This essay is excerpted from the book Moby-Dick as Philosophy: Plato – Melville – Nietzsche.
Thales the Milesian is traditionally identified as the first philosopher. It was said by the ancients that he predicted a solar eclipse, though some today doubt that this is so, and suggest instead that he proposed a natural explanation for the event, which would be noteworthy in itself for the time. In any case, scholars date the eclipse in question to 585 BCE, and this is used to date Thales himself. The Greeks tended to place a great man’s first remarkable deed in his fortieth year, but we need not be so programmatically precise ourselves. We need only believe that Thales was in his maturity at the time of the eclipse, which would place his birth sometime in the mid- to late-seventh century BCE. But if the first philosopher was born at this time, what can we say of the Greek mind during the first half of the seventh century BCE and before?
The standard story has it that philosophy developed in contrast to, and reaction against, the supernaturalist-religious view of the world. The early Greeks believed in the Olympian gods, as we learn from Homer, who was active probably at the end of the eighth century BCE. Hesiod, who composed his poems around this same time, imagined divine or semi-divine beings as originary elements of the universe. The Greek people sacrificed and prayed to the gods, and they held regular festivals in their honor. Greek philosophy, it is often claimed, appeared as a light of understanding in the midst of this dark ignorance.
There is, of course, some truth to this story, but there are also exaggerations and inaccuracies. We have no idea what a man like Homer really thought about the divine, and the early Greek philosophers (the so-called Presocratics) were by no means exclusively naturalists. The atomists, Leucippus and Democritus, may have come as close as anyone at the time to naturalism, but they were the exception in this regard among the early philosophers. References and allusions to gods and divine beings or entities turn up throughout the entire history of Greek philosophy, from the first Presocratics (Thales himself apparently wrote that “all things are full of gods”) to the last of the Neoplatonists.
Among the ancients, Thales was often identified as one of the Seven Sages. These were men renowned for their wisdom who passed around among themselves a tripod found by a fisherman off the coast of Miletus (Thales’ hometown), which Apollo through his oracle at Delphi decreed be given to the wisest of all men. The Milesians bestowed the tripod on Thales, but he passed it off to another whom he judged wiser than himself, and this man sent it to another in turn, and so it went the rounds until it wound up with Solon in Athens. The Greeks told different versions of this story, including even different names of the wise men among the Seven. Solon the Athenian is one of the few to appear on every extant list.
Solon was born to a noble Athenian family in the second half of the seventh century BCE; he was most likely an older contemporary of Thales. But despite his reputation for wisdom, he is never taken for one of the early philosophers. Thales straddles the line dividing the early archaic sages from the late archaic philosophers, but Solon stands exclusively on the side of wisdom. This classification is due in part to convention, of course; but it is not without its rationale. Solon is best known for reforming the Athenian constitution at a time of radical civil unrest, and the only contemporary source of information about these events are the poems he wrote to explain and justify his actions. Solon traveled throughout Greece, Egypt, and the coastal cities of Anatolia, and he was respected for the experience and insight into life he acquired in the course of his long and varied career. He was not known for any naturalist or proto-naturalist cosmological speculations. Solon was a poet and a law-giver.
I write of Solon and the Seven Sages by way of suggesting that we think of the period preceding the development of philosophy in Greece as an age of wisdom rather than an age of religion. Wise men write poems and promulgate laws, sometimes quite literally so. But sometimes their poems manifest as prose, and their laws are less legal decrees than creations of values in Nietzsche’s sense of this expression. Sages shape our view of man and thereby influence the direction of history. But with Solon in mind we must wonder what to make of a wisdom that is not acquired through philosophy. We must ask: Who were these pre-philosophical, pre-Presocratic sages? Intellectually and spiritually—what were they?
Finally, we might also wonder whether pre-philosophical wisdom is superior to wisdom acquired through philosophy. If philosophy arises only after the passing of an age of wisdom, then philosophy would seem the result of decline, in which case in this later age even the sage would appear a questionable figure. On the other hand, it might be that reaching the summit of wisdom from out of the depths of philosophy enriches the sage with insights inaccessible to the pre-philosophical wise man. If this is so, then even if we accept Solon as our original model, we shall have to acknowledge those who attain to wisdom by way of philosophy as the superior type.
Mark Anderson is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Belmont University in Nashville, TN. He is the author of Moby-Dick as Philosophy: Plato – Melville – Nietzsche; Pure: Modernity, Philosophy, and the One; The Thinker-Artist (Sophia and Philosophia); and Plato and Nietzsche: Their Philosophical Art.