44. Parmenides and Being

Parmenides' philosophy was communicated via a poem illustrating the idea of eternal being and the divine origin of the universe.

If you are looking for a purely rationalistic discussion on Parmenides’ philosophy and his idea of eternal being, you have come to the wrong place.

The majority of the websites out there take the rational approach, but we cannot separate the man from his ideas. Therefore, if you are looking for a more holistic approach to understanding Parmenides’ concept of oneness and the idea of eternal being, please proceed.

His philosophy was an outworking of his own being and his experiences; it was not a purely rationalistic endeavor as we tend to view philosophy in the modern era. In fact, it was anything but that – it wasn’t that it was irrational. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In reality, it was suprarational. We moderns are trapped in a rationalistic matrix, which is why we are so miserable. If there is any hope for us, we must become familiar with and understand the concept behind the little known world of suprarational thought.

Please do not proceed with this post unless you have read the previous two posts (post 42 and post 43), for Parmenides’ philosophy arose organically and naturally out of his mystical experiences and his poetry. If Parmenides were alive today, he would be ridiculed and dismissed by the Academy. But yet if philosophies derived by such origins are nonsensical, why have they endured and why do they continue to be discussed by scholars?

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43. Parmenides the Priest-Physician

Parmenides the Pythagorean priest-physician

Did Parmenides receive his deep philosophical insights because he was a priest?

If this were true, it would disappoint many moderns who like to view the Presocratics as those who spearheaded the triumph of reason over religion.

While it is correct to say that Presocratics like Xenophanes did accomplish much in discounting narrow superstitious beliefs, it is not at all true that they can be charged with disparaging religion or spirituality. Rather, the evidence shows that in the case of philosophers like Parmenides and Heraclitus, their philosophy was rooted in their religious beliefs and mystical experiences. In other words, they saw no dichotomy between reason and religion.

For the Presocratics, philosophy was far from a purely rational endeavor. In fact, in addition to Parmenides being a philosopher, he was also a priest-physician of Apollo and a Pythagorean disciple.

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42. Parmenides the Mystic

Parmenides' poem tells of his descent to the House of Night to receive enlightenment from the goddess there. Parmenides' journey illustrates how light can come from dark.

Was Parmenides a mystic?

This is one of the questions about Parmenides that I will seek to answer in this post as we return to the Presocratic philosophers. As I study the Presocratics, I am discovering things I never anticipated. Because of my modern perspective, I started this blog viewing philosophy as a purely rational endeavor.

What has surprised me is how many philosophical mystics I am running into. Among them include not only Parmenides, but ancients like Heraclitus, Pythagoras, Epimenides, Socrates, and Plato, not to mention Chinese thinkers such as Lao Tzu. And this tradition continues strongly into the Catholic faith with intellectual mystics such as St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Hildegard of Bingen, and others.

The other thing that I am learning is how in touch with the divine the Presocratics were. For them, having a naturalistic explanation for things did not at all preclude the involvement of God; in fact, it enhanced it. Where they made advancements in thinking was in moving away from superstitious mythology. They were against superstition, not spirituality. One could say that by opposing superstition, they deepened not only our understanding of the physical universe, but of God as well.

Modern thought teaches that these thinkers viewed anything spiritual as “superstitious” and that they sought their explanations for things entirely in the physical. By abandoning “myth” – that is, all religion – they became “enlightened.” Thus we recreate the Presocratics in the image of our modern, rationalistic, materialistic gods. The reviews of books written by modern authors about the mysticism of the ancients are often qualified with phrases such as “an intriguing book, although the author’s perspective is at odds with numerous modern critics.”

As such, we virtually ignore the ancient philosophers’ mystical experiences and discourses on divinity. They make us uncomfortable and don’t fit into the mold of what we would like them to be. This is especially true in regard to their mysticism. Not all ancient philosophers were mystics, but all were spiritual. And in the lives of philosophers like Parmenides, mysticism played a large part.

Why do we have such a difficult time in the West holding the intellectual and the spiritual together? And where did this false dichotomy originate? The purpose of this blog is to explore such questions.

In this post, we are going to take a look at a fascinating poem by Parmenides, the only extant work of his that survives.

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41. Lao Tzu and the Tao

Pre-Christian cultures all attempted to explain God in some way. In China, Lao Tzu's Tao explained God just as the Greek Presocratics explained Him through Logos.
Confucius visits Lao Tzu

What was God’s purpose for ancient pre-Christian cultures like Greece and China? In Post 40, I discussed how the Logos, the wisdom of God, enlightened pre-Christian cultures throughout the world. The Logos granted wisdom and left signs pointing the way to the one true God, preparing people for the coming of His Son.

In regard to God’s purpose for ancient pagan cultures, there are two basic errors that Christians make.

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40. China and the Logos

Confucius was one of two great Chinese philosophers we will discuss when it comes to the ancient worldwide Great Awakening.
Confucius

A remarkable thing happened in the 6th century B.C. – a great awakening began that continued all the way through the 5th century B.C. As if on cue, other ancient cultures, aside from the Greeks, were starting to awaken to the fact that there was an overarching order to the world.1 The Greeks called it “Logos” and the Chinese philosophers dubbed it “Tao.” Regardless of the name, the idea was the same – that of an incredible unity and order to the cosmos. This new enlightenment was occurring throughout the world, both East and West, from Greece to China to India. The amazing thing is that all of this occurred simultaneously, without these various cultures communicating with each other.

Just like with Heraclitus and other Greek philosophers, various peoples throughout the world were starting to see that there was an order to the universe. Not only was it ordered in a profound way, but it was beautiful as well. What could account for this order and beauty? Chinese philosophers, such as Confucius and others, reasoned that there must be an all wise Supreme Being responsible for this.

If we examine other ancient cultures such as those in Africa and the Americas, we will find that over and above their polytheism, they too believed in a Supreme Being. The Indians called him the “Great Spirit,” and the Africans had various names for him among the different tribes.

Father Seraphim of Sarov (1759-1833), a Greek Orthodox priest who was later beatified, said:

“In the history of ancient China, there are moments when it is absolutely incredible how the same things happened in Chinese life as happened in the West, even though there was no outward connection between the two civilizations. The first of the Greek philosophers – Thales and so forth – lived about the sixth century B.C., just about the time Confucius was in China and Buddha was in India. It is though there really was a spirit of the times.”2

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39. The Logos and Justin Martyr

The virtuous pagans of the Presocratic era missed the mark on uniting faith and philosophy. Justin Martyr was able to bring the two together with Christ as Logos and the idea of logos spermatikos.
Justin Martyr by André Thevet, 1584

Well, we have finally come to the end of this miniseries on Logos that started in post 32 with Heraclitus and will end with the life of Justin Martyr in this post. The operative question we’re asking in this post is why Justin Martyr is so important in exploring the relationship between reason and revelation, faith and philosophy.

Life and Death

Justin Martyr (100-165 A.D.) was born in Flavia Neapolis, Palestine (modern day Nablus)1, located in Samaria near Jacob’s well. This would make Justin a Samaritan by birth. If tradition holds true, he could have been born in the same year that St. John the Apostle died, a symbolic passing of the baton.

The purpose of this post is to explore the relationship between Greek reason and Hebrew revelation in the Catholic Church, which is where Justin Martyr comes in. Unlike Tertullian, who was opposed to Greek philosophy and viewed it as a dangerous pagan influence, Justin Martyr took a more optimistic approach. He saw Greek philosophy in more of a positive light and saw the synthesis between the two as a beneficial thing for Christianity.

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38. The Logos and St. John the Apostle

St. John considered both the new creation brought about by the resurrection of the Christ as well as the Greek idea of logos to ultimately marry the two and show the Logos of God.
St. John the Evangelist on the Island of Patmos, by Domenico Ghirlandaio of Florence, c. 1483, now at the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts

When John called Jesus “the Logos” in chapter 1 of his Gospel, did he have the Greek philosophical term in mind, or was he simply using the Greek generic term for “word” as he uses in other places in his New Testament writings? This is the operative question.

Scholars debate just how much the Greek philosophical concept of logos he had in mind when he used the term to describe Jesus Christ.1 In this post, I aim to show that in calling Jesus the Logos, John had both the Old Testament idea of God’s Word and the Greek idea of Logos in mind, especially as developed by the Stoics and Philo of Alexandria.

We are almost at the end of a series of posts with the theme “logos” that started in Post 33. Next, I will be discussing Justin Martyr’s use of the idea of logos. After that, I will either pick up where I left off with the Presocratic philosophers, namely Parmenides. In the meantime, I went down the logos rabbit hole in Post 33 and came up five posts later in the Gospel of St. John. It’s a funny thing where Greek philosophy can lead. And we are only at the beginning of our journey. So, please enjoy this post.

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37. Logos: from Philo of Alexandria to St. John the Apostle

St. John followed Philo of Alexandria in pointing the Greek concept of logos toward the divine. The allusion of light from light shows the Logos as God.
St. John the Apostle

In this post, I will discuss how Philo of Alexandria put Hebrew flesh and bone on the Greek abstract concept of logos. This made the idea of the logos so significant that, I would argue, it was the only word John could have used in chapter 1 of his Gospel. (Please see the previous post as background for this one.)

Greek as the Bridge Between Judaism and Christianity

It is no accident that the New Testament was written in Greek. Greek was the language of philosophy. It came loaded with philosophical terms and ideas that the Greeks had been developing for over 400 years. And thus it leant itself to eventually being used by the Church fathers to develop Christian theology.

Paradoxically, the type of Greek in which the New Testament was written was Koine Greek. Koine (κοινή) Greek was “street Greek,” the parlance of the common person.1 It replaced the older Attic Greek or Classical Greek and was spoken widely throughout the world. But at the same time, the same philosophical terms found in classical Greek were also found in Koine Greek. Koine Greek reflected God – it was at the same time a transcendent and an immanent language.

Philo of Alexandria’s Concept of Logos and God’s Word

By attempting to bridge Hebrew and Greek thinking, Philo laid the foundation for Christian theology and philosophy.2 And his logos was the intermediary between the two. In order to bridge the Hebrew and Greek world, he introduced the Greek concept of logos conceived by Heraclitus and the Stoics into Judaism.

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36. Logos: from the Stoics to Philo of Alexandria

Philo of Alexandria played an important role in marrying Greek thought with Jewish theology, examining God's existence via the logos.
Philo of Alexandria

Let’s continue our journey from Heraclitus’ idea of Logos to St. John’s application of the Logos to the Son of God.

In post 35, I discussed how the Stoics took Heraclitus’ idea of the logos and expanded it to include the idea of eternal recurrence – the continual destruction and rebirth of the entire universe.1 The logos, a physical entity, was the ordering principle that guided this process.

So much did logos order the universe, that the Stoics saw a strong determinism woven into its fabric.2 In summary, the Stoics handed down a logos that was reformulated from what they received from Heraclitus. Their logos was a strongly rational principle that guided the entire universe in a deterministic manner.

The Nature of the Universe

The Stoics believed in the eternality of the universe and the logos was a part of that universe. Since, as Parmenides said, something cannot come from nothing, that left no other option than the universe had always existed, albeit in continual cycles of destruction and rebirth (i.e., eternal recurrence).

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35. Logos: from Heraclitus to the Stoics

Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, took Heraclitus' concept of Logos and developed it as the order of the cosmos.
Zeno, Founder of Stoicism

What unifies a universe made up of individual and diverse things?

As I previously stated, the main philosophical problem to be solved – throughout history but especially in ancient Greek philosophy – is that of universals also known as the problem of the one and the many.1 (Please read the preceding posts if you haven’t already, starting with post 32, as background to this post.) Because Heraclitus took elements of Eastern or Persian thinking and combined them with Western Greek thinking in developing his concept of logos,2 Western Civilization became one step closer to solving this problem. Eastern thinking tends to emphasize the one, and Western, the many.

After Heraclitus, other Presocratic philosophers would continue to make important contributions to philosophy. But eventually, Presocratic philosophy went into the doldrums, hamstrung by its failure to find the unifying principle of the universe in a material cause. Sound thinking was replaced by the rise of sophistry and the superstitious worship of the Greek pantheon of gods…that was, until Socrates.

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