The Birth of Philosophy -|- Educational Philosophy Theory

The Birth of Philosophy

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Western philosophy was born under the clear blue skies of the early Aegean. The 8th and 7th centuries B.C. was a period of rapid economic expansion in the eastern Mediterranean. These were stirring times. The Greeks of the Ionian islands, which now lie off the coast of Turkey, conducted a thriving trade with Egypt, Babylon and Lydia. The Lydian invention of money was introduced into Europe via Aegina at about 625 B.C., greatly stimulating trade, bringing in its wake great riches for some and indebtedness and slavery for others.

The earliest Greek philosophy represents the true starting point of philosophy. Itt is an attempt to struggle free from the age-old bounds of superstition and myth, to dispense with gods and goddesses, so that, for the first time, human beings could stand face to face with nature and with real men and women.

The economic revolution gave rise to new social contradictions. The breakdown of the old patriarchal society provoked a clash between rich and poor. The old aristocracy was faced with the discontent of the masses and the opposition of the "tyrants," frequently dissident nobles themselves, who were always willing to put themselves at the head of popular risings. A period of instability opened up, in which men and women began to question the old beliefs.

The situation in Athens at this time is described in the following passage:

"In the bad years they (the peasants) had to borrow from rich neighbours; but with the coming of money, this meant that, instead of borrowing a sack of corn in the good old neighbourly way, one had to borrow the price of enough corn to tide one over, before the harvest, when it was cheap; or alternatively, to pay heavy interest, of the kind that raised such indignation at Megara. By 600, while rich men exported to good markets in Aegina or Corinth, poor men were going hungry. Many, too, were losing their land, pledged as security for debts, and even their liberty; for the debtor’s last recourse against the insolvent debtor was to seize him and his family as slaves...The law was harsh; it was rich man’s law." (A. R. Burn, The Pelican History of Greece, p. 119.)

These laws were put into a code by one Drakon, from which the phrase "Draconian laws" has become proverbial.

The turbulent 6th century B.C. was a period of decline of the Greek Ionian republics of Asia Minor, characterised by social crisis and ferocious class struggle between rich and poor, masters and slaves. "At Miletus, in Asia Minor," writes Rostovtsev, "the people were at first victorious and murdered the wives and children of the aristocrats; then the aristocrats prevailed and burned their opponents alive, lighting up the open spaces of the city with live torches." (Quoted in Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy, p. 44.)

These conditions were typical of most other Greek cities of Asia Minor, at the time. The heroes of this age had nothing in common with the later idea of the philosopher, isolated from the rest of humanity in his ivory tower. These "wise men" were not only thinkers, but doers, not only theoreticians, but practical men of the world. Of the first of them, Thales of Miletus (c. 640-546 B.C.), we know next to nothing, but it is expressly stated that it was only late in life that he took to philosophy, and that he was also involved in commerce, engineering, geometry and astronomy (he is said to have predicted an eclipse, which must have been the one in 585 B.C.).

What is indisputable is that all the early Greek philosophers were materialists. Turning their backs on mythology, they sought to find a general principle for the workings of nature from an observation of nature itself. The later Greeks refer to them as hylozoists, which can be translated as "those who think that matter is alive." This conception of matter as self-moving is strikingly modern, and far superior to the mechanical physics of the 18th century. Given the absence of modern scientific instruments, their theories frequently had the character of inspired guesswork. But, taking into account the lack of resources, the amazing thing is how close they came to a real understanding of the workings of nature. Thus the philosopher Anaximander (c. 610-545 B.C.) worked out that man and all other animals had developed from a fish, which abandoned water for the land.

It is misleading to suppose that these philosophers were religious just because they used the word "god" (theos) in relation to primary substance. J. Burnet states that it meant no more than the old Homeric epithets like "ageless," "deathless," etc. Even in Homer, the word is used in several different senses. From Hesiod’s Theogeny it is clear that many of the "gods" were never worshipped, but were merely convenient personifications of natural phenomena or even human passions. Primitive religions looked on the heavens as divine and set apart from the earth. The Ionian philosophers radically broke with this standpoint. While basing themselves on the many discoveries of Babylonian and Egyptian cosmology, they rejected the mythical element, which confused astronomy with astrology.

The general tendency of Greek philosophy before Socrates was to search for the underlying principles of nature:

"Nature it was—that which is most immediately present to us, that which lies nearest the eye, that which is palpablest—that first attracted the spirit of inquiry. Under its changeful forms, its multiplex phenomena, there must lie, it was thought, a first and permanent fundamental principle. What is this principle? What precisely, what natural element is the basic element?" (Schwegler, History of Philosophy, p. 6.)

They gave different explanations for this. For example, Thales claimed that the basis of all things is water. This was a great advance for human thought. True, the Babylonians had long before put forward the idea that all things came from water. In their Creation myth, which was the model for the Hebrew story of the Creation in the first book of Genesis. "All lands were sea," says the legend, until Marduk, the Babylonian creator, separated the land from the sea. The difference here is that there is no Marduk, no divine creator standing outside nature. Instead, for the first time, nature is explained in purely materialist terms, that is, in terms of nature itself.

Nor is the idea of nature as reducible to water as far-fetched as it might appear. Apart from the fact that the great majority of the earth’s surface is made up of water, something the Ionian Greeks above all were aware of, water is essential for all forms of life. The bulk of our body consists of water, and we would quickly die if deprived of it. Moreover, water changes its forms, passing from a liquid to a solid, to a vapour. On this Burnet comments:

"Nor is it hard to see how the meteorological considerations may have led Thales to adopt the views he did. Of all the things we know, water seems to take the most various shapes. It is familiar to us in a solid, a liquid, and a vaporous form, and so, Thales may well have thought he saw the world-process from water and back to water again going on before his eyes. The phenomenon of evaporation naturally suggests that the fire of the heavenly bodies is kept up by the moisture they draw from the sea. Even at the present day, people speak of the ‘sun drawing up water.’ Water comes down again in rain; and lastly, so the early cosmologists thought, it turns to earth. This may have seemed natural enough to men who were familiar with the rivers of Egypt which had formed the Delta, and the torrents of Asia Minor which bring down large alluvial deposits." (J. Burnet, Early Greek Philosophers, p. 49.)

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