I. Miletus: capital city of 7th Century Greek culture
For an intellectual revolution such as the birth of philosophy to take place, certain material and cultural conditions were needed, among which are political stability, economic prosperity and cultural creativity. The geographical location of Miletus provided these conditions, as well as its many political connections and economic exchanges with both the Mediterranean and the Near East region, which made possible the cultural influence of the city all the way to Athens, the direct inheritor of the Ionian philosophical legacy.
The creativity and fecundity of Miletus became obvious in different technical and theoretical fields, where new types of intellectual disciplines and knowledge appeared, to reshape the way Greeks were relating to their natural and cultural environment. The critical treatment of their ancestors’ polytheistic religious tradition brought about a new kind of knowledge. And the new type of knowledge that emerged in turn induced a different relationship to the world. The demythologization of culture gradually emptied the universe of traditional gods, and opened the way to philosophy.
The new way of producing knowledge was no longer to invoke the gods and ask for divine inspiration, like the poets did. Inquiring into nature and society was the new method. Thus, the new type of knowledge depended on investigation, observation, experimentation. It was first and foremost exploratory. This empirical basis then allowed the exercise of critical and inductive reasoning. At the end of the rational process, a description and explanation of the phenomena involved was produced. Most often, the knowledge thus accumulated was put in writing, in prose (contrary to the mythological tradition, transmitted in verse) and disseminated within the networks of scholars.
Let us now look at the theological ideas put forward by the Milesians Presocratics philosophers, who first contributed to the foundation of natural theology as a specific branch of philosophy. For each figure, I’ll specify which of their concepts, judgments or logical reasoning have advanced the development of natural theology, whether we find them in the cosmological, anthropological or metaphysical portion of their research. As we survey the constitution of a network of thinkers disseminated throughout the Mediterranean Greek world, and the foundation of an enduring intellectual tradition of rationalization of our knowledge, we should be able to follow step by step the development of natural theology which will culminate in the metaphysical works of Aristotle, in the 4th century BC.
II. The First Presocratic Philosopher: Thales of Miletus
Cosmology - Since Platon and Aristotle, Thales is renowned for having initiated the study of nature (phusis, in Greek). Rejecting the mythological traditions, Thalès endeavoured to find an empirical and rational cause or explanation to nature that was internal to it. His thesis, reported in Aristotle's Metaphysics, is that everything comes from water. In other words, that water is the archè (the one principle), explaining the existence of nature, its development, and its current composition. Water is the fundamental principle from which everything comes, and from what everything is made of. The idea of the unity of the cosmos stems from this vision of a world structured around a single principle. In Thales philosophy of nature, there is also an attempt to reach systematicity, for water is construed not only as the origin and foundation of the whole reality, it is also the explanation of more specific natural phenomenon, like the fact that the earth stays still. It is, argues Thales, because it is floating on water, “like a piece of wood” (Aristotle). So, Thales’ understanding of nature is based on a set of key concepts:
- empiricity (of our experience of the world) and rationality (of the approach) (5)
- causality (the search for one or many principles) (4)
- unicity (search, if possible, for one general and universal of principle) (4)
- naturality (of the cause) (3)
- unity (of the world seen as an orderly totality) (2) and systematicity (of our knowledge of it [intelligibility] (6))
Theology - We’ve already stressed elsewhere Thales’ idea of an omnipresence of the divine (everything is full of gods, he says), and the idea that magnets endowed with a soul). There is obviously still much confusion here, between the theological, the cosmological and the psychological levels. How is the divine present to the world? How is the soul invisibly present in the matter and moving it? The information we have from tradition about the thesis from Thales is too incomplete to answer these questions. But the things we know for sure is that the matter is not all that matters for Thalès. We also know that Diogenes Laërtius (3rd century AD), a biographer of the Greek philosophers, ascribes the following statement to Thales: "Of all beings, the oldest is God, because he was not begotten; the most beautiful is the world, because it is the work of God..." We have every reason to doubt the authenticity of such an attribution, for the idea of the word being created by God is not Greek at all, it is a Jewish one. Conversely, the idea that reality is internally determined by a spiritual principle (the gods or the soul) is a very Greek one.
philosophical Anthropology - The clues that could give us an idea of Thales' anthropology are extremely meager. We know that Thales had a conception of animate beings as being capable of moving things. Based on this empirical observation, he deduced that magnets are also endowed with a soul, since they move metals. On the basis of the same judgement, it is obvious that Thales conceived man as an animated being. However, we don’t have enough information about his theories to qualify and characterize this human soul.
Thales could also be the one who coined the famous Greek aphorism “Know thyself”. So the tradition of philosophy as a disciple or self-awareness that would lead to the development of a series of spiritual exercises aimed at pacifying the soul could go back as far as the 6th century, B.C.
Other reports mention Thales activities as an astronomist, an engineer and a political adviser and even a smart businessman. Over time the figure of Thales has been so magnified that it is likely that legend is mixed in with the true accounts. Today, in the case of Thales, it is not possible for us to make a clear distinction between what is history and what is mythical amplification.
What we know for sure is that he was looking for a first explanatory principle, and that spiritual entities such as "gods" or the soul were always part of his worldview. Werner Jaeger fully understood the importance of Thales' idea that "everything is full of gods" and gave a brilliant explanation of how critical thinking, while rejecting the old mythical explanation, did not reject the divine itself, but simply its more commonly accepted understanding.
This is what W. Jaeger concluded from Thales' affirmation of the omnipresence of the divine in nature:
Thales’ gods do not dwell apart in some sequestered and inaccessible region, but everything - that is, the whole familiar world about us, which our reason takes so soberly - is full of gods and the effects of their power. This conception is not without its paradox, for it clearly presupposes that these effects can be experienced, and experienced in a new way: they must be something that can be seen with the eyes and grasped with the hands. We no longer need to look for any mythical figures in or behind the given reality in order to discern that it is itself a theater where high powers hold sway. So in restricting our cognition to that which we find immediately before us, we are not necessarily compelled to abandon the Divine. Of course our mere understanding is hardly sufficient in itself to give us any adequate evidence for the gods of popular belief ; but experience of the reality of ϕύσις [physis] provides it with a new source of knowledge of the Divine: it is there for us to grasp as if with our own hands, everywhere in the world.”
Here we see, masterfully described, the very beginning of natural theology as an understanding of the Divine based on a rational inquiry into nature.