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Ancient Greek Philosophy

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Dabbling in Philosophy

During my humanities course, I came across many different philosophers and various systems of philosophy which, in a sense, intrigued me. So I began wondering, what is the significance of it?

Philosophy can be defined as the “system of beliefs accepted as authoritative by some group or school, the rational investigation of questions about existence and knowledge and ethics”1

In other words, with the advent of the scientific method, philosophy is usually opiniated, unverifiable, meaningless and vague mumbo-jumbo put forward by individuals who wish to appear smart (sartre!). That sounds very harsh, but I’ll explain why I think so later. Neverthless, philosophy gives an interesting insight into how humans try to make sense of it all.

Before we begin discussing the various systems of philosophy, I’ll point out that each form of philosophy usually tries to answer questions like,
-What is the goal of human life?
-What is knowledge?

I’ll share what conclusions I’ve drawn from my dabblings later on. Anyway, In my quest to understand, I started at the beginning of western philosophy, which is the ancient Greek (Hellenistic) philosophy. There are many systems of beliefs, so I’ll discuss only the major ones here.

(i) Sophism
Sophism comes from the greek work sophistes. In greek history, sophists were a a type of thinkers who used to sell “wisdom”, often for a very high fee. This technique was referred to as sophism. The sophists used to teach whatever subject which was in demand, such as rhetoric, debate and grammar. While initially respected, the sophists were soon frowned upon for the practice of taking money to disseminate knowledge. The tendency of the sophists to argue for the sake of arguing, and to attempt to prove any position regardless of knowledge of the subject led to them gradually lost respect. Even in Greece, there was a certain antagonism towards sophists.2

Nowadays, sophism refers to a confusing and intentionally illogical argument to obfuscate a point, often using flowery language.

(ii) Platonism
Platonism refers to ideas, believed to be endorsed by the greek philosopher, Plato who lived during the 4th century BC. Platonism deals with the existence of abstract objects, which don’t have physical or mental manifestation and don’t exist in space or time.

Then, what are such objects? According to platonism, objects like numbers and proposition are abstract objects. For example, platonism contends that numbers exist irrespective of individual thoughts, and don’t exist in space or time.

Over the years, there have been a number of arguments against Platonism (*predictably, because it’s so abstract*) which challenges the ideas of platonism.

(iii) Stoicism
Stoicism was one of the most popular forms of philosophy among the educated classes in the Greek and Roman empires. Stoicism comes from the greek word stoa, which refers to the painted porch in Athens where it was taught by Zeno.

The an important idea in Stoicism was that knowledge can be obtained through the senses alone. The Stoics (those who practised Stoicism), claimed that, initially the mind is empty and blank and knowledge is inscribed into the mind through our physical senses. They contended that, all knowledge is merely an impression through our senses, and as a result, the truth (ie, whether our knowledge is true) does not depends on concepts, but only on an individuals sensations. (*Whew, that was abstract!*). As a consequence, they claimed that there is no universal criterion of truth.

This stoic logic led to many interesting consequences. It’s really fascinating to read about the beliefs, values and ethics of the stoics, as it gives an insight into how the men of greece tried to make sense of the world. Finally, a major theme in stoicism is freeing the mind of anguish, suffering and passion, to follow reason and “live according to nature”. So, in stoicism, virtue and morality are a consequence of rational actions.

In modern language, a stoic refers to person who isn’t affected by emotions, such as joy or sadness.

(iv) Hedonism
Hedonism comes from the greek word hēdonē, which means pleasure. The basic idea behind hedonism is fairly straight forward (A pleasant change!). Hedonism claims that all our actions are motivated by either pleasure, or pain. In the words of the english philosopher Jeremy Bentham,

“Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain, and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do”

There are various schools of thought in Hedonism itself which expands this idea to various social systems such as economy, rationalise the ethical and moral consequences of such actions, and tries to relate them to concepts such as utilitarianism (ie, how to make a large number of the population happy).

(v) Epicureanism
Epicureanism refers to the teachings of the greek philosopher Epicurus, who lived in the 3rd century BC. Analagous to Hedonism, Epicureanism belive that the goal of human is happiness, and the absence of pain.

Interestingly, Epicurus formulated a complete system of the world. He believed in the idea proposed by his teacher’s teacher Democritus, that all physical objects are made up of small discrete, solid and indivisible particles (not exactly atoms as we know it today, but similar) and empty spaces or voids. As a consequence, Epicurus was also able to put forward an elaborate (and incorrect) theory of why objects fall to the earth. Epicureanism also goes on to hypothesise on the nature of the “soul”, and how society is shaped.

In religion, Epicureanism proposes that gods, while they exist, do not interfere with human affairs. In the absence of the punishment of the gods, Epicureanism justifies morality by claiming that unjust actions and crimes will lead to a lack of tranquility which will affect happiness

In modern usage, an epicure is a person with refined taste, devoted to sensuous pleasure and luxurious living.

External resources:
Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
MIT OpenCourseWare: Linguistics and Philosophy

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Written by parseval

October 24, 2006 at 2:21 pm

Posted in philosophy

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