There was once a city called Miletus, which flourished in the sixth century BC. One of its citizens was a man called Thales, a businessman with a head for philosophy. Thales could be called one of the first true Greek scientists because he made a very simple claim, and one which would be proved correct two thousand five hundred years later, in our present time – well, almost.
Thales’ claim was simple, but groundbreaking. He decided that everything was made of water. The claim did not advance Thales much during his lifetime, but the fact is that three quarters of the mass of the universe is in fact made of hydrogen, which is two-thirds water.
So effectively Thales came very close to a major scientific breakthrough. The idea certainly got him noticed, and it also paved the way for other scientific thinking, which would place the four elements: water, air, earth and fire, firmly at the heart of Greek philosophy forever more.
Enter a man called Anaximander, another citizen of Miletus. Anaximander took the idea of water and extended it to the rest of the natural elements. This was the start of a theory of Natural Law. Remember that science grew out of philosophy, and great scientists such as Newton and Einstein were the heirs of these early philosophical ideas some two thousand years after they had been cogitated by the Ancient Greeks — particularly when it came to Anaximander’s theories, because they brought up the idea of the existence of a form of Natural Law, and Natural Law would one day provide the framework for many of Newton’s discoveries, including his treatise on gravity. So what was Anaximander actually saying?
What Anaximander put forward was tied in with the Greek idea of justice, but the Greek idea of justice was very different from the Christian one of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”, which would eventually assert itself some five hundred years later in the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount and in the Gospel of Matthew. By contrast, Anaximander’s idea of justice was a sort of natural justice, which was based on the four elements: water, fire, earth and air. He said that these elements fought amongst themselves, each seeking ascendancy over the other, and that ‘natural justice’ corrected this imbalance. Fire became ashes and earth. Water turned to air and air back to water. This process, Anaximander said, was controlled by natural justice, and even the gods could not alter it. What he was referring to was really Natural Law, the foundation of modern science.
Interestingly, during the European Renaissance, another great man took this very same idea, which Anaximander had exposed, to new heights. His name was Leonardo da Vinci, and the natural law of the four elements was the foundation to much of his work, including his medical discoveries. Greek medicine had evolved on the basis of the four humours of the body, which fell out of balance the same way as the four elements were disrupted, causing sickness. Natural Justice was not just happening in the outer world, said Da Vinci, but also in the inner one. Leonardo made this connection between the four humours and the four elements, and called it the microcosm/macrocosm effect. It marked the start of a whole new way of thinking, inherited from the Greeks. It mean that humankind had moved to the centre of the universe, out of the palm of God’s hand. And that was a real revolution.
But that did not mean that those who followed Anaximander had forgotten about the gods in general, not at all. The scientific thinking that had caught the imagination of the city of Miletus was only one strain of Greek thought. By far the most influential of them all was still Pythagoras the Mystic, who lived around the same time on an island not very far away, called Samos. Students of mathematics still use his theories today, but Pythagoras did more than square the triangle. You could say he invented the idea of eternity, which as far as concepts go, must be the most enduring one of all.
Read Part III next week…