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Archive for the ‘500s BC’ Category

Thales

Thales (-640 to -562) was the first Greek philosopher and scientist. He was the first to try to find out how the world works through observation and reason, not through old stories about the gods.

Thales said everything comes from water in the end, just as we say everything is made of atoms in the end.

He was wrong about the water bit, but that style of thinking, of looking for a root natural cause of everything, is still with us and it started with him.

He was on everyone’s list as one of the seven wise men in ancient Greece. So was Solon, the great lawmaker of Athens, who lived at the same time across the Aegean sea. We still have a letter that Thales wrote to him.

Thales was the first to say “Know yourself”. He said it was the hardest thing in the world to do. The best way to make yourself better is to avoid the faults you see in others. Time was the wisest thing of all because it brought all to light.

But Thales was less interested in men than in the stars. He was the first Greek to know when an eclipse would take place. He said there would be one on May 12th -585. On that day, right in the middle of a battle, the moon covered the sun just like he said it would. It made him a wonder in the Greek world.

He wrote little. We know of only two books, both on the motion of the sun: “On the Solstices” and “On the Equinox”. Both are lost.

Perhaps he wrote so little because he was too busy travelling the world to learn all he could: Crete, Egypt, Asia and throughout the Greek-speaking world.

Although to the Greeks he seems to have made great discoveries about the sun, the moon and the stars, it is likely that he “discovered” most of them not in the skies but in talking to the priests of Egypt, who even then had records going back thousands of years.

Even so Thales did not find philosophy and science being practised anywhere in the world. They are his invention. He certainly did not find it in Egypt, a land ruled by priests.

Thales came from Miletus, a town Athens settled on the other side of the Aegean sea. It was then a part of Ionia, which ran down the west coast of what we now call Turkey. It produced most of the early Greek thinkers, even Pythagoras who later moved to Italy. Athens did not become the centre of Greek thought till 200 later in the time of Plato and Socrates.

He once measured the height of a pyramid: he waited till his shadow was as long as he was tall. Then he measured the shadow of the pyramid.

Some say he died by falling into a hole while looking up at the stars.

– Abagond, 2007.

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Lao-tzu (老子)

Lao-tzu (-500s), also called 老子 or Laozi, was a wise man who lived in China in the time of Confucius. He founded Taoism which, along with Confucianism, became one of the two great schools of philosophy of ancient China. It later became a religion. Zen Buddhism is Buddhism interpreted according to Taoism.

Lao-tzu wrote the Tao-te-Ching, the book of the Way (Tao) and its power. It is very short, just 5467 words. It is the sort of book you can read in a half hour but take a lifetime to understand.

Apart from the Bible, no book has been translated more times.

Lao-tzu worked in a government office in Luoyang. As an old man he had had enough of man and his world. He got on the back of a black ox and headed west. At a mountain pass a military guard stopped him. He asked Lao-tzu to write a book. So he wrote the Tao-te-Ching and then disappeared into the west.

Some say he made it to India and taught a prince. Others say he died in China.

Experts in our time say that he wrote nothing – that the Tao-te-Ching was written during the centuries after his death by his followers.

The book is about the Tao. The Tao that you can put into words is not the Tao – the Tao is beyond words. It gave birth to the heaven and the earth and all of creation. These things developed out of it naturally, not as something consciously made.

The Tao is not a person like the Christian God. It is a force without a face. Its effect and manner you can see in the actions of heaven and earth, but not in the actions of men.

Men are always fighting against the Tao. They are always doing this or that, always seeking something: wealth, honour, power, knowledge, even holiness. They never sit still. But all this running about goes against the Tao and so it is bound to end in tears. We think we can have it our way. Wrong.

The true wise man acts and lives according to the Tao. Strangely enough, he acts by not acting – called wu wei in Chinese. He does not even try to be good or wise. He trusts in the Tao and acts according to it and everything falls into place.

The wise man has three jewels: mercy, humility and moderation. Going against any one of these goes against the Tao.

If you think of the Pooh stories, Pooh Bear acts in a Taoist manner, while Rabbit is completely the opposite.

After his death, Taoism was developed by his follower Chuang-tzu (Zhuangzi).

In time Taoism became a religion, complete with gods, priests, rites, temples, all of it. Even Lao-tzu was a god. It had the support of the emperors down through the ages. But then in 1911 the last emperor fell. In time the communists took over China under Mao and destroyed Taoism after 1949. It lives on in Taiwan.

– Abagond, 2007, 2015.

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