Esoteric Philosophy: part one
An occult investigation of the founders of Greek Philosophy and their ideas
The primary aim of this investigation is to introduce those seeking occult knowledge and truth to an important but often neglected avenue of study: Esoteric Philosophy. We emphasise the word 'esoteric', for although there is much of value in what is called 'modern philosophy', it does not provide us with the answers to the great questions of Life and the Universe. For this, we must travel back in time to ancient Greece to Plato and those philosophers who preceded him.
No attempt has been made to provide an exhaustive review of Philosophy. This would take a great many books and still not cover a fraction of the ground. What is attempted is to bring together the more significant ideas from the earlier philosophers, beginning with Thales in the 4th century B.C. and reaching as far as Proclus—the last of the Neoplatonists, in the 5th century A.D. Those who wish to pursue these ideas in greater depth will find a short list of the principal sources we have drawn on for this investigation in the further reading list in the sidebar.
In this first part of our investigation we shall examine the Philosophical Systems of the ancient Greeks. In the second part we look at the doctrines of the Neoplatonists who followed in the footsteps of Plato, whilst in the final part we shall consider the ideas of some of the leading lights of modern philosophy.
In our usual afterword—which is continued in the second and third parts of this investigation we briefly examine the life and teachings of Plato and his contribution to Western philosophy, science and Christian theology. Whatever your previous knowledge of philosophy or Occult Science, or even if you have never studied these subjects at all, we venture to hope that you will find much to interest and enlighten you in this investigation. Part two was published in September and part three in October 2018.
What is Philosophy?
Before we come to the founders of Greek Philosophy it is important to discover what Philosophy is and what we understand by the word, which nowadays may mean anything or nothing. The average person, and even the average thinking person whose thought has travelled along other than philosophical channels, is apt to disclaim any ability to understand Philosophy; and beneath the disclaimer often lurks a doubt whether the subject is worth understanding at all. The comparison of the philosopher to a "blind man in a dark coal cellar trying to find a black cat which isn't there" represents the opinion of many who in their own departments are by no means lacking in intelligence or knowledge. Yet philosophy is in fact only the attempt to think rigorously and consistently about the world and all its phenomena, a world which undeniably is there—or seems to be to our physical senses!
Some would argue that these problems are already dealt with by material science, but Occult Science answers this objection by pointing out that all the special sciences sooner or later reach a point, each in its own sphere, where the investigator cannot achieve significant and conclusive results unless he is something more than a specialist. This is very apparent today, especially in physics, although it is not always recognised. In the past this was not so, for all the present day sciences were thoroughly studied and known to the initiates of the Mystery Schools we have referred to in many of our articles.
Today, the physicist, investigating the ultimate constitution of matter in the dim light of the laws of his science, finds the entities with which he deals behaving in a way no longer amenable to those misunderstood and entirely wrong laws as we discuss in our articles on Why matter matters and the Occult Sun. There are many unexamined assumptions in all the material sciences, which it is the duty of philosophers to examine. And to examine does not necessarily mean to reject the premises of material science, but it may mean to question and qualify them in the light of our higher reason and the little-known or completely unknown Laws of Occult Science.
For make no mistake, the earliest Greek Philosophers were Scientists, and philosophy was a real Science—not mere verbiage, as it so often is in our own day. The word is composed of two Greek words ('philos' and 'sophia') whose meaning is intended to convey its hidden sense, and ought to be interpreted as "wisdom of love." Now it is in the last word, "love" that the esoteric significance of Philosophy lies hidden; for "love" does not stand here as a noun, nor does it mean "affection", or "fondness." It is the term used for the Greek word 'Eros', that primordial principle in divine creation, or the abstract desire in Nature for procreation, resulting in an everlasting series of phenomena. It means "divine love", that universal element of divine omnipresence spread throughout Nature. The "wisdom of love" or "philosophia" meant attraction to and love of everything hidden beneath objective phenomena and the knowledge thereof. Philosophy meant the highest Adeptship—love of an assimilation with Deity. In his modesty Pythagoras even refused to be called a Philosopher (or one who knows every hidden thing in things visible; cause and effect, or absolute Truth), and he called himself simply a sage, an aspirant to Philosophy, or to the Wisdom of Love—love in its exoteric meaning being as degraded in his times as it is today, being often nothing more than a synonym for physical passion, or 'sex'.
Having now learnt what Philosophy is and means, let us now consider a few of the primitive Greek philosophers and their ideas. By 'primitive' we do not mean crude or unsophisticated, but being the first, or earliest exponents of something—in this case philosophical enquiry into the hidden nature of all things—both visible and invisible.
Fyodor Bronnikov, — The Pythagoreans salute the Sun — oil on canvas, 1869
Thales of Miletus
The Greek philosopher and scientist, Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) tells us that the founder of Ionic physical philosophy, and therefore the founder of Greek Philosophy, was Thales of Miletus. The Greek biographer Diogenes Laërtius, who flourished 600 years later in the 3rd century A.D., states that Thales was born in the first year of the thirty-fifth Olympiad (640 B.C.) and his death occurred in the fifty-eighth Olympiad (548-545 B.C.)
Thales attained note as a scientific thinker and was regarded as the founder of Greek Philosophy because he discarded the mythical explanations of things, and asserted that a physical element, water, was the first principle of all things. In this he was mistaken, for this is not to be sought in our familiar H2O but in the protean 'water' or First Matter, from which all things are generated described in Genesis, chapter 1, in which we may read: "And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters." Thales represented this fluid cosmic matter as in continuous self-motion. He advocated, like his followers, the so-called hylozoistic theory, which represents matter as moving by, or from itself, and consequently animated. We shall discuss this theory in part three of this investigation. So Thales was on the right track, but mistook the physical phenomenon for the Spiritual noumenon. It is also important to add that it is only after Spirit has been infused into this primordial substance, that it is capable of movement, as the Bible also tells us in Genesis. Our regular readers will recall that we have discussed all this previously in our article on the Magic of Water.
There are various stories of Thales' travels, and in connection with accounts of his journeys in Egypt he is credited with introducing into Greece the knowledge of Geometry. Tradition also claims that he was a statesman, and as a practical thinker he is classed as one of the seven wise men. It is said that he stated that the earth floats on water. But this is a distortion of his teachings, the truth being that he observed that the nourishment of all things is moist, and that heat itself is generated and kept alive by moisture.
Thales said that "all things are full of gods," and in this he was right. There is no thing on earth that does not possess some interior force, and if this thing, whatever it may be, is brought in contact with its opposite number, then the one will draw something from the other, and the other will respond to this call. An example is the sun which gives life to the earth by a form of magnetism which is not yet understood by science. For this reason Thales also ascribed a soul to the magnet or lodestone, or magnetic oxide of iron. Now there is more in this statement than appears on the surface, and if you refer to our article on the Occult Sun, you will note that we say that the Earth is a magnet, as Paracelsus affirmed over 500 years ago. It is charged with one form of electricity, whilst the Sun, a very much larger and more powerful magnet, is charged with another. And if we remember that according to Occult Science the noumenon of electricity is Fohat, we see that Thales was not wrong to ascribe a soul to this moving, intelligent power. And all this links up with the Hermetic Laws of Attraction and Repulsion, Gender, Polarity and so on and so forth which we discuss in our series of twelve articles on Hermes and his teachings (see Further Reading list in the sidebar).
The metaphysical view: Anaximander
If we regard Thales as the first Greek physicist, we meet the first Greek metaphysician in the person of his somewhat younger countryman, Anaximander (610-546 B.C.) His answer to the question concerning the constitution of the Universe differs, in its contents as well as in its fundamentals, from that of Thales. Thales had sought to find the cosmic matter in the empirically known, and had seized upon what appears as the most completely mutable—physical water. If Anaximander was not content with this theory, it was on account of his pronounced principle that the cosmic matter must be thought of as infinite, so that it may not be thought to exhaust itself in its creations. From this it followed that the cosmic matter cannot be found among empirically given forms of matter, all of which are limited. Thus there remained for the definition of the cosmic matter only the quality of its spatial and temporal infinity.
Thales viewed the soul as something having the capacity to set up movement, which is true, of course, if you remember what we said just now about Fohat, which is the 'Spirit' of God moving upon the face of the waters, referred to in Genesis. Thales stated that the 'First Cause' is immovable, meaning that it is placed in the centre of a Kosmos, from which it radiates outwards. He knew the causes of eclipses and taught that the earth is spherical in form and in the midst (not the centre) of our solar system. He called plants 'living animals'; in other words: he recognised the vital life principle dwelling in them. He stated that the Mind in the Universe is God, and the All is endowed with soul and is full of spirits; while its divine moving power pervades the elementary 'water'.
Anaximander, on the other hand, called that 'water' the "Boundless", which was the first element and principle of the things that are. He was the first Greek Philosopher to make use of this term in describing the First Principle. He said it is neither water nor any of the other elements now recognised by science, but some other and different natural body which is boundless; and from it arise all the heavens and all the worlds which they contain. This is the occult Aether, not to be confused with Ether, the fifth element in the series Ether, Fire, Air, Water and Earth. So both Thales and Anaximander were right, the only difference between their ideas being the terminology each used, yet both were talking about the same principle in reality—the First Cause, or Primordial Matter.
From this First Cause all the different elements were separated by eternal movement. Anaximander said that the opposites inhering in the substratum, which is a boundless body, are separated out; and the 'opposites' are, hot and cold, moist and dry, etc. Therefore there is no first principle to the boundless but it is rather the first principle of other things. It encompasses all things and rules all things. And this Cause is divine, for it is deathless and indestructible. He said that cosmic matter in perpetual transformation creates out of itself world-systems, and again absorbs them, thus conforming to the Oriental Teachings which had reached Egypt, where this philosopher studied for some time in the last of the Mystery Schools. This statement, like many of his others, and those of the ancient philosophers, should not be taken literally. We have repeatedly pointed out the Ancient Wisdom was never set down in so many words, but always conveyed by way of myth, allegory and symbolism, and this fact cannot be emphasised strongly enough if we wish to obtain the slightest glimmer of truth from the ideas of the philosophers we are discussing.
The Physical view: Anaximenes
We must now pass from the metaphysical ideas of Anaximander to those of Anaximenes (585-528 B.C.) who once again sought the cosmic matter in the empirically known. Nevertheless, the reflections of Anaximander were not without influence upon his successor. When Anaximenes substituted air in place of the water of Thales as the first principle, he remained in agreement with Anaximander that the substance of matter was one and boundless. Yet he disagreed with him in holding that it was indeterminate, and for this reason stated that this principle was air. Air differs in rarity and density with different things. When it is very attenuated fire arises; when it is condensed wind, then cloud, when more condensed, water, earth, stones; and other things come from these. He also held to the idea that the movement by which the changes arise is itself eternal and unceasing.
In this, Anaximenes was unconsciously reprising the Eastern metaphysical doctrine of the 'Great Breath' first introduced to the West by H. P. Blavatsky in her translations of the Book of Dzyan, described and elucidated in The Secret Doctrine we have so often referred to in our articles. In it we may read: "The appearance and disappearance of the Universe are pictured as an outbreathing and inbreathing of 'the Great Breath', which is eternal, and which, being Motion, is one of the three aspects of the Absolute—Abstract Space and Time being the other two."
With the destruction of Miletus after the Battle of Lade (494 B.C.) and the fall of the independence of Ionia, the first development of Greek Science along the lines of natural philosophy—the Milesian School—came to an end. When, a generation after Anaximenes, in another Ionian city, Ephesus, the great scientific theory of Heraclitus appeared, the new theory did not leave the old theory unused. Heraclitus (535-475 B.C.), on the other hand, joined the old theory of religious and metaphysical problems which had appeared in the meantime in other directions. These developments in Greek philosophical thought found their expression in the philosophers of the Eleactic School and the metaphysical conflict between them and Heraclitus.
Xenophanes, Parmenides and Zeno
The first of these was Xenophanes (flourished about 530 B.C.) In the Fragments attributed to him we find the following sayings: "There is one God, supreme among gods and men; resembling mortals neither in form or mind. The whole of Him sees, the whole of Him thinks, the whole of Him hears. Without toil he rules all things by the power of His mind. And he stays always in the same place, nor moves at all; for it is not seemly that he wander about now here, now there. But mortals fancy gods are born, wear clothes, and have voice and form like themselves." There is not much wrong with this from the perspective of Occult Science as you will have noted yourself. Upon Empedoclus remarking to Xenophanes that it was impossible to find a wise man he replied; "Very likely; it takes a wise man to know a wise man when he finds one." We are sure you have heard this expression yourself, now you know where it came from, and it is as true today as it was when Xenophanes uttered it more than 2,500 years ago!
Xenophanes taught that a mixture of land and sea came into being, and that in course of time this was resolved into its parts under the influence of the moist element. And he adduces such proofs as these: Fossils are found in the midst of the land and on mountains; and in the quarries of Syracuse the imprints of a fish and of seals have been found; and at Paros the imprint of a sardine deep in stone; and at Malta traces of all sorts of things of the sea. And he says that these are made when, long ago, all things were mud, and the imprint was dried in the mud. And when the earth, having sunk in the sea, becomes mud once more, all men will disappear. Then a new creation will begin. And this change happens to all worlds. From the various discoveries of modern palaeontologists, archaeologists and biologists you will know that he was not so far out in his reasoning.
Next came Parmenides, who flourished about 495 B.C. One of his fragments On Truth contains the following: "Listen, and I will instruct thee—and thou, when thou hearest, shall ponder—what are the sole two paths of research that are open to thinking? One path is: That Being doth be, and Non-Being is not: this is the way of conviction, for Truth follows hard in her footsteps. The other path is: That Being is not, and Non-Being must be; this one, I tell thee in Truth, is an all-incredible pathway. For thou never canst know what is not (for none can conceive it), nor canst thou give it expression, for one thing are Thinking and Being."
Xenophanes was the first of these early philosophers to assert the essential unity of all things. Although Parmenides is generally regarded as his disciple, he made nothing very clear, as you will have surmised from the foregoing fragment, which can mean anything or nothing! He does not seem to have reached any firm conclusions as to the nature of that unity; but, gazing up into the broad heavens, he simply declared: "The ONE is GOD." This is not wrong, but on the other hand, it does not explain very much either!
Zeno (about 465 B.C.) is the next in this timeline. In Plato's famous dialogue Parmenides, Zeno is represented as reading his work to Socrates and a few others. Before the conclusion of the reading Parmenides enters. After Zeno has finished reading a discussion ensues, part of which we quote here, Socrates is speaking:
"In all that you say, Zeno, have you any other purpose except to disprove the being of the many? And is not each division of your treatise intended to furnish a separate proof of this, there being in all as many proofs of the not-being as you have composed arguments? Is that your meaning, or have I misunderstood you?"
"No", said Zeno, "you have correctly understood my general purpose."
"I see, Parmenides," said Socrates, "that Zeno would like to be with you not only in friendship but your second self in his writings too; he puts what you say another way, and would fain make believe that he is telling us something which is new. For you, in your poems, say, The All is one, and of this you adduce excellent proofs; and he on the other hand says, There is no many; and on behalf of this he offers overwhelming evidence. You affirm unity, he denies plurality. And so you deceive the world into believing that you are saying different things when really you are saying much the same. This is a strain of art beyond the reach of most of us."
We would add that it is an 'art' beyond us too, but then as we saw earlier when we discussed the seeming contradictions between the ideas of Thales and Anaximander, Parmenides and Zeno, the only difference between their ideas are the ways in which they expressed their personal realisation of the same fundamental truths. Words can be so very misleading, especially when dealing with the profound truths we have been discussing. The next philosopher which we shall consider—Heraclitus—makes this difficulty clear in the first of the Fragments attributed to him. But before we have a look at this, it is appropriate that we tell you what little is known about this peer among the early Greek philosophers.
Unknown artist — The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus — speculative reconstruction
Heraclitus (flourished around 505 B.C.) was a native of the city of Ephesus, then part of the Persian Empire. Born into an aristocratic family, he was proud of being self-taught and was unsparing in his criticism of his predecessors and contemporary thinkers, among them Parmenides and Zeno! While History regards him as one of the most important pre-Socratic philosophers, we would go further, and see in him a genuine Sage who was in tune with the Eternal Verities, which is why, more than any other philosopher we have discussed so far, his teachings are in almost compete accord with those of Occult Science. He was famous for criticizing the generally accepted conventional wisdom of his day, which as we have seen in many of our articles, is simply a synonym for the most dire ignorance!
Almost nothing remains of the writings of Heraclitus apart from his Fragments, which consist of just 139 short statements that have come down to us from his disciples and biographers. Foremost amongst his works that have perished is On Nature, a philosophical treatise divided into three discourses; one on the universe, another on ethics and one on theology. Diogenes Laërtius tells us that Heraclitus deposited his book, inscribed on a single papyrus roll, as a dedication in the great temple of Artemis, at Ephesus. As recently as the time of the early Church Father, Clement of Alexandria (flourished about 180 A.D.), if not later, this book was available in its original form to any reader who chose to seek it out. Diogenes further says: "the book acquired such fame that it produced partisans of his philosophy who were called Heracliteans." What happened to it we shall never know, though given the approximate time of its disappearance (2nd century A.D.) we may conjecture that it was amongst the countless books incinerated by the early Christian Church in its fanatical endeavours to obliterate every trace of the hated 'pagan' religions that threatened to reveal its impostures and hinder its rising dominance in the Graeco-Roman world.
So, without further preamble, let us see what good things we may discover in the Fragments of Heraclitus that survived the depredations of time and the despoiling hands of men. We will begin at the beginning, with Fragment number 1, in which we find The Word, or 'Logos'. Heraclitus says:
"This Word (Logos) is everlasting, but men are unable to comprehend it before they have heard it or even after they have heard it the first time. Although everything happens in accordance with this Word, they behave like inexperienced men whenever they make trial of words and deeds such as I declare, as I analyse each thing according to its nature and show what it is. But other men have no idea what they are doing when awake, just as they forget what they do when they are asleep."
In these enigmatical lines we find a number of hidden Occult Truths which will be as obscure to the average 'philosopher' as they are to the scholars who have attempted to interpret what Heraclitus really meant by them. For once we are not going to give you our interpretation. But we will give you a few clues. The first is that by 'Word' Heraclitus meant exactly what the Apostle John meant by it in the verses from his gospel we have quoted in several of our articles: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made" (John 1:1-3). The second is that 'sleeping' and 'waking' have other meanings than the purely literal and obvious. Remember what we said earlier about allegory and symbolism!
Heraclitus goes on: "One ought to follow the lead of that which is common to all men. But though the Word (Logos) is common to all, yet most men live as if each had a private wisdom of his own. Most men have no comprehension even of such things as they meet with, nor do they understand what they experience though they themselves think they do."
In this instance we may take the above quite literally, and we are sure you will agree with Heraclitus, as we do. It also goes to prove that humanity was the same 2,500 years ago as it is today and will still be the same another 2,500 years hence. Food for thought indeed! He states further: "Man is kindled and put out like a light in the night time. There await men after death things they do not expect or dream of. Right many things must men know who are lovers of wisdom. Wisdom is one thing; it is to know the thought by which all things are guided. You could not discover the boundaries of the soul though you tried every path, so deep does its reasons (Logos) reach down."
Here we will help you and explain that this is a plain allusion to the true Divine Soul and Higher Self. But let Heraclitus continue: "One to me is as good as ten thousand if he be but the best. It is wise to hearken not to me, but to the Word." We repeatedly say the same in all our articles. Don't listen to us, but to the great messengers who have revealed God's wisdom to us. The fragment goes on: "The immortal are mortal, the mortal immortal, each living in the other's death and dying in the other's life. Man is called a child by God, as a boy is by a man. The most beautiful ape is ugly compared with the human race. The wisest man compared with God is like an ape in wisdom, in beauty, and in everything else. It is hard to contend against the heart; for it is ready to sell the soul to purchase its desires. (Here we have a clear allusion to the eternal struggle between Higher and lower self). All things flow; nothing abides."
But read Heraclitus' Fragments for yourself. You can find the translations we have quoted above on the Internet. These have been taken from Charles M. Bakewell's Source Book in Ancient Philosophy.
Raphael — detail from the School of Athens — tempera fresco, 1509-1511
The advance from the speculations in nature-philosophy of the Milesians to the conceptional investigations in Being and Becoming of Heraclitus and his Eleactic opponents was the result of a reaction, which the conception of the world created by Ionian Science necessarily exerted upon the religious ideas of the Greeks. The monistic tendency which Science showed in seeking the unitary cosmic matter was in implicit opposition to polytheistic mythology, and necessarily became more and more accentuated. It was inevitable therefore, that Greek Science on the one hand should emphasise and reinforce the monistic suggestion which it found in the field of religious ideas, but on the other that it should fall so much the more into sharper opposition to the polytheism of the state religion.
The imperturbable champion of this conflict, the man who stands as the religious-philosophical link between the Milesian nature philosophy and the two great metaphysical systems of Heraclitus and Parmenides, and at the same time the man who is the messenger of philosophy from the East to the West, is Xenophanes. To him Antiquity referred as the first champion against the anthropomorphic element in the popular religion. He criticised the representation of gods in human form, and made sport of the poets who attributed to celestials the passions and sins of men as we told you earlier. He asserted the singleness of the highest and true God. According to his religious conviction, God is the original ground of all things, and to Him are due all attributes which the physicists had ascribed to the cosmic matter. Just the same argument that goes on today! In our next article we shall consider the philosophical doctrines of the Neoplatonists who followed after the pre-Socratic philosophers.
In our next article we look at the doctrines of the Neoplatonists who followed in the footsteps of Plato, whilst in the final part we shall consider the ideas of some of the leading lights of modern philosophy.
© Copyright occult-mysteries.org. Article published 12 August 2018. Updated 12 February 2023.