Critique on The Milesians- the first natural philosophers and how they made a decisive break with the earlier mythopoetic ways of thinking
The term Milesians refers to the natives of ancient Miletus among whom were the three great philosophers- Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes. They were the citizens of Miletus, an Ionian Greek city, around. 6th century B.C. Before the advent of the Milesians, any acts of humans, animals, or nature that took place in the world were ascribed to the acts of Gods. For example, ‘A guilty passion is the work of Aphrodite, an act of folly means that ‘Zeus took away his wits’, outstanding prowess on the field of battle is owed to the god who ‘breathed might into’ the hero’1
Thus, the people of Greece attributed all these actions to gods without questioning even the fundamental reasoning. It was only after the beginning of the sixth century and the coming-to-be of philosophers like Thales that the minds of Greeks started to shift from myth to philosophy. Several poets who wrote poems and epics before the Milesians are usually referred to as mythopoets. Their poems and epics were dedicated to the gods and goddesses. But there was a change in the mindset of the Greeks with the advent of the Milesians and a shift from the religious mode of thought to philosophical mode of thought. They began to study nature and by doing so they started to keep the gods out as a means of the reason for everything. They came to be known as ‘the first natural philosophers’. As Aristotle believed that to gain a complete perspective on anything, a person had to ask four questions about it: 1) What is it made of? 2) What is its origin? 3) What is its purpose? 4) What is its form or appearance?2 These questions started to arise in the minds of the Milesians who began the search for the beginning of the cosmos. Each of the Milesian began his search for an ‘Arche’ or beginning and the ‘Arche’ of the Milesians begins with Thales.
Thales is often regarded as the originator of Greek philosophy. His legendary wisdom ranges from engineering to politics; from economics to science; from mathematics to astronomy and many more. Thales is regarded as a natural philosopher as he always remained immersed in nature and its ways. He asked ‘Why’ over ‘Who’ I.e. he searched for the cause of happenings rather than attributing them to any god. He was a keen observer of nature and the universe. And we find this account from Plato’s fragment3 where he describes Thales as being immersed in gazing upwards while doing astronomy and that he failed to notice a well beside him and fell and was thus laughed upon by a servant girl who stood watching him. The search for the answer for ‘Arche’ started with Thales when he said that water was the beginning or principle of all things. The doxographers have assigned two propositions to Thales: 1) the earth floats on water and 2) the ‘principle’ of all things is water4 Thale’s claim that earth rests on water provided a base to explain the natural phenomenon of the earthquake. The mythopoets at that time considered an earthquake to occur as a result of Poseidon’ anger. But Thales, suggesting that the motion of subterranean water was the cause of earthquakes portrays him as a first natural scientist and thus made a decisive break with the earlier mythopoetic ways of thinking. The Milesians I.e. Thales and his successors are considered as the first natural scientists because they gave up the old religious conceptions and applied themselves to the study of nature rather than the account of gods. The shift in the thinking of mythopoets continued with Anaximander and Anaximenes.
Anaximander broadened his horizon for the search of ‘Arche’ and came up with Apeiron as Arche. Apeiron which means unlimited, boundless, infinite, indeterminate, can be considered as formlessness out of which every determinate thing emerges as an object of thought. He provided Apeiron as a material cause of nature that gives rise to the elements of the world. He suggests that Apeiron, as an origin, does not itself require an origin. Thus, for Anaximander, Apeiron is the first cause just like water is for Thales. Anaximander declares the sea as the source of human origin. Unlike the mythopoets of the time, he linked the evolution of Humans with the fishes rather than gods and goddesses. Hence this account also claims the shift in the earlier ways of mythopoetic thinking. The claim in this shift of thinking is further carried and supported by Anaximenes who suggested air as 'arche'.
Unlike Anaximander, Anaximenes chose an element which was readily perceivable by the people at that time. He put forward his theory and accounts as to what made the air a suitable element for an arche. He came up with a convincing explanation of condensation and rarefaction of the air which caused it to change forms ranging from fire to rock. He supported his claim “For he declares that the contracted state of matter and the condensed state is cold, whereas what is fine and ‘loose’ is hot”5 by an evident example that that breath feels cold when blown through pursed lips and hot when blown through wide-open mouth. Thus Anaximenes came up with a convincing and observable explanation to support his origin of Arche. He can be considered as a natural scientist because he studied nature and linked its happenings to the living creatures. He suggested that “Just as our soul, being air, holds us together and controls us, so do breath and air surround the whole kosmos”6
Thus in a way, he suggested that the universe was a giant organism that was breathing and was therefore alive.
The one thing which is evident from The Milesians is that their subject of inquiry was nature and thus they came to be known as the first natural philosophers whose ways of thinking and perceiving things made a decisive break with the earlier mythopoetic ways of thinking.
1 W.K.C Guthrie’ A History of Greek Philosophy-Vol1′
2 The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and Sophists
3 Plato, Theaetetus 174a= DK 11A9
4 Presocratic Philosophers; Kirk
5 Plutarch, The Principle of Cold 7 947F=DK13B1
6 Anaximenes, DK 13B2