ANCIENT CIVILIZATIONS              home | history

Greeks become Philosophical

Interacting with people stimulated questions, especially interacting with foreigners, as the Greeks did in trading with the Egyptians. These were curiosities that concerned tribal conformities.

Among the Greeks, preoccupation with questioning stayed with only a few — mainly aristocrats who had the leisure for it. It was aided by writing, which had been around for a while – when thoughts were given some permanence and perhaps more organization.

A man from Sparta, Tyrtaeus (685-668 BCE?), put into writing his opinion that the ultimate concern of people should be the common good of their community. Another who wrote down generalizations was Thales (624-546?), a Greek from the city of Miletus on the Aegean coast of what today is Turkey. The Encyclopaedia Britannica credits Thales with attempting to explain nature "within nature itself rather than in the caprices of anthropomorphic gods." Britannica credits Thales as important in bridging the worlds of myth and reason.

Modern scholars know Thales through the writings of Aristotle (384-322). And however much Thales denied godly interventions and removed caprice from nature, according to Aristotle he held that spirit, or soul, pervaded "the whole universe" (De An. 411 a7-8).

Thales was an engineer. He was interested in the measuring involved in construction — measuring in units of a certain distance. (Today we have meters.) Construction was changing outlook. For the sake of measurement, Thales worked simple geometry into a set of new mathematical principles. He was also interested in astronomy, and in his travels he might have come into contact with the astronomical data that Babylonians had accumulated across the centuries, but he made his own observations and predicted a solar eclipse. As an engineer he thought the physical world should be understandable — unlike the gods, which can't be measured.

Thales went from measuring to an attempt with logic to understand reality's basic nature. Water was necessary for life, and he saw it everywhere and theorized that the world is in essence water and that it had originally been in the form of water — as if without moisture everything would become dust and nothingness. Or, as Aristotle speculated about Thales' view: "the nourishment of all beings is moist."


Thales was mentor to Anaximander, also of the city of Miletus. Anaximander was a decade or so younger than Thales. He wrote a book titled On Nature but little of his writing survives. What we know of him comes from summaries by other writers, including Aristotle. Like Thales, Anaximander was also concerned with what is primary in nature, but he didn't hold nature as reducible to a single substance. He had a sense of conflict in nature, force against force, change by physical interaction rather than by spiritual agency: wetness against dryness, heat against cold, night against day and day against night — endless cycles. And conflict, of course, could not originate within singularity.

Anaximander has been described as an early proponent of science. He tried to observe and explain different aspects of the universe. He claimed that nature is ruled by laws and that anything that disturbs nature's balance does not last long. Conflicts, he speculated, existed within a context of harmony. He pictured nature as infinite and eternal. Infinity and eternity are difficult if not impossible to visualize, but Anaximander grasped them as ideas, as had the Egyptians. He rejected the idea that something could be created out of nothing.

Like Thales, Anaximander dabbled in mathematics and made contributions to geometry. In an effort to see the heavens clearly and rationally, he attempted to map the distribution of celestial bodies. He theorized that the earth was at rest in the center of space, but that beyond this there could be countless other worlds.

He speculated that early in its history the earth was covered with water, as indicated by signs of marine fossils across plains and mountains. He theorized that if the first creatures on earth were of the sea that humanity must have evolved from such creatures. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes him as seeing the first animals as "a kind of fish, with a thorny skin," and it describes him as theorizing that: "Originally, men were generated from fishes."


Born about forty years after Anaximander was Pythagoras (570-495), another Greek philosopher from the coast of what today is Turkey, later to have settled in the Greek city of Croton on the Italian Peninsula. He is described as having had a large following — the leader of a cult.

In The First Philosophers, published by Oxford University Press, Robin Wakefield writes that Pythagoras "probably wrote nothing." Wakefield adds:

...the historical record is indelibly confused by his great fame, since this meant that later generations attributed all kinds of ideas and mathematical theorems to their illustrious founder, with no regard for the modern concept of historical truth. The difficulty of recovering prePlatonic Pythagorean thought is increased by the fact that many of Plato's ideas are Pythagorean in inspiration, and he [Plato] was such a famous philosopher that subsequent writing about Pythagoreanism are tainted, as some scholars see it, with Platonic views.

Anyway, Pythagoras was, I will venture to say, Western Civilizations first theologian. He has been described as believing in the magic of the gods and as having been influenced by a cult that worshiped the god Dionysus. He believed that the dust that one could see floating in the sunlight was pulled about by a spirit. But like all good philosophers he believed in self-examination. He is described as interested in astronomy, mathematics and wanting to understand the universe. His interest in matters spiritual is said to have led to his founding a religious brotherhood that followed a life of strict asceticism. The brotherhood believed in the transmigration of souls: that after death the soul is temporarily in Hades where it loses its memory of its previous life and then transmigrates into another human form and is reborn. Believing this, Pythagoras saw the possibility of animals having a human-like soul. Therefore, he saw the eating of animals as possibly cannibalism and an abomination. Pythagoras and his followers became vegetarians. Also, they forbade the eating of beans, which they thought harmful to the soul.

Pythagoras has been described as advancing geometry from practical measurements to new geometric theorems. He found harmony in geometry and arithmetic, and in the harmonics of sound he found that the tone of a vibrating string depends on its length. He concluded that mathematical harmony was a part of the perfection of the heavens.

He and his followers advanced astronomy by examining the movements of celestial bodies. They observed the shadow of the earth on the moon, and they made some calculations and concluded that the earth was a sphere. They also concluded that the earth was one of a group of planets. They believed that the sun reflected light from a great fire at the center of the universe, which they called the throne of Zeus, around which, they believed, all else revolved.

Pythagoras is said to have believed that it was mathematics that held the universe together — as if abstractions were themselves a physical force — a confusion that for ages would remain among people.

Like the Sumerians and others, Pythagoras believed that the heavens moved in cycles and were essentially unchanging, as permanent as the realities of mathematics. Changes that one sees on earth he is said to have described as illusion (as would Plato).

Believing that numbers had meaning beyond counting, and over-confident about his ability to know, Pythagoras attributed to numbers an essence. He searched for divinity within numbers, and he found what he was looking for. With theological certitude he concluded that the number 1 embodied reason, 2 was female, 3 was male, 5 (2+3) was marriage, and 6 (marriage plus 1) was creation. The number 4 (the first number greater than 1 that can be the square of any two numbers) he concluded contained the divinity of justice.

It is written that in his later years Pythagoras searched for the significance of his own brilliance and concluded that he was semi-divine. After his death, some of his followers described him as having been capable of miracles. And some claimed that he was the son of Apollo.

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