JMC : Pre-Scholastic Philosophy / by Albert Stöckl

Third Section. Graeco-Oriental Philosophy.

General Character of This Philosophy.

§ 48.

1. Greek Philosophy found its way, at an early period, into the East. The immediate causes of its extension in this direction were the conquests of Alexander the Great. In consequence of his intercourse with Aristotle, Alexander took a personal interest in the encouragement and the spread of philosophical knowledge. This interest passed to the men who divided his kingdom after his death. The rulers of the several states which were created by the partition of the Macedonian Empire protected and favoured Greek learning and Greek art, and endeavoured to make them known and appreciated by the peoples they governed. This remark applies equally to the Seleucidae in Syria, to the Attali of Pergamus, and the Ptolemies of Egypt. Institutions for the advance of science and learning were founded in Syria, the most noteworthy being those of Antioch and Tarsus, and also in Pergamus; but these cities were all surpassed in scientific renown by the Alexandria of the Ptolemies. Under the reign of these monarchs Alexandria became not only the mercantile centre of the civilized world, but the centre also of the science and art of the age.

2. Ptolemy Lagus (Soter) invited learned Greeks to Alexandria, and collected works of science from Greece, Italy, Asia, and Africa. His most important service to learning was, however, the founding of the so-called museum. This museum was a portion of the royal palace provided with gardens and porticoes, where men of learning lived together, forming a sort of community. A special fund was devoted to the maintenance of the museum; it had its own president, appointed by the kings of Egypt, and at a later period by the Roman Emperors. The various departments of learning were there represented; it included philosophers, grammarians, critics, poets, mathematicians, astronomers, geographers, physicians, naturalists, of whom all, with few exceptions, were Greeks or the descendants of Greeks.

3. Tbe museum also contained a library of Greek, Roman, Jewisb, Persian, AEthiopian, Babylonian, Phoenician, and Indian literature, which increased to such proportions that the temple of Serapis -- Serapeum -- was assigned to it. When Julius Caesar burned the Egyptian fleet, the museum and the portion of the library contained within it were destroyed by fire, but the library of the Serapeum was preserved, and Marcus Antonius endeavoured to repair the loss by purchasing the library of the Kings of Pergamus. At a later time the Emperor Claudius founded a new museum. Alexandria thus possessed all the conditions which favoured a new development of science in general, and of philosophy more especially.

4. At an earlier period a society of learned men, of Jewish race, appeared in Alexandria side by side with the learned Greeks. Judea was a part of the Egyptian kingdom, and it was to be expected that close relations should be established between the home of the Jewish race and Alexandria. Under Ptolemy Philadelphus (B.C. 280), the Greek translation of the Old Testament, which is known as the "Septuagint," was made by certain learned Jews in Alexandria, The Ptolemies were favourably disposed towards the Jews, and, in consequence, Alexandria became a favourite resort of Jewish savants, and a centre of Jewish learning.

5. The course of events led to a revival of the ancient philosophy in the East, and more especially in Alexandria. If we examine the character of this revival we shall find that it is essentially a syncretism (blending) of the philosophical conceptions of Greece with the tenets of the oriental religions. In the East, and especially in Alexandria, Greek philosophy was brought into contact with the oriental religions, and the form in which it now appeared was largely determined by this contact. The attempt was made to blend philosophy and religion, to embrace in a higher unity the mind of Greece and the mind of the East.

6. In making this effort it was assumed that the religious notions of the East and the philosophy of Greece were derived from a common source -- from a primeval religious tradition, which had its origin in a divine revelation. The founders of the Alexandrine philosophy set themselves to determine exactly what was contained in this tradition, in order to make this the basis of their philosophical teaching. The entire Graeco-Oriental philosophy thus came to be essentially a philosophy of religion, for it made use of philosophical concepts and principles only for the purpose of giving philosophic form, and establishing, by philosophic proof, what it rightly or wrongly regarded as primeval religious tradition.

7. This philosophy of religion had a practical as well as theoretic aim. Its disciples used it to prepare the way for, and to effect, a reform of the popular religion, In the heathen world, corruption of the grossest kind had undermined the religious and moral life of society. The public religion commanded no faith, and inspired no reverence; the public worship was neglected, religious doctrines and ritual were often the objects of contempt and mockery, and frivolity and vice prevailed as perhaps they have never prevailed at any other period.

8. To counteract these evils, the religious philosophers of the period endeavoured to recover the teachings of the primitive tradition, and uniting these with the notions of Greek philosophy to bring about a religious reform, by which the contradictions of the popular religion might be reconciled, and a broad and comprehensive system established, which should include in it all the elements of truth within the popular creed. In this wise they hoped to check the spreading corruption, and at the same time to oppose to Christianity, which was already growing into prominence, a power which would dispute its empire over the minds of men.

9. The strain of mysticism and theosophism which pervades this philosophy and forms one of its characteristic features, is in keeping with this design. Apart from the natural tendency to mysticism of the Eastern mind, the effort after religious reform by the religious philosophy of Alexandria was calculated to develop this characteristic. To reform religion, man, it was believed, should be again brought into close communion with God. But this, it was thought, could only be achieved by making mystical union with God, in contemplation, the aim of human life, and this union was in turn made possible by a system of mystical asceticism. Mystical contemplation was at once the beginning and the end of human knowledge, the source whence light was diffused over every region of human thought. In this doctrine we have the principles and the germs of mystical theosophy.

10. The religious and mystical character of the Pythagorean and Platonic philosophies adapted them specially to the aims of this movement. We must, therefore, be prepared to find the philosophers of this period devote themselves chiefly to the philosophy of Pythagoras and Plato. The idealism of Plato was specially congenial to the imaginative Eastern mind. But the Alexandrian philosophers did not confine themselves to the school of Plato. They borrowed from other systems, from the Aristotelian, and even the Stoic, what they found suited to their purpose, and embodied all in their own teaching. The Alexandrians extended very widely this eclecticism.

11. Thus much as to the general character of this philosophical movement, In the broad stream we have, however, to distinguish different currents. In the first place we find a combination of Greek philosophy with Jewish religious doctrines, which had its rise in Alexandria, the scientific metropolis of the age, and which attained to a very wide development. Of the Graeco-Jewish religious philosophy, Philo is the chief representative. In conjunction with this school we find another -- that of the Neo-Pythagoreans and Pythagorean Platonists -- who held to the old beliefs of heathenism, but who, following the method of the Graeco-Jewish school, strove to combine into one system the teachings of Pythagoras and Plato, and the doctrines of the heathen faith. This system, likewise, had its origin in Alexandria. It reached its perfection, as a system of heathen philosophy, in Neo-Platonism, the principal non-Christian system of this period.

12. We shall, in our treatment of this subject, deal first with the Graeco-Jewish philosophy, then with the Neo-Pythagorean doctrines and Pythagorean Platonism, and lastly with Neo-Platonism.

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