This is the first section of our brief history of grassroots philosophy. You can find the other sections in the menu on the left.
Philosophy is socially both disruptive and creative. It disrupts traditional patterns of community, by prompting people to question their shared beliefs and values, and asking that people think for themselves. But it is also creative, helping to inspire new forms of community, new experiments in living.
Both these aspects of philosophy are there at the birth of philosophy, in the sixth and early fifth century BC, in the life-stories of two Pre-Socratic philosophers, Heraclitus and Pythagoras. According to Diogenes Laertius, Heraclitus left his native Ephesus in disgust at the immorality of his fellow citizens, and wandered in the fields outside the city, weeping and eating grass. He rejected the conventional morality of his society, and his own conventional role in it, and became a self-exiled outcast, a citizen of no state, almost a non-human. This is an example of the social disruption of philosophy – how it separates, isolates and disrupts traditional forms of collectivity. Pythagoras was also a wanderer, who left his native Samos and traveled around the Mediterranean. Yet, unlike Heraclitus, his questioning and searching led Pythagoras to establish new forms of community, in the form of philosophical communes around Magna Graecia (in what is today Italy). His followers lived together, shared their possessions, and followed their philosophy in a secretive quasi-mystical cult.
The life-story of Socrates, as told in the writings of Plato, likewise illustrate this double aspect of philosophy. On the one hand, Socrates was clearly socially disruptive, in that he challenged Athenians not to blindly accept the old myths, the old dogma, the old shared values, but to think for themselves. He championed a form of rationalist non-conformist individualism, which helped lay the seeds for millennia of protest and revolt in western civilization. That was why Athenian society put him on trial and demanded his death: for his disruption of society and of traditional moral beliefs. On the other hand, he wasn’t entirely negative or destructive. His life and teachings also led to new forms of community, new forms of encounter. Each Platonic dialogue is a description of an encounter, a spontaneous meeting somewhere in the streets of Athens where, for a few minutes or pages, Socrates and his dialogue partners come together to question their own and each other’s suppositions. A slightly more settled example of conviviality is shown in Plato’s Symposium, in which a group of distinguished Athenians, including Socrates, gather together to enjoy each other’s company and to reason about love. This, you might say, was the first informal philosophy club in history. Socrates has remained the great inspiration for modern philosophy groups like Socrates Cafes and Cafes Philos.
The Academy, the Lyceum, the Stoa, the Garden, and the barrel
In the years and decades after Socrates’ death, philosophy came to a fork in the road. On the one hand, Socrates’ student, Plato, took philosophy off the streets and into the academy. Plato founded the first academic institution, called the Academy, on the outskirts of Athens, where elite rich male students studied philosophy. At the same time, another philosopher called Diogenes the Cynic started to live in a barrel in the Athenian market-place, teaching a form of radical street philosophy, which was open to anyone. Plato and Diogenes were supposed to have disliked each other, and to have sparred on occasion, and they present two different models of philosophy. The tension between street philosophy and academic philosophy carries on into the present day.
In around 334 BC, Plato’s most famous student, Aristotle, set up his own philosophical school in Athens, called the Lyceum, though he also spent much of his life exiled from Athens. He put forward an ethical philosophy in which friendship and sociability played a key part. As he wrote in his Politics, ‘man is a social animal’, and the foundation of a good society, in Aristotle’s view, is friendship. Aristotle was perhaps the first theorist of civil society, and he praised the idea of friends gathering together in clubs to reflect on the good life and the good society. Such clubs engaged the citizenry in the running of a democracy, and protected it from tyranny. The best way a tyrant could keep hold of power, Aristotle suggested, was to close such clubs down. Of course, Aristotle’s own philosophy was limited to Greek wealthy men – women were excluded, and his vision of the good philosophical society relied on a large population of slaves doing all the manual labour.
In the fourth century, new philosophies appeared in Greece, each with their own way of life which it was claimed would lead to happiness and tranquillity. The Stoics were so-called because they gathered under the Stoa Poikile, or painted colonnade, in the Athenian market-place. The philosophy that they taught there, to whoever wanted to hear it (male and female, freeman or even slave), exhorted people to become indifferent to externals, and instead to focus their energies on the inner good of developing their reason and using it to become in harmony with the divine universe, or Logos. This way of life, they suggested, would free people from anxiety and help them achieve a ‘good flow of life’. Stoicism was and is a rather individualistic and self-reliant philosophy, and there is little evidence of actual Stoic communities, in the sense of Stoics living together. However, friendship still played a part in some Stoic philosophy, as evidenced in Seneca’s Letters to Lucius, in which Seneca writes to his younger friend to give him guidance on his philosophical path.
Another philosophy which appeared around the same time, and which did inspire actual communities, was Epicureanism. Its founder, Epicurus, established a philosophical commune called the Garden in Athens. A sign outside the house read: ‘Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure.’ Within the Garden, Epicurus and his followers lived together and practiced their philosophy, which taught that the wisest way to live was to pursue pleasure as intelligently as possible. One of the greatest pleasures of life, according to Epicurus, is friendship and philosophical conversation – this seemed to have been the main activity at the Garden. Finally, the Sceptic school argued that the root of all emotional suffering was overly-dogmatic beliefs,and the way to tranquility was to learn to suspend judgement and cultivate doubt.
The Platonic, Cynic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Epicurean and Sceptic schools all had their followers both in Greece and, later, across the Roman Empire – and they still inspire followers and modern philosophical communities today. The Roman author and politician Marcus Tullius Cicero played a particularly important role in communicating their ideas to Rome and, later, to the rest of the world: Cicero emphasised the importance of intelligent conversation in drawing people together and creating a foundation for civil democratic society. As such, he was an big inspiration to later philosophical communities, particularly in the Renaissance and 18th century.
Grassroots philosophy in early Christianity and Islam
When Christianity arose and became a mass religion (and eventually the official religion of the Roman Empire), it defined itself against pagan philosophy, but also absorbed many of the Greeks’ philosophical concepts and practical ideas for living a good life. And early Christians showed great creativity in the forms of philosophical community they developed. St Paul, in particular, showed all the missionary zeal and networking enthusiasm of later philosophy community organizers. After the sacking and collapse of the Roman empire, philosophy survived during the Dark Ages thanks to the libraries of the Byzantine empire, and to centres of Islamic scholarship, where philosophical communities took new shapes, from Almohad courts and Caliphates to wandering Sufi communities.
In the West, Greek texts were slowly translated in monasteries from the 9th to the 11th century. Finally, in the 12th century, the study of Greek revived and the rediscovery and translation of Aristotle’s works helped to inspire the foundation of universities like Bologna (founded in 1088), Oxford (1176), Cambridge (1209) and Salamanca (1218). For several centuries, monks and university scholars dedicated themselves to the task of unifying Aristotelian philosophy with Christian theology – philosophy as a standalone subject was not taught until the late 19th century. Today, the university is still the home of much philosophical work, but there has also long been a tradition of philosophy outside academia.
Here are some recommended books on practical philosophy and philosophical communities in ancient Greece and Rome:
Martha Nussbaum, The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics (1996)
Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault (1995)
Jules Evans, Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations (2012)
AA Long, Hellenistic Philosophy: Stoics, Epicureans, Sceptics (1974)
Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers (written in first half of third century BC)
Plato, Symposium (written in roughly 385 BC)
Xinzhong Yao, An Introduction to Confucianism (2000)
Here is an article from Pantheos on community organisation in Taoism.
And here is an article from Pantheos on community organisation in Buddhism.