We must start with the Greeks the way that we started with Egypt: with modern understandings of race and identity. This is because just like Egypt, the identity of the Greeks is a political problem that must be discussed. The Egyptians were an African people, though they did not call themselves ‘African’ or ‘black’. Likewise, the Greeks and Romans did not call themselves ‘European’ or ‘white’ or ‘Western’. Western identity, drawing the ancient Greeks and Romans together with modern Western Europeans as a single cultural lineage, is actually a recent construction not shared by the ancient Greeks or Romans themselves.
The use of the terms ‘white’ and ‘black’ to refer to specific ethnic and geographic groups of the human population has a long and complicated history. Both were used by Indians, Chinese and Muslims before Europeans rose to power unparalleled in history. Indian, Chinese, Persian and then Europeans have used the term ‘white’ to describe themselves favorably and have used the term ‘black’ to describe other people unfavorably, but the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans did not regularly use these terms.
The Rg Veda, the central sacred text of ancient India, unfortunately uses the term ‘black skinned’ negatively in one of the first and rare recorded instances sometime between 1500 and 1200 BCE. Xenophon, the philosopher and historian who lived in Athens in the time of Socrates, refers to the Persians as white compared to his own Athenian people. Aristotle and Aristotelians after him argued that a balanced complexion like the Greeks, neither light like the Germans and Celts to the North nor dark like the Egyptians and Ethiopians, is the best for a people, and likewise a people should not be too brawny like the Germans nor too brainy like the Persians.
It is likely that the terms originated in Asia, amongst the Indians and the Chinese, where they are sometimes still used today. The Chinese portray the Buddha, who was Indian, to be Chinese and sometimes call Indian people ‘black’, even though the high caste Indians were referring to themselves as ‘white’ far longer than the Chinese. A Persian playwright of the 12th century CE wrote a comedy titled, “The Whites versus the Blacks” mocking the similarities and differences between Africans, who Middle Eastern Muslims often called ‘black’, and the civilized Persians, who sometimes referred to themselves as the playwright did as ‘white’. The use of the terms most likely passed through the middle east and the Islamic empires into Europe, along with much culture, science and technology. The term became consistently used in Europe in the 1600s, and was given support by the sciences. Before that, it was Catholicism and then Christianity that was the common identity of Europeans just as Muslims identified across ethnic and political groups by religion.
As Europe rose in the wake of Islamic empire, Renaissance artists presented the Israelites, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans to look like themselves. This is very much like Chinese, Japanese, and Korean people presenting the Buddha and other Indian figures to look like themselves and not Indian. After the Protestant reformation and along with the rise of the sciences, Europeans began to referring to themselves, as well as the Greeks and Romans, as ‘white’ and ‘the European race’. It is more accurate to describe the Greeks, Romans, and Germans and Celts as interrelated but distinct ethnicities, as the ancient Greeks and Romans saw it. The word ‘white’ does not cover the differences. The Greeks and the Romans presented themselves as a bronzed and olive-skinned Mediterranean people, and neither the Greeks nor the Romans identified with the Germanic tribes to the North and West and they did not identify with each other. The ancient Romans did borrow much from Greek culture and thought, as they did from Persia and Egypt, but they identified themselves as a separate and superior people.
During the Renaissance, the Italians in each warring city state (Florence, Venice, and Rome) were convinced that they were each the original Roman Catholic Christian people though they often did not identify with each other. Renaissance thinkers, like Ficino and Pico, believed that Greek thinking originated in Egypt and Persia, speaking proudly of standing in the same tradition of philosophy with Zarathustra and Hermes (known to be the Greek version of Thoth, the Egyptian god of knowledge and scribes).
While the Renaissance Italians read the bible in Latin, with the Protestant reformation Europeans began increasingly turning to Greek sources, particularly to retranslate the Christian New Testament of the Bible originally written in Greek. Thus, the Greeks and Romans have been portrayed by Western Germanic Europeans (like myself) as European, Christian, later ‘white’ and Western. Muslims, the previous politically and materially dominant culture, see the Greeks along with the Persians and Egyptians as part of their own culture, and they often portray the Greeks with dark skin.
In Germany during the protestant Reformation there was a rejection of Rome and the Catholic Church and intellectuals of the time turned to Greek sources such as the original Greek New Testament. The Protestant scholars took Greek texts and made leaps in Biblical studies, philosophy, history, science and mathematics. This was not a rediscovery of their own people, as it was often misrepresented, but a rediscovery of the wider Christian tradition that included people of many different ethnicities such as the ancient Greeks and Romans.
This situation rose along with Europe’s wealth and power, such that in the late 1700s, in the time of Hegel and the rise of German thought, philosophy and academics the Greeks were called the birthplace of civilization. Many scholars even theorized that the Greeks were descended from the North (the Germanic peoples who the Greeks and Romans called uncivilized and stupid). While many of these scholars’ theories have been debunked, the impact of this theorizing remains with us today. This is the theory that we can disprove but we still believe and enshrine in museums, textbooks and most importantly, fictional and nonfictional cinema. In this process, the Greeks ceased to be part of Christian heritage and became the birth of secular society, philosophy and science. They became the origin of the modern European nation state as these states ceased to be officially part of Christian empires.
After WWII and the horrors of the Holocaust, the ‘European Race’ that was spoken of by scholars openly before became an eyesore. It was uncomfortable for Jewish and Christian professors and researchers to use the term after the oppression and massacre of Jews as an inferior race. In academic speak, ancient Greece, ancient Rome and modern Europe slowly ceased to be ‘the European Race’ and became increasingly ‘The West’. While the terms ‘West’ and ‘Western’ to identify European culture and ethnicity was not unheard of before, it only became common in recent decades. It is consistently used today across academic disciplines, including philosophy and the sciences.
There is still the understanding of a European race underneath the new vocabulary, but it is ‘Western Culture’ and also ‘the Western Mind’, associated with greater reason and freedom than other cultures and ethnic groups. These terms hide all of the differences between cultures and ethnicities among Europeans. I myself am half Germanic (my father’s side) and half Celtic British Isles mix (my mother’s side). ‘White’ people, like myself, are the ancestors of the Celts and Germanic tribes, but this has been almost entirely forgotten and these cultures are not celebrated as the origins of anything modern or European.
Western Europeans, like the Arabs, came to inherit civilization from more ancient peoples and then wrote up the history books as if they themselves were civilization’s origins. If we do use the term ‘West’ to include both America and ancient Athens, we are talking about a multicultural transmission and tradition that includes many religions and philosophies. The inheritance of ancient Greek sources from medieval Muslims and ancient Romans is a cross-cultural tradition, not an inner-cultural tradition. It is one more example that cultures that trade and interact with other cultures flourish, not that cultures are successful, intelligent or individualistic in and of themselves.
As we will discuss when focusing on Islam, our civilization gets much from Muslims, arguably more than ancient Greece. We do not call this an Islamic culture, though we do not believe in the ancient Greek gods any more than we all believe in Islam. It is clear, from the example of European modern day Greek mythology, the myth of ‘The West’, that power and position are not ultimately as satisfying as convincing others that the power and position are inherited, earned, justified and deserved.
Now that we have talked about race, identity and ‘Western’ history, it is time to turn to ancient Greek thought and the Pre-Socratics.
The Beginnings of Greek Philosophy: The Pre-Socratics
The beginnings of Greek thought started in what today is Turkey, the Eastern half of ancient Greece, the half that is not known as Greece today. Like Italy during the Renaissance, Greece was a set of city-states that often did not identify with each other and viewed themselves as separate peoples of territories circling the Aegean sea in what is today Greece and Turkey. While they shared a common culture and mythology which included gods like Zeus and Apollo, as well as the origin legend of a common ancestor King Hellen, each of whose children founding a city state, Greece was united for the first time by Alexander, a Macedonian.
Macedonia is not part of Greece today, and Macedonians are often viewed as unwanted immigrants while the Greeks celebrate Alexander as their great ancestor. Alexander conquered Athens and the other Greek city states and proclaimed that all these peoples were in fact descended from his own lineage, which was of course that of King Hellen, and thus the Greeks and Macedonians were all ‘Hellenes’. Athens, the birthplace of Socrates and home to Plato and Aristotle was one of these city-states, and Ephesus, the birthplace of Heraclitus and other thinkers active before Socrates, was another.
We only have fragments of the Pre-Socratic (before Socrates) thinkers’ thought and writings. These thinkers were believed to have been active between 600 and 400 BCE. We have no writings of Socrates and only some of the writings of Plato. As best as we know, Greek thought began with Thales, the first thinker/philosopher/scientist of whom we have fragments from other ancient authors who write about him and his theories. Thales and several other early Greek thinkers lived in the ancient city-state of Miletus, like Ephesus in what is today Turkey. Thales believed that the cosmos and all things are made of water. Miletus is quite close to Ephesus, where Heraclitus, who was born just before 500 BCE and shortly after Thales, believed that all things are made of fire. Both cities had been provinces of the Persian empire, and Zoroastrianism, possibly the world’s first solar monotheism, worshiped fire and considered it to be the highest element, identifying it with reason, truth and purity.
Another famous presocratic philosopher, possibly the one who coined the term philosophy as “love of wisdom”, is Pythagoras, who went to Egypt on the advice of Thales to learn about mathematics, science and the cosmos.
He is best known for his theorem about the area of squares constructed around a right triangle, which today is thought of in terms of algebra but in Pythagoras’ day was proved by constructing squares around a triangle and showing that the smaller squares add up. Pythagoras believed that the world was not made of fire or water, but of mathematics and the harmony of ratios. Plato picked up the idea that the cosmos is made of divine rational and ideal forms from Pythagoras, and it is from this that we get the term rational.
Pythagoras is the first Greek thinker to found a school which for hundreds of years was known as the Pythagoreans. They were seen by many as a strange cult that worshiped Apollo, music, and mathematics. Pythagoras was said to have been the son of Apollo by his later followers, a name which the Pythagoreans interpreted to mean ‘Not’ (A) ‘Many’ (poly), a supreme monistic One.
The Pythagoreans, like Pythagoras, believed in the transmigration of souls or reincarnation, and it is said that Pythagoras once stopped a man from beating a dog saying he heard the voice of his dead friend. Heraclitus, who enjoys ridiculing all revered experts as fools, said that Pythagoras for being the wisest of men, yet believing that in one previous life he had been a sardine, and in another a cucumber. Heraclitus seems to be using Pythagoras to show us that the wisest are still foolish, only relatively wise themselves.
The Skepticism of Heraclitus
According to one source, Heraclitus was a king who abandoned the title to become a philosopher sometime around 540 BCE. This has been identified as a close resemblance to the story of the Buddha in India, and some scholars have argued that Heraclitus was in fact the Buddha from India while others have argued that the Buddha was in fact Heraclitus from Greece. Both thinkers were mythologized as a king who left powerful king position and became a sage, putting the mental and spiritual above the corporeal and material. Both believe in the enlightening sun rising above the watery chaos of human perception and desire, but it is far more likely that the two were not the same individual and simply share the cosmology common to the cultures of the ancient world. Plato, who we will study next, shares this as well.
Heraclitus believed that the primary element, out of which all things are made, is fire. While we think of electricity when we think of energy, as it is the primary form of energy we use everyday now that we have wall sockets, in the ancient world, fire was identified not only with energy, but with life and the mind. Ancient people believed lightning, a bolt of one forking downward into many, was made of fire. Heraclitus wrote:
That which always was, and is, and will be ever-living fire, the same for all, the cosmos, made neither by god nor man, replenishes in measure as it burns away… As all things change to fire, and fire exhausted falls back into things, the crops are sold for money spent on food… How, from a fire that never sinks or sets, would you escape? One thunderbolt strikes root through everything.
Heraclitus is said by other sources to have been a doctor, and many of his fragments do speak about the workings of physiology within the larger frame of physics as a thinker who is immersed in ancient cosmology would. A fragment reads:
Moisture makes the soul succumb to joy. Dry, the soul grows wise and good.
Heraclitus believed that the soul, mind and self becomes soggy and intoxicated when one indulges in desire and pleasure (drinking and sex), and likewise when one studies with the fire of the mind and abstains from pleasure the soul dries out and wisdom unifies the mind. While this could come from a physician, some fragments seem critical of physicians and the practice of medicine, such as:
The cosmos works by harmony of tensions, like the lyre and bow. Therefore, good and ill are one. Good and ill to the physician must be one, since he derives his fee from torturing the sick.
Heraclitus did write a book which he entrusted to the temple of Artemis at Ephesus, though we only have the very beginning today. There was a popular book of Heraclitus’ philosophy in ancient Greece, but this may or may not have been the original text. While we do not have any of his writings today, he is mentioned often by other writers, philosophers and historians who quote him and his work, and these pieces are put together as the fragments of Heraclitus which we read as a single work. Though he did not seem to have a school to himself like Pythagoras, Heraclitus was known by many and became a big influence on the Stoics and much later on my favorite German philosopher, Nietzsche. The beginning of Heraclitus’ book, which we still have, reads:
The word proves those first hearing it as numb to understanding as the ones who have not heard, yet all things follow from the word. Some, blundering with what I set before you, try in vain with empty talk to separate the essences of things and say how each thing truly is, and all the rest make no attempt. They no more see how they behave broad waking than remember clearly what they did asleep.
For wisdom, listen not to me but to the word and know that all is one. Those unmindful when they hear, for all they make of their intelligence, may be regarded as the walking dead. People dull their wits with gibberish, and cannot use their ears and eyes. Many fail to grasp what they have seen, and cannot judge what they have learned, although they tell themselves they know. Yet they lack the skill to listen or to speak. Whoever cannot seek the unforeseen sees nothing, for the known way is an impasse. Things keep their secrets.
Of all the words yet spoken, none comes quite as far as wisdom, which is the action of the mind beyond all things that may be said. Wisdom is the oneness of mind that guides and permeates all things.
Time is a game played beautifully by children. Applicants for wisdom do what I have done: inquire within.
Since mindfulness, of all things, is the ground of being, to speak one’s true mind and to keep things known in common, serves all being, just as laws made clear uphold the city, yet with greater strength. Of all pronouncements of the law the one source is the word whereby we choose what helps true mindfulness prevail. Although we need the word to keep things known in common, people still treat specialists as if their nonsense were a form of wisdom. Fools seek counsel from the ones they doubt. People need not act and speak as if they were asleep. The waking have one world in common. Sleepers meanwhile turn aside, each into a darkness of his own.
The ‘word’ Heraclitus mentions is ‘logos’ in the ancient Greek. Plato, stoics and other philosophers adopted Heraclitus’ use of ‘logos’, the speech or breath of the cosmos as a formative force. This may come from Zoroastrianism, which saw the orders of things spoken downward. In class, the lecturer is the authority and author of the class, and has the ability to speak and select who else speaks, and the words structure the concepts and ideas of the class. While Christians today understand “the word” to be the Bible, whoever wrote the opening of the Gospel of John was influenced by Stoicism, which was influenced by Heraclitus, and the word that is hanging out with God in the beginning is the breath of life, also called the Holy Spirit, the voice used to separate light from darkness and life from death. Later, Christians reinterpreted the word to be Jesus, and then the Bible.
Developmental psychologists tell us that words are what structure our thoughts and our world. Vygotsky, the famed Russian child development theorist, said that children first use language to narrate their world out loud in order to separate this from that (“The horse goes in the barn…”). Later, children learn to separate this into external communication, out loud for others, and internal thinking, silently for the self. Just as the Upanishads pointed to the underlying unity that separates this from that, Heraclitus says we should see the underlying unity of the cosmos with wisdom, with a larger, unified view, because we separate things with words and judgements, even though we forget that we are the one doing the dividing.
Heraclitus is a very skeptical thinker. We have already heard him criticize Pythagoras for thinking he is a cucumber reincarnated. Heraclitus has also said that the common people are completely asleep, and the experts, such as Pythagoras, blindly separate this from that, seeking unchanging essences, unaware that the whole is an ever-changing fire that will always be far outside any particular perspective, no matter how wide or developed. Heraclitus does say we should seek a greater vision of the whole and unify our minds with wisdom, but argues that any expert who thinks they have the complete picture is blind, very much like the blind men arguing over the elephant. In his opening words, Heraclitus says we should continue to listen to the cosmos rather than drown it out with our own foolish words. We should seek the ability to give and take, to both listen and speak, rather than hold on to our position and make others listen to us.
Because Heraclitus is constantly bashing people, he is sometimes portrayed as sad or depressed, called the “weeping philosopher” by some and looking very down in Raphael’s painting The School of Athens, sitting off by himself looking at the floor. He may, however, have been quite happy and misconstrued as sad by others, particularly Platonists who are opposed to his idea of formless fire and argue, like the Pythagoreans, that there are ideal forms one can know as absolutes above, the sort of experts Heraclitus argues see only a tiny part of the picture. Raphael, who painted in the period of the Neo-Platonic Renaissance, would have seen Heraclitus in a Christian Neoplatonist light, as someone dismayed by the chaotic world below, and refusing to see the ideal forms above, to which Plato points in the center of the picture.
Heraclitus is angry at the politics of his city state Miletus. Like the Athenians killed Socrates for questioning too much and so “inciting the youth to riot”, Miletus exiled Hermadoros (whose name means ‘lover of Hermes’, Hermes being a god of wisdom and knowledge who was identified with Thoth, the Egyptian god of knowledge) because was “worthier than average”, presumably doing philosophy and cosmology. Heraclitus responded:
As for the Ephesians, I would have them, youths, elders, and all those between, go hang themselves, leaving the city in the abler hands of children.
Just like the ancient Sumerian lamenter, Confucius, and many other great thinkers, Heraclitus did not like the politics of his day and was critical of traditions of thought in general. Heraclitus was not, however, sad or angry as much as he was skeptical of human judgements and optimistic about the endless pursuit of wisdom. When we tell ourselves we know, we do not seek further on the other side of our judgements. Many of his fragments appear playful jokes. Despising the beliefs, traditions and politics of the day does not make one a sad or angry person relative to others. Rather, it turns criticism of the other into criticism of the self and one’s own civilization. Heraclitus was convinced that wisdom and inquiring within show us that all is one big cosmic fire, and things that unify the community and the individual bring wholeness and true happiness. However, he believed that humans are often foolish and let their minds divide themselves from the whole and from each other such that their understandings are disjointed and ignorant.
This is very typical thinking of skeptics the world over. A dogmatist would say that there are specific truths that are certain and must be separated from the uncertain, specific goods that must be separated from the evil. A skeptic would say, like Heraclitus, the Jains and Buddhists of India and the Daoists from China, that the truth and the good is the whole and the great One, and the tendency of the mind to divide the good and the true from the rest is the opposite of true understanding and wisdom.
Heraclitus not only ridicules experts and specialists, but also Homer and Hesiod, the poets who created the foundations of common ancient Greek culture, who he calls frauds. Like Socrates and others, Heraclitus found much in the established traditions about the gods to be foolish. he ridiculed the cultural leaders of his time. Many often ask, “Why, then, should I listen to Heraclitus, since he is simply another expert?”. Heraclitus replies as most skeptics do: don’t take my word for it, but look into the world and within yourself and you will find that it is true.
Now that we can travel anywhere, we need no longer take the poets and myth-makers for sure witnesses over disputed facts… If learning were a path of wisdom, those most learned about myth would not believe, with Hesiod, that Pallas in her wisdom gloats over the noise of battle. Pythagoras may well have been the deepest in his learning of all men, and still he claimed to recollect details of former lives, being in one a cucumber and one time a sardine.
Many who have learned from Hesiod the countless names of gods and monsters never understand that night and day are one.
This is a psychological skepticism that is criticizing the human ability to know particular things as permanent that are able to be separated from the One and All (the cosmic fire). Only the All is permanent. All the other things are wandering temporal forms. The many beings arise from the energy of Being, and then they fall back into the fire and disappear.
This goes also for laws, which Heraclitus says have to be defended as if they were city walls. This is sometimes read that Heraclitus thought human law was important and had to be defended, which he did, but in fact he is also telling us that human laws are impermanent like walls made out of earth. They may seem eternal and permanent, but as any former citizen or city of the Persian empire knows, like Ephesus, empires fall and impressive city states are overthrown and change hands. Human speech and walls are temporary, and therefore take force and effort to maintain. Heraclitus believes that the divisions made by the mind are mortal, not eternal. Our knowledge and laws are impermanent like mounds of dirt. Heraclitus says many things to humble us, including pointing out our similarity to apes to put our achievements in perspective:
The language of a grown man, to the cosmic powers, sounds like baby-talk to men. To a god the wisdom of the wisest man sounds apish. Beauty in a human face looks apish too. In everything we have attained the excellence of apes. The ape apes find most beautiful looks apish to non-apes.
Heraclitus’ most famous idea is a memorable image: you can never step in the same river twice. Just as a river is always flowing and changing, so is reality always flowing and changing, such that nothing stays exactly the same for any two moments. You step in a river, then step out, then step back in the same river, but it is no longer ‘the same river’. Heraclitus says this is also true of the cosmos and the human individual. Fire also flows, and individual tongues of flame rise out of the fire and then return and integrate with the whole. Fire, like water, flows in a consistent manner that is always self-similar but never exactly the same twice. Heraclitus argued that the world is always in flux, as a single thing stable and eternal but as many things in constant change and tension.
Paradoxically, changing constantly in the way that things do is the stability and being of things. Rivers flow, fire burns, life thrives, always in motion to be stable in what it is. He says, “Goat cheese congeals in wine if not well stirred”. It is an example of a motion keeping a mixture what it is. When the motion stops, the mixture disintegrates into its elements. In the same way that stability is motion, opposites work together:
The cosmos works by harmony of tensions, like the lyre and bow. Therefore, good and ill are one.
The sea is both pure and tainted, healthy and good haven to the fish, to humans undrinkable and deadly. Poultry bathe in dust and ashes, swine in filth…Two made one are never one. Arguing the same we disagree. Singing together we compete…Without injustices, the name of justice would mean what?
The way up is the way back. The beginning is the end.
Schleiermacher, one of the most famous and central protestant theologians and an opponent of Hegel, was a major force in bringing popularity to Heraclitus and a major translator of Plato. The philosopher Hegel, who we will study later, saw Heraclitus as a skeptic who is put in balance with Plato and other positivists by the course of history itself.
Nietzsche, the great skeptical philosopher whose work led to Existentialism and Postmodernism in Germany and France, wrote that he felt closer to Heraclitus than any other thinker. Nietzsche believed, like Heraclitus, that we are proud of our learning and achievement but we are in fact little better than apes unless we push ourselves as individuals to evolve.
Another of the great presocratic Greek thinkers is Xenophanes, who is referred to by Heraclitus and is similarly skeptical. Born in Colophon, (570 – 475 BCE) near Miletus and Ephesus, Xenophanes is said to have been a student of Anaximander, like Pythagoras, and that he taught Parmenides. Parmenides famously argued that all change and distinctions between things are illusions, and his student, Zeno, used paradoxes like Achilles racing the tortoise to show that all human understandings of change and distinction involve contradictions. Like many in India and Heraclitus, the arguments of Parmenides and Zeno are based on the idea that being should not be able to mix with nonbeing, but all change and distinctions necessarily mix being and nonbeing together as far as we can understand them, resulting in paradoxes and contradictions.
Xenophanes openly ridicules the idea of anthropomorphic forces, calling it conceit, says the Homeric Olympian gods are immoral and disorderly, lower in many acts than human beings, and that the stories of gods fighting Titans, giants and centaurs are “the forgeries of our fathers”. Homer and Hesiod say the gods steal, rape, cheat on their spouses and deceive one another, all the things human beings despise in each other. Xenophanes does believe that the cosmos is alive, but does not look or think like a human being BECAUSE it is rational and ordered. He notes that the Ethiopians to the south say gods are dark skinned and flat nosed, while the Thracians to the north are blue-eyed and red-haired. Thus comes the most quoted of lines from Xenophanes’ poetry:
“If oxen and horses had hands and were able to draw with their hands like humans, horses would draw the gods as horses, and oxen would draw the gods as oxen, and each would give them the same shape as themselves.”
Many have argued that in modern times, since the 1800s, the growth of technology has changed human thought such that we now understand our world and ourselves metaphorically in terms of mechanics rather than living spirits. Rational is understood to be a series of operations rather than balance and justice, and truth is said to be objective, like an object without purpose or intention. Some such as the French philosopher and sociologist Latour, have argued that it is our tribe, the Moderns, who are the most mythological and the least aware of our metaphors. Because we increasingly view our reality through machines, much as we have always heard about it from the voices and writings of others, we forget that we construct our reality. We believe that the ancients carved their beliefs in wood and stone, much as Xenophanes says oxen and horses would if they could, but that we Moderns find rather than build our beliefs. As Xenophanes says, we give reality, truth and meaning the same shape as ourselves, as we are increasingly shaped by technology.