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I want to dedicate a series of articles to the philosopher who has most caught my attention in the history of thought, and as you have already seen in the title, I am talking about Heraclitus of Ephesus. I intend to tell you about him in three parts, today I want to tell you about what preceded Heraclitus, and to answer the question why Heraclitus thought as he thought. So I will name this first part:
The purpose of this section is to offer a reflection on the three philosophers prior to Heraclitus, who proposed that what determines the physis, that is, the order of the cosmos, are "natural" elements in order to highlight mythical thought and its difference with rational thought. This allows to give context and importance to the contribution of Heraclitus.
To give context to Heraclitus' thought it is necessary to comment on the world in which he was immersed. It must be pointed out that Heraclitus' thought is a thought directed by the logos, that is to say, a rational thought that departs from the other type of thought called, mythical thought. A myth (μῦθος) is defined as "A marvelous narrative situated outside of historical time and starring characters of divine or heroic character. It often interprets the origin of the world or the great events of humanity. "1 From this definition of myth we could say that it is a style of thought that is not entirely unreal, because although it uses fictitious characters and environments, it does so with the intention of representing reality. At the beginning of Greek philosophy, myth was an important element to recreate the origin of the world and great events in the Hellenic world. Now, this first type of thought is modified with the arrival of the first philosophers, called physical thinkers because they saw in the world of nature the origin of the real and existing. Among these philosophers also called pre-Socratics are: Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes, who sought to answer the origin of the cosmos.
By way of summary, the following table allows us to compare the contrast between the mythical vision and the rational vision of ancient thought, which are comparable to each other. The picture of the mythical vision expresses that the man who wonders about the most essential thing, in this case the origin of the cosmos, does not know the answer to such question, that is why he elaborates symbolic representations that become present in images or allegories, seeking to give an answer to what he does not know. While the picture of rational vision illustrates that man seeks to answer the same questions, but in a more elaborate way, that is, through a concept of the real. He tries to give an explanatory order by means of the logos, reason, to explain the ordering of nature.
Philosophers before Heraclitus
Before the emergence of Heraclitus in Ephesus, three thinkers emerged on the Ionian coast (what is now Turkey) in the 6th century BC: Thales of Miletus, Anaximander, and Anaximenes. These thinkers integrate the well-known school of Miletus, who was concerned with the problem of the origin of reality and the surrounding world. Each one was surpassing his master in the elaboration of a theory that explained the idea of physis (Φυσις). Physis was defined as:
"A single, eternal, infinite and active reality which is at once matter, life and spirit, from which all things arise and to which all things return all things, of which all things are made and thanks to which all things become what they are is the crux of the worldview. "2
Of Thales of Miletus we do not know much about his life, it is said that he may have been born around VII B.C. and later died in the middle of VI B.C. and that he made trips to Egypt. Other than this there is not much that, with certainty, we can say about him, the rest are just anecdotes that we do not know how real or not they may be. Thales considered that the first principle of the cosmos is water, a thought in accordance with the ancient man who did not make discoveries but dedicated himself to contemplate. For him water was the first principle; he observed in water the characteristics of physis, as the constitutive principle of all that was, is, and will always be. He attributed to water infinity and eternity. Thales was also remembered by the Western world for his two theorems. Although, undoubtedly, the aspect that interests us now is the philosophical one.
Thales of Miletus specified water as the first principle since the Homeric tradition expresses: "All beings arise from Ocean and Thetis "3. There is an undoubted influence of Homeric thought in the philosophy of Thales, both thoughts are not excluded. It must be kept in mind that this rational thought, which is made in the Ionian region, will move further and further away from the myth, in its search for the Arché.4
Thales had a disciple, Anaximander of Miletus, born around 610 B.C. He is known to have written a book entitled On Nature.5 This thinker considered that Thales' water cannot be the first principle, since he saw that physis cannot be the origin and cause of all entities since these are determined by opposites. He considered rather that physis must necessarily lack contraries. Therefore, for him the indeterminate (to apeiron) was the principle of motion and life. This ordering principle (to apeiron) being indeterminate lacks limits. "...it embraces everything and governs everything "6.
Anaximander considered that from this principle, by the difference between opposites: cold-hot, light-heavy, dry-wet, is where things emerge. What Anaximander agrees with his teacher Thales is that "everything is full of gods" since both consider that everything is present in the first principle. We have some news about this thinker, who died in 528 B.C., thanks to Aristotle, who states that; "This (the indeterminate) seems to be the principle of the other beings "which embraces everything and governs everything"... and also a divine being, since it is "immortal and indestructible", as Anaximander and most of the naturalists say "7.
Another thinker of the school of Miletus is Anaximenes. He was born in the year 585 and died in 528 B.C. approximately, considered the last representative of this school of Miletus. For this thinker, the principle is the air (aér) understood as mist or vapor or a perceptible air as it moved or felt hot or cold. In this principle, Anaximenes manages to find all the characteristics of the idea of "apeiron" proposed by Anaximander as well as in water as a natural element proposed by Thales. Also of Anaximenes we have a reference in the writings of Aristotle:
"Anaximenes says that the earth cracks when it becomes wet and dries up, and that it trembles on account of these cracked heaps falling on it. That is why tremors occur in droughts and in torrential rains. For in droughts, as has been said, it cracks when it dries out, but when it gets too wet by the waters, it falls to pieces "8.
The problem of the Physis
In order to address the problem of physis, we must begin by pointing out the context in which this notion arises. In ancient Greece, the beliefs and certainties of that civilization were based on Myth. In one of the polis that comprised the great Helade, called Miletus, a series of characters emerged who discovered another way of contemplating the world through the logos.9 Broadly speaking, we could appreciate an attempt to move from myth to reason. These Milesian philosophers were characterized because their thought was the determination of physis.
At that time, physis was erroneously considered to be only "nature". No. What they understood by physis is much more beautiful and complex: in the first place, we can say that it was the primary of everything that exists, that is, a kind of soul of everything since it moves everything, and also that it shapes everything. But the soul should not be understood as that which is distant from the material; because for mythical thought there is no distinction as we perceive it today, between the material and the non-material 10; there is no duality. In a second place, we can say that physis is the primary of all that exists in the "Cosmos". Consequently, it is prior to and subsists in, it.11
These first philosophers, called the philosophers of nature or physical philosophers, dedicated themselves to explain, as far as possible, the Arché, that is, the first principle or, as we have called it before, "the physis". The first author we have a record of is Thales of Miletus, who states that the first principle of the Cosmos is water, or we could say the humid. We think that he said this because of the influence of the environment and the tradition where he had developed. Since he lived on the coast, and the Homeric tradition alludes that the Ocean and Thetis, were the progenitors of all things. Consequently, Thales would make the following statement: "everything is full of gods". He considered that the characteristics that can be attributed to physis, i.e., infinity and eternity, are attributed to water, according to Thales.
The next philosopher on whom we will stop to appreciate what he understood as first principle is Anaximander of Miletus. Anaximander, like Thales, sees in the thought of his teacher a kind of weakness; for he thinks that "water" could not be the first principle because things, insofar as they are determined, have opposites and physis cannot have opposites. Therefore, the Arché of the Cosmos is the apeiron, since everything insofar as it exists is determined apeiron, everything comes from the Apeiron and returns to the Apeiron. Consequently, therefore, the "non-appeiron" cannot exist.
But to understand more accurately the physis according to this thinker, it is necessary to ask: What is the apeiron? For Anaximander, this first principle, called "to Apeiron", the indeterminate, that which lacks limits, does not resemble anything we know in the cosmos. Moreover, as the first substance of the whole cosmos, it indicates that it is prior to it. For the mythical thought of ancient Greece, time, unlike how it is now conceived, is like a straight line, Anaximander conceives time in a cyclical way and consequently attributes it to the Apeiron. So the Apeiron becomes of a certain divinity. And being divine, it is also eternal; and in its eternity and indeterminacy, it allows that at some point it determines all that exists, that is, the cosmos. Consequently, for Anaximander, the whole universe is eternal insofar as its first nature.
If everything comes from the apeiron, which is determined, it necessarily returns to its first state, which is indeterminacy, i.e. it returns to the apeiron. We have already said that time is cyclical and therefore the movement of the Apeiron is also cyclical, that is to say, that what we call being born, is only to limit oneself; and what we call dying, is only to lose the limit. It could be said that there is neither birth nor death since everything is a cyclical movement. What exists is determination and when it ceases to exist it goes nowhere else but to the Apeiron, from which it has never left. This relation of opposites in Heraclitus is one of war, in Anaximander it is revenge. This is understood from the cyclic movement. We will explain it from the birth or death that we have already mentioned. When I am born, life predominates, but death will take revenge and the moment will come when I die, or in other words, we could speak of determination and indetermination. To synthesize, with the words of Anaximander, in one of his fragments he affirms: "The principle of beings is indefinite...and the things that appear in the same thing that gave them being, according to necessity. And it is that they give each other just retribution for their injustice, according to the disposition of time "13.
Now, everything in the universe, or cosmos, i.e. everything real, has a limit within the indeterminate. Everything is one, this is the physis, the Apeiron for Anaximander. From the physis everything arises and is the cause of everything, it governs everything, it moves in itself and does not need another to be what it is, because it is the first substance of everything that existed, exists, and will exist. Its motion, like its time, is cyclical and the beginning and the end are but one and the same point within the circumference.
The third philosopher we will mention for the understanding of physis is Anaximenes of Miletus, follower of Anaximander. He postulates as first principle something that his teacher would call determinate. For Anaximenes the Arché lacks determination both in space and time: the "Air". For more terminological precision, what this philosopher refers to when speaking of physis is not the air as we now know it, but what he refers to is the "aér", i.e. it can be known as mist or vapor, insofar as it is perceptible in its movement or feels cold or hot. Anaximenes takes a great step in the thought and conception of the Arché, since he finds in the air all the qualities or characteristics of the apeiron.
The "aér", insofar as it is indefinite and therefore has no limits, governs everything, since it extends throughout the cosmos and it is he who gives movement to this world. How does he give movement to the cosmos? To answer this question, Anaximenes says that the changes that occur are the product of rarefaction and condensation. It is here that Anaximenes displaces Anaximander's opposites (hot/cold; dry/wet) by other very different opposites such as lax/dense.
The latter is equivalent to saying that the lax is hot and the dense is cold. All this refers to the fact that the "aér", as the first principle or original matter, can move and change at will.
By way of conclusion, we can affirm that the analysis of mythical thought based on the three philosophers mentioned above, allows us to understand how myth gives way to the rational. The philosopher Heraclitus plays a determining role in this transition.