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Theories and interpretations of the world in the works of ancient philosophers

Cosmology and the metaphysics of matter Because the earliest Greek philosophers focused their attention upon the origin and nature of the physical world, they are often called cosmologists, or naturalists. Although monistic views which trace the origin of the world to a single substance prevailed at first, they were soon followed by several pluralistic theories which trace it to several ultimate substances.

Monistic cosmologies There is a consensusdating back at least to the 4th century bc and continuing to the present, that the first Greek philosopher was Thales of Miletus flourished 6th century bc. Thales was counted, however, among the legendary Seven Wise Men Sophoiwhose name derives from a term that then designated inventiveness and practical wisdom rather than speculative insight. Thales demonstrated these qualities by trying to give the mathematical knowledge that he derived from the Babylonians a more exact foundation and by using it for the solution of practical problems—such as the determination of the distance of a ship as seen from the shore or of the height of the Egyptian pyramids.

Although he was also credited with predicting an eclipse of the Sunit is likely that he merely gave a natural explanation of one on the basis of Babylonian astronomical knowledge. Thales is considered the first Greek philosopher because he was the first to give a purely natural explanation of the origin of the world, free from mythological ingredients.

He held that everything had come out of water —an explanation based on the discovery of fossil sea animals far inland.

  1. This theory leaves no room for the Platonic conception that the souls of adult human beings contain non-rational parts which can, and frequently do, generate impulse and behavior independently of, and even contrary to, the designs and purposes of reason.
  2. The main argument against mimesis in the ideal city goes as follows.
  3. There are, then, two fundamental principles of the physical world, empty space and filled space —the latter consisting of atoms that, in contrast to those of modern physics, are real atoms; that is, they are absolutely indivisible because nothing can penetrate to split them.

His tendency and that of his immediate successors to give nonmythological explanations was undoubtedly prompted by the fact that all of them lived on the coast of Asia Minorsurrounded by a number of nations whose civilizations were much further advanced than that of the Greeks and whose own mythological explanations varied greatly. It appeared necessary, therefore, to make a fresh start on the basis of what a person could observe and infer by looking at the world as it presented itself.

This procedure naturally resulted in a tendency to make sweeping generalizations on the basis of rather restricted, though carefully checked, observations. Within this apeiron something arose to produce the opposites of hot and cold. These at once began to struggle with each other and produced the cosmos. The cold and wet partly dried up becoming solid earthpartly remained as waterand—by means of the hot—partly evaporated becoming air and mistits evaporating part by expansion splitting up the hot into fiery rings, which surround the whole cosmos.

Because these rings are enveloped by mist, however, there remain only certain breathing holes that are visible to human beings, appearing to them as the Sun, Moon, and stars.

Anaximander was the first to realize that upward and downward are not absolute but that downward means toward the middle of the Earth and upward away from it, so that the Earth had no need to be supported as Thales had believed by anything. Lifebeing closely bound up with moisture, originated in the sea.

All land animals, he held, are descendants of sea animals; because the first humans as newborn infants could not have survived without parents, Anaximander believed that they were born within an animal of another kind—specifically, a sea animal in which they were nurtured until they could fend for themselves.

His position was for a long time thought to have been a step backward because, like Thales, he placed a special kind of matter at the beginning of the development of the world.

But this criticism missed the point. Neither Thales nor Anaximander appear to have specified the way in which the other things arose out of water or apeiron. Anaximenes, however, declared that the other types of matter arose out of air by condensation and rarefaction. In this way, what to Thales had been merely a beginning became a fundamental principle that remained essentially the same through all of its transmutations.

This concept of a principle that remains the same through many transmutations is, furthermore, the presupposition of the idea that nothing can come out of nothing and that all of the comings to be and passings away that human beings observe are nothing but transmutations of something that essentially remains the same eternally. In this way it also lies at the bottom of all of the conservation laws—the laws of the conservation of matterforce, and energy—that have been basic in the development of physics.

Although Anaximenes of course did not realize all of the implications of his idea, its importance can hardly be exaggerated.

  • It has nothing to do with a belief in divine providence and is not, as some modern critics believe, at variance with the law of causality;
  • Pluralistic cosmologies Parmenides had an enormous influence on the further development of philosophy;
  • In the famous myth of the cave in the seventh book of the Republic, Plato likened the ordinary person to a man sitting in a cave looking at a wall on which he sees nothing but the shadows of real things behind his back, and he likened the philosopher to a man who has gotten out into the open and seen the real world of the Forms;
  • Pythagoreanism was concerned with, among other things, the continued existence of the person or something suitably person-like after death;
  • In many respects, the Stoics inherit this understanding of beauty from their predecessors, but it is worth noting that they also often invoked the notion of functional beauty.

But this is hardly an adequate characterization. It is, rather, characteristic of them that they did not clearly distinguish between kinds of matter, forces, and qualities, nor between physical and emotional qualities. To realize these ambiguities is important to an understanding of certain later developments in Greek philosophy. Xenophanes of Colophon c. He criticized the popular notions of the gods, saying that people made the gods in their own image. But, more importantly, he argued that there could be only one God, the ruler of the universe, who must be eternal.

For, being the strongest of all beings, he could not have come out of something less strong, nor could he be overcome or superseded by something else, because nothing could arise that is stronger than the strongest. The argument clearly rested on the axioms that nothing can come out of nothing and that nothing that exists can vanish. These axioms were made more explicit and carried to their logical and extreme conclusions by Parmenides of Elea born c. There can be no motion either, for it would have to be a motion into something that is—which is not possible since it would be blocked—or a motion into something that is not—which is equally impossible since what is not does not exist.

Hence, everything is solid, immobile being. The familiar world, in which things move around, come into being, and pass away, is a world of mere belief doxa. In a second part of the poem, however, Parmenides tried to give an analytical account of this world of belief, showing that it rested on constant distinctions between what is believed to be positive—i.

It is significant that Heracleitus of Ephesus c. Pluralistic cosmologies Parmenides had an enormous influence on the further development of philosophy. Most of the philosophers of the following two generations tried to find a way to reconcile his thesis that nothing comes into being nor passes away with the evidence presented to the senses.

  1. Set a good example and they will follow it. Longinus on the Sublime.
  2. Mimesis In older scholarship, it is common to find a claim that a Greek term for art was techne, and as this is a much narrower term than the contemporary concept of fine art, it is claimed that ancient Greeks did not have a concept of fine art. In doing so, the theory comes very close to offering a comprehensive answer to a question that arises from the ordinary Greek notion of soul, namely how precisely it is that the soul, which is agreed to be in some way or other responsible for a variety of things living creatures especially humans do and experience, also is the distinguishing mark of the animate.
  3. This move also leads to examining the possibility that all beauty is to be defined as deriving from functionality, but this option is ultimately rejected as well on the grounds that it appears to rely on a kind of deception, because it prioritizes how things appear over how things truly are 290D—294E.
  4. All land animals, he held, are descendants of sea animals; because the first humans as newborn infants could not have survived without parents, Anaximander believed that they were born within an animal of another kind—specifically, a sea animal in which they were nurtured until they could fend for themselves.
  5. He demonstrated his adherence to the first principle on various occasions and under different regimes.

Empedocles of Acragas c. But the elements are constantly mixed with one another by love and again separated by hate.

An encyclopedia of philosophy articles written by professional philosophers.

Thus, through mixture and decomposition, composite things come into being and pass away. Because Empedocles conceived of love and hate as blind forces, he had to explain how, through random motion, living beings could emerge. This he did by means of a somewhat crude anticipation of the theory of the survival of the fittest. In the process of mixture and decomposition, the limbs and parts of various animals would be formed by chance.

Ancient Theories of Soul

But they could not survive on their own; they would survive only when, by chance, they had come together in such a way that they were able to support and reproduce themselves. It was in this way that the various species were produced and continued to exist. Anaxagoras of Clazomenae c. In the beginning, all of these particles had existed in an even mixture, in which nothing could be distinguished, much like the indefinite apeiron of Anaximander. But then nousor intelligence, began at one point to set these particles into a whirling motion, foreseeing that in this way they would become separated from one another and then recombine in the most various ways so as to produce gradually the world in which human beings live.

In contrast to the forces assumed by Empedocles, the nous of Anaxagoras is not blind but foresees and intends the production of the cosmos, including living and intelligent beings; however, it does not interfere with the process after having started the whirling motion.

This is a strange combination of a mechanical and a nonmechanical explanation of the world.

What can business leaders learn from ancient Greek philosophers?

By far of greatest importance for the later development of philosophy and physical science was an attempt by the atomists Leucippus flourished 5th century bc and Democritus c. There are, then, two fundamental principles of the physical world, empty space and filled space —the latter consisting of atoms that, in contrast to those of modern physics, are real atoms; that is, they are absolutely indivisible because nothing can penetrate to split them.

On these foundations, laid by Leucippus, Democritus appears to have built a whole system, aiming at a complete explanation of the varied phenomena of the visible world by means of an analysis of its atomic structure. This system begins with elementary physical problems, such as why a hard body can be lighter than a softer one. The explanation is that the heavier body contains more atoms, which are equally distributed and of round shape; the lighter body, however, has fewer atoms, most of which have hooks by which they form rigid gratings.

The system ends with educational and ethical questions. A sound and cheerful person, useful to his fellows, is literally well composed. Although destructive passions involve violent, long-distance atomic motions, education can help to contain them, creating a better composure. Democritus also developed a theory of the evolution of culturewhich influenced later thinkers. Civilizationhe thought, is produced by the needs of life, which compel human beings to work and to make inventions. When life becomes too easy because all needs are met, there is a danger that civilization will decay as people become unruly and negligent.

  • The poetry can be of three kinds;
  • This theory leaves no room for the Platonic conception that the souls of adult human beings contain non-rational parts which can, and frequently do, generate impulse and behavior independently of, and even contrary to, the designs and purposes of reason;
  • To realize these ambiguities is important to an understanding of certain later developments in Greek philosophy.

Epistemology of appearance All of the post-Parmenidean philosophers, like Parmenides himself, presupposed that the real world is different from the one that human beings perceive.

Thus arose the problems of epistemology, or theory of knowledge. According to Anaxagoras, everything is contained in everything. But this is not what people perceive. He solved this problem by postulating that, if there is a much greater amount of one kind of particle in a thing than of all other kinds, the latter are not perceived at all.

The observation was then made that sometimes different persons or kinds of animals have different perceptions of the same things. He explained this phenomenon by assuming that like is perceived by like.

Ancient Aesthetics

If, therefore, in the sense organ of one person there is less of one kind of stuff than of another, that person will perceive the former less keenly than the latter. This reasoning was also used to explain why some animals see better at night and others during the day. According to Democritus, atoms have no sensible qualities, such as taste, smell, or colour, at all. Thus, he tried to reduce all of them to tactile qualities explaining a bright white colour, for instance, as sharp atoms hitting the eye like needlesand he made a most elaborate attempt to reconstruct the atomic structure of things on the basis of their apparent sensible qualities.

Also of very great importance in the history of epistemology was Zeno of Elea c. Parmenides had, of course, been severely criticized because of the strange consequences of his doctrine: To support him, however, Theories and interpretations of the world in the works of ancient philosophers tried to show that the assumption that there is motion and plurality leads to consequences that are no less strange.

This he did by means of his famous paradoxessaying that the flying arrow rests since it can neither move in the place in which it is nor in a place in which it is not, and that Achilles cannot outrun a turtle because, when he has reached its starting point, the turtle will have moved to a further point, and so on ad infinitum—that, in fact, he cannot even start running, for, before traversing the stretch to the starting point of the turtle, he will have to traverse half of it, and again half of that, and so on ad infinitum.

All of these paradoxes are derived from the problem of the continuum. Although they have often been dismissed as logical nonsense, many attempts have also been made to dispose of them by means of mathematical theorems, such as the theory of convergent series or the theory of sets. Metaphysics of number All of the philosophies mentioned so far are in various ways historically akin to one another.

Pythagoras traveled extensively in the Middle East and in Egypt and, after his return to Samos, emigrated to southern Italy because of his dislike of the tyranny of Polycrates c.

At Croton and Metapontum he founded a philosophical society with strict rules and soon gained considerable political influence. He appears to have brought his doctrine of the transmigration of souls from the Middle East. Originally, this, too, was a very broad generalization made on the basis of comparatively few observations: But because the followers of Pythagoras tried to apply their principle everywhere with the greatest of accuracy, one of them— Hippasus of Metapontum flourished 5th century bc —made one of the most fundamental discoveries in the entire history of science: At first sight this discovery seemed to destroy the very basis of the Pythagorean philosophy, and the school thus split into two sects, one of which engaged in rather abstruse numerical speculations, while the other succeeded in overcoming the difficulty by ingenious mathematical inventions.

The speculations described so far constitutein many ways, the most important part of the history of Greek philosophy because all of the most fundamental problems of Western philosophy turned up here for the first time. One also finds here the formation of a great many concepts that have continued to dominate Western philosophy and science to the present day. Anthropology and relativism In the middle of the 5th century bc, Greek thinking took a somewhat different turn through the advent of the Sophist s.

Philosophically they were, in a way, the leaders of a rebellion against the preceding development, which increasingly had resulted in the belief that the real world is quite different from the phenomenal world. This is the meaning of the pronouncement of Protagoras of Abdera c.

Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy

The Sophists were not only skeptical of what had by then become a philosophical tradition but also of other traditions. On the basis of the observation that different nations have different rules of conduct even in regard to things considered most sacred—such as the relations between the sexes, marriage, and burial—they concluded that most rules of conduct are conventions. What is really important is to be successful in life and to gain influence over others. This they promised to teach.