Thursday, 16 July 2020

Early Greek Philosophy

Thales of Miletus – Greatest Greeks
Behold an originator of scientific thought
It might appear that Greek philosophy and intellectual endeavour appeared out of nowhere, in the 6th century BC without an evolutionary past. It seems to have burst on the intellectual stage of man without precursors. How could this be possible? Well, of course, it is not credible or possible. In fact what we consider Greek philosophy did not originate in Greece at all but with the Greek diaspora states of Asia Minor. Here thoughtful Greeks were exposed to the ancient 'wisdom' of the East and Egypt. Most of this so-called wisdom was complete bollocks full of mysticism and esoteric god lore. Perhaps, this reliance on divinity driven doctrine spurred the Greeks to seek rational causes for the complex tableau of existence. The exact details will be forever lost in the dust/mists of time and frankly, we will never know what really spurred the inception of original and exacting thought.

Philosophy begins with Thales in the late 6th century BC. We have a date of 585 BC when Thales predicted a solar eclipse. On that day, two and half thousand years ago we can confidently state that this day represented the birth of philosophy and science.

Thales was a native of Miletus in Asia Minor. His philosophy was crude, but it was a start. Thales pontificated that everything is water. This is not correct, as certain things or stuff are decidedly not composed of water. However, his thoughts were based on empirical observation and not mysticism and therefore his musings have the right to be called a scientific hypothesis. We know little of Thales, or his thought processes, as what we know is exclusively based on the writings of Aristotle.

The second Milesian philosopher of note is Anaximander. I would warrant that Anaximander is more intellectually interesting than Thales. We know that Anaximander was 64 in 546 BC and it is certain that he did not adhere to Thale's principle: 'that all is water'. He actually came up with a formal proof to show that everything was not derived from water. I will not consider his reasoning here- I suspect you wouldn't find his analysis convincing.  Instead of water, he argued that everything is derived from a primal substance that becomes transformed to become other substances and that when combined they constitute different forms of matter. He understood that all matter consists of a compound of this transmuted primal substance and that these new substances were in a continual struggle for ascendance. However, no one transformed substance prevails, as 'natural law' (whatever that might be) kept all these substances in check, and thus a form of homeostasis ultimately prevails. In this hypothetical universe, the primal substance always remains neutral within the context of continual cosmic flux. He also stated that all life was derived from moisture and all animals, including man, were descended from fishes. What a fascinating hypothesis and mostly correct!

Clearly, Anaximander's ideas and analysis are more sophisticated than Thale's ruminations. He is full of scientific wonder and curiosity and where he is original he is rationalistic.

Anaximenes represents the last of the Milesian trio of philosophers and walked the earth prior to 494BC as in this year the city was destroyed by those pesky Persians. Anaximenes thought that the fundamental substance is air. Thus, the soul is made of air and fire consists of rarefied air. If air is condensed it turns into stone. Different things, therefore, are based on the degree of condensation of air. He considered that the earth to be shaped like a round table, without the legs, of course. Why he came up with this peculiar geometry we have no idea at all. The Milasian school remains important not for what it achieved but for what it attempted.

The coming of the Persians represents the end of Milesian philosophy. The torch would be picked up from the remnants of the burning city and retained by the mainland Greeks, mainly Athenians, and thus the bright flame of the torch would bring intellectual light where before there was nothing but darkness.

We should not be tempted to fall into the trap of intellectual hubris

To our scientific mind and technological grandeur, the musings of these first philosophers can appear to our sophisticated souls as trite, banal, and insignificant. However, we should not revert to smug intellectual elitism- this should be reserved for the commonly placed dullard in our own society, of which there is a multitude. We must relinquish our modern mindset and reflect upon the case that our modern society and learning is based upon the accrued and acquired wisdom of millennia. We should stoop, intellectually, to consider the world view of men who did not have the benefit of this long, although intermittent, march of learning and knowledge. These first philosophers were true intrepid pioneers in an unknown landscape. Although their progress was slight if at all, they set the scene for greater things. If anything, they introduced a new way of thinking about our world which would enrich and inspire the great intellects to come. Therefore, in my opinion, the groundwork of these early thinkers provided, to those that followed, a rich and fertile environment necessary for the continuance of intellectual progress. It is to be remembered that even the great Aristotle, who in the 4th century BC, pontificated widely and in-depth on numerous topics contributed little to the base of true knowledge. Indeed, it has been subsequently shown that he was in error on almost everything. His only contribution to true knowledge is the development of the syllogism and this was just the foundation of logic which would be much improved and developed in subsequent centuries. However, this does not detract from his intellectual greatness. In my opinion, Aristotle remains one of the greatest intellects to have lived, up there with Pythagoras, Archimedes, Newton, Leibniz, and Einstein.

Perhaps the greatest contribution to human thought provided by early rational thinkers was their willingness to consider non-mystical/mythical explanations and elements for causal processes of the material world. In this, they should be highly praised in an ancient world view full of demons and gods. A world which considered the hail of storms the province and causality of fickle deities. Their original thought proved a successful antidote to intellectually impoverished, ancient, mysticism. And for this reason alone, we should be eternally grateful.

antidote to mysticism


  1. In your research, did you find anything about magnetic lodestones and static electricity? I'd imagine these ancient philosophers knew of their 'magical' effects, but perhaps without a clue as to their origins.
    But sailors were employing lodestones when out of sight of land - I see them as similar to a modern car driver, who has not idea about how GPS functions but blindly relies on it.

    1. No I haven't researched this fascinating area. But as you have mentioned it is well worth a look. Perhaps I can get a post out of it?

  2. Flaxen, does the name Andrew Pearce mean anything to you? Some dude
    by that name used the magic words Disabled Toilet on another Blog I
    frequent. It looks like the Patroller of the Gay Bath House has
    followed me to another Blog. I told the Blogger via Email to keep
    an eye on him.

    1. No, Andrew Pearce has not posted here. Perhaps it is our old mate or someone using his calling card?

  3. On topic, my thoughts about the ancient Greeks and Romans led me to believe
    that these two cultures gave the world the greatest gift. They were true
    thinkers in every sense of the word. Their contributions gave us the concept
    of a Republican form of government.

    Aristotle did an expirement on gravity, but it was flawed. By dropping a
    weighty mass at the same time as a sheet of paper, he concluded that heaiver
    objects fall faster than light objects. Had he compensated for atmospheric
    drag by crushing the paper into a tight ball, he could have beat Galileo
    by nearly a mellinium.

    I am not a scientist, but this is my personal theory. The ancients had
    already "thunk" up the best ideas. About 200 years ago, the moderns came
    along and challenged the ancients with what I call inferior ideas, like
    subjectivism, existentialism, etc. This even effected the arts.

    The Moderns gave us Darwinism, Eugenics, Marxism, and other irrational
    concepts. Instead of standing on the shoulders of giants, they cut the
    legs off the giants!

    1. Darwinism is an irrational concept?
      The best news I've heard in a mellinium.
      Not a millennium, mind, but a mellinium.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Hi Leonard, as a practicing scientist I will have to disagree on your thoughts that Darwinism is irrational. Indeed, it is a profound theory backed with a wealth of experimental evidence from a multitude of scientific disciplines. It explains so much in our biological world. Without it the practice of modern biology would be impossible. Furthermore, I have to disagree that the ancients had discovered the best 'ideas' Certainly the ancient Greeks gave us a baseline but also led knowledge astray which would constrain intellectual effort for the the next 18 hundred 18 hundred years.

    4. I did not mean to imply that Darwin was irrational. My view is that
      evolution is about small changes over very long periods of time. I
      seriously doubt the evolutionary charts I saw in grade school. True
      man and ape are genetically related but my problem is with the linear
      model. That would require a quantum leap. I do not even know if
      Darwin himself sunscribed to the theory of linear progression, but
      his fans sure do.

      My personal theory is that man and ape came from the same tree, but
      not the same branch. This would explain the lack of a transitional
      species (AKA the missing link.) We have scientists who are linking
      2 million year old monkey skull fragments to human evolution.

      What if the the transitional species was much more recent? What if the
      transition was Neanderthal or some other older stage of human evolution?

      About the acients. They did lay the groundwork that needed to be built
      on, like Newton's quote about standing on the shoulders of giants.
      Religious opposition was a major factor in stalling scientific advancment.
      It took Copernicus, Keppler, Kepler and Galileo to rid the world of the
      Aristotal's earth centric view. Newton merely showed the world the
      mechanics involved.

  4. Hey M, I wonder how many folks will get the reference? I think a high % of my readership will muster the truth.