The Axial Age
The Pre-Socratic Philosophers
Just as questions, debate and reasoned solutions were part of political discussions in the Greek polis, these men focused on speculative questions, discussions, debate and reasoned conclusions with regard to the nature of the world. They thought of themselves as philosophers (literally “lovers of wisdom”).
Rather than rely on supernatural answers, they sought the natural elements that were involved in the world’s formation (physis), and to identify the Eunomia (balance) of the universe and the principles governing it. Their questions fell into areas that we now categorize as science, philosophy and spirituality. They used prose not poetry as their language of inquiry, and gradually prose became associated with the language of investigation, and logos to stand for what we would call scientific inquiry. From this sense of the word we get “logic” – rational thinking.
In the first half of the sixth century, the Ionian city of Miletus was a rich trading center with numerous colonies, possibly the most powerful Greek city on the coast of Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). Its citizens were audacious sailors whose travels took them to the cultures of Mesopotamia and Egypt and who lived close to the rich city-state of Lydia.
Thales of Miletus (~ 624 - 547 BCE)
Never before had someone put forward general ideas and explanations about the nature of the world without recourse to religion or myths. For the first time there was a conviction that there were natural laws controlling nature, and that these laws were discoverable. The world is made of material, and it is governed by the laws of material motion. Thales did not break entirely with religious explanations but he did attempt to give rational explanations for physical phenomena, claiming that behind the phenomena was not a catalogue of deities, but one single, first principle, which he called an archê, “cause”. He identified this first principle as water.
Anaximander (~ 611 - 547 BCE)
Another Milesian, Anaximenes (~ 585 - 525 BCE), said the primary element was air.
Pythagoras (~ 582 - 504 BCE)
Pythagoras was well-traveled. As a young man he studied with both Anaximander and Thales of Miletus. He was said to have been initiated into the ancient mysteries of the Phoenicians studying in the temples of Tyre, Sidon, and Byblos in modern day Lebanon, and to have visited Haifa and the temple on Mount Carmel in Israel. He spent time studying in Egypt, and when the Persian Empire expanding westward, invaded that country, he was captured along with members of the Egyptian priesthood and taken to Babylon. In Babylon he would have found himself at the center of a convergence of religious and philosophical ideas, and in a culture that, like Egypt, was also at the forefront of mathematics and astronomy. Zoroastrianism was in its early days, the Magi (Zoroastrian priests) were establishing the ethical teachings, rituals and monotheism of their religion in contrast to the multiple gods and rigid social hierarchy that was already part of Babylonian culture. Here Pythagoras may well have studied the importance of numbers and of the interaction of contraries or opposites - good/evil; positive/negative; light/dark; right/wrong; etc.
After twelve years in Babylon, he was allowed to return to his birthplace, Samos in Ionia. Leaving Babylon, he may well have traveled through Persia into India to continue his education where some sources say he is referred to as Yavanacharya, the “Ionian Teacher”. He could well have obtained his Karmic ideas directly from India, although similar ideas were also known in Egypt, plus, in Greece, the Orphic cult was heavily influenced by Eastern belief, particularly on the transmigration of the soul.
He intended to set up a community in Samos but corruption, neglect and tyrannical oppression made it unsuitable. He journeyed to Croton on the east of Italy, where he founded the Pythagorean society of philosophy, mathematics, and natural sciences. People from different classes – and even women – came to his school to hear his lectures and become part of his community. He recommended modesty, austerity, patience, equality and self-control.
Pythagoras’s famous saying “All is number” refers to his understanding that beyond the world of appearances there lies an abstract harmonious world of number. For the first time he demonstrated that the structure of nature is translatable into numbers and geometric forms which can describe its fundamental laws.
“For Pythagoras, mathematics served as a bridge between the visible and invisible worlds. He pursued the discipline of mathematics not only as a way of understanding and manipulating nature, but also as a means of turning the mind away from the physical world, which he held to be transitory and unreal, and leading it to the contemplation of eternal and truly existing things that never vary. He taught his students that by focusing on the elements of mathematics, they could calm and purify the mind, and ultimately, through disciplined effort, experience true happiness.”
Divine Harmony – The Life and Teachings of Pythagoras by John Strohmeier and
Heraclitus of Ephesus (~ 535 - 475 BCE)
Xenophanes (~ 560 - 480 BCE)
Parmenides of Elea (~ 520 - 450 BCE)
Anaxagoras of Athens (~ 500 - 428 BCE)
Leucippus (5th century) and Democritus (~ 460 - 370 BCE)