400-200 BCE

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Chuang Tzu

Chuang Tzu is believed to lived in the Fourth or Third Century BCE.  His thought is contained in the 33 chapters that remain of the Chuang Tzu, which describes both his philosophy and his way of life. In it, he enlarges on the teachings of Lao Tzu in a lively discourse that opposes the ideas of Confucius and Mo Tzu. He argues that humanity should seek to live at one with nature and not impose upon it, doing more by doing nothing. His dislike of formal structures lead him to put forward his ideas in imaginary dialogues.



Mang tsze (370-286 BCE), known to the West as Mencius, was born in the principality of  Tsau, located in what is now the province of Shantung. Mencius argued that all men have a mind that cannot bear to see the suffering of others. From this it follows that the feeling of commiseration, the feeling of shame and dislike, the feeling of modesty and complaisance, and the feeling of approving and disapproving are all essential to a human being. Mencius asserted that the feeling of commiseration is the principle of benevolence. The feeling of shame and dislike is the principle of righteousness. The feeling of modesty and complaisance is the principle of propriety. The feeling of approving and disapproving is the principle of knowledge. 


Bhagavad Gita

The Bhagavad Gita  (500 - 200 BCE) is part of the Mahabharata, which relates the struggles between the Kuru and Pandu dynasties of India. It starts with a battle over a few villages. A leading warrior, Arjuna, looks at his relatives and friends on the opposing side and decides he has no desire for bloodshed. He denounces war as driven by greed and leading to the destruction of families and to  lawlessness. Against this humanistic viewpoint, Krishna (the incarnation of the universal Hindu God, Vishnu) argues that people should not be concerned with the results of deeds but merely with ensuring that the deeds are done properly.



Epicurus (342-270 BCE) was born in Samos. He probably started making his ideas public on the island of Lesbos in about 311 BCE. A few years later he went to Athens, where he remained for the rest of his life, arguing for a broad-based philosophy linking the life of man and the physical world in a single atomic theory. He promoted a way of life based on removal of desires beyond those of natural needs, achievement of a simple lifestyle, cultivation of friendship, and enjoyment of carefree pleasures. He put forward his teachings in his garden outside of the city, opening up his school to many people (including slaves) who could not gain access to the more worldly philosophers. Not surprisingly, Epicurus was ridiculed by opposing philosophers and the distortions they applied to some of his ideas have survived to this day. 



Asoka (c. 300-232 BCE) became in 270 BCE the ruler of an empire extending from Afghanistan to Bengal, and by further conquests unified nearly all of India. He converted to Buddhism in 260 BCE, expressing remorse for the suffering and loss of life caused by his wars. He then decreed that future conquests should be by the diffusion of Buddha’s teachings. These he promulgated in a series of edicts carved in stone,  prohibiting the killing of men or animals and urging ethical behavior and religious tolerance. Asoka also implemented various public works and attempted to provide health services for all.  



Euclid (active around 300 BCE) a Greek educated in Athens formed a school in Alexandria where he produced a comprehensive treatise on mathematics, the Elements. These thirteen books constitute a superbly accurate theory of the physical space in which we live. The quality of this work is such that it survived as a teaching text for about 2,300 years, and dominated concepts of space and geometry until the Nineteenth Century. Its method is to provide an initial set of definitions, common assumptions (axioms), and postulates, all of which appear to be obvious, and then to deduce from them new findings that are not at all obvious. In this way, Euclid made a major contribution to the process of reasoning whereby we seek to understand the world around us and ourselves.



Xunzi, or Hsün-tzu, (298-238) BCE was a native of Zhao (Chao), China, becoming a well-recognized scholar and rising to official posts, including that of magistrate. As he lived during the disruptions known as the Warring States, the disasters of this period may have caused him to see people as having an inherently evil nature that required social control. He integrated this view into his own version of Confucianism, developed in a logical manner in a book of some 32 chapters, perhaps the first collection of philosophical essays in China. Xunzi suggested society, through its culture, should impose order onto the chaos of conflicting desires and channel them into constructive, rather than destructive, effort. 


Han Fei Tzu

Han Fei Tzu (280-233 BCE), a prince of Han, was a leading philosopher of the Chinese legalist tradition whose written works gained favor with the king of Ch’in. The legalist school rejected Confucianism and Taoism, arguing that laws and their strict enforcement were what was needed for social harmony and a well-run state. In rejecting the past, it focused on the need for a government to demonstrate concrete results rather than to gain plaudits by following tradition. Unfortunately it saw suppression of civil rights and democratic institutions as an essential part of its program. 



 Koheleth (Second Century BCE) is the sage whose collection of sayings is contained in the Christian Bible's Book of Ecclesiastes. He appears to have been a member of a group of philosophers or students, of which he was the head. In his book he saw a fixed unchangeable order in the world, which man may feel compelled to study but whose meaning evades him. Ultimately, Koheleth seems to feel that human life is unsatisfying, that there is no moral justice in the destiny of men, or necessary sacredness or dignity in human life. He concludes that one should enjoy such pleasures as come one’s way. 



Polybius (c.203-122 BCE) was born in Megalopolis, Arcadia, a Greek city that was an active member of the Achaean League. He subsequently became one of a thousand principal Achaeans deported to Italy, where he became tutor of Scipio and Fabius in Rome. This gave Polybius a unique opportunity to analyze the successful expansion of Rome and to record the principles involved as a lesson for future statesmen, particularly those in Greece. His interest in how Rome could organize to gain control of the world around the Mediterranean led him to analyze different types of constitution and to propose a theory of how these change from one to another in an inevitable cycle (kingship, tyranny, aristocracy, oligarchy, democracy, mob rule, and tyranny again).