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Topic #A2 –
Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes: Milesian Philosophers

12 September, 2001
Scribes: Aaron Walton and Nikola Danaylov

these minutes were spoken on 14 September; to view the other minutes, go to the unspoken minutes

We began our Ancient Philosophy course with a discussion of the earliest Greek philosophers, known as the Milesians. Of particular note, Professor Hutchinson said, is that these three thinkers, Thales, Anaximander, and Aneximenes, were considered to be the originators of the philosophic discipline. It is interesting to trace things back to their origins, he said, as the Greek scholars loved to do.

A common project undertaken by all three of the Milesians was an attempt at explaining the world; why and how it came to be and what laws and principles govern its workings. The Milesians’ contributions in this area showed a marked departure from any earlier such attempts. Theirs was the first to employ a quasi-scientific type of reasoning, in which worldly phenomenon were grouped together to achieve a unified, self contained theory about the world’s origins. Previous attempts had been more mythology oriented, where the world’s phenomenon were described in a story-like format derived from an unreasoned, emotional experience of the world. Yet while the Milesians’ approach was progressive, evidence of influences from earlier mythology can be seen in their philosophizing. To illustrate this, professor Hutchinson asked us to consider a more well- known creation story, Genesis, book 1, chapter1 in The Bible. In it there are several parallels to themes that occur in the teachings of the Milesians, including the earth originating as a “desolate waste,” there being “a firmament in the middle of the waters” and there being a division of this firmament into dry land and sky. Each of these ideas can be found in one of the three Milesians’ accounts the world’s origins.

This led Professor Hutchinson to remark that when the Greeks wrote their creation myths around 700 to 500 B.C., they did not simply invent their stories, but looked eastwards for inspiration to the older civilizations of Sumeria and Acadia. These civilizations bequeathed much to the Ancient Greeks, he said; as did the Egyptians, from whom they learned models of government, and various urban arts.

Next it was stressed that most of the Milesians’ ideas are missing; they are known to us only in pieces – either as fragments of the Milesians’ own authoring, or as testimony from subsequent scribes, called doxographers, who reported on what they thought the Milesians said. To each of the Milesians, is ascribed a varied assortment of accomplishments. Thales is said to have had astronomical knowledge, predicting the occurrence of a solar eclipse. He had a theory of geometry. He had a theory of both how the earth remained stable, and how it was animated. He was credited with ideas for nation building and government. He also had knowledge of engineering. Anaximander too had knowledge of the stars. Additionally, he knew of meteorological phenomenon, he posited a theory of the evolution of the human species, and he attempted the first history of anthropology. Aneximenes proposed a different model of astronomy, but held a similar theory of meteorology to that of Anaximander.

The assertions that the Milesians put forth about the world are in many respects primitive; almost laughable, Professor Hutchinson said. Their utterances were enigmatic. But when viewed in a particular context, their value becomes clearer – they were aiming at an almost revolutionary replacement of an older explanation of the world, namely Hesiod’s Theogony.

We heard from Theogony a passage starting at line 116, in which a story is told of how the world evolves from a less formed state to a more formed state. A crucial difference between this and what the Milesians were propounding is that in Theogony gods are invoked to explain things, but in the Milesians’ doctrines, deities are noticeably absent in this role.

Another comparison that was made was between Hesiod’s Theogony and Genesis. The main difference is that according to the former in the beginning there was chaos, and Gods were created in the world and thus were part of it whereas according to the latter God exists outside the world and actually created it. Another difference that was observed was that in the Greek text the narrative for the creation focused on the human activities of sex, struggle, fight and revenge whereas in the Hebrew one God created the world purely by his will and authority without any resemblance of human actions.

It was reiterated at this point what a cultural debt the Greeks owe to earlier Mesopotamian civilization. Just as North Americans are fledgling yet wealthier versions of their European ancestors, so were the ancient Greeks when looking back at the Mesopotamians. After going through a period of cultural borrowing Greek philosophy eventually became self-sufficient, looking to its own past instead of that of other societies.

A student in the class raised an interesting question as to why Greek philosophy appeared to evolve independently from religion. He observed that in far-eastern ancient civilizations such as India and China, philosophy seemed always to be tied closely to prevailing religious doctrines. Professor Hutchinson pointed out that the Greeks were very tolerant towards all kinds of different Gods and that probably this was one of the reasons that there was only a very loose connection between their religious beliefs and their philosophical theories. In Greece philosophy did emerge from religion, but slowly and incompletely. For example it is not clear whether or to what extent the Milesians were free from religion – Aneximenes said that “Air was a God”. Professor Hutchinson also added that the competition that we observe today between different religions was not as prevalent at that time.

A second question was asked: Is the move from mythos to logos – in other words the proto-scientific transition the Milesians were trying to make away from mythology – simply the move from a multiple explanation of the world to a unified one? Professor Hutchinson replied that this is not necessarily so, as the Milesians incorporated some multifaceted explanations into their theories.

Finally, we began examining the Milesians on an individual basis beginning with Thales, the earliest of them. Curiously enough, Thales was something of a mythic figure himself. A revered, almost legendary person, he was likely ascribed many more accomplishments than he actually was responsible for; or perhaps even there was no one man by this name, but only a fictional character that was created by combining the actual feats of many individuals. The name Thales actually became synonymous with “super-wise guy” or “smart person”. Probably there were seeds of truth in the existence of a Thales or several of them but Professor Hutchinson remarked that he personally doubted that Thales was a historical figure. Nevertheless, the Thales we read about was said to have predicted a solar eclipse, engaged in nation building, and employed civil engineering that lead to military victory, in addition to hazarding opinions about geometry, the origin of the cosmos, and the other areas mentioned earlier.

Briefly before turning to Anaximander, Professor Hutchinson discussed the Phoenician influence that affected the early Greeks and especially the Milesians, since Miletus lay along one of the established trade routes connecting the Greek and Phoenician lands. The Phoenicians were a mercantile and very well developed society that inhabited Syria, Lebanon, and present-day Israel, and were crucial to the development of Greek society since the Greeks learned writing from them. .

Before the conclusion of the lecture we cast a glance at Anaximander, and were unable to examine Aneximenes with more detail. In Anaximander’s theory of cosmic birth, we noted, there was a cyclic theme of things coming into being and a consequent stage of them going back into non-being. Things were subject to laws such as the law of balance of forces, which, as Professor Hutchinson pointed out, was a fruitful idea by which Anaximander tried to explain the stability of the Earth. He also had theories about the evolution of human species, meteorology and astronomy.