Plato and later Ideas



Plato challenged religious authorities and sacred customs by questioning if ethical goodness can be known by any rational person, rather than need a sacred authority to tell us how to be good. For most of history and in most cultures, people learned what is good from authorities invested with a handed down knowledge of what is morally and ritually right, usually first devised or intuited by a special prophet or seer who was given the vision of good from God or the gods, and people were not given the trust to understand on their own what is good. Of course, having one agreed set of ethical rules and norms is efficient for a unified cooperative society, but the philosophical openess in Athens began to allow for new discussion concerning such universal questions as to what is ethical goodness and justice.

Socrates became a legend for his insistent questioning of any held beliefs and his determination to uncover truth from rational thought, which upset religious authorities. Plato carried on this trust in manís power of reason and possible direct intuition about what is true and what is good. He too believed that we do not need religious authorities to inform us as to what is absolutely good, since we can gain this knowledge on our own, though he did believe that the ability was rare and confined to a minority of wise men, and he also seemed to value a lot of what was given from religious and mystical visions.

Plato questioned whether ethical norms are good because the gods command them, or whether the gods command such norms because they are good. Do the gods or God create the rules of good, or are the rules commanded simply because they are good? If the latter is true, then the knowledge of good is eternal and not merely an arbitrary decision of the gods. Then also, this eternal knowledge of the good could be available to the rational mind, assuming that the good is rational.

Plato believed that the good is rational and thus rationally knowable. In other words, if the ethical good as commanded by the gods is rational, rather than just arbitrary, then our rational minds would have the potential to realize the good, or realize why the gods commanded certain rules. We would then have the rational ability to directly know the good, without any need to be told by the gods, and this allows us to question any authority about what is good. So if the good prescribed by God is rationally knowable, we should be able to comprehend the essential criteria or principles of which good actions are based and directed by God. In fact, we should be able to know the very essence of good itself or the basic Form of The Good. All good actions, and even the basic principles of good action, would have to be founded on one essential Form or Idea, the Good itself.

This was how Plato thought. So he held an optimistic view of manís capacity to know truth and goodness, without outside religious authority. Fundamentally, the power of reason can discover all truth, assuming there is a rational basis to truth, and this includes the power of reason to know what is good. Later in Europe during a renaissance of thinking this was called the humanistic view, a revived optimism in the human powers of reason.

Plato taught that all good things and all good acts derive from an absolute Good. They participate in the same Essence of Good, or they express the power of Good. Goodness is regarded as an existing reality in itself, transcending all manifestations. Absolute Goodness, or The Good, shines in the Cosmos like the sun. But not all things are good. What is good must be participating in The Good, and what is not good must not have any of The Good in it. In other words, when we speak of two different actions being good, these actions both express the same Good - Goodness itself.

This means that Goodness has its own objective reality and is undetermined by manís opinions. Thus Platoís perspective on goodness is an objective realism, meaning that goodness objectively exists in its own stable form, no matter how we think it. This Good is absolute and determining as to what things and acts are really good. True goodness is not an invention of our mind, nor relative to our desires. Rather, true goodness just is, existing prior to what we think it might be.

So the Good already exists, as a Cosmic Idea or as an Eternal Form, and we have to discover what it is, which we can only do by contemplation or Higher Reason. We can recognize the Good in things and actions, once we already know the Good, but we cannot comprehend the Good by mere study of things. That is, the knowledge of absolute Good is not derived from the study of manifestations. The knowledge of Good is not a form of classification or deriving an essence from things. Instead, this knowledge of Good must be known a priori to any knowledge of good in the world. We cannot recognize goodness in things, or even classify certain things as good, unless we first know the Good. If we did not already have knowledge of the Good, we could never recognize in the world what is good or not good. Also, if knowledge of the good is stable, unchanging and not relative to different perspectives, it cannot be dependent on particulars found in the world, because particulars are ever changing, and perceptions of things are often different depending on perspectives.

This is important for Platoís objectivism of truth and goodness, because Plato argues against relativists that there is an absolute truth in any disagreement, and that real goodness is either present or not present in any manifestation - no matter from whoís perspective. Truth and goodness is not relative to a perspective and is not changing as our thinking changes. Truth and goodness are absolutes, independent of beliefs and perspectives. Yet we can only know the absolute truth by rational contemplation independent of our sense perceptions, since normal perception of particulars is always based on a fluctuating perspective and so it can only lead to relative opinions about the truth, rather than absolute knowledge.

How we directly know the Good seems to be difficult for Plato to answer. The philosopher would hope to make a clear definition of this absolute Good, to be a standard for practical arguments. But the absolute Good seems to defy simple explication. Still, Plato does not believe that the Good is first known by a definition, but that any definition would have to follow a direct knowledge of the Good itself. The Good itself is ultimately known by direct experience, or direct intuition, an experience of the soul in contemplation, for the human soul is somehow related to the absolute Good.

In his view of the Good, Plato is a rationalist instead of an empiricist, because he knows Good rationally or by higher Reason, rather than knowing Good by studying particulars found in the world. The world does not show him what is good. He realizes what is good by a direct intuition of Reason, in contemplating on the absolute Good itself. As a rationalist, Plato believes that there must be an absolute Good, transcendental but formative in relation to all good things and actions.

There must be this Good, in order to explain:
a)good things in the world,
b)the stability or eternalness of true knowledge of Good, and
c)the absoluteness and non-relativity of true judgements of good.

He reasons that, since there are a plurality of good things in the world, these things must share the same fundamental Good or participate in the same Cosmic Form. Also, if true knowledge of good is stable and eternal, then there must be an eternal Form-knowledge of Good. And if any judgements of good are absolutely true, no matter what perspective, then there must be an Absolute Good beyond any relativity of perspective.

Then there is the question of what is this Good in itself, or what is being known. Here, Plato must answer according to his Pythagorean view of the Cosmos, that the Cosmos is formatively composed of geometric forms based on numbers and mathematics. Thus, the Good is an absolute geometric Form, not just an Idea. It is thus something that can be tangibly comprehended, and it is also something that has real existence and generative power in the world. And since the geometry of the Cosmos is beautiful, the Form of Good Itself must also be the ultimate Beauty - the source of all beautiful things in the world. So absolute Good and absolute Beauty are intrinsically related, and they are sometimes regarded as being the same. Plato is unclear about the extent of this connection between beauty and goodness. It would seem that he believed in some logical relation, such as goodness being beautiful and beauty being good, but he likely had in mind some distinction between moral good and aesthetic beauty.

It might be confusing to regard Goodness and Beauty as the same, or necessarily implicating one another. We could say that all beautiful things are good, and all good things are beautiful. Then, if it is beautiful it must be good, and if it is good it must be beautiful. No problems. Beauty is good, and good is beautiful. But we will find that some beautiful people are not actually good people, and some good people may not be beautiful. This seeming contradiction can be cleared, though, if we distinguish peopleís looks from their actions. Then, beautiful peopleís looks are still good, even though their actions may not be good.

We might also find some actions beautiful, in their aesthetic look, but not good in their outcome for other people. Here we find the difference between aesthetic good and moral good; the two may not be identical. That is, aesthetic good doesnít necessarily imply moral good, and vice versa. So, we could still say that beauty is always good, and good is always beautiful, but we need to distinguish between aesthetic looks and moral actions.

The normal Greek interpretation of virtue and goodness was excellence, being of the best. Here, to be good is to be personally excellent, like being excellent in an ability or at a task, which is also associated with beauty. Thus good is being better than average, or approaching the best, and the more good one is, the closer to perfect excellence. But excellence and beauty, as meanings of goodness, does not seem completely sufficient, because moral goodness has an added meaning not necessarily covered by personal excellence and beauty.

The added dimension of moral goodness involves our relation to others, like what good we do for others or for the world as a whole. Granted that beautiful and excellent expressions are usually pleasing and aesthetically good for others; there are, nonetheless, other forms of expression intended to be good for others, which are not necessarily aesthetically beautiful or expressive of personal excellence. An unselfish act, to help another person survive or achieve, can be counted as morally good even though the action shows no outright beauty or excellent ability. Then again, it could be said that, by definition, every moral act helping another to achieve their good IS excellent and beautiful. Yet one cannot simply reverse this logical relation; we cannot truly say that every excellent and beautiful action is necessarily a moral act helping another achieve their good.

Another significant question for any ethical theory is why anyone would actually act morally good. There wouldnít be any question why someone would act according to their own interests and desires. But if acting morally good is not a gain for oneself, or if it involves some degree of personal loss for the benefit of others; then why would someone act this way? In answer to this, many writers have spoken about obligation and duty. But again, to merely say that one has a moral obligation, to be good or to be good for the benefit of a greater group, simply begs the fundamental question of why anyone should be good or helpful to others. It is easier to make rules and obligations, than it is to convince people to follow the rules. The needed motivation would have to come either from inside oneself or from external forces.

External motivation is best exemplified by enforcable laws of society, with rewards or punishments. It is usually be good or else! The Christian religion follows this motivating system of rewards and punishments, in its doctrine of an after-life heaven for the good and hell for the bad, with God as the final judge of how well one has followed the prescribed commandments. This view probably followed from more ancient religions around Egypt. The ancient Greek view was less concerned with after-life consequences, but it still suggested that following rules of the gods would result in a rewarded life, while not following the rules would result in eventual problems.

Eastern religions generally suggested a different motivation. They tended to value a life devoid of suffering and this meant not returning to physical life. They taught that people incarnate again and again, until they finally realized the insignificance of desires and cared no more for their selfish quests. After a complete lack of personal desire and self-interests, they would not incarnate and so eliminate suffering, which was the final reward or aim. So if a person was good, according to this un-self principle, they would be rewarded by not reincarnating. The major way to be good, or to express a non-self, is to be completely unselfish and put all concern on the welfare of others, not caring about oneís own self interests. Though it became contradictory that people were trying to be unselfish in order to achieve a final self-interest of liberation. But for most people guided by Eastern religions, being unselfishly good is motivated by a desire for eventual world-liberation or at least a better next reincarnation.

One other Eastern view emerged which is a different kind of inner motivation to be unselfishly good. This motivation involves a realization that in reality there is only One Self, and that the personal self or self-identity is but an illusion. If one can come to this realization, known as Self-Realization, then just personal interests become insignificant as one identifies only with the One Self. Finally, if there is only One Self and individual selves are illusionary, it follows from this realization that actions will be for the greater good and unselfishly motivated. In other words, the realization that we are all One Self, and that I am not a separate identity from others, leads to non-personally motivated actions fueled by an interest for the Whole or One Self. This kind of reasoning shows an underlying belief that a transformation of desire and action will necessarily follow a transformation of self-knowledge and world-view. That is, our behavior in relation to others will naturally change according to our acquisition of new knowledge or new realizations. Action(karma) will follow knowledge(jnana).

In similarity to this eastern view, Plato believed that good moral desires and actions will necessarily follow knowledge of the Good or the power of Reason. He taught that anyone would act morally good if they could just know The Good. That is, people will live a good moral life once they have direct knowledge of Goodness itself. Knowing the Good itself will result in knowing what is good in any situation, and this essential knowledge of the Good will necessarily result in a good life and good action. Knowing the Good will naturally condition oneís behavior, as oneís desires and actions come into harmony with this knowledge of the Good.

Plato isnít completely clear whether this harmonization of the desires is immediate at the moment of the essential knowledge, or if it takes some time for oneís desires and actions to harmoniously follow the intuition of the Good, but he is insistent that good action finally follows the knowledge of Good. This would then solve the question of motivation. Desire would motivate good action, but it would be a desire conditioned by right knowledge. So knowledge is the essential key and final explanation for true moral behavior.

Yet this view of Plato has come into much criticism. Observing the facts of life, oneís own life and that of others, it is questionable that knowledge of goodness will necessarily result in good action. It is questionable that those who know good... always act good. It is questionable that acting bad is always because one does not know what is good. It seems easy to imagine oneself or others knowing what is good but not acting accordingly, or not acting good but still knowing what is good. It also seems quite possible, from knowledge of our experience, that desires and ethical knowledge can often contradict, that is, I may know what I should morally do, but desire something quite opposite, and then go ahead with my desires. And it is finnaly questionable that knowing the Good itself necessarily implies that one can then know how to apply this abstract Form or knowledge into particular practice. In other words, how easy is it to translate knowledge of the Good into knowing what is good to do, or how to be, in particular situations?

Yet Plato could have countered these arguments by explaning that such people did not actually realize The Good. That is, they may have knowledge of what is good by some learned command, but they have not actually realized inwardly the Good itself, and that is why they have not finally desired and acted in good ways.

Plato regarded reason and our rational abilities as the fundamental key to knowledge. Yet what did Plato mean by reason and rationality? Reason is basically the power of mind to know truth, independent of sense knowledge or facts gained by the senses. Reason directly comprehends truth, according to Plato, which is the rational power of mind. This reason is more like a direct intuition of truth, though, rather than a reasoning process involving applied logic as later explicated by Aristotle. So reason for Plato was a direct sense of the mind, in contrast to the senses of the body. One simply knows the truth by the direct power of reason or by the rational power of mind.

Related to this meaning was probably also that reason could simply know whether or not various beliefs fit together coherently. Coherency of beliefs or ideas is one of the present common meanings of rationality, and when people say that an idea makes sense they often mean that it fits well with other believed ideas, without contradiction or dissonance. We call this coherency, and coherency is one major definition of ideas being rational. It appears obvious that Plato believed in the importance of coherency and that coherency was part of reason and rationality, because his writings show a great motivation in explaining a whole system of reality which fits together in a logical, coherent way. This is common to most philosophers, in their belief that the universe has coherency in its parts and functioning. From this belief it logically follows that true knowledge of universal reality must also be coherent.


Aristotleís philosophy is based on this need for coherency, and it is based on the belief that metaphysics and science must be coherently logical because the universe must be coherent and logical. So in this sense, Aristotle could be called a rationalist, believing that reality and knowledge are rational, and he also applied logic and reasoning in developing his philosophical knowledge of reality. Yet unlike Plato, he regarded empirical study using sense experience as important in the understanding of reality, and thus he is termed an empiricist, someone who bases knowledge on the foundation of sense experience or exact study of particulars in the world. Whereas Plato was dubious about using ordinary observation to derive absolute truth because of its apparent temporalness and relativity.

Aristotle also believed that reality is rational, but he logically reasoned that since reality is rational we should be able to discover this rationality from our experienced world. Thus, both Plato and Aristotle believed in a rational universe as well as rational knowledge, but they disagreed on how to acquire the knowledge of this reality. Plato thought that, since reality is rational, we can acquire knowledge of reality only by pure reason or direct intuition of the mind. While Aristotle believed that we can acquire knowledge of reality by normal sense experience combined with logical reasoning. Aristotleís logic seems more cogent, in this respect.

Plato reasoned that empirical knowledge or sense experience could not possibly lead to absolute knowledge of reality, since things observed in the world are temporal and ever-changing. Reality must be absolute and so too knowledge must be absolute; therefore, mere knowledge of non-absolute and ever-changing particulars could not lead to any absolute knowledge. In other words, Plato is searching for absolute Forms of knowledge, and he cannot see how non-absolute knowledge can derive absolute knowledge, so his best suggestion is that absolute knowledge is derived from absolute direct intuition using the power of absolute reason.

But Aristotle found a solution to this. Using ordinary observation regarding particular things, he discovers the essential form that is common to various things, which is a class knowledge that allows him to group certain things into one absolute form of knowledge. So the absolute forms of knowledge are formal classes regarding particular things, based on their observed similarities. These essential forms, or formal classes, are based on observationally inspired insight about what is the potential inherent end-perfection of any thing or what is a thingís final perfection of growth. That is, what some thing is in the process of becoming, the form that it is evoving toward, is itís essential form and the determining form of itís class. Aristotle calls this insight into the essential form an induction, and although it is a direct rational insight, which might be called an hypothesis, it is still dependent on empirical observation.

So although Aristotle accepts Platoís fundamental view on reality and knowledge being coherent, he does not accept Platoís view that knowledge is acquired only from reason, and he does not accept Platoís meaning of reason as simply the power of mind to directly know the truth. For Aristotle, reason involves steps in logical thinking, based on facts found in nature by sense experience.

For example, by studying nature Aristotle acquires the knowledge that things have a telos or end-purpose. He sees that changing things are heading towards a final development which is the actualization of their inherent potential. This is an insight based on observation, not on direct rational intuition devoid of sense experience. He does not reason that things are so because of some rational sense that they must do this. He does not realize this knowledge just because pure reason shows him that it must be this way; rather, he knows this because of empirical observation, because things do in fact develop towards an actualized end or actualization of potential, known as a fact by observation.

This basic insight becomes central in Aristotleís philosophy of good as well as reality. Because when he questions what is good, he does derives an understanding of good from this factual knowledge of nature. He sees that things develop, or at least usually develop, towards a final end which is the fullest actualization of potential that is possible, or the most perfect a thing can become. Following from this observation, then, the good must be the fullest actualization of potential or the most perfect a thing can possibly become. Thus, full actualization of potentiual, or the most perfection possible, or the most excellent anything can be, is the proper definition of good. To be good is to be all that you can be, or to be most perfect. So perfection involves actualization of potentials. And we talk about potential virtues and actualized virtues.

But a problem arose in Aristotleís study, which was that some virtues or potentials would sometimes contradict other virtues, such as patience and determination. So Aristotle realized that the virtues needed to be in a balance or harmony, whereby no one virtue should be in excess to the detriment of another virtue. He then reasoned that balance and harmony of actualizing virtues must be the ultimate good. And he saw that this would lead to to an excellent life for the person and would ultimately be best for all of society and the world. So from observation and from reasoning, Aristotle concluded that ultimate goodness is the balance and harmony of the fullest actualization of our potentials. That is, actualize all potential virtues, but in balance with one another, not allowing one particular potential to be extreme at the cost of another potential.

Some different philosophies emerged after Plato and Aristotle, primarily concerned with how best to live, rather than building a metaphysical system or making any critical analysis of previous ideas. So most philosophical writings were more practical minded rather than speculative.


Epicuras was born in 342 B.C., just after Plato died. He spent a lot of time teaching in Asia Minor before moving to Athens to form his own influential school not far from Plato's Academy. But his overall philosophy was much simpler than Plato's and Aristotle's, and it was more concerned with our attitudes and goals in life. Epicuras was a practical philosopher only, uninterested in explaining a system of reality, and he said that ideas should have as much effect on our lives as medicine has on the body.

In Epicurean philosophy the main aim of the human life is pleasure, but this is a natural aim and not something we have to cultivate as a moral good. All people have an innate desire for pleasure, rather than pain, and every act of choice is to gain pleasure and avoid pain. Simply, pleasure is good and pain is bad. But this teaching did not suggest a life of mere physical indulgence.

Various types of pleasure are distinguished, and not all of these have the same value. Some pleasures are shorter lasting and some longer. Some are intense and others less intense. Some are necessary pleasures, like eating to sustain one's body, while other pleasures are not necessary, such as excessive sexual pleasures, luxury and popularity. There is also a differense between physical-sensual and mental-intellectual pleasures. The wise man chooses pleasures that are lasting, such as the intellectual pleasures and joys of the mind, rather than the shorter lasting physical pleasures.

But most importantly, some pleasures and desires eventually produce a painful discontent, while other pleasures produce a lasting sense of calm or peace of mind. Certain pleasures can never be fully satisfied, so the desire of these will eventually lead to the pain of disatisfaction, as the person seeks more and more of that which he can never get enough. The wise man will seek the pleasure of a calm and content mind, so he will avoid any desire or circumstance that is likely to lead to pain and discontent. Also, the more desires and cravings a man has, the more likely he will be dissappointed and discontented at the end of the day. He who never has enough, will never be at peace. The wise man, therefore, is one who has a minimum of desires and is content with as little as possible. He learns to desire very little, so he will more easily achieve these desires and avoid disappointment.

As an example of Epicuras's practical approach to the pleasure of emotional peace, he would detach from social problems and avoid the company of the poor and destitute. It is better, he said, to enjoy the intellectual and witty company of like-minded friends, rather than people who are always wanting something from you. His only rule of justice and social morality was that people not harm one another, by leaving others to be as they are. So do whatever pleases you in the wisest way, look after your own peace or pleasure of mind, and leave others to do the same.

This moral philosophy contains no principles of right social conduct or duty, nor any divine commands. There are no obligations. Yet it does suggest higher values, right choice, and a way to a better life. The higher values are the higher pleasures of peace and contemplation, and right choice is towards those higher self values. Values are synonomous with self-pleasures, though not all pleasures are equal value. It is all about what is a better life and higher pleasure for the person. And there isnít much concern for the betterment of others, besides the suggestion for non-involvement and leaving others free to pursue their own pleasures.

So, being good means being good to oneself, for oneself, rather than being good from the perspective of others or acting for the good of others. The moral aim is not to live for the good of others, or even help others attain their good. Rather, the moral aim is simply to take care of oneself, to refine oneís own pleasures, and not interfere with others pursuing their own pleasures. It is a philosophy of self-interest and freedom of interests, with some rational direction to what are higher pleasures or values.

The Epicurean ethic, thus, is primarily hedonistic and self-serving, but it is not suggestive of a greedy life, nor power over others. Neither is it suggesting excessive pleasures of the body, for although it does not condemn these lesser pleasures, it does suggest the choosing of more intellectual and contemplative pleasures. Virtue is pleasure. Yet peace of mind is the highest virtue. As for death, there is no moral reward of a heaven and no moral punishment of a hell. This is our only life, so we should live it well. And since death is an end to all sensation, it brings no pain.


Stoicism became another practical philosophy, originally founded by Zeno in 308 B.C. in Athens, not long after Plato. The practical and moral principle of Stoicism was happiness through knowledge. This isnít too far off from the Epicurean aim of pleasure from peace of mind. The basic Stoic ethic is to control what one has the capacity to control, but accept with resignation what is beyond one's control. So it is also a philosophy of right attitude. While we cannot control or change much of our fate, we can at least control our attitude and emotional reaction to things. While we cannot fully control our own death, we can at least control and escape our fear of death. We should not demand or hope that things be just as we want them to be, but only seek to change what is in our capacity to change. For the most part, let things be as they will and don't worry about it. There isnít much we can possibly change anyways, except our attitude and reaction about things. And the best general attitude is to not worry, accept things as they are, and let go of any needless fear of things that are out of our control anyways.

Stoicism is thus a practical approach to the aim of a happy life, and right knowledge is the practical means for achieving this happiness. The needed knowledge is about when to simply surrender and resign to how things happen to be, rather than worry about a fate that cannot be changed anyway, or rather than make failed efforts at trying to change what cannot be altered. Stoicism accepts that some of lifeís occurances are pleasant and some are painful, but the stoic tends to pessimistically view most of lifeís occurances as beyond oneís control. So they are not saying that occurances are usually painful or bad, but that most occurances cannot be altered by oneís actions. It is an acceptance of fate, with a happy face, knowing that worry and despair help nothing.

Occurances are mostly fated to happen as they will, no matter what we do. So one might as well be happy, even when things arenít going well. If we cannot change things going bad, then we might as well control what we can change -- we can change our mental attitude and choose happiness over despair. So happiness is a choice taken, not merely a reaction to good things. And the stoic chooses happiness, whether things are good or bad.

The metaphysical basis of this practical way of life is that all of nature is determined by a Natural Law of Reason. The world is essentially matter determined by a unifying Law of Reason known as the Logos. The Logos is the great power pervading and shaping nature, and it was thought to be a subtle form of fiery matter, an active fire with power and reason. The wise man will know the reason behind events, or at least know that there is a reason, and therefore be at peace with the way things are. He will also organize his life in a way that is compatible with the unalterable laws of nature as determined by the Logos.

The Logos is also in man, that is, man's soul is part of the Logos. The soul is a spark or flame of divine Power and Reason. It is a subtle material substance, or fire, centered in the heart and circulating through the blood, giving vitality and ordering intelligence to the body. All people have this same soul, so all people are in the brotherhood of the Logos. But the fiery soul also involves thought and emotion, enabling man to at least partially realize the Reason of Logos.

The Logos, the formative Law of Reason, orders all natural things and events. So whatever happens can be thought of as an outcome determined by the natural law, and this natural law is unchangeable. The law is also based on Reason, or the law simply follows a higher Reason. The Logos is Reason, Law and Formative Power, all together. It is a Power, Intelligence and Law, above our world yet working within it. So there is no use stuggling against this greater power working as natural law in our world. And since this natural law has reason, or is an expression of reason, only a fool would act contrary to reason. The wise man realizes that there is a Logoic reason behind unalterable events, and he may even know this reason, but foremost he does not struggle against this reason or worry about what cannot be changed anyways.

The universe is just the way it is, so there is no use in trying to change or control what we cannot. Yet within this Law, man does have control over his mental attitude and emotions. He can make some effective choices in the world, though his effectiveness is confined by the Law of Providence. But for the most part, man can do nothing to make things better, to change nature or other people, so it is best and most reasonable to simply accept things as they are and not worry about changing or controlling things. At least then, one has peace of mind. This gave people a sense of liberation, liberating the mind from pursuits and struggles that would never have much chance of success anyways. Acceptance and content with the way things are is a great liberation.

So, the stoic believes that events out of his control have an underlying reason for occuring, which helps him accept things as they are or will be. Some Stoics thought of this Law of Reason as God, but not like a compassionate Father. The Law determining events has its own reason, but not necessarily for our human happiness or salvation. It's just the way things are, or the way things have to be according to the determining Reason. It's not like God deciding what is best or just, and it's not like God knowing what will happen throughout time; rather, the Logoic Law determines in a mechanical way what will be, according to its fixed and unchanging Reason. This seems to imply a fatalistic determinism of circumstances, or inevitable providence, which we can do nothing about but accept. Providence, though, is not just by chance, but is determined by a greater Reason - which we can but realize only partially since our perspective is limited, while the Logoic Reason involves the wholeness of all time. Later, in Christian thought, this notion was translated to the idea that we cannot know why certain bad things happen, because we cannot know the whole of God's Plan for goodness.

The notion of divine providence, or that events are determined by a greater power beyond our control, is quite common amoung ancient world cultures and Greek thinking as well. It was a common Greek view that various supernatural gods and goddesses determined many events and even controlled fate. But the believed extent of this determination varied amoung people. Probably almost all common people believed in at least some supernatural determination of events, but probably few believed in an absolute predetermination of all events or absolute fatalism. The extreme fatalist, believing in absolute predestination, might feel no need to make any special efforts at all, for any occasion, nor even bother to make any plans; since all events are predetermined anyway, no matter what anyone does.

But absolute predestination, or extreme fatalism, has the problem of explaining our sense of free will and fitting conscious choice into its philosophy. It would be simple if predestination only applied to non-human and mechanical entities, or things that seem to never make choices. But choice becomes a problem, and humans seem to have choices. So complete predeterminism must involve a predeterminism of our human decisions. There is no problem in this, if we only look at the past and explain it as something that could never have been changed. But in the present moment there are real choices, if we bother to recognize them.

So let us question if a personís intentional plans and decided efforts might just be part of predestination or providence. If one realizes that there actually is a choice, in any circumstance, between willful action and resignated non-action, and it appears that the willful action will make a different outcome than the non-action; then what does one do?

For example, if I find a person hurt and bleeding I could either help the person by bandaging the wound or leave the person alone and walk away. Should I regard his problem as providence and determined by an unalterable law, so that I make no action to help? But I could help, so is my helping a part of providence? This is the kind of question unsolved by the philosophy of providence and predestination. For in a complete predestination, we would have to include our own possible action or non-action. After we make our choice we can say that it was all predestined, but what do we do in the moment of choice?

There appears to be a choice here, and either choice could be the predestination. And neither choice is so compelling that the apparent choice disappears. In other words, there are cases where one cannot deny that one has a choice, but the philosophy of predestination does not in any way guide the person in making the choice, because taking action could just as well be predestined as non-action. Predestination doesnít tell the person what he should do when choices appear. Even if the person had insight into what is predestined, is this person supposed to act so that the predestination is fullfilled? This would be nonsense, since real predestination would not need our help.

The fact is, the moment a choice appears to a person, at least a choice between action and non-action, predestination gives no clue as to what one should do. The person still has to decide one way or the other, which means he needs some rational principle or guidance to make the decision, and the philosophy of predestination does not practically help at all. Predestination is but a way to look back on the past and explain that things had to be just how they happened, because of some natural law or because of some supernatural intention. But this philosophical belief doesnít help solve decisions of the present, and it doesnít give any direction to oneís life.

What could give direction to our life would be a philosophy of indifference and non-action, in the face of external circumstances. This would be a passive attitude to circumstances, not taking action to try and change the present circumstances, but rather standing back passively in the belief that there is nothing one can do to alter what is present at hand. Yet this direction for life is based on a false premise, because there definitely are circumstances that can be changed or made better by oneís actions, whether this is fate or not.

But stoics did not necessarily believe in absolute predestination, that every occurance could never have been altered, or that everything is predetermined from the beginning of creation, or that it doesnít matter what we do because nothing could ever be different than it will be. Such absolutism would result in a completely passive life, where by a person takes no responsibility for anything. Stoics would have difficulty surviving with this kind of attitude. For example, if a fire broke out in their home, the wise stoic would act to put it out, rather than merely think that the fire is meant to be or that there is nothing one can possibly do about it. Stoicism is not foolishnes in the face of danger. It merely prescribes one to act with knowledge about what is and is not possible to change, and if bad things are innevitable then there is nothing one can do but maintain a happy existence.

So most stoics would believe that some things can be transformed by human action, such as crops and the home. Stoicism is simply a belief that most of life cannot really be changed by our actions, because natural events follow from an unalterable Natural Law, so the best rational approach to life is happy acceptance. Though because of this view, a stoic might have the tendency to not bother trying to change what could in fact be changed by effort and struggle. That is, he may be too pessimistic about his own power to alter impending problems. Some stoics, though, might be less pessimistic than others and therefore make more effort to change things for the better if they can. The wise stoic would be able to discern what is possible to change from what is not, and this would be true knowledge of the Logoic Law of Reason.

For the stoic, life is like a drama with its script already determined, except for some freedom to change oneself. Man is viewed as an actor in a determined drama, so wisdom is accepting one's given role in this drama and performing the part well with dignity. If the Logos has given one a lousy part to play, then there isn't much one can do about this but accept it with cheerful dignity. There is no use in sulking about or fighting against one's fate. This would only lead to unhappiness. But unhappiness is not part of providence or fate, for we do have freedom over our attitudes and emotions. The outer circumstances of life are regarded as mostly unalterable, while our inner life is potentially free to change.

Some argued against the reasoning of stoicism, saying it contradicted itself, since it asserted a determined world while also asserting a freedom of mind and emotion. Would not our emotions be just as determined as any other circumstances? If an impoverished life cannot be changed, then how can a miserable attitude be changed? Yet Stoics maintained that our mental and emotional circumstances can be altered, while material circumstances cannot. A more compelling argument against stoicism is its overall pessimistic view on the possibility of changing oneís circumstances. Is there really nothing we can do to make our circumstances better? Not all lots in life are set to be what they are, without possibility of change. There are many examples of people who struggle out of poverty or successfully change their society. But although there are examples of people successfully bettering their lives, there are probably many more examples of failed efforts and circumstances that do seem near impossible to change. In very poor countries, for example, it is doubtful that poor and starving villagers will be able to make their lives much better by their own efforts. So for many people in poor circumstances, the pessimism of stoicism seems quite appropriate and its prescription to be happy in a resignation about things ever getting better would seem to be a less painful attitude than any alternative.

So it seems that Stoicism could only at best prescribe a general attitude for happiness - that it is best to simply accept one's lot, or one's given role, since it is usually not possible to really change it. Another general prescription might be to go ahead and do whatever one can to make life better, but always accept with resignation and without sulking complaint the day to day result. In other words, strive for the best life, but with constant happiness and acceptance of whatever comes from this effort.

The main practical value of Stoicism is its suggestion to not strain against the inevitable and not hold a sulking or resentful reaction to less than perfect circumstances. As with Epicureanism, it is best to liberate oneself from worry and unnecessary desires, in order to have a lasting personal peace and contentment. Don't have any great expectations, then you won't have any great disappointments. And don't get all troubled and upset about circumstances, because these negative reactions don't help anything. Certainly, we have no power to change what is already present or what is already done, so we might as well be content and accepting of what is. If we cannot change what is, then we might as well be happy about it. This is the Stoic attitude. For what is is simply providence, or the way in which the Law of Logos determined.

more about Stoicism:

1) According to the Stoics the world (or everything that is the case) is a cosmos (that is, an ordered whole). Nothing exists or happens without a reason, and that reason is the maintenance of rational order, as it can be known by members of the rational community of gods and humans. To understand the shape and behaviour of things-in-the-world we need to see what good they do. On the one hand, every single thing exists as an example of its type, and its deficiencies or disabilities or disastrous accidents are mapped against its `nature'. To find out what you should do you must first identify the various things you are (human, citizen of the world, child, parent, town councillor): `each of these titles, rationally considered, always suggests the actions appropriate to it' (Epictetus Discourses 2.10 (Long and Sedley 1987: vol. 1, 364)), and those inappropriate. On the other hand, even those apparent errors are just as much a part of `nature overall'. Worm-eaten acorns are in one way damaged. In another they are just what the cosmos needs. Deranged or greedy people are in one way `against nature' (namely, human nature). In another they too must serve a larger purpose (like boils, scabs and fevers).

2) The cosmos, Stoics said, exists to reveal the ordered system flowing from the Divine Mind, and to sustain that ordered system in the Human Mind. It follows that everything is ours, and non-rational beings achieve their goal in serving us. Pigs are no more than locomotive meals, with souls instead of salt to keep them fresh. Wetlands exist to be drained, and forests to be cut down. Were it not that exercise is good for us, the cosmos would have provided drainage ditches and cut planks to order. Not using the material for worthy ends is simply laziness, and what one tribe of people lazily ignore another may virtuously seize.

3) Stoic moralists, though would not have thought that people should cut down forests, torment pigs or pollute the streams to satisfy a cruel or luxurious taste. Those tastes would be `unnatural', and those who indulged them would be unvirtuous, foolish, mad: no true companions for the gods. Really, only the wise owned everything -- and their wisdom, paradoxically, would be shown in regretting and condemning nothing, not even the apparently `unnatural', which is really just as much a part of divine order as the apparently virtuous. But the main message of Stoic moralism is still that every mortal thing exists to make people possible, and people exist to serve the whole by knowing it. Nothing we can positively do in the world can make that world a better place, but it is, perhaps, completed by our knowledge of it. People (or wise people) are the world become self-conscious. If the wilderness is redeemed by being known it can only be because it is worth knowing (and would be worth existing even if we didn't know it). More often it is assumed that nothing that is non-rational can rightly be valued `as an end'. Everything but rational community itself is valuable only as a means, and the reason such things exist is because the cosmos is in love with us.

4) The Stoic cosmos is an ordered whole. In that it is like many an archaic cosmos, as it also is in its hierarchical implications. Everything should keep its place. In one way, everything is equal, equally required by the one order that defines the only (and therefore the best possible) world. In another there are natural rulers, natural subjects, natural predators and natural prey. The notion of `the food chain' as it is understood in popular fiction identifies the topmost predator with the most noble: consider that fascist fiction The Lion King. Order, fertility and peace can only be restored when the rightful predator is acknowledged lord. True wilderness emerges when `the balance' is disrupted, when `natural law' is ignored, when the noblest predator eats too low down the chain, when outsiders take up residence. The idea that `Nature always knows best' (and may even allow a brief disastrous step to make the point for us) defines an order in which our duties are mostly obvious: if we are prey, to be eaten.


Another school of philosophy was called Skepticism, derived from the Greek word skeptikoi, meaning inquirers. Skeptics did, of course, inquire about truth but were doubtful about any certainty. Pyrrho (361-270 B.C.) is thought to have first taught this philosophy after Plato's Academy had been formed, but most of what we know of Greek Skepticism comes from the survived writing of Sextus Empiricus from around 200 A.D. There is no official doctrine or creed of Skepticism, and it is mostly distinguished by a few general notions and beliefs, yet Sextus explains its basic viewpoints.

A Skeptic searches for truth but never holds any certainty of truth. He is continually inquiring about truth, but refuses to absolutely affirm or deny any possible view or opinion. So they stand in the middle, as it were, between the Dogmatists who believe they have found absolute truth and the Sophists who deny any possibility of absolute truth. They are not strict relativists regarding truth, like Sophists, because they continually question what is truth. But neither do they take side with Platonists who believe that absolute knowledge can be intuited by the Rational Mind, nor with Aristotelians who believe that universal principles and causes can be absolutely known from proper study of the world, nor with the Stoics who believed that world is determined by an absolute Logos of Reason. Each of these schools were convinced of their respective form of truth, absolutely believing they something true to say about the world.

Skeptics, on the other hand, can never be fully convinced of anything. This is because every position on truth will be based on grounds that can be refuted, either by reason or by experience. For every proposition, or proposed truth, an opposing proposition can be made that is equally rational. This in fact was the Skeptic's principle method of inquiry and debate. Whatever truth a domatist or believer would propose, the Skeptic would propose and defend an opposite view, in order to destroy the dogmatically assumed certainty. The Skeptic is not concerned with proving the other wrong by proving the opposite view right; rather, he is deflating the dogmaticism, the assumed truth or certainty of belief, by showing how the opposite view can be argued with equal validity or shown as equally plausible. In this way, he brings reasonable doubt to the dogmatic, one-sided belief.

Yet this would seem to lead to a relativist position, whereby a certainty of knowledge is impossible to maintain. But Sextus insists that Skeptics do not deny the possibility of absolute truth and are always in search of truth. What he means is that Skeptics are not like those who are dogmatically certain that absolute knowledge is impossible. Those negative kind of dogmatists will ceace to search for truth becuase of their negative belief. The basic principle of the Skeptic is to stand between opposing beliefs or positions, favoring not one-side more than another, and continue to doubt and question the certainty of any proposition. Though it still seems doubtful that, from this Skeptic principle, there really is any possibility of finding truth, since the Skeptic is always arguing against any supposed truth.

Unless maybe the Skeptic continues to argue for the opposite view when confronted by a certain truth, though awaiting the day when the opposite of a proposition cannot be defended as equal, when he finally looses to a certain position and therefore must accept it. Maybe the Skeptic keeps open the possibility of being finally certain of something, which is the possibility of becoming a non-skeptic. For if he did not, it would seem to follow that he does not believe truth can be found, which is the same as believing that absolute truth is impossible to really know. He would then hold a dogmatic belief that truth cannot be found, or that truth is impossible to know. The true Skeptic, then, would have to argue against this negative dogmatism, deflating the position by arguing that it is just as rational to believe that absolute truth is a possibility and can possibly be found. This then is equal to saying that some dogmatic beliefs may be true. Maybe the Skeptic can agree that true knowledge is possible, but he will never give full consent to any supposed truth.

Leaving aside the questionable contradictions of the Skeptic position, the Skeptic avoids any final judgement of truth, abstaining from a final denial or affirmation of anything. As for absolute and certain truth, he will say that he doesn't know for certain, and he will doubt and question anyone who claims to know. Yet, according to Sextus, the Skeptic does not deny the everyday facts of our sense experience. Critics of the Skeptic philosophy challenged the Skeptic, questioning him, for instance, if he really doubted the hardness and realness of a given object. The Skeptics answer might be that he accepts appearances and sense information as it is, but questions whether the object is in reality as it appears to be. So they did not deny the evident facts of experience but only the account given of appearances. They questioned what we generally say about things, not what we directly sense of these things. So they are not questioning how things appear to the senses, but rather how these appearances are turned into general propositions about the world through reason.

Sextus distinguished two types of inquiry, that dealing with evident matters and that dealing with nonevident matters. The evident matter of hardness and softness, light and dark, healthy and poisinous foods, peace-building actions and conflict making actions, are all unquestionable truths which can be tested with experience. The Skeptic finds no problem or doubt in these matters. But once we go beyond the evident world of experience, there is reason to doubt any proposed truth. Is nature made of fire, ether, or material atoms? How can one really know this? Is there a God possessing some described attribute or determining things? How could we know with any certainty?

Moral truths are also questionable, though Sextus maintains that one should generally follow the laws and customs of their society for the practical purpose of maintaining peace. Though we might skeptically question Sextus on this point; is peace necessarily good when a society is unjust? And then, what is justice? The true Skeptic would have to question any supposed knowledge that is not directly evident, so any moral knowledge must be in doubt. We should, therefore, refrain from all moral judgements. But this seems to lead to a moral relativism. Yet Sextus argues that sensible moral action is possible without moral rules. There is a kind of moral principle for the Skeptic to follow, which is to follow one's natural instinctual feelings for a comfortable life in a peaceful world. There are no fixed rules in this, but only a practical sense of what to do for a comfortable life. So the sensible man will follow the laws of his society, rather than risk punishment.

Next -- Plotinus (204 AD)