It’s All Greek to Me – Great Greek Thinkers Part One
You’ve probably either used or heard the expression, “It’s all Greek to me” to describe something that seems impossible to understand. But why use Greek as the example? Why not say something is all Japanese or Aramaic, for example?
According to the book, ‘Flying by the Seat of your Pants: Surprising Origins of Everyday Expressions – by Harry Oliver’, the expression has its roots in a Latin phrase. During the middle ages, Latin scribes in monasteries used to write, ‘Graecum est, non legitur‘, or ‘Graecum est, non potest legi‘, meaning, ‘It is Greek; it cannot be read’. This indicated that they were having problems translating the Greek alphabet or language within any text they were working with.
In 1599, William Shakespeare used the phrase within his play, ‘The Tragedy of Julius Caesar’:
Cassius: Did Cicero say anything?
Casca: Ay, he spoke Greek.
Cassius: To what effect?
Casca: Nay, an I tell you that, I’ll ne’er look you in the face again: but those that understood him smiled at one another and shook their heads; but, for my own part, it was Greek to me. I could tell you more news too: Marcullus and Flavius for pulling scarfs off Caesar’s images, are put to silence. Fare you well. There was more foolery yet, if I could remember it.
This prose describes Casca, who actually speaks fluent Greek, using the phrase “it was Greek to me” to pretend to be unable to understand. In reality, he doesn’t want to repeat a remark that is unflattering to Caesar.
Shakespeare’s use of the phrase is very likely to be the route it took into our modern language.
Despite this commonly-used phrase being used to describe something that is impossible to understand, the ancient Greeks actually contributed much to our understanding of the world around us. Great Greek thinkers developed theories and rationales that are still used in modern-day studies.
In this article and part 2, we investigate some of the contributions made to the modern world by the great Greek thinkers. Many people have heard of, and read of the works of, the ‘big three’ great Greek thinkers – Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. We will focus on four of the lesser known, but arguably equally influential philosophers of this period – Thales, Anaximenes, Pythagoras and Empedocles.
Thales – 620 BCE – 546 BCE
Thales was born in Miletus, Greek Ionia, around 620 BCE. His work covers an enormous spectrum of topics and many of his theories and hypothesis are still in use today. He was one of the first great Greek thinkers, in many respects.
Thales is widely acknowledged as the first person to investigate issues of natural philosophy – the origin of matter, events of nature and astronomy. In fact, his work covers many other areas, such as history, science, engineering, mathematics, geography and politics – Thales was a true polymath of his time.
Thales’ theories of astronomy and cosmological events used science rather than supernatural reasons to explain cause and effect. This approach was the beginning of much of the Greek’s famous studies in astronomy and paved the way for future great Greek thinkers. His Milesian School of Natural Philosophy enabled him to teach his theories and discoveries.
Amongst other discoveries still important in the modern world, Thales seems to have been the first to predict eclipses of the sun and moon and to fix solstices and equinoxes. He used mathematics, in particular geometry, to aid his studies. He also mapped the positions of many of the stars.
Thales believed in the cyclic nature of the universe and proposed that water was the principle, or master, element. He observed around him, how water nourished all that was living and seemed to be at the very heart of life itself. He reported on evaporation and precipitation, noting how this process is essential for all the life on our planet. Many of Thales theories concerning water are still taught today.
Thales views were not based on ancient or primitive thinking. His ideas were new and revolutionary. His teachings were received with great excitement amongst his peers and inspired the work of many great Greek thinkers who came after him. In fact, Artistotle himself acknowledged Thales as the founder of natural philosophy.
Anaximenes – 585 BCE – 528 BCE
Anaximenes was born in Miletus around 585 BCE. Like others of the time, he practised something called material monism – the tendency to identify one underlying reality that makes up everything else.
Whereas his predecessor, Thales, identified water as the principle element, Anaximenes asserted that air was the primary substance. He based his conclusions upon observations of the natural world around him. Processes such as rarefaction and condensation demonstrated how air becomes visible as mist, rain and other forms of precipitation. He also proposed that air cools to form earth and stones, and ignites to produce flames.
Anaximenes was the first of the great Greek thinkers to associate the quality of pairs – hot/dry, wet/cold – with the density and state of a single material. This understanding is still widely used today.
Anaximenes also studied the cosmos and elaborated his theories on air to explain the nature of our planet, which he believed to be flat. He also theorised about the sun, the moon and other celestial bodies visible in the sky. He was the first of the great Greek thinkers to distinguish clearly between the planets and the stars. The Anaximenes crater on the moon is named in his honour.
Anaximenes believed that air itself is divine, being both infinite and eternal. He concluded that the pantheon of Greek gods were derivations of the truly divine air. He also taught that the human soul is composed of air and we are all held together by sharing this encompassing element both within our souls and throughout the universe.
Many great Greek thinkers theorised about our creation and existence, along with our planet and the universe around us. They didn’t limit their thinking to scientific studies and frequently used spiritual understandings to explain realities.
In the next part of this article, we look at two further great Greek thinkers – Pythagoras and Empedocles.