Why in Miletus?
The ancient Greek city of Miletus was founded in the 11th c BCE by Neleus, Codrus’ son, near the mouth of Maender River on the western coast of Asia Minor. Gradually, various groups, mostly Greeks coming from the northeast Peloponnese, settled in and Miletus became one of the most important trade centers.
The Miletians broadened their horizons due to their constant contact with new ideas deriving from other civilizations, like Egypt, Sardis and Pontus. Those ideas formed the theoretical background of the Ionic thinking. Additionally, the lack of organized religion and priesthood made the development of scientific thinking easier. In countries with strong religious order, the scientific approach was considered as a threat to the regime, but here it was seen as a lever of development and growth. Scientific and philosophical thinking were born together, as a single conception of the human mind and it took many centuries for their paths to finally split.
The first philosophers appeared in Miletus around 594 BCE, a few years after Thrasybulus, the Tyrant of Miletus, signed a peace treaty with Alyattes, king of Lydia. Philosophy kept flourishing as long as economy was growing. But around 530 BCE, trade was in decline, politics were turbulent and the military was becoming weaker. The philosophical center gradually moved from Miletus to the colonies of Southern Italy, and there, the scope of philosophy started shifting.
The Ionian Thinking
The main question these great thinkers dealt with was “what is the primary element the world consists of and what causes its alterations”. They distanced themselves from cosmogonic myths in order to find answers based on reason, but they didn’t eliminate the concept of deity from their systems.
Thales: The first scientist
“Some say that the soul is blended with the universe; maybe that’s why Thales alleged that the whole world is full of gods”
Thales of Miletus (624 – 545 BCE) is the oldest known natural philosopher and one of the Seven Sages of Greece. He was a mathematician, engineer and astronomer. His parents were Cleobuline and Examyes, whose family line traces back to Cadmus and Agenor. Despite his wealthy descend, Thales was not an aristocrat nor did he care for riches. Instead, he chose to dedicate his whole life to research.
Thales became the first geometer of Greece after travelling to Egypt and learning from the great surveyors. For the people in his time he was a shining example of inventiveness. He had predicted a solar eclipse (585 BCE), he had successfully designed a river diversion and, last but not least, he had once made plenty of money when he predicted the olive production to be increased that season. Using his knowledge in geometry, and mathematics in general, he managed to calculate the height of a pyramid and also solved other, unsolved until his time, difficult problems, one of which is the Thales’ Theorem. It’s unknown whether he had formulated specific geometric principles, but we know for sure that everybody was impressed by his calculations. Aristophanes talks about an inventive man in his work “The Birds” and says: “This one is like Thales!”.
Thales is also famous for his cosmological thesis that the originating principle of nature is water. Aristotle reports Thales’ philosophical position and explains that everything on earth is various forms of water.
Anaximander: The first systematic scholar
“Humans, like all animals, did not remain unchanged, but evolved while trying to survive under, each time, different conditions“
Anaximander of Miletus (610-545 BCE), son of Praxiades, was 14 younger and, probably, a friend or relative and student of Thales. His philosophical position was that the originating principle of the world is “apeiron” (infinite, limitless), an undetermined matter, unlike any element we know of, without any boundaries in space or time. “All of the skies and the worlds in them” come from this element and will return to this element when they die. Every being comes from this element and exists because of this element. For Anaximander, when beings die a debt is returned. The life of a being is the death of another, like the night disappears for the day be born, like the seed dies for the plant to be born, like fire burns out and ash is created etc. This balance between opposites makes the world unchanged and eternal.
Anaximander was the first to approach the origin of life with rationalism and the result was an early form of the theory of evolution.
Anaximander was also the leader of the Milesian colony to Apollonia on the Black Sea coast, nowadays Sozopoli, Bulgaria. Recent archeological excavations led by Dr. Kristina Panayotova have brought to light findings related to the lost temple of Apollo (www.bhfieldschool.org).
Anaximenes: The infinite takes shape
“The “air” is for the universe what the soul is for the human body” – This is the first known statement of a Greek Philosopher about the soul.
The only information we have about Anaximenes of Miletus (585-525 BCE) is that his father was Eustratos and that he was a student of Anaximander. Nowadays, Anaximander is often forgotten when talking about the origins of philosophy and science, but his reasoning and positions have been utilized by great philosophers of the 5th c BCE, like Democritus, Anaxagoras and Diogenes. But also in the 4th c BCE, Theophrastus, Aristotle’s student, wrote a whole work on Anaximenes’ theory.
His theory is a combination of the theories posed by the two previous philosophers of Miletus. The fundament is Anaximander’s “apeiron” but now it has shape and it’s called “air”. Anaximenes’ originating principle concentrates and rarefies and is related to all other elements of nature, fire, earth, water, and thus creates the world we see. At the same time, this element is of divine nature and gives life to the whole world, and that’s where Thales’ influence is evident.
Miletus falls into financial decay, mostly because of political turbulence after the Persian occupation. Three other Ionian cities though, had already given birth to their own philosophers, who will leave a strong imprint on the course of Western thought: Heraclitus from Ephesus, Pythagoras, who left his home-island Samos to live and thrive in Croton of Southern Italy, and Xenophanes from Colophon, who immigrated to Magna Grecia as well. In those colonies of Magna Grecia, philosophers turned to matters of metaphysical concern. The scientific research of the Milesians had been abandoned until the time of Anaximander, Leucippus and Democritus (5th c. BCE).
On the Soul, Aristotle
Diogenes Laertius, Ι, ΙΙ
Doxographi graeci, Hermann Diels