I started listening to a series of recorded lectures on the ancient Greek philosophers. Though I have been trafficking in philosophy for fifteen years, I always felt self-conscious about the holes in my education, and the Greeks were always biggest elephant I had ignored. Absolutely everyone glosses Socrates and Plato, and I was aware of Nietzsche's debt to Heraclitus, so I figured I had to come back to studying the originals at some point.
In some ways I'm glad I waited so long, because I'm not sure I would have appreciated the full import of their thinking in my twenties. The series starts with Thales, the most ancient of the pre-Socratics, who breaks with the usual tradition of using mythology to explain the world and instead proposes a logos, a rational explanation for the nature of things, based on his own empirical observations. Never mind that his rational explanation (that the archae, the origin of all being, is water) is a little loopy; the breakthrough was that for the first time, someone believed that the world could be understood rationally. The birth of Western civilization starts here, with the notion that men could really know something, just by looking around and using their noggins.
At this point, I imagine most nineteen-year-olds in Philosophy 101 rolling their eyes and staring blankly at their pencils. "Whatever." Rationally understanding the universe is so basic to our world-view that we have a hard time believing there was ever a time we didn't know that. It's kind of like imagining a time before people invented the wheel, or money, or writing. It seems like incredibly old news.
And yet . . . I find that the basic attitude that informed mythic thinking is still alive in well, even in our modern culture. While everyone supposedly believes in rational causes for physical phenomena, most people think that bigger questions of meaning, purpose, and the origins of the universe are still best left to the realm of the mythic. When I teach about mystical traditions, it usually comes as a shock and a revelation to people that they personally might directly experience the nature of God and the world.
Nor is the instinct to explain things rationally, even physicalÂ and technological things,Â nearly as deep as we might suppose. As a software consultant, I am amazed at how often people accept and embrace mythology to explain their computer problems.Â A program crashes, and I asked, "Why did that happen?" The users will often say, "It just does that sometimes. I think it doesn't like Mondays." Now, I can forgive the end users for saying that, because technology is often indistinguishable from magic. But sometimes I even go back to the programmer who built the program in the first place, and ask him, "Why did it crash?" and evenÂ he will say, "It just does that sometimes." He isn't just being lazy -- sometimes he really believes that some things just happen, for no particular reason, and who is he to question why? And I feel like Thales when I make the pronouncement: "Everything happens for a reason. And when we finally understand the reason, and fix it, these crashes won't happen again." Â Every bug I fix is another triumph for Greek philosophy. And everyone, from the programmer up to the VP of Sales, seems slightly amazed to hear that the world can be understood.
I used to believe that. Either I stopped believing it, or I admitted to myself that I never did. Sometimes the car makes a funny noise, and you bring it into the mechanic, and he listens for it but he can't hear it, and it just never does it again. It can be cold or hot or whatever and the car just never makes that noise again. It just happened.