THE BEGINNINGS OF REASON IN ANCIENT GREECE
This may be a popular version of the History of Philosophy but here it is:
Reason, I have read, was synonymous in ancient Greece with Logic, with Argument, with Thought, and with Philosophy, and that it hasn’t always been with us! This seems to mean that Reason hasn’t always been amongst Man’s mental accomplishments. The Classicists tell us that it was the pre-Socratic philosophers who started it for the Western world in about 580 BC.
But, one asks, surely primitive Man was already using Reason in his hunting and in his sheltering round the fire in the cave?
But, according to here, the philosophers first started using Reason for theoretical and abstract explanation (of things in the world) rather than just for figuring out what best to do in a practical situation.
We are told it was Thales who first offered a ‘natural explanation’ — which means an explanation from within nature — for some thing or happening in the universe. Until then, people accepted that everything in the universe was done by spirits. These gods and goddesses cavorted around the heavens behaving outrageously, doing things like murder and incest, just like human beings did.
These were the myths, which were thought to have been inspired by the gods in the minds of the poets, then dramatized by the latter, and filling the minds of the audiences with the truth of how things and events in the world had really come about.
It was a living world in which gods and goddesses were the causes of everything; a world in which human beings were incorrigibly wicked, and the gods and goddesses were too. The thought comes to me: Weren’t Philosophy and Science a deterioration to some degree in human sophistication and understanding, and in Sensibility to Human Life, in deserting such a world (see a previous post)?
To return to Thales: it seems he issued his ‘natural’ explanations as mere statements without argument. Perhaps he justified them in the old-fashioned way by saying that he had received them from the gods.
Parmenides, slightly later, did provide argument (i.e. logic and reason) for his natural explanations But he also said, reverting to the old-fashioned way, that these logical arguments had come to him because steeds of the goddess-muse had pulled his chariot of thought along, axles blazing in their sockets (from here).
However it arrived in the minds of Thales and Parmenides, this was Philosophy. It was new. It was the use of Logic, at least partly, to arrive at the Truth.
Henri Frankfort wrote a famous book, The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man, about this transition from Myth to Thought. Here is something of what Jurgis Brakas, a modern philosopher, said of it: “We see ….. how the pre-philosophic mind saw the world….: The world is a living being, or a collection of living beings; one comes to ‘know’ it the way one comes to ‘know’ another person, by living with him and getting a feel for who he is and what he will do …. It is to the lasting glory of the Greeks that they forever liberated the human mind from these shackles.” That last statement of enthusiasm shows that Brakis really did have a modern mind.
All of the above may be too neat a story of the birth of theoretical Reason. But it allowed me a misty vision that Logic and Reason were not inherent in Man, but had to be invented. The term ‘the Greek Enlightenment’ has been used for the birth of philosophy in the ancient Greek world (from here), just as ‘Enlightenment’ per se is used for the further leap of Reason in Western approval 2000 years later.
To get back to Parmenides, he also invented Ontology (this site), the first of the divisions of Metaphysics and another major beginning in philosophers’ logicking.
So what exactly is Ontology? It is talk about Being, about what is, about Being as Being — about what it is to exist or not exist! (Get it?)
Parmenides thought that if you can think something, then it is; and conversely that not-being cannot be thought. (Get it?) To put it another way: Thought corresponds to being; and Not-Being cannot be thought. Parmenides also wrote that argument or persuasion is the way of Thought. Parmenides re-words all of this over and over again.
Furthermore, he argued that something that is always did so, because it couldn’t arise from something that wasn’t, because the latter couldn’t exist. And he further argued that a thing must either completely be or not be. Presumably he meant it can’t half-be. (You see?)
Apparently (according to this same site) this argument about always existing is an argument from something called ‘sufficient reason’. According to Leibniz: in an empty eternity there would be no reason why Being would come into being at one time rather than another. (I don’t understand any of that but include it to show thayt this stuff was still exercising a philosopher’s mind in about 1700 AD, and perhaps still exercising those of modern philosophers!)
So, to summarize Parmenides’ ontology: He worried whether not-being actually is something, and concluded that no, it isn’t. Not-being is not being, and is also unthinkable. And also that if something is, it is impossible for it not to have been, and not to continue to be. Heidegger in the 20th century said something to the effect that Parmenides invented Thought!
To my mind, Parmenides is leading himself up the garden path with the logicking pottiness of words. I’m all in favour of rationality, realism, logic. But this stuff of philosophers isn’t rational.