Rebirth of Reason


Daily Linz 2 - Fundamental Stuff
by Lindsay Perigo

We inhabit a paradoxically sick world. On the one hand, we observe advances in science and technology on an unprecedented scale; the fruits of the application of man’s mind to his physical environment are stunning testimony to the efficacy of reason. Simultaneously we confront an abandonment of reason in other areas of our lives, and even in that area itself, of unprecedented perversity. We see the affirmation by philosophers that reason and logic have nothing to do with reality and can have no bearing on questions of how we should behave; ethically it’s deuces wild, with no good or evil, just arbitrary choices -- and maybe they're not really choices anyway. As libertarians, we combat the existential manifestations of that -- the destruction of liberty -- through the medium of politics. As Objectivists, we can gain a deeper understanding of why things have come to this, and that in turn can inform and enhance our efforts to effect change. One thing Karl Marx was right about -- philosophers have interpreted the world; the point, however, is to change it.

Our civilisation is organically healthy but culturally sick. To diagnose the illness, we need to examine the ideas that impregnate and poison the culture. What are the accepted answers to questions such as, What is the nature of the universe? What is the nature of man? What does that nature dictate, if anything, as to how man should live? Should man live? Ideas at this level of fundamentality we call philosophy, and it will help our diagnosis to trace philosophy’s history.

Philosophy is conventionally divided into three main periods -- Ancient, Mediaeval and Modern. The Ancient era starts with the Greeks in the Sixth Century B.C. and covers the period up to 529 A.D., when pagan schools were closed and all non-Christian learning prohibited. The Mediaeval phase takes us up to the Fifteenth Century and the Renaissance, the Modern period from then to the present. So it is with those magnificent Greeks we should begin.

Earlier civilisations -- Phoenician, Babylonian, Egyptian -- had developed a limited body of knowledge in specific areas such as astronomy and maths -- but there was no systematic contemplation of issues that we could now call philosophical. Well, once upon a time, across the Aegean Sea from Athens was a seaport town called Miletus. Around the Sixth Century B.C. it was a crossroads for seaborne commerce. It was wealthy. Wealth made possible ... leisure. Leisure made possible ... artistic and philosophical pursuits. Questions that exercised the minds of certain Milesians were: what is the real nature of things? How can we explain the fact of change? How can we explain the fact of multiplicity? There are so many things; they're changing all the time -- what in Hades is going on?

The most notable Milesian, the man credited with being the founder of philosophy, was Thales (624-546 B.C., roughly). Thales left us no writings, but he’s referenced by later luminaries including Plato and Aristotle.

Thales, evidently, was no head-in-the-clouds theoretician. While in Egypt he worked out a way of calculating the height of the pyramids -- measuring their shadow at the time of day when a man's shadow equalled his height. He was a civil engineer, who didn’t part the sea for Moses, exactly, but did divert river water so as to allow a king to pass. He was entrepreneurial -- Aristotle tells the story of how, anticipating a heavy crop of olives, Thales bought all the olive presses in sight at low cost then sold them for a fortune when the crop came. The first philosopher was a price-gouger!

The question that intrigued Thales was: What is the world made of? Ultimately, he concluded, everything is made of the same fundamental stuff. The discrete things we see around us are all but separate manifestations of the same basic element. The many are all part of the One. This is the view we call Monism. Thales in fact was a Hydro-Monist -- he thought the fundamental stuff was water. It’s not entirely clear why, but Aristotle speculates that it was because water did indeed seem to be everywhere, directly or indirectly, and inescapable. Things that weren't water could become it; water could become other things.

Thales’ pupil Anaximander agreed with his mentor that there was a fundamental stuff, but believed it was nothing specific -- rather, an “indeterminate boundless,” eternal, uncreated. Life was a process of things separating off from this -- warm and cold, from which came moist, then earth and air. (Especially interesting, from our current scientific standpoint, he taught that living things all had their origin in the sea; man had emerged from fish.) Anaximander’s pupil Anaximenes (585-528 B.C.) posited air as the fundamental stuff -- air condensed forms winds, which give water, then earth and stones.

In this fitful way did the Milesians launch the enterprise of philosophy, the pursuit and love of wisdom, the study of the fundamental and the perennial. Epistemology, that crucial branch of philosophy that studies how we know what we know, was to come later, along with ethics, and philosophy and science had yet to effect their division of labour; but philosophy as such was underway, with epochal consequences. As Bryan Magee puts it:

"The first philosophers were making two great breaks with the past simultaneously.

"In the first place they were trying to understand the world by the use of their reason, without appealing to religion, or revelation, or authority, or tradition. This in itself was something wholly new, and one of the most important milestones in human development. But at the same time they were teaching other people to use their own reason too, and think for themselves; so they did not expect even their own pupils necessarily to agree with them. They were the first teachers who did not try to pass on a body of knowledge pure and unsullied, inviolate, but instead encouraged their pupils to discuss and argue, debate, put forward ideas of their own. These two developments in the mental life of mankind, both of them revolutionary, are linked, which is why they appeared on the scene together. They formed the foundations of what we now call ‘rational thinking.’ Once they had been introduced they launched an unparalleled rate of growth in human knowledge and understanding."

So why, if the foundations of "rational thinking" were laid 2,500 years ago, is our culture in the grip of irrational thinking? Why is Western civilisation itself able to be threatened with extinction by so evil and anti-rational a force as Islam?

Stay tuned!
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