That truth should be silent I had almost forgot.
Antony and Cleopatra,  Act 1, Scene 2

Unsilent Truth
May 28, 2017

“Thank you for your service”

2600 years of benefaction


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Anything approaching a fully satisfactory explanation of the phenomena of knowledge requires the co-operative efforts of all those who believe that there is a world of real existence independent of human minds and that this real existence can be truly known as it really is.

— Francis Parker, "Realistic Epistemology"

On Memorial Day, we Americans like to celebrate all of the citizens of this country we got killed in our many wars.

I also wish to celebrate a war — more particularly a battle — but not one fought by Americans. This one was fought 2602 years ago on May 28, 565 BC. We owe our knowledge of the event to Herodotus (The Histories, Book 1, 74), written a little more than a hundred years after the event: In the early 6th century, war broke out "between the Lydians and the Medes, and continued for five years, with various success. In the course of it the Medes gained many victories over the Lydians, and the Lydians also gained many victories over the Medes. Among their other battles there was one night engagement. As, however, the balance had not inclined in favour of either nation, another combat took place in the sixth year, in the course of which, just as the battle was growing warm, day was of a sudden changed into night. This event had been foretold by Thales, the Milesian, who forewarned the Ionians of it, fixing for it the very year in which it actually took place. The Medes and Lydians, when they observed the change, ceased fighting, and were alike anxious to have terms of peace agreed on."

This was the first solar eclipse to have been correctly predicted, and just how Thales was able to make it is not clear. In his day, it was not yet known how eclipses occurred. But as Herodotus tells us, he predicted that it would occur the year before it happened.

Now, if you think that a year represents a pretty big margin of predicting for an eclipse, you try it. Don't use the Internet or an almanac except to track previous eclipses. You have the advantage of knowing what causes eclipses, and if you got through a 9th-grade algebra class, you have mathematical tools and skills at your disposal unknown to Thales. Write me if you are successful.

What I want readers to come to appreciate is that this particular eclipse demonstrated that the movements of the celestial bodies were orderly, that there was order in the universe that went beyond the regularity of planting seasons and the overflowing of rivers. It also demonstrated that the human intellect is capable of discerning that order. It is not too much to say that the occurrence of that eclipse may mark the birth of philosophy and of science.

Twins sometimes find themselves at odds with one another. One thinks of Romulus and Remus, and perhaps Polynices and Eteocles. Certainly Esau and Jacob. And, at least for now, it seems that the younger twin — in this case, science — has the upper hand. It can never vanquish its older brother for the simple reason that it depends on principles philosophy has given it for all of its accomplishments, but let us not dwell on that for now.

And there is a third sibling, a sister, in the mix. Because it is possible to "predict" celestial events backwards, we have a date for the battle Herodotus described. He himself could probably not have dated the event more precisely than he did. But because of the eclipse, this battle is the first event in ancient history that can be precisely dated. Historia may therefore, if she wishes, date her beginnings also from this event.

Since Thales' day, there have been countless intellects studying, learning, discovering, teaching us ever-new principles, formulating new ideas, refining our knowledge of the past. When you think that so much of what you take for granted had to be discovered or invented by someone — alphabets, cursive writing, musical notation, food preservation, number systems, surgery, cartography, buildings that don't fall down in the wind, even knowing when your own birthday is — it should take your breath away. And those few items and skills don't begin to capture our debt to intellects that have gone before us.

Then there are the monks, scribes, publishers, teachers, and academics who originated nothing, but preserved what they had been given and passed it along. There were the great universities that brought geniuses together — whose idea was that? Probably not a genius's. And before them, libraries.

Still, in the face of achievements that should dazzle our imaginations, there are those who dare to assert that knowledge is impossible, or not real, that the mind is an illusion or epiphenomenon. That reality is illusion. That logic and reason are "limited" (by which they do not mean that they have an identity, but rather that they are to be deprecated). They dare to say this in books that they themselves believe they can see and read, that they believe that others can read and understand, using alphabets they could never have created and an index system they could never have imagined. Hoping that glue they could not have invented will hold together pages they could not have manufactured (turning trees into conveyors of knowledge?!?).

Such academics and "intellectuals" should be despised among civilized men, as we despise embezzlers and rapists. They belong with the warmakers who destroy civilizations, cities, cathedrals, museums, and individual lives.

But I did not mean to talk about them. I meant rather to keep my focus on the benefactors of our intellects, from Thales, to Aristotle, to Euclid, to Archimedes, to St. Aidan, to St. Thomas Aquinas, to Copernicus, to Isaac Newton, to Alexander Fleming and Louis Pasteur, to Henri Poincaré, to Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, to Ayn Rand, to James Watson. To the thousands like them whose names I have omitted, and the millions who preserved their work, passed it on, and built on it. To those like Tycho Brahe, who put his wealth at the disposal of other men whose abilities surpassed his own, but whose love of learning did not and who owed their discoveries to his magnanimity.

To all of them across the ages, I call on my readers to say, "Thank you for your service." Ω

May 28, 2017

Published in 2017 by WTM Enterprises.

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