The Presocratics

UnknownWe are all familiar with the famous Greek philosopher Socrates. One of the major pioneers of Western philosophy, Socrates left an indelible legacy. Unfortunately, some people think that philosophy did not begin until Socrates; I would call them philosophasters for that. The Presocratics were a group of Greek theoreticians that truly jumpstarted the world of thinking. Now because there are so many of them, I will summarize some of the more important figures.

In roughly 600 B.C., Thales of Miletus was one of the wisest men in Greece, going as far as obtaining the title of one of Greece’s “Seven Sages.” Truly a Renaissance man, Thales was a brilliant philosopher, mathematician, engineer, and astronomer above all else. He theorized that the universe was monistic, having been built upon water as a foundation. According to several sources, Thales accurately foretold an eclipse. His works were revered by his peers and most of it was recorded by Aristotle almost three centuries later.

Anaximander was a promising philosopher that conceptualized ápeiron, an infinite element that was indestructible. According to him, everything was created and returned to this source. His disciple, Anaximenes, followed in Thales footsteps by proposing that air was the source of life. He reasoned that air could take all three states of matter and that the soul and the atmosphere were made of air. Lastly, the lesser known of the A-list Presocratics was Anaxagoras. While there is little information about him, his ideas were based more on the mind and its ability to discern and put forth concepts. He thought that the mind governed everything. An infinite number of seeds, as he called them, make up the world around us, which would influence the later pluralists. 

There were several remarkable scientists and mathematicians that also contributed to philosophy. Perhaps one of the most famous mathematicians, Pythagoras was a member of numerology. Everything was created by and functioned by numbers. Pythagoras linked music to the Earth, thinking it was a musical sphere. Interestingly, he and his followers were vegetarian. Nowadays, the generally accepted building block of the universe is the atom. But what if we knew that already? Leucippus passed on his teachings to Democritus, who propounded that infinitesimal particles made up everything. Obviously they had no idea that they were going to be proven correct two millennia later.

Then there was Heraclitus, Parmenides, and Zeno. While there is no direct relationship between the trio, all of their philosophies contradict each other in a way. Heraclitus is quoted for the axiom, “You can’t step in the same river twice,” because he claimed that the world was constantly changing. The water you stepped in has now flown elsewhere and is replaced by new water. It is rather unfortunate that he was often down in the dumps, not considering the fact that he allegedly died after anointing himself with cow dung. Fire was the principle of change that governed the world. Parmenides expressed disapproval of Heraclitus, for he argued that nothing changed; life was static. His logic was as follows: what exists now cannot be nonexistent, because it is existent at the moment. Therefore, something cannot come from nothing, thus proving that change is simply impossible. But does motion even exist? If you answered yes, Zeno of Elea would laugh in your face. Let me explain: suppose a bow fires an arrow. Frozen in a given instant, the arrow is stationary. Because it is frozen, it cannot move forward. Remember that this is at any given time, ergo it is impossible to move. Another of Zeno’s famous paradoxes is Achilles and the Tortoise.

Penultimately, I will cover the pluralists. Whether you are from the east or the west, we all know the four elements: fire, water, air, and earth. Heraclitus put forth fire, Thales said water, and Anaximenes supplied air. Empedocles was a mystical doctor and very skilled in his speeches, but he combined all of the aforementioned concepts into the four elements. He also explained that two driving forces, Love and Strife, acted like Yin and Yang–opposites attract. In order to prove his divinity, Empedocles tragically threw himself in a volcano. Spoiler alert: he was not a god after all.

Last but not least, we have the notorious sophists of Ancient Greece. The sophists were rhetoricians that wandered through the city-states of Greece offering an education. Plato denounced the teachers for their disingenuous ways. Prodicus would charge an exorbitant payment for his knowledge in business, logic, and rhetoric; it is no wonder he was executed for his scams. Protagoras is said to be the first sophist.

 

For further reading: Philosophy: An Illustrated History of Thought by Tom Jackson (2014)
Essentials of Philosophy by James Mannion (2006)

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