Beginnings of Greek Philosophy

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Beginnings of Greek Philosophy


Greek philosophy began in a city-state on the coast of south-west Turkey: Miletus, which claimed that it was founded by a city on Crete called Milatos—probably Mallia on the north coast of Crete—in the Minoan period. If so, the Minoan foundation did not survive the catastrophe that overtook the Bronze Age civilization about 1200 b.c.e., and Miletus was refounded by Ionian Greeks during the age of migrations in the eleventh century b.c.e. The city prospered, and civic life was as turbulent as it was in most city-states in the Early Archaic Period of the seventh and early sixth centuries b.c.e. Around 600 b.c.e., Miletus' independence was threatened by her neighbor, the Lydian Empire. The city of Lydia was ruled by a strongman—a "tyrant" as the Greeks called such men—named Thrasybulus, and he led the resistance to Alyattes, king of Lydia, who harried the Milesians for eleven years. In the end Alyattes made peace and alliance with them but soon had to turn his attention to his eastern frontier where he faced the aggressive empire of the Medes who had destroyed the Assyrian Empire with some help from Babylon and were now expanding into Asia Minor. In 585 or 584 b.c.e., the Lydian and Median armies met at the frontier of Lydia, the Halys River which flows into the Black Sea. Just as they were on the verge of battle, there was an eclipse of the sun. A young man from Miletus, Thales, who was there among the Milesian allies supporting Alyattes, was said to have foretold the eclipse. Modern scholars find this story hard to believe, but it is clear that this man would be the founder of Greek natural philosophy—that is, speculation about nature and the natural causes of what occurs in the cosmos.

Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes.

Thales believed that everything in the world is made of matter which might take various forms, be it solid, liquid or gas. The one matter that he knew could appear in all these forms was water. If heat was applied to ice, it became water, and heat applied to water produced steam that in turn could condense and return to water. Thales' disciple Anaximander carried Thales' speculation a step further. He suggested that the substance underlying all natural phenomena was not water but rather something that he called the apeiron—the "Infinite" (or "Indefinite")—matter that had no boundary. He argued that the world was a cylinder with a flat top that provided men with living space. It floated freely in space, equally distant from all things, and thus without any need of support. Anaximander's thoughts were daring and almost modern, but his follower Anaximenes abandoned his concept of the apeiron and suggested instead that the primary substance of the universe was aer—the Greek word for "air." It is clear that Anaximenes' aer is more than mere "air," however. Rather, it is a kind of mist out of which denser substances are formed by condensation, much as felt can be made from wool by the process of felting. For Anaximenes, aer was a material substance. Unlike the apeiron of Anaximander, it could be defined, and later natural philosophers who argued that the universe was constructed of matter looked back on Anaximenes as the last great thinker of the Milesian School who brought the speculation that Thales began to its natural conclusion.


G. B. Burch, "Anaximander the First Metaphysician," Review of Metaphysics 3 (1949–1950): 137–160.

Dirk Couprie, Robert Hahn, and Gerard Naddaf, Anaximander in Context: New Studies in the Origins of Greek Philosophy (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 2003).

Hans George Gadamer, The Beginning of Knowledge. Trans. Rod Coltman (New York: Continuum, 2003).

Charles H. Kahn, Anaximander and the Origins of Greek Cosmology (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960).

Patricia O'Grady, Thales of Miletus: The Beginnings of Western Science and Philosophy (Aldershot, Hants: Ashgate, 2002).