Philosophy in the Middle Ages

By Lukas Kern Korn (mka John L. Kelly)

     Philosophy was known to all of noble birth, as most of the  knowledge of the time came from philosophy. Philosophy is the mother of all sciences, but to prove this point one must leave the Middle Ages. Aristotle's lecture notes, when complied, were called "Physics," and the parts that came after these works was called "Metaphysics," after/beyond  physics. Isaac Newton (long after the middle ages) was known as a "Natural Philosopher," and there are numerous other examples. The most modern 
science to come from philosophy is psychology, and others will follow. 

The Origin of Philosophy
    Philosophy started in Miletus, located on the Ionian seacoast, the modern country of Turkey. The people of this area had become wealth traders and so lived a life of luxury. There was time to sit down and think. They were concerned with the "stuff" (Urstoff) or ultimate matter of the world. Since they were all materialistic, they are also called the first "materialists."

Milesians (Ionians)
    Thales (624-546 B.C.) was the first philosopher. He believed water is the ultimate reality from which all things come and out of which they are made. Things are formed by the process of "rarefaction" (air, clouds, etc.) or "condensation" (earth, stones, etc.). All things are alive (hylozoism), i.e., they are "divine" or "full of gods" and have their own principles of motion and move themselves unless hindered by something else.
    Anaximander (610-545 B.C.) was the student of Thales. Anaximander surpasses his teacher by explaining how things originate from the "prime substance." He agreed there is a primary substance, but it is not water. Water is merely an element of what is yet more primary. The prime matter is the "Unlimited" or "Indefinite Boundless" From this "boundless" comes all things. From the "boundless" ( a "vortex" or "seed") comes all things. Things "separated off" from the vortex to form "the opposites" (hot-cold, dry-moist, earth-air, day-night, etc.). This "separating off" destroyed the original unity of the seed, but formed the physical world as we know it with heaven above and earth below. Living things come from "the moist," from the sea, with each organism adapting to its environment for survival. By this adaptation they evolved into higher animals. Man finally came from the highest of these. Reality is the "dynamic strife of the opposites." As soon as one force get out of balance, its opposite comes into action. "Justice" determines the order of the appearance of the opposites and "Time" controls the duration of their presence(e.g., three months of Summer are balanced by three months of Winter, day by night, war by peace, etc.).
     Anaximenes(585-528 B.C.) was an associate of Anaximander and the last of the Milesians. Surpasses Anaximenes by explaining the process of change. "Air" is the primary substance - more definable than "Boundless" yet more infinite than "Water." Air becomes other things by condensation and rarefaction. From the "most rare" (least air) to the "most dense": fire, winds, clouds, air, water earth, stone. Air can change states because it is divine, i.e., it is alive and has an inherent principle of change. Change is by condensation and rarefaction.

The Pythagoreans
     The Pythagoreans were a religious community founded on the island of Samos. They believed in "transmigration" (reincarnation) of the soul, and they were devoted to purification of the soul. They followed strict rule of discipline and were vegetarians.
     Pythagoras (the man) added the idea of "form" or "limit" to the unlimited prime matter of the Milesians. This form can be seen in music where "harmony" (form) puts limits on the infinitely possible sounds. Pythagoras believed the universe was harmony by virtue of Form, and the attentitave ear can hear the "harmony of the spheres." The Form can be conceived in mathematical terms: Math is reality and not just a way of understanding reality. We see that numbers constitute all things: 1 = point, 2 = line, 3 = plane, 4 = solid and 10 is the sum of all possible reality, and 10 is perfection (this is why our number system is based on ten). The limited Cosmos (earth) is surrounded by the Unlimited Cosmos (air) which the former inhaled and gives meaning to. The whole universe revolves around the "hearth of the universe" which is "The One" (God, or the focal point of reality), which gives Form to the Unlimited. Thus the One is seen as a great mathematician who limits or orders the unlimited according to number. Pythagoras developed many of our current math notions: odd and even numbers, rational and irrational numbers, square and cube numbers and roots, Pythagoreans Theorem, etc. Pythagoras was a tremendous influence on Plato and later philosophy.

     Heraclitus shifts the focus from unity (being) to change (Becoming). For Heraclitus everything is in a state of "flux" (change). Permanent primary substance does not exist, and all reality is mutable. This means that nothing ever is but is always becoming. Change is the natural order of things. Cosmic Motion is the originator of reality and takes the form of fire - always changing but keeping it's identity. Fire is all things that are, the constant tension of consuming and rekindling. Heraclitus proposes "Nature Law" which governed the constant change: Law, Reason, or Logos controls all change; the Fiery Principle is Reason. In line with Reason, the fire gives as much as it takes and the aggregate quantity of all things remains always the same - the balance of opposites is constant. Heraclitus concludes by saying man's soul is akin to Reason and functions properly by being rational. The happiest life is the sober life (Drunkenness is the wetness of the soul) directed by Reason. The soul is imprisoned in the body during this life and returns to Reason after death.

The Eleatis
     This school of philosophy on Elea in southern Italy concentrated on the unchanging opposed to the changing, what is rather than what changes.  Paramenides is noted as the leading philosopher of this school.
     Paramenides makes a distinction between the Two Ways of Knowledge. The first is the Way of Opinion, which is made by use of the sense, which can be decided (as when we see the stick in water as bent when it is really straight). The other is the Way of Truth, this kind of knowledge is reached by reason (understanding that when we that light is refracted by water).
     Zeno makes a proof of Paramenides's ideas in the form of an unsolvable paradox: "Being (as opposed to Nothing or Not-being) can be spoken of and can be object of thought. That which can be spoken of and can be thought of can be, i.e., can have being. But, if it can be, then it must be, and it is. For if it could be and were not then it would be nothing. But "nothing" cannot be the object of thought or speech, since to think or speak about nothing is not to think or speak at all. Besides, if it only could be then it could never come to be for it would have to come out of nothing, yet from nothing comes nothing. Therefor, if it is then it is, if it is not then it cannot be. It simply is. And It is Being. "Being" is the only reality. "Becoming" (change, coming to be and passing away) cannot be and is simply an illusion. Illusions are the result of the Way of Opinion, and are not seeing things as they really are by the Way of Truth. Again, if something is to "come into being" then it must come either out of being or out of not-being(nothing). But if it comes out of being then it already is. And if it comes out of not-being then not-being must be something or a thing could not come out of it (or else not-being would be being with is contradictory). Being, therefor, cannot come out of being or out of not-being. It (Being) never "came into being" but simply is, always was, and always will be. Being is uncreated, indestructible, indivisible, complete, and without end. Being simply is. There is nothing else. All else is illusion. 
     The other philosopher of this school is Zeno. Zeno was a student and defender of Parmenides. He created many paradoxs showing how Pluralism (reality made-up of units), space, and movement is impossible. All of this was to prove the ideas of Paramenides ideas were correct.

Metaphysical Pluralist
     Empedocles agrees with Parmenides that ultimate reality is unchanging, but also realizes that change is a fact that cannot be denied. Empedocles's reconciliation involved two principles: 1: objects as wholes do not change, but do come to be and pass away. 2: objects are composed of particles which do not change and are indestructible. Primary substances do not change, though they may mingle at different times in different ways to form different things. The unchanging elements are earth, air, fire and water. The world is cyclical, or circular in its phases. In the primary phase, "Love" is the governing principle and all the elements are mixed together to form concrete things as we know them. "Hate" however is "round about the sphere" and when it penetrates the sphere the process of separation is begun. Hate reigns supreme when all the elements are separated and in isolation. Love, drive out of the sphere, rebuilds it's strength and begins to rejoin the elements in harmony. This cycle is forever repeated. Love and Hate are material forces, and both are presently at work in the world as we know it, as we are now about half way toward sepaearion.  The soul is material and lives forever, but in different forms at different times.
     The Atomist logically developed from Empedocles, but without the mythological forces of love and hate. Rather the elements are an infinite number of particles or indivisible units called "atoms." These particles are too small to be perceived. They differ in size and shape, though they have no qualities other that size and shape and solidity and impenetrability. No outside forces are needed. The atoms and their movement are self-subsufficient. Thus, the atoms are Parmenidean, while the things come by collisions are Heraclitean.

The Sophist (meaning false knowledge. The same as in Sophomore: false wisdom)
     The Sophist of Ancient Greece de-evolved into the lawyers of today. They tought, for a price, that you could not know anything and how to argue a case. In fact a young man made a deal with one of the Sophist who said he could teach people how to always win an argument, "If you teach me and I win my first case, you will get all the money I earn from that case." The Sophist feeling confident made the young man his student. After his education was completed, the young man said he would never take a case and the old Sophist took him to court and end up in a paradox. If the Sophist won then the young man would lose the first case and not owe the Sophist anything. If the young man won then the judge would say the young man owned nothing. This is the logic in which Sophist worked and made money with.
     There were two great teachers among the Sophists. Protagoras who said, "Man is the measure of all."  This meant that truth depends on man's point of view. The other was Gorgeous who said, "We can't understand anything and if we could we couldn't communicate it any why." These two great men made the way for lawyers the gain the power they have today.

Socrates - 399 B.C.
     Socrates was known by the Sophist as the gadfly. The reason for this is that he went around showing the Sophist to be idiots. Socrates invented a way to find truth, espelly ethical truth. This process, called the Socratic Method or Socratic dialectic, followed the pattern of Greek Tragedy. 

1: The Birth of the idea(hero)
2: Struggle of the idea(hero) with reason(conflict)
3: Death of the idea(hero)
4: Rebirth of the idea(hero)

The process was repeated until the idea was not destroyed by reason. When this happened, Socrates knew it was true. This inductive method was used by Socrates to find universal definitions in ethics.
     Socrates was put to death by the Sophist for teaching the young people his method and say the Sophists were wrong. He was arrested on the charge of corrupting the youth, and imprisoned with an unlocked cell (they hoped he would go into exile so they could discredit him). At the dawn of the next day he was given a cup with poison in it, he drank it, and died.

Copyright 1999-2001, John L. Kelly. All Rights Reserved.

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