Next post! And wow, this post is longer than I intended it to be, or thought it was. In my defense, it does cover nearly two thousand years.
Although the Stoics and the Epicureans were the dominant schools throughout the Roman Empire, they were not unopposed. The two most significant opponents were in many ways very similar: the Skeptics and the Academics. The former are a curious movement of unknown origins, although they traced themselves apocryphally to a certain Pyrrho of Elis, for which reason they are also called Pyrrhonists; the latter are the descendants of Plato's Academy. Both criticised the surety of the Epicureans, and particularly of the Stoics.
The Academy had always had a sceptical element - Plato's Theory of Forms, after all, emphasised how little knowledge could be gained from physical experience, and many of his dialogues end with no conclusion. After the rise of Stoicism, Academics increasingly emphasised this skepticism against Stoic certainty. Most famous is Carneades, who seems to have preached an almost Sophist gospel: he infamously roused the ire of the Romans by arguing publicly for the virtue of Roman society on one day, and the next day, in the same place, arguing the exact opposite. He believed that all philosophical positions should be argued against. The Stoics believed that knowledge was necessary for virtue, and defined this as assent to a true perception whose truth was guaranteed by the causal process by which it was created; Carneades and his colleagues argued that this guarantee was impossible, and thus that the wise man would assent to no beliefs at all. This raised the question of how any action was possible; several answers were given, until Philo of Larissa finally revolted against the Stoic concept of knowledge itself, arguing that it was possible to know things even if they might be false. This opened the path for Middle Platonism, which would eventually transform society.
Meanwhile, however, the Skeptics (who in reality likely originated with the Academics) were more directly concerned with knowledge, and its role in ataraxia. They argued that it is confusion over which belief to accept that destroys tranquillity - the sage (of whom they took Pyrrho to be the paragon) was the one who did not believe anything at all, and so was immune to anxiety over the truth of his beliefs. This lack of beliefs was accomplished by demonstrating how all beliefs were false, or at least unjustified. Nonetheless, the Skeptics did not state conclusively that all beliefs were false (which would have undermined their own beliefs), but rather that they should search for true beliefs, but withhold assent from them all until they were known to be true - which they did not belief (though did not claim to know) would ever be possible. In practical terms, rather than specifically arguing against the Stoics, as the Academics did, the Skeptics tried to argue against all beliefs, by creating 'antitheses' - arguments designed to show that each question could be argued either way, and hence to create confusion, and ultimately equanimity. Following Socrates himself, the Skeptics sought to argue ad hominem - that is, they judged their arguments, like a doctor, to cure the illness of dogmatism in each patient individually, rather than attempting to make any objective claims - even objective claims of ignorance. We know about later Skepticism (and indeed much about other philosophy of the time) from Sextus Empiricus.
In the long run, however, neither Stoic empiricism nor Academic/Pyrrhonist scepticism proved the victorious school. Instead, the world came to be dominated by Middle Platonism and its successors.
The originator of Middle Platonism is held to be Antiochus of Ascalon (died 68 BC), the student of Philo of Larissa. His tutor's rejection of the Stoic epistemology that had dominated philosophy freed the Academics to go back to talking about Plato, escaping from the sterility and restrictions of scepticism. For Antiochus, the most important parts of Plato were the Unwritten Teachings, and the Timaeus, which seems closest to them of the published dialogues in content, and yet incompatible with them. Middle Platonism therefore had two principle concerns: reconciling the Timaeus with the Unwritten Teachings (themselves subject to debate, as they were not codified), and reconciling both with popular beliefs, both Stoic and religious. The resultant doctrines differed in many details, but had a common shape:
- The world has two fundamental substances: Material and Ideal
- The physical world is divided into two parts: the 'sub-lunar' world
(where we live), and the 'super-lunar' world (where God lives). The sub-lunar world was Material; the super-lunar world, Ideal. This is clearly an acceptance of the folk cosmology where the gods inhabited a world beyond the planetary bodies - but crucially, although the physical interpretation fell away in the end, the implication of a continuum remained: if God is merely up in the sky somewhere, there is a continuum of places between Him and us, rather than a sharp division
- Some theorists posed a variety of beings and places between God and humanity - many such beings were called 'demons'.
- The Forms, or Ideas, that material matter imitates, are 'thoughts in the mind of God'
- The material world is ever-changing and inconstant. Periodically, it is consumed utterly by fire and remade. The Ideal world, however, remains eternally
- The efficient cause of all events in the material world is the Logos, or Word. This is also called World-Soul (from the Unwritten Teachings) or the Demiurge (from the Timaeus).
- The Demiurge is an intellectual being, a craftsman, and created the material world; he may choose to destroy it at any time. The Demiurge/Logos itself is the third principle of the world, after God, and an opposing, perhaps evil, principle named the Dyad. The Logos and Dyad, however, are both emanations of the One, God.
- The creation of the world may have been a temporal event, or may have been outside, or before, time. Either way, time did not exist before that point, just as it does not exist in the super-lunar world (or 'Heaven' as we call it now). Accordingly, although the Logos comes from the One and the Dyad, they always existed together as a trinity - the temporal idea of 'comes from' is just a way of explaining the priority and fundamentalness of the One. As a later Platonist put it: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God".
- Because we are able to grasp the Ideal through reason, there is a part of us, the soul, that is itself Ideal. This Soul thus entered the world from Heaven; it either may, or will, return to Heaven on our death, where it will become divine itself, and re-unite with God.
- Because the Ideal is unchanging and original, and the Material is in in flux, inconstant, and cannot be trusted, as well as being the cause of all suffering, there is something superior and preferable about the Ideal, rather than the Material.
This Middle Platonist schema gradually outflanked both Stoicism and Epicureanism - the former, with its empiricist reticence, could not compete with the certainty of knowledge of Platonism, and was in any case rather too hostile and difficult to be appealing to everybody. The latter, meanwhile, found that its protestations that death was nothing to worry about could not in the end compete with Platonism's reassurance that physical death was not the death of what really mattered, the Soul.
Middle Platonism itself, however, was too vague and disparate a movement to become dominant. Instead, the first few centuries AD are marked by the emergence of multiple strains of Platonist thought, varying by how they interacted with popular religion:
- Some proposed Middle Platonism as a truth that underlay the religions of the day. Plutarch, for instance, syncretised Greek religion with Egyptian, and interpreted both as expressions of Platonism. More importantly, the Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, imposed Platonist doctrines onto Hebrew religion. In the following decades, Paul of Tarsus extended Philo's work to interpret a new Jewish cult he had joined, and his followers continued the effort, creating a Platonic-Jewish branch of the cult that eventually outcompeted the non-Platonic branch lead by the surviving original leaders of the cult. The focus of their interpretation was the claim that a certain Yeshua the Nazarene was a bodily incarnation of the Logos. The claim, most notably forcefully made in the Gospel of John, was originally controversial among Christians (as followers of the new religion came to be known) - John was not only the last gospel to be written, but also by far the last to be universally accepted, precisely because it was the most Platonic, and the most thoroughly Pauline. Some of the more completely Platonist doctrines, such as the immortality of the soul, were not fully accepted for centuries - as late as Constantine, there was still disagreement on the matter, and only through the efforts of avowed Platonists like Origen and Augustine did the Platonic vision win out. [Many Platonist doctrines were temporarily discarded in early Protestantism - Luther and Tyndale both decrying, for instance, the 'heathen' concept of 'Heaven' (as a destination of souls, rather than simply the residence of God) that the Platonists had introduced - but by then such ideas were too strongly established in the populace, and it wasn't long until Plato snuck back in again]
- Others 'mysticised' Middle Platonism, through the detailing of many of the features left vague by the official doctrine, and often by translating it into more human terms, and often by co-opting elements of existing religions. Most famous of these groups were the various Gnostic sects, that combined Platonism with Semitic religions, including the new cult of Jesus, and focused on detailing the nature of the intermediary emanations between God and the material world. Others include the Hermetic and Chaldean traditions - the latter of which epitomises the eclecticism of the movement by relabelling the Trinity (One, Dyad and Demiurge) as Father, Power and Intellect, and personifying the 'membrane' that it posited between the divine and the material as the goddess Hecate. This mystic tradition typically stressed the evil of the material world and the importance of escape, through special knowledge or practice, to higher realms. In doing so, these thinkers typically made the Demiurge evil (as in much Gnosticism), or divided the Demiurge (as maker of the material world) from the World-Spirit (from which emanated Nature and Fate, rulers of the material world), as in the Chaldean Oracles.
- A third group emerged that were in essence merely prophets, Messiahs and miracle-workers who co-opted Platonic terminology and theology. Examples are Apollonius of Tyana and Simon Magus.
These three groups interacted with mainstream Platonist philosophers in a complicated and productive way.
Eventually, two main Platonist doctrines emerged in the Roman Empire: the Plato-Antiochus-Philo-Paul tradition (Pauline Christianity) and the Plato-Antiochus-Numenius-Plotinus tradition (Neoplatonism). The former became the dominant European belief system, while the latter provided inspiration to mystics, with its belief that the cosmos was the self-expression of a contemplative God, and that its apparent division in matter was only a momentary stage toward its complete actualisation - and its depiction of the individual soul as undergoing the same journey. Enlightnment (gnosis), for Plotinus, comes when the Soul views Nature, not as an objective 'other', but as its own act - just as Intellect (or 'essence') arises when the One (or 'existence') views itself as 'other', and 'Being' is the realisation of Intellect's self-division into observing self and observed other, or into subject and object. Life is to be celebrated as the Soul's creative act; death is to be celebrated as the Soul's repose, and its return to contemplation of that act.
More than a century after Plotinus, the final scholarch of the Academy, Proclus, advanced and crowned Neoplatonist doctrine. At the same time, there was a final recombination of the two Platonist religions, through such figures as the Christian Neoplatonists Augustine of Hippo and Pseudo-Dionysius (who claims to be St Dionysius the Areopagite, a disciple of Paul of Tarsus, but who in reality wrote many centuries later, and was probably a student of Proclus).
The West therefore became dominated, one way or another, by Plato. In the Middle-East, however, the picture was somewhat different - although the Neoplatonism of Plotinus and Proclus (and lesser figures, such as Porphyry and Iamblichus) was initially hugely influential (particularly in the development of Sufism), Islamic attention turned early to Neoplatonic accounts of the work of Aristotle, and by the ninth century the entire Aristotelian corpus was translated into Arabic, having been lost almost entirely in the West. For many centuries, Islamic philosophy, while acknowledging Plotinus, was primarily based upon Aristotle - which is likely a reason for the greater scientific advancement of Islamic society during that time.
The Aristotelian tradition in Islam culminated in the great philosophers Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd (known at the time in the West as Avicenna and Averroes). It is through translations of these two, and in particular through the cultural intermingling of Iberia at that time, that Aristotle was re-introduced to Europe, and in particular to a certain Thomas Aquinas. The 'Thomist' introduction of Aristotelian thought into the Platonist core of Christianity created the basis for modern Christian thought - in particular, Catholic theology [theories of telos and form still shine through Catholic teaching on controversial topics like gay marriage and contraception] - and is often held to be the first spark of the Renaissance.
Medieval Christian philosophy is frequently characterised as a long period of darkness and silence - and certainly it is less lively than what preceded it. It may seem to have more in common with Chinese philosophy under Neoconfucianism than with the vitality of the Greece, or even the temporary confusion of Platonist doctrines at the end of the Roman Empire. This is likely due to the religious homogeneity of the day - philosophy as we know it thrives in conditions of dissent, not those of unanimity. In the Middle Ages, the fundamentals of philosophy were known with certainty - philosophy is reduced to 'scholastic' interpretations and commentary on previous writers, and painstaking detailing of precise points of theological questions. There is no need for great argument about validity of arguments, for instance, as the works of the church fathers, and ultimately the word of God in scripture, are the ultimate authority of truth and falsity.
Notwithstanding this, some progress was made in matters of logic, mathematics and science - John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham are the principle philosophers.
Plotinus' Enneads survive thanks to his student, Porphyry, and have been immensely influential. Until the nineteenth century (when 'Neoplatonism' was invented), Plotinus was regarded as the authoritative version of the views of Plato himself. In the nineteenth century, Plotinus was given a new significance as the prototype for opposition both to Pauline Christianity (both from mystical traditions within the religion and from outside) and to modern scientism; his significance is seen in Hegel, and later in Continental Philosophy. It is there that most attention has been paid to lesser Neoplatonists as well - Derrida, for instance, has written repeatedly on Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. Plotinus is often called the third great philosopher of the Ancients, after Plato and Aristotle. Similarly, Ibn Sina has been called the greatest pre-Modern philosopher, while Christianity looks to Augustine and Aquinas.
At this time, the literary challenge to philosophers reverses: where previously we have been scrambling for fragments, now huge seas of text are available - the collected works of Plotinus, for instance, fill seven volumes.
But the river tripped on her by and by, lapping
as though her heart was brook: Why, why, why! Weh, O weh
I'se so silly to be flowing but I no canna stay!