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Index by Period

Neoplatonism

Philosophers who Wished to Belong to No School Philosophers who Decried All Schools and All Doctrines.
THE TWO TENDENCIES.--As might be expected to happen, and as always happens, the multiplicity of sects brought about two tendencies, one consisting in selecting somewhat arbitrarily from each sect what one found best in it, which is called "eclecticism," the other in thinking that no school grasped the truth, that the truth is not to be grasped, which is called "scepticism."

THE ECLECTICS: PLUTARCH.--The Eclectics, who did not form a school, which would have been difficult in the spirit in which they acted, had only this in common, that they venerated the great thinkers of ancient Greece, and that they felt or endeavoured to feel respect and toleration for all religions. They venerated Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Zeno, Moses, Jesus, St. Paul, and loved to imagine that they were each a partial revelation of the great divine thought, and they endeavoured to reconcile these divergent revelations by proceeding on broad lines and general considerations. Among them were Moderatus, Nicomachus, Nemesius, etc. The most illustrious, without being the most profound--though his literary talent has always kept him prominent--was Plutarch. His chief effort, since then often renewed, was to reconcile reason and faith (I am writing of the polytheistic faith). Perceiving in mythology ingenious allegories, he showed that under the name of allegories covering and containing profound ideas, all polytheism could be accepted by the reason of a Platonist, an Aristotelian, or a Stoic. The Eclectics had not much influence, and only pleased two sorts of minds: those who preferred knowledge rather than conviction, and found in Eclecticism an agreeable variety of points of view; and those who liked to believe a little in everything, and possessing receptive but not steadfast minds were not far from sceptics and who might be called affirmative sceptics in opposition to the negative sceptics: sceptics who say, "Heavens, yes," as opposed to sceptics who always say, "Presumably, no."

THE SCEPTICS: PYRRHO.--The Sceptics proper were chronologically more ancient. The first famous Sceptic was a contemporary of Aristotle; he followed Alexander on his great expedition into Asia. This was Pyrrho. He taught, as it appears, somewhat obscurely at Athens, and for successor had Timon. These philosophers, like so many others, sought happiness and affirmed that it lay in abstention from decision, in the mind remaining in abeyance, inaphasia Pyrrho being accustomed to say that he was indifferent whether he was alive or dead, on being asked, "Then why do you live?" answered: "Just because it is indifferent whether one lives or is dead." As may be imagined, their favourite sport was to draw the various schools into mutual opposition, to rout some by the rest, to show that all were strong in what they negatived, but weak in what they affirmed, and so to dismiss them in different directions.

THE NEW ACADEMY.--Scepticism, albeit attenuated, softened, and less aggressive, reappeared in a school calling itself the New Academy. It claimed to adhere to Socrates--not without some show of reason, since Socrates had declared that the only thing he knew was that he knew nothing--and the essential tenet of this school was to affirm nothing. Only the Academicians believed that certain things were probable, more probable than others, and they are the founders of probabilism, which is nothing more than conviction accompanied with modesty. They were more or less moderate, according to personal temperament. Arcesilaus was emphatically moderate, and limited himself to the development of the critical faculties of his pupil. Carneades was more negative, and arrived at or reverted to scepticism and sophistry pure and simple. Cicero, with a certain foundation of Stoicism, was a pupil, and one of the most moderate, of the New Academy.

AENESIDEMUS; AGRIPPA; EMPIRICUS.--Others built on experience itself, on the incertitude of our sensations and observations, on everything that can cheat us and cause us illusion in order to display howrelative and how miserably partial is human knowledge. Such was Aenesidemus, whom it might be thought Pascal had read, so much does the latter give the reasons of the former when he is not absorbed in faith, and when he assumes the position of a sceptic precisely in order to prove the necessity of taking refuge in faith. Such was Agrippa; such, too, was Sextus Empiricus, so often critical of science, who demonstrates (as to a slight extent M. Henri Poincaré does in our own day) that all sciences, even those which, like mathematics and geometry, are proudest of their certainty, rest upon conventions and intellectual "conveniences."

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