1000-500 BCE

Home Up Chinese Odes Solomon Homer Hebrew Scribes Greek Analects Carvaka Vardhamana Lao Tzu Buddha Confucius Aeschylus

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Chinese Odes

Some of the earliest poetry expressing warm enjoyment of human activities— gathering food, hunting, farming, courtship and marriage, and festivals—is found in the Chinese Book of Odes (sometimes called the Book of Poetry or the Book of Songs). These 305 poems, originating between the 12th and 7th Century BCE, mark the beginning of 3,000 years of Chinese poetry. There is a tradition that they  were first compiled by Confucius, who greatly admired them.  



Solomon (975-931 BCE?), a king of Israel and Judah, is described in the Hebrew Bible as ruling over a vast empire. Archeological investigations have found no evidence of such an empire. The account of Solomon's reign appears to have been handed down through oral sources for three centuries or more. One particularly striking piece of literature that appears to have come down to us in this way is the Song of Songs. This contains individual verses that reflect a lyrical tradition whose style evolved out of love songs from Mesopotamia. The main thread of the song appears to be a celebration of a marriage in a form that may be descended from a Sumerian fertility rite performed between a king and a cultic priestess. 



Homer lived in the ninth century BCE, according to the Greek historian Herodotus, and is credited with the composition of two epic poems¾the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Iliad covers a period of a few weeks during what is traditionally a ten-year siege of Ilium (Troy) by Achaeans from what we now refer to as Greece. Much of the action in Homer’s Iliad is under the control of the Olympian gods, who whenever a man decides to take some sensible action that might end the conflict, step in to frustrate him.  Homer graphically describes the horrors of battle and the grief and remorse that subsequently arise.


Hebrew Scribes

Hebrew scribes probably began writing down the text of the Hebrew Bible in the Seventh Century BCE. In it there are codes of conduct, ethical guidance, and laws that give us insight into the emergence of ideas of ways society can be strengthened to improve the lives of  its members. The early books of the Bible offer support to humanistic action in commands such as love one’s neighbor, do not nurse hatred, do not take vengeance, honor the aged, and be considerate to the deaf and blind. There is also guidance for aiding the poor, the widow and orphan, and for compassionate treatment of those who have fallen on hard times. 


Greek Analects   

The works of many early Greek philosophers, orators, and poets (630-400  BCE) exist only as small fragments or analects. They nevertheless give us a glimpse of events in one of the most important eras in European thought, as attempts were made to understand whether some sort of unity could underlie the observed changing physical world. And as concepts for this unity evolved, rules governing the changes it controlled also became the subject of speculation. Attempts  to extend these rules to individual human and social behavior were often un convincing and turned attention to more direct consideration of psychology and ethics in humanistic studies by individuals whose works are better preserved.



The system of philosophy named after its founder, Carvaka, was put forward in the Brhaspati Sutra in India probably about 600 BCE. This text has not survived and, like similar philosophies in Greece, much of what we know of it comes from attacks by its critics. It put forward a materialism that tells us to live life joyously, rules out the supernatural, dismisses religious histories, and rejects inferential logic, or induction.



Vardhamana (599-527 BCE) promulgated the religious and philosophical system of the Jains in India. It is a system that seeks its  basis in reason and observation of reality. As a result, it contains early speculative philosophy regarding perception and knowledge, and recognizes that different points of view lead to different versions of the truth. As in many Indian philosophies, the concept of karma is central to understanding the humanistic aspects of Jainism. It mediates the way that actions affect a person’s condition. From the description of desirable actions emerge moral values. Goals in life include freedom from injury, falsehood, thievery, unchastity, and world attachment. Compassion, restraint, forgiveness, and contentment are given positive emphasis.


Lao Tzu

Lao Tzu may have  lived between 571 and 490 BCE. His existence and date are somewhat uncertain. Probably at some time in the second or third century BCE a collection of writings called the Tao Te Ching appeared, attributed to Lao Tzu. There is good reason to suppose that this collection is an anthology of Taoist ideas from various periods in Chinese history. It begins with a theory of the origin of the universe, in which the natural law that sets the universe in motion is referred to as the Tao, or the unvarying way. This law is also seen as governing the biological world as we know it. From this, Lao Tzu is able to develop rules for the conduct of life and government, based on the idea that we should seek to live in harmony with nature.


The Buddha

The founder of Buddhism was the son of a prince of Shakyas, a principality located in the Himalayan foothills. He was born about 563 BCE with the family name of Gotama and the personal name of Siddhattha. After experiencing both luxury and asceticism, he concluded that the true way of life was between these extremes, and that even this middle way was inevitably characterized by impermanence, imperfection and suffering. He analyzed the origins of these sorrows on the basis of his own experience, and elaborated a prescription for their alleviation— the Eightfold Way: right belief, right thought, right speech, right behavior, right occupation, right effort, right attentiveness, right meditation.



Confucius (551-479 BCE) was born with the family name K'ung.  At fifteen he bent his mind to learning, and continued to express a deep admiration for learning throughout his life.  Confucius argued that acting according to our humanity provides a true path through life. When asked for a rule of conduct, he suggested "reciprocity."  What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.  Confucius did not talk about extraordinary things, feats of strength, disorder, or spiritual beings. When  asked about death he replied “While you do not know life, how can you know about death?”  He urged the practice of gravity, generosity of soul, sincerity, earnestness, and kindness.



Aeschylus (525-425 BCE) became the first Greek playwright to bring a second actor on to the stage, enabling him to exploit the endless possibilities of dialog. His one surviving trilogy of plays overthrows the ancient tradition of the repeating cycle of vengeance and blood feud, replacing it with trial by jury as a means of achieving justice. Symbolic of the change in psychology this requires, is the transformation of the Furies—ancient, primitive deities pursuing vengeance—into beneficent powers bringing peace. They are portrayed as transformed by a new way of thinking, instituted by Athena, who represents wisdom acting through persuasion.