Philosophy means “love of wisdom,” so this article is about the wisdom that’s been gathered by human minds across the millennia… what it is and how we humans shape it and use it in the course of a lifetime… or over the span of centuries as empires rise and fall.
It comes from the Greek word philosophia, so we often think of the Greeks as the founders of modern philosophy —Socrates in particular. Socrates would probably be the first to admit, though, that he was no more a founder of philosophy than Newton and Darwin and Einstein were founders of gravity and evolution and relativity. Human cultures have always revered wisdom, just as they’ve always been subject to gravity and evolution and relativity. That said, Socrates certainly was a vital figure in philosophy. Not only because he was smart and charismatic, but also because 1) he came on the scene at a crucial time, and 2) he was a paradox.
Paradox. Socrates (470-399 BCE) was a retired war hero who urged nonviolence while wandering the beautiful streets of cultured Athens as a rather homely, barefoot, bearded, unbathed vagabond. He enjoyed lively debates with young intellectuals, posing question after question as he skillfully guided the young men toward the contradictions of their beliefs. Socrates rejected the pantheon of Greek gods (tantamount to a Christian or Buddhist rejecting the Christ or the Buddha), but he admitted he was guided by a “divine inner voice,” and he often referred to God. The cultured, overindulged Greek epicureans dismissed Socrates as “that Athenian buffoon,” while the revered Oracle at Delphi (psychic channel to the gods) called him the wisest man in Athens. Ultimately the Athenian government, exasperated by Socrates, convicted and executed him (via poison hemlock) for defying the gods and corrupting the youth.
Crucial time. World civilization was at a turning point that started around 500 or 600 BCE* and lasted for a little more than a thousand years, ‘til around 500 or 600 CE*. That thousand-year period is sometimes called the “Classical Era” of world history and was made up of “Second Wave Civilizations.” Looking back on that time, it almost seems as if enlightened minds like Socrates in the West and Gautama (the Buddha) in the East were being born on Earth to usher humanity into the current era. Out with the old, in with the new. (More about that in a moment when we look at religion.)
It was a tumultuous time for the young civilizations as they sorted through the wisdom of the ages, found a few gems, stumbled upon a few dirty secrets, and went about devising philosophies for the new era. By the end of this article (or at least by the end of the series), we’ll try to get a better sense of how political advisors, scientists, teachers, religious scholars, and other philosophers of the time (and since) embraced the secrets of the ages, or tiptoed around them, or locked them away in closets.
History of Philosophy
Philosophy has a rich and colorful history… which I’m mostly going to ignore because 1) it’s unfamiliar terrain for me, and 2) there’s just too much information to fit into this relatively (and arguably 🙂 ) short article. For those who are interested in the historical journey, some really good roadmaps are available.
And second, there’s a neat trick—a simple 3-step process—that anyone can do:
- Get a snapshot of the world at any particular time during the past 4,000 years—from around 2000 BCE to around 2000 CE,
- See which cultures were flourishing on the planet at that particular time, and then
- Type the name of a culture into a search engine like Google Chrome or Firefox, and start looking for gems of wisdom.
With that little trick the entire history of philosophy is at our fingertips. All we need is an Internet connection and a computer. Lots of those snapshots for Step 1 are already available on wikipedia. For example, here are just a couple of maps of how the world looked around the time of Socrates and the Buddha:
That’s about as far as we’ll go with the actual history of philosophy per se. Now we’ll take a look at some of the big forces that shaped philosophy down through the ages.
Forces That Have Shaped Philosophy
These are some of the powerful forces that have shaped wisdom and philosophy since the time of Socrates:
- Science and literacy,
- Economic and social vitality,
- Peace vs conflict, and
- Religion, especially
- Christianity (a spin-off from Judaism),
- Islam, and
- Hinduism with its offshoots that include Buddhism, Yoga, Jainism, and Sikhism.
Just a few interesting comments on each of these forces….
Science and Literacy
Map #1 indicates world literacy (the darker greens) in recent years. Where literacy leads, science follows as educated people try to make sense of the world.
Western philosophy has been shaped largely by science ever since the time of ancient Greece, when Aristotle, Socrates, Thanes, and other bright minds sought meaning through astronomy, mathematics, ethics, biology, and other studies. Science separates truth from myth as best it can with the scientific method. A couple of very recent studies are especially fitting for philosophy and wisdom:
- Psychiatrist Dilip Jeste and his colleagues view wisdom as “a complex human characteristic or trait with specific components: social decision making, emotional regulation, prosocial behavior (such as empathy and compassion), self-reflection, acceptance of uncertainty, decisiveness, and spirituality.” The scientists associate wisdom with certain parts of the brain, and also with happy, healthy lives for those who put it to good use. (Read more… )
- Lots of us growing up in a scientific culture have a philosophical a-ha moment when we start to notice that the microcosm resembles the macrocosm. Tiny atoms resemble huge star systems… the interactions of body cells and germs inside us are a lot like the interactions of people, plants, and animals around us. This year two Italian scientists have found amazing similarities between the structure of the brain and the structure of the universe. The brain consists of some 100 billion neurons, and the observable universe contains some 100 billion galaxies. Astrophysicist Franco Vazza and neuroscientist Alberto Feletti report, “Although the relevant physical interactions in the two systems are completely different, their observation through microscopic and telescopic techniques have captured a tantalizing, similar morphology, to the point that it has often been noted that the cosmic web and the web of neurons look alike.” (Read more… )
At the end of the article we’ll “wax philosophical” about whether those structural similarities between brain and cosmos might be more than just a coincidence.
Besides science, another force that affects philosophy in a big way is the economic and social condition of society.
Economic and Social Vitality
A vital society with a vital economy provides us with comfort, leisure, and the opportunity to let our minds explore philosophical issues that intrigue us.
Map #2 and Map #3 show how vital* various countries are in recent years. Darker colors indicate greater vitality—places where philosophy can flourish. When life becomes a struggle (lighter colors), philosophy and “wise life choices” often take a back seat as we react to and contend with the many problems around us.
- *Economic vitality is often measured by Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and social vitality by the Human Development Index (HDI).
Peace and Conflict… and General Suffering
Map #4 shows societies throughout the world and how peaceful they all are in recent years. Dark green indicates the most peaceful countries, such as Canada, Australia, and Japan. Bright red indicates the least peaceful countries. Yellow countries such as USA, China, and Brazil struggle between peace and conflict (and the suffering and confusion that come from conflict).
We often think of peace and conflict as opposites, but peace is a little more complicated than that. The Global Peace Index (upon which the map was created) lists eight “pillars of peace”:
- well-functioning government,
- equitable distribution of resources,
- free flow of communication,
- good relations with neighbors,
- high levels of human capital,
- acceptance of the rights of others,
- low levels of corruption, and
- a sound business environment.
When these “pillars” break down, wars, rioting, and other forms of conflicts are just a few of the painful symptoms that can rear an ugly head. (There might also be famine, widespread disease and addiction, burgeoning refugee camps, crime waves, a host of economic problems, and much more.)
In any case, philosophy can flourish when these pillars are stable and there is peace.
Some would argue that philosophy can flourish under any economic and social conditions; there are even philosophies of war, after all. But that implies that there could also be philosophies of lying, cheating, stealing, murder, rape, and other savage behavior. I prefer to think of philosophy as a way to foster and understand the noble aspects of human nature such as love, honesty, generosity, cooperation, and kindness, while putting the savage aspects (including war) into their proper, shadowy perspective. (More about that at the end of the article.)
[Note: The last four maps in the collage only show the four most populous and widespread religions today: Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. I reluctantly excluded the Jewish religion—Judaism—for three reasons. 1) Judaism today is mostly confined (80 percent) to the USA and Israel, 2) most Jews (62 percent) believe that Jewishness is defined by ancestry and culture; only 15 percent believe it’s defined by their religion, and 3) most Jews believe that being an actual Jew means having a blood link to Abraham, the father of Judaism some 4,000 years ago, and doesn’t include non-Jewish people who marry Jews or who simply adopt the Jewish religion or lifestyle. In any case, Judaism played a big role in ushering religious wisdom from ancient times into the modern era, as we’ll see below.]
The Seven ethereal beings told our INIT group (in 1996) that the Second Epoch began in Babylon and was preceded by a long dark age. Earlier they’d told us that we today are entering another dark age with widespread drug abuse and conflict as we approach the end of the Second Epoch. So…
Referring back again to the world-maps montage:
Map #5 (Christianity), Map #6 (Islam), Map #7 (Hinduism), and Map #8 (Buddhism) represent the most prominent religions today. Of all the forces that have shaped philosophy, religion provides by far the richest understanding of how wisdom of the ages has been shaped and shifted for modern times. Here are a few important examples:
Hinduism and Buddhism
Hinduism in India (along with Judaism in the Middle East) is the oldest religion still alive today. It emerged thousands of years ago, includes the belief in many gods or deities, and is based largely on four puruṣārthas, or proper goals for human life, which could be considered philosophical cornerstones of the religion.
Four puruṣārthas of Hinduism:
- Moksha (liberation and freedom through spiritual understanding and practice),
- Dharma (righteousness, service to the greater good, and discovery of our life purpose),
- Artha (personal prosperity in relation to current social, political, and economic conditions), and
- Kama (desire for and pleasure through beauty and sensual gratification).
During the classical era, those four cornerstones of Hinduism were tailored by Buddhism into three gems and four noble truths.
Three gems of Buddhism:
- Buddha (enlightenment through spiritual understanding and practice),
- Dharma (righteousness through worldly understanding and love), and
- Sangha (active participation in a resonant community).
Four noble truths of Buddhism:
- To live on Earth is to suffer from dissatisfaction and stress.
- The cause of suffering is our desire for the world to meet our expectations (or our expectation for the world to fulfil our desires).
- We can end suffering by seeing and understanding the true nature of reality that exists beyond the illusions of our material world. It’s a transformative process that involves spiritual practice and right thinking. Specifically…
- There are eight steps that can help us make that transformation to an enlightened state of mind: right views, intentions, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration.
Although Buddhists don’t believe in God as a creative being, their concepts of “Buddha mind” and nirvana do suggest a central source of boundless love and wisdom to which we are all connected.
The important thing to notice about Eastern religion is that when Hinduism ushered very ancient wisdom into the current era (which began around 600 BCE), it included the belief in many gods and the pursuit of wealth (artha) and sensual pleasures like sex (kama). Most ancient human cultures believed in many gods, and epicurean living (sensual pursuit) was enjoyed throughout much of the civilized world. When Buddhism boiled down Hindu philosophy for modern times, the first things to go were those gods and the preoccupation with money and sex and other worldly pleasures, which can be a distraction to spiritual pursuits. The Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) said the cause of suffering is our desire for earthy things, which are illusory and fleeting.
So gods and money and sensual pleasures can became problems for spiritual pursuit if we become overly attached to them.
Some 500 years after Gautama Buddha developed a tailored version of Hinduism, Jesus Christ developed a tailored version of Judaism in like fashion.
Many of the early ancestors of Judaism, such as Seth, Cain, Enoch, Methuselah, and Noah probably had long lifespans or were otherwise “larger than life”—superhuman… like the legendary Sumerian kings, who were said to have lived some 20.000 years or longer. We might be able to consider them “gods,” for all intents and purposes… but that gets into touchy semantics.
Christianity (starting with the birth of Jesus around 1 BCE / 1 CE) used the rich, ancient wisdom of Judaism as a foundation for its religion, but Christians made it clear that by far the most important wisdom came from the teachings of the Christ himself, which include:
- Love God.
- Love your neighbor as yourself.
- Forgive others who have wronged you.
- Love your enemies.
- Ask God for forgiveness of your sins.
- Acknowledge and account for your sins (often interpreted as “repent” your sins.)
Later Christians would add, “Jesus is the Messiah and was given the authority to forgive others of their sins.”
The teachings of the Christ are similar to the teachings of the Buddha: Ancient heroes and gods and a preoccupation with worldly pursuits like wealth and sex are obstacles to spiritual advancement, not part of the way. (Again, more about that at the end of the article.)
Islam, like Christianity, uses the ancient wisdom of Judaism as its base, but by far the most important wisdom for Muslims comes from the teachings of Muhammed, which include the Five Pillars of Islam:
- Profession of Faith (shahada). “There is no god but Allah (God), and Muhammad is the Prophet or Messenger of God.” (Muhammad was said to have received a revelation from angel Gabriel. “O Muhammad, you are the messenger of God.”),
- Prayer (salat) for spiritual advancement and purification,
- Alms (zakat) for generosity,
- Fasting (sawm) for physical purification, and
- Pilgrimage (hajj) for anchoring oneself to the faith by traveling to a holy city—especially to Mecca (at least once in a lifetime), and other pilgrimages can include Medina, Jerusalem, Karbala and other holy sites.
Islam is similar to Buddhism and Christianity in that it dismisses the ancient gods while urging spiritual and physical purification.
One final note about these religions: All of them, with the possible exception of Buddhism, believe in God (the source of all existence), ethereal beings (angels), and spirits that all exist beyond the physical realm. At the end of a lifetime we join them as we leave the Earth to resume living as a spiritual being. Some religions believe that our living spirit can return to Earth for another lifetime (reincarnation).
And now it’s time to sort through the ancient wisdom, to figure out what’s been preserved in good form, what’s been lost, and what needs to be restored as we humans try to come up with a philosophy for the Third Epoch.
Back to Basics
Here are some of the basic questions that I believe need to be asked as we humans develop a sensible philosophy for the future (I tend to believe at the moment that the answer to all these questions is “yes,” but that’s just one guy’s opinion, and the questions are certainly open to debate):
- Is science the most reliable earthly source of information about our world and the material universe?
- Are there “parallel” universes superimposed over our own material universe, all within a vast, multidimensional omniverse?
- Is there a source at the center of everything (God, Allah, Brahman, Yahweh…) that creates and nourishes the omniverse?
- Are material things more illusory and spiritual things more real?
- If there are highly advanced extraterrestrial cultures who want us to join them, should we make an effort to do so?
- Is it important or even valid to polarize human behavior (right/wrong, good/bad, noble/savage…)?
- Does world culture go through a series of major “End Times” that purge the planet?
- Can we assume that literacy, peace, and economic and social vitality are in the best interests of our descendants? And should we today make them a very top priority?
- Does the nested structure of life that exists on Earth —systems within systems within systems—also exist in spirit?*
- Were gods and giants on the Earth in ancient times?**
Questions like these are what we’ll be exploring in future articles in this series. Regarding the last two on the list, for example:
*Yes, the nesting that we see in material things also seems to apply to spiritual things. If we looked inside ourselves with both physical tools (e.g. microscopes) and with spiritual techniques (e.g. meditation), we might discover that…
- Our body contains organs like the heart, which contain cells, which contain even small systems called organelles. Physical nesting is a certainty of life.
- Interdimensional or spiritual nesting is also part of our human make-up. Our body contains a series of subtler living copies that extend “in-beyond” (into subtler dimensions) leading toward the source. As well as our physical bodies, we have astral bodies, energy bodies, and light bodies “inside” us that are imperceptible to us. The source itself is our soul, “located” in our heart.
- Just as we have finer beings within us as part of our make-up, planets and stars and entire galaxies also have subtle copies in spiritual realms. It’s easy to imagine that a finer spiritual template of a galaxy is “really” a brilliant light being, or maybe a vast community of light beings, each residing close to the source but also representing a star “way out there” in the material galaxy where you and I can see them through telescopes.
- We might even learn someday that every living thing on Earth contains within itself a tiny facsimile of the entire universe… the way our brain of 100 billion neurons seems to be a tiny reflection of the vast universe with its 100 billion galaxies.
The sheer enormity of these issues makes them suitable subjects for the noble field of philosophy. And speaking of enormity….
**Did “gods” and giants walk the Earth in the days of yore? Evidence strongly suggests they did.
Of course there are many other questions that have puzzled or excited philosophers down through the ages (check out a list of more than 200 of them here). A few of those questions might also be the addressed by future articles in this series, such as:
Why do we lie and cheat? – What’s the meaning of life? – What’s a good life? – Are lives shaped more by fate or by free will – What’s consciousness? – What’s intelligence? – What’s humor? – What are human rights?
So, I’m looking forward to exploring some of these philosophical questions in the coming weeks and months… and hopefully this article is a good start.