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pathways (guide)

Graham Nicholson

The Milesians: a dialogue in two parts

The place: The place is Miletus (on the south-west coast of what is now Turkey) in the year 531 BC. It Is a coastal town, standing on the mouth of the Aegean with the Mediterranean. Due to the level of maritime design and navigation, most sea travel was coastal, Miletus was, therefore, a popular staging post on the Greek shipping lanes.

It was also one of the land gate-ways to the Aegean from the empire of Persia, and beyond.

It was, therefore, a cosmopolitan place.

The scene: The first dialogue takes place in the modest family villa of Anaximenes, a middle-class teacher, and involves a group of his fast-maturing (and questioning) students)

- o O o -

Anaximenes: You have all asked me to explain what value your studies with me might have? Although bright, you question the purpose of my posing many of the problems which I set for you, from time to time.

Student 1: Master, you ask us questions that either can never be answered, or which seen to have no bearing on our daily lives.

Anaximenes: (After a moment's thought) I want to tell you a story of myself, when I was about your age which, I think, will help to answer your questions.

About 30 years ago, I too posed a similar question to my tutor, Anaximander, and he took me to speak with his old tutor, Thales.

We found him taking his ease (he was advanced in years by then) under a tree in the small courtyard of his home. I remember that it was very hot.

Student 2: What was he like?


Student 3: Your Master!

Student 2: And Thales!

Anaximenes: Thales was by then quite a short, slightly-built man of about 60 years. His features plainly told of his ancestry, They had been aristocratic, and from the eastern end of the great sea. He had, as is common with his people, travelled much, seen much, and was well-versed in traditional learning.

Anaximander too regarded Miletus as his home, although he was clearly from our stock. He was taller than Thales, and altogether larger.

These two were well met, and not being too far apart in age were very easy in each other's company.

I was introduced to Thales, and my master explained my challenges, as the purpose of our visit. At first Thales turned and considered me, and then with a brightness in his eyes, he suggested that we found a shady spot for our discourse. I remember it as if it were yesterday. Our discussion went this way:

- o O o -

Anaximander: Master, my student has questioned what we do and its value. I thought that between us we might be able to educate and persuade him.

Thales: Young man, I have travelled much, and in many lands. In most, of then the people worship different, Gods, who are all supposed to hold dominion over different things.

They can't all be correct, and it follows that if some have fallen into error, they might all be wrong. If this is possible who or what takes the place of these "Gods" and what orders our world?

Are you with me so far? Can you appreciate what this means?

Anaximenes:I can follow your challenge to Gods, but I am not sure that I see what significance you imply.

Thales: (Slightly exasperated) The significance is that when people accept that mysterious Gods are in charge, they care not why or how the world works.

But if the Gods are taken away, and the world we know is still clearly working to a pattern, what is that pattern, and what decides what that pattern will be?

Don't you see...the world we know ceases to be the child of some parental God-head. It is an orphan. It is untethered. It is a free thing...which goes on as before. But why?

Anaximenes: But, my master says that you believe that there are "Gods" in all things?

Thales: I have never said or meant that! Look at what is before you, and explain it.

The magnesia stone pulls certain things to it, but...break it open, and there is nothing there! There is a life-force there!!

The sea goes up and down. Does it breathe?

All I meant to do was to show that things which appear to be incapable of life--do have life!!! The Greeks have always used metaphor, I may have used "Gods"...in that way.

Anaximenes: If that is the case, where does this "life" come from, and why?

Thales: That's better!! Observe, enquire, rationalise an answer which seems to fit...but then always test it against the evidence, and do so every time new evidence comes to light.

Is that not right, Anaximander?

Anaximander: Quite right! (with a laugh).

Thales: When I first asked these questions, I realised that what I was really asking was--how did the world we live in come into being? What keeps it going? How does it work?

Anaximenes: And what was your answer?

Thales: I looked at all around me and came to the conclusion that the ancients had been correct. Consider, if you walk far enough in any direction, you will reach the "great water"...and no-one has ever found it's edge

I then considered the things about us. How often do we find water in all around.

Therefore, I concluded that all that we see originated in the "great water", and that the world we stand on has water as its prime element, and that water must, therefore, be the prime element!

Finally, I turned to the phenomena of things which seen to contain more than can be seen, and I concluded that this extra quality must be the missing "life-force".

If I an correct in this, then it can go anywhere, and into all things, and therefore...is capable of being discovered anywhere and in all things.

Anaximenes: But!...I'm sorry, can I ask some questions?

Thales: Yes, of course!...That!..is why we are here.

Anaximenes: Have you really come up with any new questions or answers?

The Egyptians have long since held that our world floats on a sea of water. Our forefathers worshipped what they thought were Gods in all things.

Thales: Yes, but (to answer your last question, first) there is a difference between looking an inanimate objects as containing a personality which acts according to the whim of that personality, as opposed to having a "life-force," which operates oblivious to man, and without judgement.

In answer to your comment about the water, I see no objection to coming to the same conclusion as others. The question is--for what reason, and on what evidence!

You must not conclude that what Anaximander and I are trying to do is to sweep away all that has gone before. We are merely challenging and analysing all things.

Anaximander: Even Thales and I don't agree. Do we master?

Anaximenes: All right, Anaximander! How do you disagree with your tutor, and why?

Anaximander: First, I questioned whether water was the substance from which all things come. While I accept that when opened, many things appear to have moisture in then, which is clearly water-based, there are things which do not.

Stone does not. Fire destroys water. Only living things have water in them. And...we are also left with the problem of the heavens.

Anaximenes: So, are you saying that water is not the life-force?

Anaximander: No! Rocks are part of this world, and Thales' example of magnesia has no water in it, but it seems to have a life-force!

Besides, what Thales started...was a search of how the world began, how it was made, and how it works.

All I an saying is that unless water can be found in all things (and I don't think it can) then water is not the thing of which our world is made.

If the world is not made of water, I then question Thales proposition that the "great water" is the source of all things, and I question whether the Egyptians were correct in saying that the world floats an water.

Anaximenes: Why?

Anaximander: Because, what is holding the water?

Anaximenes: But, is not your old tutor correct...when he says that all directions, the world we know is surrounded by water?

Anaximander: Possibly, but if you sail a boat in any direction, you always come to land--sooner or later. Doesn't, that suggest that the water is held by the land?

Thales: But Anaximander, we know that the world is not just land and water. What about the sky?

Anaximander: I'm glad you said that.

Anaximenes: Why?

Anaximander: Because, if we accept the sky and heavens as part of our world, and presumably with the same prime element, I fail to see how that element can be water.

Anaximenes: In what way?

Anaximander: Master Thales attempts to explain the world as we know it, by looking for two things:

1. a common building block, for all construction (which he decides is water); and

2. he identifies that some things appear to have a life-force within them.

I have already challenged his water, as the primary constituent of this world, especially in inanimate objects...and the heavens.

I have also challenged his idea of our world floating on water. I wonder whether his ancestry is not affecting his judgement here!

Thales: (laughs) Who can escape their own world. Oh no, forget that--another problem will deflect us. (more laughter)

Anaximander: He (Thales) says...walk and you will come to water! I say sail...and you will come to land!

But, whether you sail or walk, we are at all times in the presence of air.

Thales: So we are, but what encompasses and supports our world... air? How can that be? The world is huge. Even the smallest solid object, falls in air. How can air be part of stone, fire, earth and water?

Anaximander: The thing is--we can't be sure, but we must look for an explanation which appears to answer our questions, until we find a situation which is not answered.

Anaximenes: And then?

Thales: And then we start again!! (with laughter)

Anaximander: If I can return to our question!!! If we find the thing from which all things come, we can understand the construction of our world.

Anaximenes: Well, what is it?

Anaximander: I wonder whether it is not something which, as yet, we can't identify. I call it the "apeiron."

Anaximenes: But that word means "something which is without form, or boundary". There is no such thing. We are speculating about something which is not known to exist.

Anaximander: The air exists, but you can't capture it, or see it!!

Anaximenes: I'm sorry ...but I don't think you have supplied an answer at all.

Anaximander: But I have. We know that whatever the life-force is, its qualities would have to be that it has no shape or form, and that it can go anywhere.

Thales: And where do you go from there?

Anaximander: Well! I asked myself that, and looked for an answer in the other question--what supports our world?

If I propose that our world is not supported by water, what keeps it where it is?

I found my answer in the idea of a balance of competing elements. We know that our world is made up of different things, which all have different qualities. We also know that the world seems constantly to be doing things--is active--is changing. There is night and day, hot and cold, dry and wet, etc.

I have started to think in terms of opposites, which compliment each other, neither capable of subduing the other, over the whole.

Yes, there are changes, but this is to look at one instance. The seas rise and fall (to use Thales' example). When they are high with us, they are low in another place. The tide allows the sea to overcome a piece of land, a river floods a valley. But it always eventually recedes.

Nothing In our world can move or change without there being a corresponding change with something else. The world seems to compensate within itself. It is as if there is a totality within the world which because it is made from the same basic element can change form, but that at all times the sum total of this world remains the same, whatever form the apeiron takes.

Thales: Can we get back to what holds the world in place, as you don't like my ideas!

Anaximander: But, don't you see? If we extend my idea of competing elements, and a system of balance, where one change inevitably leads to another, where can the world go to? It is (like all things) surrounded by other elements (in the case of the world) the sky, and it is maintained by the elements within the sky.

Anaximenes: But, what about the Dawn and the Dusk. Not all water is cold, nor is it always hot.

And--water can extinguish fire, and vice versa.

Anaximander: But by balance, I do not mean equality. The portion of cold water reduces as the hot water increases. The degree to which the heat banishes the cold, is a balance, just as the degree of light which exists has a relationship to the loss of darkness. But, is there something within or about these things which does not change?

Anaximenes: Are we not going in circles here?

Where are you coming from, and where are you going? We already seen to have established that all this is based an nothing...or apeiron (as you call it)!

Anaximander: But you are wrong! We can see that night overcomes day, and vice versa. We know that winter overcomes summer.

Thales: Are you suggesting that this balance of conflict explains what our world rests on, and if so, how do you explain the sun, the moon, and all the stars?

Anaximander: Well, I accept that my theory must be able to answer that ....But, if you accept the notion of life-force (and it came from you!) and apply my idea of balance to this force and the world's materials, the movement of one thing must result in it displacing another, and something else taking the place it took up, a moment ago.

It follows, therefore, everything keeps everything else in place!!!

Thales: But only if there is a finite space, which is already full! And if that is the case, when and why does anything move?

Anaximander: I accept the possible relevance of both these questions, but they are both based on the assumption that apeiron behaves in the same way as the tangible things which we can observe.

The questions also seem to contain the latent question, Is apeiron merely the basic, tangible, building block of all material in our world (and therefore our world itself), or is it the life-force within the tangible materials around us.

Thales: I was coming to that!

Anaximander: How can we be sure? But I must admit, it would help my answer to your previous question, if the answer is...both!! It (apeiron) would then both constitute and command all things.

Thales: I am not convinced! You have not explained why things change, you have merely accepted change, and explained how it might be accommodated within a system.

Anaximenes: Yes, and what about the skies, and the stars. They constantly move.

Anaximander: No! They appear to move!

What if It is only our means of observing the heavens, which moves, I an not sure that we see, what we think we see!

Thales: That! you will have to run past me again!!!

Anaximander: It is simple, if you follow the methods that you and I have advocated for some time.

You see a physical phenomenon...and wishing to understand it, you create an explanation which seems to fit, that which you have observed.

We have already agreed that you re-evaluate your theory, if it conflicts with new evidence. That is one way.

But we must also remember that (especially when your knowledge is limited) there may be more than one possible explanation.

We think the heavenly bodies move (which forces me to explain that constant movement). But suppose the fires of the heavens are only what we are able to see, from holes in a canopy which exists between our world and the true heavens. Move the canopy and the heavens beyond will appear to move.

Thales: Yes, I accept that such a phenomenon would have such a result, and preserve your system in balance, but what is the purpose of the mantle? Are you not simply having to be inventive to support a weak hypothesis?

Anaximander: No, I don't think so! If you remember, my idea is one of opposites in balance. Hot and cold, light and dark, dry and wet.

Such a mantle would separate and balance two worlds, a hot one and a cold one. It is what allows the world we know to maintain our balance of light and dark, wet (as in sea) and dry.

- o O o -

Anaximenes: Our discussion continued, but you have the gist of what I can remember of it.

I hope you are beginning to see that when enquiring minds come together and discuss issues, it is a question of using what is known to construct possible explanations, and to keep testing these explanations, to detect error.

Student 2: They are both dead now, aren't they?

Anaximenes: Yes, some years ago.

Student 3: So, were they able to convince you, which of them was right?

Anaximenes: No even then it seemed to me that Anaximander's explanation, was dubious in parts.

Student 1: What about Thales?

Anaximenes:There is a danger that you young men will miss the point.

The great Thales may not have travelled far down this particular road, but he chose the road, and guided the rest of us down it. It was he who first surmised that it might be possible to explain this world of ours other than through Gods.

It was his premiss that we must look for a single common element in creation, and it was he who raised the issue of a life-force within things.

Anaximenes took some of these ideas further. He rejected Thales' idea of water being that common element, and justified it by showing that the life-force could not be a tangible thing. I'm still not convinced that he got any nearer identifying what it is, but at least (to give him the benefit of the doubt--and some exists) by naming the life- force as he did, he accepted that which he could not explain, and resisted the temptation to return to mythology.

His idea of competing forces, and balance, was not only interesting but clever. It was, at least, some explanation for the movements and changes which we see which nevertheless do not seen to permanently alter the world.

Student 1: And what do you believe, Anaximenes?

Anaximenes: I think Thales was correct in looking for one primary building block. Anaximander's idea of several opposites upon which the world is based, I can't accept.

To favour Anaximander, one has to believe that several different elements were created (possibly at the same time). I find it easier to accept one commanding element, from which all things come. It's simpler, and tidier.

Student 3: So you agree with Thales?

Anaximenes: Yes and no.

I accept his idea of one common element, but I don't think that it is water. I think Anaximander's objections here, were correct.

Student 1: Then, what do you think it is?

Anaximenes: I wonder, whether it could be air!

Again, Anaximander was (I think) correct. From our observations, we know that this factor cannot be tangible.

Student 2: But why air?

Anaximenes: Because it is intangible, it has all the qualities that Anaximenes predicted. We also regard it as the very sign of life, and it is not inconsistent with the heavens--as we know then.

Student 1: But, how do you explain water and rocks from air?

Anaximenes: By density! It is my idea that if we were able to take any material, and squeeze it, it would become harder and heavier (for its size). Take snow, for example.

Whatever the common element is, it seems to me that its form and qualities may (like snow) change with the pressure under which it is put.

This also gives us a way of explaining changes within our world.

Student 1: What about Anaximander's idea of balance and conflict?

Anaximenes: But can't you visualise all the possibilities which emerge from what I am putting forward?

If all the world (as we know it) is made up of the same basic material, which can simply be found in different forms because of different density, we can imagine a complete system of "it" changing and re-changing. It does not matter how it changes, the same amount of "it" exists.

Student 3: And, what about the heavens? Where did all this come from? What supports the world, if you reject Anaximander's idea of conflict and compensation forces?

Anaximenes: I don't know where the air came from (if, for the moment you will allow me to use the air as my common element).

But, I believe the air came together, became very dense, and became fire, which exploded.

From this fire, and the sudden loss of density, came our world, and some of the material was thrown out and likewise formed the stars, the moon the sun.

Student 1: And how do you explain the movement of the heavens?

Anaximenes: Because I think that our world is at the centre of all this, and that the heavens move around us in the wind which was created.

Student 2: But what supports the world, if it is not moving?

Anaximenes: The sensation of falling depends an the world around us. The wind, as we fall. The sight of things passing us.

But if there is no wind, and nothing passes us--to be observed, we do not know we are falling.

If a blind-folded man is lowered into the depths of the sea, will he feel himself sink?

How then, do we know that our world is not falling?

Secondly, we have all seen leaves fall, from trees and be taken in the wind. Even if our world is of great size, it may be that its shape is that of a leaf, and the air of which it is a part is sufficient to support it.

Student 1: Master, can I say something. This whole story arose because we asked why you asked us to answer funny questions and to solve problems which seem of no relevance to our lives.

What point has this story had?

Anaximenes: (with up-lifted eyes) The point is that our knowledge and understanding of anything depends on our being able to:

a. identify the "problem" before us,

b. analyse the problem into its different parts,

c. marshal all the known facts,

d. Then, reason to a conclusion which seems to fit.

e. Test the conclusion, where possible.

Student 1: (again!) And how is this going to help us in future life?

Anaximenes: In your case, I'm not sure! But generally, problems face us, and if you learn these techniques, you will be able to (if not reach to correct answer) at least reach the best answer--based an the evidence you have at the time.

Dialogue Ends