Western intellectual history Thesis

The Ancient Greeks, Part One:

The Presocratics

Dr. C. George Boeree

“Know thyself.”     — inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi

In Chinese: 前蘇格拉底時代 (translated by Liu Yu)Psyche, from the Greek PSU-khê, possibly derived from a word meaning “warm-blooded:”  Life, soul, ghost, departed spirit, conscious self, personality, butterfly or moth.  Some words with similar meanings:  Thymos, meaning breath, life, soul, temper, courage, will;  Pneuma, meaning breath, mind, spirit, or angel;  Noös, meaning mind, reason, intellect, or the meaning of a word;  Logos, meaning word, speech, idea, or reason.

Psychology:  Reasoning about the soul.  Probably coined by the German philosopher and reformation theologian Philipp Melanchthon in the mid 16th century.  First used to mean “study of the mind” in Christian Wolff’s Psychologia Empirica (1732) and Psychologia Rationalis (1734).

The Greeks

Western intellectual history always begins with the ancient Greeks.  This is not to say that no one had any deep thoughts prior to the ancient Greeks, or that the philosophies of ancient India and China (and elsewhere) were in any way inferior.  In fact, philosophies from all over the world eventually came to influence western thought, but only much later.  But it was the Greeks that educated the Romans and, after a long dark age, it was the records of these same Greeks, kept and studied by the Moslem and Jewish scholars as well as Christian monks, that educated Europe once again.

We might also ask, why the Greeks in the first place?  Why not the Phoenicians, or the Carthaginians, or the Persians, or the Etruscans?  There are a variety of possible reasons.

One has to do with the ability to read and write, which in turn has to do with the alphabet.  It is when ideas get recorded that they enter intellectual history. Buddhism, for example, although a very sophisticated philosophy, was an oral tradition for hundreds of years until committed to writing, since the Brahmi alphabet was late in coming.  It was only then that Buddhism spread throughout Asia.

The alphabet was invented by the Semites of the Mediterranean coast,  including the Hebrews and the Phoenicians, who used simple drawings to represent consonants instead of words.  The Phoenicians apparently passed it on to the Greeks.  The Greeks improved on the idea by inventing vowels, using some extra letters their language had no use for.

(Click here to see how the alphabet developed)

Prior to the invention of the alphabet, reading and writing was the domain of specialized scribes, concerned mostly with keeping government records.  Even in the case of the Phoenicians, writing was more a tool of the merchant class, to keep track of trade, than a means of recording ideas.  In Greece, at least in certain city-states, reading and writing was something “everyone” did.

By everyone, of course, I mean upper class males.  Women, peasants, and slaves were discouraged from picking up the skill, as they would be and still are in many places around the world.  If you wonder where all the women philosophers are, well, there were very few indeed!  The poet Sappho of Lesbos is the closest we get to a female philosopher on record in the ancient world.

(Click here to see two of Sappho’s poems)

Still, the alphabet does not explain everything.  Another thing that made the Greeks a bit more likely to start the intellectual ball rolling was the fact that they got into overseas trading early.  Their land and climate was okay for agriculture, but not great, so the idea of trading for what you can’t grow or make yourself came naturally.  Plus, Greece is practically all coastline and islands, so seafaring came equally naturally.

What sea trading gives you is contact with a great variety of civilizations, including their religions and philosophies and sciences.  This gets people to thinking:  If this one says x, and that one says  y, and the third one says z, what then is the truth?  Traders are usually skeptics.

Still, the Phoenicians (and their cousins, the Carthaginians) had the alphabet first, and were excellent sea traders as well.  Why weren’t they the founders of western intellectual history?  Perhaps it had to do with centralization.  The Phoenicians had an authoritarian government controlled by the most powerful merchants.  The Carthaginians had the same.  Perhaps being surrounded by powerful authoritarian empires forced them to adopt that style of government to survive.

The Greeks, on the other hand, were divided into many small city-states, each unique, each fiercely independent, always bickering and often fighting.  It may seem disadvantageous, but when it comes to ideas, diversity and even conflict can be invigorating!  Consider that when Greece was finally united under Macedonian rule, the flurry of intellectual activity slowed.  And when the Romans took over, it practically died.

The Basics

The ancient Greek philosophers gave us the basic categories of philosophy, beginning with metaphysics.  Metaphysics is the part of philosophy that asks questions such as “What is the world made of?” and  “What is the ultimate substance of all reality?”

In fact, the ancient Greeks were among the first to suggest that there is a “true” reality (noumenon) under the “apparent” reality (phenomenon), an “unseen real” beneath the “unreal seen.”  The question is, what is this true reality?  Is it matter and energy, i.e. something physical? This is called materialism.  Or something more spiritual or mental, such as ideas or ideals?  This is called idealism.  Materialism and idealism constitute the two extreme answers.  Later, we will explore some other possibilities.

A second aspect of philosophy is epistemology.  Epistemology is the philosophy of knowledge:  How do we know what is true or false, what is real or not?  Can we know anything for certain, or is it ultimately hopeless?