How Landscapes Shape the Way We Think

A few years ago, my wife, Sarah, and I went on a sailing trip on the eastern Aegean. It was heaven: The two of us out at sea, charting a course between Greek islands and the coast of Turkey, taking turns helming the boat and dozing below, surrounded by all the glittering blue of the sea.

As we hopped from port to port, I couldn’t help but notice that the names of many of the places we passed were familiar to me, as I had come across them in my work as a historian. Thirty or forty miles to the south of our boat was Miletus, the birthplace of some of the first recorded theorists of the physical world. Twenty miles to the east in Ephesus was the home of Heraclitus, the earliest person whose reflections on the interrelatedness of things have come down to us. Across a nearby peninsula, just 70 miles away, was Lesbos, the island of Sappho and Alcaeus, the greatest early lyric poets. To the south in Samos was the birthplace of Pythagoras, an early theorist of an everlasting soul.

It struck me that not so far out of view from the cockpit of our small boat was the whole province in which Greek philosophy had begun. Those gray-blue masses of island and mainland hid within them the thinkers’ cities.

There, afloat on the water, I began wondering about the relationship of places and ideas — how places can open up the way we think and feel, and give access to minds, however distant and strange. I realized then that philosophy has a geography. To be in the places these thinkers knew, visit their cities, sail their seas and find their landscapes is to know something about them that cannot be found otherwise; and despite that locatedness, and despite their age, the frame of mind of these first thinkers remains astonishingly and surprisingly illuminating today.

But why here and why then? Several centuries earlier, the great near-eastern civilizations of the Bronze Age, in Mesopotamia, Egypt, eastern Turkey and Crete, had all collapsed or nearly so. A wild and anarchic period of petty kings and sea pirates — the world, essentially, portrayed by Homer in “The Iliad”— had followed. But then, from about 650 B.C. onward, there was an emergence and a renaissance, as a constellation of independent harbor cities started to emerge in the eastern Aegean. They were mainly merchant oligarchies, often deeply skeptical of the virtues of monarchy, dependent more on trade than agriculture,absorbing the ancient wisdom from the earlier civilizations to the east but crucially not dominated by them. The trading Greeks could take what they wanted (math, astronomy, sculpture, temples, alphabetic writing, the making of gold and silver jewelry) but remain independent.

Above all, the Greeks were not subject to vast instituted kingly and priestly bureaucracies. A mental freedom coursed through their cities. They were adventurous, expert sailors and shipbuilders, sending expeditions out to the far north of the Black Sea and to the western end of the Mediterranean, taking olives and vines to southern France, bringing back shiploads of silver from the great mines of southern Spain, lacing the Mediterranean with the bright wakes their poetry celebrated.

Entrepreneurial qualities governed them: inventiveness, a sprightliness of mind, a new athleticism, a certain fluidity of thought, a desire to rule themselves, to generate their own systems of law and regulate their turbulent lives and to find justice by accommodating difference.

These harbor cities were the homes of the people generally considered to be the first philosophers, with lives dependent on the sea and on the connections the sea could provide. This version of Greece in the centuries between 700 and 500 was not land-based. It essentially existed at sea and, where it touched the land, it appeared and manifested itself as the cities from which these philosophers came.

What we think of now as the mainland of Greece, then filled with communities of farmer-warriors, played essentially no part. Recorded philosophy was almost entirely a harbor phenomenon, a byproduct of trading hubs on the margins of Asia, on the islands, and eventually in the rich lands of Sicily and southern Italy. Its creators were from the mobile edges, merchants in ideas, people from communities in which exchange was the medium of significance and for whom inherited belief was not enough.

Those mercantile qualities of fluidity and connectedness were precisely the governing aspects of the new thought. The philosophers’ emphasis was on interchange and, in Heraclitus in particular, the virtues of tension. Just as in a bow, he wrote, the string pulls against the frame, and would collapse if either string or frame failed; a just society needs to be founded on a tension between its constituent parts. Everything flowed through everything else, multiplicity was goodness and singularity the grounds of either sterility or tyranny.

There is nothing stiff about this way of thinking. These early Greek forms of thought cross all the boundaries between poet and thinker, mystic and scientist, in a rolling, cyclical, wave-based vision of the nature of reality. The thinkers did not provide a set of rationalist solutions nor of religious doctrines, but again and again explored the borderland between those ways of seeing. Possibility and inquiry, the effects of suggestion and implication, rather than unconsidered belief or blank assertion, were the seedbed for the new ideas.

This harbor mind holds lessons for us now. We may want fixed answers and rigid definitions. but vitality — and perhaps even health — lies in the ability to stay afloat, stay loose, stay connected, stay with the questions and entertain doubt as the unlikely bedrock of understanding. The only understanding is in the fluidity of mind.

Who would have guessed that a few days setting sail in the cool of a Greek morning, dropping anchor in sandy, eye-blue bays, and swimming in the shade of olive trees on shore with sheep bells ticktocking beside us, could have started to change my mind about the fundamental nature of things? But it did.

And if anyone asks me why I now think as I do, I can answer: Because I once went sailing in the sea where philosophy began.

Mr. Nicolson is an English author who writes about history, landscape, great literature and the sea. His latest book is “How to Be: Life Lessons From the Early Greeks.”

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