53. The Greek Sophists – Authentic Philosophers or Purveyors of Deception?

The Sophists changed the course of Athens in history, elevating rhetoric and education. They must have had great influence on future philosophers, despite there being only 30 Sophists in the record.
Allegory of Rhetoric oil on canvas painting by Laurent de La Hire, 1650

For those familiar with philosophy, the word “Sophist” brings to mind a highly articulate snake oil salesman who, through eloquence and smoothness of speech, is able to manipulate people into doing what he wants. In the ancient world, it was said that the Sophists could convince people it was night when it was day. This reputation is partially deserved, but there is much more to Sophists than this ancient stereotype.

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52. From Democritus to Einstein – Atomists Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Democritus, one of the Atomists, among the Abderites
Democritus Among the Abderitans, oil on canvas by François-André Vincent, c. 1790; in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Atomic theory has a long, rich life in human history. It’s gone from a metaphysical theory developed by the Presocratics – namely the Atomists – to explain the idea of change vis-à-vis Parmenides’ idea of constant Being, to the modern scientific application of nuclear energy and nuclear warfare.

The dynamic duo of atomism was Leucippus and Democritus. Leucippus, who was from Miletus, was the founder of the atomist school.1 He started in the school of Parmenides, being a disciple of Zeno of Elea. Democritus, who came a little later, was a pupil of Leucippus. As such, of the corpus of work left behind by these two men, it is difficult to know which man wrote what.

Their monumental contribution to philosophy and science is their atomic theory, which states that all matter is made up of infinite, indivisible, eternal, unchangeable, and imperceptible entities.2 The only thing that changes is their position in space.

The question is how did we get from the Atomists’ simple but profound theories to the nuclear technology we have today that can potentially give us an infinite energy supply…or obliterate the world?

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51. Heraclitus – Fire as the Universal Principle

Heraclitus and his thoughts on Universal Flux would eventually lead to Hegel developing his dialectic...and Marx spinning it toward materialism.

This article is a repost of Post 32. This repost was prompted by some very interesting comments and challenges left by an perceptive reader named Al. Below is one of his comments:

“Your statement, “Heraclitus did not believe in universal flux” is not accurate at all. You take away Heraclitus’s major contribution to philosophy. Precisely, Heraclitus has been characterized as the father of Dialectic – the constant undergoing change. According to it, the only permanent thing is change itself. This concept of dialectic was the basis of Hegel and Marx’s philosophies.”

– Al Amao, Ph.D

Dr. Amao is a published author with an interesting bio which I have included below as well as a link to his Amazon and personal websites.

As always, I welcome any feedback from my readers, especially disagreements, for it is through debate in philosophy that we arrive closer to the Truth. In fact, I am writing this introduction after finishing this post and I must say that I am grateful for readers like Al who take time to write and comment. In this case, his comments have prompted me to take a much deeper dive into Heraclitus and Universal Flux than I previously did.

I use a capital “T” for Truth because a premise of this blog is that there is objective truth that undergirds and permeates the universe. Not only is relativism not true, but it is untenable when put into practice as we can see from the disaster that permeates the West today.

Based on the premise that objective truth exists, it follows that disagreement and debate are mechanisms by which we attempt to move closer to that Truth. In short, this blog is about seeking the Truth and not winning an argument. This is the true spirit of philosophy.

Having said all of that, I invite any of you to weigh in on any of my posts in order to engage in lively and informative discussion. I may have guest bloggers in the future and even podcasts. Philosophy should be a community endeavor and not just a solo exercise. My vision is for this blog to become a forum where people can hash these ideas out in real time.

Please enjoy the post below and my interactions with Al’s comments. And be sure to add some of your own! I advise you to have read Al Amao’s original unedited comments, posted below the original post in the comment section. I will interact with his ideas in the addendum at the end of the post.

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50. The Volcanic Winter of 536 A.D. and the Beginning of the Dark Ages in the West

File:Cole Thomas The Course of Empire Destruction 1836.jpg
The Course of Empire: Destruction, by Thomas Cole, 1836

A climate catastrophe occurred in 536 A.D. when an Icelandic volcano exploded and covered the earth with ash so thick the entire earth was plunged into a volcanic winter for the next several years. Nothing like this had ever happened before or since. Day looked like night and the temperature dropped significantly. The repercussions of this natural disaster were felt for several centuries afterwards. This volcanic disaster initiated for the West, not just physical darkness, but a cultural and political one as well. Eventually, when things seemed absolutely hopeless, a great and miraculous rebirth occurred. This post is about nothing less than the death and resurrection of the West.

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49. God Becomes Man at the Center Point of History

The Annunciation, a fresco by Fra Angelico
The Annunciation, fresco by Fra Angelico, 1438–45; in the Museum of San Marco, Florence

In my second annual Christmas post, I would like to highlight for you one of my most favorite paintings of all time, entitled The Annunciation, by Fra Angelico. The Annunciation – when the angel Gabriel told Mary that she was going to have the Christ child – was a common art theme in the Middle Ages. This particular depiction is a masterpiece of Renaissance art and considered one of the greatest paintings in the world. The artist, Fra Angelico, was a Benedictine monk. You can view more works by this great artist in books available through Amazon. Please see the featured book section at the end of this post.

My wife and I actually had the privilege to behold the original in the Museum of San Marco in 2019. San Marco used to be a Benedictine monastery. I had expected to find a framed piece of art hanging on the wall, but to my surprise, the painting is a fresco that greets you as soon as you enter the doorway of the monastery.

In the Fullness of Time

In the Epistle to the Galatians, St. Paul said:

“When the fulness of the time came, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the Law.”

God sent His Son at the right time – when the world was fully prepared to receive Him. Christianity is an historical faith, not an esoteric one. God’s revelation in the Old Testament occurred exclusively through historical events. For example, the Exodus from Egypt eventually produced the Pentateuch, and the kingship of David produced the Psalms. God reveals Himself through historical events.

God’s greatest revelation of Himself occurred in the Incarnation, God uniting Himself to human flesh. All of history – not just church history – centers on the Incarnation and the events that accompanied it, such as the death and resurrection of Christ. All history prior to the Incarnation pointed to that event, and all history subsequent to that event was and is animated and directed by that event. In other words, if the Incarnation had not happened, the world would be completely different.

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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 – Mind as the Origin of the Universe

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 – The Discovery of the Infinite in the Finite

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 – You Can’t Get There from Here

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 Discovers Being and the Origin of the Universe

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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