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The Cosmos and Logos

The Ionian thinkers insisted that the workings of the universe could be explained because the phenomena of nature were neither random nor arbitrary. The universe, the totality of things, they named cosmos 1 because this word meant an orderly arrangement that is beautiful (hence our word “cosmetic”). The order characteristic of the cosmos, perceived as lovely because it was ordered, encompassed not only the motions of the heavenly bodies but also everything else: the weather, the growth of plants and animals, human health and psychology, and so on. Since the universe was ordered, it was intelligible; since it was intelligible, explanations of events could be discovered by thought and research. The thinkers who conceived this view believed it necessary to give reasons for their conclusions and to persuade others by arguments based on evidence. They believed, in other words, in logic (a word derived from the Greek term logos 2 meaning, among other things, a reasoned explanation). This way of thought based on reason represented a crucial first step toward science and philosophy as these disciplines endure today. The rule-based view of the causes of events and physical phenomena developed by these thinkers contrasted sharply with the traditional mythological view of causation. Naturally, many people had difficulty accepting such a startling change in their understanding of the world, and the older tradition explaining events as the work of gods lived on alongside the new ideas.

The ideas of the Ionian thinkers probably spread slowly because no means of mass communication existed, and few men could afford to spend the time to become followers of these thinkers and then return home to explain these new ways of thought to others. Magic3 remained an important preoccupation in the lives of the majority of ordinary people, who retained their notions that gods and demons frequently and directly affected their fortunes and health as well as the events of nature. Despite their perhaps limited immediate effect on the ancient world at large, the Ionian thinkers had initiated a tremendously important development in intellectual history: the separation of scientific thinking from myth and religion. Some modern scholars call this development the birth of rationalism, but it would be unfair to label myths and religious ways of thought as irrational if that term is taken to mean “unthinking” or “silly.” Ancient people realized that their lives were constantly subject to forces beyond their control and understanding, and it was not unreasonable to attribute supernatural origins to the powers of nature or the ravages of disease. The new scientific ways of thought insisted, however, that observable evidence had to be sought and theories of explanation had to be logical. Just being old or popular no longer bestowed veracity on a story purporting to explain natural phenomena. In this way, the Ionian thinkers parted company with the traditional ways of thinking of the ancient Near East as found in its rich mythology and repeated in the myths of early Greece.

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