10 Origins of Greek Philosophy

The Pre-Socratics


Review Video — The Ionian Origins of Greek Philosophy by Daniel Riaño (11)

About 600 BCE, the Greek cities of Ionia were the intellectual and cultural leaders of Greece and the number one sea-traders of the Mediterranean. Miletus, the southernmost Ionian city, was the wealthiest of Greek cities and the main focus of the “Ionian awakening” — a name for the initial phase of classical Greek civilization, coincidental with the birth of Greek philosophy.

The first group of Greek philosophers is a triad of Milesian thinkers: Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes. Their main contribution was the development and application of theory purely based on empirical observation of natural phenomena. They seemed to all agree on the notion that all things come from a single “primal origin or substance.” Thales believed it was water; Anaximander said it was a substance different from all other known substances, “infinite, eternal and ageless;” and Anaximenes claimed it was air.

Observation was important among the Milesian school. Thales predicted an eclipse, which took place in 585 BCE, and it seems he had been able to calculate the distance of a ship at sea from observations taken at two points. Anaximander, based on the fact that human infants are helpless at birth, argued that if the first human had somehow appeared on earth as an infant, it would not have survived: therefore, humans have evolved from other animals whose offspring are fitter. The science among Milesians was stronger than their philosophy and somewhat rudimentary, but it encouraged observation in many subsequent thinkers and was also a good stimulus to approach in a rational fashion many of the traditional questions that had previously been answered through myth, thus ushering in the epistemological and metaphysical world of the later philosophers. (3)

Aristotle, Metaphysics

Reading from Aristotle, Metaphysics

Book One: Section 1.983b–1.990a.

Most of the earliest philosophers conceived only of material principles as underlying all things. That of which all things consist, from which they first come and into which on their destruction they are ultimately resolved, of which the essence persists although modified by its affections — this, they say, is an element and principle of existing things. Hence, they believe that nothing is either generated or destroyed, since this kind of primary entity always persists. Similarly, we do not say that Socrates comes into being absolutely when he becomes handsome or cultured, nor that he is destroyed when he loses these qualities; because the substrate, Socrates himself, persists. In the same way nothing else is generated or destroyed; for there is some one entity (or more than one) which always persists and from which all other things are generated. All are not agreed, however, as to the number and character of these principles. (12)

The Milesians, Thales and Anaximander

Thales, the founder of this school of philosophy, says the permanent entity is water (which is why he also propounded that the earth floats on water). Presumably, he derived this assumption from seeing that the nutriment of everything is moist, and that heat itself is generated from moisture and depends upon it for its existence (and that from which a thing is generated is always its first principle). He derived his assumption, then, from this; and also from the fact that the seeds of everything have a moist nature, whereas water is the first principle of the nature of moist things. (12)

ANAXIMANDER (c 610–c 546 BCE) of Miletus was a student of Thales and recent scholarship argues that he, rather than Thales, should be considered the first western philosopher owing to the fact that we have a direct and undisputed quote from Anaximander while we have nothing written by Thales. Anaximander invented the idea of models, drew the first map of the world in Greece, and is said to have been the first to write a book of prose. He traveled extensively and was highly regarded by his contemporaries. Among his major contributions to philosophical thought was his claim that the ‘basic stuff’ of the universe was the apeiron, the infinite and boundless, a philosophical and theological claim which is still debated among scholars today and which, some argue, provided Plato with the basis for his cosmology.

Simplicius writes,

Of those who say that it is one, moving, and infinite, Anaximander, son of Praxiades, a Milesian, the successor and pupil of Thales, said that the principle and element of existing things was the apeiron [indefinite or infinite] being the first to introduce this name of the material principle. He says that it is neither water nor any other of the so-called elements but some other apeiron nature, from which come into being all the heavens and the worlds in them. And the source of coming-to-be for existing things is that into which destruction, too, happens ‘according to necessity; for they pay penalty and retribution to each other for their injustice according to the assessment of time,’ as he describes it in these rather poetical terms. It is clear that he, seeing the changing of the four elements into each other, thought it right to make none of these the substratum, but something else besides these; and he produces coming-to-be not through the alteration of the element, but by the separation off of the opposites through the eternal motion. ( Physics , 24)

This statement by Anaximander regarding elements paying penalty to each other according to the assessment of time is considered the oldest known piece of written Western philosophy.

Thales claimed that the First Cause of all things was water but Anaximander, recognizing that water was another of the earthly elements, believed that the First Cause had to come from something beyond such an element. His answer to the question of `Where did everything come from?’ was the apeiron, the boundless, but what exactly he meant by `the boundless’ has given rise to the centuries-old debate. Does `the boundless’ refer to a spatial or temporal quality or does it refers to something inexhaustible and undefined?

While it is impossible to say with certainty what Anaximander meant, a better understanding can be gained through his `long since’ argument, which Aristotle phrases this way in his Physics .

Some make this First Cause (namely, that which is additional to the elements) the Boundless, but not air or water, lest the others should be destroyed by one of them, being boundless; for they are opposite to one another (the air, for instance, is cold, the water wet, and the fire hot). If any of them should be boundless, it would long since have destroyed the others; but now there is, they say, something other from which they are all generated. (204b25–29)

In other words, none of the observable elements could be the First Cause because all observable elements are changeable and, were one to be more powerful than the others, it would have long since eradicated them. As observed, however, the elements of the earth seem to be in balance with each other, none of them holding the upper hand and, therefore, some other source must be looked to for a First Cause. In making this claim, Anaximander becomes the first known philosopher to work in abstract, rather than natural, philosophy and the first metaphysician even before the term `metaphysics’ was coined.

He charted the heavens, traveled widely, was the first to claim the earth floated in space, and the first to posit an unobservable First Cause (which, whether it influenced Plato, certainly shares similarities with Aristotle’s Prime Mover). Diogenes Laertius writes, “Apollodorus, in his Chronicles , states that in the second year of the fifty-eighth Olympiad, [Anaximander] was sixty-four years old. And soon after he died, having flourished much about the same time as Polycrates, the tyrant, of Samos.” A statue was erected at Miletus in Anaximander’s honor. (13)

The Eleatics Parmenides and Zeno of Elea

Parmenides (c. 485 BCE) of Elea was a Greek philosopher from the colony of Elea in southern Italy. He is known as the founder of the Eleatic School of philosophy, which taught a strict Monistic view of reality. Philosophical Monism is the belief that all of the sensible world is of one, basic substance and being, un-created and indestructible.

Parmenides was a younger contemporary of Heraclitus who claimed that all things are constantly in motion and change (that the basic `stuff’ of life is change itself). Parmenides’ thought could not be further removed from that of Heraclitus in that Parmenides claimed nothing moved, change was impossibility, and that human sense perception could not be relied upon for an apprehension of Truth.

The Philosopher of Changeless Being

According to Parmenides, “There is a way which is and a way which is not” (a way of fact, or truth, and a way of opinion about things) and one must come to an understanding of the way “which is” to understand the nature of life. Known as the Philosopher of Changeless Being, Parmenides’ insistence on an eternal, single Truth and his repudiation of relativism and mutability would greatly influence the young philosopher Plato and, through him, Aristotle (though the latter would interpret Parmenides’ Truth quite differently than his master did). Plato devoted a dialogue to the man, the Parmenides, in which Parmenides and his student, Zeno, come to Athens and instruct a young Socrates in philosophical wisdom. This is quite an homage to the thought of Parmenides in that, in most dialogues, Plato presents Socrates as the wise questioner who needs no instruction from anyone. While Parmenides was an older contemporary of Socrates, it is doubtful the two men ever met.

Zeno of Elea

Zeno of Elea was Parmenides’ most famous student and wrote forty paradoxes in defense of Parmenides’ claim that change — and even motion — were illusions which one must disregard in order to know the nature of oneself and that of the universe. Zeno’s work was intended to clarify and defend Parmenides’ statements, such as… reality is One. Nothing is capable of inherently changing in any significant fashion because the very substance of reality is unchangeable and ‘nothingness’ cannot be comprehended.

Nothing Can Come from Nothing

Even so, it seems that Parmenides’ ideas themselves were hard to comprehend for his listeners, necessitating Zeno’s mathematical paradoxes. Parmenides’ main point, however, was simply that nothing could come from nothing and that `being’ must have always existed.

Being & Not Being

Simply put, his argument is that since ‘something’ cannot come from ‘nothing’ then ‘something’ must have always existed in order to produce the sensible world. This world we perceive, then, is of one substance – that same substance from which it came – and we who inhabit it share in this same unity of substance. Therefore, if it should appear that a person is born from `nowhere’ or that one dies and goes somewhere else, both of these perceptions must be wrong since that which is now can never have been ‘not’ nor can it ever ‘not be’. In this, Parmenides may be developing ideas from the earlier philosopher Pythagoras (c. 571–c.497 BCE) who claimed the soul is immortal and returns to the sensible world repeatedly through reincarnation. If so, however, Parmenides very radically departed from Pythagorean thought which allows that there is plurality present in our reality. To Parmenides, and his disciples of the Eleatic School, such a claim would be evidence of belief in the senses which, they insisted, could never be trusted to reveal the truth. The Eleatic principle that all is one, and unchanging, exerted considerable influence on later philosophers and schools of thought. Besides Plato (who, in addition to the dialogue, Parmenides also addressed Eleatic concepts in his dialogues of the Sophist and the Statesman) the famous Sophist Gorgias employed Eleatic reasoning and principles in his work as Aristotle would also do later, principally in his Metaphysics. (14)

Pluralists and Atomists

Empedocles , from the ancient Greek city of Akragas, (Agrigentum in Latin), modern Agrigento, in Sicily, appears to have been partly in agreement with the Eleatic School, partly in opposition to it. On the one hand, he maintained the unchangeable nature of substance; on the other, he supposes a plurality of such substances — i.e. four classical elements, earth, water, air, and fire. Of these the world is built up, by the agency of two ideal motive forces — love as the cause of union, strife as the cause of separation.

The first explicitly materialistic system was formed by Leucippus (5 th century BCE) and his pupil Democritus of Abdera (460–370 BCE) from Thrace. This was the doctrine of atoms — small primary bodies infinite in number, indivisible and imperishable, qualitatively similar, but distinguished by their shapes. Moving eternally through the infinite void, they collide and unite, thus generating objects which differ in accordance with the varieties, in number, size, shape, and arrangement, of the atoms which compose them. (15)

Another View: Creation in the Philosophy of Ancient India: Rig Veda

The philosophical question of cosmogenesis has been approached in many different ways in Greece as we have seen in the beginning of this Module; here is an example of the question’s response from another perspective. (1)

“Then was neither nonexistent nor existent: there was no realm of air, no sky beyond it. What covered in, and where? And what gave shelter? Was water there, unfathomed depth of water?

The ONE breathed without air by self-impulse; through the heat of tapas (desire) was manifest (1) Who verily knows and who can here declare it, whence it was born and whence comes this creation? The Gods are later than this world’s production. Who knows then whence it first came into being? He, the first origin of this creation, whether he formed it all or did not form it, Whose eye controls this world in highest heaven, he verily knows it, or perhaps he knows not.”

(Rig-Veda 10.129.1-7)

There is another account on how the universe started, which has no equivalent in any other tradition. The universe is actually the dream of a god who after 100 Brahma years, dissolves himself into a dreamless sleep, and the universe dissolves with him. After another 100 Brahma years, he recomposes himself and begins to dream again the great cosmic dream. Meanwhile, there are infinite other universes elsewhere, each of them being dreamt by its own god. (16)

What might each of these interpretations conclude should their arguments continue to develop? (The question is rhetorical. You need not consider it an assignment, but rather keep it in mind as we move to the next Module.) (1)


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