“Everything is full of gods.” – Attributed to Thales.

In our examination of the views of ultimate reality of the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers, we have seen that Pythagoras settled on numbers and mathematics while Heraclitus invoked, fire, flux, logos, strife, and the unity of opposites. Next we look at three of their near contemporaries, the Milesian philosophers of sequential generations – Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes- who took a more physicalist or naturalist approach to the question. These proto-scientists attempted to discover the fundamental nature of matter and the origin of the cosmos and its unfolding by a process of induction, that is, by positing universal laws based on generalizations and abstractions from the particulars of the world. They are often seen as the originators of the great Western philosophical dialectic because they rejected existing Greek mythology and religious beliefs especially the anthropomorphic gods. Experts speculate that Miletus became the site of origin of traditional philosophy by virtue of its location at the mixing of Greek and oriental cultures.

Thales (circa 624-545 B.C.E.), one of the seven Sages of ancient Greece and a gifted astronomer who reportedly predicted the eclipse of May 28, 585 B.C.E., asserts the cosmos arose from a unity of substance which he postulates is water. For Thales, water is the most fundamental element and the material principle of the physical world. Water instantiates the three phases of matter – solid, liquid, and gas – as ice, liquid water, and steam or vapor. Aristotle tells us that Thales probably drew on water as primary because he recognized its key connection to life. Metaphysically then, the universe is a growing, organic, structure penetrated by a divine will that moves all and all things contain a ‘soul’ which is the source of kinesis.

Thales’ student, Anaximander (circa 610-540 B.C.E.), accepts that the cosmos developed from a unity, but rejects as primary any of the material constituents of reality. Instead he proposes a primeval ‘principle’ which he calls the “Indefinite’ (or indefinite nature).1 Prior to the perceptible bodies, according to this view, there must have been an ‘indefinite something’ with no incompatible qualities (noting for example that water quenches fire). Everything which exist in nature is perceptible, but ultimate reality must be imperceptible. His preferred term for this imperceptible principle is apeiron, which has no limits, is everlasting, infinite, and imperishable – his very definition of the divine. From it all things have separated out and the opposites have appeared.

(continued next post)


1Alternate translations include the ‘Boundless’ or the ‘Unlimited.’

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