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History of Philosophy
Greco-Oriental Philosophy
by Turner, William (S.T.D.)


The Alexandrian Movement. The scientific movement in Alexandria, of which mention has already been made, was but a phase of the general intellectual revival which was centered in the capital of Egypt during the last centuries of the old era and the first century of the new. This revival may be said to date from the foundation of the city (332 B.C.) by Alexander the Great, who, owing probably to the influence of Aristotle, always held philosophy in the highest esteem and took a lively interest in the spread of philosophical knowledge. After the division of the Macedonian empire, consequent on the death of Alexander, the Seleucidae in Syria, the Attali in Pergamus, and the Ptolemies in Egypt continued to protect and encourage philosophy. The Ptolemies were especially zealous in the cause of learning, and under their rule Alexandria soon became the Athens of the East, -- the center of the intellectual as well as of the commercial life of the Orient, -- and the point where the Eastern and the Western civilizations met. The famous museum, founded about the beginning of the third century before Christ by Ptolemy Soter, was literally a home of learning, and the no less famous library contained all that was best in Grecian, Roman, Jewish, Persian, Babylonian, Phoenician, and Hindu literature. The protection and encouragement extended to learning by the Ptolemies were continued by the Roman emperors after Egypt became a Roman province.

From this intellectual movement there arose a new phase of philosophical thought, which may be broadly characterized as an attempt to unite in one speculative system the philosophy of Greece and the religious doctrines of the Orient, -- an attempt which was rendered particularly opportune by a variety of circumstances. The Jews had settled in large numbers in Alexandria, and there was constant communication between Alexandria and Palestine, which was at that time dependent on Egypt. The translation known as the Septuagint had brought the sacred books of the Hebrews within the reach of Greek scholars; and Greek philosophy was not unprepared for the task of adjusting itself to the new ideas thus presented to the Greek mind. Indeed, Greek philosophy had reached the point where, its own resources having been exhausted, it welcomed the inflow of new ideas from the East, which had ever been to the Greek imagination the home of the mysterious and the spiritual. Besides, the conviction was gaining ground that Greek philosophy and Oriental religion had a common origin; what, therefore, could seem more natural than that the two should be reunited? Finally, the movement had a practical as well as a theoretical aim: it was hoped that the diffusion of new religious ideas would bring about a reform of the popular religion. At the end of a generation of scepticism such a reform was sadly needed.

In the movement thus broadly characterized as an effort to reform the intellectual and moral life of the time by a synthesis of Greek philosophy and Oriental religion, the religious element was naturally the dominant element, and the philosophy which resulted was more properly a theosophy than a system of philosophy strictly so called. In the stream of theosophical thought we may distinguish two currents: (1) Greco-Jewish philosophy; (2) Neo-Pythagoreanism and Neo-Platonism. In Greco-Jewish speculation Greek philosophy turned to the religious tradition of the East; in the Neo-Pythagorean and Neo-Platonic systems it turned rather towards a mystic enlightenment, a revelation of the Deity to the individual soul.

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