Spirit in Ionia

Thales (624–546 BCE), one of the earliest philosophers of Ionia, thought the spirit to be some fluid substance that brought about life in the body. According to Anaximander (610–546 BCE), who succeeded Thales as the second master of the Milesian school, spirit was some boundless substance that was different from the above mentioned four elements. His pupil Anaximenes (585–525 BCE) perceived the spirit as having a relationship with air, as he held that air was the source of all things. Belonging to the same school, Heraclitus (535–475 BCE) considered the spirit to be something like fire that is separate from the body.

We can consider all the Ionian philosophers as hylozoists—philosophers who maintain that the essence of life is inseparable from matter. However, although according to some historians of philosophy, he belonged to the Ionian School of philosophy, Anaxagoras (500–428 BCE) was the first to assert that the spirit, which he called the “universal intellect” was an independent entity, and emphasized the duality of matter and force, and the spirit and body. He clearly described an independent, subtle agent that was possessed of all knowledge and power which caused motion, moving the original form of existence and eventually creating the known universe, and which rules all forms of life. But unfortunately, the thoughts of that genius were misunderstood and misinterpreted, and it was claimed that he regarded the spirit as a subtle, material entity.

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The first serious blow to the Ionian philosophers’ considerations of spirit came from Pythagoras (580/572–500/490 BCE), who was born in Samos, one of the eastern Aegean islands; as a young man Pythagoras left for Croton in southern Italy. He saw the “ideas,” images that existed or formed in the mind, as the basis of existence. Pythagoras and his followers destroyed the school of Sensualism and substituted it with what we can call some sort of idealism. The idealism which Pythagoras and his pupil Empedocles (490–430 BCE) laid the foundations to, and which was later elaborated by Plato (428/427–348/347 BCE), entered Muslim thought in later centuries. However, since that idealism lacked a sound doctrine of afterlife, was open to reincarnation, and asserted that individual spirits were the manifestations of what they called the universal spirit, Muslim theologians criticized it severely.

Unlike Pythagoras, who always preserved his line of thought, Empedocles was not consistent in his considerations of the spirit, but wavered between naturalism, skepticism, and mysticism. In the face of the enthusiastic welcome of some people, he even became so arrogant as to claim divinity, and say, “I am an immortal God, I am no longer mortal!” As a result, his ideas lost respect, including those concerning the spirit.

Before passing on to the ideas of Socratic and post-Socratic philosophers about the spirit, the pantheism of the Eleatic school, founded by Parmenides (early fifth century BCE), including particularly Zeno’s (490–430 BCE) philosophy of the immortality of the spirit, and the atomism of Democritus (455–370 BCE) are worth mentioning.