Monday, September 6, 2010

Thales' Dream

It is a rock thrown from the Earth towards the stars. It has left the Solar System behind and is speeding forward into the unknown. It is an affront to the gods. It rides the waves of the cosmic ocean with a proud smirk. It is a triumph. It defies space and time. It is an interstellar caravel sailing to the coast of chaos.

Rewind two and a half thousand years back. A man is looking up into the night sky in a cypress grove on the coast of Ionia. He does not yet know that his thought would trigger a chain reaction that would send a rock speeding towards the stars he is looking at.

He begins to wonder. He wants to know. He is not afraid of the world that unfolds around him, like others who had come before him. He sees patterns and order in the universe. He does not want to grope in the dark. It is knowledge he is after. He keeps his mind wide open. He intends to grasp the entire unity of nature.

The man's name is Thales. The idea born in his head was the embryo of the Western world.

Over two hundred years later, another man begins to wonder in a gymnasium in Stageira, Thrace. He can tap into the wisdom of many wise men who had wondered after Thales started to wonder. The patterns that had appeared fuzzy to his predecessors are now crystal clear to him. He removes every obstacle on the path of reason.

The man's name is Aristotle. The intellectual energy released by him shook the universe and created the Western civilization.

Over two thousand years later, a third man far, far away from the birthplace of Thales - across a mighty sea and a gigantic ocean - proclaims that man is free. Though man had always been free, no one had recognized it before.

The man’s name is Thomas Jefferson. He wrote the declaration that sparked a world revolution.

The Europeans’ minds had been free. But their hands had been shackled. Their mind had been caged within their body and could not transform their world.

The Americans freed the flesh that the Europeans had despised so much. In America, the Greek philosophy was released from its captivity and started recreating the world in man’s image.

In Europe, reason had penetrated deep into the structure of matter and far away into space. In America, man conquered space and tamed the atom.

The Americans created a whole new world. They created the entire modern industry and modern technology. They destroyed poverty. They eliminated hunger. They banished disease. Their inventions contracted intercontinental distances to mere hours or even seconds.

They unleashed an unprecedented torrent of energy that encircled the globe and burst outwards into the interstellar sea. They sent a rock racing towards the stars. The living embodiment of Thales’ dream, the Voyager is sending a message loud and clear for all who doubt the power of the human mind.

1 comment:

Lemming Master said...

Thanks for expounding on Thales and working him into an eloquent schema charting the rise of Western Civilization, and the philosophical difficulties it faces.

I am trying to learn more about the Pre-Socratics, and particularly the Eleatic School versus the Atomists. A project I have in mind is drawing mental timelines of the philosophical and political life of various civilizations throughout history, in a crude but roughly accurate sketch of the relationship of mysticism, reason, and the "health" of a given polity. What bothers me is that the culmination of the development of reason in a few civilizations appears at the summit to correspond with crisis, and is atypically represented in the relatively solitary voices of the most brilliant individuals.

When everything seems stable, most men are mentally lazy and take philosophy, or more specifically, metaphysical truth for granted. This leaves an opening for the power-seeking sophists (loosely speaking) to twist the language and corrupt the polity.

Mental and civilizational chaos seem to go hand in hand; yet existential crisis seems to provoke the most severe rational reaction out of the most able minds. It tends to be the curse of political crisis that begets the blessings of profound philosophical genius throughout history. If only men were vigilant enough to seek truth as a virtue at all times, and were on their guard against the opportunistic sophists, many more political crises might be avoided.