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Dialogue between Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes


To: Charles R.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Dialogue between Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes
Date: 1st April 2010 11:27

Dear Charles,

Thank you for your email of 25 March, with your first piece of work for the Ancient Philosophy program, 'An Imaginary Dialogue Concerning the Fundamental Nature of All Things', featuring Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes.

I enjoyed reading this. The few little touches that you added to give the dialogue a sense of realism worked well, and the three Milesians came across as very likeable chaps.

One question that immediately came to mind concerned Anaximenes question in response to Anaximander's example of the craftsman making a wheel for a cart, 'Are you suggesting that the gods may have followed rules while constructing the world and the heavens? But how can the gods be subject to rules? It is the gods who make the rules and, therefore, how can they be subject to them?'

The idea that the Greek gods were responsible for constructing the universe is wildly anachronistic, let alone the idea that they authored the rules whereby the construction was made possible. Xenophanes was the first Greek philosopher to consider what are the necessary and sufficient conditions for a true 'God', and even he only claims that God 'sees and moves all by the power of his mind'.

The gods on Mount Olympus are creatures, albeit 'supermen' by our modest standards. They 'make the rules' in the sense of controlling the lives of men, punishing those who defy them, but they are not creators of the universe. The very idea of a first act of creation, as such, is way ahead of Greek thinking at this stage. It is only with Aristotle, that we get the first argument which recognizes the need to halt a vicious regress of explanation -- the argument for an 'unmoved mover' -- and even that stops short of the idea of creation ex nihilo, which you have put into the mouth of Anaximenes.

Heraclitus' concept of the eternal Logos is perhaps the first real anticipation of the God of Judeo-Christian theology. 'In the beginning there was the Logos.' Yet, for Heraclitus, there is no 'beginning of the universe' as such, at least, no evidence for this in his writings. The world, the material expression of the Logos is itself 'an eternal fire, kindling in measures and going out in measures'.

Thales' reference to 'the use of our god-given reason' is anachronistic for a similar reason. The gods didn't give us our powers of reason. The gods were 'given' their great powers, and we were 'given' our lesser powers. Only, there was no 'giver' as such.

However, I do think that the analogy with the craftsman and the cart is a great idea and in itself very plausible. Greek technology reached its heights, arguably, with the design and construction of the trireme, a precisely engineered and designed fearsome weapon of naval warfare. Recent experiments in constructing triremes according the original design (or, what can be figured out regarding the design from pot decorations, paintings etc.) show the Greeks could not have relied merely on rules of thumb. Similar conclusions can be drawn regarding the magnificent examples of Greek architecture.

What was central to the discussions which may very well have taken place between the Milesians were the notions of 'cosmos' and 'chaos', together with a broader notion of teleology (which I have mentioned in a previous communication) according to which there is a positive nisus or force towards cosmos and away from chaos in the universe, although this has to contend with its opposite (which we would now recognize as the principle of entropy) i.e. the tendency for things to break, scatter and fall into ruin. It was not until the atomists that the scientific credibility of teleological explanation came into question.

Much of your dialogue covers things we have discussed before. However, you venture some plausible hypotheses concerning the selection of water, and air. Thales: 'Furthermore, in its purest form water is transparent and, as a completely transparent substance, may be present and yet unseen. This may account for those objects which seem to be completely dry. It may account for water's apparent absence in fire.'

In the unit, I raise the question what it 'means' to say that water is 'really' fire, as opposed to saying that fire is 'really' water. In both cases all you are saying is that there is some fundamental stuff, which under some conditions takes the appearance of water, and under other conditions takes the appearance of fire (there is no logical implication here of a neutral basis such as the apeiron, although that would be one possible way to extend the idea).

Your thought is different. There's water everywhere, and it IS water. Only you don't always see it because of its transparency. Just as it is hard to see the wateriness of water in snow, or the misty steam from a cooking pot. Good!

I also like the lucid way you contrast 'explanation in terms of the conflict of opposites' with 'explanation by means of condensation and rarefaction'. The point to make here is that the two seemingly contradictory hypotheses were combined in the philosophy of Heraclitus. Fire 'kindles' and 'goes out' in measures just like Anaximenes' rarefaction or condensation of air, but in the case of Heraclitus this essentially involves a constant tension or conflict between merely *apparent* opposites.

All the best,