The First Philosophers of Ancient Greece

The word 'philosophia' was coined around the late 7th or early 6th century BCE to describe an activity that had arisen at that time in the Greek-speaking cities in Ionia (western Asia Minor - modern-day Turkey). This activity seemed striking enough to the people of that time and place to warrant the invention of this new name; that is, they felt that this activity did not fit the description of any of the other activities people tended to be involved in. In other words, while there were some similarities, philosophia was significantly different from epic poetry, lyric poetry, comic or tragic drama, crafts (farming, pottery, weaving, homemaking, etc.), warfare, sports, music, religious ritual, governance and politics, and religious revelation or other practices of priests and priestesses.

'Philosophia' means "love of wisdom", but this does not mean that the people who engaged in it believed that they had wisdom, or that they believed they had any significant amount of it. Rather, what was so unusual about philosophia was that the people who engaged in it desired wisdom - or at least desired understanding - so much that they wondered whether the things they had been told to believe really constituted wisdom. That is, they wondered whether the things they had been taught to believe really gave them an understanding of the universe or of people or of how best to live. These early philosophers (practitioners of philosophia) wondered whether they could gain knowledge that went beyond traditional beliefs, and knowledge that went beyond the ideas about the world that were used in crafts and government. While other people were content to think that learning traditional beliefs and craft skills gave one all the wisdom one could get (or at least all that one could get if the gods(1) did not choose to reveal more), philosophers wondered whether traditional beliefs and skills told us all we could know. Philosophers tried to see whether we could gain more understanding by some other means - and they were not afraid to ask whether the traditional beliefs and the teachings of the crafts were really accurate.

People in the Greek-speaking world reacted to philosophia and philosophers in a variety of different ways. Some people found philosophia strange but did not think it was particularly important. Others felt that philosophia and philosophers were strange and amusing. Many thought that philosophia was weird, that the ideas developed by the philosophers were scary, and that therefore philosophers should be looked on with suspicion. Quite a few people in the ancient Greek-speaking world thought that philosophia was threatening or dangerous in one way or another, and some of these tried to rid their cities of philosophia and philosophers. But enough people were interested in philosophia for it to continue to develop, and within a couple of centuries it had spread around the Mediterranean Sea to the Greek-speaking cities of Asia Minor, the area we now call the Middle East, northern Africa, Italy, and the Greek mainland.

I. Thales

The earliest person who is cited by ancient sources as a philosopher is Thales, who lived in the city of Miletus in Asia Minor around the late 7th or early 6th century BCE.(2) He is credited with attempts to expand the Greeks' knowledge in several fields: mathematics, astronomy, navigation, and the investigation of the fundamental nature of what exists.

A. Some ancient reports suggest that Thales visited Egypt and learned mathematics from the scholars there, who were much more knowledgeable than Greek mathematicians of the time. Other reports suggest that Thales was largely self-taught. In any case, he does seem to have learned mathematical principles that were known to the Egyptians. But he went on to take this knowledge in new directions: he applied it to problems in navigation and astronomy; he derived further mathematical principles (mostly having to do with properties of similar triangles and with the nature of triangles that can be inscribed in circles); and - most characteristic of philosophia - he seems to have attempted to find deductive proofs of the principles he was working with. That is, he tried to find out what made those mathematical principles true. Greek mathematics before Thales seems not to have tried that. We have no indication that Egyptian mathematicians were interested in formal proofs of their principles.

B. Thales is best-known for having proposed that

- water "stands under" everything as a source;

- the cosmos (ordered universe)(3) is "ensouled";

- the cosmos is full of divinities.

Thales, it is reported, did not claim to have learned this from contact with the gods. Ancient reports suggest that he came up with it as a result of some sort of investigation. But it couldn't have been an investigation that consisted solely of asking other people to give him information, because none of the ideas attributed to Thales match anything that the Greeks or their neighbors believed. This suggests that he was asking questions and seeking understanding in another way.

Study questions

1. (a) What does Thales seem to have been inquiring about?

(b) What about the world might make one come to Thales' proposals; what might suggest that his ideas might be accurate or at least plausible?

2. What about the functioning of the universe do these proposals of Thales' fail to explain? What relevant questions do they seem to leave open?


II. Anaximander

Anaximander was born around the turn of the 6th century BCE and died in the mid-6th century, so he was slightly younger than Thales. They both lived in the same city, namely Miletus (in Ionia, western Asia Minor - modern Turkey), so there is a good chance that they had some contact with each other.

A hallmark of early philosophia was a concern with the nature of the universe as a whole. This was also a concern of the developers of myths(4), of course. But the early philosophers differed from the developers of myth in that the early philosophers tried to find out whether the universe had any fundamental features that we could identify and study further in order to obtain a more comprehensive understanding of the universe. This hallmark of early philosophia can be seen in Thales, but Anaximander provides some even more striking examples. For one thing, Anaximander seems to have discovered how to make fairly precise hour-markings on a sundial, and how to determine exactly where on the horizon the sun will rise each day.

A. Anaximander is also credited with having been the first person in the Mediterranean area who even tried to produce a map of the world. That is, Anaximander drew a map that attempted to show the spatial relationships among all the places known to him. (Those places seem to have included the Mediterranean Sea, southern Europe, the Middle East, Turkey, northern and northeastern Africa, and probably the southern Black Sea area.) There had been maps before - the Egyptians had made maps of their own territory. But it does not seem that anyone before Anaximander had tried to make a map of "everything", a map that attempted to comprehend the spatial relationships of the whole of the known world. Moreover, it is not clear that Anaximander's map had any function, at the time it was made, beyond being a tool for presenting, gathering, and expanding knowledge just for the sake of learning.

B. Anaximander may also have developed a sort of three-dimensional model of the cosmos (the universe, seen as an ordered whole). This apparently was a way of illustrating and studying his revolutionary new conception of what the cosmos was like. The traditional Greek views held that the earth was either disc-shaped or perhaps shaped like a round pillow (a sort of convex disc); that the sky formed a sort of dome to which stars (which were either gods or bits of fire or both) were attached; that the sun and moon were either gods or fires or both; and that the movements of sun, moon, and stars were due to repeated efforts by gods. Anaximander proposed instead that the earth was cylindrical or drum-shaped, with the inhabited part on the top surface. Strikingly, Anaximander is reported to have chosen this shape because he thought that this explained how the earth could stay in one place without outside support. It is especially noteworthy that Anaximander thought he had to find a way to explain this stability of the earth, a way that used the principles that were thought at the time to explain the properties of everyday objects. Even more remarkably, Anaximander thought that the cylindrical shape of the earth could account for the earth staying aloft in air. He explained the sun, moon, and stars as being effects of rings of fire surrounding the earth. These rings were covered with a dark material that had holes at certain points. The sun, moon, and stars, Anaximander said, were what we see when the fire shines through the holes. The various paths that these heavenly bodies seem to follow in the sky he explained by conjecturing that the rings of fire had different diameters and possibly revolved at different speeds, so that the holes appeared to move in different paths and at different rates from each other. He even tried to figure out what the relative diameters of these rings were.

C. But what kept the whole thing going? What accounted for the regularities of the seasons and of the movements of the heavenly bodies; what accounted for the cycles of birth and death among living things? Anaximander proposed that the basic form in the cosmos is something he referred to as the apeiron, which means something unlimited or indeterminate or indefinite: something that is not any one of the things we are familiar with, but which has the potential to generate all of those things. From this indefinite entity, "opposites" such as hot and cold split off, and these opposites mix together in various ways to form everyday things. (Anaximander may have held that some sort of evolutionary process was involved.) After some unspecified time, the opposites "pay penalty and restitution to each other for their injustice, according to the assessment of time" and perish into the apeiron (the indefinite or unlimited), to start the cycle again. In other words, the regulatory force of the cosmos for Anaximander was a cosmic justice or order or balance (the word he used can mean all three). And this justice was not something laid down arbitrarily by gods, but rather something inherent in and integral to the cosmos itself. Anaximander did not deny the existence of gods, but perhaps had an alternative way of understanding the workings of the cosmos and its connections with the gods.

Study questions

1. Is there anything that modern scientific theories (if you have learned any) explain or try to explain, that Anaximander apparently did not address?

2. Is there anything that Anaximander addresses that modern theories do not?

3. Modern sociology, economics, and political science attempt to explain the origins and nature of social order and balance, and of societies' systems of justice. Do these address issues that Anaximander does not? Does Anaximander address questions about justice that modern social scientists do not?


III. Anaximenes

Another philosopher from Miletus was Anaximenes, who was slightly younger than Anaximander. Anaximenes held that the source of all familiar things, indeed the ultimate source or nature of the cosmos, was aer (air or mist). Aer, claimed Anaximenes, was constantly in motion. When aer became less dense (when the movement led to one area being less densely packed with aer than others), the aer became aither (bright fiery air, as on a clear summer day); when it became even less dense, it became fire. As aer condensed, according to Anaximenes, it became clouds; further condensation led to the formation of water, ice, earth, and finally rock. All other things, Anaximenes seems to have felt, were mixtures of bits of these. He believed that aer held the cosmos together and that aer was divine or was the source of divine beings. He believed that aer held the cosmos together the way the human soul (which the Greeks associated with breath or warm moist air) held the human body together: when we stop breathing (which the Greeks would say meant that our soul had left us) we die, and our bodies begin to decompose.

Study questions

1. What if anything does Anaximenes explain, or try to explain, that Anaximander does not? What if anything does Anaximander explain, or try to explain, that Anaximenes does not?

2. As a way of beginning to try to explain the nature and workings of the universe, can you see any advantages of Anaximenes' proposals over Anaximander's, or vice-versa?

3. What similarities or connections does Anaximenes imply exist between humans and divinities (gods or divine things)?


IV. Pythagoras

The philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras was born on the island of Samos (just off the west coast of Ionia) in the early 6th century BCE. He traveled to southern Italy, where he founded the communities of Croton and Tarentum. These were places where people went to study mathematics, astronomy, music, and philosophy; but also places where people attempted to come up with and to follow new ways of living, new social standards, and so on. Unfortunately Pythagoras left no writings, so we don't know much about these communities or about many of his ideas. But Croton and Tarentum were run by followers of Pythagoras decades after Pythagoras's death, and his ideas were studied and developed for centuries.

A. Pythagoras is best known for the Pythagorean Theorem in geometry, the theorem that says that in a triangle that has a right angle, the length of the longest side, squared, is equal to the sum of the squares of the lengths of the other two sides. Pythagoras may well have learned the theorem from the Egyptians. But he did discover a formal proof of the theorem, something the Egyptians did not seem (as far as we know) to have sought. Pythagoras or his followers discovered a number of other theorems of geometry, and emphasized the search for proofs.

B. Pythagoras (or maybe a follower of his; it's hard to tell since Pythagoras left no writings) also discovered that the relationships between musical pitches can be expressed numerically - for example, as ratios of the lengths of the plucked strings on a lyre (a musical instrument that is like a harp). In other words, he discovered that musical harmonies can be described and related numerically. He found too that the paths and motions of stars and planets can be expressed numerically, so that the order or harmony (the rhythmic pattern of seasonal change as associated with star movements) could be expressed mathematically. Possibly because of these discoveries, Pythagoras proposed that numbers were intimately related to the rest of the universe. He may have said that the things that exist are all ultimately number, or that numbers and other things that exist have a common source or nature. Note that this would be to say that the source or nature of the universe is not something we can see or touch or taste (such as air or water or aer).

C. All of the early philosophers discussed in these notes seem to have tried to find some stable underlying feature of the universe that could account for or be the source of all that we deal with every day. But Pythagoras's proposal about this stable underlying feature is somewhat different. He identifies the stable underlying feature as number (and mathematical relationships), and number is not something that we can see, touch, hear, taste, or smell. We can see a representation or sign of the number four (for example, '4'), and we can see a group of four objects (* * * *), and we can hear someone say the word 'four', but the number four itself is not any of these. It is more like a meaning or an aspect that links these three examples.

This proposal of Pythagoras's was quite influential. We will see in Plato and in Aristotle some investigation and debate concerning the search for fundamental features of the universe that account for the way things are (both in the universe in general and in human societies in particular).

Study questions

1. What might suggest that numbers have something in common with some observable things?

2. As a way of beginning to try to explain the nature and workings of the universe, can you see any advantage that Pythagoras' ideas would have over those of Thales, Anaximander, and/or Anaximenes? Or vice-versa? Is there something one of these philosophers seems to be better at explaining (or starting to explain) than the others seem to be? Is there something none of them seem to address?


Suggestions for further reading

Kirk, Raven, and Schofield, The Presocratic Philosophers

McKirahan, Philosophy Before Socrates

Guthrie, History of Greek Philosophy, vols. 1 and 2

Heath, A History of Greek Mathematics

Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers (written about 2000 years ago, this book is an entertaining mix of verifiable facts, obvious fabrications, and everything in between)

Evangeliou, "When Greece Met Africa" (on reserve in Johnson Center Library)

----For some notes on the works and ideas of early philosophers, see your instructor's ancient philosophy web site. There you will also find links to other exciting web sites pertaining to the ancient Mediterranean world.


1. The ancient Greek religion said that there were multiple gods, multiple divine beings. You have probably heard of some of them: Zeus, god of thunder and lightning, ruler of the other gods; Hera, goddess of air and marriage and motherhood, wife of Zeus; Ares, god of war; Athena, goddess of wisdom and skill; Apollo, god of wisdom and skill; Aphrodite, goddess of love and desire; Eros, god of love and desire. There are many more. For more information, see the following books: Hesiod, Theogony; Homer, Iliad; Graves, Greek Mythology.

2. It is possible that there were other people before Thales who were involved in philosophia, but no record of their work survives.

3. The word 'cosmos' is Greek; its basic meaning is 'order'. Therefore if you refer to the universe as "the cosmos," you are saying that you think that the universe is ordered, that the universe is not random or chaotic. In general, ancient Greeks did think that there was a basic order to the universe.

4. The word 'myth' comes from the Greek word 'muthos,' which means 'story' or 'tale.' When we speak of "Greek myths" we mean the stories that the ancient Greeks told about things like the origins of the universe, the activities of the gods, wondrous feats that supposedly took place in the distant past, and so on. These stories generally had religious significance. They told some of the religious beliefs of the Greeks.