GREEKS of ANTIQUITY
I had my first taste of philosophy at Armidale Teachers College in 1961. This was one of the options that I chose to study, apart from the more mundane teaching subjects that were mandatory. Miss Margaret Mackie enchanted us with stories of the Delphic oracle, as well as introducing me to a long-term love affair with Plato, and Platonic ideals. I did not realise it at the time, but this gifted teacher was opening up the foundations of Western philosophy and science to me and to others in the class.
Plato (428-348BC) has been cited as one of the founders of Western religion and spirituality.
Plato’s teacher was Socrates, and much of Plato’s works are based on Socrates’ ideas. We studied Plato’s Republic, an amazing work about the just society. Our teacher focused on the allegory of the Cave, which has fascinated students of philosophy and mysticism ever since.
Socrates (470-399BC) remains an enigmatic figure as he left no writings. Plato’s dialogues remain the best account of Socrates to survive from antiquity. From the dialogues written up by Plato, Socratic irony and the Socratic method evolved and were named.
Along with Plato Aristotle (384-322BC) is considered one of the “Fathers of Western Philosophy”. He joined Plato’s Academy in Athens when he was seventeen, and remained there until he was thirty-seven. His teachings and the methods and lexicon he utilised have informed all forms of knowledge in the West.
Heraclitus (535-475BC) was another great figure from antiquity. A native of Ephesus, in Persia, he was self-taught and a pioneer of wisdom. He was called “Heraclitus the Obscure” because of his complex and progressive ideas. Heraclitus was insistent on the ever-changing nature of the universe and reality: “No man ever steps in the same river twice.” He believed in the earthly unity of opposites: “The path up and down are one and the same.”
TWO EARLY FRENCH PHILOSOPHERS
Descartes (1596-1650) was also one of the key figures in the scientific revolution, and in the development of continental rationalism. A native of France, he spent 20 years in the Dutch republic, and claimed to have been changed by a spiritual visitation as a young man, while a soldier in the ranks of the Duke of Bavaria. He believed in the absolute freedom of God’s act of creation, and that this visit by an angel revealed to him a new philosophy and the future spread of the scientific outlook. He concluded that the only thing he could be certain about was that he was “a thinking thing”, and that deduction was the preferable cognitive method. Descartes’ signature doctrine, that permeates other theories he advanced, was that of the dualism of mind and body, known as Cartesian Dualism. This theory on the separation between the mind and the body went on to influence subsequent Western philosophies.
Pascal (1623-1662) wrote: “L’homme n’est ni ange ni bête, et le malheur fait que, quand il veut faire l’ange, il fait la bête.”
Man is neither angel nor beast, and the tragedy is that, although he would like to think of himself as an angel, he can never conceal his bestial nature and origins.
MODERN WESTERN PHILOSOPHERS
Schopenhauer (1788 – 1860) was a German philosopher. He is best known for his 1818 work, wherein he characterizes the world as the product of “a blind and insatiable metaphysical will”. Proceeding from the transcendent philosophy of Immanuel Kant, Schopenhauer developed an atheistic metaphysical and ethical system. It has been described as “philosophical pessimism”, which clashed with the accepted thinking of the time. Schopenhauer was among the first thinkers in the West to share significant tenets of Eastern philosophy, which had arrived at similar conclusions to his own philosophical work.
Darwin (1809-1882) was an English naturalist, biologist and geologist, who published The Origin of Species in 1859 on the theory of natural selection. He had waited twenty years before publishing his work, because of the effect he knew it would have on the public and on religious beliefs. By the 1870s, the scientific community and a majority of the educated public had accepted evolution as a fact. Early on, however, Darwin had studied divinity and believed literally in creationist theories of the universe. The death of three of his children, and the sight of slaves during his travels, shook his faith in God to the depths. However, he never referred to himself as an atheist, always choosing the term “agnostic” instead. Poor health, physical and emotional, shrouded his life in his final years.
William James (1842-1910), was an American philosopher and psychologist of the philosophical movement of pragmatism, and of the psychological movement of functionalism. He was instrumental in establishing Harvard’s psychology department, which at its inception was tied to the department of philosophy. James himself remained unconvinced that psychology was, in fact, a distinct discipline, writing in 1892, “This is no science; it is only the hope of a science”. Despite James’s skepticism, this hope was fully realized in the department of psychology he helped to found .
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche
Nietzsche (1844 –1900) was a German scholar, whose work has exerted a profound influence on Western philosophy and modern intellectual history. He began his career as a philologist, before turning to philosopher. He became the youngest ever to hold the Chair of Classical Philology at Basel University in 1869 at the age of 24. He resigned in 1879 due to health problems that plagued him most of his life, and he completed much of his core writing in the following decade. In 1889, at age 44, he suffered a collapse and afterwards, a complete loss of his mental faculties. He lived his remaining years in the care of his mother until her death in 1897, and then with his sister. Nietzsche died in 1900. What many people took from his writings was: “God is dead!” What he went on to say is that, “We have killed him; so what are we going to do about it?”
Freud (1856 –1939) was an Austrian neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, a clinical method for treating psychopathology through dialogue between a patient and a psychoanalyst. He qualified as a doctor of medicine in 1881and set up his clinical practice in 1886. In 1938 he left Austria to escape the Nazis and died in exile in the United Kingdom in 1939. Many of the concepts that he first explored in depth, and put a name to, such as the unconscious, the ego, the id and the super-consciousness, were quickly accepted by the psychological fraternity, and then taken up by the rest of the world as common usage.
In creating psychoanalysis, Freud developed therapeutic techniques such as the use of free association and discovered transference, establishing its central role in the analytic process. Freud’s redefinition of sexuality to include its infantile forms led him to formulate the Oedipus complex as the central tenet of psychoanalytical theory. His analysis of dreams as wish-fulfillments provided him with models for the clinical analysis of symptom formation and the underlying mechanisms of repression. Freud postulated the existence of libido, an energy with which mental processes and structures are invested and which generates erotic attachments, and a death drive, the source of compulsive repetition, hate, aggression and neurotic guilt. In his later work Freud developed a wide-ranging interpretation and critique of religion and culture.
Along with Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Charles Darwin (1809-1882), his theories shook up and changed the thinking world of the nineteenth century, and beyond, more than any other philosopher/psychologist during that time. Unfortunately, what remains in discussion today are often his errors, not the greatness of his discoveries and lasting legacy.
Carl Gustav Jung
Jung (1875 – 1961) was a Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who founded analytical psychology.
His work has been influential not only in psychiatry but also in anthropology, archaeology, literature, philosophy, and religious studies. As a notable research scientist based at the famous Burghölzli hospital, under Eugen Bleuler, he came to the attention of the Viennese founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. The two men conducted a lengthy correspondence and collaborated initially in a joint vision of the relatively new human psychology field.
Freud hoped to adopt the younger man as his metaphorical son and heir. He saw his revolutionary body of work named “psychoanalysis” as “a new science”. Jung’s research and personal vision, in great part “spiritual”, however, made it impossible for him to fulfill his older colleague’s wishes, and a schism became inevitable. This division was painful, and was to have historic repercussions, lasting well into the modern day. Jung was also an artist, craftsman and builder, as well as a prolific writer. Many of his works were not published until after his death (The Red Book) and some are still awaiting publication. (The Black Books).
Among the central concepts of analytical psychology is individuation—the lifelong psychological process of differentiation of the self out of each individual’s conscious and unconscious elements. Jung considered it to be the main task of human development. He created some of the best known psychological concepts, including synchronicity, archetypal phenomena, the collective unconscious, the psychological complex, and extraversion and introversion.
I like to think of this personal overview of philosophy and philosophers, as being a circular journey. Like the yin-yang symbol; like the hero’s journey. Starting from a spiritual perspective with the Greek philosophers, it moves towards the materialistic polarities of the 20th century, which criticised dogmatic religious approaches, and promoted evidence-based theories of reality. Many informed thinkers are now exploring and incorporating a spiritual viewpoint in their search for an wholistic, balanced and mature perspective.