Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes

Map of the Ancient World Miletus is located in what now is Turkey. (If you want to see the map in more detail, it will enlarge if you click on it.)

Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes are 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.

Their home in the city of Miletus explains why Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes are called Milesians, but it remains to know why they are called Presocratics.

It has been traditional since Aristotle to think that philosophy begins with Thales, but the description 'Presocratic' seems to originate with German classicist Hermann Diels (1848-1922). His collection of the evidence for early Greek philosophy, first published in 1903 and reissued in six editions, is entitled Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker (The Fragments of the Presocratics).

The title indicates an interpretation of the history, not who lived before Socrates. Many of the Presocratics did live before Socrates, but he overlapped with some of them, and at least one, Democritus, seems to have outlived him, but Socrates, as he is now traditionally understood (in an interpretive tradition that had already been established by the time of Cicero), marks a new beginning in the history of philosophy. The focus had been more on what would come to be called the "natural" world. Socrates called attention to questions about how to live.

In these lectures, I follow this general way of understanding the primary (but not only) lines of thought in the history of ancient Greek philosophy from the Presocratics to Socrates.

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 first think to know about the Thales and the Milesians is that they did something new.

Trade in the Eastern Mediterranean Basin had been 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 if instead of accepting the authority of traditional thought, one were to think carefully enough. In this way, in the ancient 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.

The Cyclopes ( Κύκλωπες) gave Zeus the thunderbolt to use in the war against the Titans. In the aftermath of the war, which the Titans lost, Zeus was allotted dominion of the sky, Poseidon dominion of the sea, and Pluto dominion in Hades (Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 1.2).

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

Hesiod's Theogony describes the origin of the world and the genealogies of the gods. Hesiod's Works and Days offers moralizing advice, mythical explanations of the human condition, and instruction in how to proceed in daily life and work in an agricultural society set against a religious calendar.
Hesiod is a representative of the older way of thinking about the world that Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes challenge. In the older way of thinking, things that happen in the world are understood in terms of Zeus and the pantheon of traditional gods.

In the older way of thinking, the following is an example in the form of an argument of how someone might understand why the rains come and go in the way they do:

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

In the older way of thinking, one understands events in the world that unfold in a regular way in terms of the intentional activities of minds or intellects. Rain, in this way of thinking, is one of the forms in which the god, Zeus, reveals himself. Zeus wills not only the regular coming of the rains with the seasons, but destructive storms and other forms of weather when it suits him.

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

As Aristotle understands them, the theologists identify the gods as the "starting-points" (ἀρχαί) in the explanation of other things, such as the coming and going of the rains.

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).

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).

Thales and his fellow Milesians (Anaximander and Anaximenes) are part of the enlightenment attitude that was taking root in the ancient world. Instead of relying on the traditional thought in the older school of Hesiod and the theologists, they try to 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.

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 description of the two ways of thinking reflects the high value Aristotle and those who follow in this tradition place on the use of argument and counterargument 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).

(For an attempt to see value in ways of thinking like that of Hesiod and the theologists, see the UNESCO statement on what it calls Local and Indigenous Knowledge Systems and describes in terms of the value these ways place on living in a " locally-appropriate sustainable" relation with the world.)
Thales and the Milesians try 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 interpretation. 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" (Theophrastus, quoted by 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.

Anaximenes makes no mention of the traditional gods. He explains rain in terms of the underlying air. This way of thinking about and trying to explain things challenged (but did not overturn) the traditional understanding of regularity in terms of minds or intellects and helped pave the way for the development of science as knowledge about "nature."

The Birth of a Philosophical Tradition

In addition to their importance in the history of science, Thales and the Milesians are important because with them a philosophical tradition came into existence. 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 this way although it is true that ancient Greek philosophical tradition begins with Thales, it is also true that he may not have been the first philosopher in this tradition. There is some indeterminacy in what issues belong to the discipline of philosophy, but given what is known about Thales (which is not much at all), there is reason to think 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 things that made the study of ancient Greek philosophy difficult in the past was the price of translations. Now, thanks to generous grants and the dedication of many individuals, translations are 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." (As topic sentences go, not many are more beautiful.)

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 was over a thousand pages long. 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"
θεολογία, θεολογία, noun, "science of the divine"
θεολογικός, theologikos, adjective, "relating to the science of the divine"

θεολογικός is a denominative (adjective formed from noun) of θεολογία.
For other examples -ικός to form adjectives, see Smyth 858.6a.
Herbert Weir Smyth's A Greek Grammar for Colleges (published in 1920) is a standard source for Greek Grammar.

θεόλογος, theologos, noun, "one who discourses about the gods"
ἱστορία, historia, noun, "inquiry"
φιλοσοφία, philosophia, noun, "love of wisdom"

"Those who seek after it are called philosophers; and philosophy (philosophia) is nothing else, if one will translate the word into our idiom, than the 'love of wisdom'" (Cicero, On Duties II.5)

"It is therefore true that wisdom is the mother of all good things; and from the Greek expression meaning “the love of wisdom” philosophy has taken its name" (Cicero, Laws I.58.)

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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