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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

J. Burnet 
Development of Greek Philosophy

From, J. Burnet, Philosophy,
in R.W. Livingstone (ed.), The Legacy of Greece, Oxford University Press, 1921.













If we consider the philosophical tendencies of the day, we shall probably observe first of all that the artificial wall of partition between philosophy and science—and especially mathematical science—is beginning to wear very thin. On the other hand, we cannot fail to notice a reaction against what is called intellectualism. This reaction takes many forms, the most characteristic perhaps of which is a renewed interest in Mysticism. It leads also to a strong insistence on the practical aspect of philosophic thought, and to a view of its bearing on what had been regarded as primarily theoretical issues, which is known by the rather unfortunate name of Pragmatism. Now it is just on these points that we have most to learn from the Greeks, and Greek philosophy is therefore of special importance for us at the present time. At its best, it was never divorced from science, while it found a way of reconciling itself both with the interests of the practical life and with mysticism without in any way abating the claims of the intellect. It is solely from these points of view that it is proposed to regard Greek philosophy here. It would be futile to attempt a summary of the whole subject in the space available, and such a summary would have no value. Many things will therefore be passed over in silence which are important in themselves and would have to be fully treated in a complete account. All that can be done now is to indicate the points at which Greek philosophy seems to touch our actual problems. It will be seen that here, as elsewhere, 'all history is contemporary history', and that the present can only be understood in the light of the past.

The word 'philosophy' is Greek and so is the thing it denotes. Unless we are to use the term in so wide a sense as to empty it of all special meaning, there is no evidence that philosophy has ever come into existence anywhere except under Greek influences. In particular, mystical speculation based on religious experience is not itself philosophy, though it has often influenced philosophy profoundly, and for this reason the pantheism of the Upanishads cannot be called philosophical. It is true that there is an Indian philosophy, and indeed the Hindus are the only ancient people besides the Greeks who ever had one, but Indian science was demonstrably borrowed from Greece after the conquest of Alexander, and there is every reason to believe that those Indian systems which can be regarded as genuinely philosophical are a good deal more recent still. On the other hand, the earliest authenticated instance of a Greek thinker coming under Indian influence is that of Pyrrho (326 B. C.), and what he brought back from the East was rather the ideal of quietism than any definite philosophical doctrine. The barrier of language was sufficient to prevent any intercourse on important subjects, for neither the Greeks nor the Indians cared to learn any language but their own. Of course philosophy may culminate in theology, and the best Greek philosophy certainly does so, but it begins with science and not with religion.

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