In the first period, the Hellenic period which ended with the death of Alexander (323 BC), philosophy developed in Greek countries and successively in various centers: this succession corresponds to political vicissitudes. It was born in the 6th century in the Ionian country, in the maritime cities that were then very rich and trading. From 546, Greece was subjugated by the Persians, and the great city of Miletus was ruined in 494. The center of intellectual life shifted; it is in Southern Italy and Sicily that we see philosophy being transported. Finally, after the Persian wars, at the time of Pericles (died in 429), Athens became the intellectual capital of Greece as well as that of the new maritime empire, which was to last until the Peloponnesian War. In this development the Ionians play the principal role; the first philosophers of Magna Graecia were Ionian emigrants; and it was also the Ionians who were, in Athens, the first propagators of philosophy. However, in each of these centers philosophical thought takes on different characters.
It is difficult to specify the exact meaning and scope of the movement of ideas which took place in Miletus in the 7th century BC. Of the three Milesian philosophers who succeeded one another in the then most powerful and flourishing city of Greek Asia Minor, the first (1), Thales (640-562), wrote nothing, and he is known by a tradition which does not go back beyond Aristotle; the other two, Anaximander (born around 610 and still living in 546) and Anaximenes (end of the century), each of whom is the height of a work in prose that was later titled On Nature, are hardly known to us, however. only by what Aristotle and the writers of his school said about it.
Now what Aristotle was looking for above all in their teaching was an answer to this question: what is the material of which things are made? This question is posed by Aristotle, and he poses it in the language of his own doctrine; we have no proof that the Milesians themselves were concerned with the problem for which we seek the solution among them. Also when we are taught that, according to Thales, water is the principle of all things, that, according to Anaximander, it is infinite, and, according to Anaximenes, it is the air, we must be careful not to see in these formulas a response to the problem of matter (2) .
To understand their meaning, we must seek, if possible, what problems they were actually agitating. They are, it seems, of two orders: firstly, problems of scientific technique; this is how Anaximander is said to have invented the gnomon and to have traced the lines of the solstices and the equinox; he would also have drawn the first geographic map, and discovered the obliquity of the zodiac. But these are above all problems concerning the nature and cause of meteors or astronomical phenomena, earthquakes, winds, rains, lightning, eclipses, and also general questions of geography on the shape of the earth and the origins of life earthly.
With these scientific techniques, our Milesians undoubtedly only spread in Greek countries what the Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations transmitted to them. The Babylonians were observers of the world; moreover, for their land register, they drew up plans of towns and canals, and they even attempted to draw the map of the world (3). As for the mechanical arts, they present in all the Greek countries, from the 1st to the 5th century, a very rich and varied development (4) of which the Ionian philosophers are the witnesses more doubtless than the instigators: very sympathetic witnesses, who saw the superiority of man in his technical activity and of which the opinion undoubtedly found its most striking expression in an Ionian of the 10th century, Anaxagoras; according to him, man is the most intelligent of animals because he has hands, the hand being the tool par excellence and the model of all tools.
- (1) Aristotle, Metaphysics A,3, 983 b 20.
- (2) Ibid. A, 3, 983 b 6-11; 984 a 2-7.
- (3) Delaporte, La Mésopotamie, 1923, p. 260-261 ; on their mathematical knowledge, cf., among others, Thureau-Dangin, Revue d’Assyriologie, 1940.
- (4) Espinas, Les Origines de la technologie, 1897, p. 75 sq. P.-M. SCHUHL, Machinisme et philosophie, 2e édit, Paris, 1946, chap. I.
Source: Émile Bréhier(1951). Histoire de la philosophie, Presses Universitaires de France. Translation and adaptation by © 2023 Nicolae Sfetcu