The Milesian School
mentioned last time, Miletus was a city state on the coast of the
Aegean sea in Ionia (modern day Turkey) which had served as the center
of the Ionian rebellion that sought freedom from the Persian Empire.
The first ancient Greek philosophers, Thales, Anaximander and
Anaximenes, were all from Miletus, and so they are known as the Milesian
School. They were primarily invested in cosmology, the order and
interaction of the elements, and observation of nature. In the ancient
world, cosmology and science were primarily passive observation. As the
Chinese, Muslims and then Europeans developed the mechanics and
mathematics of the modern world, science was increasingly driven by
active experimentation. Experimentation is still observation, but set
in an active arrangement.
Ionian city states such as Miletus were settled around 1000 BCE. By
600 BCE, just after the times of Homer and Hesiod, around the time of
Archilochos and Sappho, Miletus had become a wealthy center of trade
exchanging goods and ideas with the cities of Egypt, Persia, Western
Greece, and others such as what is today Libya and Italy. ‘Greece’ was
not yet a political entity at the time, but shared a Homeric culture
with other Greek city states such as Athens we discussed last time.
Miletus was ruled by an aristocracy, powerful families who had the
leisure to enjoy education and the arts. They had connections to the
empires of Egypt and Persia, shown by the influence of these empires on
science and art, but independence to develop a new culture out of what
was imported. The Milesians were known as daring sailors and traders.
In particular, that the first philosophers come from Miletus suggests
Persia had a particularly powerful influence, which would be
corroborated by Christianity (influenced by Persian Zoroastrianism)
spreading through Syria and Ionia to the rest of Greece and Egypt
centuries later. There was not much difference between Miletus and
Athens other than Miletus having been under the Persian Empire in the
centuries before its greatest thinkers arose.
was the first member of the Milesian School, which was not a formal
school in a building but a label applied today to the three interrelated
thinkers from Miletus. Thales is believed to have lived sometime
between 620 and 550 BCE based largely on his prediction of a solar
eclipse in 585 BCE. According to Diogenes Laertius, a historian who
chronicled the lives of Greek philosophers, Thales was a phoenician born
to phoenician noble parents who emigrated to Miletus. He became famous
for his accomplishments, shown by a line from Aristophanes’ comedy The
Birds, “The man’s a Thales!”. Either he wrote nothing, or none of his
writings survived. Some sources say he wrote two treatises on
astronomy, but if he did they are now lost to history.
was known for having his head in the clouds, the stereotypical
“absent-minded professor”. There are many stories of intellectuals
spacing out and almost dying while thinking up the ideas that made them
famous. Human thought: it may make you a legend, or get you killed.
Plato and other sources repeat the story that Thales was gazing at the
stars while walking, contemplating astronomy, when he fell into a well.
A similar story is said of Gautama, the founder of the Logic/Debate
school of Indian thought, also called “Eyes in the Feet” as he fell into
a well while deep in thought, so Brahma, head father god, gives him
eyes in his feet so he won’t fall into wells while thinking anymore. We
will later see of how Gautama’s logic from India is similar to
Aristotle’s logic from Athens.
stories may have more to them than first appear. For Gautama, as a
logician he looks at particular examples and draws general conclusions
(for example, looking at many cows and generalizing that all cows have
horns). For Thales, gazing into wells serves as a refracting device for
gazing at particular stars and the moon without interference from
others, as well as measuring angles and degrees. Thales might have
fallen into the well while gazing at stars in the well rather than
missing the well entirely. Either way, Plato says Thales was mocked by a
Thracian slave girl for falling in a well while gazing into the
source says that Thales had no family or children of his own, and when
asked about it he said that it would be a distraction. While Thales was
mocked by some in his time for speculating about the cosmos while
failing to raise a family, Aristotle tells us that Thales showed the
Milesians philosophy and science are not useless abstraction but
practical and useful. Thales saw that the seasons were going to yield a
large olive crop, so he rented and bought all the olive presses he
could find to corner the olive oil market, making him a great deal of
money when the olive crop came through and olive oil remained in great
demand. Aristotle says Thales did not do this for the money, which like
family he saw as a distraction from his astronomical studies, but to
show the skeptical Milesians that abstract speculation can yield worldly
results, and so philosophers can get rich but they are more interested
in gaining knowledge and wisdom.
story from various sources tells us Thales channelled a river for King
Croesus so his soldiers could cross and attack Persia with far fewer
soldiers than he needed. Croesus realized his situation, and
surrendered to Cyrus who spared him and Miletus, granting them relative
independence and autonomy. If Cyrus had razed Miletus rather than
giving it independence, he would have prevented it from becoming the
center of rebellion against his son Darius, and Greek philosophy would
have had to start elsewhere or nowhere at all.
sources said that Thales received instruction from Egyptian priests,
which would have aided his geometry and astronomy. This is questionable
but it fits with the often mentioned story of Thales using geometry
already known to the Egyptians (found in papyrus scrolls) to measure the
height of pyramids by measuring the length of their shadows. It is
just as often said Thales used the same method to calculate how far out
ships were from shore. Travel to Egypt was not difficult for a
Milesian, as it could be done by boat in under a week, and Miletus was a
trade center through which much Egyptian goods flowed and numerous
boats were departing to Egyptian ports if one needed to catch a ride.
Thales was said by Diogenes Laertius to have discovered there were 365
days a year, but Egyptians knew this previously not only from the stars
but the flooding of the Nile River. It was also said Thales was the
first to claim the soul is immortal, but this also matches earlier
Egyptian thought, with reincarnation of souls being followed by
achievement of heavenly star birth with the Osiris movement.
is also said to have been to Babylon, and access to their astronomical
records allowed him to predict the eclipse in 585 BCE. Did he travel to
these places, or did he gain access to their knowledge without need to
travel and this simply got associated with him to make it seem that he
had all the knowledge of the ancient world? Thales is said by sources
to have engaged in trade, a possible reason he was interested in
monopolizing the olive presses as olive oil was a major commodity. His
method of predicting eclipses is in accord with Babylonian methods.
believed that the elements are alive, that “all things are full of
gods” or spirits. He saw the static charge from polish amber and the
movement of iron by magnets as proof that all things are alive,
including dead things. Thales argued there was “no difference” between
being alive and being dead. When asked by a skeptical critic why then
Thales should not just die, Thales replied, “because there is no
difference”. Like Plato and Aristotle, Thales had a teleological view
of the cosmos. The cosmos is alive and sentient, and movements have
purposes. A Roman stoic (we will cover stoicism near the end of the
class) wrote hundreds of years after these Greek thinkers about being
horrified by stalactites and stalagmites in a cave devoid of life, as
there should not be beautiful things that are unwitnessed. Beauty only
exists to be attractive, not as something random that may or may not be
attractive depending on whether or not anyone is looking. While Hesiod
personifies the forces of nature as Zeus, the Roman orator and
philosopher Cicero says Thales believed that God was the intelligence
that gives form to everything out of water. This is like the Old
Testament Genesis creation, which itself parallels earlier Sumerian and
Babylonian mythology and cosmology.
Thales, water is the primary element, similar to Anaximenes saying air
is, similar to Heraclitus saying that fire is. All these are fluid
elements, unlike earth. Water is the principle of all things for
Thales, which is very similar to Heraclitus saying all things flow and
change like a river while maintaining this is basically fire. Things
are born out of chaos and flux (just as in Hesiod’s Theogony),
stabilizing to become what they are, then destabilizing and falling back
into the general flow. There is a dispute today among modern scholars
whether Thales said that things come from water but become something
different (transmutation) or that all things are in fact always made of
water no matter what their form.
would Thales claim that water transforms into various elements? Miletus
was on the mouth of the Maeander River, which deposited silt and
sediment that built up on the banks of the river and small islands in
the midst of its flow. To an observer, it would appear that water
condenses into earth when impacted. Thales argued that land floats on
water, which is true if you put an handful of earth over a pool. This
meant that the continents are floating on the ocean, and so earthquakes
are caused when the ocean is disturbed underneath the land.
saw that water breaks things into their components, which he saw as
evidence that water was the primordial element. Water’s ability to
clean and separate gives water a dual role as destroyer yet purifier.
Egyptian priests focused on water as blessing via cleansing, and so
sprinkled holy water in rituals and required priests to bathe three
times a day. Persian Zoroastrians focused on fire as purifying, and
kept a flame burning during daily reenactments of the birth of the
cosmos. Influences of both are still found in Catholic ritual today.
When Thales claims that water is the basic element, this puts him in
line with Hesiod’s cosmology, as out of chaos comes order and
distinction of elements. Modern science post-chaos theory calls order
out of chaos ‘emergence’.
sources claim Anaximander (610 - 546 BCE) was a student of Thales.
This was assumed for a long time, but as is often the case in accross
cultures, followers are thought to be direct students but are then
discovered to have merely studied the teacher without knowing them.
This is also believed today to have been true of Socrates and Plato.
Anaximander did have a famous student named Pythagoras (who we will
study next week). Pythagoras is said to have visited Thales on advice
from Anaximander, and that Thales told Pythagoras to study in Egypt to
understand mathematics and physics.
we have no writings from Thales, Anaximander gives us the first
preserved written lines ( a single fragment) of Greek philosophy. His
‘On Nature’, unlike the works of Homer and Hesiod but like treatises
written by the Sumerians, Egyptians and others, is not poetry but prose,
unstructured by rhythmic constraints. The book is lost, but one
fragment of it comes to us quoted by Simplicius in his Commentary on
things that are perish into the things out of which they come to be,
according to necessity, for they pay penalty and retribution to each
other for their injustice in accordance with the ordering of time.
Newton, there is a balance such that for every motion there is an equal
and opposite motion, a balance or ‘justice’ that works throughout the
cosmos. For Anaximander, justice was the goddess Dike, keeper of the
order, balance, and justice of the cosmos presided over by Zeus, her
father. Zeus is order, and Dike settles disorders. Dike is sometimes
pictured with scales to weigh things, just like Anubis from Egypt.
some have said that Anaximander was the first in world history to
present rational arguments for his beliefs, just as Thales is said to be
the first to believe in natural explanations, it is rather that people
naturally observe and argue, but Anaximander was the first Greek
(technically Milesian) whose arguments come down to us through various
Anaximander, the basic element out of which spring the others is not
water but the limitless, the infinite, Apeiron, unlimited by time or
space (temporally and spatially infinite), unlimited in potency and
power, unlimited by quality or quantity. Anaximander argued it was
unborn, and will not die (Heraclitus says the same, unlike the Olympic
gods of Hesiod who are born in time). While the infinite is the
generation and decay of things continuously, it is itself without
generation or decay. Things begin and end, and this itself does not
begin or end. This is a similar abstraction like polytheism to abstract
monotheism, with elements in fact being facets or branches of one
common abstract element, also eternal and without birth, unlike Zeus.
The infinite is also that which is not bounded by human reason or
concepts, that which remains ungrasped and beyond understanding.
we live in an open infinite universe or a closed finite universe is
still debated by astrophysicists today. In my undergrad astronomy
class, we were told there are three theories or possibilities: 1) the
universe is closed with an edge, so a rocket could hit the edge, 2) the
universe is closed but loops back on itself, so a rocket would
eventually wind up back where it started if it kept flying in a single
direction, or 3) the universe is open and infinite, so a rocket would
never hit an edge or return if it kept flying. Anaximander argues the
third and last of these.
Anaximander argued that because the elements are opposed to each other,
with fire being hot, water being wet, earth being dry and air being
cool, if one of these were the primary element or infinite in potency
itself, it would have destroyed its opposite long ago. Thus, if Thales
was right and all things are made of water, fire would have been
obliterated long ago or never existed in the first place. Note that
Anaximander assumes that something must be infinite, and so this thing
must not have a particular character or that character would obliterate
anything else given an infinite amount of time (something an infinite
thing would by necessity have).
of Apeiron come the elements fire, air, earth, and water, and then
these are the components of all particular things. This works according
to the four qualities of hot, cold, wet, dry. Specifically, fire is
hot, water is wet, air is cold, and earth is dry. When things are in
balance everything flows smoothly, and when they are out of balance,
they must “pay for their injustice”, getting rebalanced by
counter-reaction. The elements encroach on each other and commit
injustice against each other like nations fighting for disputed
territory. Heraclitus, as we will see, thinks the elements are
conceited and hungry, which is why this happens. For Anaximander,
lightning and thunder come from clouds bumping into each other, a
settling of the injustice.
infinite apeiron was seen as a negative thing by the Pythagoreans and
Aristotle, who put order and restraint on the side of perfection and the
infinite on the side of chaotic and imperfect. Typically, Greek
thought was uncomfortable with the idea of the infinite, unlike Indian
thought. It is for this reason that we use Indian-Arabic numerals
today, as Indian mathematics was comfortable with infinites such as
infinite series and unknowns such as variables, which contributed to
Islamic algebra. While we still use the Greek letter pi to symbolize
the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its radius, the Greeks would be
uncomfortable with a value of pi that trailed on endlessly, and
struggled to represent it as a whole number ratio (22/7 was often used).
to Anaximander’s own cosmology, the world grew out of a seed encased in
fire and air, which then fall apart into rings, which then compose the
sun, moon, planets and stars. Modern scholars are still perplexed as to
the workings of much of his astronomical system.
introduced the gnomon into Greece, a tool the Babylonians and Egyptians
had used for centuries before. Basically, it is a stick in the ground,
which functions as a sundial. This allows shadows to be measured on
the ground and then studied. The sun draws a curve, moving from long to
the west in the morning, shortest at noon, and long to the east in the
said that the sun and moon make full circles, passing beneath the
earth, and earth floats unsupported in space. This is odd, as it would
be unsupported by water, or air, or Atlas, or a pillar, or turtles, or
anything, which made it different from many previous cultures’ beliefs.
It was not until people got into space, thousands of years later, that
this could be directly observed. Anaximander did not believe the earth
was round, however, at least not round as a sphere. The earth was a
flat disc, a belief much more common in the ancient world. For Homer
and Hesiod, the world was a pillar or drum, as was the shape of the
cosmos, which explained why the earth was flat, things fall downward and
the stars circle overhead. Hesiod says in the Theogony that it would
take an anvil nine days to fall from the height of heaven to earth.
Anaximander also uses the number nine as the ratio of the length of the
earth to the distance to the stars and in several other places.
then, does the earth not fall but floats? Aristotle says that
Anaximander argued the earth was at the dead center of the cosmos, and
because of this there was no reason for it to move one way or the other.
This is odd, because an infinite should either not have a center
point, or equally have its center at all points. Aristotle argues that
if Anaximander is right, then a man who is hungry and thirsty between
food and drink would necessarily remain where he is. Again, note that
Aristotle compares the moving earth to a hungry man, just as Anaximander
believes the elements do injustice to each other. What is likely going
on is that Anaximander sees the cosmos as generated outward from the
earth, and the earth is, in a sense, floating on being at the center.
put the stars nearest to earth, then the planets, then the moon, and
farthest away the Sun. This means he thought stars disappeared because
they pass in front of the moon, not behind it, and the moon outshines
them at night the way the sun does during the day. The cosmos is shaped
like a drum, with the planets on wheels circling around the sides and
the disc of the earth in the center, rising and falling with the
made a map of the world, supposedly the first in ancient Greece, with
the circle of the earth surrounded by the ocean, which assumably also
floats in place. The Mediterranean Sea is in the center of the earth,
Delphi is the navel at the very center, the northern part of the world
is “Europe”, the eastern part of the world is Asia, and the southern
half Libya (Africa), divided into thirds . Only the coasts were
habitable, the north coast including Greece, the south coast including
Egypt, and the east coast including Babylon, Assyria and Persia. In the
far north, lived mythical snow people ( northern Europeans), and in the
far south mythical fire people (southern Africans). Herodotus follows
Anaximander and divides the world into the same three continents.
“Europe” would not be the culturally accepted name of the continent in
Europe until the late middle ages, just before the Renaissance.
biology, Anaximander argued that life comes from moisture that stays on
the earth that does not get dried up by the sun. The water cycle was
known in Egypt, India and elsewhere from the observation of vapors
rising up and rain coming down with the heating and cooling of the
seasons. Fish are made of warmed water and earth, out of which they
spontaneously arise. They then become other animals, which become
others, which become humans. This does not include natural selection of
Darwin. Humans do not come from monkeys, as they did according to some
Indian sources, but were trapped in animals until they burst out.
Anaximander followed Thales, so too did Anaximenes (585 - 528 BCE)
follow Anaximander, though just like in the relationship between Thales
and Anaximander, Anaximenes did not simply follow Anaximander but
corrected and differed from him. Anaximenes’ arche, his primary essence
or principle element, was infinite like Anaximander, however it was not
simply qualityless but the element air. Air is the element in ancient
cosmology associated with breath and along with fire, life. When an
animal or human dies, the heat and breath leaves the earthly and watery
behind, which then sinks downward while the fire and air presumably
rise. Anaximenes argued that through dissipation and concentration all
substances are produced from air. Air condenses into visual vapor, fog
and rain, and from water, as Anaximander supposed, is condensed earth
and even stone. The two agree that earth is condensed water, but
Anaximenes argues that water is itself not the primary element, the most
elemental element, but condensed air. Air, when dissipated, ignites
and becomes fire.
prove this, Anaximenes explained that when we blow on a hand with an
open mouth, it is hot, but with tightened lips, it is cold. This shows
that condensed air is cold and dispersed air is hot. Unfortunately, we
now know that when you condense a gas it heats up as the molecules move
more rapidly, the opposite of what he proposed. Anaximenes also refers
to felt, which is condensed wool, to show that various density gives
various properties. The earth was formed through a felting process,
condensed from air and shooting out the stars in the process, like
sparks kicked out of a campfire. The earth does not float simply on
the center, but as a leaf on air. So are the sun and moon, which are
themselves floating discs on air, on fire due to their speed.
Anaximenes, earthquakes are not due to the earth floating on water, but
due to air drying out the earth, which then cracks and in places
collapses. Lightning is caused by winds cutting into clouds at great
speeds. Hippocrates, the famed Greek doctor, seems to have followed
Anaximenes and saw air as central to understanding disease, disorders of