Around sixth century B.C., the Greek philosophers underwent the crucial intellectual evolution from ignorant myth-makers to rational, analytically thinking men. Thomas H. Greer, in his essay “The Foundations of Western Philosophy,” describes the Greeks’ shift from mythologically based idealists to empirical, deductive thinkers, presenting this shift as a new scope through which they began viewing the world around them. He, furthermore, tries to prove that this empirical method of analysis spread from its conception in philosophy to encompass science, politics, and even art. Does his hypothesis ring true?
Granted, it must be obvious that philosophical practice was affected by the new methodology. Verily, philosophy was the procreator of the Greeks’ empirical method. The earliest philosophers—Thales, Democritus, Parmenides—all quested, through logical observation and inquiry, for some “absolute truth.” The Sophists, Socrates, and Plato, abandoning this “fruitless quest,” focussed scrutiny upon the aspects of human existence. The philosophical approach for each, though, regardless of their respective goals, followed Greer’s “rational method” for, after all, the method and the philosophy of the time were linked as a son is linked to his father.
In the area of science, however, further consideration of Greer’s supposition must be taken. True, the origional focus of philosophical pursuit for the Greeks was towards knowing the nature of the universe around them. On the other hand, one must decide if they conformed to Greer’s rational method in their scientific procedures. Considering that they had solely their senses upon which to rely, coupled with the understanding that they used these tools as effectively as their blooming intellects could, one realizes that the Greek scientists/philosophers did stay calculating and empirical in their efforts. Though Greek science failed to find the absolute truth of the universe, it succeeded, through application, in establishing the scientific method that would be used for the next two millennia.
The alleged third branch of Greek rational method, politics, fortunately has an obvious empirical contemplator: Plato. It is because Plato applied, with such skill, the rational method in his own political (and other) ponderings that this method has become commonly called the Platonic method. He, through sheer logic and deductive thought, realized the ideal state, or polis. In The Republic, he diagrams a society where impartial, inspired rulership of philosopher kings provides equally for all citizens’ physical, intellectual, and spiritual needs. Without doubt, the Greek philosophers had, within their midsts, an enlightened political theorist.
Finally, with the political aspect of Greer’s thesis validated, all that remains to justify is Greek artistic rationality. Artists, during this progressive intellectual era, strove to capture physical and spiritual truth or essence in their work. Many, illegally, studied cadavers in order to better understand the workings of the human form. Each artist analyzed every curve, every shadow, every highlight in their subjects in search of not just sensual appeal but basic truth. The geometry of form was law for a Grecian artist; he worked solely with what his senses dictated. They tried to render their studies for posterity as realistically as possible. Architecture, sculpture, paintings—all were carefully and exactingly detailed and designed. The goal of all was the same goal of the philosophers: to translate the truths of the universe. Their truths simply found their voice sensually as opposed to intellectually.
Therefore, by analyzing each facet of the Greeks’ expanding culture (using, ironically enough, their own methods), it becomes readily apparent that all were bathed in the light of rational inquiry. In its expansion from philosophy to science, politics, and art, this empirical thought became the kiln which melded all of the studies together towards one goal: truth. The Ancients’ efforts represented the first concerted attempts at finding the hidden working of the world; their empirical ideology continues to serve even today.