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Mythic reasoning in contemporary narratives of the origins of

modernity in Greek thought.

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Mind Meaning and Metaphysics


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Philosophy 130 Essay One:

Mythic reasoning in contemporary narratives of the origins of modernity in Greek


By Joseph Zizys, student number 42351979

"Characterize the Ionian and Pythagorean views about the world and our knowledge
of it. In what sense did their philosophies give a foresight of modern definitions of
scientific knowledge?"


Pythagoras was a mystic, who believed that the purpose of philosophy was to purify
ones soul, and a mathematician, who believed that Number was the fundamental
property of the world. The Ionians where naturalists who over the course of
centuries arrived at a vision of nature devoid of supernatural causes.

The Ionian and Pythagorean world-views prefigure modern ideas in striking ways, in
that it is a common-place to claim of Science that it is both naturalistic (Ionian) and
mathematical (Pythagorean). This involves two myths, firstly that the Ionians
where naturalistic the way modern Science is, and secondly that modern
mathematics, the basis for modern Science, is a purely rational activity, devoid of
the mystical, intuitive elements, that Pythagoras mathematics had.

Much of our knowledge of the views of Thales, Pythagoras and the other early PreSocratics is constructed from later sources and influenced by a desire to provide
Western Philosophy and Western Science with a unique origin and certain
characteristics that may or may not truly be present in the founders of these
traditions themselves. One of the key characteristics ascribed, especially to the
Ionians, is that of their thought being non-mythological, that is they did away with
appeal to Gods for explanations of natural events and instead looked to rational
causes. Ironically this kind of story is itself in fact an example of myth, the myth of
the origin of philosophy as not-myth.

Hazy beginnings:
No writings at all have come down to us from Pythagoras or Thales and "our
information about the Presocratic philosophers depends first of all on extracts or
quotations from their works which range from one brief sentence in the case of
Anaximander (and of Anaximenes perhaps not even that)" (Guthrie 1991 pxiv). So
to echo Guthrie, exactly one sentence can with a fair degree of confidence be
ascribed to Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes and Pythagoras combined;

The Non-Limited is the original material of existing things; further, the source from
which existing things derive their existence is also that to which they return at their
destruction, according to necessity; for they give justice and make reparation to
one another for their injustice, according to the arrangement of Time.
(Freeman 1974 p29)

Everything else is spurious, apocryphal, late, very late or paraphrased in sources,

like Aristotle and Plato, who have clear reasons for using the philosophy of the two

schools for their own purposes and make no claim to historical accuracy. The
sentence quoted above, then, bears a very heavy burden of being used by
philosophers as a symbol, a mythic symbol, of what philosophers have come over
the course of time to see as the most important difference between their own
discipline and what they disparage as mythic, or religious and dogmatic thinking. As
Kirk points out, the founder of the tradition from which this sentence comes down
to us is even less discernible through the mists of time than Anaximander;

...all things are water is not necessarily a reliable summary of Thales

cosmological views... and even if we do accept Aristotles account ... we have little
idea of how things were felt to be essentially related to water.
(Kirk 1957 p93)

We might well say exactly the same thing of the Pythagorean idea that Numbers
are the real nature of things. (Allen 1991 p7). Therefore when we characterize the
thinking of the Ionians and the Pythagoreans we must be careful to be aware of
what it is that we are characterizing. In the first place we must be aware that we
use what came later in both traditions to read back onto the founders those
qualities that came to be seen as most important later on. For Thales and the
Ionians it is their materialism, rationalism and metaphysical speculation that come
to characterize the tradition and with Pythagoras it is the mathematical vision of
nature that seems most important to contemporary minds.

The Ionians:

Analyzing the above fragment of Anaximander, the oldest fragment of philosophy

we have (Allen 1991 p3) we see notions of substances as possessing qualities of
judgment, justice and injustice, conflict, of making reparation to one another,
qualities very much of a mythic, personal sort. What later emerged as the more
important factor, that of the implicit materialism and naturalism of the underlying
picture, is at this point, already a generation after Thales, still not fully explicit.
Even as we move forward in time to Anaximenes the air that is the ultimate
material is still held to be ensouled, living and animate, this is a very different
Materialism to that of the modern mind. As Allen points out; The development of
speculation in the ionian tradition will progressively drain the mythical elements
from Anaximenes world view (Allen 1991 pp5) and so we will arrive at the
naturalism that is a very important thread within Philosophy, and perhaps still a
fundamental methodological commitment of Science, but taking a singular, founding
figure (Thales), and using that figure to symbolize and embody ideas and qualities
that are the product of a much greater number of people, across a much longer
period of time, is not a rational, empirical way of thinking, nor is it historical, it is
rather a mythical one.


The development of classical mathematics as a discipline, beginning with

Pythagoras, continuing through Plato and culminating in the ancient world in Euclid
and his Elements is an achievement of profound significance to what has come to
be called modern science.

we might rename Euclidean geometry Pythagorean geometry. Although Euclid,

along with Plato and Eudoxus, was responsible for its being systematized as an
axiomatic theory, we shall be led to regard the Pythagorean proposition as being
from some points of view its most characteristic and fundamental feature.
(Lucas 1999 pp 39)

What is interesting is that the motivation for the development of mathematics in

classical Greece was one that was deeply religious and mystical, and inspired by
insights derived from music and harmony, (Wertheim 1997 pp21-28) and the fact is
that these inspirations are still with us as motivations on the part of contemporary
scientists, especially in fundamental physics; to, like Steven Hawking perceive the
mind of God or, like Galleleo, read the hidden book of nature written in
mathematics (Wertheim 1997 ppxii-xiii), this is a motive not often acknowledged
of scientists, about whom we cultivate the myth that they are practical men,
interested in knowledge of things not out of a mystical desire for a unity in nature,
but simply to know what there is. As Wertheim exclaims; Physics ... had always
been a quasi-religious activity (Wertheim 1997 pxiii).

So in this we see another kind of myth, a kind of inverted myth that tends to
downplay the mystical, religious and non-rational motivations that inspired
Pythagoras as the founder of mathematics, the myth of science as something unmystical, non-idealist, when in fact the absolute bedrock of modern science is
mathematics, a discipline that is still conceived in Platonic, even mystical terms by
many of its practitioners, despite the best efforts of Hilbert and his school to the
contrary (Lucas 1999 p7)


My basic point is that there is an implicit assumption that Thales consciously

rejected a mentality that saw myths as factual accounts of states of affairs and
their causes, accounts that where flawed by their irrationality and reliance on
anthropomorphic projections which he in turn sought to replace with rational,
naturalistic explanations.

Treatments of mythical thinking try to specify some system of thought as other,

as primitive, mystical, childish, or irrational. The difficulties of identifying and
explaining purported different mentalities are by now well known, and the
explanatory utility of such a procedure is limited.
(Morgan 2007 p1)

This assumption about Thales is wrong on two counts, firstly, as little information of
Thales ideas as we have, we have even less (none whatsoever in fact) about what
the intellectuals of his day and prior thought myths to mean, that is what the status
of them as explanations was; projecting the discredited theory that myths where
pre-rational attempts at science back to Thales time allows us to portray Thales as
the person who overturned a faulty way of thinking. Secondly in as much as
natrualistic philosophy did or does reject mythology as a mode of explanation it is a
process that took place over a period of centuries, not decisively at the hands of
one man, Thales. Using him as a touchstone for the Philosophic and Scientific
traditions is to use him precisely as a kind of symbol, not an historical figure, but a

In a kind of inversion of this same process, something that is truly fundamental to

the practice of almost all of modern science, mathematics, is often mythologized
today as something un-mystical, not reliant on intuitions, and supremely rational,
and Pythagoras mysticism becomes problematized as unwelcome in this narrative
of mathematics; a primitive vestige to be shaken off, when in fact intuition, the
mystical desire for a hidden unity in Nature, and the notion of a Platonic world of
forms to be discovered by the mathematician are still all professed by
mathematicians and scientists themselves.

So we have two myths; the myth of the origin of the rational, and the myth of the
absence of the mystical, that inform the folk-narrative of modern Science,
embodied by the canonizing of Thales and the otherising of Pythagoras.

In reality we know almost nothing for sure about the original Ionian and
Pythagorean views about the world, and it is primarily in a mythic, symbolic sense
that their philosophies give a foresight of the modern definitions of scientific
knowledge that sprang from their pre-historical roots.


Allen, R.E., 1991. Greek Philosophy: Thales to Aristotle 3rd ed., Free Press.
Cornford, F.M., 1932. Before and after Socrates, Cambridge University Press.
Freeman, K., 1974. Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers: A Complete Translation of the
Fragments in Diels, Fragmente der Vorsokratiker Second edition., Harvard University

Guthrie, W.K.C., 1991. A History of Greek Philosophy: Volume 1, The Earlier Presocratics and
the Pythagoreans, Cambridge University Press.
Hesiod, 1976. Hesiod and Theognis (Penguin Classics): Theogony, Works and Days, and
Elegies, Penguin Classics.
Kirk, 1984. Presocratic Philosophers, Cambridge University Press.
Lucas, J.R., 1999. Conceptual Roots of Mathematics 1st ed., Routledge.
Morgan, K.A., 2007. Myth and Philosophy from the Presocratics to Plato, Cambridge University
Plato, 1993. The Last Days of Socrates: Euthyphro; The Apology; Crito; Phaedo, Penguin
Ring, M., 1987. Beginning With the Pre Socratics, Mayfield Pub Co.
Walshe, M., 1995. The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Digha Nikaya 2nd
ed., Wisdom Publications.
Wertheim, M., 1997. Pythagorass Trousers: God, Physics, and the Gender War , W. W. Norton
& Company.