Early Greek Philosophy

Philosophical effort is an attempt to grasp the essential truth or meaning of the cosmos and man's relationship to it. Philosophy in the Western world is generally assumed to have begun in Greece with Thales in the sixth century B.C. It might be said that Thales was the first Greek thinker to seek a rational explanation of reality without appealing to the poetic writings of Homer and Hesiod, which through the Iliad and the Odyssey, and Hesiod's works, gave the Greeks an explanation of the origin of the world, and an account of the activities of the gods. These early stories or myths became the basis of Greek religion, and astrological lore.

Two differing points of view characterized early Greek philosophy. On the one hand, Thales and Xenophanes taught that the world arose out of one "stuff." They regarded the world as a "whole" that distinguished itself through its various parts. They set the permanent unity of all things in opposition to diversity and change. On the other hand, Heraclitus taught that the world is in a state of constant flux and change. All existing things pass away and merge into each other. Everything inward and outward seems to be perpetually slipping away from us; the very existence of a thing is found to be the process of its dissolution. Plato fell heir to the task of reconciling these two points of view.

In most of the Platonic dialogues, Plato speaks through his teacher Socrates, and one of the many questions that Socrates asks is: What is Good? What is Justice? What is Virtue? The answer he always receives is a definition of good in terms of what things are good, or what acts are just or virtuous. The conclusion Socrates reaches is that we never seem able to grasp an understanding of the Good itself, or what Justice is in itself, without appealing to the particular things or acts that participate in Goodness and Justice. This view later gave rise to the distinction between what are called Universals and Particulars. Universals, or class terms, are held to have an existence quite independent of the things they denote, and because of their nature, to possess a greater reality. Nominalists, or particularists, argue that Universals are names only and represent nothing apart from the particular things of the world.

Plato considered Universals, or Forms, or Ideas, to be eternal, unchanging, imperishable, indestructible, and as such of a greater reality than the things or particulars of the world, which are merely transitory and perishable. Things come into being and pass away, they have less reality because they are subject to death and decay. We live in a phantom world of fleeting sensations and perceptions; and, according to Plato, if the world without is an "insubstantial pageant," then we ourselves who behold it must be "such stuff as dreams are made on." 2

But Plato's thought is always moving from the particular to the universal, from the part to the whole. He is constantly looking for a principle of unity deeper than all the differences of thought and things, a principle on which they depend and in relation to which alone they can be understood. Plato is intent on proving that this principle of unity is at once the first and final cause of all reality. The Idea, as a unifying principle, is lifted out of abstraction and elevated to a concrete principle of unity in which all ideas have a community with each other, and can only be expressed by saying that each contains or involves all the others.

If the Ideal theory is to mean anything, it must show itself able to unite the 'one' and the 'many' and to prove that they are not absolutely opposed but require each other. We are led to conceive the Idea as the unity of the opposite principles of earlier philosophies, and, therefore, as combining in itself unity and difference, permanence and change. What this means is that an Idea must be conceived as a self-determining or active principle, since only that which is self-determined can be said to transcend these oppositions. It alone can combine movement with rest, because its activity has its source and end in itself. This self-determined principle can be realized only in a mind, hence Plato declares that: "Being in the full sense of the word cannot be conceived without motion and life, without soul and mind." 3

The problem of the one and the many also had the attention of Leucippus and Democritus. Their theory would still be of interest well into the modern era; it became known as the atomic theory. Atoms were thought to be eternal, indivisible, indestructible, and the smallest units from which everything else came into existence.

Plato took a hard look at this theory, and felt that there had to be some fundamental principle that guided atoms from cause to effect. He conceived atoms as having geometrical properties rather than being strictly material objects. Having geometrical dimensions made them subject to mathematical form. His conclusion seemed inescapable; the underlying structure of matter consisted of Ideas that gave rise to all the diversity in the physical world. The Ideas are more fundamental than the physical objects they denote, because the Ideal forms can be described mathematically. The theory of forms answers the question of the one and the many, or how multiplicity is derived from unity. Mind as unity of Ideas can be thought of as prior to the smallest units of matter that aggregate into individual material objects, or multiplicity.

The physicist Werner Heisenberg has this to say about Plato's theory: "I think that on this point modern physics has definitely decided for Plato. For the smallest units of matter are, in fact, not physical objects in the ordinary sense of the word; they are forms, structures or--in Plato's sense--Ideas, which can be unambiguously spoken of only in the language of mathematics." 4

Mathematics, for Plato, described the ideal shapes of things in the world perfectly; whereas the senses only deliver copies of material things to the understanding, and are less than perfect. They are shadow images of the ideal form. The senses apprehend the shadow images, but purely ideal beings are accessible directly as acts of mind. This is something we respond to without thinking about, such as our immediate reaction to works of art or music. Plato spoke of the Beautiful and the Good, which he believed to be divine in origin; the soul apprehends these things as if they were already there. From the Phaedrus Plato says: "The soul is awe-stricken and shudders at the sight of the beautiful, for it feels that something is evoked in it that was not imparted to it from without by the senses, but has always been already laid down there in a deeply unconscious region."

Pythagoras had an early influence on Plato as Plato thought out his theory of Forms. In fact, Pythagoras is considered one of the first to use mathematics as a means of understanding nature, and in doing so demonstrated not only a system of order, but a source of beauty as well. He is credited with the discovery that musical tones have a mathematical relationship between the lengths of vibrating strings, and the harmony they produce when the lengths are in a certain numerical ratio. Pythagoras, and his followers soon found other mathematical relationships and came to the conclusion that the underlying reality of nature is based on numbers. Aristotle, in his Metaphysics, concludes that the Pythagoreans " . . . saw that the modifications and the ratios of the musical scales were expressible in numbers; since, then, all other things seemed in their whole nature to be modeled on numbers; and numbers seemed to be the first things in the whole of nature, they supposed the elements of numbers to be the elements of all things, and the whole heaven to be a musical scale and a number." In this way a close association or connection was established between the beautiful and the intelligible.

Plato could not rest in the idea of a multiplicity of souls without referring back to one divine reason as the source and end of their spiritual life. Hence, he speaks of a "divine intelligence" that is the ultimate cause of all order and life in the world, and that the souls of the gods and men are the direct work of the creator. Since soul is a self-moving principle, God only is the First Mover, the source of life and activity in all other beings. Man is not immortal in his own right as an individual, but rather because the divine life is communicated to him.

The Universal principle of reason is the presupposition of all being, of all knowledge, and of all life. Yet while the divine mind is conceived as a principle of unity transcending all finite and particular existence, He is also a Being who realizes Himself in the whole process of nature and spirit. We know God, Plato seems to say, through the world of birth, death and decay, and the divine can only be imperfectly understood through it. We ourselves as partakers of the divine nature are in another aspect of our being only fragmentary and imperfect existences--parts of the partial world who never gather into our minds the meaning of the whole. As Plato says: "It is hard to exhibit except by analogies, any of the things that are most important; for each of us seems to know everything as in a dream, and again, in waking reality to know nothing at all." 5

To this day Plato remains the unshakable bulwark of philosophical effort in the search for truth and knowledge. I am sure that whatever the nature of Soul or Spirit may be, it will be grounded in the questions he asked, and in the answers still sought.

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