THE PRESOCRATIC PERIOD

The Milesians: Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes

map Miletus is in present-day Turkey.

Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes were from the city of Miletus in Asia Minor on the coast of the Aegean Sea. The lines of influence are not easy to reconstruct, but subsequent intellectual activity within the Presocratic Period seems to have radiated eastward from Miletus.

The description 'Presocratic' originates with Hermann Diels. His collection of the evidence for early Greek philosophy, first published in 1903, is entitled Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker (The Fragments of the Presocratics). The point is not about who lived when. Many of the Presocratics lived before Socrates, but he overlapped with some of them, and one, at least, Democritus, seems to have outlived him. The point, rather, is that Socrates represents a change in focus in the history of philosophy. Whereas Socrates turned attention to questios about how to live, the focus in the Presocratic Period was more on what would come to be called the "natural" world.

The Enlightenment Attitude

These dates are based on reports in later in the history. Herodotus (5th century BCE) says that Thales predicted a solar eclipse whose occurrence changed the outcome of a war between the Lydians and the Medes. The eclipse is thought to be the one that occurred in 585 BCE. Diogenes Laertius (3rd century CE) reports that Apollodorus of Athens (2nd century BCE) says that Anaximander was sixty-four in 546 BCE, that Anaximenes was Anaximander's student, and that Apollodorus says that Anaximenes died in 528 BCE. • Thales of Miletus (active in the second half of the 7th century and the first decades of the 6th century BCE)
• Anaximander (active in the middle of the 6th century BCE)
• Anaximenes (active in the middle to the early part of the 6th century BCE)
Dates for the early Presocratics are estimated relative to the "acme" (ἀκμή) or "point of greatest achievement," which is assumed to be at age forty. Thus "Thales (fl. c. 585 BCE)" assumes that at age forty his predication of the eclipse of 585 BCE was "the point of greatest achievement" in his life.

The abbreviation "fl. c." abbreviates the Latin floruit (a form of floreo ("to bloom")) and circa ("around").

The Presocratic Period is marked by a new way of thinking. Trade in the Eastern Mediterranean Basin was making it increasingly clear that there were different ways of life and beliefs about the world and the place of human beings in it. In the light of these alternatives, the received wisdom and traditional practices no longer seemed so obviously correct. At the same time, there was confidence that it was possible to know the truth about these things if instead of accepting the authority of traditional thought, one were to think carefully enough. In this way, in the ancient Greek city of Miletus, the circumstances were right for the introduction of a new, more objective way of thinking about the world and why things happen in the ways they do.

Hesiod and the Theologists

• Hesiod (active in the middle of 8th century BCE to middle of the 7th century BCE, younger contemporary of Homer).

Zeus hurling a thunderbolt, amphora, 480-470 BCE.

Hesiod's Theogony and Works and Days are the earliest examples Greek "didactic" poetry. The adjective διδακτικός means "apt at teaching, educational."

Theogony describes the origin of the world and the genealogies of the gods. Works and Days describes daily life and work in an agricultural setting against the background of a religious calendar.
In the history of ancient Greek thought, Hesiod represents the older and traditional way of thinking about the world and the place of human beings in it. This way of thinking conceives of things that happen in the world in terms of Zeus and the pantheon of traditional gods.

The following is an example of the sort of understanding that characterizes this tradition:

(1) Rain is a manifestation of the mind of Zeus.
(2) Zeus wills that it rain.
----
(3) It is raining.

"Zeus who thunders aloft..." (Hesiod, Works and Days 8).



Hesiod and the theologists, as Aristotle understands them, identify the "starting-points" (ἀρχαί) in reality and explain other things in terms of these starting-points.

Because ἀρχή is translated into Latin as principium, ἀρχή is sometimes translated as 'principle' or 'first principle.'
"The school of Hesiod, and all the theologists (θεολόγοι), ... make the starting-points (ἀρχὰς) gods or generated from gods" (Aristotle, Metaphysics III.4.1000a).

In this traditional way of thinking, events in the world that unfold in a regular way are understood in terms of the intentional activity of a mind or intellect. Rain, in this way of thinking, is a manifestation of the mind of the god, Zeus. He wills not only the regular coming of the rains with the seasons, but also destructive storms and droughts when it suits him.

Thales and the Milesian Naturalists

"Thales, the founder of this sort of philosophy (φιλοσοφίας), says that it [= the starting-point (ἀρχή)] is water..." (Aristotle, Metaphysics I.3.983b).

"Of those who say that the starting-point (ἀρχήν) is one and movable, to whom Aristotle applies the distinctive name of physicists (φυσικοὺς), some say it is limited; as, for instance, Thales of Miletus, son of Examyes, and Hippo [of Samos] who seems also to have lost belief in the gods. These say that the starting-point is water..." (Simplicius, following Theophrastus, Commentary on Aristotle's Physics IX.23.21).

The Milesian inquirers into nature (Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes) exemplify the enlightenment attitude that was taking root in the ancient world. Instead of relying on the traditional thought and received wisdom represented by the older school of Hesiod and the theologists, Thales and the Milesians tried to think explain things in a new way.


Theophrastus succeeded Aristotle as head of the Lyceum. Aristotle and Theophrastus are the source for most of what is known about the "beliefs" (δόξαι) of the Presocratics.

Simplicius of Cilicia (late 4th to mid 5th century CE) was one of the last Neoplatonists. The details of his connection to the Presocratics are complicated, but the primary points are these. The Neoplatonists thought of themselves in part as recovering the true philosophy Plato had been the last to see most clearly. The object was philosophical truth, not historical fact. To understand Aristotle, who was strongly influenced by Plato, but who also criticized Plato, the Neoplatonists settled for a middle ground that allowed them to treat Aristotle as an authority on logic and physics, but not on the higher realms of reality. Simplicius, in discussing Aristotle, quotes some of the Presocratic philosophers Aristotle discusses. For these quotations, Simplicius seems to have relied on summaries in Theophrastus' work on the Presocratics. (Theophrastus (late 4th to late 3rd century BCE) succeeded Aristotle as head of the Lyceum, the school Aristotle founded in 335 BCE.) Theophrastus' work has almost been entirely lost, but Theophrastus' discussions of the Presocratics were summarized by Alexander of Aphrodisias. (Alexander of Aphrodisias (second to third century CE) was an Aristotelian commentator who aimed to articulate and defend Aristotle's philosophy.) These summaries too have been lost, but some extracts are preserved in Simplicius' commentaries on Aristotle's work. The Neoplatonists knew and consulted Alexander's work in their attempt to incorporate Aristotle's philosophy into their reconstruction of the true philosophy Plato had been the last to glimpse.
Thales and the Milesians tried to explain "natural" phenomena (as we now describe the phenomena in our debt to them) in terms of changes in an underlying "nature" (φύσις) of things. Their effort became known as the "inquiry into nature" and their explanations were different from those in the older school of thought represented by Hesiod and the theologists.

The Explanations in terms of Nature

Aristotle (who lived in 4th century BCE, roughly two hundred years after the eclipse Thales predicted) provides much of the evidence for this interpretaiton. He refers to Thales and the Milesians as φυσιολόγοι and to the theologists as θεολόγοι (Metaphysics I.5.986b; Metaphysics III.4.1000a), as "those who talk about nature" and "those who talk about the gods."

Anaximenes is an example of someone "who talks about nature."

"Anaximenes... declares that the underlying nature... is air. It differs in rarity and density according to the things that it becomes. Becoming finer it comes to be fire; being condensed it comes to be wind, then cloud, and when still further condensed it becomes water, then earth, then stones, and the rest come to be out of these" (Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle's Physics = DK 13 A 5).

This understanding, in the case of rain, takes the following form:

(1) Rain is condensed air.
(2) The air is condensed.
----
(3) It is raining.

In this understanding, there is no mention of the traditional gods. Anaximenes explains rain in terms of the underlying nature. This challenged the traditional understanding of regularity and paved the way for the development of science as knowledge about "nature."

The Ancient Philosophical Tradition

The older way of thinking in Hesiod and the theologists is sometimes said to be "mythological," whereas the new way of Thales and the Milesian inquirers into nature is said to be "rational." This judgment has its basis in the high value the new way places on the use of argument and counterargument both to establish explanations about how the world works and to defend these explanations against various challenges.

"The school of Hesiod, and all the theologists, considered only what was convincing to themselves, and gave no consideration to us" (Aristotle, Metaphysics III.4.1000a).
A philosophical tradition came into existence with Thales and the Milesians. To understand the new inquiry into nature and how it provided a more secure understanding than the one in the older way of thinking, a tradition of asking and trying to answer philosophical questions arose in the Greek world. This tradition began with Thales and his fellow Milesian inquirers, but they themselves may not have been the first philosophers in this tradition. There is some indeterminacy in what counts as a "philosophical" question, but given what philosophy is in the contemporary context of a university and given what is known about Thales, it seems that the questions he asked and tried to answer belong more to the discipline of physics than to that of philosophy.





Perseus Digital Library:

One of the historical barriers to the study of ancient Greek philosophy has been the price of translations. Now, however, thanks to many generous grants and the dedication of many individuals there are translations freely available online.

Hesiod's Theogony, Works and Days

The noun ἱστορία was the traditional term for an investigation that aims for understanding. It transliterates as history and eventually became restricted to historical investigations due in part to the influence of the Histories of Herodotus (484-425 BCE). He describes his conclusions as the result of an "inquiry." He writes, in the opening sentence, that "[t]his is the display of the inquiry (ἱστορίης) of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, so that things done by man not be forgotten in time, and that great and marvelous deeds, some displayed by the Hellenes, some by the barbarians, not lose their glory, including among others what was the cause (αἰτίην) of their waging war on each other."

In the Phaedo, Socrates sets out his intellectual autobiography. He says that in his youth he was very interested in the inquiry into nature. "When I was young, Cebes, I was tremendously eager for the kind of wisdom which they call inquiry about nature (περὶ φύσεως ἱστορίαν)" (Phaedo 96a).

The noun φύσις is the etymological root of the English word physics. The translation φύσις in English as nature is through the earlier translation of φύσις into Latin as natura.

Another barrier to the study of ancient Greek philosophy was access to a dictionary. The unabridged A Greek-English Lexicon was not only expensive but long. It is over two thousand pages. This made it about a foot thick and difficult to use. Now, thanks again to grants and dedicated individuals, the Lexicon is available online in a searchable format.

Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon:
ἀρχή, archē, noun, "beginning,"
θεόλογος, theologos, noun, "one who discourses about the gods,"
ἱστορία, historia, noun, "inquiry,"
φιλοσοφία, philosophia, noun, "love of wisdom," (Cicero, On Duties II.5),
φυσικός, physikos, adjective, "natural,"
φυσιόλογος, physiologos, noun, "one who discourses about nature,"
φύσις, physis, noun, "nature"
αἰτία, aitia, noun, "responsibility,"
αἴτιος, aitios, adjective, "responsible"

Charlton T. Lewis, Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary:
natura, noun, "nature"
principium, noun, "a beginning"

Arizona State University Library. Loeb Classical Library:
Hesiod's Theogony, Works and Days
Early Greek Philosophy, Volume II: Beginnings and Early Ionian Thinkers, Part 1
Cicero, On Duties


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