Philosophy Series 8

Philosophy Series Contents (to be updated with each new installment)

Philosophy Series 1 – Prelude to the Philosophy Series

Philosophy Series 2 – Introduction

Philosophy Series 3 – Appendix A, Part 1

Philosophy Series 4 – The Pre-Socratics – Hesiod

Philosophy Series 5 – A Detour of Time

Philosophy Series 6 – The Origin

Philosophy Series 7 – Eros

Philosophy Series 8 – Thales

Philosophy Series 9 – An Interlude to Anaximander

Philosophy Series 10 – On the Way to Anaximander: Language and Proximity

Philosophy Series 11 – Aristotle and Modernity: The Eternal and Science

Philosophy Series 12 – Levinas and the Problem of Metaphysics

Philosophy Series 13 – On Origin

Philosophy Series 8


First, a few general comments about the pre-Socratic philosophers, we have no direct writings of many of these philosophers including Thales. We tend to have second and third hand accounts attributed to them. These accounts can span hundreds of years. Generally, earlier accounts are thought as more reliable. Many of these accounts are not given as accurate records of these philosophers but tend to have other motivations at work. For example, Aristotle mentions other philosophers many times as a lead in to discuss his own ideas. Scholars have thought that even Aristotle may not have understood or known anything directly about some of these philosophers but may have learned about them through other philosophers or students of these philosophers.1 Schools like the Sophists, the Stoics, the Latin Neo-Platonists and early Catholic theologians which gave accounts of earlier philosophers were famous for making obvious insertions which reflected their own doxographical positions.2 Many times beliefs and professed discoveries about these philosophers are attributed to other earlier cultures such as the Egyptians and the Babylonians which were known to have already have had similar ideas.3 In any case, much of the philological discussions of these texts are concerned with, so to speak, winnowing out the wheat from the chaff and determining what is more reliable and less reliable as accurate accounts of these philosophers.

Thales lived around 585 BC. He has been thought as the first philosopher, from the Milesian School. Thales was not only known for what we call philosophy today but also astronomy, mathematics and geometry4. As a port city, it is reasonable that Thales was concerned with nautical navigation and meteorological workings. As such his interests could have been shaped by predicting seasons, solstices, times, distances, locations and storms. He also appeared to have been concerned with earthquakes which could feasibly have been associated with extreme tidal waves or freak waves and tsunamis. Certainly there is evidence that Homer was aware of such oceanic phenomena in his epic poetry. Scholars have made the case that Thales could have learned and been influenced from Egyptian and Babylonian sources5 which traded in the port city of Miletus. Some early sources even allude to his having traveled from Egypt.

Thales. . . having practised philosophy in Egypt came to Miletus when he was older. [Aetius i, 3, i]Thales, having first come to Egypt, transferred this study [geometry] to Greece…. [Proclus in Euclidem p. 65 Friedl. (from Eudemus) (DK 1 1 A 1 1)]

Contrary to the implication of these quotes, it is thought that while Thales may have been to Egypt he did not spend a considerable amount of time there or originated from Egypt.6

Diogenes Laertius (3rd century CE) states that Lobon of Argos said that Thales wrote 200 hexameters.7 Lobon of Argos was a stichometrist, a type of chemist, and a known forger who was not held in high regard. This casts doubt on Diogenes Laertius’ comment that Thales wrote “200 hexameters”. Diogenes Laertius appears to have been influenced by the Peripatetic school of Aristotle. Diogenes Laertius tends to not be highly regarded by scholars with regard to Thales. One case and point is Diogenes Laertius’ depiction of Thales here:

Some think he was the first to study the heavenly bodies and to foretell eclipses of the sun and solstices, as Eudemus says in his history of astronomy; for which reason both Xenophanes and Herodotus express admiration; and both Heraclitus and Democritus bear witness for him.8

Kirk and Raven point out,

Diogenes added that Thales discovered the passage of the sun from solstice to solstice, and the relation of the diameter of sun and moon to their orbits.9Diogenes’ second piece of information is quite anachronistic, for Thales cannot have thought that the heavenly bodies had orbits, since they did not pass under the earth (which was not made free-swinging until Anaximander) ; at the most they had semi-orbits, and the ratio of diameter to celestial path would be twice that given.10

With regard to the actual writings of Thales, the passages which follow is a summary of Kirk and Raven’s view:11

Thales is traditionally the first to have revealed the investigation of nature to the Greeks; he had many predecessors, as also Theophrastus thinks, but so far surpassed them as to blot out all who came before him. He is said to have left nothing in the form of writings except the so- called Nautical star-guide. [Simplicius Phys. p. 23, 29 Diels]

The last sentence concerning the ‘Nautical star-guide’ is thought to be an unsubstantiated opinion of Simplicius.

And according to some he left no book behind; for the Nautical star-guide ascribed to him is said to be by Phokos the Samian. [Diogenes Laertius I, 23]

Diogenes Laertius also reports that Phokos the Samian wrote the “Nautical star-guide”.

Aristotle did not see any books by Thales at least on cosmological matters and was very tenuous ascribing opinions to Thales.

It is possible that the ‘Nautical star-guide’ was a genuine sixth-century work similar to the hexameter Ἀστρολογία [Astrologia or Phaenomena] of Cleostratus of Tenedos (DK ch. 6) or the so-called Hesiodic Ἀστρολογία (DK ch. 4) : so Diels and others have assumed.12

Kirk and Raven conclude that,

The evidence does not allow a certain conclusion, but the probability is that Thales did not write a book; though the ancient holders of this view might have been misled by the absence of a genuine work from the Alexandrian library, and also by the apophthegmatic nature of the wisdom assigned to the Seven Sages in general.

Thales was said to have made observations about the solstices and eclipses. He was mentioned as accurately predicting an eclipse but these predictions may not have been as accurate as purported and may have come from Babylonian records kept by priests.13

Thales was certainly concerned with water and how it changed and shaped the environment. It is reasonable to think that he could have been familiar with evaporation and condensation and its meteorological effects. Anaximander, Thales student only about 14 years younger than Thales, was certainly familiar with these conditions as demonstrated by these passages concerning Anaximander:

Winds occur when the finest vapours of the air are separated off and when they are set in motion by congregation; rain occurs from the exhalation that issues upwards from the things beneath the sun, and lightning whenever wind breaks out and cleaves the clouds. [Hippolytus Ref. I, 6, 7](On thunder, lightning, thunderbolts, whirlwinds and typhoons.) Anaximander says that all these things occur as a result of wind: for whenever it is shut up in a thick cloud and then bursts out forcibly, through its fineness and lightness, then the bursting makes the noise, while the rift against the blackness of the cloud makes the flash. [Aetius III, 3, I-2]Anaximander referred everything to wind: thunder, he said, is the noise of smitten cloud… [Seneca Qu. Nat. II, 18]

Kirk and Raven conclude this with some caveats:

These passages suggest that Anaximander shared in, and perhaps to a large degree originated, a more or less standard Ionian way of accounting for meteorological (in our sense) events. The chief elements of this scheme are wind, the evaporation from the sea, and the condensed masses of vapour which form the clouds. All testimonies on the subject are, of course, based on Theophrastus, whom we may suspect of not always resisting the temptation to supply ‘appropriate’ explanations, where none existed, of certain natural phenomena which he thought interested all Presocratics.14

Aristotle writes of Thales of Miletus as one of the first ones to ask about causes and principles of the natural world. He states:

Thales, the founder of this school of philosophy, says the permanent entity is water (which is why he also propounded that the earth floats on water). Presumably he derived this assumption from seeing that the nutriment of everything is moist, and that heat itself is generated from moisture and depends upon it for its existence (and that from which a thing is generated is always its first principle). He derived his assumption, then, from this; and also from the fact that the seeds of everything have a moist nature, whereas water is the first principle [archê] of the nature of moist things.( Aristot. Met. 1.983b)Certain thinkers say that soul is intermingled in the whole universe, and it is perhaps for that reason that Thales came to the opinion that all things are full of gods.(Aristot, de Anima; On the Soul, Book 1)15

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy makes this observation:

Yet there is something in what Aristotle says. In his discussion, Aristotle links Thales’ claim that the world rests on water with the view that water was the archē, or fundamental principle, and he adds that “that from which they come to be is a principle of all things”. He suggests that Thales chose water because of its fundamental role in coming-to-be, nutrition, and growth, and claims that water is the origin of the nature of moist things.16

Thales thought the earth floated on water and that earthquakes occur when the Earth is rocked by waves, rather than assuming that earthquakes were the result of supernatural processes. This idea is much closer to the modern notion of tectonic plates floating on magma than earlier notions of angry Gods and earthquakes. Thales observed that there must have been some ‘fluid’ aspect which caused earthquakes on solid land.

Aristotle writes of Thales as a hylozoist (those who think matter is alive).17

Most of the first philosophers thought that principles in the form of matter were the only principles of all things: for the original source of all existing things, that from which a thing first comes-into-being and into which it is finally destroyed, the substance persisting but changing in its qualities, this they declare is the element and first principle of existing things, and for this reason they consider that there is no absolute coming-to-be or passing away, on the ground that such a nature is always preserved . . .for there must be some natural substance, either one or more than one, from which the other things come-into-being, while it is preserved. Over the number, however, and the form of this kind of principle they do not all agree; but Thales, the founder of this type of philosophy, says that it is water (and therefore declared that the earth is on water), perhaps taking this supposition from seeing the nurture of all things to be moist, and the warm itself coming-to-be from this and living by this (that from which they come-to-be being the principle of all things) taking the supposition both from this and from the seeds of all things having a moist nature, water being the natural principle of moist things.18Certain thinkers say that soul is intermingled in the whole universe, and it is perhaps for that reason that Thales came to the opinion that all things are full of gods.19

Writing centuries later, Diogenes Laertius also states that Thales taught “Water constituted (πεστήσατο, ‘stood under’) the principle of all things.” Earlier in that text Diogenes Laertius makes this statement, “His doctrine was that water is the universal primary substance, and that the world is animate and full of divinities [gods].”20 The phrase “universal primary substance” refers to the Greek word ἀρχήν which is an indeclinable adverb referring to the origin or the source, i.e., water is the origin or source. However, this notion of origin may reflect more of the Peripatetic school of Aristotle than a notion Thales would have been familiar with.

Aristotle, probably thinking of Thales, points out that if the earth rests on water like a log, what is underneath the water?

Others say that the earth rests on water. For this is the most ancient account we have received, which they say was given by Thales the Milesian, that it stays in place through floating like a log or some other such thing (for none of these rests by nature on air, but on water] as though the same argument did not apply to the water supporting the earth as to the earth itself.21

Interestingly, Diogenes Laertius made this observation about Thales:

Megiston topos: hapanta gar chorei (Μέγιστον τόπος· άπαντα γαρ χωρεί)Space is the greatest thing, as it contains all things22

If Diogenes Laertius is accurate of Thales then we must think what the notion of chorei, translated here as ‘space’, could have meant for Thales. Chorei is also translated as ‘flux’ when Heraclitus’ states ‘All is flux’ (panta chorei). Chorei can also mean make room for another, give way, withdraw.23 Thales would not have had some ready to hand notion of ‘space’ as we do. Cosmology in the time of Thales did not think of space as a vacuum as modernity thinks it.

If Diogenes Laertius statement is accurate of Thales, how would that explain Aristotle’s rather simplistic notion of Thales? If “Space is the greatest thing, as it contains all things” does it contain water? If water is the source (archē) how can space contain it? Additionally, Kirk and Raven cast doubt on the ‘simple’ notion that Thales believed ‘all things are water’,

Two things, then, have emerged from the present discussion: (i) ‘all things are water’ is not necessarily a reliable summary of Thales’ cosmological views; and (ii) even if we do accept Aristotle’s account (with some allowance, in any event, for his inevitably altered viewpoint), we have little idea of how things were felt to be essentially related to water.24

Kirk and Raven previously pointed out in this section that Aristotle may not have understood Thales’ notion of cosmology of water and archē. Aristotle seemed to object to the earth resting on water because of the logical postulate, ‘what does the water rest on’? Also, “Thales would almost certainly still accept the popular conception of the earth (or, in this case, its immediate support) stretching downward indefinitely”25

At the time of Thales the prevailing Greek notions of how the cosmos is laid out would have been influenced by Homer and Hesiod. In Homer the earth was a flat circular disc. It was surrounded on all sides, girdled, by a great fresh water river called Okeanos. The sun, moon and stars rose and set in Okeanos (oceanos…ocean). Anaximander is thought to have said, “The heavenly bodies are wheel-like, compressed masses of air filled with fire, which exhale flames from an orifice at one point”.26 According to Homer they bathed in Okeanus.27 The clouds got their moisture by dipping into Okeanos. The earth’s disc was partly covered by the salt water sea which also got its waters from Okeanos. In some accounts Homer suggests that the land of Cimmerians is south-west of Okeanos. Next to that is Erebus, dark night or the shades; Hades. Homer also suggests in other places that Hades is beneath the earth. Hesiod tells us that far below, as far below the earth as the height of heaven is above, Tartaros is below Hades. For Hesiod, Tartaros is a place where the flat disc of the earth meets the descending dome of the sky and the ascending walls of the pit of Tartaros. Sky and Tartarean pit combine to form a surrounding cosmic shell. Tartaros drops as far beneath Haides as the sky rises above the earth.28 Hesiod tells us the Zeus imprisoned the Titans in Tartaros.29 Additionally the ancient world including the orient commonly thought that the four basic elements of the cosmos was earth, water, air, and fire; sometimes there was a fifth element aether.

In view of this prevailing cosmogony, it would not be hard to understand how water would be fundamentally important to Thales. This is not to suggest that the first physicist would have accepted carte blanche the prevailing mythologies but at a minimum they would have lent credence to Thales theories. It is not uncommon even today for physicists to rely on popular paradigms to shape their inquires.

The ‘space’ of Diogenes Laertius’ claim, would not have been abstract extension but air for Thales and air was a form of water,

This was no doubt connected with what Aristotle regards as the principal tenet of Thales, namely, that everything is made out of water, or, as he puts it in his own terminology, that water is the material cause of all things. We have no trustworthy information about the grounds on which this doctrine was based; for, in the absence of any writings by Thales himself, Aristotle can only guess, and his guesses are apparently suggested by the arguments used in support of a similar theory at a later date. We are perhaps justified in interpreting it rather in the light of the doctrines afterwards held by the Milesian school, and especially by Anaximenes; and, if we try to do this, our attention is at once called to the fact that in these days, and for some time after, “air” (ἀήρ) was identified with water in a vaporous state. In fact it was regarded as only a purer and more transparent form of mist, while a still purer form was “aether” (αἰθήρ), which is properly the bright blue of the Mediterranean sky, and is fire rather than air. It was also believed that this fire and that of the heavenly bodies was fed by vapour rising from the sea, a view which, on these presuppositions, is the natural one to take of evaporation. On the other hand, we see that water becomes solid when it freezes, and Anaximenes at least held that earth and stones were water frozen harder still. It may well have seemed to Thales, then, that water was the original thing from which fire on the one hand and earth on the other arose.30

Additionally, the notion of water as the source or primordial was not unique to Thales. Kirk and Raven point out,

The near-eastern origin of part of Thales’ cosmology is indicated by his conception that the earth floats or rests on water. In Egypt the earth was commonly conceived as a flat, rimmed dish resting upon water, which also filled the sky ; the sun sailed each day across the sky in a boat, and also sailed under the earth each night (not round it, as in the Greek legend). In the Babylonian creation-epic Apsu and Tiamat represent the primeval waters, and Apsu remains as the waters under the earth after Marduk has split the body of Tiamat to form sky (with its waters) and earth. In the story of Eridu (seventh century B.C. in its youngest extant version), in the beginning ‘all land was sea’; then Marduk built a raft on the surface of the water, and on the raft a reed-hut which became the earth. An analogous view is implied in the Psalms (where also Leviathan is an analogue of Tiamat), where Jahweh ‘stretched out the earth above the waters’ (136, 6), ‘founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the floods’ (24, 2). Similarly Tehom is ‘the deep that lieth under’ (Gen. xlix. 25), ‘the deep that coucheth beneath’ (Deut. xxxiii. I3). Against this profusion of parallel material, from the cast and south-cast, for the waters under the earth, there is no comparable Greek material apart from Thalcs. The naive Greek conception of a river Okeanos surrounding the earth is not strictly comparable (for it is clear that there is no Okeanos under the earth), although it was probably a much earlier development, in a different direction, of the widely diffused near-eastern generic concept of the earth rising in the midst of the primeval waters a concept almost certainly not native to the Greek-speaking peoples, whose home before the migrations into the Greek peninsula lay far from the sea. Similarly, although the isolated references in Iliad book 14 (9 and 10) to Okeanos as origin of all things were also probably based upon the same near-eastern concept, from a slightly different aspect, they contain no implication of the special idea that the earth floats on water, and so are unlikely to have been the origin of Thalcs’ assertion of this idea. For any more general contention that the earth came from, or is maintained by, water, Thales would no doubt be encouraged and gratified to have the apparently native Homeric precedents. Thus Thales’ view that the earth floats on water seems to have been most probably based upon direct contact with near-eastern mythological cosmology. We have already seen that he had associations both with Babylonia and with Egypt. The idea that the earth actually floats upon water was more clearly and more widely held in the latter of these countries; and the conjecture might be hazarded that Thales was indebted to Egypt for this element of his world-picture.31

Kirk and Raven also point out that ‘all things are full of gods’ may not really be accurate either of Thales belief, “(ii) Even apparently inanimate things can be ‘alive ‘; the world is full of gods”.32

This presupposition is still sometimes called ‘hylozoism’; but this name implies too strongly that it is something uniform, determinable, and conscious. In fact the term applies to at least three possible and distinct attitudes of mind: (a) the assumption (conscious or not) that all things absolutely are in some way alive ; (b) the belief that the world is interpenetrated by life, that many of its parts which appear inanimate are in fact animate ; (c) the tendency to treat the world is a whole, whatever its detailed constitution, as a single living organism, (a) is an extreme, but in view of the universalizing tendency of Greek thought not an impossible, form of the general presupposition; in a way it might be said to be exemplified by Xenophanes. Thales’ belief, it has been suggested, approaches closer to (b). (c) is implicit in the old genealogical view of the world’s history described in chapter I, which still persisted to a large extent under the new rationalized form of philosophical cosmogony. Aristotle is seen at his most perspicuous in 118, where, perhaps with Thales especially in mind, he shows himself aware of the possibility of this kind of attitude.33

Diogenes Laertius fortifies his argument that the ‘world is full of gods’ suggesting that, “Aristotle and Hippias affirm that, arguing from the magnet and from amber, he [Thales] attributed a soul (psuchê) or life even to inanimate objects (ta apsucha; alpha privative of psuchê)”.34 Aristotle also makes a comment concerning this which is probably the source of Diogenes Laertius’ comment:

Thales, too, to judge from what is recorded about him, seems to have held soul to be a motive force, since he said that the magnet has a soul in it because it moves the iron.35

Jonathon Barnes makes the argument that the soul (psuchê) for early ancient physicists would have been thought in terms of ‘motive force’. Barnes actually translates this word ‘motor’. Certainly, for Aristotle and much of Greek philosophy motion, change, form, idea (as appearance, what shows itself) was a major concern. Inquiry into what lies beneath appearance, that which does not incessantly change was a major concern for these physicists. Barnes states,

What is the sense, and what the cogency, of Thales’ argument? The word psuchê is commonly translated by ‘soul’; and in most contexts this translation is reasonable enough. Here, however, the standard translation masks the charm of the argument, and a heterodox rendering has some justification.To have a psuchê is to be empsuchos. Empsuchos means ‘animate’ or ‘living’: ta empsucha and ta apsucha jointly exhaust the natural world, being the animate and the inanimate portions of creation. The psuchê, then, as Aristotle says, is simply ‘that by which we are alive’ (An 414a12): it is the source or principle of life in animate beings, that part or feature of them (whatever it may be) in virtue of which they are alive. 2 In short , an empsuchon is an animate thing; and its psuchê is its animator. Instead of ‘soul’, then, I propose the term ‘animator’ as a translation of psuchê; and I prefer the comic overtones of ‘animator’ to the theological undertones of ‘soul’.What are the criteria for life? According to Aristotle, ‘things are said to be alive on several accounts, and if just one of these belongs to a thing we say that it is alive— viz. understanding, perception, change and rest in place, and again the change brought on by nourishment, and decay and growth’ (An 413a22– 5). More generally, ‘the animate seems to differ from the inanimate by two things in particular, motion and perception’ ( An 403b25– 7). Aristotle is not putting forward a philosophical thesis here: he is recording, and accepting, a commonplace. Anything that has powers of cognition, of which perception is the most common and the most evident example, is alive; and anything which has the power to alter itself or its environment, of which autonomous locomotion is the most evident example, is likewise alive. If the great marks of animation are the power to perceive and the capacity to locomote or to cause locomotion, then a psuchê or animator will be essentially a source of perception, or a perceptor, and a source of motion, or a motor. Thales’ argument now has a superficial plausibility. His first premiss is a platitude: motors— that is to say, self-starting motors— are, on Aristotle’s own account, and in ordinary thought, animators or psuchai; and anything capable of autonomous locomotion is thereby shown to be animate. His second premiss is a matter of ordinary observation: magnets and pieces of amber are seen to possess the power to cause locomotion in other things and to move themselves. And the conclusion follows: magnets and pieces of amber are animate beings; they may not have the faculty of perception, but for all that they are alive.36

Barnes goes on to suggest that Aristotle would not have thought magnets had souls but he makes the point that the line between animate and inanimate may not be as clear as one normally assumes. Additionally, the soul in ancient Greece was related to aether and the stars so the notion of ‘dead’, inanimate things would not be so clearly defined for the ancient mind as the modern mind.

Yet the conception that the substance of the soul was related to aither, or to the substance of the stars, seems from fifth-century B.C. poetical contexts to have existed for some time already as part of the complex body of popular beliefs, alongside the distinct Homeric concept of a breath-soul.37

One observation I would make at this point is to be careful when you hear things like ‘the ancient philosophers believed that the ultimate realty was water or fire’ and that ‘they were animists or hylozoists’. This is way too simplistic. Try reading Aristotle’s ‘Metaphysics’ written only a few hundred years after Thales to see a level of linguistic and logical sophistication that could not have developed in the short time between Aristotle and Thales. Also, the Phoenician alphabet was thought to have arrived in Greece around the 8th century BCE. It was very similar to ancient Hebrew. The Greeks added vowels to a language made up of what was chiefly consonants. While more primitive types of writing were around long before the Phoenician alphabet came to Greece, the Greeks before this mainly communicated wisdom in the oral tradition of the rhapsodists. This lent itself to the mythological epics of Homer and Hesiod. These epics were sang for many hundreds of years before writing. They would have had the time to be more refined, subtle poetry and drama than some kind of literal religious sense. The early physicists are proof that the fundamentalism of the mythologies had long since waned if indeed they ever were thought along the same lines as fundamentalist religion is thought today. Perhaps Phoenician writing made any such thing as uniquely Greek philosophy to exist. Phoenician writing was only around a few hundred years earlier than Thales. By the same logic concerning the level of sophistication between Thales and Aristotle, we might also speculate that the mythology of Homer and Hesiod were not mere ‘primitive’ stories but actually had a level of genius and artistry that may have escaped many later commentators. Anaximander, considered a student of Thales, was not much younger than Thales. Once again, we have no direct writing of Anaximander but there is more certainty that he wrote. One of the most important fragments comes from three different sources. Simplicius, one of the sources, writes this:

Of those who declared that the first principle is one, moving and indefinite, Anaximander… said that the indefinite was the first principle and element of things that are, and he was the first to call the first principle indefinite [apeiron]. He says that the first principle is neither water nor any other of the things called elements, but some other nature which is indefinite, out of which come to be all the heavens and the worlds in them. The things that are perish into the things out of which they come to be, according to necessity, for they pay the penalty and retribution to each other for their injustice in accordance with the ordering of time. [Simpl. Phys. 24.13]

The most certain part of this fragment with regard to coming from Anaximander is “according to necessity; for they pay one another recompense and penalty for their injustice”. Both mentor and student were concerned with movement and change with regard to phusis (physics), kinetic (kinesis) and endurance (aei), the problem of one and many which Aristotle is especially concerned with. Anaximander is certainly concerned with the ‘indefinite’ (apeiron – probably the alpha primitive of peras or form therefore, without form) and origin (archē) in a very sophisticated fashion. This would lead one to think that his contemporaneous mentor was not so simple minded about water as well. There is an incredible level of sophistication and artistry in Anaximander, discussed in the next section, which seems to me to defy the ‘progressivists’ view that the ancient Greeks were somehow less astute than moderns and that we have progressed beyond their ancient insights.38

In view of all these discussions of Thales, I would add some of my own observations. First, the much earlier39 creation myths40 of the Babylonians (18th to 12th century BCE) and the Hebrews (15th century BCE) start with Apsû (fresh water)/Tia-mat (salt water) and God (Elohim, Elohiym), respectively.

Enuma Elish (The Babylonian Epic of Creation)1 When the heavens above did not exist,2 And earth beneath had not come into being—3 There was Apsû, the first in order, their begetter,4 And demiurge Tia-mat, who gave birth to them all;5 They had mingled their waters together6 Before meadow-land had coalesced and reed-bed was to he found —7 When not one of the gods had been formed8 Or had come into being, when no destinies had been decreed,9 The gods were created within them:41Bereshit (Genesis)1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.2 Now the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters.3 And God said: ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light.4 And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness.5 And God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.6 And God said: ‘Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.’7 And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament; and it was so.42

Both myths start with Gods or God. Both myths tell of primal water. In Genesis Elohim is at a minimum coexistent with the waters (“and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters”) and probably prior to ‘the waters’. In the Babylonian account it seems ambiguous whether the gods Apsû and Tia-mat were coexistent with the waters or were the waters. They are mentioned as “first in order”, “begetter” and “deimurge”, “who gave birth to them (the gods) all”. They are also mentioned in some way as being “when not one of the gods had been formed”. Some have argued that the Genesis cosmology was a Hebrew answer to polytheistic, pagan religions including the Babylonian creation myth. The Hebrew myth begins with the assumption of an uncreated God. The Torah, Tehillim (Psalms) and Yeshayahu (Isaiah) go to great lengths to make sure the reader knows that God is ‘one God’. Some have argued that the waters of Enuma Elish and the “the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep” were the metaphorically equivalent to the chaos of Hesiod. A mechanical translation of Hebrew in Bereshit (Genesis) chapter 1, verses 1 and 2 would look like this, in the summit “Elohiym [Powers]” fattened the sky and the land, and the land had existed in confusion and was unfilled and darkness was upon the face of the deep sea and the wind of “Elohiym [Powers]” was much fluttering upon the face of the water.43 In both creation myths, even if the metaphorical argument of initial chaos is accepted, God(s) are at a minimum present with primal waters thought as a type of chaos. There is no clear statement that ‘first, chaos…came-to-be’ as in the Hesiodic myth. These beginnings are not trivial but have implications which ripple through subsequent histories and reflect economic (as measuring, judging and appropriating) existential orientations, the bounds of ontological and transcendent possibilities which make any such thing as Truth possible. These beginnings circumscribe determinations on the face of infinity.

The notion of ‘confusion’, ‘unfilled’ and ‘darkness’ is not the literal notion of chaos in Hesiod. Also, in Enuma Elish the negation, the ‘not’ of heaven and earth isn’t the literal notion of chaos in Hesiod. While the metaphorical argument can be maintained, it is certainly true that, for Hesiod, chaos was not coexistent with God or Gods or earth or waters but unambiguously, first. This emphasis tells us something very important about the ancient Greek orientation. The riddle that begins ancient Greek cosmology, First of all Chaos came-to-be“, which erases itself in the contradiction ‘first’ and ‘came-to-be’ (yένετ’, genet’) only emphasizes ‘chaos’, the yawning gap. Determinations such as God(s), earth, heaven, water, etc. are not indicated as coexistent. Existence and the literal extant is only mentioned in the conundrum of ‘first…chaos’ and ‘came-to-be’. Darkness and negation imply opposites, light and affirmation. As was previously shown in the section on Hesiod, confusion is not what is meant by chaos in the Theogony. Confusion already implies a violation of contradiction, a scheme wherein opposites are simultaneously maintained and disavowed. Confusion implies extant determinations whose states get muddled, forgotten, lost but still operate in these states ‘as’ confused. Perhaps one could suggest that there is a yawning gap between clarity of determinations and confusion of determinations but, as previously discussed in the section on Hesiod and future discussions, regardless of ‘the sense’ of Hesiodic chaos without determinations, the yawning gap (differentiation without determination) is maintained as ‘first’ AND ‘came-to-be’…’but then afterwards’ (disjunction), determinations…Even if a counter argument can be made to this notion of chaos as, for example, Hegel would make, it is still interesting to think what the phenomenological consequences could be if this cosomogonic myth marks the genesis of a history. Could this unresolved genesis, differentiated without determinations, produce a strife, unrest and desire (orexis) which would make the physics, philosophy, artistry and an ancient Greece possible?

Some have suggested that Thales’ notion of water may have been a ‘fundamental role in coming-to-be, nutrition, and growth’. Others point to the emphasis of water in ancient creation myths or the nautical port city of Miletus as reasons for Thales emphasis on water over earth, air and fire. Perhaps the desire for resolution, the concern for an absolute which nonetheless begins in chaos, fuels the fires for the One, the arche, which underlies and holds open the space for truth and eventually, drives philosophy towards being (ontos) and ultimately towards subjectivity and metaphysics. Others simply dismiss Thales as archaic, primitive and irrelevant from a progressivists’ point of view. My interest in Thales is concerned with the question, what kind of world, cosmos, culture, language, historical setting and way of thinking about ‘what is’ would make a figure such as Thales, at the beginning of the inquiry of phusis, circumspectively understand water as some form of arche? What would it mean for that setting to think first about animate and inaminate, alive and dead (or not alive), soul and phusis? Before clear modern lines have been drawn which inform us simply and all too obviously about things, animate and inanimate, we find Thales engaged in a world and a language which may have been prepared and opened by mythos but had to draw initial lines for what could and could not be, what was and what was not. This kind of desire and engagement has a space, chorei, which gives in the gap, the receptacle, the fertile void, the withdrawal of all which made possibilities and actualities for the place of Thales (and the few remaining traces of his site/sight). Standing at the apogee of phusis, Thales’ creativity marks a passage which would have profound and rippling effects to the present day. We would only do harm to ourselves to disregard the conditions that began and worked to produce a cosmos where inanimate and animate had not been settled, psuchê (soul) was not determinate and phusis had not been reduced to mere things awaiting discovery.

The inability of Greek mythos to resolve itself sets up a perpetual strife in the early Greek psuchê. The lack of cosmogonic resolve in its earliest moment reflects a unsettled disruption that fuels the inquiry of phusis, drama, sculpture and poetry by lack, privation (steresis), which cannot find a finality in negation but only in contingent desire (orexis)44and haunts us in metaphysics to this day. In our era of nihilism, as Nietzsche observes, the impetus to long, to desire, has devolved into cynicism, skepticism, sophistry and negativity. It is a retraction from the motion which begins the passion and activity of Truth and its necessary nemesis. Fanaticism as we see in our epoch is only the frenetic gasp of nihilism which does not meet existence with welcoming desire but dissolves it in putrid disdain. This is not what gave us metaphysics but reduces otherness to the drab same, the doldrums of absolute equivocation, and thus ‘end’ is not telos, culmination, completion, fulfillment but whimper and oblivion. Another beginning which thinks deeply about the confluence and clash of our occident and orient, Greek and Jew, the tribes and phusis, and the other which deepens desire in unresolved passion heightened to the infinite will once again take us past the byways of Hesiodic chaos. In this then philosophy, science, art, and religion find their telos.

Philosophy Series 9 – An Interlude to Anaximander





4 See Kahn’s discussion in Anaximander and the Origins of Greek Cosmology, Charles H. Kahn, Published 1960, Columbia University Press, New York, Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 58-11677, Link, page 76 to 77 and note 2 starting on 76. Kahn’s entire discussion in chapter 1, The Milesian Theory of the Natural World, is very interesting. Jonathon Barnes has an interesting discussion on Thales in chapter I, The Springs of Reason, Barnes, Jonathan (2013-01-11). The Presocratic Philosophers. Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition. Also, here are various links about Thales which seem to be copied from the same source, Link, Link, Link, Link

5 THE PRESOCRATIC PHILOSOPHERS, First Edition, page 76-77, 80


7 Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, I, 34 (henceforth…DL, Lives)

8 DL, Lives, I, 23


10 THE PRESOCRATIC PHILOSOPHERS, Second Edition, page 83

11 THE PRESOCRATIC PHILOSOPHERS, Second Edition, Section “Writings”, page 86-88

12 THE PRESOCRATIC PHILOSOPHERS: , Second Edition, Section “Writings”, page 87-88

13 THE PRESOCRATIC PHILOSOPHERS, First Edition, page 80-81

14 THE PRESOCRATIC PHILOSOPHERS, Second Edition, page 138

15 See Link

16 Presocratic Philosophy, First published Sat Mar 10, 2007; substantive revision Mon Nov 5, 2012, See “Section 2 The Milesians”, See Link

17 It is unclear whether the interpretation of hylozoism, that all matter is alive, might have been mistaken for his thinking the properties of nature arise directly from material processes, more consistent with modern ideas of how properties arise as emergent characteristics of complex systems involved in the processes of evolution and developmental change. See Link in the section “Theories”.


19 Aristotle, De Anima, 411a7, See Link; Also, see this Link

20 Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, I, 23

21 Aristotle, de caelo, B13, 294a28

22 Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, I, 35

23 See Link

24 THE PRESOCRATIC PHILOSOPHERS, Second Edition, page 94-95

25 THE PRESOCRATIC PHILOSOPHERS, Second Edition, page 90

26 Anaximander and the Origins of Greek Cosmology, Charles H. Kahn, Published 1960, Columbia University Press, New York, Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 58-11677, Link, page 86

27 Homer, Iliad. 5,6; 18, 489

28 See Link

29 See Link, Also, Link, Link, Link and Link

30 John Burnet, Greek Philosophy. Part I, Thales to Plato (London: MacMillan, 1920), 21, See Link

31 THE PRESOCRATIC PHILOSOPHERS, Second Edition, page 92-93

32 THE PRESOCRATIC PHILOSOPHERS, Second Edition, page 94-95

33 THE PRESOCRATIC PHILOSOPHERS, Second Edition, page 98

34 See Link

35 On the Soul, By Aristotle, Book 1, Part 2, See Link

36 Barnes, Jonathan (2013-01-11). The Presocratic Philosophers (Arguments of the Philosophers) (pp. 6-7). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.


38 This article, quoted in part below, makes some interesting observations about Thales:

Thales, according to Aristotle, asked what was the nature (archê) of the object so that it would behave in its characteristic way. Physis (φύσις) comes from phyein (φύειν), “to grow”, related to our word “be”.[15](G)natura is the way a thing is “born”,[16] again with the stamp of what it is in itself. Physis is not only related to the Indo-European root *bʰuH but also close to prior and contemporaneous notions of Brahman in the Upanishads.

Aristotle[17] characterizes most of the philosophers “at first” (πρτον) as thinking that the “principles in the form of matter were the only principles of all things”, where “principle” is arche, “matter” is hyle (“wood” or “matter”, “material”) and “form” is eidos.

Archê is translated as “principle”, but the two words do not have precisely the same meaning. A principle of something is merely prior (related to pro-) to it either chronologically or logically. An archê (from ἄρχειν, “to rule” [Note…this is actually a latter Latin notion of archê]) dominates an object in some way. If the archê is taken to be an origin, then specific causality is implied; that is, B is supposed to be characteristically B just because it comes from A, which dominates it.

The archê that Aristotle had in mind in his well-known passage on the first Greek scientists are not necessarily chronologically prior to their objects, but are constituents of it. For example, in pluralism objects are composed of earth, air, fire and water, but those elements do not disappear with the production of the object. They remain as archê within it, as do the atoms of the atomists.

What Aristotle is really saying is that the first philosophers were trying to define the substance(s) of which all material objects are composed. As a matter of fact, that is exactly what modern scientists are attempting to accomplish in nuclear physics, which is a second reason why Thales is described as the first western scientist.

Aristotle laid out his own thinking about matter and form which may shed some light on the ideas of Thales, in Metaphysics 983 b6 8-11, 17-21 (The passage contains words that were later adopted by science with quite different meanings.)

That from which is everything that exists and from which it first becomes and into which it is rendered at last, its substance remaining under it, but transforming in qualities, that they say is the element and principle of things that are. …For it is necessary that there be some nature (φύσις), either one or more than one, from which become the other things of the object being saved… Thales the founder of this type of philosophy says that it is water.

In this quote we see Aristotle’s depiction of the problem of change and the definition of substance . He ask if an object changes, is it the same or different? In either case how can there be a change from one to the other? The answer is that the substance “is saved”, but acquires or loses different qualities (πάθη, the things you “experience”).

39 See Link

40 See Link

41 See Link

42 See Link

43 See Link, page 17

44 “It is manifest, therefore, that what is called desire is the sort of faculty in the soul which initiates movement” (Aristotle, De Anima iii 10, 433a31-b1); See Link

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