THE MILESIANS

Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes

Map of the Ancient World Miletus is located in what now is Turkey.

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."

This description originates with the 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 Presocratics did not all live before Socrates. Many did, but he overlapped some, and at least one, Democritus, seems to have outlived him. Socrates, however, as he is now understood (in an interpretive tradition established by the time of Cicero in the 1st century BCE), played a leading role in a new beginning in the history of philosophy. He was part of a surge of interest in questions about how to live that occurred in Athens in the 5th century BCE.

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 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 thing 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 traditional answers no longer seemed so obviously correct. This produced a certain amount of anxiety because it threatened to make the world unintelligible, but at the same time a confidence was emerging that it was possible to know the truth about things in terms of a new kind of answer that for its defense did not rely on the weight of authority. In this way, in the city of Miletus, the circumstances were right for the introduction of a more objective way of thinking about the world and the place of human beings in it.

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 traditional way of thinking about the world that Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes challenge. In this way of thinking, things that happen in the world are understood in terms of Zeus and the pantheon of traditional gods.

The following is an example (in the form of an argument) of how, according to the traditional way of thinking, someone would understand why the rains come and go as they do:

(1) Rain is a manifestation of the mind of Zeus.
(2) Zeus is in the frame of mind for it to be raining.
----
(3) It is raining.

In this traditional way of thinking, events in the world that unfold in a regular way indicate intelligence and rational design. Rain, in this way of thinking, is one of the ways the god, Zeus, shows himself to mortals. He is the cause of 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. Aristotle does this too. His objection is to the mythology.

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 represented in Hesiod and the theologists, they tried to explain things in a new way.


Theophrastus (late 4th to late 3rd century BCE) succeeded Aristotle (4th century BCE) as head of the Lyceum, the school Aristotle founded in 335 BCE. Aristotle and Theophrastus are the source of 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 Platonists. The details of his connection to the Presocratics are complicated, but the primary points are these. The Platonists thought of themselves in part as recovering the true philosophy Plato had been the last to see most clearly. To understand Aristotle, who was strongly influenced by Plato, but who also criticized Plato, the Platonists settled for a middle ground that allowed them to treat Aristotle as an authority on logic and physics, but not on knowledge about 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' work has been almost 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 were preserved in Simplicius' commentaries on Aristotle's work. Simplicius and the Platonists 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).

Thales and the Milesians tried to explain "natural" phenomena (as we now describe the phenomena in our debt to them) in terms of what they understood as "nature" (φύσις). Their effort became known as the "inquiry into nature" (ἡ περὶ φύσεως ἱστορία).

The Explanations in terms of Nature

The evidence for this interpretation goes back to Aristotle (who lived in 4th century BCE, roughly two hundred years after the eclipse Thales predicted). 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 nature." 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 is better than the older way of thinking about the world in Hesiod and the theologists, a tradition of asking and answering philosophical questions arose.

In this way, the ancient Greek philosophical tradition is a historical phenomenon. In the context of the conflict between the answers in the various traditions and the search for more objective answers in the inquiry into nature, a new discipline of philosophy emerged out of the desire for a kind of understanding of the world and the place of human beings in it that could be discovered, established, and defended independently of the need for the weight of authority.

How this understanding is established, what it shows about the world and human beings, and whether it is even possible, are questions the new philosophical tradition tries to answer.





One of the things in the past that made the study of ancient Greek philosophy difficult was the price of translations and the editions of the orginal texts. Now, thanks to generous grants and the dedication of many individuals, many translations and editions of the orginal texts are freely available online.

Perseus Digital Library (a library of literature and culture of the Greco-Roman world):
Hesiod's Theogony, Works and Days










The noun ἱστορία was the traditional term for an investigation that aims for understanding. It transliterates as historia 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 says that in his youth but now no longer 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.

We do not need to think too much in this course about the language in which the Greek philosophers wrote, but I provide links to the dictionary meanings of some words (and some of their Latin translations) because they are interesting.

Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon:
ἀρχή, archē, noun, "beginning"
θεολογία, theologia, noun, "science of the divine"
θεολογικός, theologikos, adjective, "relating to the science of the divine"

θεολογικός is a denominative (adjective formed from a 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, (φυσικός is a denominative of φύσις)
φυσιόλογος, physiologos, noun, "one who discourses about nature"
φύσις, physis, noun, "nature"

θεόλογος and φυσιόλογος are compound words. θεός ("god") +‎ λόγος ("discourse"). φύσις ("nature") + λόγος ("discourse"). λόγος is a verbal noun from λέγω ("say, speak").

αἰτία, aitia, noun, "accusation"
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



I am not concerned in these lecture notes with the modern commentary, but in the end sections I sometimes include passages from Michael Frede's work that have influenced the way I have come to think about ancient philosophy.

"Philosophy is a historical phenomenon. It emerges out of a need to have a certain kind of answer to certain questions, for instance questions as to the origin of the world as we know it. "... questions as to the origin of the world as we know it." Questions about why the world is the way it is. It obviously would be very frightening to live in a world in which the behavior of things, especially where it affected one's life, seemed completely unintelligible. There were traditional answers available to such questions, in fact, various traditions provide answers. But these answers were in conflict with one another. Thus, as people became aware of the different traditions and their conflict, the traditional answers began to fail to satisfy people's need to feel they have a secure understanding of the world in which they live, of nature, of social and political organizations, of what makes communities and individuals behave the way they do. What were needed were answers of a new kind, answers that one could defend, that one could show to superior to competing answers, that one could use to persuade others, so as to reestablish some kind of consensus" (Michael Frede, "The Philosopher," 3. Greek thought: A Guide to Classical Knowledge, 3-16).




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