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The Suppositions of Greek Philosophy
If we ignore the obscure problem of Oriental (Indian, Chinese) philosophy, in which what is most problematic is the meaning of the word "philosophy" itself, and focus our attention on what philosophy has been in the West, we will find that its first stage is the philosophy of the Greeks. This initial phase, which lasted for more than a millennium, differs from all later phases in that it does not have a philosophic tradition behind it; that is, Greek philosophy emerges from a concrete human situation—that of "ancient" man—which contains no philosophical element or ingredient. This circumstance has two important consequences: in the first place, the birth of philosophy in Greece has a purity and originality superior to all that is to come later; secondly, ancient man's vital and historical situation directly conditions Hellenic speculation to the point that the major theme of the history of Greek philosophy consists in determining why man, upon reaching a certain stage in his development, found himself compelled to fulfill a completely new and unknown need, which today we call philosophizing. We cannot discuss this problem here, but we must at least point out some of the historic suppositions which made philosophy possible and necessary in the Hellenic world.
A way of life is defined above all by its repertory of beliefs. Naturally, beliefs change, as Ortega has shown, from generation to generation—this is what constitutes historical mutation. But a certain basic core of beliefs endures through several generations and gives them the higher unity which we designate by such words as epoch, era or age. What are the basic beliefs held by Greek man which limit and give form to his philosophy?
Hellenic man finds himself in a world which has always existed and which is therefore never a problem; all questioning presupposes this world, takes it for granted. The world is interpreted as nature and, therefore, as an original principle, or as that from which all concrete reality emerges or issues. Thus the world appears to be endowed with potentiality, with productive capacity. But at the same time it is amultiplicity; the world contains many things which are capable of changing and are defined by opposites. Every one of these things has an independent consistency, but the things themselves are not permanent. They change, and their properties are understood in terms of opposites: cold is the opposite of warm, even the opposite of odd, and so on. This polarity is characteristic of the ancient mind. The properties inherent in the things permit them to be used in a technic basically different from magical procedures, in which things are treated as powers.
The Greek's world is intelligible. It can be understood, and comprehension consists in seeing or contemplating that reality and of explaining it. Theory, lógos and being are the three decisive terms of Hellenic thought, and they are rooted in this primary attitude toward the world. As a consequence, the world appears as something which is ordered and subjected to law: this is the notion of the cosmos. Reason is inserted into this lawful order of the world, which can be governed and directed, and the concrete form of this lawful order in human affairs is the political coexistence of men in cities. It is necessary to keep this basic outline of ancient beliefs in mind in order to understand the historical fact of Greek philosophy.
1. THE MILESIAN SCHOOL
The Greek philosophers prior to Socrates are called the pre-Socratics. This name has, to begin with, a chronological value: these are the thinkers who lived from the end of the seventh century to the close of the fifth century before Christ. However, the term also has a more profound meaning: the earliest beginnings of Greek philosophy can be considered true philosophy because after them there existed a full and indisputable philosophy. Examined in the light of mature philosophy—from Socrates onward—the first Hellenic speculations are seen to be philosophic, although not all of them would merit this designation were they not the beginning and promise of something to come later on. By being pre-Socratics, by announcing and preparing a philosophic maturity, the first thinkers of Ionia and Magna Graecia are themselves already philosophers. One must not forget that if it is true that the present depends on the past, then the present sometimes redounds on the past and colors it as well. Specific affirmations of the oldest Indian and Chinese thinkers are often similar to those of the Greeks; the major difference between these two philosophies is that after the pre-Socratics came Socrates, whereas the stammering Oriental speculation was not followed by a philosophic fullness in the sense which this phrase has taken on in the West. This explains the fundamental difference which we notice between the earliest thinking of the Hellenic people and that of the Orientals.
The last pre-Socratics do not predate Socrates; they are his contemporaries in the second half of the fifth century. However, they remain part of the group that antedates him because of the theme and character of their speculation. Nature ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) is the subject of the entire first stage of philosophy. Aristotle calls these thinkers [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], physicists; they create a physics by philosophic method. Confronted by nature, the pre-Socratic adopts an attitude that differs enormously from that of Hesiod, for example. The latter attempts to narrate how the world has been shaped and ordered, or supply the genealogy of the gods; he creates a theogony, relates a myth. Myth and philosophy are closely related, as Aristotle has observed, and this constitutes a serious problem; but myth and philosophy are two different things. The pre-Socratic philosopher confronts nature with a theoretical question; he attempts to tell what it is. Philosophy is chiefly defined by the question which motivates it: What is all this? This question cannot be answered with a myth, but only with a philosophy.
MOTION. What is it that makes the Greeks wonder about the nature of things? What is the root of the awe that first moved the Greeks to philosophize? In other words, what is it that alienates Hellenic man and makes him feel strange in the world in which he finds himself? Bear in mind first that the pre-Socratics' situation differs from that of all later philosophers. The later men, upon setting themselves a problem, found united with it a repertory of solutions already proposed and tried, whereas the pre-Socratics abandoned the answers given by tradition or myth for a new instrument of certainty—reason.
The Greek wonders at and is awed by motion. What does this mean? Motion ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) has a fuller meaning in Greek than in English or the Romance languages. What we call motion is only a particular form of kínesis, whereas in Greek "motion" means change or variation. The Greeks distinguished four types of motion: (1) local motion ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), change of place; (2) quantitative motion, that is, augmentation or diminution ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]); (3) qualitative motion, or alteration ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]); and (4) substantial motion, that is, generation and decay ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). All these kinds of motion, and especially the last named, which is the most profound and radical, perturb and trouble Greek man because they make the existence of things problematic; they overwhelm him with uncertainty to the point that he does not know what to rely on in respect to them. If things change, what are they really? If a white object ceases to be white and becomes green, it is and it is not white; if something that is ceases to be, then the thing both is and is not, Multiplicity and contradiction permeate the very being of things; thus, the Greek wonders what the things really are, that is, what they are permanently, behind their many appearances. Confronted by the numerous aspects of the things, the Greek searches for their permanent and immutable roots, which are superior to this multiplicity and which can give it meaning. Therefore, what is truly interesting is the initial question of philosophy: What is all this really? Or: What is Nature, the source from which all things emerge? The history of Greek philosophy is made up of the various answers given to this question.
Greek philosophy has a very concrete and well-known origin. It begins on the Ionian coasts, in the Hellenic cities of Asia Minor in the first years of the sixth century before Christ—or perhaps at the end of the seventh century. The origin of philosophy can be said to be ex-centric, since it took place outside the center of the Greek world; it was not until much later (the fifth century B.C.) that philosophic speculation appeared in Greece proper. The cities on the eastern coast of the Aegean were richer and more prosperous than those of Hellas, and it was in the Aegean cities that an economic, technical and scientific awakening first developed. This awakening was promoted in part by contact with other cultures, especially with the Egyptian and Persian civilizations. It was in Miletus, the most important city in this region, that philosophy first appeared. There, a group of philosophers who were also men of great stature in the affairs of the country and who belonged to approximately three successive generations, attempted to supply answers to the question of what nature is. These first philosophers are usually referred to as the Ionian or Milesian school; the three principal and representative figures are Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes, and their activity fills the sixth century.
THALES OF MILETUS. Thales lived from the last third of the seventh century to the middle of the sixth century. Ancient documents credit him with several occupations: those of engineer, astronomer, financier, politician; therefore, he is included among the Seven Wise Men of Greece. He may have been born in distant Phoenicia. Thales is thought to have traveled through Egypt, and is credited with having introduced into Greece Egyptian geometry (the calculation of distances and heights by means of the equality and similarity of triangles, but certainly by empirical methods). Thales also predicted an eclipse. He is, then, a great man of his time.
Aristotle is our major and most valuable source of information for what most interests us here, Thales' philosophy. In fact, Aristotle is our best authority on the interpretation of everything pre-Socratic. He says that according to Thales, the source or original principle ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) of all things is water; that is, the moist state. The reason for this is probably that animals and plants have moist nutrition and seed. The land floats on water; moreover, the world is full of spirits and souls and many demons. Or, as Aristotle says, "all things are full of gods."
This animation or vivification of matter is called hylozoism. But the truly significant thing about Thales is the fact that, for the first time in history, a man is questioning everything that exists, not because he is wondering about the mythic origin of the world, but because he wants to know what nature really is. Between theogony and Thales there is an abyss—the abyss which separates philosophy from all previous thinking.
ANAXIMANDER. Toward the middle of the sixth century, Anaximander succeeded Thales as the leader of the Milesian school. Hardly anything about his life is known with certainty. He wrote a work (which has been lost) known by the title later assigned to the greater part of pre-Socratic writings: On Nature ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). Various inventions of a mathematical and astronomical character are attributed to him; he is also credited—with greater likelihood—with drawing the first map of the world. To the question concerning the source of things, Anaximander answers that it is the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. This word means, literally, infinite, not in a mathematical sense, but rather in the sense of limitlessness or indeterminateness. It is convenient to understand it as something grandiose and unlimited in its magnificence, something which provokes awe. It is the marvelous totality of the world in which man is surprised to find himself. This nature is, furthermore, a source: from it all things spring forth. Starting from this [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] some things come to be, others cease to be, but the source endures because it is independent of and superior to these individual changes. Things are created through a process of separation; they separate from the mass of nature in a sieve-like movement—first cold and warm, and then the other things. This process of being created and dying is an injustice, an [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] an unjust predominance of one opposite over another (warm over cold, damp over dry, and so on). Individual things maintain their predominance by means of this injustice. However, there is a natural law which will make things return to an ultimate end that is without injustice, the immortal and incorruptible ápeiron, in which opposites do not predominate over one another. Time is the means by which this natural law must be realized. Time will make all things return to this unity, to the quietude and irresolution of the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] from which they have unjustly departed.
Anaximander was also an astronomer, and made a considerable contribution to the development of this science, but we cannot here discuss his achievement in this field. As a philosopher he represents the step from the simple designation of a substance as a source of nature to a more acute and profound idea of nature, and one which already shows the features which will later characterize all pre-Socratic philosophy: a totality which is the source of everything, which is free from mutation and plurality and which is set in opposition to the things. We will see these features reappearing constantly in the very heart of Greek philosophical development.
ANAXIMENES. Anaximenes, who lived in the second half of the sixth century, was a pupil of Anaximander, and was also from Miletus. The final important Milesian, he adds two new concepts to the doctrine of his master. First, he supplies a concrete indication of what the source of nature is: air, which he relates to respiration or breathing. All things are created from air and return to it when they decay. This appears to be something of a return to Thales' point of view, except that water has been replaced by air; but Anaximenes adds a second stipulation: that the things are formed from air in a specific way—by condensation and rarefaction. This is of the greatest importance; we now have not only the designation of a primal substance but also the explanation of how all things are made from it. Rarefied air is fire; when air is more condensed, it becomes clouds, water, land, rocks, depending on the degree of density. To the first substance, which supports the changing variety of things, is added a source of motion. And it is at this moment that the Persian domination of Ionia impels philosophy toward the West.
Excerpted from History of Philosophy by Julian Marías, STANLEY APPELBAUM, Clarence C. Strowbridge. Copyright © 1967 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Posted November 29, 2006
Julián Marías¿s 'Historia de la Filosofía,' translated by Stanley Appelbaum and Clarence C. Strowbridge, is an excellent introduction to the history of Western philosophical thought. First published in Madrid in 1941, it has gone through 22 editions in Spanish and has become the standard classroom text in the subject throughout the Spanish-speaking world. The book covers virtually all the major philosophers and schools from the Pre-Socratics to mid-twentieth century thought. Influential secondary figures are treated extensively as well. As a one-volume reference to the history of philosophy, Marias¿s text succeeds admirably. The book has four parts: Greek Philosophy, Christianity, Medieval Philosophy, and Modern Philosophy, this last part being the largest in extent and broadest in thematic scope. Christianity, the shortest part, deals basically with Patristic speculation and Augustine, and serves as a prelude to Scholasticism. The narrative is consistently well-structured, clear and precise. A thorough bibliography and index are included. At times the author avoids delving too deeply into some topic when this reader felt that a more profound treatment would have been preferable. Perhaps this is inevitable in a work of this breadth intended for a general audience. Fortunately, it does not occur too often and certainly does not diminish the worth of the book as a whole. 'History of Philosophy' rightfully earns a five-star rating.
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