ORIGIN AND DEVELOPMENT OF PHILOSOPHY IN ANCIENT GREECE

June 29, 2009

Michael Jhon M. Tamayao, M.Phil.

Introduction to Philosophy

Lecture 1:

 

 I. Myths and the Birth of Science…

Myths have always been part of human consciousness. Before the Spaniards introduced Christianity to the Philippines, Filipinos have embraced myths as a rule of life. The myth of “Bathala”, for example, was firmly believed as the explanation of how man and the world came to be. “Bathala”, the supreme being bestowed with all the superlative qualities, was then seen as the ultimate “cause” of everything. For our ancestors, myths were the “accepted explanations” for the various cosmological and social phenomena. They were seen as “the truths” that underlie reality. This mythological predisposition has been so engrained in our Filipino mindset that traces of it can still be observed today. Whenever beset by a seemingly unsolvable predicament, we Filipinos often say “bahala na” (anything goes), firmly believing that everything will be alright under the grace of the Almighty. The word “bahala” is obviously a modern rendition of “Bathala.” This alludes to the fact that the phrase “bahala na” also means “Bathala (God) will take care of everything.” Indeed myths shaped, not only the world-view of our ancestors, but also our modern life-worlds.

 

2500 years ago, mythological explanations were also widespread in Greece, the heart of the ancient western civilization. Before it became the much-applauded scientific and philosophical culture, Greece has also been a mythological culture. Spearheaded by the likes of Hesiod and Homer, Greeks viewed the world from a very complex mythological perspective. Famous gods and goddesses like Zeus and Athena, and Aphrodite and Aries were all Greek concoctions that were considered as “causes” of the many transformations observed in nature. Myths served as the uncontested rationalization for all the natural phenomena.

 

However, something remarkable and “unthinkable” happened in Miletus, a small corner of a Greek colony in Asia Minor – man suddenly began to think “scientifically” and “philosophically.” This was a moment (considered as a gift to mankind) which totally changed the course of the human history. Until today, no one still knows why or how this happened. It continues to be a mystery – a blessing, I can say – that elevated man into a higher state of consciousness.

 

Some scholars say that the flourishing economic condition of sixth-century Miletus was the impetus for the emergence of this scientific and philosophical approach of thinking in Greece. Veritably, wealth stimulates not only the economic progress of a nation but also its intellectual and cultural progress. When his primal needs have all been served, man begins to ask questions which “busy” and “preoccupied” minds cannot ask. Questions like “why are we here?”, “where did everything come from?”, and “what is the underlying stuff of all things?” This is what happened in Greece. While the slaves did all the manual labors, the citizens concentrated on knowledge and culture. Eventually, the citizens’ inquisitive minds sought for explanations beyond the myths, for explanations which were grounded in the objects themselves. Thus, an imminent change from a mythologically imagined world to a world grasped scientifically and philosophically took place in Greece. However, science and philosophy were not yet distinguished during that time. The Greek philosophers simply saw both disciplines as man’s passionate disposition towards the acquisition of “wisdom.” Their entanglement proved to be very fruitful and find their visible significance in the natural philosophers.

 

 

 

 

II. The Quest for the “Underlying Stuff” of Nature…

 

According to Aristotle, “Thales of Miletus” (624-547 BC) was the first scientific and philosophical thinker, as he was the first person to investigate on the originating principle (archê) of things. He was often pronounced as the “Father of Science” and the founder of the school of natural philosophy or Cosmology (study of the “ordered” universe). He has varied interests, investigating on almost all fields of knowledge. In Plato’s Republic, Thales was described as a man who has “many and ingenious inventions for arts and business of life.”[1] He traveled in many places including Egypt and Babylon from which he acquired knowledge in engineering, geometry, agriculture and astronomy. He excelled in the domain of applied science as he accurately predicted a solar eclipse in May 28, 585 BC. He was so highly esteemed that Plutrach, a well-known historian and ancient scholar, named him, together with the likes of Socrates and Aristotle, as one of the Seven Sages of ancient times. And as the letter cited by Diogenes Laertius purported, all scientific and philosophical discourses begin with his treatises.  

 

One of the main reasons why Thales was esteemed during his times was his defiance against commonly accepted conjectures and myths. His original views and hypotheses about nature were excitingly new, on the basis of which Aristotle recognized him as the founder of natural philosophy and his ideas as the genesis of scientific investigation.

 

Thales’ natural philosophy is duly understood through his infamous claim that “all things are full of gods.”[2] Although this statement may sound “mythological,” its real import served as the catalyst for scientific thinking. His position challenged the validity and relevance of myths in explaining the natural world. The idea of “god in things” rejects the idea of an “external god” which causes the transformations of the physical world, and advances explanations inferred from the natural conditions of things themselves. The answer for Thales must not be “outside” nature but “inside” nature itself.

 

“God in things” also suggests that things are life-like insofar as their change or behavior is intelligible and predictable.[3] The notion of “predictability” of things presupposes the notion of “causality.” Things are causes (aitia) of other things so that all the transformations could be ordered as to their causes. Things are predictable because they follow a pattern of unbroken causality. The notions of predictability and causality are two of the most important concepts in modern sciences. It is precisely for this reason that we can discern the philosophico-scientific significance of Thales’ assertion.

 

Thales was an extreme thinker, inasmuch as he wanted to find the “ultimate cause of all things.” Unlike the doctors and astronomers who only sought for the “proximate causes” of diseases and cosmic changes, the philosopher Thales sought for “the” cause, the “underlying stuff” that connected all things with one thread. “Order out of chaos”, this was the motif of his philosophy. It was the search for that underlying stuff which ordered nature that concerned him (and the subsequent natural philosophers) the most.

 

 

 

 

 

III. The Various Proposals…

 

What is the underlying stuff of nature?

 

In order to answer this highly “theoretical” question, Thales reverted back to the domain of observational experience. In his journeys he observed that life sprung from where water was. Crops and vegetables grew near rivers. Frogs and worms appeared every after the rain poured. Great civilizations like Egypt, Mesopotamia, and India thrived near bodies of water. More so, living creatures, such as plants, animals and men, are mostly made-up of moist. Rivers also generate earth, as Thales might have observed when he saw coastal lands grow in each passing year.[4] Ultimately, water nourishes everything in the cosmos. Thus Thales concluded that water was “the underlying stuff” of nature; or, as Aristotle wrote in his Metaphysics, for Thales “all things are water.” Nature as water is a single material substance, manifested in a myriad of ways which water can turn into. Water after all was a substance that can take all the various forms of matter (solid, liquid and gas) and as such the major component of all things. The fact for Thales was that all things were mere manifestations of water. Although his water-thesis may seem naive for us today, his views, if put against the background of ancient mythology from which it drastically departed, were innovative and revolutionary.          

 

After Thales various Milesian philosophers proposed their own versions of the “underlying stuff.” Anaximander (610-546 BC), believed to be a student of Thales and the second Milesian philosopher, stated that the “boundless” united everything in nature. We do not and cannot exactly say what Anaximander meant by this “boundless” but one thing was sure, that the ordering cause of nature was not a single substance but an “infinity” of constant encroachments. For him the various elements of nature (water, earth, fire and air) were constantly opposing each other in a battle for dominance. Nature is constantly changing but its changes (the opposition of the different elements) will in the end produce a balance.

 

The notion of “boundless” or “infinity” also goes beyond the “finitude” of created things. Created things are limited in the sense that they are perishable. Things that are perishable constantly change and that which continually changes is unintelligible. If what we are seeking is an “intelligible cause” that unites and goes beyond the multiplicity of the physical world, then the only possible answer is something “infinite,” “uncreated” or, for Anaximander, the “boundless.”

 

Another Milesian philosopher proposed that “air” or “vapour” was the underlying stuff of all things. His name was Anaximenes (570-526 BC), the third Milesian philosopher. For Anaximenes, air, which was and continued to be the most dominant element in the universe, was the origin of earth, water and fire. Water was just condensed air or the compact form of vapour (air). Earth was also a condensed form of air, more condense than water. Anaximenes figured this out by observing that when the snow melted the earth emerged. And lastly, fire was rarefied air. Its air molecules – using a more modern term – were less dense than water and earth.[5]

 

Moreover, for the old worlds, air was not just the source of life; it represented life itself. This idea was not only embraced by the west but also by the east. The author of the book of Genesis, for example, an Israelite, spoke of God blowing into man’s nostrils the “breath” or “air” of life.[6] The connection of air and life was so strong that separating them is inconceivable. Air must therefore be the grounding element of life and reality.

 

This theory unique of Milesian cosmologies that relies on a single material substance in explaining the unity of things is called Material Monism. The several substances (earth, water, air, fire, etc) and the varied changes in nature are just modifications of the single material stuff that is always and everywhere present.     

 

 

IV. Change and Permanence…

 

Central to Thales’ view of reality was the idea of “One” in the “Many,” i.e., that there was one unchanging thing that serves as the principle cause of the many changing things. On the one hand, there was Permanence and, on the other hand, there was Change. Two subsequent philosophers embraced these two sides of Thales’ view. Heraclitus focused on the side of change, while for Parmenides, the side of permanence.

 

i. Heraclitus

 

Heraclitus accepted Thales’ notion that there was “one” underlying stuff behind the “many” observable things. For him the reality of one cause was demanded by reason, and the reality of the many changing things was demanded by sense experience. His eyes saw the changes but his mind saw the order behind those changes. Indeed, there must be “one” among the “many.”

 

But for Heraclitus this “one” cause was not “unchanging”; it was also changing. The orderly changes in nature cannot possibly have one “unchanging” cause because evidently everything, how orderly it may be, changes. Thales was then looking for the “one” underlying stuff which accounted for the order in the change but at the same time was also “changing”. For him this one changing stuff was “fire.”

 

Fire is a continually changing substance but simultaneously remains as one single thing. Whereas Thales’ notion of water involved his reversion from abstract reason to sense experience, Heraclitus’ idea of fire was perfectly consistent to sense experience.[7] The perfect balance and connectivity of reason and sense experience found its way into Heraclitus’ ingenious concoction of fire as the “one changing stuff.”

 

In Fragment 76, Heraclitus said, “Fire lives the death of earth, and air the death of fire, water lives the death of air, earth that of water.” This assertion simply points to the fact that in the rational cycle of change nothing is ever lost or gained. In fire, life and death continue in an endless cycle. Fire is the cause of the continuous and eternal change. This triggered Heraclitus to say that fire in itself has a “living logos (reason)” that makes the natural world appear intelligible. 

 

Eventually Heraclitus linked fire with God. If fire possesses a “living reason” that lets changes of nature intelligible, fire must be the bond that unites everything, including “opposites” (e.g. love and strife, war and peace, beauty and ugliness, black and white, freedom and imprisonment). But there can be no other being capable of becoming this ultimate bond than God himself. God is “day and night, winter and summer, war and peace, fullness and hunger.”[8]

 

            ii. Parmenides

 

While Heraclitus wholly embraced the idea of “change”, Parmenides completely rejected its intelligibility. For the latter, “change is impossible” because it involves the absurd idea that something comes into being and goes out of being. Whatever pushed Parmenides to propose this assertion must be something beyond doubt. And this was precisely what happened; his reason pushed him to rebuff what his sense perception dictated and stick to a seemingly preposterous statement.

 

For Parmenides, both Thales and Heraclitus’ notion of “One” in the “Many” is problematic. The “One” is not the “Many” and the “Many” cannot be “One.” This is a self-evident proposition. Furthermore, Parmenides identified the “One” with what is – with Reality or Being. Reality or Being is not just this or that or even the collection of all things. Reality is the living condition, our encounter with the world and the things at hand. Reality is a happening; a dynamic process that lets the things at hand become something significant, i.e. something “there.” Reality therefore is not just some graspable or perceptible thing but it is simply what is, the on-going presencing. But although Reality or Being has extension, i.e. it manifests itself in particular things, it does not have particular qualities. It is just “one undifferentiated happening” and not “many.”

 

Being or Reality cannot change because if it changes then it would become Being or non-Being (what is not). Being cannot become Being because it is already Being, and Being cannot become non-Being because there will be “no thing” (non-Being) for it to turn into. Being after all will still be Being. To put it in simpler terms, if “something” (Being) will change, then it does not change at all because there is “no thing” (non-Being) to change into.

 

From all these complex assertions, Parmenides only wanted to state a self-evident truth, i.e. “what is is (Being is Being) and what is not is not (non-Being is non-Being) as that what is not cannot be what is (Being cannot be Nothing).” Under Parmenides’ deductions therefore change, which incorporates the idea that what is can come into being and go out of being, is theoretically impossible. The inevitable consequence of this proposition is to deny the data perceived by our senses. Changes are just illusions.

 

iii. The Heraclitean and Parmenidean Influence to Science

 

Modern day science exhibits the Heraclitean emphasis on sense experience. Just like Heraclitus, scientists today emphasize knowledge gained from observational corroboration, and thus they advance the “empirical spirit” of science. As a consequence, this empirical stance fosters greater stress on sense perception and discourages pure speculative theory in the domain of science.

 

Parmenides, on the other hand, was the first philosopher who distinguished non-Being from Being and who argued that only the latter was strictly knowable.[9] Science today firmly abides by this Parmenidean dictum such that only “something” – and not “no thing” – is the “object” of science. As Heidegger, a famous 20th century philosopher, puts it, “science wishes to know nothing of Nothing.” Furthermore, Parmenides also underscored the fact, a fact limitedly recognized by Thales and Heraclitus, that knowledge about reality must go beyond a perception of changing material thing.[10] 

 

V. Sophism and Relativism…

 

The philosophical epoch wherein Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Heraclitus and Parmenides belonged was the Pre-Socratic period. This epoch was called as such because it was a period that came before Socrates, a philosopher recognized as one of the greatest thinkers of all time. Socrates fought for the validity of “universal” ideas as opposed to “relativistic” ideas proposed by the so-called “Sophists,” the learned teachers and masters of the arts of ancient Greece. Though the word “sophist” came to denote mere cleverness (sophis), a Sophist was generally regarded as an expert (sophiste) in knowing how to forcefully use rhetorics for practical purposes.[11] They were tagged as “relativists” because “truth” for them was based on how “you” present a position and persuade the listeners to your truth claim. Truth was relative to the capable, learned and persuasive individual or group of individuals. Among several prominent Sophists was Protagoras. 

 

i. Protagoras

 

Protagoras, as described by Plato in the dialogue Protagoras, was “a man of wide experience, deep learning, and original thought.” Although Plato was disdainful of the Sophist’s relativism, his assertion that Protagoras had “original thought” implied that at least part of Protagoras’ thought went beyond sophistic rhetoric. Indeed, Protagoras has “original thought” as when he stated, in his treatise Truth, that “man is the measure of all things.” The statement may have become all too common already but its implication has become ever too elusive. On its simplest sense, the statement meant truth varied from one man to another so much so that every man has his own interpretation or “measure” of the truth of things. From this perspective, there was no objective way in resolving which perspective was true because each person was entitled to his own truth. Now although you may have the same assertions as mine, it will just redown to the fact that agreements are rooted in our “subjective” perception and not about what is “objectively” true about the world.

 

Relativity finds its roots in Protagoras’ notion of “measurement” in the phrase “man is the measure of all things.” “Measurement” in the statement is predominantly associated with sense perception and not with reason. As such, no question can be universally true because all measurements from sense perception vary. But every assertion is “subjectively” true because it holds true to every individual.

 

We might argue that Protagoras is proposing a very inconsistent system of thought. Under his system, everybody is left to his own with no standards to follow. But looking from a wider perspective, Protagoras is just proposing a more realistic character of human knowledge – that it can never be absolute. True enough, man can never possess an absolute knowledge of reality for the simple reason that we are finite and reality is infinite. Thus man can but only give bits of what reality is and never the whole of it.

 

Protagoras’ relativism can thus be understood into two ways: first, extreme (irrational) relativism, and, second, moderate (rational) relativism. For extreme relativism, there is no such thing as “Reality” because truth is only based on man’s propositions. What is real is what I say it is. Rational relativism, on the other hand, affirms the existence of “Reality” and adds that this reality cannot be limited by a “single characterization.” So unlike extreme relativism which ascribes truth to all propositions because it rejects reality, moderate relativism holds that all propositions are true because there is a “complex reality” which cannot be fully comprehended. All assertions for the latter are affirmed because it adds understanding to all the possible dimensions of reality. Thus, while the root of relativism for “extreme relativism” is the non-existence of reality, the root of relativism for “moderate relativism” is the complexity of reality.

 

ii. Implications of Relativism

 

For some people, relativism is a very dangerous way of thinking. Moralists and statesmen, most especially, abhor this way of thinking because it prevents the establishment of a “universal norm” for human action that distinguishes good actions from bad actions. For them, relativism destroys the idea of “order” because it topples down the existence of laws, whether of nature or of human nature, which could provide a basis for universal moral political laws. Without “norms” there will be no basis for order and declaration of laws. And this is precisely the terrible thing about relativism – it abandons any objective or rational standards in morality and politics.

 

The good point of relativism, however, is that it develops the art of rhetoric for clear and forceful use of language. True enough, if one speaks clearly and forcefully, then others can easily accept or reject that which is clearly understood. While the device can be used to deceive, it can be used for the pursuance of truth as well.

 

 

VI. Atomism

 

Aside from Sophism, there was also a budding group of thinkers in Greece called the “Atomists.” Leucippus (490-430 B.C.) was said to be the founder of this school of thought, and then it was influentially developed by Democritus. For some, atomism comprised the first thoroughly scientific view of the world.[12]

 

i. Democritus

 

The Atomistic philosophy is commonly affiliated to Democritus. He came from Thrace where Protagoras was also originally from. Although both of them came from the place, they have nothing in common. While Protagoras held that “man is the measure of all things”, Democritus believed that “man knows nothing.” This stand of Democritus was merely a pessimistic commentary on the regrettable state of opinion.[13]

 

The seeds of Atomism can be found in the philosophies of Heraclitus and Parmenides. On the one hand, Democritus’ Atomism saw the manifoldness of reality in Heraclitus notion of change. On the other hand, Democritus also accepted Parmenides’ notion of an unchanging dimension of reality. For Democritus, there were very tiny atoms unseen by the naked eye that were “internally unchanging” and at the same time “made up all the changing visible things we perceive.” For him, “atoms” were the answer to the venerable question of the “one in the many.” It was the “One” because it was internally unchanging, eternal, indestructible, and without emptiness. However, it was a material object, i.e. the smallest material component of things which cannot be divided into smaller parts. It was also the reason for the “Many” inasmuch as the perceivable things were ultimately caused to change and to behave in predictable ways by the mechanical forces of atoms.

 

In a way, Democritus sought to reunite once again the two sorts of realities and modes of knowing then. Reality has One unchanging stuff but also has many perceivable changes. The permanent “one” is known through reason, while the perceivable changes (Many) are perceived by the senses.

 

 

ii. Atomistic Materialism 

 

For the Atomists, matter, without any intrinsic reason or purpose, is the sole reality.[14] This is now the pervading theory of reality of modern science. The world is not composed of spirits or ruled by unseen forces but it is governed by mechanical forces called atoms. This must also apply to the reality of man. Man does not have dual nature, the flesh and soul. Rather, it is purely a material object that is only more complex than the others.

 

Atomism held that knowledge was not based on an “immaterial faculty of reason.” Man acquired knowledge using a “material sort of reason.” This sounds atrocious but Democritus firmly asserted that reason was just a higher form of “perception.” He called this higher form of perception that apprehended unchanging facts as “trueborn” perceptions. Thus, knowledge was simply seen as perception.

 

 

iii. Problems with Atomism

           

What is immediately implied in the Atomist materialism is that “everything is mechanically determined.” It is generally accepted that matter is governed by the law of causality. Matter is always a cause of another. This is self-evident. Now, this pattern, which is fervently embraced by matter, accounts for their predictable behavior. The building block of all matter is atom so that all perceptible material entities, including human beings, are configurations of atoms. Moreover, atoms are impelled by mechanical forces to act on one another. This then makes all material movements, including human “actions”, as causally determined. Thus, human freedom and moral actions are irrelevant under the Atomistic materialism.         

           

Truth is also reduced to perception in Atomism. This makes even the human faculty of reason a material function. This obviously reduces man to a soul-less machine, doing what it was determined to do and acting out of a determined set of laws. But despite this reduction, Atomism stressed the importance of perception in the acquisition of knowledge. True enough, nothing is known unless it passes through the senses.             

 


[1]               Plato, The Republic, Trans. by Paul Shorey (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1953), 600a.

[2]               Plato, Laws, 859b. Aristotle, De Anima, 411 a7-8.

[3]               Robert Trundle, Jr., Ancient Greek Philosophy: Its Development and Relevance to Our Times (Avebury: Ashgate Publishing Company, 1994), p11. Henceforth, Trundle.

[4] The coast of the ancient port of Miletus has grown by moving ten kilometers away from its original location. The inhabitants were witnesses to this increase in landmass, thinking water was the cause and generator of earth.

Nevertheless, the theory the water generates earth has already been proven wrong in 1769 by the experiments of Antoine Lavoisier

[5] The more rarefied the air particles are the hotter is the object, and the more dense the air particles are the colder is the object. This is supported by a simple experiment of blowing your hand. If you blow on your hand with a relaxed mouth, then the air is hot; if you blow with a pursed lips, the air is cold. Thus, fire is hot because of it has rarefied air particles, and the earth is cold because of its dense particles. 

[6] See Genesis, chap. 2:7.

[7]               Trundle, p. 20.

[8]               Fragment 67.

[9]               Trundle, p. 31.

[10]             Ibid.

[11]             Ibid., p. 32.

[12]             Ibid., p. 54.

[13]             Ibid.

[14]             In contrast to Democritus, Thales and Heraclitus still gave “soul” and “life” to reality. Thales, for instance, had spoken of “god in things” and Heraclitus of “logos of Reason.” Democritus entirely eradicated the immaterial dimension of reality.

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