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Ancient philosophy

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Greek period

Famous representation of the different schools of antiquity (Famous representation of the different schools of antiquity: it is recognized, in center, Plato pointing the finger of heaven (referring to his theory of Ideas) and Aristotle showing opposed the land (referring to his desire to anchor knowledge in the review of empirical facts). Detail of a fresco of Raphael (c. 1511).)

Greek philosophy has had three great periods:

  • the presocratic period preceding Socrates (some of these Presocratics were contemporaries of the latter), which includes all thinkers and their conceptions of the world. They are considered as the founders of the Western philosophical tradition;
  • the classical Greek period (5th century BC), which begins with Socrates in Athens and continues with Plato, Diogenes and Aristotle. This same century is also that of the sophistry represented by Gorgias and Protagoras, among others;
  • after the conquests of Alexander the Great, comes what has been called the Hellenistic period: Epicurus, the Stoics or the Skeptics who are the most important thinkers of that time.

Greek philosophy is characterized by the fact that it is dominated by ethics, by the question “how to live well? And especially those of virtue and happiness. The importance of this theme is evident from the reading of Plato’s dialogues, the texts of Aristotle, the Stoics, or Epicurus. The consequence of this tendency is that philosophy was understood as a way of life and not only as a theoretical discourse (even if it can not be ignored, of course), which is particularly striking in a Socrates, a Diogenes or in the Stoics.

The other two major areas of ancient thinkers’ research are on the one hand cosmology and physics (what has long been called natural philosophy), and on the other hand the theory of knowledge sometimes related to logic. Thus, the fundamental question that occupied the pre-Socratic philosophers was the question of the principle of all things. Through a mixture of empirical observations and speculation, they tried to understand nature and its phenomena. Thus the first known philosopher, Thales, held water for the principle of all things. Plato in the Timaeus (a book whose influence was paramount in the history of philosophy) also seeks to explain the birth of the world, and imagine a demiurge who would have created our universe by reproducing the eternal Model that are the Ideas . Finally, the Physics of Aristotle, just like the letter to Herodotus of Epicurus or Stoic physics show the keen interest of the ancients for the knowledge of nature (φυσις, physis).

The theory of knowledge and logic were also essential for the philosophers of antiquity. Sophists often defend a thesis that can be described as relativist because it amounts to denying the existence of an objective and universally valid knowledge. “Nothing is true (in itself). For each one the thing appears, as it appears, according to the circumstances and the environment “. This is the meaning of the famous formula: the human person is the measure of all things. Plato, following Socrates who affirmed the existence of an objective science of moral values ​​and norms, develops a theory of knowledge made explicit in the Republic and the Theaetetus. Plato makes the distinction between simple opinion (or doxa, empirical and unfounded) and true philosophical knowledge, which can only be acquired through a long course of learning mathematics, dialectics and what we calls the theory of Ideas. Epicurus, on the other hand, develops an entire empiricist theory of knowledge in order to determine the criteria that a knowledge must fulfill to be true. Finally, both Aristotle and the Stoics founded a formal logic, in the form, respectively, of syllogistics and a logic of propositions.

Roman period and late antiquity

The Romans, gradually dominating the outline of the Mediterranean Sea (Mare Nostrum), then appropriate the Greek heritage of the different philosophical currents. Some Roman authors have bequeathed to us over time the principles and concepts of Greek philosophy that today are lacking for lack of original texts or copies: this is the case of Lucretius (1st century BC), with his poetic masterpiece De rerum natura, explaining epicureanism (only three letters from Epicurus have survived), despite the rejection of poetry by the Epicureans. It is indeed likely that he had under the eyes of treaties now lost. We probably owe it to Cicero, a philosopher of prime importance, to have saved Lucretius’ poem. As the first writer to write philosophical works in Latin, Cicero can not be attached to any school, showing eclecticism, but he has largely contributed to spread Stoic and Epicurean philosophy in the Roman world.

The Stoics are represented by two great men of power: Seneca (first century) and Marcus Aurelius (second century). The first of these two characters is famous on the one hand for its nearness (which will be fatal) with the Emperor Nero, on the other hand because he is considered as the most complete representative of Stoicism (although emancipating), especially through his works, namely two of his Dialogues (De Brevitate Vitae, From the brevity of life, De Vita beata, On the happy life). The second Stoic is Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor. Influenced by Epictetus, he develops in his famous Thoughts to myself the highest values ​​that must be of the human being: wisdom, justice, courage and temperance.

Neoplatonism, a movement founded by Plotinus (third century), sought to reconcile Plato’s philosophy with conceptual ideas of Egypt and India. There were two phases of Neoplatonism in antiquity, and another more local during the Renaissance. Sounding much more mystical than the Platonic Ideas, Plotinus sees philosophy as a journey of the soul towards the principle of transcendence of the Good, aiming at this system, the union with the first principle, the original, God.

Augustine of Hippo, or St. Augustine (fourth century), the most important figure for the propagation of Christianity after St. Paul, leaves an abundant written record which will have a decisive influence on the future of the West, and from this point of view, on many philosophers and theologians. His thought, Augustinianism (so named after his death), enshrines Platonic idealism.

Translated from Wikipedia

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