Common Origins—Different Substances: The Milesian Philosophers

By Max Utzschneider

According to Aristotle, the first philosophers attempted to explain the physical world without recourse to anything non-material. They “thought that principles in the form of matter were the only principles of all things” (85[1]). This feature of their thought is often regarded as the distinguishing difference between the first philosophers and the non-philosophical mystics and poets who preceded them. The philosophers located the ground of everything experienced in the physical world itself—by implication, this principle became open to investigation and dispute. The earliest philosophical dispute, between the three Milesian philosophers Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes, thus concerned the nature of the material principles that ground everything in the world.

Aristotle writes that these first philosophers all agreed to a certain extent on the role of the grounding material principles with relation to the world—the material principle acts as a sort of cosmic bank, out of which things come to be and into which they return upon their destruction.

Everything that is differentiated in the world really is whatever material principle it emerged from, it just assumes the quality of a different form for a time, before returning to its primordial form. This presumably explains how things are created and destroyed, for all things partake of the infinite material substance or principle—birth and death are just changes of the form of this infinite material substance (85).

If these comments can be taken as the common starting point of the Milesians, it is apparent already that, while they are seeking to explain the world in material terms, these material terms are employed in striking contrast to the material principles offered by modern science. To claim that there is an infinite substance underlying all material existence, and this substance has certain qualities, is to provide an explanation of the material world that extends beyond the bounds of possible experiential confirmation or disconfirmation. Hence, it is to make a very different sort of claim than one beholden to the strictures of experiential confirmation or disconfirmation.  In light of this, it seems misleading to simply claim that the birth of philosophy is marked by a robust materialism devoid of metaphysical content, and that this is what distinguishes it from that which came before. While the Milesian philosophers did employ material principles as the principles of all things, they were not empiricists.

What sort of claim might they have been making, then, when they said that there is a material substance that is the principle of all things? We can begin to answer this question by taking a look at Thales’ articulation of the material principle.

Aristotle writes:

Thales, the founder of this type of philosophy, says that it is water (and therefore declared that the earth is on water), perhaps taking this supposition from seeing the nurture of all things to be moist, and the warm itself coming-to-be from this and living by this, water being the natural principle of moist things.

Thales also apparently thought that the earth floats on water, like a log.

It is not clear whether the rationale Aristotle gives for Thales holding that the principle of all things is water is the rationale Thales himself espoused. It is interesting, nonetheless, that the material principle that is responsible for the origin of all things, and into which things return, the origin of all things that is infinite in nature –this thing is not some mysterious substance, but is water.

Yet the claim that the earth rests on water is not the same sort of claim as the statement that a log floats on water. If I say that this log floats on water, we can test the claim by picking it up and placing it in a pond. We cannot do the same thing for the earth—nor is there any reason to believe that Thales’ claim rested on a belief that we could. The point is that it is misleading to read Thales’ analogy with the log and assume that he is making a simple scientific hypothesis, for it is quite clear that the claim about the whole earth resting on water extends far beyond what any simple empirical observation could accommodate.        We should not simply dismiss Thales’ cosmology on the grounds that it is scientifically inaccurate, because it is extraordinarily uncharitable to suggest that his claims were properly scientific claims in the first place. Hence, the meaningfulness of his claims must lie elsewhere. We must understand the claim that the earth rests on water in terms that are not strictly material—when Thales talks of water, he does not mean what we mean by H2O.

What could he mean by water then? What could it mean to say that the earth rests on water? That the primordial form of all things is water, out of which they emerge and into which they inevitably return?

A clue, perhaps, can be found in some comments wherein Thales is said to have believed that there is a connection between movement and divinity. Aristotle writes: “Thales, too, seems, from what they relate, to have supposed that the soul was something kinetic, if he said that the Magnesian stone possesses soul because it moves iron” (89). The stone has a soul because it moves iron. The property of a thing that imbues it with this supra-material quality, soul, is its ability to animate other things, put them into motion. This ability, the effect of a thing having a soul, is associated for Thales with the divine. Again, Aristotle writes: “Some say that it [soul] is intermingled in the universe, for which reason, perhaps, Thales also thought that all things are full of gods” (91). The connection between movement, ensoulment, and divinity yields insight into Thales’ view of water when we consider water as not merely a substance capable of animating other substances, and causing them to move—but as itself always in motion. From this perspective, it makes sense that Thales identified water with the principle of all things if he viewed water as emblematic of his mythological principle that the property of an object that causes it to move other objects is its soul, its god. What could possibly have caused an individual object-god to come into being except that which is always already in perpetual motion, and hence never requires another object for its origination? Water, presumably, is the substance that fulfills this requirement.

But how do we really know that water is the infinite, divine, original substance? Anaximander, the next of the great Milesian philosophers, argues that we cannot. He suggests that the infinite original substance cannot be one of the elements, for if the infinite were one of the elements it would overpower all the others, and destroy them, seeing as water is opposed to fire, etc. The material principle of all things, therefore, cannot be one of the elements, for each element must be in a relationship of equality with its opposite—the material principle of all things must be something else.

Simplicius says of him:

Anaximander, son of Praxiades, a Milesian, the successor and pupil of Thales, said that the principle and element of existing things was the apeiron [indefinite or infinite], being the first to introduce this name of the material principle. He says that it is neither water nor any other of the so-called elements, but some other apeiron nature, from which come into being all the heavens and the worlds in them. (101A)

Anaximander’s suggests that the material principle is indefinite, undefined. This is a much more epistemically modest suggestion than Thales’. There is a material principle, but it is not water or air or anything like that—it is something else, we know not what.

There has been considerable debate concerning the precise meaning of Anaximander’s apeiron substance. If it is not one of the elements, how does it create them? What is the relationship between the indefinite and the definite, the infinite and the finite? Much of the debate concerns the famous extant fragment of Anaximander, which goes as follows:

Simplicitus: [Anaximander says the material principle is] “some other apeiron nature, from which come into being all the heavens and the worlds in them. And the source of this coming-to-be for existing things is that into which destruction, too, happens, ‘according to necessity; for they pay penalty and retribution to each other for their injustice according to the assessment of Time’” (110).

What is immediately striking about this passage is the description of changes in the natural world as operating according to a code of natural justice and injustice. Justice naturalized. But where exactly does this justice and injustice lie? Anaximander says that “they pay penalty and retribution to each other for their injustice.” Who pays penalty to whom? Is the penalty paid by the natural elements when they are destroyed and return back into the apeiron nature? Or do the natural elements pay it to each other?

A common interpretation, that is now widely discounted, holds that the natural elements pay their penalty to the apeiron substance upon being destroyed. Under this interpretation, life itself for Anaximander is an injustice, a transgression, something for which a penalty must be paid, and is inevitably paid, with the arrival of death. The meaning of death is a collection of this injustice, to take back what was stolen from the apeiron substance.

According to Vlastos, this interpretation was popular before the words “to one another” were added to the second clause (Equality and Justice in Early Greek Cosmologies, 76). The text does not say “they pay penalty and retribution for their injustice.” Rather, it says “they pay penalty and retribution to each other for their injustice.” This “to each other” casts the above interpretation into doubt, according to Vlastos, because it would suggest that the apeiron substance pays penalty to the elements, and commits injustice just as much as they do. But as Kirk writes: “How could the divine apeiron be said to commit injustice” (Some Problems in Anaximander, 341)?

Another interpretation, championed by Kirk, suggests that the material elements, the opposites, pay penalty and retribution to each other. This is what keeps them in balance, and explains how one element does not overtake all the others, as would happen if Thales’ water was the infinite original substance. This would then explain natural changes, e.g. the hot summer paying its penalty during the cold winter, the encroachment of water upon land at high tide punished by the low tide, etc.

Vlastos disagrees with this interpretation by noting that the penalty paid is in some sense connected to the destruction of the thing—“the source of this coming-to-be for existing things is that into which destruction, too, happens, ‘according to necessity; for they pay penalty and retribution to each other for their injustice according to the assessment of Time’. The necessity involved is the necessity of destruction back into the original apeiron substance, and this destruction is the payment of a penalty. This suggests something different from the equilibrium of the natural elements, for the alteration between a high tide and a low tide does not involve the destruction of the water or the land back into the original apeiron substance, but merely an equal change in their proportion. Again, the necessity referenced in the fragment relates to the necessity of things being destroyed and returning into the apeiron substance from which they originated.

Vlastos ingeniously surmounts this problem by suggesting that the apeiron substance referenced in the fragment is plural, and that it actually reads: “into those things from which existing things take their rise, they pass away once more” (73).            Hence, he suggests that the infinite is a sort of perfectly blended mixture of the opposites. “When the world is, in due course, re-absorbed into the boundless, the opposites are not destroyed. They do not cease to exist. They are only blended once again, and their equilibrium is perfectly restored. And this must entail a process of reparation, where unjust gains are disgorged and unjust losses fully made up” (80). The idea is that at the end of the world, if there is too much fire or too much air but not enough water, the reparation is made and everything is brought back into equilibrium when it is blended back into the infinite.

This seems bizarre to me. For one, how is it possible that time assesses the gains and losses that must be repaid when each world ends? Time could assess when this repayment occurs, but not the repayment itself. If we imagine the reparation as the destruction of the thing, or even as the passing of one season to another, time assesses this shift in a sense immediately, as it marks when a thing is destroyed or when it wanes and its opposite waxes. How could time be responsible for not just the destruction of the thing, but also the subsequent weighing of its elements? Second, as Kirk argues, to suggest that the apeiron substance is a perfectly blended mixture of opposing elements contradicts Anaximander’s description of this substance as apeiron, i.e. indeterminate (344). If the infinite were a perfectly blended mixture of the opposites it would not be described by Anaximander as indeterminate, it would be described as a perfectly blended mixture of opposing elements.

Another option is to interpret the fragment as indicating a just equilibrium between the apeiron substance and that which comes from it, all the heavens and worlds. The equilibrium is such that the birth of a thing balances the power of things too much on the side of the material world, and this debt is repaid by the destruction of that thing or of something else in the world. Hence, when something is destroyed, and returns to the apeiron substance, this deduction is an injustice against that which exists in the world, and is repaid with a new birth. The equilibrium, then, is between birth and death, the living and the dead, creation and destruction. A tree dies and rots, thus fertilizing the ground around it and allowing for the emergence of new life. This is a way of making sense of how the things in the world and the apeiron substance could each make reparations to one another. Of course, this suggestion entails the perhaps unpalatable consequence that the divine apeiron substance can commit an injustice—but there does not seem to be any reason in principle why this cannot be the case. The divine Olympic gods quite frequently commit injustices, and punish one another in various ways. Moreover, just because something is the creator of something else does not mean that it cannot commit injustices towards that which it creates. Parents can abuse their children.             This idea is rendered hopefully a little more plausible by the fact that it is not the divine apeiron substance that arbitrates over this justice or injustice. The assessment is made by Time. The apeiron substance, then, cannot be the highest power in the manner of a transcendent, judgmental God, for it does not mete out punishments for just or unjust deeds. Time does. Hence, in principle, it seems possible that Time could judge the apeiron substance for encroaching too far on that which is living, and this injustice could be repaid with the creation of a new thing.

On any of these interpretations, it is clear that despite Anaximander’s refusal to identify the original substance with any specific element, there is a sort of metaphysical principle at work which determines the relationship between this original substance and the material world. This principle concerns the naturalization of justice, assessed by time, which ensures that the relationships between things, however that relationship is construed, does not permanently fall out of equilibrium. In this sense, Anaximander can be seen as a definite response to Thales’ cosmology, refuting the idea that the original substance can be a material element.

As a consequence of his views, Anaximander thought that the earth does not rest on water, nor does it rest on any other element. It is held in place on account of its similar distance from all things. It is at the center of equilibrium, and so is fixed by necessity. This equilibrium resulted from the manner in which the world was created, at which time the elements separated off from the apeiron substance.

Given Anaximander’s refutation of the argument for a divine original element, it is interesting that Anaximenes returns to a conception of the infinite, divine substance as a material element. For Anaximenes, this originative substance is air. According to Hippolytus:

“Anaximenes said that infinite air was the principle, from which the things that are becoming, and that are, and that shall be, and gods and things divine, all come into being, and the rest from its products. The form of air is of this kind: whenever it is most equable it is invisible to sight, but is revealed by the cold and the hot and the damp and by movement. It is always in motion; for things that change do not change unless there is movement. Through becoming denser or finer it has different appearances; for when it is dissolved into what is finer it becomes fire, while winds, again, are air that is becoming condensed, and cloud is produced from air by felting. When it is condensed still more, water is produced; with a further degree of condensation earth is produced, and when condensed as far as possible, stones. The result is that the most influential components of generation are opposites, hot and cold.” (141).

Anaximenes suggests that everything really is just air, thus perhaps responding to the challenge that if one element is infinite, it will take over all the other elements. For Anaximenes, the other elements are not independently opposed to air—they are simply condensed or rarified air. Moreover, Anaximenes meets Thales’ criteria that the original substance must be perpetually in motion, for otherwise it would require some other thing to set it in motion, and then could not be originative. Anaximenes is thus capable of offering a more detailed account of how the original substance forms the differentiated material world—how the one relates to the other. And he is able to do this with a seemingly natural explanation.

Notice also that “the most influential components of generation are opposites, hot and cold.” These opposites, hot and cold, are not produced from air, but are the form the air takes. They condition the possibility of air transforming into water or earth or fire. This is elaborated in a comment by Plutarch: “as Anaximenes thought of old, let us leave neither the cold nor the hot as belonging to substance, but as common dispositions of matter that supervene on changes” (143). He thought that cold air is denser than hot air. This is the opinion of modern science.

Like Anaximander and Thales, Anaximenes thought that the originative substance is divine. Cicero writes: “Anaximenes determined that air is a god, and that it comes into being, and is measureless and infinite and always in motion” (144). The earth rests on air, and stays in place because its flat shape allows it to float, like a leaf. The heavenly bodies are similarly flat, and float on the air.

If air is divine, and we breathe air, then this breath must allow us to partake of the divine. This is precisely what Anaximenes thought: “As our soul… being air holds us together and controls us, so does wind and air enclose the world” (159).

My impression is that Anaximenes’ conception of air performs a similar role as Thales’ conception of water, but with a more robust account of how the originative substance, when placed under different pressures, transforms into the different elements—hence providing a solution to Anaximander’s objection that if the material principle is one element, it will dominate all the others. g

Works Cited:

Kirk, G.S., Raven, J.E., and Schofield M.      The Presocratic Philosophers. 2nd     Ed. Cambridge: Cambridge            University Press, 2007.

Kirk, G.S. “Some Problems in            Anaximander.” Studies in        Presocratic Philosophy Vol. 1. Eds.           David J. Furley and R.E. Allen. New             York: Humanities Press, 1970. 323- 349.

Vlastos, Gregory. “Equality and Justice in    Early Greek Cosmologies.” Studies    in Presocratic Philosophy Vol.    1. Eds. David J. Furley and R.E.        Allen. New York: Humanities Press,       1970. 56-91.


[1] Unless otherwise noted, citations refer to fragment number in the Kirk, Raven, and Schofield Anthology