Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The properties of the world

In Miletus, the pre-Socratic theories of Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes. Were these men writing their own versions of Metamorphoses?
. . . before Plato, Socrates and the Golden Age of Pericles in Athens, the center of both trade and innovative thought in the world was Miletos, situated on the Mediterranean coast of what is now Turkey. What emerged at Miletos was truly revolutionary - civilization's first attempt to replace myths with rational thought. In Miletos, the first map of the world was likely drawn, and Hecataeus wrote the works that gave him claim as the father of both geography and history. Once jutting out into a wide bay fed by the river Menderes and surrounded by fine harbors, today the city is a gaunt ruin, isolated by the marshlands that have crept relentlessly seawards, a victim partly of changing sea levels and partly of erosion from the flanking hills left bare by overgrazing:
"From the early second millennium BC, the promontory of Miletos was the home of traders closely linked to the Minoan and, later, the Mycenaean world. Later foundation myths tell of Ionian Greeks from Athens settling there, probably as early as 1000 BC. By 700 BC a thriving Archaic city spread across the headland, soon to be adorned with temples to Dionysos, Artemis and Aphrodite, Demeter and Athena, and protected by a city wall. The prosperity of the city was based partly on a hinterland productive of wool and oil, but more on its highly favoured location as a route node linking the long overland trek from the east, via the valley of the river Menderes, to the coastal shipping lanes which embraced the east Mediterranean and extended northwards into the Black Sea and to the Pontic steppe. Through the port of Miletos goods and people flowed, and with the sailors and traders came knowledge. For those anxious to learn of the world there could hardly have been a better place to sit and listen.
"From about 600 BC, Miletos became a centre of vibrant scholarship - a place where thinkers attempted to counter the colourful mythical view of the world revolving around a pantheon of deities with a new rationalism based partly on observational science and partly on philosophy. The earliest of these remarkable men to whom we can give a name was Thales, active in the early decades of the sixth century. He is said to have visited and studied in Egypt and is credited with developing the belief that the world originated from water and would eventually return to water. His pupil Anaximander (c.610-545) further developed this idea of a primordial element. For him it was not water but apeiron, probably best interpreted as that which is spatially unlimited or boundless. The products of this matter - such as wetness, dryness, heat, cold - in paired opposites gave rise to the many worlds of the universe. Anaximander is also credited with producing the first map of the world, which he envisaged to be a disc standing on a column suspended in space in the centre of the universe. The third of this remarkable group was Anaximenes (c.6oo-526), who may have been a pupil of Anaximander. His view of cosmogony was that everything derived from air either by rarefaction, giving rise to fire, or by condensation, leading successively to wind, cloud, water, earth and stone. He was also the first philosopher to envisage a human soul, which he believed to be a component of air.
"The three Milesian philosophers brought about a profound change in thought in the early part of the sixth century - a revolution that was to set the scene for the growth of philosophy in Athens in the following centuries. While one can discern there the influences of Babylonian and Egyptian thought, what emerged at Miletos was truly revolutionary. It attempted to replace myths dependent on the machinations of the gods with rational thought.
From Europe Between the Oceans, Barry Cunliffe, via Delancey Place.

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