Heraclitusof Ephesus (c.540-c.480 B.C.E.) stands out in ancient Greek philosophy not only with respect to his ideas, but also with respect to how those ideas were expressed. His aphoristic style is rife with wordplay and conceptual ambiguities. Heraclitus saw reality as composed of contrariesa reality whose continual process of change is precisely what keeps it at rest.
Fire plays a significant role in his picture of the cosmos. No God or man created the cosmos, but it always was, is, and will be fire. At times it seems as though fire, for Heraclitus, is a primary element from which all things come and to which they return. At others, his comments on fire could easily be seen metaphorically. What is fire? It is at once need and satiety. This back and forth, or better yet, this tension and distension is characteristic of life and realitya reality that cannot function without contraries, such as war and peace. A road up and down is one and the same (F38). Whether one travels up the road or down it, the road is the same road. On those stepping into rivers staying the same other and other waters flow (F39). In hisCratylus, Plato quotes Heraclitus, via the mouthpiece of Cratylus, as saying that you could not step twice into the same river, comparing this to the way everything in life is in constant flux (Graham 158). This, according to Aristotle, supposedly drove Cratylus to the extreme of never saying anything for fear that the words would attempt to freeze a reality that is always fluid, and so, Cratylus merely pointed (Graham 183). So, the cosmos and all things that make it up are what they are through the tension and distention of time and becoming. The river is what it is by being what it is not. Fire, or the ever-burning cosmos, is at war with itself, and yet at peaceit is constantly wanting fuel to keep burning, and yet it burns and is satisfied.
Presocratic thought marks a decisive turn away from mythological accounts towards rational explanations of the cosmos. Indeed, some Presocratics openly criticize and ridicule traditional Greek mythology, while others simply explain the world and its causes in material terms. This is not to say that the Presocratics abandoned belief in gods or things sacred, but there is a definite turn away from attributing causes of material events to gods, and at times a refiguring of theology altogether. The foundation of Presocratic thought is the preference and esteem given to rational thought over mythologizing. This movement towards rationality and argumentation would pave the way for the course of Western thought.
One of the earliest and most famous Sophists was Protagoras (c. 490-c. 420 BC). Only a handful of fragments of his thought exist, and the bulk of the remaining information about him found in Platos dialogues should be read cautiously. He is most famous for the apparently relativistic statement that human beings are the measure of all things, of things that are that they are, of things that are not that they are not (F1b). Plato, at least for the purposes of theProtagoras, reads individual relativism out of this statement. For example, if the pool of water feels cold to Henry, then it is in fact cold for Henry, while it might appear warm, and therefore be warm for Jennifer. This example portrays perceptual relativism, but the same could go for ethics as well, that is, if X seems good to Henry, then X is good for him, but it might be bad in Jennifers judgment. The problem with this view, however, is that if all things are relative to the observer/judge, then the idea that all things are relative is itself relative to the person who asserts it. The idea of communication is then rendered incoherent since each person has his or her own private meaning.
Ancient thought was left with such a strong presence and legacy of Pythagorean influence, and yet little is known with certainty aboutPythagoras of Samos(c.570-c.490 B.C.E.). Many know Pythagoras for his eponymous theoremthe square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the adjacent sides. Whether Pythagoras himself invented the theorem, or whether he or someone else brought it back from Egypt, is unknown. He developed a following that continued long past his death, on down to Philolaus of Croton (c.470-c.399 B.C.E.), a Pythagorean from whom we may gain some insight into Pythagoreanism. Whether or not the Pythagoreans followed a particular doctrine is up for debate, but it is clear that, with Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans, a new way of thinking was born in ancient philosophy that had a significant impact on Platonic thought.
Along with Protagoras was Gorgias (c.485-c.380 B.C.E.), another sophist whose namesake became the title of a Platonic dialogue. Perhaps flashier than Protagoras when it came to rhetoric and speech making, Gorgias is known for his sophisticated and poetic style. He is known also for extemporaneous speeches, taking audience suggestions for possible topics upon which he would speak at length. His most well-known work isOn Nature,Or On What-Is-Notwherein he, contrary to Eleatic philosophy, sets out to show that neither being nor non-being is, and that even if there were anything, it could be neither known nor spoken. It is unclear whether this work was in jest or in earnest. If it was in jest, then it was likely an exercise in argumentation as much as it was a gibe at the Eleatics. If it was in earnest, then Gorgias could be seen as an advocate for extreme skepticism, relativism, or perhaps even nihilism (Graham 725).
While Xenophon and Plato both recognize this rhetorical Socrates, they both present him as a virtuous man who used his skills in argumentation for truth, or at least to help remove himself and his interlocutors from error. The so-called Socratic method, or elenchos, refers to the way in which Socrates often carried out his philosophical practice, a method to which he seems to refer in PlatosApology(Benson 180-181). Socrates aimed to expose errors or inconsistencies in his interlocutors positions. He did so by asking them questions, often demanding yes-or-no answers, and then reduced their positions to absurdity. He was, in short, aiming for his interlocutor to admit his own ignorance, especially where the interlocutor thought that he knew what he did not in fact know. Thus, many Platonic dialogues end in aporia, an impasse in thoughta place of perplexity about the topic originally under discussion (Brickhouse and Smith 3-4). This is presumably the place from which a thoughtful person can then make a fresh start on the way to seeking truth.
With this preference for reason came a critique of traditional ways of living, believing, and thinking, which sometimes caused political trouble for the philosophers themselves. Xenophanes directly challenged the traditional anthropomorphic depiction of the gods, and Socrates was put to death for allegedly inventing new gods and not believing in the gods mandated by the city of Athens. After the fall of Alexander the Great, and because of Aristotles ties with Alexander and his court, Aristotle escaped the same fate as Socrates by fleeing Athens. Epicurus, like Xenophanes, claimed that the mass of people is impious, since the people conceive of the gods as little more than superhumans, even though human characteristics cannot appropriately be ascribed to the gods. In short, not only did ancient Greek philosophy pave the way for the Western intellectual tradition, including modern science, but it also shook cultural foundations in its own time.
The most important player in this continuous play of being is mind (nous). Although mind can be in some things, nothing else can be in itmind is unmixed. We recall that, for Anaxagoras, everything is mixed with everything. There is some portion of everything in anything that we identify. Thus, if anything at all were mixed with mind, then everything would be mixed with mind. This mixture would obstruct minds ability to rule all else. Mind is in control, and it is responsible for the great mixture of being. Everlasting mindthe most pure of all thingsis responsible for ordering the world.
An analysis ofPresocraticthought presents some difficulties. First, the texts we are left with are primarily fragmentary, and sometimes, as in the case of Anaxagoras, we have no more than a sentences worth of verbatim words. Even these purportedly verbatim words often come to us in quotation from other sources, so it is difficult, if not impossible, to attribute with certainty a definite position to any one thinker. Moreover, Presocratic has been criticized as a misnomer since some of the Presocratic thinkers were contemporary with Socrates and because the name might imply philosophical primacy to Socrates. The term Presocratic philosophy is also difficult since we have no record of Presocratic thinkers ever using the word philosophy. Therefore, we must approach cautiously any study of presocratic thought.
Socrates elenchos, as he recognizes in PlatosApology(from apologia, defense), made him unpopular. Lycon (about whom little is known), Anytus (an influential politician in Athens), and Meletus, a poet, accused Socrates of not worshipping the gods mandated by Athens (impiety) and of corrupting the youth through his persuasive power of speech. In hisMeno, Plato hints that Anytus was already personally angry with Socrates. Anytus has just warned Socrates to be careful in the way he speaks about famous people (94e). Socrates then tells Meno, I think, Meno, that Anytus is angry, and I am not at all surprised. He thinksthat I am slandering those men, and then he believes himself to be one of them (95a). This is not surprising, if indeed Socrates practiced philosophy in the way that both Xenophon and Plato report that he did by exposing the ignorance of his
In the Parmenidean tradition, we haveZeno(c.490-c.430 B.C.E.). As Daniel Graham says, while Parmenides argues for monism, Zeno argues against pluralism (Graham 245). Zeno seems to have composed a text wherein he claims to show the absurdity in accepting that there is a plurality of beings, and he also shows that motion is impossible. Zeno shows that if we attempt to count a plurality, we end up with an absurdity. If there were a plurality, then it would be neither more nor less than the number that it would have to be. Thus, there would be a finite number of things. On the other hand, if there were a plurality, then the number would be infinite because there is always something else between existing things, and something else between those, and something else between those, ad infinitum. Thus, if there were a plurality of things, then that plurality would be both infinite and finite in number, which is absurd (F4).
If our dates are approximately correct,Anaximenes(c.546-c.528/5 B.C.E.) could have had no direct philosophical contact with Anaximander. However, the conceptual link between them is undeniable. Like Anaximander, Anaximenes thought that there was something boundless that underlies all other things. Unlike Anaximander, Anaximenes made this boundless thing something definiteair. For Anaximander, hot and cold separated off from the boundless, and these generated other natural phenomena (Graham 79). For Anaximenes, air itself becomes other natural phenomena through condensation and rarefaction. Rarefied air becomes fire. When it is condensed, it becomes water, and when it is condensed further, it becomes earth and other earthy things, like stones (Graham 79). This then gives rise to all other life forms. Furthermore, air itself is divine. Both Cicero and Aetius report that, for Anaximenes, air is God (Graham 87). Air, then, changes into the basic elements, and from these we get all other natural phenomena.
Socrates practiced philosophy openly, did not charge fees for doing so and allowed anyone who wanted to engage with him to do so. Xenophon says:
Parmenides recorded his thought in the form of a poem. In it, there are two paths that mortals can takethe path of truth and the path of error. The first path is the path of being or what-is. The right way of thinking is to think of what-is, and the wrong way is to think both what-is and what-is-not. The latter is wrong, simply because non-being is not. In other words, there is no non-being, so properly speaking, it cannot be thoughtthere is nothing there to think. We can think only what is and, presumably, since thinking is a type of being, thinking and being are the same (F3). It is only our long entrenched habits of sensation that mislead us into thinking down the wrong path of non-being. The world, and its appearance of change, thrusts itself upon our senses, and we erroneously believe that what we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell is the truth. But, if non-being is not, then change is impossible, for when anything changes, it moves from non-being to being. For example, for a being to grow tall, it must have at some point not been tall. Since non-being is not and cannot therefore be thought, we are deluded into believing that this sort of change actually happens. Similarly, what-is is one. If there were a plurality, there would be non-being, that is, this wouldnot bethat. Parmenides thus argues that we must trust in reason alone.
On the other hand, Protagoras statement could be interpreted as species-relative. That is, the question of whether and how things are, and whether and how things are not, is a question that has meaning (ostensibly) only for human beings. Thus, all knowledge is relative to us as human beings, and therefore limited by our being and our capabilities. This reading seems to square with the other of Protagoras most famous statements: Concerning the gods, I cannot ascertain whether they exist or whether they do not, or what form they have; for there are many obstacles to knowing, including the obscurity of the question and the brevity of human life (F3). It is implied here that knowledge is possible, but that it is difficult to attain, and that it is impossible to attain when the question is whether or not the gods exist. We can also see here that human finitude is a limit not only upon human life but also upon knowledge. Thus, if there is knowledge, it is for human beings, but it is obscure and fragile.
Socrates lived ever in the open; for early in the morning he went to the public promenades and training-grounds; in the forenoon he was seen in the market; and the rest of the day he passed just where most people were to be met: he was generally talking, and anyone might listen. (Memorabilia, Book I, i.10)
Before the cosmos was as it is now, it was nothing but a great mixtureeverything was in everything. The mixture was so thoroughgoing that no part of it was recognizable due to the smallness of each thing, and not even colors were perceptible. He considered matter to be infinitely divisible. That is, because it is impossible for being not to be, there is never a smallest part, but there is always a smaller part. If the parts of the great mixture were not infinitely divisible, then we would be left with a smallest part. Since the smallest part could not become smaller, any attempt at dividing it again would presumably obliterate it.
Xenophanes(c.570-c.478 B.C.E.) directly and explicitly challenged Homeric and Hesiodic mythology. It is good, says Hesiod, to hold the gods in high esteem, rather than portraying them in raging battles, which are worthless (F2). More explicitly, Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods all things that are blameworthy and disgraceful for human beings: stealing, committing adultery, deceiving each other (F17). At the root of this poor depiction of the gods is the human tendency towards anthropomorphizing the gods. But mortals think gods are begotten, and have the clothing, voice and body of mortals (F19), despite the fact that God is unlike mortals in body and thought. Indeed, Xenophanes famously proclaims that if other animals (cattle, lions, and so forth) were able to draw the gods, they would depict the gods with bodies like their own (F20). Beyond this, all things come to be from earth (F27), not the gods, although it is unclear whence came the earth. The reasoning seems to be that God transcends all of our efforts to make him like us. If everyone paints different pictures of divinity, and many people do, then it is unlikely that God fits into any of those frames. So, holding the gods in high esteem at least entails something negative, that is, that we take care not to portray them as super humans.
Thales(c.624-c.545 B.C.E.), traditionally considered to be the first philosopher, proposed a first principle (arche) of the cosmos: water. Aristotle offers some conjectures as to why Thales might have believed this (Graham 29). First, all things seem to derive nourishment from moisture. Next, heat seems to come from or carry with it some sort of moisture. Finally, the seeds of all things have a moist nature, and water is the source of growth for many moist and living things. Some assert that Thales held water to be a component of all things, but there is no evidence in the testimony for this interpretation. It is much more likely, rather, that Thales held water to be a primal source for all thingsperhaps thesine qua nonof the world.
Socrates was the son of a sculptor, Sophroniscus, and grew up an Athenian citizen. He was reported to be gifted with words and was sometimes accused of what Plato later accused Sophists, that is, using rhetorical devices to make the weaker argument the stronger. Indeed, Xenophon reports that the Thirty Tyrants forbade Socrates to speak publicly except on matters of practical business because his clever use of words seemed to lead young people astray (Book I, II.33-37). Similarly, Aristophanes presents Socrates as an impoverished sophist whose head was in the clouds to the detriment of his daily, practical life. Moreover, his similarities with the sophists are even highlighted in Platos work. Indeed, Socrates courtroom speech in PlatosApologyincludes a defense against accusations of sophistry (18c).
The most enduring paradoxes are those concerned withmotion. It is impossible for a body in motion to traverse, say, a distance of twenty feet. In order to do so, the body must first arrive at the halfway point, or ten feet. But in order to arrive there, the body in motion must travel five feet. But in order to arrive there, the body must travel two and a half feet, ad infinitum. Since, then, space is infinitely divisible, but we have only a finite time to traverse it, it cannot be done. Presumably, one could not even begin a journey at all. The Achilles Paradox similarly attacks motion saying that swift-footed Achilles will never be able to catch up with the slowest runner, assuming the runner started at some point ahead of Achilles. Achilles must first reach the place where the slow runner began. This means that the slow runner will already be a bit beyond where he began. Once Achilles progresses to the next place, the slow runner is already beyond that point, too. Thus, motion seems absurd.
The Pythagoreans believed in the transmigration of souls. The soul, for Pythagoras, finds its immortality by cycling through all living beings in a 3,000-year cycle, until it returns to a human being (Graham 915). Indeed, Xenophanes tells the story of Pythagoras walking by a puppy who was being beaten. Pythagoras cried out that the beating should cease, because he recognized the soul of a friend in the puppys howl (Graham 919). What exactly the Pythagorean psychology entails for a Pythagorean lifestyle is unclear, but we pause to consider some of the typical characteristics reported of and by Pythagoreans.
Ancient atomism began a legacy in philosophical and scientific thought, and this legacy was revived and significantly evolved in modern philosophy. In contemporary times, the atom is not the smallest particle. Etymologically, however,atomosis that which is uncut or indivisible. The ancient atomists, Leucippus andDemocritus(c.5thcn B.C.E.), were concerned with the smallest particles in nature that make up realityparticles that are both indivisible and invisible. They were to some degree responding to Parmenides and Zeno by indicating atoms as indivisible sources of motion.
Atomsthe most compact and the only indivisible bodies in natureare infinite in number, and they constantly move through an infinite void. In fact, motion would be impossible, says Democritus, without the void. If there were no void, the atoms would have nothing through which to move. Atoms take on a variety, perhaps an infinite variety, of shapes. Some are round, others are hooked, and yet others are jagged. They often collide with one another, and often bounce off of one another. Sometimes, though, the shapes of the colliding atoms are amenable to one another, and they come together to form the matter that we identify as the sensible world (F5). This combination, too, would be impossible without the void. Atoms need a background (emptiness) out of which they are able to combine (Graham 531). Atoms then stay together until some larger environmental force breaks them apart, at which point they resume their constant motion (F5). Why certain atoms come together to form a world seems up to chance, and yet many worlds have been, are, and will be formed by atomic collision and coalescence (Graham 551). Once a world is formed, however, all things happen by necessitythe causal laws of nature dictate the course of the natural world (Graham 551-553).
If it is true that for Heraclitus life thrives and even finds stillness in its continuous movement and change, then forParmenidesof Elea (c.515-c.450 B.C.E.) life is at a standstill. Parmenides was a pivotal figure in Presocratic thought, and one of the most influential of the Presocratics in determining the course of Western philosophy. According to McKirahan, Parmenides is the inventor of metaphysics (157)the inquiry into the nature of being or reality. While the tenets of his thought have their home in poetry, they are expressed with the force of logic. The Parmenidean logic of being thus sparked a long lineage of inquiry into the nature of being and thinking.
Anaxagorasof Clazomenae (c.500-c.428 B.C.E.) had what was, up until that time, the most unique perspective on the nature of matter and the causes of its generation and corruption. Closely predating Plato (Anaxagoras died around the time that Plato was born), Anaxagoras left his impression upon Plato and Aristotle, although they were both ultimately dissatisfied with his cosmology (Graham 309-313). He seems to have been almost exclusively concerned with cosmology and the true nature of all that is around us.
The talking that Socrates did was presumably philosophical in nature, and this talk was focused primarily on morality. Indeed, as John Cooper claims in his introduction toPlato: Complete Works, Socrates denied that he had discovered some new wisdom, indeed that he possessed any wisdom at all, contrary to his predecessors, such as Anaxagoras and Parmenides. Often his discussions had to do with topics of virtuejustice, courage, temperance, and wisdom (Memorabilia, Book I, i.16). This sort of open practice made Socrates well known but also unpopular, which eventually led to his execution.
Socrates(469-399 B.C.E.) wrote nothing, so what stories and information we have about him come to us primarily from Xenophon (430-354 B.C.E.) and Plato. Both Xenophon and Plato knew Socrates, and wrote dialogues in which Socrates usually figures as the main character, but their versions of certain historical events in Socrates life are sometimes incompatible. We cannot be sure if or when Xenophon or Plato is reporting about Socrates with historical accuracy. In some cases, we can be sure that they are intentionally not doing so, but merely using Socrates as a mouthpiece to advance philosophical dialogue (Döring 25). Xenophon, in hisMemorobilia, wrote some biographical information about Socrates, but we cannot know how much is fabricated or embellished. When we refer to Socrates, we are typically referring to the Socrates of one of these sources and, more often than not, Platos version.
Plato and Aristotle tended to associate the holiness and wisdom of numberand along with this, harmony and musicwith the Pythagoreans (Graham 499). Perhaps more basic than number, at least for Philolaus, are the concepts of the limited and unlimited. Nothing in the cosmos can be without limit (F1), including knowledge (F4). Imagine if nothing were limited, but matter were just an enormous heap or morass. Next, suppose that you are somehow able to gain a perspective of this morass (to do so, there must be some limit that gives you that perspective!). Presumably, nothing at all could be known, at least not with any degree of precision, the most careful observation notwithstanding. Additionally, all known things have number, which functions as a limit of things insofar as each thing is a unity, or composed of a plurality of parts.
From Thales, who is often considered the first Western philosopher, to the Stoics and Skeptics, ancient Greek philosophy opened the doors to a particular way of thinking that provided the roots for the Western intellectual tradition. Here, there is often an explicit preference for the life of reason and rational thought. We find proto-scientific explanations of the natural world in the Milesian thinkers, and we hear Democritus posit atomsindivisible and invisible unitsas the basic stuff of all matter. With Socrates comes a sustained inquiry into ethical mattersan orientation towards human living and the best life for human beings. With Plato comes one of the most creative and flexible ways of doing philosophy, which some have since attempted to imitate by writing philosophical dialogues covering topics still of interest today in ethics, political thought, metaphysics, and epistemology. Platos student, Aristotle, was one of the most prolific of ancient authors. He wrote treatises on each of these topics, as well as on the investigation of the natural world, including the composition of animals. The HellenistsEpicurus, the Cynics, the Stoics, and the Skepticsdeveloped schools or movements devoted to distinct philosophical lifestyles, each with reason at its foundation.
Broadly, the Sophists were a group of itinerant teachers who charged fees to teach on a variety of subjects, with rhetoric as the preeminent subject in their curriculum. A common characteristic among many, but perhaps not all, Sophists seems to have been an emphasis upon arguing for each of the opposing sides of a case. Thus, these argumentative and rhetorical skills could be useful in law courts and political contexts. However, these sorts of skills also tended to earn many Sophists their reputation as moral and epistemological relativists, which for some was tantamount to intellectual fraud.
Anaxagoras left his mark on the thought of both Plato and Aristotle, whose critiques of Anaxagoras are similar. In PlatosPhaedo, Socrates recounts in brief his intellectual history, citing his excitement over his discovery of Anaxagoras thought. He was most excited about mind as an ultimate cause of all. Yet, Socrates complains, Anaxagoras made very little use of mind to explain what was best for each of the heavenly bodies in their motions, or the good of anything else. That is, Socrates seems to have wanted some explanation as to why it is good for all things to be as they are (Graham 309-311). Aristotle, too, complains that Anaxagoras makes only minimal use of his principle of mind. It becomes, as it were, a deus ex machina, that is, whenever Anaxagoras was unable to give any other explanation for the cause of a given event, he fell back upon mind (Graham 311-313). It is possible, as always, that both Plato and Aristotle resort here to a straw man of sorts in order to advance their own positions. Indeed, we have seen that Mind set the great mixture into motion, and then ordered the cosmos as we know it. This is no insignificant feat.
Like Thales,Anaximander(c.610-c.545 B.C.E.) also posited a source for the cosmos, which he called the boundless (apeiron). That he did not, like Thales, choose a typical element (earth, air, water, or fire) shows that his thinking had moved beyond sources of being that are more readily available to the senses. He might have thought that, since the other elements seem more or less to change into one another, there must be some source beyond all thesea kind of background upon or source from which all these changes happen. Indeed, this everlasting principle gave rise to the cosmos by generating hot and cold, each of which separated off from the boundless. How it is that this separation took place is unclear, but we might presume that it happened via the natural force of the boundless. The universe, though, is a continual play of elements separating and combining. In poetic fashion, Anaximander says that the boundless is the source of beings, and that into which they perish, according to what must be: for they give recompense and pay restitution to each other for their injustice according to the ordering of time (F1).
Much of what is transmitted to us about theSophistscomes from Plato. In fact, two of Platos dialogues are named after Sophists,ProtagorasandGorgias, and one is called simply,The Sophist. Beyond this, typical themes of sophistic thought often make their way into Platos work, not the least of which are the similarities between Socrates and the Sophists (an issue explicitly addressed in theApologyand elsewhere). Thus, the Sophists had no small influence on fifth century Greece and Greek thought.