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Introductory Essay
The Early Greeks

Background Essays
The Roots of Philosophy
The Emergence of Philosophy

The Period of Naturalism

The Ionians - The Pythagoreans - Heraclitus - The Eleatic School
The Pluralists - The Atomists

Expanded Discussion


The Metaphysical Period

The Sophists - Socrates - Minor Socratic Schools
The Cynic School - Antisthenes
The Cyrenaic School - Aristippus
Socrates - Plato - Aristotle

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Special Essays

Topical Commentary

The Ethical Period

Zeno of Citium - Cleanthes - Chrysippus

Epicurus - Lucretius

Pyrrho - Arcesilaus - Carneades - Sextus Empiricus


Euclid - Posidonius

The Greco-Roman Moralists
Cicero - Lucian of Samosata - Seneca - Musonius Rufus
Dio Chrysostom - Epictetus - Marcus Aurelius

The Natural Sciences During the Hellenic Age

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The Religious Period

The Three Main Schools - Philosophy of Plotinus - Porphyry - Jamblicus - Proclus

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Introduction: The Early Greeks

Man is naturally a philosopher. Brought face to face with the wonders of nature or the results of human endeavor, he is not content merely to observe the phenomena as they are offered to his senses, but feels impelled by his natural thirst for knowledge to investigate the causes through which these phenomena were produced. In this sense the story of philosophy is, as it were, lost and confused with the history of man.

By philosophy we mean, however, nor any haphazard explanation of prime causes but intelligent and reflective research into the realities of things such as will justify the position of first causes from which arise the phenomena of life.

Reflective thinking (scientific or philosophic reasoning) is slow in coming into being for, as Hegel notes, "Late in the already advanced evening does the bird of Minerva seek the air."

Reflective thought begins when the period of spontaneity closes. Reflective thought needs spontaneous thinking as its starting point.

Not satisfied with the elementary explanations which first intuition offers, the mind seeks to reconstruct the whole process of its labors on a new basis, the basis of reasoning.

Thus Greek philosophy, which, as a product of reflective thought, begins in the sixth century before Christ with the philosophers of Miletus, presupposes another period. We might call it the early philosophic period, a period in which the proposed systems are a product more of the imagination than of reason.

The first stage of this period preceding philosophy of which we have knowledge is that of universal animism. To understand how primitive man saw in every phenomenon a genie or god which animates the entire universe and every single phenomenon, it is necessary to reconstruct for ourselves the conditions under which these men lived. They possessed only the experience of what happened in the world of man, and such experience showed them that every event is the effect of will.

By a tendency to the laws of association by which we relate new experimental data to our past experiences, it happened that primitive man was induced likewise to consider every effect of nature as the product of a will which manifested itself through these phenomena.

Man was placed before the great spectacles of nature, face to face with the starry sky or with the rain and the sun which regularly descended to earth, with the springtime which clothes the earth once more in grass and flowers, and with autumn which despoils it of them, stationed at the bank of a stream or gazing upon the sea which violently changes the calm level of its waters into wild waves.

And man, led by laws of association indicating that everything which he observed in the human world proceeds from a will, was induced to see also in these phenomena a will, and hence a living, voluntary being that was the cause of these phenomena.

In the second stage, man, having advanced further, attempted to represent for himself the genii who were in charge of the phenomena of nature.

And if he imagined them, he could not do otherwise than imagine them as men (anthropomorphism). The gods move on the same plane with men, having the same likes and the same unruly passions, although they are beings superior to men and live a higher life.

This world animated by gods forged on the human form had its poetic representation in Homer. Dawn with the roseate finger and the Sun which rises after her, the river Xanthus and Ocean of the azure depths, Night, Day, the Hours -- in a world, all the natural phenomena -- hide some divinity.

Even men, whether considered individually or socially, live under the influence of these divine forces. Love and hate, war and peace, life and death move under the influence of these gods, at one time propitious, at another malevolent.

Since these gods are conceived as having the same passions as men, they build the cities, make laws, construct the walls of defense and intervene in wars to aid their favorites. They infuse in men courage and astuteness, fear and terror, and punish the ungrateful by pouring out terrible evils whenever men overstep the boundaries of morals and justice. Zeus, father of the gods and of men, must give proof of all his authority in order to make himself obeyed, and he does not always achieve this end. The sovereign of all is Fate, to whom all must bow.

In the midst of this crowd of deities, an attempt was made to establish a certain order of descent, and since the rise of a god indicates also the origin of a phenomenon, the ancient story of the theogony can be considered as the first attempt at cosmological exposition. The birth of the gods includes in itself the birth of the world and of its principal aspects.

We know this attempt to explain the cosmos from the poem "Works and Days" of Hesiod, poet of Boeotia who lived in the eighth century before Christ. The author writes:

"In the beginning there was Chaos; then came Gaia, the broad-bosomed earth; and, next, Eros, loveliest of the gods, who delights the senses of both mortals and immortals, and melts the strength of their limbs. Chaos engendered Darkness and Black Night; and from the union of these two came forth Air and Day -- Aether and Hemera. Gaia, by her own power, first created the starry heavens, the high mountains, and Pontus, the sea; then, wed to Uranus, she brought forth Oceanus, the stream that encircles the earth; the gods of lightening, which she called Cyclopes; Tethys, the great goddess of the sea; and many other children, some of them mighty monsters, and others than can be classified as mere allegories. From the marriage of Oceanus and Tethys came fountains and streams. The Sun-god, the Moon-goddess and the Dawn were born to two other children of Heaven and Earth. Dawn, united to her cousin Astraeus, god of the stars, gave birth to the Winds, the Morning-star, and the rest of the heavenly lights."

The poem of Hesiod can be considered as the last word of mythology. After him came the Ionic thinkers to dwell once more on the problem of the rise of the world, but in a new fashion, which indicates the departure from the period of mythology to that of philosophy.  

Introduction & Directory

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