The Agenda of the Milesian School: The Post-Catastrophic Paradigm Shift in Ancient Greece

Abstract of talk by William Mullen

Bard College, Annandal-onHudson, New York 12505, USA. e-mail: mullen[at]
Presented at the SIS Conference: Natural Catastrophes during Bronze Age Civilisations (11th-13th July 1997)

Topics held in common by the first three pre-Socratic philosophers from Miletos in the Sixth Century B.C.E., Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes, and by Xenophanes from neighbouring Colophon, taken together may be viewed as constituting the agenda of a "Milesian School". The agenda included a survey of the known kosmos (the orderly arrangement of the inhabited world surrounded by regularly moving heavenly bodies); redefinitions of divinity; and theories of the natural processes, constantly in operation, by which both kosmos and divinity are to be understood. It also included explanations of phenomena most men deemed terrifying: thunder, lightning, earthquakes, eclipses, and periodic destruction of the kosmos itself. It set about to explain these phenomena in terms of the same elemental processes (transformations of water, rarefaction and condensation of air, separating out of fire, air, water and earth, periodic reabsorption of these elements into a state of dynamic equilibrium) as it invoked to explain the orderly arrangement of the earth and the heavenly bodies. In so doing, it implied the baselessness of the traditional Olympian religion which attributed lightning and earthquakes to whims of Zeus and Poseidon and world-destructions to battles of the sky-gods. The ultimate Milesian agenda may therefore have been to liberate people from paralysing fear of the immediate recurrence of celestial disturbances in the recent past. By insisting that world-destructions occurred only in vast cycles of time (such as a "great year" whose winter solstice was Deluge and summer solstice Conflagration) the Milesian School was schematically distorting memories of recent disturbances, and its activity may be seen as part of a general pattern of oblivion and psychological distancing common to all cultures after the end of the Bronze Age catastrophes. But by insisting that these world-destructions occurred only as the result of unalterable elemental processes, it was also erecting a proto-scientific bulwark against apocalyptic thinking and behavior.

WILLIAM MULLEN is Professor of Classical Studies at Bard College, and is the author of Choreia: Pindar and Dance. In the 1970's he was an editor of Pensee and published several catastrophist papers there, including "A Reading of the Pyramid Texts" and "The Mesoamerican Record". In 1995 he presented "Worlds in Collision after Heinsohn" at the New York Velikovsky Centennial. He is now writing a book on Catastrophism and the 'Axial Age' (simultaneous breakthroughs in cultures from Greece to China).