Tuesday, June 30, 2020

The Mythological Craftsman ― Part I, Ancient Egypt

Ptah - God of Craft & Craftsmen
“Take advice from the ignorant as well as from the wise, since there is no single person who embodies perfection nor any craftsman who has reached the limits of excellence.” ― Ptahhotep, 25th century BC

In the culture of every great civilisation there is certain to be found a cosmology, that is to say a story or an account of the physical creation. For ancient Egypt this cosmology surrounds the god Ptah. The name "Egypt" derives from "was hwt ka Ptah (the temple of the Ka of Ptah)." This alludes to the primacy within the Egyptian pantheon of, "Ptah, who gave life to all the gods and their kas (souls) through his heart and through his tongue." Essentially, Ptah spoke the world into existence from out of his heart which for the ancient Egyptians was considered the centre of intellect and reason. This clearly is analogous to the ancient Greek and early Christian concepts of the Logos or Word that was instrumental in material creation.

So what kind of god was he? Well, the name "Ptah" is thought to mean "to sculpt" and in one ancient invocation the supplicant begins by hailing him as "great Ptaḥ, creator of crafts, sculptor of earth." Furthermore, Ptah is described in the Book of the Dead as “a master architect, and framer of everything in the universe.” So although Ptah was considered a supreme deity, he was likewise regarded in ancient Egypt as having quite particular attributes as a god of the arts, crafts, and architecture. His very first creation was the god Atum, associated with the sun, illumination, and out of which everything else came into being. Atum was "self-engendered" that is to say he came out of Ptah, being a mode or manifestation of him. The Ka of Atum/Ptah is metaphorically described as semen, seeds that permeate and animate all of creation. Once again, analogies with the "logos spermatikos" of the Stoics and early Christians are readily apparent. Atum fashioned everything out of chaos represented as primeval waters or alternatively as the world serpent both being just further manifestations of Atum, making him at once creator and creation.

The City of Makers

Djoser's mortuary complex, Saqqara
There naturally arose a huge cult surrounding Ptah in Lower Egypt, centred at Memphis where numerous temples were erected and dedicated to his worship. Imhotep was a commoner that entered temple service as a priest of Ptah who displayed exceptional ability and rose to prominence as vizier and chief architect of the Pharaoh Djoser. Under his reign the first great pyramid was erected at nearby Saqqara, just outside the city; the step pyramid was part of a larger mortuary complex. Constructed in the 27th century B.C., it is the oldest such stone masonry complex known to exist. The pharaohs claimed their authority as descendants of Atum. Upon death their hope was to have the divine seed, the Ka within them reunite with Atum/Ptah. Eventually, Imhotep rose to the position of high priest of Ptah. As such he was bestowed the title "wer-kherep- hemutiu" translated as, "the great director of the craftsmen" thus earthly representative of Ptah. After his death Imhotep was deified as a demi-god, a literal son of Ptah.

Deir el Medina, City of Makers
Interestingly, another cult centre surrounding Ptah arose hundreds of years later near Luxor in Upper Egypt during the 16th century B.C. Deir el Medina was a small city of craftsmen that had been founded for construction of royal and aristocratic tombs in the nearby Valley of the Kings. The ancient name of the city was Set Maat meaning "place of truth." The craftsmen living there were highly skilled freemen who were largely literate. Much of what we know concerning the daily life of common Egyptian people living at that time comes from archaeological discoveries of written accounts by craftsmen discovered at Deir el Medina. During this period another priest-architect arose to great prominence, Amenhotep, son of Hapu. Like Imhotep, he too was deified as a demi-god son of Ptah after his death. So revered was Amenhotep by the craftsmen of Deir el Medina that he had chapels constructed and dedicated to him at the local Temple of Hathor as well as the nearby Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahari.

Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahari

In our next essay in the series I expect that we'll find some pleasant parallels with what we've discovered here in Egypt as we explore how art, craft, and architecture are similarly woven into the cosmology and mythological accounts of the ancient Greeks.

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Hellenistic Conceptions of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness

John William Waterhouse - Diogenes 1882
In our previous essay, we saw how Plato and Aristotle developed mythological and speculatively elementary concepts of truth, beauty, and goodness into a unified trinity that could be fully integrated into their robust systems of philosophy. These men had a number of contemporaries in the Classical period, as well as schools that would later arise in Hellenistic Greece that would either expand upon their philosophy or provide alternative viewpoints. Typically, these later philosophies lacked the holistic unity of truth, beauty, and goodness sought by Plato and Aristotle, manifesting a more selective focus that privileged only one or two of these ideals, often in isolation. Nevertheless, despite the differing perspectives or perhaps even owing to them, valuable insights were added to the edifice of thought in Western civilisation that are worthy of our present consideration.

The Cyrenaics

This was an odd school formed by Aristippus, a follower of Socrates, thus a contemporary of Plato. The Cyrenaics never developed a metaphysics beyond repeating Heraclitus' observation of an observable world in continuous flux. Rather, they assume a dogmatism about the possibility of knowing any truth about reality, even holding an extreme scepticism that extended to their own subjective thoughts and feelings. Their rejection of theories of reality and knowledge seem to feed into an ethic that can only be characterised as an egotistical hedonism. For the Cyrenaic, the Good amounted to nothing more than personal pleasure. Such pleasure Aristippus claims, “discerned the good by the single present time alone.” Aristipppus advocated for pleasure to be individual, immediate, and intense with a minimum of pain. He did not believe in deferring present pleasures for the sake of achieving better long-term consequences. Neither did he nor subsequent Cyrenaics have much use for the traditional Greek virtues. Whereas Plato viewed justice and temperance as virtues associated with rational, thus higher pleasure that led to a meaningful life of human flourishing, the Cyrenaics rejected any speech, thought, or purpose in life expressed through such so-called virtues as nothing more than arbitrary, cultural conventions. The good life? Seek bodily pleasure, don't think too much, and thereby avoid trouble in body and soul would pretty much sum up their world view.

The Cynics

Antisthenes began as an aristocratic follower of Gorgias the Sophist only to later became one of Socrates' most ardent disciples. He continued much of the central themes of Socrates' philosophy such as that the good life was one lived according to the virtues, therefore uncovering the truth regarding them was the highest pleasure. Although Antisthenes has been attributed as the founder of the Cynics, this is very much in dispute and seems unlikely. However, there were anticipations of the Cynics in his style of teaching as he did promote an aesthetic way of life that provided time for cultivation of virtue whilst avoiding the distractions of physical pleasures. Antisthenes likewise stressed the need to live in accord with nature in contrast to submission to the conventions of civilisation, in so doing disparaging many social obligations, material luxuries, and sensual pleasures.

Cynicism can more properly be attributed to Diogenes who took Antisthenes interpretations of Socrates' teaching to yet further extremes of asceticism. Also, he followed the Cyrenaics in rejecting the pursuit of metaphysics with specific criticisms directed at Plato. Diogenes demonstrated in his teaching a near total rejection of the conventions of civilisation. He was reported to live naked at the side of the road in a pithos, a large clay pot for storage of grain. Whatever men did in private, he did in public: eating, sleeping, defecating, even masturbation and sex. For this reason he and his followers were pejoratively called "cynics", because they were said to live like dogs (kynos). At times the Cynics showed anti-authoritarian tendencies; however, for the most part they preached indifference to society in lieu of self-sufficiency. As man's troubles were products of culture (money, marriage, family, etc.), peace and contentment was to be found in a return to nature.

According to the Cynics, nature offers the clearest indication of how to live the good life which is characterized by reason, agency, and freedom. Social conventions tend to hinder the good life, compromising freedom and setting up norms of conduct that are opposed to nature and reason. Diogenes considered parrhēsia, the freedom to speak the truth, “the most beautiful thing in the world”, a freedom that civilisation suppressed. The things men would strive to learn with the Sophists or appeal to the gods for, such as wealth, honour, or power was to Diogenes utter folly for which he, “would rebuke men in general with regard to their prayers, declaring that they asked for things which seemed to them to be good, not for such as are truly good.” I find it interesting that, though the contemporary meaning of "cynical" is quite different, aspects of the ancient Cynic's world view saw a resurgence in 19th century Romantic philosophy and is still very active and relevant today.

The Sceptics

I would characterise Scepticism as more of a disposition towards the world than a coherent philosophy. The word "sceptic" literally means "to reflect" which is precisely what this group of philosophers did with every claim of certain knowledge that they encountered. One of the leading Sceptics, Sextus Empiricus suggested that there were three possible conclusions one might draw when presented with a knowledge claim. You can think you've found truth (positive dogmatist). You can deny any possibility of truth (negative dogmatist). Or you can take the sceptical position of suspending judgement so as to carry on in reflection.

A real Sceptic would be even hesitant to say that "he does not know truth." After all he might!. He just doesn't know for certain whether he knows or not so that the Sceptic finds tranquility and contentment in suspending judgement. This Hellenistic scepticism was not so radical as to question subjective appearances such as what people sensed or felt. Rather, it specifically challenged the type of certain, eternal, transcendental truth claims that had been the subject of rational inquiry for philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle. On the surface, the purpose of this type of scepticism was not to deny that such truths were possible or discourage the pursuit of them. Instead, its purported aim was to unsettle dogmatism, rattle unwarranted confidence, so as to maintain an open mind towards further inquiry. Whether or not most Sceptics were sincere in their pursuit of truth or merely using their techniques in a rhetorical fashion to debunk arguments is a matter of some debate. Nevertheless, many of the tropes they developed remain quite useful in uncovering logical flaws often inherent in presuppositions of arguments as well as clarifying personal bias out of rational thinking.

The Epicureans

Unlike the previous schools that had a number of influences, Epicureanism was essentially a personality cult of one man: Epicurus. He adopted Democritus' physics of atomism, with one adjustment allowing for a bit of indeterminacy. In doing so he openly rejected not only Platonic and Aristotelian metaphysics but even the possibility of final causes or an immaterial soul. For Epicurus, everything including the soul was material; nothing pre-exists or survives the death of the body. His was a philosophy of the here and now, a life of "eudaimonia", literally "well-being", achieved through subordination to the virtue of prudence, practical reason. As this life is all there is, pleasure was to be the beginning and end of the good life. Likewise time for us is short. Because of this he promotes "ataraxia", imperturbability. Some physical pain and much psychological pain is self-generated. Freedom from disturbance often amounts to learning what not to care about.

Roberto Bompiani - A Roman Feast

For Epicurus, all human thought, speech, and ethics are conventional and a breeding ground of confused opinions.  Although we may at times misinterpret our impressions, it is our sensual experiences of pleasure and pain rather than abstract moral principles or concepts of good and bad that constitute our primary criterion of truth. The highest good is inherent, what is valued for its own sake. The highest good cannot be instrumental, for the sake of anything else: not for the gods, not for the good, not for love. Instead, he identifies well-being with personal pleasure; to his mind it's the only thing people do for its own sake. In the end, everything we do is egoistical, done for the sake of our own pleasure, even what might outwardly appear sacrificial or for the sake of virtue. This last sentiment is more what we mean by the term "cynical" nowadays.

Epicurus was likewise a thoroughgoing empiricist. Experience reveals truth in a representational manner. Our perceptive capacities immediately inform us that pleasure is good and pain is bad. There is an accurate correspondence between the source of sensation out there and what our sense organs report back to us. We don't need the pre-existent immaterial souls of Plato to recall transcendental Forms, instead we remember directly right here and now, quickly building up sense experience and extending ideas by analogy. Epicurus even has one of the best responses for some of his Sceptic colleagues' doubt concerning knowledge and truth. If the senses are so unreliable, where do the concepts of knowledge and truth come from and what business to Sceptics even have of using them in their arguments?

Once again, after an heroic attempt at a theory of being, of knowledge, and the unity of truth, beauty, and goodness by Plato and Aristotle we find the concept of beauty in jeopardy, the Good reduced to mere subjective experience, and the possibility of an eternal truth questioned if not altogether rejected. In my next essay, we'll take a slight detour by considering concepts of truth, beauty, and goodness held in Hebrew scripture and by a couple of notable Jewish philosophers. 

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Truth, Beauty, and Goodness in Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle

Up until the mid-5th century B.C., Athens was mostly renown for being an economic powerhouse of seafaring trade but was hardly considered a centre of philosophic inquiry. Their Sophists, or "wise" men attuned their tutelage to the Athenian mercantile way of life offering wealthy youths training in rhetoric: instrumental skills in how to gain further influence in the democracy or win arguments in court. The Sophists appeared to be familiar with the activity of the various philosophers spread out among various Greek city-states over the previous 150 years; however, they seemed to be by and large sceptical of the mostly metaphysical theories that had been generated to that point. After all, Thales had claimed everything was made of water, Heraclitus fire; Democrtitus had promoted these strange things called atoms. Their theories all seemed quite unprovable and appeared to contradict each other, so what difference did devoting thought to them make? Better to leave such nonsensical musings behind and focus the mental energies on getting ahead and the business at hand.

In the midst of this intellectual milieu arrives Socrates. Outwardly, he appeared to be engaged in a similar project and was sometimes considered a Sophist himself. After all, Socrates was likewise considered a wise man and an instructor of the youth. However, there were a couple of distinguishing features of his brand of sophistry. First, he did not charge for his teaching. Secondly and more significantly, he was not helping students to prevail in their opinions; rather, his steadfast focus was to develop a thoroughgoing method of argument that would elicit the truth underlying the proper exercise of the virtues. For this reason, Plato and others christened him not just as one among many wise men but specifically as a philosopher, a "lover of wisdom".


To fully appreciate Socrates' method you have to understand his metaphysical grounding as it applies to that which animates the body: namely the soul. His view is that the soul is pre-existent and immortal and can be identified with intelligence and reason. From this stance emerges a doctrine of reminiscence. To learn of "pure" reason is the act of remembering the soul's former existence. Furthermore, from this belief is developed the Socratic method of eliciting the soul's memory through a series of careful questions, a process he referred to as dialectic. Dialectic typically begins with a request for a definition of an overarching term such as one of the virtues. An example might be, "what is justice?" The dialectical process does not merely solicit opinions, rather it uncovers or recalls from the soul's memory what "justice" e.g. must logically, necessarily consist of.

Socrates describes the philosopher's role in this process as that of a midwife. What he helps to coax and deliver from the soul is truth, that which is now and must be eternally so. As distinguished from opinion, truth is thus described as transcendent of the ever-changing physical world, being of the same nature as the soul and is in fact an integral aspect of each and every soul's awareness. The source of truth and the soul is the ultimate reality, what Socrates describes as the Good. Once the memory of truth is thus awakened, the individual can embody, act out, and orient his life towards the good, bringing body and soul into an intelligible harmony, what he calls the "good" life.


The philosophy of Plato expands Socrates' metaphysics upon which his own treatment of truth, beauty, and goodness critically depend. Plato likewise describes the pre-existence of an eternal, transmigrating soul; however, he further elaborates that this soul is quite literally individual, meaning that it cannot be divided, cannot undergo change or be destroyed, thus separate and distinct from physical things including bodies. The soul Plato describes is thus immaterial and a simple unity not a composite thing. It is this soul that he claims has real knowledge of the Forms which share its nature of being timeless, eternal, and unchanging.

What are the Forms? Well, nothing in particular. That is to say they stand independently, neither being a composite of many things or a part of anything else. They're the only things the soul can know for sure because they're stable, they never change. They're the real and only objects of knowledge, true everywhere and every when. According to Plato to use the word "knowledge" to describe experience gained through the senses is at best a metaphor, technically incorrect. Experience of changing, particular things is nothing more than opinion of which true knowledge is impossible. What Plato was in search of were the archetypal ideals that stand outside of any particular time and place. The Forms are thus "eternal truths", the very expression being a tautology since eternity (unchanging permanence) is the very essence of truth properly understood.

As with Socrates, Plato's dialectical process in eliciting knowledge is one of recollection in which truth is revealed by means of reason alone. For Plato reason is an essential character of the soul and is occupied with pure ideals. The method of dialectic directs the soul's inner eye to look beyond the changing particulars of mundane existence, unlocking the soul's consciousness to focus on the Forms, the eternal truths, the knowledge of the Good. Complimenting truth, beauty is described as the expression of the Good. Plato outlines a journey of sensible beauty towards the very ideal of beauty itself. He imagines the commonplace occurrence of a young man, blinded by love, finding a specific girl's body beautiful as no other. In time the young man is likely to notice that physical beauty is a trait distributed among many women. Perhaps he may even come to sense that there is a beauty not quite physical, an inner beauty of the woman he loves. Should the young man mature into a philosopher, he may be drawn towards the ideal of beauty itself apart from any physical or particular manifestation. Whereas truth instructs the soul about the Good, beauty motivates the soul towards it.

For Plato philosophy rests on the critical distinction between mere appearances and a direct apprehension of reality, the Good. Such a pursuit is not an wholly abstract or disinterested study either. Man and his actions are not to be reduced to mere physiological and mechanical explanations. For Plato, man is both rational and societal, motivated by purpose, having goals and ends he seeks to attain. In his allegory of the cave, Plato compares the Good to the sun. Just as the sun makes physical things visible to eyesight, the Good illuminates the soul's reason making the eternal forms comprehensible. Thus for Plato there was nothing subjective about the "inner eye" of the philosopher's vision, he simply directly comprehends excellence, the Good.


Although as Plato's student, Aristotle shares many views and assumptions in common, there is a divergence in their metaphysics that has implications for his entire philosophy including his conception of truth, beauty, and goodness. Aristotle has a lengthy description of the soul; however, In regard to the human soul specifically he asserts, contrary to Plato, that it does not have a pre-existence or any existence at all apart from the body describing it as, “the actuality of a body that has life.” In other words, the soul is the animating aspect of the body. His view of the soul is in parallel with that of the Forms as being immanent in, rather than transcendent of particular bodies. Thus the human soul is "hylomorphic", a composite of immanent form actualised in a material body, an "informed" individual.

In the composition of the soul, Aristotle considers bodies the primary substance upon which forms are dependent. The soul of living things can be thought of as having elements or aspects that can be arranged in an ascending hierarchy. At the base sits what is described as the vegetal soul, the fundamental drives of nutrition and reproduction shared by all living things. Next is the animal soul that includes the additional capacities of sensation and locomotion. Finally, there is the defining trait of humans, the rational soul capable of reason. That said, according to Aristotle humans have all three of the aforementioned aspects of soul. Whereas Plato saw the human soul as imprisoned in an animal body that could be freed by a life dedicated to reason, Aristotle viewed man as a rational animal who ought to seek fulfillment in all aspects of his being, including the vegetal and animal.

To understand Aristole's view on what constitutes the Good, it is helpful to consider his explanation of causation. He states that the cause of any physical object living or inanimate can be attributed to 4 causes: material, efficient, formal, and final. Let's take the example of Socrates' statue pictured above. The material cause would be the material the statue is made of, in our example marble. Clearly had this statue been made of bronze, plaster or some other material that would very much effect how it could be made or might endure exposed to the elements. Secondly, there is the efficient cause, the craft of stone carving. Note that his view of the means of this statue coming into being is not attributed to the particular artisan, rather to the craft itself. Next there is the formal cause which refers to the shape or design of the statue, which, as the name indicates, gives it its form: Socrates dressed in his chiton, seated in thought. At last we come to the final cause, the purpose of the statue which ostensibly is to adorn the entrance to the 20th century Academy of Athens. For Aristotle the final cause has primacy among the causes, being the very raison d'être of all the others. In our example, if there was no need to adorn the Academy, a form and method of carving a selected material would never have come to pass. The Greek term he uses to describe such an end or goal is telos.

Having established a rough framework of Aristotle's metaphysics we can now get down to the business of his views on truth, beauty, and goodness. What we find is that the aforementioned concept of telos and the Good are very closely aligned. The Good is associated with fully actualising  form, order, and reaching maturity according to an initial potential. For example, what is good for plants is physical health by means of nutrition that allows them to reproduce. Animals have these basic goals but their senses and mobility allow them to also actively pursue desires and pleasures while avoiding pain. A dog can have a good life for himself by being well fed, eventually mating but also by avoiding injury and finding companionship in the pack. Aristotle admits that all of the aforementioned are good for human beings as well; nevertheless, we've a further capacity to exercise intellectual virtues and contemplative wisdom. By pursuing all of these in a balanced way we can attain what in Greek is called "eudaimonia", literally "well being", a telos synonymous with the good life, human flourishing.

However, as human beings are rational, our attaining the good life means knowing all of the moral virtues previously addressed by Socrates and Plato and how to apply them in life. As Aristotle contests the idea of innate knowledge resident in an eternal soul, seeking truth will need another means other than recollection through dialectic. The method Aristotle proposes is one of induction which originates in experience and the senses. Although the senses are notoriously unreliable, cumulative experiences can allow us to distinguish patterns. Aristotle describes an elevated "common sense" existing in the mind, where the experiences of all the other senses rushing in are unified into an orgasnised experience of memory. This memory is the product of the higher, common sense of reason comparing, contrasting, and finally verifying (literally "making true") in a revelatory moment of intuitive recognition of truth. It is through this process of subjecting sense experience to reason that we abstract the Forms, truths from particulars.

At the highest level of being, Aristotle identifies beauty with the Good; it is the Unmoved Mover, the final cause of all things that is desired for its own sake and sets the entire cosmos in motion by the attraction it exercises. Beauty engenders love which is held as the highest virtue, the driving and unifying force. Aristotle relates, “if all people competed for the beautiful, and strained to do the most beautiful things, everything people need in common, and the greatest good for each in particular, would be achieved."  Getting down to earth, the beautiful life is not egotistical but concerns itself with friendship and the common good, the highest fulfillment for a human being in this life.

Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle laid the foundation for over 2,400 years of philosophic inquiry to follow in the Western tradition. They solidified entire fields of rational inquiry regarding morals and ethics, asking how can we be sure of our knowledge, reflecting on what our purpose as human beings is, and what it is that motivates us towards those ends. Their provisional conclusion was that the Good, True, and the Beautiful at the highest actualisation of ultimate reality was indistinguishable as an unity: the One. And love is the force that draws us towards it. Nevertheless, they certainly weren't the last words on the subject. Our own concepts of truth, beauty, and goodness have been undoubtedly shaped and influenced by subsequent thought and writing about them. In our next essay we'll consider various schools that came to prominence in Hellenic Greece including the Cyrenaics, Cynics, Sceptics, and Epicureans.

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Early Conceptions of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness in Classical Greece

Antonio Canova - The Three Charites
The conception of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness (TBG) in Western Civilisation has very deep roots indeed, long in development with notable contributions from a variety of cultures. Some of the strongest influences were undoubtedly bequeathed to us by the ancient Greeks. In this initial post I would like to briefly explore the initial striving towards a clear conception exhibited in ancient Greek religion and how these ideas came to be refined by the earliest known philosophers becoming modified by their emerging views of the cosmos.

Greek Religion

Many of the religious practises of the ancient Greeks had an aura of mystery. Being only for the initiated, the rites of the cults were not written down rather memorised, acted out, thus embodied. Much of what we do know comes from the poetry of Homer and Hesiod and the theatrical productions of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Their works were not seen as simply forms of entertainment, rather extensions of the religious life. The Mythos they expounded upon was intended to reveal truth; nevertheless, not truth of a literal nature, instead by the manner in which they were presented: in a fictive, poetic, naturalistic transmission of concepts of the sacred as well as life lessons of piety that were both acted before and performed with the audience.

Always prominently featured in these stories and performances was the cultivation of Arête, often translated as Virtue with the emphasis on excellence, the good. The preeminent virtues were courage, temperance, and justice. These were guided by a further virtue of prudence, or right reason in their exercise. In relation to the gods was the virtue of piety or grace. The goddess Kale, the head of the trinity of Charites or Graces, was beauty personified. It was therefore the beauty of the gods, their splendid excellence of form that provided the mortal attraction and motivating force for their worship. Nevertheless, the precise nature of those gods, the cosmos they perhaps had a hand in, or the chaos from which all being was thought to emerge remained deeply mysterious.

Early Greek Philosophy

Perhaps it was from the cultivation of prudence, the virtue of practical reason, which led to a search for an enduring wisdom. Whatever the origins, Aristotle credits Thales of Miletus (6th century B.C.) as the first philosopher, a lover of such an enduring, transcendental wisdom. With Thales a couple of suppositions began to be emerge. First, that the cosmos was typified by order and secondly, that order could be understood by human reason. From this seemingly inauspicious beginning off the coast of Anatolia, an human explanation for all that is began its long development.

The notable philosophers that followed until the time of Socrates placed differing emphases on the the nature of truth, beauty, and goodness. Although a few of them make specific reference to TBG, more often they are embedded in a point of view, if considered at all. The definitions below are for the words in Greek most often corresponding to our own concepts:

Alethiea (truth) - that which is unconcealed, evident
Kallos (beauty) - outer excellence, splendid as well as erotic in that it elicits desire
Agathos (goodness) - inner excellence, the most actualised from potential

“the good comes to be… 
through many numbers” 
- Polykleitos
Pythagoras was quite an interesting figure as his cult (not used in a pejorative sense) retained much from Orphism and the earlier Dionysian mysteries. However, a benefit of this was the confidence that mankind's inheritance from Dionysios bestowed upon them a measure of divine intellect. The Pythagoreans developed a committed belief to the ordered harmony of the cosmos. The gods had created order by setting limits upon chaos, thus weaving a cosmos and it was beautiful! The ritualistic practise of geometry, number, and music could reveal these patterns of being. His was a philosophy of mystic aspiration yet tangible results and later followers would ascribe all truth in philosophy to Pythagoras, a truth that was to be found in number and right proportion through which the universe could be unconcealed and made comprehensible.

"To God everything is beautiful, good, and just; humans, however, think some things are unjust and others just."  - Heraclitus

Here we begin to see something approaching the unity of truth, beauty, and goodness in Heraclitus. He is the first to characterise the generative principle of order as the Logos or world-soul. Subsequent philosophers, notably Aristotle, would begin to develop their systems on logical principles, that is to say according to the Logos.

Parmenides shares the Pythagorean notion of the Monad. For him truth was eternal and revealed through reason whilst opinion as gained through the senses was illusory. This view of truth as incorporeal and pertaining to timelessness was to permanently attach itself to philosophical inquiry, being greatly expounded upon with Plato.

At this point certain difficulties in acquiring true knowledge begin to be expressed. Anaxagoras notes, “Owing to feebleness [of the senses], we are not able to determine the truth.” This was not to say that truth did not exist or that we couldn't access it, just that the senses were going to present an obstacle. Perfect knowledge rested in an ultimate mind or Nous somewhat akin to Heraclitus' Logos. Although not clearly defined, Anaxagoras does introduce the concept that there is some telos, purpose to existence.

Democritus is famous for his atomistic, mechanical model of existence; nevertheless, for him also difficulties of true knowledge acquired through the senses arise, “We know nothing truly about anything, but for each of us opining is a rearrangement of soul atoms.” However, he does posit a way out that Aristotle would later utilise, coming to distinguish between what Democritus describes as bastard (sensual) and legitimate (rational) knowledge. Instead of discounting what is acquired through the senses, he suggests using reason to verify and refine it thus to approach truth in a primitive inductive process.  

The Sophists

With consideration of the Sophists we enter the Athenian scene contemporaneous with Socrates. The Sophists were professional rhetoricians who sold their services as tutors or as counsel in legal disputes. A Sophist held with a modicum of respect by Socrates was Protagoras. He connected Anaxagoras' concept of telos or purpose with the virtues of temperance and justice, concluding that these amounted to the good for man, an earthly telos. On the other hand, Protagoras promoted the idea of relative truth at least in earthly matters. One opinion could be better than another for practical purposes but not truer than another in any meaningful way. His famous dictum echoes this view, “Man is the measure of all things.”  

Whereas a handful of the Sophists such as Protagoras might have engaged in philosophy, for the most part they were using the faculties of reason for instrumental ends; they were teaching pragmatically, not truthfully or according to logic: rhetoric as power to persuade and manipulate. Their focus tended towards appeals to emotion in lieu of reason. Morals and virtues began to be taken as merely relative or a matter of convention. Truth was something to be manufactured not discovered. This scepticism reaches a crescendo with the Sophist Gorgias who claimed first, that nothing exists and even if it does, it's incomprehensible; concluding that even if it's comprehensible, it remains incommunicable. No truth. No understanding. No communication. The Sophist Thrasymachus' contribution to this is that justice amounts to nothing more than, "the interest of the stronger."

At this point, in the hands of the Sophists we find the concept of beauty abandoned, goodness limited to the individual, and truth nothing more than relative opinion. We certainly seem a long way off from any profound respect for truth, goodness, and beauty as transcendental guiding aspects of human life or universal existence. However, in my next essay we'll witness the philosophical foundations for an apotheosis of truth, beauty, and goodness as a bound trinity being laid in one dialectic proof after another with the successive works of the three greatest philosophers of Greek antiquity: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

Contributed by Patrick Webb