Political philosophers, not political-philosophers. The early Milesian Philosophers: An archaeology of reception – John Brendan Knight

According to the third century CE biographer Diogenes Laertius, once while observing the heavens, the Milesian philosopher Thales, misplaced his footing and stumbled into a ditch earning him the reproach that if he could not see what was under his feet how could he understand what was over his head (DL. 1.33). Stories such as this feed into an imagined world of Greek philosophers, like Diogenes the cynic in his barrel, treading a path above and beyond the grimy realities of day-to-day life. The testimonia we possess for the earliest Greek thinkers, particularly those from Miletos, suggests that this was not in fact the case. Conversely, they seem to have played an active role in political decision making both at home and abroad. Thales, recognised as the first true philosopher is said to have counselled in favour of the federal unification of the Ionian poleis (Hdt. 1.170) and accompanied the Lydian king Croesus on campaign (Hdt. 1.75). His ‘pupil’, Anaximander, was said to have lead the expedition to found the city of Apollonia Pontica on the western Black Sea coast (Ael. VH. 3.17). Hekataios, the father of geography, advised the Milesian tyrant Aristagoras throughout the Ionian revolt from Persia (Hdt. 5.36, 5.125-6, 5.137) and was chosen to negotiate with King Darius after the defeat of the insurgents (Diod. Sic. 10.25). Many of these stories are clearly apocryphal and we are in danger of following an overly positivistic line accepting them without serious critical analysis. This paper intends to address these problems by looking at the changing literary receptions of these early Milesian thinkers.

These characterisations will be shown to be embedded in contemporary temporal contexts, offering us an insight into emerging perceptions of the ancient philosopher as an ideal type. We shall explore the intellectual archaeology of these developments from Herodotus’ portrayal of practical thinkers engaged in contemporary political and economic application to the loftier ideals exhibited in Hellenistic conceptions of the philosopher as abstract theorists. This will highlight the importance of considering source chronology when exploring early Greek philosophy and emphasise the multiplicity of competing characterisations on which we must necessarily base our own understandings of these figures and their thought.

Maarit Kivilo’s Early Greek Poet’s Lives (2010) – analysing the biographical traditions regarding of the archaic poets – is the inspiration for this study. In her appendices she presents these topoi for five groups of ‘individuals’ in Early Greece: – Poets, Seers, Sages, Tyrants and Heroes; demonstrating overlapping thematic elements in their biographical traditions, regardless of the identity of the subject (Kivilo 2010: 227-31). Following Kivilo, we shall identify recurrent literary topoi in the biographical traditions of Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes and Hekataios. The addition of Hekataios, not traditionally thought of as a ‘philosopher’, is due to our belief that his works of geneaology/cosmology and geography are essentially attempting to quantify and understand the same phenomenon as, say, Anaximander and thus he is worthy of inclusion (Andolfi 2017).

For these individuals, the biographical tradition is rarely as extensive as it is for the poets (indeed it would appear there was considerably less scope for mining biographical snippets from the written works of the early philosophers). Yet, it is still possible to identify recurring themes, such as: connections with Egypt, notable firsts, interactions with monarchy, and significant/signifying origins amongst others. This, we feel, amply demonstrates that the biographies of the earliest philosophers fall as much within an ancient biographical tradition prone to thematic treatments and the use of persistent topoi as the reconstructions of any individual’s lives, particularly those living before the Classical and Hellenistic periods. This should demonstrate the need for caution in the study of figures such as these whose floruits lay decades and centuries before the formation of the literary traditions regarding their lives.

The second half of this study represents an attempt to understand potential contexts in which these literary conventions were formed, both intellectually and chronologically. To this end, we propose to present a timeline, from the accepted (or supposed) dates of our individuals. Using this, we intend to plot the various thematic topoi, if possible in a series of wider categories, in an attempt to uncover when certain elements emerge. Preliminary analysis suggests that, in the broadest sense, this methodology can help identify subtle diachronic shifts in the way that these figures are conceptualised by their ancient biographers and commentators. Changes in intellectual conceptions of the character and role of the philosopher between the Classical, Hellenistic, and Roman periods, seem to have left their mark on the biographical tradition as it has come down to us. Nevertheless, we must remain cognisant of the unfortunately limited survival of this record and temper our readings of categories of topoi that can only be identified in one source; in addition to individuals such as Anaximenes for whom there is a significant paucity of evidence.

Overall, the intention of this paper is twofold, firstly to attempt to understand the ways in which literary and biographical traditions are formed over extended periods of time and how each element or treatment can demonstrate the influence of its contemporary context. Secondly, a wider note of methodological caution is intended. While the importance of the early Milesian thinkers to the subsequent conception, practice, and history of philosophy is undoubtedly important – particularly as conceived in the ‘popular’ imagination (e.g. Freely 2012) – it is our aim to draw attention to still significant problems of quellenforschung and reception. When we have little or no surviving literary testimony (including fragments) regarding these individuals to within a century of their lifetimes then we must remain aware of the difficulty in constructing any concrete notions of their lives, thought and influence. Careful considerations of the surviving source material and its context within a wider literary tradition of biography and philosophy can provide us with the tools to mitigate, if not overcome, these difficulties.


Andolfi, I. (2017). ‘An Ambiguous Literary Genre. The Origins of Early Greek Mythography’, Mnemosyne 70.2: 183-201.

Freely, J. (2012). Flame of Miletus: The Birth of Science in Ancient Greece (and how it changed the world), London: I. B. Tauris.

Kivilo, M (2010) Early Greek Poet’s Lives, Leiden: Brill.