In The Beginning

Why the Greeks?

Mesopotamia is commonly said to be the cradle of civilisation, where large settlements first became cities and empires. However, it was the ancient Greeks who invented mathematics, science, philosophy and history in the western world, and made remarkable contributions in art and literature. Bertrand Russell starts his history of Western philosophy by trying to understand how the Greeks did it.

According to Russell, one of the characteristics of ‘civilised’ people is prudence or forethought, i.e. the willingness to endure present hardship for future gain. Hunting is enjoyable and gives a short-term benefit. Generating a surplus harvest for use in winter is hard work and requires reason to plan for the future. Civilisation is counter to our natural impulses, and must be enforced through, law, custom and religion. These constraints can feel irksome at best, particularly when civilisation is relatively new. The Cult of Bacchus allowed people to feel freed from these constraints. Bacchus was a God of fertility who become associated with intoxication, which his followers thought to be divine. Intoxication (both physical and spiritual) liberates the mind from the preoccupations of civilised life and exposes us to a world of delight and beauty.

From the Cult of Bacchus came Orphism, which was ascetic and substituted mental for physical intoxication. It would have a great influence on the Greek philosophers. The Orphics aimed at becoming ‘pure’ (by ceremonies or purification and by avoiding contamination) in order to become closer to God. In this way they aimed to acquire mystic knowledge not obtainable by ordinary means. It is common to think of Greek philosophers as calm and serene, and many were. Others were influenced by the Orphics, who were in a constant, painful and weary struggle to escape from endless cycles of life and death, in order to attain the blissful union with God. The greatness of the ancient Greek thinkers was fueled both by their passion as well as their intellect. Orphism showed the initiated that the true nature of the soul could only be revealed through ‘out of body’ experiences. At the same time the lack of a priesthood prevented dogmatic thinking; revelation was the source of religious authority.

The Milesian School

Western philosophy starts with Thales in the early 6th century. Thales lived in Miletus, which was a trading city in Ionia (the western coast of Turkey), and home of the Milesian school. Trade brought Greek minds into contact with Egyptians and Babylonians, and this diversity of thought dampened primitive prejudices and superstitions. The thinkers of the Milesian school are not principally important for what they achieved directly, but rather for the influence that their scientific enquiries and methods had on later thinkers. It is important that we do not ridicule the speculations of the early thinkers with the benefit of what humankind has subsequently learnt, but remember that they were living right at the beginning of philosophical thought. It must also be remembered that our sources on the philosophers preceding Socrates are very sparse, and often limited to what later thinkers have said of them. While some ancient Greek ideas may have been infantile, they often had the strength to develop to maturity over the next two thousand years.

Thales’ most prominent belief was that everything is made of water, which is the original substance. As Russell says, this is not as foolish as it may sound, considering that less than a century ago the received view was that everything is made of hydrogen (which makes up two thirds of water). Unfortunately, we don’t know what empirical testing Thales carried out to support this hypothesis. Anaximander was the second prominent philosopher of the Milesian school. He held that everything is made not of water but of another primal substance, from which all other substances are formed, including the elements of fire, air, water and earth. He believed that each substance had a God-like conscious and tried to subsume the others, but each was held in check by justice, which is conceived as a supreme power which is perpetually redressing the balance and returning things to their natural state. This conception of justice as not overstepping eternally fixed bounds, enshrined as natural laws, was one of the most important Greek beliefs. Even the Greek gods were subject to justice. Anaximander argues that the primal substance cannot be one of the four elements as it would overcome the others. It must be neutral in this cosmic strife. This battle creates constant change and constant evolution. He believed that the world and everything in it evolved to its current state; all animals, including humans, are descended from fish. Humans could not always have been as we are now, because our long infancy means that the first humans could not have survived as we are now.

Anaximenes is the last of the Milesian philosophers. For him the fundamental substance is air, and he describes how air turns into the other elements. Fire is rarefied air. Air when condensed becomes, water, which if condensed further becomes earth. The soul is made of air, and air surrounds the world, which Anaximenes believed was in the shape of a disc. The Milesian school came to an end in 494 B.C after Miletus was destroyed following an unsuccessful revolt against Persian rule.

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