Those familiar with the opening scenes of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey know that for eons, mankind was just another player scratching for survival in a cruel primordial ecosystem, living and dying instinctually in the unrelenting circle of life. Humans were apelike hominids, foraging for food and warring with rival packs. Suffice it to say, there were no philosophers in that crowd. Or were there?
Neanderthal Man (and woman) was the Big Kahuna from about 200,000 B. C.–40,000 B.C. Neanderthals were, until very recently, perceived as the stereotypical cavemen from the movies, bedecked in fur, sporting the proverbial big stick, and only able to counter a Socratic query with an insouciant “Ugh!” Yet there was much more to these heavy-browed ancestors than heretofore known.
Recent archeological findings indicate that the Neanderthals comprised a complex culture. Ancient burial sites reveal that ceremonies were performed, and that these rituals included floral arrangements and the placement of the body in a fetal position. These rituals clearly indicate a faith of some kind and a regard for fallen comrades and loved ones. In the animal kingdom, a body is simply left to decompose. For millions of years, human descendants did the same thing. Yet somewhere along the line, this tradition changed. Mankind had developed a sense of spirituality and an appreciation of the mysteries of life.
Around 10,000 B.C., the wandering hunter-gatherers started to settle down in communities. They began to plant crops and domesticate livestock. It was in these ancient civilizations that man's first forays into mathematics, astronomy, and the written word began. Within these communities, social classes developed. Agriculture and animal husbandry allowed for the gradual development of leisure time. This free time was certainly not an idolatry of indolence — theirs was, by today's standards, still a struggle fraught with dangers. Yet with this chance to stop and smell the roses, as it were, philosophizing naturally followed. Leisure time was not filled with Sony PlayStations and cyberchat rooms. People thought and probed, and the human mind continued to expand and grow.
Ancient man's attempt to explain the world and his place in it took the form of what you might consider primitive superstition, but everything old is new age again. As you venture forth into the new millennium, you may find that the wisdom of the ancients was no mere mumbo-jumbo. Closeness to, and a reverence for, nature are sadly missed in the modern age. The gods, each with their singular characteristics and foibles, are archetypes of human personalities. And the fact that gods from divergent cultures are so similar indicates that they sprang from the depths of the human psyche; the kingdom of the gods was within.
A rich oral tradition of myths and tall tales began even before the written word. The epic of Gilgamesh, Homer's Odyssey and Iliad, and no doubt countless others that have not survived were an attempt to explain what the human experience was all about, or at least to pose pertinent questions. From this rich mythology, superstition, and nature worship, the first philosophers emerged and attempted to look at the world from a more scientific and human-centric perspective. Perhaps the sun was just the sun and not a god; maybe man was not a mere puppet of the fates but rather a creature in control of his own destiny. Mythology was followed by philosophy, upon which the sciences were founded, and a schism split the mystical and the empirical.
Now, in this new millennium, the chasm between spirituality and science is closing. Quantum physics reveals that the atom is not the smallest particle measurable, and at the subatomic level, those fascinating little bits of matter do things that defy the laws of space and time. Science and spirituality may not be mutually exclusive after all.
In this book, you hear from the experts, from the Presocratics of ancient Milesia to the twentieth-century thinkers. From the robed sages of antiquity to the denizens of your local diner, everyone's a philosopher. You don't need an advanced degree and a string of letters after your name to ask the big question, “What's it all about?”
Philosophy means “love of wisdom,” from the ancient words philos (love) and sophia (wisdom). I hope this primer may inspire your love of wisdom and prompt you to delve deeper into the great minds of the ages.