The History of Philosophy

Extract from ‘The History of Philosophy’ by A.C. Grayling published on 20th June 2019.

It would seem that there is a recipe for being a great civilisation-dominating figure such as the Buddha, Confucius, Socrates, Jesus and Mohammed. It is this: Write nothing. Have devoted disciples. Be lucky. Note that this recipe does not include: Be original. Be profound. None of these figures were either of these things, though in the Be Lucky department they had followers who were both, and who made from the remembered fragments of their sayings, and the legends that embroidered memory of their persons, whole systems of thought and practice which they themselves might probably not have recognised or even perhaps approved. 

If these seem to be disparaging things to say, as a kind of lese majeste against the greatest and most iconic of names, note this. Each of these figures was, in his own time, one among many who were doing what they were doing: teaching or preaching, gathering followers, variously borrowing from and disagreeing with others and with earlier teachings. In the case of some it was decades, in the case of others centuries, before the teachings attributed to them were written down. In each case the followers of their followers soon began to disagree and split from each other, the schisms and quarrels forming different versions of the legacies thus surviving. 

Take Siddartha Gautama – he who came to be known as the Buddha – as an example. Legend makes him the son of a king who led a life so sheltered and opulent that when he first encountered a sick man, an old man and a corpse in the world outside the palace walls he was shocked, and therefore abandoned his station and family and set off as a mendicant wanderer in search of release from the sufferings of life. He tried deep meditation at the feet of the yogis, he tried severe self-mortification after the fashion of the ascetics, seeking by these means to secure release from the endless cycles of pain that constitutes existence. Neither worked. But one day, seated in thought under a Bodhi tree, he found enlightenment: he became Buddha, ‘the enlightened,’ and was released; and spent the rest of his life teaching disciples.

This fabulised and abbreviated account makes Gautama seem as if he were unique, as if he arose out of nothing with a great and transforming revelation to offer the world. But what of the yogis and ascetics with whom he first studied? In fact he arose out of a period in the history of India that was tumultuous in the tens of thousands of seekers and mendicants, of yogis and ascetics, of teachers and preachers, who congregated in huge crowds in great public debating halls and in parks in the cities of the Ganges, where they argued among themselves, lectured the public, and taught their followers. It was common currency that acts of charity would help towards a more fortunate reincarnation in a next life, and therefore these swarms of mendicants were able to rely on being fed and clothed by the communities through which they passed. Nothing was more helpful to fostering the abundance of philosophy and religion in the India of that time than the coupled ideas of reincarnation and karma.

The teachings of the Buddha began to be written down three to four centuries after his death. The two oldest sources of what he is believed to have taught are the Suttapitaka (the Basket of Discourses) and the Vinayapitaka (the Basket of the Disciplinary Code). They were gathered from memorised oral transmission of the teachings, an approximate canon of which had been formed by about a century after his death. The oral nature of this first record introduced formulaic and repetitive forms required for memorisation, and variations in the eventual texts made from them are in part attributable to the vagaries of memory. But there were certainly also misunderstandings, interpolations and reinterpretations of the material passed down too, adding to the variability of the written versions.

Moreover, whatever language the Buddha spoke in his native land among the Sakya people, who lived in what is now the border area between India and Nepal on the northern slopes of the Ganges basin, it was not Pali, Sanskrit or one of the Pakritic dialects, and the transmission of Buddhist teachings through these languages, and later through other south Asian languages and Tibetan, Chinese and Japanese, introduced many differing additions and changes to create what Buddhism is now.

Nevertheless there is a recognisable core to Buddhist doctrine, centering on the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. A striking fact about Buddhism, as with the rival outlook that arose at the same time in history, namely Jainism, is that it is not a religion but a philosophy. It involves no deity or deities, and relies on no messages from transcendent sources about the purpose of life and how to live it. Later versions of Buddhism in Tibet, China and Japan gathered a great penumbra of superstitions and beliefs in gods and inhuman beings – a typical development for the human imagination – but this constitutes a corrupted version of the original, as the austere scholars of the Theravada school of Sri Lanka will readily tell one, as they look with disdain at the excesses of the Mahayana schools and their encrustations of the ‘true doctrine’ with what these scholars think is nonsense.

Matters are no different as regards Confucius. He too was one of many ‘literati’ who sought to advise princes and teach a way of life; he had the good fortune to inspire a follower who lived a century after his time, Mencius, whose admiration prompted even later scholars to collect sayings attributed to Confucius and write them down. About two and a half centuries after Confucius’ death the first emperor of unified China, Qin Shi Huangdi (221-206 BCE) made a bonfire of the books of all previous philosophers – and, as it happened, any available living authors of them too – in order to efface the past and to establish the Legalist philosophy of his own day, which supported his rule. Fortunately he was unable to destroy all copies of previous classics such as the Book of Songs, the Spring and Autumn Annals, the Analects of Confucius, the Yijing (in an earlier Anglicisation known as ‘I Ching’), and Mencius’s book, the Mengzi. When the next dynasty came into power, known as the ‘Former Han,’ Confucius’s reputation blossomed; numerous of the ancient classics were attributed to his authorship or editorship, and preferment in the bureaucracy of the empire turned on success in examinations on the classics attributed to him. The Confucian character of China was shaped by the many and long periods when the teachings attributed to Confucius were the subject of these imperial examinations; they only ceased to be so in the first decade of the twentieth century.

The pattern of post-mortem collections of saying and teachings, the earliest written down decades after the event, and a canon being established only centuries after the event, is repeated in the case of Jesus and Mohammed. The stand-out figure is Socrates, personally known to Plato, Xenophon and others who wrote about him – but even here too, with the exception of some lampoons by Aristophanes, nothing was written about him or recorded of him until after his death. Subsequent philosophers developed different aspects of Socrates’ legacy – Aristotle the trope of the considered life, the Cynics his disdain for convention, the Stoics his fortitude and adherence to principle – but in the case of the Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed the divergences and schisms among their followers in the centuries after their deaths descended into conflict and violence. This too, alas, is a typical feature of things human.

Socrates is however like all the others in having been one among a large number of people – in his case the Sophists – who were doing much the same thing as he was: teaching, influencing, attracting pupils. Jesus was likewise one of a large number of enthusiasts and preachers, and his form of execution – reserved by the Roman authorities for political insurrectionaries – suggests that he was not viewed as being much different from the many others who were disturbing the peace at the time. Gautama competed for the attention of his contemporaries with the Jains, with other atheist philosophers, and with the theistic devotees of the India of his day. Why did Confucius rather than Mozi come to have followers long after his own time who elaborated teachings in his name, thus making him the venerated sage of China? Why did St Paul choose to make a religion out of the deceased Jesus rather than some other zealous preacher of the day? You might reply: the intrinsic merits of the teaching. Perhaps so. But undoubtedly there was a large measure of luck in it. And it makes one ask, prompted by Thomas Grey’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard, how many ‘village Hampdens and mute inglorious MIltons’ in their thousands thought and taught, but have been long forgotten? Refocus the question and ask, Why is it that romantic novels sell in far greater numbers than literary ones? Were there teachers and thinkers of profound insight whose teachings were too difficult to understand or to follow, leaving the legacy of the more popular ones to flourish in history? A survey of the history of philosophy suggests an answer: in it are to be seen the thinkers who may well have more to offer the thoughtful than the popularised teachings associated with those ‘big names.’

One thing we certainly learn from these considerations is that ‘Buddha,’ ‘Confucius’ and the rest are the names of images or icons rather than of people – or better, perhaps, the ideas of notional people to whom can be attributed for convenience the inspiration for a philosophy or a religion. 

Picking out a few individuals for elevation to iconic status in this way is a kind of shorthand for the entire period in which they and increasingly many others were raising questions about values, society, ideas of the good, and enquiry into fundamental questions about the word and humankind. No doubt others had done the same in the millennia before them, but at this period – between the eighth and third centuries BCE especially – there was a marked efflorescence of debate, both in numbers of people involved and written records of what emerged from their discussions. For this reason the period has been labelled ‘the Axial Age’ (axiology is the study of values, from Greek axia ‘worth,’ ‘value’) – a name coined by Karl Jaspers on the basis of views advanced by scholars in the nineteenth century who were struck by the emergence of philosophy in India and China contemporaneously with its appearance in the Greek world. Jaspers included Zoroastrianism in Persia and Judaism in the Middle East among the movements constituting the age, and might have added many more which have since vanished into historical curiosities, such as the mystery cults, Hermeticism, and then-contemporary versions of the mythopoeic religions of Egypt and Mesopotamia. It would seem that philosophy – what we recognise specifically as philosophy – stood out against the increasingly busy background of speculation in all these forms, and it is a striking fact that the great iconic figures at the heart of the period – Buddha, Confucius, Socrates – are all philosophers, not prophets or religious leaders, still less gods.

A. C. Grayling CBE MA DPhil (Oxon) FRSA FRSL is the Master of the New College of the Humanities, London, and its Professor of Philosophy. He is also a Supernumerary Fellow of St Anne’s College, Oxford. He is the author of over thirty books of philosophy, biography, history of ideas, and essays.

He will be speaking at Chalke Valley History Festival on Thursday 27th June about The History of Philosophy. Tickets are available here.