48. Empedocles – Love and Strife

Empedocles on Love and Strife
Empedocles, Line engraving after C. Vignon

Of the various qualities attributed to Empedocles, humility was not one of them. He is quoted as saying:

“I am among you as an immortal god, no longer mortal, honored by you all, wreathed in garlands and crowns.”

As a physician, he earned this reputation by performing some noteworthy feats such as saving the Sicilian town of Selinus from a plague.1 Through sorcery and magic arts, he claimed the power to control winds and storms, to reverse aging, and to ward off evil. He dressed flamboyantly and went from town to town performing his healing arts as well as miracles. He wrote:

“To whatever famous town I go, I am praised by men and women, accompanied by thousands, who thirst for deliverance, some asking for prophecies, and some to be cured by all kinds of diseases.”

Early Life

Empedocles was born in the 5th century B.C. in Acragas (modern day Agrigento) on the southwestern coast of Sicily to a wealthy aristocratic family. Acragas was founded in 581 B.C. by Greek colonists from Gela, which was about 45 miles to the east.2 His grandfather, who was also called Empedocles, had the distinction of winning the horse racing event of the Olympic Games of 496 B.C.3

Sixth century Acragas was mainly dominated by tyrants, of which Phalaris is most notorious – he enjoyed roasting men alive inside a bronze bull, their tormented shrieks of pain akin to bellowing. Yet Acragas also flourished as a cultural arts center during this time, with artists of sculptures, paintings, metalwork, and mosaics. In summary, it was a city full of diverse activities.

In 470 B.C., Acragas became a democracy. This is the world that Empedocles knew for most of his life for he was about 20 years old when this occurred. Even though he favored democracy, he never gave up his flamboyant, aristocratic ways.

As a philosopher, Empedocles is most known for teaching that the universe was controlled by the opposing forces of Love and Strife. Either he had some profound insight or he was just projecting the state of his marriage onto the universe. Empedocles’ views on Love and Strife had a significant influence on subsequent theories of philosophy, medicine, mysticism, cosmology, and religion.4

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47. Anaxagoras and Mind

Anaxagoras' theory of mind put Athens on the map.
Anaxagoras, by the Spanish painter Jusepe de Ribera, Baroque style, 1636

According to the Roman historian Valerius Maximus, when Anaxagoras returned to his hometown of Clazomenae, Ionia after an extended journey abroad, he saw that his estate had been abandoned. Rather than become despondent as many people would, he simply said, “Unless they had perished, I would not have been saved.”1

As the story goes, after losing everything, he spent the rest of his life in pursuit of wisdom, thus the story of how Anaxagoras became a philosopher. Valerius Maximus comments:

“For if he had given his time to the cultivation of his property rather than of his mind, he would have remained master of domestic things, among the household gods, and would not have returned to them the great Anaxagoras.”2

After this, he moved to Athens, Greece. Quite by accident, as I write this post in the year 2021, it is the 2500th anniversary of Anaxagoras moving from Ionia to Athens.3

Why is this important? Simply because it was Anaxagoras who put Athens on the philosophical map, eventually making it the philosophical capital of the world. Prior to this, Athens had done little in terms of philosophy or scientific inquiry. He paved the way for the golden age of philosophy characterized by heavyweights like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. And according to science historian George Sarton, Anaxagoras, the first Presocratic philosopher to reside in Athens, “introduced the scientific spirit into Athens.”

Anaxagoras was a trailblazer. He was so obsessed with philosophical ideas that he did not have time to get involved with politics. Because of this, someone once accused him of having no affection for his country. Anaxagoras did not miss a beat as he immediately quipped, “But I do have the greatest affection for my country,” as he pointed upward toward Heaven.4

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46. Zeno’s Paradoxes 2

Zeno of Elea's paradoxes of plurality spoke to infinite divisibility and the concept of the infinite within the finite.
The Greek philosopher Zeno of Elea showing his followers the doors of Truth and Falsehood. From a 16th century AD Fresco at the El Escorial, Madrid.

It all started when an art teacher asked me a simple question: “How many colors are there?” Well, it turned out that that this quite simple question sent me on a trek at the end of which I ran into Zeno, of all people.

Of course, Zeno did not give me an easy answer to that question; rather he, as all good philosophers do, caused me to go much deeper into this question than I had ever anticipated, with some surprising results.

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45. Zeno’s Paradoxes 1

What are Zeno's paradoxes?

After three deep posts on Parmenides, Zeno of Elea will be a refreshing change of pace where we can rest our minds a bit and have some fun. Zeno is known almost exclusively for his intriguing paradoxes.1 For example, according to Zeno, did you know that if you set off to reach a destination, you will never make it? It is impossible. In other words, you can’t get there from here. And his argumentation is pretty convincing. In fact, people have been trying for years to find solutions to his perplexing paradoxes. But before we get into all of that, let’s learn a little bit about his life.

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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 rationalistic 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.

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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