Beginning at the Beginning

All ideas come from somewhere.  Democracy was a creed before it became a global movement.  Communism was a concept in the mind of Karl Marx before it became an ideology that enslaved a third of the world.

Everything we think about ourselves and our world has its origins in movements that began centuries before Jesus.  Let's look briefly at our intellectual parents, and discover ways they still influence their children today.


Greek philosophy began as a reaction to the anthropomorphic ("to make human") religion of the day.  Remember Zeus and his cohorts, cavorting around on the top of Mt. Olympus and throwing thunderbolts at anyone who displeased them?  Remember the gods of Homer's tragic stories, puppet masters who pulled the strings of Greek soldiers and armies for their own amusement?  So did the first philosophers, who thought them as absurd as we do.  But why did they ask why?  Let's investigate.

It's Greek to me

Why did the first philosophers live in the territory of Greece?  Why not Egypt, or Israel, or Hawaii?  For several reasons.

One was their natural environment.  Greece is one of the most mountainous regions in the inhabited world.  Any race who would choose to call this peninsula and its islands home must have the physical stamina of a mountain goat and a similar disposition.  These were hardy folk.

You see, Greece is a nation of harbors.  Beachfront property is no rare commodity.  And so the Greeks found it very easy to emigrate to neighboring countries in search of wealth and fame.  Their neighbors found access to Greek wealth and culture just as enticing.  The result was perhaps the most cosmopolitan culture and worldview in the ancient world.  At a time when most of the world's nations were isolated from each other and bent on self-preservation, the Greeks were sailing (and influencing) the world.

Their politics became just as cosmopolitan, and confusing.  Each island had its own governance.  Each city was its own state.  These various city-states tried and failed to rule their neighbors.  Finally they settled on a crazy idea—why not let the people rule themselves?  This "democracy" (literally, "people power") was a novel experiment not attempted again on a serious level until some colonists wearing powdered wigs wrote this revolutionary (literally) sentence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."  Somewhere Greeks were applauding.

A cosmopolitian worldview plus the democratic idea that every person possesses the right to think for himself (but not yet herself, unfortunately) equals some radical ideas.  And the Greeks were just getting started.

And you thought Baptists were confusing

So some of the first philosophers were free thinkers whose minds were unencumbered by tradition.  Others, however, began their work for precisely the opposite reason—not to reject the religions and customs of their day, but to understand them.  Let's look at these religious beliefs a little more closely.  If the ancient Greeks had denominations, they'd look like these.

First would be the "Church of Olympians," with Homer as its pastor.  His "sermons" were all about the various gods of Mt. Olympus and their dealings with each other and the humans with whom they amused themselves.  These gods were themselves subject to "the fates," but not to laws or morals.  Like a modern soap opera, you need a scorecard to keep up with who's relating (ahem) to whom.

Next would be the "Church of the Cosmogony," led by Hesiod.  This 8th century farmer wrote epic poems (called the Theogony) which accounted for the world in terms of divine beings and their activities.  He was the first person ever to create a "cosmogony," an account of how the world came to be.  Unlike Homer, Hesiod wanted the world to be ordered by reason and morality.  But the world didn't cooperate very much.

Third would be the "Church of Mystery," led by, well, mysterious people.  The so-called "mystery cults" involved the worship of local gods representing elemental forces which were important to people engaged in a struggle for survival with the soil.  These cults worshipped deities like Dionysus, the barbaric god of wine, and Demeter, the goddess of the native countryside.  The mystery cults used rituals by which the initiated achieved unity with their chosen god.  We call them "mystery" cults for the enlightening reason that we have little idea how they did their worship.  Their rituals were so secret that most of them perished when their cults died out.

And last among the religions of ancient Greeks would be the "Church of Orpheus," led of course by Orpheus.  He was a legendary singer and composer, and was especially famous for his ego.  He claimed that he would live forever.  The Orphics used purification rituals to achieve union with the divine.

Of these four "denominations," the Orphics were the least popular in their time.  And the most influential for the generations to follow, and for us as well.  In fact, we in the Western world breathe Orphic air every day.  Let's see why.

How "secular" became a cuss word

Orpheus had one principal idea: your soul is an immortal god imprisoned in your body, doomed to reincarnation.  He thought that your soul existed in some preincarnate state up in "heaven."  But it "sinned" there, and was punished by being put into this material world, which was created for just this purgatorial purpose.  The world you can see, the flesh you can touch, anything physical at all in fact, is inferior.  It is part of this "prison of the soul" and must be escaped.

How?  By rituals, ascetic life, and knowledge of the correct magical formula after death.  Through the use of contemplative, rational philosophy your soul can be purified and released from its abysmal physical jail.  Or so Orpheus said.

Now this Orphic philosophy was just one thought among many, and not even popular in Orpheus's lifetime.  However, to greatly simplify things, the Orphic cult came to influence Pythagoras; Pythagoras exerted enormous influence with Plato; Plato's thinking was formative for Augustine; Augustine's theology was normative for Luther and the Protestants; and you and I are Protestants.

From Luther through Augustine through Plato through Pythagoras to Orpheus we get the idea that the "secular" is bad and the "sacred" is good.  We drive a wedge between what is "spiritual" and what is not.  We think that the more spiritual we are, the more time we'll spend in church and the less in the "world."  The world is evil, but spiritual things are good.  And Orpheus cheers.

This is not at all how the ancient Hebrew people saw things.  They knew the biblical truth that God made all that is, and pronounced it good.  While the world is of course fallen (cf. Genesis 3.17-19, Romans 8.18-22), physical things are not inherently evil.  Jesus did not call us to leave the world, but to evangelize it (Matthew 28.18-20).  Salt is no good in the saltshaker, light no good under a basket (Matthew 5.13-16).  God wants us to change the world, not forsake it.

And so from the ancient Orphics we learn one tragic reason why so many Christians have so little influence on their culture.  In a sense, Orpheus was immortal after all.

Those strange Ionians

Now we bring things together.  On this side of the philosophical classroom we find men who think for the sake of thinking.  They have absolutely no interest in the religious movements of their day, and want to liberate their minds from such nonsense.  On the other side of the class we have thinkers who want to purify their souls, to escape from this mortal life to return to divine glory.  The irreligious philosophers lived mainly in Ionia, on the western coast of modern-day Turkey.  The religious philosophers lived mainly in southern Italy.  They would collide in time, and the reverberations haven't ended yet.

Who says philosophy doesn't pay?

Let's look first at the first of the Ionians.  Ionia was probably the richest community in all of Greece.  And one of the most irreligious (no coincidence, that).  Its leading city was named Miletus.  And the leading man of Miletus was a fellow named Thales.  He was one of the "Seven Wise Men" of Greece, and is commonly crowned the first philosopher.  Here's why.

Thales was the first person (in recorded history, anyway) to create a cosmogony—a naturalistic account of how the world came into being.  He risked the wrath of the gods by suggesting that they had nothing to do with the creation of the universe.  He even went so far as to suggest the element from which the universe came into existence: water.  Thales was sure that water was that "which existed before all existing things came to be, out of which all things came and into which all things return."  This made him a monist—someone who believes that the world came from a single thing.  And it made him pretty close to right.

When you cut any living thing what comes out?  For crops and food to survive, what element do you need?  If you're living on the coast of Turkey or an island, what surrounds you?  If we had to pick only one element to live by, water would get my vote.

The point is not whether Thales was right or wrong by current scientific standards, but that he attempted the effort at all.  He was absolutely the first person we know of to explain things in natural terms, without relying on religious myths or spiritual explanations.  This fact makes him the first philosopher, and one of the most important of all time.

And it made him rich.  Thales learned to predict eclipses and the weather (not hard to do, once you stop attributing them to angry gods).  And so he forecasted a bumper olive crop for a certain year, bought up all the olive presses in Miletus, and made a fortune.  And you thought philosophy doesn't pay (most philosophy teachers would agree).

Drawing unbounded maps

Thales had a student names Anaximander, who continued the string of philosophical firsts.  He invented the first sundial, since he now knew that the sun would behave according to physical principles and not the whims of the gods.  And he created the first-ever map, in the belief that the gods wouldn't move the continents around whenever they liked.

Anaximander wasn't satisfied with his teacher's explanation for the origin of the world, however.  He was absolutely, positively convinced that the world comes from "the uncertain" (what a leap of faith!).  The apeiron means "unbounded, uncertain, undefined" in Greek.  Anaximander was sure that the universe is the result of opposites created by it.

For instance, humidity and rain result from the opposition of hot and cold.  Humidity in turn creates earth, air, and fire, Anaximander theorized.  And earth, air, and fire create the sun, the moon, the stars, and so on.  Everything came from water, so to speak, but water was the creation of the undefined, unbounded reality which holds everything together.  Not too far from Paul's teaching six centuries later: "Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.  For by him all things were created" (Colossians 1.15-16).  And certainly closer to molecular physics and current scientific theories.  No simpleton, Anaximander.

This pupil of Thales had a pupil himself, a fellow named Anaximines.  He further refined the cosmogonies of his predecessors with the assertion that the substance from which the universe was created is air: "Just as the air which is our soul surrounds us, so do the wind and air encompass the world."  Anaximines said that the universe resembles a human, with air the breath of life.  Everything is governed by the law of balance, with no omnipotence or Creator in a biblical sense.

Of course, Anaximines was closest to molecular science of all.  Some estimates suggest that your body is roughly 99% air.  Nothing is truly solid.  Anaximines knew more than he knew.

But the true significance of these three Ionians was not their explanations for the universe, it was the fact that they attempted such explanations at all.  Homer thought the world was governed by the gods who were themselves governed by the fates; Hesiod had argued for a moral order to the universe.  But the Ionian philosophers were the first to explain the world on the basis of nature alone.  And that world would never be the same.

Ionia was conquered by the Persians in 546 B.C., who destroyed Miletus in 494 B.C.  And so intellectual life moved to the religious culture of southern Italy and Sicily, colonies of mainland Greece at the time.  And philosophy "gets religion."

Square numbers and liberated souls

If you took high school geometry, perhaps you remember Pythagoras.  One of the most famous principles in math is named for him: the length of the hypotenuse of a right triangle equals the sum of the squares of the lengths of the other two sides.  Is that clear?  Aren't you glad this isn't a math course?

Pythagoras also invented square numbers and studied musical harmonics.  But he did all this in the service of his philosophy, and his philosophy in the service of his religion.  Here's why, and why it matters.

Pythagoras emigrated from the island of Samos off the coast of modern-day Turkey to southern Italy.  Around 530 B.C. he founded the Pythagorean Brotherhood at Croton in South Italy.  He and his followers were possessed of a very strong religious faith rooted in the Orphic cult.  They were convinced that their souls had existed in a preincarnate state and must be liberated from the prison house of their bodies through rigorous philosophical thought and right actions.  They thought that thought makes the soul divine, and that the true universe is a world of order, proportion, harmony, form.  Hence their fascination with mathematics, the only "pure" realm we can know in this "fallen" life.

The Pythagoreans taught that form (the male principle) is good, but matter (the female principle) is evil, and that all things evolve from their interchange.  Note the continuing deprecation of the "secular" (and the female as well).  While Western thinkers would seldom accept Pythagoras' mathematical explanation of the world, they would assume his prejudice against the material universe.  In other words, Pythagoras still haunts us, and not just in geometry class.

The challenge of change

If Pythagoras was right, the only world which matters is the unchanging realm of numbers and harmonies.  But you can't eat numbers (unless you're a professional mathematician).  More practically oriented Greeks wanted to know how to make sense of the world we can see (and digest).  Two schools of thought emerge, each radically opposed to the other, each centered on the issue of change and permanence in the world we experience each day.

Stepping into the same river twice

First, Heraclitus steps to the stage.

Called "Skoteinos" (the "Dark One") by his contemporaries because of his convoluted writing style, Heraclitus had utter contempt for all but his own ideas.  For instance, he suggested that Homer deserved to be whipped (earning the gratitude of all junior high literature students).  He lived and worked in Ephesus, the largest city on Asia Minor (the western coast of Turkey today).  And he argued for two ideas which are still hugely important today.

One: change is the law of the universe.  According to Heraclitus, everything that exists is in perpetual conflict and motion.  Even those things which appear to be at rest, aren't.  A bent bow, for instance, is still only because the string and the bow pull equally against each other.  Thus Heraclitus' most famous sentence: "You cannot step into the same river twice."  Everything is changing.

Then why doesn't the universe come apart at the seams?  Because of Heraclitus' second idea: the "logos" holds everything together.  He coined this word, so far as we know.  It is the Greek word for "word," but it means far more—logic, reason, order, intelligence.  This is Heraclitus' god, the living intelligence which holds together everything that is.

We each have the choice of living according to this principle of reason, or of living in perpetual ignorance.  The more reasoned our lives, the more harmonious and whole our souls in this changing world.

Heraclitus' famous example for an unchanging/changing world was fire.  While it is constantly changing, it is always fire.  It maintains its identity and order in the midst of perpetual chaos.  So it is with the rest of the universe as well.

It is more than a coincidence that John would open his gospel six centuries later with these statements: "In the beginning was the Word [the Greek word here is logos], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning.  Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made" (John 1.1-3).  While John has more in mind than Heraclitus' philosophy, I believe that he is using it to explain the Incarnation to the Greeks (who would otherwise reject any notion of God in physical flesh, for Orphic reasons).  More on this later.

Heraclitus had other, far less important, ideas.  He believed the sun to be the size of a plate (because it looks that way, I suppose).  He thought that it was extinguished and relit daily.  And he was sure that the heavens rotate around the earth.  We can't all be right.

Do you get the point?

Every extreme begets an extreme.  Heraclitus' absolute insistence on change as the principle of the universe was opposed by Parmenides, an Italian thinker who was completely convinced that Heraclitus was completely wrong.  How he came to that notion, and how his students defended it, is one of the more entertaining chapters in the history of Greek philosophy.

Parmenides' teacher was a wandering religious teacher named Xenophanes of Colophon.  Read his description of the religious beliefs current in his time, and see if he's not onto something:

If oxen, horses or lions were able to draw pictures as men do, oxen would draw gods that were oxlike, horses gods that were horselike, and lions lionlike gods. . . .

The Ethiopians say the gods are black and flat-nosed, while the Thracians declare they are blue-eyed and red-headed.

Every time I see the Italian-looking Jesus painted by Leonardo da Vinci in The Last Supper, I think Xenophanes was right.

Xenophanes believed that the world is one.  Not just the product of one substance or one process—the world is one.  Parmenides agreed: "That which is is, and it is impossible for it not to be."  A = A, and cannot be anything else.  Rationally, something that is cannot become something else.  The keyboard on which I am typing these words cannot be anything but a keyboard.  And so change is impossible.

Parmenides was the first philosopher to use such purely rational arguments in defense of his ideas.  And so he is known as the first Rationalist—someone who believes that truth is the result of logical reasoning, not empirical observation.  If I were to point out to Parmenides that my keyboard could be melted into a plastic lump and remolded into a miniature Statue of Liberty, he wouldn't care.  Rationally speaking, it is a keyboard right now, so it must be a keyboard always.

This sounds rather ridiculous, doesn't it?  But actually it's not.  Consider these defenses of Parmenides' reasoning by his student, Zeno of Elea.  "Zeno's paradoxes" were his attempts to prove rationally that change is impossible.

Here's one.  Imagine that you're holding a bow and arrow, prepared to shoot at the wall on the other side of the room from where you're reading these words.  Before the arrow can get to the wall, would you agree that it has to get halfway there?  Before it can get to that spot, does it have to get halfway to it?  Before it can get halfway to the place which is halfway to halfway, does it have to get halfway to it?  And so on, and so on, and so on—ultimately, the arrow never moves.  Do you get the point? (pun intended).

And so we have a stalemate.  Heraclitus is right: according to our senses, everything changes constantly.  And Parmenides is right: according to logic, nothing can change.  What's a philosopher to do?

Physics before there were physicists

If you can't win the game, change the rules.  So far everyone is playing by the rule that there is one basic substance or principle which explains everything.  What if there isn't?  The Pluralists (aptly named) are sure there isn't.  And they're mainly right.

Meet Empedocles of Agrigentum, one of the great egotists of all time.  He said of himself, "I wander among you as an immortal god, not as a mortal.  I am honored by all as a god—as is fit!—and they weave wreaths for my head.  But why do I speak about it as if it were something unusual?  I am much more than you, O mortals steeped in many evils!"  The title of his autobiography should have been Humility And How I Perfected It.

His sandals were discovered near Mount Aetna, which was said to have rejected them when Empedocles threw himself into its crater to learn the secrets of Vulcan.  Three cheers for the volcano.

Here's why such an egomaniac matters to us: he was right about something important.  He was the first significant thinker to break the monist mold, arguing that the world is made of many parts, not a single whole.  Earth, air, fire, and water are the four roots of existence.  Finally the world can change and not change at the same time.

Anaxagoras of Clazomenea continues the progress, claiming that matter is composed of indestructible and invisible bodies (which he calls "seeds").  And Leucippus of Miletus assents, dividing all of nature into innumerable little particles.

Finally a fellow named Democritus identifies the "atomoi" ("that which cannot be cut") as the elementary bodies of the universe.  These "atomoi" act and interact with each other to produce the changing phenomena we observe each day.  And yet they are themselves indestructible, thus the substance which ensures the permanence of reality.

At last we have a reasonable explanation for the world and its vagaries, and that twenty-three centuries before atomic physicists can claim the credit for themselves.

Summarizing this summary

By the time these three centuries of thinking have ended, the Western world has made amazing progress toward the culture we have today.  We have left in the rearview mirror the gods of Homer and Hesiod for the natural world we see outside the windshield.  After arguing for a few generations about what the world is made of, we have finally decided that it is made of many things, some of which we can see but most of which we cannot.  These things behave according to reasonable, natural principles.  And so the world is ordered and rational.  Given the mythological worldview they inherited, these thinkers were both radical and revolutionary.  And the Western world has never been the same.

From these pre-Socratics (because they worked in the centuries before Socrates, of course) the Western world learned certain assumptions.  One: the world that matters today is the material, not the spiritual.  Two: we can best understand that world through logic and reason, not myth and religious tradition.  Three: for truly spiritual people, the spiritual is good while the "secular" is bad.

No need for God in such a world, is there?  Spirituality is personal, individual, subjective.  It is not about the practical world we can see, but only the soul we cannot.  If you choose to pursue spirituality in order to purify your own spirit, that's fine.  But don't impose your spirituality on reasonable materialists like the rest of us.  We know what really matters is matter.

Doesn't sound like ancient philosophy at all, does it?