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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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Analogy, in its broadest sense, comprehends any mode
of reasoning that depends on the suggestion or recog-
nition of a relationship of similarity between two ob-
jects or sets of objects. It includes not only four-term
proportional relationships of the type A:B::C:D (for
which the Greek term is ἀναλογία), but also both
explicit and implicit comparisons, for example the use
of models (παραδείγματα) and of images (εἰκόνεσ). In
early Greek thought analogies played a fundamental
role in the expression of cosmological doctrines, in the
development of natural science, and in ethical and
political arguments.

The three most important types of images used in
cosmological theories are (1) political and social, (2)
vitalist, and (3) technological, in which, roughly speak-
ing, the cosmos is conceived as a state, as a living being,
and as an artifact respectively.

1. Political and Social Images. The use of political
and social concepts is widespread in pre-Socratic
cosmology. The idea of cosmic order as a balance of
power between equal opposed forces goes back to
Anaximander, who describes the relation between cer-
tain cosmic factors in legal terms: “They pay the pen-
alty and recompense to one another for their injustice
according to the assessment of time.” Heraclitus, on
the other hand, stresses the constant war and strife
between opposites: “One must realize that war is com-
mon and justice is strife and everything happens
through strife and necessity” (frag. 80). But both
Parmenides in the Way of Seeming and Empedocles
in his poem On Nature revert to the idea of a cosmic
balance of power. In Empedocles, for example, Love
and Strife are equals: they gain the upper hand in the
world in turn, and these alternations are governed by
a “broad oath,” that is, by some sort of contract be-
tween them.

Anaxagoras and Diogenes of Apollonia use a third
type of political model, ascribing supreme power to
a single cosmic principle, and Plato similarly attributes
supreme power to Reason which governs and arranges
all things for the best. Superficially this last group of
images resembles the traditional descriptions of Zeus
as supreme god; but there is this fundamental differ-
ence, that the philosophers ascribe supreme power not
to a capricious deity, but to the principle of order and
rationality itself, to Mind or Reason or, in the case of
Diogenes, to Air, thought of as the seat of intelligence.
These authoritarian images too, like the egalitarian
ones of Anaximander and Empedocles, serve to express
the idea of cosmic order, although they do so from


a different point of view and with different associations.

All these philosophers describe the cosmos in terms
of a concrete political or social situation, whether of
a balance of power and equality of rights, or of constant
war and aggression, or of benevolent, authoritarian
rule. Plato's antidemocratic, authoritarian political
inclinations are echoed in his descriptions of Reason
as a supreme, benevolent cosmic ruler, but the evi-
dence concerning earlier philosophers is too scanty to
allow us to determine how closely their cosmological
images tallied with their particular political ideologies.
However, there are two ways in which their images
may be related to their historical and social back-

First, the development of the Greek city-state from
about the seventh century B.C. was accompanied by
an increasing political awareness and a new conception
of political rights. In particular the framing of consti-
tutions and the codification of laws led to a much less
arbitrary administration of justice than had been the
case in earlier periods. These changes had their coun-
terparts in the political images used by the cosmolo-
gists; varied as those images are, they have in common
the notion that cosmological changes are governed by
rules that are independent of the caprice of individuals.
The development in the attitude towards justice in the
city-state is reflected in the development of Greek
cosmology itself, since it was largely by means of the
ideas of law and justice that the pre-Socratic thinkers
expressed the notion that the changes affecting the
primary substances in the world are orderly and regu-
lated by immutable principles.

Secondly, the very variety of images and of the
cosmological doctrines themselves is significant. As in
the political sphere the rise of the city-state is accom-
panied by a proliferation of constitutional forms rang-
ing from extreme democracy to tyranny, the merits
of each of which were much debated, so similarly in
the field of speculative thought the philosophers felt
free to reject earlier ideas and to attempt to resolve
each problem for themselves, and each new theory as
it was advanced was discussed and criticized openly.

It is difficult to decide how far any of the pre-
Socratics recognized an element of transference in
applying political and social conceptions to the cosmos.
No philosopher before Plato explicitly refers to his
cosmological images as images (εἰκόνεσ), and yet it is
unlikely that any of them simply failed to differentiate
at all between the realm of society and that of nature,
the relations between which had become, by the end
of the fifth century at least, the subject of heated
controversy. Heraclitus, for instance, tacitly distin-
guishes between human laws and the divine law, while
saying that the former depend on the latter, in frag.
114. Evidently he did not simply confuse human soci-
ety and cosmic order. Yet law and justice applied to
the cosmos were no mere figures of speech, for order
in the human sphere was regularly conceived as part
of the wider cosmic order and as somehow derived
from it.

2. Vitalist Images. Most of the earlier pre-Socratic
philosophers imagined that the primary stuff out of
which things are made or from which they originate
is not merely like something that is alive, but is indeed
instinct with life. This is true of all three Milesian
philosophers and of Heraclitus; when he describes the
world-order as an “ever-living” fire in frag. 30, “ever-
living” is not simply a poetical equivalent for “ever-
lasting,” for he held that fire is indeed the substance
of which our own souls consist. Later the Atomists too
seem to have believed that the mass of atoms from
which worlds originate is instinct with life in the sense
that it is permeated by soul-atoms. Although Aristotle
ridiculed the belief that soul is intermingled in the
whole universe, he himself held that the heavenly
bodies are alive, and indeed some of his general physi-
cal theories, for example the doctrine of potentiality
and actuality, are much influenced by ideas which
apply primarily to the sphere of living things.

These and other vitalist beliefs affected the develop-
ment of Greek cosmology in three main ways. First,
the earliest philosophers were “hylozoists”; they as-
sumed that the primary substance, being alive, is in
motion. The question of the origin or cause of move-
ment only came to be recognized as a problem after
Parmenides had denied the possibility of change.

Secondly, vitalist notions are naturally very impor-
tant in accounts of how the world developed from an
original, undifferentiated state. Anaximander, for ex-
ample, pictured the world evolving from a seed that
separated off from the Boundless, and some of the
Pythagoreans too thought that the One from which
the cosmos developed was composed of seed.

Thirdly, the structure of the cosmos was sometimes
compared with that of man and vice versa. The idea
that the world is a living creature may underlie the
comparison that Anaximenes drew between the role
of air in the world and that of breath in man. But two
of the Hippocratic treatises put forward much more
elaborate analogies between the microcosm and the
macrocosm. In De victu man's body is said to be a
copy of the world-whole, the stomach being compared
with the sea and so on. And De hebdomadibus suggests
detailed correspondences both between the substances
in the body and those in the universe—where the bones
correspond to the stony core of the earth, for example—
and between the various parts of the body and different
geographical areas—where the Thracian Bosphorus is


said to correspond to the feet, the Peloponnese to the
head, and so on. While Plato proposed no detailed
analogy between the anatomy of man and the structure
of the universe, he stated unequivocally his conviction
that “this world is in truth a living creature, endowed
with soul and reason” (Timaeus 30b), and according
to the Philebus (29b ff.) both our body and our soul
are derived from the body and the soul of the world-
whole respectively.

3. Technological Images. Several of the pre-
Socratics use the metaphor of steering in their cos-
mologies, but the first to employ a wide range of
technological images is Empedocles, and then both
Plato and Aristotle use them extensively in two con-
texts, especially, (1) to describe the role of a moving
or efficient cause, and (2) to express the idea of intelli-
gent design in the cosmos.

In Empedocles' system everything is composed of
the four “roots,” earth, water, air, and fire, together
with Love and Strife, and in describing how complex
substances and the organs in the body come to be he
assigns to Love the role of craftsman, the four elements
being the material on which it works. It would be
anachronistic to attribute a clear distinction between
“material” and “efficient” causes to Empedocles; but
it is in the descriptions of the craftsmanlike activity
of Love that he comes closest to treating it as a purely
efficient cause. Plato's Timaeus is the first Greek text
to describe the formation of the world as a whole as
the work of a Craftsman. In Plato the Demiurge takes
over already existing matter and imposes order on its
disorderly movements, and his account of the details
of creation is full of images drawn from carpentry,
weaving, modelling, metallurgy, and agricultural tech-
nology. Aristotle's unmoved mover, unlike Plato's
Craftsman, is only a final, not an efficient cause; but
Aristotle too believes that final causes are at work in
natural processes, and he uses comparisons drawn from
the arts and crafts extensively to illustrate this. Despite
their unconcealed contempt for the life led by merely
human artisans, both Plato and Aristotle found techno-
logical imagery indispensable for expressing their belief
in the rational design of the universe.


The history of early Greek cosmology is largely the
history of the interpretation of the cosmos in terms
of various ideas derived from the three fields of politics,
biology, and technology. Aristotle, especially, criticized
many such ideas, as for example the belief that such
substances as air or fire are alive. Yet these three types
of images continued to be influential long after him.
The Stoics, in particular, not only represented the
cosmos as a living creature and believed in the pur-
poseful, craftsmanlike activity of Nature, but also
described the world as a state governed by divine law,
and similar ideas had a long history in the Middle Ages
and in the Renaissance.

Moreover while Greek cosmology owed many ideas
to politics and biology, Greek biological theories and
political thought were similarly colored by the use of
images drawn from one another. For example, the twin
ideas that health depends on the equality of rights
(ἰσονομία) of opposed powers in the body, and that
disease results from the supreme rule (μοναρχία) of one
such power, go back to Alcmaeon and thereafter be-
come commonplaces of Greek pathology and thera-
peutics. Aristotle, too, compares the living creature
with a well-governed city, describing the heart as the
central seat of authority in the body (e.g., De motu
703a 29ff.).

Conversely Greek political theorists sometimes
compare the state with a living organism, and the
influence of other biological and technological analo-
gies on Greek ethics is marked. Here Plato provides
the best examples. First he constructed an elaborate
analogy between the state and the individual in the
Republic, suggesting, for instance, that both may be
divided into three parts, one of which—the Guardians
in the state and reason in the soul—should be in overall
control. A second important analogy in Plato is that
between justice and health. This provides the main
grounds for the two theses, (1) that the just man is
happier than the unjust, and (2) that once having done
wrong, it is better to suffer than to escape punish-
ment—for punishment is the “cure” for injustice. And
a third recurrent analogy is that between the politician
and the artist or craftsman, where Plato suggests that
the statesman must be an expert in politics in a way
comparable with that in which a pilot is expert in
navigation or a doctor in medicine. We find similar
types of analogies in Aristotle, too. In the Politics (1295a
40f.) he describes the constitution as the life, as it were,
of the state, and in the Nicomachean Ethics (1113a
25ff.) he draws a comparison between the good man
and the healthy: just as a sick person may be mistaken
about what is hot or cold or sweet or bitter, and the
judge of these things is the normal, healthy man, so,
he argues, the good man (ὁ σπουδαῖος) is the judge of
what is right and wrong.

Greek ideas on nature and art, on the state, the living
organism, and the world as a whole, are linked by a
series of interlocking analogies. Most of the major fifth-
and fourth-century philosophers put forward analogies
of one or other of the types we have considered. Yet
the particular forms that their analogies take are very
varied, and no single version of any of them dominates
the period. Had any such orthodoxy existed, these
analogies might have impeded the development of
certain inquiries far more than they did. As it was,


although some Hippocratic writers produced elaborate
versions of the microcosm-macrocosm analogy, this did
not prevent other theorists from making considerable
progress in both the study of anatomy and in astron-
omy, during the fourth century. Again, both Plato and
Aristotle held that the stars are alive and divine, al-
though this had been denied by such thinkers as
Anaxagoras; yet this belief did not prevent Aristotle
from attempting a detailed mechanical account of the
movements of the heavenly bodies, based on Eudoxus'
theory of concentric spheres.


Two other features of the role of analogy in early
Greek thought that are especially notable are (1) their
use as a method of suggesting or supporting explana-
tions of particular natural phenomena, and (2) the
gradual exploration of the logic of analogy. The begin-
nings of the first use go back to the Milesians, who
based many of their accounts of obscure astronomical,
meteorological, and geological phenomena on simple
analogies with familiar objects. Thus Anaximenes
compared lightning with the flash made by an oar in
water, believing both phenomena to be the result of
a cleaving process. His predecessor Anaximander sug-
gested a more elaborate and artificial analogy in which
he pictured the heavenly bodies as wheels of fire
enclosed in mist; the stars themselves are seen through
openings in the mist, and he described eclipses of the
sun and moon as being due to the temporary blocking
of their apertures. Primitive though this theory is, it
ranks as the first known attempt to construct a me-
chanical model of the heavenly bodies.

The use of such comparisons grows as the range of
problems investigated is extended. Empedocles and
some of the Hippocratic writers, especially, propose
ingenious analogies to explain processes that take place
within the body. Thus Empedocles compares the proc-
ess of respiration with the action of a clepsydra (water
clock). De natura pueri compares the formation of a
membrane round the seed in the womb with that of
a crust on bread as it is baked, and De morbis IV
compares the formation of stones in the bladder with
the smelting of iron ore. The same writer also illustrates
how the humors travel between different parts of the
body by referring to the way in which a system of
three or more intercommunicating vessels may be filled
with a liquid or emptied by filling or emptying one
of them, and on other occasions, too, Greek scientists
refer to simple tests carried out on substances outside
the body in their search for analogies for biological

These writers rarely examine explicitly the question
of how the analogies they propose apply to the phe-
nomena they were supposed to explain, and many of
their ideas seem farfetched. Even so, analogy provided
an important, indeed in some cases the only, means
of bringing empirical evidence to bear on obscure or
intractable problems, especially in such fields as as-
tronomy and meteorology, embryology and pathology,
where direct experimentation was generally out of the

Various writers, beginning with Anaxagoras at the
end of the fifth century, refer to this use of analogy
under the general heading of making “phenomena the
vision of things that are obscure” (ὄψισ τω̑ν ἀδήλων τὰ
φαινόμενα), and awareness of most of the different
modes of analogy grows rapidly in the fourth century.
Plato, himself one of the chief exponents of reasoning
from analogy, was the first to point out how deceptive
similarities may be, and to draw attention to the differ-
ence between merely probable arguments, including
emotive images and myths, and demonstrations. Then
Aristotle analyzed analogical argument as such in the
form of the paradigm, explaining its relation to induc-
tion and showing that it is not formally demonstrative.
Nevertheless he granted its usefulness as a persuasive
argument in the field of rhetoric, and he even described
how a dialectician may exploit similarities in order to
deceive an opponent. Plato and Aristotle made decisive
advances in exploring the logic of arguments from
analogy: yet the effect of their work was not, of course,
to preclude the use of such arguments, but rather to
show that they are not formally valid. Moreover while
Aristotle successfully analyzed analogy as a method of
inference, neither he nor any later Greek logician made
much progress towards elucidating the other important
function of analogy, namely as a method of discovery
in natural science.


The principal texts are discussed in G. E. R. Lloyd,
Polarity and Analogy: two types of argumentation in early
Greek thought
(Cambridge, 1966), which includes an exten-
sive bibliography. See also especially H. Diller, “ὄψισ τω̑ν ἀδήλων τὰ φαινόμενα ,” Hermes, 67 (1932), 14-42; H.
Gomperz, “Problems and Methods of Early Greek Science,”
Journal of the History of Ideas, 4 (1943), 161-76; W. K. C.
Guthrie, “Man's Role in the Cosmos,” The Living Heritage
of Greek Antiquity
(The Hague, 1967), pp. 56-73; C. W.
Müller, Gleiches zu Gleichem: ein Prinzip frühgriechischen
(Wiesbaden, 1965); O. Regenbogen, Eine For-
schungsmethode antiker Naturwissenschaft,
Quell. u. Stud.
zur Gesch. der Mathematik, Astronomie u. Physik, B I, 2
(Berlin, 1930); F. Solmsen, “Nature as Craftsman in Greek
Thought,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 24 (1963), 473-96.


[See also Atomism; Balance of Power; Cosmology; Creation;
Nature; Pythagorean Doctrines to 300 B.C.; Stoicism.]