The Branches of Philosophy

Julius Moravcsik starts the preface for his great work Plato and Platonism by saying: "Platonism is not a rigid creed. It is a cluster of themes and claims, cutting across the boundaries of ontology, epistemology, and ethics. The varieties of Platonistic characterizations of reality converge on a conception broadly defined as taking an abstract realm outside space and time to be the most fundamental aspect of what there is and construing whatever order and harmony there is as deriving from the interrelations within that abstract realm. Humans at their best understand this cosmic order and try to mirror it in individual and communal life."

He then continues to elaborate three claims made of Platonism: "First, the key elements of the fundamental realm are the Forms. The conception of these undergoes change in the dialogues, but they remain the basic explanatory entities. Their order is mirrored by whatever else in the world is in some way orderly, and their nature never corresponds to such modern ontological categories as properties or universals. Second, the key Platonic epistemological notions are those of insight and understanding, rather than propositional knowledge. Third, Platonic ethics revolves around the choice of an adequate ideal for the individual and communal life. The ideal consists of a worthwhile overall aim for life and a character structure that fits the aim selected."

Thus we arrive at perhaps three branches of philosophy: epistemology, ontology, ethics. This triad of studies mirrors the triad discussed by the ancient philosophers and Platonists.

From the beginning of time, men have looked up and wondered on the origins of things. They told stories and continued to wonder. Men have looked to the world around them, and the wondered on the meaning of their lives. They dedicated themselves to their nations and their families.

But there came a time when the most daring of men sharpened their minds and peered into these questions with a courageous and scientific desire to know the truth of these matters, and this longing would soon give birth to Philosophy, the "love of wisdom". In exploring these matters, three areas of study developed.

  1. The Greeks studied themselves and learnt what it was to be great men.
  2. The Greeks in the west (i.e. the Pythagoreans and the Eleatics) cultivated the art of mathematics, logic, and a sensitivity to being of things.
  3. The Greeks in the east (i.e. the Ionians) cultivated the art of studying the substance and behaviour of Nature and a sensitivity to the flux of things.

In Athens, these branches of study were brought together by our Plato, and were taught at his Academy. Xenocrates, the famous student of Plato and second head of the Old Acedemy, organised these three domains of Philosophy under three discrete divisions or branches: Ethics, Logic and Physics.

Later Alcinous (2nd century C.E.), in his overview of the Platonic system, succinctly states, "The concern of the philosopher, according to Plato, would seem to be channelled in three directions: (1) the contemplation and understanding of what exists, (2) the performance of what is noble, and (3) the actual study of reason. The understanding of what exists is called 'theoretical' (philosophy), that which concerns what is to be done 'practical', and the knowledge of reason 'dialectical' (Didaskalikos, 3.1). Theoretical philosophy corresponds to Xenocrates' physics and Moravcsik's ontology, practical philosophy with ethics, and dialectical philosophy with logic and epistemology.

A. Logic (Dialectics)

Logic, "the art of giving an account", was the study of the effective and beneficial use of language and thought in clarifying our ideas and giving direction to our judgements and resulting actions.

The subjects studied under the heading of logic includes the methods of division, definition, analysis, induction, syllogistics and rhetoric.

Though learning the rules of logic was of utmost importance, even more important was its application. It was not just a mental exercise to develop our skills of argumentation. Rather, it was an art that allowed us to gain freedom from the persuasions of others, those who may not have our best interest in mind.

But, ultimately, the goal of logic is to cultivate Reason, and the activity of Reason is to guide the soul, purify her and lead her beyond herself to come to understanding transcendent truths.

B. Physics (Theoretical Philosophy)

The word physics means "nature". The study of Nature for a philosopher was not conducted out of a simple curiosity. Its purpose is to give the philosopher a paradigm in which to orient himself and all his actions and quests.

The study of physics included more than what the subject does today. It included cosmology, psychology, mathematics, theology and finally metaphysics.

One cannot make any decision on a matter without first knowing how it fits into the "larger picture", without knowing its consequences, without having an understanding of its value in the scheme of the world and of the individual as she lives in that world.

Physics not only covers the nature of the material world, but also the nature of the intelligible or spiritual realms, and as such, it includes not only cosmology, but mathematics, metaphysics and theology.

The true goal of the study of physics is to grant us a "view from eternity" or a "cosmic consciousness". This gives us the ability to evaluate the particulars of our lives from the viewpoint of the Divine and of the All.

C. Ethics (Practical Philosophy)

Narrowly, ethics is the study of moral behaviour, or more to the point, of how to live well. It is the direct consequence of learning about physics and logic. Physics shows us how our human state should conformity with the Whole, and logic shows us that we often fall from the ideals of which we know, deep inside, we are capable.

So, fully, ethics is not just about knowing what virtue is, but about learning how to become good, how to cultivate our souls, nurishing it with virtue and excellence, and as the Platonists are oft say, how to become as godlike as humanly possible.

Ethics includes the subjects of morality, virtues, economics, care of the home, politics, legislation and jurisprudence. As the aim of ethics is "assimilation to the divine as humanly possible", some might also include theurgy as a form of spiritual ethics, though some consider theurgy and philosophy to be two different, but related, disciplines.

It reveals the reasons and the methods for interacting with others, for participating with the divine, and for perfecting our own souls. The Great Philosophy

Three Aspects of One Activity

Philosophy is the life that comes about by engaging in all these three aspects equally. Each of the three main branches touches and assists the others, and cannot really be approached independently of the others.

Logic provides our study of physics with the ability to sort through and secure our beliefs reasonably with an eye on eternity, and it gives our ethics the methods it need to be truthful and effective.

Physics provides logic with a worldview and cosmology by which particulars can be judged and arranged, and it provides ethics with meaning by which we can orient our actions.

Ethics provides logic with daily situations and behaviours to evaluate and judge, and it provides the study of physics with the hope that as we learn the principles of our divine universe, we will realise better the purity and divinity of our souls.