The Milesian School- Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, chapter by chapter- (2)

In this chapter, Russell looks at the Milesian school. Miletus was important because it was a very successful commercial city and consequently helped migrate the ideas of Egypt and Babylon to Greece. Miletus was also trading with Lydia, with whom the Greeks made their wealth in silver and gold. Russell focuses on three thinkers; Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes.


Thales, as was mentioned yesterday, can be dated to 585 BCE for famously predicting an eclipse for the Greeks. This impressed them, but Thales really learned this from the Babylonians 19 years previously. There is a famous story of Thales in which he is told that philosophers are pursuing an useless subject. He proves the accuser wrong by predicting that the seasons will produce a bountiful crop of olives. He therefore invests in olives and becomes incredibly wealthy.

As well as teaching the Greeks about eclipses, and the constellations and the seasons, he taught them geometry. He learned it from the Egyptians. Egyptian geometry was rudimental at that point, but the Greeks soon refined it into something great.

He was of the belief that the earth was made of water. Air was evaporated water, and earth was frozen/hard water. He arrived at this belief through empirical observation, and his hypothesis seemed reasonable at the time. His ideas were crude, but they paved the way for greater ideas to come.


Like Thales, Anaximander believed that everything was made of one substance, however, it wasn’t water. Anaximander believed that it was a primal substance which creates its self into all the different substances which comprise the world. These substances include earth, fire, and water. He believed that the substances try to dominate each other, but in the end, they balance back out to equal quantities. He rejected Thales’ idea that the primal substance was water because if it was, water would have entirely dominated fire and earth. He therefore concluded that the primal substance must be entirely neutral.

One surprising thing to many people new to Anaximander is that he came up with the idea that humanity evolved. He fully supported the hypothesis that we developed over time, and originally came from fish. He also believed that the universe in which we lived had evolved from a more basic universe. Whether he believed that the evolution of humanity and the universe was symbiotic or not is unknown, but it is certain that his cosmology and ontology are inseparable from ideas which we would today call thermodynamics and evolution.

He was a prolific scientist who also attempted to work out the size of the sun. He guessed it to be 27-28x that of the earth. He invented the first map. He also proposed a theory that the earth was cylindrical in shape.


Anaximenes is less interesting, Russell asserts, but he is still worth discussing. Little is known of him, but he was thought to have lived some time between Anaximander and the destruction of Miletus in 494 BCE.

He believed that the earth was made of one substance too, but in his case, it is air. He believed, for example, that air became hard when under pressure. He believed that souls were made of air too. Breath, he notes as distinct, but still made from air.

Anaximenes believed the earth to be the shape of a flat disc, propped, like a round table. The entire thing is surrounded by, and compressed by more air, keeping everything held in place. This surrounding air keeps our souls in our bodies and our breath circulating.

Anaximenes’ cosmology was a big influence on Pythagoras, who we will look at tomorrow. Pythagoras, however, believed that the earth was spherical, not flat. It’s interesting to see how an idea carries through generations, and how people adapt it to fit their own views, as we shall see.

One further thing which we shall note is that all three of these thinkers came up with very different ideas of what the world was made from. All of them have their hypotheses rigorous empirical testing, and to some extent we can see how all three ideas would survive the same tests. What this demonstrates is how and why the scientific and philosophical methods became so rigorous and technical; there was a need to narrow in on specific elements to get a truer result, and understand what can separate two things which seem to be the same.

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