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Presocratic cosmology


Since Hellenic philosophy represents the Western branch of classical Indo-European thought, the Presocratic cosmology should not be viewed as sui generis. As a matter of fact, ‘the ancient Hellenes considered themselves to be students of the much older Oriental civilizations’ (Uzdavinys 2004: xvii). Furthermore, some of the most important strands in Hellenic philosophy have deep roots in Mesopotamian and Egyptian wisdom. These include notions such as the Orphic and Socratic immortality of the soul, the Pythagorean number theory, and even Plato’s theory of Ideas. The Orphic teaching played a major role in the unfolding of Hellenic philosophy, and in its turn was derived from both Jainism (according to Alain Daniélou) and the Egyptian wisdom tradition (Uzdavinys 2004: xix, xxiii). The Hellenic indebtedness to Egyptian and Babylonian wisdom was in fact recognised by a number of Classical authors. For instance, Plutarch wrote that the wisest of the Greeks travelled to Egypt to learn from the priests, for example Solon at Sais and Pythagoras at Heliopolis. The Jewish historian Josephus remarked that the earliest among the Greeks to philosophise ‘about things celestial and divine’, including Thales and Pythagoras, received their learning from the Egyptians and the Chaldeans. And the Hellenic historian Diodorus Siculus asserted that according to the records of the Egyptian priests, they were visited by such luminaries as Homer, Pythagoras, Solon and Plato (Bailey 1994: 270-273).
A number of Hellenic thinkers of the centuries preceding Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were known as cosmologists or natural philosophers (Greek physiologoi), due to their focus on the origin and nature of the cosmos. These Presocratics (as they became known in modern scholarship) were concerned with observation of the environment, the mutations of natural elements and the cyclical natural processes (Theodossiou et al 2011: 93). Their work included the nature of physical substances, the number of ultimate kinds of thing, the existence of the void and the nature of temporal change (Blackburn 2008: 289). The earliest among these cosmologists, especially the Ionians, devoted their investigations mainly into the question of the archē, which means ‘beginning, first cause, origin, first principle, or element’ (L&S 106). It has been suggested by Oswald Spengler that the problem of the archē was the primary ontological question in Hellenic thought, in which the archē was understood as ‘the material origin and foundation of all sensuously perceptible things’ (1991: 94). Consequently the origin of the cosmos was to be found in one or more of four archai (the plural of archē): earth, water, air, and fire. These first principles later became known as elements, and since the elements are material principles, archē could also be translated as primeval or primary matter (Dreyer 1975: 27-28). This notion became the Latin concept of materia prima, denoting the indeterminate common nature that requires a specific principle or form to determine the substance that exists at any time (Blackburn 2008: 225). In other words, primary matter is devoid of substance until it is determined by form.
However, we contend that the modern view of the Presocratic archai as signifying material elements only is erroneous. Frithjof Schuon, for instance, emphasised that Thales had in mind the universal Substance (or Prakriti in Indian philosophy) as the archē, and not the sensible element of water. The same applies to the ‘air’ of Anaximenes and the ‘fire’ of Heraclitus (Schuon 1984: 71). This metaphysical understanding of first principles is reflected in the Bhagavad Gita, where we find Krishna expounding the nature of reality to Arjuna: ‘Earth, Water, Fire, Air, Ether, Mind, Reason, and Ego – thus eightfold is my Prakriti divided. This is my lower aspect; but know thy my other aspect, the higher – which is Jiva (the Vital Essence) by which, O Mahabahu, this world is sustained’ (Discourse 7, Jananvijnana Yoga; Gandhi’s translation). Therefore Aristotle either misunderstood or misrepresented the Presocratics when he charged them with attempting to explain causality only in terms of matter: ‘Of the first philosophers, then, most thought the principles which were of the nature of matter were the only principles of things’ (Metaphysics I.III, 983b). Thales, Anaximenes, Diogenes, Heraclitus, Empedocles and Anaxagoras are mentioned by Aristotle in this regard.

The Milesians

The earliest Presocratic thinkers are generically grouped as the Milesians, since they hailed from the Ionian city of Miletus: Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes. They are for the same reason also known as Ionian philosophers, together with Heraclitus of Ephesus (another Ionian city). The pioneer of Western cosmology in the philosophical sense is Thales, who lived around 624 to 546 B.C. and was revered as one of the Seven Sages of ancient Greece. He recorded an eclipse which has been dated to 585 B.C., an event that has come to symbolise the beginning of Hellenic natural philosophy (Ferguson 2011: 16). According to Aristotle, Thales viewed water (hydor) as the archē, the fundamental principle from which everything comes to be (Metaphysics I.3, 983b). Accordingly, all physical entities are produced through transformations of water. While the expansion and evaporation of water created the air, its contraction and condensation produces the element of earth. Thus from water all things arise and to water they eventually return (Theodossiou et al 2011: 94). However, Aristotle also mentions the view of certain people that soul is intermingled in the whole universe, and he speculates that this may be the reason for Thales’ view that all things are full of gods (On the Soul I.5, 411a). The latter notion follows from the postulate that water is a life force with no beginning or end in time, and therefore has to be divine (McKirahan 1994: 31). It appears that for Thales there is in principle no distinction between the living and the inanimate, so that the psychic and the material are essentially conflated to one level of reality (Dreyer 1975: 29). Combining these arguments, it becomes clear that Thales viewed water as symbolising universal Substance, and not only as a material element.
Traditionally viewed as Thales’ successor in the study of nature, Anaximander (around 610-547 B.C.) is credited for introducing the gnomon (or sundial) to Greece, which was probably obtained from the Babylonians (McKirahan 1994: 32). In Anaximander’s metaphysics the universal Substance underlying the phenomenal world is clearly depicted in non-material terms. According to the Aristotelian commentator Theophrastus, ‘Anaximander … said that the apeiron was the archē and element of things that are, and he was the first to introduce this name for the archē … He says that the archē is neither water nor any other of the things called elements, but some other nature which is apeiron, out of which come to be all the heavens and the worlds in them. This is eternal and ageless and surrounds all the worlds’ (quoted in McKirahan 1994: 33-34). The term apeiron is a compound of the prefix a (not) and the nouns peirar or peras (end or extremity), and thus signifies that which is boundless or endless (L&S 80). It appears that for Anaximander the apeiron means spatially and temporally unlimited, and an indefinite kind of material (McKirahan 1994: 34). In other words, the apeiron has no specific properties, has no origin or cessation, and is inexhaustible (Dreyer 1975: 29). Since the apeiron is eternal and in motion, it has to be conceived as divine, as has been affirmed by Aristotle (Physics III.4.203b). It has been asserted by Oswald Spengler that Anaximander’s notion of the apeiron is the deepest concept of Hellenic metaphysics. It possesses no number (in the Pythagorean sense of the word) and hence no being. The apeiron is ‘the measureless, the negation of form, the statue not yet carved out of the block; the archē optically boundless and formless, which only becomes a something (namely, the world) after being split up by the senses.’ As such the apeiron is also the underlying form of cognition in the Hellenic conception (Spengler 1991: 47).
The interaction between generation and destruction is evoked in the only extant fragment of Anaximander, as quoted by Simplicius: ‘The things that are perish into the things out of which they come to be, according to necessity, for they pay penalty and retribution to each other for their injustice in accordance with the ordering of time, as he says in rather poetical language’ (McKirahan 1994: 43). It appears that for Anaximander there exists a cosmic justice (dikē; also meaning order, law, and right: L&S 173), that maintains the balance among the four principal elements of water, earth, air and fire. This process probably applies to the opposites of hot and cold, as manifested in the alternation of the four seasons, as well as in the rhythm of day and night. Moreover, in this fragment we encounter an anticipation of notions such as the conservation of matter and of dynamic equilibrium among opposing principles (McKirahan 1994: 44-45).
The last of the trio of Milesian cosmologists was Anaximenes, who flourished around 546 B.C. and died around 525 B.C. He was a pupil of Anaximander and familiar with the teaching of Thales. According to the testimony of Theophrastus and Simplicius, ‘Anaximenes … declares that the underlying nature is one and apeiron, but not indeterminate as Anaximander held, but definite, saying that is aēr (air). It differs in rarity and density according to the substances it becomes. Becoming finer it comes to be fire; being condensed it comes to be wind, then cloud, and when still further condensed it becomes water, then earth, then stones, and the rest come to be out of these’ (quoted in McKirahan 1994: 48). In other words, the elements are produced from air through a process of rarefaction and condensation, which in turn produce all the other phenomena (Dreyer 1975: 31). This notion of Anaximenes has been viewed by some modern scholars as representing the first physical account in Western thought of different substances as modifications of one primary substance (Blackburn 2008: 15). However, air is conceived by Anaximenes as infinite, eternal, and constantly moving (Theodossiou et al 2011: 95). Air is therefore divine, like the water of Thales and the apeiron of Anaximander, so that it is more feasible to conceive the aēr of Anaximenes as symbolising universal Substance than indicating the material element only.
It should be noted that in the works of Homer and Hesiod the Greek term aēr denoted the lower atmosphere surrounding the Earth, in contrast to the purer upper air of the heaven, the aithēr (L&S 15, 18-19). From Anaximenes onwards, aēr became associated with the air that we breathe (McKirahan 1994: 49-50). Anaximenes argued that just as humans are permeated by soul, so the cosmos is permeated by air. The only surviving fragment of Anaximenes reads as follows: ‘Just as our soul, being air, holds us together and controls us (synkratein), so do breath and air surround the whole cosmos’ (quoted in McKirahan 1994: 54). This implies that air, soul, and life are in principle identical. Even the gods are generated by air, Anaximenes asserted, and not the other way around (Dreyer 1975: 32). Evidently this thinker held a non-reductionist view of the natural world, in which the presence of soul (psychē) is taken for granted.
By postulating one element as the basis for everything in the cosmos, the Milesian thinkers (as well as their fellow Ionian, Heraclitus) pioneered a unifying approach for the physical world. In this way they opened new paths for the study of nature by means of logical thought (Theodossiou et al 2011: 89-90). Yet their logic remained grounded in the metaphysical tradition, as would be the case with most of their Hellenic successors. Moreover, since the Ionian philosophers ascribed divinity to their archai (whether water, air, fire, or the infinite), they laid the foundations of theistic cosmology in Western thought

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Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans

One of the most influential Hellenic philosophers, Pythagoras of Samos (around 582-496 B.C.), has traditionally been honoured as the father of Western mathematics. According to his biographers, Pythagoras studied with both Thales and Anaximander, of which the former encouraged him to study in Egypt (Ferguson 2011: 16-17). He consequently devoted himself to studying geometry, arithmetic, astronomy and theology during his lengthy residence in Egypt. According to the rhetorician Isocrates (fourth century B.C.), it was Pythagoras who first brought Egyptian philosophy to the Hellenic lands (Uzdavinys 2004: xvi).
It has been suggested by Kitty Ferguson that Pythagoras acquired various strands of his theistic cosmology at different temples mentioned by Porphyry in his biography. Thus at Heliopolis he might have learnt that the diversity of nature arose from a single source, namely the god Atum (meaning ‘All’), which bears a similarity to the apeiron of Anaximander. At Memphis the priests could have instructed him of the role played by the god Ptah as divine intermediary between the mind of the Creator and the act of physical creation, analogous to the Hellenic (and Christian) Logos. Finally, he was initiated into the Egyptian mysteries at Thebes, where the supreme god was Amun (meaning ‘Hidden’), the unknowable and transcendent, of which the other gods were manifestations (Ferguson 2011: 23-24).
It is noteworthy, given the popular notion that polytheism predated monotheism, that the Egyptian doctrine on the supreme creator God, Ptah, dates from the very beginning of Egyptian history. As commented by Mircea Eliade, the earliest Egyptian cosmogony is also the most philosophical: “For Ptah creates by his mind and his word… In short, the theogony and cosmogony are effected by the creative power of the thought and word of a single God…
It is at the beginning of Egyptian history that we find a doctrine that can be compared with the Christian theology of the Logos” (quoted in Damascene 2004: 221).
According to Iamblichus, after twenty-two years in Egypt Pythagoras spent a further twelve years studying in Babylon before returning to Samos. Around 531 B.C. Pythagoras emigrated to Croton in southern Italy, where he founded a religious-philosophical society comprising men and women on an equal standing. However, it was violently suppressed thirty years later and Pythagoras was either killed or exiled to Metapontum. The first book of Pythagorean thought was written during the second half of the fifth century B.C. by Philolaus in Thebes (Ferguson 2011: 33, 42, 72-75, 102). Biographies of Pythagoras were compiled in the third and early fourth centuries A.D. by Diogenes Laertius, Porphyry and Iamblichus.
As was the case with Socrates, Pythagoras wrote nothing (as far as is known) and yet made a lasting contribution to Western thought. According to the early Christian historian Eusebius, Pythagoras invented the term ‘philosophy’, wishing to be called a lover of wisdom, or philosophos (Bailey 1994: 274). Interestingly, the celebrated geometrical theorem attributed to Pythagoras (i.e. that the square on the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle is equal in size to the sum of the squares on the other two sides) was already known in Mesopotamia and Egypt by the second millennium B.C. (Ferguson 2011: 78-84). We have already noted that Pythagoras undertook intensive studies in precisely these lands. Pythagoras is also credited with being the first Western thinker to postulate a spherical Earth, on the grounds that the sphere is the most perfect shape for a solid body. This notion would be supported by Aristotle and other Hellenic thinkers, but with the rise of the Roman Empire the hypothesis of the spherical Earth became replaced with the flat Earth doctrine (Theodosiou et al 2011: 92-93).


1 Introduction
2 The Indo-European background
2.1 Introduction
2.2 Indo-Hellenic parallels
2.3 Being and Manifestation
2.4 Essence and Substance
2.5 Matter, measure, and number
2.6 Time and space
2.7 Sphere and cube
2.8 The metaphysical concept of evolution
3 Presocratic cosmology 
3.1 Introduction
3.2 The Milesians
3.3 Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans
3.4 Heraclitus
3.5 Parmenides
3.6 Anaxagoras
3.7 Empedocles
3.8 Diogenes
3.9 Conclusion
4 Plato 
4.1 Introduction
4.2 Fundamentals: being and becoming
4.3 Thesis: the role of Intellect
4.4 Mediation: the receptacle of becoming
4.5 Antithesis: the role of Necessity
4.6 Synthesis: the co-operation of Intellect and Necessity
4.7 Conclusion
5 Aristotle 
5.1 Introduction
5.2 Physics and metaphysics
5.3. The Prime Mover and Theology
5.4 Philosophy of nature, or bio-philosophy
5.5 Teleology
5.6 Conclusion
6 Neoplatonic cosmology 
6.1 Introduction
6.2 Plotinus
6.3 Porphyry
6.4 Iamblichus
6.5 Proclus
6.6 Harmonising of Plato and Aristotle
7 Implications of Hellenic cosmology for evolutionary biology
7.1 Introduction
7.2 The Presocratics
7.3 Plato
7.4 Aristotle
7.5 The Neoplatonists
7.6 The Great Chain of Being
8 Form and transformation
8.1 Introduction
8.2 Organic form
8.3 Theory of transformations
8.4 The limits of transformation
9 Modern evolutionary theory
9.1 Introduction
9.2 Darwin and natural selection
9.3 Dobzhansky and the modern evolutionary synthesis
9.4 Gould and punctuated equilibrium
9.5 Criticism
9.6 Conclusion
10 Evolution according to natural law 
10.1 Historical background
10.2 The origin of adaptations in organisms
10.3 Law, chance, and design
10.4 The role of selection
10.5 The course of evolution
10.6 Ontogeny and phylogeny
10.7 The orthogenetic formation of characters
10.8 The role of the geographical landscap
10.9 The polyphyletic origin of similar forms
10.10 The formation of new species
10.11 The limits between species
10.12 Mutational theory
10.13 The laws of evolution
10.14 Darwinism versus nomogenesis
10.15 Palaeontological confirmation of mass mutations
10.16 Biochemical confirmation of lawful evolution
10.17 Conclusion
11 Directed evolution 
11.1 Introduction
11.2 Historical background
11.3 Constraints on variation
11.4 Biochemical evidence
11.5 Organic plenitude
11.6 Constraints on plenitude
12 Convergent evolution 
12.1 Introduction
12.2 Convergence of internal characters
12.3 Convergence of external characters
12.4 Convergence of psychical phenomena
12.5 Convergence and evolution
13 Conclusion 
14 Bibliography

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