Philosophia Perennis Vol. I: An Introduction to Philosophy as Wisdom

We should explain before we start on our next subject — the fifth, in which we shall present in a very general way the history of Greek philosophy — why it is that we do it at this point in the course. Some people spend their whole life studying the history of philosophy. As a result, in the end philosophy becomes nothing but the history of thought, a history of different schools of thought or points of view. This makes the whole of philosophy dissolve into confusion. It can lead to skepticism, syncretism, relativism, or many other evil “isms.” Still, we should not and cannot ignore the history of philosophy. To us the history of philosophy is the polemics of philosophy. It is philosophy as a war, as a crusade, and it makes it very exciting to study about the men who were seeking wisdom. The difficulties they encountered, their successes and failures all make the study of philosophy an adventure. But a person should not enter into the field of the history of philosophy until he has become somewhat of a philosopher himself. This is one of the strongest governing principles of our approach to philosophy. (We should dread the thought of being people whose ideas are all something that somebody else thought, without understanding the logic behind those ideas.)

It is only when some spark has taken place right in a person’s own mind and he has something he can really defend, that being exposed to the different schools becomes an exciting experience and a challenge to defend the ground on which he stands. A person needs a course in logic to study the laws of inference and the methods of sound thinking. He needs a course in cosmology which will lead him to some tremendous certitudes in the correct thinking about the material universe around him. He needs to know this important truth: The material universe, when considered correctly, cannot be the only reality. In other words, he must be led by the study of the ens mobile to the conviction that matter cannot be the only reality. When he discovers that the universe has purpose and order, and he philosophically contemplates its contingency, then he has that sense of how everything in the universe leads to a realization of the reality of God. He progresses after cosmology to psychology and ethics, ever increasing his appreciation for the ens mobile, particularly that ens mobile that is man, both man as a real being and man as a moral being. Of course, at this juncture he can put his conclusions together and observe man in relation to the universe, as well as in relation to the Creator of that universe. Then he has a certitude to defend.

Anybody using his mind in such a way as to evade these inferences, has to be using it in a way that is not philosophic but sophistical (i.e., like a sophist).

In our last chapter, we ended with some very strong conclusions. We found that, while descriptively we can say that every man seeks his happiness, we can change the expression to become a principle of moral duty by adding one word. It then becomes, “Every man ought to seek his happiness,” and by this we mean true happiness. Then duty becomes a factor. The difference between that which people do and that which people should do can be illustrated by this short question: Are they working to achieve their true happiness? The difference between some immediate, passing gratification, which people might call happiness, and true happiness is an infinite one. That is a tremendous conclusion.

We also reached the conclusion that the truly virtuous man is one whose life is guided by reason and whose reason is enlightened by grace. The pagans would stop with the first half of the sentence, but we Christians add the second half. These are just a few typical certitudes of true wisdom. Of all those that there are to choose from in philosophy we have expounded on just a few of the most basic ones so far in this study, but they are valuable because they are basic. They form our base, our foundation. And because they are so foundational, we know that an attack on any one of these certitudes is the deepest kind of subversion. Only truth is constructive. All error is subversive. Error is a subversion of the foundations of faith, a subversion of all morality, and a subversion of all order in every field. Whether in art, education, banking, politics, math or any other field, error is the enemy of good order.

With something that we have in mind which we want to defend ( a “platform of principles”), we then watch what people are saying, and we try to defend our certitudes against those who seem to be disagreeing with us. We have taken this direction, and we hope that it will lead us to the end for which God created us. Seeing a person diverting himself away from this platform even at a very small angle should alarm us because we know that, no matter how small that angle is at the start, it is not going to lead him to that same end.

It is only when we are philosophers on our own, when we have had these realizations truly ingrained into our very being, that it becomes profitable to confront philosophies of error. The battle is fought not merely over speculative or abstract ideas, but things that we absolutely believe, touching concrete reality. Only when we can defend these principal truths as philosophers can we face a world that is in confusion, error, and evolution of doctrine. This, then, is the reason why we delay the study of the history of philosophy to the fifth in the series. As we have already said, and as can be witnessed by almost every good book on philosophy, there are three distinct types of philosophy: logical, ontological and ethical; or as the Greeks call them: logic, physics, and ethics.

Now, with platform in hand, we come to the Greek people, the civilization that gave us the tradition of philosophy. It is conceivable that humanity could have run its course through the thousands of years, right to our twentieth century without philosophy as we know it. If the Greek culture had not existed, it would not have made the world a void. But the different preoccupations that get people interested in economics and politics, etc., or the way in which people plan and argue about such matters as we see in everyday life, do not produce philosophy. It is a very peculiar quality that somehow fitted the Greek genius which resulted in this tradition. And it has become part and parcel of all civilization. We speak of the Age of Pericles, about the year 450 before Our Lord, as a great classical age. It is the flowering of all the ideals of civilization. And the ideals of civilization arise from a tremendous appreciation of the transcendent values: truth, goodness, beauty. Every person has some taste of these values. Every nation, every civilization has an acquaintance with them, but the dedication in terms of excellence in every one of these fields that arose among the Greek people was peculiar to them. The genius that was poured on these disciplines because of this dedication (dedication to every civilized discipline: architecture, sculpture, painting, poetry, drama, math, astronomy, geometry, music, etc.) was so far beyond the achievement of any other nation, that every other classical age since that time has merely tried to imitate this first classical age, the Greek age. It was in that same age that philosophy flowered.

The Greek civilization did not begin with philosophy. It began with a corrupt part of religious inheritance that the whole human race received from our common father, Adam, and even from our common father, Noah. (Every man living today is also a descendant of Noah.) This was first expressed in poetry. The first teacher of the Greek people is Homer (9th century B.C.); the second is Hesiod (8th century B.C.). They lived centuries before the philosophers. Philosophy begins about the year 600 B.C., a very important date for us who know sacred history — this is about the time of the major prophets. Roughly speaking, it is where we date Isaias, Jeremias, Ezechiel and Daniel. It is the time when the Holy Ghost revealed to men through these great prophets the exact time and circumstances of the coming of the Saviour Who is the center, the crown, the Heart of all human history. After that, there was to be a long period in which prophecy as such was put to silence in expectation of the final appearance on the stage of history of the Son of God.

So at the time that the Jewish people were giving us the greatest that was given to men by way of revealed wisdom, the Greeks were producing their counterpart on the natural plane. Inspired by the ideal of wisdom, those Greek sages, who called themselves lovers of wisdom, started what came to be the great tradition of philosophy. (Wisdom, we recall, is the most perfect knowledge of the most important truths in the right order of emphasis, accompanied by a total, permanent disposition to live accordingly.)

About the year 600 B.C., the whole Greek world was fascinated by this idea. And among the great leaders of the Greek people, seven persons stood out prominently as men of wisdom. They have come down the ages as a valuable part of philosophical tradition: the Seven Sages of Greece. The names of these Seven Sages were Solon, Chilo, Thales, Piticus, Periander, Cleobulus and Bias. We will focus only on two, and the reader is advised to remember these names: Solon and Thales.

All seven of these sages except Thales were not only wise men, but were also rulers of city-states. Their wisdom was expressed not by propositions of truths that can be called true or false, but by little commands, counsels, or injunctions. If one were to visit a sage, he should expect to hear something from the wise man which would strike like a little spiritual bullet: very compact and precise. If he were a superficial person, then he would just dismiss what he heard, and forget all about it. But if he were a deep person, he would spend the rest of his life trying to fathom all the depth that the sages words contain. We will present here some of these counsels. The reader will notice that they are pithy statements and they are all in the imperative. The general tone is: “If you come to me for counsel, well, take this as a counsel. You build your life on this principle. Don’t ask me why. Don’t ask me how I arrived at it. I am reputed for being a wise man because I have done a lot of genuine thinking. And if you want my advice, this is it.”

Here is a maxim of Solon of Athens: Arce prwton maqwn arcesqai (Arche proton mathon archesthai). It means, “before you rule, learn to be ruled.”

This maxim is in the imperative mood. It is not a proposition. We should remember that a proposition is something that can be true or false. We cannot say whether “before you rule, learn to be ruled” is true or false. The sage just presents it as advice: “If you take me seriously and do it, you will find that you will achieve perfection. You will become a virtuous person.” In the Greek language it is expressed briefly, concisely, and effectively in only four words.

Another saying of Solon: Ta spoudaia meleta (Ta spoudaia meleta).

Now this word, meleta, is very important to the sages. All the sages talk about it. What does it mean? Like all great Greek maxims it is very hard to translate. It means diligence, application, real concern, interest. Enthusiasm might also be included in it. But it is not any one of these things alone; rather, it is all of them put together. Solon says, “Pursue worthy aims.” This is the closest translation there is to capturing the full meaning of the maxim, but it is still not complete. When we start reading these statements, we want to know a little bit more of the Greek language. Greek is a spirit, it is not just a way of expressing simple propositions. If one were to tell the story of what is happening in Boston today, it would be just as good in English as in classical Greek or Latin. But to express these deep wisdoms there is something that can never be reproduced in the vernacular, because they reflect the spirit of that people that gave us philosophy, gave us science, gave us the greatest ideas of beauty and art, and gave us a philosophy of law and government.

Our debt to the Greeks is something that we will learn to appreciate when we come to the golden chain of philosophers: Socrates, who taught Plato; Plato, who taught Aristotle. And whom did Aristotle teach? Alexander the Great.1

Another principle that Solon gave: Noun hgemona poiou (nun hegemona poiou). What does it say? “Make reason your guide,” which is the same as the first part of the conclusion we came to in the last chapter on ethics. Catholics did not discover this principle, but we have adopted it. It is a value of such importance that everybody who has ever made a contribution to civilization has thought in terms of it, and anyone who wants to achieve virtue practices it. What is a virtuous man? A man who is guided by reason. And to that we Christians add, “and his reason is illuminated by grace.” With this addition one becomes more than a virtuous man, he becomes a true Christian and a saint.

Another maxim of Solon is Mh kakois omilei (Me kakois homilei), which means, “don’t have conversation with the wicked.” Homilei means have “conversation with.” The word “conversation,” even as Holy Scripture uses it, does not simply mean talk or discussion, but it means any kind of contact with a person. The sense of the maxim, then is, “Don’t deal with in any way, don’t be part of, the culture of the society of the wicked.” This little statement of Solon is more needed today than it was in his own time. We could scarcely imagine how many people are being ruined because they ignore this principle. They have conversation with the wicked; and today this conversation is easier than ever. People can sit down and watch television or listen to the radio and have immoral people attracting them into sin. Before they know it, they have the same culture as the people whom they watch and hear. If one wants to be great, if he wants to be pure, if he wants to be heroic, noble, and virtuous, then he must seek the companionship of those who share the same ideals. How simple a principle this is, expressed in three simple Greek words. Yet a whole culture, a whole civilization is resident in them.

Another counsel of Solon: Filous mh tacu ktw; ous d’an kthsh mh apodokimaze (Philous me tachu kto; hous d’an ktese me apodokimaze) It means, “don’t make friends quickly, but once you make one, hold on to him.” Now, someone who understands the ethics of Philosophia Perennis will see the insight in this statement. It was obviously made by a person who really has a sense of the preciousness of the human person. Most often when we speak to a person, we treat him superficially (and that is all we are as creatures of sense — superficial); we do not realize that we are missing an eternal value. When we begin to consider the suffering, worries, concerns, fears, and aspirations that could be hiding under that countenance which can seem happy or even indifferent, we treat that person differently. What a tremendous difference there would be in the way men treat men if they had a genuine realization of the reality of what a human being is. That is the kind of wisdom in action that can be found in the saints.2

When we move from the study of what man is to the study of what God is, then there is genuine adoration — adoration in spirit and truth. That is the function of philosophy, to make us grow into the realization of truth and to have morality follow from that realization. There are many of these maxims of the sages from which we can choose examples, but in this introduction, there is only time to offer a tiny sample to make the student aware of the type of wisdom that the sages can give us. Most of the sages use the same manner of utterance as Solon: the command. But while they are all giving commands or counsels, not one of them is affirming a truth. The above statement by Solon is related to ethics, but it is not yet ethics. The reader should recall that philosophic ethics is the science of the reality of the human being as a moral entity; and the real philosopher behaves not by command, but by appreciation of what is real.

Now we find the wisdom of the sages and true philosophy meeting in Thales of Miletus (c. 585 B.C.). Thales was the only one among the Seven Sages who was not a ruler. But he is also the only one who is considered to be not only a sage, but also a philosopher. And indeed, every history of philosophy begins with Thales of Miletus. Thus, the first philosopher is also one of the Seven Sages. We will notice that his manner of talking is propositional. What does that mean? It is not a command, but an affirmation of a truth. On that difference is the step from being a sage to being a philosopher. The philosophers are also sages, but in a manner which is seeking after the truth first, not after goodness by way of counsel.

Thales affirmed that: Ai yucai aqanatoi (Hai psuchai athanatoi): “the [human] soul is immortal.”

That is a tremendous realization. We know it from revelation, but we can also know it from sound thinking, as we will prove in the book on psychology. Here is a sage who has come to that tremendous realization. There is an enormous gulf between a man who knows this fact and one who does not. If we did not believe in immortality, we would all start living like pagans. Every single thing we do as Christians, from day to day, from morning to night, presupposes that we do believe we are going to live forever.

Thales, the only one among the sages who is recognized as being a philosopher, was the founder of what is called the physical school. Let us recall the terminology with which we started. How many types of philosophy did the Greeks have? Physical, logical and ethical. So, the first school of Greek philosophy was the one that began to ask questions about the nature of things — therefore, we call it physical.

In answer to the question, “What is the nature of things?” Thales says Arch twn pantwn udwr (Arche ton panton hudor): “The principle of all things is water.” We do not quite know why he said that. In all the early erroneous philosophies we see error, but we also see some truth that was beginning to dawn on their proponents without yet being fully captured. Although we do not really know why he said it, we can see that the statement shows some perception of a unity in all matter. Matter seems to move from one form to another. Thales thought that the principle of all that movement is in the nature of water. He could have said this with the meaning that water is the principle of life: i.e., without water all life ceases. More likely, though, he said it because he saw water take the form of solid, the form of gas, and the form of liquid. We say this because he was not only a sage and a philosopher, but also a scientist. He observed the eclipses and could foresee and forecast the next one. He visited Egypt to learn its wisdom. When the Egyptians said that they wanted to know how high a certain pyramid was, he measured the shadow of a stick, then measured the shadow of the pyramid and he told them how high the pyramid was. All those Egyptians had been living around that pyramid wondering at its tremendous height, and it took Thales to find the simple principle of how to measure it. He was a mathematician, an astronomer, and a scientist; but he was also a man who thought profoundly, and he saw water as the principle of behavior in all material things.

After Thales there came other philosophers who gave different answers to the question, “What is the nature of things?” One said, “No. It is not water, it is air” (Anaximenes). They all contradicted each other, yet we can see that the whole time, the principle of matter — the very notion that is going to become truly scientific philosophy with Aristotle — was slowly dawning on them all. They were perceiving some common principle in all material things. They were all trying to explain change in some way. We all observe that when we put a seed in a garden, it begins to grow into a small plant, then in a few years it has grown into a huge tree. Where did the body of that tree come from? It came from the sand, the air, the water, the sun, etc. But all these things had to submit their natures into the new substance that is the tree. Something continued. It is obviously not a question of something coming out of nothing. What was left behind were the forms of the previous substances. But that which continued from one to the other is the matter. Now, that concept — that very philosophic concept — was already beginning to dawn in the thinking of all those physicists. But not one of them completely grasped it.

Finally, in that school arose a great genius, Heraclitus, who did many things besides trying to answer the fundamental question of natural philosophy. (He did answer that too; and his answer was “fire.”) His is one of the more important names for us to remember in this history. There is no name that occurs more often in the early tradition of philosophy than the name of Heraclitus. Why did he fix on fire? Because in Heraclitus’ view of things, change is the fundamental reality. According to him all is flux, all is change, and there is nothing permanent. Fire was the best way to express this constant change. He expressed it very effectively by two words that have never been forgotten: Panta rhei (All things flow).

Actually, taken from the viewpoint of modern physics, Heraclitus came pretty close to the concept of energy. Fire is energy, and today we say in the final analysis that all things can be reduced into energy. In a limited sense, then, Heraclitus was right about the nature of matter. In other words, Heraclitus discovered the great mystery of change in the material universe. Ever since, this mystery has been a consideration for anybody who has seriously thought about the reality of the material universe. Some of the modern philosophers are speaking and writing exactly the way Heraciltus did. One example would be Whitehead. His whole philosophy gives us in modern terms the philosophy of Heraclitus: The only reality is process (change); and what is changing is not considered real. That is, nothing is changing; everything is just change.

This position challenges the very foundations of intelligence and thought. Unfortunately, it is one of the standard, recurrent sophistries that the human mind has never been able to completely throw away. It was out of the school of Heraclitus that some disciples came to the conclusion that if all changes, then there is no such thing as truth, because truth presupposes some permanent value. The correct position is that there is truth, and it is based on what is real. Change would not happen without a reality capable of changing. To illustrate this point, the waters over the Niagara are in process (change), but the law of gravity which keeps them going is something permanent.

There can be no science until the mind discovers what is permanent in the midst of flux. The activity of every being is a process, but what makes the being something intelligible, (something that the mind can grasp) is that something permanent can be perceived in the midst of the flux.

Historians speak of schools of philosophy that occurred in history. We say that every one is a school by virtue of being somewhat in error. That is why philosophy as such has no history. History, in the study of philosophy, is the story of error. But, in the early errors, there is something very fascinating, because there is some truth dawning in every one of them. These errors were efforts by the human mind to arrive at truth. In every school, there is the Enfant Terrible (Terrible Child): somebody who becomes so logical as to carry the thing to its obvious absurdity. Heraclitus said, “No one can jump into the same river twice,” because before he jumps the second time he is a different entity and the river is a different entity. Well, one of his disciples said, “No one can jump into the same river once!” He went from “Change is the only reality” to “There is no reality.” Now, if there is nothing that can be made that can stand as truth (if there is no reality), then there is no such thing as truth.

As an interesting side note, there is one thing about the Greeks that differs a little bit from modern professors of philosophy. A professor of philosophy today could be lecturing at Harvard, surrounded by luxury and opulence, while telling the students how terrible civilization is and how wonderful it is to be living the simple, natural life. But a Greek philosopher who had reached that conclusion would not be found lecturing at Harvard. He would be in a barrel out in the woods, as one of them actually was: Diogenes. The difference is that the Greeks were totally consumed by their philosophy. It was their religion, their ethics, and their vocation all in one. It puts them — even the ones with ridiculous errors — slightly above the sophists of today. Today’s philosophers will talk about how great Communism is, but they live in the United States so they can make a fortune selling their books on the free market. The Greeks were wrong and sincere about it; our sophists are wrong and hypocrites. When Alexander the Great came to visit Diogenes, being fascinated by the latter’s reputation, he announced, “I am Alexander, the King.” The philosopher replied, “And I am Diogenes, the cynic.” Alexander said, “What can I do for you?” To which Diogenes replied, “Get out of my sun!” Such episodes were common in the lives of these men who acted on their philosophy.

One day, someone finally asked Diogenes, “Well, if there is no truth, what should the philosopher do?” He did not bother answering, because if he answered, he would be affirming that something was true, thus he would be contradicting himself. So all he did was wiggle his finger. In other words, “Just join the flux; become part of the flow.”

Returning to the physicists and summing them up, if everything is fire, then everything flows and everything is in movement. Change is everything. That marks the end of the school of the physicists.

Concurrent with this physical school (known as the Ionian, from its location on the shores of Asia Minor), there existed in the West another school whose leader was Parmenides. Parmenides was from a town called Elea, which lies in a section of Italy then considered to have been part of greater Greece. His name is just as much a part of the history of philosophy as that of Heraclitus. He reasoned that truth can be known, and that our knowledge is of what is permanent. Therefore, what is permanent is the only thing that is real. Change is nothing but illusion. What is real has to be one, indivisible, permanent, changeless. This could sound to us as though he was talking about God, but he was talking about the material universe. He ended up being a Pantheist — everything is god and god is everything. He stands in contrast to Heraclitus: one school exaggerated change; the other denied change completely.

The Enfant Terrible of the school of Elea was a man by the name of Zeno.3 Zeno said, “Change is not real.” And he formulated many good arguments to prove his thesis. (We do not have the time to go into them here. That would be a tremendous distraction for this brief introduction.)

So, here we have two schools of error awaiting the brilliant mind of Aristotle to tell us the truth, to give us a true philosophy of matter, a true definition of change; to give us the elements of a material substance, and to lay the foundation for sound cosmology.

So far in our study one school was affirming one thing, the other was completely denying it, and each of them produced what seemed to be excellent arguments. Any sophist could sway someone who had not done thinking in that field. So, if one gives the sophists his mind without previous foundation in sound thought, without the capability to discover fallacy or to uncover sophistry, it is very easy to be deceived. These were not stupid people. They had tremendous intelligence, and they could fool one who is not prepared. The confusion that resulted from these clashes of different views led to one thing: Skepticism, the school of thought which claimed that nobody can find out the truth about nature. According to the skeptics, what we can do is teach people how to be great, or how to be successful: “We can teach you how to be a politician. We can teach you how to win cases in the law. We can make you successful.” They charged money for their services, while the philosophers were very generous with their wisdom. The philosophers thought that wisdom was too precious to be sold for money; while the skeptics practiced something equivalent to our conception of simony. That is why Socrates was angry with these Sophists who charged for teaching what they pretended to be wisdom.

What were the effects of the Sophists in the development of philosophy? Some of them were good. As they moved their interest from material things to the study of logic, they developed a correct science of inference (almost as an accident of their sophistry). But apart from this positive contribution, sophistry, as condemned by Socrates, has left its imprint on all succeeding ages. One of the famous Sophists is Protagoras (c. 500 B.C.). It was said of him that he was the first to say there are two sides to every question. Anyone strictly holding to this must come to a state of mind such that he cannot have any convictions, or any foundation for noble, heroic activity. Everything is perceived to be vague and indefinite. This is relativism. Protagoras is also famous for having said that man is the measure of all things. And by that he meant that every man is entitled to his own philosophy, to his own morality, to his own religion. Of course, this is with us in the world today.

Sophistry led to the school of the Skeptics, the people who say that we cannot be sure of anything: we cannot even trust our senses. A modern skeptic could be teaching skepticism in the lecture hall and still behave fairly normally on the street. But that is not good philosophy to a Greek. If we were to have a real Greek Skeptic in our midst, we would have to watch him so that he would not get killed by the cars in the street. Somebody would always have to be with him, pushing him out of harm’s way. He just could not trust his own senses or his own judgment.

The Enfant Terrible in that school is a man by the name of Gorgias (c.480 B.C.). It has been said of the Greeks that even when they were wrong they could be interestingly so. They phrased error in such a fascinating way that it became unforgettable. This was certainly true of Gorgias. He wrote three books. Those three books express the three great denials that are found in all sophistry. The first book was written to prove that there is no truth. The second was to prove that even if there were truth, no one could know it. And then the third book was to prove that, even if there were truth and somebody knew it, he could never tell it to anyone else. When one has uttered these three denials, there need be no fourth. These denials are a counterpart — a negative — of the three major realities: there is truth, it is knowable, and it is communicable. The whole life and thought of Socrates was a contradiction of the three denials of Gorgias: He affirmed that there is truth, that it can be known, and when it is known, it can be communicated. (The fact that the student is reading this book proves that he agrees with Socrates and not with Gorgias.)

Going back to the seven wise men, by agreement they met together once. All seven of them went to the famous temple of Wisdom at Delphi. (That temple honored the god of wisdom, Apollo.) Each of them had suggestions for wise inscriptions over the entrance of the temple. When everyone had presented his list, then the seven of them agreed on two inscriptions. These two were inscribed at the entrance of the Temple of Wisdom: Gnwqi seauton (Gnothi seauton): “know thyself;” and Mhden agan (Meden agan) “nothing too much.”

Now, while the Sophists were still spreading their errors, there came a great genius, the founder of philosophy as we know it today, Socrates. He went around proving to people that they were not observing those two great maxims of the seven sages. Their first offense was that they did not know themselves. A great part of knowing oneself is to know how much one does not know. (And it is only when we know how much we do not know, that we realize the need for God to give us true knowledge.)

Socrates was acting purely on the natural plane, but as we will say over and over again, everything good on the natural plane is a sound foundation for grace. So Socrates went to tell people, in short, that they did not know what they were talking about. He started asking them, “What do you mean by justice?” “What do you mean by virtue?” And so forth. And every time they made a statement, he led them by further questions to a contradiction of their first reply. He made them see that they were contradicting themselves. That is the whole point of the dialogues of Plato in which Socrates is generally the protagonist and the hero. Among the things that Socrates said was, “The crown of all philosophy, of all wisdom, is a philosophy of morals.” After Socrates — and that would be from 400 B.C. almost down to the rest of ancient Greek history — there are the schools of philosophy which emphasize ethics. That is the third phase.

What are the principal schools of ethics? The two that flourished right up to the time of Our Lord and are mentioned in the Epistles of St. Paul are the Stoics and the Epicureans. The Stoics hold up virtue for virtue’s sake. Duty is the supreme principle of morality. To the Stoics, even joy or innocent pleasure must be shunned as being opposed to reason and to moral duty. One Stoic said, “I would rather go mad than taste of pleasure.” Now a critique of the ethics of duty would be a very important thing, because it is the ethics of duty that has given us all the totalitarian systems of our time. On the opposite side is a system of ethics that says the aim of moral action is the satisfaction of all desire: Epicureanism. Socrates, hearing an Epicurean claim a man is happy when he satisfies his desires, said to him, “Therefore, the happiest man is one who has an eternal itch and is eternally scratching it.”

Another one of these ethical schools is that of the Skeptics, who say that the only thing that bothers us — what is truly harmful — is becoming dogmatic; thinking we have something of certainty. If we were skeptical — if we would doubt everything — then nothing would bother us.

Well, all these post-Socratic ethical schools which lasted throughout the centuries until the coming of Christianity certainly gave us something to think about. All of them agreed on three ideals of ethical wisdom. They agreed that a philosopher should attain Ataraxia, Autarkeia, and Euteleia, but they did not agree on how he could attain these qualities. These are three important values, but all we can do here is mention them. (One fascinating study would be to relate them to the three counsels of perfection of religious life: Poverty, Chastity and Obedience. But we cannot even begin to touch upon that here.)

The first quality is Ataraxia. It means that a philosopher should not allow anything to perturb him. Now when people today say, “He took it philosophically,” that is what they mean. It is the suppression of all our emotions and our passions, becoming almost like a rock: “Nothing can bother me.”

The next quality is Autarkeia. It means independence. In a way, this is a pagan practice of trying to compete with God. The philosopher does not depend on anybody or anything.

The third is Euteleia. It corresponds a little bit to the virtue of poverty. Euteles in Greek means “cheap.” When the world today, which is not at all philosophical, brags about having the most expensive things — the nicest, plush Cadillac, etc. — the philosopher responds with a smile of pity. That is why they say that Socrates went window shopping to enjoy all the things he could live without, while most people went window shopping — as people still do today — to see how many things they desire to have.

There is a story about a philosopher who lived in the woods. He thought that he had achieved the three ideals of wisdom. He reduced all his needs to one bowl, which he could use for many purposes, but especially to draw water. When he saw a little boy getting the water up in his hands, he said, “This boy taught me a greater Euteleia,” and he hurled his bowl as far as it would go.

1 Alexander is a unique conqueror in history. The world has known many, many conquerors: from Sennacherib to Genghis Khan. But there was something peculiar about Alexander. He went forth with great enthusiasm for wisdom, for beauty, for the ideals of Greek civilization. He spread the Greek culture in the whole world. That is what we call the Hellenistic civilization. Hellenism is not the Greek speaking Greek. It is everybody speaking Greek just to be cultured, to be educated. (Like Saint Paul, who was a Hellenistic Jew)

2 Read the marvelous story of St. Peter Claver. Who could read that story and not realize that that kind of ethics is super-ethics? Read how the Saint used to receive the poor, sick slaves in Cartageña, whom he instructed and baptized by the thousands. He not only nursed them and waited upon them, but kissed their sores! That kind of behavior cannot arise from sociological theories or ethical commands. It has to arise from the penetration, contemplation, and appreciation of something real.

3 To be distinguished from the founder of the school of the Stoics, whose name was also Zeno.