Ancient Greece and Philosophy of Nature


The first Greek philosophers of nature, were Thales, Anaximander, his student Anaximenes (appr. 570 BC) and, in turn, the latter’s assumed students Anaxagoras (appr 500 – 428 BC) and Diogenes. They were the first to distance themselves from mythological thinking and enter theoretical thinking. They started the tradition of trying to explain the facts of the universe and general phenomena. Their school of thought is called the Miletan School.

Thales was, according to Aristotle, the first person to investigate the origin of substances from matter. His advice, "Know thyself," was engraved on the front fa├žade of the Oracle of Apollo in Delphi. He was the first philosopher whose written texts were preserved -- as little as it was, though. Thales was the first philosopher to maintain immortality of the soul. Soul was the cause of all movement. Aristotle had commented on that, and, perhaps mistakenly, said, that, 'according to Thales', all objects and creatures possess a soul and a god, because they move. He probably was the founder of natural philosophy. Thales believed, that water had all the qualities necessary to change from water into any possible matter, and then back again. Water is the 'Primary Principle' to all else. Like a ship, the Earth must float on water, with certain buoyancy. Earth must have had a lighter substance, than water. Water causes earthquakes, too. Aristotle said, Thales must have observed evaporation and the nutritive qualities of mist. There's conflicting reports about Thales' further ideas about Earth; whether it was flat and round; a flat drum shape, or, indeed, a round, spherical shape. He was a reputed astronomer; could predict solar eclipses and fix the solstices. It's likely, Thales must have made series of observations of Sunrises around mid-winter and mid-summer. Flavius Philostratus had said, that '[Thales] observed the heavenly bodies . . . from [Mount] Mycale which was close by his home'. Seven centuries later, Ptolemy acknowledged difficulties of this issue, ie the Sun remains immobile during several days around June 21 and December 21. From Diogenes Laertius we have the report: '[Thales] is said to have discovered the seasons of the year and divided it into 365 days'. Thales may very well have understood, that a spherical Earth explains, why and how stars dissapear and reappear at the northern and southern horizons. Not many writings have been preserved. Thales may have written the 'Nautical Star Guide'. He believed in one material, water, being the first substance to everything else. Thales must have been one of the first to experiment with instruments to measure the size of Sun and Moon. He used a water-clock -- method which was rejected, later. Thales thought, there was a correlation between the Sun's and Moon's diameter and their respective orbit: The diameters must be one hundred 720th of their orbit. Probably, Thales must have learned from the Babylonians, a circle is made up of 360 slices. He doubled that number and thus thought to have arrived at the planet's orbit. But, also today, we use Thales' theorems for triangles and diameters. Thales was disciple of ancient Egyptian and Babylonian astronomy and math, and he probably traveled those countries.

Anaximander, probaby Anaximenes' teacher, believed in the infinite, boundlessness, apeiron, as the primary substance. This primary substance, which was a boundless matter, had a cylinder-shape, and Earth and the other celestial bodies, originated from it. Anaximander, assumed that the Earth had the shape of a flat barrel floating in space, and people live on top of this barrel. Delphi was the very center of the Earth; surrounded by the Mediterranean sea. Earth was divided in two by a line. The northern  half of Earth was called Europe; the southern half, Asia. The habitable world consisted of two rather small strips of land at the Mediterranean's northern and southern shores: respectively the Northern and Southern Mediterranean countries. 'Asia' included the Middle East with Persia and Arabia. Further to Earth's peripheries, live, respectively, mythical peoples in cold, nordic countries, and black, Sunburnt peoples.  A question must have arisen: Why doesn't the Earth fall? Aristotle probably quoted Anaximander's argument like this: "But there are some who say that it (namely, the Earth) stays where it is because of equality, such as among the ancients Anaximander. For that which is situated in the center and at equal distances from the extremes, has no inclination whatsoever to move up rather than down or sideways; and since it is impossible to move in opposite directions at the same time, it necessarily stays where it is." Anaximander actually believed in the cosmos as space, instead of a celestial vault, with celestial bodies projected or nailed on it. He believed, that celestial bodies move in circles around the Earth, each in it's own lane, also under the Earth, and Earth is center of the universe. Earth floats unsupported in heaven. Anaximander believed, that the celestial bodies lie behind each other: First the stars; then the Moon, and finally, the Sun. Celestial bodies are wheels, filled with fire, that roll their circle in space around the Earth. They occasionally open and close their inner with doors. Their fire then becomes visible to man on Earth, as stars, the Sun, or the Moon. When the Sun door closes, that can be observed on Earth as an eclipse. The Moon door opens and closes according its monthly cycle. Earth started in a fluid state; then, in the Sunlight, dried into solid state. During this process, first fish emerged from water, and from them, other species and man emerged, in an evolutionary process. Man's helpless, lengthy childhood proves, that man must have originated from simpler, other species.

believed that air was the primary substance to everything in the cosmos. Air has divine attributes. Fire had to be thin air; water was thickened air. From a felting process, further thickening, earth emerged, and finally, earth must have become stone, like felt emerging from wool. This must have been a gradual, two way process, depending on dominance of cold or heat. Also the human soul, was made of air. Planet Earth must have come into existence the same fashion, as a flat, round disk, floating on air currents encircling her. The Sun would circle around Earth, as did the Moon. Earth, the Sun, and the Moon, and perhaps other celestial bodies too, rest on air cushions, floating in heaven. Some reports suggest, that Anaximenes believed, that heaven was a cap or ceiling, with the stars as nails to keep it in place. Change was an important element in Anaximenes' theory, and air played a big role in changing matter and objects from one creature into another, but there's no scientifice explanation. This theory may be called material monism. Anaximenes proclaimed ‘like our soul, consisting of air, keeping us together, thus breath and air keeps the entire world in place’. Similar condensations of air should have led to the birth of the Sun and stars. These bodies’ fiery nature would be caused by the speed of their motion. Planet Earth had to be centre of the cosmos, with the stars as its most remote objects. The Moon was Earth’s most proximate object, then came the Sun, then the other planets. The Sun would not circle around the Earth. The Sun would disappear every night behind the horizon and return every morning at the usual point of rising. Anaximenes thought that the Moon itself casts no light; it reflects light rays from the Sun.

Anaxagoras believed that everything is infinitely divisible and that even the smallest portion of matter contains some of each element. The differences in form result from different portions of the elements and their seemingly endless numbers of possible combinations. Unlike Democritus, he apparently did not believe in smallest particles, atoms, that form a material. Both the big and the small are infinite. Anaxagoras believed that the mind is the supreme ordering principle, it is infinite and self-controlling, it is mixed with nothing, and is itself by itself. Anaxagoras was the first philosopher to introduce an abstract philosophical concept: Nous. Nous is the thinking, omnipotent, but impersonal Spirit or Mind. Thanks to this mind a well-ordered cosmos arose from the original chaos. This Nous seems to have been a first mover that left the universe to its own devices after initial creation, in Anaxagoras’ view. In everything, there is a share of everything, except mind, and mind is present in some things too. Everything is in everything, all qualities are present in even the smallest core and this enables a smooth transition from one material into another and makes birth and destruction of matter just false appearance. Living creatures possess, unlike dead creatures, Nous. This same Nous gives men and animals their soul. Men seem superior to animals, because they have hands. Visible differences in intellect are consequence of physical differences. Being an astronomer, Anaxagoras observed vortexes and spiral phenomena in nature. He believed, that the universe was created through the rotary motion of a spiral, where initially all mass was united in the center and driven by a centrifugal force driven by ‘mind’, celestial bodies and other things came into being through seperation of mass. Today, some say, that if the mass of a galaxy was concentrated at its center, it would have created a black hole and gravitation would be too strong for anything to escape from it. Stars and the Sun are fiery stones, but we can’t feel the heat, because of their distance, according to Anaxagoras. The heavenly bodies were fiery masses of rock whirling around the earth in ether. He thought to recognize mountains and living creatures on the Moon and the Sun had to be bigger than the Peloponnesos. Anaxagoras proved, that air was no vacuum, but material substance by blowing up utters, and a pipet that enclosed air by water. He concluded that sound had to be movement of air. Anaxagoras was highly respected in Athens, not in the least by statesman Pericles. But, later Anaxagoras was accused of Persian sympathies and heresy, when he taught the Sun was a fiery stone and the Moon only earth, and denied both divinity. He was initially sentenced to death, but instead, he was exiled from Athens. He had to leave Athens, in spite of Pericles’ protection, and return to Asia Minor, Lapsakis (now Lapseki, Turkey). Other records state, that Anaxagoras' exile didn't stop him :) from starting another influential school, where he taught at least twenty more years. Anaxagoras has written one book, according Simplicius and Aristotle, that may have survived until as far as the sixth century EC.

Diogenes of Apollonia, born 500 BC, who was a doctor, believed as well that air was the source of all that exists, from which all substances can be produced; the only difference between air and other beings, is its thickness. Diogenes, however, accredited air intelligence, being the first matter. ‘The air swirling within him (the first Being, and living creatures) not only supported, but directed also. Air as source of all things is necessary as perpetual and indestructible matter, but as a soul it is also equipped with a conscience’. Air is the soul. Diogenes also believed in an indefinite number of worlds and supported the idea that the Earth is a round ball supported by air. Diogenes did not follow dualism (ie thinking there's a counterposition between, for instance, mind and matter, or between being and non-being.) Diogenes probably had atheist sympathies, which may be reason why he strongly lost popularity in Athens.

Fragments and quotes of the ancient philosophers’ works, nothing more, have been preserved and quoted by later authors, such as passages from Diogenes’ most important work ‘De natura’. Other works from his hand are possibly ‘Against the sophists’, ‘Against the philosophists of nature’, ‘On Meteorology’ and ‘On the nature of man’. Anaxagoras has written one book, of which quotes have been preserved by Simplicius. Pythagoras left us no writings. Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 – 43 BC) was the first author to use the name ‘Presocratic’ philosophy for the ancient Greek philosophers before Socrates. Orpheus' lyrics have been preserved, however, Aristotle denied their originality. Diogenes Laertius, 3rd Cent AD, wrote an extended biography on Greek philosophers. The work of these philosophers, however, meant a turning point from mythical and traditional religious thinking towards theoretical thinking and observation, even though many philosophers suffered disapproval or downright persecution in Athens. Not just devine explanations behind the universe were narrated and taught; from now on, thought was given to processes and characteristics in nature and man themselves.

Relevant to my study is, however, that these thinkers didn't agree among each other. They all had different philosophies about the origin of substance, and they weren't yet based on scientific tests. We musn't forget, ancient Greece didn't possess the equipment for scientific, empirical tests. They had no microscopes, nor telescopes. They really didn't know, what stars and other celestial bodies were, whether they were bodies at all, nor their size. Nor could the ancient Greeks know what matter was, or very small species, like bacteria. Is that good enough to serve as content for the holy Qur'an? Their philosophy, however, investigates causality, without copying mythological tradition. Some of their ideas reflect, perhaps, wishful thinking. Their ideas are quite creative and forward, and also today, largely still valid. I've read them with a smile and with admiration. Philosophers took big risks, too, since their ideas sometimes clearly contradicted compulsory religious worship. It led to their expulsion from Athens -- or worse. This has been good inspiration to scientists and thinkers in later days. But, not enough first hand writings has been preserved. It's not plausible to assume, that Rasullullah saws had copied them. Furthermore, the Quran stopped, where Greek philosophers started: They developed scholastic methods of causal thinking with its terminology and concepts, where Quran stuck to general first observations. This is especially valid for philosophy of nature. In the teachings of scepticism, we may find some more resemblances with Quran -- but, there's also many differences. All-in, we can say, Greek philosophy had two main branches: Metaphysics, and morality -- respectively philosophy of nature, and philosophy of virtue with the schools of scepticism and cynicism. My study will follow these two lines. Further, I won't spend too much time on Greek religion, as it doesn't involve this topic. Greek philosophers, however, frequently clashed with the temple, when their words were considered blasphemous.

Sources & Suggestions for Further Reading:

Hivemind1984, 'From Orphism to Gnosticism'

The Philosophy of Anaxagoras,, 'The Philosophy of Pythagoras'
Wolfram MathWorld, 'Epimenides Paradox', 
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,
Thales of Miletus 
'Beacon Lights of History', Anaxagoras, Volume I,
Ancient Greek Religion

From here, follows a comparison with Qur'anic texts. And, then, a comparison with a man who was among the first to introduce religious skepticism, and who gained unrivaled status in philosophy when sophism was at its height of popularity: Socrates.