Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Article excerpt

ASTRONOMERS probe tens of billions of light-years into outer space. `Gamma ray bursts' and 'hypernovas' spring out at them. Do they know what they are doing? Of course not. They are the true offspring of the first Western philosophers, Greeks living on the western coast of modern Turkey.

These Greeks were not really philosophers but natural scientists. The legendary Thales from Miletus was the first (born late 7th century BC). The questions they wanted to answer were about the physical universe -- where it came from, what its basic nature and substance were, and how it worked. Thales apparently took the view that water was the first principle, from which everything sprang and to which it returned. For Anaximander, a contemporary from Miletus (c. 610-540 BC), an abstract 'infinite' was the origin of all things, and the cosmos a conflicting cycle of `coming-to-be' and 'perishing' according to laws of nature.

Heraclitus, too (c. 500 BC, from Ephesus, north of Miletus), saw the world in terms of constant change, but not conflicting change. Opposition is built into the natural order of things (so `the same road goes up and down' -'up' if you are at the bottom, 'down' if you are at the top). Anaxagoras (c. …

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