|HILOSOPHY BEGAN AT 7:30 A.M. ON JUNE 24, 585 B.C., IN THE CITY OF MILETUS, now the west coast of Turkey. It was a Thursday.
Of course, I’m being facetious. My point, instead, is that most histories of philosophy place its origins in the late sixth century B.C. in Greece and its colonies. At this time and place the foundations of logic, ethics, metaphysics, literary criticism, cosmology, biology, physics, psychology, political science, and a host of other disciplines were first formulated—and in some cases their influence extends, powerfully, even to today.
Don’t believe me? The TV evangelist waxing about the immortal soul might think he’s expounding Jesus, John, or Isaiah, but he’s really preaching ancient Greek metaphysics.
Great debate exists over the cause for this amazing intellectual achievement. One argument is that, as a slave-holding society, the Greeks had the leisure to mull over the ultimate nature of reality, or whether you could step in the same river twice. Yet many societies of the ancient world held slaves but produced nothing like the Greeks did. Some claim it was the climate, or even all the fish they ate, but who’s going to credit Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics or Plato’s Republic to a diet of squid and tuna fish?
Others believe that, given their location, the Greeks were at the crossroads of many different societies and cultures, whose various influences caused them to question their own authorities, and thus look elsewhere for answers. This theory makes sense, especially when one understands ancient Greek religion. No omnipotent and omniscient Yahweh looked over the land. The Olympian gods didn’t know everything, didn’t assume to know everything, and even if they did, they probably wouldn’t have bothered sharing their wisdom with the mortals below. There’s no Mt. Olympus counterpart to the revelation at Mt. Sinai. These gods weren’t going to die for anyone’s sins. Could you imagine—Zeus crucified? Humans were to pay respect to the gods and try not to tick them off, but they couldn’t count on them to answer the hard questions. Hence, the birth of philosophy, as the Greeks tried to find answers on their own.
Which is precisely why philosophy has failed so miserably: If humans on their own can’t agree on what “truth” itself means, how could they know if they ever found it? How good are we at finding truth on our own when, for instance, after thousands of years of recorded history, only in the past 400 did we finally figure out that the earth moved around the sun, not vice versa? How much can we, in and of ourselves, learn about the world when we, ourselves, are part of the world, and especially when we are the most difficult questions ourselves? Philosophy moves you slowly through an Escher drawing; you go round and round, never quite knowing where the beginning or the end is.
Take Richard Rorty, who died just a few years ago (the only famous philosopher I ever had personal contact with). For Rorty, the very notion of finding “truth” was broadly misguided and set philosophy on the wrong course for thousands of years. For him, truth and knowledge aren’t a matter of “getting reality right, but rather [are] . . . a matter of acquiring habits of action for coping with reality.”
Coping? One of the twentieth century’s greatest philosophers says that all we can ever hope to do is learn how to cope? Really? Twenty-six centuries of human knowledge climaxes in us being told, basically, to “take a Valium.”
William F. Buckley said that he would rather entrust the U.S. government to the first “400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty at Harvard University.” Me—I’d rather take one chapter from Moses, or Paul, or John, than from all the vast corpus of philosophical inquiry since the time of Thales, considered the world’s first philosopher, who speculated that all matter was made of water. (I’m not totally sure how much we’ve progressed since then.) No wonder Paul wrote, “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Cor. 1:20).
Not so hard to do, is it?
Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide.