@Strato of Ga,
I would love to fill this in with pre-Thales thinking and the such, to get back to our roots, but it doesn't seem the right thing to do in this thread. Nevertheless, if you've got a few minutes bear with me....
The birth of philosophy
can be interpreted as a qualitative step, moving, but never completing, its way from the Myth
to the Logos
One fundamental premise of the ancient Myth
is that reality functions in a very similar way to that of human experience. If, for example, humans come into existence by birth and procreation, then, likewise, so does the cosmos. If humans are angered, yet their anger can often be appeased by kind words, groveling and gifts, then so too the gods.
The ultimate causal subject known to man is himself, and if there are events which cannot be explained by man's own intentionality, then the Myth offers up intentionality to the gods, the spirits and to nature. Essentially, then, the Myth works by analogy and it was the subversive nature of ancient philosophy, its absolute radicality,
to question and oppose this basic assumption of Myth.
The ancient philosophers sought the first principle
- that which explains or causes - in the arche
, and the arche, contrary to Myth, was assumed to be not of some human, divine quality, but something more material, something like matter, or substance.
The ancient philosophers sought Being
: that which determines the origin and nature of all things, or, again, that which is the most basic structure from which all details of existence are set, and they believed that Being's most basic essence was material.
In other words, reality could be explained by means of its materiality. Here, we witness with the birth of philosophy, a paradigmatic shift in thinking which can be offered in no less terms than the radical superlative.
The ever moving step from Myth to Logos can be seen taking place in Miletus
around 600BCE. Miletus was a prosperous, international market place on the west coast of Turkey. It was organised as a Polis
which allowed a degree of free thought to develop.
Miletus had a slave based economy - something absolutely essential to early philosophy - governed by impersonal and uniform laws and not the arbitrary acts of some despot or religious clique. It was a buzzing port and open to more experimentation than the sluggish metropolis that was Athens.
Certain men, the citizens, were freed from the shackles of labour, they had free time and some of them wanted to know things. They started asking questions, and above all - for the interest of early philosophy - they began asking themselves:
"what is the arche? What is Being? What is the most basic substance, the fundamental and most simple element and first principle of all existing things?
And with these questions, man began a new transcendence, the moving beyond self, beyond the world of myth, beyond that world of practical self interest, and wished to know simply for its own sake. The birth of philosophy was beginning.
affirmed that 'everything is water
', he might have been saying something like: nature has a natural explanation based on a very concrete substance that everyone can observe.
Semen, blood, sap, and the basic fluids of life are all humid; all living things depend on water; water passes through all the visible states of creation known at the time (solid, liquid and gas), so water must be the first basic principle of Being.
This is not meant in the sense of creation, but as the arche
, the substance of which everything is composed. This is essentially a scientific inquiry and perspective, and thus, Thales is considered the first, or one of the first, scientists known to man. Minimally, Thales is where philosophy begins for most Westerners.
Probably influenced by the ancient Greek myth of Ocean
(the son of Ouranos-heaven and Gaia-earth), for Thales the first principle, the arche, Being itself is a matter called Water
. This means that the origin of all things is merely the modification and transformation of water, and in the world of ever becoming water is the unchanging substance.
It follows, that what we see as change is merely an illusion derived from our senses, but beyond appearance is a greater reality, fixed and immutable. This perspective, a completely new paradigm in thought, one in which our senses must not be trusted, the other seeking the grand mover, the first principle, the arche, would play a massive role on the thinking and ideas generated by Western kind.
Thales also believed that all things are 'full of gods
' or souls and what he probably meant by this was that water was the first principle, the grand mover (god) which shares of itself in all individual things. Participation in the first principle is the cause of all motion and change and thus manisfestations of that one god, Water.
We can imagine that once Thales offered his theory on Being and the cosmos, ancient Greek debate probably centered around the problem of opposites.
That is, if any of the elements were infinite, and thus by ancient Greek reasoning, divine, this element would remain eternal and unchanging. So how can things, the opposites, arise from it? The infinite element, in this case water, would be everything and all the other elements would either not be able to come from it, or if they could, they would ultimately be destroyed by it, for this single element would be the most powerful. Such an idea is also alluded to in Aristotle's Physics
(Book 3, Section 5).
Clearly, a new theory into the arche
was needed, but not before Thales set the playing field, essentially, the search for a unifying cause or principle which lay beyond all the diverse occurring events and existing things in the cosmos.
Needless to say, the traditional notions of Occidental science would go down one path, and Occidental religion another in their search and understanding of this singular first principle, but both paths appear to begin to take root in those early debates established by Thales and his contemporaries in Miletus.