Roots of SN, Part 8: Were the Ionian Philosophers Naturalistic?

(cc) Alun Salt

There are those who believe Spiritual Naturalism is but a modern thing, a young sapling in the forest of spirituality.  In this article, the truth about its age is discovered. So far, we’ve investigated the history of naturalism from prehistoric hunter-gatherers all the way through archaic Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Greece.  We’ve seen that the worldview of naturalism was unlikely throughout these periods and cultures, yet the seeds for it were gradually sown over time.  So, when and where did naturalism finally blossom forth? Most historians, if they recognize naturalism in the ancient world at all, agree that it began with the Ionians.*  Yet most histories of naturalism leave something out: they typically employ vague definitions of naturalism that rely on an ill-defined concept of nature.  Furthermore, to my knowledge, there has been little, if any, research into the combination of naturalism and religious practices.  This article, in addition to investigating the naturalism of the Ionians, will contribute two new aspects to the field: the Ionian concept of nature, and the question of Ionian Spiritual Naturalism. This post is part of Roots of Spiritual Naturalism, a series exploring the gradual emergence of Spiritual Naturalism in ancient times in order to gain an expanded sense of its meaning and historicity. See Part 1 for an overview.

Thales and the Ionians

Ionia, on the western coast of modern TurkeyNaturalism first appeared around 600 – 500 BCE, at the very end of the Greek archaic period, on the west coast of modern Turkey.  This region, called Ionia after the tribe of Greeks who lived there, gave birth to several generations of thinkers who approached old questions in a new way.  They wondered about the nature of the world, where it came from, and how it developed.  Such questions had been asked since time immemorial, and the answer had almost always involved the personal action of some deity, spirit, or powerful ancestor.  Yet the Ionians took a different approach: they attempted explanations completely without reference to such agents. The first of the Ionian thinkers was Thales of Miletus (624-546 BCE).  Educated by an Egyptian priest, he made advances in many fields, including geometry, business, navigation, magnetism, and astronomy.  He is reported by Herodotus to have predicted a solar eclipse.**  For his use of principles and hypotheses he has been called the father of science (Needham, 1978; Singer, 2008), and on him Bertrand Russell  (1945) bestows no small honor: “Western philosophy begins with Thales.” Thales of Miletus, by Ernst Wallis et al, 1875Amidst all these achievements, he is perhaps most famous for his speculation that all things are ultimately composed of water.  Basically, Thales suspected things were made up of one essential element changing shape to create all the varieties of things in the world.  This was the beginning of speculation on the ultimate substance or substances underlying the world, a tradition which is continued by today’s nuclear physicists.  In fact, Thales and his successors were called the physikoi, or physicists, because they investigated the world according to its physis, or nature. We’ve seen this word physis before, and it holds the key to what was so radical about Thales’ idea.  Physis describes the origin and development of a thing of its own accord, and that is the principle by which Thales’ world of water proceeded.  In his theory, there is no mention of divine agents creating, directing, or molding the process; it happens on its own.  This vision of an inherent order unifying nature is what E. O. Wilson (1998) calls the “Ionian enchantment.” Thales was succeeded by several generations of Ionian physikoi who revised or elaborated his views.  Anaximander called the primary substance the indefinite (to apeiron), while Heraclitus called it fire, and Anaximenes air.  Later schools also picked up on this tradition: Parmenides postulated being and nonbeing, Anaxagoras nous or mind, and Empedocles the four “roots” or elements: earth, air, fire, and water.  All these philosophers speculated on the nature of nature itself, without invoking gods to do so. Does that make these physikoi naturalistic?  In this series, we’re defining naturalism as a worldview, namely “the system of those who find all primary causes in nature” (Furst and Skrine, 1971).  So, the question is whether the physikoi found all primary causes in nature.  The answer is, undeniably, yes.  The Ionians concerned themselves with the most basic of all causes, the substance underlying everything, and this they clearly understood according to a principle of physis or nature.  All primary causes were found in nature. Yet what was this thing they called “nature”?  It would be a gross mistake to assume they meant the same thing as we do today.  We need to look into the “nature” of the Ionians.

A naturalistic concept of nature?

Modern naturalism depends crucially on a specific concept of nature characterized by impersonal physical laws.  Was the view of nature held by the Ionians similar to this or different? There is room for skepticism on this point.  The primary substance(s) speculated by the Ionians certainly sound impersonal and physical, but objections have been raised.  For example, Anaximenes’ to apeiron has been argued as a kind of god veiled in abstract terms.  Meanwhile, a century later and in a different school, Anaxagoras would make the primary substance nous or mind, which no longer sounds very impersonal or physical.  One cannot help but wonder if the earlier Ionians did not also have some tinge of this personal and non-physical quality as well. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, it seems most reasonable to take the Ionians at face value when they appear to describe nature in impersonal, physical, and law-like terms.  They spoke of nature as impersonal, i.e. developing without the intention of any agent, physical, i.e. composed of a substance often likened to such tangible realities as water, fire, or air, and law-like, i.e. operating according to universal principles.  This suggests their concept of nature was quite similar to that of modern naturalism. We can conclude with reasonable confidence, then, that the Ionian physikoi were indeed naturalistic. This series is not just about naturalism, though, but about the history of Spiritual Naturalism.  Now that we’ve discovered the world’s first naturalists, we can begin to wrestle with what it means to be a spiritual one, which is by no means clear.

What is spirituality?

What kind of spirituality should we look for in ancient naturalists? It will not suffice, of course, to seek out a supernatural ghost-like entity, which would be incompatible with naturalism. Rather, we ought to search for that other meaning of the word, the spirit or essence of something, as in “the spirit of the law.” Spiritual Naturalists are concerned with that which captures the spirit or essence of being human, i.e. what is essential to a full and flourishing human life. This more naturalistic meaning is not new; it has a long precedent. Etymologically, the word comes from the Latin spiritus for “breath”, derived from Proto-Indo-European *(s)peis- “to blow” , and the meaning “‘essential principle of something’ (in a non-theological context, e.g. Spirit of St. Louis) is attested from 1680s, common after 1800” (Harper, 2014). Such a concept remains rather murky, though. In order to detect such spirituality in ancient thinkers, we need concrete markers or traits to look for.  Clark (2002) elaborates three characteristics of spirituality applicable to naturalistic contexts:

  1. an emotional response
  2. a cognitive context
  3. practice

The first characteristic, an emotional response, which Clark also calls the spiritual response, refers to “feelings of significance, unity, awe, joy, acceptance, and consolation.” This is akin to what Dawkins (1998) calls “an appetite for wonder.” The second characteristic refers to a cognitive context consisting of “a set of beliefs about oneself and the world which can both inspire the spiritual response and provide an interpretation of it” (Clark, 2002). Contemplating the world according to these beliefs leads to a “realization of life’s deeper significance.” The third and final characteristic is practice. Recognizing the fact that intellectual assent alone is rarely enough to incite a particularly deep experience, Clark asserts that “dance, singing, chant, meditation, and participation in various rituals and ceremonies all can play a role in moving us from the head to the heart.” These traits are not equally suitable as tools of the historical detective. The emotional response may be quite difficult to verify historically. Meanwhile, the cognitive context is only slightly less problematic. Certainly much of ancient philosophy is charged with such inspiration, but the subjective nature of this trait, despite its great value, makes it messy to analyze. The most promising trait is practice. Thus, in this series, we will attempt to reconstruct the spiritual practices of ancient thinkers as much as possible. These practices may be of two types. The first includes traditionally-religious practices, such as ritual, sacrifice, or prayer. The second type comprises activities not explicitly associated with religion, yet clearly aimed at the spirit or essence of human life. Examples include contemplating deep truths, striving to act in accord with nature, or eating a meal with friends as a conscious expression of our deeply social species. If it can be shown that ancient peoples held a naturalistic worldview at the same time that they engaged in such practices, such as sacrifice, prayer, or meditation, that will be considered objective evidence of ancient Spiritual Naturalism. There are different levels to which these practices may be integrated with naturalism. For example, a naturalist may participate in religious sacrifices without acknowledging any necessary connection to her worldview, in the same way that a modern scientist might be a naturalist in the lab but a theist at church – the two are compartmentalized and isolated. Such a practice would represent significant but weak evidence of Spiritual Naturalism. A second, slightly more integrated version might acknowledge a relation or even tension between worldview and practice, such as one who engages in traditional prayer but recognizes that the deities addressed are not to be taken literally. This would be somewhat stronger evidence of Spiritual Naturalism. A third and final version, comprising the strongest evidence of all, explicitly attempts to integrate worldview and practice, perhaps employing allegory to relate ritual myths to naturalistic realities, modifying religious practices to better accord with reality, or even developing new practices altogether. These three progressively integrative approach represent a spectrum of evidence for Spiritual Naturalism ranging from weak to strong. To sum up, spirituality in this context is attendance to the spirit or essence of life as manifested through specific emotional responses, cognitive contexts, and practices. Such practices, which may be traditionally-religious or more secular in nature, may appear in varying degrees of integration with a naturalistic worldview, comprising evidence of corresponding strength for Spiritual Naturalism overall.

The world’s oldest Spiritual Naturalists?

With this definition and method in hand, we can begin to investigate the history of a specifically spiritual kind of naturalism.  The question now is: Should the Ionians count as Spiritual Naturalists? Unfortunately, evidence for the spiritual practices of the physikoi is sparse and indirect. Thales is reported by Aristotle to have said “The world is full of gods”, which may indicate a practice of spiritualizing nature, but both the meaning and authenticity of this statement is contested.  If Thales did say it, he may have been indicating a kind of soul pervading and directing all things, which would not have been very consistent with his otherwise naturalistic philosophy.  On the other hand, he may have been referring to the movement of lodestones or magnets, suggesting that the capacity of motion is inherent in nature.  Either way, regarding the spiritual practices of Thales, the statement leaves us with more questions than answers. Other physikoi are equally obscure regarding religion.  They were remembered primarily for their philosophical ideas and not their religious ones, so little of the latter has made it into the historical record. This marked absence may itself be a clue, however.  Most later ancient philosophers did in fact take part in their culture’s religion, regardless of their philosophical beliefs, so any failure to do so would likely have stood out markedly to later reporters.  Had the Ionians rejected their culture’s religion, they would have been remembered for such eccentricity, yet we find no references to atheism or impiety.*** This suggests, albeit weakly and indirectly, that the Ionians did, in fact, lead reasonably normative religious lives.  Moreover, there is no suggestion of the level to which they may have integrated worldview and practice, leaving us with only the weakest form of evidence. Nevertheless, the case remains significant. Considering the early date and the unprecedented nature of their naturalism, it is unlikely that the Ionians rejected spiritual practices. They were embedded in a culture suffused on all sides with religion, from public festivals to private household offerings, and it would seem more extraordinary to lightly shrug all this off than to combine it in some respect with their naturalism. We can hesitantly conclude, then, that the Ionian philosophers were the world’s oldest Spiritual Naturalists. In articles to come, the history of Spiritual Naturalism will be further traced through Classical Greece and on to the Hellenistic era.  We will find that the evidence becomes increasingly clear and strong as time goes on: there were Spiritual Naturalists in the ancient world, just as there are today.

Spiritual Naturalism is as old as most world religions today

As a result of these findings, modern Spiritual Naturalists may rejoice in a venerable heritage.  Their style of spirituality enjoys extremely ancient precedent.  With a pedigree going back more than twenty-five-hundred years to Thales of Miletus, it rivals Buddhism in its hoary antiquity.  While it may not be as old as theistic religion, Spiritual Naturalism is old indeed.  No one can claim on historical grounds that Spiritual Naturalism is not a legitimate form of spirituality. Spiritual Naturalism is no young sapling; it is an old and mighty oak.   Subscribe to The Spiritual Naturalist Society Learn about Membership in the Spiritual Naturalist Society __________ The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.

*While there are many studies of naturalism (e.g Furst and Skrine, 1971; Goetz and Taliaferro, 2008; Plantinga, 2011), including Religious Naturalism (e.g. Stone, 2008; Hogue, 2010), there are actually precious few that address the history of ancient naturalism.  Histories addressing ancient atheism (e.g. Thrower, 2000) or doubt (e.g. Hecht, 2003) are more abundant, but lack the crucial analysis of the term “naturalism” and its relation to the concept of nature.  Meanwhile, Popper (1963) sees the Ionians as the origin of Western science, though he does not extend comment to the origin of scientific naturalism.  For histories specifically addressing ancient naturalism, see for example Prado (2006) and Clark (2007).  As for research into Naturalistic Pagan religion, there has been much on the influence of religion on Ionian naturalism but none, to my knowledge, on the influence of naturalism on Ionian religion.
**There is doubt about the accuracy of this report, however (Panchenko, 1994).
***Not till later, in the 5th century, do we find philosophers charged with impiety or atheism, starting with Anaxagoras and proceeding later to the famous indictment of Socrates.  Even these charges do not necessarily indicate a positive denial of the existence of gods, however.  Rather, they often suggested deviation from normative interpretations.  In effect, “atheism” was denial of the traditional gods of the people, not religion per se.

This article was first published at, minus substantial revisions. References Clark, T. (2002). “Spirituality Without Faith.” The Humanist, 62(1), Jan. Dawkins, R. (1998). Unweaving the Rainbow. New York: Mariner Books. Furst, L. and Skrine, P.  (1971).  Naturalism.  London: Methuen. Goetz, S., and Taliaferro, C.  (2008).  Naturalism.  Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co. Harper, D. (2014). “spirit (n.).” Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved Mar. 2, 2014, from: Hecht, J. M.  (2003).  Doubt: A History.  New York: HarperCollins. Hogue, M.  (2010).  The Promise of Religious Naturalism.  Plymouth, UK: Rowman and Littlefield. Needham, C. W.  (1978).  Cerebral Logic: Solving the Problem of Mind and Brain.  Loose Leaf. Panchenko, D.  (1994).  “Thales’ Prediction of a Solar Eclipse.”  Journal for the History of Astronomy, 25, p. 275-288. Plantinga, A.  (2011).  Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism.  New York: Oxford University Press. Popper, K.  (1994/1963).  Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge.  New York: Routledge and Keegan Paul. Prado, I.  (2006).  “Ionian Enchantment: A Brief History of Scientific Naturalism.”  Retrieved October 27, 2013, from: <> Russell, B.  (1945).  The History of Western Philosophy.  New York: Simon and Schuster. Singer, C.  (2008).  A Short History of Science to the 19th century.  Streeter Press. Stone, J.  (2008).  Religious Naturalism: Rebirth of a Forgotten Alternative.  Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. Thrower, J.  (2000).  Western Atheism: A Short History.  Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. Wilson, E. O.  (1998).  Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge.  New York: Vintage. Previous Posts in this Series

  1. Introduction
  2. Modern Cosmology
  3. Evolution and the Way to Live
  4. Were Early Hunter-gathers Naturalistic?
  5. Were Early Agricultural Peoples Naturalistic?
  6. Were Archaic Egypt and Mesopotamia Naturalistic?
  7. Was Archaic Greece Naturalistic?

2 thoughts on “Roots of SN, Part 8: Were the Ionian Philosophers Naturalistic?”

  1. Thanks for a very interesting and actually uplifting history.

    A question: in the paragraph about integrating worldview and practice, you mention a scientist in a lab. Let’s take a modern scientist who is a non-theist, who is confident about nature as the ultimate reality, and whose lab research is, in her view, a respectful practice. Does it make sense to consider that scientist a spiritual naturalist? If not, what is missing?

  2. Interesting question, Brock. I think a scientist in a lab like you describe certainly *could* be a spiritual naturalist. The question would be what is meant by spirituality, and whether that scientist displays it. I don’t think just being “respectful” quite covers it, but an attitude of awe, wonder, and meaningful relationship to nature might do so. That would be Clark’s “emotional response” characteristic. As for “practice”, the scientist might take her lab work as an expression of her spiritual relationship with reality. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s to be taken for granted that scientists in general take this attitude to their work, so at the end of the day it depends on the scientist.

    By the way, the mention of the scientist in a lab in the article was specifically about those who espouse one set of beliefs in the lab and another on Sundays in church. It wasn’t meant as a comment on science in laboratories in general. 🙂


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