Ancient Greek Cosmogony
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Ancient Greek Cosmogony is the first detailed, comprehensive account of ancient Greek theories of the origins of the world. It covers the period from 800 BC to 600 AD, beginning with myths concerning the creation of the world; the cosmogonies of all the major Greek and Roman thinkers; and the debate between Greek philosophical cosmogony and early Christian views. It argues that Greeks formulated many of the perennial problems of philosophical cosmogony and produced philosophically and scientifically interesting answers.
The atomists argued that our world was one among many worlds, and came about by chance. Plato argued that it is unique, and the product of design. Empedocles and the Stoics, in quite different ways, argued that there was an unending cycle whereby the world is generated, destroyed and generated again. Aristotle on the other hand argued that there was no such thing as cosmogony, and the world has always existed. Reactions to, and developments of, these ideas are traced through Hellenistic philosophy and the debates in early Christianity on whether God created the world from nothing or from some pre-existing chaos.
The book examines issues of the origins of life and the elements for the ancient Greeks, and how the cosmos will come to an end. It argues that there were several interesting debates between Greek philosophers on the fundamental principles of cosmogony, and that these debates were influential on the development of Greek philosophy and science.
archê, which can mean ‘beginning’, ‘origin’, ‘first cause’ or even ‘first place’ in a political sense. It is wise to keep all these in mind rather than be tied to one. After a brief excursus, Aristotle continues: There must be some natural substance, either one or many, which is preserved while other things come to be. On the number and form of this archê there is no agreement, but Thales, the originator of this sort of philosophy, said that it is water (and so declared the earth to be upon
do I see it as problematic that Thales chooses water when there were many water-based creation tales before him. Thales produces a kosmos by means which are parsimonious, invariant, non-contradictory and natural.12 While we have little information on the processes of cosmogony in Thales, if the other Milesians are anything to go by here (and differences in this would certainly be commented on by Aristotle and later commentators),13 then the processes of cosmogony are ongoing processes that we can
grounds. Those who do not suppose other explanations are definitely plural, and the discussion both before and after this passage is about the unlimited in general, and not about Anaximander’s unlimited in particular. Aristotle may pick out Anaximander either as the first to hold a steering principle, or perhaps as someone who gave the clearest or best known statement of it. Certainly Diogenes of Apollonia, a follower of Anaximenes, holds that air steers:118 That which has intelligence is called
and Democritus on atoms. He makes no mention though of any of the Milesians. His view seems to be that the Milesians did not recognise the need for some account beyond their principal substance to explain the genesis of the kosmos. The problem here is the old one that Aristotle assimilates the views of the Milesians to his own views on matter. Aristotle cannot conceive of how wood or bronze could organise themselves, so cannot conceive of how water, the unlimited or air might organise themselves,
of the earth.8 So while Xenophanes may have a rather odd and fragmented account of the nature of the earth, there are not an unlimited number of co-existent suns and moons. We also learn from Aetius that: Mankind is destroyed when earth is carried down into the sea and mud is generated, then another beginning is generated, and this foundation occurs for all of the kosmoi.9 It is unlikely that the earth as such is destroyed here, for according to Xenophanes: We see the upper limit of the earth