At a time when mythical creatures, heroic warriors and all-powerful gods roamed the land, the philosopher Thales (around 620–540 BC) sought to understand the essence of the world in Miletus in the sixth and seventh century BCE. He is considered the founder of Western philosophy.
Unlike most of his contemporaries, Thales was looking for discernible structures that explained the principles of nature instead of resorting to mythical explanations. He gathered knowledge to help him understand the logic and order that underpinned the world around him. Today, this approach to research is called natural philosophy. While it is not based directly on Thales’s writing, his ideas and calculations informed the work of many scholars as early as antiquity, such as Plato, Aristotle and Diogenes Laërtius. Besides his achievements in mathematics and astronomy, Thales wanted to find the ‘primary substance’—the element at the beginning of everything. He believed that water was this substance. To him, everything had a soul and, as such, a spark of the divine. Thales defined the soul as anything that can bring about an autonomous action. Today, Thales is best known for his eponymous mathematical theorem, which states that any triangle inscribed in a semicircle such that one of the sides is a diameter and the third point is a random point on the semicircle is always a right triangle.
Anaximander (around 610–547 BCE), another Milesian, is widely considered the pupil and successor of Thales. It is likely that the two met. According to Anaximander, however, the primary element is the indefinite or infinite (apeiron). Like the Olympians, this is an immortal, indestructible being. Anaximander believed in a constant cosmic order maintained by the apeiron. Much like Thales, he also believed that water was the origin of all life. “Anaximander said that the first living being had been generated in moisture, enclosing themselves in spine-like barks. As they advanced in age, they moved onto dry land and shedded their bark. For a brief while, they survived in a different form.” (C. Rapp, Die Vorsokratiker. Munich, 1997. 51.) It is fascinating to consider how close Anaximander’s idea of the origin of life came to today’s theory of evolution.
The third Milesian pre-Socratic thinker, Anaximenes (around 585–524 BCE), based his theories on Anaximander’s. In his view, the all-encompassing air was the primary substance (aer). Anaximenes had realized that matter expands in heat and contracts in cold. He concluded that all things, including the divine, had originated from the expansion and compression of air.
With their observations and ideas, these three Milesians laid the foundation of (natural) philosophy. They opened their minds to other cultures and schools of thought, for example, by incorporating Egyptian concepts of natural science into their own theories. Merchants and seafarers carried their ideas from Miletus across the entire Mediterranean region. They became the foundation of Western philosophy, which seeks to answer the question of (human) existence in harmony with the natural sciences.
Text: Florian Schwake