Introduction to Western Philosophy (2): Mythology to Hellenism.


In Part One of this series I introduced some terms that will be appearing as we explore the history of Western philosophy. In today’s post (Part Two) we will begin with the Greek myth collectors that got things going, all the way to the Pyrrhonic lifestyle of Roman doctor Sextus Impericus.


Hesiod (cir. 750 B.C.E): collected orally transmitted origin myths into the Theogony. May be connected to Hittite Song of Kumarbi (overthrowing progenitor, castration).

Homer (cir. 750 B.C.E): no one man, but rather amalgam of writers contributing to the legendary epic works The Iliad, and The Odyssey over a long period of time. Thus, Homer is much like the (later) Buddhist saint Bodhidharma; a mythical hagiography around which to organize certain wisdom traditions.


It is important to note that the Greek thinkers before Socrates and Plato could be considered the first “physicists”, as their concern with nature was closer to a “scientific” approach than a theological one. As such, they wanted to know about how grass grows or what things are made of, no matter which god(s) made them.

Thales (624 – 546 B.C.E): all is made of water: water is the fundamental element of nature.

Anaximander (610 – 546 B.C.E): The basis of the Universe is an unlimited, undefined substance without qualities from which opposites come (hot/cold, wet/dry).

Anaximenes (585 – 525 B.C.E): The basis of everything is air.

Pythagoras (570 – 495 B.C.E): “Number is the ruler of Forms and Ideas”. Reality is created out of something non-material and abstract that is the basis for all material (architectonic – having qualities of design and structure). That “something” is numbers/mathematics.

Heraclitus (535 – 475 B.C.E): “Everything is in flux”. The Universe is ruled by an organizing principle (Logos), opposites are ‘One’ and everything is in flux-thus no thing can be known, as it changes before we truly understand it. Logos = root of “-logy” (anthropology, biology).

Parmenides of Elea (530 B.C.E): “All is One”. Eleatic School: (only logical thought leads to knowledge of Being).

Aeschylus (525 – 456 B.C.E): The Oresteia play trilogy, our fate/striving/character shapes our destiny.

Zeno of Elea (490 – 430 B.C.E): reductio ad absurdum, revealed paradoxical arguments in common communication.

Protagoras (490 – 420 B.C.E): “Man is the measure of all things”. “Truth” is our perception/experience, “Virtue” through rhetoric (deceitful sophistry).

Democritus (460 – 370 B.C.E): “Nothing exists except atoms and empty space”. The word atom comes from the Greek word atomon (ἄτομον), something that is uncuttable or can’t be divided. By coincidence, Democrritus thus becomes the first to discuss actual physics long before atomic theory, actual atoms, were proven to exist. Democritus asked: what earlier circumstances caused an event? (no Prime Mover/questions of purpose or reason).

Herodotus (484 – 425 B.C.E): History as descriptive psychology-the relation between/problem of war and virtue.


Socrates (469 – 399 B.C.E): “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Virtue, dialectic – test every assumption for its grounding and implications. The Socratic Method: asking questions of others in order to get them to reveal the truth to themselves; a guided philosophical teaching method. Since we only know of Socrates’ ideas and life through the writings of Plato, it is not 100% certain how much of Socrates is Plato’s transcription or invention. Thus, Plato, Socrates’s student, is the first and foundational philosopher in Western history.

It is also interesting to note that Socrates’ Method actually represents, in one instance, what one might call the Socratic Contradiction. He continuously called into question the wisdom of the leaders of his time, asserting they were not wise for thinking they knew what they were talking about. He then claims to be wiser than they due to his assertion that at least he himself was willing to admit he “knew nothing” for sure. But this is actually a paradox or a contradiction, in that Socrates is making the claim that he knows what “real” knowing is, thus he can recognize what is ignorance in others. Socrates must know the correct/actual standards of truth and knowing to say such a thing, but if he “knows nothing”, he cannot claim he knows the leaders are not wise, i.e. if you don’t know what a dog is you can’t say dog owners know nothing about dogs.

Hippocrates (460 – 370 B.C.E): diseases/cures are natural, and not related to the divine. He also thought that the qualities of the four elements (air, water, earth, fire) are reflected in the bodily fluids. This idea was more fully developed by Roman doctor Galen (see below).

Isocrates (436 – 338 B.C.E): Rhetoricians must have great philosophical/arts knowledge.

Plato (424 – 348 B.C.E): The Father of All Western Philosophy:  Plato took on how we should deal with Life problems: not just the words we use but what lies underneath the words, the nature of ethics: the nature of virtue. We learn the word “virtuous” in myths, but philosophy asks, “what lies at the core of virtue”?

In his landmark work, the Republic, he posits that we should come to our conclusion solely on the basis of arguments and investigation, not tradition or religion, as even the Pre-Socratics were still relatively bound to myth and spiritualism. Thus, Plato is the first truly free inquirer. Perhaps his greatest innovation was Platonism: the idea that the things we perceive in the physical world are types of illusions, each thing  “shadow” of a transcendental Ideal Form of that thing, meaning Ideal Forms were pure versions of things perceived through the intellect, not the senses (e.g. a drawn triangle represents the pure idea/form of the triangle). Ironically, Plato’s break from Pre-Socratic spiritualism (Platonism) would later become spiritualized into Neo Platonism by medieval philosopher Plotinus.

The Republic also dealt with the question of what the true nature of justice is. Plato also believed that we remember knowledge from previous lives (as he argues in Meno), and that poets were imitators of worldly illusions through their craft and thus mislead people with their work.

Diogenes (404 – 323 B.C.E): “Cynicism” – austerity/poverty/simplicity = happiness. Culture and politics is artifice.

Aristotle (384 – 322 B.C.E): The Father of Science: “truth resides around us in the world” (via biology, astronomy, etc.). Aristotle was also the first to rigorously categorize plants, animals, ideas, and such. He even categorized four sources of happiness: sensual (hedone), material (propraietan), ethical (ethikos), and logical (dialogike). This categorical approach to emotion would later influence Roman doctor galen and his work. He also provided the first real serious thought on deductive reasoning through syllogisms. For example:

All squirrels are furry.
Skippy is a squirrel.
Therefore, Skippy is furry.

Aristotle is also known for his work Nichomachean Ethics in which he argues that eudaimonia (“happiness”) is achieved through the pursuit of virtue (arête); through ongoing virtuous action in every aspect of existence.

Zeno of Citium (334 – 262 B.C.E): Stoicism, virtue = peace of mind. God is Fire (active energy) and Logos (reason, physics, controlling principles) diffused throughout the Cosmos. God = creative force materialized via Logos.

Epicurus (341 – 270 B.C.E): Epicureanism – maximize pleasure/reduce pain through modesty (absence of pain = happiness)


The Hellenistic Period (323 B.C.E – 31 B.C.E): A period in which Greek culture had a major influence on Roman and/or various Mediterranean cultures.

Hellenism and Christianity: Reconciling Christianity to its major opponent, Stoic philosophy (Stoic principles in service to Christian theology). Stoic ‘rational power’ present in physics = Christian/Jewish God revealing himself through such rational physics.

Hellenism and Judaism: Jewish spatial and temporal issues over landlessness (unique among world cultures). Without a common language, land and government, what makes the world’s Jews a community? Jewish history = adaptation and synthesis. Transfer of Temple power (high priest, rites) to local synagogue power: rabbi and his authority, exegesis of Jewish Law (Mishnah) and homiletics (midrashim), thus growing influence of Hellenism, and the rise of various sects.

Cicero (106 – 43 B.C.E): Introduced Roman society to Greek Philosophy and developed a Latin vocabulary for understanding philosophical terms (humanitas = the virtuous character needed for oratorial civil service).

Lucretius (99 – 55 BCE): Material Atomism: there is indeed evidence that the world is fundamentally material, and that nothing happens after death. Thus, god or not, we need not fall prey to thoughtless superstitions. Lucretius’ On The Nature Of The Universe is the first major Roman work on the subject.

Philo Judaeus (12 B.C.E – 47 C.E): Most important Hellenistic Jewish philosopher, based in Alexandria. Logos (the creative divine principle) presides over Being, and is an intermediary between God and his creation (like a second god; a type of intermediary like Christ eventually became). The presence of God’s essence is “sober intoxication”, presupposing emotionally altering divine indwelling hundreds of years before Islam.

Epictetus (55 C.E – 135 C.E): The only thing one owns exclusively – his will or purpose.

Marcus Aurelius (121 C.E – 180 C.E): Roman Emperor (Caesar Augustus) and Stoic philosopher. Meditations = discursive notes during warring and administration contemplating the seemingly unattainable goals of conduct while the world continues in brutality, triviality, and transient reality. “All hindrances to the performance of a good act can be changed into assistances to the performance of a good act…“.

Claudius Galen (129 – 201 CE): Roman doctor and Father of Psychology. If philosophy is the study of ideas, psychology is the study of how we act on which ideas we consider, and why we have and act on them (behaviour).

Galen thought that all things are a combination of earth, air, fire, and water, and the qualities of these elements can be found in four corresponding bodily fluids (“humors”) that affect the function of our body, as Hippocrates did, 500 years earlier. But Galen thought that humors also affect our moods (“temperaments”) of which there are four: Melancholic (depressed, poetic, artistic), Phlegmatic (quiet, rational, shy), Choleric (fiery, energetic, passionate), and Sanguine (cheerful, optimistic, confident). When our moods are imbalanced it meant that our fluids themselves are unbalanced. Thus, if a doctor restores balance in the fluids, our emotional and behavioural problems will be fixed.

Galen’s focus on body and emotion, which leads to certain behaviours makes him the first significant figure in what we consider the science of psychology or psychiatry; the first psychologist. Thus, after Galen, the study of moods eventually became endopsychic: that which is related to, or consists of, the contents of the mind, including the study of what we call phobias. Mild phobias (paraphobias) usually consist of simple aversions to things (like taking tests or cleaning the toilet), while actual phobias themselves are more severe, and often irrational. Such phobias include melophobia (the fear of music), aulophobia (fear of wind instruments), metrophobia (the fear of poetry), or even phobophobia, the fear of fear.

A particularly interesting phobia (shuk yang) is found in male members of ethnic Chinese communities in south and eastern Asia characterized by an sudden, intense fear that the penis is shrinking and retracting into the abdomen, which will result in death. Less common is the female variant: a fear of nipple or vulvic retraction. Sufferers often hold their genitals during the day and sleep with an inguinal bamboo clamp at night.

Sextus Empiricus (160 – c. 210 CE): Roman doctor and skeptic (“nothing can be known with certainty”). Empiricus practiced Pyrrhonism (pyrrhonic skepticism): nothing can be truly known, and we must also suspend judgment on that very idea; mild skepticism = begin with the idea that nothing is true or false). His work Outlines of Pyrrhonism, promotes the idea that Pyrrhonism is more of an open-ended way of living than a strict method of philosophy.



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