Jacques Maritain Center : History of Philosophy / by William Turner


Origin. Greek philosophy first appeared in the Ionic colonies of Asia Minor, and never throughout the course of its development did it wholly lose the marks of its Oriental origin. Whether this influence was as preponderant as Roth and Gladisch contend,{1} or as unimportant as Zeller and others maintain,{2} it is certain that the philosophy of Greece was characterized from the beginning by a spirit which is peculiarly Hellenic. The Greek looked out upon the world through an atmosphere singularly free from the mist of allegory and myth: the contrast between the philosophy of the East and the first attempts of the Ionian physicists is as striking as the difference between an Indian jungle and the sunny, breeze-swept shores of the Mediterranean.

Greek Religion exercised hardly more than an indirect influence on Greek philosophy. Popular beliefs were so crude as to their speculative content that they could not long retain their hold on the mind of the philosopher. Consequently, such influence as they directly exercised was antagonistic to philosophy. Yet it was the popular beliefs which, by keeping alive among the Greeks an exquisite appreciation of form and an abiding sense of symmetry, did not permit the philosopher to take a partial or an isolated view of things. In this way Greek religion indirectly fostered that imperative desire for a totality of view which, in the best days of Greek speculation, enabled Greek philosophy to attain its most important results. In one particular instance Greek religion contributed directly to Greek philosophy by handing over to philosophy the doctrine of immortality, -- a doctrine which in every stage of its philosophical development has retained the mark of its theological origin. Plato, for example, distinctly refers it to the (Bacchic and Orphic) mysteries.{3}

Poetry. The philosophy as well as the religion of the Greeks found its first expression in poetry, philosophical speculation, properly so called, being preceded by the effort of the imagination to picture to itself the origin and the evolution of the universe. Homer presents, without analyzing, types of ethical character: Achilles, the indomitable; Hector, the chivalrous; Agamemnon, of kingly presence; Nestor, the wise; Ulysses, the wary; Penelope, the faithful. Hesiod gives us the first crude attempts at constructing a world-system. His cosmogony, however, is presented in the form of a theogony; there is as yet no question of accounting for the origin of things by natural causes. The so-called Orphic Cosmogonies had the Hesiodic theogony for their basis. They did not advance much farther in their inquiry than Hesiod himself had gone, unless we include as Orphic those systems of cosmology to which all scholars now agree in assigning a post-Aristotelian date. Pherecydes of Syros (about 540 B.C.) more closely approaches the scientific method. He describes Zeus, Chronos, and Chthon as the first beginnings of all things. There is here a basic thought that the universe sprang from the elements of air and earth, through the agency of time. This thought, however, the poet conceals under enigmatical symbols, referring the phenomena of nature not to natural agencies, but to the incomprehensible action of the gods.

The beginnings of moral philosophy are found in the ethical portrayals of the Homeric poems, in the writings of the Gnomic Poets of the sixth century B.C., and especially in the sayings attributed to the Seven Wise Men. These sayings are characterized by a tone of cynicism, and exhibit a knowledge of the world's ways which is certainly remarkable if it belongs to the age to which it is generally assigned.{4}

The Division of Greek philosophy into periods and schools is partly chronological and partly dependent on the development of philosophic thought. The following seems to be the most convenient arrangement:

In the first period, the era of beginnings, philosophical speculation was largely objective; it busied itself with the study of nature and the origin of the world. In the second period Socrates brought philosophy down to the contemplation of man's inner self; it was a period in which the objective and subjective methods were blended. In the third period the subjective element was made preponderant; the Stoics and Epicureans concerned themselves with man and his destiny, to the almost complete exclusion of cosmological and metaphysical problems.

Sources. The sources of Greek philosophy are:

Primary sources. Besides the complete works of Plato and Aristotle, we have several collections of fragments of philosophical writings; for instance, Mullach's Fragmenta Philosophorum Graecorum, Ritter and Preller's Historia Philosophiae Graecae, Diels' Doxographi Graeci, Fairbanks' The First Philosophers of Greece, Adams, Texts, etc. (New York, 1903).

Secondary sources. (1) Ancient writers, such as Plato, Aristotle, Xenophon, and Theopbrastus,{5} in reference to pre-Socratic and Socratic philosophy; (2) Alexandrian authorities, such as Demetrius of Phalerus (third century B.C.), Ptolemy Philadelphus (third century B.C.), Callimachus (third century B.C.), author of the pinakes or "tablets"; (3) Later writers: Cicero, Seneca, Plutarch, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Diogenes Laertius (about A.D. 220); (4) Modern critics and historians. Tiedemann, Ritter and Preller, Zeller, Windelband, Diels, Tannery, Burnet, etc. Diels' Doxographi Graeci (Berlin, 1879) is of great value in determining the affiliation of sources.{6}


This period comprises: (1) the Ionian School -- the philosophers of this school confined their attention to the study of Nature and sought out the material principle of natural phenomena; (2) the Pythagoreans, who made Number the basis of their philosophical system; (3) the Eleatics, whose speculations centered in the doctrine of the oneness and immutability of Being; (4) the Sophists, who, negatively, showed the unsatisfactory nature of all Knowledge, while, positively, they occasioned the inquiry into the conditions and limitations of knowledge.


The Ionian school includes the Earlier Ionians, -- Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes, -- and the Later Ionians, whose proper historical place is after the Eleatic school.


Life. Thales, the first philosopher of Greece, was of Phoenician descent. He was born at Miletus, about the year 620 B.C.{7} He was a contemporary of Croesus and Solon, and was counted among the Seven Wise Men. He is said to have died in the year 546 B.C.

Sources. Our knowledge of the doctrines of Thales is based entirely on secondary sources, especially on the account given by Aristotle in Met., I, 3, 983. cf. Ritter and Preller, op. cit., pp. 9-11.


According to Aristotle, Thales taught that out of water all things are made.{8} Historical tradition is silent as to the reasons by which Thales was led to this conclusion. It is possible, as Aristotle conjectures, that the founder of the Ionian school was influenced by the consideration of the moisture of nutriment, etc.; he may have based his conclusion on a rationalistic interpretation of the myth of Oceanus, or he may have observed the alluvial deposits of the rivers of his native country, and concluded that, as earth, so all things else come from water. The saying that "The magnet has a soul because it attracts iron" is attributed to Thales on the authority of Aristotle, who, however, speaks conditionally, "if, indeed, he said," etc. We must not attach importance to Cicero's Stoical interpretation of Thales: "Thales Milesius aquam dixit esse initium rerum, Deum, autem, eam mentem quae ex aqua cuncta fingeret." Such a dualism belongs to the time of Anaxagoras. Similarly, the saying that "All things are full of gods" (panta plêra theôn) is but the expression, in Aristotle's own phraseology, of the general doctrine of animism, or hylozoism, which is a tenet common to all the Earlier Ionians. They maintained that matter is instinct with life; or, as an Aristotelian would say, they did not distinguish between the material principle and the formal principle of life.


Life. Anaximander, who was also a native of Miletus, was born about the year 610 B.C. Theophrastus describes him as a disciple, or associate, of Thales. The date of his death is unknown.

Sources. Primary sources. Anaximander composed a treatise, or rather a poetical prose composition, peri phusiôs, which was extant when Theophrastus wrote. Of this work two sentences only have come down to us:

1. "All things must in equity again decline into that whence they have their origin, for they must give satisfaction and atonement for injustice, each in order of time."{9}

2. The infinite "surrounds all things and directs all things."{10}

Secondary sources. Our chief secondary sources are Theophrastus (in the work phusikôn doxai, of which the existing fragments are published by Diels, op. cit., p.476) and Aristotle (especially in Met., XII, 2, 1069 b; Phys.. III, 4 203 b). DOCTRINES

From our secondary sources it is evident that, according to Anaximander, the originating principle (archê){11} of all things is the Infinite, or rather the Unlimited (apeiron). The reasons, however, which led to this conclusion are merely a matter of conjecture, as in the case of Thales' generalization. According to Aristotle, Anaximander, supposing that change destroys matter, argued that, unless the substratum of change is limitless, change must sometime cease. Thus, while modern physics holds that matter is indestructible, Anaximander maintained that it is infinite; for there can be no question as to the corporeal nature of the apeiron it is an infinite material substance. Critics, however, do not agree as to how Anaximander would have answered the questions, Is the unlimited an element or a mixture of elements? Is it qualitatively simple or complex? He certainly maintained that the primitive substance is infinite, but did not, so far as we know, concern himself with the question of its qualitative determinations.

The apeiron has been likened to the modern notion of space and to the mythological concept of chaos. It is described by Anaximander himself as surrounding and directing all things, and by Aristotle it is described as to theion. We must not, however, attach to these expressions a dualistic or pantheistic meaning.

From the Boundless all things came, by a process which the Placita{12} describes as separation (apokrithênai). Living things sprang from the original moisture of the earth (through the agency of heat). The first animals were therefore fishes, which after they came on shore threw off their scales and assumed new shapes. Man, too, was generated from other kinds of animals.{13} Anaximander is generally believed to have taught an infinity of worlds.

Historical Position. Comparing the doctrines of Anaximander with what we know of the teachings of Thales, we find that the former are far richer in their contents and betoken a higher development of speculative thought. They represent a higher grade of abstraction, as is evident in the substitution of the Boundless for the concrete substance, water.


Life. Anaximenes of Miletus, who was an "associate" of Anaximander, composed a treatise the title of which is unknown. He died about 528 B.C.

Sources. Primary sources. The only fragment of the work of Anaximenes which has survived is a sentence quoted in the Placita. "Just as our soul, being air, holds us together, so do breath and air encompass the world."{14}

Secondary sources. Our principal secondary source is Theophrastus, whom pseudo-Plutarch, Eusebius (Praepratio Evangelica ), Hippolytus (Refutatio Omnium Heresium), etc., follow. cf. Diels, op. cit., p. 476.


According to all our secondary sources, Anaximenes taught that the principle, or ground, of all material existence is air. (aêr must, however, be taken in the Homeric sense of vapor, or mist.) This substance, to which is ascribed infinite quantity, is endowed with life. From it, by thinning (araiôsis) and thickening (pukeôsis), were formed fire, winds, clouds, water, and earth. The world is an animal, whose breathing is kept up by masses of air, which it inhales from the infinite space beyond the heavens.

Cicero incorrectly represents Anaximenes as identifying the divinity with the primitive Air. St. Augustine is more correct when he says, "Nec deos negavit aut tacuit, non tamen ab ipsis aerem factum, sed ipsos ex aere ortos credidit."{15}

Historical Position. Anaximenes was evidently influenced by his predecessors. From Thales he derived the qualitative determinateness of the primitive substance and from Anaximander its infinity. The doctrine of "thickening" and "thinning" is far more intelligible than the doctrine of "separating" which Anaximander taught.

Retrospect. The Early Ionian philosophers were students of nature (physiologoi) who devoted themselves to the inquiry into the origin of things. They agreed (1) in positing the existence of a single original substance; (2) in regarding this substance as endowed with force and life (hylozoism). They were dynamists. Heraclitus, a Later Ionian, who was in final analysis a dynamist also, marks the transition from the early hylozoism to the mechanism of the Later Ionian school.

{1} Cf. Zeller, Pre-Socratic Philosophy, Vol. I, pp. 35 ff.

{2} Cf. ibid.

{3} Cf. Phaedo, 69, 70.

{4} Plato's story (Protagoras, 343 A) of the meeting of the Seven Wise Men at Delphi is totally devoid of historical foundation. Even the names of the seven are not agreed upon. The enumeration which most frequently occurs is the following: Thales, Bias, Pittacus, Solon, Cleobulus, Chilo, and Periander. Cf. Ritter and Preller, Hist. Phil. Graecae (ed. 1888), p. 2, note d.

{5} On Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, Diogenes Laertius, etc., as sources for the history of Greek philosophy, cf. Fairbanks, The First Philosophers of Greece (New York, 1898), pp. 263 ff.; also Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy (London, 1892), pp. 370 ff.

{6} Tiedemann, Griechenlands erste Phiosophen (Leipzig, 1781); Ritter, History of Ancient Philosophy, trans. by Morrison (4 vols., Oxford, 1838); Ritter and Preller, Hist. Phil. Graecae (Ed. VII, Gothae, 1888); Zeller, Die Philosophie der Griechen (fünfte Aufl., Leipzig, 1892 ff.). (References will be made to the English translations by Alleyne and others under the titles Pre-Socratic. Philosophy, etc.) Tannery, Pour l'histoire de la science hellène (Paris, 1887); Windelband, History of Ancient Philosophy, trans. by Cushman (New York, 1899); History of Philosophy, trans. by Tufts (second edition, New York and London, 1901).

To these add Erdmann, History of Philosophy, trans. by Hough (3 vols., London, 1890) ; Benn, The Greek Philosophers (2 vols., London, 1883); The Philosophy of Greece (London, 1898); Gomperz, The Greek Thinkers, Vol. I, trans. by Magnus (London, 1901); Ueberweg, op. cit.; Schwegler, Gesch. der griech. Phil. (dritte Aufl., Tübingen, 1886).

For a more complete bibliography, cf. Weber, History of Philosophy, trans. by Thilly (New York, 1896), p. 8; Ueberweg, op. cit., Vol. I, pp. 19 ff.; Erdmann, op. cit., pp. 14 ff.

{7} On the manner of computing the date of Thales, cf. Burnet, op. cit., pp. 36 ff.

{8} Met., I, 3, 983 b.

{9} Theophr., frag. 2, apud Diels, Doxographi, p. 476.

{10} Arist., Phys., III, 4, 203 b.

{11} "That Anaximander called this something by the name of phusis is clear from the doxographers; the current statement that the word arche, in the sense of a 'first principle,' was introduced by him, is probably due to a mere misunderstanding of what Theophrastos says." Burnet, op. cit., p. 52.

On the meaning of phusis in the writings of the early Greek philosophers, cf. Philosophical Review (July, 1901), Vol. X, pp. 366 ff.

{12} Cf. Burnet, op. cit., pp. 372 ff.

{13} Plut., Strom., 2, apud Diels, op. cit., p. 579.

{14} Placita, I, 3, 4, apud Diels, op. cit., p. 278. The Placita, or Placita Philosophorum, is a collection of the "opinions" of philosophers ascribed to Plutarch. Like the Eclogae of Stobaeus, it is based on an earlier collection of opinions called AEtii Placita, as this is in turn based on the Vetusta Placita, of which traces are found in Cicero. (cf. Burnet, op. cit., p. 372.)

{15} De Civ. Dei, VIII, 2.

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