Part I. GREEK PHILOSOPHY
Its origin and character
If we regard philosophy as the quest for the unity and ground of
things, then it had its home originally in Greece. Of course, wherever
man has emerged from the purely savage state there has existed some kind
of reflection regarding existence. At the great centres of oriental
civilization, in China, India, and Persia, there may be traced movements
of thought and reflective views of the world, but inasmuch as these grew
out of mythical fancy and were more or less governed by religious poetic
feeling, they cannot be styled in the strictest sense philosophical.
So far as we know, the Indians were the only
people besides the Greeks who ever had anything that deserves
the name of philosophy. No one now suggests that Greek
philosophy was derived from India; modern research inclines
rather to the belief that Indian philosophy came from Greece.
The mysticism of the Upanishads and of Buddhism were indeed of
native growth, and profoundly influenced philosophy, but they
were not themselves philosophy in the true sense of the word.
Nor must it be assumed, as it is sometimes alleged, that the
Greeks derived their philosophy from Egypt and Babylon. No writer of the
period during which Greek philosophy flourished knows anything at all of
its having come from the East. Even though we admit, as Herodotus tells
us, that the worship of Dionysus and the Doctrine of Transmigration came
from Egypt, these did not directly bear upon philosophy. Long before Greek speculation began the Egyptians and Babylonians
had made considerable progress in mensuration and astronomical observation, and
it is most probable that the Greeks became acquainted in a general way with
their methods. But the knowledge which they derived in this way was of an
empirical and mechanical order, largely confined to concrete examples and to
But it would be a mistake to say that the Greeks borrowed either their
philosophy or their science from the East. They did receive from Egypt certain
rules of mensuration which, when generalized, gave birth to astronomy, and from
Babylon they learnt the rotary movement of the stars. But their attitude towards
the information thus derived was entirely original. Out of the particular rules
and ascertained facts they evolved general principles and propounded speculative
problems which had never occurred to either the Egyptians or Babylonians.
All beginnings are obscure, and in accounting for the intellectual character of
a people there is a certain individual element which eludes analysis. This is
specially true of the Greeks. As a people they had peculiar gifts and
qualifications, partly indeed derived from their composite social origin and
partly due to their geographical position—an insatiable curiosity, a faculty of
generalization, a broad and varied interest in life, and a sense of beauty and
fitness—which fitted them for their special mission of being the pioneers of
philosophical inquiry. Hellas was a sea-girt mountain land; her back was turned
to the north and west; her bays and islands faced east and south. On the one
side her impregnable mountains defended her from invasion, and on the other her
broken coastline afforded a natural stimulus to commerce and emigration. If her sense of independence and national life was fostered by her geographical
position, her love of beauty was developed by the wealth and variety of nature
for which the land of Greece is pre-eminent.
Still the principal factor in the development of the intellectual life of Greece
must be sought in her system of Colonization. The sea naturally wooed the daring
and enterprising; and the islands in close proximity to the mainland formed
convenient ports of call for commerce and suitable homes for her increasing
population. From the earliest period there arose a vast circle of Greek
plantations, which stretched not only along the coast of Asia Minor but to
Southern Italy and Sicily, and even to Spain. By this way the Greeks were
brought into contact with other nations—not only was the race enriched by
intermarriage, but their mental horizon was enlarged. Local customs, tribal
prejudices and religious beliefs embodied in the national mythologies, quickly
disappeared before the wider outlook which the settlers obtained in their new
surroundings. The new knowledge of the world which they acquired as traders and
seafarers continually enlarged their ideas, while their active and adventurous
life not only broke up their old habits of thought, but stimulated their natural
curiosity and versatility of mind.
It was not therefore in Athens but in the outlying colonies, which were in
advance of the mother country in mental and political progress, that the new
intellectual awakening began. It was only after the Persian war that Athens
became the centre of culture and thought as well as the focus of national life.
The west coast of Asia Minor is the cradle of the intellectual civilization of
Greece. It was there that new answers were first given to the eternal questions
of mankind—what is the meaning of God, of the world, of self?—and these new
answers gradually replaced or transformed the earlier religious beliefs.
Of the primitive view of the world which obtained in Greece we have little
knowledge. The magic rites and
savage myths which prevailed before the dawn of history faded away like a mist
before the breeze of a larger experience and more fearless curiosity. Even in
the earliest poets, Homer and Hesiod, in whom the religion of Greece found its
expression, the mythical element had begun to be eliminated. In Homer the gods
had become human, and everything savage was kept largely out of sight. Hesiod
offers the first crude attempt at constructing a world-system. The so-called
Orphic Cosmogonies had the Hesiodic theogony for their basis. But they, no more
than he, seek to account for the origin of things by natural causes. In
Pherecydes of Syros, for the first time the philosophical spirit finds
expression. The feature common to all the earlier poetic cosmogonies is the
attempt to get behind chaos or 'the gap' and put Kronos or Zeus at the
beginning of things. These fantastic conceptions are anticipations of the
rational explanation of nature.
That which gave to the thinkers of Ionia the distinction of being the awakeners
of thought was that they were the first who, as Professor Burnet says, 'left
off telling tales.' Philosophy dates its origin from the day when those
cosmologists, or 'physicians,' as Aristotle terms them in contrast to their
predecessors, the theologians, relegated the traditional gods to the domain of
fable and sought to explain nature by principles and causes. Yet philosophy in
her earlier stages did not at once discard the garb of mythology. She still
continued to express herself in the rhythmical language of the poets, and even
her conceptions were tinged with the religious faith from which she sprung. The
gods were not at once abolished, but their nature and actions were explained.
Greek philosophy was first devoted to the consideration of the problems of
nature. What is the primitive element from which all things take their rise? The
so-called ' seven wise men,' of whom Thales, Bias and Solon are the best known,
were the representatives of a certain form of worldly wisdom and prudential
morality, certainly most
remarkable for the age in which it appeared, but not sufficiently reflective or
connected to be termed philosophy.
Later, under the impulse of social and political life, research turned from
outward being to the inner nature of man. Philosophy was first objective and
then subjective. Ultimately, after positive results had been reached in the
field of human nature, there arose those great constructive systems of
philosophy—of Plato and Aristotle—which have given to Greek thought its
distinctive character and pre-eminence.
Three periods of Greek philosophy may be, therefore, distinguished.
1. A Physical or Cosmological period, which deals with the question of
being—extending from about 600 B.C. to 450 B.C.
2. A Humanistic or Ethical period, which treats of the nature of man in his
moral and social relations—extending from 450 B.C. till about 400 B.C.
3. A Systematic period, in which an attempt was made for the first time to bring
all questions of being and life into one connected whole—extending from about
400 B.C. till 300 B.C.
Philosophy. Early Monastic Theories