The following text is a transcript by V. S. of a lecture on the presocratic background of Aristophanes’ Clouds. I have edited this transcript to remove excessive wordiness, and I have added section headings and transitions. I found it sobering to read this transcript, for I discovered just how widely the written and spoken word vary, and how flabby my lectures are compared to my writings.
I’d like to begin by discussing presocratic philosophy. It’s very important to understand presocratic philosophy before we understand Socrates, because for a long period in his life Socrates was apparently a presocratic, meaning that when we get to Aristophanes’ Clouds we’re going to see a portrait of Socrates as a kind of philosopher that we would recognize as a presocratic philosopher not as a Socratic philosopher.
Our understanding of Socratic philosophy is based primarily on Plato’s dialogues and also on Xenophon’s Socratic writings. Although even in those texts there are clues about the fact that at one time Socrates was a presocratic. But in the Clouds what we have is a very clear portrait of Socrates as a presocratic philosopher, so we need to get a sense of what presocratic philosophy means. Hence this little book A Presocratics Reader.
This little book consists of just the fragments, the disjecta membra, of philosophy before Socrates. There are no full extant books of philosophy before Plato’s dialogues. All earlier philosophical writings exist only in fragments that were embedded as quotations in the writings of later philosophers. Other fragments were found in various papyrus scrolls, usually from Oxyrhynchus in Egypt. For instance, there’s a passage from Antiphon that we are going to look at very closely that was from one of the Oxyrhynchus papyri. They started coming out of the sands of northern Egypt to the west of the Nile in the 1880s.
These texts are fascinating, particularly the ones I’ve pointed out to you to read, because you’re going to find echoes of all these ideas showing up in the Clouds. So the main reason I wanted you to look at certain selections is because you’ll find it all very familiar when you start reading Aristophanes’ Clouds.
Now, I didn’t, however, ask you to read the most important presocratic thinkers. And in my view those are Heraclitus and Parmenides. I would highly recommend that you do read them, because particularly Heraclitus’ fragments are quite wonderful. They’re gnomic and rich and well-crafted, and some of them almost read as if they were crafted as one line aphorisms. And Parmenides’ poem is a quite remarkable piece of philosophy too.
Pre-Philosophical Conceptions of Order
As a background to the presocratic, what I’d like to do is talk about what came before the presocratic, pre-presocratic thinking. And that means pre-philosophical thinking, because in order to really understand what was remarkable and revolutionary about early Greek philosophy you have to understand what came before it.
First I want to talk about pre-philosophical conceptions of order, because every culture has some concept that names the order of things. The Chinese have the tao; the Indians have the notion of dharma, the Egyptians have ma’at; the Hebrews have mishpat, and the Greek words nomos and dike can all be translated as “the way.” “The way” is understood as the customary way of things, the way things have always been, the way things will always be. The ways of things are the characteristic patterns of behavior that they’ve exhibited from “time out of mind.” These concepts encompass both natural processes (the sun, the stars, the seasons, and the behavior of animals) as well as human traditions and institutions and practices.
There’s no distinction made between the way of natural things and the way of human things in pre-philosophic thought. They’re all understood pretty much on the same model. They way is an interesting concept, because it antedates the distinction between nature and convention. This distinction is not made in Greek pre-philosophical thought. This is all subsumed under this notion of the customary, habitual way of things since time immemorial.
There is a problem with the idea of the way, though, and the problem is very simple: the way of animal natures, for instance, is not as variable as the way of human things. The way of non-human nature is quite regular, whereas the way of human nature varies constantly from time to time and from place to place. For instance, if you were to look at the mating habits of say armadillos . . . I don’t know anything about their mating habits. They might be rather uninteresting, at least to us. But imagine we’re studying the mating habits of armadillos. It wouldn’t really matter if we were studying armadillos north or south of the Rio Grande, because armadillos are armadillos. An armadillo is an armadillo is an armadillo. And it doesn’t matter where the armadillo is. It’s going to behave exactly the same way.
However, if we wanted to study mating and dating habits of human beings we would discover there are many different ways of doing that north and south of the Rio Grande. Why is that? Because they’re different cultures. They’re different nations, and different nations with different histories and different cultures. And because of this fact, the way human beings do things varies dramatically from time to time and place to place. If we were to look at the way human beings date and mate in America today versus the way it happened immediately after World War Two, we’d see that there are amazing differences within the same culture in different stages in time.
This enormous variability of human things seems to be important. We need to somehow thematize this and make sense of why this is the case, but in pre-philosophic, traditional forms of thought that distinction isn’t made.
There are a number of reasons for this. First of all, most people in traditional societies don’t move around very much, and the ones who do and notice things that other people do, simply disregard them as having any particular importance or weight. The other people are just barbarians; they’re backwards; they’re stupid. And our way is the right way. No matter who says that, the presumption in every traditional society is that our way is the right way and the true way and that the other ways are false and bad.
This assumption that our way is the right way is part and parcel with an attitude that basically identifies what is good with what’s ancient. In any traditional society there’s a presumption that the older something is the better it is. There’s a presupposition, therefore, that in some ways our ancestors are better than us and we have to look up to them as we look back to them.
Now, of course people recognize in any society, no matter how stagnant or static, that there are always going to be bits of progress or transformation, the refinement of human behavior over time. That’s just inevitable. And so it seems that in ordinary human things we’re wiser than our ancestors. However, the superior wisdom of the ancestors was not really wisdom in human things. If you’re going to explain why your ancestors, especially your most remote ancestors, are superior to you and you have to look up to their wisdom, ultimately what you’re going to do is something like this: You’re going to use the venerable Greek phrase “Our ancestors who dwelt nearer to the gods.” There’s some sense in which our ancestors were closer to the divine, and the wisdom they have that makes them superior to us is a kind of divine wisdom.
In traditional societies you’re going to find ideas like this: that the founders of a civilization, a city, a culture are gods; or if they’re not gods then they’re the offspring of gods; and if they’re not the offspring of gods, then they’re on particularly intimate terms with gods. So Moses, who was the only man to have seen Yahweh face to face was the lawgiver of the Jews. Mohammed had a particularly intimate relation with Allah which made him the founder, the lawgiver of Islam, and so on and so forth. Jesus was God as well as the son of God. These are very common patterns. You find these in every culture that we know of.
There’s never been a culture recorded that didn’t have some sort of notion of the divine, and, furthermore, you find that the divine is always used to explain the origins of that particular culture as well as the origins of everything else. Plato talks about this in Republic. He talks about the uses of stories we know can’t be true in a literal sense. By which he means myths. He says if we’re trying to deceive our enemies those are useful. If we’re trying to deceive our friends in order to make them better, that’s a useful thing. But the most important use of stories that are false is to talk about the gods and talk about the origins of things, because we can’t have any knowledge of what’s true. If you can’t have any adequate knowledge of the gods and the origins of things, then you have to come up with a likely story, and myths are likely stories. And so we’ve stepped out of history and into myth. You find that with every culture there’s this point, sometimes imperceptible, where historical truth shades off into myth. So now we need to talk a little bit about myth.
Myths are pre-philosophical and pre-scientific accounts of the origins and nature of order. What the particular order is, and where it comes from, are accounted for in myths. This would include accounts of cosmic order, an account of human order, man’s nature, and man’s condition. It would be an account of particular traditions and customs and institutions. Most importantly, it’s going to be an account of the origin of right and wrong, the origins of moral law. There are several characteristics of myth that I want to talk about briefly.
First of all, myths are always in the form of stories, narratives. One thing happens after another. There are stories about characters and the characters are usually personifications of some force of nature or they’re gods or demi-gods.
Another very important characteristic of myth is that they don’t have any known authors. They always seem to come from the beginning of time before people have any recollection of the names of authors. They just come of nowhere. The Hindu Upanishads lie at the boundary of philosophy and myth, but they too have no known author. The word upanishad just means “what is heard.” There’s the sense that someone just heard these things, they were revealed in some sense. People were hearing voices, or whatever. You don’t have to interpret it too literal-mindedly, but the fact of the matter is that there’s no sense of a myth being a creation of a human being. They’re not human inventions. In fact, it might be closer to the truth, although it sounds very peculiar, to say that human beings are more accurately creations of myths, because who we are on a very fundamental level owes much to the stories we tell about ourselves, and we’ve been telling about ourselves ever since we can remember.
The Origins of Myth
Now I want to go into a sort of naturalistic account of where myths come from, and then I want to talk about ancient poets of Greece, and then we can start talking about the beginning of philosophy. Ernst Cassirer and Giambattista Vico have given accounts of the origin of myth which are very similar, and I just want to give you a pastiche of the two thinkers’ views. The basic account of both of them is this: the passion, if you will, or the affect at the root of myth is fear.
Imagine primitive human beings wandering around, living in caves, gathering berries in forests, surrounded by saber-tooth tigers and other horrible creatures, being rained upon and stormed upon and snowed upon. Nature is a very frightening thing. They don’t understand why nature does the things it does, and they don’t understand how to control it and how to cope with it. And so nature is frightening. Early man lived in a constant state of fear and trembling.
Now, fear and trembling are not pleasant things, and therefore human beings spontaneously tried to figure out how to overcome their fear, and the way to do that is to understand the world and come to master it in some way. The natural way to understand new and unfamiliar things is on the model of things that are more familiar to us, old and familiar things. Even though primitive men probably didn’t have much understanding of themselves, they still understood themselves better than, say, the thunder, and so the natural tendency was to try and understand the forces of nature on the analogy to the human mind. And so, mythical thought has a tendency to personify natural forces, to anthropomorphize natural forces, to project human characteristics out on to the natural world.
Cassirer thinks that the beginning of naming, the beginning of language and concepts, derives from personal names, proper names. The first names that human beings gave to things were not general names like thunder, but personal names like Jove. Cassirer actually thinks that languages where nouns have gender might actually be recording traces of the genders of the proper names given to things in the very earliest of times. Primitive peoples, and even people today for that matter, tend to think that just naming something gives you a power over it.
So, for instance, we have this attitude in a somewhat superstitious way with science. If we can take an ordinary concept in ordinary language and translate it into scientific terms, give a scientific name to it, then we feel that we’ve somehow mastered it, or at least there’s some obligation now to master it.
For instance, there’s a folk concept we call stupidity, and stupidity is something we just really can’t do much about. It’s just a fact of nature. But if you can redefine stupidity in scientific language as a pathology then the presumption is that we can master it or that we now have to master it, and we have to fix those who are stupid. Not just find them a job in the service industry. Stupidity becomes a problem that society has to get together and solve.
So I am very, very suspicious whenever a category of folk language, if you will, ordinary language is replaced by a scientific term, because what it usually does is it first shears off any moral connotations and it also turns around and gives you an expectation that now we have an obligation to change this fact. Either engineer it or cure it out of existence. So, children who are a little slow, maybe not particularly gifted in ordinary terms, may become children with pathologies that have to be cured.
A lot of that, I suspect, is just a new way of talking about kids who are a little slow. A lot of it has to do with the fact that the stuff they’re being taught is so boring that they couldn’t pay attention to it unless they were drugged into zombie-ism with Ritalin. That might be the other side of it. I’m sure it’s a little bit of both. Hyperactive children, I think, are generally hyperactive because the stuff they’re being taught is not going to keep their attention often times. I remember I was considered a hyperactive child. I was, in folk terms, just bored and restless. But as soon as it’s called hyperactivity, there’s a drug that you can give, and the world has to cater to it. It becomes a disability, then the Americans with Disabilities Act kicks in.
The point is that there is this kind of transformation that goes on when you give a new name to something even today. There’s a sense that, “OK now we can start changing it.” We can transform it. We can master it. We can engineer it away. It gives us power over things to have a new name for it. Often times we have all kinds of strange and seemingly puzzling arguments over newer terminology. Why do people want to control the terminology people use? Well, because naming brings power.
With very primitive people you find, for instance, a person will not give his real name. You’re given a name, but then you’re given another name as a cover. Why? Because if somebody knew your real name they would have power over you. There are many traditional people who would give a child a name and then try to forget it as quickly as possible or hide it by giving them another name because the assumption is that if somebody knows your real name they have some sort of power over you. So, it’s quite understandable to think that primitive peoples might simply have regarded it as an increase in power simply to give a personal name to a phenomenon of nature.
Because once you personify a force of nature you’re projecting the idea that there’s a mind behind it, and you can try to enter a personal relationship with it. You can try to understand its motivations. You can try and understand what makes it tick. And then, just as we understand the motivations of our friends and neighbors, you can make it worth their while to change their behavior patterns. We can find that the gods want sheep, lots of them, slaughtered and burned. If we give them enough sheep or human sacrifices or whatever, they’ll stop the drought. We can find out what they want and make it worthwhile for them to do our bidding, and that gives us the foundation of magic and religious rituals.
Also, another very important step in the creation of myth is this: in order to give more and more comprehensive accounts of how all the forces of nature relate to one another, to get a more and more holistic and adequate view of the world, you have to find a way of relating all these personified forces of nature, these spirits and gods, together. The way we relate human characters together is to tell stories about their interactions. The narrative structure of myth comes about as a way of knitting together, or synthesizing, all these different forces of nature in an intelligible way. The most comprehensive myth would be an account of the whole of nature. You can find highly developed mythological accounts of virtually everything in a society that has existed for a sufficient amount of time to refine its understanding of the world.
This is very much part of the background of philosophy in Greece. The Greeks had a myth for everything, to explain anything, and it’s the replacement of myth with another kind of explanation, namely scientific explanation, that is one of the most monumental and revolutionary changes that marks the beginning of philosophy in Greece.
The Greek Poets
A third thing that we need to deal with are the Greek poets, because they provide a very important background for Greek philosophy. Paul Veyne, a French scholar, has written a book called Did the Greeks Believe Their Myths? It’s a very good question, because their attitude towards their myths was very, very different from, say, Jewish or Christian or Islamic attitudes towards the founding stories of those religions. It would not be permitted for, say, a great Muslim novelist, to come out with a new Koran with a different ending. Spice it up with a car chase, or something like that. It wouldn’t happen.
But in ancient Greece the poets would rewrite their myths. So, you would find Homer and Hesiod, who were the two most important poets of ancient Greece, who would take up elements of the mythical world view and they would transform it; they’d add to it; they’d embroider it. The great tragedians of Athens in the 4th and 5th centuries would rewrite the myths and transform them. They’d bring out new dimensions to them.
You would actually find that this would be done by politicians and orators, for instance. One of the ways two Greek cities might negotiate a conflict would involve not just calculating how many troops they could field against one another and whether or not their allies would come to their aid and whether or not they ought to make peace. They’d also try and come up with mythical explanations or accounts of things that would justify war or peace or the subordination of one city to another. Your city was founded by a descendant of Herakles whereas we were founded by a descendant of Zeus, and Zeus ranks over Herakles, so we should rule your city. They would do things like this, because myth provided an amazingly plastic kind of language to account for things and to make sense of things. Myths would be transformed in the light of new circumstances to come to a better understanding of them. They’d be transformed to ratify new social conditions or to justify something that had to be done.
One of the great secrets of statesmanship today, as in any other time, is to come up with a way to disguise radical changes as mere resurrections of ancient and lost institutions. The process of legislation, political statesmanship, etc., often involve a capacity to disguise something radically new as a restoration of something old and venerable. The language of revolution doesn’t sit well with most people.
The poets were remarkable moral educators in Greece. The myths of the gods were not particularly morally edifying. For instance, you wouldn’t want to model your family after Zeus’ family. It just wouldn’t work. Zeus was a very bad guy. He castrated his father and threw him into a pit. His father ate his children. It goes on and on. The Greek gods were very bad. Zeus married his sister, Hera, and then cheated on her constantly. [Now you might say that he had to marry his sister because nobody else was available.] Well, he could have gotten an Egyptian goddess, an Egyptian mail-order bride. There are plenty of Egyptian goddesses. But the thing is that it was a very peculiar family, and no one would ever want their children to imitate the Greek gods, and so if you were going to look for moral exemplars to teach the young, you’d go to Homer, for instance, because the Greek religion was not very good about teaching moral lessons. So the poets not only transformed the mythology but they were also a significant source of moral education.
This background is important to have in place simply because it makes it easier to appreciate what a revolutionary change came about when philosophy began. So when we look at the beginning of this Presocratics Reader, Thales, who by convention is the first Greek philosopher and was born in Miletus which is now in Turkey, was a remarkably odd fellow. He was born to a good family, yet he lived in poverty. He didn’t get involved in politics, which all respectable upper class Greeks did, but instead he spent a lot of time outside the city walls not engaged in farming or war or any useful things like that but just wandering around looking at nature.
One of the earliest stories of him is quoted on page 9:
One day Thales was gazing upwards while doing astronomy he fell into a well. A clever and delightful Thracian serving girl was said to have made fun of him since he was eager to know the things in heaven but failed to notice the things in front of him and right next to his feet.
So, Thales was both a very impractical person, as far as worldly affairs are concerned, and very much interested in theoretical matters, interested in gazing upwards (the Greek verb is theorein from which we get the word theory). He was gazing upwards, looking at the course of the stars. Now, he wasn’t looking at the stars as gods, necessarily, as other ancient peoples did. He regarded them as natural phenomena. He was observing them very carefully trying to come up with the capacity to predict natural phenomena and control natural phenomena.
The next testimony is this:
The story goes that when they found fault with him for his poverty, supposing that philosophy is useless, he learned from his astronomy that there would be a large crop of olives. It was still winter and he had a little money and he made deposits with all the olive presses both in Miletus and Chios. Since no one bid against him he rented them cheaply. When the right time came suddenly many tried to get the presses all at once and he rented them out on whatever terms he wished and so made a great deal of money and this way he proved that philosophers could easily be wealthy if they desire, but this is not what they are interested in.
He was known for his poverty but he had to demonstrate in some sense that he was poor not because of any defect but simply because of a fundamental choice, and the choice was of a different kind of life, obviously, than the life led by respectable gentlemen. It was a theoretical life, a contemplative life, but his primary concerns were understanding natural phenomena. He was an astronomer. Thales is in some ways better understood as the first scientist than the first philosopher, because there’s nothing particularly philosophical about what he’s doing in the reports that have come down to us.
Thales’ most famous claim that has come down to us is that everything is water, which is an extraordinary claim. The water in the sink is water, and, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, the sink too is water, and we’re all water as well seems to be the claim. Now, that sounds fanciful, but it’s not a mythical claim, because it is an attempt to give an account of everything, the origins of everything, all the processes you observe in nature, based not on any kind of mythological account but simply based on a natural principle which he calls water.
Basically, the idea is this: everything is water in some form or another, and so you can give a complete account of everything in terms of basically two things. First of all, you have to have an underlying substance, namely water, the stuff that everything is made out of, and then you need a principle that accounts for the transformation of water into all the different forms that it takes. That’s a very radical project, and it has nothing in common whatsoever with mythological accounts of the cosmos which are notoriously complex.
Look at Egyptian mythology, for instance, or Hinduism for that matter. Until the 19th century, when Indians were going off to Oxford and getting educated, the very idea that there is a single Hindu religion didn’t really exist, and there was an attempt to impose some kind of order on the Hindu pantheon, and it was discovered to be simply impossible. It was possible for the Hindus, today as well as then, or the ancient Egyptians, to hold innumerable contradictory, mutually exclusive beliefs on any particular subject matter and to populate the cosmos with endless scads of gods. I knew a woman from India once who said, “I like having millions of gods.” I said, “Well, I guess it’s convenient: you can always explain anything if you’ve got literally millions of gods to do it with.”
What Thales did was sweep away that complex mythological account of the cosmos and come up with one principle, one material principle, namely water, and some mysterious process of condensation and rarefaction by which water takes on the forms of everything that we see around us. Now, that’s pretty silly in some ways, I suppose, but it represents an enormous transformation in the history of thought. He’s really the first natural scientist. It’s the first attempt to give a naturalistic, non-mythological account of the whole cosmos, and that’s a remarkable achievement.
Thales was followed by Anaximander who was a student of his, also a Milesian. Anaximander basically accounted for everything not in terms of water, but in terms of what he called the apeiron which means the “indefinite” or the “infinite.” The reason he chose the indefinite rather than water is basically this: to say that everything is water doesn’t explain the particular watery characteristics that exist. You just treat those as given. So it’s not really a complete explanation of everything, because you’re just assuming that there’s water with these peculiar characteristics and not explaining them.
What Anaximander basically argued is that you can go deeper; we can come up with a principle that will explain even more comprehensively than Thales’, and so he said that everything definite arises out of what isn’t definite, or the indefinite, the infinite. Again, he comes up with a kind of process by which the indefinite takes on all of its definite forms and flavors and becomes the world we see around us.
The first fragment of actual text in the history of philosophy is from Anaximander, and it is on page 12. I’m a little irritated with the editor of the text because she doesn’t set the fragment up clearly. Instead she just gives this passage (number 6) from Simplicius’ commentary on Aristotle’s Physics which has the quote embedded in it, but the quote itself consists of the last four lines. It says “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.” That’s the first fragment in the history of Western philosophy that’s come down to us.
The ordering of time refers to the processes of nature, change and transformation, and justice and injustice refers to a kind of law, if you will, natural law, that orders all the transformations of things in time. Basically, the cosmos consists of this indefinite stuff both giving rise to definite things and definite things breaking up and going back into the indefinite and being constantly recycled in accordance with some cosmic process that he refers to as “necessity” and it’s governed by a kind of justice.
Necessity is a very important concept here. In mythical thought there’s a notion of fate, but what necessity refers to here is a kind of force that moves the cosmos that doesn’t make any reference to intentions or ideas. It’s a non-anthropomorphic, non-personified understanding of what moves things around. You ask a person who has a mythical understanding of things “Who moves the clouds?” they’ll say “Well, Zeus moves the clouds” whereas for Anaximander it is necessity that moves the clouds.
What’s important about that distinction is that necessity doesn’t presuppose any mind it’s just a dumb force of nature. There’s no planning, no intention, no thought behind it. It’s just a blind force of nature, which is, again, an extraordinary transformation. Nature is being de-personified. It’s being de-anthropomorphized, and things in nature are being understood not on the model of the mind but simply as mindless things that are actuated and moved around by mindless forces, the force of necessity.
There’s another interesting set of fragments on page 13, numbers 13, 14, and 15. Anaximander tried to give an account of the origins of life that didn’t make any reference to gods.
Anaximander says that the first animals were produced in moisture enclosed in thorny barks. When their age increased they came out onto the drier part, their bark broke off, and they lived a different mode of life for a short time.
He also declares that in the beginning humans were born from other kinds of animals, since other animals quickly manage on their own and humans alone require lengthy nursing. For this reason, in the beginning they would not have been preserved if they had been like this.
Anaximander believed that there arose from heated water and earth either fish or animals rather like fish and these humans grew and were kept inside as embryos up to puberty then finally they burst and men and women came forth already able to nourish themselves.
This is a very peculiar account of things. It’s a purely naturalistic account of the origin of life, and it’s the first, if you will, evolutionary account because it’s arguing that human beings evolved in some way out of non-human and sub-human kinds of animals. And again, the forces of necessity are at work here. There are no forces of design or intelligence causing this.
Anaximenes is someone that I particularly suggested that you read. Anaximenes is very important for understanding the Clouds, as is Diogenes of Apollonia who came many years later, for this reason: the whole idea of the clouds as presented in the Clouds seems to make reference to the doctrines taught by these people. Anaximenes and Diogenes of Apollonia both taught that the ultimate stuff out of which the cosmos arises is not water (like Thales) or the infinite (like Anaximander) but instead it’s air.
Now, some people think that it seems like back-sliding, because you can give the same objection to Anaximenes and this notion of air that you could give to Thales, which is that it explains everything except air. What explains air? Isn’t there some underlying force from which airy qualities arise?
I think Anaximenes might have thought it’s better to posit a principle that has some qualities to underlie things. Otherwise, how do you even know it’s there? The trouble with the indefinite or the infinite is that it’s precisely that which has no qualities of its own. It’s indistinguishable from nothing. Anaximander’s notion that being has no qualities makes being indistinguishable from nothing, because isn’t nothing the absence of any qualities?
Anaximenes seems to want to have characteristics for his ultimate stuff, and the air is it. So, again, he comes up with the notion that there’s one substance out of which all things arise, and there’s a process by which this substance undergoes transformation, and so we have all the things that don’t appear to be airy, like this tabletop, for instance, and ourselves. We don’t seem to be particularly airy. Then there’s air like the air around us and then there’s smoke and clouds.
It’s an interesting idea because air is a very fluid thing, and you can see air getting dense, like smoke or clouds and vapors and things like that. And if you look up into the clouds and watch long enough, you can see the clouds taking on shapes of things. So, it’s not really silly to think that maybe everything is like a cloud formation, that the world of things around us is just composed of evanescent cloud formations, in which this airy stuff is gathered up and takes on a certain form for a particular period of time and then dissipates according to some cosmic process. It’s not entirely silly.
Air is also a very good concept for understanding the principle of life. When we’re alive we breathe. Air is going in and air is going out, and it’s warm air. This is a particular point with Anaximenes: that the air he’s talking about is a kind of dense, warm mist. So, it would be almost like breath, which has a warmth to it. When we die we no longer breathe, and we get cold. It sort of makes sense to think that if there’s any one principle that underlies life and the transformations of all the things in the cosmos it would be something like warm, vital breath, and this is what he’s talking about.
According to Anaximenes on page 15, fragments 19 and 20, it says “Anaximenes determined that air is a god and that it comes to be and is without measure infinite and always in motion.” Number 20: “Anaximenes stated that clouds occur when the air is further thickened. When it is condensed still more rain is squeezed out. Hail occurs when the falling water freezes and snow when some wind is caught up in the moisture.” So, he’s explaining the weather. When you get more and more condensed air you get rocks and stones and animals and so forth. So it’s one big spectrum of rarefaction and condensation.
Now, it’s very interesting that Anaximenes says air is a god. Thales is supposed to have said that there are gods in everything. What does that mean? Well, the story about Thales is this: Aristotle in his Parts of Animals relates it. Thales was supposedly warming himself by the stove and some friends of his arrived and saw him doing this and hesitated to go in. He said “Oh, come on in. There are gods here, too.” The story doesn’t make much sense until you know that warming yourself at the stove is a Greek euphemism for defecation. Apparently his friends came upon Thales as he was relieving himself, and he said “There are gods here, too. Don’t be shy.”
Everything is full of gods. This is a very peculiar notion. What exactly does it mean? First of all, it’s not really compatible with any conventional sense of piety. If there are gods in the outhouse too then being divine is, well, not that divine. Second, there’s no necessity of referring to gods to explain any of the things that happen in the world because you’ve got the air, or the water, or the indefinite and the principle of change. So the gods fall out of the picture entirely.
It was widely thought that these natural philosophers didn’t believe in the gods of the city, that they were unbelievers in the conventional deities, because their accounts of nature didn’t require the hypothesis of gods. They tried to give accounts of things that specifically excluded reference to gods and their influences, and they had a rather cavalier notion of what divinity was. This notion of divinity would encompass the high and the low, and it would seem to just refer to the cosmos and the natural principles.
It was very common for the Greeks to name the highest principle in any system “the divine,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they regarded it as a god in any conventional sense. The Greek natural philosophers would say air is divine, or water is divine, or the indefinite is divine, but they would always hasten to add that the indefinite has no interest in human affairs. It’s totally uninvolved with human things, and, in fact, it doesn’t even have a mind.
So, they used the word divine in a very loose sense. You could almost say it sounds like they were just appeasing public opinion, because although it sounds very pious on the surface to say there are gods everywhere, when you start scratching that surface you start thinking that if there are gods everywhere and that natural substances and forces are gods, and these gods care nothing about human affairs, that is not, strictly speaking, atheism. But from the point of view of the defenders of the various local religions, it is the practical equivalent of atheism, for it undermines piety and belief in the gods of the city.