The Origins of Philosophy, the Love of Wisdom

Historians place the beginning of philosophy about the sixth century B.C. About this time a series of men, Thales, Democritus, Anaxagoras, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and so forth, began challenging the teachings of the pagan religions on the origins of life and the best ways to live it.[1]  They saw flaws in the mystical explanations of everything in life by priests and oracles and sought to find the wisdom elsewhere.

In pagan religions, we find gods in many forms. And many of these religions explained what we now know as natural processes as whims and arbitrary decisions by these gods. The growing of crops, storms, even the changing of the seasons all were explained in terms of satisfying some god. For example, we know now that thunderstorms are caused when much cooler air blows in aloft above warm humid air. The warm humid air below rises rapidly because heat rises. As the warm humid air rises and cools the water in the air condenses into clouds full of water and ice. Lightning is produced in thunderstorms when the water and ice particles high above collide and build up large charges of electricity. Once the charge gets large enough, lightning discharges very much like the little spark you can generate at home sometimes by walking on the carpet in your socks. We know that now, but millennia ago it was taught some god was angered because of something someone did. I think most of us would agree that seeking a better reason for thunderstorms than some mystical explanation about the gods is a wiser choice.

The word “philosophy” comes from the Greek word “Philo” meaning love, and “Sophy”, meaning wisdom, compiled to mean “the love of wisdom.”

Because of the effect that Greek philosophy has had on Christianity we are going to focus our attention primarily there.  But it must be noted that philosophy was springing up in other areas of the world at about the same time.  Of note are Confucius in China, and Kapila in India who founded the Samkhya school of thought, both around the sixth century B.C.  Buddha is also thought to have started his school of teaching and training at about the same time, but perhaps a little later.  [2]

Thales is credited as one of the, if not THE, first philosophers. Thales has quite a reputation, not only being regarded as the founder or of philosophy, but is remarkable in geometry, astronomy, and engineering.[3] We don’t have any of his writings, but we do have some discussions of his by later philosophers.  Aristotle wrote that Thales:

“declared the physis to be water, and for that reason he also held that the earth rests upon water.  Probably the idea was suggested to him by the fact that the nutriment of everything contains moisture, and that heat itself is generated out of moisture and is kept alive by it.  He drew his notion also from the fact that the seeds of everything have a moist nature.  The earth stays in place, he explained, because it floats like wood or some substance of nature to let it float on water but not upon air.”[4]

The “physis” is the term given by the philosophers to the substance or principle by which all things are made.  So, from this, one of the first quotes about the ideas of a philosopher, we see that the concern was for the physical nature of the earth we live in.  Thales conjectured that the earth floated on water, and that water was the substance from which everything arose.  Thales also conjectured magnets had a soul, probably because of their power to move objects.

Of course, there are problems with Thales explanation: what holds the water that holds the earth in place? Anaximander, coming after Thales, conjectured a new explanation for what holds the earth in place; the earth was a flat cylinder at the center of the universe, surrounded by air covered revolving hoops of fire.  In the hoops were holes which allow the fire to be seen and this explained the heavenly bodies.  Anaximander conjectured that what we call the universe was an eternal substance that he named “boundless”.  The boundless generated four natural elements; earth, water, air, and fire.

Coming a little later, Democritus, as a young man, met Anaxagorus, another noted Greek philosopher, and then, traveled the world searching for scholarship.  He studied geometry in Egypt, and the accumulated knowledge of the Mesopotamians, Sumerians, and Babylonians under the priest-scholars of Persia.

Democritus studied at one time under Leucippus.  Leucippus was the first to speculate on the concept of matter. Aristotle credits Leucippus and Democritus with the idea that all things are made of very small particles which he called atoms and a void or vacuum in which the atoms exist.   So, while it is just relatively recently that we entered “the atomic age” with the atom bomb and so forth, the atomic age really began about five centuries before Christ in the ideas of these philosophers.

Democritus was the first person credited with the theory that the heavenly bodies, and all the things on them, were the result of the process of these atoms flowing through space, and clustering together.[5]   He also postulated that there were heavier atoms and lighter atoms, and this explained the movement of things like the orbits of the planets, and the movement of the wind.

Democritus also wrote along the lines of evolutionary thinking, though not called as such at the time.  Look at this vision of his, summarized by a later Greek writer, Diodorus Siculus:

The first man lived an… animal sort of life, going out to forage individually and living off the most palatable herbs and the fruit which grew wild on the trees.  Then, since they were attacked by wild animals, they helped one another…. The sound they made had no sense and were confused; but gradually they articulated their expressions, and by establishing symbols among themselves for resort of object, they [developed language]…. such groups came into existence throughout the inhabited world, and not all men had the same language…. hence, today there are languages of every type…. now the earliest man lived laboriously…. they wore no clothes, they knew nothing of dwelling-places or of fire, and they had not the slightest conception of cultivated produce…. Later, gradually instructed by experience, they took refuge in caves during the winter and stored those fruits that could be preserved.  Once fire and other utilities were recognized, the crafts and whatever else can benefit from communal life was slowly discovered.[6]

This sounds amazingly like a paragraph in any biology book today, as evolution is presented as fact, often exclusively of other theories, in science texts today.  But it is clear that it started as philosophical speculation about 500 years before Christ.

Democritus also postulated a theory of a human soul.  He explained that the soul, life itself, was made up of atoms.  But they were a special kind of atoms.  They were extremely light and subtle, floating through the air until they entered the body.  There they remained thanks to the act of breathing which kept the particles from escaping.  Aristotle wrote about Democritus’ theory:

In animals that that breathe their breathing keeps the soul from being squeezed out from the body…. For in the air there are many such particles which he identifies with line in with mind and soul.  When we breathe and air enters, these enter along with it, and by withstanding the pressure they prevent the soul in the animal from being forced out.  Democritus thus explains why life and death are bound up with respiration.  Death occurs when the surrounding air in the lungs presses upon the soul to such a degree that the animal can no longer respire. … Death is the departure of the atoms comprising the soul because of pressures from the air that surrounds them.  It occurs not haphazardly, but by reason either of old age, which is natural, or of violence, which is unnatural.  But Democritus does not offer any clear explanation of why this process goes on and why all must die.[7]

In this very brief introductory history of philosophy, we see the development of ideas from the idea that the earth is supported by somehow floating on water to the idea of planets composed of atoms orbiting in space.  We see the development of ideas concerning man’s state on earth, and speculation on the things that we call body and soul.  In the next article, we will look at Socrates who holds a very powerful place in philosophical history, and some say set the foundation for how we in the Western world think.

P.S. This article, just like many articles on this website, just gives a quick overview of the topic.  I suggest you look at the references below as a start in furthering your knowledge in this area.

[1] Ancient philosophers, Don Nardo, Lucent books, Farmington Hills, Michigan, 2002, p. 14

[2] ibid. p.23

[3] Philosophy 1, A. C. Grayling, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998, p. 340

[4 Ancient philosophers, p. 18

[5] Ancient philosophers, p. 32

[6] Ancient philosophers, P 35-36

© copyright 2010 Mark W Smith, All rights reserved.

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