The Presocratics

Dr William Large

The History of Greek philosophy can be divided into three basic epochs:

1.      Natural Philosophy

2.      The Period of the Schools

3.      The Period of the Commentaries

Let me add just a few brief comments about these different epochs. Natural philosophy is the period of the Presocratics and is essentially concerned with the problems that we might today call scientific. These are the philosophers that we shall talk about today in a general manner. They were the first philosophers. To say that they were primarily concerned with nature is of course on oversimplification. They were also interested in moral and political questions, as all Greek philosophers were. Indeed, one of the striking characteristics of early Greek philosophy is the intertwining, as we shall see later more vividly with Heraclitus, of scientific and metaphysical questions, on the one hand, and moral and ethical questions, on the other. They did not see them as contrary to one another, as we might today. In fact, it is not too an exaggerated claim to suggest that this split between the question of nature and morality does not really come about until Socrates, who was quite suspicious of speculative investigations of nature. This split between ethics and nature has stayed with philosophy ever since, and is expressed in modern parlance, as the difference between values and facts.

The period of the schools is perhaps the most important to the determination of the Western philosophical tradition. It corresponds to the influence of the philosophers Plato and Aristotle, whose names are known by everyone, and the less famous groups of philosophers called the Epicureans and Stoics. This period is called the period of the schools simply for the fact that all these philosophers instituted their own schools that attracted disciples. So, for example, Plato’s school was called the Academy, and Aristotle’s, the Lyceum. These schools were, if you like the first universities. It is in this period that the subject matter and the method of philosophy were firmly established. It would not be too extravagant to say that philosophy, in its most general form, has not really changed till the present day. This explains why the books they wrote and discussed are still meaningful for us. Many of the arguments which we still debate, such as whether the universe had a beginning, or whether there is a difference between right and wrong, or what kind of society is the best, have their origin in Greek philosophy. Philosophically speaking, we are still Greek. Of course this is not to suggest that other cultures did not ask the same questions, but they did not ask them in the same way as Greek philosophy did. The aim of these lectures is to try and get to the centre of this peculiarity of Greek thought.

The period of the commentaries is the longest period in which the insights of the Greek philosophers were enlarged and developed. We need also to mention here the rediscovery of Greek thought first of all by the Arabic scholars and later by Christian Theologians (and again in the Renaissance). This history finally comes to an end, perhaps, with Descartes, whose thought could be said to usher in a new kind of philosophy which rejects the notion of substance that is the mainstay of Greek thought for a new metaphysics of subjectivity that is inseparable from the rise of the natural sciences. Even this philosophy, however, is not totally separate from its Greek origins.

According to tradition, the first glimmerings of philosophy began in Miletus, in South Ionia, which today would be South West Turkey, from the beginning of the sixth century onwards. Miletus was essentially a trading community and had links with Egypt. This gives some support to the hypothesis that philosophy came from the East.[1] Whether this is the ultimate origin of philosophy or not will always be disputed. However, even if the Greeks were not the inventors of philosophy, this still does not discount the fact that in their hands it became something explosive. They were the first to place it at the heart of cultural life as the highest form of human activity.

The first philosopher, or let us say the first philosopher that we know anything about, came from this place and his name was Thales (624-557 BCE). He was famous for predicting the eclipse of the sun, which helped him to predict a bumper crop of olives, thus becoming very rich, and putting lie to the opinion that philosophers could never do anything useful. Much more importantly, however, for us, he also put forward the hypothesis that everything ultimately was made of water (in this sense he was a materialist; that is to say, he put forward a material explanation of the universe). We shall need to think again about this hypothesis in a minute, but there is a story about Thales, which shows that even at its birth, philosophy had its critics from among ordinary people.

He is said to have been taken from his house by an old woman to look at the stars, and have fallen into a ditch: When he cried out, the old woman said: "Do you think, Thales, that you will learn what is in the heavens when you cannot see what is in front of your feet. Diogenes Laeterius, Lives of the Philosophers, 22-28

Plato retells the same story, in a slightly different manner and makes sure that we get the point:

Why take the case of Thales. While he was studying the stars and looking upwards, he fell into a pit, and a neat, witty, Thracian girl jeered at him, they say, because he was so eager to know the things in the sky that he could not see what was there before him at his very feet. The same jest applies to all who pass their lives in philosophy. Plato, Theatetus, 174a

Though it is easy to make fun of Thales, and all philosophers for that matter, let us return to his interesting hypothesis that everything is made of water. At first hearing this does not appear to be very sensible, and moreover it does not even to appear very philosophical. Does it not sound let the kind of creation myths you might find in religious scriptures? Not if we look at this idea in more detail. Let us look at Aristotle's summary of Thales’ idea in the Metaphysics (we get a lot of our information about the Presocratics from Aristotle, who was determined first to say what others thought, before he put forward his alternative theories). He writes:

Most of the first philosophers thought that principles in the form of matter were the only principles of all things. For they say that the element and first principle of the things that exist is that from which they all are and from which they first come into being and into which they are finally destroyed, its substance remaining and its properties changing...There must be some nature, either one or more than one - from which the other things come into being, it being preserved. But as to the number and form of this sort of principle, they do not all agree. Thales, the founder of this kind of philosophy, says that it is water (that is why he declares that the earth rests on water) He perhaps came to acquire this belief from seeing that the nourishment of everything is moist and that heat itself comes from this and lives by this (For that from which anything comes into being is its first principle) - he came to his belief both for this reason and because the seeds of everything have a moist nature, and water is the natural principle of moist things. Aristotle, Metaphysics, 983b6-11.

Now compare this to a passage from Hesiod, a seventh century Greek poet, which I think you will agree is much closer to the style of religious writing.

Tell me this, you Muses, who have your home on Olympus,
from the beginning, and tell which of them first came into being
First of all came the Chasm; and then
wide-bosomed Earth, the eternal safe seat of all
the immortals who hold the heights of snowy Olympus
...From the Chasm came black Darkness and Night
and from night came Ether and Day
Whom she conceived and bore after mingling in love with Darkness
Earth bore first, equal to herself;
starry heaven, to veil her all about
that there might me an eternal seat for the blessed gods.

What is most important to take from Aristotle’s summary of Thales’ philosophy is not the answer, but the form in which the answer is given. Notice the reference here to principles and the elements, and not to the actions of the gods, as in Hesiod, to explain the origin of the world and the reason for its being. Notice also the attempt to give a simplified and coherent explanation for what appears first of all to be a chaotic world, rather than to describe the coming into existence of the various aspects of the world through the action of different divine powers. And finally, notice that the source of this hypothesis is not a prayer to the Muses, but observation and the effort to give a rational explanation of it. This explanation of the underlying substance of all that exists is certainly very different from Hesiod’s poem and all the other religious, poetic and mythical creation stories. This brings us to our first, and possibly the most important, definition of philosophy: Philosophy is the overcoming of the mythic world through the rational explanation of nature. Pierre Hadot writes (my translation):

All these thinkers [Presocratic philosophers WL] propose a rational explanation of the world and this is a decisive turning point in the history of thought.  There did exist cosmogonies before them, in the Near East and in archaic Greece as well, but they were myths in the form of a struggle between personified beings Pierre Hadot, Qu’est que c’est la philosophie antique ?, p. 51.

How can we summarise philosophy's break with the world-picture of mythology? First of all it replaces the creator principle with a rational principle and this means that nature is no longer understood anthropomorphically, since the gods represent qualities projected back into nature. Secondly, any principle that is said to the fundamental origin of all what is, is expressed in rational manner. But what does it mean to give a rational explanation of nature? The ultimate principles are immanent to nature itself, they are not projected into some mythical world beyond human cognition. They therefore can be investigated and more importantly debated and refuted if investigation shows them to be false (for the Greeks this investigation was mainly rational and not experimental). Secondly they are systematic, since they try to collect different and varied phenomena under the same unifying principles. Thirdly, which is a consequence of that systematic form, they are economical, since they attempt to use as few explanatory terms and unknowns as possible. This manner of rational explanation is still what determines our picture of the world today as the basis of the modern scientific worldview.

This does not mean that these first philosophical scientists practised the same kind of science that is practised today. What they lacked is an experimental scientific method, which was first described in detail by the English philosopher Bacon, and first practised by Galileo. It was the invention of this method that has lead to the success of science in its modern guise. However, even this new method is firmly rooted in the rational world-picture that the Presocratics were the first to develop.

What I have said so far might make it appear that I believe that the Presocratics are interesting only as precursors to science. But this is not at all the truth. There is one more important reason why we need to study and read them. They invented a language that is our fundamental language of which science and religion are themselves only moments, and this language is metaphysics.[2] Metaphysics is the essential orientation of Western man to the world. Metaphysics is not to be confused with Myth. Metaphysics can only come into existence in a world in which the power of myth is already waning. We can understand this metaphysics, perhaps, by looking at some of its most important concepts.[3]

      ς

This is a word that designates the totality of what is and requires a huge leap in imagination. In our everyday lives this word is totally useless. We simply do not need it. Our world is the environment in which we live: the shop at the corner, the pub over the road. Cosmos has a more profound meaning merely than the everyday notion of the world. It originally comes from the Greek verb kosmeo, which means to arrange to order, or to adorn. What the Greek word expresses, therefore, is not merely the notion of the world as a whole, but this whole being arranged in an orderly manner. It is not haphazard or put together by chance, and if you know how to look beyond the disorder of the sensible world you will be able to see the order and pattern. The order of the cosmos can be contrasted with the disorder of the daily world. There is a particularly Greek twist to this idea of the orderly arrangement of the universe. The Greek verb kosmeo, also means to make beautiful with jewellery and adornments (the English word cosmetic finds its origin in the Greek verb kosmeo). The ordered universe is beautiful. The idea that order is beautiful is a very Greek idea.

      ς

This word introduces the important distinction between the natural and artificial world (the human world) that is so important for Greek philosophy. The world of nature and the world of culture do not follow the same laws. The world of man, the world of the city and custom, follow the laws of convention, nomos, and what distinguishes man from the animals is that he produces things not naturally but through techne. However, we must be clear about the meaning of phusis for the Presocratics. It does not simply mean ‘natural’, as we mean today. When they were interested in nature, they were interested in the essence of things, like we mean by the word ‘nature’ in the following expression, ‘the nature of water is to freeze at O degrees Celsius.’ They are certainly not ‘green’ philosophers.

3.   

To ask about the nature of something is to ask about its essence. To ask about the essence of something, to ask about its origin that causes it to be the kind of thing that it is. The word archē comes from the verb archō, which means both to begin and to rule. The noun arche still contains these two meanings. This double meaning is present in the English word anarchy and archaeology. The universe is the cosmos and things have a essence because they are ordered. They are ordered not by mythical powers, but by the law of the origin. The rules of nature go back to the origin or fundamental ground that determines every being or through which every being is understood. Because we live in scientific age we have a scientific answer for the origin, as for example, in the notion of the ‘big bang’.

4.   ς

This is the hardest word to translate. It comes from the verb legein, which means to tell, relate, recount, say, declare, but the noun which is derived from it has a more obscure meaning. It can be a statement, that is to say, something written or said. More importantly, however, it means to give an account or explanation of something. If explained to you how this overhead projector worked, I would be giving you a logos. We can see the sense of logos in the -ology words such as biology or psychology, Bio, meaning life, therefore, biology, to give an account of life; psyche meaning self, therefore, psychology, to give an account of the self. But logos does not just mean explanation for the Greek, it also means as explanation that is given through knowledge. It would be terrible explanation of the PowerPoint projector, if I had no knowledge of the projector itself. The full translation of the noun logos should therefore be reasoned explanation.[4] Indeed the Latin translation of the word logos is ratio from where the English word ‘rational’ arises. The Greeks contrasted knowledge as logos with knowledge as opinion, which they called doxa. To have a logos of something is know what that thing really is, rather than what it might appear to be. The distinction between reality and appearance is fundamental to the Greeks. In fact this distinction is that which constitutes philosophy as such, and without it philosophy would be impossible, for we would never be able to make a distinction between a truthful and false statement.

[1] See the famous books of Martin Bernal, Black Athena The Afro-asiatic Roots of Classical Civilization 1: The Fabrication of Ancient Greece 1785-1985 (London: Free Association Books. and New Brunswick: Rutgers University: 1987) and Black Athena 2: The Archaeological and Documentary Evidence (London, Free Association Books; New Brunswick: Rutgers University:1991) . But also read and the author’s response .

[2] This approach is influenced by Heidegger. See, for example, his essay Introduction to Metaphysics (Yale University Press, 2000)  in. For a very sceptical view of Heidegger’s obsession with the Greeks, see .

[3] We say ‘concepts’ but initially they were only words.

[4] Though Heidegger would say that there is a much older explanation of logos in his essay ‘What calls for thinking’ in Basic Writings, ed D. Krell (Routledge, 1993), and an analysis of it in

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