The Ionian Enlightenment was a set of advances in scientific thought, explanations on nature, and discovering the natural and rational causes behind observable phenomena, that took place in archaic Greece beginning in the 6th century BCE. This movement began on the Ionian coast of western Anatolia by small numbers of forward-thinking Greeks (see Ionian School and Milesian School) from cities such as Miletus, Samos, and Halicarnassus. They saw the world as something ordered and intelligible, its history following an explicable course and its different parts arranged in a comprehensible system. Most historians agree that Thales, one of the Seven Sages of Greece, started this movement by predicting a solar eclipse that actually occurred.
The Greek city of Miletus was the birthplace of Greek philosophy and Western scientific thought. It was a fertile location for this intellectual revolution to flourish because it had connections with the great civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Anatolia, enabling an exchange of goods and ideas from across the Mediterranean and three continents. The city's culture combined the best of Greek civilization with borrowings from Egypt and the Middle East. Internally, the politics of the Milesians were of faction, strife, and bloody revolution. Externally, they were neighbored by two powerful and threatening empires: the Lydians and the Medes. Despite these unfavorable circumstances, the Milesians were commercially indefatigable. They traded with Egypt, the empires to their east, and with Sybaris in southern Italy. They colonized parts of Thrace and the coast of the Black Sea. Miletus bred the first three Greek philosophers: Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes.
Rise of philosophy
Up until this point in time (6th century BCE) the Greeks, and many empires before them, explained the events of the world as products of supernatural actions of divine agents. This can be seen in the writings of Homer and Hesiod, two famous Greek poets. With the introduction of rational and natural thought the Milesian Presocratic philosophers, as they were termed, attempted to produce an improved and rationalized theology in place of the anthropomorphic divinities of the Olympian pantheon. But their theology had little to do with religion, and they removed most of the traditional functions from the gods, such as thunder was no longer the growling of a minatory Zeus or that Poseidon created storms. This new Presocratic approach gave no direct credence to traditional lore and furthermore these philosophers simply ignored the kinds of explanations that were imbedded in myths and advanced their own accounts on the basis, not of tradition, but of reasons. Their approach refused to allow any supernatural actions to govern natural processes. This rejection of the supernatural did not make the philosophers atheists, rather it made them subordinate divine action to natural law which was known as Physis. These first philosophers offered reasons for their opinions and gave arguments for their views. For the most part, they were concerned not to advance opinions, but to advance reasoned opinions.
Historians tend to debate on whether the early Greek philosophers were influenced by other ancient empires during the 6th century BCE or were the first to think about theory and other sciences such as astrology. Below are some of the possible influencers of the Ionian Intellectual Revolution:
Babylonians were known for their vast knowledge of the skies. Temple Priests kept detailed observations of the skies in order to report and anticipate ominous phenomena. Records of eclipses have been found from around 747 BCE. The Babylonians also developed a complex system of mathematics based on the number sixty, which they used to track the motions of the sun and moon. Babylonian archives contained vast stores of mathematical and astronomical data on cuneiform tablets. The eclipse that Thales predicted, which began this movement, may have been done off the basis of Babylonian tablets.
Egyptians were known for their vast knowledge of arithmetic. It is possible that Thales brought back a knowledge of “geometry” from Egypt. The Greek compound noun "geometry" means “earth-measurement”, indicating the kind of science he would have encountered there: practical surveying. Egyptians used scribes who had a knowledge of basic arithmetic on which to base practical questions of ordering supplies and the like. They used a simple but highly practical year of 365 days and made simple astronomical observations.
Thales (c. 625 BCE – 545 BCE)
According to Aristotle, Thales of Miletus was the “founder of natural philosophy.” Much of what we know about him and his philosophy is up to debate because he left no writings. Known as one of the Seven Sages. Thales is credited with being a political adviser, philosopher, scientist, mathematician, and engineer. He is reported to have traveled and studied throughout the Mediterranean in places such as Egypt, Phoenicia, and Babylon, which all influenced his philosophy and theories. Thales allegedly founded geometry, although he may have been taught this in Egypt. He also studied astronomy. Thales searched for the arche (the source for all things), which he concluded was water based on the notion that all things, and more importantly all living things, originate in water and therefore water is the basic starting-point of everything.
Anaximander (c. 610 BCE – 540 BCE)
Anaximander was a pupil of Thales. Some historians start the beginning of Greek philosophy and therefore the Ionian enlightenment with Anaximander since Thales did not leave any written records. Anaximander is responsible for the oldest surviving fragment of Greek philosophical writing. He, as with Thales, offered his own insight into what he believed the arche to be, which for him was termed “the boundless” (apeiron). This boundless he describes as a principle that is neither water nor any of the other so called elements, but instead some different limitless nature. His principle of “boundless” meant that if mass is anywhere, it is everywhere; at the same time, if empty space is limitless, body too must be limitless. He never explicitly states what this boundless principle is made up of and therefore creates an inevitable question for ancient and modern scholars. Anaximander also theorized about astronomical phenomena such as the distances of the sun, moon, and stars; and about the origin and development of living things in the world. He was the first to try and draw the inhabited world on a tablet, and with the help of a traveler from Miletus this tablet was made more accurate.
Anaximenes (c. 585 BCE – 528 BCE)
Anaximenes was a pupil of Anaximander. As with those before him, Anaximenes’ arche was air. His major philosophical advancement was to posit a clear and definite mechanism by which air is transformed into the various more familiar components of the world, thereby tying the world and the arche together. Anaximenes theory of change reported that air is the source of everything; there is a set of elements: (i) fire, (ii) air, (iii) wind, (iv) cloud, (v) water, (vi) earth, (vii) stones, which are ordered by their relative density; and the condensation process is analogous to the action of felting. Anaximenes is usually viewed as the inventor of material monism, the theory by which there is only one substance (in this case air) of which all other things are mere modifications or states.
Philosophers bred from the movement
- Zeno of Elea
- John Freely, Flame of Miletus, I.B. Tauris, 2012, p. 5.
- Warren, James. Presocratics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.
- Graham, Daniel W. The Texts of Early Greek Philosophy. New York: Cambridge University Press,
- Graham, Daniel W. Explaining the Cosmos: The Ionian Tradition of Scientific Philosophy.
- Cline, Eric H., and Mark W. Graham. Ancient Empires: From Mesopotamia to the Rise of Islam. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
- Barnes, Jonathan. Early Greek Philosophy. New York: Penguin, 2001.