Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissanceby Anthony Gottlieb
"His book...supplant[s] all others, even the immensely successful History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell."—A. C. GraylingSee more details below
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The Dream of ReasonA History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance
By Anthony Gottlieb
W. W. Norton & CompanyCopyright ©2002 Anthony Gottlieb
All right reserved.
Nobody will ever be sure who started it. It could be that some poor genius invented philosophy and then fell into the abyss of unwritten history before he could announce himself to posterity. There is no reason to think that there was such a person, but then there wouldn't be. Happily, there are at least records of one start to philosophy, even if one cannot be certain that it was not preceded by other false starts.
Nowadays they are soberly studied in libraries and universities, but many of the earliest known philosophers made their first reputations in what could be regarded as a branch of show business. They appeared in public, often in resplendent clothes, and held discourses or recited poems. Such performances attracted passing audiences, devoted followers and sometimes ridicule. Some of these men were more outgoing than others. At one extreme is an itinerant poet, Xenophanes, who purporting to be ninety-two at the time apparently claimed to have spent 'seven and sixty years ... tossing my cares up and down the land of Greece'. At the other is acontemptuous aristocrat, Heraclitus of Ephesus (variously known in antiquity as 'the dark', 'the weeping' and 'the obscure'), who on his own proud admission loathed all sages and the mobs who listened to them, and presumably kept himself to himself. Most of the early philosophers fell somewhere between these two extremes. This was in the sixth and fifth centuries BC, in parts of what are now Greece, Turkey and Italy.
Today these people are generally called the 'Presocratics', which marks the fact that nearly all of them had what some historians in the nineteenth century regarded as the misfortune of being born before Socrates (469-399 BC). One might as well leave this label around their necks; but in fact they were far from being a mere overture to the Socratic opera. As Nietzsche said, they invented the archetypes of all later philosophy. They also invented science, which in those days came to much the same thing.
The first of these miracle-men did not suddenly drop from the sky. Sixth-century Greece was not the dawn of time, and perhaps a case can be made for beginning even earlier, with rudimentary Babylonian geometry or early Greek religion. It may be said that the Presocratics, although fine thinkers, did not invent thinking itself, and that looking at some earlier efforts will help to clarify their ideas. But this is a history of philosophy, not of everything, and we have to start somewhere.
The place to begin is Miletus, one of the Ionian city-states on the coast of Asia Minor (now in Turkey). In the sixth century BC, when Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes flourished there, it was a rich sea power with many colonies to the north in Thrace and around the Black Sea, and commercial links with parts of southern Italy, the east and Egypt. It was a cultivated place, giving some people the leisure which Aristotle was later fond of claiming to be a prerequisite for philosophy. Writing two centuries afterwards, Aristotle discussed these three men from Miletus several times. He divided early Greek thinkers into theologi, who saw the world as controlled by impetuous supernatural beings, and physici (naturalists), who tried instead to explain an apparently disordered world in terms of simpler and impersonal principles. He said that the Milesians were the first physici.
Many of the Presocratics wrote down their thoughts as well as holding forth in public, but you would hardly know it from what is left today. Their writings have been shattered by time and survive, if at all, only in tiny fragments. For some 2,000 years scholars have been poring over passages of little more than a few sentences, picking at a few words here and there, and depending heavily on secondary sources. Some ancient commentaries on these shards can be relied on at least to attempt accuracy. But even the best of them were written generations, or even many hundreds of years, after the Presocratics lived. Other second- and third-hand sources, such as the writings of the often unreliable but most enjoyable biographer, Diogenes Laertius (who lived in the third century AD), need to be read with at least one eyebrow raised. Diogenes was an undiscerning whale of a historian who swallowed every story that floated by.
With these caveats in mind, consider Thales of Miletus. He was famed in ancient Greece for many things, the most famous of which he did not in fact do, namely predict an eclipse of the sun in 585 BC. The eclipse came during a battle between the Milesians' two neighbours to the east the Lydians and the Medes which added to its dramatic impact. It made Thales' intellectual fortune. The combatants were so impressed by the fact that there was an eclipse while they were fighting that they laid down their weapons and made peace. The Greeks in general were so impressed by the fact that Thales seemed to have predicted it that they later attributed to him an implausible number of wise words, wise deeds and discoveries, from the proofs of various geometrical theorems to the ability to make vast amounts of money. More importantly, they developed a deep respect for his way of thinking.
But Thales did not make a genuine prediction, just a lucky informed guess. In all likelihood he was so far from understanding the true nature of solar eclipses that he would not even have known that the moon had anything to do with it. Fortunately for him he was a well-travelled man and this explains his guess. From the painstaking records of observant Babylonian star-gazers, he would have learned of a cycle that seemed to be characteristic of eclipses in the past. There were certain years in which eclipses might happen and other years in which they could not. The most that he could reasonably have inferred from this record is that there was a fair chance that an eclipse would be seen from somewhere at some time during 585 BC. If Thales claimed anything more precise than that, he was bluffing.
The eclipse was a lucky break for the naturalists' view of the world. Clearly they were thinkers to be reckoned with. This may seem odd when one considers the surviving details of their views, because the theories most reliably attributed to Thales are that magnets are alive and that the world is made of water. He probably also said many other less speculative things, which earned him the respect of his peers as a man of practical knowledge. But even these two apparently outrageous ideas deserve some respect when seen in their proper contexts.
Take water first. One distinguishing feature of what we now call a scientific account of things is that it should aim to be as simple as possible. Thales rather overshot this mark and tried to reduce everything to just one thing, namely water. It seems that he did not actually manage to come up with any watery explanations; these were, after all, early days. But in seeking a natural substance to unify and thus simplify the phenomena of the observable world, instead of making things more complicated by invoking lots of gods, he was at least looking for knowledge in what we now regard as the right sort of place.
It is not clear whether he really meant to say that everything consisted of water in some sense, or merely that it originally came from water. He may well have meant to say both. It is anachronistic but not necessarily too misleading to interpret him, as Aristotle did, as holding that water was the arche, a term used by some slightly later thinkers to mean not only the origin of things but also the fundamental substance of which everything somehow consists and to which it will ultimately return.
Either way, water was not a bad candidate for Thales to choose. Unlike the other common elements, such as earth or fire, water can easily be seen to take on different forms, such as that of ice or of steam. It is thus versatile and apparently active. Aristotle, when suggesting reasons why Thales might have favoured water, also noted its intimate connection with life. Food, blood and semen all contain water; plants and animals are nourished by water. Living things tend to be moist, to some extent, and they dry up when they die. Many mythological accounts of the universe also gave water a leading role. The Babylonians and Egyptians both had creation myths in which water played a pre-eminent part. This is hardly surprising since both cultures depended on the rivers around which their people settled. In Homer (eighth century BC), Okeanos, the personified body of water surrounding the circular surface of the earth, is the begetter of all life and possibly of all gods. According to Plutarch (AD c.46-c.120), Egyptian priests liked to claim that both Homer and Thales got their ideas about water from Egypt.
Thales presumably knew of the Egyptian and Babylonian myths. But this does not mean that he was merely echoing them or even that he first got his ideas from them. It is just as likely that both the myths and his own speculations stemmed in part from an awareness that water is evidently active, many-sided and involved in the processes of life. Besides, Thales made an entirely different use of this awareness. His water is not, like Homer's Okeanos, the brother (and husband) of the goddess, Tethys. Nor is it an amalgam of the three personified types of water in Babylonian cosmology, Apsu, Ti'amat and Mummu, who gave rise to the gods. Nor is it Nun, the primordial water which was father to the sun-god of the morning in Egyptian myth. It is perfectly ordinary water, such as one might swim in or drink. And it is not related to any personified gods, either by birth or by marriage.
Another difference between Thales and his myth-making precursors is that he seems to have felt the need to give reasons for at least some of what he said. He held that the earth rests upon water, and apparently said this 'because it floated like wood and other similar substances, which are so constituted as to rest upon water but not upon air'. The question of what holds up the earth is one that most of the naturalists tried to answer. Instead of dogmatically asserting a solution, Thales thus seems to have tried to reason it out. Water is capable of supporting some things, such as logs; so maybe it supports the earth itself. This reasoning did not impress Aristotle, who pointed out that if the earth needs something to rest on, then so too does the water which allegedly supports it; thus Thales had not really answered the question. And there is another, fatal, objection to Thales' argument: logs may float, but some other things do not. Why assume that the earth would float like a log rather than sink like a stone? Yet even this defeat is a sort of victory for Thales. In order to refute him we have to reason with him, a compliment we would not think of paying the Egyptian priests.
Thales probably deserves the same compliment for his claim that magnets and amber are alive (or have a soul, psuche, which in those days meant much the same thing). He noticed that they can cause some other objects to move and can move themselves towards them, and he was trying to account for this mystery by proposing that they have a type of animation. Spontaneous motion is, after all, often a sign of life. We would object to Thales that the power to cause motion is not quite enough on its own to justify calling a stone alive; but this does not mean we can dismiss his ruminations as mere craziness. Today there is still no precise definition of life, and in the seventh century BC there was barely even a vague one. Thales' apparently outlandish idea may therefore be seen as the natural result of having an inquiring mind at a time when precious little was understood.
Before leaving Thales to examine the other Milesians, there is one anecdote about him that is worth retelling, even if it is by Diogenes Laertius:
It is said that once, when he was taken out of doors by an old woman in order that he might observe the stars, he fell into a ditch, and his cry for help drew from the old woman the retort, 'How can you expect to know all about the heavens, Thales, when you cannot even see what is just before your feet?'
If the story is true, Thales has a claim not only to the title of first philosopher but also to that of first absent-minded professor. At any rate, the story attests to the fact that the connection between philosophy and unworldliness is one that people have long enjoyed making. Socrates tells a version of the same story against Thales in one of Plato's dialogues. And in his play, Clouds, Aristophanes tells a similar but coarser version of it against Socrates himself.
The Greeks appreciated intellectual order and liked to establish it wherever it seemed to be lacking. That is one reason why people study them. One facet of this desire to lay things out neatly can be found in the way they wrote their own history: in the ancient sources which tell the story of early philosophy, we find a stately procession of teachers and pupils, each one passing the torch of knowledge to an appointed successor. Thus Anaximander (c.610-c.546 BC), a slightly younger fellow-citizen of Miletus, was commonly said to be the 'pupil and successor' of Thales, though he may not have studied under him at all. Like Thales, Anaximander was a polymath, and although only a part of one sentence of his On Nature survives, there is enough evidence left to say that he definitely wrote a book, with approximately that title (in Greek), and that it covered practically everything. He even drew the first recognized map of the known parts of the earth. What he did not know about nature which was, of course, plenty he made up.
This is not to say that he lied, but that he tried to think things out for himself. He speculated about the origin and fate of the universe, the principles that govern natural processes, the composition of the sun, moon and stars, the development of life, the weather and much else. He employed similar images and ideas to explain all the things he saw. Yet in one sense what he did not see is even more important than what he did see. He realized that the best accounts of nature could not always rely on what was directly observable but sometimes had to dig deeper. Instead of Thales' water, he postulated something invisible as the arche, or basic stuff, of the world. If the philosophy of Thales demonstrated one essential facet of scientific thinking, namely the urge to simplify and reduce observable phenomena, Anaximander's work exemplified an additional and equally fundamental one: science says there is more to the world than meets the eye.
Anaximander called his basic stuff to apeiron, 'the indefinite', primarily in the sense of 'indeterminate'. His term is often translated as 'the infinite', but that makes Anaximander sound more mysterious than necessary. No doubt he did think of the raw material of the world as unbounded, in the sense of 'vast', just as Homer had described the ocean as apeiron. But what mattered most to Anaximander was that the basic stuff, whatever it was, should be something with no observable qualities of its own, so that all observable phenomena could be explained in terms of it.
Observable things, Anaximander noticed, tend to come in opposites hot and cold, wet and dry, for example and these elements, as he calls them, tend to be in a state of war. They 'pay penalty and retribution to each other for their injustice according to the assessment of Time', as it says in his only surviving words. His idea seems to have been that things encroach on one another (committing their 'injustice') and take turns alternately as victim and avenging aggressor while Time plays the role of referee. Time ordains, for example, that darkness and light should have roughly equal cracks of the whip. We see the outcome of this particular struggle in the orderly sequence of days and nights. Other struggles are going on all the time in a cosmic game of paper-scissors-stone: sometimes fire will attack water by evaporating it; sometimes water will retort by quenching fire.
The notion of elements in conflict, which makes its first appearance in Anaximander, recurs frequently in Western literature. Thus Milton:
Hot, Cold, Moist, and Dry, four champions fierce
Strive here for mastery
and countless others. But how do hot, cold, moist and dry come forth out of the indeterminate apeiron? Anaximander could say no more than that some sort of process of 'separating out' is involved. His theory may leave several questions unanswered, but it is at least an attempt to deal with some other ones. For Anaximander, the virtue of supposing that everything somehow developed out of an inchoate and indeterminate mass is that it addresses a puzzle which should have troubled Thales, or anybody else who thinks that one of the ordinary elements is the 'principle' of existing things. The puzzle is this: if everything was once water, how did fire ever manage to come about? Would it not have been extinguished at birth? Anaximander's solution is to say that the fundamental opposites were born together out of the indeterminate, so that none of the battling substances had an unfair head start on its opponent.
In more detail, Anaximander's story of the birth of the cosmos went as follows. Some sort of egg, germ or seed containing the fundamental opposites of hot and cold separated off from the indeterminate apeiron. This seed grew into a cold, damp mass surrounded by a ring of fire, and the shock of hot against cold gave rise to a dark mist between the two. The cold became the earth and the fire formed the stars. The earth is a flat disc, or perhaps a cylinder, but certainly not a sphere. And, rather oddly, not only are the sun, moon and stars not spheres either, they are instead wheels of fire rotating around the earth, each one enclosed in a hollow ring of mist. These rings have breathing holes out of which the fire peeps. Thus each ring of mist is like the punctured inner tube of a bicycle tyre pumped full of fire. What we see when we look at the lights in the sky are in fact the punctures. And an eclipse is what we see when one of the punctures becomes blocked up for a while.
On this account, as promised, there is certainly more to the cosmos than meets the eye. Anaximander's picture of the heavenly bodies appears a little less bizarre if we try to reconstruct how he came to draw it. It was perhaps the image of a tree growing and shedding its bark that led him to form the idea of stars as rings. Anaximander apparently used such an image to illustrate how a shell of flame formed around the earth in the original separation of the hot from the cold. With this picture in his mind it is easier to see how he could think of the heavenly bodies as wheel-shaped: the earth had sloughed them off like a skin, which at least explains where they came from. All he then needed to account for was why they appear to us as points or spheres of light. This the theory of breathing-holes, or punctures, did for him.
There is another imaginative idea in Anaximander's cosmology which is remarkable more for its sophistication than for its apparent eccentricity. He did not think that the earth needed any sort of cushion either of water or of anything else to support it. He held that it rested at the centre of a spherical universe, with everything else circling around it, and that it is this pivotal position which explains why it does not fall through space. It is kept in place by equilibrium, as Aristotle explained (describing Anaximander's view, not his own):
For it behoves that which is established at the centre, and is equally related to the extremes, not to be borne one whit more either up or down or to the sides; and it is impossible for it to move simultaneously in opposite directions, so that it stays fixed by necessity.
Thus the earth is like Buridan's proverbial ass, which, placed exactly the same distance between two bales of hay, could not decide which one to eat and so starved to death in the middle. This idea of Anaximander's is an advanced one in several respects (for our purposes it does not matter that it is also quite wrong, not least in its premise that the earth is at the centre of things). First of all, it is pleasingly mathematical. Like a trapeze artist who jumps into empty space, confident that his partner will swing over to catch him, Anaximander bravely stepped beyond the realm of material support and trusted in a mathematical idea to catch the earth. We do not yet have here laws of motion in the style of Galileo or Newton, which keep objects on their steady courses in a way that can be the subject of detailed calculation. But we do have a universal principle, mathematical insofar as it cites the equal distance from the earth to the edges of the universe, which is used to explain something fundamental. Like his indeterminate apeiron, Anaximander's principle of equilibrium is invisible and impersonal, and yet it is as powerful as one of the gods. This idea was a bit too novel for other naturalists, who quickly gave back the earth its material cushion to sit on.
The consistency of Anaximander's story is impressive. Animal life on earth is described by him, in characteristically unmythological terms, as being brought about by the same process of 'separating out' that accounts for the birth of the cosmos. Just as the primeval mist which enfolds the heavenly bodies was formed by the action of hot against cold, so life sprang forth out of the moist because of the stimulus of the sun's warmth. The idea that living things can be generated spontaneously out of warm, moist matter was almost universal until the seventeenth century, when microscopes began to suggest a different story; it even survived into the nineteenth century. Anaximander is also supposed to have held that the first creatures were cocooned in prickly skins, using the same word for this skin or bark that he used in his account of the shell of flame which became the stars. The whole story was designed to be as uniform and therefore as simple as possible.
Anaximander's explanation for the arrival of man himself was ingenious, though not quite as prescient as has been supposed. There is a myth that he anticipated the theory of evolution, which is fuelled by remarks such as one in an influential source from the second century AD that attributes to him the idea that man originated from creatures of a different species. Alas, Anaximander was no Darwin. Fuller accounts suggest that what he had in mind was that the first men were carried inside fishes, or fish-like creatures, which acted as surrogate mothers. He did not mean that one species, man, gradually developed from another species, fish. He seems to have been led to his theory by the observation that man needs an unusually long period of suckling, during which he cannot fend for himself, and by the thought that the very first men would therefore never have survived on their own. Once they had been nursed by fish and were capable of looking after themselves, this first generation of water-babies emerged on to land, where they could then presumably bring up their own young.
Anaximander's own offspring, in the traditional genealogy of Milesian philosophers, is Anaximenes, the last of the line. He was about twenty-five years younger than Anaximander, and the end of his career coincides with the destruction of Miletus by the Persians in 494 BC. The city was refounded fifteen years later, but thereafter was renowned more for its wool than for its philosophy.
Ancient historians of philosophy regarded Anaximenes as the greatest of the three Milesians. In their tidy minds, the fact that he was the last of his line led naturally to the thought that he was also its culmination. But to modern eyes he has often seemed the least important of the three. He is not so delightfully imaginative as Anaximander, after whose leaps of speculation he seems not only to be plodding but to be plodding backwards. For example, Anaximenes discarded Anaximander's sophisticated, if misguided, idea about equilibrium and went back to the view that something material props up the earth. He said it was supported by air, drawing the analogy of a leaf borne up by the wind, just as Thales before him had plumped for water and drawn the analogy of a floating log. Anaximenes also looked backwards for his choice of arche, the fundamental stuff of the world. Like Thales, he picked one of the everyday elements rather than Anaximander's mysterious apeiron. But once more he substituted air for Thales' water.
Why was Anaximenes so interested in air, the most insubstantial of elements? The answer has much to do with breath, which was connected in the Greek mind with life and the soul. Anaximenes apparently suggested a parallel between the soul of man and the arche of the world: both, he said, were air. At first this seems to be not so much an illuminating parallel as a double puzzle. How can air be the soul? And even if it were, what could that have to do with the question of what rocks and trees are made of? But Anaximenes was not being quite so obscure as it seems; the word for soul, psuche, had rather different connotations in those days. No clear distinction had yet been made between mind and matter, and the soul was understood to be simply the stuff that made living things alive. If there were such a stuff, then air, in the form of breath, would be a reasonable candidate. Anaximenes was not the first to elect it. Already in Homer, psuche was, among other things, the breath of life which escaped through a hero's mouth as he died. In the Iliad, the wind could impregnate and fertilize females, at least in the case of horses.
If we think of air as some sort of life-giving force, then Anaximenes' main idea comes into focus. All early Greek thinkers shared the view that the world somehow grew or developed on its own rather than being created out of nothing by gods. The gods of traditional myth may have fashioned things, but they did so out of pre-existing materials of which they themselves were also made. Thus it was natural for the Greeks to think that the fundamental stuff of the world itself had the power to grow and change that is, that it was connected with life in some way. Thales, we may reasonably assume, now noted a connection between water and life: he was struck by the fact that plants and animals need water. Anaximenes, on the other hand, noted a connection between air and life: he was more struck by the fact that people breathe and corpses do not.
In the case of Thales, as we saw, one cannot be sure whether he believed that everything is made of water or just that water had existed first and somehow gave rise to everything else. Of Anaximenes, one can be more certain: he definitely held that everything is made of air and he even tried to explain how. It is the manner of this attempted explanation which has impressed some of his successors to the present day. It has even led some of them to credit him with the discovery of a fundamental form of scientific explanation. This may seem a strange honour to give a man who is apparently committed to the view that trees, boulders and everything else are made of thin air.
In fact, for Anaximenes the crucial point about the air out of which trees and boulders are made is that it is anything but thin. Air takes on various forms, he thinks, depending on how rarefied or condensed it is. The most rarefied of all is fire; then comes ordinary air; condense this and you get wind; denser still are clouds; then water, earth and stones, in that order. The atmospheric air we breathe is in some sense the natural state of the substance, to which all the other forms will return. But it is disturbed by being constantly in motion, which is why there is more of it in some places than in others, making the air denser in those places. Thus condensation and rarefaction caused by motion of the air are the engines of change in Anaximenes' world. They account for the warm and the cold, the wet and the dry, the solid and the insubstantial. This is an improvement on the inexplicable 'separating out' which Anaximander uses to account for the appearance of different elements out of the indeterminate apeiron.
The important novelty in this story is that Anaximenes makes differences of quality or kind depend on differences of quantity or number: the variety of elements is explained by the varying amounts of air packed into them. The practice of reducing the colourful diversity of the world to such quantitative notions is one that runs more or less continuously from Anaximenes to the scientists of today. But the idea behind it, that the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics, did not reach full expression until Galileo and Newton in the seventeenth century. (There are further and more impressive anticipations of it in the Pythagoreans our next subject who saw numbers in nature because they saw numbers in everything.)
The rest of Anaximenes' story does not sound at all like Galileo or Newton. According to Hippolytus, a Christian apologist of third-century Rome:
He says that the heavenly bodies do not move under the earth, as others have supposed, but round it, just as if a felt cap turns round our head; and that the sun is hidden not by being under the earth, but through being covered by the higher parts of the earth and through its increased distance from us.
Anaximenes saw the world as if it were a modern planetarium, where we sit looking up at a domed ceiling (his 'felt cap') with models of the stars moving above us. Like the earth, the sun and stars are flat, which enables them to float like leaves in the wind. They are said to be fiery bodies which rose in the form of moisture that evaporated from the earth and became progressively more rarefied until it burst into flame. The darkness of night comes when the sun the biggest flaming leaf-disappears behind northerly mountains.
Anaximenes also tried to use his new tools of rarefaction and condensation to describe the weather, a popular subject with the seafaring Milesians. But he ended up saying much the same sort of thing as Anaximander. He took over Anaximander's account of thunder and lightning as the violent escape of wind that has become trapped in cloud. This idea was satirized during the late fifth century BC in Aristophanes' Clouds:
Strepsiades: ... Then what is the thunderbolt?
Socrates: Whenever a dry wind is raised aloft and gets shut up into these clouds, it puffs them up inside like a bladder; then by necessity it bursts them and goes rapidly outside because of its density, and by its rushing and impetus it itself kindles itself.
Strepsiades: Yes, by Zeus! At any rate, this is just what happened to me once ... I was roasting a thick sausage for my kinfolk, and I carelessly failed to slit it; it got puffed up and, suddenly breaking open, it spattered my eyes with crap and burned my face.
Thunder and earthquakes, though not the bursting of sausages, are just the sort of thing which the mythologists explained by invoking the actions of gods. In the works of the Ionian poets, Homer and Hesiod, earthquakes were caused by Poseidon, the 'loud-crashing Earth-Shaker'. But for Anaximenes they were caused (according to Aristotle) when
the earth, through being drenched and dried off, breaks asunder, and is shaken by the peaks that are thus broken off and fall in. Therefore earthquakes happen in periods both of drought and again of excessive rains; for in droughts ... it dries up and cracks, and being made over-moist by the waters it crumbles apart.
Thus naturalism, the world-view of the physici, has made Poseidon redundant. It may be wondered in what sense the Greeks had ever really believed in him. The question is intriguing presumably there was as wide a range of attitudes to religious belief as there is today but it is irrelevant here. Even if those who believed in Poseidon and the other gods also entertained the possibility that there were natural explanations for earthquakes and such things, the fact is that we do not know of anybody before the Milesians who actually came up with any such explanations.
With the decline of Miletus, the focus of philosophical activity moved westward for a while to the Greek colonies of southern Italy. In so doing, it underwent a sea-change: dispassionate discussions of the weather were supplemented by ruminations on the destiny of the soul and on the proper way to live. Some readers will be comforted to hear it; such subjects fit more easily into the popular conception of philosophy. But before passing on to Pythagoras and his followers in the West, it is worth weighing up the Milesians and explaining why they too are entitled to be called philosophers.
When compared with the Hippocratic doctors just 100 years later, let alone Archimedes and Euclid in the third century BC, the methods of the Milesians were horribly crude. That, paradoxically, is why they count as philosophers. Scientific thinking had barely been born, yet still they dared to look for the natural causes of things. Thus they tried to delve deeper than the conventional world-picture suggested was possible. The fact that they did this, and that they used reason as their spade, makes them philosophers.
The use of reason was an act of faith. There is little point in trying to describe the impersonal laws that govern the cosmos if there aren't any, or if they are beyond the bounds of understanding. The Milesians simply assumed that there were such laws and that the mind was capable of comprehending them. This faith in an intelligible pattern in nature was rewarded when they came up with what seemed to them to be good explanations of such things as life, eclipses and thunder. Anaximander's talk albeit in somewhat poetical terms of 'necessity' and of the elements paying 'penalty and retribution to each other for their injustice according to the assessment of Time' illustrates the Milesians' new-found belief in a world governed by comprehensible law.
It was not until later that such beliefs were explicitly stated. The medical men who gathered around Hippocrates of Cos (c.460-c.370 BC), positively flaunted the new naturalism. They had this to say of epilepsy, which was commonly called 'the sacred disease':
This disease styled sacred comes from the same causes as others, from the things that come to and go from the body, from cold, sun, and from the changing restlessness of winds ... there is no need to put the disease in a special class and to consider it more divine than the others; they are all divine and all human. Each has a nature and power of its own; none is hopeless or incapable of treatment.
They did not divide the world into the divinely mysterious on the one hand and the naturally explicable on the other. Like the Milesians, they seem to have assumed that everything can be explained.
The Hippocratic doctors were relatively careful observers of fact and suspicious of the unverifiable. It is sometimes said that the Milesians were, by contrast and to their discredit, uninterested in verifying their speculations. There is some truth in this, though there is also evidence that Anaximenes for one did conduct a sort of experiment. He got it utterly wrong but that is beside the point. He said (to paraphrase a plausible account) that if you purse your lips to make your mouth into a small hole and blow on your hand, the breath will be cold, but that if you exhale through a wide-open mouth the breath will be hot. This fact apparently supports his theory of rarefaction and condensation, which says that compressed air is cooler and rarefied air is hotter. (In fact, compressed air is hotter, but since it passes over the hand more quickly in this 'experiment', it makes the hand feel cooler.)
Anaximenes' attempt to support his theory of the universe by warming his hands is the exception that proves the rule: in general the Milesians did not bother themselves with experiments. This is hardly surprising since their favourite areas of inquiry the heavens, the weather and the origin of things do not exactly lend themselves to it. Thunderstorms and the setting sun cannot easily be manipulated or dissected. Faced with such mysteries, the Milesians did what they were best at: they tried to reason them out, with whatever analogies and observations lay closest to hand. Given their interests, it is hard to believe that they would have got much further if only they could have thought of a few more experiments to do.
A more serious criticism, which can be made both of the Milesians and of the Hippocratic doctors, is that their claims to possess superior knowledge were largely a sham. For example, the author of the Hippocratic work quoted above believed that epilepsy was caused by phlegm from the head flowing into the veins and interrupting the passage of air. Thus although he scorned the charlatans who use magic in their attempts to cure epilepsy, he can hardly have had much better luck himself. On the whole, the first exponents of naturalism are notable more for the firmness of their rejection of mythological accounts of nature than for the details of their own alternatives.
Not many later Ionians can have managed to stick to the new way of looking at the world. There were too many things that evidently could not yet be explained. Take Herodotus (c.485-c.430 BC), for example. He is usually dubbed the father of history, and sometimes, less kindly, of lies, and is rightly cited as a matter-of-fact inquirer in the spirit of the Milesians. But alongside his more naturalistic passages, such as an attempt to account for the flooding of the Nile, and his robust scepticism towards some supernatural tales, there are regular lapses into the ways of the myth-making theologi. For instance, he says that an earthquake on Delos was sent as a warning by the gods. It is not the mere mention of divinity that marks his deviation from the narrow and sceptical path of the physici. Anaximander and Anaximenes are said to have referred to their respective archai as divine, but the modern reader should not read too much into such pronouncements. In order for something to qualify as divine in those days, little more was necessary than that it should be alive, in the sense of being able to cause motion, and yet never die. As one modern commentator has put it: 'Any power, any force we see at work in the world, which is not born with us and will continue after we have gone could thus be called a god, and most of them were.' The sin of Herodotus was not that talk of divinity slipped from his lips, but that he introduced personal beings, shrouded in the mystery appropriate to objects of religious devotion, as the whole cause of a natural event. This is what Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes resolutely refused to do.
What made the Milesians and the Hippocratic doctors look at nature in this new fashion, unencumbered by mythology and by superstitions about sacred diseases? Nobody knows exactly. Aristotle thought that the important thing about the first philosophers was that they had spare time on their hands, but this can hardly have been the whole story, if indeed it is any of it. Three other facts about them are probably more pertinent. First, the Ionians (and particularly the Milesians) were practical men, keen on developing their skills as astronomers, geographers, sailors and land-surveyors. They had little time for fanciful myths. Second, as industrious traders many of them were well-travelled and had met plenty of foreigners, or at least heard about them. Foreigners tended to have different myths and superstitions, which encouraged some Ionians to reflect sceptically on their own beliefs. Third comes their relatively free-thinking attitude to religion. The Ionians had their orthodox gods, namely the Olympian ones found in Homer, and temples dedicated to them; but on the whole it seems that they were not particularly enthusiastic believers. Compared with the adherents of the many mystery cults and folk religions which had developed to the north in Thrace and to the west, the Milesians seem to have been an almost agnostic lot. It can hardly be coincidence that it was in such a setting that naturalism first sprang up.
Perhaps the prevalence of competitive public debate also helps to explain how naturalism, and thus philosophy, arose in Greece. The citizens of the Greek city-states were famously argumentative; indeed, the Greeks seem to have regarded advocacy and criticism as the noblest uses of speech. Aristotle wrote that 'the power of speech is intended to set forth the expedient and the inexpedient, and therefore likewise the just and the unjust'. It is no miracle that in at least some of the city-states, the tools of disputation should eventually have been turned on the study of nature. It is also worth noting that when the first philosophers declaimed and expostulated, it was to the ears of an increasingly literate audience. Alphabetic writing first arose in Greece in around the eighth century and was becoming widespread by the sixth. This allowed everything that could be said to be written down easily, a novelty that is hard for us to appreciate. By crystallizing beliefs, myths, theories and stories of all kinds, it made them available for examination and criticism in a way that was unthought-of in tale-telling, pre-literate cultures. For all their shortcomings, the Milesians seem to have been the first to try to exploit this opportunity.
Excerpted from The Dream of Reason by Anthony Gottlieb Copyright ©2002 by Anthony Gottlieb. Excerpted by permission.
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