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Index by Period

Before Socrates

Philosophical Interpreters of the Universe, of the Creation and Constitution of the World.
PHILOSOPHY.--The aim of philosophy is to seek the explanation of all things: the quest is for the firstcauses of everything, and also how all things are, and finallywhy, with what design, with a view to what, things are. That is why, taking "principle" in all the senses of the word, it has been called the science of first principles.

Philosophy has always existed. Religions--all religions--are philosophies. They are indeed the most complete. But, apart from religions, men have sought the causes and principles of everything and endeavoured to acquire general ideas. These researches apart from religious dogmas in pagan antiquity are the only ones with which we are here to be concerned.

THE IONIAN SCHOOL: THALES.--The Ionian School is the most ancient school of philosophy known. It dates back to the seventh century before Christ. Thales of Miletus, a natural philosopher and astronomer, as we should describe him, believed matter--namely, that of which all things and all beings are made--to be in perpetual transformation, and that these transformations are produced by powerful beings attached to every portion of matter. These powerful beings were gods. Everything, therefore, was full of gods. His philosophy was a mythology. He also thought that the essential element of matter was water, and that it was water, under the influence of the gods, which transformed itself into earth, air, and fire, whilst from water, earth, air, and fire came everything that is in nature.

ANAXIMANDER; HERACLITUS.--Anaximander of Miletus, an astronomer also, and a geographer, believed that the principle of all things is indeterminate--a kind of chaos wherein nothing has form or shape; that from chaos come things and beings, and that they return thither in order to emerge again. One of his particular theories was that fish were the most ancient of animals, and that all animals had issued from them through successive transformations. This theory was revived for a while about fifty years ago.

Heraclitus of Ephesus (very obscure, and with this epithet attached permanently to his name) saw all things as a perpetual growth--in an indefinite state of becoming. Nothing is; all things grow and are destined to eternal growth. Behind them, nevertheless, there is an eternal master who does not change. It is our duty to resemble him as much as we can; that is to say, as much as an ape can resemble a man. Calmness is imperative: to be as motionless as transient beings can. The popular legend runs that Heraclitus "always wept"; what is known of him only tends to prove that he was grave, and did not favour emotionalism.

ANAXAGORAS; EMPEDOCLES.--Anaxagoras of Clazomenae, above all else a natural philosopher, settled at Athens about 470 B.C.; was the master and friend of Pericles; was on the point of being put to death, as Socrates was later on, for the crime of indifference towards the religion of the Athenians, and had to take refuge at Lampsacus, where he died. Like Anaximander, he believed that everything emerged from something indeterminate and confused; but he added that what caused the emergence from that state was the organizing intelligence, the Mind, just as in man, it is the intelligence which draws thought from cerebral undulations, and forms a clear idea out of a confused idea. Anaxagoras exerted an almost incomparable influence over Greek philosophy of the classical times.

Empedocles of Agrigentum, a sort of magician and high-priest, almost a deity, whose life and death are but little known, appears to have possessed an encyclopaedic brain. From him is derived the doctrine of the four elements, for whereas the philosophers who preceded him gave as the sole source of things--some water, others air, others fire, others the earth, he regarded them all four equally as the primal elements of everything. He believed that the world is swayed by two contrary forces--love and hate, the one desiring eternally to unite, the other eternally to disintegrate. Amid this struggle goes on a movement of organization, incessantly retarded by hate, perpetually facilitated by love; and from this movement have issued--first, vegetation, then the lower animals, then the higher animals, then men. In Empedocles can be found either evident traces of the religion of Zoroaster of Persia (the perpetual antagonism of two great gods, that of good and that of evil), or else a curious coincidence with this doctrine, which will appear again later among the Manicheans.

PYTHAGORAS.--Pythagoras appears to have been born about B.C. 500 on the Isle of Elea, to have travelled much, and to have finally settled in Greater Greece (southern Italy). Pythagoras, like Empedocles, was a sort of magician or god. His doctrine was a religion, the respect with which he was surrounded was a cult, the observances he imposed on his family and on his disciples were rites. What he taught was that the true realities, which do not change, were numbers. The fundamental and supreme reality is one; the being who is one is God; from this number, which is one, are derived all the other numbers which are the foundation of beings, their inward cause, their essence; we are all more or less perfect numbers; each created thing is a more or less perfect number. The world, governed thus by combinations of numbers, has always existed and will always exist. It develops itself, however, according to a numerical series of which we do not possess the key, but which we can guess. As for human destiny it is this: we have been animated beings, human or animal; according as we have lived well or ill we shall be reincarnated either as superior men or as animals more or less inferior. This is the doctrine of metempsychosis which had many adherents in ancient days, and also in a more or less fanciful fashion in modern times.

To Pythagoras have been attributed a certain number of maxims which are called the Golden Verses

XENOPHANES; PARMENIDES.--Xenophanes of Colophon is also a "unitarian." He accepts only one God, and of all the ancient philosophers appears to be the most opposed to mythology, to belief in a multiplicity of gods resembling men, a doctrine which he despises as being immoral. There is one God, eternal, immutable, immovable, who has no need to transfer Himself from one locality to another, who iswithout place and who governs all things by His thought alone.

Advancing further, Parmenides told himself that if He alone really exists who is one and eternal and unchangeable, all else is not only inferior to Him, but is only asemblance and that mankind, earth, sky, plants, and animals are only a vast illusion--phantoms, a mirage, which would disappear, which would no longer exist, andwould never have existed if we could perceive the Self-existent.

ZENO; DEMOCRITUS.--Zeno of Elea, who must be mentioned more especially because he was the master of that Gorgias of whom Socrates was the adversary, was pre-eminently a subtle dialectician in whom the sophist already made his appearance, and who embarrassed the Athenians by captious arguments, at the bottom of which always could be found this fundamental principle: apart from the Eternal Being all is only semblance; apart from Him who is all, all is nothing.

Democritus of Abdera, disciple of Leucippus of Abdera (about whom nothing is known), is the inventor of the theory of atoms. Matter is composed of an infinite number of tiny indivisible bodies which are called atoms; these atoms from all eternity, or at least since the commencement of matter, have been endued with certain movements by which they attach themselves to one another, and agglomerate or separate, and thence is caused the formation of all things, and the destruction, which is only the disintegration, of all things. The soul itself is only an aggregation of specially tenuous and subtle atoms. It is probable that when a certain number of these atoms quit the body, sleep ensues; that when nearly all depart, it causes the appearance of death (lethargy, catalepsy); that when they all depart, death occurs. We are brought into relation with the external world by the advent in us of extremely subtle atoms--reflections of things, semblances of things--which enter and mingle with the constituent atoms of our souls. There is nothing in our intelligence which has not been brought there by our senses, and our intelligence is only the combination of the atoms composing our souls with the atoms that external matter sends, so to speak, into our souls. The doctrines of Democritus will be found again in those of Epicurus and Lucretius.

The Ionian School
Pre-Socratic group of Greek philosophers of the 6th and 5th cent. B.C.E.

The Pythagorean School
Followers of Pythagoras, best known for two teachings: the transmigration of souls and the theory that numbers constitute the true nature of things

The Eleatic School
School of philosophy, founded by Parmenides, that investigated the phenomenal world, especially with reference to the phenomena of change

The Pluralists
Theory that considers the universe explicable in terms of many principles or composed of many ultimate substances

The Atomists
Philosophic concept of the nature of the universe, holding that the universe is composed of invisible, indestructible material particles

The Sophists
A false argument or fallacious method of reasoning


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