A few months ago I decided to get a basic education in philosophy. I’ve struggled a bit with listening to philosophy podcasts because, while it makes sense, many of the concepts are esoteric and refer to earlier more rudimentary ideas. So I decided to check for a new podcast and found one called “The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps”. While this isn’t necessarily a philosophy course, which may be the best thing, this is at least arranged chronologically which I expect will be an effective way of learning about the philosophers.
I was delighted when the host mentioned that it will begin with the true dawn of philosophy. The earliest known philosophising that took place. It was in Ancient Greece as one might expect. In the area of Ionia (Asia Minor). The city state was Miletus. Thales was his name from the 5th an 6th centuries BC.
Thales wasn’t merely a philosopher. He wasn’t a head-in-the-clouds contemplator like Aristotle idealised, but rather he was a well-rounded individual. He was involved with astronomy, mathematics and politics as well. The hard and fast divisions between philosophy and these areas is a relatively recent phenomenon. Science and philosophy used to be inseparable. Thales was one of “The Seven Sages” of Ancient Greece.
Unfortunately, as with most pre-Socratic philosophers, the historical (or archeological?) evidence of what they said is sparse. Testimonies or at best, fragments, are all we can expect when learning about Thales. It was interesting to note that Charlemagne was about halfway between Thales and the current day, so this was a very long time ago. The thing which distinguished pre-Socratic philosophers from poets for example, is that they used reasoned arguments. Believe it or not the Greeks were the first known peoples to use reason, it’s by no means a universal human quality.
Homer and Hesiod both predated Thales, and their works show the use of reason in its earliest known forms. This stands in stark contrast to The Epic of Gilgamesh, the earliest known literature, which seems completely off the wall and well, irrational, crazy even. Interesting though, it speaks to a primitive part of the psyche to not use reason. Homer and Hesiod were not philosophers however because they weren’t making arguments, coming up with ideas etc, although one can see they had a relatively rational view of the world.
Thales thought that water was very important. He thought that it was the principle, fundamental building block of the cosmos. He thought the world was a disk floating on water and the heavens were a dome above. He argued this because he noted that water was essential to life, so therefore it might be similarly essential to everything else as well?
Thales argued that a magnet has a soul. And amber to. This is because movement was associated with life, or having a soul. A magnet and amber (when statically charged with electricity) could demonstrably move so therefore these had a soul.
He developed this further by arguing that all things are full of gods. This is because magnets don’t readily moved yet have a soul, so maybe everything else has a soul as well and is just less likely to move.
Thales had two important contemporaries: Anaximander and Anaximenes. Both were from Miletus. We know a little bit more about them than about Thales.
Anaximander differed with Thales. He argued that not water, but infinity was the principle of all things. And eternity as well. He believed that everything existed within the infinite. Different substances and forces constantly countervail with each other, but ultimately it’s a picture of unity. I thought this was quite similar to modern views.
He thought that the original animals were gestated in water then broke out “like bark from a tree”. However since this would mean infants would have emerged unprotected, this was modified, suggesting that fully formed humans broke out of fishes that were in the primordial water. Again, this is rather like the modern view. It seems that Anaximander had a remarkable intuition.
Anaximenes was a generation younger than the other two but would still have talked to them, learned from them and everything. He thought that air was the principle: what all things were made of. If you made it thicker it would become water or rock. If you made it thinner it became fire. He thought that all heavenly bodies were made of fire rotating on the dome that Thales suggested.
He thought that the soul was made of air because breathing is associated with being alive. This is curiously similar to certain Eastern beliefs that prevail to this day: “qi” (as in Tai Chi or Qi Gong) translates to breath and is understood as life energy. An interesting example of how reason causes unfitting concepts to be left behind whereas otherwise they might remain despite “not having a rational reason why”. Since humans were made of air and so was everything in the cosmos, this view suggested that humans were like a microcosm of the larger universe.