What began this blog posting on privileged presumption was an occasion in which I recently caught myself exhibiting a dose of hubris, when I caught myself looking upon the ancient Greeks a bit disdainfully. I have recently taken a couple of online courses on ancient Greece and am currently reading a book on ancient Greek philosophy. I often find it a struggle to grasp the dense thinking and teachings of Greek philosophers from 2500 years ago, such as Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, and others. Their era was very different, in so many ways. It is a big challenge for scholars to translate early Greek prose into an understandable style of English that faithfully captures the intentions of those ancient philosophers. In addition, I sometimes struggle comprehending the mores and beliefs of those ancient societies.
Many of the Greeks whose writings we have from that period were well-to-do and lived a life of leisure, which gave them lots of time to sit around and ponder the mysteries of the human mind, as well as the nature of the universe. It was a time when the first Greek (and thus western) scientists appeared, although they didn't call themselves that, since the word “science” didn't really come into use until the 17th century. If anything, they called themselves natural philosophers, because they were seeking a better understanding of the natural world, and scientific experimentation was virtually unknown, so they philosophized. Their crucial offering to human knowledge was to usher in an era which replaced the antics of the gods in people's minds with the actions of Mother Nature.
That initiation of scientific thought was a foundational development in the progress of Homo sapiens. Prior to the time of these first natural philosophers coming onto the scene, the accepted explanation for many events that occurred was that the gods did it. An earthquake or flood or tornado? It must be that the gods are pissed off at people and were punishing them. Have a good food crop or experience victory in battle? It must be that the gods liked us and graced us with favor. The Jewish Bible (Old Testament) is full of these kind of happenings which are attributed to God. Similarly, all sorts of personal tragedy or good fortune—disease, death, good health, wealth—were attributed to the gods. The deities either were upset with me and punished me, or thought I deserved a favor and rewarded me.
Then came those first Greek scientists: Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Parmenides, etc., beginning around 600 BCE. They all contended that no, the gods did not act to harm or help us; the gods had better things to do. Moreover, events were neither supernatural nor inexplicable—they were natural. It is how the world unfolds, and furthermore, it is possible even to learn how these events happen. For example, if you're sick, maybe you ate something nasty. If your child died, maybe a disease caused it. If your army won the war, maybe it was because of superior battle plans. No rain for the last month? Weather patterns must have caused it.
The main point of these ancient scientists was that there is a perfectly natural cause for these things. So the natural philosopher's job is to do some deep thinking—and maybe even run a few primitive experiments—and see if those causes can't be discovered. We should put effort into ferreting out the causes, rather than trying to appease the gods, they taught.
And that's just what they did; they investigated. They were breaking new ground; exploring new territory—without the benefit of much prior knowledge of the natural world. They invented new ideas and derived new hypotheses. It is to be expected that they stumbled a few times. They certainly disagreed with each other and engaged in endless debates. But they began the process of scientific thought.
So let's get back to my own case of recently falling prey to elitist hubristic thinking. Many years ago, while in middle school, I learned that those ancient Greeks, in their attempt to understand the natural world, decided that everything in the universe was constituted of four elements: earth, air, water, and fire. Even as an adolescent I knew that this was wrong. Hey, there are actually over 100 elements, and the periodic table exquisitely and logically lays it all out. In fact, those four Greek elements aren't elements at all, since they really are chemical compounds or molecules made up of several kinds of basic elements.
Without realizing it, I had slowly developed a slightly aloof attitude towards those Greeks of yore. It's such an easy trap to fall into. In fact, we need to put effort into avoiding feeling superior to ancient peoples or to those in the contemporary world who are “less developed” than we are. As I've pondered our propensity to look down upon those less knowledgeable than we are, I think about how folks in the future will look back at our follies and wonder how we could have been so foolish. How harsh will they someday be judging us?
I think there are numerous areas in which our future offspring will be inclined to disdain who we were, what we believed, and what we did. Causing climate change will undoubtedly top the list. But they'll also be scratching their heads over other foolish actions and beliefs of ours, such as racism, great wealth inequality, nuclear weapons, rampant capitalism, pollution, over population, habitat destruction, nationalism, and others. They will wonder why it was that the 20th and 21st century humans could have been so muddle headed and blind.
One of the most astute ideas introduced by those ancient Greek scientists was that we humans are, like all animals, part of nature. We are not separate from and perched atop all the world's critters, like the gods may be. We are not removed from all those animals, or fundamentally superior to them, despite the power of our minds. We may be capable of godlike behavior, and our potential is amazing, but even the ancient Greeks understood that we emerged from the natural world and were an integral part of it. Some 2500 years later, it'd be cause for celebration if we elitist, hubristic moderns understood that simple truth. Let's climb down from our privileged presumptive pedestal and exhibit a little well-deserved humility.