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The pre-Socratics were the first group of (Western) thinkers to ask and look for answers to problems in a way that went beyond the merely superstitious. Few (if any) of them would have seriously doubted the existence of the gods but the important difference was that they endeavoured to understand the world by formulating reasons which were often based on naturalistic grounds. As such, their thinking represents something of a transition between a predominately irrational and superstitious way of thinking and the rational, ‘proto-scientific’ approach Socrates would usher in and Plato and Aristotle would later make their own.
As we will see, their philosophies were very much concerned to explain the composition of things and understand how these things related to one another.
Thales (c.625-545 BCE)
Thales was a geometer, astronomer and meteorologist. He was the first to measure the height of the pyramids by measuring the shadows they cast at the time of day when his own shadow was as long as he is tall. He made estimates of the sizes of the sun and the moon and predicted a solar eclipse. Using his meteorological knowledge he also forecast a particularly good olive crop one year and, taking a lease on all of the oil mills, managed to procure for himself a small fortune.
We have only two recorded sayings from Thales; “All things are full of gods” and “Water is the first principle of everything”. It is the latter that Thales is famous for. Perhaps noting how essential water is for life, he theorised that all things were, in some way, made of this element. He also claimed that the earth floated on water.
Anaximander (d. c.547 BCE)
Anaximander is also credited with a number of scientific achievements including the first map of the world and the first Greek sundial.
He thought the earth was a low, cylindrical column, surrounded by tyres full of fire. The stars, moon and sun were holes in the tyres through which we could see the fire within. The earth was not supported by anything, he claimed; it stayed where it was because it was equidistant from everything else and there was no (sufficient) reason why it should move one way or another.
He rejected the idea that any familiar, everyday substance could be the fundamental principle of everything, opting instead for something he called apeiron, which means something like ‘boundless’ or ‘undefined’. He probably imagined the apeiron as some kind of substance without a beginning or end in time that belonged to its own class of things.
Anaximander also went one step further than his predecessor, Thales, in offering an explanation of the force by which change happened in the universe. He saw the universe as composed of competing opposites; hot and cold, dark and light, etc. One of each pair was usually dominant at any one time before withdrawing as the other became stronger. This to and fro movement was governed by a principle of reciprocity. After heat had been dominant for a time, it would “owe” something to the cold and repay this debt by withdrawing. In this way, a kind of cosmic harmony, or balance, was maintained.
Anaximenes (fl. 546-525 BCE)
Anaximenes thought the fundamental principle was air. Making air the root ingredient in things gave him a handy explanation for how all the different elements were formed. As air condenses it becomes cloud then water. If water is further condensed, it becomes mud and stone. Rarefied air becomes fire. He also thought the earth rested on a cushion of air.
Pythagoras (b. c.570 BCE)
Pythagoras was interested in mysticism and mathematics. He started a semi-religious philosophical community in Italy in which the members practiced communal ownership and lived ascetic lives, keeping to some odd rules; do not pick up crumbs, always put your right shoe on first, do not eat beans, etc.
Pythagoras and his followers, upon discovering the relationship between musical intervals and numerical ratios, thought the universe was fundamentally numerical in nature. Mathematics therefore held the key to understanding the cosmos. They blended this understanding with mysticism, believing for example that the number 10 was sacred since the first four numbers (1-4) sum to 10. But they also made some more practical discoveries, most notably the Pythagorean Theorem.
One of Pythagoras’ more mystical beliefs was in the transmigration of souls after death. He believed the soul of a dead person would migrate and settle in the body of another animal. To ensure a fortuitous, post-mortem outcome and to best prepare the soul for it, Pythagoras insisted that the body had to be purified while one was still alive. He also believed that the heavenly bodies created a harmonious musical symphony (the music of the spheres) due to their motion at different speeds. The reason we don’t notice it is because we have heard it all our lives.
When Pythagoras died, his followers thought he became a god and stories that proliferated afterwards claimed a number of bizarre things about him, such as that he had a golden thigh, had the gift of bilocation and was the son of Apollo.
Xenophanes (c. 570-c.470 BCE)
Xenophanes thought the fundamental element was earth and believed that the earth extended an infinite distance below us. On this account, the sun could not go around the earth and so he conjectured that each day a new sun was kindled in the East and travelled across the sky before fading off into infinity at nightfall.
Heraclitus was nicknamed ‘the Enigmatic One’ and pronounced almost exclusively in ambiguous aphorisms. He is most famous for holding that all things change and nothing stays still, illustrating this point by claiming that one can never step into the same river twice. In addition to claiming that all things change however, Heraclitus also maintained a principle of unity; all opposites are somehow the same. This seems to have been a recognition of the relative nature of things; e.g. seawater is healthy for fish but poisonous for humans.
Heraclitus thought the universe was an ever-living fire, continually raging away. The human soul was also fire and since water extinguishes fire, the best soul was a dry one. He was the first to use the term “Logos” to mean a kind of Reason or Governing Principle that he thought grounded the order and beauty in the universe.
Parmenides founded a new discipline in philosophy; ontology, the study of Being. He outlined this philosophy in a poem comprised of two parts, The Way of Truth and The Way of Seeming.
In direct opposition to Heraclitus, Parmenides maintained that whatever exists is Being, and Being is one, indivisible, has no beginning or end and never changes. In relation to non-Being we can formulate it thus, ‘whatever is, is and whatever is not, is not’. Not only is it impossible for non-Being to exist, it is also impossible to think of or talk about it meaningfully. This stance has a couple of unusual consequences; first, changes we think we see around us must therefore be illusory since what is cannot not be and what is not cannot be. For example, what is hot cannot become cold, since cold is the same as not hot and non-Being doesn’t exist. Second, since motion necessarily involves change, all apparent motion is illusion.
His most well-known student was Zeno of Elea, who produced a set of ‘proofs’ that motion is impossible. One of these asserts that it is impossible to run the length of a stadium, which is, let’s say, 100 metres. The reason for this is that in order to cover the 100 metres, you must first run 50 metres. But to do this you must first run 25 metres. To cover that distance, you must first run 12.5 metres, and so on. Continually chopping up the remaining distance this way will see you inching closer to, but forever falling short of, your goal of 100 metres.
Empedocles was a colourful figure who flourished in the middle of the 5th century. He claimed to be a healer, possess drugs that ward off old age and even, in a poem he once wrote, to be a god.
He believed that everything was composed of four indestructible elements which had always existed; air, fire, water and earth. These four fundamental elements combined in different proportions to produce all of the different substances. Empedocles also identified two forces which were responsible for governing the interaction of these elements; Love and Strife. The former brought them together while the latter forced them apart. The continuous struggle between these two forces is the active feature in the universe that drives change. The struggle continues until one of the two gains complete dominance and the cycle begins again. When Love reigns supreme the entire universe will be gathered together into a perfect, harmonious sphere.
Empedocles also suggested a surprisingly prescient, although admittedly fanciful, notion of evolution by natural selection. He supposed that the four different elements combined to form flesh and bone and these in turn, combined to form organs and limbs. These all combined in a variety of weird and grotesque fashions: ox with human heads, humans with ox heads, androgynous creatures, and so on. Most of these monstrosities were sterile and unable to reproduce. Only the ‘best’ thrived and were able to increase in number while the others all died out. Another particularly striking (and modern) aspect of this theory was that the ‘evolutionary fitness’ of these creatures was completely random in nature, not due to design.
After anticipating Darwin’s scientific theory by more than two thousand years, Empedocles then went off in the opposite direction and offered a set of mystical beliefs in line with Pythagoras’ teachings. He believed in reincarnation and held that Strife would cast the souls of wrong-doers into animals. Upwards reincarnation was also possible for seers, bards, doctors and princes, ultimately leading to godhood.
Anaxagoras (c.500-428 BCE)
Anaxagoras was the first of the prominent pre-Socratics to live in Athens and found favour with the famous statesman, Pericles. Unfortunately, when Pericles lost the support of the people, Anaxagoras came under attack for his ‘atheistic’ beliefs and was prosecuted for treason and impiety. He fled Athens to escape trial.
Like Empedocles, Anaxagoras has a claim to have prefigured another of the greatest scientific theories of our age, the Big Bang. He imagined the universe began with everything being compressed together into an infinitely small, infinitely dense “pebble”. This “pebble” began to rotate, throwing off the blanket of ether and air which had surrounded it, fragments of which went on to become the heavenly bodies. This rotation also caused all manner of opposites (heat/cold, light/dark, etc.) to separate out although the separation was never total and so, to this day, a trace of everything else is present in all things. The force guiding all of this activity was nous, or ‘Mind’, which Anaxagoras seemed to associate with the divine. However, it seems that he thought the ‘evolution’ of the universe happened largely mechanistically, with little for his nous to do.
He believed that the universe was expanding and would continue to expand in the future. He also thought that there were many other worlds like ours in the cosmos. The accusations of impiety and atheism against Anaxagoras were based on his belief that the heavenly bodies were lumps of rock or metal and not therefore particularly divine.
Leucippus and Democritus
Nothing is known about Leucippus except that he was Democritus’ teacher but they are always named together.
Democritus was born in Thrace sometime between 470 and 460 BCE and was the first prominent philosopher to be born in mainland Greece. In yet another remarkable anticipation of modern science, he (and presumably Leucippus) argued that matter was not infinitely divisible, but consisted of discrete chunks he called ‘atoms’ (Greek for ‘indivisible’). These atoms were infinite in number, came in an infinite number of shapes and sizes, were indestructible and had existed forever. Everyday objects are composed of atoms and formed when atoms bump into each other and clump together. Differing qualities of the atoms accounted for different sense perceptions; sharp flavours, for example, came from jagged, angular atoms, while soft flavours came from smooth, round-shaped atoms. Democritus also believed that this process was completely mechanistic and random in nature.
Like Anaxagoras, Democritus thought that there were other worlds, some similar to, but many different from, Earth. His macro-view was similar to his micro-view – he imagined that there were worlds randomly drifting through the cosmos, growing, shrinking, colliding with each other; all without any kind of purpose or teleology.
Democritus also wrote about ethics. He believed happiness came about through moderation and equanimity, and these things were also necessary for a healthy society. Like Socrates would after him, Democritus also urged the following of virtue not because the gods demanded it or to ensure a happy afterlife but because virtue created a happy life, here and now.