Disclaimer: I’m in an ancient philosophy course this semester, so naturally, as a philosophy major and as someone that “wonders” (the word Plato used to describe what philosophy actually is about), there are probably going to be many posts like this. Classes like this just get my mind racing and in class on Tuesday, a particular train of thought got the mind a-racing.
The ancient philosophers — think Plato and Aristotle — were interested in a principle of permanence, some unifying principle that explained the universe. And for what it’s worth, scientists have long been after that idea, too, one single, unifying theory that explains the universe, empirically. And let me back up even further: the first scientists were philosophers. Aristotle, for instance, wrote one of the first books about biology. The way to think of it is, as explained in class, as first and second philosophy. In first philosophy, philosophers are concerned with the nature of being for its own sake, whereas in second philosophy, scientists are interested in knowing things because of what that means, i.e., learning that X helps cures B is good to know for that outcome, not just for the sake of it.
Anyhow, let’s go to Nietzsche in Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks:
“Had Thales [considered the “first” philosopher in the Western tradition] said ‘water turns into earth,’ we should have but a scientific hypothesis, a wrong one, but difficult to prove. But he went beyond scientific considerations. By presenting his unity-concept in the form of his water-hypothesis, Thales did not, it is true, overcome the low level of empiric insight prevalent in his time. What he did was to pass over its horizon…What drove him to it was a metaphysical conviction which had its origin in a mystic intuition. We meet it in every philosophy, together with the ever-renewed attempts at a more suitable expression, this proposition that ‘all things are one’.”
My professor used an example that got at this oneness that set my mind racing: think of a human. They change and evolve over time, correct? From birth to adolescence to teenager to adult to senior citizen and to death. However, that change still takes place upon a permanence, a oneness that goes along with that change, but it itself does not change.
So, then, extrapolate that out to all things, all of reality. The universe changes, the earth changes, live evolves and so on and so forth, but there’s still a permanence, a oneness that underwriters that evolution, right? At least, it — to go back to Nietzsche — intuitively makes sense. I’m not religious, but that’s the closet thing I could conceptualize to an understanding of God. This oneness, this permanence.
Which brings up the beginning of philosophy in the Western tradition itself; it was a rejection of myths about Gods and heroes, myths that situated Gods within our understanding, i.e., they reflected us and our badness. Philosophy in detaching itself from that tradition didn’t seek so much to create “atheism,” as we know it today, but rather, to reject the idea that the gods or god was a reflection of us. And getting to this idea of the principle of permanence seems to accomplish that goal. Because, obviously, we aren’t permanent, right.
I particularly like this bit from Xenophanes of Colophon and his fragments, 14 and 15:
“But men think that gods are born and that they have clothes, voices and shapes like their own.
If oxen, horses and lions had hands and could produce works of art like men do, horses would draw the forms of the gods like horses and oxen like oxen.”
Seems to me the ancients were on the right track. I have a hard time imagining reality without that underwriting permanence to it — the state of reality itself.
Call it God, call it the “oneness,” or the “permanence,” or whatever else you want, but it certainly seemed compelling to me when I encountered it.
There’s also another interesting thought I had that spiraled out of all of this talk: isn’t it odd how year after year, generation after generation, people keep filling different roles in our society per our needs and our entertainment? From the garbage man to the elite professional basketball player to the Olympic athlete to the actor to the politician to the scientist that spends his entire career on one mineral? It’s mind-blowing me to think these positions somehow keep getting renewed and updated year after year, generation after generation. There’s always someone popping up that’s passionate about whatever it is or just does it for whatever reason.
Plato talks about that, if I recall correctly, that everyone has a role in society divided usually up into the ruler, the warrior and there’s a third category that I forget at the moment. It’s just odd how society seems to come into sync like that.