What do we owe the first philosophers?

We owe the very first Greek philosophers a debt of gratitude. It’s true that they learned much, in the way of mathematics, from the ancient civilisations of Egypt and Babylonia – geometry from the Egyptians and arithmetic from the Babylonians – but the Greeks introduced something new and different. What contributed to its emergence? 

The Egyptians and Babylonians observed the world around them, and the goings-on in the skies above. They needed to keep totals for trade and tax purposes, make measurements for pyramid building projects, and watch for events in the sky with implications for happenings on earth. Their interests were predominantly practical, and geared towards maintaining social stability and economic productiveness. Key people were kings and priests. The kings safeguarded and expanded their territories, while the priests made sure the gods were kept happy, and that the people offered up the required worship.

The ancient Greeks did have kings, but they didn’t have the powerful priestly institutions existing in Egypt and Babylonia. Priests and priestesses tended to be local functionaries with some, like modern crystal ball gazers, ambiguously dispensing good and bad tidings after receipt of a suitable offering. This absence of an institutionalised priesthood was one of the factors contributing to the emergence of philosophy.

Previously, people had seen that the world had ‘regularities’, such as day following night, tides ebbing and flowing, and the sun rising and setting. But there were also unpredictable ‘irregularities’ with harmful consequences, such as storms, landslides, famines, and plagues. To find some kind of explanation for these, and some possibility of influencing their occurrence, supernatural gods and goddesses were invented. Unfortunately, their all-too-human squabbling, rivalries, and sudden outbursts of rage, envy, jealousy and spite, did little to furnish much improvement in useful explanations, or productive anticipations, of natural events.  

So it’s as if these first philosophers began to say, ‘let’s not pass the buck to the gods, since that doesn’t really get us very far’. They also began to go beyond mere practicalities, and to look more deeply into things for their own sake. They wanted to find out not just how things worked, but why there were ‘things’ at all, and what precisely they were. They wanted conclusions which could be supported by logical arguments and credible evidence. They weren’t interested in mere assertion – quoting verses from Homer or Hesiod was no useful answer to anything. Fortunately for them, there was no powerful priestly caste with a vested interest in dismissing unwelcome critical enquiry, and suppressing rejection of priestly dogma. 

And so, built into the cultural history of the West, we have philosophy – which needn’t, however, be anti-religious. There is in fact a ‘philosophy of religion’, and there are eastern religions which, behind their ‘bells and whistles’, incorporate profound philosophy. The indispensable legacy of these ancient Greeks is that they teach us to believe nothing on the basis of the supposed ‘authority’ of any established institutions or ancient books, of whatever sort, but only to believe what has the reasoned support of logical argument and/or the empirical support of our own open-minded, and honest to goodness, human experience. 

[ Image : nationalgeographic.org ]

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