Post 55: History of Philosophy part 2

Back in August, I wrote a post on Peter Adamson’s podcast series The History of Philosophy (Without Any Gaps). You can find more in depth thoughts in that post but, to be brief, I liked it a lot. It was clear, fun with an approachable structure that moved forward and built on what had gone before (both in philosophy and in the in-jokes). Adamson, a university professor, created the show in collaboration with the Leverhulme Trust and had on an array of academic guests to talk over the topics in detail.

The first section involved the greats of Greek philosophy – Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. It also covered many of their predecessors (this is “without any gaps” after all) with such big names as Thales of Miletus and Pythagoras. So where do we go next? Well, in his Late Antiquity section we begin with more Greek philosophers (including more household names) before moving on to the dominance of Plato and Aristotle in neo-Platonism, and finally the early Christian church.

A Design For Life

These other Greek philosophers covered in this chapter owed as much to the philosophical cult of Pythagoras as they did to the heavyweight thinking of Plato. Schools like the Cynics, the Hedonists, the Epicureans, the Skeptics and the Stoics wanted to provide both a way of thinking about the world and a way of living. Thus their influence is found everywhere in ancient society, from emperors to slaves, from religion to diet. It’s not surprising then that the names of these have passed down into modern language.

The Hedonists turn out to be a rather disagreeable bunch, but I found the Epicureans to be quite interesting. Their “pleasure” seeking was more focused on the absence of pain and ended up sounding relatively moderate and comfortable. They’re fairly neutral on religion and accept it if it improves life, and strongly promote friendship and community. Beyond that, their physical ideas followed from Greek atomism and stayed very grounded. Though for some reason, they didn’t seem particularly popular among other groups.

Marcus Aurelius - the Stoic EmperorThe Cynics and Skeptics also have their good points, but the key topic for the podcast is Stoicism. This was hugely popular among Roman society with big names like Cicero, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius taking centre stage, but the leading figure here was in fact a slave. Epictetus taught of the importance of free will, and how through self-discipline and knowledge one can be truly responsible for ones own actions (even if your circumstances seem rather limited). They too get involved in Logic and Physics, with some well developed ideas (if a bit unconvincing to modern ears) that would be taken up into neo-Platonism and medieval thought.

Footnotes to Plato

Peter Adamson had mentioned the name Plotinus before when listing the greatest philosophers. It wasn’t a name I was really familiar with, but it is him, his predecessors and his followers that the second chapter is based around. This takes bits from Aristotle, Plato, Paganism and later Christianity and mashes them together with a dash of stoicism into a hybrid philosophy that solved some of the old problems with Plato’s work. Fundamentally this was based around a non-materialist reality (in contrast to the Stoics or Epicureans).

A different The OneI’ll try to explain it in a few lines (probably not a brilliant idea tbh) – everything derives from a single principle known as The One or The Good. This “One” is beyond our understanding, but leads to a creator intellect and then to a series of perfect Platonic forms. These forms are then made up in matter to produce the world around us, but as one gets further from the “Good” imperfections are introduced and we start to get a world that doesn’t meet the high standards that this clean terminology suggests.

It sounds similar in places to gnosticism and its whole dualist good/evil thing and Plotinus and his followers would actually have been contemporary with them, but the neo-Platonists were not fans. There were apparently some quite bitter disagreements between the two movements. The neo-Platonists seem to have won the popular vote in the end, and their work would go on to be very important for Christianity and Islam in the Medieval era. One can certainly see how a little bit of twisting could make these ideas interesting for the monotheistic religions. It also had sporadic revivals ever few centuries beyond that (according to Wikipedia, the SF writer Philip K Dick even ended up identifying as a follower of the school).

God’s Philosophers

St AugustineI’ve stolen a title here from a rather good book by James Hatham. That dealt with a later period, in the proper Medieval church. Here Adamson runs through the early Greek and Latin church fathers – and it’s still very much Classical, even after the Empire falls apart. There are a lot of good stories and bits and pieces, and the likes of Boethius or Maximus the Confessor are certainly important, but once again there’s one man who dominates everything – St Augustine of Hippo.

I mean to take a look at some of his work properly, but the podcast scratches the surface of some very interesting ideas. Particularly his work on the correlation (or lack of) between language and knowledge. With this, Christian philosophy starts to collect into a more conventional form and set the tone for the next thousand or so years. While there are purely ecclesiastical issues in this chapter, there are also plenty of contributions on more traditional philosophical subjects that will keep the non-religious interested.


Compared to the first section, this was a bit heavier. There are still plenty of biographical stories, soundbites and giraffes, but there are also more complex and subtle variations on topics. I did find that I want to go back and re-listen to episodes, as well as start reading more on the ideas and figures here. It is perhaps a fault of learning this from podcast alone. In general though, it’s as enjoyable, informative and well presented as ever. The next section is Classical Islam, which would be brilliant for some of what I’ve been interested in recently (with my science posts, and Robin Pierson’s podcast reaching 8th century), but I think I should recover some ground and try to get things straight before I move on.

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