History of Truth, The Truth about God and Religions

Dr. Adel Elsaie

Source: History of Truth

5.6 Greek Philosophy

The Search for Wisdom


Plato and Aristotle

Philo of Alexandria

Greek Philosophy is a compilation of philosophical concepts developed by the Greeks, particularly during the peak of Greek civilization between 600 and 200 BC. Greek philosophy formed the basis of all later philosophical concepts in the Western world. The intuitive hypotheses of the ancient Greeks suggested many theories of modern science. Also many of the moral ideas of pagan Greek philosophers have been incorporated into Christian moral doctrine. Educated Greeks turned to philosophy, not religion, for enlightenment. Their saints and priests were such philosophers as Plato, Pythagoras and Epictetus. They even saw them as sons of god. Plato, for example, was considered to be the son of Apollo. The average Greeks trusted philosophers to provide answer for the eternal questions of why do humans suffer and how to enjoy life. The people needed a simple answer that they could understand. Greek philosophy may be divided between those philosophers who sought an explanation of the world in physical terms and those who emphasized the importance of human thoughts or ideals.

The Search for Wisdom

The word philosophy means, "love of wisdom." Greek schools sought the wisdom that would help people to live happy and worthwhile lives. The Ionian school was the first important school of Greek philosophy. It was based upon materialistic concepts that attempted to discover the building block of all matter. This school was founded by Thales of Miletus (640? -546? BC), who suggested that water is the basic substance from which all matter is created. A more complex view was offered by Anaximander (611-547 BC), who held that the raw material of all matter is an eternal substance that changes into the known forms of matter. These forms in turn change and merge into one another according to the rule of justice, that is, balance and proportion. Heraclitus advocated that fire is the original source of matter, but he believed that the entire world is in a constant state of change and that a mixture of different matters produces most objects and substances. He considered the soul, for example, as a mixture of fire and water. Anaxagoras (500-428? BC) introduced dualistic explanation of the universe, that is to say that the universe consists of living and non-living matters. He developed the concept of nous (reason), which he considered as an infinite and unchanging substance that entered into and controlled every living object. This concept of eternal substance was later adopted in formulating the doctrines of Christianity during the Ecumenical Councils of Churches.

A more materialistic interpretation was made by Empedocles, who accepted the belief that reality is eternal, but considered that it consists of the four basic substances: fire, air, earth, and water. Materialism applied to daily life inspired the philosophy of a group known as the Sophists, who were active in the fifth century BC. With their emphasis on the importance of human wisdom they doubted that humanity would ever be able to reach truth through logic and taught that material success rather than truth should be the purpose of life.

The division between idealism and materialism became more distinct. Pythagoras stressed the importance of form rather than matter in explaining material structure. The Pythagorean School also emphasized the importance of the soul, regarding the body only as the soul's "tomb." The beliefs of Pythagoras formed the basis of the idealism that was to characterize later Greek philosophy.


The ideas of Socrates, (470-399 BC), represented Greek philosophy at its highest level. He spent much of his time teaching and asking questions of the people he met. He asked: What is the purpose of your life? What is good? What is justice? Such questions stimulated people to examine the conduct of their lives? Socrates believed that a life without questions is not worth living. Socrates wrote nothing himself, but from the writings of his student Plato, we know the important ideas he taught. He advocated that each person should learn to understand himself. "Know thyself" was the slogan of Socrates. Socrates described the soul as a combination of an individual's intelligence and character.

Socrates' contribution to philosophy was essentially ethical in character. Belief of such concepts as justice, love, and virtue, and the self-knowledge that he emphasized, was the basis of his teachings. He believed that all corruption is the result of ignorance, and that no person is willingly bad; thus morality is knowledge, and those who know the right will act rightly. His logic placed special emphasis on rational argument.

Although a patriot and a man of deep moral values, some leaders of Athens were afraid of his ideas. They accused Socrates of teaching young people dangerous concepts leading them away from the principles of democracy, and they brought him to trial. He was charged in 399 BC with neglecting the gods of the state and introducing new divinities. Since he refused to change his way, Socrates was sentenced to die by only a small majority. When, according to Athenian legal practice, Socrates made an ironic counter proposition to the court's death sentence, proposing only to pay a small fine because of his value to the state as a man with a philosophic mission, this offer angered the jury that it voted by an increased majority for the death penalty. Socrates' friends planned his escape from prison, but he preferred to obey the law and die for his cause. At the age of seventy, he was executed according to the Greek custom by being given a cup of the poison hemlock.

Plato and Aristotle

The death of Socrates did not stop other Greeks from continuing the search for wisdom. His idealism was arranged by his student Plato, (428-347 BC). Plato wrote many dialogues: books describing real and imaginary philosophical conversations among his friends. In such dialogues as the republic, Plato presented his ideas: People should be guided in their lives by eternal principles such as justice, love, and honor. Only the wisest men and women should rule the people. There should be no rule by vote of the majority. In his theory of ideas, Plato considered the objects of the real world as being merely shadows of divine Forms or ideas. Only these divine Forms can be the objects of true knowledge; the perception of their shadows, that is, the real world as heard, seen, and felt, is merely opinion. Plato believed that the eternal Forms, "Gods", communicate to people through their powers and not by themselves. They are the highest reality that the human mind can grasp. The goal of the philosopher, he said, is to know the eternal Forms and to educate others in that knowledge.

Aristotle, (384-322 BC), was the son of a physician to the royal court. From his father, Aristotle gained an interest in biology, zoology, physics, anatomy, astronomy, geology, and almost every other field known to the ancient Greek. He was one of the students who studied under Plato. He believed that people should examine, describe, and classify as many forms of life as possible, because it is important to have scientific knowledge. Aristotle stated that the universe consists of four elements, fire, air, earth, and water, plus a fifth element that exists everywhere and is the sole constituent of the heavenly bodies "above" the moon.

Aristotle advocated the existence of a divine being, described as the Prime Mover, who is responsible for the unity and direction of nature. God is perfect and therefore the aspiration of all things in the world, because all things desire to share perfection. The Prime Mover, or God, described by Aristotle was not very suitable for religious purposes, as many later philosophers and theologians have observed. Aristotle limited his "theology," however, to what he believed science requires and can establish. Aristotle seemed to have been strongly opposed to Plato’s view of the Forms, rejecting the concept that they had a prior and independent existence.

Philo of Alexandria

Philo of Alexandria (20 BC - 50 AD) was a Jewish-Hellenistic philosopher. Philo was considered the greatest Jewish philosopher of his time. However, he used exclusively the doctrines of Greek philosophy that he must be considered also a Greek philosopher. He combined the Greek philosophical concepts into an original form.

Philo was born in Alexandria, Egypt, to a wealthy, aristocratic Jewish family and received a thorough education in the Old Testament and in Greek literature and philosophy. He had an intimate knowledge of the works of Homer and of the Greek tragedians, but his chief studies were in Greek philosophy, especially the teachings of the Pythagoreans, Plato, and the Stoics.

Philo was a devout Jew. He considered the divinity of the Jewish law as the basis and test of all true philosophy. He maintained that the greater part of the Pentateuch, in both its historical and legal portions, could be explained symbolically, and that its deepest and truest significance is to be found through such interpretation. He conceived God as a being with neither attributes nor human qualities: to say that God is "angry", for example, is wrong. God is better than virtue and knowledge, and better than the beautiful and the good. He is a Being so exalted above the world. God communicates with the world through his "powers", which seem close to Plato’s Forms. These powers are real, active powers, surrounding God as a group of attendant beings. An individual's duties consist of adoration of God and love and righteousness toward others. Humans are immortal by reason of their heavenly nature. Mere living after death, common to all humanity, differs from the future existence of the perfect souls, for whom paradise is oneness with God.

Many of the numerous existing works of Philo are concerned with the adoration and the symbolic interpretation of Genesis and with the display of the Law of Moses to Gentiles. He interpreted the story of God’s visit to Abraham with two angles, for example, as God’s essence with two senior powers. His other writings include biographies of biblical characters and a series of works on the Ten Commandments. Jews have always found that Philo’s concept of God somewhat inauthentic. Christians, however, would find him extremely supportive. The concept of the oneness with God in paradise was later used in the New Testament.

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