Philosophers attempt to overcome their sensual/physical nature to grasp truer reality via the intellect, and to seek an occasional glimpse of reality in everyday experience. This web page attempts to show the essential progress of this effort over the centuries, which has opened the door to a merging of human reason and mystical enlightenment.
Thales of Miletus, around 624 BC
All is one and the vital forces in the world are from the gods.
Pythagoras, around 571 BC
Numbers provide the principles of all, including matter and the meaning of the cosmos, especially music and astronomy.
Heraclitus of Ephesus, active 504 BC
All is one. There is even unity in opposites.
Parmenides, active 501 BC
There is truth as compared to seeming. The truth is that reality is one. Truth is unchanging and can be apprehended by thought. But seeming involves opposites which leads to errors.
Zeno of Elea, active 464 BC
There are more paradoxes for a plural, divided universe than for a unified universe.
A typical paradox: Can you infinitely subdivide a finite
segment of time? Or can you end up with a segment of time that is
not divisible? Logic fails to solve this dilemma
-Achilles can never catch a tortoise in theory.) Reasoning thus conflicts with experience/appearance/sense. This raises issues about reality.
Socrates, born 469 BC
Turned philosophy away from physics. His emphasis was the seeking of virtuous living.
Plato, around 428-347 BC (follower of
Socrates and teacher of Aristotle)
Ideas are reality; material objects are imitations. Ideas are eternal, unchanging, known by intellect. There is a dualistic reality: a temporal world of physical objects (experienced by the senses); and a timeless world of ideal Forms (comprehended by the mind via abstract thinking).
Forms function as a pattern for physical objects, the basis of
standards of conduct and as objects of genuine knowledge. For
example, you can intellectually grasp the essence of the form of
Humans occupy a transient world, but also, like the Forms,
humans are eternal souls that exist before birth and after death.
Plato: One fulfills the purpose of life by pursuing
knowledge of eternal reality, giving up inessential physical
satisfaction, and finally earning release from the cycle of birth
and death into the eternal realm of Good itself.
Platonic concept: The basic element of reality is the abstract form reflected in material objects.
Aristotle, 384-322 BC
All conclusions should be drawn from observed data using argument and reasoning. Except for God and other immaterial forms, all forms are composed of matter. Matter and form provides the basis for explaining the world. The essence of a human being cant be separated from its material existence. Man can know the nature of God: a nonreligious first cause.
Epicurus, 341-270 BC,
Lived a secluded, austere life with his followers. Goal of life: stay free from things that disturb, including avoidance of pain or fear. Fear is an emotion that distracts from the true purpose of life. Death is not to be feared.
Pursued a pleasure of the soul, or pleasure of the mind, which
included avoidance of the competitive life of politics,
Humans should exercise free will since the gods arent
concerned with us. Individuals are responsible for their own
happiness (rather than depending on the outside world).
Perception is the path to knowledge.
Zeno of Citium, around 335-263 BC (founder of
Because nature is rational (and thus perfect), one should live in accord with nature. Everything that happens in life is fate. Dont waste time trying to control fate, but instead control your emotions. But even though lifes events are preordained, you are still responsible for your own actions and conduct. Given this situation, morality is the most rational response you can have.
Epictetus, around 50-135 (Ideal model of a
A human is governed by his sense of reason. The goal of philosophy is to lead a virtuous life. It helps to distinguish between what you can and cant control.
He believed in a simple life that was focused on
discerning the will of the Logos, not on acquiring material
comforts. (Logos is the rational principle of the
cosmos, i.e. the universal force controlling the universe.)
A wise person uses reason to act in accord with Logos; this brings a harmonious and virtuous life. A Stoics life must accept tragic results as well in order to be one with the Logos. A Stoic must be free from emotion, including desires and passions, which leads to true freedom. A virtuous life is that of a philosopher who discerns the will of the Logos and isnt distracted by trivial desires and cravings.
Plotinus, 205 AD
When the soul dominates the body, it leads to harmony with a higher reality. But when the body dominates the soul, it disperses the soul among individual physical things which demand attention.
Everyones goal should be to contemplate and participate in the higher reality. Instead of your self seeing objects as separate, you can achieve a state of seeing that results in unity between your self and those objects. This is similar to the state of consciousness when someone is totally absorbed in reading a book.
Ibn al-Arabi, 1165-1240 (Islamic Sufi
Need to distinguish Gods and Mans perspective of time and eternity: For God, eternity includes all time visible at once, while man is trapped in a flow of time with only a moment that is visible. This moment is still an aspect of the divine.
The goal for man should be a mystical connection, symbolized by polishing of the mirror by being completely attuned to the divine. Then God is realized in the mirror of human consciousness and there is no duality. This is a continual process, not a single moment of mystical experience.
Rene Descartes, 1596-1650 (originator of the
framework of modern philosophy)
Reason is the source of all knowledge, an intellectual tool to be used. The starting point of philosophy is the relationship between the mind and the world.
All knowledge based on your senses or on some authority must
be doubted. The only thing that cannot be doubted is
ones own doubting (cogito ergo sum). Thus, human is a
Our reality is made up of minds and bodies. Man is a thinking
mind in a material body. This is Cartesian dualism: a close
connection exists between mind and brain, but they are still
separate. Our mind and body interact, even though they exist in
different realms. What connects our minds to our brains?
We cant doubt that we exist as thinking beings but we can doubt that we have physical bodys as we perceive them.
Blaise Pascal, 1623-1662
Claims an intense religious experience when he crossed the Seine during a storm.
In response to Montaignes argument that people are
unable to know anything for certain because reason alone is
insufficient: Pascal believed that knowledge can also come
through intuition and divine revelation.
He is the source of the famous wager: maybe God exists, or
maybe not. But it is better to bet that he exists. There is
nothing to lose if he doesnt exist (and you live a morally
upright life). But there is hell to pay if God does exist.
However, there were flaws in his wager that were pointed out by others, particularly that it implies a moralistic judgmental God (which contradicts Pascals view of God).
Benedict de Spinoza, 1632-1677
All is God; God is the one substance or Nature (the physical universe). God has an infinity of attributes, like Thought. One of the modes of Thought is the human mind.
The human mind can conceive of only two aspects: thought (ideas) and extension of thought (bodies). Thought and extension are different aspects of one substance.
Humans should seek knowledge of God; this is the intellectual
love of God
This rational understanding of being brings human freedom from passivity and suffering
George Berkeley, 1685-1753 (founder of
Explained the relationship between ideas of the human mind and external reality. Experience, not reason, is source of human knowledge (from John Locke).
No reality exists outside the mind. Matter only exists when
perceived by the human mind. But humans dont know for sure
if ideas that arise from their experience are true, unless
repeating the same experience produces the same idea or
perception or insight.
The external world is produced by the mind; there is no
matter. But ideas are faint, unsteady, uncertain; what is
perceived by the senses seems more real.
All is a sign or effect of the power of God; this is imprinted on our minds.
David Hume, 1711-1776
He destroyed empiricism, leading to the growth of unreason. He was an atheist who denied any spiritual substance.
He believed reason is derived from nothing but
custom and ideas can be misleading, as a fantasy is
misleading. Reason cant judge reality; everything is
He brought reason and the Enlightenment to a dead end.
Immanuel Kant, 1724-1804 (foremost
Each individual unconsciously organizes sensory input according to the minds own rules. These rules are based on an individuals conditioning of human sensibility, understanding and reason. Apart from this structure, the world is unknowable (because all knowledge is filtered by our minds).
God, soul, free will and other underlying realities are also
unknowable: they dont emit sensory information for humans
to perceive. Thus there is thus no truth in the traditional claim
to knowledge about God and immortality, etc. because those lie
beyond sensory experience.
Although knowledge of metaphysics is impossible, ones reason creates moral duties.
Johann Gottlieb Fichte, 1762-1814
We each can recognize our own self. The self then perceives its own limits as existing in time and space.
God is moral will of the universe. The goal should be a life of reason in order to perceive the divine order of the universe. His writings suggest a mystical union between God and the human self.
The ultimate reality is mind or spirit. However, individual minds are unaware of the oneness in the ultimate Mind. An individual mind is thus alienated from itself (i.e. the ultimate Mind). The goal should be for individual minds to become aware of One Mind.
(Side note: Karl Marx offered an atheistic version of this concept of alienation. He proposed that self-serving individual human natures can be unified into overall human oneness by overturning evil capitalism, leading to utopia. This idea continues to entice the naive and idealistic and to be exploited by the ruling and elite classes.)
Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1803-1882 (pioneer of
Transcendentalism attempts to find ultimate religious meaning by transcending the limitations of the physical world and achieving a consciousness of the non-physical universe.
All established teachings, especially religions and social
custom, destroy freedom of thought, human freedom, individuality,
Reality exists in an individuals relation to nature.
Self-reliance is crucial. Individuals can find enlightened self-awareness in their souls. In essence, a man changes his own world.
Soren Aabye Kierkegaard, 1813-1855
Only by detaching yourself from conventional world views can you discover the meaning of life.
There are three styles of living: aesthetic (focused on
personal satisfaction), ethical (focused on moral obligation and
commitment to others) and religious (focused on an active
relationship with God). Only the religious version can lead to
A natural progression for an individual is to begin with the aesthetic stage, where he escapes boredom and pain by seeking pleasure. But this leads to despair. Then in the ethical stage, he follows a duty and obedience to morality in pursuit of meaning. However, there is only meaninglessness in the end. Finally, he goes through a faith stage. This involves acknowledging his limits and deepest fears. As a result, if he behaves rationally and tries to overcome those limits and fears, he will seek a relationship to God on a continuous basis.
Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, 1831-1891 (founder
of Theosophical Movement)
Attempted to merge Eastern spirituality and Western thought. Had a major influence on New Age thought.
Matter and spirit are contained in a universal Reality. All souls are intertwined with an Oversoul which belongs to the ultimate Reality.
William James, 1842-1910
He believed that the existence of the divine was established by the abundance of human religious experience.
The events you experience are very important, especially in their pattern. Events are not experienced in isolation, but as part of an external world which comes to you as a stream of consciousness. This joins all experiences together and provides meaning.
Martin Buber, 1878-1965 (Jewish
Parallel of human relations to man and God: I and it vs. I and you.
For I and it: you see another person as a thing;
i.e. there is distance separating the two of you. But for I
and you, you enter into a relationship with your whole
being (no separation). Only with I and you can there
be genuine dialogue and interaction with that other person.
This relationship between humans is a parallel to the relationship between man and God.
Jean-Paul Sartre, 1905-1980 (Existentialist)
Every human is tremendously free: all choices are his; he is fully responsible. No God exists and there is no purpose in human life. Meaning only surfaces after an individual dies, at which time others can evaluate the overall meaning.
Albert Camus, 1913-1960 (Existentialist
His novels describe the absurdity of human life.
He believed death makes life meaningless since an individual
cant make sense of his experience. For Camus, the
fundamental question is that of suicide. If life is absurd, why
bother to live on?
He finds human dignity in the awareness that hope is pointless, with no supernatural power or meaning, and that living is only meaningful in this absurd struggle because human life is sacred. This struggle against despair is the theme of his novels.
Jiddu Krishnamurti, 1895-1986
Considered world teacher of the Theosophical Society until he disavowed the idea in 1929.
Believed that truth is a pathless land, not to be
achieved through any organization, creed, dogma, priest or
ritual, philosophic knowledge or psychological technique.
Instead, he taught that achievement of truth requires
self-knowledge in the mirror of relationship, not as an
intellectual exercise but instead as a complete awareness, free
of all conditioning from society and culture, leading to absolute
silence of the mind. This offers freedom from the known.
But this only occurs when the thinker is not there. The mind cant know the unknowable, but by understanding and transcending the known, we can open our minds to a higher experience.
This leads to the conclusion that the essential quality is genuine humility, without which the seeker is blind to his dilemma and on a fruitless path (from a talk he gave in India in 1956):
"As they are now, our minds are obviously very small,
petty, limited, conditioned; and though a small mind may
speculate about that otherness, its speculations will always be
small. It may formulate an ideal state, conceive and describe
that otherness, but its conception will still be within the
limitations of the little mind, and I think that is where the
clue lies -- in seeing that the mind cannot possibly experience
that otherness by living it, formulating it, or speculating about
With that mind we try to discover the unknowable; and to
realize that such a mind can never discover the unknowable, is
really an extraordinary experience. To realize that, however
cunning, however subtle, however erudite one's mind may be, it
cannot possibly understand that otherness -- this realization in
itself brings about a certain factual comprehension and I think
it is the beginning of a way of looking at life which may open
the door to that otherness."