Greek Philosophy 3: The Milesian School – Thales, Anaximander & Anaximenes

Miletus Greek TheaterAs mentioned last time, Miletus was a city state on the coast of the Aegean sea in Ionia (modern day Turkey) which had served as the center of the Ionian rebellion that sought freedom from the Persian Empire.  The first ancient Greek philosophers, Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes, were all from Miletus, and so they are known as the Milesian School.  They were primarily invested in cosmology, the order and interaction of the elements, and observation of nature.  In the ancient world, cosmology and science were primarily passive observation.  As the Chinese, Muslims and then Europeans developed the mechanics and mathematics of the modern world, science was increasingly driven by active experimentation.  Experimentation is still observation, but set in an active arrangement.

miletusThe Ionian city states such as Miletus were settled around 1000 BCE.  By 600 BCE, just after the times of Homer and Hesiod, around the time of Archilochos and Sappho, Miletus had become a wealthy center of trade exchanging goods and ideas with the cities of Egypt, Persia, Western Greece, and others such as what is today Libya and Italy.  ‘Greece’ was not yet a political entity at the time, but shared a Homeric culture with other Greek city states such as Athens we discussed last time.

zoroastrian winged symbolMiletus was ruled by an aristocracy, powerful families who had the leisure to enjoy education and the arts.  They had connections to the empires of Egypt and Persia, shown by the influence of these empires on science and art, but independence to develop a new culture out of what was imported.  The Milesians were known as daring sailors and traders.  In particular, that the first philosophers come from Miletus suggests Persia had a particularly powerful influence, which would be corroborated by Christianity (influenced by Persian Zoroastrianism) spreading through Syria and Ionia to the rest of Greece and Egypt centuries later.  There was not much difference between Miletus and Athens other than Miletus having been under the Persian Empire in the centuries before its greatest thinkers arose.



Thales was the first member of the Milesian School, which was not a formal school in a building but a label applied today to the three interrelated thinkers from Miletus.  Thales is believed to have lived sometime between 620 and 550 BCE based largely on his prediction of a solar eclipse in 585 BCE.  According to Diogenes Laertius, a historian who chronicled the lives of Greek philosophers, Thales was a Phoenician born to Phoenician noble parents who emigrated to Miletus.  He became famous for his accomplishments, shown by a line from Aristophanes’ comedy The Birds, “The man’s a Thales!”.  Either he wrote nothing, or none of his writings survived.  Some sources say he wrote two treatises on astronomy, but if he did they are now lost to history.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThales was known for having his head in the clouds, the stereotypical “absent-minded professor”.  There are many stories of intellectuals spacing out and almost dying while thinking up the ideas that made them famous.  Human thought: it may make you a legend, or get you killed.  Plato and other sources repeat the story that Thales was gazing at the stars while walking, contemplating astronomy, when he fell into a well.  A similar story is said of Gautama, the founder of the Logic/Debate school of Indian thought, also called “Eyes in the Feet” as he fell into a well while deep in thought, so Brahma, head father god, gives him eyes in his feet so he won’t fall into wells while thinking anymore.  We will later see of how Gautama’s logic from India is similar to Aristotle’s logic from Athens.

brick wellBoth stories may have more to them than first appear.  For Gautama, as a logician he looks at particular examples and draws general conclusions (for example, looking at many cows and generalizing that all cows have horns).  For Thales, gazing into wells serves as a refracting device for gazing at particular stars and the moon without interference from others, as well as measuring angles and degrees.  Thales might have fallen into the well while gazing at stars in the well rather than missing the well entirely.  Either way, Plato says Thales was mocked by a Thracian slave girl for falling in a well while gazing into the heavens.

volubilis-olive-pressOne source says that Thales had no family or children of his own, and when asked about it he said that it would be a distraction.  While Thales was mocked by some in his time for speculating about the cosmos while failing to raise a family, Aristotle tells us that Thales showed the Milesians philosophy and science are not useless abstraction but practical and useful.  Thales saw that the seasons were going to yield a large olive crop, so he rented and bought all the olive presses he could find to corner the olive oil market, making him a great deal of money when the olive crop came through and olive oil remained in great demand.  Aristotle says Thales did not do this for the money, which like family he saw as a distraction from his astronomical studies, but to show the skeptical Milesians that abstract speculation can yield worldly results, and so philosophers can get rich but they are more interested in gaining knowledge and wisdom.


Another story from various sources tells us Thales channeled a river for King Croesus so his soldiers could cross and attack Persia with far fewer soldiers than he needed.  Croesus realized his situation, and surrendered to Cyrus who spared him and Miletus, granting them relative independence and autonomy.  If Cyrus had razed Miletus rather than giving it independence, he would have prevented it from becoming the center of rebellion against his son Darius, and Greek philosophy would have had to start elsewhere or nowhere at all.

pyramid shadow

thothMany sources said that Thales received instruction from Egyptian priests, which would have aided his geometry and astronomy.  This is questionable but it fits with the often mentioned story of Thales using geometry already known to the Egyptians (found in papyrus scrolls) to measure the height of pyramids by measuring the length of their shadows.  It is just as often said Thales used the same method to calculate how far out ships were from shore.  Travel to Egypt was not difficult for a Milesian, as it could be done by boat in under a week, and Miletus was a trade center through which much Egyptian goods flowed and numerous boats were departing to Egyptian ports if one needed to catch a ride.  Thales was said by Diogenes Laertius to have discovered there were 365 days a year, but Egyptians knew this previously not only from the stars but the flooding of the Nile River.  It was also said Thales was the first to claim the soul is immortal, but this also matches earlier Egyptian thought, with reincarnation of souls being followed by achievement of heavenly star birth with the Osiris movement.

babylonThales is also said to have been to Babylon, and access to their astronomical records allowed him to predict the eclipse in 585 BCE.  Did he travel to these places, or did he gain access to their knowledge without need to travel and this simply got associated with him to make it seem that he had all the knowledge of the ancient world?  Thales is said by sources to have engaged in trade, a possible reason he was interested in monopolizing the olive presses as olive oil was a major commodity.  His method of predicting eclipses is in accord with Babylonian methods.

MagnetThales believed that the elements are alive, that “all things are full of gods” or spirits.  He saw the static charge from polish amber and the movement of iron by magnets as proof that all things are alive, including dead things.  Thales argued there was “no difference” between being alive and being dead.  When asked by a skeptical critic why then Thales should not just die, Thales replied, “because there is no difference”.

carlsbad cavernsLike Plato and Aristotle, Thales had a teleological view of the cosmos.  The cosmos is alive and sentient, and movements have purposes.  A Roman stoic (we will cover stoicism near the end of the class) wrote hundreds of years after these Greek thinkers about being horrified by stalactites and stalagmites in a cave devoid of life, as there should not be beautiful things that are unwitnessed.  Beauty only exists to be attractive, not as something random that may or may not be attractive depending on whether or not anyone is looking.  While Hesiod personifies the forces of nature as Zeus, the Roman orator and philosopher Cicero says Thales believed that God was the intelligence that gives form to everything out of water.  This is like the Old Testament Genesis creation, which itself parallels earlier Sumerian and Babylonian mythology and cosmology.

waterFor Thales, water is the primary element, similar to Anaximenes saying air is, similar to Heraclitus saying that fire is.  All these are fluid elements, unlike earth.  Water is the principle of all things for Thales, which is very similar to Heraclitus saying all things flow and change like a river while maintaining this is basically fire.  Things are born out of chaos and flux (just as in Hesiod’s Theogony), stabilizing to become what they are, then destabilizing and falling back into the general flow.  There is a dispute today among modern scholars whether Thales said that things come from water but become something different (transmutation) or that all things are in fact always made of water no matter what their form.


Why would Thales claim that water transforms into various elements? Miletus was on the mouth of the Meander River, which deposited silt and sediment that built up on the banks of the river and small islands in the midst of its flow.  To an observer, it would appear that water condenses into earth when impacted.  Thales argued that land floats on water, which is true if you put an handful of earth over a pool.  This meant that the continents are floating on the ocean, and so earthquakes are caused when the ocean is disturbed underneath the land.

Egypt Water Blessing KingThales saw that water breaks things into their components, which he saw as evidence that water was the primordial element.  Water’s ability to clean and separate gives water a dual role as destroyer yet purifier.  Egyptian priests focused on water as blessing via cleansing, and so sprinkled holy water in rituals and required priests to bathe three times a day.  Persian Zoroastrians focused on fire as purifying, and kept a flame burning during daily reenactments of the birth of the cosmos.  Influences of both are still found in Catholic ritual today.  When Thales claims that water is the basic element, this puts him in line with Hesiod’s cosmology, as out of chaos comes order and distinction of elements.  Modern science post-chaos theory calls order out of chaos ‘emergence’.


anaximander-1-sizedSome sources claim Anaximander (610 – 546 BCE) was a student of Thales.  This was assumed for a long time, but as is often the case in across cultures, followers are thought to be direct students but are then discovered to have merely studied the teacher without knowing them.  This is also believed today to have been true of Socrates and Plato.  Anaximander did have a famous student named Pythagoras (who we will study next week).  Pythagoras is said to have visited Thales on advice from Anaximander, and that Thales told Pythagoras to study in Egypt to understand mathematics and physics.

As we have no writings from Thales, Anaximander gives us the first preserved written lines (a single fragment) of Greek philosophy.  His ‘On Nature’, unlike the works of Homer and Hesiod but like treatises written by the Sumerians, Egyptians and others, is not poetry but prose, unstructured by rhythmic constraints.  The book is lost, but one fragment of it comes to us quoted by Simplicius in his Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics:

The things that are perish into the things out of which they come to be, according to necessity, for they pay penalty and retribution to each other for their injustice in accordance with the ordering of time.

Dike Greek Goddess StatueLike Newton, there is a balance such that for every motion there is an equal and opposite motion, a balance or ‘justice’ that works throughout the cosmos.  For Anaximander, justice was the goddess Dike, keeper of the order, balance, and justice of the cosmos presided over by Zeus, her father.  Zeus is order, and Dike settles disorders.  Dike is sometimes pictured with scales to weigh things, just like Anubis from Egypt.

While some have said that Anaximander was the first in world history to present rational arguments for his beliefs, just as Thales is said to be the first to believe in natural explanations, it is rather that people naturally observe and argue, but Anaximander was the first Greek (technically Milesian) whose arguments come down to us through various sources.

infinityFor Anaximander, the basic element out of which spring the others is not water but the limitless, the infinite, Apeiron, unlimited by time or space (temporally and spatially infinite), unlimited in potency and power, unlimited by quality or quantity.  Anaximander argued it was unborn, and will not die.  Heraclitus says the same, unlike the Olympic gods of Hesiod who are born in time.  While the infinite is the generation and decay of things continuously, it is itself without generation or decay.  Things begin and end, and this itself does not begin or end.  This is a similar abstraction like polytheism to abstract monotheism, with elements in fact being facets or branches of one common abstract element, also eternal and without birth, unlike Zeus.  The infinite is also that which is not bounded by human reason or concepts, that which remains ungrasped and beyond understanding.

nebulaWhether we live in an open infinite universe or a closed finite universe is still debated by astrophysicists today.  In my undergrad astronomy class, we were told there are three theories or possibilities: 1) the universe is closed with an edge, so a rocket could hit the edge, 2) the universe is closed but loops back on itself, so a rocket would eventually wind up back where it started if it kept flying in a single direction, or 3) the universe is open and infinite, so a rocket would never hit an edge or return if it kept flying.  Anaximander argues the third and last of these.

Apparently, Anaximander argued that because the elements are opposed to each other, with fire being hot, water being wet, earth being dry and air being cool, if one of these were the primary element or infinite in potency itself, it would have destroyed its opposite long ago.  Thus, if Thales was right and all things are made of water, fire would have been obliterated long ago or never existed in the first place.  Note that Anaximander assumes that something must be infinite, and so this thing must not have a particular character or that character would obliterate anything else given an infinite amount of time (something an infinite thing would by necessity have).

four_classical_elementsOut of Apeiron come the elements fire, air, earth, and water, and then these are the components of all particular things.  This works according to the four qualities of hot, cold, wet, dry.  Specifically, fire is hot, water is wet, air is cold, and earth is dry.  When things are in balance everything flows smoothly, and when they are out of balance, they must “pay for their injustice”, getting rebalanced by counter-reaction.  The elements encroach on each other and commit injustice against each other like nations fighting for disputed territory.  Heraclitus, as we will see, thinks the elements are conceited and hungry, which is why this happens.  For Anaximander, lightning and thunder come from clouds bumping into each other, a settling of the injustice.

pi symbolThe infinite apeiron was seen as a negative thing by the Pythagoreans and Aristotle, who put order and restraint on the side of perfection and the infinite on the side of chaotic and imperfect.  Typically, Greek thought was uncomfortable with the idea of the infinite, unlike Indian thought.  It is for this reason that we use Indian-Arabic numerals today, as Indian mathematics was comfortable with infinites such as infinite series and unknowns such as variables, which contributed to Islamic algebra.  While we still use the Greek letter pi to symbolize the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its radius, the Greeks would be uncomfortable with a value of pi that trailed on endlessly, and struggled to represent it as a whole number ratio (22/7 was often used).

According to Anaximander’s own cosmology, the world grew out of a seed encased in fire and air, which then fall apart into rings, which then compose the sun, moon, planets and stars.  Modern scholars are still perplexed as to the workings of much of his astronomical system.

gnomon4Anaximander introduced the gnomon into Greece, a tool the Babylonians and Egyptians had used for centuries before.  Basically, it is a stick in the ground, which functions as a sundial.  This allows shadows to be measured on the ground and then studied.  The sun draws a curve, moving from long to the west in the morning, shortest at noon, and long to the east in the evening.

Anaximander said that the sun and moon make full circles, passing beneath the earth, and earth floats unsupported in space.  This is odd, as it would be unsupported by water, or air, or Atlas, or a pillar, or turtles, or anything, which made it different from many previous cultures’ beliefs.  It was not until people got into space, thousands of years later, that this could be directly observed.  Anaximander did not believe the earth was round, however, at least not round as a sphere.  The earth was a flat disc, a belief much more common in the ancient world.  For Homer and Hesiod, the world was a pillar or drum, as was the shape of the cosmos, which explained why the earth was flat, things fall downward and the stars circle overhead.  Hesiod says in the Theogony that it would take an anvil nine days to fall from the height of heaven to earth.  Anaximander also uses the number nine as the ratio of the length of the earth to the distance to the stars and in several other places.

AristotleWhy, then, does the earth not fall but floats?  Aristotle says that Anaximander argued the earth was at the dead center of the cosmos, and because of this there was no reason for it to move one way or the other.  This is odd, because an infinite should either not have a center point, or equally have its center at all points.  Aristotle argues that if Anaximander is right, then a man who is hungry and thirsty between food and drink would necessarily remain where he is.  Again, note that Aristotle compares the moving earth to a hungry man, just as Anaximander believes the elements do injustice to each other.  What is likely going on is that Anaximander sees the cosmos as generated outward from the earth, and the earth is, in a sense, floating on being at the center.

Anaximander put the stars nearest to earth, then the planets, then the moon, and farthest away the Sun.  This means he thought stars disappeared because they pass in front of the moon, not behind it, and the moon outshines them at night the way the sun does during the day.  The cosmos is shaped like a drum, with the planets on wheels circling around the sides and the disc of the earth in the center, rising and falling with the seasons.


Abominable snowman yetiAnaximander made a map of the world, supposedly the first in ancient Greece, with the circle of the earth surrounded by the ocean, which presumably also floats in place.  The Mediterranean Sea is in the center of the earth, Delphi is the navel at the very center, the northern part of the world is “Europe”, the eastern part of the world is “Asia”, and the southern half “Libya” (Africa), divided into thirds.  It is not known whether Anaximander was the first to use these names, as he likely relied on earlier sources.  Only the coasts were habitable, the north coast including Greece, the south coast including Egypt, and the east coast including Babylon, Assyria and Persia.  In the far north, lived mythical snow people (Western Europeans), and in the far south mythical fire people (Africans).  Herodotus follows Anaximander and divides the world into the same three continents.  “Europe” would not be the culturally accepted name of the continent in Europe until the late middle ages, just before the Renaissance.

trout fishIn biology, Anaximander argued that life comes from moisture that stays on the earth that does not get dried up by the sun.  The water cycle was known in Egypt, India and elsewhere from the observation of vapors rising up and rain coming down with the heating and cooling of the seasons.  Fish are made of warmed water and earth, out of which they spontaneously arise.  They then become other animals, which become others, which become humans.  This does not include the idea of natural selection of Darwin.  Humans do not come from monkeys, as they did according to some Indian sources, but were trapped in animals until they burst out.


anaximenesAs Anaximander followed Thales, so too did Anaximenes (585 – 528 BCE) follow Anaximander, though just like in the relationship between Thales and Anaximander, Anaximenes did not simply follow Anaximander but corrected and differed from him.  Anaximenes’ arche, his primary essence or principle element, was infinite like Anaximander, however it was not simply qualityless but the element air.  Air is the element in ancient cosmology associated with breath and along with fire, life.  When an animal or human dies, the heat and breath leaves the earthly and watery behind, which then sinks downward while the fire and air presumably rise.  Anaximenes argued that through dissipation and concentration all substances are produced from air.  Air condenses into visual vapor, fog and rain, and from water, as Thales supposed, is condensed earth and even stone.  The two agree that earth is condensed water, but Anaximenes argues that water is itself not the primary element, the most elemental element, but condensed air.  Air, when dissipated, ignites and becomes fire.

Colored felt clothTo prove this, Anaximenes explained that when we blow on a hand with an open mouth, it is hot, but with tightened lips, it is cold.  This shows that condensed air is cold and dispersed air is hot.  Unfortunately, we now know that when you condense a gas it often heats up as the molecules move more rapidly, the opposite of what he proposed.  Anaximenes also refers to felt, which is condensed wool, to show that various density gives various properties.  The earth was formed through a felting process, condensed from air and shooting out the stars in the process, like sparks kicked out of a campfire.  The earth does not float simply on the center, but as a leaf on air.  So are the sun and moon, which are themselves floating discs on air, on fire due to their speed.

HippocratesFor Anaximenes, earthquakes are not due to the earth floating on water, but due to air drying out the earth, which then cracks and in places collapses.  Lightning is caused by winds cutting into clouds at great speeds.  Hippocrates, the famed Greek doctor, seems to have followed Anaximenes and saw air as central to understanding disease, disorders of the body.

2 thoughts on “Greek Philosophy 3: The Milesian School – Thales, Anaximander & Anaximenes

  1. Tarık Gunersel

    Thank you so much. Did Milesians use a different language from those in Athens? Is it fair or unfair to include the Anatolian philosophers into the Hellenic philosophy -as it has usually been done? Warm regards.

    1. ericgerlach79 Post author

      Ancient languages is not my area, but I believe there were several dialects of ancient Greek that were spoken by different city states. Typically, the Presocratic philosophers of what is today Turkey are included, such as those covered in this lecture. One of my favorite sources is Philosophy Before Socrates, which gets into far greater detail on these thinkers.

      Thanks for the thanks!


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