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AMERICAN UNIVERSITY OF BEIRUT
Civilization Sequence Program
CVSP 202
Fall 2015-2016
LECTURE 1
‘Philosophical Background’
[Prepared by Dr Nader El-Bizri / presented by Mr. Mahmoud Youness]
The ancient Greek legacies in philosophy, in particular the thoughts and experiences of Plato,
Aristotle, and Plotinus, influenced the intellectual history of the Abrahamic monotheistic traditions of
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, from late antiquity to the 13th century (This document offers simplified
and adapted highlights about some of the main concepts of this ancient Greek philosophical background).
*******
PLATO
[ca. 427–347 BC]
Πλάτων / ‫أفالطون‬
‘The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it
consists of a series of footnotes to Plato’ [Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality:
An Essay in Cosmology (1929)]
The ‘Simile of the Cave’ (Plato’s Republic 514a-521b)
Imagine a group of people who lived chained in a cave all their lives, and facing a blank wall on
which shadows are projected from objects situated in front of a fire behind them. They ascribe
forms to these shadows, and this is the closest they get to reality and truth. Unlike them, the
philosophers are freed prisoners from the cave who understand that the shadows on the wall do
not make up reality, and who also grasp the true form of the real and its source of illumination,
rather than being fixated on mere shadows and appearances. They generally believe that their
duty is to free the chained others by giving them knowledge in order to distinguish
truth/reality from appearances.
A Theory of Forms
Prior to Socrates and Plato (in Pre-Socratic times), there were two main Ancient Greek
conceptions of reality in the 6th and 5th centuries BC. One was static (as represented by
Parmenides) and the second dynamic (as represented by Heraclitus). According to the first,
reality is one, undifferentiated, and immutable, while the second grasped reality as constantly
changing and in flux. Plato attempted to bridge this divide by distinguishing the sensory
material changing world of appearances (the spatial-temporal cosmos of motion, sense
perception, and of particular things) from the intelligible and immaterial realm of the
unchanging and eternal reality (the domain of rest, abstract forms, ideas, and universals).
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The immutable ‘Forms’ (or ‘Ideas’) are exemplars and archetypes, which are copied and
imitated as models in the formation of the mutable objects of sense perception. A Form (eidos)
or an idea would be akin to the essence of something. For example: the universal form or idea
of ‘whiteness’ characterizes all particular instances of white things in the world; similarly, the
universal form or idea of a ‘square’ characterizes all the particular things in the world (bodies
and drawings) that have the shape of a square.
A Conception of ‘God’ as ‘Demiurge’ (‘Artisan Godhead’)
An artisan Godhead, the Demiurge, acts on pre-existing matter to produce the cosmos of
sensory perception as an orderly configuration analogical to the shapes of the archetypal
models of the eternal Forms. The Demiurge does not create the eternal matter, but brings
order to it as inspired by the pre-existing Forms (The four elements of air, water, fire, and
earth have specific shapes as geometric solids, which are constituted from miniscule triangles.
Acquiring knowledge about reality rests on geometry and abstract reasoning).
*******
ARISTOTLE
[384 – 322 BC]
Ἀριστοτέλης / ‫أرسطوطاليس‬
Cultivated in Plato’s academy in Athens, Aristotle developed his independent own philosophy,
which was as influential as that of his mentor. His millennial longstanding legacy earned him the title:
‘The First Teacher’.
Like Plato, Aristotle's philosophy aimed at universals, which he found in particular
things. He called this: the ‘essence’ of things. His thesis implied an ascent from the study of
particular phenomena to the knowledge of essences, while Plato’s method also entailed a
descent from the knowledge of universal forms (or ideas) to an assessment of particular
imitations of them in the world of sense perception.
Motion from Potentiality to Actuality
Natural Philosophy is a branch of ancient inquiry that studies the phenomena and entities of
nature, as composites of matter and form. It includes physics, biology, and other natural
sciences.
Motion (kinesis) is the principle of spatial-temporal change in nature. It is of various
kinds: (i) growth and diminution: as a change in quantity; (ii) locomotion: as a displacement in
space; (iii) alteration: as a modification in quality; etc.
The generation of something (its birth or coming about) embodies the motion of
bringing it forth from potentiality to actuality, as the happening of its form in matter through
the connection between causes and their respective effects.
The Four Causes
The generation of a given thing in the motion of bringing it from potentiality to actuality is
attributed to four simultaneous active causes: material, formal, efficient, and teleological.
Citing these four causes in a reasoned explanation is necessary and sufficient.
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Let us take the case of a wooden table as an example:
(1) Its material cause is the matter from which it is made, namely: wood.
(2) Its formal cause is the configuration of its matter, namely its form: as a model that
existed in the mind of the carpenter, in the drawing of the table’s geometric shape, and as
actualized in carving and cutting the wood to make it.
(3) Its efficient cause is the primary source from which a change or its ending is
initiated. It refers to the agent that causes change, and sets a thing in motion. In this context,
it is the maker (the carpenter) as engaged in the acts of producing the wooden table.
(4) Its teleological cause (from telos; end), is the final purpose or reason for which it
exists and is made to serve. It encompasses volition, need, and motivation; like the aim of
making a wooden table for dining purposes and other uses.
Ten Categories (ways of accounting for beings in their being)
A thing-in-itself as substance is the subject of predicates other than itself, which are its
attributes. A property-bearer is distinguished from the properties it bears:
SUBSTANCE
Quality
Quantity
Relation
Place
Time
Position
Possession
Action
Affection
in its primary sense it refers to a specific individual being (Socrates)
characterizes the kind and nature of something (educated, Greek)
answers the question ‘how much?’ (double, half)
being towards something (the parent of a child)
answers the question ‘where?’ (auditorium, marketplace)
answers the question ‘when?’ (now, tomorrow)
location [of the parts of a body] (standing here, sitting there)
state of having something (wearing glasses, having knowledge)
acting upon something (cutting, carving, lifting)
being affected by an other (motivated by the attentiveness of students)
A Conception of ‘God’ as ‘Unmoved Mover’
The Unmoved Mover lets nature flow in its causal course by imparting motion on it. It is the
ultimate primary cause of all there is in the universe without itself being in motion or caused.
*******
PLOTINUS
[ca. 204/5–270/1 CE]
Πλωτῖνος / ‫أفلوطين‬
Plotinus’ legacy gives a mystical expression of Platonism whilst responding critically to
the Aristotelian doctrines, and in certain respects also reconciling them with some of Plato’s
teachings (Plotinus’ tradition is more commonly known as ‘Neo-Platonism’).
A Conception of ‘God’ as ‘The ONE’
‘Being’ (existence) applies to all the finite changing entities of sense experience. The ONE, as
the ultimate source and causal principle of reality, is necessarily above the realm of the senses
and transcends the world of finite things and of human experience. As the generator of Being,
‘The ONE is beyond being!’ as a pure simplex, an unbroken unity, perfection, and absoluteness.
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Emanation
All beings issue forth from The ONE as their primeval ultimate origin by necessity, and they
are emanated as such through intermediaries. The basic principle of this emanation is that: it is
necessary that the less perfect proceed in a flux from the more perfect. This describes a grand
hierarchical ‘chain of being’ that is causal and animated by imitative (mimetic) analogies:
‘The ONE’
(Akin to Plato’s ‘Good’ as the Form of all forms)
↓
Universal Intellect
(Nous – Akin to Plato’s Demiurge)
↓
World Soul
↓
<Individual souls>
↓
Physical Universe / Matter
The first emanation from The ONE is the Universal Intellect. The Platonic Forms and
Ideas are gathered in it. This Intellect is akin to Plato’s Demiurge, without being distinct from
the Forms and Ideas that it uses as models in shaping the cosmos. The Intellect is beyond
time, and grasps all things in an eternal present.
The World Soul, as an emanation from the Intellect, is the link between the realm of the
Forms and Ideas, as found in the Intellect, and the sensible/sensory universe.
The emanation of the cosmos from The ONE is like being illuminated by rays of light
from the sun: (i) the sun and its rays are distinct; (ii) although the rays of the sun are dependent
on it, the sun itself does not exist without its rays; (iii) yet, as the rays become more distant
from their source and origin, they lose the intensity of their brilliance, and eventually fade away
into the darkness of opaque matter.
Plotinus focused on the triad: The ONE, Intellect, and World Soul, whilst subsequent
Neo-Platonists added more intermediaries between The ONE and the physical universe in a
great ‘chain of being’ (or a ‘scala naturae’, as a ‘ladder of nature’ and a hierarchical structure in
ordering life and matter).
*******
Selected references (entries on Aristotle, Plato, Plotinus, and their legacies):
STANFORD ENCYCLOPEDIA OF PHILOSOPHY
http://plato.stanford.edu/
ROUTLEDGE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF PHILOSOPHY
http://www.rep.routledge.com/
[N.B.: The contents of this document are simplified and adapted to meet the CVSP 202 requirements]
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