STARGAZERS: Stories of the first philosophers

by Paul Rossetti Bjarnason

A chapter-by-chapter outline of a book written for readers of all ages from young adults to seniors, beginners to advanced, for all those who want to know what philosophy is, or at least what it was in the beginning, and to join the quest for the secret of the flourishing life.


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Some preliminary thoughts concerning the nature of ancient philosophy.

Map of the ancient Graeco-Roman world

I Creation
Babylon, c. 1400 BC
An account of the Babylonian New Year ritual, in which the greatest of gods, Marduk, wins the Tablets of Destiny and reasserts his authority over the cosmos and the world of man.

II The Jewel of Ionia
Miletus, c. 600 BC
A description of the hustle and bustle of this busy seaport brings to life the conditions which give rise to the unique thought of the first philosophers of the western world.

III Stargazer
Miletus, c. 560 BC
Thales gazes at the stars while crossing a farmer’s field at night. His thoughts reveal why he will come to be recognized as the first philosopher of the western world.

IV Travels of the Soul
Croton, c. 510 BC
Pythagoras, who regards all beings as kin, winds his way though the crowded streets in search of one soul’s anguish. The revered Master of the Society of Pythagoreans is the supreme authority for some three hundred disciples, whose habits are as strange as they are secret.

V Gods of the Oxen
Syracuse, c. 500 BC
Singing about his travels and about the gods, the philosopher-minstrel Xenophanes astounds the philosophically uninitiated aristocratic guests at the villa where he has been given temporary refuge from his wanderings.

VI Fire and Flux
Ephesus, c. 490 BC
Heraclitus the Obscure commiserates with the one he trusts, explaining why one cannot step twice into the same river, as well as why he himself must leave the city of his birth.

VII The Gates of Night and Day
Elea, c. 480 BC
The world is not what common opinion holds it to be. Parmenides is taken on a journey by the Goddess of Justice, who reveals to him the Way of Truth.

VIII Arrows out of Time
Athens, c. 450 BC
Zeno, who is visiting Athens on behalf of the city of Elea, stuns his listeners (including Socrates) with his arguments on the impossibility of motion.

IX Of Love and Strife
Acragas, c. 445 BC
Empedocles of Acragas, philosopher, magician, healer, is followed by a crowd of seekers and worshippers as he wanders to the edge of the town. He stops to give soothing words to their eager ears, as only Empedocles can, for he himself is no longer a mere mortal.

X Mistress of Eloquence
Athens, c. 440 BC
Aspasia of Miletus, a courtesan-philosopher and all but officially Pericles’ wife, circulates among her guests as they all await the introduction of tonight’s speaker, who is their teacher and friend.

XI Mind
Continued from X — the same evening
Anaxagoras, who has brought philosophy to life at Athens, rises to speak and to explain how the ceaseless movement of the world began.

XII Man, the Measure
Athens, c. 430 BC
Protagoras the Sophist — who takes money in exchange for teaching philosophy — engages his pupil Euathlus in a spirited dialogue concerning the fee the latter has promised to pay on the occasion of his first victory at the law court.

XIII Sting of the Gadfly
Athens, 399 BC at the Court of Justice
Socrates, having been found guilty of impiety and of corrupting the youth of Athens, must counter his accuser Meletus’ proposal of the death penalty if he is to save himself from the hemlock.

XIV Atoms and the Void
Abdera, c. 370 BC
Democritus the materialist philosopher is an old man now. He thinks back on a long life and of how he came to know the ultimate constituents of the world, as well as the secret of living well.

XV The Republic
Athens, c. 360 BC
Plato takes his students, including the youthful Aristotle, on an intellectual journey through which they glimpse the higher world of ultimate reality and learn about the nature of the ideal city-state.

XVI Athens’ One Free Man
Athens, c. 340 BC
Diogenes the Cynic, who spends his days wandering the streets and porticoes of Athens, living on its outskirts in a large tub, meets a group of young men and responds to their criticisms of his unorthodox life and philosophy.

XVII Master of Those Who Know
Athens, c. 330 BC
Aristotle, philosopher and scientist, conducts a lecture at his school, the Lyceum. As he walks, he talks to his pupils about the secret of the golden mean and its relevance to living a good life.

XVIII Six Views of a Sceptic
Elis, c. 290 BC
The sceptics, no less than the Epicureans, seek tranquillity, and Pyrrho’s life is a continuous demonstration of how it can be attained.

XIX Death Is Nothing to Us
Athens, c. 270 BC
Epicurus, on the last day of his life, converses joyfully with friends, calling to mind the many pleasures they have shared together, revealing while doing so the true meaning of man’s telos, or goal in life.

XX Philosopher-Slave, Philosopher-King
The Emperor’s tent, on the eastern front of the Empire, c. AD 160
Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor, makes notes in his journal. We are privy to his thoughts as he extols the wisdom of the philosopher-slave Epictetus, his greatest teacher, and exhorts himself toward those actions which lead to the virtuous life and noble death.

XXI The One
Rome, c. AD 260
The Alexandrian mystic philosopher Plotinus sits at the desk in his study, writing his story of the trinity — the One, Intellect, and Soul — in which he revives the thought of Plato while contemplating the inevitable decay of the Empire.

A few conclusions from the stories of the philosophers of the ancient Graeco-Roman world.

An outline of the temporal relations among the philosophers: from 1500 B.C. (pre-philosophical thought) to the fall of the Roman Empire.

Notes and Further Reading
Some chapter notes, a short bibliography, and some suggestions for further reading.


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