In the history of philosophy, few of the ancient people advanced beyond the mythological thinking and explanations about various matters. However, none were able to construct a genuine philosophy except the Greeks. They only laid the foundations upon which the subsequent thinkers built consistent philosophical thoughts. And their philosophy is one of the best instances of the evolution of human thinking from simple mythological thinking to complex and comprehensive speculation. The Greek philosophy originated and developed from the Hellenic world.
Greek philosophy begins with an inquiry into the essence of the objective world. It is largely interested in the dynamics and contradictions in nature. Following this, thinkers started to pursuit the unchanging and permanent reality behind the change and dynamics witnessed in the sensible world. As such, Greeks philosophized outward upon the external world the cosmos, not inwards to the inner self. They initially incurred nature by taking the self as part and parcel of the physical world. Thus the initial questions of philosophy become, what is reality, what is nature, what is the ultimate source of all things, what causes the change and so on.
In the history of Western philosophy, the Pre-Socratic thinkers are considered to be the beginners of the early Greek philosophy. The pre-Socratics stands for philosophers before Socrates. And earlier Greek philosophy encompasses from 585BC to 400BC. They laid basic philosophical foundation for their successors. In their quest to find the cause for the perceptible dynamics in the physical world, pre-Socratic thinkers forwarded materialistic explanations. Subsequently, the notion of being and matters of human life were not at the center of their philosophical investigation. In fact the Pre-Socratics are also called the first cosmologists and their cosmological speculation forwarded diverse pathways for the theorization of moral and political thoughts of Socrates and other thinkers after him.
It is from the time of Socrates, that philosophy partially shifted from dealing with cosmological issues to the matters in man’s life. And particularly the emergence of Rene Descartes has tremendously shifted the face of philosophy towards the concept of man. Accordingly the concept of man has been rectified by various schools of thoughts within different categories in several ways. For instance, man has been projected as rational and political animal by Aristotle, moral and value oriented being by Nietzsche, the meeting point of the finite and infinite, the image of God by medieval thinkers like St. Augustine and so on. But still the notion of man is the everlasting debatable philosophical issue up to now.
Following the works of the classic philosophers Plato and Aristotle, the concept of man has been dealt by the medieval thinkers in relation to the Christian beliefs and values which dominated the scene from 476 to 1517. Consequently, the medieval age is considered to be the dark age of Europe since the absolute authority of the Roman Catholic Church conquered reason and free thinking.
At this juncture, on the 15th century European philosophers brought a revival of Greco-Roman philosophy, art, literature, and humanism; and it is called Renaissance. The Greek philosopher Protagoras’ statement ‘Man is the measure of all things’ inspired the philosophers and triggered an intellectual revolution. The emergent notion undermines the authority of the church. And the revolution rediscovers and reaffirms the capacity of man with the power to shape one’s own destiny.
Succeeding Renaissance, the age of enlightenment from 1650 to 1770 flourished human reason. It greatly shifted the paradigm from the long standing traditions and authorities to science and of human nature. Moreover, the enlightenment uplifted the concepts of freedom and individuality to the higher level and laid a foundation for the modern age philosophy.
Through all historical scenes, the essence of man and the relation of man with man and nature have been dealt by various philosophers from different perspectives. In particular, thinkers portrayed man in a way of a paradox between the private and the public, the individual and the totality. And based upon the evolution of the mentioned paradox in history of Western philosophy, the research will focus on the philosophies of the 19th century and the contemporary era namely Marxism and existentialism. Besides, both philosophies tried to portray the concept of man from two different extreme perspectives, from the individual and the totality.
At this point, this paper will discuss how philosophers conceived man from Greek philosophy up to the age of Renaissance and enlightenment.
Man in the Early and Classic Greek Philosophy
In fact the pre-Socratics are the first cosmologists and their cosmological speculation forwarded diverse pathways for the theorization of moral and political thoughts of Socrates and other thinkers after him. In the history of western philosophy, the works of the pre-Socratic thinkers are not documented with the precise dating. However, we are able to see what they have said and wrote from the best, second hand substantial compilation contributed by Aristotle on (384-322 BC). Besides, it is undeniable that the summaries and comments of ancient philosophers and historians contributed a lot in preserving and passing for their successors.
Moreover, the Pre-Socratic thinkers were interested in issues related with nature, the cosmos. And various thinkers forwarded different matters as the ultimate source of the universe. Based on this, they are categorized as monists and pluralist. Consequently, thinkers who portrayed a single matter as the primordial substance are under the category of monist camp and others who claimed that the ultimate source is the combination of many things are in the pluralist category.
Hence, in Pre-Socratic time man is a spectator and the cosmos is at the center of their investigation. Consequently, man was not the subject of philosophical inquiry in the early Greek philosophy.
It is Socrates who partially shifted the face of philosophy towards matters of human life like virtue and justice. His way of inquire was monolog and dialogical method. Following him his student Plato and then Aristotle philosophized in more extended manner.
The Greek’s consider man as a single entity which can’t stand independently from the community. Individuality and its values were not there at all in their socio-political contexts. So the notion of individualism was alienated from ancient and classic philosophy. Furthermore, the 5th century Athenian were interested in the rights of Athenian as a whole, not as the right of man as an individual.
In addition, the Greeks sense of community is also found in their intellectual endeavors. Accordingly, for them the pursuit of philosophical truths is not an individual or private business; rather it could be achieved collectively and dialogically. Additionally, the Greeks believed that, collectively created social conditions are necessary to the development of good life. Subsequently, for Greeks, legitimate political system is the rule of the people not the individual.
From a moral perspective, Greeks emphasized on the cultivation of human character and virtues within a community than in individual level. So, they stressed on the pursuit of moral excellences and where one actualizes one’s potentials within the social context.
In general, man cannot realize and achieve the self by being independent from the community. And it is only the collective that enables man to lead good and virtuous life.
Man in the Medieval Times
Medieval philosophy stands for Western philosophy in the middle ages. It emerged in the 15th century after the classical pagan culture in Western Europe. However, the development of medieval philosophy was founded upon the classical pagan philosophy.
The medieval time, in the history of western philosophy is considered to be the dark age of philosophy; since the Greek rational speculation and free thinking were replaced by the dogmatic and authoritarian power of the church. And the religious movement of the time dominated Greeks system of thought.
Afterwards, the emergence and expansion of Christianity towards the roman civilization brought absolute domination of the church upon every social, economic and political matters. In particular, reason and philosophy which has been exercised by romans has come to be the prisoner of faith and dogma of the church. Moreover, philosophy seeks refuge in religion.
In fact, Platonic and neo-platonic philosophical thinking was highly dominated the first part of the middle ages. And this persisted up to 12th and 13th centuries where Aristotle’s works recovered. Henceforth, his philosophy immensely dominated most of the Middle Ages by far.
Even though Christian beliefs and values prevails the Roman world, Christianity encountered challenges; most importantly, on how to justify its values and beliefs on rational ground. Furthermore, it had to validate its faith to reason and defend itself against the arguments of the publicists and philosophers. So it becomes necessary for its leaders to use some fundamental insights of the Greeks philosophical thought.
Consequently, they also had to develop doctrines and theories about Christian beliefs on the life of man in this world by amalgamating philosophical principles along with the dictums of Christianity. The thinkers who engaged in rationalizing Christian doctrines are called schoolmen and their system scholastic philosophy.
Among others, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Anselm were influential and they contributed important philosophical works of all time.
During the middle ages, there was no individualism in personal freedom as understood today. Rather the complete redemption and fulfillment of man is tied to the concept of death. To elaborate this point, death is taken as the initial juncture for a person to process the development of awareness of individuality. In addition to this, the authoritarian system of the church did not recognize individual rights. Especially any individual cannot stand against the values and dogmas of the church. Moreover, the church was the head of the medieval community and an individual is the community. For instance, St. Augustine in his book City of God argued that man is a political being and seeks life in society. And the feudal system was a way to be a part of the community.
However, few of the medieval community had all the rights and privileges. Since it was a society of privileged individuals, priests, tyrants, emperors, philosophers and a few others have got the recognition of an individual status.
It was at the end of the middle ages that the concept of individuality began to emerge, but it took long time for the concept to become universally recognized and get accepted. The transition between the medieval ages to the onset of the Renaissance is considered to be the time which individualism evolved.
Man in the Renaissance and Enlightenment Time
The Renaissance was from the 15th century to the 17th century, and it was the beginning to challenge the old tradition, language, art, theological system, and most importantly the relation between the state and the old authoritative religion Christianity. Afterwards, the spirit of criticism and open reflection brock out in open revolt against the authority of the church. Individuals began to stand against the compulsion of the ecclesiastical body of the society and formed intellectual liberty. Most importantly, Rene Descartes’s famous work The Meditation shifted philosophy towards the modern era by placing man at the center of philosophy.
And this is the partial realization in Renaissance that later on manifested in the modern philosophy. Consequently, the influences of the Renaissance is still persisted up to now in the case of the struggle for human liberty and enlightenment.
Subsequently, as individuals begin to assert their intellectual independence, it gradually weakened the authority of the church. As such, reason revived and the notion prevails that truth is something to be acquired, than something to be declared by authoritative power.
Furthermore, individuals started to shift the theological inquiry which was concerned with the heavens and the earth through the Bible to independent scientific quest in natural sciences. The intellectual reformers at the Renaissance time used the classical antiquity for inspiration to rediscover humanity (Humanism).
Even though the medieval time regarded man as unworthy in virtue, Renaissance humanism brought a new perspective of man, which developed individualism and the capacity of man. Subsequently, this notion motivated various thinkers to develop their own thoughts and other individuals to invent and contribute to the arts and humanities. As a result, the Renaissance brought ample of significant achievements to the present world.
Following the Renaissance, the enlightenment flourished the notion of individuality in a more advanced manner. Philosophers in the enlightenment era developed various theories on the concept of state. In doing so, they advanced the quest for intellectual liberty to unrestricted wealth accumulation. And the development of such theories resulted political systems like capitalism. At last, the highest point in which individualism raised to the higher pick is around 1970s and 80s and it greatly influenced scientific and political theories of the time.