For some contemporaries, the ideas of the first ancient Greek philosophers about reality may seem strange and primitive. But the truth is that Thales and his followers, Pre-Socratic scientists laid the foundation for a scientific approach that goes beyond materialistic concepts. This paper aims to describe how the first theories of reality derived in Ancient Greece and became a foundation for future investigations by Plato and Aristotle.
The first known theory about the essence of ultimate reality was Thales’ theory, which tried to answer the fundamental philosophical question of the One and the Many. Thales lived on the shore of the Mediterranean sea, in the city of Miletus, and believed that everything was one thing, for which he was named the monist (Miller & Jensen, 2009). Moreover, Thales believed that this one thing is water, and he had several arguments to prove his theory.
First, the philosopher appealed to the fact that water is necessary for all living beings. Secondly, he noted that water in the form of moisture is present in most things. Thirdly, water can be found almost everywhere – in the sky, on the earth, and underground (Miller & Jensen, 2009). Fourth, the sea seems limitless, and the substance of water is present in a considerable quantity. Finally, water can exist in three states – solid, liquid, and gaseous. This theory was subsequently recognized as the first philosophical theory because Thales drew ideas from the surrounding reality, and tried to find evidence of his approach, relying on metaphysical intuition.
Thales had followers called pre-Socratic scientists – the Ionians, the Italians, and the Pluralists. The Ionian Anaximander proposed the concept of an indeterminate substance, which subsequently produced sensible qualities – like hot, cold, moist, and dry (Miller & Jensen, 2009). Anaximenes suggested taking the element of air as the basis, Xenophanes chose water and land. Heraclitus considered fire as an underlying reality since this element has an ever-changing character.
The Italians were represented by Pythagoras, Pythagoreans, and Parmenides, who said there is only being, and it is immutable. At the same time, Pythagoras and Pythagoreans believed that numbers are the essence of everything, offering a concept based on “non-sensible or incorporeal structure of things” (Miller & Jensen, 2009, p. 41). On the opposite, the Pluralists described reality as a diversity of substances. Empedocles suggested all four elements that are driven by Love and Strife are the ultimate reality. Anaxagoras stated that everything consists of an infinite number of divisible particles, or seeds, each of which has distinct qualities so that anything is determined by the seeds prevailing in it. Moreover, all this multitude is controlled by the pure Mind. Finally, Leucippus and Democritus claimed that everything arises from the coagulation of an infinite number of indivisible particles – atoms.
It is noteworthy that Nietzsche and Copleston recognized Thales and pre-Socratic scientists as the first Greek philosophers, on whose theories Aristotle and Plato based their views. Therefore, a rational discourse derived from naturalistic ideas about reality and was enriched by the metaphysical intuition of the first Greek philosophers (Miller & Jensen, 2009). The initial concepts were so powerful that they quickly brought philosophical thought to ideas investigating the form of all things.
Thus, the first theories of reality were derived in Ancient Greece and became a base for future investigations by Plato and Aristotle. To summarize, these theories solved the problem of the One and the Many, giving different interpretations to the essence of ultimate reality. Thales believed that all things are one thing, and this one thing is water. His followers, the Ionians, the Italians, and the Pluralists, thought that ultimate reality is: air, water, and earth, fire, numbers, immutable being, four elements, united by the forces of Love and Strife. Other theories presented ultimate reality as an infinite number of divisible particles, having the nature of seeds with predominant qualities and controlled by the pure Mind, and coagulation of an infinite number of indivisible particles – atoms. Of course, all these theories are a fantastic triumph of human thought over the incomprehensibility of being.
Miller, E. L., & Jensen, J. (2009). Questions that matter: an invitation to philosophy. McGraw-Hill.