The ancient greeks were known for their many gods and myths that were created as a way to explain the world. Around the time of the sixth century BCE, however, an emergence of the emphasis on rationality in Greek thinking occurred. This was brought on by the early philosophers, more commonly known as the “presocratics,” because they lived before Socrates’ time. These presocratics were the first group of people to form their own theories outside of the common religious ones that existed in ancient greek time. Their ideas on life and the essence of humanity were what caused them to “turn away from religious teachings, [and use] the power of human reason to try to discover how the world came into being…”. It was not their answers that made them important, but instead, the questions and ideas they asked about humanity that made such an impact on human life, and continues to do so today.
The schools that existed in this era focused primarily on discussing these questions and sharing knowledge of “logic and theoretical reasoning to solve practical questions about the world and human existence.” The questions they raised concerned: logic (the validity of arguments), ethics (morality), and aesthetics (arts and beauty). However, most importantly, they developed insight into epistemology (knowledge), and political philosophy. Mere acceptance of human existence was not enough for the ancient greeks, as seen through the stories or myths that they created in order to explain how things came to be and how we know the things we know. They believed there was something deeper, that there had to be some sort of order in life.
The presocratics that raised questions of epistemological nature were considered Rationalists, who believed that not everything we know comes from experience or our senses. On the other side were Empiricists, who believed that we have gained our knowledge strictly through experience and our senses. One of the other groups that have proven to have had among the most important philosophical ideas are the Monists, who believed the world is comprised of one basic “stuff”, or “arché”. Thales, one of the outstanding Monists, began the “Greek tradition of free discussion of ideas in the marketplace and other public areas,” breaking the previous tradition of knowledge being available to the “elite” only.
A current event in our world today that is being greatly affected by these philosophical views is the revolt against Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and the resulting uproar of ethical and political issues in the rest of North Africa and the middle east. For nearly three weeks, the Egyptian people protested the government and demanded that Mubarak step down from his position as President. After thirty years of his rule, the civilians finally decided to act for what they really wanted. The early greek philosophical concept of epistemology directly influenced the emergence of democracy, which is what the people of Egypt were fighting for. Under epistemology falls the notion of knowledge, and this is essential to rational decision making. Democracy is a concept that truly requires a “free discussion of ideas”, in the words of Thales. Epistemology is a necessary philosophic component in democracy, seeing as the theory of knowledge and rational decision making are among the key concepts behind democracy in itself.
Although the “free discussion of ideas” from early greek times is translated into violent outbreaks and protests in this situation, the same philosophy still applies here. The revolution in the middle east correlates to that of the philosophical revolution in early Greece because in both situations, the civilians and not just the “elite” are coming together to change the way things are, with hopes for a better society.
Cunningham/Reich. “Cultures and Values.” Cultures and Values Vol. 1. Ed. Maureen Staudt. Mason, Ohio: Cengage Learning: 2009.