How the Greeks Invented Philosophy

“How did Greece become the first civilization to have the means to examine themselves?” asked Soren.

“Where they lived had a huge impact on the invention of philosophy. They had to trade with foreign people, with armies much larger than themselves, with gods that gave a different logos. They were continually shown their way of life was unique. I think this gave them an atmosphere of superiority and seriousness because they themselves must have known it couldn’t hold forever,” said Daniel.

Soren gave a look of victory and said, “A second cause was their religion. Their gods where just greater versions of themselves that still felt the pull to power and temptation. Furthermore, the Oracle of Delphi didn’t answer epistemological questions, but mostly about harvest and war. However, at the Temple of Delphi, the wise words inscribed across it were, “Nothing to Excess” and “Know Thyself”. So, reasonableness and a thirst for discovery was engrained in them. They didn’t have a religious text either. Hesiod and Homer are the closest thing they have as religious texts, and what is interesting about Homer is that he gives no final answers to the cause of the Trojan War. Was it the curse of the house of Atrius? Was it because of the mythical golden apple foolishly given to Aphrodite by the mortal Paris? Was it because of a husband’s uncontrollable passion to his wife’s beauty? Homer gives no final answers.

The third reason why the Greeks invented philosophy is because of their art. First the dance, then the chorus, then the dialogue. What we have here is the evolution of art as we see the limit of one function, then the opening of another to get to a higher meaning and clarity as they strived towards Beauty and Truth, towards their fatal flaws, as they saw their lives immortalized by the great tragedians.

However, as a need of further clarity was demanded Greece felt the pull towards philosophy in hope it could get them further down the beaten path. First with the pre-Socratics that ranged from 585 BCE to Socrates own time in the 5th century BCE. The pre-Socratics where the first Greek philosophers. More than anything, they studied nature and the heavenly bodies, and all of them believed in some sort of ‘first principle’ or arche in the Greek, which reality hinged upon. There are three qualities the pre-Socratics have that set them apart from other great minds before them. First, they sought to understand the cosmos, and believed it to be ordered and rational. Second, they used concepts such as kosmos, logos, and atom that helped them breakthrough the traditional views of their time. Third and lastly, they used reason and evidence when erecting an intelligible world.

Thales of Miletus (640-546 BCE) was the first Greek philosopher. In 585 BCE Thales of Miletus made an astronomic prediction of a solar eclipse. Also, he was the first elementalist, which believed that water was the arche or first principle. He believed that everything was made of water, once broken down to its essential quality, that being wetness. He believed that the world appeared to be flat, and the continents rested upon an infinite ocean. When using a magnet, he could attract iron, and this led to the belief that magnets have souls, and that, even more broadly, everything else that exists does too. Anaximander (610-546 BCE), a pupil of Thales, believed that the first principle is infiniteness, and it’s in the generation and destruction that the cosmos is eternally recurring. Much is unknown about his first principle but it seems to be something akin to the Greek myth of Chaos, which has always existed, and which everything comes from. Anaximenes (585-526 BCE) was a pupil of Anaximander. However, his first principle was infinite air, and through condensation and rarefication of the infinite air, all things come into being. Also, that air is always in change. So when air condenses it becomes solid like the earth.

Pythagoras (570-495 BCE) was born in Samos. To know his philosophy is to know a way of life. He was the first to call himself a philosopher. He called himself that because he truly loved wisdom and couldn’t live without it. He is best known for the Pythagorean Theorem, A² + B² = C². This mathematical theorem Isn’t right about an awful lot of triangles, but It’s the very definition of a triangle. Even more, he discovered that numerical ratios can govern musical intervals, whereupon leading him to believe that numbers are the guiding principle when describing the heavenly cosmos. He called these guiding principles of the cosmos the ‘harmony of the spheres’. The harmony of the spheres became a mathematical quest to explain the precision-like order of the cosmos. He believed there was something divine about numbers and their governing influence, and this led Pythagoras to believe that the first principle is that of number. This idea wasn’t picked up until centuries later with the rise of science, through scientists such as Galileo and Isaac Newton. It is true that when we reach for a scientific explanation the most precise answer is a rational, mathematical one that matches to the nth degree with the physical world that surrounds us.

Heraclitus (535-475 BCE) is often called ‘the Obscure’ or ‘the Weeping Philosopher’, as opposed to Democritus who was known as ‘the laughing philosopher’. In Plato’s Cratylus Plato quotes Heraclitus with saying, ‘No man ever steps in the same river twice.’ This sounds absurd, but what Heraclitus meant was that the world is always becoming like a river that moves downstream. Heraclitus’ first principle is fire. He believes ‘All things are exchanged for fire and fire for all things.’ Parmenides was born in 515 in Elea. He along with Heraclitus are the first to take on the philosophical quest for what has real existence, which fits in the philosophical category of ontology, or what has real being. Unlike Heraclitus’ ontology of becoming, Parmenides wrote on being, which is indivisible and without change. He believed that the senses pick up what is illusory.

Democritus (460-370 BCE) was born in Thrace. He came to the conclusion that everything was made of atoms. Atoms being his theory on the first principle. Atom in the Greek means ‘indivisible bit’. He believed even the soul was composed of these bits, and that the soul was just a complex arrangement of atoms. Many believe he is the father of modern science, because the further we examine matter the more we are able to divide particles. This is a reductionist philosophy, that assumes that to understand ourselves and the world around us is to finally understand these indivisible bits.

In the 5th century BCE Socrates enters the stage. Socrates turned away from the external world, and towards who we are essentially, bringing it right back to ‘Know Thyself’. Through challenging the very bedrock of Athenian culture and mores, he challenges others to dare ask where Athens went wrong. The questions on every Athenians’ mind had to be kin to: why did we lose to Sparta when we had greater numbers? was it in our childrearing? was it in our civic mode of life? was it divine retribution from the gods? Through Socrates’ trial and execution, a spark occurred that became the seed of enlightenment in his pupil named Plato. Whether it’s through philosophy, psychology, poetry, or political science, we still study the voice of Socrates given to us through Plato.

It was out of the welter and swelter of these causes: the Greeks surroundings, their religion, and their evolution in art, that gave birth to philosophy. Through skepticism and criticism, they were the first people to have the tools to examine themselves, their government, and their relationship within the cosmos.”