This is part one of a series of articles related to the Greek Presocratic Philosophers. The Presocratics were a wide and varied group of philosopher-scientists active between the years 585 BC and 400 BC. The inquiries that the Presocratics conducted into the nature of reality established the scope and general structure of philosophical inquiry even up until the present day. This article will mainly focus on Thales, who is considered the ‘first philosopher.’ Thales left behind no writings and all that we know about him are reports from other sources.
Sometimes I don’t think people realize how long ancient philosophy, as it was formulated by the Greeks, really lasted. It went on from about 585 BC to 529 AD, a period close to a thousand years, and it only ended when the Academies, the hubs of ancient philosophical activity, were shut down by the the Roman Emperor Justinian. In the thousand year period in which ancient philosophy reigned intellectually, incredibly rich, diverse, and elaborate traditions sprung up within it. There were Sceptics, Stoics, Epicureans, Aristotelians, Platonists, Cynics, and many more, all attempting to work out, on the basis of rationality, the central questions pertaining to human existence. What is a human being? What is the purpose of human life? What is the nature of reality? Where did the world come from? These are just a few questions that the ancient philosophers attempted to answer.
But all of these ancient philosophical traditions had to originate somewhere. They didn’t just spring up creation ex nihilo. Many of the views that were held by the different philosophical traditions had their origins, in one form or another, in the Presocratic period which roughly lasted from 585 BC to about 400 BC. I’m going to be using the term ‘Presocratic’ but I do want to stress that it is merely for convenience’s sake. There is plenty of scholarly dispute on if the term ‘Presocratic’ is even an appropriate term, mainly because the Presocratics did not think of themselves as Presocratics. Honestly, they probably didn’t even think of themselves as ‘philosophers,’ or even ‘scientists.’ After all, those disciplines didn’t exist yet.
In either case, I do want to stress that despite the prefix “pre” in the term, the Presocratics should not be thought of as merely prototypes for ‘true philosophers,’ or unsophisticated precursors to the real deal. If anything, I think they had a harder job, they actually oversaw the development, in the Greek world, from what was primarily a mythological worldview to one that was for the most part, founded on rationality. Within this short period of about two hundred years, they developed, quite quickly, the conceptual tools needed to effectively make philosophical inquiry, as we know it, possible.
The Presocratic period can roughly be broken up into three smaller sub-periods, the first sub-period which will be my focus for the time being. From 585 BC to 500 BC, philosophy had its first rough beginnings, and was primarily characterized by bold speculation about the nature of reality by the Milesians (Thales, Anaximander Anaximenes), and then by criticism from the likes of Xenophanes and Heraclitus. Generally, most reviews of early Greek philosophy will lump Pythagoras into this early stretch of philosophical innovation. I really won’t be talking much, if at all, about Pythagoras for now. Probably if I get into writing about Plato I will, but for now, it’s just good to know that Pythagoras was in the mix during this period of time as well. Here’s a quick map of this early innovation period in Greek philosophy (fig. 1). The dates are rough estimations.
So let’s start with the Milesians, Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes. They are all called Milesians because they were based out of the ancient Greek city Miletus. Miletus was kind of a big deal during its day. It was the largest and wealthiest of the Greek cities that dotted the Ionian coast in what is today Turkey. It made something of a maritime empire of itself and traded, and fought, with many cities throughout the Mediterranean. It even picked a fight with Persia which was a bad idea and did not end well for the Milesians. During their heyday however, the Milesians were exposed to and absorbed a variety of ideas, most notably astronomy and geometry, which they picked up from the Babylonians and Egyptians and further developed.
So, the Milesians are the earliest philosophers that we have historical records of, and even then, we have very little actual writings of theirs, just a few sentences or fragments here and there that were recorded by later philosophers. I cannot begin to express the amount of work and dedication that scholars of ancient philosophy have put into not only piecing together the writings of these early philosophers, but also interpreting those writings to try to get as an authentic understanding as possible from a worldview that, quite frankly, is foreign to ours in a variety of ways.
Sure, as I’ve said, the Presocratics may have been developed a mindset that we would now call “scientific” and “rational” in comparison to the mythic-centered traditions that they overturned, but their understanding of the world and how it operated is still going to be very different from our own. And at times, it may be easy to dismiss their thoughts concerning the nature of the world because they don’t fit into our own “modern” intuitions. Let’s keep that in the back of our mind as we explore the ancient Greek worldview. It might also help us to understand why the early Greek philosophers thought the way that they did by seeing what kind of intellectual tradition they sprang up from and what kind of ontological baggage it brought with it.
Transitioning from Myth to Reason
The Milesians were very interested in inquiring explicitly about φύσις (phusis), or what is commonly translated today as “nature.” The word ‘physics’ also stems from φύσις. This is not to say that the Milesian’s predecessors did not appreciate φύσις, or put any thought into it. It’s just that when their predecessors thought about φύσις, they thought of it on the basis of myth, or in the Greek, μῦθος (muthos). It is easy to say that to conceive of φύσις on the basis of μῦθος is to think of it merely as the domain of spirits and supernatural forces. This isn’t incorrect. The ancient Greeks attributed natural phenomena, like flooding and lightning storms to gods and divine spirits, and when they thought about (1) how the world came into being, and (2) how it operated, they looked to their mythic poets, like Homer and Hesiod to clarify things. But to call this worldview merely superstitious doesn’t quite do justice to the nuances of it.
Let’s take a look at how they conceived of the beginning of the world. The poet Hesiod, in his poem “Theogony,” answered the question about the ultimate origin of the world by saying :
ἦ τοι μὲν πρώτιστα Χάος γένετ᾽
“first of all chaos (Χάος), came to be”
Chaos was conceived of as a primordial god to the Greeks, not just a symbol for an elemental force, but a thinking and willing being with a personality and likes and dislikes. Chaos was alive, in every sense of the word. But Chaos did not ‘create’ the gods, or even the world like the artificer God of the Old Testament. Chaos did not even create itself, it merely “came into being,” emerged, appeared, or, was born, if we are trying to get a more specific sense of what is entailed in the word γένετ. And Hesiod records other primordial gods, like Gaia, also “appearing” in the same way. And Chaos and Gaia repeated the same cycle of generation, according to Hesiod, and birthed the other primordial gods. These primordial gods constituted the world too and this is meant quite literally. In many instances Hesiod actually tells us, in grisly detail, how the body of this or that primordial god was used to create this or that part of the world. The primordial gods were then, in a very real sense, interwoven into the fabric of observable phenomena. Over time, and through further generations of birth and procreation, the Olympian gods appeared and eventually crafted human beings.
So, the world’s coming into being was, for the ancient Greeks, always founded on this genealogical model which placed emphasis on the “aliveness” of reality, a reality which the Greeks called φύσις . So φύσις was not exclusively what was out there, in the woods, in the mountains, or outside of the scope of human affairs. This is why the term ‘nature’ or ‘physics’ doesn’t quite get at what is meant by φύσις. When we think of ‘nature,’ or even ‘physics,’ we think of something over there, divorced, in a way, from the day to day experience of being in this world. In fact, φύσις constituted every facet of what the Greeks would have called the experience of being in the world, and, if we were to trying to be clearer about what φύσις was, we could say that it was something close to an equivalent to the word “Being.”
The Milesians came into their philosophical own within this conception of Being, as primordially interwoven with divinity to such an extent that everything could be said to behave as if “alive” in some sense. Not only did they conceive of Being as expressing a sort of “aliveness,” but they also conceived of it as in a constant state of coming into being, or appearing. There is a word in ancient Greek that captures this way of conceiving of Being, and that is the word φαινόμενον, which we can translate into phenomenon. The word φαινόμενον has, at its etymological root, connotations of ‘coming into view’ or even ‘being brought into the light.’
So, the φαινόμενον, for the ancient Greeks, was really an appearing which was primordially suffused with a hidden divinity. This divinity constituted not only the original building blocks of the observable world, but it also directed, in a hidden way, the general activities of the observable world. Conceiving of φύσις on the basis of μῦθος, which was conveyed by their poets, the ancient Greeks had an answer for the questions about (1) how the world came into being, and also (2) of how the world operated. The Milesians, in seeking an answer to these two questions, did not stray from their traditions, and in fact, many of their views, in many interesting ways, matched up with this general Greek view of reality. But the Milesians, in inquiring as to the nature of reality did so on the basis of λόγος (logos), which we can roughly translate to reason, or rationality.
Thales: Statesman, Scientist, Sage
When I say that the Milesians inquired into the nature of reality on the basis of λόγος, of rationality, I want to make it clear that they didn’t really know straight away that this is what they were doing. But their inquiries, in being inquiries, show that they were already deviating from a mythic mode of knowing and moving towards a rational, even scientific way of engaging with reality.
So in what ways were the Milesians rational thinkers, as opposed to mythic thinkers? We can start by taking a look at Thales. Now, Thales was considered, by the ancient Greeks, to be a σοφός (sophos), a term which translates to ‘sage,’ or ‘wise man.’ To be considered a σοφός was kind of a big deal. A σοφός was a person who possessed σοφία (sophia), which translates to ‘wisdom.’ In the ancient Greek world, σοφία was a term originally used in reference to competence of technical skills and expert know-how. So, in possessing σοφία, the σοφός could be said to be someone who possessed a high degree of technical agricultural-architectural ability, poetical and musical expertise, as well as political know-how. The σοφός then, was the man of many talents. Thales was said to have most of these skills, particularly agricultural and architectural ability. In fact, Thales was often considered by the ancient Greeks to belong to an exclusive group of wise men called the Seven Sages who were in many ways revered almost as if they were divine themselves.
And it is this connection to the divine that I want to emphasize. Because, you see, σοφία was not something that a σοφός possessed of their own accord. It was not something that the σοφός practiced and developed, it was actually the possession of the gods, and if a human being possessed it, it was typically because they had received it as a gift. Even Hesiod did not take credit for his poetic prowess which he claimed was breathed into him by the Muses. (Theogony 35). In Homer we hear that the goddess Athena is the source of the σοφία that inspires woodworkers, even the woodworker who built the Trojan Horse. (Odyssey 8.493). And in the Iliad, it was only through Athena’s providing of divine sight, that the hero Diomedes was able to ‘see’ the gods’ true forms and even be able to harm them. (Iliad 5.833)
Remember how Hesiod had said that human beings were crafted by the gods? The primordial gods and their progeny appeared, or came into being, they were not created. In this way, the gods’ divine status was tied to their mode of genesis which seemed, on Hesiod’s account to be a more legitimate, and therefore divine, way of coming into being. To be crafted, to be created almost comes across like a derivative form of genesis. In being crafted, human beings seemed to possess a distinct and quite clearly lower ontological status to the divine. Human beings were not imbedded into the fabric of reality like the gods after all, they were not one with φύσις, they could only observe it as it appeared, as φαινόμενον, and, when they did have some ability to either access reality (through mythic poetry or divine sight) or even effect change to it (through agriculture or architecture), it was because σοφία had been bequeathed to them by the divine.
So, Thales, in being a σοφός, seems like he should have been working under this general assumption about the origin of his σοφία. His own expertise should have been attributed to the divine, not himself. Yet Thales is said to have been well-traveled. He supposedly visited Egypt where he learned geometry, and he went to Babylon too, where he is said to have picked up astronomy which he allegedly used in 585 BC to predict a solar eclipse. Now whether or not Thales actually predicted this solar eclipse is not really important, at least I think. What is important is what is implied in the story. What is implied in the story is that Thales predicted the φαινόμενον of the solar eclipse himself, using skills he picked up on his own, without any need of a god to give him insight or even a glimpse into the operations of the φαινόμενον. In a way, possibly without even fully comprehending it, he had moved out of thinking about and even interacting with the world on the basis of μῦθος into one that we might call ‘scientific.’
Another interesting thing must have occurred to Thales (and this is all speculation). He might have noticed that the theorems and formulas which he had appropriated to predict the φαινόμενον of the eclipse were the product of observation. Babylonian astronomers, year after year, would have recorded the positions of heavenly bodies and, through measurement and re-measurement over time, would have come up with the theorems and formulas which he most likely used to make his prediction. But if these Babylonian astronomers constructed these theorems and formulas on the basis of observation, and all they had to observe were φαινόμενον, then couldn’t reality be understood and its regular occurrences predicted simply on the basis of φαινόμενον?
This ‘discovery’ of Thales, then, if we can attribute it to him, is that φύσις , which we are privy to only as φαινόμενον, can be understood, even known, simply by observation of the φαινόμενον itself without any need for the divine imparting of σοφία. In fact, by simply observing one set of φαινόμενον over time, say, the appearance of the movement of celestial bodies, we can make accurate predictions about those celestial bodies further on down the line. And this rudimentary ‘scientific’ inferential approach applies to all φαινόμενον, to any ‘being’ that resides in the observable world. And if this is the case, then φύσις is no longer inaccessible, only to be explicated by the divinely inspired poet or even the σοφός, but it is open to being understood by, and even effected to some degree by all human beings.
“Everything is ὕδωρ “
So, let’s go back to those two questions that the ancient Greeks, in their mythological accounts, were concerned with. (1) How did the world come into being, and (2), how does it operate? These two questions also seemed to be in the back of Thales’ mind when he allegedly made his famous statement that everything comes from and is ὕδωρ (hudor), which we can translate to “water.” The reason why I will keep referring to water as ὕδωρ is to maintain my emphasis on the strangeness of the ancient Greek outlook of reality, at least in comparison to our own.
When we think of “water” we think of a compound substance containing hydrogen and oxygen which can exist in a variety of states, such as gas, liquid, or solid. We have a very definite idea of what water is, so when we hear a statement such as, “everything is water,” we might instinctively find the idea laughable. “Of course everything is not water, science tells us that there are two atoms that exist, hydrogen and oxygen, and that when they come together, they produce water molecules. But water molecules are distinct from other sorts of molecules, such as nitrogen, or glucose to name a few. It is these different sorts of molecules, that together, comprise the building blocks of not only the world, but also our bodies. In fact, they could be said to comprise Being itself. It is ridiculous to think that water is the building block of all of these molecules!”
So, the way that we think of water already has, built into it, certain assumptions about how reality is constituted. At the most generalized level, we typically assume that reality is comprised of a variety of substances that, based on how they are combined and put together, constitute the objects of experience. But Thales did not have this conceptual scaffolding to work with. For Thales, all he had to fall back on were the traditions that had their basis in μῦθος, and within that framework, what was available was a conception of reality as φαινόμενον, as a reality that appeared one way (as trees, mountains, rivers, etc.) but was really only an outer showing of the primordial divinities, who were also themselves the originators of reality.
So, when Thales tried to answer the question of how the world came into being, in his new ‘scientific’ way of thinking, and he looked at what φαινόμενον was available to him, and inferred from there, he saw that ὕδωρ seemed almost pervasive as a precondition for life. And life, as the ancient Greeks thought of it, was fundamentally a feature of φύσις. As Aristotle puts it:
“Thales inferred that ὕδωρ was the originating principle of the world, “from seeing that the nourishment of everything is moist and that all hot things come from ὕδωρ and live by ὕδωρ (for that from which anything comes into being is its principle)”
In Thales’ view, how could this φαινόμενον which was called ὕδωρ and which appeared with such regularity as a precondition for life, be anything but the ἀρχή (arche), or originating principle by which φύσις emerged? ὕδωρ was life which was imbedded in reality, therefore, ὕδωρ was the principle of reality. In fact, for Thales, this was exactly how the lands and mountains and everything else appeared, they emerged, or were birthed, from out of ὕδωρ, just as the the world had emerged from out of the generative activity of the primordial gods in Hesiod’s poem. So, to answer the second question, how does the world operate, Thales seems to have held that it operated on the basis of continual emergence from out of the precondition of ὕδωρ. In this way, Thales was able to answer the question of how the world came to be, and how it operated, not on the basis of μῦθος, but on the basis of λόγος.
But clearly not everything seems like it is still ὕδωρ. Land may rise out of ὕδωρ for example, but does it still remain essentially the same thing as ὕδωρ? Our intuition should tell us that it doesn’t remain essentially the same, otherwise why would we be referring to it as land and no longer as ὕδωρ? Furthermore, saying that ὕδωρ is the precondition from which land emerges seems to negate the claim that “everything is ὕδωρ.” Sure, everything came from ὕδωρ, but that is not the same as saying that everything still is ὕδωρ.
Or does land originally start as ὕδωρ and then qualitatively change in some way? And what we see ’emerge’ or be ‘birthed’ by ὕδωρ is something like the offspring of ὕδωρ? Different qualitatively, but still having its origin in the same essential being? If it qualitatively changes in some way, then it is no longer really ὕδωρ, and the claim that “everything is ὕδωρ” is still not quite accurate. And even worse, if ὕδωρ is ‘birthing’ land, we are still no closer to understanding why this process of ‘birthing’ exists in the first place, or what the mechanics of that ‘birthing’ are.
These are questions that Thales did not provide us answers for. It could be that Thales, at the inception of western philosophical inquiry, just did not have the conceptual tools available to him to ask these sorts of questions. Or it could also be that any records concerning these questions simply did not survive down to the present time. In either case, these sorts of questions would be taken up and further conceptually elaborated on by his philosophical successors Anaximander and Anaximenes.