Early Developments in Greek Philosophy and Science:


Fragmentary nature of the evidence

THALES of Miletus:  
Predicted an eclipse of the sun in 585 BCE. 

Thales is reported to have studied mathematics and "philosophy" in Egypt, and to have been of Phoenician descent. 

"the father of Greek science"   "the first philosopher"



Caricatures of the typical philosopher:

"A witty and attractive Thracian servant-girl is said to have mocked Thales for falling down into a well while he was observing the stars and gazing upwards.  She boasted that he was eager to know the things in the sky, but that the things just in front of him and just by his feet escaped his notice."  (Plato, Theaetetus 174a)


"When they reproached him because of his poverty, as though philosophy were no use, it is said that, having observed through his study of the heavenly bodies that there would be a large olive crop, he raised a little capital while it was still winter, and paid deposits on all the olive presses in Miletus and Chios, hiring them cheaply because no one bid against him.  When the appropriate time came there was a sudden rush of requests for the presses; he then hired the olive presses out on his own terms and so made a large profit, thus demonstrating that it is easy for philosophers to be rich, if they wish, but that it is not in this that they are interested." (Aristotle, Politics 1259a9)


Importance of Thales:
Thales is perhaps most well-known for theorizing about the ultimate make-up of the world around us -- the ultimate constituents of nature: 

All things come from water. Everything is, ultimately, water.   

Two "cutting-edge" scientific/philosophic problems of 6th-5th Centuries BCE:

1. Problem of change

Is there an underlying substance or substratum that remains the same throughout any given process of change?

Or, does every process of change imply a self-contradiction? 
For example, child --> adult 


2. Problem of "the one in the many"

Is there any basic common denominator that underlies all of the different phenomena that we see? 

E.g.:  are trees, bricks, bananas, dogs, hair, paper, etc. all made out of their own kinds of things, or do they share certain elements in common?  As with the problem of change, is there one thing that underlies the many things that we encounter with our senses in daily life? 

These two themes run throughout all of early and classical Greek philosophy.
Subsequent early Greek philosophers/scientists came up with similar solutions:

- Anaximenes of Miletus (580-500 BCE):  everything is air.
- Xenophanes of Colophon (546-470 BCE):  everything is earth and water.
- Anaxagoras of Clazomenae (500-428 BCE):  everything is already in everything. 
- Pythagoras of Samos (570-495 BCE):  everything is number.  (Perhaps derived from the observation by Pythagoreans that numerical and mathematical relationships are in everything -- even music, for example.) 
- Empedocles (492-432 BCE):  Fundamental "elements" are earth, air, fire, and water.  These elements are guided by the forces of love and strife.   
- Democritus & Leucippus (fl.440-425 BCE):  ultimate constituents of reality are "atoms" -- fundamental particles of matter -- from the Greek "atoma" meaning "un-cuttable." 



- natural causes for natural phenomena

- small number of causes for wide variety of phenomena

- break from tradition
(Traditionally, Demeter explains crops. Zeus explains weather, etc.) 

Thales is typically the figure credited with inaugurating these intellectual changes -- hence the titles of "father of Greek science" and "first philosopher"


XENOPHANES of Colophon (546-470): 

Questioning of traditional religion: 

"Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods everything that is a shame and reproachful among men, stealing and committing adultery and deceiving each other." (Fr. 11.)

"The Ethiopians say that their gods are snub-nosed and black, and the Thracians that theirs have light blue eyes and red hair." (Fr. 14.)

"But if cattle and horses or lions had hands, or were able to draw with their hands and do the works that men can do, horses would draw the forms of their gods like horses, and cattle like cattle, and they would make their bodies such as they each had themselves."  (Fr. 15.)


ANAXAGORAS of Clazomenae (c. 500-428)
Teacher of Pericles.

"It is said that a one-horned ram was brought to Pericles from the countryside. When Lampon the soothsayer saw how the horn grew strong and solid out of the middle of the animal's forehead, the soothsayer declared that political power…in the city…would be concentrated into the hands of one man, and that it would be the person to whom the omen came.  But Anaxagoras, on the other hand, had the skull dissected and proceeded to demonstrate that the brain had not filled its natural space, but had contracted into a point like an egg at that place in the cavity from which the horn grew."  (Plut. Pericles, 6)


Was prosecuted for claiming that the sun is "a red-hot mass of metal" rather than the god Helios. 


"They say that when someone was quizzing Anaxagoras and asking him to say for the sake of what object one would choose to be born rather than not to be born, Anaxagoras replied, 'For the sake of contemplating the heavens and the order of the whole cosmos.'"
(Aristotle 1216a11)

"And when someone asked him, 'Have you no concern for your country?' He pointed to the heavens and said, 'Get it right; I am very concerned about my country.'"  (Diogenes Laertius, Lives, 2.7)


EURIPIDES (c.484-406)

The fascination with intellectualism and science found expression throughout the culture, including theater. 

Lyrics from a choral song:
Happy is he who has gained
knowledge of inquiry;
among his citizens he is not trouble,
nor are unjust actions his motive,
but beholding the ageless order
of immortal nature,
he learns why it came together,
and in what way and how.
With men of this sort, cares about ugly
troubles never stick around.  (Fr. 910)


SOCRATES (469-399)

Among first philosophers to turn toward ethical questions and questions of personal life.

Socrates was the first to call philosophy down from the heavens and to set it in the cities of men, bringing it also into their homes and compelling it to ask questions about life and morality and things good and evil. (Cicero, Tusc. Disput. 5.4.10-11).

In other words, unlike previous intellectuals, Socrates was not especially concerned with the physical workings of the cosmos or nature.  Instead, he spent his time pressing his fellow citizens on human questions such as "What is virtue?" and "What is justice?"

The Greek trend toward intellectualism was not universally appreciated.  In 423, the Athenian comic playwright Aristophanes produced the play Clouds, in which Socrates is caricatured and made to stand for Greek intellectualism in general.  Socrates is shown running a school called the "Thinkery," in which Socrates and his students perform trivial and bizarre experiments and engage in stupid scientific speculation:

Student:   Then I wonder what you'd say if you heard another idea Socrates had?
Strepsiades:   What idea? Do tell me please. 
Student:   Chaerephon asked Socrates where he stood in regard to the question, whether gnats hum via the mouth or via the rump.
Stepsiades:   So what did Socrates say about the gnat? 
Student:   He said that the gnat's gut is narrow, and that the air travels violently through this small space on the way to the rump, and the arse resounds from the force of the wind. 
Stepsiades:   So the gnat's rump turns out to be a trumpet! Oh, thrice happy man for his insight!   (153-166)

Socrates genuinely upset many of his fellow citizens.  He was accused and brought to trial on the charges of impiety and corrupting the Athenian youth.  A jury of Socrates' peers convicted him, by a vote of 280-220, and he was sentenced to death.   

Socrates produced no philosophical writings himself. 


PLATO (428-347)
Student of Socrates.  Author of the well-known Socratic dialogues. 

Socratic dialogues typically portray a somewhat fictionalized Socrates engaged in debate with other well-known Athenian "sophists" or "wisdom dealers" -- paid teachers of public speaking and debate.  The dialogues show Socrates engaged in the intellectual sport of "dialectic" -- a process of back and forth intellectual conversation in which one person asks the other a series of questions with the goal of eliciting a given conclusion. 

While many sophists were respectable intellectuals, many gained a reputation as intellectual charlatans who taught cheap debater tricks. 

Dionysadorus:   "Tell me, do you have a dog?"
Ktessipus:   "Yes, and bad one at that."
D:  "And does he have puppies?"
K:  "Yes, and they're just like him."
D:  "And so the dog is a father?"
K:  "Yes."
D:  "Well then, isn't the dog yours?"
K:  "Certainly."
D:  "Then since he is a father and is yours, the dog turns out to be your father, and you are the brother of puppies, aren't you?"      (Euthydemus 298d-e)


Platonic/Socratic attitude toward the sophists' teachings: 
I call these things frivolity because even if a man were to learn many or even all such things, he would be none the wiser as to how matters stand but would only be able to make fun of people, tripping them up and overturning them by means of distinctions in words, just like people who pull the chair out from under a man who is going to sit down and then laugh gleefully when they see him sprawling on his back.  So you should think of their performance as having been mere play.  (Euthydemus 278b)


Plato's texts are the first evidence we have of a comprehensive philosophical system -- one that argues for positions in all of the branches of philosophy (in the modern sense of the term), including:
Metaphysics:  a view of the nature of reality as a whole
Epistemology:  the nature and means of human knowledge
Ethics: explanation of the nature of right and wrong, morality and immorality
Aesthetics:  the nature and use of art in human life
Politics:  the ethical organization of society


Plato suggested that we turn our attention, not to particular examples of virtue and beauty, but to virtue itself, or beauty itself -- the "form" of virtue and of beauty.  Suggested that these "Forms" or "Ideals" exist in another, non-physical realm, and the physical world in which we live is a mere reflection of the "world of Forms."

When a man has been tutored in this way, he will see a wondrous thing -- beauty in itself.  This is the goal, Socrates, of all his former efforts.  First of all it is eternal and neither comes into being nor decays; it does not increase or decrease.  It is not in one instance beautiful and in another ugly, not at one moment beautiful and at another not so, nor in reference to one thing beautiful, but in reference to another thing not so, nor beautiful here but ugly there, or beautiful to some but ugly to others.  This beauty will not resemble the beauty of the face or hands or any other part of the body, nor that of a thought or of a science, nor like beauty in something else, such as in a living thing or the earth or the heavens or something else, but absolute, always existing with itself; all other beautiful things partake of it in such a fashion that while they come into being and decay, it comes neither less nor more nor undergoes change....  

What then, do we think… about the man who could see perfect beauty in its essence, pure, unmixed, instead of fixing it upon human flesh and colors and other such human rubbish, but could contemplate divine beauty alone and apart? 


ARISTOTLE (384-322) Student of Plato's Academy for 20 years after coming to Athens at age 17.  After Plato's death, Aristotle formed his own school at the Lyceum of Athens. 

"Aristotle was Plato's most genuine disciple; he spoke with a lisp, as we learn from Timotheus the Athenian in his book On Lives; further, his calves were slender, (so they say), his eyes small, and he was conspicuous in his clothing, his rings, and his haircut."  (Diogenes Lives)

Pioneer and innovator in numerous fields of knowledge. Organized and formed bodies of knowledge into specific disciplines:  zoology, botany, biology, psychology, physics, astronomy, logic, ethics, literary criticism, and more. 

"...From quotations which I had seen, I had a high notion of Aristotle's merits, but I had not the most remote notion what a wonderful man he was.  Linnaeus and Cuvier have been my two gods, though in very different ways, but they were mere schoolboys to old Aristotle."  (letter to W. Ogle, Feb 22, 1882)

"I cannot read this work [Studies of Animals] without being ravished with astonishment.  Indeed it is impossible to conceive how a single man was able to collect and compare the multitude of particular facts, implied in the numerous general rules and aphorisms contained in this work, and of which his predecessors never had any idea."   (Histoire des Sciences Nat. 1841, I.46)



Aristotle's father had been the physician of Amyntas II, Philip the Great's father.  Aristotle became the tutor of Alexander the Great for 2-3 years beginning in 343/2.  It is reported that Alexander would later send biological specimens from the East back to his old teacher. 

When Alexander died in 323, there was some anti-Macedonian backlash in Athens, and questions were raised regarding Aristotle's connections to Macedonia.  Fearing a prosecution similar to that of Socrates, Aristotle fled to Chalcis in Euboea.  He fled "lest the Athenians should sin twice against philosophy," so he is supposed to have remarked. 



Philosophical schools of thought after Aristotle tend to take on a pessimistic or less confident tone. Humans came to be viewed as having less control over the complex world around them.  The philosophic solution to this lack of efficacy was to turn inwards to cultivate the right state of mind to cope with life, and to harmonize with a potentially inhospitable world.  3 major schools of late Classical and Hellenistic philosophy: Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Cynicism.


ZENO the Stoic (390-310) and Stoicism
Zeno came to Athens from Cyprus and founded a school of Stoic philosophy. He taught the existence of the divine intellect and divine law and that it was possible for humans to link with it. To Zeno the laws of the universe bound all humans as brothers; in essence, all men were equal. The universe existed in the form of some huge clock or machine with millions of interconnected gears, some large some small, but each one important to the maintenance of the universe as a whole. In the same manner all humans have a purpose, be they slaves or kings. The key was to pursue moral positivism and activism. One had to accept one's fate and be the best that one could be. If one is a slave, don't question why one is a slave. It is not one's purpose to question the workings of the universe. One had to accept one's fate and be the best slave possible. The same was true for kings, only theirs was a far more responsible duty. Be the wisest, most enlightened king possible, Plato's Philosopher King.

Stoics taught to accept one's fate and to bear it with equanimity. Don't get too excited when good things happen to one, and don't get depressed when things go wrong. Pursue equanimity, the Golden Mean. Recognize the brotherhood of men, that all humans are created equal. Show compassion for slaves and social inferiors because they all have purpose in the universe. To a large degree, Stoic notions of human equality were a reflection of Greek intellectuals living in non-Greek places such as Alexandria and Antioch and having to come to terms with native cultures. In any event, Stoic philosophy was extremely popular with the Roman aristocracy because it espoused an activist way of approaching public life. Politics could be explained as a duty of an enlightened person.

EPICURUS (342-268) and Epicureanism
Epicurus took the opposite track in his dealing with the role of human existence. However much the world may have been designed as a machine by the divine intellect, Epicurus argued that the gods had abandoned human kind eons ago and harbored no interest in human affairs. Epicurus taught lessons of right conduct, serenity of mind, and moderation in all things. He argued that a wise person must seek pleasure, with pleasure equaling absence of pain. In essence, his message was to avoid pain. Pain was the result of any pursuit that led one to conflict, such as politics, business, warfare. Making profit or seeking political office brought far more pain than they were worth. Instead, an enlightened man would avoid these pursuits and "contemplate his own garden". Withdraw from society and spend one's life usefully by contemplating the existence of the divine intellect and the harmony of nature. Become enlightened. One can see how Epicureans took a distinctly contrasting point of view to the Stoics. Among the intellectuals to espouse Epicurean attitudes were the Roman poet Lucretius whose treatise, On the Nature of Things, survives as the most complete treatment of Epicurus' philosophy.  Julius Caesar, and Cicero's good friend and correspondent, T. Pomponius Atticus, were also Epicureans.

DIOGENES (c.412-323) and the Cynic School
 Diongenes was a contemporary of Alexander the Great who ultimately settled in Corinth and became something of a curiosity and a tourist attraction. Diogenes doubted the possibility of the human intellect ever acquiring true knowledge. And he saw no sense in trying to save a world sunk in hopeless ignorance. He argued that an enlightened person should not worry about wealth or power; he should find peace of mind by withdrawing from worldly concern. The only thing that mattered was virtue, and virtue was impossible when pursuing material or social pursuits such as building wealth or seeking political office. Cynics went about dressed in rags, living off hand-outs from sympathetic people, much like itinerant Buddhist monks in India, and conceivably were influenced by the same. Diogenes himself lived reportedly in an overturned barrel in the agora of Corinth, eating whatever scraps of food people placed in the dish that he left out in front. Hence, his school became known as the "dog" school (kunos), because he ate from a “dog bowl.” But he observed the Corinthian people and commented on the failings of society with razor like keenness. Cynics traveled about and offered up important social criticism, lending the public another way of looking at things.


All three schools of Greek philosophy had their limitations -- only aristocrats could find real purpose as Stoics (slaves would hardly have cared), one had to be wealthy to enjoy the leisure time to "cultivate one's own garden" like the Epicureans. And one had to abandon all material pleasures to be a Cynic (who at least accepted female philosophers into their midst, in part because by their way of thinking it hardly mattered). Instead, the masses of the Greco-Roman era found meaning in emerging mystery cults from non-Greek regions of the eastern Mediterranean world. The cult of Isis found huge followings in places such as Athens and Rome, offering ceremonial purification from earthly sins, the comfort of a personal loving goddess, and the promise of immortality. Likewise the cult of Mithras with its high asceticism, and notions of attaining virtue in the cosmic combat between the forces of good and evil found tremendous appeal among warriors such as the Cilician Pirates, and from these the Roman legions of the empire. The message of these cults was not so much an attempt to reform the world as it was to help the initiates to forget their miseries by giving them hope of compensation for present sufferings in a future life.

It is important to recognize the strains of these various world views in the teachings of Jesus Christ (c. 6 BC - 30 AD). As a rabbi, Jesus was trained in Hebraic law and the belief in one all-knowing, infinitely just god. As a rabbi, however, he clearly studied broadly and was versed in the vernacular language of philosophical and spiritual ideas that prevailed in his time. Like the mystery cults he offered hope to the downtrodden by offering them promise of a better existence in the next life. And like the Platonic schools he insisted that the existence of god can and ultimately must be proven through reason, that the process of enlightenment was never-ending, and that the need for reflection and contemplation were crucial to one's spiritual development. Because the teachings of Christianity operated on so many levels, it offered broad appeal to people at all levels of society and became the dominant way of thinking in the Mediterranean world by the 4th-5th centuries AD.