Early in the 6th century BC, there occurred what it is fair to call the beginning of European philosophy. Certain thinkers of Miletus, a prosperous colony of lonian Greeks on the coast of Asia Minor, felt dissatisfied with mythological explanations of the world and endeavoured to account for its origins by reason alone. Hesiod’s account of the origin of the universe had already achieved a high degree of systematization and the veil of personification over such physical realities as earth and sky was perhaps wearing a bit thin: but it was there and the evolution of the cosmos was still spoken of in terms of marriage and procreation. At the same time natural events in the present world—rain, thunder and lightning, earthquakes, floods—were believed to be caused by the whim of the personal deities. The Milesians swept all this away with astonishing suddenness and completeness. They sought to explain solely by causes within nature, with the corollary that universe and predictable laws took the place of unpredictable caprice.
It may still be true that the form which their speculations took was influenced by earlier beliefs. For instance, the ancient notion of the origin of the world from a primal union of earth and sky in one mass seems to be reflected in their conviction of a single basic substance from which the ordered universe was, in Anaximander’s word, ‘separated out’. On the other hand, it is of the essence of scientific explanation to reduce the complexity of phenomena to something simpler and a modern physicist still writes of the ‘endeavour of physics to achieve a unified world-view.’
The Milesian school is represented by the names of Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes, all of whom were active during the 6th century. Thales is said to have predicted an eclipse which must have been that of 585 BC. Little is known of him for certain, but he had the reputation of having been a practical genius in the fields of invention and in politics and was credited with mathematics. Aristotle says he maintained that the origin of the world was from water, or the moist element and conjunctures that this was due to the connexion of moisture with life. Having discarded the personal gods of Greek polytheism, the main problem for these men was to account for movement, change and development. They did so by assuming their basic substance to contain psyche, life, for the main attribute of psyche in early Greek eyes was its power of self-motion. This may be the context of the saying attributed to Thales that ‘all things are full of gods’ and to that extent divinity was admitted into the new picture of the world; but from any popular notions of religion it was entirely emancipated.
Anaximander argued for a completely neutral substance, ‘the indefinite’, from which the ‘opposites’ hot, cold, wet, dry, were separated out and composed the present world. At its beginning, a sphere of flame enclosed a moist mass and produced a dark vapour from it. The expanding vapour burst the sphere into rings, around which it closed, leaving only holes here and there through which the fire escaped. These are the visible heavenly bodies. Living creatures evolved from the action of hot on moist, i.e. of the sun on water, or slime and the first men were formed in the bodies of fish-like creatures. For Anaximenes, on the other hand, air was the primal substance and the universe was formed by condensation (into water and solids) and rarefaction (into fire).
At about the same time, Pythagoras of Samos, who migrated to south Italy, gave philosophy a new direction as the foundation for a way of life and a brotherhood with political as well as intellectual aims. He turned attention from matter to form and fore-shadowing modern physics, endeavoured to explain nature in mathematical terms. The world was a ‘harmony’, a term which reflects his discovery that the basic musical intervals could be expressed in terms of numerical proportion. He also taught the kinship of all nature and the transmigration and potential divinity of the soul.
Parmenides of Elea, who had probably been a Pythagorean, shattered the conception of the ultimate unity of the world by his ruthless logic, maintaining that what was one could never become many and that anyone believing such ideas could not possibly account for the physical world with its variety and movement. He challenged reliance upon the senses and declared them to be hallucinatory.
Heraclitus of Ephesus, known even to the ancients as the dark or enigmatic philosopher, took the opposite view. He taught that the whole world was in continuous flux and change. Rest and stability were impossible in nature, but over and above it was the logos, a mysterious entity which combined a law of regularity and measure in change with material embodiment in the form of fire. His obscurity detracted from his influence, whereas that of Parmenides was tremendous. He seemed to have proved that there is no transition between not-being and being. There is only ‘what is’; it will not become anything else, nor can anything come to be from what is not. The attempt to evade this dilemma and allow some reality to the world of appearances led to different forms of pluralism.
Empedocles the Sicilian (pictured left) was a most colourful and many-sided character, rationalist and prophet, statesman, physician, exhibitionist. According to him there were four elemental substances, earth, water, air and fire. They were everlasting and changeless, but a cosmos could be produced by their mixture in different proportions. Motion was due to two separate forces named Love and Strife, part physical, part psychological and moral, for in the Italian (Pythagorean) tradition his thought had a strong religious side. It included the conception of the soul as a fallen daimon striving to climb back to heaven through successive incarnations, which even included vegetable life.
For Anaxagoras matter consisted of an infinite number of qualitatively different ‘seeds’, whirling in a vortex which was started by a force that he called Mind, but apparently without any implication of a purpose behind it. What happened afterwards was, as for the atomists, a matter of chance, not design. He was followed immediately by the thorough atomism of Leucippus and Democritus. Everything was composed of aggregates of tiny indivisible particles, solid through and through, and much too small to seen, drifting aimlessly in infinite space. They differed only in size and shape; sensible qualities—colour, sound, taste, smell—were purely subjective. The introduction of void (denied by Parmenides as ‘what is not’) evidently seemed to them in itself to explain the possibility of motion.
These 5th century physical theories were seized on by the Sophists, an influential class of itinerant teachers whose main instruction was practical, to fit men for the active political life of the little city-states, above all in democratic Athens to which most of the Sophists gravitated. The most famous were Protagoras and Gorgias. The religious scepticism and the relativism of much Pre-Socratic physical thought attracted them as a basis for their advocacy of expediency in action and denial of absolute moral standards, (Protagoras, depicted above left teaching, was the author of the dictum ‘Man is the measure of all things’.) The intellectual distinction of these men is undoubted and it must be remembered that we see them now mainly through the eyes of a critic—Plato—whose views were diametrically opposed to theirs.
In part 2; Socrates, Plato and Aristotle