Pre-Socratics or pre-Socratic philosophers were the earliest Western philosophers, active during the fifth and sixth centuries B.C.E. in ancient Greece. These philosophers tried to discover principles that could uniformly, consistently, and comprehensively explain all natural phenomena and the events in human life without resorting to mythology. They initiated a new method of explanation known as philosophy which has continued in use until the present day, and developed their thoughts primarily within the framework of cosmology and cosmogony. Socrates was a pivotal philosopher who shifted the central focus of philosophy from cosmology to ethics and morality. Although some of these earlier philosophers were contemporary with, or even younger than Socrates, they were considered pre-Socratics (or early Greek Philosophers) according to the classification defined by Aristotle.
The pre-Socratic style of thought is often called natural philosophy, but their concept of nature was much broader than ours, encompassing spiritual and mythical as well as aesthetic and physical elements. They brought human thought to a new level of abstraction; raised a number of central questions of ontology, which are still relevant today; and cultivated the human spirit so as to open our eyes to the eternal truth. Primary sources for their philosophical discourses have all been lost except in a fragmentary form, and the best source is Aristotle. Although Aristotle’s interpretation of their thought dominated for centuries, modern scholars have gone beyond Aristotle to identify the original and unique contributions of the pre-Socratics.
The study of ancient thinkers is restricted by a lack of primary sources. Their original writings were lost and only fragments of their thoughts, words, and ideas have been preserved in the works of other authors. The main secondary sources are works by Aristotle, and his contemporary doxographers Theophrastus, Plato, Diogenes, and Herodotus. These fragments have been gathered and indexed by H. Diels and W. Kranz in their Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, now the standard source for the writings of the pre-Socratics. This book introduced the term "pre-Socratics" which has come to be widely used among scholars of philosophy.
The characterization and assessment of pre-Socratics and their thought owes much to Aristotle. Aristotle attempted to establish a comprehensive thought system that could integrate the views of his predecessors. His vision of philosophy as an all-encompassing system of thought led him to evaluate their ideas. Aristotle classified pre-Socratics primarily based upon his theory of four causes, setting a standard for the interpretation of pre-Socratic thought. Pre-Socratic insights that were not compatible with Aristotle’s framework of interpretation were simply left out. Works by twentieth century philosophers such as Heidegger and Werner Jaeger went beyond Aristotle and contributed to a rediscovery of the significance and the originality of pre-Socratic thought.
Prior to the appearance of philosophers, myth explained the circumstances of human life. When people wondered about where they came from, why and how evil came into existence, why there was fortune and misfortune in life, and how they could attain peace and happiness, they found an answer in mythology.
In ancient Greece, poets like Homer and Hesiod created mystic epics that explained the origin of the world, genealogy of the gods, the origin of evil, responsibility and punishment, destiny and chance, and life after death. Myth was the cradle of philosophy. In the process of distinguishing their thoughts from myths, pre-Socratics gradually developed their own style and form of knowledge. Pre-Socratic thought, however, still contained mythical elements and was expressed in poetry similar to that of Homer.
Philosopher means “lover of wisdom.” Ancient wise men, whom Aristotle called “those who speak about gods,” were certainly “lovers of wisdom.” They can, however, be distinguished from philosophers who seek to define principles by which they can uniformly, consistently, and comprehensively explain phenomena. Mythology is story telling based upon uncritical social beliefs and the arbitrary will of the gods; philosophy is an explanation based upon reason and principle. Aristotle distinguished “those who speak of gods” from philosophers, who tried to rationally justify their claims using self-examination, self-reflection, and a critical attitude.
Orphism was another major source of pre-Socratic philosophy. Orphics came into Greece in the sixth century B.C.E. bringing their cosmology, a belief in reincarnation, and an ascetic life style. They contributed to the development of pre-Socratic philosophy, particularly that of Pythagoras and Pythagoreans. Orpheusians’ belief in the immortality of soul and its reincarnation was transmitted through the Pythagoreans to Plato (see Plato’s works such as Gorgias, Phaidon, and Republic).
Among the pre-Socratics, Xenophanes made a unique contribution to Greek philosophy by developing a monotheistic view of god. He criticized anthropomorphic views of gods in Greek mythology as mere projections of human culture and disqualified them. The Gods of Greek mythology committed all kinds of immoral acts including stealing, deception, and adultery. Xenophanes presented god as a single, eternal, and immutable ultimate reality. His view is not monistic but monotheistic, and his philosophical orientation more theological than metaphysical, which distinguishes him from Parmenides.
While Aristotle is correct in distinguishing between philosophy and mythology, we must also keep in mind their continuity. We can justify making a distinction between rational discourse and poetic and intuitive mythical discourse, with one qualification. We should note that insights and ideas from mythology exist in the philosophical discourses of post pre-Socratic philosophers such as Plato. As Husserl and Kierkegaard realized, one may hold certain beliefs underneath rational thinking. Nietzsche and Schopenhauer pointed out that, underneath rational discourse, human reason has unnoticed irrational drives.
The distinction between philosophy and mythology, reason and belief, and poetic intuition and critical reasoning can be justified only in a limited sense. While Pre-Socratics took a step towards rationality, elements of mythology were still running in their thoughts. The concept of pure and neutral rationality is an ideal of modern philosophy rather than a reality, and it met with serious objections during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Pre-Socratics exhibited a unique style of thought containing both rational and mythical elements.
Pre-Socratics approached the question of being primarily using two sets of questions: first, whether the ultimate reality can be conceived of through a model based upon sensible element(s) or intelligible element(s); second, whether the ultimate reality is immutable or ever changing. This classification schema, however, is not exhaustive and some pre-Socratics (like the Sophists) were not metaphysicians. The term “pre-Socratics” does not designate any particular school or position, but simply all early Greek philosophers who were not under the influence of Socrates.
The first set of questions is whether the ultimate reality (ousia) is conceived of based on a model of sensible elements or one of intelligible elements; in other words, visible materialistic elements or invisible intelligible elements. Milesians and Pythagoreans were divided by their response to this question. Earlier Milesians such as Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes approached being from a sensible or materialistic aspect, and Pythagoreans approached being from an intelligible or non-sensible aspect. This distinction between sensible and intelligible became the foundation for the distinction between matter and form, which Aristotle fully developed later on.
The second set of questions is the question of whether the ultimate reality (ousia) is unchanging or changing. Heraclites conceived of being as an ever-changing process or becoming, and Parmenides conceived of being as unchanging or identical. The question of being and becoming has become one of the perennial questions in the history of philosophy.
The concepts of being and becoming and immutability and change posed questions to Greek thinkers. While the Parmenidean argument of being was logically appealing, the Heraclitian view of the change and diversity of phenomena was experientially undeniable. Pluralists and Atomists responded differently to this question. Pluralists such as Empedocles and Anaxagoras identified the essence of being with a number of immutable elements and explained changes by their combinations. Atomists such as Leucippus and Democritus identified the unchanging being with countless numbers of small indivisible elements called atoms (means “indivisible”) and explained changes by their combinations and movements.
Sophists, professional rhetoricians, who were described by Plato in his dialogues, are customarily included with the pre-Socratics.
The birthplace of Greek philosophy is Ionia in Asia Minor. The earliest Greek thinkers lived in cities such as Miletus, Colophon, and Ephesus in this area. Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes are grouped together as “the Milesians.” These thinkers sought the ultimate principle which governs all phenomena in the element or elements of nature. For this reason, they are often called natural philosophers. This nomenclature, however, needs to be carefully understood.
The Milesians did not try to find laws of nature or basic elements in nature as modern natural scientists do. Their concern was to find the ultimate principle that governs all beings and phenomena. Their inquiry was metaphysical in the sense that it was directed towards the discovery of the principles of being. This stance of inquiry into ultimate principles distinguishes them from the attitude of natural scientists, who are trying to find the laws and mechanisms of nature.
The Milesians conceived of the world as one. In spite of the diverse appearances of phenomena, they thought that there was one unique being which was the ultimate reality and that all phenomenal diversity was its manifestation. In the background of their thought, there is a distinction between appearance and essence, and phenomena and ultimate reality (ousia).
Thales of Miletus (c. 624 - 546 B.C.E.) is known as the first philosopher. This view was established by Aristotle who called Thales the “father of philosophy”(Metaphysics 1:3, 983 b20). Thales identified the ultimate reality (ousia) with “water.” Like other thinkers of antiquity, he did not consider “water” to be a pure physical chemical compound. Water carried a sense of mystery and divinity. To put it another way, Thales conceived of the ultimate reality, which in itself has divine characteristics such as oneness, indestructibility, immutability, originality, as a sensible and visible element.
Other thinkers identified the ultimate reality with different material elements. Anaximander(c. 610 - 545 B.C.E.) of Miletus identified it with the “boundless” or “undefined”(to Apeiron). Anaximenes(c. 585 - 528 B.C.E.) of Miletus equated it with “air.” As noted earlier, these material elements should not be understood within the context of modern science. Philosophers of antiquity thought within more mystic frameworks. Characteristics common to these material elements such as water, undefined matter, and air are flexibility, a lack of specific forms and shapes, and the potential of taking various forms and shapes.
Pythagoras was born in Ionia, moved to southern Italy, and formed a religious group. His followers were called Pythagoreans and lived an ascetic life. Pythagoreans believed in the transmigration of souls, probably through the influence of Orphism.
While the Milesians defined the ultimate reality as something to de determined or understood, Pythagoreans used determining principles to define reality. For Pythagoreans, the principle of being is seen in what gives form and shape rather than what is formed and shaped. According to the terminology of Aristotle, Pythagoreans equated the principle with form as opposed to matter. Pythagoreans identified numbers as the unchanging, determining principle and found numerical harmony both in the cosmos and healthy human life. They developed a unique thought based upon the integration of the mathematical, the religious, the aesthetic, and the ethical. Various Pythagorean insights are found in Plato.
Heraclitus conceived of being as a process or an event, and represented its essence as “fire.” Fire exists not as a stable object but as a process of burning. The moment it stops the process of changing, it ceases to exist. His well-known phrase, “No one can enter the same river again” expresses his thought that every being exists in the process of change. The river is already changing at the moment one steps into it. The water is moving past and the river bed is changing, and the river can never be the same as it was a moment ago.
Parmenides held an opposite position. He separated phenomena appearance and essence, and ascribed changes to matters of appearance. The world looks diverse and changes, but the essence is permanent, immutable, and eternal. Parmenides identified essence with being, and argued that we cannot even think without presupposing the existence and permanence of being; even the principle of changes must presuppose the existence of this principle itself. Zeno of Elea followed the path of Parmenides and presented a number of paradoxes such as Achilles and the Tortoise.
Both Heraclites and Parmenides brought Greek philosophy to a higher level of abstraction and presented a number of central questions of ontology. They presented the task of reconciling two views on the question of existence: being and becoming, immutability and change, oneness and diversity. The Parmenidean view of the permanence and immutability of the ultimate reality was logically plausible. However, phenomena are apparently diverse and changing. Pluralists and atomists responded to this question differently.
Empedocles and Anaxagoras presented pluralist views. Empedocles identified the ultimate reality with four elements: air, water, fire, and earth. He defined these four elements as immutable and permanent, and explained changes and diversity by combinations of them. Anaxagoras, another pluralist, identified the ultimate reality with an infinite number of “seeds.”
Leucippus and Democritus identified the ultimate reality with countless numbers of immutable, permanent elements called “atoms” and presented a purely mechanical materialism. Atoms were different in form, size, and shape but qualitatively identical. Quantitative differences and physical movements of atoms could explain all the qualitative diversity of the world, and mental and spiritual phenomena. These two philosophers reduced all phenomena to physical phenomena and presented a pure mechanical materialism, which was rare in Greek philosophy.
Sophists, professional rhetoricians contemporary to or younger than Socrates, are customarily included as Pre-Socratics. The term Sophists does not designate any particular individual but a group of professional teachers of rhetoric, active in the Greek political environment. Some explicitly presented moral relativism and a secularist concept of happiness. Socrates challenged them and Plato depicted their arguments in his dialogues.
The traditional corpus of pre-Socratic philosophers and movements (there are minor variations) is shown below:
This list includes several men, particularly the Seven Sages, who appear to have been practical politicians and sources of epigrammatic wisdom, rather than speculative thinkers or philosophers in the modern sense.
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