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From Thales of Miletus to Hippocrates: Materialism in Ancient Greece

Updated on May 12, 2020

Materialism and their representatives

Materialism arose in Greece in the peninsular area. Contrary to idealism, materialism places matter and the study of nature over ideas, it is not teleological, that is, it does not care about reality, rather why and how it works and the way it does.

The universe had a sense and an order in its functioning. It should be clarified that, despite seeking better new explanations about the universe, these philosophers, and physicists were no strangers to religions

Some of the most important materialists of ancient Greece were Thales of Miletus, Anaxagoras, Pythagoras, Empedocles, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Democritus, and Hippocrates.

The universe had a sense and an order in its functioning.

The Origin (of the Universe and Ancient Greek Philosophy)

Just as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were mentors to each other in respective order, Thales of Miletus was master of Anaxágoras, Parmenides of Zeno of Elea, Pythagoras founded a school, as well as Hippocrates.

Thales of Miletus was looking for the substance or element from which all things are derived. The Greeks called this primordial element or substance physis, and physicists to those who sought it. The most influential idea of Thales of Miletus was that the world is made up of water. Thales was the first philosopher to establish the critical tradition.

Anaximander was a disciple of Thales of Miletus, and as such, relied on his master's ideas to take them a step further. Anaximander believed that from hot water and land the fishes were born, within these fish grew children, and when puberty came, these fishes exploded, of these came humans with enough autonomy to survive. Anaxagoras, his disciple, believed that water could be broken down into an even more basic substance, Apeiron.

The most influential idea of Thales of Miletus was that the world is made up of water.

To be or to become?

Heraclitus believed in the constant change of things. For Heraclitus, the dominant fact of the world is that nothing "is", but everything "becomes". Heraclitus' thought is evident in his famous phrase: "No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man." This caused a problem with empiricism and the exact study of objects. If everything is constantly changing, observations cannot be made if they take into account what the object "is", and if the object always "becomes" it can never be analyzed accurately. There were two options left, to choose something real but imperceptible by the senses, choice of Pythagoreans, or something mental, choice of Plato.

Parmenides of Elea, on the other hand, opposed Heraclitus; he believed that there were no changes and that reality was static and eternal. This idea would be taken up by the Pythagoreans.

Zeno of Elea was a disciple of Parmenides and elaborated more deeply, according to the ideas of his master, than movement does not exist. He is credited with Zeno's paradoxes. One of them is : "For an object to move from point A to point B, it must first travel half the distance between A and B. Then, I had to travel the remaining half the distance, then half that distance and so on."

Nothing "is", but everything "becomes"

Pythagoras and Empedocles

Pythagoras founded a school that had many followers, so it is difficult to separate what Hippocrates said from what his followers said. Therefore, one should talk about the Pythagoreans and not the Pythagoras himself. The Pythagoreans found that physical phenomena are linked to psychological phenomena. They believed in dualism, with elements of Parmenides, like the immutable; and, on the empirical side, the changing and the eternal flow of Heraclitus.

Empedocles was influenced by the Pythagoreans. He proposed that, instead of a physis, there are four elements that make up all the things of the world: earth, fire, air, and water. He also postulated the existence of two causal forces in the universe: love and strife.

For Empedocles, the four elements and the forces of love and strife have always existed, in fact, all that can exist must be a mixture of the elements and the two forces. Nothing is possible beyond these mixtures.

Democritus and Hippocrates

Democritus proposed the atomic model, he said that everything was composed of indivisible particles invisible to the human eye, he called them atoms. All that existed was made of the atoms. He was the last of the first Greek cosmologists. This way of interpreting reality departed from mythical and religious explanations even more than the previous ones.

Hippocrates is considered the father of Western medicine, he had a vast entourage, like Pythagoras, who embraced his knowledge and made contributions. Until then, medicine was plagued by mythical-religious thinking and magic, had no scientific basis, and it could not be known for certain that treatments were effective, and if they were, why they were effective. Hippocratics believed that there were four humors in the body that should be on balance. This idea was shared with the Pythagoreans. Later, a Roman physician, named Galen, would return to the theory of humors.

All that existed was made of the atoms

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