What's Philosophy

∼ Defining Philosophy ∼

Most dictionaries today define philosophy as the academic study of the fundamental nature and principles of reality, existence, knowledge, or values. For the ancients however, philosophy was more than just a study, it was a way of life. For the Platonists, it was a spiritual way of life.

In the late antiquity, Hierocles of Alexandria wrote, "Philosophy is a purification and perfection of human life: a purification from our irrational, material nature and the mortal form of the body, a perfection of the recovery of our proper happiness, leading to divine likeness" (Commentary, Proem.1). He goes on to mention that "virtue" and "truth" are the two cardinal means for our purification and perfection, and thus are the key components for a truly good way of life.

Here are some traditional definitions of Platonic philosophy from antiquity:

From these definitions, we see not only something of the subject matter, but also of the intended effect. The Platonist sees that Philosophy, which goes beyond the mere discussion of ideas, contains at least three aspects which govern not just our thoughts but our lives: (1) a rational desire (orexis) for truth, (2) the sustained habit of seeking and seeing that truth, and (3) a way of life focusing on tending and caring for one’s soul according to that truth.

∼ Philosophy as Therapy ∼

Robert Cushman describes Plato's philosophy as a method of education, which "represents the supreme and most influential attainment of classical Greek thought respecting the way of human salvation." It represents "a diagnosis of man's plight as well as his therapeia, his provision for its remedy," based on re-establishing man's relationship to his metaphysical reality (Therapeia, xv).

"For Plato," Cushman continues, "philosophy is not disinterested ratiocination, though there is plenty of room in it for acute logical analysis and for probing reflection. Rather, it is, essentially, a way of life, a way out of chaos in human existence. Its root impulse is man in trouble with unresolved contradiction in his spirit, a contradiction which manifests itself in calamitous social derangements. As called forth by a destructive distortion in human life and experience, philosophy offers itself as a therapy. But it begins with diagnosis, and only thereafter supplies its distinctive method of release and transformation" (Therapeia, xv).

"It was the Socratic-Platonic probing of the human psuche [soul] which led to the Platonic metaphysics and, thus, to the subordination of science to wisdom (philosophia). For Plato, the judgment about the dignity of man rests with the answer made to the question regarding man's maximum environment and, hence, his ultimate significant relationship. Plato believed that when man is cut loose from any metempirical rootage and, so, dispossessed of all trans-phenomenal responsibility, he is shorn of moral dignity and shrinks to the status which is allowed to him by those who exercise supreme power in the state. Long ago Thomas Hobbes enforced the view that, if there was no absolute in heaven, there must needs be, for man's good (!), one upon earth" (Therapeia, xvi).

"Plato's absolute is not exclusively in heaven; neither can it be comfortably domesticated upon earth. But Plato found no solution to the human plight apart from winning for the Ideal Structure of Being the common acknowledgement of men. We are concerned to understand the basis of his conviction that the ultimate Reality may be discovered as a guide to life" (Therapeia, xvi-xvii).