From Myth to Philosophy

The emergence of Greek philosophy was, for a long time, considered as a sort of uncaused miracle in the history of ancient thought. Views have changed and it is now accepted that philosophy did not come into life from a vacuum: it has certain roots in the ancient intellectual and artistic life of Greece. Philosophy has close connections with early mythology, poems, epics and the first scientific movements. In that emergence, Milesian Physics was an important transition factor. It was a transition factor in the migratory sense as well: philosophy was fed by contributions from other countries. Each philosopher was always called by his native place. Many of the first major philosophers came from Asia Minor. There was a lot of cross trading and exchanging. Later Philosophy would settle in Athens. But only two major philosophers were pure Athenians: Socrates and Plato. All others came from different places. Philosophy was already a result of the first waves of Greek colonization.

“Milesian philosophy” is itself a contradictory expression. Milesian philosophy was not a proper philosophy. The Milesian work was more of a physics or Kosmology. What was there before the Milesian “stage”? What was the media or discussion through which were expressed what would later be themes of philosophy? During the pre-Homeric age of myths, all narratives on the origins of the world, of culture, of civilization, were related to the story of a king. An outsider would come and kill evil forces, before establishing his kingdom. Enuma Elish was a very typical story of that sort, with Marduk and Tiamet.

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Hesiod raised an important philosophical question, in an almost proto-philosophic fashion: he, too, discussed the origins of the universe, of the world, but not through the trope of a king, and instead, via an abstract principle: Chaos. This chaos was one ordered in different structures. The ordering of chaos was the principle by which the world occurred.

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With Hesiod’s Theogony, in the 8th century, certain complicated inflections occurred. The mode of enunciation became very different. Hesiod raised an important philosophical question, in an almost proto-philosophic fashion: he, too, discussed the origins of the universe, of the world, but not through the trope of a king, and instead, via an abstract principle: Chaos. This chaos was one ordered in different structures. The ordering of chaos was the principle by which the world occurred. How was this chaos represented? It was represented by certain figures, but these were material principles. This was the major difference with the previous stage of mythological narratives. As J.P. Vernant (2006) explains, “the account of the creation of order is totally devoid of mythical imaginery, and the protagonists’ names are sufficiently transparent to reveal the “natural” character of the process that culminates in the organization of the cosmos” (374). From chaos emerged three important principles: Ouranos (sky), Gaia (earth) and Pontos (sea). Gaia was a female, who gave birth to both the sky and the sea. Later, she copulated with Ouranos, giving birth to the first characters: the Titans. The Titans killed their father Ouranos. From the Titans came the Olympians, who did the same thing to their own father. Out of these Olympians, the smartest was Zeus. The Hesiodian Theogony was a genealogy. Time and genealogy became very important with Hesiod. Thereafter, knowing the genealogical relations, the time factor would be a central process in any knowledge. Finding any knowledge, it was determining its genealogy. Homer took the Theogony at a second level. He focused on the Olympians and their relations with the Greek humans. The logic of genealogy was still very present. He discussed the questions of the birth of nation, of empires, of aristocracy, etc. Common in all these topics was the frame of birth, that is, of genealogy.

In the 6-5th century, came the Milesians. The philosophy of the Milesians was physics. Their philosophy was identified with a particular term: Kosmos — from Chaos to Kosmos. They marked the invention of Phusis as a category: nature. Even after Hesiod’s Theogony, the principles of Ouranos, Gaia and Pontos were ultimately anthropomorphized. The Milesians resisted this evolution. Their principles would remain principles. They completely denied the rational of time and history. Reality is not a genealogy, not a father-son relationship. They attempted to get out of history. Reality, they believed, would have to be understood in its own term.

According to the Milesians, reality is determined by material principles, but in a different manner. They developed the concept of Dike: justice. The world was made through the combination of fundamental principles, in which all had the (quasi-judicial) right to be, just like a citizen had the right to be in the contemporarily growing city-states. Thales believed in the primacy of water, Aneximenes, of air, Anaximander, of Apeiron, a triad later completed by the non-Milesian Heraclites, emphasizing on fire. From these primary elements came combinations that explained the creation of various things in the world. Each element was there through the presence of other elements, but each was legitimate. There was no genealogy between them. Kosmos was the particular arrangement of the principal elements. The work of the physicist and later of the philosopher would be to determine the order that it follows.

But while each of the elements had a material grounding, they also came as symbols of thought: not just fire but the principle of hotness; not just water but the principle of dampness; not just air but the principle of dryness and coldness, etc. What mattered became what each element could ultimately do: water makes wetness, fire makes hotness, etc. Thus, the Milesians were known for their abstract materialism. Fire was not only a material order, but also a principle. There was no genealogy: all the elements were in a state of harmony. They attempted to see the world of nature in a synchronic manner. The switch passed from time and genealogy to space and geography. For the first time, space entered into consideration. The Milesians developed the view of an occupying principle. This represents a shift, in the Kantian terms, between the axis of time to the axis of space. The knowledge of the Milesians was visible, synchronic, tangible. It was accessible to all: the laws were, with them, immanent.

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What mattered became what each element could ultimately do: water makes wetness, fire makes hotness, etc. Thus, the Milesians were known for their abstract materialism. Fire was not only a material order, but also a principle. There was no genealogy: all the elements were in a state of harmony. They attempted to see the world of nature in a synchronic manner.

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A letter by Heraclitus presented the first recorded instance of a word that would forever change Greek culture and its offsprings: philosophy. The philosopher would emerge in opposition to four social actors of the time: the (Milesian) physicists, the sages (Sophos), the sophists and the story-tellers and Muthologos. While the Milesians focused on Phusis, a new type of thought would emerge around a corresponding concept: Logos. Logos was the foundation of philosophy as a discipline, and it resists, till date, any fixed definition. The concept of Logos can be broadly understood as an attempt to answer the questions of stability behind change: what is the running principle of reality behind the appearance of things? What is unchanging behind changing things, the unchanging principle behind the changing principle? One of the earliest answers would come from 5th century Parmenides, and his concept of Being. For Parmenides, Being as one, the principle of unity, was the answer of the “riddle” of the Logos, but a number of later thinkers would take to heart to try giving their own answers. These would be known as the philosophers, from Greek thought to postmodern authors, but all equally recognizable for their answers in the form of abstract, non-mundane concepts.

References

Image courtesy: Lesley Barnes Illustration

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