Today’s Phrase for Latin Lovers

Rex in Regno suo superiores habet Deum et Legem.

The King in his Realm hath two superiors: God and the Law. -- Henry Care (1646-1688) on English liberties and the Magna Carta


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Ancient History

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The Ionians

The philosophical scientist emerges in Ionia, with the epicenter being Miletus, a coastal town, now in Turkey, on the Aegean Sea.

Of its three famous philosophical sons, I’m somewhat partial to Thales. He seems to have been continually applying his intellect to all manner of sciences: geometry, astronomy, engineering. He may have been the one to coin the motto “Know Thyself.” And it seems he was the prototype for the stereotype of the absent-minded scientist.

In Theodorus, Plato wrote:

The story about Thales is a good illustration [illustrating the detachment of the philosopher from the humdrum reality of the world—ed. note, R. Waterfield, The First Philosophers]: how he was looking upwards in the course of his astronomical investigations, and fell into a pothole, and a Thracian serving-girl with a nice sense of humor teased him for being concerned with knowing about what was up in the sky and not noticing what was right in front of him at his feet.

I know how easy it is to trip, stumble, fall into a hole, when lost in hypotheses and assumptions, perhaps even overlooking the fact that what I’m seeking is right here in front of me. In fact, I’m finding it a bit intimidating to be so publicly hacking my way into a jungle unknown to me. Mainly it’s the knowing that I will at times hit impassable dead ends and have to backtrack to find the right path, and when I sheepishly turn around, all my followers will have to sigh and turn around with me.

As soon as I read Plato’s tale of Thales, it immediately reminded me of one of my favorite Sufi dervish tales from the 14th century. It should keep me humble.

The Grammarian and the Dervish

One dark night, a dervish was passing a dry well when he heard a cry for help from below. “What’s the matter,” he called down.

“I am a grammarian, and I have unfortunately fallen, due to my ignorance of the path, into this deep well, in which I am now all but immobilized,” responded the other.

“Hold, friend, and I’ll fetch a ladder and a rope,” said the dervish.

“One moment, please!” said the grammarian. “Your grammar and diction are faulty; be good enough to amend them.”

“If that is so much more important than the essentials,” shouted the dervish, “you had best stay where you are until I have learned to speak properly.”

And he went on his way.

Meditation on Thales:

From Aristotle, On the Soul:

Thales too  (as far as we can judge from people’s memoirs) apparently took the soul to be a principle of movement, if he said that the stone has a soul because it moves iron…. Some say that the universe is shot through with soul, which is why Thales too thought that all things were full of gods.

Tangents and Non Sequiturs From Prudence:
I’ve often heard it said that there can be no soul if there is no god. While I can understand why belief in God requires a belief in soul, I don’t understand why a belief in soul (energy) mandates a god.

Aristotle can put me in the category of Thales and the “Some say” in believing the universe be “shot through with soul” (at least until I’ve studied his essay on the soul).

Meditation on Anaximander:

From Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s “Physics”:

[Anaximander] says that the original sources of existing things are also what existing things die back into “according to necessity; for they give justice and reparation to one another for their injustice in accordance with the ordinance of ‘Time’, as he puts it, in these somewhat poetic terms.

Bertrand Russell retranslates this as, “Into that from which things take their rise they pass away once more, as is ordained, for they make reparation and satisfaction to one another for their injustice according to the ordering of time.” Russell warns that our word “justice” is not the same as this use.

Tangents and Non Sequiturs From Prudence:
Whether the meaning of “justice” is a little off, I find it most intriguing that the concept results in a zero-sum game. If one thing outgrows it’s position and encroaches on other things, it must then be destroyed in reparation (even though Anaximander believed in the limitlessness of the essence of things). It took too much, so taking too little is required for balance–and it’s happy to comply.

You only get so much. Use it as you will. Don’t resist destruction, it’s natural.

I think I would be a very bad element. On the lam, still growing.

Don’t all things resist their destruction?

Meditation on Anaximenes:

From Plutarch, On the Primary Cold:

Anaximenes says that matter in a compressed and condensed state is cold, while in a dilated and ‘loose’ state (this is more or less exactly how he puts it) it is warm. And so, he says, when people say that man emits both warmth and cold from his mouth, they are not saying anything unreasonable. For breath gets cold when it is put under pressure and condensed by the lips, while when the mouth is is relaxed the breath that escapes becomes warm as a result of its being in a rarefied state.

Tangents and Non Sequiturs From Prudence:
It’s worrisome that I’m learning basic science from someone 2,500 years ago. Does everyone else know that your breath does change temperatures when you blow through closed lips versus open-mouthed? What physical properties cause that change?

Kudos to Anaximenes for scientific explanations of his theories.

Pre-Socratic Self Quiz:

Q2. What is Urstoff? What did each of our three philosophers today believe was the Urstoff?


Was there a concept or quote that you found more intriguing or important to your understanding?

Tomorrow: Pythagoras/Alcmaeon

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2 comments to The Ionians

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Prudence Paine, Prudence Paine. Prudence Paine said: New Post: Meditations on the First Philosophers–The Ionians #tcot #tlot #teaparty #hhrs […]

  • Prudence

    Prudence here in the comment section.

    When I quoted Aristotle on Anaximander, I felt the quote was not adequately explained, because in some book somewhere a light went on in my head when I read a discussion on it. That’s why I added the translation from Russell, hoping it would shed more light, but knowing it was still lacking in its illustration of the phenomenon.

    Since then I’ve found one description (though I don’t think it was the “light turning on” one) that might help you picture this concept of justice. It’s from Jonathan Barnes’ “Early Greek Philosophy”:

    “From this characterless material the familiar stuff of the world–earth, air, water and so on–were generated by a process in which the twin powers of heat and cold played some parts. The generated stuffs encroach on one another and have in the course of time to pay compensation for their ‘injustice.’ (We might think of the alternating encroachments of summer and winter, of the hot and dry and the cold and wet.) Thus the world is law-governed.”

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