There are all sorts of clichéd arguments for why one ought to study the past or explore the wisdom of long dead scholars.
Yes, yes, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Or, perhaps, with so much wisdom in our collective past, we shouldn’t waste our time reinventing the wheel.
It’s not that those aren’t good arguments. They’re perfectly fine arguments, and perfectly fine reasons for studying ancient works.
But. There’s something more –
The way I perceive and understand the world is deeply rooted in my given place and time. The way I think is shaped not only by my individual experiences, but my broader cultural context.
That is to say, not only can an individual’s morals be considered as a network, but the ideas a person understands can be considered as a network. There are plenty of values which I don’t hold as my own, but when I meet someone with those values I understand where they are coming from.
In some ways, this understanding is simply a feature of my own network – when someone holds a value different from my own, I naturally try to understand it using the network of values I do hold.
But I’m not sure relying on our existing network provides a broad enough perspective.
Thales of Miletus is famously recorded as having thought that archê, the ultimate principle, was water.
Did you miss that?
Everything is water.
What does that mean?
I’ve read many (inconsistent) explanations of what that means, and I suppose I understand it enough to try to explain it. But, really…it’s kind of crazy talk. Right? I remember learning about Thales in high school and laughing to myself. Man, those ancient Greeks were crazy.
But his argument was also important.
Interpreting his belief quite literally, in the physics realm, Thales of Miletus is credited with being the first (in recorded, Western, history) to conceive of the idea of a fundamental particle. That is to say, with his argument that “everything is water,” Thales led humanity down a path of thought which brought us to molecules, atoms, protons, quarks, and leptons.
There’s a moral in there about how we should always listen to our crazy elders because you never know what nugget of wisdom will propel you forward –
But that’s not my point.
“Everything is water” sounds crazy because I have no context through which to interpret that phrase. Being more accurate that “archê is water” doesn’t help.
But it made sense at the time.
In Metaphysics, Artistole explains simply:
Thales, the founder of this type of philosophy, says the principle is water (for which reason he declared that the earth rests on water), getting the notion perhaps from seeing that the nutriment of all things is moist, and that heat itself is generated from the moist and kept alive by it (and that from which they come to be is a principle of all things). He got his notion from this fact, and from the fact that the seeds of all things have a moist nature, and that water is the origin of the nature of moist things.
And then he moves on, as if that’s all you might ever need to know about someone who thought that water was the essence of the universe.
Perhaps Thales is a trivial example – it may not be all that relevant exactly what Thales thought or meant. But I don’t think I’ve ever come across a more foreign idea than that.
And that’s the reason why I like to study dead authors from around the world.
Understandings of public and private, political and social, citizen and society have varied not only across the globe but across time.
It’s hard to see the assumptions of your culture when you are a part of it. But trying to understand someone else’s perspective – not only a moral system, but a whole framework and way of thinking that is foreign to you – expands your capacity to think, to examine, or perhaps simply…to consider the possibilities.
And that has real value.