The Death of Socrates, painting by Jacques-Louis David, 1787
Philosophy. Are you already bored?
In this article, we will show you how interesting and thought-provoking this field can be by looking at it thoughout time, breaking it down by different eras and extracting the main ideas of the most remarkable thinking minds of our past in a simple and intuitive way!
First era of philosophers. These early thinkers emerged in ancient Greece, aiming to create a branch of thought, separate to religion, mysticism, or mythology, to provide explanations for everything that surrounded them. Instead of accepting spiritual or religious arguments as basis for everything without an evident cause or for the genesis of all, these philosophers delved into these matters and offered alternative theories using descriptive and analytical arguments.
Pre-Socratic philosophers believed that the world had a subjacent unit or substance which could be studied to ultimately understand the origin of everything. Thus, these philosophers primarily focused on the explanation of the origin of universe and matter. Most of them believed that this basic, fundamental substance was something which could assume different states or shapes – some argued that it could be water, air, or even mathematics. This current of thought is commonly known as Natural Philosophy.
Remarkable figures: Pythagoras, Thales of Mileto, Anaximander, Anaximenes.
The Classical Greek city-states were pioneers in several areas and contributed with knowledge still relevant today, namely in intellectual areas such as philosophy, theatre (Sophocles, Aristophanes), mathematics (Hipparchus of Nicaea), astronomy (Aristarchus of Samos), medicine (Hippocrates), warfare (Spartans) and architecture. Basing themselves on discoveries and information from older civilizations in Mesopotamia and Egypt, the Greeks developed a sophisticated culture carried out by Sophists – teachers who specialized in one or more subject areas and prioritized virtue and excellence.
Regarding philosophy, and beginning with Socrates, this era changed the focus of philosophy from the nature to the individual; instead of trying to explain the origin of the universe and the basic substance of the matter, it tries to understand the ethical and moral principles which should guide the personal and collective lives and how to achieve knowledge, virtue, and happiness. Several philosophical branches emerge in this era, such as Cynicism, Hedonism, and Stoicism.
Cynicism – Founded by the Diogenes, the Cynic, followers of this branch of thought argue that the human being should be completely self-sufficient, ascetic, and only after he’s unattached from all material possessions and returned to its simple natural state can he be moral, free, and truly happy.
Hedonism – The view which defends that seeking pleasure, self-indulgence, and avoiding suffering should be an individual’s main life goal. Includes Epicureanism.
Stoicism – Founded by Zeno of Citium, the stoics are known to endure all of life’s hardships, take responsibility, and cultivate self-control. The most important objective for stoics is to be able to make the correct choice in every situation.
Remarkable figures: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Diogenes of Sinope, Zeno of Citium, Epicurus.
The Greek civilization had a powerful influence on the Roman Empire even after its conquest in 146 B.C. – in fact, some historians consider the Roman Empire to be a continuation of the Greeks, labelling this empire as “Graeco-Roman”. This was observable in several areas such as mythology, architecture, and other arts. Moreover, Roman Patricians attended schools in Greece and Roman legions were trained similarly to the Spartans. Similarly, Roman philosophy was also heavily influenced by the Greek schools of thought because, even after 146 B.C., Rome never had an exclusively Roman school of philosophical thought, as they were always imported from Athens. Thus, the most famous Roman philosophers usually followed traditional Greek thought such as Stoicism and Epicureanism.
Remarkable figures: Marcus Aurelius, Seneca the Younger, Epictetus, Plotinus.
This era, also commonly known as the Dark Ages, was characterized by the lack of intellectual development, namely in the western civilizations. In this era, due to the upsurge of monotheistic religions (spread of Christianity; emergence of Islam), the power of the church increased significantly and started to control countless aspects of people’s lives. Philosophy saw its emphasis changed once again, this time focused on theology, the study of God and religious beliefs.
Augustine of Hippo was one the first philosophers to connect classic to Christian philosophy. Augustine believed in the distinction between the imperfect world – composed of material shapes which we can comprehend with our senses – and the perfect, eternal world – composed on ideal concepts which can only be accessed through intellect. He used this Neoplatonic ideology to build a bridge to Christian philosophy, arguing that the perfect world, where God resides, can only be grasped by accepting God and Its commandments. Only then can the individual truly achieve wisdom and enlightenment. On a similar note and a few centuries later, Thomas Aquinas also modified and adapted Aristotelian and Platonic philosophy to complement and to be in accordance with Christian ideology. He presented his interpretation of Neoplatonism from a Christian point of view, claiming that the world is composed of real shapes which we can see and imagine, but behind these shapes lies a cause which can be traced back to God. Thomas Aquinas was also associated with a medieval school of thought named Scholasticism – a branch of thought aiming to conciliate the Christian faith with the rational thought and rigorous analysis of classical (Greek) philosophy.
Regarding Islamic philosophy, Avicenna is considered one of the most influential philosophers of the pre-modern era. He connected Aristotelian and Neoplatonic philosophy to Islamic theology by pointing out the difference between the essence and the existence, what something is and the shape that it assumes. For the essence to assume a physical form – the existence – there must exist a previous cause. Since everything that exists needs a previous cause, at the top of the hierarchy must be something which isn’t caused by anything, whose essence and existence are identical – God, or Allah.
Remarkable figures: Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, Avicenna, Anselm of Canterbury, Averroes, Maimonides, Roger Bacon, William of Ockham.
In the Dark Ages, the seek for knowledge was, undoubtedly, unprioritized. For the most part, intellectual fields such as art, architecture, literature, science, politics and, evidently, philosophy, weren’t explored as they once were. Religion started to play a much bigger role in people’s lives since it provided a sense of protection, purpose, meaning and perseverance to endure life’s hardships. Then, the Black Plague appeared and with it, understandably, the peak of disregard for beauty, art, and knowledge – instead of living, people struggled to survive.
Only once the Black Plague ceased to ravage Europe in the XIV century did the priorities of the population start to shift. Since the concerns for survival alleviated, people began appreciating beauty and culture in a different way. The human figure was worshiped. Likewise, in philosophy, the ideologies changed its focus from religion to the individual. Christianity wasn’t overlooked, as it continued to be a focal point during all Renaissance, but the way it was addressed changed. Philosophy focused on realism and human sensibility and concerns. Instead of concerning about life after death, philosophers worried about life on Earth.
Remarkable figures: Desiderius Erasmus, Niccolò Machiavelli.
The roots of this era can be traced back to the humanism which emerged in the Renaissance era, the hostility towards religious dogma and blind faith introduced by the Protestantism Reformation and the scientific developments in various areas. In this era, religion ceased to play a central role in society, as ideologies start to move towards secularism, progress, and tolerance. Similarly, philosophers changed their focus once again, starting to address topics such as politics, liberalism, and individual rights (even though their spread in this era was not universal) and also changed the basis of their rationale – this originated two new major philosophical ideologies: Rationalism (which argues that reason, logics and mathematics can be the basis for all knowledge) and Empiricism (stating the knowledge can only be obtained through experience and the senses).
Remarkable figures: René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Baruch Espinoza, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.
The notion that dark clouds of ignorance were enlightened by rigorous arguments and thorough questioning are the basis for the title of this era. What was introduced in the age of reason was solidified here. The use of reason was the central figure throughout the Enlightenment. The numerous advancements in science (for instance, the contributions of Isaac Newton), deeply influenced thinking in this era, namely by highlighting the human aptitudes and potential and undermining the impact of God. Due to this, the Enlightenment was also characterized by a reform in the Christian church, where believers sought to fundament their faith along rational lines (Deism) as a way of opposing the rising secularism associated with the flourishing secret laic societies such as the Freemasonry and the Bavarian Illuminati which condemned superstition, religious dogma and obscurantism.
The main ideologies advocated in this era of progress (liberalism, religious tolerance, fraternity, secularism) shaped societies worldwide with consequences that are still felt to this day. Legal and moral foundations of society were challenged. The American and French revolutions or the American Civil War are prime examples of these consequences since their root lies in Enlightenment ideology – creation of modern, progressive and liberal democracies.
Regarding philosophy, the Enlightenment was characterized by a challenge of traditional values. Philosophers argued for a society based on reason, experimentation, and observation rather than religious doctrines. Moreover, several thinkers developed logical reasoning methods focused on political and social reforms which, for instance, introduced liberal values, expanded on the separation of power in governments and the proposed the idea of society as a social contract. All these new values brought modernization and progress to western civilizations, curtailing the power of the church, and focusing on reason and scientific method.
Remarkable figures: Voltaire, Immanuel Kant, David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, George Berkeley.
The political, economic, and social turbulence of the 19th century was felt across Europe. The military upheaval brought by the Napoleonic wars stained the beginning of this century which instigated the emergence of social groups with reduced prior political power. Communist principles motivated the formation of unions at the same time managers were advocating for laissez-faire markets. The scientific revolution, started in the Age of Enlightenment, continued in this century and, with it, the number of divergent ideologies flourished, questioning the until-then universally accepted realities. The unification of Germany and Italy and the inherent posterior instability further amplified the challenge of traditional values and doctrines, increasing the unsteadiness felt in this century. Amidst this turmoil, philosophers, also influenced by Romanticism, differentiated into new branches, such as Existentialism, Marxism, Utilitarianism, Positivism and Transcendentalism, focusing on question from economics, social organization, abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage to irrationality, ways of finding happiness, freedom of choice, the importance of the individual and the role (or lack thereof) of God.
Remarkable figures: Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, Soren Kierkegaard, John Stuart Mill, Arthur Schopenhauer, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Jeremy Bentham.
The turmoil felt in the 19th century continued in the following century, one of the bloodiest in human history. The World Wars divided European nations socially and politically, brought deep economic recessions and an innumerable number of casualties. Profound contrasts were felt mainly throughout Europe as the numerous wars pitted capitalist nations against communist nations, anti-Semitic and racist nations against liberal and tolerant nations, dictatorships and totalitarianism against democracies and liberalism. Philosophers, once again, reflected on the circumstances which engulfed them – this era was characterized by a conflict between Anglo-American Philosophy, also known as Analytic Philosophy, and the European School. The first, led by Russel, Moore, and Wittgenstein, used mathematical logic and linguistics analysis to isolate and solve philosophical questions. The second was mainly endorsed by Heidegger, Sartre and Foucault and considered that philosophy was inseparable from its historical context, developing the branches of Existentialism, Structuralism and Post-Structuralism.
Remarkable figures: Bertrand Russel, G. E. Moore, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Gilbert Ryle, Karl Popper, A. J. Ayer.
by YKW // 29 May 2022
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