Western and Eastern Philosophy

Yannis Fikas, Ph.D. (Professor of Philosophy, Director Public Relations , New York College,  Athens.



The Presocratics

         The Presocratic philosophers of the 5th and 6th century BCE put forward universal principles based on which they interpreted all natural phenomena in their effort to harmonize the mythological world outlook with the scientific one. They laid the foundations of philosophy, directed the human intellect towards a rational perception of the world and developed cosmogony, cosmology, astronomy, mathematics, biology, anthropology and physics.

The Presocratics investigated the origin of the world and its species, the movement, shape and position of Earth, sought the natural causes and interpreted the natural phenomena based on the principle of cause and effect. Harmonizing reason with myth and science with philosophy, they managed to render the knowledge they acquired from temples and sanctuaries, accessible to all citizens.

According to their worldview, there is a primary substance -a law- that ensures the fundamental unity of the world. For every Presocratic philosopher this primary substance corresponds to the world of senses and particularly, to a distinct element of the natural world, such as fire, air and water. According to Guthrie, the reason why Presocratics choose a different substance to be the material principle (‘arche’) of the world is related to the special empirical approach of every philosopher. Thus, Thales of Miletus (6th century BCE) chose water; Anaximander of Miletus (612-545 BCE) infinite (‘apeiron’– undefined, unlimited substance without qualities); Anaximenes of Miletus (585-525 BCE) took for his principle air (‘aether’); Heraclitus of Ephesus (6th-5th century BCE) fire and Anaxagoras of Clazomenae (500-428 BCE) conceived mind (‘nous’) as an ordering principle.

It is noteworthy though that all the aforementioned philosophers express a harmonization of opposites that becomes evident from the different but complementary elements of nature which constitute the primary substances of their worldviews.

Only fragments from the works of Presocratic philosophers have been saved in the texts of later commentators. The texts through which the Presocratics’ mentality is approached are separated into authentic excerpts and indirect information concerning their life and teaching. Authentic excerpts can be found in the works of Plato, Aristotle, Theofrastus, Simplicius, Plutarch, Sextus Empiricus, Clement of Alexandria, Hippolitus, Diogenes Laertius and Aetius.

The main elements of the Presocratic mentality are the following: 

The Being

 For Presocratics the universe is united. The being, simple and indivisible, can be and “fill” all things and “inhabit” all places of the universe. The being is all things and encompasses all beings and in this way, everything lies in  everything. The characteristics of Parmenides’ being are similar to the characteristics of    Heraclitus’ Sophon

The Intellect

            The Presocratic philosophers believe that there is a universal intellect that contributes to the creation of things, enlightens the universe and leads nature to the creation of its species. The intellect creates the world in a fine architectural way and sets as a goal the perfection of the universe. It is the universal craftsperson, who creates in the superior world, which is united, as opposed to the perceptible world, which is divisible. It is the one that fertilizes the material world. This intellect is the mind of Anaxagoras that gave movement and order in the world and the word (logos) of Heraclitus.

       The Analogy 

            Anaximander, Anaximenes, Anaxagoras and Empedocles employ in their reasoning analogy as a method to lead the human intellect from the perceptual to the spiritual world. Pythagoras examined the stature, walk and bodily posture of the candidate members of his school and it was from the apparent physical characteristics of his students that he discerned the latent soul morals.

             The Movement

            Heraclitus believed that everything flows, that nothing remains still and by drawing a parallel between the evolution of species and the flow of a river he claimed that no man ever steps in the same river twice, because in nature everything moves and changes. Also, Empedocles reckoned that the entire world is driven by two powers, Love and Strife.

                   The harmonization of opposites

According to the theory of the harmonization of opposites, there are two primal cosmic energies, two poles of existence which are opposite but complementary to each other and are both manifestations of the one and only reality. It is from this dynamic interaction of these two cosmic energies that all world manifestations spring. An expression of these cosmic energies in the natural world is the succession of day and night.

            The two schools of Philosophy

Diogenis Laertius mentions with regard to the Presocratic philosophy :“ There were two schools of philosophy: The one begins with Anaximander and the other one with Pythagoras; the former was a student of Thales, whereas Pythagoras was taught by Pherecydes. The one school of philosophy was called ‘Ionian’, because Thales was an Ionian from Miletus and was a teacher of Anaximander, while the other school was called ‘Italian’ because of Pythagoras who for the most part philosophized in Italy…  In the first school the succession passes from Thales through Anaximander, Anaximenes, Anaxagoras, Archelaus, to Socrates…From Socrates come the rest of the Socratics and Plato… In the Italian school the order of succession is as follows: first Pherecydes, next Pythagoras, next his son Telauges, then Xenophanes, Parmenides,  Zeno of Elea, Leucippus, Democritus, who had many students, in particular, Nausiphanes and Naucydes, who were teachers of Epicurus”(I, 13-15).


Socrates is the one who turns the focus of philosophy from nature to humans and believes that the human purpose is the acquisition of wisdom and eudemonia.


The purpose of Socrates’ philosophy is not knowledge but the inner happiness of humans, eudemonia, which allows them to join the world of gods. Eudemonia leads the philosopher to the unity and harmonization of opposites. Virtue and happiness are for Socrates inseparable. According to Socrates, the cultivation of virtues leads to self control, self awareness and eudemonia.


Eros that Plato described with such plasticity in Symposium and Phaedrus is the cornerstone of education since it keeps humans alert, moulds them, transforms them and leads them to immortality and eudaimonia. Eros is a power of the Soul that opens the way for remembrance and self awareness and leads the Soul from the periphery to the center, from temporality to eternity, from pain to eudaimonia. Eros unites mortal human nature with immortal one, mortal knowledge with immortal, and time experience with the blissful vision of the idea.


            The  Indian philosophy

            According to Dimitris Velissaropoulos, the history of the Indian philosophy is divided into three main periods: the older period (1500 BC-1000 AD), the middle period (1000 AD-1750 AD) and the modern period (1750 AD-present).

The older period is further divided into four subperiods:

            The first sub period (1500-500 BC) is called Vedic from the name of the sacred hymns of the Aryans, the Vedas, which comprise the Rig-Veda, the Atharva-Veda, the Yajur-Veda, and the Sama-Veda. As time went by, Vedas were enriched with Brahmanas, which are texts containing instructions for the performance of the rituals of Aranyakas (900BC-800BC), the first meditation texts, and Upanishads (800BC), in which it is highlighted that the essence of the world, Brahman, identifies with the essence of the human, Atman, and that the absolute One and the secular multiplicity coexist in a harmonious way. During this period, Buddhism and Jainism were established and the two great Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata were composed. Among the principal stories in Mahabharata is the Bhagavat Gita, which is one of the most important works of Indian philosophy and ethics.

            The second sub period (500BC-200BC) is characterized by a first attempt of systemization of Vedas and Upanishad, which resulted in the creation of the texts called Sutras. Sutras are related with the correct vocal performance of Vedas, the rituals, the duties of the individual towards the state and the characteristics of humans depending on the caste to which they belong. Sutras also contain directions on the construction of temples.

            In the third sub period (200BC-300AD) some of the Puranas were composed, which are texts with the purpose of popularizing Vedas and Upanishad. During this period some of the great architectural works of Buddhism take place as well, and the schools of Buddhist sculpture, Gandhara and Mathura, appear. A further characteristic of this period is the establishment of the Buddhist school Hinayana, which declares individual salvation and the Buddhist school Mahayana, which introduced the concept of Bodhittsava, the savior who renounces the entrance to Nirvana in order to save humanity. Also, the theory of Avatara, meaning the representatives of the deity in the world, is formulated.       

            The fourth sub period (300AD-650AD) is the period of Puranas, texts which contain the biographies of avataras, kings and sages. During this period come the school of Shakti, the primordial cosmic energy and great divine mother, and the philosophy of Tantra, which adopts the main elements of Shakti and pays great attention to rituals. The greatest contribution of this period is the essays of Darsanas, of the six orthodox philosophical Hindu schools: Nyaya, Vaishesika, Samkya, Yoga, Purva Mimamsa and Uttara Mimamsa.

            The Nyaya school, which was founded by Gautama in the 3rd century BCE, deals with the logic foundation of truth.

            The Vaishesika school, which was founded by Kanada in the 3rd century BCE applies the analytical method of Nyaya into cosmology and the atomic theory.

            The third school of Samkya, which was founded by Kapila in the 7th-6th century BCE, establishes the notion of Purusha, the spirit of the universe, and Prakriti, the spiritual substance of the universe.

The school of Yoga is a system of self-discipline which comprises a combination of mental and physical exercises as a means of applying Samkya principles. Its founder is Patanjali, who lived in the 2nd century BCE. Yoga considers the brain and the spinal cord to be the center of all mental and physical actions. The exercise program of Yoga includes eight stages: a) Yama, self-restraint, abstinence, b) Niyama, observance of rules, c) Asana, physical exercises, d) Pranayama, regulation of breathing, e) Pratyahara, withdrawal of the senses, f) Dharana, single-pointed focus on a superior idea, g) Dhyana, supervision, outlook, identification with the idea, ecstasy, h) Samadhi, identification with the deity.

The first four stages constitute Hatha Yoga, while the latter four correspond to the realization of the other types of Yoga: Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Jnana Yoga and Raja Yoga. Hatha Yoga is the one on which Karma Yoga or yoga of correct action is based; Bhakti Yoga is the yoga of focus on a superior idea; Jnana Yoga is the yoga of research, knowledge, and mental harmony through opposites and finally, Raja Yoga is the yoga through which the human takes control of material, energy, space, and time.

The school of Purva Mimamsa is based on Vedas and Brahmanas. According to its philosophy, the human ought to act following the law as defined by Darma without expecting reward. Its founder is considered to be Jaimini (300-200BC), who is recorded to be one of the disciples of sage Vyasa, the author of the Mahabharata.

The school of Uttara Mimamsa construes Upanishad teaching on its whole. According to this school, Purusha and Prakriti are not independent substances but manifestations of the one and only substance of Brahman which is the ultimate truth.

Similar theories on the spiritual substances of Purusha and Prakriti as manifestations of Brahman were put forward in the 8th century AD by Shankara or Shankaracharaya through the philosophy of non-duality called Advaita Vedanta.


East meets West

The image of the Soul

In his poetic word Parmenides refers to the allegoric journey of a philosopher with the help of a chariot. Charioteers are the daughters of the Sun. The chariot which carries the philosopher starts from the halls of Night and after a fast race it reaches the gates of the palace of Truth. The keys to the gates of Truth with the big wings, the imposing lintels and the stony threshold are held by Justice. The charioteers persuade Justice to open the gate and the chariot is heading for the abode of the goddess of Light and Truth, who welcomes the philosopher and reveals to him the main ways of inquiry.

Plato uses the image of a chariot as well, in order to depict the composition of the Soul in his work Phaedrus. The chariot driven by a charioteer is powered by two horses; the one is obedient and of noble breed and the other one insolent and of ignoble breed. The route that the chariot will eventually follow depends on the course that the charioteer will define and the discipline he imposes on the horses.

“Let it be like the composite power that has a pair of winged horses along with a charioteer. Now the winged horses and the charioteers are all noble and of noble descent, while those of other races are mixed. And first and foremost our charioteer drives only one pair of horses, and of these two horses the one is handsome, noble and of noble breed, whereas the other is the opposite  and of opposite  breed; thus its driving is for us by fate itself hard and painful…” (Phaedrus 246,b,c,d,e)

Vassilis Vitsaxis mentions that the image of a chariot for the composition of the soul is employed in Katha Upanishad too. The charioteer is the spiritual Soul, (Buddhi) while the individual atomic Soul, (Manas) is the reins. The horses that draw the chariot are the five senses. The latter ones behave towards the Soul like dangerous animals when the Soul cannot discipline the horses. The two horses draw a similar distinction between the two draws which are mentioned in Katha Upanishad; the Preya, meaning what is pleasant and attractive, and Shreya, meaning what is greatly beneficial and good.

 The exit of the Soul towards the light

             In Socrates’ philosophy there are three successive stages that lead humans gradually to the acquisition of eudemonia. The first stage is the realization of ignorance, Socrates’ saying ‘I know nothing’; it is the starting point that leads to the Socratic way of thinking. It is the stage in which the philosopher discovers that the only thing that he knows is that he knows nothing, but at the same time he seeks for and loves the wisdom that he lacks.  This realization of ignorance leads gradually the philosopher to the second stage during which the principles and values of life are tested and redefined. Every principle has its own value when this is affirmed through dialectic, which leads humans from the world of the senses to the world of the spirit. The third stage is that of wisdom in which the philosopher discovers himself and the essence of his being. According to Socrates, this knowledge is possessed by humans since the beginning of the creation of the world but it has been forgotten because of the material incarnation of the soul. Every piece of true knowledge is a recollection of the soul, who wants to return from the natural world to the world of Light and spirit from which it originated.

H.P. Blavatsky mentions in The Voice of the Silence three chambers, which lead the student of Wisdom from darkness to light and from ignorance to Wisdom. These chambers are the chamber of Ignorance, of Learning and of Wisdom, where the light of Truth shines.

The composition of the Soul

Plato in Phaedrus and Symposium considers that the Soul is a plastic principle which permeates the body and regulates its movement. The Soul is the beginning of movement; it is the one that moves itself and all the others. However, in Theaetetus he claims that the Soul is pure ego being only aware of oneself; the Soul becomes self-consciousness, conceives the core of the logic of unity and repels towards periphery all its other features and powers.

Vassilis Vitsaxis mentions that in Taittiriyaka Upanishad, the Self, Atman, is covered in five sheaths, Kosa-s, which from the lower and heavy one to the higher and thin one, are as follows:

  • §Annamaya Kosa the physical sheath,
  • §Pranamaya Kosa the energy sheath,
  • §Manomaya Kosa the  mental sheath,
  • §Vijnanamaya Kosa the spiritual sheath,
  • §Anandamaya Kosa the Bliss, Eudaimonia, Atman

H.P. Blavatsky believes that the sovereign deity of Plato, the Good, corresponds to the Atman in Indian philosophy, while the Soul as driving force, corresponds to the spiritual Soul called Buddhi and the Soul as individual consciousness, corresponds to Manas. In addition, she believes that the human as long as he lives consists of seven elements, which with his physical death become five, whereas with the division of bodies in Kama Loka become three, the triple ego Atman, Buddhi and Manas, which continues its course to Devachan.

 The attributes of the Soul

In The Republic, Phaedrus and Timaeus, Plato mentions the three parts of the Soul, the Logical, the Spirited and the Appetitive, of which the Logical is immortal, controls and coordinates the Spirited, which is the source of passions as well as the Appetitive, which is the source of desires. The virtues that correspond to the three parts of the Soul as well as to the three classes of the Republic are respectively wisdom, courage and moderation which are coordinated by justice.

The practice of a virtue leads to the development of other virtues too; therefore, courage leads to moderation, moderation to wisdom and consequently, wisdom to justice.

Three equivalent attributes are detected in Prakriti, as well. According to the philosophical school of Samkya, the universe and humans were created from the influence of Purusha, the Spirit of the world, and Prakriti, the spiritual substance of the world. Prakriti has three attributes which are characterized respectively as the three parts of the Soul by Plato: Tamas, which is the heavy and inert element, Rajas, the dynamic and active one and Sattva, which is the logical, luminous and delicate one.

The attribute of Rajas sets in motion the other two attributes of Prakriti, namely Tamas and Sattva. The vacillation of consciousness between the two extremes, Rajas and Tamas, leads the human eventually to a dynamic balance of consciousness, to eudemonia, and to the freedom of spirit, which correspond to the attribute of Sattva.



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