The Greek Worldview

In a nutshell, the Greek worldview was very mechanistic. They thought of the world as a giant machine (like gears in a clock) that worked in uniform and predictable ways. their worldview was based on observable phenomenon with a heavy dose of divine intervention. Anything that couldn’t be traced back to a physical source was considered to be a divine gift/situation (magical, mysterious). Needless to say, the inquiry of humans prior to the pre-Socratics was an imprecise attempt to make sense of lived experience. The thinkers who came before Socrates and called the pre-Socratics. These were mostly astronomers and natural philosophers whose written works didn’t survive but were important enough to be quoted by others whose works we do have.

Below are quick summaries of some of the pre-Socratics:

Thales: (c. 624-c. 545 B.C.E.) was an ancient astronomer who is credited with the discovery of trigonometry.He founded the Milesian school that developed the first scientific method and initiated the first western enlightenment. Most of the information we have about him comes from the writings of Aristotle, who identified him as one of the first individuals to inquire into first principles or the originating substances of matter. Thus, as the founder of natural philosophy Thales was concerned with the most basic pieces of the natural universe (we might call these atoms today). His questioning approach to the understanding of heavenly phenomena was the beginning of Greek astronomy. By turning to the originating principles of the natural world, he freed phenomena (occurring things) from godly intervention, he paved the way towards scientific endeavor. For Thales, nature was made of one substance: water. Water is the nature, the archê, the originating principle of all that exists.In order to convince anyone that this actually is the originating principle, Thales had to explain how all things could come into being from water, and return ultimately to the originating material. [Interestingly, Thales chose water as the originating principle because he lived on the coast. He knew from experiments that heat could return metals to a liquid state. Since water shows it material changes more obviously than any of the other elements, it can readily be observed in the three states of liquid, vapor and ice. The understanding that water could generate earth is the basis for Thales thesis.]* Bumper sticker: Everything is water.

The problem of originating principles: The singular problem and focus of natural philosophy (and arguably all of life) is to explain what kind of stuff there is in this world and how it is able to transform into a myriad of things. How come I can have wood that turns into a desk and also wood that becomes a house as well as plastic dishes, bread and clothing? To answer this question, philosophers turn to what a thing is ‘by nature.’ Meaning that they look to the most fundamental explanation of what a substance is comprised of in order to understand its transformations. Transformations meaning, the different forms of matter in botanical, physiological, meteorological and geological states.

Anaximander: (c. 610-c. 545 B.C.E.) worked in fields of philosophy, geography, astronomy and biology. Looked for the origin of all things in the ‘Boundless.’ This use of “apeiron”(that which has no limits) is atypical for Greek thought, which was occupied with limit, symmetry and harmony. Bumper sticker: The ‘Boundless’ is all that there is.

The problem of the origins of things: This is an important turn in philosophy because the idea of an origin being caused or generated by something else would mean that it has a beginning and logically would have an end. By putting something infinite as the basis of all life, then it guarantees an ongoing process.

Pythagoras: (c. 570-c. 490 B.C.E.) Pythagorean theorem & recycling of souls through a 3,000 year period. Bumper sticker: Everything has happened before and will one day happen again.

Parmenides: (c. 515-c. 450 B.C.E.) was the first philosopher to inquire into the nature of existence itself. He concludes that what-is is ungenerated and imperishable, whole and one, unperturbed, complete, completely present (without past or future), and continuous. Bumper sticker: Life is motionless.

The problem of what-is: This is an important problem because it deals with how the material substance ever came to be. Seeks to understand why there is something rather than nothing.

Heraclitus: (c. 540-c. 480 B.C.E.) saw reality as continual process of change that is composed of contradictions. Bumper sticker: You never step in the same river twice.

*Note that Thales is drawing his arguments from what is physically observable from his home surroundings.

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