The Milesian Philosophers

Finding meaning in a disordered world.

An Introduction to Milesian Philosophy

In a world where everything from the weather to emotions to the movement of stars was explained by a mythology of anthropomorphized gods, the attempt to grasp onto a scientific explanation of the world was unheard of. And yet, that is exactly what early philosophers attempted to do. 

Thales of Miletus is considered the father of philosophy, and it is from the Ionian town of Miletus that the first school of philosophy emerged – the aptly named Milesians. These early ‘philosophers of nature’ utilized methodological observation to formulate a new theory of metaphysics and cosmology.

Life in an Ever-Changing World

To move beyond the realm of fickle gods as the explanation for all natural phenomena, early Milesian philosophers attempted to answer the fundamental question, What is the world made of? To answer this, they had to develop a new theory of metaphysics, which is the study of ultimate reality. 

In the case of the Milesians, they saw ultimate reality as that of a ‘world of becoming.’ To them, this ‘becoming’ of the world meant it was in a state of constant change or flux. That ceaseless change was complemented by an infinite plurality of differences, that is, an infinite variety of forms or objects that could come from a constantly shifting reality.

Attempting to Find the Arche

Despite viewing the world as one of constant change and infinite varieties, the Milesians believed that beneath the flux was a single, permanent substance underlying it all. This substance they called the ‘arche.’ The arche was theorized to be alive and endowed with a living spirit; thus, it was the basis for all reality. This was the substance from which all things, living and nonliving, came and to which they eventually would return.

In many ways, the early Milesians replaced religion and myth with a form of hylozoism or a belief that all matter has life or spirit. The early formulation of arche was the Milesians’ attempt to make sense of such a seemingly disordered and chaotic universe. Milesian philosophers were united in their theory of the arche, or a single, underlying substance forming reality, but they could not agree on what that substance was.

The One Constant

Aristotle wrote about the early philosophers’ beliefs in the arche in his work Metaphysics, in which he wrote, “Principles which were the nature of matter were only principles of all things  just so they say nothing else comes to be or ceases to be; for there must be some entity – either one or more than one – from which all other things come to be, it being conserved.” 

In the context of the Greek use of the words, arche can importantly be translated as ‘to rule.’ What Aristotle is explaining is that early philosophers believed the arche to be a substance that presided over all other matter and did not disappear when it changed forms. In other words, whatever the fundamental substance comprised the arche, it could be changed into a new form by loss or acquisition, but it was always present, even in the new form.

An Introduction to Thales of Miletus

Thales of Miletus is perhaps the most well-known of the Milesian philosophers. Known today as the first of the Seven Sages of Greece and the father of philosophy, Thales was respected in his time as a renowned scientist and astronomer. So certain of his own scientific knowledge was Thales that he infamously accurately predicted the eclipse of 585 BC. This prediction was so stunning to other men that it actually ended a nearby war. 

Thales was also known for having formulated a theory of the cosmos that divided the year into four seasons and 365 days. To accomplish this feat, he’d developed a working theory of the path of the sun. Incredibly, his estimation of the sun and moon’s size was 1/720 of the true size of the celestial bodies. However, Thales is perhaps more well-known now for his early metaphysical formulations.

The Four Elements

Using nature and acquired scientific knowledge to guide them, early Milesian philosophers turned to the four elements – earth, wind, air, and fire – to understand the fundamental makeup of the cosmos. Thales of Miletus believed that water was the arche or the substance underlying a constantly shifting, chaotic reality. 

Since water could uniquely move from a solid to a liquid to a gas, Thales believed it was the first and fundamental element from which all others sprung. Not only that, but Thales developed a theory of cosmology that Earth was actually floating in a pool of water. Earthquakes could be explained by waves on the water, he believed, and Earth was solidified from the water on which it sat, just as the mud was.

More Fundamental Than Elemental

Anaximander, a student of Thales, is a Milesian philosopher who agreed with the belief that the world was in a constant state of flux. However, he rebuked Thales’ claims of water as the arche or underlying, unifying substance. Instead, Anaximander reasoned that, for a substance to be the origin of all reality, it had to be something above the elements and all known matter. 

He called this substance the ‘Apeiron,’ which means the ‘boundless’ or the ‘indefinable.’ He argued that none of the elements themselves had the power to be the ultimate, unifying substance; it could only be something above the elements. Considering the state of the cosmos to constantly be in flux, the Apeiron was an indefinable, boundless form of eternal motion.

Complementary Contradictions

Anaximander chose to look beyond matter and the natural world to find the unifying substance. He used his theory of the Apeiron to further illustrate this constant change and the infinite variations of the universe. Anaximander proposed that the world was made of two pairs of opposites – hot and cold, wet and dry.

These characteristics correspond to the four elements and, mixed together, they form the Apeiron, the limitless substance that forms all things and to which all things eventually return. Cosmologically, Anaximander did not agree with Thales’ belief that the world was suspended on water; instead, Anaximander believed that the world was surrounded by hollow, concentric wheels that were made up of fire and the Apeiron.

A Breath of Fresh Air

Anaximenes was a student of Anaximander, and he is known for further developing the notion of the arche and using scientific observations to do so. Anaximenes believed the arche to be air. Air, he believed, was the unifying substance as it only had to expand or compress to form all states of matter. To further explain this belief, he turned to the scientific processes of condensation and vaporization. 

Condensation – the process of water in the form of gas or vapor turning into a liquid – formed clouds and weather patterns. Anaximenes believed that air could further condense until it formed a solid, namely, earth. Additionally, he believed that vaporization, or the process of liquid turning into a gas, could explain the production of fire as water is further vaporized. This scientific explanation for the arche demonstrates a definitive shift into early reason and empiricism.

Appreciating the Milesians

Despite the different metaphysical claims of pre-Socratic Milesian philosophers, they were all driven by the search for the arche. Whether they turned to the elements or natural phenomena or took a more supernatural approach, Milesian philosophers believed there had to be a supreme substance or one from which all others evolve. 

As David Roochnik writes, “ ‘First principle’ translates the Greek arche, but it could also be rendered as ‘origin,’ ‘source,’ ‘beginning,’ and significantly, ‘ruler.’ The arche is thus the origin that persists and continues to exert authority.”

With so much important knowledge at our fingertips, it can be difficult to appreciate how novel these philosophical explorations were and how fundamental they are for society and culture as we now know it. We can actually thank these early philosophers for concepts of democracy and politics as well as their contributions to mathematics, science, medicine, and even zoology.

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