Early Greek Philosophy by John Burnet, with Burnet's notes
6. General Characteristcs of Greek Cosmology 8. Motion and Rest

From Burnet's Introduction

VII. Physis
Now, Ionian science was introduced into Athens by Anaxagoras about the time Euripides was born, and there are sufficient traces of its influence on him.20 It is, therefore, significant that, in a fragment which portrays the blessedness of a life devoted to scientific research (ἱστορία)21 he uses the very epithets "ageless and deathless" which Anaximander had applied to the one primary substance, and that he associates them with the term φύσις The passage is so important for our present purpose that I quote it in full:

ὄλβιος ὅστις τῆς ἱστορίας
ἔσχε μάθησιν, μήτε πολιτῶν
ἐπὶ πημοσύνας μήτ' εἰς ἀδίκους
πράξεις ὁρμῶν,
ἀλλ' ἀθανάτου καθορῶν φύσεως
κόσμον ἀγήρω, τίς τε συνέστη
καὶ ὅπη καὶ ὅπως·
τοῖς τοιούτοις οὐδέποτ' αἰσχρῶν
ἔργων μελέτημα προσίζει.22
[Blessed is whoever has a knowledge of science, neither rushing headlong at freemen, causing them to suffer or commit unjust acts, but perceiving the ordering of immortal and ageless physis and who organized it, whence it came and how: the practice of shameful works never sits near such.—Tr. Anonymous, (Peithô's Web note)]

This fragment is clear evidence that, in the fifth century B.C., the name φύσις was given to the everlasting something of which the world was made. That is quite in accordance with the history of the word, so far as we can make it out. Its original meaning appears to be the "stuff" of which anything is made, a meaning which easily passes into that of its "make-up," its general character or constitution. Those early cosmologists who were seeking for an "undying and ageless" something, would naturally express the idea by saying there was "one φύσις"23 of all things. When that was given up, under the influence of Eleatic criticism, the old word was still used. Empedokles held there were four such primitive stuffs, each with a φύσις of its own, while the Atomists believed in an infinite number, to which they also applied the term.24

The term ἀρχή, which is often used in our authorities, is in this sense25 purely Aristotelian. It is very natural that it should have been adopted by Theophrastos and later writers; for they all start from the well-known passage of the Physics in which Aristotle classifies his predecessors according as they postulated one or more ἀρχαί.26 But Plato never uses the term in this connexion, and it does not occur once in the genuine fragments of the early philosophers, which would be very strange on the assumption that they employed it.

Now, if this is so, we can understand at once why the Ionians called science Περὶ φύσεως ἱστορίη. We shall see that the growing thought which may be traced through the successive representatives of any school is always that which concerns the primary substance,27 whereas the astronomical and other theories are, in the main, peculiar to the individual thinkers. The chief interest of all is the quest for what is abiding in the flux of things.28

Burnet's Notes


20. See below, § 123.

21. Cf. Plato, Phaedo, 96 a 7 ταύτης τῆς σοφίας ἣν δὴ καλοῦσι περὶ φύσεως ἱστορίαν This is the oldest and most trustworthy statement as to the name originally given to science. I lay no stress on the fact that the books of the early cosmologists are generally quoted under the title Περὶ φύσεως, as such titles are probably of later date.

22. Eur. fr. inc. 910. The word κόσμος here means, of course, "ordering," "arrangement," and ἀγήρω is genitive. The object of research is firstly what is "the ordering of immortal ageless φύσις," and secondly, how it arose. Anaxagoras, who introduced Ionian science to Athens, had belonged to the school of Anaximenes (§ 122). We know from Aristotle (loc. cit. p. 9 n. 1) that not only Anaximander, but most of the φυσιολόγοι, applied epithets like this to the Boundless.

23. Arist. Phys. A, 6. οἱ μίαν τινὰ φύσιν εἶναι λέγοντες τὸ πᾶν, οἷον ὕδωρ ἢ πῦρ ἢ τὸ μεταξὺ τούτων, B, I. 193 a 21 οἱ μὲν πῦρ, οἱ δὲ γῆν, οἱ δ' ἀέρα φασίν, οἱ δὲ ὕδωρ, οἱ δ' ἔνια τούτων, (Parmenides), of οἱ δὲ πάντα ταῦτα (Empedokles) τὴν φύσιν εἶναι τὴν τῶν ὄντων.

24. For the history of the term φύσις, see Appendix I.

25. Professor W. A. Heidel has shown that the cosmologists might have used ἀρχή in a sense different from Aristotle's, that, namely, of "source," "store," or "collective mass," from which particular things are derived (Class. Phil. vii. pp. 217 sqq.). I should be quite willing to accept this account of the matter if I could find any evidence that they used the term at all. It is only in the case of Anaximander that there is even a semblance of such evidence, and I believe that to be illusory (p. 54, n. 2). Moreover, Diels has shown that the first book of Theophrastos's great work dealt with the ἀρχή in the Aristotelian sense, and it is very unlikely that the word should have been used in one sense of Anaximander and in another of the rest.

26. Phys. A, 2. 184 b 15 sqq. It is of great importance to remember that Theophrastos and his followers simply adopted the classification of this chapter, which has no claim to be regarded as historical.

27. I am conscious of the unsatisfactory character of the phrase "primary substance" (πρῶτον ὑποκείμενον), but it is hard to find a better. The German Urstoff is less misleading in its associations, but the English "stuff" is not very satisfactory.

28. The view of O. Gilbert (Die meteorologischen Theorien des griechischen Altertums, Leipzig, 1907) that the early cosmologists started from the traditional and popular theory of "the four elements" derives all its plausibility from the ambiguity of the term "element." If we only mean the great aggregates of Fire, Air, Water and Earth, there is no doubt that these were distinguished from an early date. But that is not what is meant by an "element" (στοιχεῖον) in cosmology, where it is always an irreducible something with a φύσις of its own. The remarkable thing really is that the early cosmologists went behind the theory of "elements" in the popular sense, and it was only the accident that Empedokles, the first to maintain a plurality of elements, selected the four that have become traditional that has led to the loose use of the word "element" for the great aggregates referred to.

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