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In the time before the pre-socratics, mythology and religion were the guiding forces of Greek thought. Mythologists and prophecy, such as Homer and Hesiod, relied solely on knowledge acquired from mythical muses to explain the origins of gods and man. It was not until 585 B.C.E., when Thales correctly predicted the arrival of a solar eclipse, that philosophical thought came into prominence. Thales’ work is significant because it represents a historical break from the status quo of appealing to professy. This new epistemological process would spawn an era of metaphysical inquiry that would eventually lead to the creation of science and the modern branches of philosophy. The early pre-socratic, Thales, and his mythological contemporaries differ in several key areas: their motives and methods for knowledge acquisition and how they practice such knowledge. These distinctions are what make Thales’ approach so radical for its time.
Metaphysical inquiry is the natural result of human wonder. In Ancient Greece, most were content to take the word of prophets who claimed mystical insights into the ultimate realm of gods while others, such as Thales, relied on the observable to answer questions of the nature of reality. The latter type of thinker has the advantage of reason and repeatability in his observations to evidence his claim. Thales hypothesized that the arche of all matter was water. Because this idea was based on observation and logic, it is universal, and could be translated to philosophers in future generations. Aristotle, a philosopher and historian of philosophy, was able to figure out Thales reasoning independently of the ideas source. In “Metaphysics” Aristotle describes his understanding of Thales’ hypothesis: “Maybe he got the idea from seeing that the nourishment of all things is moist, and that the hot itself comes to be from this and lives on this (the principle of all things is that from which they come to be),”(Curd 2). Whether or not Thales’ assertion holds true, it is reasonable to postulate that everything is water because of the moistness of life here on Earth. What is most notable here, is Thales’ approach, as it is based solely on observation aimed at finding a logical conclusion.
Pre-socratic philosophers had the advantage of using reason as a common ground between them and their ideas. This created an ever growing dialogue which was continued by the other Milesian pre-socratics. Anaximander and Anaximenes each proposed alternative fundamental realities and each additional theory invited more rational inquiry(Curd 4). Conversely there was no common ground between religions or even between the gods of one religion. Socrates addresses this issue in “Euthyphro” while working to find a definition for piety. “But you say that the same things are considered just by some gods and unjust by others, and as they dispute about these things they are at odds and at war with each other,”(Plato 7e-8a). Here, Socrates demonstrated to Euthyphro just how fleeting the meanings of pious and impious are. If there is no agreement among the gods about what behavior they favor then any action could be considered either pious or impious. This demonstrates the fragility of religious knowledge. It has no logic or universality to bind it together. It may be left ambiguous so that people seeking power can translate it in a way that conveniences them.
The nature of religious knowledge is such that exclusivity is encouraged with regards to who can obtain knowledge. Hesiod claimed to learn the origins of the cosmos from muses “Tell me these things, Olympian Muses, From the beginning, and tell which of them came first. In the beginning there was only Chaos, the Abyss, But then Gaia, the Earth, came into being”(Curd 2). This type of insight differs from philosophical knowledge because there is no way for an ordinary person to find this information out on their own. There is nothing on earth, that one can observe, that will lead them to Hesiod’s conclusions about the origins of existence. Unfortunately, not everyone has access to a muse. Thales’ natural philosophical inquiry, on the other hand, was open for everyone to participate in. This may be why the politicians in ancient Greece felt that philosophy was such a threat to their democracy. Government and religion were tightly intertwined then. Citizens would think twice about overthrowing their government if it was deemed an impious act. This perpetuation of ancient Greek myths helped a select few gain and keep power. Philosophical investigation has the more noble motive of pure curiosity and it is remarkable that Thales broke from the mold of his dogmatic society.
Without Thales’ brave inquiries into the nature of reality, the advancement of human life may have been stunted for hundreds or even thousands of years. We take for granted these kinds of questions today. We can easily turn on Netflix and listen to Neil deGrasse Tyson poetically recite astrological theories, as we nap on the couch. All of the scientists and thinkers that we know of today have the advantage of thousands of years of recorded free thought and philosophical methodology to draw from. We now know that everything is not made of water. But Thales’ reasoned observations, which brought this hypothesis into existence, were far ahead of their time.
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