The Spirituality of Ancient Greeks: Xenophanes, Parmenides, Prodicus, Gorgias and Socrates

Here is a beautiful analogy on the spiritual path, self-realization, and liberation:

“Plato has Socrates describe a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall from objects passing in front of a fire behind them, and give names to these shadows. The shadows are the prisoners’ reality. Socrates explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall are not reality at all, for he can perceive the true form of reality rather than the manufactured reality that is the shadows seen by the prisoners. The inmates of this place do not even desire to leave their prison, for they know no better life. The prisoners manage to break their bonds one day and discover that their reality was not what they thought it was. They discovered the sun, which Plato uses as an analogy for the fire that man cannot see behind. Like the fire that cast light on the walls of the cave, the human condition is forever bound to the impressions that are received through the senses. Even if these interpretations (or, in Kantian terminology, intuitions) are an absurd misrepresentation of reality, we cannot somehow break free from the bonds of our human condition – we cannot free ourselves from the phenomenal state just as the prisoners could not free themselves from their chains. If, however, we were to miraculously escape our bondage, we would find a world that we could not understand – the sun is incomprehensible for someone who has never seen it. In other words, we would encounter another “realm,” a place incomprehensible because, theoretically, it is the source of a higher reality than the one we have always known; it is the realm of pure Form, pure fact.”

Source: Ferguson, A. S. “Plato’s Simile of Light. Part II. The Allegory of the Cave (Continued).” The Classical Quarterly 16, no. 1 (1922): 15-28. http://www.jstor.org/stable/636164.

Immediate source: Wikipedia

This Allegory of a cave is narrated in his book ‘Republic’,  in which Plato is sharing what Socrates, his teacher taught him. We know about the teachings of Socrates only through Plato. He was the one who put them in writings. So, if one needs to understand Socrates, he has to read Plato.

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Plato’s Allegory of the Cave by Jan Saenredam, according to Cornelis van Haarlem, 1604, Albertina, Vienna. Image source: Wikipedia

This analogy is indeed a wonderful one. The prisoners who take the shadows to be more real than the fire which causes the shadow to appear. The same way, we take the changing appearances on the screen of the conscious subjective experience as more real than the constant screen of pure conscious subjective experience itself which is the knower of the appearances.

The thoughts on non-duality from Greek philosophers appear in the Greek literature as early as the Buddha’s time in India. So, the time around 600-400 BC seems to be a very important time when the world saw wise sophists in Greece, the scientists of the inner world like Buddha in India, and Lao Tzu in China. If North East India was the spiritual cradle of the East, then we can say that ancient Greek settlements were the spiritual cradles of the West.

Xenophanes (570 BC – 475 BC)

Xenophanes (570 BC – 475 BC) who was born in Colophon, a city of Greek settlements in Ionia (an ancient region on the central part of the western coast of Anatolia in present-day Turkey, the region nearest İzmir, which was historically Smyrna.) was probably the earliest known sophist who touched on certain important things. Xenophanes was a great poet. His poems were written in Ancient Greek poetic meters and were elegiac and iambic poetry.

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A fictionalized portrait of Xenophanes from a 17th-century engraving. Image source: Wikipedia

Xenophanes was probably one of the earliest known skeptics in the human history similar to Buddha. He questioned traditional beliefs and encouraged critical thinking. Here is one of his wonderful poems of skeptic nature:

But if cattle and horses and lions had hands
or could paint with their hands and create works such as men do,
horses like horses and cattle like cattle
also would depict the gods’ shapes and make their bodies
of such a sort as the form they themselves have.

Ethiopians say that their gods are snub–nosed [σιμούς] and black
Thracians that they are pale and red-haired

  • Diels-Kranz, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, Xenophanes frr. 15-16

Xenophanes was not an atheist though. He believed in a God who is beyond human morality, does not resemble the human form, cannot die or be born (God is divine thus eternal), no divine hierarchy exists, and who does not intervene in human affairs.

We at current times may not be able to agree with many of Xenophanes’s views. But he was one of the earliest philosophers who talked about something that I insist often in my blog posts. He made a clear distinction between what is belief and what is true knowledge. If you read a theological concept in a book and think that it has given some knowledge to you, according to Xenophane it is not a true knowledge but just a belief.

Parmenides of Elea (515 BC)

Parmenides of Elea (515 BC) seems to be the most important person in the Greek spiritual history… He is said to be the founder of metaphysics and ontology. I think he is probably one of the most underrated persons in the world.  He is said to be a pupil of Xenophanes. Here is an excerpt from http://www.parmenides-of-elea.net/. This is the same as Advaita Vedanta:

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Bust of Parmenides discovered at Velia, thought to have been partially modeled on a Metrodorus bust. Image source: Wikipedia

“According to Parmenides, existing cosmic space is not unlimited but is an enormous sphere. It is entirely filled by “Being”. “Being” is the only and homogeneous substance that, permeating all things (including human beings and the air) that our senses perceive in the cosmos, constitutes the cosmos itself. In fact, in the “vision” of the eleatic philosopher the cosmos is not composed of numerous entities – planets, stars, people, animals, trees, flowers, houses, mountains, clouds, etc., of different appearance and color, capable of transformation, movement, birth and death – that appear daily before our eyes, but consists of Being, which is an eternal, not generated, one, huge, limited, spherical, motionless substance, not becoming but always equal to itself, homogeneous, of the same density everywhere, not divided into multiple “things” but continuous. 
So: only Being exists. This Being, which is one, is perceived by humans as “broken” in many things, all the things that our deceptive sight daily sees:

To this One so many names will be assigned
as many are the things that mortals proposed, believing that they were true,
that they were born and perish, that they exist and do not exist,
that they changed the place and their bright color” (8,38-41)

Literal translation:
“It will have for name all things,
how many the mortals proposed, believing that they were true,
that they were born and perish, that they exist and do not [exist],
that they changed the place and their bright color” (8,38-41)”

It is really amazing to learn that all these concepts of non-duality existed among ancient Greeks at the same time when it was growing in India. 

Prodicus of Ceos (465 BC – c. 395 BC)

Prodicus of Ceos (465 BC – c. 395 BC) is said to be the teacher of Socrates in at least one lecture, as mentioned by some sources. He has done some good work on ethics and linguistics. He was pretty strict about the word usage.

We don’t have any information regarding his ontological views on reality. But he was certainly a skeptic:

“Prodicus, like some of his fellow Sophists, interpreted religion through the framework of naturalism. The gods he regarded as personifications of the sun, moon, rivers, fountains, and whatever else contributes to the comfort of our life, and he was sometimes charged with atheism. “His theory was that primitive man was so impressed with the gifts nature provided him for the furtherance of his life that he believed them to be the discovery of gods or themselves to embody the Godhead. This theory was not only remarkable for its rationalism but for its discernment of a close connection between religion and agriculture.” 

 –   From Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prodicus)

Gorgias  (485 – c. 380 BC)

Gorgias  (485 – c. 380 BC)  is another important person in the Greek spiritual history.  He was also a sophist who was born before Socrates but after Parmenides of Elea. He used to collect huge fees for teaching, a practice which was criticized by Socrates who was probably born a couple of decades later than him.

His famous work  was ‘On Nature or the Non-Existent’ in which he has argued the following:

Nothing exists;

2) Even if something exists, nothing can be known about it; and

3) Even if something can be known about it, knowledge about it can’t be communicated to others.

4) Even if it can be communicated, it cannot be understood.

This sounds like a nihilist view. But I can see that he is clearly talking about the same concept which is called as ‘Maya’ in Indian Tradition. The external world and all the sense perceptions we use to know the world are only appearances on the screen of conscious subjective experience. Nothing can be seen outside of it. So, he attests that the existence of these fleeting experiences can be doubted but you can never doubt the existence of self-evident conscious subjective experience which remains constant. So, what we call as objective in this sense is really an appearance on the screen of the subject. Read this for more details: https://nellaishanmugam.wordpress.com/2017/12/30/ramana-maharshi-and-the-cinema-screen-analogy/

Even though Socrates became very famous among all the Greek philosophers, all these people seemed to have played a great role in Greek spirituality. I will probably be doing further research on this too.  It will require a complete post to talk about Socrates. So I will reserve the topic of his teachings for a future blog post.

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