The Greeks (or more specifically, the Ionian scientists) were the first to come up with a concept of “nature”—that it was something that we could know and that could be rationally explored. The Greeks believed that all nature could be understood, and that it was all there was to this world. They thought much like the skeptics of today, believing that there is only one type of phenomenon: nature.
A Brief History
They were the first to have the laymen that carried on intellectual activities instead of the priestly class. Multiple names stand out with their different contributions:
- Xenophanes put forth the concept that man creates God in his own image, and also forwarded the philosophy that certain truth was impossible to know, particularly when it comes to the ultimate questions of man or the gods. Conjecture or probability is all that man can attain in his search for truth.
- Protagoras believed that there was no way to know whether the gods existed or whether they did not—that there was not enough time and the problem was too obscure to ever come to an answer.
- Protagoras and Democritus believed that knowledge was derived solely from experience and therefore knowledge is subject to constant change and improvement. They were also supporters of liberal democracy in politics.
- Plato went against this trend, stating that knowledge of truth and error—of right and wrong—is certain, because it ultimately derives from a mystic vision of God. Those that attain this vision are the philosopher kings that should rule.
For those that held a purely humanistic view, democracy and the majority vote was the only way to have morality decided—since each person was only responsible to himself. This, in part, encouraged those that were humanist to educate those around them in their beliefs so that they could come up with what they figured to be the best result.
For Plato, and Socrates, they would use the Socratic method to help people to come to the realization of truth. They also had long discussions about things and educated people—it was because of this type of education that Socrates was eventually executed.
The Greek contribution to Western Thought could be summed up as follows:
They invented the idea of a secular civilization. All members of the community have the opportunity to contribute to the intellectual and moral progress of society; there is no concept of a privileged priestly class morally and intellectually superior to the rest.1
They were also ones that believed in free speech.
This was the start of Western Thought. There were offsprings of the basic Greek philosophies—Materialism that came out of the humanist roots and Idealism which came out of Plato’s work. Eventually these would be replaced by Philosophical Empiricism (founded by Locke and Hume), but these also have roots in pre-Socratic thought.
Reason plays a part in Western Thought because man wants to understand, seeks to have rational reasons for what happens, and can observe things around him. However, reason is only part of what makes up true Western Thought.
- Great Political Thinkers, Ebenstein W & Ebenstein A, p. 16