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Topic A2:
Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes: Milesian philosophers


12 September 2001
Scribes: Steven Chabot and Jonathan Kim

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The Ancient Greeks had a need to trace the origins of their arts and sciences back to particular founders. For example, Prometheus was the discoverer of fire. These people are shadowy figures in their history. For the Greeks, Thales was the founder of the study of Philosophy.

However, even the Greeks based their knowledge on even older civilizations. When Greeks were writing in the period around 700 BC, they themselves were looking back a further 2000 years. Such ancient cultures were the Sumerians and the Acadians. These and other Mesopotamian cultures that brought such tools as writing, government art and religion to the peoples of Greece and Egypt. The Greeks looked to the far older cultures in the same was as we would to the older culture of Europe.

Thales is credited with a wide variety of knowledge, including astronomy and the ability to predict eclipses. Credited to him also are knowledge government, civil engineering, and theories of the earth and unity of all things. The makeup the the world was based on water, according to Thales

Anaximander also is credited with knowledge of astronomy and of meteorology. Plus, it is said that Anaximander was the first to produce a map of the entire earth. Following Thales, Anaximander also had theories of the world, however, his theory stated the world was made of a boundless substance that was separate from the elements (fire, water etc). Interesting to note is Anaximander’s theory of the origin of life, which resembles a form of evolution from lower forms.

Anaximenes too had knowledge of astronomy, but the makeup of his world, as opposed to Anaximander’s, was based on the condensation and refraction of air. Furthermore, he attempts to explain earthquakes and precipitation.

These theories may seem simple and even grossly illogical to modern readers, however, these are important because they were the first studies into the natural sciences that were to compete with religion and myth as explanations.

Hesiod, in his Theogony, and the writer’s of Genesis took a poetic view of the World creation. Both these myths have a central theme of randomness brought to order by the Gods or Gods. For Hesiod, sex was the instigator of creation. Love was one of the first gods created, and sex was seen as a metaphor of creation. The Bible, on the other hand, creation is an act of God’s will. The similarities of these two is the fact that sex and power are both seen as aspects of a fatherly figure. The Jews and Greeks commonly drew these elements from earlier Mesopotamian culture. Early philosophy may have turned away from myth, yet the Greeks still focused eastward and backward.

What these early philosophers tried to do was impose a unified model to explain the whole range of human experience. Such metaphors as Anaximander’s idea of the world being surrounded by a “bark” are repeated in his theory of evolution and previous beings covering in a bark-like covering. Earlier myths involved conflict, such as a god killing his father and becoming king of the gods, only to be further challenged by his son. These earlier philosophers looked to purge these myths and advance the study of science.

It is important to note that Thales himself is a figure of myth. Often, the first figure being dealt with is a conglomeration of many people, and the second was a true person. Therefore, various deeds attributed to Thales are most likely the works of many people, whose names were forgotten. As Thales became known as a “super wise man” he acquired the deeds of others. However, there is a seed of truth to the myths. Thales was most likely a Phoenician. This is an important fact, as the Phoenicians were traders and travelers who brought knowledge with them. Ideas from the East would have come to Miletus and infiltrated the thinking there. Thales therefore was knowledgeable because he knew the Phoenician lore and knowledge. In any case, many things attributed to Thales, as his name became a catch all phrase for and first philosopher.

Anaximander and Anaximenes were most likely real persons. Anaximander believed in such ideas that all things are created and eventually destroyed—returned to their unformed state. Everything in creation must follow this law—the circle of life. His answer to the famous question, “Why does the earth stand still?” was, “Because it has no where else to go.”

A question was asked on why philosophy and religion in such places as India and China were so interrelated and why Greek and Western philosophy seemed so separate from religion. The professor answered that this is not completely so. Atheism was unusual in the ancient world, and there were always aspects of religion in the Greek life. However, this religion was very open and anti-dogmatic. Aspects and ideas from many places, including other religions, were accepted into the Greek system. Therefore, this relaxed attitude may have allowed philosophy to be distanced—but not separated—from religion.

A second question was asked about if the early philosopher’s apparent need to like all things to one source was more scientific, as opposed to many sources which seemed to be more “mythological”; for instance, the gods represent elements. The professor answered that such an idea was incorrect. More correct was the study of the relationship between phenomena—the unification of ideas. (T24 and T27).