Like horse breeders and Hollywood studio executives, the early Greeks saw the world mostly as combinations and adaptations of past hits. Hesiod’s “Theogony,” for example, pitched Okeanos—the river that supposedly ran round the rim of the world—as “Earth meets Sky,” and imagined Sleep, Death and Blame as spinoffs of dark Night. In this epic creation story, written around the eighth century B.C., the familiar Olympian gods, such as Zeus and Athena, are knit together with Titans, nymphs and half-personified forces (Desire, Deceit) into a giant family tree. The personal isn’t political, it’s cosmic.
Then, around 600 B.C., on the western coast of what is now Turkey, emerged the first in a chain of thinkers who sought to explain the universe in nonmythical terms. Among these “pre-Socratics” or “phusikoi” (“naturalists”), as Aristotle called them, we can trace the first stirrings of systematic philosophy and science. They considered existence as a unified whole, addressing metaphysics as well as physics: How was the world made, and how many different ingredients did it take? What is essential and what is accidental? Can things be created or destroyed? The spark for this intellectual revolution isn’t clear, but in “How to Be: Life Lessons From the Early Greeks,” Adam Nicolson offers a circumstantial theory: what he calls the “harbor mind,” the openness and flexibility cultivated by life in a port city.
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