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Chapter 1
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
A History of Philosophy

Frederick Copleston, S. J.

as reprinted by
Image Books — Doubleday
New York • London • Toronto • Sydney • Auckland

The text, and illustrations except as noted,
are in the public domain.


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Chapter 3

Part I: Pre‑Socratic Philosophy

 p13  Chapter II
The Cradle of Western Thought: Ionia

The birthplace of Greek philosophy was the sea‑board of Asia Minor and the early Greek philosophers were Ionians. While Greece itself was in a state of comparative chaos or barbarism, consequent on the Dorian invasions of the eleventh century B.C., which submerged the old Aegean culture, Ionia preserved the spirit of the older civilisation,​1 and it was to the Ionian world that Homer belonged, even if the Homeric poems enjoyed the patronage of the new Achaean aristocracy. While the Homeric poems cannot indeed be called a philosophical work (though they are, of course, of great value through their revelation of certain stages of the Greek outlook and way of life, while their educational influence on Greeks of later times should not be underestimated), since the isolated philosophical ideas that occur in the poems are very far from being systematised (considerably less so than in the poems of Hesiod, the epic writer of mainland Greece, who portrays in his work his pessimistic view of history, his conviction of the reign of law in the animal world and his ethical passion for justice among men), it is significant that the greatest poet of Greece and the first beginnings of systematic philosophy both belong to Ionia. But these two great productions of Ionian genius, the poems of Homer and the Ionian cosmology, did not merely follow on one another; at least, whatever view one holds of the author­ship, composition and date or dates of the Homeric poems, it is clear enough that the society reflected in those poems was not that of the period of the Ionian cosmology, but belonged to a more primitive era. Again, the society depicted by Hesiod, the later of the "two" great epic poets, is a far cry from that of  p14 the Greek Polis, for between the two had occurred the breakdown of the power of the noble aristocracy, a breakdown that made possible the free growth of city life in mainland Greece. Neither the heroic life depicted in the Iliad nor the domination of the landed nobility depicted in the poems of Hesiod was the setting in which Greek philosophy grew up: on the contrary, early Greek philosophy, though naturally the work of individuals, was also the product of the City and reflected to a certain extent the reign of law and the conception of law which the pre‑Socratics systematically extended to the whole universe in their cosmologies. Thus in a sense there is a certain continuity between the Homeric conception of an ultimate law or destiny or will governing gods and men, the Hesiodic picture of the world and the poet's moral demands, and the early Ionian cosmology. When social life was settled, men could turn to rational reflection, and in the period of philosophy's childhood it was Nature as a whole which first occupied their attention. From the psychological standpoint this is only what one would expect.

Thus, although it is undeniable that Greek philosophy arose among a people whose civilisation went back to the pre‑historic times of Greece, what we call early Greek philosophy was "early" only in relation to subsequent Greek philosophy and the flowering of Greek thought and culture on the mainland; in relation to the preceding centuries of Greek development it may be looked on rather as the fruit of a mature civilisation, marking the closing period of Ionian greatness on the one hand and ushering in on the other hand the splendour of Hellenic, particularly of Athenian, culture.2

We have represented early Greek philosophic thought as the ultimate product of the ancient Ionian civilisation; but it must be remembered that Ionia forms, as it were, the meeting-place of West and East, so that the question may be raised whether or not Greek philosophy was due to Oriental influences, whether, for instance, it was borrowed from Babylon or Egypt. This view has been maintained, but has had to be abandoned. The Greek philosophers and writers know nothing of it — even Herodotus, who was so eager to run his pet theory as to the Egyptian origins of Greek religion and civilisation — and the Oriental-origin theory is due mainly to Alexandrian writers, from whom it was taken  p15 over by Christian apologists. The Egyptians of Hellenistic times, for instance, interpreted their myths according to the ideas of Greek philosophy, and then asserted that their myths were the origin of the Greek philosophy. But this is simply an instance of allegorising on the part of the Alexandrians: it has no more objective value than the Jewish notion that Plato drew his wisdom from the Old Testament. There would, of course, be difficulties in explaining how Egyptian thought could be transmitted to the Greeks (traders are not the sort of people we would expect to convey philosophic notions), but, as has been remarked by Burnet, it is practically waste of time to inquire whether the philosophical ideas of this or that Eastern people could be communicated to the Greeks or not, unless we have first ascertained that the people in question really possessed a philosophy.​3 That the Egyptians had a philosophy to communicate has never been shown, and it is out of the question to suppose that Greek philosophy came from India or from China.4

But there is a further point to be considered. Greek philosophy was closely bound up with mathematics, and it has been maintained that the Greeks derived their mathematics from Egypt and their astronomy from Babylonia. Now, that Greek mathematics were influenced by Egypt and Greek astronomy by Babylon is more than probable: for one thing, Greek science and philosophy began to develop in that very region where interchange with the East was most to be expected. But that is not the same as saying that Greek scientific mathematics derive from Egypt or their astronomy from Babylon. Detailed arguments left aside, let it suffice to point out that Egyptian mathematics consisted of empirical, rough and ready methods of obtaining a practical result. Thus Egyptian geometry largely consisted of practical methods of marking out afresh the fields after the inundation of the river Nile. Scientific geometry was not developed by them, but it was developed by the Greeks. Similarly Babylonian astronomy was pursued with a view to divination: it was mainly astrology, but among the Greeks it became a scientific pursuit. So even if we grant that the practical non‑philosophical of the Egyptians and the astronomical observations of Babylonian  p16 astrologers influenced the Greeks and supplied them with preliminary material, this admission is in no way prejudicial to the originality of the Greek genius. Science and Thought, as distinct from mere practical calculation and astrological lore, were the result of the Greek genius and were due neither to the Egyptians nor to the Babylonians.

The Greeks, then, stand as the uncontested original thinkers and scientists of Europe.​5 They first sought knowledge for its own sake, and pursued knowledge in a scientific, free and unprejudiced spirit. Moreover, owing to the character of Greek religion, they were free from any priestly class that might have strong traditions and unreasoned doctrines of their own, tenaciously held and imparted only to a few, which might hamper the development of free science. Hegel, in his history of philosophy, dismisses Indian philosophy rather curtly, on the ground that it is identical with Indian religion. While admitting the presence of philosophical notions, he maintains that these do not take the form of thought, but are couched in poetical and symbolic form, and have, like religion, the practical purpose of freeing men from the illusions and unhappiness of life rather than knowledge for its own sake. Without committing oneself to agreement with Hegel's view of Indian philosophy (which has been far more clearly presented to the Western world in its purely philosophic aspects since the time of Hegel), one can agree with him that Greek philosophy was from the first thought pursued intelligent spirit of free science. It may with some have tended to take the place of religion, both from the point of view of belief and conduct, yet this was due to the inadequacy of Greek religion rather than to any mythological or mystical character in Greek philosophy. (It is not meant, of course, to belittle the place and function of "Myth" in Greek thought, nor yet the tendency of philosophy at certain times to pass into religion, e.g. with Plotinus. Indeed as regards myth, "In the earlier cosmologies of the Greek physicists the mythical and the rational elements interpenetrate in an as yet undivided unity." (So Professor Werner Jaeger in Aristotle, Fundamentals of the History of His Development, p377.)

Professor Zeller emphasises the impartiality of the Greeks as they regarded the world about them, which in combination with  p17 their sense of loyalty and power of abstraction, "enabled them at a very early date to recognise their religious ideas for what they actually were — creations of an artistic imagination."​6 (This, of course, would scarcely hold good for the Greek people at large — the non‑philosophical majority.) From the moment when the proverbial wisdom of the Wise Men and the myths of the poets were succeeded by the half-scientific, half-philosophic reflections and investigations of the Ionian cosmologists, art may be said to have been succeeded (logically, at any rate) by philosophy, which was to reach a splendid culmination in Plato and Aristotle, and at length in Plotinus to reach up to the heights where philosophy is transcended, not in mythology, but in mysticism. Yet there was no abrupt transition from "myth" to philosophy; one might even say that the Hesiodic theogony, for example, found a successor in Ionian cosmogonic speculation, the myth-element retreating before growing rationalisation yet not disappearing. Indeed it is present in Greek philosophy even in post-Socratic times.

The splendid achievement of Greek thought was cradled in Ionia; and if Ionia was the cradle of Greek philosophy, Miletus was the cradle of Ionian philosophy. For it was at Miletus that Thales, the reputedly earliest Ionian philosopher, flourished. The Ionian philosophers were profoundly impressed with the fact of change, of birth and growth, decay and death. Spring and Autumn in the external world of nature, childhood and old age in the life of man, coming-into‑being and passing-away — these were the obvious and inescapable facts of the universe. It is a great mistake to suppose that the Greeks were happy and careless children of the sun, who only wanted to lounge in the porticoes of the cities and gaze at the magnificent works of art or at the achievements of their athletes. They were very conscious of the dark side of our existence on this planet, for against the background of sun and joy they saw the uncertainty and insecurity of man's life, the certainty of death, the darkness of the future. "The best for man were not to have been born and not to have seen the light of the sun; but, if once born (the second best for him is) to pass through the gates of death as speedily as may be," declares Theognis,​7 reminding us of the words of Calderón (so dear to Schopenhauer), "El mayor delito del hombre, Es haber nacido." And the words of Theognis are re‑echoed in the words of Sophocles  p18 in the Oedipus Coloneus, "Not to have been born exceeds every reckoning" . . . μὴ φῦναι τὸν ἅπαντα νίκᾳ λόγον.8

Moreover, although the Greeks certainly had their ideal of moderation, they were constantly being lured away from it by the will to power. The constant fighting of the Greek cities among themselves, even at the heyday of Greek culture, and even when it was to their obvious interest to unite together against a common foe, the constant uprisings within the cities, whether led by an ambitious oligarch or a democratic demagogue, the venality of so many public men in Greek political life — even when the safety and honour of their city was at stake — all manifest the will to power which was so strong in the Greek. The Greek admired efficiency, he admired the ideal of the strong man who knows what he wants and has the power to get it; his conception of ἀρετή was largely that of ability to achieve success. As Professor De Burgh remarks, "The Greek would have regarded Napoleon as a man of pre‑eminent aretê."​9 For a very frank, or rather blatant, acknowledgment of the unscrupulous will to power, we have only to read the report that Thucydides gives of the conference between the representatives of Athens and those of Melos. The Athenians declare, "But you and we should say what we really think, and aim only at what is possible, for we both alike know that into the discussion of human affairs the question of justice only enters where the pressure of necessity is equal, and that the powerful exact what they can, and the weak grant what they must." Similarly in the celebrated words, "For of the Gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a law of their nature wherever they can rule they will. This law was not made by us, and we are not the first who have acted upon it; we did but inherrit it, and shall bequeath it to all time, and we know that you and all mankind, if you were as strong as we are, would do as we do."​10 We could hardly ask for a more unashamed avowal of the will to power, and Thucydides gives no indication that he disapproved of the Athenian conduct. It is to be recalled that when the Melians eventually had to surrender, the Athenians put to death all those who were of military age, enslaved the women and children, and colonised the island with their own settlers — and all this at the zenith of Athenian splendour and artistic achievement.

 p19  In close connection with the will to power stands the conception of ὕβρις. The man who goes too far, who endeavours to be and to have more than Fate destines for him, will inevitably incur divine jealousy and come to ruin. The man or the nation who is possessed by the unbridled lust for self-assertion is driven headlong into reckless self-confidence and so to destruction. Blind passion breeds self-confidence, and overweening self-confidence ends in ruin.

It is as well as to realise this side of the Greek character: Plato's condemnation of the "Might is Right" theory becomes then all the more remarkable. While not agreeing, of course, with Nietzsche's valuations, we cannot but admire his perspicacity in seeing the relation between the Greek culture and the will to power. Not, of course, that the dark side of Greek culture is the only side — far from it. If the drive of the will to power is a fact so is the Greek ideal of moderation and harmony a fact. We must realise that there are two sides to the Greek character and culture: there is the side of moderation, of art, of Apollo and the Olympian deities, and there is the side of excess, unbridled self-assertion, of Dionysian frenzy, as seen portrayed in the Bacchae of Euripides. As beneath the splendid achievements in Greek culture we see the abyss of slavery, so beneath the dream-world of Olympian religion and Olympian art we see the abyss of Dionysian frenzy, of pessimism and of all manner of lack of moderation. It may, after all, not be entirely fanciful to suppose, inspired by the thought of Nietzsche, that there can be seen in much of the Olympian religion a self-imposed check on the part of the Dionysian Greek. Driven on by the will to power to self-destruction, the Greek creates the Olympian dream-world, the gods of which watch over him with jealousy to see that he does not transgress the limits of human endeavour. So does he express his consciousness that the tumultuous forces in his soul would be ultimately ruinous to him. (This interpretation is not of course offered as an account of the origin of the Greek Olympian religion from the scientific viewpoint of the historian of religion: it is only meant to suggest psychological factors — provisions of "Nature," if you like — that may have been operative, even if unconsciously, in the soul of the Greek.)

To return from this digression. In spite of the melancholic side of the Greek, his perception of the constant process of change, of transition from life to death and from death to life, helped to lead  p20 him, in the person of the Ionian philosophers, to a beginning of philosophy, for these wise men saw that, in spite of all the change and transition, there must be something permanent. Why? Because the change is from something into something else. There must be something which is primary, which persists, which takes various forms and undergoes this process of change. Change cannot be merely a conflict of opposites; thoughtful men were convinced that there was something behind these opposites, something that was primary. Ionian philosophy or cosmology is therefore mainly an attempt to decide what this primitive element of the Urstoff11 of all things is, one philosopher deciding for one element, another for another element. What particular element each philosopher decided on as his Urstoff is not so important as the fact that they had in common this idea of Unity. The fact of change, of motion in the Aristotelian sense, suggested to them the notion of unity, though, as Aristotle says, they did not explain motion.

The Ionians differed as to the character of their Urstoff, but they all held it to be material — Thales plumping for water; Anaximenes for air, Heraclitus for fire. The antithesis between spirit and matter had not yet been grasped; so that, although they were de facto materialists — in that they assigned a form of matter as the principle of unity and primitive stuff of all things — they can scarcely be termed materialists in our sense of the word. It is not as though they conceived a clear distinction between spirit and matter, and then denied it; they were not fully conscious of the distinction, or at least they did not realise its implications.

One might be tempted, therefore, to say that the Ionian thinkers were not philosophers so much as primitive scientists, trying to account for the material and external world. But it must be remembered that they did not stop short at sense, but went beyond appearance to thought. Whether water or air or fire be assigned as the Urstoff, it certainly does not appear as such, i.e. as the ultimate element. In order to arrive at the conception of any of these as the ultimate element of all things it is necessary to go beyond appearance and sense. And they did not arrive at their conclusions through a scientific, experimental approach, but by means of the speculative reason: the unity posited is indeed a  p21 material unity, but it is a unity posited by thought. Moreover, it is abstract — abstracting, that is to say, from the data of appearance — even if materialist. Consequently we might perhaps call the Ionian cosmologies instances of abstract materialism: we can already discern in them the notion of unity in difference and of difference as entering into unity: and this is a philosophic notion. In addition the Ionian thinkers were convinced of the reign of law in the universe. In the life of the individual ὕβρις, the overstepping of what is right and proper for man, brings ruin in its train, the redressing of the balance; so, by extension to the universe, cosmic law reigns, the preservation of a balance and the prevention of chaos and anarchy. This conception of a law‑governed universe, a universe that is no plaything of mere caprice or lawless spontaneity, no mere field for lawless and "egoistic" domination of one element over another, formed a basis for a scientific cosmology as opposed to fanciful mythology.

From another point of view, however, we may say that with the Ionians science and philosophy are not yet distinguished. The early Ionian thinkers or wise men pursued all sorts of scientific considerations, astronomical for instance, and these were not clearly separated from philosophy. They were Wise Men, who might make astronomical observations for the sake of navigation, try to find out the one primary element of the universe, plan out feats of engineering, etc., and all without making any clear distinction between their various activities. Only that mixture of history and geography, which was known as ἱστορίη, was separated off from the philosophico-scientific activities, and that not always very clearly. Yet as real philosophic notions and real speculative ability appear among them, as since they form a stage in the development of the classical Greek philosophy, they cannot be omitted from the history of philosophy as though they were mere children whose innocent babblings are unworthy of serious attention. The first beginnings of European philosophy cannot be a matter of indifference to the historian.

The Author's Notes:

1 "It was in Ionia that the new Greek civilisation arose: Ionia in whom the old Aegean blood and spirit most survived, taught the new Greece, gave her coined money and letters, art and poesy, and her shipmen, forcing the Phoenicians from before them, carried her new culture to what were then deemed the ends of the earth." Hall, Ancient History of the Near East, p79.

2 For what Julius Stenzel calls Vortheoretische Metaphysik cf. Zeller, Outlines, Introd. ss 3; Burnet, E. G. P., Introd; Ueberweg-Praechter, pp28‑31; Jaeger, Paideia; Stenzel, Metaphysik des Altertums, I, pp14 ff., etc.

3 E. G. P., pp17‑18.

4 "Nel sesto secolo A. C. ci si presenta, in Grecia, uno dei fenomeni meravigliosi della coltura umana. La Scuola di Mileto crea la ricerca scientifica: e le linee fondamentali, stabilite in quei primi albori, si perpetuano attraverso le generazioni e i secoli." Aurelio Covotti, I Presocratici p31 (Naples, 1934).

5 As Dr. Praechter points out (p27), the religious conceptions of the Orient, even if they had been taken over by the Greeks, would not explain the peculiar characteristic of Greek philosophy, free speculation on the essence of things. As for Indian philosophy proper, it would not appear to be earlier than the Greek.

6 Outlines of the History of Greek Philosophy, by Eduard Zeller, 13th edit., revised by Nestle, translated by L. R. Palmer, pp2‑3.

7 425‑7.

8 1224.

9 The Legacy of the Ancient World, p83, note 2.

10 From Benjamin Jowett's translation of Thucydides (Oxford Un. Press).

11 The German word Urstoff is here employed, simply because it expresses the notion of primitive element or substrate or "stuff" of the universe in one short word.

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