The Theology of the Early Greek Philosophers

By Werner Jaeger | Go to book overview

CHAPTER II
THE THEOLOGY OF THE MILESIAN NATURALISTS

AT the gateway of philosophy stand three venerable figures, Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes. Ever since the time of Aristotle we have grouped these men together as physicists or philosophers of nature. While it is true that in later years there were other thinkers of similar inclinations, these three are still pre-eminent of their kind, and obviously form a unified group. Even in their place of origin they belong together: they are all sons of Miletus, the metropolis of Greek Asia Minor, which had reached the peak of its political, economic, and intellectual development during the sixth century. It was here, on the colonial soil of Ionia, that the Greek spirit achieved those two general conceptions of the world which have given rise on the one hand to the Homeric epic and on the other to Greek philosophy. We can, of course, show that the Greeks of Asia Minor came into very close contact with the older cultures of the Orient in trade, art, and technics; and there will always be some dispute as to how much this influence contributed to Greek intellectual development. It is not hard to imagine how deeply the sensitive minds of the Greeks must have been impressed by the various Oriental creation-myths and the Babylonian attempt to connect all terrestrial events with the stars. Perhaps we may even trace in the theologizing of Hesiod certain reactions to the theological speculations of the Orientals, particularly in his myths of the first woman and of how sin and evil came to the earth.1

In spite of all this, Hesiod Theogony is already thoroughly Greek both in content and in spirit; and the impulse which makes the Ionian philosophers of nature seek to comprehend the world in universal terms takes a form that is utterly and unmistakably their own. The Hesiodic type of rationalism, with its interpretation and synthesis of the traditional myths, has given way to a new and more radical form of rational thinking, which no longer draws its content from the mythic tradition, nor indeed from any other, but takes as its point of departure the given realities of human experience--τὰ ὄντα, 'the things that exist'. Here we have an expression which was used rather

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