Thales of Miletus
One of the “Seven Sages” of ancient Greek lore, Thales of Miletus is attested through none of his own works, for none survived. (The ancients differed on whether he wrote anything at all.) He is mentioned in Herodotus in the context of an account of an eclipse, and Thales seems in fact to have been more interested in what we would now call science rather than what we term philosophy.
Herodotus claims that Thales foretold the eclipse, which may be apocryphal. What is far more interesting is the scientifically-correct description of it that is ascribed to Thales in the anonymous Commentary on the Odyssey in one of the Oxyrhynchus papyri:
Thales said that the sun is eclipsed when the moon is in front of it.
There was a problematic description ascribed to Thales after the above sentence, but I have omitted it. Suffice to say, that with his idea that water is the basis of all, or that the earth floats on water, or his ideas about souls, Thales is still far from modern science. But he made a good beginning by being willing to accept rational rather than divine origins for the universe.
Thales is also said to have touched on mathematics and geometry, and he is reported to have expounded upon isosceles triangles, among other things.
More interesting tidbits: in answer to the question “why don’t you have any children,” Thales responded* humbly, “because I love children.” When asked by an adulterer for advice as to the question of whether he should swear that he had not committed adultery, Thales replied “perjury is no worse than adultery.” (Bill Clinton evidently took lessons! I just had to throw that in for humour!) When asked, “what is difficult,” Thales answered, “to know yourself,” and indeed, this famous motto, inscribed on the temple at Delphi–a sort of ancient Greek equivalent to the Vatican in terms of power–is ascribed to Thales first, in this case by Diogenes Laertius.
Anaximander of Miletus
Anaximander was a pupil of Thales, and like him, sought to explain the world (Greek “cosmos: κοσμος) in terms of an unifying, primoeval entity, or “principle” (Greek arche: αρχη). In this case, it was not water, but “the limitless.” Anaximander held that the Earth was “aloft”–not supported by anything, and he held that the world was rounded, “in the shape of a cylinder.” Anaximander is also attributed with the first “map of the inhabited world,” which he drew on a tablet. On a more interesting note, Anaximander is widely held among the ancients to have said that men evolved from fish! In this, he is of course, very close to the truth–certainly closer than his contemporaries who wrote the Hebrew Bible were, when they wrote that God created man from clay. Finally, Anaximander discoursed on the phenomena of rain and evaporation.
Anaximenes of Miletus
I have little to write of Anaximenes. His “principle”–again, his organizing, unifying primoeval element–was not water, as with Thales, nor “the limitless,” as with Anaximander, but was “limitless air.” He also said that souls were “air,” and I find there an echo of the Hebrew idea that God breathed on the first man, and thus made him a living being.
Pythagoras of Samos
First things first, according to Jonathan Barnes, Pythagoras was not the originator of the Pythagorean theorem!
Now that that’s out of the way, I can report that Porphyry said that Pythagoras said that the soul was immortal, and that after a person died, his or her soul would enter that of an animal. Herodotus says that many Greek thinkers (and he pointedly does not name them) put forward this idea as their own, but he says it was actually the Egyptians who invented this idea. Anyway, I remember Pythagoras idea from my grade-school days of memorizing poetry, when I first read the concluding lines in Christopher Marlowe’s play Faustus:
Ah Pythagoras’ metempsychosis! were that true,
This soul should fly from me, and I be chang’d
Unto some brutish beast! All beasts are happy,
For, when they die,
Their souls are soon dissolv’d in elements;
But mine must live, still to be plagu’d in hell.
Alcmaeon was a student of Pythagoras. I have little to say about him, but I very much like this quote, preserved in Diogenes Laertius, in which we can see the beginnings of real science as well as the idea of “God of the gaps”:
About matters invisible the gods possess clear knowledge, but as far as humans may judge, etc.
The “etc.” is the translation of the words of Diogenes Laertius.
Theophrastus’ work “On the Senses” preserves a wonderfully fascinating account of the views of Alcmaeon on human anatomy:
Of those who do not explain perception by similarity, Alcmaeon first determines the difference between men and animals: he says that men differ from other animals because they alone understand, whereas the others perceive but do not understand. (He supposes that thinking and perceiving are distinct, not–like Empedocles–the same thing.)
Then he discusses each of the senses. He says that we hear with our ear because there is an empty space inside them which echoes: the cavity sounds and the air echoes in return. We smell with our noses at the same time as we breathe in, drawing the breath towards the brain. We discriminate flavours with our tongues; for, being warm and soft, they dissolve things with their heat…. The eyes see by way of the water surrounding them….
All the senses are somehow connected to the brain. That is why they are incapacitated if it is moved or displaced….
As for touch, he said neither how nor by what means it works.
So much for Alcmaeon’s views.
They say that Euripides gave [Socrates] a copy of Heraclitus’ book and asked him what he thought of it. He replied, “what I understand is splendid;, and so too, I’m sure, is what I don’t understand–but it would take a Delian diver to get to the bottom of it.”–Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers
My Penguin Classics volume informs me that Heraclitus is considered also by modern scholars to be difficult–and that carries through in the translation, too. Nevertheless, I have a few remarks. First, a pithy epigram:
Eternity is a child at play, playing draughts: the kingdom is a child’s.
It might as well be “but a dream.” Incidentally, I’m reminded of Jesus’ remark that in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, one must become “as a child.” That sort of turns the thing on its head. Both remarks are fascinating and pregnant, but Heraclitus’ remark is the more elusive.
It’s not important, but Heraclitus’ “principle,” it appears, was fire.
There are two remarks by Heraclitus that I found interesting. The first:
If you do not expect the unexpected, you will not discover it.
The quote is preserved in a treatise by Clement, who seems to find many parallels to Christian and biblical thought in Heraclitus. That was actually one of the more amusing and interesting aspects of this chapter in my Penguin Classics book.
The second quote–which is actually likely to be a paraphrase–is far more interesting, and comes to us courtesy of Plato:
Heraclitus says somewhere that everything moves and nothing rests; and, comparing what exists to a river, he says that you would not step twice into the same river.
But Heraclitus earns my suspicion and enmity to this statement, in which he criticizes my hero, Xenophanes, (see the next post) in a remark that was justly censured already by Diogenes Laertius, who preserves it:
Much learning does not teach thought–or else it would have taught Hesiod and Pythagoras, and again Xenophanes and Hacataeus.
So much for Heraclitus’ views!
To sum up, on this second return to the Pre-Socratics, I find them much more interesting than when I read them many months ago while half asleep on public transit; this re-visiting in preparation for this post was a delightful experience. It is so obvious that so much of our modern world is dependent on the scientific advances of these early thinkers, despite many of their child-like explanations (which I mostly have not reported here). But they were Herculean thinkers in the sense that they were proposing a rational inquiry into a cosmos which made sense in terms of cause and effect. We owe them a boundless intellectual debt.
* From now on, I will often say that a given person “said” things rather than saying “was said to have said.” This does not reflect my judgement on whether so-and-so actually said such things. We are in many cases dealing with words or phrases ascribed to the Pre-Socratics by men two hundred years or so later whose works are preserved in manuscripts dated even far after their times. But the question of historicity–while important–can be balanced by a sort of traditional characterization of these early thinkers, and as characters, they continue to exert an influence today.