A Brief look at the Greco-Roman Philosophy



By Fr. Raymond Taouk



 After Aristotle, Greece initiates a lack of interest in metaphysical problems. There is no student to carry on the effort sustained by the masters. The social conditions make Greece fall into the hands of foreigners, the Macedonians and the Romans (146 BC). The intellectual corruption of Asia, Alexandria especially, invades Greece.

            Uncertain of the State, man turns either towards himself or towards the entire world : individualism and cosmopolitism have, in their origin, the same historical crisis. Philosophy serves to organise the personal life, Ethics takes precedence over Metaphysics.

            Two moments of the decadence distinguish the history of the Greco-Roman philo., the ethical and the religious step :

·      In the ethical transition, three schools succeed each other chronologically : Stoicism, Epicurianism and Scepticism.

·      In the religious transition, three schools appear : Judeo-Alexandrian; Platonico-Pythagorian, Neo-Platonician.



I. Stoicism


1.    Founder. Zeno of Citium (336-264 BC) founds the new ethical school in Athens, at the Painters’ Porch, which gave the name to the school (stoa = Portico). This school will be known later in Rome thanks to Seneca (3 BC- 65 AD) the greatest Stoic and thanks to the emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180).


2.    Definition : Stoicism is the ethical view of the effort necessary to attain supreme happiness (ataraxy-impassibility), and which resides solely in a reasonable life according to nature.[1]


3.    Principles : They hold

·      a pantheistic conception of life. God or divine Fire is the Seed-bearing Reason (logos spermaticos), origin and orderer of the world, sort of Providence of the universe.

·      a materialistic conception of life, since the cause must be similar to the effect.

·      Explanation : They hold that God is united with the world by compenetration or infiltration in the same way as liquids mix. The world transformed by the divine Fire is changed and becomes more varied and complex by means of a series of recurring identical events. This evolution is called the periodic palingenesis (rebirth).


4.    Moral consequences

·      They condemn all passions because they are inferior to reason and should obey it.

·      Virtue is the disposition which makes one accept freely all the events of life as if they were my real good. ‘Impavidum ferient ruinae’.

·      Cosmopolitan vision : Everything occurs for the greater good of the universe, evil exists only for him who does not see the big picture.

·      Individualistic vision : the Stoic fulfils the precept ‘sequere naturam’ and ‘hominem agere’. This universal and cosmopolitan Ethics is practically individualistic because trying to help society is a futile effort.


5.    Evaluation :

·      The language of the greater Stoics, so eloquent in speaking of God, intelligence and virtue, suffers from a constant equivocation. This is because their meaning was materialistic & pantheistic.

·      This ambiguity is esp. true of virtue : personality is suppressed by pantheism. So is liberty, obligation, responsibility and merit. The Stoic sage is without love and in shackles. He has little in common with the saint (humble and charitable in the midst of the most perfect liberty).

·      Yet, among the pagan systems, the Stoic ethics is the highest bec. it stresses the h. rights of the person through his reason.


ii. EpicurEanism


1.    Founder, Epicurus (341-270) was born in Athens and became interested in the atomist materialism of Democritus. His school had many disciples of little fame except Lucretius in Rome (99-55).

2.    Definition. Epicureanism is the ethics of effortless equilibrium which places supreme happiness in sense pleasure. It consists in the absence of suffering in as much as it can be obtained. Yet, it is not a selfish hedonistic ethics (not every pleasure has to be chosen...).


3.    Sources. From Democritus he preserves :

·      the senses as the only source of knowledge,

·      his cosmovision of the world as an aggregate of atoms which meet by the clinamen (spontaneous deviation of atoms) in the void. Destiny is not to be feared since pure chance rules everything.

·      the soul is an agglomerate of atoms and is dissolved after death. Death is not to be feared bec. it is an apparent evil : ‘Death is nothing as long as one is alive, and when it comes, the soul has ceased to exist.’

·      The gods have human form, are corporal and made of atoms. They are useless, but their worship is useful.


4.    Evaluation. Despite its attempts, Epicureanism appears as the moral system of egotism and personal utilitarianism, even though Epicurus is moderate in his search for pleasure bec. the sensual pleasures once abused engender greater sorrows. It promotes a bourgeois individualist morality, calculating, sterile for society, the ‘aurea mediocritas’ of Horatius. The followers will be wilder than the master and Horatius complains about them ‘Epicuri de grege porcorum.’



iii. scepticism


            This school of scepticism is a sign of decadence of a civilisation. It shows the apathy of the mind confronted with the abstract controversies and speculations. Some are universal sceptics; others, without denying truth altogether, choose one thing and leave another : they are the eclectics.


1) The philosophical scepticism


1.    Founder. Pyrrho (362-275) from Elea, professes the universal doubt. He never says ‘This is, this is not’, but ‘It seems that this is, that that is not’. Does he have doubts about the subjective species of the senses? No, but he has doubt about the objective reality of the sensible appearances : he opposes phenomenon to noumenon.


2.    Scepticism will be promoted by Sextus Empiricus (mid II cent. BC) who says : “Our scepticism consists essentially in opposing phenomena to essences, and these are unknowable.”


3.    Definition : Scepticism admits the existence of subjective certitudes, but declares that the objective value of the speculative judgement is indemonstrable, and that an infallibly true certitude can never be obtained.


4.    Its arguments

·      There is no philosophical certitude bec. the philosophers are in perpetual contradiction.

A/ There is no universal doubt unless one applies a criterion to distinguish truth from error.

·      The value of such criterion is either indemonstrable and uncertain or demonstrable by a demonstration which demands another criterion of validity, and so on ad infinitum.

A/ This criterion is not demonstrated properly bec. it is self evident.

A/ Moreover, the sceptic destroys his own position since he frees the practical domain from the univ. doubt. However, an action cannot take place unless one has certain speculative certitudes like, ‘I must love what is good for myself.’


2) Eclecticism


1.    The great representative of eclecticism (from the Greek eclegein- to pick up-to choose) is Cicero (106-44). More an orator and a statesman than a philosopher, he wrote much taking from Aristotle the theory of the probable for his Logic; from Plato, he takes his ideas re. the soul and God for his Metaphysics; from the Stoics, the moral of duty for his Ethics; from the Peripateticians, he takes his theses on law and Politics, which are firm re. the natural and eternal law, immutable and eternal, from which derive the value of the positive law, whether individual or social.


2.    Definition. Eclecticism is the result of scepticism which, as it looks at the philosophical hypotheses, tends to revise the previous opinions and accepts what is not irreconcilable between the diverse systems. It is the system based on easy speculative compromises to solve practical problems. It found a propitious terrain among the Romans, men of action less interested in speculation than in finding rules of conduct.


3.    Prelude to the religious philosophy. In so far as it is the philosophy of common sense and of practical conduct, of the spiritual necessities regarding the existence of God and the immortality of the soul, it prepares the advent of a new philosophical epoch : the religious metaphysics.



iv. the greco-judaic philosophy


            In Alexandria, the religious element is capital and precedes reason. The teachers affirm the transcendence of God, but they have recourse to multiple intermediaries between God and man. Philo is Jewish, Plutarch is pagan, the Gnostics are Christians.


1.    Philo (40 BC- 40 AD). He interprets the Bible originally. God is one and Creator. He transcends the world and is unknowable to ordinary minds and to philosophers. But to manifest Him, there exist intermediary creatures between God and men, the Powers, ie. the Angels of the Bible, instruments of creation and exemplary causes of the world. The first one is the Logos, the divine Word, which contains the ideal world of Plato. The Powers seem to be distinct from God, but in ecstasy, the perfect intellect recognises their identity with God.


2.    Plutarch (50-120 AD) is a moralist who tries to give a rationalist interpretation to the pagan religion. What he founds in fact is a syncretic religion based on the oriental dualism : two principles (one of good, God; one of evil, matter), and between them are found intermediaries.


3.    Gnosticism (1and 2nd cent.).


·      The Gnostics maintain the 3 elements of the Greco-Judaic philosophy : primacy of religion, transcendence of God, intermediary creatures. It is a syncretism which mixes together the Platonic ideas (eons), the cabalistic or Pythagorean numbers (as generations of the unknown Father who is the infinite without number), the evolutions originating from the Hindu theogony, and evil coming from matter which originates from the Persian dualism.

·      It is divided between the dualist gnosticism of Menander of Antioch, and the pantheistic gnosticism of Simon and Valentinus of Rome.

·      The dualist gnosticism admits 2 principles, God and Satan. Both produce emanations, the good emits eons, the evil one emits evil beings. The world is the meeting place of all of them. Marcion (W 170) baptises gnosticism and calls Yahveh the Demiurge and Christ the supreme God.

·      The pantheistic gnosticism believes that the inferior world is only the evolution of the abyss (1st eon), matter is an emanation of the Spirit and its negation : the world exists in God as oil in a tunic.




v. neo-platonism


1.    Authors.

·      Plotinus (205-270) was the major representative of Neoplatonism. Educated in Alexandria, he teaches in Rome. He left a considerable amount of writings in which mystic philosophy achieves its peak, assembling the Greek genius in a broad eclecticism.

·      Porphyry was an important disciple who commented on Plato and Aristotle. See his Isagoge regarding the Aristotelian logic with the problem of the Universals which was famous in MAges.

·      Proclus pursues the doctrinal struggle against Christianism and restores the Plotinian doctrine. The Neoplatonic universe acquires a strictly geometrical circularity. Too much abstraction and too little liberty suffocated the religious conscience and Neoplatonism dies of itself.


2.    Doctrine of Plotinus.


Besides the universe and the h. soul, his Physics admits 3 distinct principles :

·      the One (plenitude of being, of the divinity and of goodness) which has no imperfection. This is why God has neither thought nor desire nor life (both of which suppose motion) nor being (which supposes a duality or distinction of ideas according to Plato).

·      The Nous-Intelligence emanates from the One, whether freely or necessarily or naturally is not sure. The Nous is the vision of the One, an effect inferior to it, which contains the Ideas (the Platonic world of thought).

·      The Universal Soul emanates from the Nous. This soul implies an indefinite multiplicity of the logoi spermatikoi, ie. the particular souls of all beings, including minerals, which are equivalent to the substantial forms of Aristotle. 

·      The Universe is eternally engendered by the Universal Soul : “which is one bec. it is present in all things, similar to the father who begot it by its unity and omnipresence.”[2]

·      The human soul emanates from the Universal Soul. It is the efficient cause of the body but is not united substantially to it : there are not related like matter and form. In each man, there is another sensible soul which perishes with the body, although the rational soul, independent from the body, is immortal. This rational soul is similar to the divinity esp. bec. it is endowed with the properly divine faculties to reach wisdom, virtue and liberty.

·      The principle of return. Every effect, by an innate desire, returns to its perfect cause where it finds its perfection and beatitude. Therefore, the purification consists in a triple effort of abstraction to return to be soul, and then nous, and then One.


3.    Conclusions of the doctrine of Plotinus : Plotinus participates in the weakness of Plato, by setting intermediaries betw. God and man because he despises any experience. He also participates in the strong points of Plato. He deepens the relations between the world and God, perfect cause of being. The principle of perfect causality is narrow (he missed mat. & formal causes), but this is a consequence of the principle of universal intelligibility, searching the explanation of the universe, and in this, his theory is a progress over his predecessors.


Conclusions of Hellenism


            The Greek thought was a rational effort which obtained great results. It shows the nobility of soul of many philosophers. However, these men did not say everything which reason can say about the world and the h. life. They left some doubts as to the personal God. They did not possess a good grasp of the relation between the Creator and the world, nor on man’s destiny. All this manifests the moral necessity of the Revelation to teach “expedite, firma certitudine, nullo admixto errore” Vat. I.




[1] As opposed to the Epicureans, for whom happiness was simply animal, not particularly reasonable.

[2] Plotinus saw with reason that the perfect cause, by producing existing things, causes a more intimate union with its effect, a ‘presence’, based on the dependence of the effect on the cause, like STAq (real and transcendental relation in the effect, of reason in the cause). But, because he maintains that the cause creates necessarily, the plotinian emanation smacks of pantheism. In fact, Plotinus pretends not to be pantheist bec. he refuses to call the matter divine and he maintains the distinction between the One and its effects.