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Symbols Into Meaning: 3000 Years of Tradition in 1 Year of School

October 3, 2012

In The Presocratics, edited by Phillip Wheelwright in 1997, we learn of a fragment handed down to us only through the writings of Aristotle and his students: a man named Thales once said, “The first principle and basic nature of all things is water.”

Western Philosophy, beginning in Greece, drew on many influences in its early stages. The first philosophers, by modern standards, lived in an area of the world known as Miletus, now modern Turkey in the first millennium B.C.E. Miletus, located in an area known as Ionia, was at the outskirts of the Persian Empire in a region more akin to Greece than the eastern civilizations with which it shared a continent. The Milesian philosophers could access knowledge from a convergence of cultures through trade. To the extent that their predilection dictated, these men, as inhabitants and residents of Miletus, could treat their thinking with cross-disciplinary ideas, including the influence of Athenian culture, and the cultures of other ancient Greek city states, as well as religious principles and philosophies that came to them in Ionia through from the south and from the east.

What did Thales mean by his assertion that the basic nature of all things is water? He was trying to describe the invisible nature of his world (“all things”) in a way that he could not possibly have observed through the lens of science, or a scientific method, as we moderns do today. Thales speculated about the basic nature (the basic element) that composed him and everything that he perceived in the world. In his view, the nature of the world, and the nature of his being, was water. This is a line of reasoning that presents implicit in cultural mythology throughout the world, and it is explicitly emphasized by scholars and psychologists such as Joseph Campbell and C.G. Jung. We need only look to the idea of baptism, or walk several miles through a hot desert, or around the block on a hot day, to realize how psychologically integral water is to human beings both as an unconscious symbol (in whatever form it takes hold of us) and a quantified, life-sustaining resource. To Jung, water symbolized the unconscious psyche, which at a certain depth (Jung originally named this depth the “collective unconscious,” but in his later works referred to it as “the objective psyche”) contained an archetype (an unmovable, physically imbedded principle of human experience), which he called the self. In Jung’s analysis, the self was often represented by a ring or a circle. In his scholarly works, and in recorded interviews captured toward the end of his life, Joseph Campbell speaks passionately about the importance of mandalas as symbols and expressions of the self and of life. Insofar as Thales, Jung and Campbell believed in unverified but accessible information contained within the psyche of every individual human being, which manifested their nature as symbols in the objective reality of our world, they agreed that water, at least theoretically, is representative of a basic nature regarding existence and experience that can be known by means observation and reason.

The Pre-Socratic philosophers, and the keepers of knowledge, like Aristotle, who followed in their footsteps, through record-keeping and conscious thought, laid the groundwork for, and the distinctions between, science, philosophy, mythology, religion and psychology that we so fight so desperately to keep separated in our own minds today. But what if Freud had not taken the religion out of science and enlisted the idea that mythology manifests factual evidence of the inner workings of every human mind? What if other psychologists and scholars had not built on this line of thinking? Where does mens rea enter any question of law? How do we define our standards for what is reasonable under a given set of circumstances? At what point do we draw the line between that which can be scientifically or rationally proven beyond doubt, and that which we refuse to acknowledge as fact? Perhaps it is better to take a cross-disciplinary, cross-cultural view of certain issues before trying judge them one way or another; in fact this seems to be the very reason lawyers exist. The purpose of a lawyer is to think critically, to rationalize, categorize and organize human behavior, and justify it from one perspective or another.

Our task as law students goes to the heart of what the first philosophers did for their own sense of virtue. At least virtue is the justification given to us by the early philosophers for their overanalyzing of what would seem like otherwise trivial matters (look to Pythagoris’s feelings on beans). As students, we might justify our own predispositions towards critical thinking and overanalyzing language by more practical measures; some of us have already decided on our professional ambitions, some are interested in highly specialized career paths, and maybe some of us want our J.D.s and our rights to practice law with the distinctions we deserve as learned professionals in a society made up of civilians haling from every class imaginable.

The philosophers of ancient Greece and the keepers of their words have passed on to us a manner of thinking, not just through the Socratic method or its variants, but in a generalized way of questioning the world we live in and learning from experience. We have been provided with many divergent methods of analysis to meet the end of understanding our world (religion, myth, psychology, science) but we have chosen the law as our specialized field to provide us with the most just terms available for our purposes as individuals.

Other philosophers from Miletus and the surrounding city-states in Ionia, as well as later Greek and western philosophers looked at the world around them, and wondered if it should be taken at face value. Their instincts, or rather their natural born capacity as human beings to reason, led them to question the “facts” that were presented to them by their senses. The first western philosopher of whom any record was kept, Thales, contributed relatively little to the collective great library that has been uncovered through many years of archaeology and scholarly research; and what we know of Thales survived only through those who thought his ideas worthy to remember, passed through the course of hundreds of years, maintaining their integrity long enough to enter the writings of Aristotle, an indirect successor of a standup philosopher we call Socrates, the benefactor of the man who immortalized his wisdom in writing, whose name we know as Plato.

What was Thales really trying to say about first principles and basic natures? Surely he didn’t conceive of water as an element in the sense that we, as scientifically educated modern human beings understand that word, or did he? Now, we know as fact that elements (or basic natures) belong on a chart. They are the basis of all that we consider matter. How is it possible that Thales, an ordinary, rational man, could have conceived of such a modern scientific concept six to eight hundred years B.C.E.? If we were to ask Carl Jung, or Joseph Campbell this question they would point us to the inner workings of our own minds for an answer, and I hope that this article will accomplish a similar goal. By this I mean that my hope is to cause reflection in other students, as well as professors, on their own reasons for continuing to study and practice the ancient traditions of law and reason.