Notebook, 1993-


Ancient Greek Philosophy
The Ionian Hylozoists


Thales [625-546 B.C.] was born and lived in Miletus in Asia Minor. It is certain that he visited Egypt in the course of business, and brought back from there a knowledge of 'Egyptian wisdom'. Thales was both an astronomer and a mathematician. Tradition says he had formulated many mathematical theorems. It is also reputed that he measured the height of the pyramids on the basis of similar triangles and the length of shadow which the pyramid [p. 154] cast, and that he had predicted an eclipse of the sun in 585 B.C. Also that he had devised a method of determining the distance of ships at sea. Yet the great renown of Thales rests not on his geometry, but on a new common sense way of looking at the world of things. He posed for the first time the problem of the principle or the ultimate cause of the universe. He said that everything was once water, and he thought that earth and all other things had been created out of water by a natural process. Water was the immutable foundation on which all the changes in the phenomena and of beings was based. Al things originated from water and all things terminated in water which was neither created nor destroyed. But the water of Thales was not the inorganic substance as we see it, a compound of hydrogen and oxygen. Life was innate in the water of Thales, it was animate, and not an organic material or matter, but matter and life coalesced in it. This is why the later Greeks invented a learned compound to describe the novelty of this outlook. They called Thales and the other two Ionian 'Hylozoists', or those-who-think-matter-is-alive. The matter, whether water or air or any other element, coexists with life, the soul, that is, with that power or force which moves and moulds the matter. No written works of Thales have survived.

Anaximander [610-546 B.C.] was the first philosopher to write down his thoughts in prose. He too was from Miletus, and a disciple of Thales. His work, as in the case of most pre-Socratics, was entitled 'On Nature'. Only fragments survive, and from these we learn that the infinite was the ultimate principle of all things. The infinite he understands as an uncreated and inexhaustible matter from which all things that existed were born by a flux. The infinite does not possess quantities and qualities. It exists innately in all things without being exhausted by them. The past beings separate out and are secreted from the bosom of the infinite, and describe a path and return to it. Birth and death, creation and destruction are nothing more or less than a separation and a return to the infinite, to the primeval, and to the ultimate or the first principle.

Anaximander was also a mathematician and astronomer, and the first to formulate a concept of the universe based on purely mathematical notions. The universe was shaped like a sphere in the center of which was suspended the earth. The earth in turn was shaped like a cylinder. The sun, moon, and stars moved on a circular path round the earth which never altered its position.

Anaximenes [585-525 B.C.], a disciple of Anaximander, he is the third of the Miletian 'Hylozoists'. He also wrote a treatise entitled 'On Nature', of which only a small fragment survives. He believed the principle of the universe to be 'air' or mist, returning thus to a tangible element, as Thales did with water. As the water of Thales, so the mist of Anaximenes was animate. 'Air' was matter and life, the soul. It is the life-giving and soul-giving breath [pneuma] which pervades the universe and causes birth within it. But according to this natural philosopher, our souls which are also 'air' preserve the body, so the universe is preserved by the breath [pneuma] and mist. When 'air' is steady and regular it is not perceptible but invisible. It becomes perceptible only when it rarefies [heats] and condenses [cools]. Fire results from this rarefication, and from condensation comes the wind, water, soil, and stone.

Heraclitus [540-480 B.C.] was a nobleman by birth and came from Ephesus in Asia Minor. His work, 'On Nature' has survived in fragments the contents of which at all [p. 155] events justify the name given him by the ancients 'the obscure'. He is the first of the ancient philosophers to attempt to reconstitute political life on the foundation of philosophical concepts.

Heraclitus was the first to introduce the concept of the logos in philosophical thought. The Heraclitan logos is a metaphysical principle from which all things derive. It is contained in all things, in nature and in man. But for man to attain the logos and to recognize it he must discard causality and the unexamined impulses he has received from the senses. And while the logos is common or universal, Heraclitus says, most people live as though each person has his own truth, his own logos. Fire is the sensible image of the logos. The logos is everlasting fire which maintains the balance of the universe, but also exists innately and inherently in man, 'for this arrangement of the cosmos which is identical for all beings, was not made by any god, nor by any mortal, but existed always, and is, and will be a living fire, which lights in harmony with certain measures and is extinguished again in accordance to certain measures'. No being can pass through these inner measures for this would be tantamount to 'hybris' against the eternal logos of the universe. Even the 'sun will never go beyond its measure, else it would be seized by the Fates, the agents of justice, of law, and of order'.

If we look back to these three first Ionian philosophers, we can easily ascertain how great was the distance separating the philosopher of Ephesus from those of Miletus, how much deeper the mind had penetrated into the workings of cosmology. Even where there exists some trace of the philosophy of the Miletians in the Heraclitan system, their content was different. Thus fire, which is a material element, is used by Heraclitus as a symbol of the eternal logos of the universe, and not as a first principle which causes the 'becoming' of the world. He says that here is a mutual interchange of all things with fire, and fire with all things, just as there is an exchange between gold, or coin, and material goods, of merchandise, and vice-versa. But what gives to fire its very special significance is not the fact that Heraclitus treats it as the permanent foundation and the eternal case of becoming, but that it is a living picture of this eternal becoming. The birth of the world resembles precisely the flame which feeds itself and consumes itself. The 'being' is subject to an identical fate, that is, the 'being' exists only within the 'becoming', within its change. Thus there are no fixed limits between life and death, for a things in fact die from the moment they are born. Thus the world is in a constant state of movement and flux. Heraclitus, in comparing the world with a river, says 'no one can ever enter the same river twice', for the stream of the current or the 'becoming' of the world is always new. And we ourselves are never the same, for 'we enter and we do not enter the stream, we are and yet we are not', for we have in the meanwhile changed. This motion, this movement, could not be better represented than by the element of fire. Fire was the principle matter that changes into states without number, and from these states also derive the great variety of things. [pp. 154-156]

[Kyriazis, Constantine D. Eternal Greece. Translated by Harry T. Hionides. A Chat Publication.]



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