Theosophical Encyclopedia


TE 8 Greek Philosophy

The beginning of Western philosophy is ascribed to Thales of Miletus (6th century BCE), who claimed that the basic element of the universe, from which all other elements were derived, was water. Exactly what he meant by this is unknown, since only fragments of his writings remain and we are not always sure that later philosophers, such as Aristotle who cited his ideas centuries later, interpreted them correctly. Contemporary historians hypothesize that Thales, observing that water was capable of various conditions: solidification (as ice) and evaporation (as steam or vapor) as well as noting the silting process of rivers, came to his conclusion by induction. But that is not at all certain. Mythology often identifies water (understood metaphorically) as the primary element of creation (cf. Genesis 1.2, Rg Veda x.129, verse 1, etc.) as Helena P. Blavatsky points out when mentioning Thales in The Secret Doctrine (SD 1:345 fn and 2:591 fn). Furthermore, she notes that he (and other early Greek philosophers) were initiates in the Mystery Schools (SD 1:117). If that is so, Thales had not abandoned a mythological account of the universe, as is sometimes believed. But certainly the fragments of his writings that we have do not cite myths as a justification for his belief, so this suggests at least a reasoned, rather than a dogmatic, approach to the creation stories of his day. In any event, cosmological speculation was the initial impetus for Western philosophy.

Anaximander (circa 611-547 BCE) was a pupil of Thales, but differed with his teacher in claiming that water could not account for the immense variety of things in the world. Instead, he hypothesized that they must have an indefinite (apeiron) source, sometimes translated as “the boundless,” which had preexisted creation, is all-pervasive, and is in constant motion — ideas not too far removed from those found in the Stanzas of Dzyan upon which The Secret Doctrine is based. He further believed that the evolution of things from the apeiron was inherently unstable and that eventually everything would be reabsorbed into that indefinite source. Anaximander also anticipated the theory of the evolution of life-forms with his belief that life began in water, eventually developing into land animals and man through a process of adaptation to environment.

The last philosopher of the Milesian school founded by Thales was Anaximenes (who flourished circa 546 BCE) who proposed, according to accounts of later philosophers, that the basic element was air (probably moist air) from which other things evolved by means of rarefaction and densification. HPB’s discussion of him, however, suggests that he held a doctrine much closer to that of Anaximander, teaching “that the sidereal bodies were formed through the progressive condensation of a primordial pregenetic matter, which had almost a negative weight, and was spread out through Space in an extremely sublimated condition” (SD 1:590).

More important for Theosophists was Pythagoras (circa 582-507 BCE), who was born on the island of Samos, but migrated to Italy, where he established a school at Krotona. We know very little historically about his ideas because the school was esoteric. He is credited by tradition as the first person to use the term philosophy for his teachings. Historians report that his basic idea was that all things are numbers, though they do not agree on what he meant by that. It is known that he taught the theory of metempsychosis or transmigration of souls and that he required strict rules of diet and morals of pupils. He is frequently cited in Theosophical literature. See further the entry for Pythagoras.

Another philosopher who lived outside Greece was Empedocles (circa 495-435 BCE), who was born in Sicily. He reverted to the popular four element theory: earth, water, air, and fire. These, according to him, were primary and indestructible. His concept of them, however, seems to be that they were comprised of particles that combined to make up the things of the world under opposing forces of discord (or “hate”) and harmony (or “love”). HPB identifies these forces as simply primitive notions of attraction and repulsion by which Empedocles explained lunar and planetary motion, thus anticipating Kepler and Newton (SD 1:497-498). He also claimed that the atmosphere around us is not empty space, but is made up of matter, and that change of place is the only motion possible, that is to say, that all changes of quality and quantity can be explained in terms of this motion, a concept basic to modern physics. HPB states that he, like Plato and Aristotle, believed that animals and men had two souls: an appetitive soul (psyche) and an intellective soul (nous) (IU 1:317).

It is generally believed that Anaxagoras of Clazomenae (circa 500-428 BCE) was the teacher of Socrates and therefore is responsible for shifting the center of philosophical speculation to Athens. He held that the universe was first an undifferentiated mass which was separated into the “seeds” of future matter by a rotary motion of cosmic intelligence (nous), which he interpreted in a purely mechanical way (for which he was criticized by both Plato and Aristotle). These “seeds” or particles were infinite in number and each was unique in its qualities. He was accused of blasphemy by the Athenians for claiming that the sun was merely a white-hot stone and that the moon was made of earth and was not luminous, but rather reflected the sun’s light — in other words, that they were not “gods.” To avoid prosecution, he fled to Lampsacus, where he died.

It is obvious that some pre-Socratic philosophers conceived of matter as infinitely divisible and others (Empedocles and Anaxagoras) conceived of it as having finite particles. The latter view is best exemplified by the Greek Atomists, Democritus and Leucippus, both of whom lived in Abdera during the fifth century BCE. The latter is credited with having postulated a theory that matter consists of invisible, indivisible (atom) particles and having taught it to the former, who was his pupil, though his elder. These tiny particles were said to be in ceaseless, rotary motion (reminiscent of Anaxagoras’s matter) within space (conceived as a vacuum), and that by bumping into each other they coalesced into the visible objects of the world. Thus, they claimed that there were two basic elements in the universe: atoms and the void. HPB, however, states that the Greeks in general believed that “nature abhors a vacuum” and that their concept of space or “void” was equivalent to the Kabalistic concept of Ain-Soph or the occult concept of an Absolute (SD 1:343) — i.e., void only to ordinary perception. She also claims that Democritus was “taught by the Magi” (SD 1:117), in other words was aware of the occult doctrine of the Mystery Schools. The theory of atomism was continued by the Greek philosopher Epicurus (circa 341-270 BCE) and the Roman philosopher Lucretius (circa 96-55 BCE), but was rejected by others, including Aristotle, and then was forgotten or ignored until the eighteenth century.

The idea of motion assumed the central place in the philosophy of Heraclitus of Ephesus (circa 535- 475 BCE). His ideas are sometimes epitomized in his claim that “you cannot step in the same river twice,” i.e., that the water will have flowed on a little by the second time you step in, so that it is not, in a strict sense of identity, the same river. Thus, permanence to him was an illusion, a doctrine reminiscent of Buddhism. He also claimed that fire was the primary element of the universe and that life and mind were identical with it, hence people do not have individual souls, but rather share a universal soul, a doctrine reminiscent of Advaita Vedanta. HPB notes, in passing, that Thales (who claimed water as basic), Anaximines (air as basic), and Heraclitus (fire as basic), though each partly correct, were none of them complete and that “the Esoteric Doctrine reconciles all those philosophers” (SD 1:77). She makes no reference, however, to his similarities with Indian philosophy.

Parmenides of Elea (born circa 515 BCE) took a completely opposite point of view. He argued that there was only one, unchanging Being, which was the basis of the universe and that, therefore, it was motion and change that were illusions. He reasoned that, since there cannot be something called “non-Being,” there can be no empty space, and since movement from one place to another requires empty space, there can be no real movement from one place to another. That sounds very much like the Advaita doctrine of maya, a doctrine featured prominently in much Theosophical literature.

Parmenides’s most noted disciple was Zeno, also of Elea (circa 490-430 BCE). By means of dialectic logic, he argued that since a single universal substance would be infinitely divisible, it would be impossible for finite things to exist, because no combination of an infinity of nonextended points can result in an extended substance. So also, a finite distance of motion would be impossible through an infinity of nonextended points. His paradoxes of motion (epitomized in the maxim that Achilles could not catch up with and pass a tortoise, if the tortoise were given a head start) baffled logicians and mathematicians, who continued to attempt to resolve them into the twentieth century.

Zeno of Elea is not mentioned in Theosophical literature, but Zeno of Citium (circa 334-262 BCE), the founder of the Stoic philosophy, is, though only in passing. He was influenced by the Cynics, Heraclitus, and Aristotle, as well as some others. He, like Heraclitus, held that the basic element is fire and that the universe evolved from it by a series of transformations not guided by any intelligence. He also attempted to derive his ethical system from logic and metaphysics. The philosophy known as Cynicism was begun by Antisthenes (circa 444-371 BCE), a follower of the Sophists as well as of Socrates. He promulgated a doctrine of virtue for its own sake, shunning social convention, wealth, and pleasure. He also rejected polytheism, claiming that there was only one deity, unlike anything known to humans, a view also held by many Theosophists.

Plato (427?-347 BCE), who is much discussed by Theosophists, was quite familiar with both Heraclitus and Parmenides, since their ideas are explicitly rejected in his dialogues; in fact, one dialogue is named Parmenides. But his approach to philosophy was quite different from that of his Greek predecessors and deserves an extended discussion in a separate entry, as does that of his pupil Aristotle (384-322 BCE).

The last early Greek philosophy mentioned here is that initiated by Epicurus (341-270 BCE), who was born on the island of Samos but taught most of his life in Athens. A generous, genial man, he defined philosophy as the art of making people happy, subordinating metaphysics to ethics. His idea of happiness — now known as Epicureanism — however, was not self-indulgence, but rather subordinating pleasures of the flesh to pleasures of the intellect. The greatest virtue to him was serenity (ataraxia). In metaphysics, he followed the atomism of Democritus, modifying it to include a non-deterministic element, which HPB comments is “an occult teaching” (SD 1:2), even though she chastises him for being a “model Atheist and materialist” (SD 1:568).

With Pythagoras and Plato, the Neoplatonists have received the most attention from Theosophists. Philo Judaedus (circa 13 B.C.-A.D. 45 to 50), a Jewish philosopher from Alexandria, Egypt, is sometimes credited with being the “father of new Platonism” (IU 2:144), though historians usually give that honor to Plotinus (205-270) or his teacher Ammonius Saccas. Most, if not all of them, were initiates into the Mystery schools of their day and many of them were clairvoyant. Their ideas had an important influence on early Christianity, notably in the persons of Origen (185?-?254), Clement of Alexandria (died 513), and the late fifth- or early sixth-century writer who took the pseudonym Dionysius the Areopagite (a first-century convert to Christianity), hence is referred to as “pseudo-Dionysius.” They also later influenced German Romanticism and the Cambridge Platonists, the most notable of whom were Ralph Cudworth (1617-1688) and Henry More (1614-1687).  

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