In every history of philosophy for students, the first thing mentioned is that philosophy began with Thales, who said that everything is made of water. This is discouraging to the beginner, who is struggling—perhaps not very hard—to feel that respect for philosophy which the curriculum seems to expect. There is, however, ample reason to feel respect for Thales, though perhaps rather as a man of science than as a philosopher in the modern sense of the word.
Thales was a native of Miletus, in Asia Minor, a flourishing commercial city, in which there was a large slave population, and a bitter class struggle between the rich and poor among the free population. 'At Miletus the people were at first victorious and murdered the wives and children of the aristocrats; then the aristocrats prevailed and burned their opponents alive, lighting up the open spaces of the city with live torches.'1 Similar conditions prevailed in most of the cities of Asia Minor at the time of Thales.
Miletus, like other commercial cities of Ionia, underwent important economic and political developments during the seventh and sixth centuries. At first, political power belonged to a landowning aristocracy, but this was gradually replaced by a plutocracy of merchants. They, in turn, were replaced by a tyrant, who (as was usual) achieved power by the support of the democratic party. The kingdom of Lydia lay to the east of the Greek coast towns, but remained on friendly terms with them until the fall of Nineveh (606 B.C.). This left Lydia free to turn its attention to the West, but Miletus usually succeeded in preserving friendly relations, especially with Croesus, the last Lydian king, who was conquered by Cyrus in 546 B.C. There were also
important relations with Egypt, where the king depended upon Greek mercenaries, and had opened certain cities to Greek trade. The first Greek settlement in Egypt was a fort occupied by a Milesian garrison; but the most important, during the period 610–560 B.C., was Daphnae. Here Jeremiah and many other Jewish fugitives took refuge from Nebuchadrezzar (Jeremiah xliii, 5 ff); but while Egypt undoubtedly influenced the Greeks, the Jews did not, nor can we suppose that Jeremiah felt anything but horror towards the sceptical Ionians.
As regards the date of Thales, the best evidence, as we saw, is that he was famous for predicting an eclipse which, according to the astronomers, must have taken place in 585 B.C. Other evidence, such as it is, agrees in placing his activities at about this time. It is no proof of extraordinary genius on his part to have predicted an eclipse. Miletus was allied with Lydia, and Lydia had cultural relations with Babylonia, and Babylonian astronomers had discovered that eclipses recur in a cycle of about nineteen years. They could predict eclipses of the moon with pretty complete success, but as regards solar eclipses they were hampered by the fact that an eclipse may be visible in one place and not in another. Consequently they could only know that at such and such a date it was worth while to look out for an eclipse, and this is probably all that Thales knew. Neither he nor they knew why there is this cycle.
Thales is said to have travelled in Egypt, and to have thence brought to the Greeks the science of geometry. What the Egyptians knew of geometry was mainly rules of thumb, and there is no reason to believe that Thales arrived at deductive proofs, such as later Greeks discovered. He seems to have discovered how to calculate the distance of a ship at sea from observations taken at two points on land, and how to estimate the height of a pyramid from the length of its shadow. Many other geometrical theorems are attributed to him, but probably wrongly.
He was one of the Seven Wise men of Greece, each of whom was specially noted for one wise saying; his it is a mistake to suppose was 'water is best'.
According to Aristotle, he thought that water is the original substance, out of which all others are formed; and he maintained that the earth rests on water. Aristotle also says of him that he said the magnet has a soul in it, because it moves the iron; further, that all things are full of gods.2
The statement that everything is made of water is to be regarded as a scientific hypothesis, and by no means a foolish one. Twenty years ago, the received view was that everything is made of hydrogen, which is two thirds of water. The Greeks were rash in their hypotheses, but the Milesian school, at least, was prepared to test them empirically. Too little is known of Thales to
make it possible to reconstruct him at all satisfactorily, but of his successors in Miletus much more is known, and it is reasonable to suppose that something of their outlook came from him. His science and his philosophy were both crude, but they were such as to stimulate both thought and observation.
There are many legends about him, but I do not think more is known than the few facts I have mentioned. Some of the stories are pleasant, for instance, the one told by Aristotle in his Politics (1259a): 'He was reproached for his poverty, which was supposed to show that philosophy is of no use. According to the story, he knew by his skill in the stars while it was yet winter that there would be a great harvest of olives in the coming year; so, having a little money, he gave deposits for the use of all the olive-presses in Chios and Miletus, which he hired at a low price because no one bid against him. When the harvest time came, and many were wanted all at once and of a sudden, he let them out at any rate which he pleased, and made a quantity of money. Thus he showed the world that philosophers can easily be rich if they like, but that their ambition is of another sort.'
Anaximander, the second philosopher of the Milesian school, is much more interesting than Thales. His dates are uncertain, but he was said to have been sixty-four years old in 546 B.C., and there is reason to suppose that this is somewhere near the truth. He held that all things come from a single primal substance, but that it is not water, as Thales held, or any other of the substances that we know. It is infinite, eternal and ageless, and 'it encompasses all the worlds'—for he thought our world only one of many. The primal substance is transformed into the various substances with which we are familiar, and these are transformed into each other. As to this, he makes an important and remarkable statement:
'Into that from which things take their rise they pass away once more, as is ordained, for they make reparation and satisfaction to one another for their injustice according to the ordering of time.'
The idea of justice, both cosmic and human, played a part in Greek religion and philosophy which is not altogether easy for a modern to understand; indeed our word 'justice' hardly expresses what is meant, but it is difficult to find any other word that would be preferable. The thought which Anaximander is expressing seems to be this: there should be a certain proportion of fire, of earth, and of water in the world, but each element (conceived as a god) is perpetually attempting to enlarge its empire. But there is a kind of necessity or natural law which perpetually redresses the balance; where there has been fire, for example, there are ashes, which are earth. This conception of justice—of not overstepping eternally fixed bounds—was one of the most profound of Greek beliefs. The gods were subject to justice just as much as men were, but this supreme power was not itself personal, and was not a supreme God.
Anaximander had an argument to prove that the primal substance could not be water, or any other known element. If one of these were primal, it would conquer the others. Aristotle reports him as saying that these known elements are in opposition to one another. Air is cold, water is moist, and fire is hot. 'And therefore, if any one of them were infinite, the rest would have ceased to be by this time.' The primal substance, therefore, must be neutral in this cosmic strife.
There was an eternal motion, in the course of which was brought about the origin of the worlds. The worlds were not created, as in Jewish or Christian theology, but evolved. There was evolution also in the animal kingdom. Living creatures arose from the moist element as it was evaporated by the sun. Man, like every other animal, was descended from fishes. He must be derived from animals of a different sort, because, owing to his long infancy, he could not have survived, originally, as he is now.
Anaximander was full of scientific curiosity. He is said to have been the first man who made a map. He held that the earth is shaped like a cylinder. He is variously reported as saying the sun is as large as the earth, or twenty-seven times as large, or twenty-eight times as large.
Wherever he is original, he is scientific and rationalistic.
Anaximenes, the last of the Milesian triad, is not quite so interesting as Anaximander, but makes some important advances. His dates are very uncertain. He was certainly subsequent to Anaximander, and he certainly flourished before 494 B.C., since in that year Miletus was destroyed by the Persians in the course of their suppression of the Ionian revolt.
The fundamental substance, he said, is air. The soul is air; fire is rarefied air; when condensed, air becomes first water, then, if further condensed, earth, and finally stone. This theory has the merit of making all the differences between different substances quantitative, depending entirely upon the degree of condensation.
He thought that the earth is shaped like a round table, and that air encompasses everything: 'Just as our soul, being air, holds us together, so do breath and air encompass the whole world.' It seems that the world breathes.
Anaximenes was more admired in antiquity than Anaximander, though almost any modern world would make the opposite valuation. He had an important influence on Pythagoras and on much subsequent speculation. The Pythagoreans discovered that the earth is spherical, but the atomists adhered to the view of Anaximenes, that it is shaped like a disc.
The Milesian school is important, not for what it achieved, but for what it attempted. It was brought into existence by the contact of the Greek mind with Babylonia and Egypt. Miletus was a rich commercial city, in which primitive prejudices and superstitions were softened by intercourse with many nations, Ionia, until its subjugation by Darius at the beginning of the fifth century, was culturally the most important part of the Hellenic world. It was almost untouched by the religious movement connected with Dionysus and Orpheus; its religion was Olympic, but seems to have been not taken very seriously. The speculations of Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes are to be regarded as scientific hypotheses, and seldom show any undue intrusion of anthropomorphic desires and moral ideas. The questions they asked were good questions, and their vigour inspired subsequent investigators.
The next stage in Greek philosophy, which is associated with the Greek cities in southern Italy, is more religious, and, in particular, more Orphic—in some ways more interesting, admirable in achievement, but in spirit less scientific than that of the Milesians.