Do you, I wonder, ever find yourself wondering about ‘life, the universe and everything’? Do you ever look up at the stars and feel awe at the immensity of the universe? Do you ever look at a flower and marvel at its perfection? Do you ever ask: what does it all mean? where did it all come from? where is it going?
If you do ask such questions, then consider yourself the inheritor of two-and-a-half-thousand years of Western philosophical thought. And don’t be discouraged that, in all of these two-and-a-half millennia, no definitive answers to these questions have been found. It is asking the questions – and thinking about them – that makes you fully alive and human. If you could come up with all the answers, you wouldn’t be human anymore – you would be a god!
It was the ancient Greeks who, as early as the seventh century BC, first began to speculate on the nature of the universe – the kosmos, as they called it. More accurately, they were the first thinkers to commit their ideas to papyrus.
The Greek world at this time extended much further than the Greece we know today. Greek colonies had been established all round the coasts of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, and many of the early Greek thinkers, or philosophers (literally 'lovers of wisdom'), lived in these colonies. Different groups of philosophers asked slightly different questions about the universe:
One group asked: what is the universe made of?
A second group asked: how does it work?
A third group asked: is it eternal and changeless?
Finally, a fourth group asked: who is in charge of it?
We will look at each of these four questions in turn and see what sort of answers the ancient Greek sages gave to them.
What is the universe made of?
Three philosophers from Miletus in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) considered this question. The earliest of them, Thales (born c.625), put forward the theory that water was the basis of everything; he said water was a living thing that generated all other living things. And he added that the earth actually floats on water.
Thales was famous as a wit as well as a philosopher, and a number of his sayings have been recorded. He used to say that death is no different from life. 'Then why don't you die?' someone asked him. 'Because death is no different,' he replied. When someone asked him which came first, night or day, he answered, 'Night came first – by a day'.
Another Milesian philosopher, Anaximenes, put forward a competing theory that the basic substance of life was air. He said that the earth rests on air, and because the earth is flat like a lid, it keeps the air below it stable.
Finally, a third Milesian, Anaximander, produced a more sophisticated theory about the essential nature of things. He said that familiar substances like water and air were too unreliable to be basic substances; rather there had to be some 'anonymous' basic substance that permeated the whole universe and was always in existence even if we couldn’t see it or feel it. (This theory is echoed in our modern scientific view of the universe as being largely composed of ‘dark matter’ which cannot be directly observed.)
Anaximander also had another interesting theory about the world. Today, we often hear people say ‘life isn’t fair’. Anaximander, however, begged to differ. He took the view that the universe had an inherent sense of justice and that this was why it prevented any one individual substance, such as water or air, getting too powerful.
The theories of these three philosophers from Miletos represented a revolution in thought. For the first time the universe was seen as a rational system that man could understand rather than being a mysterious entity governed by the caprice of gods.
How does it work?
You may have heard of Pythagoras and his theorem about right-angled triangles. Pythagoras (born c. 570) lived in southern Italy, in a town called Croton, where he became famous both as a mathematician and a mystic. Not given to undue modesty about his achievements, he declared: ‘There are men and gods, and beings like Pythagoras’!
Pythagoras summed up his view of the essential nature of things in his famous phrase: ‘All things are numbers’. Compared to the Milesian philosophers, Pythagoras is taking a more sophisticated view of life. He is saying: don’t just pick on this or that thing as fundamental; think about the relation between things. And this relationship, in Pythagoras’ view, had to be expressed in mathematical terms. You could say he made the universe more 'brainy'.
Is the universe eternal and changeless?
This is one of the most fundamental questions in philosophy, and here I shall discuss the views of two thinkers who gave radically different answers to it: Heraklitus, from Ephesus in Asia Minor, and Parmenides, from Elea in southern Italy (both flourishing c. 500).
Parmenides thought that the universe was fixed and unchanging; Heraklitus believed it was in constant flux. An analogy may help to show the difference between the views of these two philosophers. An unchanging universe would be like a lake, fixed forever in one place, with one shape and one consistency. A changing universe would be like a river – constantly moving, always rushing past, carrying away everything that exists at a particular moment.
Heraklitus summed up his theory in the phrase ‘everything flows’. His views were not always easy to understand, and in antiquity he was known as ‘Heraklitus the Obscure’ or Heraklitus the Riddler’. What is clear is that he thought the basic element in the universe was Fire, and that this Fire was divine in nature. Since the flame of the Fire was always created through the death of something else, that meant there was constant destruction and rebirth, constant change. Other telling phrases attributed to Heraklitus on this subject are:
You cannot step twice into the same river.
The sun is new every day.
Nothing ever is, everything is becoming.
In antiquity Heraklitus was known as ‘the weeping philosopher’. Some said that this was because he felt distressed by the changeable nature of things; others said it was simply that he found human life lamentable.
After the riddles of Heraklitus, Parmenides seems reassuringly straightforward and definite. He says the world is eternal, unified and unchanging. It cannot move or alter in any way. It may seem to us to be changing, but this is because we are deceived by our senses.
Parmenides’ pupil, Zeno, devised a number of paradoxes to show that there is no change or motion in the universe. One of these: the Achilles and the tortoise paradox, went as follows:
Achilles, a Greek hero who fought in the Trojan war, is running a race with a tortoise. To give the tortoise a sporting chance, Achilles lets it start off first and does not start running himself until the tortoise has got some way ahead of him. So now Achilles has a certain distance to run before he catches up with the tortoise.
Logically, before Achilles runs the whole of the distance between himself and the tortoise, he must run half that distance. When he reaches the halfway point, there will be a smaller distance between him and the tortoise. But before he runs the whole of the smaller distance, he must again run half of it. And when he gets to the half point of this distance, the whole sequence will begin again, and so on ad infinitum.
So, however long and however fast, Achilles runs there will always be some distance, even infinitesimally small, between him and the tortoise. The tortoise, therefore, is certain to cross the finishing line first.
Since this scenario is obviously absurd, Zeno argued that motion itself is an absurd notion. There could, therefore, be no motion in the universe.
Who is in charge?
The theory put forward by Parmenides and Zeno that the universe is unchanging spelt the end of science. No change meant that there were no physical processes to study or understand. Such an extreme view inevitably produced a reaction. In this last section I shall look at the views of three philosophers who all wanted to put change back into the universe but who differed on who (if anyone) was in charge of it.
Empedokles (born around 495 BC in Sicily) said there were four basic elements: earth, air, fire and water. The interactions between these elements were governed by two powers, which he called Love and Strife. The four elements were constantly being carried apart by Strife, but would then come together again under the influence of Love. During the period when Strife was in the ascendant, human limbs wandered about separately:
… Many neckless heads sprang up,
naked arms wandered, devoid of shoulders,
and eyes strayed alone, begging for foreheads.
Eventually, however, under the influence of Love, the limbs were able to combine themselves into fully functioning bodies.
Anaxagoras (born in Asia Minor around 500 BC) said that there was no one substance that was the basis of all life. In fact, every substance in existence had within it a small portion of every other substance. Gold, for instance, consisted mainly of gold, and so had the character of gold, but it still contained small portions of air, water, etc. He said that the cosmic force which governed the consistency of each substance was something called Mind. Mind was the only thing in the universe that was not mixed with anything else and it controlled the way in which the universe evolved.
Both Empedokles and Anaxagoras had challenged Parmenides’ view that there was no change in the universe. They had, however, accepted that the universe is eternal, and that it is subject to some guiding force, either the influence of Love and Strife, or of Mind. These views, in turn were now challenged by the last of our early philosophers, Demokritus. Born around 460 BC in a city in Thrace (now in northern Greece) Demokritus is famous for his eerily modern-sounding ‘atomic theory’.
According to this theory, the world is not eternal, it is not unified, and it is not under any sort of control; rather it is governed simply by chance. It is composed of small indivisible particles, called atoms, which whiz about in empty space randomly colliding with each other. Too small to be seen by the human eye, they are so formed that they can hook onto one another to form large combinations.
Everything in our world, from fire to the soul, consists of these combinations of atoms, and while the atoms themselves are indestructible, their combinations are temporary and can easily be undone. Our world, therefore, is not permanent, but maintains a precarious existence dependent on the random movement and combinations of atoms. This theory seems to dispose of both religion and science and turn life into a lottery! Demokritus was known in antiquity as 'the laughing philosopher' – perhaps he was laughing at his predecessors' (in his view) doomed attempts to find some order and purpose in the universe.
The thinkers you have read about in this chapter are regarded as the first philosophers in the Western world. Why? Because they asked questions about the nature and meaning of life, and they used observation and reason to suggest some answers. Their answers may seem to us today to be naïve, even comical; yet the thought processes that produced these answers represented an important step forward in man’s intellectual development. No longer was the world thought to be simply a divine creation; it was seen rather as a result of natural processes which could be studied and understood.
Today, we still remain indebted to these early philosophers for setting us on the path of ( so far) two-and-a-half-thousand years of philosophical thinking. I propose that we raise a glass of sparkling Greek wine to these early sages in appreciation of the verve, imagination and boldness they showed in tackling life’s eternal questions.
Sylvia Moody is a Classicist and Psychologist with a life-long passion for Greece and the ancient world. Many years spent in Greece enabled her to remain close to Greek language and culture, and to retain a keen sense of the magic and enchantment of the world of the Ancient Greeks. She is the author of “Eternal Questions: Some Notes from Ancient Greece”, published by the Lutterworth Press.