Saturday, 10 January 2015

Ionian Rhapsody - The Milesians


Welcome to 2015 where we start the year with the group of thinkers known to modernity as the Pre-Socratics and since there are quite a lot of them it would make sense to try to look at them in a series of groupings. One such group which can be gathered together under the twin roofs of geography and time are Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes. These three early thinkers were all living in the Ionian city of Miletus at around the early to mid-6th century BCE and although it’s not clear exactly what the relationship between them is, it has long been a convention to call them the Milesians.

 Why Miletus? What was so special about this city that it became the locus for these early thinkers? It could be due to the status of the city as an important stage on the busy and lucrative trading routes between Egypt via Lebanon to the Ionian coast and even as far as the earliest Black Sea colonies. Miletus benefitted from its position and quickly became a prominent and wealthy polis, where merchants would bring not only produce but ideas and news from distant lands, perhaps there may have even been a wise man or two on the run from the Egyptian or Babylonian authorities of the day who, having ended up in Miletus with its increasingly affluent and literate elite citizens, made a home for himself and traded ideas, techniques, science even for a moderate income. It could even be that men such as Thales had themselves travelled to Egypt and Babylon and picked up some knowledge from the temple priests. What is clear is that these men were the among the first individual we know about in Greece who started making statements about the world around them in an altogether different way from what had been the norm - it has been described by scholars as a paradigm shift, that of the move from trying to structure and describe the physical universe and its phenomena in terms of rational thought (logos) instead of anthropomorphised gods (mythos).

 It is important here to make it clear that pre logos systems such as that of Hesiod or Homer, and for that matter earlier thought systems are not irrational but use mythos to build and make sense of the world around them. Hesiod's system of gods has a method to it and is not the product of madness. But there is a clear difference when we come to the Pre-socratics in that they tried to rationalize phenomena without the aid of the gods as it were and to view the world as a single ordered system subject to natural and laws. The gods are removed from the picture and this alone is a major shift in itself considering the kind of Homeric and Hesiodic paradigms that had defined cosmic understanding up until that time. It must have nothing short of revolutionary to have uttered such new and strange ideas in a god built and god structured universe that was taken as a given by so many. It may even have been politically sensitive and quite dangerous. As is often the case great changes in thought systems are accompanied or even catalysed by upheavals in the political and technological sphere. This was a time when Ionia was becoming a loose federation of increasingly affluent and powerful city states - caught between the machinations of great warring empires, Egypt and Assyria, and due to its neutral or multivalent position, at times feared, at others courted for aid in one campaign or another, finally conquered and then the scene of a tumultuous revolt, the playground of tyrants and sinister intrigues. All of this activity must surely had have some role to play in the dissemination of new ideas, political, technological and philosophical.

The testimonia (following the arrangement as set out by Waterfield in his translation OUP 2000) for these three total 41 short pieces by various ancient sources, notable amongst them, Herodotus (for Thales T1-3), Aristotle (T8,9,11) and our old stoic friend, Seneca (T10). These fragments illuminating as they often are tend to be laced with extraneous elements from the ancient sources themselves and so should be read with caution. There is a potential extra layer of confusion in that the earliest thinkers themselves may not have been unambiguously straightforward or consistent in their utterances and the doxographers could be accurately portraying what were on the face of it, quite dogmatic positions or inconclusive musings open to wide interpretation even in their own time.

The reason for this caveat is that we have to rely on the works of these other ancient writers for much of our information on the presocratics, since their work has not survived in anything more substantial than fragments and partial inscriptions. It is not clear even whether these early thinkers wrote much of their ideas down in any ordered way that we can recognise, and we have to rely on the commentaries of the so-called doxographers, writers whose work consisted of summarising and commenting on the ideas of earlier philosophers. While we owe a lot to these later writers, in particular Aristotle and his pupil Theophrastus, we must always be on our guard and be ready with the salt cellar as we read them.

T1-11 deal with Thales, whose floruit can be dated by the story of his prediction of a solar eclipse, in either 585 or 582 BCE. Anaximander and Anaximenes were probably a bit younger than Thales and his junior contemporaries although its not clear whether they knew each other and if they did what kind of interaction they had with each other, pupils? rivals. Perhaps there was an early school of thought, although its unlikely given the variations in their ideas and fields of interests.

The first testimonia for Thales give the picture of a man interested in celestial phenomena but someone also involved with the powers of the day, perhaps as a kind of military or strategic and political advisor. His loose prediction of the eclipse during the battle between the Lydians and the Medes, the diversion of river courses so that they could be forded, and his involvement in Ionian statecraft lend some credence to this. He may have been more like an early sophist in the sense of using the technical knowledge available at the time to advance a career with the powers of the day. He may even have been on a military payroll for his valuable and mysterious services. He comes across as someone who has realised that the observable phenomena are not the divine workings of gods but rather have some kind of rational and potentially discoverable laws underlying them, which, once discovered can be used to human advantage. T8 (Source: Aristotle, Metaphysics 983b6-32 Ross) gives some more details about what we might loosely describe as Thales conclusions about cosmology or the primordial building material of the cosmos. Aristotle reports that for Thales it was water, although whether this is based upon Aristotle's extended speculation is not entirely clear. Thales may have only said that the earth rests upon water and that because the other Milesians are reported as being interested in the primordial element of the universe, Aristotle is ascribing or adducing here.

The most intriguing thing that Aristotle ascribes to Thales is his belief that 'all things were full of gods'. Again, how much of this is the later philosopher is not clear but it seems likely that the early thinkers were still taxed with the position of the consciousness of the universe, especially since they had moved away from mythos but were not able or willing to completely jettison the role of the divine, still mystified as to what powered life itself or what set the elements of the sky in motion or cause man and the beasts to breathe and have motion. The perspective has changed to a human rather than a god interpreted cosmos but the gods or god has not as yet been entirely dethroned by logos.   Even Socrates, who pressed the reset button on a lot of the loose and ambiguous groping in the dark of the early thinkers, still had his divine or spirit advisor and often talked in terms of the god or the divine' - so perhaps it never quite leaves Greek philosophy at all, at least as far as the Classical period is concerned.

Anaximander (T12-28) is attributed with the discovery of the gnomon, the construction and installation of sundials, and the observation of various celestial phenomena. He is also the first to draw a map of the inhabited world on a tablet. Its an incredible idea, even if the map itself was most probably more a highly imaginative sketch based upon navigators experience, hearsay and rumour. Herodotus remarks acidly that it was an amateurish effort drawn with a pair of compasses, noting that Europe and Asia are completely out of proportion.

T15 is where Anaximander is at his most interesting with his idea of the boundless (apeiron in Greek). This seems quite a leap of thought, a boundless not of any element like water or air but of an indeterminate formlessness from which somehow, the opposites and their inter-reactions can develop and lead to the more familiar elements themselves which in turn lead to all other elements and materials as they condense. More interestingly, these elements will decay and fall back into the boundless ' according to necessity; for they give justice and reparation to one another for their injustice in accordance with the ordinance of time'. Its not quite GUT (Grand Unified Theory) but nonetheless is a prime example of the paradigm shift that is taking place in the Greek world at this time, a period in which the gods for the majority were very much alive and the source of all wisdom, flowing down to man on a one way channel. Anaximander is wiping that world away with a rational attempt at explicating the very fabric of the cosmos  and how it leads to the world in which we walk and breathe, all without the aid or inclusion of Zeus. What's more interesting is the mileage this concept has enjoyed through philosophy, theological speculation (its similarity to the Late Hellenistic and Gnostic 'pleroma' is striking) and finally science down the centuries. Heisenberg gives a nod to Anaximander when talking about where quanta might originate - and he thought that is something very akin to the apeiron. The fact that in 2015 we are still not entirely sure renders Anaximander's leap of speculation even more astounding.

Anaximander has some fascinating speculations regarding the physical more local phenomena of the universe such as the earth itself, which is 'cylindrical in shape, and three times wide as it is deep' (T22 Ps.-Plutarch, Miscellanies 2.5-11 Diels), and further in T23 where a kind of proto inertia or gravity theory is hinted at. According to the Anaximandrine view of the immediate cosmos, hot and cold became separated, hot moving out and coalescing to a layer of fire, which grew around the earth like a layer of bark, later breaking off and leading to the formation of the stars as isolated patches of this fire. Finally in T27-28, the origin of human life is tentatively theorized, with humans carried until puberty inside fish like creatures from the sea. Its almost there in terms of the first glimmerings of understanding a linear process of development as opposed to the magical 'just-so' creation stories of mythos.
Anaximenes T29-41, Shares some concepts with Anaximander but decides that the boundless does have a form and that is air and it is the condensation and rarefaction of this element which leads to the creation of everything in the universe. Cicero goes as far to state that Anaximenes identified air as a God. Again its not clear who is speaking here of the two ancients but it could be possible as I have mentioned before that air as 'divine breath' animated all life and movement in the universe as its mysterious motive force. In the absence of anything else, the earliest thinkers may have used the divine as a handy shorthand for filling in what at the time they could not easily theorize upon. It could also be just the milieu and the times that they lived in - it being literally unthinkable to speak or think entirely in de-mythologised terms.

I have only briefly outlined the main ideas of these three thinkers and it would be quite easy to go into a lot more detail - especially since it's clear from a cursory glance at the bibliography that there is a lot more scholarship on them, particularly Thales and Anaximander. I look forward to sharing your thoughts on these curious figures of early cosmology. 

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