|Before we begin, I would like you to take a moment to meditate; to open your mind to
your deepest thoughts concerning what it is to be a member of modern Western society. If you
are typical, particularly if you are American, you will probably begin with thoughts of the
freedom of man. No other culture in the history of the world has had this fixation on human
freedom. But in the west, particularly in America, freedom is our most important possession.
Now take a step deeper into this concept. |
Consider what must be true of a universe in order that
there can be a species of life that is free. Freedom means more than the ability to choose. It
means that the outcome of the chosen act must be in some way the expected result of the choice.
The mechanisms by which human beings determine their choices are many and varied.
The one mechanism that is dedicated to understanding the implications of choice,
and the most probable logical outcomes of choice, is determination through reasoning. However, reasoning is only valid in an
environment that is essentially rational. Reasoning can handle the unexpected and the unusual. It
cannot handle the illogical and the irrational. Therefore, if man is capable of being free then the
world must be rational.
then, must be a rational place. Yet this is only an assumption. Even if it is an assumption no
modern westerner could ever seriously question. For if it is wrong he cannot be free. But where
did this strange yet absolutely necessary assumption come from? Certainly not from experience.
The world as we generally experience it is fraught with the irrational and the illogical. So if we
are correct and the world is rational, but our experience in it is not, then how did we find out?
Whose idea was it? Keep in mind that if you doubt that the world is rational then by all means
never fly in an
airplane, or drive your car down a modern highway, and don't assume you have a choice about
either. What is it that sets off your electric alarm clock to get you up in the morning? Certainly
not some God on mount Olympus, or the positions of the stars. Our modern world is intimately
tied up with natural scientific laws in which we have absolute faith. Yet such faith depends
just as absolutely on the rationality of the Universe.
What do we mean when we say the world is rational? We mean first that man as a reasoning
animal can understand it. Though no one suggests that we understand the world completely,
modern Westerners, we have complete faith that the world is understandable, that it is capable of
being understood, and that perhaps one day we will understand it completely. But, to be
understandable the world must be regular. We must be correct when we say that the natural
laws that hold today will hold as well when we get up tomorrow. Natural laws are eternal,
unchanging, and absolute even if our understanding of them is not. This must be true if the
world is rational. So, when you get up in the morning and turn on the television to get the day's
weather, you are not worried that it might not work today, because you know deep down inside
you that unless some part failed last night it will work. And you know in the same way that you
will see the morning weather girl even if you don't quite believe what she says. You know
because you know the world is rational.
Science and rationality go together like bread and butter, love and marriage. An
irrational science would be an oxymoron, a contradiction. The products of science, the Jet
plane, the atomic bomb, these are the products of rationality. But we Westerners are not just
scientists, We are religious. Most of us have some conception of what we call God. But our
Western concept of God is of a rational God in a rational world. This might not seem to hold
with the way some of us feel about God, but only because most of us simply don't think about
religion in this way. As we shall see in this study, Western Christianity in all its forms is
committed as deeply as science is to a rational world.
The only animal on this planet whose life is dominated by reason is man. Philosophy is
the science of reason. So the history of philosophy is the history of the use of reason by man in
his attempt to understand the world. This is why philosophy, as we see it, is the exclusive
concern of the Westerner. When we talk about the philosophies of other cultures, we are using
the term philosophy in a different sense. We are using it to mean man's outlook on life. This
may be legitimate, but it is not the subject of the work we are about to embark on.
The world is rational but experience is not. Does this make sense in our western world
where we believe all knowledge is derived from experience? That is one of the fundamental
problems of philosophy. Six hundred years before the birth of Christ, Thales, the wise man of
Miletus thought this way. However, he didn't simply wake up one morning and
exclaim "By the Gods I have it. the world is rational!" He became the
world's first philosopher because he took the idea of reasoning seriously.
He took it another step beyond those that preceded him. That step was from
knowing what works, to realizing why it must work. Knowing what works is
the art of the craftsman. Thales was a master craftsman. He designed the harbor works at
Miletus, he consulted with Kings. Of all of the famous lists of "Seven Wise Men" venerated in
Greek city states, the name common to most of them was Thales. Not as a tyrant, as most
names on the lists were, but as an advisor to tyrants.
It helped too that as the Persian hordes swept out of the East to conquer all of the near
east, Miletus, on the coast of modern Turkey, remained neutral. Her most eminent statesman
and engineer Thales was free to travel throughout the known world. He brought back
mathematics from Babylon and geometry from Egypt. But he did something with that
knowledge that had never been done before. He abstracted from that knowledge. What he
arrived at was something beyond the knowledge of the craftsman. It was the knowledge of what
must be so in order for mathematics and geometry to work. A mechanical method for measuring
the heights of pyramids does not imply anything that does not concern pyramids. But seeing this
as an abstract geometrical concept that can be applied to other problems like measuring the
distance to ships at sea completely divorces the concept from pyramids. Rules concerning the
properties of triangles are true necessarily, and they are irrelevant to what the rules are applied
to. They are products of pure reason. They cannot not work. It is these rules, and not the
experience they were generated out of, that implies a rational world.
If the world is rational and experience is not how can we explain experience? If we are
committed to a rational world, then we are committed equally to explaining the irrational we
experience in it. In most cultures the answers to the irrational lie in the supernatural, in powers
beyond the rational. But in a rational world there are no powers beyond the rational. What then
of the irrational? Experience of the irrational in Western culture has always been attributed to
agencies outside the control of man. But being outside the control of human beings does not
necessarily place that agency outside the realm of nature. Certainly an improbable event does
not involve a violation of natural law. Even an omen does not necessarily involve supernatural
forces, it is a sign of a forthcoming natural event.
The forerunner of the great Western philosophers was the poet Homer. In his works,
written in the eighth century BC, two hundred years before the birth of Thales,
he used gods.
They too, though not rational, were part of nature. He never at any time implied the notion of
the supernatural. Such a notion simply did not exist for the Homeric heroes. Homer has been
accused by some of being rational. However, this is evidence of a misunderstanding of the
import behind the words of the founder of Greek culture. Perhaps this excerpt from
Kaufmann's Tragedy and Philosophy would explain better than I could.
|The poem abounds in references to the gods that are readily translated into "naturalistic"
language. Here are a few striking examples: "Thus Agamemnon prayed, but Zeus was not
prepared to grant him what he wished. He accepted his offering, but in return he sent him
doubled tribulation" [51:II.419 f]. In other words, Agamemnon's fatted five-year-old ox went for
nothing; but it is so much more beautiful to say
But he accepted his offering and multiplied his tribulations.
And instead of saying, "but it was
not to be," Homer says; "but Zeus would not grant it." Where we might say "he must have been
out of his mind," Homer says; "But Zeus the son of Cronos must have robbed Glaucus of his
wits, for he exchanged with Diomedes golden armor for bronze, a hundred oxen's worth for
nine" [123:VI.234 ff].
The consequence of this is a rational, though poetic, description of a world which is essentially
irrational, not supernatural. In a rational world which included divine entities, these entities
would be subject to reason, to natural laws. In a supernatural world the events themselves would
not require rational explanations. In God in Greek Philosophy to the Time of Socrates
explained it in slightly different terms. As he put it, Homer's gods are not sharply defined
personalities. It is the possession of power and not of human characteristics that generated
Homeric gods. His gods are seen admitting their inferiority to rivals that have nothing human
about them. The forces of nature that so define the world of man that they at times seem to
engulf mere mortals have been depicted as supernatural powers in many cultures. In Homer the
Gods represented these same forces in an almost human way. It was through this mechanism
that he was able to make the powers of nature nearly understandable to the average Greek. The
Greek concept of divinity, though it suggested a source of the irrational, did not suggest the
supernatural. It was essentially their way of expressing the existence of an unchanging world
that lies beneath the changing universe. It was the first hint of the future, the first step toward a
belief in a rational world. But, Homer's conception of divinity was not systematic, it contained
degrees and shades of meaning. For example Zeus appears at times depersonalized and almost
identical to destiny, and destiny is a power that seems unchanging, therefore preeminently
divine. When the personalized Zeus acts, he does so through a reservoir of divine power,
variously called moira, or the will of Zeus. This somewhat ambiguous treatment of
personal-impersonal gods was made necessary by the lack, in the language of his day, of a
rational concept of divinity.
The poetic genius of Homer opened the door to the concept of a rational world. What makes
the universe rational is the set of necessary and unchanging rules that determine the outcome of
rational events. Homer's concept of the divine was the abound of the forces that ruled the
universe. His Gods were often treated as human-like, but they were not. What made an entity a
God was its role as a source of natural power. Natural powers were Gods and Gods were natural
In his own way, Homer treated as divinities other forces that operate in human life. Fear
(Deimos), Terror (Phobos), the goddess War (Enyo), the Graces (Charites), Rumor (Ossa), and
Justice(Themis). These are not abstractions. They are expressions of the sources of the
irrational that drive a constantly changing world. Terror is a god, for example, because it is a
real power, not an abstraction. Terror is one source of the irrational. We are discussing a people
for whom the gods were a vibrant part of their lives. The Olympians were not abstractions to the
average Greek. They were poetic expressions of the world they inhabited. Edith Hamilton
explained that before Greece all religions were magical, a defense against fearful powers
leagued against mankind. Innumerable malignant spirits were bent on bringing every kind of
evil to mankind. Life became possible only because the evil spirits could be weakened by
magical means. "The Greeks", she said, "changed a world that was full of fear into a world full
of beauty." In Homer men are free and fearless. In her sense very human gods inhabit heaven.
She said, "In the Iliad and the Odyssey mankind has been delivered from the terror of the unhuman supreme over the human." By making the gods human-like Homer bridged the gulf
between the sacred and the profane. He made the first step toward making man himself partake
in the divine.
During the two hundred years from when Homer wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey to the birth
of Thales, the world of the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean was changing. The people
who lived in the hills, in the interior of what we now call Turkey were much different from the
major participants of the Trojan war. According to Homer while they fought
side-by-side with the Trojans they spoke different languages and worshiped different gods. But
that difference was nothing compared with the cultural collision brought on by the advance of
the Persians and their Oriental religions. The brutal confrontation of cultures brought about a
cultural chaos along the frontier. The old concepts were brought into question. New ideas
emerged to take their place out of the chaos formed by the interaction between these strong
incompatible world systems. The resulting excess of conceptual variety acted as a catalyst
encouraging the growth of new and novel ways of looking at the world. Ionia was not alone in
this period of change. The same period brought about the birth of Taoism in China, Buddhism
in India, Zoroastrianism in Persia, and a change in the view of God among the Israelites. But for
our purpose it is the very different kind of change that occurred in Ionia that we are interested in.
The result of this emergence out of chaos was that 600 years before the birth of Christ an
event occurred that was to change the shape of mankind. It was neither a natural disaster nor the
birth of a great leader. It was the birth of an idea, an idea that heralded the emergence of a new
culture unlike any that had ever existed before. This would become in time our
Western culture and eventually was to become some of strongest elements in
a new emerging world culture.
What was that idea? Quite simple. It was the idea that the world is rational. The story of
Western philosophy is the story of the ways that this idea modified and was modified by the
evolution of Western culture. It hasn't been just jet planes and computers that made
culture stand out from all others. Just as important has been a commitment to reason as a route
to a kind of truth and freedom never before seen in the world. It is the difference between
rational man meeting God and the world actively, and irrational man passively accepting the will
of the Gods.
Compared with other cultures of the period, Homer seemed rational. However, it was the
result of poetic genius and not of man's reason. He was not a philosopher. Philosophy is not the
study of what philosophers believe, assume, or conjecture. It is a study of what is implied by
these beliefs, assumptions, and conjectures that can be determined through the use of human
reason. But implication itself is a concept that can only have relevance in a rational universe.
Philosophy deals with knowledge concerning both man and the world he finds himself in.
The work of any particular philosopher therefore, is a cultural expression of the world he finds
himself immersed in while he is still immersed in it. The best philosophers are those who express
most completely the deepest thoughts of their time. So in this work we will be interested not
only in the philosophers themselves, but also in the world that spawned them. Of course we
must realize that knowledge of the world one is a functioning part of can only be arrived at
through experience and through contemplation on experience. And, since the work of any
philosopher emerges out of his own experience, we will treat each philosopher as a unique
individual living in a unique world.