Thursday, October 16, 2008

Myth And Reason: The Importance of the Presocratic Philosophers

A few weeks ago, I noted that I was teaching Homer's epic, The Odyssey, to my Humanities class of 9th and 10th graders. In the intervening weeks, we finished The Odyssey, read selections from Hesiod's Works and Days, and a few days ago, wrapped up a whirlwind introduction to the Presocratic philosophers. To my knowledge, the Presocratics are not normally a part of a high school-level humanities curriculum, but I think they are useful to introduce, if only briefly, to underscore the shift in the way the Greeks thought about reality.

To jump from Homer or Hesiod right to Socrates is nearly as great an academic sin as ignoring the Middle Ages as a source of serious philosophical and theological significance. Socrates did not exist in a vacuum and his method of inquiry decended from those who went before him. To forget that Thales and Anaximenes were asking big questions long before the Gadfly was sitting the the Agora is truly a crime almost worthy of the hemlock.

The Presocratics, so-called because they came before Socrates, are the intellectual bridge from Homer and Hesiod to the Golden Age of Greek philosophy. Homer and Hesiod represent a culture concerned with piety and material gain, and Socrates is accused of impiety and refuses to go against the law of Athens, even if it means his doom. Something happened in the meanwhile and the Presocratics give insight into this.

Homer and Hesiod, both poets, see reality as constantly being intervened in by the pantheon of gods. A fierce thunderstorm means that Zeus is unhappy with someone, and bulls must be offered to Poseidon to ensure a stormless trip across the wine-dark seas. Grey-eyed Athena blesses those who are crafty, like the hero Odysseus, and Hesiod's Dike scoures the earth for the unjust who malign her. The gods are active in the world and responsible for many things.

Yet, within a century or so, Thales will begin questioning reality and arrive at some very different conclusions. Sometime in the 6th century BC, Thales asked a very important question: what is the one behind the many? In other words, what is the one thing that lies under all other things and unites all things? Water was the answer he eventually settled on and for understandable reasons: water, in its various forms, is very much like everything else in reality. When frozen, water is a solid. When it is boiled, it turns into vapor and is very much like air. Water, furthermore, is everywhere. Walk in any direction far enough, and you will eventually run into water.

The significance of this shift is immense. No longer does the Greek mind turn to the gods to explain everything in reality. Rather, Thales turns away from appealing to the gods and attempts to reason to the truth, relying on his own observations and common sense. When a tree falls on a house, Hesiod would call you to consider how you may have offended the god of the trees. Thales might instead consider what else could have caused the tree to fall.

While Tales was the first to ask the question, what is the one behind the many, he was not the last. After him a line of successors wrestled with the very same question: Anaximander, Anaximenes, Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Parmenides and the Atomists. Further, Pythagoras, Heraclitus and Parmenides are all significant contributors to Plato's metaphysical outlook. Without them, it is doubtful Plato would have ever become something beyond a playwrite.

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