Tuesday, 17 January 2012 07:02

The Greek And Roman Intellectual Climate

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This paper provides an overview of the various philosophies that littered the Greek, and later the Roman landscape. Understanding of these antecedent ideas are prelude to understanding the major philosophers that we shall presently review.


Ozodi Thomas Osuji

Before I begin this review of ancient Greece's intellectual climate, one may ask why it is necessary for Africans to care about this subject. I can see an African nationalist argue that Africans who pay attention to so-called European affairs are those Africans who feel ashamed of their people and culture and identify with everything European, and are Africans who, in Alfred Adler's psychological categories, feel inferior and believe that everything European is superior and seek superiority by pursuing things European.

On the surface of it these points seem legitimate. Let me, however, ask: what language are we communicating in, European or African? If European, why so; why not force ourselves to communicate in an African language? We are proud of our African culture, right, so why not write in an African language?

I am Igbo African. I have counted the vocabulary in Igbo language and they could fit in a few pages of written material. If, therefore, we are to communicate in Igbo it is obvious that we shall not get far, shall we? We can, of course, deliberately invent an Igbo word for every word in the Oxford English Dictionary (over half a million). I bet that it would take us many years to accomplish this task?

In the meantime, would it not be better to try to communicate in a language that enables us to participate in the larger world's commerce?

Regarding feelings of inferiority, what can I say? All of us, to some extent, do feel inferior and do compensate with desire to seem superior, so saying that one feels inferior is saying nothing in particular.

How about feeling ashamed of things African and desiring to identify with things European. Okay, but what does that mean? One is typing this paper on a computer. Whose world originated the computer? African world? What exactly do we use in our day to day existence that originated in Africa: telephones, television, cars, micro wave ovens, stereos, airplanes, trains, ships, what exactly is it that is African that one is ashamed of? It is easy to be a glib nationalist but reality is different from fantasy.

For good or bad Africans are living in a world influenced by the European world. Whether they like it or not they have to understand the European way of life. European way of life has its roots in Greece and Rome. We must, therefore, understand those two societies. We really do not have a choice but to do so.

Of course, we can escape from the real world and like the proverbial ostrich go and hide our heads in sand. Escape or not the world moves on; with or without us the world moves on; therefore, why not move along with the world? Pride is one thing but reality is another. One does not eat pride, or does one?

I think that it is necessary to understand the Greek world; therefore, I turn my attention to it. If you think that it is not necessary to pay attention to the world that shaped you and pretend to be independent of it you can always turn your attention away! You do not have to read this material, you know. Nobody forces you to read what you do not want to read; it is a free world after all. The last time I checked, one is free to be ignorant, or informed. How do they say it: man is a creature imbued with the power of choice (or is choice an illusion?).

Greece was the European world where intellectual activity seems to have had its origin. In the Middle East, Sumer or what is now called Iraq played a similar role. For whatever reasons, twenty six hundred years ago a great deal of mental activities took place in Greece. For our present purposes we are interested in the philosophical activities of ancient Greece not her poetic, dramatic or other artistic expressions.

Philosophy essentially means any effort to understand the world through the auspices of the human mind, thinking and observation. Greece saw several persons trying to understand their world through observation and thinking. The various efforts to understand the world through thinking can be divided into what we might call pre-Socratic activities and post-Socratic activities. By this we mean efforts made before Socrates and efforts after Socrates.

Thales of Miletus:

Thales of Miletus proposed that everything in the world is made of water. That proposition elicited disagreement.


Anaximander proposed that water is not the source of everything but apeiron is (boundless energy).


Anaximenes proposed that air is the constituent of everything.


Heraclitus proposed that everything was made of fire.


Parmenides believed that contrary to Heraclitus belief that everything is in a flux that everything is stagnant.


The mathematician, Pythagoras said that the world can be reduced to mathematical numbers.


Zeno talked about the infinity of being.


Empedocles sensed that everything is made of matter


Democritus went a step further and proposed that everything is composed of an irreducible element he called atom. It appears that at the same time that Democritus was proposing his atomic theory Leucippus was postulating a similar view of reality.


Anaxagoras not wanting the atomists to have the last word proposed that there is nous, mind, in the universe and that that mind or soul made for the orderly state of things in the world.


Amidst these speculations there emerged a group that was later called sophists. They were the wise guys of their day and proposed to show people that their thinking and statements are logically inconsistent hence rubbish. They could twist any word to mean whatever they wanted it to mean and win arguments. If you believed that you are a man, for example, they could prove to you that you are indeed a woman! These sophists mesmerized the masses with their power of argumentation and persuasion, and naturally made enemies of the people.

Protagoras is considered the founder of the school of sophistry. He set out to demonstrate that nothing is true as we think that it is and that truth is whatever he wants to make it out to be! Indeed, he attempted to prove that the gods are fictions of our imaginations, that clarity of thinking cannot demonstrate the existence of the gods. If he had recognized the utility of the gods and not made fun of men's belief in God he probably would have done well (after all most intelligent persons suspect that there are no gods but believe in them, any way, in case when they die they find out that there are gods; they might as well not alienate them). But Protagoras would not make that diplomatic concession and naturally alienated the people.

Prodicus threaded in Protagoras trade, giving eloquent speeches that made fun of what the people believed to be true, showing people up as full of hot air; people's beliefs are the stuff of simpletons. Naturally, he alienated the rulers of Athens and was executed as were many of the sophists.

Sophists are equivalent to today's propagandists, the Joseph Goebbels of this world, the spin masters who believe that it is up to them to make words mean whatever they want them to mean and that they can persuade people to believe them. They literally believe in their delusion that they can make folk believe what is false as true. If you ask them why they do this sort of thing, whether they do not realize that it is immoral to tell lies, they ask you: what is the truth? Indeed, what is the truth? Suffice it to say that if you do not know and do not strive to know what is the truth that your life would be filled with drugs and other addictions; when men deceive themselves and try to deceive other persons they must keep their useless lives seemingly alive with drugs. What is the truth, Pontus Pilate asked, and went and took a drink. Sophistry, like other dishonest lifestyles, has a price to be paid for.


In this sea of confusion waded in Nihilist (Gorgias). He taught that we are nothing and that nothing exists. The nature of things is such that there is no way that we can know for sure what they are and whether indeed they existed or not. Certainly, things do not exist as we tend to think that they do! Consider your body. You see your body. But atomists had told us that your body is a compilation of atoms, atoms that return to atoms when your body dies and decomposes. So what is your body, do you know for certain? We do not know anything for sure.


One may ask: what on earth made those ancient Greeks to go to all over the place asking interesting questions, questions that often confused the people? Why didn't they do what is found in most other places and simply coexisted with their world without asking disturbing questions?

(As an aside, I often wonder why no African group was blessed, or is it cursed, with asking these imponderable questions and seeking answers to them; why is it that every where in Africa you find believers, not thinkers and skeptics? This is a subject for a different paper.)

I do not believe that any of us can really tell why the ancient Greek mind ran wild with all sorts of questions. The Greek world was questions and more questions and no satisfactory answers.

Where folks asked many questions and had no agreed upon correct answers the individual has no choice but to gravitate to whatever answer seems true to him. Thus, Greeks gravitated to the various schools that sprouted everywhere in Greece.

We shall look at the schools of Plato and Aristotle in some detail but before then let us briefly describe some of the schools of philosophy that became predominant in the Greek (and later the Roman) world.

The main schools were Cynicism, Epicureanism, Stoicism, Skepticism, Eclecticism and Neo-Platonism.


In a world where there are competing ideas on the nature of truth, each with compelling argument in its favor but with no conclusive proof that it is true it would seem natural for some persons to shrug all of them off and say that they are all noise. The cynics made fun of the various schools pretending to be propounding the truth, showing how they are not articulating the truth and how those who claimed to live their precepts did not do so in reality but were hypocrites.

Antisthenes is said to have founded the cynic school. He and his followers, like the sophists, wandered about poking fun at stuffed believers in particular approaches to reality. Antisthenes's most famous disciple was Diogenes.


This school has gotten the worst wrap from the ancient world. The word epicure has come to mean a person who lives to enjoy the good things of life: good food, sex and engage in other hedonistic pursuits. But this was not what the school was all about.

It was a philosophical school that appreciated the nothingness of being and decided that the best thing to do in a meaningless world is to live well and die. Seize the day, do your best but do not sweat the small things. Kick back, relax and smell the coffee was the idea.

The idea was not to be a glutton but to do ones best and enjoy what is enjoyable in life without any delusion that it has intrinsic value.

The founder of the school, Epicurus, was an atomist who, like Democritus, believed that we are composed of atoms and decompose back into atoms. In essence we are not a great deal, so why the vanity that characterize those who fancy themselves very important persons? Make the most of life while you are alive.

Do not be afraid of death, either, for if it is true that when we die we disappear into nothingness then we do not feel anything in nothingness and therefore death should not be feared.

Epicureanism recognized the human senses and wanted to make the most of them. However, it differentiated between the various types of senses and desires. There are good desires and there are bad ones.

The desire for food, clothes and shelter obviously are necessary for our physical survival and ought to be pursued and gratified as much as is possible.

The desire for sex is superfluous and can be ignored. The desire for wealth and fame (the purview of Nigerians) is narcissistic; if you pursue them all you get is tension and anxiety (from fear of not getting them, they are fleeting), therefore, vanity is to be avoided.

Epicureans just wanted to live a quiet, leisurely existence without the hullabaloo of the driven life. They were not interested in politics and other aspects of life that generate tension.

The Roman Catholic Church, in time, did a number on this philosophy by making it the epitome of evil (never mind that the princes of the Church were as corrupt as corrupt can be and lived vain, hedonistic lives).


This school was founded by Zeno of Cyprus. Zeno sat on a chair (stoa) on his porch and gave folk lectures and from that stool, stoa, arose the name stoicism.

Stoics in many ways agreed with epicureans. They placed a premium on the pursuit of learning and knowledge.

As they see it, knowledge can only be gained through the five senses. Plato's idea of forms is something that we cannot verify with our senses and, therefore, is not true knowledge. Truth is what we can verify with our senses; anything other than that is speculative.

However, this does not mean that the stoics were mere empiricists and atheists; in fact, they believed in God. They believed in what they called pneuma (soul) which exists in each individual and are parts of the over soul (Logos).

The over arching characteristic of stoicism is a certain amount of fatalism. Do your best and calmly accept the worst. As long as you have done your best then accept whatever happens to you with an equanimuous disposition. If your child is sick provide him with the best medical treatment there is in the world but if he dies do not depress yourself because of it. What has to be has to be. God knows the best.

The stoic is a person who is realistic about the world. He recognizes the tragedy of human existence; does his best but accepts the inevitable disappointments of existence without crying over them. Don't cry over spilled milk. Cest la vie, such is life. We are born, grow, mature and die and become food for worms. There is nothing you can do about it, so why fret over it?

Develop peace (inner peace which they called Ataraxia) in the face of the changing vicissitudes of being. Control your passions for feelings can misguide you. For example, if folk insult you and you allow your feelings of anger to get the better of you, you could end up worse but if you recognize that those insulting you are probably operating at their best and their best is foolish then you overlook them.

The famous Roman stoic, Epictetus said that it is not what is happening out there that makes us sad, happy, angry or anxious but how we process them. It is our thoughts about events that make us feel the way we feel. We can see a world that seems angering and overlook it. A white man can call a black man a nigger and the black man smiles at his foolishness and not allow himself to be angry.

Any one who can make you angry is your master. Stoics strove to develop apathy towards the things of this world; they did not want the events of being to affect their emotions, and they did not want to become yoyos whose minute to minute feelings are subject to changes in the external environment.

Stoicism was the most common Roman school of philosophy. Such Roman luminaries as Seneca and Marcus Aurelius were stoics. Marcus Aurelius' book, Meditations, is generally considered a source book on the philosophy of stoicism. This emperor of Rome, apparently, was a thinker, a killer and an administrator; what a combination of skills in one man!

A sage, a calm person whose feelings are not moved by external events is the stoic's ideal person; conversely, a person who is easily made angry or fearful, to the stoic is a child, not an adult. This was also the approach of the Japanese Samurai. Their philosophy was: do not do anything when you are angry or fearful; act only when you are calm and in control of your senses. If you act only when you are calm you can be efficient in what you do; on the other hand, the man who acts in rage is easily defeated.


How do you know that what you think that you know is true? Objectively speaking, we know things through perception, through our five senses. As we all know, what we perceive to be true is not necessarily what other people perceive to be true. If five persons witness an auto accident the chances are that they would give five different accounts of it, so which one is true?

The founder of the skeptic school, Pyrrhus of Elis, taught that we do not know anything for sure and that, therefore, there is no need fretting over anything. You do not have to argue with other persons. If other folks claim that their perception is true, leave them to live in their perception, knowing that they are not true.

There is no need for judgment or condemnation of any ones behavior, for we do not know what is true or not true, what is right or wrong. If you want peace of mind, stay calm and say very little, do not judge others behavior as either good or bad, do not argue with folks; do not try to win arguments (for argumentation is motivated by belief that your point is the correct one or by your desire for your ego to prevail), let it be.

Can you beat this approach to life? Folk quarrel over the nature of the truth but in the final analysis do not know what the truth is, so why not stay calm? Peace!


There are many rival schools each claiming to possess the only path to the truth. In the final analysis we do not know what the truth is. Therefore, why not borrow from each of the schools what seems to be useful in them? You do not have to be rigid and or be a follower of any particular school but you can ascertain what is good in any school and unashamedly borrow it. Mix the various borrowings and use them to make your living as pleasant as is possible.

Cicero was the putative founder of the eclectic school. Like the pragmatic politician he was (he was a Roman senator) he borrowed from whichever school had what he currently needed to serve his purpose. As long as an idea was useful he made good use of it and if not he discarded it. He was a pragmatist.

Alas, pragmatism can degenerate to unprincipled, amoral behavior and Cicero became unprincipled but successful. As these things always turn out, the unprincipled fellow always loses; Cicero ended up executed by those who came to power and were wise to his fickleness and other shenanigans.

Cicero's greatest contribution to Roman thought was his translation of Greek works of philosophy into Latin. He was largely instrumental in making Greek the dominant way of seeing the world in the Roman world.


Plotinus (born in Alexandra, Egypt) was largely responsible for this school of philosophy. This school is also called Gnosticism (Gnosis is Greek for knowledge). As the name suggests, Neo-Platonism is a philosophy that trends towards Plato's philosophy. Plato posited what he called the world of forms, if you like, truth that is out there waiting for us to discover it.

Neo-Platonism says that there is a truth out there; there is God (called the One) that is out there and with efforts we can discover that truth, that God and live it.

Plotinus said that he experienced that truth (God) four times in his life. To experience God he had to negate his body, his senses; he had to escape from the realities of this world. He practiced extreme ascetics that negated his physical needs. Apparently, when the body and the ego are denied one experiences a different reality.

This approach to reality is close to the Roman Catholic teaching of a God that is external to us, a God that we can approach by negating our senses, and the church saw it as its rival hence mortal enemy. The church therefore hated Gnosticism with venom and did everything to destroy it, even as it was influenced by its teaching.

Augustine of Hippo said that Plotinus' Pagan Gnosticism influenced his writing of the City of God (a basic Catholic theology).

Gnosticism was destroyed by the Roman Church but in the 1940s its literature was re-discovered in a jar in Egypt (now called the Hammadi Codex). It is resurrected. Much of what is now called new age religions are influenced by Gnosticism, aka Neo-Platonism.


The various schools of philosophy that germinated in the Greek world flowered in the Roman world. With the fall of Greek civilization they were transferred whole sale to the Roman world. Rome took them to its far flung empire. In time Rome fell and chaos replaced the Roman emporium.

The Roman Catholic Church emerged and tried to stamp out all pagan (as it called Greek philosophy) philosophies. It succeeded and Europe fell into a period where no rational thought was encouraged. Superstition reigned in the land. This was the era called the dark ages.

In the main time, Mohamed (570-632 AD) claimed to hear the voice of the angel Gabriel talk to him (in 610AD) and the sum of what he heard became Islam. Islam spread throughout the known world and by the 700s had entered southern Europe.

The Mahomet's ruled Spain for over seven hundred years. The Mahomet's had rediscovered the glory of ancient Greece (plus whatever else they got from the other lands they had conquered, such as the algebra they got from India); and brought those rational approaches to phenomena back into Europe. What the primitive Roman Catholic Church destroyed the Arab Muslims brought back into Europe (before the Arabs themselves became averse to knowledge and sunk into primitive status).

Greek rationalism reentered Europe and stimulated the Italian renaissance. Dante, Machiavelli and other Italians tried to think in a rational manner. Even within the Roman Church efforts were made to present the belief in God in a philosophical language and the emergent Catholic theologians borrowed heavily from resurgent Greek epistemology. Thomas Aquinas, Anselm, Erasmus and other medieval thinkers were influenced by Greek philosophies.

For our present purpose, Greek rationalism reentered Europe and the result is a changed Europe. The Church itself was made to undergo reformation. In time the French enlightenment flowered. English logical positivism rose. The Germans engaged in philosophical idealism and other romanticism.

These radical changes cumulated in the industrialization and urbanization of Europe. Science came in their wake. The end result is our modern world, a secular, scientific world.

The Greeks contributed immensely to our current approach to phenomena. We must, therefore, study the Greeks and their philosophies (and mythologies, such as Homer's odyssey and Illiad).

This brief paper, hopefully, has aroused the reader's interest in matters Greek and he explores them in more detail.

Ozodi Thomas Osuji

August 25, 2009

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Ozodi Osuji Ph.D

Ozodi Thomas Osuji is from Imo State, Nigeria. He obtained his PhD from UCLA. He taught at a couple of Universities and decided to go back to school and study psychology. Thereafter, he worked in the mental health field and was the Executive Director of two mental health agencies. He subsequently left the mental health environment with the goal of being less influenced by others perspectives, so as to be able to think for himself and synthesize Western, Asian and African perspectives on phenomena. Dr Osuji’s goal is to provide us with a unique perspective, one that is not strictly Western or African but a synthesis of both. Dr Osuji teaches, writes and consults on leadership, management, politics, psychology and religions. Dr Osuji is married and has three children; he lives at Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

He can be reached at: ozodiosuji@gmail.com (907) 310-8176