SOME GREEK PHILOSOPHERS
Dr Ian Ellis-Jones
In this short article I will discuss the ideas of some (for the most
part) early Greek philosophers with a view to delineating what there
is of value to us today as regards our mindfulness practice.
Mindfulness is not a philosophy in itself. However, there are a
number of philosophical ideas and principles that can be said to
underlie the practice of mindfulness in its secular and non-sectarian
form, and some of those ideas and principles are of quite ancient
The ancient Greeks produced some great thinkers. Although
notably disinclined to theology, the Greeks made great
philosophers. (Both theology and philosophy attempt to ‘explain’
things, but philosophy, at its best, does so by rejecting
unobservable agencies as the cause of observable things. That is
the greatness of philosophy, especially Greek philosophy.)
Let’s go back to the 6th and 5th centuries BCE. We begin with some
of the more important Presocratic philosophers. First, Thales.
Thales (c624-c546 BCE) [pictured left]
can be called the founder of
philosophy. He was ‘doing logic’ – for
logic is about things, and the relations
between things, not words or ideas –
some 150 years before Socrates.
Thales had travelled to Egypt to study
geometry. (It seems that the Greeks
derived their philosophy from the
Egyptians.) He was the first upon
whom the title, Sophist, was
conferred, and in his advanced years
was visited by Pythagoras whom
Thales instructed in the disciplines of
It is written that Thales, a proto-
scientist, opined that the earth was
made of, or rested upon, water, but for Thales that was simply a
hypothesis to be tested, and was offered only as an attempted
explanation as opposed to some final evaluation. Water was perhaps
something out of which things came and into which things
returned, as opposed to being a supposed characteristic of all
things at all times.
Thales was a naturalist and an empiricist. What is important and
lasting about Thales' ideas is not so much his search for a
supposed common ‘substance’ of all things but his attempt to
provide an overall theory which was general, which was based on
observation, and which made no appeal to supernatural causes.
(Thales wrote that ‘all things are full of gods’. That was his attempt
at de-supernaturalisation – that is, bringing the gods down to
Thales reminds us ever to reject unobservable agencies as the cause
of observable things. Cause-and-effect belong to the observable
here-and-now, for life itself is nothing more than a continuum of
living things living out their livingness in time and space. Never
How true that is of the practice of mindfulness! There is a
continuity of moment-to-moment experience and awareness ... a
continuous process or transformation from one state to another (cf
water-ice-steam). Everything is observable, and all things observed
exist and are observable on the same plane of observability.
Furthermore, there must be a continuity between what is proposed
as an explanation for any occurrence and the occurrence itself, for
if there were no such continuity it would not be possible for us to
say how observable effects are produced ... nor even that they are
effects at all.
The legacy of Thales is this ... there is only one order or level of
reality. No wonder we speak of the practice of mindfulness in terms
of the presence of bare and curious attention to, and choiceless and
non-judgmental awareness of, the action of the present moment ...
from one moment to the next.
Let’s look at the ideas of
Anaximander (c610-c546 BCE)
[pictured right], successor to
and pupil of Thales, and how
those ideas relate to the
practice of mindfulness.
Thales thought that the basic
‘stuff’ (material substratum,
essence or ‘first principle’) of
things was water.
Anaximander raised a logical
objection, namely that how can
one take one thing as a
description of all things?
Clearly, Thales exaggerated the ‘moist’ at the expense of the ‘dry’.
What this means is this ... any theory of reality must account for
the existence of opposites, for if there were only water, there could
not be anything hot, or any fire.
So, for Anaximander the basic ‘stuff’ and qualities of life are
opposites ... and those opposites are in conflict. He postulated a
theoretical entity (apeiron) to explain observable phenomena. The
word apeiron can mean ‘infinite’ as well as ‘indefinite’ (especially the
latter, and in a qualitative as opposed to quantitative sense).
One defect in Anaximander’s otherwise realist methodology is that
he attempted to explain the observable in terms of some supposed
basic unobservable entity, namely the apeiron. As we saw in our
last blog, logic compels us to reject the unobservable as the cause
of the observable. Nevertheless, Anaximander is to be otherwise
commended for his honest and rigorous insistence on and pursuit
of the real.
What do we learn from the empirical naturalist Anaximander? For
one thing we learn the importance of demarcation and
differentiation, that is, marking off one thing from other things. We
also learn that there is a simple unity containing opposites – not a
unity in the sense that all things are one but that a single logic
applies to all things, there being a continuous process among
So, in our mindfulness practice we learn to focus our attention on
whatever comprises the action of the present moment. Our
thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations will often be contradictory
in nature but they nevertheless constitute the ‘content’ of our
When we stay in the action of the present moment, being mindful
(in an immediate and direct way) of whatever we are thinking,
feeling and experiencing from one moment to the next, we are able
to separate out thoughts and feelings about ourselves and others
from the person each one of us really is. We look and see ... and the
mind empties itself of its content from one moment to the next ...
and what was previously unconscious becomes conscious.
Like Buddha Shakyamuni Anaximander taught that all things were
impermanent. In the words of Anaximander, in Simplicus’
commentary on Aristotle’s physics, ‘Whence things have their
origin, thence also their destruction happens, as is the order of
things; for they execute the sentence upon one another---the
condemnation for the crime---in conformity with the ordinance of
time.’ However, there is nevertheless a certain regularity and
predictability about life by reason of a certain balancing out of all
opposites which act on, dominate and otherwise contain each other.
Things flow in and out of consciousness, for such is the flux of life.
Anaximander questioned the existence of the gods in the same way
that Buddha Shakyamuni was agnostic on the question of God’s
existence. Both taught that one could attain ‘deliverance’
independently of any external agency. Good news indeed.
Let’s now turn to the ideas of
Anaximenes (585-528 BCE) [pictured
left] and examine how those ideas relate
to the practice of mindfulness.
As already mentioned, Thales thought
that the basic ‘stuff’ (material
substratum, essence or ‘first principle’)
of things was water. For Anaximander
the basic ‘stuff’ and qualities of life were
opposites ... and those opposites were in
conflict. He postulated a theoretical
entity (apeiron) to explain observable
Anaximenes was of the view that the basic ‘stuff’ and qualities of
the world were not opposed (cf Anaximander) but were simply
different stages of a continuum of differences, ‘air’ being the material
substratum. Anaximenes spoke in terms of an interconnected and
interacting fire-air-cloud-water-earth-stone continuum, with
everything that exists having developed out of the original air and
now being made of air.
Anaximenes’ naturalistic cosmology may seem odd but it was a bold
attempt at an overall theory as well as being a constituent analysis.
The important thing is not whether Anaximenes was right or wrong
in his conclusion that everything was made of air – although we do
know that atoms are mostly empty space (cf air) despite the
apparent solidity of objects – but that he analysed one feature in
terms of another.
His empirical methodology involved making observations and then
forming explanatory theories of successively greater generality with
the final theory being tested against a mass of superficially
unconnected phenomena. He looked for the broader picture in
nature, seeking unifying causes for diversely occurring events
rather than treating each one on an ad hoc basis or attributing
them to supernatural causes.
Unlike Anaximander, Anaximenes’ theory did not rely on any
unobservables. His methodology was entirely experiential as he
sought to explain how the process and mechanism of change
(transmutation) actually occurs.
What has all this to do with mindfulness? A fair bit. In any session
of mindfulness practice, one’s stream of consciousness will consist
of numerous superficially unconnected and diversely occurring
phenomena (thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, sounds, etc). The
important thing is not to dwell or focus on any one or more of these
ad hoc occurrences but to fix and keep our mindfulness (that is,
attention and awareness) at its ‘post of observation’ whether that
point be the tip of the nostrils against which the breathing air
strikes or that part of the lower abdomen where one can most
noticeably observe its rise and fall. This needs to be done in a
unified fashion, allowing the process of transmutation (that is, one
occurring phenomenon is quickly replaced by another, and then
another, and so on) to unfold naturally, automatically and
Although it may seem counter-intuitive, keeping your attention
focused on the breath enables you to stay with the broader picture
(cf Anaximenes) without getting caught up in the detail of each
Now, let’s look at the ideas of Heraclitus of Ephesus (c535-c475
BCE) [pictured below]---a real favourite of mine---and how his
distinctive ideas relate to the practice of mindfulness.
The Scottish-born Australian philosopher Professor John Anderson
wrote of Heraclitus’ ‘wide awake approach to problems’, by which he
meant that Heraclitus adopted and advocated a rigorously empirical
and logical methodology in the pursuit of truth (reality ... what is).
Heraclitus was known as the ‘flux
and fire’ philosopher. He wrote,
‘All things are flowing’, ‘There is
nothing permanent except
change,’ ‘No person ever steps in
the same river twice, for it's not
the same river and they're not the
same person,’ and ‘The sun is
new each day.’
Heraclitus also famously said,
‘Let us not conjecture at random
about the greatest things. We
must follow the common.’ In other words, if we would know the
conditions of existence we must look for that which is ‘common’ to
all things. This means, among other things, that we should reject
supernatural, occult and all other unobservable explanations of the
otherwise observable conditions of existence. ‘The things that can
be seen, heard and learned are what I prize most,’ he writes.
Indeed, Heraclitus eschewed all notions of the occult and the
supernatural. He wrote, ‘this world [or world-order] did none of the
gods or humans make; but it always was and is and shall be: an
ever-living fire, kindling in measures and going out in measures.’
Note, especially, those words 'was and is and shall be.' The world is,
was, and ever will be what it is now. There is only the now. That is
why it is often referred to as being the 'eternal now.' That is the
logos of Heraclitus. And what of time? 'Time is a child playing
draughts; the kingdom is a child's.'
Such is the cosmology of Heraclitus and the other exalted thinkers
of his day. How ancient, and yet how very modern! Everything---and
I mean literally everything---is in a constant state of flux. ‘A thing
rests by changing,’ he wrote. ‘Everything flows and nothing abides,
everything yields and nothing remains permanent.’ Whatever lives
does so by the destruction of something else. Things wax and wane,
and come and go. We, too. We come, and in a very short time we
vanish from view. We go. Only life itself, in the form of change and
the eternal now, remains. In the words of Heraclitus, 'all things are
steered through all things.'
What that means is that if we would
know the conditions of existence we
must look for that which is ‘common’
to all things. In addition, we should
reject supernatural, occult and all
other unobservable explanations of
the otherwise observable conditions
of existence. ‘The things that can be
seen, heard and learned are what I
prize most,’ he writes. In other
words, naturalism, for Heraclitus
eschewed all notions of the occult
and the supernatural. He wrote,
‘‘this world [or world-order] did none
of the gods or humans make; but it
always was and is and shall be: an ever-living fire, kindling in
measures and going out in measures.’ Such is the cosmology of
Heraclitus and the other exalted thinkers of his day. How ancient,
yet so very modern.
Heraclitus warns us that we need to be prepared to be surprised by
our discoveries. He writes, ‘If you do not expect the unexpected, you
will not find it; for it is hard to be sought out and difficult.’ How
often life teaches us what we thought we knew was not at all in
accord with things as they really are. ‘The sun is new every day,’
writes the anything but world weary Heraclitus.
All things are in a state of flux, says Heraclitus. Everything is in
process and no single element is ever predominant for there is a
contrary tension of things by means of which there is a resolution
(an ‘attunement’ (cf ‘at-one-ment’) of conflicting opposites. Nothing
is simple, indeed all things are complex, have internal
differentiation, and interact with other things ... all on the same
level or order of reality and observability. In addition, things are
constituent members of wider systems and exchanges of things. The
forms of things are constantly being transmuted.
For Heraclitus change is the unity of all things, and there is a single
logic that applies to all things and how they are related. (By now
readers should be aware that logic is about things, not thought, and
how things are related. Sound logical thinking means relating [that
is, putting together or distinguishing] different pieces of information
about actual or alleged facts. ‘Reality is propositional,’ writes John
Anderson, for there is a logical direct relationship between any
proposition and the way things actually are.)
The unity underlying all change and opposition is the Logos [λόγος]
– a term first used by Heraclitus in around 600 BCE to refer, not to
any theological abstraction, but to the organised and co-ordinated
way in which, as Heraclitus discovered, all things work and are
constituted. That is, the logic (or ‘formula’) of things. Not
surprisingly, Heraclitus also taught that the single logic applying to
all things also manifested itself as objective moral law.
Mindfulness is a lifelong
inquiry into what it means to
be fully present and alert in
the present moment.
(Heraclitus was right when he
said that most people ‘sleep-
walk’ their way through life. How very relevant that is to the
successful practice of mindfulness!) Each moment of our existence
is but a brief occurrence in what is otherwise a state of flux. Life is
nothing but the very livingness of all things living out their
livingness from one moment to the next. The unity of all things
derives, not from all things being one, but simply from the fact that
a single logic applies to all things.
In our mindfulness practice thought will follow feeling, feeling will
follow thought, and so on. Nothing is predominant even if from time
to time some particular thought,
feeling or sensation is particularly
strong. Mindfulness enables us to
look at ourselves thought-less-ly and
feeling-less-ly such that in time our
minds become free from notions of
self (that is, notions of ‘I’ and ‘me’).
Notions of self have the appearance of
solidity and continuity, but that is
only by reason of habit and memory.
The only solidity (if there be any at all)
and continuity there is subsists in the
seemingly endless process or flow of
things and their transmutation.
Here’s another gem from Heraclitus in
the form of some not-so-new New Thought. It highlights the
importance of keeping your thoughts pure and noble, for as you
think so you are:
The soul is dyed the colour of its thoughts. Think only on
those things that are in line with your principles and can
bear the light of day. The content of your character is your
choice. Day by day, what you do is who you become. Your
integrity is your destiny---it is the light that guides your
Heraclitus also wrote that most people are ‘asleep,’ so to speak.
Even in their waking moments most people are far from ‘awake,’
that is, mindfulness. Yes, many people ‘live’ their whole lives that
way. One may as well be dead. There is little difference between the
two states. Here’s what Heraclitus wrote:
Men are as forgetful and heedless
in their waking moments
of what is going on around them
as they are during their sleep.
Fools, although they hear,
are like deaf;
to them the adage applies
that whenever they are present
they are absent.
One should not act or speak
as if he were asleep.
The waking have one world in common;
sleepers have each a private world of his own.
Whatever we see when awake is death,
when asleep, dreams.
How true all that is! All too often we go through the day ‘forgetful’
and ‘heedless,’ unaware of what is happening and going on around
us. It is as if we were asleep---or worse, dead. Heraclitus calls such
people ‘fools,’ for ‘whenever you are present / you are absent.’ In
truth, we can hardly be said to be ‘present,’ for that requires an
awareness of awareness---that is, an awareness or mindfulness of
the content of one’s consciousness from one moment to the next.
Here's some more good advice from Heraclitus on the subject of
mindfulness, which Heraclitus refers to as the 'ground of being'
('God' according to the 20th century Christian existentialist
theologian Paul Tillich):
Since mindfulness, of all things,
is the ground of being,
to speak one's true mind,
and to keep things known
in common, serves all being,
just as laws made clear
uphold the city,
yet with greater strength.
Of all pronouncements of the law
the one source is the Word
whereby we choose what helps
true mindfulness prevail.
When we do not practise mindfulness
in our daily lives we are, ‘whatever we
see when awake is death,’ writes
Heraclitus. Yes, death! Because
whatever was the action---internal or
external---of the then present but now
gone moment has died on us. Yes,
died on us. It is like watching a
motion picture film; the picture is
moving, but what is being screened is
not happening now. It’s in the past.
Heraclitus also wrote that we do not
learn what we should, largely because
we go through life mindlessly. ‘Many
do not understand such things as
they encounter, nor do they learn by
their experience, but they think they
do.’ So, how are we to learn? Certainly
not from books. ‘Knowing many things doesn’t teach insight,’ wrote
Heraclitus. Insight comes only from awareness and observation---
that is, mindfulness. That’s why it’s called ‘insight meditation.’
Heraclitus also urged people to ‘look within,’ saying, ‘I searched into
myself,’ and ‘Those who love wisdom must investigate many things.’
Don’t spend your whole life as if you were asleep---or dead. Wake
up! Live with awareness. Live with attention. Watch. Observe. Learn
by your experience. Live!
I now want to look at the ideas of a later philosopher, Epictetus
(c55-135 CE) [pictured below], who was born in Hierapolis in
Phrygia (modern-day Turkey), was a Greek sage and Stoic
philosopher of some renown. He was one of the last of the Stoics---
even though he adhered very closely to the early Stoic tradition---
and he was possibly the greatest of them all.
When only a boy he was made a slave
in Rome, banished by the Roman
emperor Domitian, but he managed to
study under the great Roman stoic
teacher Musonius Rufus. After being
freed---we are not sure when or why
that occurred---he went to Greece, to a
little town in Epirus, where he opened
his own school of philosophy.
It seems that Epictetus wrote nothing
himself, and we are indebted to one of
his students, Flavius Arrian, for
committing to writing the Encheiridion
(‘Manual’), the work that represent
Epictetus’ teachings, being lecture transcriptions of Epictetus.
Sadly, most of Arrian’s writings, including those that purport to
record the philosophy of Epictetus, are no longer extant. What is of
interest is that the Encheiridion was much used in the Middle Ages
as a guide to the principles of the Christian monastic life.
Now, Epictetus was not a mere theoretician or speculative
philosopher, for he saw and wrote about things-as-they-really-are.
As Epictetus rightly saw it, life is ever so often harsh and cruel, and
there is much that happens to us that we have not actively or even
passively brought about. Acceptance, he said, is the answer to all
our problems and difficulties. As the Indian spiritual philosopher J.
Krishnamurti would often say, ‘In the acknowledgment of what is,
there is the cessation of all conflict.’ Not only the cessation of
conflict, but serenity, peace of mind, and freedom. Epictetus
expressed it this way:
Happiness and freedom begin with a
clear understanding of one principle:
some things are within our control,
and some things are not.
Epictetus' idea of acceptance is well-
expressed in this statement attributed to
him: 'I do not obey God, I agree with Him.'
In other words, we must accept things-as-
they-really-are. One of the most important
things to learn in life is this---events, in
particular things that happen, are, in and
of themselves, impersonal. They do not
happen to us. They simply happen. Yes, we
must take responsibility for making an
appropriate response to events for which we are responsible, but we
are not responsible for the actions or opinions of others. Events
don’t, or shouldn’t, hurt us. It is our perceptions of those events
that hurts us. In that regard, Epictetus wrote, ‘We are not disturbed
by things, but by the view we take of them,’ and ‘It’s not what
happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.’ He went even
Does the tyrant say he will throw me into prison? He cannot
imprison my spirit. Does he say that he will put me to
death? He can only cut off my head.
Epictetus wrote much on the right disposition of the will---the will
to live, the will to survive, the will to overcome, and the will to be
happy. Will is the ability, that is, the power, to make a decision, and
then do what is necessary to see things through, but no more power
than that is required for the task. Will, and not so-called 'will
power,' is the way to go. We must, however, learn to properly
control our will, and use it wisely, if we wish to be masters of our
Then there’s this gem of Epictetus, which says much about the
nature and ‘purpose’ of both philosophy and life itself: ‘The essence
of philosophy is that we should so live that our happiness shall
depend as little as possible on external things.’ Yes, Epictetus was
an early apologist for living simply. One other thing---he never
speculated on life after death; indeed he never dealt directly with
the subject at all.
Here’s another wonderful thing about the man. He understood the
power and workings of the human mind in a way that was very
much ahead of his time. He wrote: ‘In all people, thought and action
start from a single source, namely feeling.’ In saying that, Epictetus
showed that he had more than a little understanding of the
workings of the subconscious mind. You see, thought must be
backed up by feeling for it to have any power. Thought and feeling
blend together in forming conviction. Without conviction no thought
(eg ideal, hope) can take hold in the subconscious mind, and it is
only when the subconscious mind accepts one’s thought is there
any chance of its actualization. Epictetus was an early exponent of
self-image psychology and creative visualization. He wrote: ‘First
say to yourself what you would be, and then do what you have to
Epictetus also saw the inter-
connectedness and interdependence of all
things whilst resisting an overall monism.
He also held that, despite our
preconceptions (prolepsis) of good and
evil, there was only one ultimate Power
(‘God’) and that Power was All-Good and
very near to us. Yes, the Power can be
used by us and others for purposes that
are either relative good or relative bad,
but unity, not duality, is the name of the
game. Unhappiness is due to opinions
and beliefs that we hold---preconceptions
that not only stand in objective
contradiction to things-as-they-really-are
but also prevent us from seeing things-as-they-really-are. Happiness
comes from a mindful acceptance of things-as-they-really-are. And
difficulties? Well, they are things ‘that show a person what they
are.’ Further, ‘you are not free unless you are master of yourself.’
On the subject of what we now call mindfulness Epictetus wrote:
Open your eyes: see things for what they really are, thereby
sparing yourself the pain of false attachments and avoidable
Over the years many writers and commentators have remarked
upon the similarities between Stoicism and Buddhism. Both
systems of thought espouse the view that pain and suffering are
largely the result of attachment and not seeing things-as-they-
really-are. Both systems of thought stress the importance of
acceptance and non-resistance. Both systems of thought assert that
happiness and freedom are attainable---even in a most imperfect
and often harsh world that is not entirely or even substantially of
our own making.
Epictetus was also an early apologist for the art and science and
practice of mindfulness. What does he say on the matter? Here's
this gem, which reminds me of the Buddha's advice, 'When you
walk, just walk, when you eat, just eat, when you sleep, just sleep,
and when you sit, just sit,' and St Paul's 'This one thing I do' (Phil
When you are going about any action, remind yourself what
nature the action is. If you are going to bathe, picture to
yourself the things which usually happen in the bath: some
people splash the water, some push, some use abusive
language, and others steal. Thus you will more safely go
about this action if you say to yourself, ‘I will now go bathe,
and keep my own mind in a state conformable to nature.’
And in the same manner with regard to every other action.
For thus, if any hindrance arises in bathing, you will have
it ready to say, ‘It was not only to bathe that I desired, but
to keep my mind in a state conformable to nature; and I
will not keep it if I am bothered at things that happen.
'Open your eyes: see things for what they really are,' says Epictetus.
The result? You are then spared the pain of false attachments and
avoidable devastation. False attachments take many forms, perhaps
the worst being beliefs, misbeliefs, and delusions. We are in direct
and immediate contact with what is real, but beliefs, misbeliefs, and
delusions distort reality and obstruct our moment-to-moment
experience and awareness of reality. That is why I rail against all
the traditional religious belief systems, especially those of the three
great (or not-so-great) monotheistic religions of Judaism,
Christianity, and Islam, at least in their conventional, exoteric
forms. Buddhism, at least in its early forms---still found in many
parts of the world today---is not a belief system; indeed the
historical Buddha also railed against beliefs, asserting that there
was nothing to believe.
Open your eyes. See things for what they really are. Know.
Understand. But don’t believe.
Recommended Reading: John Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy, 3rd ed (A & C
Black, 1920); John Anderson, Lectures on Greek Philosophy 1928 (Sydney
University Press, 2008).