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Fr. Seamus Mulholland

The Beginnings of Greek Philosophy

The Milesians and Heraclitus

Long before the time of Thales, a citizen of Miletus, in the district of Ionia on the west coast of Asia Minor, Chaldaen astrologers had listed data on the position of the stars and planets. As Thales studied these tables he thought he discerned a pattern or regularity in the occurrence of eclipses, and he ventured to predict a solar eclipse that occurred on May 28th 585BC. Some scholars think that this was just a lucky empirical guess, but if it was the discovery of an astronomical regularity or natural law, then Thales may be credited with distinguishing Greek philosophy and science from the somewhat aimless observations and disjointed information of the Eastern wise men. When a law is formulated, Man's wonder at the phenomenon is supposed to be satisfied, and nature is said to be explained and understood. Thales is also credited with the discovery of several theorems of geometry and with diplomatic, engineering, and economic exploits. If there is a difference between science and philosophy, it is that the regularities of science are relatively restricted, whereas the more general principles, called 'philosophic' apply to wider areas. Thales's more general speculations concerned the constitution of the universe. What is the world made of? Are there many elements or is there but one? And if one, what is it? These questions dominated the entire Pre-Socratic period; and they are still live issues today; and if Thales's answer seems crude to a so-called sophisticated 21st century mind, his motivation and procedure may prove as profound as any contemporary inspiration.

As a matter of fact, Thales taught that all things are made of water, and we may imagine reason which may have convinced him. One no doubt would be that water is known as a liquid, a solid, and a gas; and these various forms seem to suggest that water is capable of all the transformations a universal substratum must undergo if it is to produce the objects of our world. Since, too, a general theory must attempt to explain biological phenomena as well as physics and astronomy, another reason for selecting water may have been its indepensibility to life. And a little ingenuity can invent other considerations. But Anaximander (610-545?BC), Thales' successor, in additions to specific contributions to science, saw a difficulty in Thales' general cosmology. If water were he basic substance, he thought, fire could never have come into existence, for there is an essential antagonism between their peculiar qualities. For the same reason, if the substratum were fire, the existence of fire could not be explained.. Therefore, Anaximander assumed a Boundless that was neither wet or dry, hot or cold, but rather indeterminately both wet and dry, cold and hot. Thus, the matter of the universe was Boundless, not merely because it extended throughout infinite space, but also, and mainly, because it was not bounded, limited, or defined by any quality. This original substance produces the world and its content by a swirling motion that separates four qualities out of the chaotic mass. This swirl explains the revolution of the starts and planets.

The third member of the Milesian school, Anaximenes (590-525BC) could not be persuaded to look for the universal substratum beyond the range of experience. He therefore selected air. Air is not only more necessary to life than water, but also seems to solve a troublesome astronomical enigma. If with Thales the planet earth is supposed to be on water, one naturally wonders what the water rests on. To say that the earth is situated in the middle of the universe and therefore, has not reason to move in any direction, as Anaximander taught, smacks of speculative magic. Air on the other hand does not fall when unsupported and may therefore be thought capable of supporting the earth and the planets. Anaximenes also described more particularly the process by which the substratum changed into other things with their different qualities. Condensation, as when air from a tyre blows on the palm of the hand, causes cold; and rarefaction, as when one breathes gently against the palm, produces warmth. Thus, the generation of qualities is explained by an explicitly mechanical process.

The selection of water or air may be a curious ancient matter of unimportance; the dim recognition of mechanical law and the advances in astronomy are substantial contributions to the history of science; but beyond this the Milesian world-view presupposed some basic principles of philosophic generality that are pertinent in any age. There is, obviously, the assumption that the universe is made of one stuff. Fifth century Greece or 19th America or Britain may have held to 94 elements, but the Milesians and the 21st century look on gold, iron, lead, and so on, as transformation of an original, homogenous substance. In the next place, this substance has no cause, source, or beginning. It always was and always will be. And, third, the changes and transformations of this substance, the growth and dissolution of plants and planets, occur spontaneously. There is no cause of motion, therefore, before, behind, or above the original substance. Nature itself is the principle of motion and life. The details of Milesian science are long outmoded, but naturalism is a philosophy with contemporary advocates.

Heraclitus (530-470BC) since he lived in Ephesus was not strictly a Milesian; but his views were in fundamental harmony with the preceding three. The difference lay in his emphasis on the importance of change.

One cannot step into the same river twice, not touch mortal substance twice in the same state, but by quickness and speed of change it disperses and again comes together, draws near and withdraws..into the same river we step and we do not step; we are and we are not.

When in any place the change is even and regular, as in a stream without a ripple, the appearance is one of stability; but thoughtful consideration will conclude that all things flow and that permanence is an illusion.

Thus, emphasising the speed, the continuity, and the universality of change, it was natural for Heraclitus to select fire as his single original element because fir is the quickest and most mobile of all substances. The fire undergoes transformations in measure and in rhythm to produce the things of the world and the course of their history. Every day and every summer the proportion of light, warmth and combustion increases; every night and winter the proportion is decreased. And there seems to have a cosmic periodicity in which cosmos follows cosmos in eternal succession. Since each thing and each person has only his brief day, lyric poets may have lamented the perishing flower of youth and voiced a pessimistic desire for permanence; Anaximander, too, may have suggested the injustice of the antagonism between qualities; but Heraclitus thought that strife was natural and that life was a struggle:

"War is the father of all, the King of all, some he set forth as gods, some as men; some he made free, some as slaves..to God all things are fair and right and good, but men suppose some things wrong ands some things right."

This attitude is possible only because the original and everlasting God is fire who rules the world by wisdom. A pawn may lament it is being sacrificed in a gambit; but the player is producing a noble game. Thus, the worlds is governed by a logos, a Reason, a Law, and this is the fire itself. This pantheism, as it may be called, is essentially one with Milesian hylozoism: if all is to be explained by one substance, this substance must account for life and mind as well as for rocks and stars. But can anything visible and tangible provide and explanation?

The Pythagoreans and Parmenides

It was on the eastern extremities of ancient Greece that philosophy began. The next development was located in the extreme west -southern Italy. And in outlook also, the two schools were equally for apart. The earlier philosophy, with sight exceptions in Heraclitus, was mainly physical and non-religious: Pythagoreanism, placing less confidence in tangible fire and water, was a religious and mathematical school. But the religion was not Homeric. The Olympian deities may have had some dramatic majesty, but their scandalous conduct provided no moral incentive. The ancient heroes may have been grand in epic poetry, but the dismal prospect of Hades, to which everyone, good and bad, and indifferent, was doomed, produced less and less enthusiasm. The ritual, largely social and civil, rather than the personal and vital, became increasingly perfunctory and slowly lost its hold on the people. In competition, mystery religions, promising to their initiates a happy, personal communion with the gods both now and in the hereafter, and later threatening punishments to the immoral, were active in the 5th century and influenced the Pythagoreans. Homeric thought, appalled at the hopelessness of death, celebrated the glories of life and action; but the Pythagoreans were able to reverse the theme and, emphasising the immortality of the soul, to teach that the body is a tomb. Purification from evil, freedom from incarceration in the body, recovery of the soul's pure divinity, is to be accomplished partly by rites and practices that today would be dismissed under the disparaging epithet of taboos, and partly by moral and political activity in accord with aristocratic principles; but mainly salvation is to be attained through knowledge. Thus philosophy becomes the motivation for religion.

Under this general outlook, the more immediate, one might say scientific explanation of the cosmos is not to be sought in water or fire. In Anaximander and in Hercaclitus there had been dim gropings after a principle of equity or measure. There was a periodicity, a law, a mathematical proportion. The Pythagoreans, standing in awe of their own progress in geometry, and noticing that the most perfect chords are expressible in the simplest fractions, and also believing that the distances between the planets correspond to the musical scale, quickly came to the conclusion that not water, but number, is the key to the universe. The number series originates from the one, perhaps in conjunction with two, or the indefinite dyad. All numbers are either odd or even; certain numbers are prime, square, oblong, or triangular. A theorem was discovered relating prime and perfect numbers. The common categories of though are listed in a table of opposites under the distinction between odd and even. For example, under odd are found right, male, rest, and good; under even are left, female, motion and evil. Numerical analogy was still further extended with the result that justice, the square deal, is the number four, and marriage is the number five because it is a combination of the first odd and first even number.

Another western school, the Eleatic, also in southern Italy, was dominated by Parminedes (514-440BC). It occurred to him that no matter how keen an observer's eyes were, no matter how much water and fire he saw, if he talked nonsense, his theory could not be true. Truth must be tested not by the senses, but by reason and logic. Whatever cannot be thought, whatever is self-contradictory and inconceivable, cannot be. The previous philosophers had all asserted the inconceivable and the impossible; in one way or another they had all said that what is not, is.

The assertion that fire is water and water is fire, is patently false. Water is simply not fire. It is not a question of physics, it is pure logic. They are not equivalent concepts, and it is always false to say that one thing is different thing, or that it is something that it is not. There seems to be one predicate, however, that is attributable to water, and fire as well. Could not Thales have said that water is existent? The answer is negative for the same reason. The concept of existent is not the equivalent of the concept of water, and to speak the truth one must say that water is not existent. Well, at least water is water. Here the two concepts are identical. But once again the answer is negative because the is indicates existence, and since water is no-existent, it is false to say that water is, regardless of the concept used as a predicate. Only what is, is. Being alone exists. The logic of the argument depends on defining the verb to be as meaning equivalence and existence.

It follows that there is only one Being. In fact, the aim of reducing the cosmos to one substance is common to all the preceding philosophers. Parminedes merely draws out the logical implications. There is only one Being, homogenous, indivisible, unchangeable, eternal, and solid. If, indeed, Being is not one, but on the contrary there are several beings, they must differ among themselves. The point or points of difference must be with respect to Being or with respect to non Being. But how could they differ with respect Being, since they are all alike in Being? Can likes differ in respect to their likes? And yet the differences should exists in some respect. Yet they cannot exist by reason of nonbeing, for nonbeing is not, and would not permit of differences' existing. It follows, therefore that what people call many things are not different, but the same. Being therefore is not many, but one.

Indivisibility and homogeneity are consequences of the non-existence of difference. Similarly it is unchangeable, for there is nothing for it to change into. It is eternal, for it cannot have come from something else, because something else, other than Being, is nonbeing, and nonbeing does not exist for Being to come from. Nor could it have come from the same thing, for the same thing is Being itself, which already exists and does not have to come. Origin therefore is inconceivable: ex nihilo nihil fit. Since empty space is pure nothingness and cannot exist, Being must be solid, perfect on every side like a well-rounded sphere. A homogenous body, without differences, could not be greater in one place and less in another. It is equal throughout, and only spherical shape satisfies these requirements.


Thus Parminedes brought to its logical conclusion the original theme of Thales that the world can be explained in terms of a single physical substratum. But however logical Parminedes' arguments were, many of his contemporaries were not so willing as he to trust reason and repudiate sense. If corporeal monism implies the solid immobility of Being, there must, they thought, be something wrong with corporeal monism. Since the world is obvious physical, visible, tangible, or corporeal, the trouble must have been concealed under the idea of monism. The world cannot be one stuff. By this line of reasoning there arose the school of the Pluralists. The development of philosophical thought is not haphazard. Pluralism did not arise in a vacuum, but rather it was inevitable among those who had inherited this tradition. And the development of Pluralism is not haphazard either. If the world is not one, but many, there are just three possibilities. Each must be tried in succession. The world may be composed of beings that present a finite number of qualitative differences; or there may be an infinite number of qualitative differences; or third, the world may be composed of beings, numerically infinite, which are qualitatively identical. If pluralism fails, it will not be until after the three forms have been elaborated and examined.

Empedocles of Sicily (495-435BC) studying Parminedes' argument, was convinced that qualitative differences could not originate from one stuff. Therefore, he posited four original differences. Like the 19th century chemists he held that the worlds was composed of a finite number of elements. Instead of ninety-some, he thought four would do: fire, earth, air, and water. As an artist with a few basic pigments can produce all the colours of a great painting, so four elements can account for the amazing variety seen in the world. What ordinary people call origin is merely the mixing, or chemical combination, of the elements. A particular example is given in a passage that seems to analyse bone in two parts water, four parts fire and two of earth, or put another way: W 2 F4 E2. This type of 'explanation' was later criticised incisively by Plato in his dialogue Theaetetus. Empedocles went to considerable length in describing the formation of the solar system, the origin of life on this planet, and being particularly interested in medicine he studied the details of biology and the processes of sensation.

While chemical combinations might come and go, each element in itself remained fixed and unchangeable. They were in effect pluralistic miniatures of Parmenidean Being. But the more the characteristics of Parmenidean Being were applied to them, the more another difficulty emerged. If they were fixed and stable, how could motion be explained? Clearly something other than immutable atoms must be sought. Somewhat as Newton in modern times spoke of attraction and repulsion, so Empedocles explained motion by assuming the principles of Love and Hate. Love combines the elements into things and Hate explains their dissolution. But if love and Hate are not the fifth and sixth elements, what are they? Apparently Empedocles was embarrassed. The earlier hylozoism had not seemed to need any additional moving principle because matter itself is alive or spontaneous; but when Empedocles was forced to reject his philosophy, he was in fact straining after the distinction between animate and inanimate. And it is not surprising that this first attempt lacked precision.

Anaxagoras (500-428BC), the first philosopher to visit and be banished from Athens, thought that four qualitatively different types of element were not enough and that two moving principles were too many. Four elements are not enough because origin is inconceivable; and if the world is to contain an infinite variety, the infinite variety must always have existed. The world cannot produce novelty, for this would mean that an existent (quality) had arisen from a non-existent (quality). Mechanical arrangements of these qualities bring some of them to our attention at one time and others at another time. Since every combination involves the separation of elements from other groups, one moving principle is enough. This principle is Mind (Nous) or Intelligence. Anaxagoras sharply distinguishes it from the infinite elements, and later Socrates hoped that this Mind could be taken for a God who directed the world wisely for the Good. But Anaxagoras had not explained his idea, and, to Socrates' chagrin, gave only mechanical explanations of the world process.

Mechanism rather than teleology was the dominating inspiration in pluralism, and Democritus (460-360BC) gave it a systematic exposition that in principle cannot be improved upon. The void is necessary for the atoms to exist in and move in; accordingly this nothingness, called empty space, is regardless of the scandal of Parminedes. These atoms, on the other hand, are not empty but full. They are continuous, indestructible, simple, unchangeable, particles of matter that differ infinitely in size and shape. They do not differ qualitatively because strictly they have no qualities. Weight or specific gravity as well as colour, temperature, size, and so on can be attributed only to combinations of atoms and not to an atom individually. The atoms are real of natural; the qualities exist only by convention, that is, in relation to percipients. Some attempt was made to describe the different mechanical patterns that produced the various qualities.

To form a world the atoms must move. What causes an atom to move? Love? Hate? Mind? No, Democritus' answer is that an atom moves because another atom hit it. And this atom was in motion because a previous atom had started it in this direction. Therefore there is no need of a moving principle in a mechanistic system. Aristotle later objected that while this explains the particular speed and direction of every motion, it does not explain the motion. Democritus thought it was not necessary to explain motion in general if every particular motion was accounted for. Because the several motions are produced by mechanical collisions, it follows that all events occur by necessity. There is no purpose in the universe, no providence, no teleology. The regularity of astronomy and the apparent design in biology are not evidence of a directing Mind; they are merely one chance arrangement that occurs during an infinite time in which all possible arrangements must be realised.


To avoid the motionless acosmism that Parmiendes had inferred from the principle of corporeal monism, the pluralists asserted that Being is many and that non-existent (empty) space exists. Did they thus save the appearances? Had they succeeded in justifying motion. Zeno (490-420BC) the brilliant and faithful disciple of Parminedes, tried to show that they had not. To demonstrate the absurdity of motion, Zeno tells a story. An Eleatic tortoise challenges Achilles, the track star of antiquity, to a race, on condition that he, the tortoise, be given a head start. At the crack of the whip they are off. But when Achilles reaches the point where the tortoise started, the tortoise is no longer there. In the meantime he had gone ahead a short distance. And so on. Every time Achilles arrives at the point at which the tortoise was, the tortoise is no longer there. Since this happens every time, at no point does Achilles overtake his philosophic rival. Is this absurd? Dopes it not contradict our sense? But which are we trust — sensation or reason. Then someone object that since Achilles runs one hundred times as fast as any philosopher, he will overtake his slow friend in so many seconds. This is not just sensation, this is mathematics.

However, suppose Achilles or an atom is to traverse a distance of so many yards or a time of so many seconds. Before he can reach the end, he must pass the halfway point; or can one conceive him somehow to escape this necessity? And before he arrives at the halfway point, he must pass the quarter mark. And before he runs a quarter of the distance, he must complete an eighth. And so on. It follows, therefore, that before he can even start to run, he must exhaust this series. Unfortunately, this series is inexhaustible, consequently Achilles cannot start. Motion is impossible. Another illustration also will show that motion is inconceivable. Rest, the absence of motion, can be described as that condition in which the extremities of a body are coincident with two fixed points in space. Take an arrow at any moment of its supposed flight. Its extreme points are coincident with two given points of space — since it is in space. Therefore, at any moment of its flight it is at rest. Motion is inconceivable. Space too is an absurd conception. Democritus thought that had to be space for an atom to exist in, and if space exists, then space must exist in something, a superspace. And so on until it is seen that one should never have begun. The first 'space' was absurd.

Furthermore, the assumption that there are as many atoms is also absurd. If Being were many, it would have to be both infinitely small and infinitely great. It would have to be infinitely small because every plurality is a collection of unities. A unity is indivisible and therefore can have no magnitude. A sum of zero magnitudes is zero. And thus a world constructed of unitary atoms would have neither length, breadth, depth, or height. But if the atoms exist, they must have magnitude. To have magnitude, however, the south pole and the north pole of an atom would have to be separated by a finite extent. This third part would have to be separated in turn from the north and south by other extended parts, with the result that each atom would be infinitely extended.

The Greek thinkers, faced with this refutation of atomism, could choose one of three possibilities. They could agree that Being alone exists and that Being is one. A few did so, and for them philosophy had accomplished its task. It had found the truth. Or it might be argued that the Pluralists had made a different mistake. They had seen the culmination of corporeal monism, rejected the monism and kept the materialism. But such a person, so hardy as to suggest that reality is spiritual and not material, would have to be a genius as great as Plato. There is a much easier choice that can be made. The great minds of ancient Greek thought with all their scientific acumen, so it may be concluded, have failed to find any truth. The reason for their failure is simply that there is no truth to be found. Knowledge is impossible. This conclusion is a welcome relief after such arduous philosophising; and besides, it offers great opportunities for ambitious young thinkers. Thus there arose in Greece the movement known as Sophism.


JOHNS, B. Early Greek Philosophical Thought New York, 1976

MARTIN, K. A History of Greek Philosophy New York and London, 1981

McCONNELL, T. The Pre-Socratic Philosophers Dublin 1988

CARSON, N. Exploring the Pre-Socratics London, 1985