As used originally by the ancient Greeks, the term philosophy meant the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. The term philosophy is often used popularly to mean a set of basic values and attitudes toward life, nature, and society-thus the phrase “philosophy of life.” Western philosophy is considered generally to have begun in ancient Greece as speculation about the underlying nature of the physical world. In its earliest form it was indistinguishable from natural science. The writings of the earliest philosophers no longer exist, except for a few fragments cited by Aristotle and by other writers of later times.
Plato’s own theory of knowledge is found in the Republic, particularly in his discussion of the image of the divided line and the myth of the cave. In the former, Plato distinguishes between two levels of awareness: opinion and knowledge. Claims or assertions about the physical or visible world, including both common-sense observations and the propositions of science, are opinions only. Some of these opinions are well founded; some are not; but none of them counts as genuine knowledge. The higher level of awareness is knowledge, because there reason, rather than sense experience, is involved. Reason, properly used, results in intellectual insights that are certain, and the objects of these rational insights are the abiding universals, the eternal Forms or substances that constitute the real world.
Plato divides the human soul into three parts: the rational part, the will, and the appetites. Freud’s psychoanalytic theory is very similar to Plato’s theory on the constituents of the psyche, but he defines it as the superego, the ego and the id. According to Plato, a just person is the one in whom the rational element, supported by the will, controls the appetites. An obvious analogy exists here with the threefold class structure of the state, in which the enlightened philosopher-kings, supported by the soldiers, govern the rest of society.
Plato’s ethical theory rests on the assumption that virtue is knowledge and can be taught, which has to be understood in terms of his theory of Forms. The ultimate Form for Plato is the Form of the Good, and knowledge of this Form is the source of guidance in moral decision making. Plato also argued that to know the good is to do the good. The consequence of this is that anyone who behaves immorally does so out of ignorance. This conclusion follows from Plato’s conviction that the moral person is the truly happy person, and because individuals always desire their own happiness, they always desire to do that which is morally good.
The theory of Ideas, which is expressed in many of his dialogues, particularly the Republic and the Parmenides, divides existence into two realms, an metaphysical realm (intelligible realm) of perfect, eternal, and invisible Ideas, or Forms, and a physical realm (sensible realm) of concrete, familiar objects. Trees, stones, human bodies, and other objects that can be known through the senses are for Plato unreal, shadowy, and imperfect copies of the Ideas. He was led to this apparently bizarre conclusion by his high standard of knowledge, which required that all genuine objects of knowledge be described without contradiction. Because all objects perceived by the senses undergo change, an assertion made about such objects at one time will not be true at a later time. According to Plato, these objects are not completely real. Beliefs derived from experience of such objects are therefore vague and unreliable, whereas the principles of mathematics and philosophy, discovered by inner meditation on the Ideas, constitute the only knowledge worthy of the name.
In the Republic, Plato described humanity as imprisoned in a cave and mistaking shadows on the wall for reality; he regarded the philosopher as the person who penetrates the world outside the cave of ignorance and achieves a vision of the true reality, the realm of Ideas. Plato’s concept of the Absolute Idea of the Good, which is the highest Form and includes all others, has been a main source of pantheistic and mystical religious doctrines in Western culture.
Plato’s theory of Ideas and his rationalistic view of knowledge formed the foundation for his ethical and social idealism. The realm of eternal Ideas provides the standards or ideals according to which all objects and actions should be judged. The philosophical person, who refrains from sensual pleasures and searches instead for knowledge of abstract principles, finds in these ideals the modes for personal behavior and social institutions. Personal virtue consists in a harmonious relation among the faculties of the soul. Social justice consists in harmony among the classes of society. The ideal state of a sound mind in a sound body requires that the intellect control the desires and passions, as the ideal state of society requires that the wisest individuals rule the pleasure-seeking masses. Truth, beauty, and justice coincide in the Idea of the Good, according to Plato; therefore, art that expresses moral values is the best art. In his rather conservative social program, Plato supported the censorship of art, regarding art as an instrument for the moral education of youth.
The process of reconciling the Greek emphasis on reason with the emphasis on religious emotion in the teachings of Christ and the apostles found eloquent expression in the writings of Saint Augustine. He developed a system of thought that, through subsequent amendments and elaborations, eventually became the authoritative doctrine of Christianity. Augustine argued that religious faith and philosophical understanding are complementary rather than opposed and that one must “believe in order to understand and understand in order to believe.” He considered the soul a higher form of existence than the body and taught that knowledge consists in the contemplation of Platonic ideas that have been purified of both sensation and imagery.
The Platonic philosophy was combined with the Christian concept of a personal God who created the world and predestined its course, and with the doctrine of the fall of humanity, requiring the divine incarnation in Christ. Augustine attempted to provide rational solutions to the problems of free will and predestination, the existence of evil in a world created by a perfect and all-powerful God, and the three persons in one nature attributed to God in the doctrine of the Trinity.
Saint Augustine conceived of history as a dramatic struggle between the good in humanity, as expressed in loyalty to the “city of God,” or community of saints, and the evil in humanity, as embodied in the earthly city with its material values. His view of human life was profoundly pessimistic, asserting that happiness is impossible in the world of the living, where even with good fortune, which is rare, awareness of approaching death would impair humans tendency to enjoy satisfaction. He believed further that without the religious virtues of faith, hope, and charity, which require divine grace to be attained, a person cannot develop the natural virtues of courage, justice, temperance, and wisdom. His analyses of time, memory, and inner religious experience have been a source of inspiration for metaphysical and mystical thought.
On the other hand, there were not only great western philosophers, but also brilliant eastern thinkers and philosophies and religions. Daoism is a Chinese philosophical and religious system, dating from about the 4th century BC. Among native Chinese schools of thought, the influence of Daoism has been second only to that of Confucianism.
The essential Daoist philosophical and mystical beliefs can be found in the Daode Jing (Tao-te Ching, Classic of the Way and Its Power), a composite text dating from about the 3rd century BC and attributed to the historical figure Laozi (Lao-tzu), and in the Zhuangzi (Chuang-tzu), a book of parables and allegories also dating from the 3rd century BC but attributed to the philosopher Zhuangzi. Whereas Confucianism urged the individual to conform to the standards of an ideal social system, Daoism maintained that the individual should ignore the dictates of society and seek only to conform with the underlying pattern of the universe, the Dao (or Tao, meaning “way”), which can neither be described in words nor conceived in thought. To be in accord with Dao, one has to “do nothing” (wuwei)-that is, nothing strained, artificial, or unnatural. Through spontaneous compliance with the impulses of one’s own essential nature and by emptying oneself of all doctrines and knowledge, one achieves unity with the Dao and derives from it a mystical power. This power enables one to transcend all mundane distinctions, even the distinction of life and death. At the sociopolitical level, the Daoists called for a return to primitive agrarian life.
Unsuited to the development of an explicit political theory, Daoism exerted its greatest influence on Chinese aesthetics, hygiene, and religion. Alongside the philosophical and mystical Daoism discussed above, Daoism also developed on a popular level as a cult in which immortality was sought through magic and the use of various elixirs. Experimentation in alchemy gave way to the development, between the 3rd and 6th centuries, of various hygiene cults that sought to prolong life. These developed into a general hygiene system, still practiced, that stresses regular breathing and concentration to prevent disease and promote longevity.
About the 2nd century AD, popular Daoist religious organizations concerned with faith healing began to appear. Subsequently, under the influence of Buddhism, Daoist religious groups adopted institutional monasticism and a concern for spiritual afterlife rather than bodily immortality. The basic organization of these groups was the local parish, which supported a Daoist priest with its contributions. Daoism was recognized as the official religion of China for several brief periods. Various Daoist sects eventually developed, and in 1019 the leader of one of these was given an extensive tract of land in Jiangxi (Kiangsi) Province. The successors of this patriarch maintained control over this tract and nominal supremacy over local Daoist clergy until 1927, when they were ousted by the Chinese Communists. In contemporary China, religious Daoism has tended to merge with popular Buddhism and other religions.
Confucianism a major system of thought in China, developed from the teachings of Confucius and his disciples, and concerned with the principles of good conduct, practical wisdom, and proper social relationships. Confucianism has influenced the Chinese attitude toward life, set the patterns of living and standards of social value, and provided the background for Chinese political theories and institutions. It has spread from China to Korea, Japan, and Vietnam and has aroused interest among Western scholars.
Although Confucianism became the official ideology of the Chinese state, it has never existed as an established religion with a church and priesthood. Chinese scholars honored Confucius as a great teacher and sage but did not worship him as a personal god. Nor did Confucius himself ever claim divinity. Unlike Christian churches, the temples built to Confucius were not places in which organized community groups gathered to worship, but public edifices designed for annual ceremonies, especially on the philosopher’s birthday. Several attempts to deify Confucius and to change Confucianism failed because of the essentially secular nature of the philosophy.
The principles of Confucianism are contained in the nine ancient Chinese works handed down by Confucius and his followers, who lived in an age of great philosophic activity. These writings can be divided into two groups: the Five Classics and the Four Books.
The keynote of Confucian ethics is jen, variously translated as “love,”"goodness,”"humanity,” and “human-heartedness.”Jen is a supreme virtue representing human qualities at their best. In human relations, construed as those between one person and another, jen is manifested in chung, or faithfulness to oneself and others, and shu, or altruism, best expressed in the Confucian golden rule, “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.” Other important Confucian virtues include righteousness, propriety, integrity, and filial piety. One who possesses all these virtues becomes a ch n-tzu (perfect gentleman). Politically, Confucius advocated a paternalistic government in which the sovereign is benevolent and honorable and the subjects are respectful and obedient. The ruler should cultivate moral perfection in order to set a good example to the people. In education Confucius upheld the theory, remarkable for the feudal period in which he lived, that “in education, there is no class distinction.”
In the political chaos that followed the fall of the Han dynasty, Confucianism was overshadowed by the rival philosophies of Daoism (Taoism) and Buddhism, and the philosophy suffered a temporary setback. Nevertheless, the Confucian Classics continued to be the chief source of learning for scholars, and with the restoration of peace and prosperity in the Tang (T’ang) dynasty (618-907), the spread of Confucianism was encouraged. The monopoly of learning by Confucian scholars once again ensured them the highest bureaucratic positions. Confucianism returned as an orthodox state teaching.
The intellectual activities of the Song (Sung) dynasty (960-1279) gave rise to a new system of Confucian thought based on a mixture of Buddhist and Daoist (Taoist) elements; the new school of Confucianism was known as Neo-Confucianism. The scholars who evolved this intellectual system were themselves well versed in the other two philosophies. Although primarily teachers of ethics, they were also interested in the theories of the universe and the origin of human nature.
Neo-Confucianism branched out into two schools of philosophy. The foremost exponent of one school was Chu Hsi, an eminent thinker second only to Confucius and Mencius in prestige, who established a new philosophical foundation for the teachings of Confucianism by organizing scholarly opinion into a cohesive system. According to the Neo-Confucianist system Chu Hsi represented, all objects in nature are composed of two inherent forces: li, an immaterial universal principle or law; and ch’i, the substance of which all material things are made. Whereas ch’i may change and dissolve, li, the underlying law of the myriad things, remains constant and indestructible. Chu Hsi further identifies the li in humankind with human nature, which is essentially the same for all people. Those who receive a ch’i that is blurred will find their original nature obscured and should cleanse their nature to restore its purity. Purity can be achieved by extending one’s knowledge of the li in each individual object. When, after much sustained effort, one has investigated and comprehended the universal li or natural law inherent in all animate and inanimate objects, one becomes a sage.
Opposed to the li (law) school is the hsin (mind) school of Neo-Confucianism. The chief exponent of the hsin school was Wang Yang-ming, who taught the unity of knowledge and practice. His major proposition was that “apart from the mind, neither law nor object” exists. In the mind, he asserted, are embodied all the laws of nature, and nothing exists without the mind. One’s supreme effort should be to develop “the intuitive knowledge” of the mind, not through the study or investigation of natural law, but through intense thought and calm meditation.
Toward the end of the 19th century the reaction against Neo-Confucian metaphysics took a different turn. Instead of confining themselves to textual studies, Confucian scholars took an active interest in politics and formulated reform programs based on Confucian
The Chinese Communist victory of 1949 underlined the uncertain future of Confucianism and Taoist. Many religious-baised traditions were put aside. Few religious classics were published, and official campaigns against Confucianism were organized in the late 1960s and early ’70s.