhood or club to pursue the religious and ascetic practices of their master. All was kept a profound secret. As an active and organized brotherhood, the Pythagoreans were suppressed and did not revive. They did continue as a sect.

According to Aristotle, “The so-called Pythagoreans were the first to take up mathematics and not only advanced this subject, but saturated with it, they fancied that the principles of mathematics were the principle of all things.”

Legend has it that Pythagorus discovered musical notes could be translated into mathematical equations. The Pythagoreans elaborated a theory of numbers whose exact meaning is still debated. Pythagorus also believed the planets and stars moved according to mathematical equations which corresponded to musical notes and produced a symphony – hence, ‘The Music of the Spheres’.

Pythagorus tried to reconcile religious belief and reason; religion and scientific views were in his opinion inseparably interconnected. Pythagorus believed in transmigration or re-incarnation of souls into the bodies of humans, animals or vegetables until it became immortal which is essentially a form of Hindusim. Whatever, Pythgorus did leave behind him a way of life and like Plato he shared a mystical approach to the soul and its place in the material world.

The brotherhood that Pythagorus founded had a great effect on future esoteric traditions such as Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism both of which are scientific/mystical groups dedicated to the study of mathematics/geometry and logical reason as opposed to religious dogma. Both Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism have claimed to have evolved out of the Pythagorean Brotherhood.

Leucippus (5th Century BCE – 400’s BCE)

Leucippus proposed a cosmogony (the coming into existence of the cosmos) based on two elements – the vacuum and atoms which by means of their inherent motion are crossing the void and creating material bodies. It’s amazing how astronomically modern this concept is.


What did the pre-Socratic philosophers contribute and take to and from the thought of the modern world?

  1. Rejected the biblical account of creation

  2. Rejected the super-natural

  3. Rejected God from our thinking

  4. Rejected the belief man is made in the image of God

  5. Rejected the possibility of divine revelation

  6. Added belief in soul-migration or reincarnation

  7. Subscribed to ancient mystery religions

  8. Originated Freemasonry & Rosicrucianism.

SOCRATES (469-399 BCE)

Socrates was born in Athens in the 5th century BC or in the 400’s BC at a time when Athens was a center of learning with men travelling across Greece to teach rhetoric, astronomy, cosmology, geometry and so forth. Socrates lived at a time of transition from the height of Athenian democracy to its decline and defeat by its rival Sparta.

While there was philosophy prior to Socrates, Cicero said Socrates first “brought philosophy down from the heavens, placed it in cities, introduced it into families, and obliged it to look into life and morals, good and evil.”

Socrates introduced a new period in Greek philosophy by rejecting entirely the physical speculations of his predecessors and focused, as his starting point, on the thoughts and opinions of people.

  1. Socrates was the founder of political philosophy. The cause of this turn to political and ethical subjects is still the subject of great study.

  2. Socrates is renowned for his contribution to the field of Ethics or Moral Philosophy,

  3. Socrates made lasting contributions to Epistemology (theory of knowledge) and Logic. It was Socrates who developed the probing question and answer style of examination with the goal of arriving at a defensible and attractive definition of a virtue. The fact that many such conversations never reached a firm conclusion has stimulated debate over the Socratic Method which is the method of teaching used in US Law Schools to this day to expose underlying issues in both subject and speaker. The solution to a problem is broken down into a series of questions the answers to which boil down the underlying beliefs and extent of a person’s knowledge. It was designed to force a person to examine their beliefs and the validity of those beliefs. This is a process that is particularly destructive to the young whose faith is a tender plant in very shallow soil.

On the ethical side, Socrates taught that no one wants what is bad so if anyone does anything truly bad it must be unwillingly or out of ignorance and so all knowledge is virtue – matters that are anti Judeo-Christian – it’s the original, “I’m OK!, You’re OK!” All knowledge is good including carnal knowledge.

On the religious side, Socrates often referred to God in the singular as opposed to the plural and actively rejected the Greek pantheon of Gods and Godesses citing them as examples of falseness

A reaction to philosophy came about in Greece. It became a crime to investigate things above the heavens or below the earth and such activity was considered impious. Athens suffered a military loss and Socrates was blamed, tried and sentenced to drink hemlock. In my personal opinion, the Athenians may have had a point in recognizing the indecision that Socratic thought produced in young warriors.

In summary, Socrates, as presented by Plato, so influenced subsequent tradition that it is conventional to refer to philosophy developed prior to him as pre-Socratic. The periods following Socrates until the wars of Alexander are those of ‘classical Greek’ and ‘Hellenistic philosophy’. Socrates philosophy was carried into the Moslem world and was re-introduced into the West to form the foundation of Medieval Philosophy and the Renaissance. The theory of theological and philosophical teaching predominant in the Middle Ages based chiefly upon the authority of the Church Fathers and of Aristotle and his commentators.


  1. He laid the basis for situational ethics.

  2. He proposed the idea that all men are basically good this rejecting Judaean ideas of the Fall and the sinful nature of man.

  3. He affirmed reincarnation and mystery religion traditions.

  4. He influenced Islamic thought and laid the basis for the Medieval and Renaissance thought.


Plato (428-348 BCE)

Plato was from Athens – one generation after Socrates. We will consider two of Plato’s ideas –

  1. First, his political doctrine. Plato thought there would not be justice in cities until they were ruled by philosopher-kings which is an idea remarkably similar to the Hebrew ‘King-Priest’ concept. Those responsible for enforcing the law would be compelled to hold their women, children, and property in common; the individual would be taught to pursue the common good through ‘noble lies’ – all of which sounds like a precursor to socialism and modern political administrations.

  2. Plato’s thought also has metaphysical themes – the most famous being his ‘theory of forms’ which holds that non-material abstract forms or ideas possess the highest and most fundamental kind of reality and not the world of change known to us by our senses.

Plato and Greek philosophy have greatly influenced Western thought. Alfred North Whitehead said, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it is a series of footnotes to Plato.” It has also been observed that clear, unbroken lines of influence lead from ancient Greek and Hellenistic philosophers to early Islamic philosophy, the European Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment.

Aristotle (384-322 BCE)

Aristotle moved to Athens in 367 BCE and began to study philosophy and eventually enrolled at Plato’s Academy. He left Athens twenty years later to study botany and zoology, became a tutor of Alexander the Great, and returned to Athens a decade later to found his own school, the Lyceum. He wrote on:

  1. Logic

  2. Physics

  3. Optics

  4. Metaphysics

  5. Ethics

  6. Rhetoric

  7. Politics

  8. Poetry

  9. Botany and Zoology.

Aristotle criticized the political regimes of Plato and called is theory of forms a bunch of empty words. Aristotle gave greater weight to empirical and practical concerns – hence the empirical method of science. Aristotle’s work formed the basis of Islamic, Jewish and Christian Medieval Philosophy. He was commonly known as ‘the Master’ or ‘the Philosopher’.

Followers of Aristotle (Peripatetics) abandoned metaphysical speculation to a large extent and turned to natural science and ethics.

Euclid of Alexandria (325-265 BCE)

Euclid is called the Father of geometry. I can testify to it because I spent four years in middle and upper school studying his theorems and riders. Euclid was active in Alexandria during the reign of Ptolemy I (323-283 BCE). His Elements is one of the most influential works in the history of mathematics. It was the main text book for teaching geometry from its publication to the late 19th and early 20th century. Euclid deduced the principles of what is now called Euclidean Geometry from a small set of axioms. Euclid also wrote works on perspective, conic sections, spherical geometry, number theory and rigor.

It is impossible not to believe that Euclid in Alexandria just after the Battle of Issus had no impact on Judaism. Either he impacted them, or they impacted him or both.


Zeno of Citium and Stoicism ( 334-262 BCE)

To Stoics, philosophy was the science of the principles on which moral life should be founded. The only allowable effort is towards the attainment of knowledge of human and divine things in order to regulate life. The method to lead men to true knowledge is provided by logic:

  1. Physics embraces the doctrines of the nature and organization of the universe

  2. Ethics draws from them conclusion for practical life. Knowledge originates in the impression of things on the senses and these are developed into concepts. Stoics recognized two principles – matter and force or the material, and, the Deity or Logos informing it. The highest good is the agreement human action and nature’s law, of human will and divine will. Ultimately the wise person is in no way inferior to Zeus – or in other words man is his own god.

To Stoics, God is never transcendent but always immanent. God as the world-creating entity is personalized in Christian thought but in Stoicism is the totality of the universe which is contrary to Christianity. Stoicism does not posit a beginning or an end to the universe nor does it assert that the individual continues to live beyond death.

Plotinus of Lycopolis (205-270 CE)

The closing period of Greek philosophy is marked in the third century BCE by the establishment of Neoplatonism and its emphasis on a scientific philosophy of religion. In Neoplatonism, the doctrine of Plato is fused with the most important elements of the Aristotelian and Stoic System and with Eastern speculations. At the summit of existence stands the One or the Good as the source of all things. Soul being bound to matter longs to escape from the bondage of the body and return to the original source. In virtue and philosophic thought the soul had the ability to elevate itself above reason into a state of ecstasy and ascend up to that one, good primary being whom reason cannot know. To attain this union with the Good or God is the true function of humans to whom the external world should be absolutely indifferent.

Proclus of Athens (411-485 CE)

The last home of philosophy was Athens where Proclus (411-485 CE) sought to reduce to a single system the whole mass of philosophic tradition until in 529 CE Justinian closed all of the schools of philosophy perceiving their pagan character as being at odds with Christianity.

So what did the post-Socratic philosophers add and subtract?

  1. Established the empirical method of thinking

  2. Believed knowledge only came from senses, i.e. no reveled knowledge

  3. Affirmed God was immanent and not transcendent

  4. Affirmed God was totality of the universe

  5. Did not believe in a beginning or end of the world.

  6. Did not believe in life after death.

  7. Abandoned the spiritual and turned to science and ethics

  8. Added oriental speculations (new age/Hinduism)

  9. Promoted idea of man’s ascending up to God by rejection of the external world, Budhism and Hinduism.


When Socrates was sixty years old, Plato who was then twenty came to him as a pupil. When Plato was sixty years old, Aristotle who was then seventeen presented himself and joined the Teacher’s group of friends as the members of the Academy called themselves. The word ‘academy’ came from the name of a grove where the Attic hero Academus delivered his lectures. Aristotle split intellectually with Plato long before either died; but after Plato died, Aristotle was engaged by Philip of Macedon to teach his son Alexander the Great. Aristotle was handsomely rewarded and returned to Athens to start his own school of philosophy which was known as the Peripatetic School because of his practice of walking up and down shaded walks around the Lyceum and talking to his pupils.

In passing from Plato to Aristotle we are immediately aware of a change in philosophical concepts and methods. It seems sad that Aristotle did not continue the line of teaching begun by Pythagorus and clarified by Plato but it may be due to the fact that Pythagorus and Plato were initiates of the Mysteries into which Aristotle was never initiated. Aristotle relied on logical speculation for the development of his theories. This explains his divergences from the teachings of Plato which were based on the wisdom of the ancient East. Aristotle’s position was that Plato’s doctrines were fatal to science.

To put it in modern language, Pythagorus was the guru-mystic, Socrates was the social-scientist people-person, Plato was the off-the-radar artsy-craftsy flower child, and Aristotle was the technical man – the hard-nosed ‘prove it by experimentation’ scientist.


So what has the mind of Greece brought the modern secular world? The answer is that it has brought a mixed bag of conflicting & contradictory ideas that are variously mythological or secular paganism. They can also be characterized by what they are not - they do not believe in a transcendent God, creation, original sin, the Fall, the sinful nature of fallen man, the need for a personal Savior, and a final judgment.

Greek philosophy is in total conflict with Judaism and Christianity as Justinian clearly perceived. In modern times Greek philosophy has done the best job of rearing its temple in the schools and universities of the United States. This is where our future leaders are trained

Plato taught that:

Beyond all finite existences and secondary causes, all laws, ideas and principles, there is Intelligence, or Mind, the first of all principles, the Supreme Idea on which all other ideas are grounded…the ultimate substance from which all things derive their being and essence, the first and efficient Cause of all order and harmony and beauty which pervades the Universe.’ Plato called this the World of Ideas.

So what is this Intelligence actually? Theosophy explains it is not something outside the Universe but includes all those various intelligences evolved in a previous period of evolution. Essentially, all human intelligence(s) sum into God.


In a previous program we mentioned how two Greek philosophers, Plotinus and Proclus tried to blend all Greek philosophic systems into one homogenized body. What Philo of Alexandria did was to try and blend Greek philosophical thought with the mindset of the Holy People and thereby inadvertently mixed Greek thought with Christian belief by influencing the early Church Fathers.

Philo of Alexandra lived from 20 BC to 40 or 50 AD – in other words during the life of Christ and the formative years of the church. Philo was also called Philo Judaeus and was a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher who lived in Alexandria during the Roman Empire. Philo used philosophical allegory to attempt to fuse Greek and Jewish thought. This allegorical exegesis was important for several early Church Fathers but it barely had any reception within Judaism. Philo believed a literal interpretation of the Bible would stifle mankind’s view and perception of a God too complex and marvelous to be understood in literal human terms.

Philo came from a family who were noble, honorable and wealthy. His father or grandfather had been granted Roman citizenship by Julius Caesar. He had social ties to the priesthood in Judea, the Hasmonean Dynasty, the Herodian Dynasty and the Julio-Claudian Dynasty in Rome. Philo received a thorough education in the Hellenistic culture of Alexandria, in Roman culture, in Egyptian culture and Jewish traditions and literature, and in Greek philosophy.

Philo based his doctrines on the OT which he considered to be the standard of all truth and the source of philosophical revelation from which the Greeks borrowed. He believed everything in the Torah was of divine origin. In short, Philo represents the apex of Jewish-Hellenistic syncretism. Philo attempted to combine Plato and Moses into one philosophical system. It must be recognized that Philo was influenced by Stoicism, Neopythagoreanism and Aristotle.

It was only natural that when Hebrew mythical thought met Greek philosophical thought, some would try to develop justification for Judaism in terms of Greek philosophy. Philo developed concepts for the future Hellenistic interpretation of messianic Hebrew thought.

Philo laid the foundation for the philosophical and theological foundations of Christianity. Thus Philo elaborates a religious-philosophical worldview that became the foundation of future Christian doctrine. Philo’s biblical tradition in which one could not name or describe God was the major factor in accepting Greek Platonic concepts and emphasis on God’s transcendence but his position is alien to biblical and rabbinical understanding.


So how has the conflict between the mind of Zion and the mind of Greece played out?

  1. At the time Judah was going into Babylonian Captivity in 600 BC, the Greeks abandoned their old mythology and ways of looking at things and began to develop a new perspective. This development kept going forward in Greece until Alexander the Great carried it into the world and particularly into the heart of the Holy People in Jerusalem about 333 BC.

  2. About the time of Christ, Philo of Alexandria attempted to merge Greek and Jewish thought and established concepts that affected many of the early Church Fathers.

  3. Jesus Christ brought a way of looking at things that was in accordance with the OT but in conflict with rabbinical teaching and in conflict with old world paganism.

  4. Following Christ, the disciples and their successors carried the gospel into the heart of the Roman Empire as well as to its extremes and beyond.

  5. By the time of Constantine ( 272-337) AD, Christianity had carried the day politically but at the cost of introducing pagan ideas and practices and unchanged men into the heart of the church.

  6. In 529 AD, Justinian closed all schools of Greek philosophy perceiving their pagan character as being at odds with Christianity.

  7. Following the collapse of the Old Roman Empire there was an unsettled period until the rise of the Holy Roman Empire in 800 AD when the deadly wound of the beast was healed.

  8. Pagan thought remained outwardly static until the Renaissance or Revival of learning when there was a hunger for the old classics and knowledge. Clear unbroken lines of influence lead from ancient Greek and Hellenistic philosophers to the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment.

  9. In 1800 the Holy Roman Empire dissolved and new European states and ways of thinking emerged. Greek philosophy reappeared in the form of modern European philosophers whose ideas have found their home in modern western universities.

  10. Today the battle between Zion and Greece has reached such a peak that Greece has prevailed in the governments and academic institutions and culture of the West and Christianity is on a public defensive.


Before closing this subject it is worthwhile realizing that at two major points in history the true faith has been sorely affected by Christian teachers and thinkers trying to accommodate Western secular ideas.

  1. The first was the time of the Greek philosophers

  2. The second was when leaders of the Church of England compromised with scientific and philosophical thought in the late 1800’s.

The Mind of Greece in the Modern ‘Christian’ World

Theosophy is religious philosophy. A famous historian made the observation that Plato and Aristotle divide the world between them. That is certainly true of the mainline Christian church. The Eastern Orthodox Church follows Plato, the Roman Catholic Church follows Aristotle, while in the Protestant world there is an admixture of Christianity with plain old-fashioned Greek pagan religion – consider some of our Easter practices such as worship of the fertility goddesses (rabbits), Diana (Easter egg hunts) and phallic symbols crowning churches (steeples).

Share with your friends:

The database is protected by copyright © 2020
send message

    Main page