History of Literature, Fhilosophy and Religions


Part III

A Brief History of Western Philosophy

Introduction Phylosophy

The nature of Western philosophy

Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy

Medieval philosophy

Renaissance philosophy

Modern philosophy

Contemporary philosophy


Western Philosophy







Western philosophy

Encyclopaedia Britannica




Western philosophy

History of Western philosophy from its development among the ancient Greeks to the present.

Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy » Hellenistic and Roman philosophy

The period after the death of Aristotle was characterized by the decay of the Greek city-states, which then became pawns in the power game of the Hellenistic kings who succeeded Alexander. Life became troubled and insecure. It was in this environment that two dogmatic philosophical systems came into being, Stoicism and Epicureanism, which promised to give their adherents something to hold onto and to make them independent of the external world.

Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy » Hellenistic and Roman philosophy » Stoicism

The Stoic system was created by a Syrian, Zeno of Citium (c. 335–c. 263 bc), who went to Athens as a merchant but lost his fortune at sea. Zeno was consoled by the Cynic philosopher Crates of Thebes (flourished 4th century bc), who taught him that material possessions were of no importance whatever for a person’s happiness. He therefore stayed at Athens, heard the lectures of various philosophers, and—after he had elaborated his own philosophy—began to teach in a public hall, the Stoa Poikile (hence the name Stoicism).

Zeno’s thought comprised, essentially, a dogmatized Socratic philosophy, with added ingredients derived from Heracleitus (c. 540–c. 480 bc). The basis of human happiness, he said, is to live “in agreement” with oneself, a statement that was later replaced by the formula “to live in agreement with nature.” The only real good for a human being is the possession of virtue; everything else—wealth or poverty, health or illness, life or death—is completely indifferent. All virtues are based exclusively on right knowledge, self-control (sōphrosynē) being the knowledge of the right choice, fortitude the knowledge of what must be endured and what must not, and justice the right knowledge “in distribution.” The passions, which are the cause of all evil, are the result of error in judging what is a real good and what is not. Because it is difficult to see, however, why murder, fraud, and theft should be considered evil if life and possessions are of no value, the doctrine was later modified to distinguish between “preferable things,” such as having the necessities of life and health, “completely indifferent things,” and “anti-preferable things,” such as lacking the necessities of life or health—while insisting still that the happiness of the truly wise person could not be impaired by illness, pain, hunger, or any deprivation of external goods. In the beginning, Zeno also insisted that an individual is either completely wise, in which case he would never do anything wrong and would be completely happy, or he is a fool. Later he made the concession, however, that there are people who are not completely wise but who are progressing toward wisdom. Although these people might even have true insight, they are not certain that they have it, whereas the truly wise person is also certain of having true insight. The world is governed by divine logos—a word originally meaning “word” or “speech,” then (with Heracleitus) a speech that expresses the laws of the universe, then (finally) “reason.” This logos keeps the world in perfect order. Human beings can deviate from or rebel against this order, but, by doing so, they cannot disturb it but can only do harm to themselves.

Zeno’s philosophy was further developed by Cleanthes (c. 331–c. 232 bc), the second head of the school, and by Chrysippus (c. 280–c. 206 bc), its third head. Chrysippus elaborated a new kind of logic, which did not receive much attention outside the Stoic school until recent times; this “propositional logic” has been hailed by some logicians as superior to the “conceptual logic” of Aristotle. Panaetius of Rhodes (c. 180–109 bc) adapted Stoic philosophy to the needs of the Roman aristocracy, whose members then governed the Western world, and made a great impression on some of the leading figures of the time, who tried to follow his moral precepts. In the following century, a time of civil war, slave rebellions, and the decay of the Roman Republic, Poseidonius of Apamea (c. 135–c. 51 bc), who was also one of the most brilliant historians of all times, taught that the Stoic takes a position above the rest of humankind, looking down on its struggles as on a spectacle. In the period of the consolidation of the empire, Stoicism became the religion of the republican opposition. The most famous Stoic was the younger Cato (95–46 bc), who committed suicide after the victory of Julius Caesar (c. 100–44 bc). It was also the guiding philosophy of Seneca the Younger (c. 4 bc–ad 65), the educator and (for a long time) the adviser of the emperor Nero (37–68), who tried to keep Nero on the path of virtue but failed and finally was forced to commit suicide on Nero’s orders. Despite the oddities of Zeno’s original doctrine, Stoicism gave consolation, composure, and fortitude in times of trouble to many proud individuals to the end of antiquity and beyond.

Zeno of Citium
Greek philosopher

born c. 335 bc, Citium, Cyprus
died c. 263, Athens

Greek thinker who founded the Stoic school of philosophy, which influenced the development of philosophical and ethical thought in Hellenistic and Roman times.

He went to Athens c. 312 bc and attended lectures by the Cynic philosophers Crates of Thebes and Stilpon of Megara, in addition to lectures at the Academy. Arriving at his own philosophy, he began to teach in the Stoa Poikile (Painted Colonnade), whence the name of his philosophy. Zeno’s philosophical system included logic and theory of knowledge, physics, and ethics—the latter being central. He taught that happiness lay in conforming the will to the divine reason, which governs the universe. In logic and the theory of knowledge he was influenced by Antisthenes and Diodorus Cronus, in physics by Heracleitus. None of his many treatises, written in harsh but forceful Greek, has survived save in fragmentary quotations.




Crates of Thebes
Greek philosopher

flourished 4th century bc

Cynic philosopher, a pupil of Diogenes. He gave up his fortune and made it his mission to castigate vice and pretense. Hipparchia, daughter of a wealthy Thracian family and sister of the philosopher Metrocles, forced her parents to allow her to join him in his ascetic and missionary life. He had a gift for amusing parody of serious poetry, by which he mocked other philosophers and praised the Cynic way of living. He was reputed to be the author of philosophic dramas and philosophic letters: the letters extant under his name are spurious. His historical importance lies in the influence that he exerted on Zeno the Stoic, who greatly admired him. Plutarch’s biography of him is no longer extant.




Greek philosopher

born 331/330 bc, Assos in the Troad, Asia Minor
died 232/231

Stoic philosopher who became head of the Stoic school (263–232 bc) after the death of Zeno of Citium. Among his pupils were his successor, Chrysippus, and Antigonus II, king of Macedonia. Although Cleanthes produced little that is original, he brought a religious fervour to the teachings of Zeno, stressing the belief that the universe is a living entity and that God is the vivifying ether of the universe. He wrote about 50 works, of which only fragments survive, the most important being his hymn to Zeus. The principal fragments of Cleanthes’ works are contained in works of Diogenes Laërtius and Stobaeus; some may be found in Cicero and Seneca.




Greek philosopher

born c. 280 bc
died c. 206

Greek philosopher from Soli (Soloi) who was the principal systematizer of Stoic philosophy. He is considered to have been, with Zeno, cofounder of the academy at Athens Stoa (Greek: “Porch”). Credited with about 750 writings, he was among the first to organize propositional logic as an intellectual discipline.



Roman philosopher

born c. 180, –109 bc

the founder of Roman Stoic philosophy, and a friend of Scipio Aemilianus and of Polybius.

A pupil in Athens of Diogenes of Seleucia and of Antipater of Tarsus, Panaetius also studied the philosophies of Plato and of Aristotle. Many years a resident in Rome, he was an influential member of the Scipionic circle and was invited to be Scipio’s sole companion on an ambassadorial visit to the Orient about 140 bc. Panaetius succeeded Antipater as head of the school and passed the last 20 years of his life in Athens. While adhering to fundamental Stoic teaching, Panaetius tempered the rigid austerity of the ancient Stoa and introduced a new humanist note. He appears to have written less voluminously than other leading Stoics, and none of the five treatises attributed to him is extant. His important ethical treatise On the Appropriate was Cicero’s model for the first two books of the De Officiis. His chief disciple was Poseidonius of Apamea.



Greek philosopher

born c. 135 bc
died c. 51 bc

also spelled Posidonius Greek philosopher, considered the most learned man of his time and, possibly, of the entire Stoic school.

Poseidonius, nicknamed “the Athlete,” was a native of Apamea in Syria and a pupil of the Greek Stoic philosopher Panaetius. He spent many years in travel and scientific research in Spain, Africa, Italy, Gaul (modern France), Liguria, and Sicily. When he settled as a teacher at Rhodes, his adopted Greek city, his fame attracted numerous scholars. By his writings and his personal relations, he did more to spread Stoicism in the Roman world than anyone else except Panaetius. He was known to many leading men of his time, including the Roman statesman Cicero, who studied under him in 78–77 and whom he mentioned as a friend. Such other Roman writers as Strabo and Seneca provide the major source of knowledge about his life; until the 20th century scholars accorded him only a minor place in the development of Stoicism.

The titles and subjects of more than 20 of his works, now lost, are known. Like other Stoics of the middle period in the school’s history, Poseidonius was an eclectic who combined the views of older Stoics and of Plato and Aristotle. His well-known ethical doctrine diverged from contemporary Stoicism, however, in asserting that human passions are inherent qualities, not mere faulty judgments. Also interested in natural science, geography, astronomy, and mathematics, Poseidonius tried to calculate the diameter of the Earth, the influence of the Moon on tides, and the distance and magnitude of the Sun. His history of the period 146–88 bc filled 52 volumes and was undoubtedly a storehouse of knowledge for early writers. A gifted dialectician, Poseidonius was notable for his powers of observation, his travel reports, his ironic humour, and his practice of Stoic doctrine.



Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Roman philosopher and statesman [4 BC–AD 65]
byname Seneca The Younger
born c. 4 bc, Corduba, Spain
died ad 65, Rome

Roman philosopher, statesman, orator, and tragedian. He was Rome’s leading intellectual figure in the mid-1st century ad and was virtual ruler with his friends of the Roman world between 54 and 62 during the first phase of the emperor Nero’s reign.

Early life and family
Seneca was the second son of a wealthy family. The father, Lucius Annaeus Seneca (Seneca the Elder), had been famous in Rome as a teacher of rhetoric; the mother, Helvia, was of excellent character and education; the older brother was Gallio, met by St. Paul in Achaea in ad 52; the younger brother was the father of the poet Lucan. An aunt took Lucius as a boy to Rome; there he was trained as an orator and educated in philosophy in the school of the Sextii, which blended Stoicism with an ascetic neo-Pythagoreanism. Seneca’s health suffered, and he went to recuperate in Egypt, where his aunt was the wife of the prefect, Gaius Galerius. Returning to Rome about the year 31, he began a career in politics and law. Soon he fell foul of the emperor Caligula, who was deterred from killing him only by the argument that his life was sure to be short.

In 41 the emperor Claudius banished Seneca to Corsica on a charge of adultery with the princess Julia Livilla, the Emperor’s niece. In that uncongenial milieu he studied natural science and philosophy and wrote the three treatises entitled Consolationes. The influence of Agrippina, the Emperor’s wife, had him recalled to Rome in 49. He became praetor in ad 50, married Pompeia Paulina, a wealthy woman, built up a powerful group of friends, including the new prefect of the guard, Sextus Afranius Burrus, and became tutor to the future emperor Nero.

The murder of Claudius in 54 pushed Seneca and Burrus to the top. Their friends held the great army commands on the German and Parthian frontiers. Nero’s first public speech, drafted by Seneca, promised liberty for the Senate and an end to the influence of freedmen and women. Agrippina, Nero’s mother, was resolved that her influence should continue, and there were other powerful enemies. But Seneca and Burrus, although provincials from Spain and Gaul, understood the problems of the Roman world. They introduced fiscal and judicial reforms and fostered a more humane attitude toward slaves. Their nominee Corbulo defeated the Parthians; in Britain a more enlightened administration followed the quashing of Boudicca’s rebellion. But as Tacitus, the historian (c. 56–117), says, “Nothing in human affairs is more unstable and precarious than power unsupported by its own strength.” Seneca and Burrus were a tyrant’s favourites. In 59 they had to condone—or to contrive—the murder of Agrippina. When Burrus died in 62 Seneca knew that he could not go on. He received permission to retire, and in his remaining years he wrote some of his best philosophical works. In 65, Seneca’s enemies denounced him as having been a party to the conspiracy of Piso. Ordered to commit suicide, he met death with fortitude and composure.

Philosophical works and tragedies.
The Apocolocyntosis divi Claudii (The Pumpkinification of the Divine Claudius) stands apart from the rest of Seneca’s surviving works. A political skit, witty and unscrupulous, its theme is the deification—or “pumpkinification”—of Claudius. The rest divide into philosophical works and the tragedies. The former expound an eclectic version of “Middle” Stoicism, adapted for the Roman market by Panaetius of Rhodes (2nd century bc), and developed by his compatriot Poseidonius in the 1st century bc. Poseidonius lies behind the books on natural science, Naturales quaestiones, where lofty generalities on the investigation of nature are offset by a jejune exposition of the facts. Of the Consolationes, Ad Marciam consoles a lady on the loss of a son; Ad Helviam matrem, Seneca’s mother on his exile; Ad Polybium, the powerful freedman Polybius on the loss of a son but with a sycophantic plea for recall from Corsica. The De ira deals at length with the passion of anger, its consequences, and control. The De clementia, an exhortatory address to Nero, commends mercy as the sovereign quality for a Roman emperor. De tranquillitate animi, De constantia sapientis, De vita beata, and De otio consider various aspects of the life and qualities of the Stoic wise man. De beneficiis is a diffuse treatment of benefits as seen by giver and recipient. De brevitate vitae demonstrates that our human span is long enough if time is properly employed—which it seldom is. Best written and most compelling are the Epistulae morales, addressed to Lucilius. Those 124 brilliant essays treat a range of moral problems not easily reduced to a single formula.

Of the 10 “Senecan” tragedies, Octavia is certainly, and Hercules Oetaeus is probably, spurious. The others handle familiar Greek tragic themes, with some originality of detail. Attempts to arrange them as a schematic treatment of Stoic “vices” seem too subtle. Intended for playreadings rather than public presentation, the pitch is a high monotone, emphasizing the lurid and the supernatural. There are impressive set speeches and choral passages, but the characters are static, and they rant. The principal representatives of classical tragedy known to the Renaissance world, these plays had a great influence, notably in England. Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, and Cyril Tourneur’s Revengers Tragaedie, with their ghosts, witches, cruel tyrants, and dominant theme of vengeance, are the progeny of Seneca’s tragedies.

Stature and influence.
Hostile propaganda pursued Seneca’s memory. Quintilian, the 1st-century ad rhetorician, criticized his educational influence; Tacitus was ambivalent on Seneca’s place in history. But his views on monarchy and its duties contributed to the humane and liberal temper of the age of the Antonines (Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius, and Commodus; ad 138–192). Meanwhile, the spread of Stoicism kept his philosophy alive: new horizons opened when it was found to have Christian affinities. There was a belief that he knew St. Paul and a spurious collection of letters to substantiate it. Studied by Augustine and Jerome, Seneca’s works consoled Boethius in prison. His thought was a component of the Latin culture of the Middle Ages, often filtered through anthologies. Known to Dante, Chaucer, and Petrarch, his moral treatises were edited by Erasmus; the first complete English translation appeared in 1614. In the 16th to 18th century Senecan prose, in content and style, served the vernacular literatures as a model for essays, sermons, and moralizing. Calvin, Montaigne, and Rousseau are instances. As the first of “Spanish” thinkers, his influence in Spain was always powerful. Nineteenth-century specialization brought him under fire from philosophers, scientists, historians, and students of literature. But later scholarly work and the interest aroused by the bimillenary commemorations of his death in Spain in 1965 suggested that a Senecan revival might be under way. In his 40 surviving books the thoughts of a versatile but unoriginal mind are expressed and amplified by the resources of an individual style.

Donald Reynolds Dudley


Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy » Hellenistic and Roman philosophy » Epicureanism

The thought of Zeno’s contemporary Epicurus (341–270 bc) also constituted a philosophy of defense in a troubled world. Nevertheless, it has been considered—in many respects justly—the opposite of Zeno’s thought. Whereas Zeno proclaimed that the wise person tries to learn from everybody and always acknowledges his debt to earlier thinkers, Epicurus insisted that everything he taught was original to himself, though it is obvious that his physical explanation of the universe is a simplification of Democritus’s atomism. And whereas the Stoics had taught that pleasure and pain are of no importance for a person’s happiness, Epicurus made pleasure the very essence of a happy life. Moreover, the Stoics from the beginning had acted as advisers of kings and statesmen. Epicurus, on the other hand, lived in the retirement of his famous garden, cultivating intimate friendships with his adherents but warning against participation in public life. The Stoics believed in divine providence; Epicurus taught that the gods pay no attention whatever to human beings. Yet despite these contrasts, the two philosophies had some essential features in common. Although Epicurus made pleasure the criterion of a good life, he was far from advocating dissolution and debauchery; he insisted that it is the simple pleasures that make a life happy. When, in his old age, he suffered terrible pain from prostatitis, he asserted that philosophizing and the memory and love of his distant friends made pleasure prevail even then. Nor was Epicurus an atheist. His Roman admirer, the poet Lucretius (flourished 1st century bc), in his poem De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things), praised Epicurus enthusiastically as the liberator of humankind from all religious fears; Epicurus himself affirmed that this had been one of the aims of his philosophy. But although he taught that the gods are much too superior to trouble themselves with the affairs of mortals, he said—and, as his language clearly shows, sincerely believed—that it is important for human beings to look at the gods as perfect, since only in this way could humans approach perfection. It was only in Roman times that people began to misunderstand Epicureanism, holding it to be an atheistic philosophy justifying a dissolute life, so that a person could be called “a swine from the herd of Epicurus. ” Seneca, however, recognized the true nature of Epicureanism; in his Epistulae morales (Moral Letters) he deliberately interspersed maxims from Epicurus through his Stoic exhortations.

Greek philosopher

born 341 bc, Samos, Greece
died 270, Athens

Greek philosopher, author of an ethical philosophy of simple pleasure, friendship, and retirement. He founded schools of philosophy that survived directly from the 4th century bc until the 4th century ad.

Early life and training
Epicurus was born on the island of Samos of Athenian parents who had gone there as military settlers. His father, a schoolteacher, was named Neocles, his mother Chairestrate; both were of the same village, the deme Gargettos. According to his own report, Epicurus began his study of philosophy at the age of 14. One account has him turning to philosophy when his schoolmaster could not explain the concept of chaos in Hesiod, an early Greek philosophical poet. His first master is said to have been the Platonist Pamphilus of Samos. Much more significant, however, is the report that Epicurus was for three years (327–324) a student in the Ionian city of Teos, where his teacher was Nausiphanes, a disciple of the naturalistic philosopher Democritus. It may have been from this source that Epicurus’ atomistic theory came, which he used not as a means of studying physics but as the basis for a philosophical system that ultimately sought ethical ends.

At the age of 18, Epicurus went to Athens to perform the two years of military training required for Athenian citizenship. While there he may have heard Xenocrates, second in succession after Plato as head of his Academy, and Aristotle, who was then in Athens. One year later Epicurus rejoined his parents at Colophon, where they had gone as exiles when, at the close of the Lamian War, Athens lost Samos to the Macedonians. For the next 10 years, there is virtually no record. It seems probable that Epicurus travelled and studied, and it is reasonable to suppose that this was the period during which he developed his philosophical outlook and confirmed it in exchanges with the Platonists and Aristotelians. A letter written by him from Teos, addressed to his mother, was preserved by Diogenes of Oenoanda. At the age of 32, Epicurus began to teach, first at Mytilene and subsequently at Lampsacus, a period that lasted from 311/310 to 307/306.

In various places Epicurus met the disciples who were destined to follow him to Athens and to become of great significance as vehicles through whom the Epicurean school would achieve its mature development: at Mytilene, he met his first disciple, Hermarchus, who eventually succeeded him as head of the Athenian school; and at Lampsacus, he met Metrodorus and Polyaenus, whose death preceded the master’s and whose sons Epicurus provided for in his will; Metrodorus’ brother, Timocrates; Leonteus and his wife, Themista, who had been a hetaira (an independent courtesan); Colotes, whom Epicurus flattered with the pet name Colotarion; and Idomeneus and his wife, Batis, sister of Metrodorus.

Thus, apart from his two years in Athens, Epicurus spent the first 35 years of his life in Asia. This need not mean, however, that he developed an aversion to the literary circles in Athens. Instead, his Asiatic ties, which he continued to cultivate intensely all his life (including two or three actual journeys to Asia Minor) seem to have been reflected mainly in his choice of words and style and, more significantly, in the ecumenical scope of his philosophy.

The schools at Athens and elsewhere
When Epicurus and his followers came to Athens in 306, he bought a house and, in the garden, established a school, which came to be known as Ho Kepos (The Garden). At this time in Athens, cultural life was dominated by the Academy of Plato and the Lyceum of Aristotle, both of which had passed into the hands of successors. These schools attracted both the best theoretical students and those concerned with the application of philosophy to politics and public life. Therefore, any school that hoped to endure through this period had to enter into direct rivalry with the Academy and the Lyceum by establishing itself—as did the Stoa a few years later—in the city of Athens.

What Epicurus brought to Athens was more a way of life than a school or a community. Unlike both of the famous schools, it admitted women, and even one of Epicurus’ slaves, named Mouse. It taught the avoidance of political activity and of public life, although, when one follower from a school outside Athens rose to political power and then fell, he was succoured by the school. Quite different from the usual connotations borne by the term epicurean today, life in the house and garden was simple. Water was the usual drink, although a half-pint daily ration of wine was allowed, and barley bread was eaten. During a famine Epicurus saved his students by doling out a few numbered beans daily. There was no communal property, as was the case in Pythagorean schools. Whereas the relationships of the members of the school were not platonic, in either the contemporary or any later sense, there are only the attacks of Stoic opponents to support any idea of sexual irregularity. Epicurus wrote clearly but in no highly organized way. There was much correspondence with students in Athens and at other schools, some letters being concerned with doctrinal matters but many seeming to be merely social and friendly.

On the day in his 72nd year that Epicurus died painfully of prostatitis, he dictated an affectionate and touching letter to Idomeneus—probably intended, in fact, for all of his friends in Lampsacus—which displayed the spirit in which he had remained true to his philosophy of repose and serenity even in the throes of pain. Epicurus’ will left the house, garden, and some funds to trustees of the school. Remaining funds were left to honour Epicurus’ deceased family and to celebrate his birthday annually and his memory monthly. His slaves were freed, and provision was made that the daughter of Metrodorus should be wed to someone in the Athenian school, with the approval of Hermarchus.

Writings and assessment
Diogenes Laërtius described Epicurus as a most prolific writer and preserved three of his letters and the Kyriai doxiai (“Principal Doctrines”). The three letters are (1) To Herodotus, dealing with physics; (2) To Pythocles (probably a disciple’s abridgement), on meteorology; and (3) To Menoeceus, on ethics and theology. The Kyriai consists of 40 short aphoristic statements. Another major source is the papyri from the Casa dei Papiri discovered at Herculaneum (1752–54), which include not only parts of his great work Peri physeōs (“On Nature”), originally in 37 books, but also numerous fragments of correspondence with his friends.

Many of Epicurus’ methods made him comparable to a religious figure. The breadth of his appeal in Rome during the 1st century bc is indicated by the fact that the poet-philosopher Lucretius based his work on Epicurus (Lucretius in fact held Epicurus in reverential awe), by the references to his thought by the statesman-moralist Cicero, and by the detailing by the biographer Plutarch of how Cassius soothed the mind of Brutus with his Epicurean ideas. Epicurus’ atomistic theory was revived in the 17th century by Pierre Gassendi, a French philosopher-scientist.

Carlo Diano


Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy » Hellenistic and Roman philosophy » Skepticism

There was still another Hellenistic school of philosophy, Skepticism, which was initiated by another of Zeno’s contemporaries, Pyrrhon of Elis (c. 360–c. 272 bc), and was destined to become of great importance for the preservation of detailed knowledge of Hellenistic philosophy in general. Pyrrhon had come to the conviction that no one can know anything for certain, nor can he ever be certain that the things he perceives with his senses are real and not illusory. Pyrrhon is said to have carried the practical consequences of his conviction so far that, when walking in the streets, he paid no attention to vehicles and other obstacles, so that his faithful disciples always had to accompany him to see that he came to no harm. Pyrrhon’s importance for the history of philosophy lies in the fact that one of the later adherents of his doctrine, Sextus Empiricus (flourished 3rd century ad), wrote a large work, Pros dogmatikous (“Against the Dogmatists”), in which he tried to refute all of the philosophers who held positive views, and in so doing he quoted extensively from their works, thus preserving much that would otherwise have been lost. It is a noteworthy fact that the British empiricists of the 18th century, such as David Hume (1711–76), as well as Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), derived most of their knowledge of ancient philosophy from Sextus Empiricus.


Pyrrhon of Elis
Greek philosopher
Pyrrhon also spelled Pyrrho
born c. 360 bc
died c. 272

Greek philosopher from whom Pyrrhonism takes its name; he is generally accepted as the father of Skepticism.

Pyrrhon was a pupil of Anaxarchus of Abdera and in about 330 established himself as a teacher at Elis. Believing that equal arguments can be offered on both sides of any proposition, he dismissed the search for truth as a vain endeavour. While traveling with an expedition under Alexander the Great, Pyrrhon saw in the fakirs of India an example of happiness flowing from indifference to circumstances. He concluded that man must suspend judgment (practice epochē) on the reliability of sense perceptions and simply live according to reality as it appears. Pyrrhonism permeated the Middle and New Academy of Athens and strongly influenced philosophical thought in 17th-century Europe with the republication of the Skeptical works of Sextus Empiricus, who had codified Greek Skepticism in the 3rd century ad. Pyrrhon’s teaching was preserved in the poems of Timon of Phlius, who studied with him.


Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy » Hellenistic and Roman philosophy » Neo-Pythagoreanism and Neoplatonism

All of the philosophical schools and sects of Athens that originated in the 4th century bc continued into late antiquity, most of them until the emperor Justinian I (ad 483–565) ordered them closed in 529 because of their pagan character. Within this period of nearly 1,000 years, only two new schools emerged, neo-Pythagoreanism and Neoplatonism; both were inspired by early Greek philosophy, though only the latter would become historically important. Neoplatonism was established by Ammonius Saccas (fl. early 3rd century ad), who had been brought up as a Christian but had abandoned his religion for the study of Plato. Because Ammonius wrote nothing, his philosophy is known only through his famous disciple, Plotinus (205–270). But Plotinus did not publish anything either. His philosophy is known through the Enneads, a collection of his writings arranged by his disciple Porphyry (234–305), who also wrote a biography of Plotinus.

Although the philosophy of Plotinus (and Ammonius) was derived from Plato, it used many philosophical terms first coined by Aristotle and adopted some elements of Stoicism as well. Yet it was essentially a new philosophy, agreeing with the religious and mystical tendencies of its time. Plotinus assumed the existence of several levels of Being, the highest of which is that of the One or the Good, which are identical but indescribable and indefinable in human language. The next lower level is that of nous, or pure intellect or reason; the third is that of the soul or souls. There then follows the world perceived by the senses. Finally, at the lowest level there is matter, which is the cause of all evil. The highest bliss available to human beings is union with the One, or the Good, which is attained by contemplation and purification. That this is not a lasting state attained once and for all—like the status of the Stoic wise man, who was supposed never to lose his wisdom—is shown by the fact that Porphyry, in his biography, said that Plotinus had experienced this supreme bliss seven times in his life, whereas he, Porphyry, had experienced it only once.

The further history of Neoplatonism is extremely complicated. While Porphyry had emphasized the ethical element in Plotinus’s philosophy, his disciple in Syria, Iamblichus of Chalcis (c. 250–c. 330), mingled Neoplatonism with neo-Pythagoreanism, writing on the Pythagorean way of life and on number theory. Above all, he multiplied the levels of Being, or the emanations from the One, which enabled him to incorporate the traditional Greek gods into his system. Another branch of the school was founded in Pergamum, in western Asia Minor, by Iamblichus’s student Aedesius (died 355), who, with his own disciple Maximus of Ephesus (died 370), tried to revive the ancient Greek mystery religions, such as Orphism. All of these developments became of great importance in the 4th century, when Emperor Julian the Apostate (c. 331–363) attempted to revive paganism. In the following century the Athenian school reached a new high point when Proclus (c. 410–485) combined the ideas of his predecessors into a comprehensive system. When Justinian closed all of the philosophical schools in Athens in 529, however, a branch continued to exist in Alexandria. The Athenian Neoplatonists found refuge at the court of the Persian king Khosrow I (died 579), and in 535 they were permitted to return to Athens. But gradually pagan philosophy as such died out, though it continued to influence the development of Christian philosophy and theology.

Kurt von Fritz


Ammonius Saccas

Neoplatonic philosopher

Ammonius Saccas (3rd century AD) was a Greek philosopher from Alexandria who was often referred to as one of the founders of Neoplatonism. He is mainly known as the teacher of Plotinus, whom he taught for eleven years from 232 to 243. He was undoubtably the biggest influence on Plotinus in his development of Neoplatonism, although little is known about his own philosophical views. Later Christian writers stated that Ammonius was a Christian, but it is now generally assumed that there was a different Ammonius of Alexandria who wrote biblical texts.


Not much is known about the life of Ammonius Saccas. He had a humble background, and appears to have earned a living as a porter at the docks of Alexandria, hence his nickname of "Sack-bearer" (Sakkas for sakkophoros). Most details of his life come from the fragments left from Porphyry's writings. The most famous pupil of Ammonius Saccas was Plotinus who studied under Ammonius for eleven years. According to Porphyry, in 232, at the age of 28, Plotinus went to Alexandria to study philosophy:

In his twenty-eighth year he [Plotinus] felt the impulse to study philosophy and was recommended to the teachers in Alexandria who then had the highest reputation; but he came away from their lectures so depressed and full of sadness that he told his trouble to one of his friends. The friend, understanding the desire of his heart, sent him to Ammonius, whom he had not so far tried. He went and heard him, and said to his friend, "This is the man I was looking for." From that day he stayed continually with Ammonius and acquired so complete a training in philosophy that he became eager to make acquaintance with the Persian philosophical discipline and that prevailing among the Indians.

According to Porphyry, the parents of Ammonius were Christians, but upon learning Greek philosophy, Ammonius rejected his parents' religion for paganism. This conversion is contested by the Christian writers Jerome and Eusebius, who state that Ammonius remained a Christian throughout his lifetime:

[Porphyry] plainly utters a falsehood (for what will not an opposer of Christians do?) when he says that ... Ammonius fell from a life of piety into heathen customs. ... Ammonius held the divine philosophy unshaken and unadulterated to the end of his life. His works yet extant show this, as he is celebrated among many for the writings which he has left.

Eusebius goes on to mention a work On the Harmony of Moses and Jesus, and in an epistle addressed to Carpianus speaks of a Diatessaron or Harmony of the Four Gospels composed by Ammonius.

However we are told by Longinus that Ammonius wrote nothing,and if Ammonius was the principal influence on Plotinus, then it is unlikely that Ammonius would have been a Christian. One way to explain much of the confusion concerning Ammonius is to assume that there were two people called Ammonius: Ammonius Saccas who taught Plotinus, and an Ammonius the Christian who wrote biblical texts.

To add to the confusion, it seems that Ammonius had two pupils called Origen: Origen the Christian, and Origen the Pagan. It is quite possible that Ammonius Saccas taught both Origens. Among Ammonius' other pupils there were Herennius and Cassius Longinus.

Hierocles, writing in the 5th century, states that Ammonius' fundamental doctrine was that Plato and Aristotle were in full agreement with each other:

He was the first who had a godly zeal for the truth in philosophy and despised the views of the majority, which were a disgrace to philosophy. He apprehended well the views of each of the two philosophers [Plato and Aristotle] and brought them under one and the same nous and transmitted philosophy without conflicts to all of his disciples, and especially to the best of those acquainted with him, Plotinus, Origen, and their successors.

According to Nemesius, a bishop and Neoplatonist c. 400, Ammonius held that the soul was immaterial.

Little is known about Ammonius's role in the development of Neoplatonism. Porphyry seems to suggest that Ammonius was instrumental in helping Plotinus think about philosophy in new ways:

But he [Plotinus] did not just speak straight out of these books but took a distinctive personal line in his consideration, and brought the mind of Ammonius' to bear on the investigation in hand.

Two of Ammonius's students - Origen the Pagan, and Longinus - seem to have held philosophical positions which were closer to Middle Platonism than Neoplatonism, which perhaps suggests that Ammonius's doctrines were also closer to those of Middle Platonism than the Neoplatonism developed by Plotinus , but Plotinus does not seem to have thought that he was departing in any significant way from that of his master.



ancient philosopher

born ad 205, Lyco, or Lycopolis, Egypt?
died 270, Campania

ancient philosopher, the centre of an influential circle of intellectuals and men of letters in 3rd-century Rome, who is regarded by modern scholars as the founder of the Neoplatonic school of philosophy.

Origins and education.
The only important source for the life of Plotinus is the biography that his disciple and editor Porphyry wrote as a preface to his edition of the writings of his master, the Enneads. Other ancient sources add almost no reliable information to what Porphyry relates. This must be mentioned because, though Porphyry’s “Life of Plotinus” is the best source available for the life of any ancient philosopher, it has some important deficiencies that must necessarily be reflected in any modern account of the life of Plotinus that does not use a great deal of creative imagination to fill in the gaps. The “Life” is the work of an honest, accurate, hero-worshipping, and serious-minded friend and admirer. Apart from a few fascinating scraps of information about the earlier parts of the life of Plotinus, Porphyry concentrates on the last six years, when he was with his master in Rome. Thus, a fairly complete picture is available only of the last six years of a man who died at the age of 65. It is the elderly Plotinus, as it is the elderly Socrates, who alone is known. Plotinus’ own writings contain no autobiographical information, and they can give no unintentional glimpses of his mind or character when he was young; they were all written in the last 15 years of his life. Nothing is known about his intellectual and spiritual development.

Plotinus was born in ad 205. Porphyry states that he never spoke about his parents, his race, or his country. Eunapius, a late 4th-century writer, and later authors wrote that his birthplace was Lyco, or Lycopolis, in Egypt, either the modern Asyūt in Upper Egypt or a small town in the Nile Delta. Though this may be true, there is no real evidence in the “Life” or in his own writings to suggest that Plotinus had any special knowledge of or affinity with Egypt; the fact that he later studied philosophy in the great cosmopolitan city of Alexandria is not necessarily evidence that he was an Egyptian. His name is Latin in form, but, in the 3rd century ad, this gives no clue to his ethnic origins. All that can be said with reasonable certainty is that Greek was his normal language and that he had a Greek education. For all his originality, he remains Hellenic in his way of thinking and in his intellectual and religious loyalties.

In his 28th year—he seems to have been rather a late developer—Plotinus felt an impulse to study philosophy and thus went to Alexandria. He attended the lectures of the most eminent professors in Alexandria at the time, which reduced him to a state of complete depression. In the end, a friend who understood what he wanted took him to hear the self-taught philosopher Ammonius “Saccas.” When he had heard Ammonius speak, Plotinus said, “This is the man I was looking for,” and stayed with him for 11 years.

Ammonius is the most mysterious figure in the history of ancient philosophy. He was, it seems, a lapsed Christian (yet even this is not quite certain), and the one or two extant remarks about his thought suggest a fairly commonplace sort of traditional Platonism. A man who could attract such devotion from Plotinus and who may also have been the philosophical master of the great Christian theologian Origen, must have had something more to offer his pupils, but what it was is not known. That Plotinus stayed with him for 11 years is in no way surprising. One did not enter an ancient philosophical school to take courses and obtain a degree, but rather to join in what might well be a lifelong cooperative following of the way to truth, goodness, and the ultimate liberation of the spirit.

Expedition to the East
At the end of his time with Ammonius, Plotinus joined the expedition of the Roman emperor Gordian III against Persia (242–243), with the intention of trying to learn something at first hand about the philosophies of the Persians and Indians. The expedition came to a disastrous end in Mesopotamia, however, when Gordian was murdered by the soldiers and Philip the Arabian was proclaimed emperor. Plotinus escaped with difficulty and made his way back to Antioch. From there he went to Rome, where he settled at the age of 40. That a Greek philosopher, especially at this period, should be interested in Oriental thought is not extraordinary. Plotinus’ own thought shows some striking similarities to Indian religious philosophy, but he never actually made contact with Eastern sages because of the failure of the expedition. Though direct or indirect contact with Indians educated in their own religious-philosophical traditions may not have been impossible in 3rd-century Alexandria, the resemblances of the philosophy of Plotinus to Indian thought were more likely a natural development of the Greek tradition that he inherited. That Plotinus was able to join the expedition of the senatorial emperor Gordian, that he went to Rome (an unusual place for a philosopher to settle), and that Porphyry found him, 19 years later, at the centre of a circle of friends and disciples—many of whom were members of the senatorial aristocracy—has been interpreted (probably erroneously) as meaning that he or his family had strong personal connections with Roman senators.

Life in Rome.
Whatever may have been the circumstances of Plotinus when he first came to Rome, by the time Porphyry made his acquaintance in ad 263 he was living in dignified and comfortable conditions, though maintaining a considerable degree of personal austerity. His reputation in society was excellent and earned by practical activity as well as by teaching. He acted as an arbitrator in disputes, without ever being known to make an enemy, and many of his aristocratic friends, when they were approaching death, appointed him guardian of their children. “His house,” Porphyry says, “was full of young lads and maidens,” and he most conscientiously fulfilled his obligations under Roman law as their guardian, taking care of their education and their property. Like other great contemplatives, he had plenty of time for other people and could attend to their worries (sometimes quite trivial) without losing his inward concentration. He heard a boy’s lessons, found who had stolen a lady friend’s necklace, or noticed that Porphyry was in a state of depression and contemplating suicide and so sent him away for a change of scenery and companionship. “Present at once to himself and others” and “gentle and at the disposal of all who had any sort of acquaintance with him” are ways in which Porphyry described him. He was, it seems, a man who gave the impression of being in touch with the eternal without losing awareness of the earthly needs of his many friends.

His circle of friends was cosmopolitan, including men from the eastern half of the empire as well as Roman senators, their wives, and widows. Among those who venerated Plotinus, according to Porphyry, were the emperor Gallienus (reigned 253–268) and his wife Salonina, and this led Plotinus on one occasion to attempt practical activity on a larger scale. He asked the emperor to restore a ruined city in Campania and endow it with the surrounding land; the restored city was to be called Platonopolis, and its citizens were to live according to the laws and customs of Plato’s ideal states. Plotinus promised that he would go and live there himself with his friends. That a philosopher who shows in his writings such a total lack of interest in the political side of Plato’s thought and who preached withdrawal from public life should have made such a proposal is interesting. He may well have thought it his duty as a Platonic philosopher to attempt the foundation of a Platonic city, if opportunity offered—however personally disinclined he might have been to such activity. The emperor refused his request, and in the political circumstances of the time there was no chance of its being granted. Gallienus and the Senate were not on good terms. He had excluded members of the senatorial order from all military commands, and they took their revenge by successfully blackening his memory after his death. However much he might have respected Plotinus personally, the emperor would inevitably have regarded Platonopolis as a most undesirable senatorial strongpoint and a centre of intrigue against his authority.

Plotinus’ teachings and writings.
The main activity of Plotinus, to which he devoted most of his time and energy, was his teaching and, after his first 10 years in Rome, his writing. There was nothing academic or highly organized about his “school,” though his method of teaching was rather scholastic. He would have passages read from commentaries on Plato or Aristotle by earlier philosophers and then expound his own views. The meetings, however, were friendly and informal, and Plotinus encouraged unlimited discussion. Difficulties, once raised, had to be discussed until they were solved. The school was a loose circle of friends and admirers with no corporate organization. It was for these friends that he wrote the treatises that Porphyry collected and arranged as the Enneads. Some, it seems from their complexity, were destined for an inner circle of his closest friends and philosophical collaborators, such as Porphyry, Amelius Gentilianus from Tuscany (the senior member of the school), and Eustochius, who was Plotinus’ physician and who may have produced another edition of his works, now lost.

Some stories in the “Life,” and some passages in the Enneads, give an idea of Plotinus’ attitude to the religions and superstitions of his intensely religious and superstitious age, an attitude that seems to have been unusually detached. Like all men of his time, he believed in magic and in the possibility of foretelling the future by the stars, though he attacked the more bizarre and immoral beliefs of the astrologers. His interest in the occult was philosophical rather than practical, and there is no definite evidence that he practiced magic. A person called Olympius is reported to have once tried to use magic against Plotinus, but he supposedly found that the malignant forces he had evoked were bouncing back from Plotinus to himself. Plotinus was once taken to the Temple of Isis for a conjuration of his guardian spirit; a god, Porphyry stated, appeared instead of an ordinary guardian angel but could not be questioned because of a mishandling of the conjuring process which broke the spell. What Plotinus himself thought of the proceedings is not known, but apparently he was not deeply interested.

His attitude toward the traditional pagan cults was one of respectful indifference. Amelius, his closest friend and coworker in philosophy, was a pious man, addicted to attendance at sacrifices. Plotinus refused to join him in his devotions but seems to have thought none the worse of him. Despite his rather aggressive piety, Amelius remained Plotinus’ friend and collaborator. Some members of his circle of friends were Gnostics (heretical Christian dualists who emphasized esoteric salvatory knowledge), and they provoked him not only to write a vigorous attack on their beliefs but to organize a polemic campaign against them through the activities of Porphyry and Amelius. Plotinus’ reasons for detesting Gnosticism also would have applied, to some extent, to orthodox Christianity—though there is no evidence that he knew anything about it or that he had any contact with the church in Rome. Gnosticism appeared to him to be a barbarous, melodramatic, irrational, immoral, un-Greek, and insanely arrogant superstition. Plotinus’ own religion, which he practiced and taught with calm intensity, was the quest for mystical union with the Good through the exercise of pure intelligence.

Last years.
In his last years Plotinus, whose health had never been very good, suffered from a painful and repulsive sickness that Porphyry describes so imprecisely that one modern scholar has identified it as tuberculosis and another as a form of leprosy. This made his friends, as he noticed, avoid his company, and he retired to a country estate belonging to one of them in Campania and within a year died there (270). The circle of friends had already broken up. Plotinus himself had sent Porphyry away to Sicily to recover from his depression. Amelius was in Syria. Only his physician Eustochius arrived in time to be with Plotinus at the end. His last words were either “Try to bring back the god in you to the divine in the All” or “I am trying to bring back the divine in us to the divine in the All.” In either case, they express very simply the faith that he shared with all religious philosophers of late antiquity.

A. Hilary Armstrong



Syrian philosopher
original name Malchus
born c. 234, Tyre [modern Ṣūr, Lebanon] or Batanaea [in modern Syria]
died c. 305, Rome?

Neoplatonist Greek philosopher, important both as an editor and as a biographer of the philosopher Plotinus and for his commentary on Aristotle’s Categories, which set the stage for medieval developments of logic and the problem of universals. Boethius’ Latin translation of the introduction (Isagoge) became a standard medieval textbook.

Porphyry’s original Syrian name (meaning “king”) was hellenized at Athens by Cassius Longinus, his teacher of rhetoric (the new name signifying “imperial purple,” an allusion to “king”). Porphyry studied philosophy (263–268?) in Rome under Plotinus, who gently rescued him from a suicidal depression. In 301 he produced his most important work, Enneads, a systematized and edited collection of the works of Plotinus to which was prefixed a biography, unique for its reliability and informativeness.

Porphyry’s voluminous writings extended to philosophy, religion, philology, and science and show scholarly care in citing authorities. Surviving fragments of his Against the Christians, which was condemned in 448 to be burned, marked him as a fierce critic of the new religion. He was also lecturer on Plotinus and tutor to the Syrian philosopher Iamblichus, wrote a life of the mathematician Pythagoras, and preserved precious fragments of earlier philosophy in his On Abstinence, a plea for vegetarianism. In medieval textbooks, the “Porphyrian Tree” illustrated his logical classification of substance.



Syrian philosopher

born , c. ad 250, Chalcis, Coele Syria [now in Lebanon]
died c. 330

Syrian philosopher, a major figure in the philosophical school of Neoplatonism and the founder of its Syrian branch.

Though only his minor philosophical works have survived, the basic elements of Iamblichus’ system can be understood from the references to his teachings in the writings of the 5th-century philosopher Proclus. He wrote, in Greek, the treatise known under the Latin name De Mysteriis (On the Egyptian Mysteries, 1821). His other works include: On the Pythagorean Life; The Exhortation to Philosophy, or Protrepticus; On the General Science of Mathematics; On the Arithmetic of Nicomachus; and Theological Principles of Arithmetic.

Iamblichus, more than any other single philosopher, has generally been credited with the transformation of the Neoplatonism advocated by Plotinus earlier in the 3rd century into the stiff and complicated, yet often profound, pagan religious philosophy, best known from the works of Proclus. Attempting to develop a theology encompassing all of the rites, myths, and divinities of syncretistic paganism, he was the first Neoplatonist to displace Plotinus’ purely spiritual and intellectual mysticism in favour of theurgy, the magical conjuration of the gods. Beyond the One of Plotinus, identical with the Good, Iamblichus asserted that a higher One exists outside the range of human knowledge and qualifications. To the three existing ethical virtues of Neoplatonism—political, purifying, and exemplary—he added the contemplative virtue and placed above all four the priestly, or unifying, virtues by which men obtain ecstatic union with the One. For his stress on theurgy and his elevation of the nonintellectual virtues, Iamblichus was known for the next two centuries as “the divine,” or “inspired.”




Greek philosopher

died 355

Greek philosopher whose ideas had their roots in Neoplatonism, a school of philosophy that grew out of the Idealism of Plato.

Aedesius founded the so-called Pergamum school of philosophy, whose major concerns were theurgy (the magic practiced by some Neoplatonists who believed miracles could be worked by the intervention of divine and beneficent spirits) and the revival of polytheism. He was the pupil of Iamblichus and the teacher of Maximus, Chrysanthius, Priscus, and Eusebius Myndius. None of his writings have survived, but there is an extant biography by Eunapius.




Maximus of Ephesus
Ephesian philosopher and magician

died 370

Neoplatonist philosopher and theurgic magician whose most spectacular achievement was the animation of a statue of Hecate. Through his magic he gained a powerful influence over the mind of the future Roman emperor Julian, and Maximus was invited to join the court in Constantinople when Julian succeeded to the throne in 361. He was imprisoned by the emperor Valens after Julian’s death, was released, and was finally executed for complicity in an assassination plot against Valens.



Greek philosopher

born c. 410, Constantinople [now Istanbul]
died 485, Athens

the last major Greek philosopher. He was influential in helping Neoplatonic ideas to spread throughout the Byzantine, Islāmic, and Roman worlds.

Proclus was reared at Xanthus in Lycia, and he studied philosophy under Olympiodorus the Elder at Alexandria. At Athens he studied under the Greek philosophers Plutarch and Syrianus, whom he followed as diadochos (Greek: “successor”), or head of the Academy founded by Plato c. 387 bc. Remaining there until his death, he helped refine and systematize the Neoplatonic views of the 3rd-century Greek philosopher Iamblichus, whose school stressed elaborate metaphysical speculation.

Like Iamblichus, Proclus opposed Christianity and passionately defended paganism. As a Neoplatonic Idealist, he emphasized that thoughts comprise reality, while concrete “things” are mere appearances. Ultimate reality, the “One,” is both God and the Good and unifies his ethical and theological systems. His attitudes significantly influenced subsequent Christian theology, in both East and West, through their adaptation by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, a 5th-century writer whose forgeries were long thought to be works by a 1st-century convert of the Apostle Paul, Dionysius the Areopagite.

The most important Arabic philosophical work to transmit Proclus’ ideas was the Liber de causis (“Book of Causes”), which passed as a work of Aristotle in medieval times despite its dependence upon Proclus’ own Institutio theologica (Elements of Theology). Latin translations of this, his most important work, and many of his other writings in Greek were made in the 13th century by the scholar William of Moerbeke and became the principal sources for medieval knowledge of Platonic philosophy. The Elements is a concise exposition of Neoplatonic metaphysics in 211 propositions. His Elements of Physics distilled the essence of Aristotle’s views, and his In Platonis theologiam (Platonic Theology) explicated Plato’s metaphysics. His commentaries on Plato, extant in their entirety, include those on The Republic, Parmenides, Timaeus, and Alcibiades I.

Although more highly regarded as a systematizer and commentator than as an original thinker, Proclus was also the author of numerous nonphilosophical writings, including astronomical, mathematical, and grammatical works. He wrote seven hymns and two epigrams, one of which he composed for the common tomb of himself and his master, Syrianus.



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