Material Monism and the "Pantheism" of Thales

Sorry it's taken me so long to finally post something, but hopefully it will be so awesomely thought-provoking that it will make up for lost time.

Material Monism and Cultural Values

As I was reading the introduction to the book, the section on the Ionian thinkers, and the chapter on Thales, I remember noticing the tendency of Ionian thinkers towards material monism,"[...E]ach dominated by the assumption of a single primary material, the isolation of which was the most important step in any systematic account of reality" (75), I wondered why Ancient Greek (I use the term "Ancient Greek/ Ancient Greece" throughout in order to link the thinkers we're studying together, but it shouldn't be interpreted as an indication of homogeneity--I'm certainly aware of the diversity between different parts of what we now call Ancient Greece) thinkers would understand reality in this way. They lived at a time long before the understanding of cells and atoms might have suggested common building blocks for all things, and matter and energy were established as intimately interrelated. Without the idea of atoms and energy/matter relationships, it's very hard for me to imagine how experience and observation might have led these thinkers to the idea that everything is made of one substance. Is it a question of simplicity? Did it seem simpler to them that everything must be different forms of the same thing? Or was it more a matter of necessity than simplicity? Did reason somehow imply to them that there must be a "single primary material"?

Of course, these questions are impossible to answer with certainty, since the Ionian thinkers like Thales are long dead, and we have very little of their work to examine. What intrigues me is not so much exactly what prompted them to think this way, but rather what kind of cultural values and interpretations of experience might have facilitated this way of thinking, how the worldview of many other civilizations with which we've already seen Ancient Greece interacting, might have contributed to this way of thinking as well as other competing ways of thinking, and how this type of thinking presents itself in Thales ideas.

So what sorts of values are implied by a belief that all things are made of a single substance, and what types of observations might lead someone to that belief? Of course, the Ancient Greeks were a community of trade and international contact, as we've already discussed. It's possible that the idea of one substance could unite the Greeks and other people from other societies that they encountered, but the idea of a single substance as unifying or equalizing doesn't seem likely to be that important to the Greeks, whose conception of the world and society was hierarchical, who had slaves and believed that different people had distinct roles and places in society. So what other values could lead one to devise a theory of a singular substance?

 I'm sure that observations probably had a lot to do with their speculation, and observations of the water cycle could certainly be interpreted as suggestive of a property of water that it might somehow be able to compose many different types of things. Furthermore, seeing material burn and change from wood to ash when burned might suggest something about an essentialness of fire. And the growth of trees and plants, as well as decomposition could suggest something similar about earth. It's hard for me to accept, though, that these interpretations were somehow unrelated to the other values and beliefs of the people of the time, so I feel like there must be something about the values of the societies that either influenced or was influenced by (or both) this belief in a singular substance. I just am having some trouble figuring out what that might be.

Thales's Pantheism vs. Abrahamic Monotheism

The question in Thales that we should consider might be able to shed light on this issue. Thales states that "the earth floats on water, which is in some way the source of all things" (88), and of course the ambiguity of this statement and the passages from which modern scholars have derived this conception of his philosophy make it subject for interpretation. But, if it is seen as part of the larger trend of material monism, it could be seen as making sense in terms of social values, not just because of the value placed on material monism as necessary to explain reality, but because of the social value placed on water by the Ancient Greeks, who traded heavily and derived both material and intellectual wealth from sea travel.

However, to take it to another level, the other cultures that the Ancient Greeks traded with, also must have valued water tremendously, being flourishing societies within vast expanses of desert--Egypt deriving its vitality from the Nile, and the Babylonians, I believe, from the Tigris/ Euphrates Rivers. In fact, Kirk, Raven and Schofield cite these societies as part of the reason that the Greeks thought of the earth as coming from water, being surrounded by water. So as the source of life and wealth, it makes sense why water would be valued so highly that Thales might think of it as the singular substance of all things. Of course, this is just one possible theory, but I think it's important to see how a person makes observations and interprets them based on his or her values, which are largely influenced by social values.

However, Thales went on to say that seemingly inanimate objects have life, which he determined based on magnetic movement, since the Ancient Greeks traditionally linked life and movement together as inseparable. Maybe this is something of a stretch, since it isn't the material substance, water, which Thales is cited as calling the source of life, but IF we interpret his statement about all things in some way relying on water to mean that water is the singular substance of all things, and IF we interpret his statement about the life of inanimate objects and the idea that "all things are full of gods" (95) to mean that ALL things are alive and ALL things are indwelled by god or a part of god in some way (both of which I concede to be POSSIBLE interpretations which could certainly be argued against), there is a lot to think about in terms of the different types of evolution that material monism could undergo. For example, under these interpretations, Thales thought is very similar to Hindu thought, which is "polytheistic" in that, like Greek mythology, asserts many gods, but is "pantheistic" in that the gods, as well as humans, animals, and all life, is a part of Brahman, which is God, but is also something like a singular spiritual substance. It might be difficult to argue that there is a direct relationship between Thales's material monism and his seeming pantheism, but to me it seems hard to deny that the two are in some way linked. However, that CANNOT mean that material monism necessarily leads to pantheism, because the same cultures that I'm arguing influenced the way Greeks viewed water and thereby influenced Thales idea of water as singular substance, Egypt and Babylon, also influenced other cultures. The three major monotheistic religions of the world have their roots in Egypt and Mesopotamia, where much of Ancient Hebrew history and myth takes place, and whose mythology certainly influenced Hebrew mythology and the formation of many of these religions' traditions. So it's interesting to me that the influence of Egypt and Babylon seems to have resulted in Ancient Greece (or at least in Thales) in material monism, but in Israel and Palestine (and later, a lot of other places) in a monotheistic religion. Certainly, the exchange of cultural ideas is a very complicated process, so I may be oversimplifying, but the eventual evolution of cultures that were heavily influenced by Egypt and Babylon certainly worked out very differently. Of course, Thales comes LONG before the Christian era, and even longer before Muhammad and Islam, but if we think of these three religions as branches of one (which makes sense to me, although I'm sure the idea might be deeply offensive to others--I'm not denying their significant differences, simply asserting a link between them), the Abrahamic religions place the birth and life of Abraham at around 1500 BC (, and the writing of Genesis somewhere in the 1200 BC neighborhood ( ). While I'm sure these dates are far from established, it makes the development of the Abrahamic religions (Early Judaism) and the time of the Presocratics and even later Greek thought somewhat parallel as far as time goes. I'm probably getting at this in a pretty roundabout way, but I'm wondering what it is about singularity that seems so simple to us, why material monism is the philosophical answer and monism is the religious answer to what's presented by life, even though both systems of thought shared at least some cultural influences. I hope this is intelligible, and I hope I can get some dialogue going about what this relationship should be, or if I'm stretching things too far, or what.

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