Ionia was a Greek colony in western Turkey founded around 3000 years ago by people looking for land and trading opportunities. This colony of several Greek cities has played a pivotal role in history in several ways. Not only is Ionia famous for rebelling against the Persians, but foundational ideas of science were formed in this place as well. In particular, a man named Thales played a critical part in the development of science.
Role of Greek gods
To understand the influence of Ionia and Thales, it is important to look at the worldview of these people. During this time, religion played a major role in the life of Greeks. The problem with this was not that it wasn’t scientific. The other problem was the erratic and licentious behavior of the Greek gods. Below are just a few examples from Greek mythology demonstrating the vengeful and wild behavior of Greek gods.
- Zeus could not control his behavior around women and was notorious for his unfaithfulness to his wife, Hera.
- Hera would often attack the women with whom Zeus was unfaithful by causing the death of the woman involved or persecuting the children of these adulterous relationships such as Heracles.
- Poseidon, the god of the sea, raped a woman in Athena’s temple. The victim was then turned into the hideous Medusa by Athena for desecrating her temple.
- Behind the scenes of the Trojan war, the gods were at work, not to mention in the many poems of Homer.
This list could go on for pages. The gods were crazy, to say the least. People tried to appease the gods through sacrifices and works. This was not always successful, and people were always looking for ways to obtain security from this.
Looking Towards Nature
Due to the perceived inconsistent behavior of the Greek gods, people began to look to other ways to understand the world, leading them to seek answers in nature. Nature, in comparison to the Greek gods, was somewhat regular in its behavior.
A major proponent of examining nature over mythology was Thales, a sixth-century Ionian who was one of the first philosopher-scientist. Thales looked at facts and observations to understand the world. He believed in trusting his senses rather than the supernatural explanations of his time. This could almost be viewed as a form of atheism. Thales was a well-traveled individual who was also one of the first to take credit for his ideas by writing his name on them. Thereby demonstrates an example of individualism, which was unusual at that time.
However, Thales was not just talk. He backed his position with several major innovations. For example, Thales accomplished several mathematical/scientific feats. Such as the following.
- He predicted a solar eclipse in 585 BC. This was important because ancient Greeks viewed solar eclipses as a sign of supernatural abandonment by their unpredictable gods. For Thales to predict such a sign was utterly unbelievable and showed a regularity to nature that the gods never showed.
- Using what would later become Geometry, Thales determined the height of buildings such as pyramids by measuring their shadows on the ground. This, of course, was revolutionary at the time.
- Thales also used Geometry to calculate how far a ship was from shore. This was a groundbreaking discovery as such knowledge was important for ships always concerned with running aground.
- Thales was also one of the first observed static electricity. He didn’t discover it, but he was one of the first to examine it scientifically.
The volume of work by this pre-Socratic philosopher was hard for people to ignore. His work encourages others to look beyond the supernatural to understand the world around them.
The Greek colony of Ionia was a place that contributed to modern scientific thought. In this colony, Thales began to look beyond the gods for answers and instead looked to nature. By doing so, not only did he make several major discoveries, but he also set an influential example of how people should learn about the world.