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I remember back in the days of radio that one of the popular programs on the air, which was later then made into a television program, was called “Truth or Consequences” – where the contestants would be asked a question, and if they failed to give the proper response, then they’d have to go through some kind of silly penalty. Well, as we gather now for this course, “An Overview of the History of Philosophy, I would like to think of this course in terms of the idea of “Truth and Consequences.” Sometimes it is important for us to stop and think that ideas have consequences. In fact, just about everything that happens, in this world, is preceded by some idea.

An artist doesn’t produce his work without first having some concept in his mind of what it is he wants to create in his medium. But far beyond the realm of art and music the whole concept of political theory, by which nations rise and by which they fall, are all related in the final analysis to ideas – to concepts. So, it is very important, particularly for Christians to understand something about the historical process of theoretical thought, and how ideas have interacted with our own Christian faith and belief system. So what I want to do is give a brief historical overview. This is of an introductory nature. This is not an advanced course in technical philosophy. We will be skating lightly over the surface of the historical progress.

Now, obviously when we begin our study of philosophy we are going to be looking at it in terms of the history of Western philosophical thought. The textbooks will frequently tell us that Western philosophy started on May the 28th, 585 BC. Now, I’m not exactly sure what time of the day it was that philosophy was born. Well, the reason for this date is not arbitrary, but it is because on this date in antiquity a solar eclipse took place. And what was so extraordinary about this eclipse of the sun was that it was predicted in advance by a very capable scientist who name was Thales. And Thales lived in Ionia, and he is generally regarded to be the founder of ancient Greek philosophy.

This date is important to us for this reason – from a Christian perspective we know that long before Thales began his inquiry into philosophical matters, that a lot of philosophical thinking had been done in the East, and certainly in the – among the Hebrews. We have a philosophical depository of great richness that is found in the Old Testament that predates the work of Thales. But here, we’re focusing on the development of a special school of thought, a special science that we associate with ancient Greek civilization.

So, the first group of philosophers that we will look at, by way of introduction, is that group of philosophers called, The pre-Socratics. That’s a pretty simple concept isn’t it? “Pre” means beforehand, and the pre-Socratics refer to those philosophers who were engaged in their work before Socrates. Now, just about everybody has heard about Socrates and his famous student Plato, and Plato’s famous student Aristotle. But philosophy in the West did not begin with Socrates. There was a significant development of theoretical thought before Socrates ever appeared on the scene. So, when we look at origins we start with this fellow by the name of Thales. 

Now, what Thales was trying to solve was perhaps the most ancient question of all that the thinkers grappled with and wrestled with. And, we can call that the question or the “problem of the one and the many.” Another way that we can describe this problem or this question is by speaking of the relationship between unity and diversity. I frequently talk about the simple word that we hear everyday – the word “universe” or the world “university.” The term universe is one of those mongrel words where we take two diverse words and kind of jam them together and coin an entirely new word. The two words that are jammed together to create the word “universe” are the words “unity” and “diversity.” So, the very idea of a universe is that we are living in a system of reality that has all kinds of specific different things, and that we behold a multitude of diverse objects. We see chickens and pigs, and grass, and flowers, and houses, and roads, and cars. All these specific individual things that are diverse one from another. 

Well, the ancient Greek philosopher was asking the question, “How do all these bits of reality that we encounter everyday fit together?” Is there anything that provides unity to this wide diversity of experience that we have? Is the world in which we live a symphony in the final analysis or is it cacophony? Carl Sagan raised the question, “Is it cosmos or is it chaos?” The difference between cosmos and chaos is simply the difference between an orderly structure and that which admits to no order. And, anything that is ordered has to have something that makes everything cohere – that makes everything unify. 

Now, we go away from the word “universe,” and we go to the word “university.” That is an institution where allegedly we go to look at the individual disciplines like biology, and chemistry, and astronomy, and mathematics, and sociology, and history, and psychology, and all these different disciplines where you can go to one school and learn all about these diverse fields of inquiry. But the assumption is that in the university we can discover an integrated coherent view of the world in which we live. 

Now, that whole question of the one and the many, unity and diversity, was the question that this scientist in the sixth century B.C. by the name of Thales was passionately engaged in trying to resolve. What he was looking for is what we call “ultimate reality.” 

What does he mean, or what did the ancient thinkers mean by “ultimate reality?” Well, one of the technical terms that we learn in the study of philosophy is the word, “meta-physics.” We’re all familiar with the word “physics.” Because physics describes the natural world of forces and powers and things and how they interact. Meta-physics is the attempt by the philosopher to go above and beyond the seen world that we encounter with our five senses from day to day – to search for that which is above and beyond the physical realm, from which everything comes and by which everything gains its ultimate unity and harmony. Another concern that the ancient Greeks had was for the word that they called, “telos.” We get the word “teleology” from this word “telos.” And the Greek word “telos” can be translated by the English words “end” or “goal” or “purpose.” And so, the question of Thales and of the ancient philosophers was not simply, “What is everything made of, and how did it come to pass?” But also the deeper question of “Why?” Why are things the way that they are? Is there any purpose for birds? Is there a purpose for wind, and for water, for stars and for the moon? Is there any purpose to human existence?” That was a serious teleological question. That is – they were asking for the goal or the end. This is a profoundly theological question for those of us who are Christians. In fact the old Westminster Shorter Catechism begins with the first question, “What is man’s chief end?” That is – it’s asking, “What is the purpose, or the telos, of human existence.” Well, these were the kinds of questions that were being raised by the pre-Socratic philosophers. 

I once talked to a fellow who is currently the head of the philosophy department of a very prestigious university in America. And I knew him when he was a student. And, he was working on his Ph.D. in philosophy at that time. We were having a conversation, and he said, “You know the thing that amazes me most about philosophy?” I said, “No, what’s that?” He said, “All of the questions that are wrestled with by modern thinkers were already explored in antiquity.” He said, “I’ve discovered that there are only so many questions to ask about reality, and those fellows back there asked them all. Maybe they weren’t quite as refined and sophisticated as some later thinkers were, but at a fundamental introductory way, the ancient pre-Socratic philosophers were honing in on the most basic questions of human existence.”

Well again, the first question is, “What is this ultimate reality?” Or for the Greek it was the question, “What is the arche – the chief, the ruling stuff out of which everything comes?” It was the search for essence. When we talk about the word “essence,” we talk about essence or substance or the simplest word is “stuff.” I remember when I lived in Holland and was going to school over there, and trying to learn that language, and was impressed by how graphic the language was. When we went to the store to get a vacuum sweeper, we discovered that the name of a vacuum sweeper was a “stofzuiger” – which literally means “stuff sucker.” You run this machine over the carpet and it sucks up all of the stuff that is there. So, we can get somewhat abstract when we talk about essence or substance or we can get right down to the nitty gritty when we are talking about the stuff of life and reality.

Well, for Thales, Thales said that the ultimate essence – the ultimate stuff – the ultimate substance – the arche – the ultimate reality from which everything comes in the universe, is water. Now, do you remember when Paul met with the philosophers on Mars Hill in Athens at the seat of ancient culture? And he engaged in some discussion with these philosophers on that occasion. It was the Stoics and the Epicureans. And he noticed that they had an alter to an unknown god, and he then began to preach to them and he said, “That which you worship in ignorance I declare to you in power, and didn’t even your poets understand that it is within God (or in Him) that we live, and move and have our being.” Remember that? Three things that Paul said about God – that in God we live, we move, and we have our being. Paul understood, I’m sure, at that time that he was addressing the three biggest questions of ancient philosophy. The ancient philosophers and scientists like Thales were interested in what is the being or substance or stuff out of which everything comes. What is the stuff, or substance, or origin of life? And, how can we account this great mystery of motion? Why do things move? How did they get started moving in the first place?

You hear cosmologist telling us today their theories about the origin of the universe. The big bang idea where for all eternity all of the matter and energy of the universe was compressed into this infinitesimal point of singularity. It remained organized and stable presumably for eternity. Then on one Wednesday afternoon at 2:00 – BOOM it blows up. The question begged immediately is – “If there is such a law as the law of inertia, (that is things at rest stay at rest unless acted upon by an outside force) you ask – what was the outside force that stepped into this picture of eternal organization and caused this explosive change?” In other words – “Who moved?” Something moved. How did that motion start? Those are the questions that Thales was trying to answer. 

Again we might smile or even smirk when we hear that his answer to all of these things was “water.” It seems so naive and pre-scientific, and unsophisticated to us. But think about it for a minute. First of all, in trying to understand “being” – the essence of things, he noticed that everything in his experience, whether they were animals, vegetables, or minerals appeared to his eyes in one of three forms. His whole experience of reality was an experience of things that were either solid, or liquid or gas. 

He said, “No matter how diverse this diversity is, we can reduce everything that we encounter to one of these three things: a solid, a liquid or a gas. “Now,” he said, “If I can look beyond that and say, “Is there some underlying meta-physical stuff that will account for these three different forms of things.”” So, he looked for a substance that had the power, or the ability to exist in any of these three forms. And what was the most obvious candidate? Water. Water in its natural state is a liquid. When it freezes it becomes a solid, and when it evaporates it becomes steam or a gas. So he said, “Everything must be made out of water either in the hardened form like ice, or the liquid form or the gaseous form.” Then he said, “Okay, now how can I account for life? All of the life that I discover around me seems to require water. For a seed to grow it must become wet before it can germinate. For human beings and animals and flowers and grass to grow, and to continue to live it requires a constant replenishing with water. Water seems to be necessary to life. And if that’s the case, them maybe it is the most basic substance that creates life itself.” 

Now, he has a preliminary answer to the problem of being, and the problem of life. But he is still was left with the problem of motion. “How can I account for motion?” He said, “Well, to account for motion in light of a primitive understanding of inertia,” he said, “We have to look for some substance that is hylozoistic.” That’s just a fancy word that means, “self-propelled.” It is something that has the ability to move itself. We have a word for that in English. And it’s the word, “auto” (which means self), “mobile.” An automobile is something that has the power of mobility in and of itself – at least when it is working and the gas tank is filled, and so on, and you don’t have to push it to make it go. 

But the idea of motion being explained required that something, somehow, somewhere, had the ability to move itself. If everything were at rest, and eternally at rest, and if the law of inertia is true, how long would it stay at rest? Forever! And when we see something move, like this chalk up in the air, we realize that the chalk is still now – it’s inert – until acted upon by an outside force, which is my hand, and I exert pressure. My arm is moving, I let go of the chalk and the chalk moves. And so, motion is caused by some previous motion. And if that previous motion is caused by motion prior to that, they we have to ask, “What caused that motion?” And we keep asking that question – how long? Forever! And we get into an infinite regress that doesn’t make any sense unless we find something that has the ability to move on its own. 

For Thales, that was water, because water has the ability to move. How did he know that? By observing rivers, he noticed that creeks were running, that there was a current of moving water. He noticed that He couldn’t see anything that was tugging at the seas to make them move. He didn’t know anything about the tidal forces of the gravitational pull of the moon. To his naked eye in antiquity it seemed like water was churning and moving on its own without being dependant on anything outside of itself. So you look at these things and you say, “Wow, maybe he wasn’t so foolish after all.” He has given us a basic explanation for “being,” for “life,” and for, “motion.” And so, for him, the answer to all of the mysteries of the one and the many could be found in one ultimate reality called water.