Greek Hullabaloo: The Greek Miracle Explained / by Tyler Wood

The "Greek Miracle" was neither a miracle nor entirely Greek, however, it does signify a hazy start to a new minded human in the western world. The supposed "Greek Miracle" has been, according to modern philosophers, initially started by a man named Thales from Miletus, to signify the 'break' from designating the causes for natural phenomena to the gods and their whims (mythical) to a more natural 'answer' to natural 'problems'.  I will argue that this is not a miracle, of course, but also that it is not even what is meant by that term either, namely, that there was one significant break from the norm into a more 'modern' way of thinking. I will show that it was a step by step progression (albeit a significant one) that may have well been started further back, had we any evidence for or against it, that lead up to Socrates and, inevitably, us.

To discuss this as a progression I must start before the supposed 'miracle' of Thales, and his new ideas, in the realm of ancient megaliths. We have evidence, and I have seen personally, that Stonehenge in England is set up, on purpose, to lay out the astronomical patterns of a given year, from the equinoxes to the solstices, which would tell me that they had a decent amount of knowledge of observed natural phenomena. This may have been for many different reasons, all of which are irrelevant here. With the ability to observe this process of nature changing they could, and did, pass that on in the form of megaliths, the very ancient version of a book, for the next generation to use and learn from, even if it were latently. This step in human history is the step to observing natural occurrences as something important to the existence of humans on some level, which will give rise to the next step.

The next step was using this information for more practical uses than erecting large stones in fields for whatever reason. One of the first known writers of the western world on natural occurrences is Hesiod. Hesiod used this observable information to advise people of when to plant and harvest crops. This no doubt had a positive effect on the situation of the farmers; he himself was the son of one so he would have heard about it if he were wrong. This, however, isn't the big break from mythical causes, since Hesiod had a hand, according to Lindberg, in creating the characters to become the famous Greek gods, alongside Homer of course. His observation into the patterns of natural things only went so far, since he set up an elaborate realm of the gods, from their genealogy to their wars and history to explain the origins of the earth. I think this just comes from the lack of knowledge gained in the next several centuries for the default answer of 'supernatural' beings causing the changes. But Hesiod is a significant step in this hullabaloo by adding his data from observation and the connection from natural occurrences to natural changes, namely; that if you plant at a certain time of year your harvest will be better. "When the Pleiades, daughters of Atlas, are rising, begin your harvest, and your ploughing when they are going to set. [Hesiod, Works and Days 385]" This information would no doubt, if correct, give rise to a class of people who had more free time than previous generations to do what they like, and no doubt some people chose thinking as what they like.

Thales no doubt liked thinking. This is our next step, the illusive Thales. Thales took this observed natural process, or change, and started dwelling on this topic. After he traveled around the known world, Egypt and Mesopotamia, he learned from their teachers the art of mathematics and astronomy, which is why I mentioned that it isn't an exclusively Greek progression, and combined this new information with what the previous generation of his own area had learned. This combination resulted in his major four theories: the first is that the earth floats on water (which answers the earthquake question); the second is that theArche of all things is water (since it was observed as giving life to things); the third is that magnets are alive (which is not important to this discussion); and finally that all things are filled with gods (which ruins the major point in the discussion of the "Greek Miracle" that this was the break from the mythical explanations to the natural ones). It is a step to think that the gods aren't in the sky or effecting things in human form necessarily, but if all things are full of gods that would include water, and in turn, would mean that his theory is based on mythical existence. (Cohen, lecture January 5, 2004)

Thales made other significant advances in the progression of natural philosophy by starting the community of discourse in the philosophical level of society, which will help the Greeks continue this trend of thinking of the origins of the world and of the causes of natural phenomena (Hevly, lecture October 7, 2004).

The next step in this staircase of intellectual progression is Anaxamander. I think this is the person the 'miracle' overlooked for the significant break from mythological causes to a more natural answer, it's just an answer we can't study - the apeiron. This apeiron, or the boundless or infinite, was not there to study or observe, which would tell me that this was the start of what Parmenides picks up later, that we need rational thought to discover the origins, not just observably factors. He was the first that one couldn't trace to the gods intervening in any way, which isn't much of a 'break' from Thales' water idea, but to us, I think, in hindsight it seems more significant. He was also the first to identify a force at hand in change that wasn't the doing of the gods' will. The conflict of opposites implies that there is a natural cause for the observable natural phenomena (Cohen,lecture January 9, 2004).

Anaxamander was taking the idea that we can observe the arche of all things that Thales had, which was a step from the gods on Mount Olympus doing it, and made it separate from the gods completely giving it a material place in the universe; we just don't know what it is. There were more steps from here to air and fire and other ideas of continuums etc, but the next major player in our journey is the one who took Anaxamander's rational thought implication to the ultimate level - Parmenides.

Anaxamander implied that we would need rational thought to understand the arche by saying it is an unobservable material thing, but Parmenides takes that idea even further by saying that it is only rational thought that is to be trusted. Again, this is not a 'miracle' or grand break from his predecessors; it is just rational thinking about change being an illusion. We already have this idea implied by Anaxamander and the 'boundless', which we do not see, causing change, which we do see. Parmenides' argument, which fits nicely into Plato's forms argument (from whom we get this information), is based on the fact that our senses can lie to us, therefore, can't be trusted to understanding the real world.

"Parmenides adopted the radical position that change 'all change'“ is a logical impossibility. Parmenides began by denying, on various logical grounds, the possibility that a thing should pass from non-being to being: for example, if a thing were to come into being, why at one moment rather than another, and by what means? His conclusion was that out of nothing comes nothing (Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science, 32-33).

If it exists then it must exist eternally, therefore what we witness isn't real, we must use only our rational thought to deduce the facts (Cohen lecture January 16, 2004). As we have seen so far, there hasn't been an outstanding turn of events that I would call a 'miracle' of any kind, not even an epiphany moment in the history of modern thinking at any single moment. Possibly Zeno's idea of infinite divisibility is a break in modern mathematics, but I digress.

Progression keeps going at every step, however, and the next is Empedocles, who proposed that the four elements - earth, air, fire, and water - were the "roots" of all things. This takes from the 'eternal' idea from Parmenides but puts it into a materialistic notion of what is (Lindberg, 31). From this, pluralism of the elements, we get the Atomists, which proposed infinite number of elements. Then we close in on Socrates and, in turn, finish the Pre-Socratic philosophers and their "miracle".

I don't think this ironic term 'miracle' does any good explaining this time in human history. It implies that it happened quickly and all of a sudden with no ideas as precursors for the minds involved. It also starts with Thales as the initiator of the turn from the gods as explanations for natural phenomenon to a natural explanation, which I think is misleading and wrong, since what underlies his whole argument is the gods. I think if that was the criteria for 'a break' then the prize would go to Anaxamander. This was a significant time in human history for an array of reasons I have no time to get into, but as far as a "Greek Miracle" I just see progression, a step at a time, from the observation of the sky to plant crops more efficiently, to the idea of a natural cause for a natural occurrence to Socrates and all the way to present day. This staircase is still going, so to say that at one point there was a miracle would leave us with a break in the foundation of modern science. Jesus was a 'miracle'; the pre-Socratics were a foundation for truth.

Cohen. Professor at U. Washington

Hevly. Professor at U. Washington