Post-Socratics to Antiquity

Post-Socratics to Antiquity

The period of antiquities after Aristotle to the middle ages was marked by a retreat from the material world in an age of increasing uncertainty. The decline of the Greek state following invasions by the Romans and the eventual collapse of the Western Roman empire had led to several schools of thought that signaled a beacon for withdrawal rather than for growth. Taking this analogy further, such a beacon represents a negation of what was once held in the highest esteem: Institutions were dismantled. Money, power, and fame were discarded. Austerity measures were adopted as a self-sufficient way of life. Thus, the artistic theme foretells a coming darkness (dark ages), a regression back to nature, and a clinging to a hope for a new golden age in the future.

cynics   skeptics

The cynics rejected many institutions from marriage, private property, and all luxuries that appeal to the senses; they freed themselves of possessions, professed a love for virtue, and lived with nature. The rejection of the material life (shrinking the sphere of the known) and the rejection of values such as power/fame (negation of ideals) confines life to a much smaller space. The skeptics refuted all theses (both sides can be shown to be valid and thus the issue “grey” or both sides are invalid and thus negated) and neglected to produce a positive replacement. Thus, many of the stronger (rigid) claims in both metaphysics (first principles) and ethics, were shown to be untenable.

epicureans    stoics

The Epicureans claimed that all virtues were empty unless in the pursuit of pleasure; pleasure is further differentiated into passive/active facets where the former is achieved in a state of equilibrium (balance like a web/mesh) and preferred to the latter. The practical result is the absence of pain/suffering, the abstinence of public life, and a safety in friendship. The Stoics believed in a cyclic determinism where everything that happened will repeat in after a great conflagration (reduction of elements to fire). The Platonic elements were reintroduced through the conception of a “world-soul” that connects all things through Pneuma (fire-air). The human soul, which is pure reason (rational), partakes as a citizen of the world and is obliged to uphold its virtues and organization (universal brotherhood).


Plotinus (neo-platonism) refines many of Plato’s concepts and differentiates the soul into the Holy trinity (“The One”, spirit, and soul). “The One”, as a transcendental being, is ineffable and cannot be defined with predicates but synonymous with the “Good” or “Potentiality”. The spirit is the first emanation of the “The One” and identifiable with ‘nous’ or mind; the image of the God illuminates the world of essence. The soul has two faces, one turned inwards toward the spirit. The other is turned outward to interface/manifest with the body/material. The good life is the former where the soul self-forgets as it turns inwards (towards union with the one) and merges with the spirit; both soul and spirit become simultaneously two and one.

Post-Socratics to Antiquity



transmigration     forms

The Egyptian-Orphic concerns with the afterlife and Pythagoras’s mysticism led to a curious “wheel-of-fate” image representing reincarnation, a telos of the soul towards “the one”, and a commitment to a particular ascetic way of life. Socrates-Plato further differentiated the concept by separating soul from body and allowing the former to persist beyond corporeal existence for a time before returning (transmigrating and being later bound) to a body. In my conception (left), the soul is enlarged during life on earth via a way of living. In Plato’s world, this may be done by acquiring knowledge (“Ideas”) which are not from sensory impressions (that are distortions/illusions) but come from without (the mind/insight). This can be told in his “parable of the cave” but I render this by simply juxtaposing an ideal triangle (straight lines) to a perceived triangle (curves) (right).   


Plato’s utopia or ideal society was influenced by Lycurgus’s Sparta but can be broken down into 3 class systems (guardians, soldiers, commoners) with distinct virtues (wisdom, courage, temperance). I summarize each of them as follows: Wisdom is penetrating thought and insight. Courage is a firm center surrounded by uncertainty. Temperance is the rejection of extremes. 

forms and matter    essence

Plato’s protege, Aristotle tried to clean up (remove) much of the former’s mysticism out of his concepts. Our impression of things are now derived from how “form” shapes “matter” in a teleological manner (left: circle into triangle). The incompleteness of ideas have been concretized into the notion of “essence” or the observed qualities that a thing must possess to be classified as such (right: 3 sides make a triangle).


Aristotle’s politics were more practical than that of Plato’s Republic as he had enough sense to recognize power dynamics inherent in the tension between body (material) and soul (ideals). Here I signify the relations in terms of where power is concentrated (central v.s. egalitarian) and the form of the relation (material v.s. ethics).


Last, we have Aristotle’s syllogistic logic which I summarize in terms of venn-diagrams. See the concept map for more elaboration.





Fertility cults have always existed in agricultural cultures but the cult of Bacchus (later Orphism) had a little extra help in their celebrations; these guys symbolized intoxication into a literal experience of a divine union with the god of revelries (left). The Orphics, who were preoccupied with the afterlife (Egyptian influence) knew of this and nearly went in the completely opposite direction (enantiodromia), asserting that a pure (ascetic) life in Earth would bring one’s soul closer to Bacchus in death. This is arguably the source of the the Greek tension between passion and intellect. Pre-Socratic intellect raised the geometry of the Babylonians into form of scientism and tried to explain the material existence of being (right: irreducible elements); natural science had its roots in the concept of cosmic justice (Anaxmander) which explained how the elements were always kept in check.

flux and stasis

Abstracting from observed motion gave way to two schools of thought. Things were always in a state of flux and were always in a process of becoming something else (left). The harmony of opposites (e.g. point and line) produces say a circle. On the other hand, the things we state always refer to a pre-existing thing that have constant meaning and thus eternal (linguistic fallacy). Thus, our conceptions have always “existed” and nothing changes at all (right). Surely these propositions can’t later be synthesized (hint. Plato).


In the meantime, guys like Pythagoras lifted Orphic mysticism to new heights by fusing it with intellect. True knowledge, as spurned by revelation/intuition & deduction (see the elegant proof drawn above), divorced itself from the pragmatics and was embodied in the field that we now call Geometry. This form of “knowledge from without” will have large repercussions on Philosophy, ethics, and mathematics for the next two millennia.