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The Merits of the Milesians

Chad Trainer seeks out the causes of the birth of Western philosophy.

Enthusiasts of ancient Greek culture are frequently under the impression that Greek philosophy and mythology are closely linked. However, in spite of the fact that particular Greek philosophies such as Platonism can seem amalgams of philosophy and mythology, the origins of Greek philosophy were quite secular. Indeed, the philosophers of the port city Miletus in Ionia (now in Turkey) were considered philosophers because they consciously abandoned mythological accounts in explaining cosmic processes and features. In this respect the Milesian philosophers attained a fineness of thought not reached by earlier Asian traditions.

Why Start There Then?

‘Greek philosophy’ did not originate on the Greek mainland. It actually began on the west coast of Asia Minor during the 6th century BC. That such an origin for philosophy is nevertheless properly called ‘Greek’ is explained by the fact that Mycenaean culture had spread from the Greek mainland to a colony in Ionia across the Aegean Sea. Mycenaean culture is the culture about which Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey speak. It existed in mainland Greece from 1600 to about 900 BC, when it was wiped out by the Dorian invasion. Yet while the Greek mainland was ravaged by warfare, Ionia survived as an authentic relic of a bygone Hellenic age. The Hellenic seaport of Miletus was the cradle of Ionian thinking, and therefore the cradle of Western thinking: Miletus contributed history’s first three recorded philosophers, namely, Thales (624-546 BC), his student Anaximander (610-545 BC), and Anaximenes (died about 528 BC). Appreciating that there must be something which abides amidst all the flux of the world, they all speculated about the primal element, ie, what the world is made from. Apart from fragments, none of the writings of Thales, Anaximander or Anaximenes survive. But that their thinking qualifies as philosophy seems clear from the reports furnished by later thinkers.

At the time, Miletus was the wealthiest and most powerful Greek city in Asia Minor. As W.K.C. Guthrie says:

“Miletus… had already existed for some five hundred years… [and] was a center radiating a tremendous energy. Ancient tradition hailed it as the mother of no less than ninety colonies, and modern research confirms the reality of about forty-five of them – in itself an astonishing number… Miletus possessed great wealth, which it had obtained both by acting as a trading center for materials and manufactured goods brought to the coast from inner Anatolia, and by the export of a variety of manufactures of its own. Milesian woollen goods were famous throughout Greek lands. Thus shipping, trade and industry combined to give this busy harbour-city a leading position and wide connexions, extending to the Black Sea in the north, Mesopotamia in the east, Egypt in the south and the Greek cities of South Italy in the west. Its government was aristocratic, and its leading citizens lived in an atmosphere of luxury and of a culture which may be broadly described as humanistic and materialistic in tendency.” (A History of Greek Philosophy Vol. I, 1962 pps29-30.)

Guthrie cites Miletus’ commercial success as having been too obviously the product of human agency for its inhabitants to consider divine providence a credible source of their prosperity. This may account for the Milesian philosophers’ lack of interest in a mythologically-based cosmology. Guthrie further explains that once this abandonment of mythological and theological explanations began, it “was facilitated by the fact that neither here nor in any other Greek state was freedom of thought inhibited by the demands of a theocratic form of society such as existed in the neighbouring Oriental countries.” Thus, the freedom of thought in which Greek philosophy was conceived and nurtured was the result of no particular class in Greece having a monopoly on the performance of religious rituals.

With the very essence of Greek philosophy’s inception being its abandonment of mythological explanations, Greek culture stands in stark contrast to the cultures of Egypt, Babylon or Persia. Whatever science existed in these other cultures was in the possession of the priesthoods, and therefore intermixed with religious institutions. In the Greek culture however, “For religious faith there is substituted the faith that was and remains the basis of scientific thought, with all its triumphs and all its limitations: that is, the faith that the visible world conceals a rational and intelligible order, that the causes of the natural world are to be sought within its boundaries, and that autonomous human reason is our sole and sufficient instrument for the search.” (A History of Greek Philosophy, Vol. I, p29.)

Language and Mentality

To say that the Milesian philosophers substituted a faith in reason for religious faith is not to claim that they completely broke with their past. Rather, the development from myth to philosophy is a continuum, and involves interpenetration of the two. Yet many who draw attention to the acknowledgement of divinity apparent in the language of the Milesian philosophers overestimate how religious these philosophers really were. To be sure, Thales made proclamations like “all things are full of gods,” and “the magnet has a soul because it moves iron,” and Anaximander said that his ‘indeterminate boundless’ was ‘divine’. But it would be a mistake to simply conclude that the Milesian philosophers were ‘spiritualists’. When speaking of the pre-Socratic philosophers, Aristotle plainly stated: “Of the first philosophers, most thought the principles which were of the nature of matter were the only principles of all things.”

Talking about the Milesian philosophers, Frederick Copleston makes the cautionary observation that “The antithesis between spirit and matter had not yet been grasped; so that, although they were de facto materialists… they can scarcely be termed materialists in our sense of the word. It is not as though they conceived a clear distinction between spirit and matter, and then denied it; they were not fully conscious of the distinction, or at least they did not realise its implications” (A History of Philosophy: Greece and Rome, 1946, p20, see also p27). A hard and fast distinction between matter and mind/spirit had not yet fixed itself in the Greek mentality – so we cannot consider the Milesians ‘dogmatic materialists’ either. (‘Hylozoism’, or ‘panpsychism’, are more apt designations for the type of metaphysics prevailing prior to Anaxagoras.)

Nevertheless, in the seventh chapter of her book Thales of Miletus: The Beginnings of Western Science and Philosophy, Patricia O’Grady of Australia’s Flinders University discusses how there is no evidence to suggest that Thales believed in a “separate divine spiritual being,” “the idea of gods in a religious sense,” or “any supernatural powers”; nor is there any reason to believe that Thales believed in the immortality of the human soul. Impressions to the contrary are explicable in terms of Plato’s artful misrepresentations, a misconception of Aristotle’s, the dearth of a philosophic vocabulary, and considerations of political prudence. Anaximander and Anaximenes are reported to have referred to the primordial or ultimate reality as ‘divine’. However, not too much should be made about such designations. For something to be eligible for divinity in that era, it only had to be an everlasting source of motion.

Guthrie is careful to point out the lack of a clear distinction between matter and mind/spirit in the minds of the Milesians, but he also emphasizes that “Poetic and religious cosmogonies had preceded the schemes of the Milesians, and the basic assumptions of these can be detected beneath the hypotheses of their philosophical successors” (in an article on Pre-Socratic Philosophy for Paul Edwards’ Encyclopedia of Philosophy vol. 6, 1967, p442). Guthrie’s considered view, though, is that “Consciously, the revolt of the Milesian philosophers against both the content and the method of mythology was complete… the achievement of abandoning divine agencies for physical causes working from within the world itself can hardly be overestimated.”

Thales is famed for his theory that the world was made of water. He is credited with learning geometry in Egypt, further developing the subject, and introducing it to the Greeks. He differed from the myth-makers by feeling a need to justify what he said rationally. It was probably his mathematical studies, and the sense of the sufficiency of reason they generated, which prompted Thales to abandon myth when discussing the world ’s primal cause.

This lack of a felt need to posit a supernatural order to explain the physical order is Western philosophy ’s earliest exercise in metaphysical economy. It is to Thales’ credit that he sought to simplify explanations of natural phenomena by discerning that which unifies the totality of reality and depicting it as simply as possible, even if he erred on the side of oversimplification. Thales clearly marks the beginning of rational explanations in place of mythological ones. As such, he marks the beginning of Greek philosophy.

A significant advance in Anaximander’s philosophy is his appreciation of what is not perceivable. Anthony Gottlieb puts it well in his history of philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance, The Dream of Reason, pointing out that in a sense what Anaximander did not see is even more important than what he did see: “He realized that the best accounts of nature could not always rely on what was directly observable, but sometimes had to dig deeper. Instead of Thales ’ water, he postulated something invisible as the arche, or basic stuff, of the world. If the philosophy of Thales demonstrated one essential facet of scientific thinking, namely the urge to simplify and reduce observable phenomena, Anaximander’s work exemplified an additional and equally fundamental one: science says there is more to the world than meets the eye.”

Anaximander’s invisible, underlying substance was also spatially boundless. This being so, he reasoned that worlds could arise in it elsewhere than with us. This revolutionary idea is fatal to the notion of an absolute up and down in the universe. Anaximander also developed a complex cosmology based on the idea of a cylindrical earth surrounded by rotating wheels. Also, Anaximander’s speculations on the origin of the human race are deemed by O’Grady “the earliest extant record of a theory describing the origin of man without the benefit of recourse to supernatural powers.”

Finally, Anaximenes can seem the least impressive of the three Milesians, and his contentment to revert to a more conventional element like air as the world’s ultimate substance can make him seem less sophisticated than Anaximander. However, “Anaximenes makes differences of quality or kind depend on differences of quantity or number: the variety of elements is explained by the varying amounts of air packed into them. The practicing of reducing the colourful diversity of the world to such quantitative notions is one that runs more or less continuously from Anaximenes to the scientists of today. But the idea behind it, that the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics, did not reach full expression until Galileo and Newton in the seventeenth century” (Anthony Gottlieb, The Dream of Reason, 2000, p15).

Gottlieb says generally that “On the whole, the first exponents of naturalism are notable more for the firmness of their rejection of mythological accounts of nature than for the details of their own alternatives,” yet also “However naïve and extraordinary many views of the three oldest Greek thinkers may seem to us, it marks a powerful, fundamental change from a mythical conception to a natural, that is scientific, explanation of the world, when Iris [the rainbow], who is in Homer a living person, the messenger of the Gods, is here transformed into a physically explainable, atmospheric phenomenon” (p19).

So with Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes, philosophy was off to a good start. Their philosophies seem remarkably free of the extra-rational influences of religion, even if linguistic hold-overs from more religious eras are imbedded in their word choices. Overall, the role they accord reason in attempting to discern the nature of reality is one of robust autonomy, free from mythological accounts.

Setbacks and Substrata

For all the advance this break with mythology marked, Greek philosophy was not even a century old when the mythological traditions effectively pounced on it.

Croesus the Lydian had ruled all of Asia Minor west of the Halys. Under his reign the Greek cities there had apparently enjoyed a substantial amount of autonomy. However, Cyrus the Great, the Persian king, marched against Lydia, capturing its capital Sardis in 547 or 546BC. The Ionian Greek cities, previously subject to the Lydian king, were now subordinate to Cyrus, and acquiesced to his rule, which was justified in terms of Persian religion. “With the decline of Miletus, the focus of philosophical activity moved westward for a while, to the Greek colonies of southern Italy. In so doing, it underwent a sea-change: dispassionate discussions of the weather were supplemented by ruminations on the destiny of the soul and on the proper way to live” (The Dream of Reason, p17). And in the case of the Pythagorean school especially, Ionian philosophy succumbed to mythological lore and considerations of salvation, thereby largely reversing the advance the early Milesians had achieved.

If the essence of philosophy’s origin was when non-rational (ie non-criticizable) theories were discarded, then subsequent instances of speculation, when myth is embraced and incorporated, necessarily mark a cessation or suspension of true philosophic activity. For this reason we should celebrate the Milesian phase of Ionian philosophy not just as a good start, but as among the more glittering of ancient philosophy’s golden ages. The Milesians are the first thinkers to employ the idea of a material principle or substratum as a reasoned account of reality, and with this, genuine philosophy begins.

© Chad Trainer 2008

Chad Trainer is an independent scholar engaged in a study of ideas and arguments from the history of philosophy.

What The Three Milesians Thought

Pre-Socratic Greek philosophy was obsessed with discovering the principle (arche), that is, the underlying stuff of nature which remains the same through all the changes the visible, apparent world goes through. These are the three Milesians’ theories about what the world is ultimately made from:

Thales: According to Aristotle, Thales believed the world to be made from water, although it’s unclear whether he literally meant water or liquid more generally. Aristotle said this view derived from “seeing the nurture of all things to be moist.”

Anaximander: In a lost book Thales’ pupil called the ultimate stuff the apeiron, translated as ‘the indeterminate’, ‘the limitless’ or ‘the boundless’. Being the source of all the opposing elements of nature it had no definite qualities itself. This is similar to Taoist views on the hidden ultimate source of natural differences.

Anaximenes: Anaximander’s pupil also thought the underlying reality was ‘one and infinite’, but it did have qualities, being air. It changed into different things such as stone or fire by getting denser or thinner, yet remained the same element.

Later pre-Socratics expanded and complicated concepts of the fundamental nature of the world. For instance, Empedocles (c 492-432 BC) came up with the four elements theory of earth, air, fire and water, popularly accepted in the Middle Ages. The elements were moved by ‘love’ and ‘strife’. Aristotle added a fifth element, or quintessence, which was spirit. We have quanta as our arche, for now.

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