Homer and Hesiod gave the world a nice, neat package of gods and goddesses and heroes and creatures to explain the world and to keep the world in order. The world had honor, it had justice, it had gods who interacted with humans, albeit not always in the nicest ways but you usually knew where you stood with them and where you stood in the universe and in the scheme of all things everywhere.
It was a nice deal.
Then along came the islanders. There’s something about islanders, about people who live their lives on islands. They’re not like the rest of us. Ask anyone from Cape Cod what they think of the denizens of Martha’s Vineyard. You’ll get rolling eyes, head shakes, mumbles, and occasional full-blown speeches on the deficiencies of those people. And an Islander visiting civilization is like a puppy rescued from a freeway. He’ll live, but he just doesn’t ever want to go back to the mainland, not for nothing.
Well, islanders happened to the whole Hesiod-Zeus-Homer triangle. Ionians, to be precise. That’s a bunch of islands off the coast of what today is called Turkey, what was then called Lydia, or possibly Anatolia. Or both. But make no mistake about it: we are what we are today because of those islanders.
They began to ask questions!
They began to think about things!
As if it wasn’t hard enough to make a living on an Aegean island back in the day, some of them apparently had the time to think.
They even had a name, given in retrospect of course. The Pre-Socratics. Or the Protoscientists. You see where that’s going, don’t you? Socrates and his interminable questioning and dialoging. Scientists and their method and their nosing around into the real world for real facts. No, myths and gods just weren’t enough for these islanders. They had to start asking questions.
What is the true nature of reality, they asked.
What is the origin of reality, they asked.
What is our place in reality, they asked.
How are humans related to the powers governing reality, they asked.
What is the best way to live, they asked.
Can you just imagine!? They must have driven their moms crazy when they were kids. Throwing all that rationality around the kitchen, bothering teachers with reasoning, tossing who-what-where-when-why-how in every direction they could think of. We might surmise they spent a lot of time going to bed without supper and doing detention at school. Or maybe not – after all, we are talking about islanders. Maybe the adults, being out of the mainstream, were a little more patient with their kids. We may never know.
But they weren’t totally willy-nilly in their questions. They settled on dealing with some basic issues, though not the sort of things you’d find in American grade schools, island or no.
One big issue they worried on was what they called the one and the many. If reality is one thing, all encompassing, as it were, how do we explain why there are so many different things and different kinds of things? Where did all those different things come from? What brought them about? Ask that sort of thing in a modern classroom and the kids’ heads would explode as they furiously text each other.
But that wasn’t the end of it. Oh no, indeed not! How about reality and appearance? What’s real? Is there stuff that’s independent of us? How can we tell whether the appearance of something is the actuality of the something? More heads explode.
And finally what about human reality? Who the hell are we anyway? What’s our relationship to the rest of the stuff in the universe? Pop pop pop…
See, they couldn’t leave well enough alone, these island philosophers. Gods weren’t good enough for them. Zeus does not explain it all. And maybe they were on to something, because after all, Zeus didn’t strike them down with lightning bolts. He didn’t do anything. He just let them keep asking questions and trying to reason their way to understanding reality instead of just taking his word for it.
Maybe he was bored. Maybe he had kids. Then again, Mount Olympus could be considered an island of sorts.
Anyway, the damage started on the island of Miletus with a guy named Thales.