Watch: “Monism and Pluralism” (23 min)
In our first session, we took a brief overview of the first man who is usually considered to be the father of ancient Greek philosophy – namely Thales. We saw that Thales had his quest for the arche or the ultimate reality that would explain everything else. He found that in water. Between the work of Thales, in the sixth century B.C., and the appearance of Socrates, a while later, there was a series of significant pre-Socratic philosophers, and we’re not going to have time in this brief overview to look at each one of them in detail. But there was a progression of thinkers who built upon the preliminary work of those who went before them. They had some strange names.
For example, we meet a man by the name of Anaxemenes, and another one whose name is very similar – Anaximander. And we run into people like Impedicles, and Athenagoris, and Democritus. And there’s a whole series of these people. They debated among themselves what was ultimate reality. Anaxemenes, for example, challenged the thesis of Thales, that ultimate reality was water. He substituted for the concept of water, the idea of air. He thought that that was a superior substance to explain ultimate reality from water.
Now, remember how we looked at Thales and we saw that Thales was interested in questions of being, questions of life, and questions of motion. Anaxamenes came along and said, “If water can account for these things what about air? Air is something that every living thing needs in order to survive.” If we think that water has the ability to propel itself, that is, it’s hylozoistic – it can move on its own initiative, what about the wind? What about the air currents that seem to be able to come up and move without anything pushing them or pulling them?” And, He said, “Air, like water, has the ability to be involved in condensation, or rarefaction.” You condense air and you will get forms of moisture and things of that sort. And out of rarefaction – rarified air, you get gasses, you get fire, you get things of that sort. And so, he argued against Anaxemenes – excuse me, against Thales that the ultimate substance was air.
Now, other philosophers came along and said, “Well, it’s not water or air, it’s earth. It’s the substance of the ground.” Another one would come along and say, “No, it’s fire.” And we’ll look more at fire later on. Still another one would come along and say, “No, it’s not any of those four things, but it’s really all four of them together. That there are four basic elements beyond which you can’t reduce things. All things are made up of either earth, air, fire, or water.” Now, you’ve heard that. You’ve heard of the four basic elements of reality according to the ancient Greeks – earth, air, fire and water. But no sooner does that theory come to center stage, than somebody pops up and says, “No, wait a minute. If there are four basic elements from which everything comes, and the ultimate reality is not singular but plural, doesn’t that leave us with the many and not the one? It leaves us with diversity without unity. So, there has got to be something behind these four elements of earth, air, fire and water that gives purpose and order and harmony and unity to those four primary elements.”
So, now the quest is on for what they called the “fifth essence.” Now, we might say that this was the quintessential philosophical inquiry. You’ve heard that word haven’t you? “Quintessence” or “Quintessential?” What does it mean? “Quint” means five or the fifth essence – that which is above and beyond the four basic elements. It is that which explains all of the four basic elements. It is called that which is not just essential but quintessential. And so, we get the word from that.
In this whole process, Anaximander comes up with an idea that from the perspective of history that was extremely important. He said that ultimate reality – really ultimate reality, is what he called, and I’ll transliterate it – the “apeiron,” from the Greek language. Now, you’ve probably never heard of that word in your life, and that’s okay. But what he meant by this little word, apeiron, was “that which is boundless and ageless.” That which is boundless and ageless. For something to be boundless means that it doesn’t have any boundaries. There is no finite dimension that can capture it or contain it. In a word, whatever is boundless must be infinite. And whatever is ageless doesn’t have a birthday, and has no birthday parties. If it has no age, it is somehow above and beyond the normal currents of time. So, in a word, that which is ageless is that which is eternal.
Now, you and I have an age. We all have birthdays. We all have a finite point of beginning in time. But, we also have a finite limit of space. As creatures we have natural boundaries. I am experiencing that now, not in an abstract philosophical way, but in a concrete existential way as we are videotaping this program. You see, because behind the scenes, behind the cameras and the microphones we have directors and they wave their hands at me, and tell me how much time I have. But the worst thing they do, is that they put these things on the floor, that I don’t think you can see right now. But they are little pieces of black tape, right there and over here there is more black tape, and that black tape goes over here and then there is another one along here. They put me in a cage.
I like to walk around. I’m a peripatetic teacher. When I’m moving, it’s hard for the cameramen to keep me in focus and in sight. So, they put me in this cage. They bound me. I am not infinite! But now, I wish I were. I try to trick them. I come right up to the edge of each tape and I lean, we’ll see what happens. In the mean time I’ll be satisfied with my centerlines and try to stay within the boundaries. But nobody is going to mistake me for ultimate reality or the supreme meta-physical point of unity for the entire realm of existence. No, Anamander said “that which is ultimate can have no finite bounds. And that which is truly ultimate cannot have a beginning in time, or a definite age to its life span. But it must be infinite and eternal.”
Let me just make one observation at this point. What we are seeing in this quest for ultimate reality by the ancient pre-Socratics is really what we would call, “the pursuit of God.” And, in Greek philosophy the idea of monotheism is a relatively late development, after all kinds of preliminary stages have first been worked through. Whereas to the Hebrew thinker, he starts with the infinite and the eternal. His wisdom literature begins with the words, “En arche” – In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” That is that at the very beginning of his literature he introduces the apeiron – the boundless, eternal, infinite one who creates all things.
Now, I also have to say, at this point as we will see further on, that even when the Greeks did come up with the idea of an infinite eternal source of unity that holds all things together, and brings purpose and harmony out of all things, for these thinkers at this time, the idea of the eternal infinite is just that – an abstract idea. What distinguishes that so sharply from Biblical thought as to the Jew, for example, of the Old Testament, the One who is infinite and eternal is a One Who. That is it is a He – a personal living being, not simply an abstract power or force, but rather has personality. That’s radical in ancient theoretical thought.
Now, in and among these other pre-Socratics, such as Anaximander and the rest, the tension that emerged was over different ways of understanding the Arche – or the ultimate reality. And, I’m going to try to give you a little chart here to make it easier to understand. Some of the thinkers, as we’ve already seen, believed that ultimate reality was a single substance like air, or water, or fire, or the quintessence – whatever. So we will say of those philosophers that they were all monists. Now, a monist is one who embraces monism. And, monism teaches that all reality in the final analysis is one. It always leads to some form of pantheism. Monism says there really is only one reality. There is unity and all diversity is simply an outward manifestation of that underlying unity. That which is diverse does not have the ultimate level of reality than the single one.
Many of the ancient philosophers spoke about God by calling him “The One” – the one. Because they were monists – water, air, one substance explains everything. And everything that is, participates to some degree in that single substance, or single being that is the one.
Now, other philosophers at this time were pluralists. And, by that I mean that they believed that we could not reduce reality to one single substance or essence. As we’ve already seen there were those who said that “there are four basic elements: earth, air, fire, and water.” Those people would be pluralists. Others expanded upon that and said, “No, it’s not merely four elements but a multitude of elements.”
One philosopher, for example, said that the world is made up of an infinite variety of seeds. Where would they get an idea like that? Well, you see it from your gardening experience. If you want to grow cucumbers, you have to grow them from cucumber seeds, not from rose seeds. If you want a geranium, each reality has its particular seed. You don’t get elephants from human seeds. You don’t get kangaroos from elephant seeds. That everything that is alive has its progeny from some seminal process through the use of seeds. So, this fellow said that there are an infinite number of seeds in the world from which everything is made.
Another one, Democritus for example, in his somewhat crude view of reality talked about a multiplicity of particular bits of reality that he called “atoms.” Maybe you heard of the atomic theory of the ancient philosopher Democritus. Now, it’s not to be confused or equated with contemporary atomic theory. But there are certain things in common between modern atomic physics and the ancient thought of Democritus. And, that which is common is the idea that reality is made up of these little units, because the term “atom” means unit. When we had an atomic bomb, we had a linguistic crisis all of a sudden. The word “atom” was thought to refer to that smallest indivisible particle bit of which all of reality is made. But then one afternoon, boom – somebody divided the atom and things got a little bit shaky out there. But now we talk about sub-atomic particles, don’t we? But we still have the idea that all forms of reality are made up of some kind of congregation or amalgamation of bits of reality that we call atoms, or seeds, or whatever.
So, anybody who believes that ultimate reality is more than one, a lot of philosophies – Eastern philosophies – believes in dualism saying that all of reality can be reduced to two equal and opposite powers or forces. But still, as long as there is more than one you are in the pluralism. Monism refers everything back to one single substance. Pluralist can have two or an infinite number of units of reality. So the struggle in ancient philosophy was in the first instance between monists and pluralists. Now, Thales, for example, was a Monist. Democritus was a pluralist.
But, the plot thickens. The other question that came up was, “What is the nature of these units of reality? Are these units of reality, whether singular or plural, or they physical or non-physical?” Thales for example said that everything is water; and water is a substance, so that we would think that, “Oh, he is a physical monist, or what is called a “corporeal monist.” Now, let me back up and make it simple. A corporeal monist is somebody who believes that everything that exists is simply one form or another, or manifestation of a single physical substance like matter. And nothing exists except matter.
Now, there were also incorporeal monists who believed that ultimate reality is single, but it’s not physical. It’s like an infinite qualitative spiritual power that has no dimensions, has no weight, doesn’t take up any specific amount of space. We have to be careful here. In a desire to simplify we run the risk of distorting. But when the ancient people were talking about spirit or incorporeal, many of them would include things like air, gas. These are things that we would look at as being physical, just in a different form of physical substance. But, for them anything that wasn’t solid was considered incorporeal – for many of them at least. So, in any case, you have a debate between monists and pluralists, and then you have a debate between corporealists and incorporealists. So, a person could be a monist who believed that all of reality could be reduced to one physical substance, or they could say that everything is the manifestation of some un-physical, non-physical substance like we might say energy.
You think about energy. You talk about energy. What is it? I asked that to a physics professor once. I asked, “What is energy?” He said, “Oh, that’s easy. It is the ability to do work.” I said, “I’m not asking you what it can do. I want to know what it is.” He said, “Well, it is MC squared.” I said, “I don’t want to know its mathematical equivalent. I want to know what it is, because you people keep talking about it as if it IS, as if there really is something out there called energy. Or is that just a word for unknown concept X?” We don’t usually think to that level. We just say, “Oh okay, matter…energy….” and go on with it.
All right, on the other hand, pluralists could also be corporeal or incorporeal. Some believe that all things can be reduced to several physical things, where others said; no, it can be reduced to several non-physical things. And so, it’s in this context that the next chapter of emerging Greek philosophy takes place, and we’ll look at that in our next session.