EARLY GREEK PHILOSOPHY

EARLY GREEK PHILOSOPHY


Thales, regarded as the first philosopher

John Burnet wrote in “Early Greek Philosophy”: “It was not till the traditional view of the world and the customary rules of life had broken down, that the Greeks began to feel the needs which philosophies of nature and of conduct seek to satisfy. Nor were those needs felt all at once. The ancestral maxims of conduct were not seriously questioned till the old view of nature had passed away; and, for this reason, the earliest philosophers busied themselves mainly with speculations about the world around them. In due season, Logic was called into being to meet a fresh want. The pursuit of cosmological inquiry had brought to light a wide divergence between science and common sense, which was itself a problem that demanded solution, and moreover constrained philosophers to study the means of defending their paradoxes against the prejudices of the unscientific. Later still, the prevailing interest in logical matters raised the question of the origin and validity of knowledge; while, about the same time, the breakdown of traditional morality gave rise to Ethics. The period which precedes the rise of Logic and Ethics has thus a distinctive character of its own, and may fitly be treated apart.[Source: John Burnet (1863-1928), “Early Greek Philosophy” London and Edinburgh: A. and C. Black, 1892, 3rd edition, 1920, Evansville University <|>]

“It must, however, be remembered that the world was already very old when science and philosophy began. In particular, the Aegean Sea had been the seat of a high civilization from the Neolithic age onwards, a civilization as ancient as that of Egypt or of Babylon, and superior to either in most things that matter. It is becoming clearer every day that the Greek civilization of later days was mainly the revival and continuation of this, though it no doubt received certain new and important elements from the less civilized northern peoples who for a time arrested its development. The original Mediterranean population must have far outnumbered the intruders, and must have assimilated and absorbed them in a few generations, except in a state like Sparta, which deliberately set itself to resist the process. At any rate, it is to the older race we owe Greek Art and Greek Science. It is a remarkable fact that every one of the men whose work we are about to study was an Ionian, except Empedocles of Acragas, and this exception is perhaps more apparent than real. Acragas was founded from the Rhodian colony of Gela, its oikistês was himself a Rhodian, and Rhodes, though officially Dorian, had been a center of the early Aegean civilization. We may fairly assume that the emigrants belonged mainly to the older population rather than to the new Dorian aristocracy. Pythagoras founded his society in the Achaean city of Croton, but he himself was an Ionian from Samos. [Source: John Burnet (1863-1928), “Early Greek Philosophy” London and Edinburgh: A. and C. Black, 1892, 3rd edition, 1920, Evansville University <|>]

“This being so, we must be prepared to find that the Greeks of historical times who first tried to understand the world were not at all in the position of men setting out on a hitherto untrodden path. The remains of Aegean art prove that there must have been a tolerably consistent view of the world in existence already, though we cannot hope to recover it in detail till the records are deciphered. The ceremony represented on the sarcophagus of Hagia Triada implies some quite definite view as to the state of the dead, and we may be sure that the Aegean people were as capable of developing theological speculation as were the Egyptians and Babylonians. We shall expect to find traces of this in later days, and it may be said at once that things like the fragments of Pherecydes of Syros are inexplicable except as survivals of some such speculation. There is no ground for supposing that this was borrowed from Egypt, though no doubt these early civilizations all influenced one another. The Egyptians may have borrowed from Crete as readily as the Cretans from Egypt, and there was a seed of life in the sea civilization which was somehow lacking in that of the great rivers. <|>

“On the other hand, it is clear that the northern invaders must have assisted the free development of the Greek genius by breaking up the powerful monarchies of earlier days and, above all, by checking the growth of a superstition like that which ultimately stifled Egypt and Babylon. That there was once a real danger of this is suggested by certain features in the Aegean remains. On the other hand, the worship of Apollo seems to have been brought from the North by the Achaeans, and indeed what has been called the Olympian religion was, so far as we can see, derived mainly from that source. Still, the artistic form it assumed bears the stamp of Mediterranean peoples, and it was chiefly in that form it appealed to them. It could not become oppressive to them as the old Aegean religion might very possibly have done. It was probably due to the Achaeans that the Greeks never had a priestly class, and that may well have had something to do with the rise of free science among them.” <|>

See Separate Articles on EARLY GREEK PHILOSOPHERS, THE PYTHAGOREANS, THE ELEATICS and THE ATOMISTS

Websites on Ancient Greece and Rome: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy plato.stanford.edu; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; BBC Ancient Greeks bbc.co.uk/history/; Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org; British Museum ancientgreece.co.uk; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia hsc.edu/drjclassics ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization pbs.org/empires/thegreeks ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive beazley.ox.ac.uk ; Ancient-Greek.org ancientgreece.com; Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/about-the-met/curatorial-departments/greek-and-roman-art; The Ancient City of Athens stoa.org/athens; The Internet Classics Archive kchanson.com ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Forum Romanum forumromanum.org ; “Outlines of Roman History” forumromanum.org; “The Private Life of the Romans” forumromanum.org|; BBC Ancient Rome bbc.co.uk/history; The Roman Empire in the 1st Century pbs.org/empires/romans; The Internet Classics Archive classics.mit.edu ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review bmcr.brynmawr.edu; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors roman-emperors.org; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources web.archive.org/web; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library web.archive.org ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame /web.archive.org ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History unrv.com

Philosophy and Science in Ancient Greece


Thales as "an archangel revealing the physical nature of the universe

In ancient times sciences such as chemistry, biology and physics did not exist. Philosophy and the sciences were indistinguishable and the prevailing view was that objects were made from earth, air, fire and water. John Wilford Nobel wrote in the New York Times, “By following the historical record” a group of modern-day scientists called the Archimedes researchers “have discovered that the evolution of physics---or, at least mechanics---is based in the interplay between practice and theory, The practical use comes first, theory second. Artisans build machines and use them but do not think why they work. Theorists explain the machines and derive principals that can be used to construct more complex machines."

According to the Canadian Museum of History: “The ancient Greeks didn't make a distinction between philosophy and science, nor did they recognize the range of disciplines such as physics, chemistry, mathematics, astronomy, etc. that we do today. There simply wasn't the depth of knowledge and range of information that later made separate disciplines practical. In the Greek era, one individual could be an expert in several fields. [Source: Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca *|*]

“Nowadays, with the tendency of specialists to know more and more about less and less (i.e. intensive knowledge about a rather limited field) the ability to keep abreast of detailed research in more than one area becomes almost impossible. But in the days of Thales, Pythagoras and Aristotle that was the norm. People expected an individual knowledgeable in one area to also be proficient in others. And many were.

“It was Aristotle, equally at ease as a philosopher and as a scientist, whose several treatises on animals laid the foundations of zoology. Aristotle also did important work on plants, although not nearly to the same extent as his thorough publications on animal life, but he did have a strong influence on other scholars, such as Theophrastus, who laid the groundwork for the science of botany. *|*

Schools of Philosophy

John Burnet wrote in “Early Greek Philosophy”: “Theophrastus, the first writer to treat the history of Greek philosophy in a systematic way, represented the early cosmologists as standing to one another in the relation of master and scholar, and as members of regular societies. This has been regarded as an anachronism, and some have even denied the existence of "schools" of philosophy altogether. But the statements of Theophrastus on such a subject are not to be lightly set aside. As this point is of great importance, it will be necessary to elucidate it before we enter on our story. [Source: John Burnet (1863-1928), “Early Greek Philosophy” London and Edinburgh: A. and C. Black, 1892, 3rd edition, 1920, Evansville University <|>]


“In almost every department of life, the corporation at first is everything and the individual nothing. The peoples of the East hardly got beyond this stage; their science, such as it is, is anonymous, the inherited property of a caste or guild, and we still see clearly in some cases that it was once the same among the Greeks. Medicine, for instance, was originally the "mystery" of the Asclepiads. What distinguished the Greeks from other peoples was that at an early date these crafts came under the influence of outstanding individuals, who gave them a fresh direction and a new impulse. But this does not destroy the corporate character of the craft; it rather intensifies it. The guild becomes what we call a "school," and the disciple takes the place of the apprentice. That is a vital change. A close guild with none but official heads is essentially conservative, while a band of disciples attached to a master they revere is the greatest progressive force the world knows. <|>

“It is certain that the later Athenian schools were legally recognized corporations, the oldest of which, the Academy, maintained its existence as such for some nine hundred years, and the only question we have to decide is whether this was an innovation made in the fourth century B.C., or rather the continuance of an old tradition. Now we have the authority of Plato for speaking of the chief early systems as handed down in schools. He makes Socrates speak of "the men of Ephesus," the Heracliteans, as forming a strong body in his own day, and the stranger of the Sophist and the Statesman speaks of his school as still in existence at Elea. We also hear of "Anaxagoreans," and no one, of course, can doubt that the Pythagoreans were a society. In fact, there is hardly any school but that of Miletus for which we have not external evidence of the strongest kind; and even as regards it, we have the significant fact that Theophrastus speaks of philosophers of a later date as having been "associates of the philosophy of Anaximenes." We shall see too in the first chapter that the internal evidence in favour of the existence of a Milesian school is very strong indeed. It is from this point of view, then, that we shall now proceed to consider the men who created Greek science.

Homer, Hesiod and Early Greek Thought and Cosmology

John Burnet wrote in “Early Greek Philosophy”: “We see the working of these influences clearly in Homer. Though he doubtless belonged to the older race himself and used its language, it is for the courts of Achaean princes he sings, and the gods and heroes he celebrates are mostly Achaean. That is why we find so few traces of the traditional view of the world in the epic. The gods have become frankly human, and everything primitive is kept out of sight. There are, of course, vestiges of the early beliefs and practices, but they are exceptional. It has often been noted that Homer never speaks of the primitive custom of purification for homicide. The dead heroes are burned, not buried, as the kings of the older race were. Ghosts play hardly any part. In the Iliad we have, to be sure, the ghost of Patroclus, in close connection with the solitary instance of human sacrifice in Homer. There is also the Nekyia in the Eleventh Book of the Odyssey. Such things, however, are rare, and we may fairly infer that, at least in a certain society, that of the Achaean princes for whom Homer sang, the traditional view of the world was already discredited at a comparatively early date, though it naturally emerges here and there. [Source: John Burnet (1863-1928), “Early Greek Philosophy” London and Edinburgh: A. and C. Black, 1892, 3rd edition, 1920, Evansville University <|>]


Homer

“When we come to Hesiod, we seem to be in another world. We hear stories of the gods which are not only irrational but repulsive, and these are told quite seriously. Hesiod makes the Muses say: "We know how to tell many false things that are like the truth; but we know too, when we will, to utter what is true." This means that he was conscious of the difference between the Homeric spirit and his own. The old lightheartedness is gone, and it is important to tell the truth about the gods. Hesiod knows, too, that he belongs to a later and a sadder time than Homer. In describing the Ages of the World, he inserts a fifth age between those of Bronze and Iron. That is the Age of the Heroes, the age Homer sang of. It was better than the Bronze Age which came before it, and far better than that which followed it, the Age of Iron, in which Hesiod lives. He also feels that he is singing for another class. It is to shepherds and husbandman of the older race he addresses himself, and the Achaean princes for whom Homer sang have become remote persons who give "crooked dooms." The romance and splendor of the Achaean Middle Ages meant nothing to the common people. The primitive view of the world had never really died out among them; so it was natural for their first spokesman to assume it in his poems. That is why we find in Hesiod these old savage tales, which Homer disdained. <|>

“Yet it would be wrong to see in the Theogony a mere revival of the old superstition. Hesiod could not help being affected by the new spirit, and he became a pioneer in spite of himself. The rudiments of what grew into Ionic science and history are to be found in his poems, and he really did more than anyone to hasten that decay of the old ideas which he was seeking to arrest. The Theogony is an attempt to reduce all the stories about the gods into a single system, and system is fatal to so wayward a thing as mythology. Moreover, though the spirit in which Hesiod treats his theme is that of the older race, the gods of whom he sings are for the most part those of the Achaeans. This introduces an element of contradiction into the system from first to last. Herodotus tells us that it was Homer and Hesiod who made a theogony for the Hellenes, who gave the gods their names, and distributed among them their offices and arts, and it is perfectly true. The Olympian pantheon took the place of the older gods in men's minds, and this was quite as much the doing of Hesiod as of Homer. The ordinary man would hardly recognize his gods in the humanized figures, detached from all local associations, which poetry had substituted for the older objects of worship. Such gods were incapable of satisfying the needs of the people, and that is the secret of the religious revival we shall have to consider later.

Asia Minor: Birthplace of Greek Philosophy, and the Scientific Tradition

Greek philosophy appears to have got it start in Miletus and Lydia — two places in Asia Minor in present-day western Turkey. “It was at Miletus that the earliest school of scientific cosmology had its home, and it is not, perhaps, without significance that Miletus is just the place where the continuity of Aegean and Ionian civilization is most clearly marked. The Milesians had come into conflict more than once with the Lydians, whose rulers were bent on extending their dominion to the coast; but, towards the end of the seventh century B.C., the tyrant Thrasybulus succeeded in making terms with King Alyattes, and an alliance was concluded which secured Miletus against molestation for the future. Even half a century later, when Croesus, resuming his father's forward policy, made war upon and conquered Ephesus, Miletus was able to maintain the old treaty-relation, and never, strictly speaking, became subject to the Lydians at all. [Source: John Burnet (1863-1928), “Early Greek Philosophy” London and Edinburgh: A. and C. Black, 1892, 3rd edition, 1920, Evansville University <|>]


Ionian ---present-day western Turkey

The Lydian connection, moreover, favored the growth of science at Miletus. What was called at a later date Hellenism seems to have been traditional in the dynasty of the Mermnadae, and Herodotus says that all the "sophists" of the time flocked to the court of Sardis. The tradition which represents Croesus as the "patron" of Greek wisdom was fully developed in the fifth century; and, however unhistorical its details may be, it must clearly have some foundation in fact. Particularly noteworthy is "the common tale among the Greeks," that Thales accompanied Croesus on his luckless campaign against Pteria, apparently in the capacity of military engineer. Herodotus disbelieves the story that he diverted the course of the Halys, but only because he knew there were bridges there already. It is clear that the Ionians were great engineers, and that they were employed as such by the eastern kings. <|>

“It should be added that the Lydian alliance would facilitate intercourse with Babylon and Egypt. Lydia was an advanced post of Babylonian culture, and Croesus was on friendly terms with the kings of Egypt and Babylon. Amasis of Egypt had the same Hellenic sympathies as Croesus, and the Milesians possessed a temple of their own at Naucratis. <|>

“We must not be misled by the use of the word theos in the remains that have come down to us. It is quite true that the Ionians applied it to the "primary substance" and to the world or worlds, but that means no more and no less than the use of the divine epithets "ageless" and "deathless" to which we have referred already. In its religious sense the word "god" always means first and foremost an object of worship, but already in Homer that has ceased to be its only signification. Hesiod's Theogony is the best evidence of the change. It is clear that many of the gods mentioned there were never worshiped by any one, and some of them are mere personifications of natural phenomena, or even of human passions. This non-religious use of the word "god" is characteristic of the whole period we are dealing with, and it is of the first importance to realize it. No one who does so will fall into the error of deriving science from mythology. <|>

“We see this, above all, from the fact that, while primitive religion regards the heavenly bodies and the heavens themselves as divine, and therefore of a wholly different nature from anything on this earth, the Ionians from the very first set their faces against any such distinction, though it must have been perfectly familiar to them from popular beliefs. Aristotle revived the distinction at a later date, but Greek science began by rejecting it.

Egyptian and Babylonian Influence on Early Greek Philosophy


John Burnet wrote in “Early Greek Philosophy”: “We have also to face the question of the nature and extent of the influence exercised by what we call Eastern wisdom on the Greek mind. It is a common idea even now that the Greeks in some way derived their philosophy from Egypt and Babylon, and we must therefore try to understand as clearly as possible what such a statement really means. To begin with, we must observe that the question wears a very different aspect now that we know the great antiquity of the Aegean civilization. Much that has been regarded as Oriental may just as well be native. As for later influences, we must insist that no writer of the period during which Greek philosophy flourished knows anything of its having come from the East. [Source: John Burnet (1863-1928), “Early Greek Philosophy” London and Edinburgh: A. and C. Black, 1892, 3rd edition, 1920, Evansville University <|>]

“Herodotus would not have omitted to say so, had he heard of it; for it would have confirmed his own belief in the Egyptian origin of Greek religion and civilization. Plato, who had a great respect for the Egyptians on other grounds, classes them as a business-like rather than a philosophical people. Aristotle speaks only of the origin of mathematics in Egypt (a point to which we shall return), though, if he had known of an Egyptian philosophy, it would have suited his argument better to mention that. It is not till later, when Egyptian priests and Alexandrian Jews began to vie with one another in discovering the sources of Greek philosophy in their own past, that we have definite statements to the effect that it came from Phoenicia or Egypt. But the so-called Egyptian philosophy was only arrived at by a process of turning primitive myths into allegories. We are still able to judge Philo's Old Testament interpretation for ourselves, and we may be sure that the Egyptian allegorists were even more arbitrary; for they had far less promising material to work on. The myth of Isis and Osiris, for instance, is first interpreted according to the ideas of later Greek philosophy, and then declared to be the source of that philosophy. <|>

“It would, however, be another thing to say that Greek philosophy originated quite independently of Oriental influences. The Greeks themselves believed their mathematical science to be of Egyptian origin, and they must have known something of Babylonian astronomy. It cannot be an accident that philosophy originated just at the time when communication with these two countries was easiest, and that the very man who was said to have introduced geometry from Egypt is also regarded as the first philosopher. It thus becomes important for us to discover what Egyptian mathematics meant. We shall see that, even here, the Greeks were really original.

Evolution of Cosmogony in Ancient Greece

John Burnet wrote in “Early Greek Philosophy”: “Nor is it only in this way that Hesiod shows himself a child of his time. His Theogony is at the same time a Cosmogony, though it would seem that here he was following the older tradition rather than working out a thought of his own. At any rate, he only mentions the two great cosmogonical figures, Chaos and Eros, and does not really bring them into connection with his system. They seem to belong, in fact, to an older stratum of speculation. The conception of Chaos represents a distinct effort to picture the beginning of things. It is not a formless mixture, but rather, as its etymology indicates, the yawning gulf or gap where nothing is as yet. We may be sure that this is not primitive. Primitive man does not feel called on to form an idea of the very beginning of all things; he takes for granted that there was something to begin with. The other figure, that of Eros, was doubtless intended to explain the impulse to production which gave rise to the whole process. These are clearly speculative ideas, but in Hesiod they are blurred and confused. [Source: John Burnet (1863-1928), “Early Greek Philosophy” London and Edinburgh: A. and C. Black, 1892, 3rd edition, 1920, Evansville University <|>]


“We have records of great activity in the production of cosmogonies during the whole of the sixth century B.C., and we know something of the systems of Epimenides, Pherecydes, and Acusilaus. If there were speculations of this kind even before Hesiod, we need have no hesitation in believing that the earliest Orphic cosmogony goes back to that century too. The feature common to all these systems is the attempt to get behind the Gap, and to put Kronos or Zeus in the first place. That is what Aristotle has in view when he distinguishes the "theologians" from those who were half theologians and half philosophers, and who put what was best in the beginning. It is obvious, however, that this process is the very reverse of scientific, and might be carried on indefinitely; so we have nothing to do with the cosmogonists in our present inquiry, except so far as they can be shown to have influenced the course of more sober investigations.

“The Ionians, as we can see from their literature, were deeply impressed by the transitoriness of things. There is, in fact, a fundamental pessimism in their outlook on life, such as is natural to an over-civilized age with no very definite religious convictions. We find Mimnermus of Colophon preoccupied with the sadness of the coming of old age, while at a later date the lament of Simonides, that the generations of men fall like the leaves of the forest, touches a chord that Homer had already struck. Now this sentiment always finds its best illustrations in the changes of the seasons, and the cycle of growth and decay is a far more striking phenomenon in Aegean lands than in the North, and takes still more clearly the form of a war of opposites, hot and cold, wet and dry. It is, accordingly, from that point of view the early cosmologists regard the world. The opposition of day and night, summer and winter, with their suggestive parallelism in sleep and waking, birth and death, are the outstanding features of the world as they saw it. <|>

“The changes of the seasons are plainly brought about by the encroachments of one pair of opposites, the cold and the wet, on the other pair, the hot and the dry, which in their turn encroach on the other pair. This process was naturally described in terms borrowed from human society; for in early days the regularity and constancy of human life was far more clearly realized than the uniformity of nature. Man lived in a charmed circle of social law and custom, but the world around him at first seemed lawless. That is why the encroachment of one opposite on another was spoken of as injustice (adikia) and the due observance of a balance between them as justice (dikê). The later word kosmos is based on this notion too. It meant originally the discipline of an army, and next the ordered constitution of a state. <|>

“That, however, was not enough. The earliest cosmologists could find no satisfaction in the view of the world as a perpetual contest between opposites. They felt that these must somehow have a common ground, from which they had issued and to which they must return once more. They were in search of something more primary than the opposites, something which persisted through all change, and ceased to exist in one form only to reappear in another. That this was really the spirit in which they entered on their quest is shown by the fact that they spoke of this something as "ageless" and "deathless." If, as is sometimes held, their real interest had been in the process of growth and becoming, they would hardly have applied epithets so charged with poetical emotion and association to what is alone permanent in a world of change and decay. That is the true meaning of Ionian "Monism."

Scientific Character of Early Greek Cosmology

John Burnet wrote in “Early Greek Philosophy”: “It is necessary to insist on the scientific character of the philosophy...We have seen that the Eastern peoples were considerably richer than the Greeks in accumulated facts, though these facts had not been observed for any scientific purpose, and never suggested a revision of the primitive view of the world. The Greeks, however, saw in them something that could be turned to account, and they were never as a people slow to act on the maxim, Chacun prend son bien partout où il le trouve. The visit of Solon to Croesus which Herodotus describes, however unhistorical it may be, gives us a good idea of this spirit. Croesus tells Solon that he has heard much of "his wisdom and his wanderings," and how from love of knowledge (philosopheôn), he has traveled over much land for the purpose of seeing what was to be seen (theôriês heineken). The words theôriê, philosophiê and historiê are, in fact, the catchwords of the time, though they had, no doubt, a somewhat different meaning from that they were afterwards made to bear at Athens. [Source: John Burnet (1863-1928), “Early Greek Philosophy” London and Edinburgh: A. and C. Black, 1892, 3rd edition, 1920, Evansville University <|>]

“The idea that underlies them all may, perhaps, be rendered in English by the word Curiosity; and it was just this great gift of curiosity, and the desire to see all the wonderful things -- pyramids, inundations, and so forth -- that were to be seen, which enabled the Ionians to pick up and turn to their own use such scraps of knowledge as they could come by among the barbarians. No sooner did an Ionian philosopher learn half-a-dozen geometrical propositions, and hear that the phenomena of the heavens recur in cycles, than he set to work to look for law everywhere in nature, and, with an audacity almost amounting to hubris, to construct a system of the universe. We may smile at the medley of childish fancy and scientific insight which these efforts display, and sometimes we feel disposed to sympathise with the sages of the day who warned their more daring contemporaries "to think the thoughts befitting man's estate" (anthrôpina phronein). But we shall do well to remember that even now it is just such hardy anticipations of experience that make scientific progress possible, and that nearly every one of these early inquirers made some permanent addition to positive knowledge, besides opening up new views of the world in every direction. <|>


Parmenides cosmology

“There is no justification either for the idea that Greek science was built up by more or less lucky guesswork, instead of by observation and experiment. The nature of our tradition, which mostly consists of Placita -- that is, of what we call "results" -- tends, no doubt, to create this impression. We are seldom told why any early philosopher held the views he did, and the appearance of a string of "opinions" suggests dogmatism. There are, however, certain exceptions to the general character of the tradition; and we may reasonably suppose that, if the later Greeks had been interested in the matter, there would have been many more. We shall see that Anaximander made some remarkable discoveries in marine biology, which the researches of the nineteenth century have confirmed (§ 22), and even Xenophanes supported one of his theories by referring to the fossils and petrifactions of such widely separated places as Malta, Paros, and Syracuse (§ 59). This is enough to show that the theory, so commonly held by the earlier philosophers, that the earth had been originally in a moist state, was not purely mythological in origin, but based on biological and palaeontological observations. It would surely be absurd to imagine that the men who could make these observations had not the curiosity or the ability to make many others of which the memory is lost. Indeed, the idea that the Greeks were not observers is ludicrously wrong, as is proved by the anatomical accuracy of their sculpture, which bears witness to trained habits of observation, while the Hippocratean corpus contains models of scientific observation at its best. We know, then, that the Greeks could observe well, and we know that they were curious about the world. Is it conceivable that they did not use their powers of observation to gratify that curiosity? It is true that they had not our instruments of precision; but a great deal can be discovered by the help of very simple apparatus. It is not to be supposed that Anaximander erected his gnomon merely that the Spartans might know the seasons. <|>

“Nor is it true that the Greeks made no use of experiment. The rise of the experimental method dates from the time when the medical schools began to influence the development of philosophy, and accordingly we find that the first recorded experiment of a modern type is that of Empedocles with the klepsydra. We have his own account of this (fr. 100), and we can see how it brought him to the verge of anticipating Harvey and Torricelli. It is inconceivable that an inquisitive people should have applied the experimental method in a single case without extending it to other problems. <|>

“Of course the great difficulty for us is the geocentric hypothesis from which science inevitably started, though only to outgrow it in a surprisingly short time. So long as the earth is supposed to be in the center of the world, meteorology, in the later sense of the word, is necessarily identified with astronomy. It is difficult for us to feel at home in this point of view, and indeed we have no suitable word to express what the Greeks at first called an ouranos. It will be convenient to use the term "world" for it; but then we must remember that it does not refer solely, or even chiefly, to the earth, though it includes that along with the heavenly bodies. <|>

“The science of the sixth century was mainly concerned, therefore, with those parts of the world that are "aloft" (ta meteôra), and these include such things as clouds, rainbows, and lightning, as well as the heavenly bodies. That is how the latter came sometimes to be explained as ignited clouds, an idea which seems astonishing to us. But even that is better than to regard the sun, moon, and stars as having a different nature from the earth, and science inevitably and rightly began with the most obvious hypothesis, and it was only the thorough working out of this that could show its inadequacy. It is just because the Greeks were the first people to take the geocentric hypothesis seriously that they were able to go beyond it. Of course the pioneers of Greek thought had no clear idea of the nature of scientific hypothesis, and supposed themselves to be dealing with ultimate reality, but a sure instinct guided them to the right method, and we can see how it was the effort to "save appearances" that really operated from the first. It is to those men we owe the conception of an exact science which should ultimately take in the whole world as its object. They fancied they could work out this science at once. We sometimes make the same mistake nowadays, and forget that all scientific progress consists in the advance from a less to a more adequate hypothesis. The Greeks were the first to follow this method, and that is their title to be regarded as the originators of science.

Motion and Rest and the Secular Character of Ionian Science

“According to Aristotle and his followers, the early cosmologists believed also in an "eternal motion" (aidios kinêsis), but that is probably their own way of putting the thing. It is not at all likely that the Ionians said anything about the eternity of motion in their writings. In early times, it is not movement but rest that has to be accounted for, and it is unlikely that the origin of motion was discussed till its possibility had been denied. As we shall see, that was done by Parmenides; and accordingly his successors, accepting the fact of motion, were bound to show how it originated. I understand Aristotle's statement, then, as meaning no more than that the early thinkers did not feel the need of assigning an origin for motion. The eternity of motion is an inference, which is substantially correct, but is misleading in so far as it suggests deliberate rejection of a doctrine not yet formulated. [Source: John Burnet (1863-1928), “Early Greek Philosophy” London and Edinburgh: A. and C. Black, 1892, 3rd edition, 1920, Evansville University <|>]


Zeno's Achilles Paradox

“A more important question is the nature of this motion. It is clear that it must have existed before the beginning of the world, since it is what brought the world into being. It cannot, therefore, be identified with the diurnal revolution of the heavens, as it has been by many writers, or with any other purely mundane motion. The Pythagorean doctrine, as expounded in Plato's Timaeus, is that the original motion was irregular and disorderly, and we shall see reason for believing that the Atomists ascribed a motion of that kind to the atoms. It is safer, then, not to attribute any regular or well-defined motion to the primary substance of the early cosmologists at this stage.

“In all this, there is no trace of theological speculation. We have seen that there had been a complete break with the early Aegean religion, and that the Olympian polytheism never had a firm hold on the Ionian mind. It is therefore quite wrong to look for the origins of Ionian science in mythological ideas of any kind. No doubt there were many vestiges of the older beliefs and practices in those parts of Greece which had not come under the rule of the Northerners, and we shall see presently how they reasserted themselves in the Orphic and other mysteries, but the case of Ionia was different. It was only after the coming of the Achaeans that the Greeks were able to establish their settlements on the coast of Asia Minor, which had been closed to them by the Hittites, and there was no traditional background there at all. In the islands of the Aegean it was otherwise, but Ionia proper was a country without a past. That explains the secular character of the earliest Ionian philosophy.

“We must not be misled by the use of the word theos in the remains that have come down to us. It is quite true that the Ionians applied it to the "primary substance" and to the world or worlds, but that means no more and no less than the use of the divine epithets "ageless" and "deathless" to which we have referred already. In its religious sense the word "god" always means first and foremost an object of worship, but already in Homer that has ceased to be its only signification. Hesiod's Theogony is the best evidence of the change. It is clear that many of the gods mentioned there were never worshiped by any one, and some of them are mere personifications of natural phenomena, or even of human passions. This non-religious use of the word "god" is characteristic of the whole period we are dealing with, and it is of the first importance to realize it. No one who does so will fall into the error of deriving science from mythology. <|>

“We see this, above all, from the fact that, while primitive religion regards the heavenly bodies and the heavens themselves as divine, and therefore of a wholly different nature from anything on this earth, the Ionians from the very first set their faces against any such distinction, though it must have been perfectly familiar to them from popular beliefs. Aristotle revived the distinction at a later date, but Greek science began by rejecting it.

Scientific Character of the Early Greek Cosmology

“It is necessary to insist on the scientific character of the philosophy. We have seen that the Eastern peoples were considerably richer than the Greeks in accumulated facts, though these facts had not been observed for any scientific purpose, and never suggested a revision of the primitive view of the world. The Greeks, however, saw in them something that could be turned to account, and they were never as a people slow to act on the maxim, Chacun prend son bien partout où il le trouve. The visit of Solon to Croesus which Herodotus describes, however unhistorical it may be, gives us a good idea of this spirit. Croesus tells Solon that he has heard much of "his wisdom and his wanderings," and how from love of knowledge (philosopheôn), he has traveled over much land for the purpose of seeing what was to be seen (theôriês heineken). The words theôriê, philosophiê and historiê are, in fact, the catchwords of the time, though they had, no doubt, a somewhat different meaning from that they were afterwards made to bear at Athens. [Source: John Burnet (1863-1928), “Early Greek Philosophy” London and Edinburgh: A. and C. Black, 1892, 3rd edition, 1920, Evansville University <|>]

“The idea that underlies them all may, perhaps, be rendered in English by the word Curiosity; and it was just this great gift of curiosity, and the desire to see all the wonderful things -- pyramids, inundations, and so forth -- that were to be seen, which enabled the Ionians to pick up and turn to their own use such scraps of knowledge as they could come by among the barbarians. No sooner did an Ionian philosopher learn half-a-dozen geometrical propositions, and hear that the phenomena of the heavens recur in cycles, than he set to work to look for law everywhere in nature, and, with an audacity almost amounting to hubris, to construct a system of the universe. We may smile at the medley of childish fancy and scientific insight which these efforts display, and sometimes we feel disposed to sympathise with the sages of the day who warned their more daring contemporaries "to think the thoughts befitting man's estate" (anthrôpina phronein). But we shall do well to remember that even now it is just such hardy anticipations of experience that make scientific progress possible, and that nearly every one of these early inquirers made some permanent addition to positive knowledge, besides opening up new views of the world in every direction. <|>


Pre-Socrates philosophers


“There is no justification either for the idea that Greek science was built up by more or less lucky guesswork, instead of by observation and experiment. The nature of our tradition, which mostly consists of Placita -- that is, of what we call "results" -- tends, no doubt, to create this impression. We are seldom told why any early philosopher held the views he did, and the appearance of a string of "opinions" suggests dogmatism. There are, however, certain exceptions to the general character of the tradition; and we may reasonably suppose that, if the later Greeks had been interested in the matter, there would have been many more. We shall see that Anaximander made some remarkable discoveries in marine biology, which the researches of the nineteenth century have confirmed (§ 22), and even Xenophanes supported one of his theories by referring to the fossils and petrifactions of such widely separated places as Malta, Paros, and Syracuse (§ 59). This is enough to show that the theory, so commonly held by the earlier philosophers, that the earth had been originally in a moist state, was not purely mythological in origin, but based on biological and palaeontological observations. It would surely be absurd to imagine that the men who could make these observations had not the curiosity or the ability to make many others of which the memory is lost. Indeed, the idea that the Greeks were not observers is ludicrously wrong, as is proved by the anatomical accuracy of their sculpture, which bears witness to trained habits of observation, while the Hippocratean corpus contains models of scientific observation at its best. We know, then, that the Greeks could observe well, and we know that they were curious about the world. Is it conceivable that they did not use their powers of observation to gratify that curiosity? It is true that they had not our instruments of precision; but a great deal can be discovered by the help of very simple apparatus. It is not to be supposed that Anaximander erected his gnomon merely that the Spartans might know the seasons. <|>

“Nor is it true that the Greeks made no use of experiment. The rise of the experimental method dates from the time when the medical schools began to influence the development of philosophy, and accordingly we find that the first recorded experiment of a modern type is that of Empedocles with the klepsydra. We have his own account of this (fr. 100), and we can see how it brought him to the verge of anticipating Harvey and Torricelli. It is inconceivable that an inquisitive people should have applied the experimental method in a single case without extending it to other problems. <|>

“Of course the great difficulty for us is the geocentric hypothesis from which science inevitably started, though only to outgrow it in a surprisingly short time. So long as the earth is supposed to be in the center of the world, meteorology, in the later sense of the word, is necessarily identified with astronomy. It is difficult for us to feel at home in this point of view, and indeed we have no suitable word to express what the Greeks at first called an ouranos. It will be convenient to use the term "world" for it; but then we must remember that it does not refer solely, or even chiefly, to the earth, though it includes that along with the heavenly bodies. <|>

“The science of the sixth century was mainly concerned, therefore, with those parts of the world that are "aloft" (ta meteôra), and these include such things as clouds, rainbows, and lightning, as well as the heavenly bodies. That is how the latter came sometimes to be explained as ignited clouds, an idea which seems astonishing to us. But even that is better than to regard the sun, moon, and stars as having a different nature from the earth, and science inevitably and rightly began with the most obvious hypothesis, and it was only the thorough working out of this that could show its inadequacy. It is just because the Greeks were the first people to take the geocentric hypothesis seriously that they were able to go beyond it. Of course the pioneers of Greek thought had no clear idea of the nature of scientific hypothesis, and supposed themselves to be dealing with ultimate reality, but a sure instinct guided them to the right method, and we can see how it was the effort to "save appearances" that really operated from the first. It is to those men we owe the conception of an exact science which should ultimately take in the whole world as its object. They fancied they could work out this science at once. We sometimes make the same mistake nowadays, and forget that all scientific progress consists in the advance from a less to a more adequate hypothesis. The Greeks were the first to follow this method, and that is their title to be regarded as the originators of science.


Greek philosophers


Migration of Philosophy from Asia Minor to Greece

“The spirit of the Ionians in Asia was, as we have seen, thoroughly secular; and, so far as we can judge, the Milesians wholly ignored traditional beliefs. Their use of the term "god" for the primary substance and the innumerable worlds had no religious significance. It was different in the Aegean islands, which had been the home of the Ionians long before the Anatolian coasts were open to colonization, and where there were many memories of a remote past. These seem to have centered round the sanctuary of Delos, and the fragments of Pherecydes, who belonged to the neighboring island of Syros, read like belated utterances of an earlier age. No doubt it was also different in the Chalcidian and Ionian colonies of the West, which were founded at a time when Hesiod and his followers still held unchallenged authority. [Source: John Burnet (1863-1928), “Early Greek Philosophy” London and Edinburgh: A. and C. Black, 1892, 3rd edition, 1920, Evansville University <|>]

“Now Pythagoras and Xenophanes, the most striking figures of the generation that saw the Greek cities in Asia become subject to Persia, were both Ionians, but both spent the greater part of their lives in the West. There it was no longer possible to ignore religion, especially when reinforced by the revival that now swept over the Greek world. Henceforth the leaders of enlightenment must either seek to reform and deepen traditional religion, like Pythagoras, or oppose it openly, like Xenophanes. <|>

Delian Religion and Orphicism in Western Greece

“The revival was not, however, a mere recrudescence of the old Aegean religion, but was profoundly influenced by the diffusion of certain ideas originating in what was then the far North. The temple legend of Delos is certainly ancient, and it connects the worship of Apollo with the Hyperboreans, who were thought of as living on the banks of the Danube. The "holy things wrapped in straw," which were passed on from people to people till they reached Delos by way of the head of the Adriatic, Dodona, and the Malian Gulf, bear witness to a real connection between the Danubian and Aegean civilizations at an early date, and it is natural to associate this with the coming of the Achaeans. The stories of Abaris the Hyperborean and Aristeas of Proconnesus belong to the same religious movement and prove that it was based on a view of the soul which was new, so far as we can see, in the Aegean. Now the connection of Pythagoras with Delos is well attested, and it is certain that he founded his society in cities which gloried in the Achaean name. If the Delian religion was really Achaean, we have a clue to certain things in the life of Pythagoras which are otherwise puzzling. We shall come back to these later. [Source: John Burnet (1863-1928), “Early Greek Philosophy” London and Edinburgh: A. and C. Black, 1892, 3rd edition, 1920, Evansville University <|>]

“It was not, however, in its Delian form that the northern religion had most influence. In Thrace it had attached itself to the wild worship of Dionysus, and was associated with the name of Orpheus. In this religion the new beliefs were mainly based on the phenomenon of "ecstasy" (ekstasis, "stepping out"). It was supposed that it was only when "out of the body" that the soul revealed its true nature. It was not merely a feeble double of the self, as in Homer, but a fallen god, which might be restored to its high estate by a system of "purifications" (katharmoi) and sacraments (orgia). In this form, the new religion made an immediate appeal to all sorts and conditions of men who could not find satisfaction in the worship of the secularized anthropomorphic gods of the poets and the state religions. <|>


Presocratic graph


“The Orphic religion had two features which were new in Greece. It looked to a written revelation as the source of religious authority, and its adherents were organized in communities, based, not on any real or supposed tie of blood, but on voluntary adhesion and initiation. Most of the Orphic literature that has come down to us is of late date and uncertain origin, but the thin gold plates, with Orphic verses inscribed on them, discovered at Thourioi and Petelia take us back to a time when Orphicism was still a living creed. From them we learn that it had some striking resemblances to the beliefs prevalent in India about the same time, though it is really impossible to assume any Indian influence in Greece at this date. In any case, the main purpose of the Orphic observances and rites was to release the soul from the "wheel of birth," that is, from reincarnation in animal or vegetable forms. The soul so released became once more a god and enjoyed everlasting bliss. <|>

Religion and Philosophy as a Way of Life

“The chief reason for taking account of the Orphic communities here is that their Organization seems to have suggested the idea that philosophy is above all a "way of life." In Ionia, as we have seen, philosophia meant something like "curiosity," and from that use of it the common Athenian sense of "culture," as we find it in Isocrates, seems to have been derived. On the other hand, wherever we can trace the influence of Pythagoras, the word has a far deeper meaning. Philosophy is itself a "purification" and a way of escape from the "wheel." That is the idea so nobly expressed in the Phaedo, which is manifestly inspired by Pythagorean doctrine. This way of regarding philosophy is henceforth characteristic of the best Greek thought. Aristotle is as much influenced by it as any one, as we may see from the Tenth Book of the Ethics, and as we should see still more clearly if we possessed his Protrepticus in its entirety. There was a danger that this attitude should degenerate into mere quietism and "otherworldliness," a danger Plato saw and sought to avert. It was he that insisted on philosophers taking their turn to descend once more into the Cave to help their former fellow prisoners. If the other view ultimately prevailed, that was hardly the fault of the philosophers. [Source: John Burnet (1863-1928), “Early Greek Philosophy” London and Edinburgh: A. and C. Black, 1892, 3rd edition, 1920, Evansville University <|>]

“Science, then, became a religion, and to that extent it is true that philosophy was influenced by religion. It would be wrong, however, to suppose that even now philosophy took over any particular doctrines from religion. The religious revival implied, we have seen, a new view of the soul, and we might expect to find that it profoundly influenced the teaching of philosophers on that subject. The remarkable thing is that this did not happen. Even the Pythagoreans and Empedocles, who took part in the religious movement themselves, held views about the soul which flatly contradicted the beliefs implied in their religious practices. There is no room for an immortal soul in any philosophy of this period, as we shall see. Socrates was the first philosopher to assert the doctrine on rational grounds, and it is significant that Plato represents him as only half serious in appealing to the Orphics for confirmation of his own teaching. <|>

“The reason is that ancient religion was not a body of doctrine. Nothing was required but that the ritual should be performed correctly and in a proper frame of mind; the worshiper was free to give any explanation of it he pleased. It might be as exalted as that of Pindar and Sophocles or as debased as that of the itinerant mystery-mongers described in Plato's Republic. "The initiated," said Aristotle, "are not supposed to learn anything, but to be affected in a certain way and put into a certain frame of mind." That is why the religious revival could inspire philosophy with a new spirit, but could not at first graft new doctrines on it. <|>


Rafael's "School of Athens"

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy /plato.stanford.edu, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; BBC Ancient Greeks bbc.co.uk/history/ ; Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, oll.libertyfund.org ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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