The Beginnings of Greek Philosophy
The Milesians and Heraclitus
Long before the time of Thales, a citizen of Miletus, in the district of Ionia on the west coast of Asia Minor, Chaldaen astrologers had listed data on the position of the stars and planets. As Thales studied these tables he thought he discerned a pattern or regularity in the occurrence of eclipses, and he ventured to predict a solar eclipse that occurred on May 28th 585BC. Some scholars think that this was just a lucky empirical guess, but if it was the discovery of an astronomical regularity or natural law, then Thales may be credited with distinguishing Greek philosophy and science from the somewhat aimless observations and disjointed information of the Eastern wise men. When a law is formulated, Man's wonder at the phenomenon is supposed to be satisfied, and nature is said to be explained and understood. Thales is also credited with the discovery of several theorems of geometry and with diplomatic, engineering, and economic exploits. If there is a difference between science and philosophy, it is that the regularities of science are relatively restricted, whereas the more general principles, called 'philosophic' apply to wider areas. Thales's more general speculations concerned the constitution of the universe. What is the world made of? Are there many elements or is there but one? And if one, what is it? These questions dominated the entire Pre-Socratic period; and they are still live issues today; and if Thales's answer seems crude to a so-called sophisticated 21st century mind, his motivation and procedure may prove as profound as any contemporary inspiration.
As a matter of fact, Thales taught that all things are made of water, and we may imagine reason which may have convinced him. One no doubt would be that water is known as a liquid, a solid, and a gas; and these various forms seem to suggest that water is capable of all the transformations a universal substratum must undergo if it is to produce the objects of our world. Since, too, a general theory must attempt to explain biological phenomena as well as physics and astronomy, another reason for selecting water may have been its indepensibility to life. And a little ingenuity can invent other considerations. But Anaximander (610-545?BC), Thales' successor, in additions to specific contributions to science, saw a difficulty in Thales' general cosmology. If water were he basic substance, he thought, fire could never have come into existence, for there is an essential antagonism between their peculiar qualities. For the same reason, if the substratum were fire, the existence of fire could not be explained.. Therefore, Anaximander assumed a Boundless that was neither wet or dry, hot or cold, but rather indeterminately both wet and dry, cold and hot. Thus, the matter of the universe was Boundless, not merely because it extended throughout infinite space, but also, and mainly, because it was not bounded, limited, or...