Ancient Philosophy
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Ancient Philosophy

Lao-Tzu, the Chinese philosopher
Lao-Tsu, the founder of Taoism

It is difficult to separate out philosophy (the love of wisdom) from religion. It is also hard to separate philosophy from science and mathematics. All of these are parts of people's search to make order out of nature: for the victory of nomos over physis. They are people trying to make sense out of the things that they see happening.

One set of ideas that philosophers look at is the problem of how people ought to behave. Is there such a thing as right and wrong? How can you tell what is right and what is wrong? Are right and wrong the same for all people, or do some people have different rules? Who made these rules? Or is happiness more important? We could call this ethics.

Some people who have been interested in ethics include:

the Babylonians who made the first written laws, the Egyptians who discussed the weighing of souls after death, the Hindus who wrote about reincarnation, the Jews who told the stories of the Garden of Eden and the Covenant with God, the Zoroastrians who divided the world into the Truth and the Lie, and the Buddhists who talked about how to escape reincarnation, the Chinese philosophers Lao Tsu, who urged people to live in harmony with nature, and Confucius, who thought people should do what was best for their community instead of for themselves, and the Greeks who said that the best way to happiness is to be good, and wrote plays like Iphigeneia or the Libation Bearers, the Romans like Cicero who were more interested in self-control and the good of society, and who also wrote systems of law, and Jesus, who talked about Heaven and Hell, or Christians like Augustine, who saw us preparing the way for the City of God, or like Dante, or Abelard.

Other philosophers are more interested in how the world works. Is there such a thing as Fate? Do people make their own futures, or are their futures decided for them by the gods? Can you change your fate? Can you know the future? This is sometimes called the problem of predestination.

Some people who have been interested in predestination include

the Sumerians, who wondered why people have to die when they do, the Babylonians, who studied the stars to learn the future, and invented astrology, the Jews, with the book of Job in the Bible, and with the works of Ezra and Nehemiah, the Greeks, in their system of oracles, and in plays like Oedipus Rex, and the Christians, who wondered why, if God could do anything, bad things happened to good people, and who asked what it meant to be good, if God controlled all our actions.

A third group of philosophers were more interested in the natural world than they were in people. Where did the world come from?, they asked. Who made it? Why did they make it? Who is it for? How does it all hang together? Does everything make some kind of sense, or is it just a random bunch of stuff?

Some people who have been interested in the natural world include

the Egyptians, who developed a lot of mathematical equations and formulas for describing the world, the Babylonians, who were great observers of space and the natural world,and had a detailed Creation story also,the Jews, with their related Creation story, and the Covenant again, the Greeks, who were more interested in classification of the natural world into sensible categories (especially Aristotle), the Romans like Lucretius, who also observed and explained, or the Gnostics and Neo-Platonists, who developed mathematical models of the natural world, Islamic scholars like Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd, later Jewish scholars like Maimonides, and the Christians, who developed the idea that God made the world for mankind, in order to prepare men and women for Heaven, or Thomas Aquinas.

Learn by doing: what do you think right and wrong mean?
More about Early Modern and Enlightenment philosophy

Bibliography and further reading about ancient and medieval philosophy:

More about Plato
More about Socrates
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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