Readings on Ontology and Cosmology

We begin our study with the most basic question of philosophy, which is also the hardest to get a handle on: what is the nature of reality? What is real? What is not? Is there a structure of reality, a natural order, or, to say it another way, an order of being? This is the subject matter of ontology. As you read these excerpts, keep in mind political philosopher Eric Voegelin’s quaternarian or four-part understanding of reality: the divine, the natural, the human (social), and the human (personal or internal). The assigned writings will discuss “nature” and the relation of God to nature and to man. They will refer to divine or sacred things, natural things, and man-made things (or “artifacts”) in the world. What is the relationship of these things to one another? What is their distinctive nature or essence?

Frequently, the question of the nature of reality is initiated by the question of the nature of the world in which we live—cosmology. As the writers discuss the world—the universe or the cosmos—within which we live, do they indicate that it has a particular order or structure? What kind of cosmic or natural order do they describe? Do they indicate that everything happens randomly or just some things? Do the parts of the world have different purposes or “ends”? (“End” and “purpose” are synonyms.) A Greek synonym is telos. Thus a purposeful order or design to the world and all that is in it is called a “teleological” order or a teleological cosmology. Which writers subscribe to a teleological cosmology? Which do not? A teleological explanation is one that finds a purpose or multiple purposes in the subject matter being studied.

Another useful term here is “cosmogony,” from the words cosmos and genesis—the origins of the universe or cosmos. A cosmogonic discussion or discussion of cosmogony addresses the question of where the world, where everything, came from. Was there a beginning before which nothing existed? Where did the big firecracker that initiated the “big bang” come from?

1. The pre-philosophic mythopoeic understanding of the cosmos.

We begin with excerpts from The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man by Henri Frankfort et al (also issued as a paperback entitled Before Philosophy) and from The Sacred and the Profane by Mircea Eliade. Study questions are available here.

The two excerpts describe the mythopoeic (pronounced ‘mĭth-ō-pō-ĭk,’ meaning "myth-making") intellect of ancient man. The two readings are compatible, but each of them focuses on a different aspect of ancient culture. Which one focuses primarily on cosmology and ontology? Which on epistemology? What reasons can you give for your answers? Be sure to review the meaning of these terms in the “Introduction to Political Theory.” What is a hierophany? a theophany? an epiphany? USE A DICTIONARY!! Use a dictionary for any word that you may not know.

On what do the two articles agree? Do you find any fundamental, irreconcilable disagreements between the two articles? Do the readings make explicit references to God? Were the ancients atheists? theists? Do either of the articles discuss cosmogony?

If you are interested in understanding more about the “primitive” or tribal mentality and language, and if you like murder mysteries, try the best-selling novels by author Tony Hillerman about the Navajos: The Blessing Way, Dance Hall of the Dead, Listening Woman, People of Darkness, The Dark Wind, and a dozen more. An excellent way to get away from assignments and still learn something. The description of a traditional Navajo ritual in The Blessing Way is particularly relevant to the explanation of primitive, mythopoeic thought in “Myth and Reality.”

Extra copies of handouts will always be in the rack on my office door, though I will usually remove them the day of class. You can't read the assigned material in the five minutes before class. Both of these readings reflect the extremely close relationship between ontology and epistemology—between what exists and how we know that it exists.

2. Epicurean cosmology, cosmogony, and ontology.

a. Please read the following passages from Lucretius, On the Nature of Things (Hackett Martin F Smith prose translation):

·         Book One, lines 146-634, 951-1083 (cited I.146-634, 951-1083),

·         Book Two, lines 62-112, 168-293, 333-568, 1049-1174 (cited II.62-112 and so on),

·         Book Five, lines 64-234 (cited V.64-234),

·         Study questions are available here.

The poem is divided into several numbered books, and you will find the approximate line numbers of each line of the poem in the page margins of the required Martin Smith translation. It is the (1) book number (Roman numeral) and (2) the approximate line number(s) (Arabic numerals) of the poem that you cite in your references.

As you read Lucretius, keep the five fundamental conceptions of philosophy in mind: what concept(s) is (are) being discussed in the text? What is the substance of Lucretius's idea here? In other words, if Lucretius is discussing cosmology here, what is his concept or idea of the cosmos? What is his understanding of the composition of the things in the world? What does Lucretius consider to be “real”? What is not “real”? These latter are ontological questions.

By the way, there is still a bit of popular interest in old Lucretius. Click on this radio spot, compliments of Alumna Maria Madden, for an interesting story on Lucretius.

b. Check out this excerpt from chapter 46 of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan. According to Hobbes, what is “the world” made of? That is, according to Hobbes, what is “real”? What truly exists?  

3. Classical cosmology and ontology.

Assignments will include some of these excerpts on Classical and Stoic ontology and cosmology:

·         Aristotle, excerpts from Physics and Metaphysics

·         Cicero, excerpts from On the Commonwealth and On the Nature of the Gods

·         Epictetus, excerpts from Discourses

·         Marcus Aurelius, excerpts from Meditations

·         Study questions are available here.

The Stoics are representative of the Classical tradition, one of the four broad traditions that we are following this semester (the others being the Epicurean, the Classical-Christian, and the esoteric or gnostic traditions). The Stoic school was begin by Zeno in the early third century, B.C., and became very influential in aristocratic Roman society during the last years of the republic and the first centuries of the empire. Stoicism, like Epicureanism, was one of the philosophy-religions that pervaded Rome during the decline of traditional Roman polytheism among the upper classes. The focus of Stoicism and Epicureanism was on ethics and how to live one’s life.

The first excerpt is from Aristotle’s Physics, his famous account of the four causes. This is an example of ontology in the Classical tradition. Compare this excerpt from Avicenna’s (ibn Sina’s) (A.D. 980-1040) work On Medicine. Aristotle’s discussion in the Metaphysics is theological, to use a word coined by Plato—rational discussion of God or the gods. Cicero’s “Dream of Scipio” reflects a view of the universe that continued into the late European middle ages. His discussion of the gods shows how the classical tradition related the natural to the divine. Epictetus, a Roman slave and sage, is responsible for the survival and endurance of many people, even twentieth-century Vice-Presidential candidate James Stockdale. At the other end of the social-political spectrum was Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher emperor and great persecutor of Christians.

4. Classical-theological cosmology.

We next turn to St. Augustine (A.D. 354-430) as a representative of the Classical Judeo-Christian-Muslim (Abrahamic) tradition. Please read these excerpts from St. Augustine's City of God and St. Thomas’s Summa Theologica.

·         Book Seven, chapters 6, 29, & 30 (cited VII.6, 29-30);

·         Book Eight, chapters 1 & 2, 4 & 5 (cited VIII.1-2, 4-5);

·         Book Nineteen, chapter 13 (cited XIX.13);

·         Question 91, Article 1, of St. Thomas’s “Treatise of Law.”

·         Study questions are here.


In reading the excerpts from St. Augustine, please keep a couple of things in mind. When he refers to “pagans,” Augustine is referring to non-Christian polytheists—the Romans and Greeks of the times that worshipped the Olympian gods (Zeus/Jove and the gang) and many other deities. Jews (and early Christians) sometimes used “gentiles” as a synonym, though “Gentile” also had racial implications. “Heathens” were Germanic polytheists. Pagans were not atheists.

Augustine refers to different kinds of theology—natural, civil or urban, and fabulous or theatrical. Natural theology is the discussion of God and things divine that is philosophical in nature. We see natural theology in the writings of Aristotle, Plato, Cicero and the Stoics, and even Lucretius. Civil theology is the official religion of the state or city. For the meaning of “fabulous” theology, look up the root word in “fabulous,” and think of all the Greek and Roman poems, plays, and stories. What is Augustine's view of the cosmos?

St. Thomas Aquinas is the second medieval representative of the Classical Christian tradition that we shall use in this course.

Alfarabi (A.D. 872-950), Averroes (ibn Rushd, A.D. 1126-1198 Spanish) and Avicenna (ibn Sina, A.D. 980-1037 Persian) are medieval representatives of the Classical Islamic tradition.

Excerpts from one of the leading Muslim Classicists:

·         Al Farabi (870-950), see this excerpt from --- and this brief account of al Farabi's philosophical principles.

·         ibn Sina, or Avicenna (980-1040), see this excerpt from --- and this general account of Avicenna's life and works

·         ibn Rushd, or Averroȅs (1126-1198), see this excerpt from Religion and Philosophy.

5. Esoteric cosmology and cosmogony.

a. We enter the wild world of Gnosticism with the Apocryphon of John. Typical of Gnostic texts, the Apocryphon presents itself as a lost gospel from the New Testament. It is not. It claims to have been written by the apostle John; it was not. The Apocryphon elaborates a full cosmogony-cosmology of the Valentinian type of Gnosticism. I think you will find it entertaining. Try to figure out the structure of the universe, according to the Gnostics. Did God make the world? Was the world good in God's eyes?

One major concern of the Valentinian Gnostics is the origin of evil. Clearly evil exists, but just as clearly God is good and could not possibly create something that was not good. So where does evil come from? The Apocryphon attempts to answer this question by explaining the origins of the world in which we live.

Remember, we are looking at documents that contain ontological and cosmological discussions: what is the ontology of the author of the Apocryphon? What is the fantastic cosmology? and cosmogony? And who is this "Barbelo" person, anyway? What does she have to do with the world? or with Sophia? or Yaltabaoth? or you, for that matter?

Ignoring the details for a moment, what is distinctively different about the Gnostic conception of the cosmos? How does it differ from the Christian conception as found in St. Augustine's writings? From Aristotle's conception in the Metaphysics and Cicero’s Classical conception in the De re publica? (bring those readings along and we will discuss them.) And from Lucretius's conception?

b. The Poemandres of Hermes Trismagistus. The first fifteen or so sections offer a Hermetic/Hermeticist cosmogony and cosmology. A significant part of both the Poemandres and the Apocryphon is the description of the essential nature of man in these two mythic, albeit different, accounts of creation. The essential nature of man, understood to be his place in the cosmos, is the philosophic anthropology of the accounts. (The other famous writing attributed to Hermes is the Asclepius.)

c. [This has not been assigned this semester, FA.] An interesting interpretation of Sufi mystic ibn Arabi (1165-1240) as both Gnostic and alchemist (Hermetic).

d. [This has not been assigned this semester, FA.] An interesting article on the intense controversy surrounding the ontological status of mental diseases outlined in the  Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed., DSM-5.

e. [This has not been assigned this semester, FA.] [This link to Stoic cosmology and ontology does not include Aristotle. This link to Classical and Stoic ontology and cosmology does.]

f. An excerpt-handout on the classical Greek conception of cosmos by Hans Jonas. Jonas is a student and critic of Gnosticism. According to him, what are the key differences between the classical Greek understanding of the cosmos and the Gnostic understanding? What, according to Jonas, accounted for the development of the Gnostic conception in the ancient Hellenic world? In particular, keep in mind the readings by the Stoics—Cicero, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius— when you read this.

The article is both a good account of Gnostic cosmology (keep the Apocryphon of John in mind as you read it) and also the classical Greek. A good review for the exam. Compare what he says with what we read in Lucretius, Aristotle, and Augustine. How does the primitive view fit?]

g. [An article on millennials ditching religion for witchcraft. Need I say more?]