You are on page 1of 10


THE PRESOCRATICS (c. 600-450 B.C.)

Most presocratic philosophers were interested mainly in the oppositions they saw in the universe
between change and permanence and between unity and multiplicity.
The earliest thinkers, the Milesians (Miletus was one of the great cities of Ionia on the coast of Asia Minor), are important because
they were the first thinkers to try to answer such problems without appealing to myth or religious dogma. They are usually
called cosmologists. While understandably they did not distinguish between philosophy and science as we know it today, their
'theories' are nevertheless broadly scientific in the sense that they relied on observation (in the case of astronomy systematically
collected) though they did not engage in any experimentation to 'test' their hypotheses.

THALES (c. 620 545? B.C.)

Thales of Miletus is said to have predicted an eclipse in 585 B.C. and to have made a contribution to the development of
navigational techniques.


[1] He is known mainly for his claim that "Everything is made of water". By this he means that water is the single common
material stuff or 'cause' underlying change and difference [a] in the natural world. He said this probably because we can see water
everywhere: in rain, rivers, and the sea. On hot days it evaporates; when it is sufficiently cold it becomes a solid (ice). He also
believed the Earth floats on water [see Aristotle, On the Heavens, B13, 294a]. Aristotle [Metaphysics, A3, 983b] suggested that
Thales would have been aware of the importance of water for life. Thales claimed further that 'Magnets have souls" [Aristotle, On
the Soul A2, 405a] and that "All things are full of gods" [ibid. A5, 411a]. In Greek "to have a soul (psuche)" means to be alive; so
Thales' argument probably went like this: living things produce movement; magnets can move both themselves and other things;
therefore magnets are alive. He may have thought of gods as forces which can initiate movement.

Thales is important because he was the first to move beyond purely mythopoeic thinking to ask the questions whether underlying
the multiplicity of things and changes in the world there is common principle or 'stuff'. His claims seem to suggest (1) there is a
regularity in the universe (or cosmos the Greek word means 'order'); (2) it is possible through observation and rational thought
for man to gain some understanding of it and the fundamental principle.
It might be said that in singling out water and talking of magnets having souls Thales is actually supposing that there
are two principles the one material and the other spiritual. However, it is unlikely that at this early stage philosophers would
have thought in terms of a matter-spirit distinction; and to find a definition of a living thing we today would in general look for
more than just the ability to initiate motion. It is therefore perhaps more reasonable to interpret both Thales' primary element and
his reference to forces in materialist terms.

ANAXIMANDER ( c. 610 547 B.C.)

Anaximander was born in Miletus. Like Thales he was interested in scientific observation and tried to explain the weather and the
movements of the stars.He is also thought to have been a map maker and to have put forward a simple kind of evolution theory.He
would seem to have been the first Greek to write a book only a fragment of which remains however.


[1] Anaximander accepted that there must be some basic principle underlying change and difference, but he did not believe it was a
definite 'element' [a] such as water. This was because he thought change resulted from a process which he saw as a conflict
between opposites [b] such as hot and cold, dry and wet.So he said the primary stuff is the 'unlimited' [c], 'that which is the
boundless [to apeiron]'. He argued that if it were not unlimited and indeterminate and were instead a particular element, then all the
other elements would have been absorbed into it long ago.Anaximander also tried to explain the originand processes of the cosmos
in terms of 'injustice' [d]. By this he means an imbalance or disorder, not an injustice in the moral sense.He said a vortex (or
whirlpool) arises in the indeterminate and the opposites begin to separate out and to 'trespass' on each other. The heavier opposites,
such as earth, move towards the centre; the lighter, such as air, go to the edge.So, for example, in summer the hot encroaches on the
cold and commits the injustice.He goes on to argue that compensation is therefore required:cold must encroach on the hot and
eventually commits an injustice in return.
The destruction of things takes place into the same things from which they had their origin, in accordance with necessity; for they
make recompense and requital to each other for the injustice they commit, in accordance with the ordering/ assessment of time.
[Fr. 1]
Anaximander's reference to 'time' may be a personification of the apeiron (Chronos as in Plato's Timaeus being suggested
perhaps by Kronos, a creation God in early Greek and near-Eastern mythology), in which case Time is seen as the controlling or
ordering principle. But if Anaximander thinks of the apeiron as divine and all-powerful, it is in no sense a personal god.It is, he
says, "eternal ageless, encompassing all the worlds" [quoted by Hippolytus, Refutations of all Heresies, I, 6, 2].Alternatively, in
Fragment 1 he may simply have meant that the oscillating process occurs in or over a period of time.Anaximander also tried to
answer the question why the Earth stays where it is, at the centre of the vortex; he thought that Thales' idea that it is suspended on
water did not explain anything.He is said by Aristotle [On the Heavens, B13, 294-6] to have argued that because the material
surrounding the Earth, and indeed the unlimited surrounding the universe as a whole, is the same in all directions there can be no
reason for movement in one particular direction rather than another [e]; so it does not move at all.

Although most scholars accept that Anaximander believed there to be an infinite number of universes, there is some disagreement
over what he had to say about the relationship of the opposites to the apeiron.Their reabsorption into the unlimited may well have
been a reparation for having brought about injustice: but was this because they had trespassed against each other or against the
unlimited? The second view seems more likely if the unlimited is to be thought of as a kind of cosmic judge. As for his argument
about the supposed non-movement of the Earth, this was certainly original but it may not be valid; there need be no contradiction
in thinking of movement as random and uncaused.Nevertheless this early thinker continues to be of interest for the rationality of
his geometrical model of the universe and his tacit appeal to what later came to be called 'The Principle of Sufficient Reason'

ANAXIMENES (c. 580 500 B.C.)

Anaximenes of Miletus was probably a pupil and later a colleague of Anaximander.


[1] Anaximenes accepted the idea of a primary 'stuff' as unlimited (apeiron) but not as indeterminate [a]; he supposed it to
be air (aer) [a]. This was probably because he saw breath (pneuma) as being necessary for the life of the body. He tried to explain
change in terms of the processes of rarefaction and condensation [b] (or 'felting'). He said that as a result of the latter 'mobile' air
turns firstly into wind, then cloud, water, earth, and stone, and thence into other substances including living things. When rarefied
air becomes fire. Things can also turn back in a reverse process. In this way we have a regular progression of changes in the
density of the basic 'stuff'. Air under its two active attributes, the Hot and the Cold, is thus all-pervasive and is also the 'cause' of
the universe's coherence and regularity. Air therefore seems to be the ultimate source of change in the world considered as being
governed by natural laws. Anaximenes also related the cosmic air to each individual soul as a microcosm [c]:
As our soul, being air, holds us together and controls us, so does wind [breath] and air enclose the whole world. [Quoted by Aetius
in Placita (Opinions).]

By comparison with Anaximander Anaximenes' postulation of air as a primary principle might seem to represent a regression to the
approach of Thales. However, his theory of air, unlike Anaximander's apeiron, is firmly grounded in observation of the world; and
he accounts for the Hot and the Cold and all kinds of change in terms of the fundamental concepts of rarefaction and condensation
without appealing to the general abstract 'opposites' of justice and retribution. But he is not completely consistent in that high and
low densities of things do not always coincide with the hot-cold distinction.

PYTHAGORAS (c. 570 495? B.C.)

Pythagoras was born on the island of Samos but emigrated to southern Italy about 525. As the charismatic but authoritarian founder
of a secret and frequently persecuted society of religious ascetics he is something of a legendary figure. However, it is not easy to
distinguish his own contributions to philosophy from the various modifications introduced by his followers in the Pythagorean
'school', particularly as he wrote nothing himself.


[1] Pythagoras is said to have thought of the cosmos as a plurality [a] in some sense made up of numbers [a]. He seems to have
introduced the idea of a Limit (peras) as controlling the Unlimited [b] (manifested as time and space or void). These basic
principles are manifested in sets of opposites [c]: the Limit is odd, one, static, right, male, and good; the Unlimited is many, even,
in motion, left, female, and bad. The link between oddness and perfection is shown by the fact that the addition of odd numbers
always produces perfect squares, for example, 1 + 3 = 4; whereas addition of evens produces (imperfect) oblongs. These are
illustrated in the so-called gnomon diagrams of the Pythagoreans: respectively, : : and : : :. From the unit comes the 'indefinite
dyad', that is, the group of two; and this together with the unit produces the other numbers. And because for Pythagoras physical
objects could be identified with numbers, the unit can be thought of as producing points successively the single point (the
number 1), lines (2), plane figures (3), and solid objects (4). The early Pythagoreans may have regarded some numbers as
particularly significant. Number 4, for example, was associated with justice, 5 with marriage, 6 with animation, and 7 with
opportunity. The theory of numbers may also be interpreted with reference to musical harmonies [d], as there is an obvious
connection between intervals on the musical scale and the lengths of the strings on a lyre.


[2] Philosophy for Pythagoras was regarded as the foundation for a whole way of life. The cosmos was understood as a universal
divine living organism or 'world-soul'. The individual soul was thought of as a part of this [a], trapped in the body; and this gave
rise to the doctrine of the transmigration of souls ('metempsychosis') [b]. This is the belief that after death the soul would be
reborn in another body a human, an animal, or even a plant. One's aim in life must therefore be to escape the wheel of rebirth by
attending to the appropriate rites for training and purifying the soul [c] so as to return ultimately to the disembodied state of the
cosmos .

There is an intimate connection between the mathematical/rationalist/'scientific' aspects of Pythagorean philosophy and his concern
with the mystical, religious and ethical. However, there are problems with both. We know that numbers are used in measurement,
but Pythagoras's apparent identification of physical objects with them seems less acceptable. The association of higher numbers
with abstract ideas such as justice and opportunity in a quasi-mystical sense is even more philosophically suspect. Likewise,
metempsychosis presents difficulties for the concept of personal identity and the relationship of 'soul' to body. But while
Pythagorean thought is in some sense 'dualistic', it is probably mistaken to think of it in, say, Platonic or Cartesian terms; at this
early stage of Greek philosophy no clear-cut distinction between matter and form had been explicitly articulated. Nevertheless the
Pythagorean account of numbers and the doctrine of transmigration were to prove important influences on Plato's early thought and
that of many neo-Platonic philosophers.

HERACLITUS (c. 540 480?B.C.)

Heraclitus came from Ephesus in what is now Turkey. He seems to have been a man of strong character and rather contemptuous
of his fellow men. Only fragments of his writings remain, and these are to be found in the works of later commentators. These
sayings, moreover, are usually unclear, gnomic, and often seem to contradict one another. Because of this confusion in his thought
we cannot always be sure what Heraclitus actually meant. In ancient times he was often known as 'Heraclitus the Obscure'.


[1] According to many commentators Heraclitus believed, in the words of one source, that one "cannot step into the same river
twice" [see Plato, Cratylus 402a] a remark which would suggest that he thought everything was in a state of constant flux.
Heraclitus seems to have believed that change and conflict are real, essential and necessary features of the universe [a]He
explicitly identifies conflict with justice [b] in this fragment:
It is necessary to understand that war is shared, and justice is strife, and everything comes to be in accordance with strife and
necessity. [Fr. 80]
However, there are many fragments in which apparently Heraclitus too was looking for a primary cosmic principle unifying the
real multiplicity of things in the world [c] as perceived through the senses. For example:
Things conjoined as wholes and not-wholes, convergent and divergent, consonant and dissonant; from all things one and from one

all. [Fr. 10]

In this remark he is referring in particular to opposites [d] or contrasts of various kinds, such as disease and health, cold and warm,
wet and dry. And what he may mean is that each member of a pair both comes from and, when in harmony [e] with the other,
makes up a single thing. As he says,
They do not comprehend how a thing agrees being at variance with itself; it is attunement which turns back on itself, like that of

the bow and lyre. [Fr. 51 ]

Heraclitus identifies this unifying principle with the logos [f]: "...the Logos is common" [Fr. 2] This is a problematic term because
of the many meanings it had in Greek: not only 'principle' but also 'utterance', 'account' 'word', 'proportion', 'ratio', 'reason',
'formula' n most of which Heraclitus seems to have employed in different fragments at different times. But it is reasonable to
suppose that he intended it particularly to mean both what, in the opening of his book, he calls "this account" of all things [Fr. 1]
and, more especially, that which the account refers to, namely a principle or formula which is at the same time independent of and
manifested in the universe. He goes further by identifying this principle also with Fire as the primary 'element' of all things (and
indeed as 'divine') [see Fr. 67] [g] ):
All things are exchanges for fire, and fire for all things, as goods for gold and gold for goods. [Fr. 90]
This ordered universe, the same for all, no god nor man has made, but it ever was and is and will be: fire ever living, being kindled

in measures and in measures going out. [Fr. 30]

This is interesting because fire itself seems always to be in a state of constant change. And several hundreds of years later the
Stoics supposed Heraclitus to have held the view that the universe undergoes periodic conflagrations [h]: but it is more likely that
Heraclitus meant no more than that all things change from and back into fire.
While Fragment 30 suggests that the universe is not made by any god, elsewhere [for example, Fr. 67] Heraclitus compares god to
fire. And in Fragment 64 he perhaps implicitly identifies god with fire: "The thunderbolt steers all things". He seems also to have
suggested a relationship between fire and the other two 'elements' water and earth [i]. Each is either hot or cold, wet or dry. So
air is hot and wet, fire is hot and dry, water is cold and wet, earth cold and dry. Each element changes in succession into the other:
but it is not certain how he thought this occurred. Some commentators [for example, Hussey] believe he held a theory of four
elements depending on the translation of 'burner' (prester) in Fr. 31:
The turnings of fire [the pure cosmic fire]: first sea, and of sea the half is earth and half burner ['hot air', 'fiery lightning'?] is
dispersed as sea and is measured so as to form the same proportion as existed before it became earth.

[2] It is also possible that Heraclitus equated fire with wisdom and believed that the human soul can acquire wisdom because it
possesses the divine quality of fieriness: "One thing, the only truly wise, does not and does consent to be called by the name of
Zeus" [Fr. 32]; "A dry soul is wisest and best" [Fr. 118]. The 'fiery' soul as the principle of intelligence [a] both makes possible our
understanding of the everyday world we perceive through our senses and is the means by which we can penetrate to
the logos [a]. Heraclitus seems also to have thought that virtuous souls, remaining 'dry', survive death to become part of the world-
fire [b].

[3] Heraclitus's moral philosophy is grounded in his philosophy of nature. His central principle accordingly is that the individual
should seek to understand and model himself on the logos as "divine law, common to all"[Fr. 114] [a]. Right thinking and wisdom
will lead to right actions [b]. "Man's character", he says [Fr. 119] "is his daimon [destiny]", by which he means to emphasize that
one's future is under one's own control.

It is difficult to pin down Heraclitus's philosophy; he seems so often to be shifting his position epitomizing the flux which he
sees as a central feature of the universe. His fragments are therefore often open to a variety of interpretations. The idea of harmony
in Fr. 50, for example, has been described as an attunement which either "turns back on itself" or "is pulled both ways"
depending on the text. The former would seem to support an 'oscillatory' universe rather than one in equilibrium. Likewise there
may be a difficulty in reconciling the views of fire as a physical element and as the controlling agency of the universe as a whole,
sometimes identified with god but in other fragments seen as separate from god. However, the main points of Heraclitus's world-
view are fairly clear: he stresses that strife is the norm (there is no Being, only Becoming); and that this is exhibited most
obviously in fire. Generally we may say he is noteworthy for his originality as a speculative philosopher rather than for his
'scientific' reasoning.

PARMENIDES (c. 515 c. 430 B.C.)

Parmenides came from Elea in Southern Italy. Philosophers belonging to the 'school' he founded are therefore usually called the
Eleatics. His own thought was developed in an allegorical poem the main ideas of which were set out by Simplicius, a
commentator of the sixth century A.D.


[1] The first part of the poem, narrated by a goddess, is the Prologue. The second part described a process of initiation involving
two paths of inquiry "which alone are to be thought of":
one, that it is and that it is not possible for it not to be the path of persuasion (for it attends truth); the other, that it is not and
that it is necessary for it not to be this track, I declare, is altogether inscrutable; for you could neither know what it is not (for
that cannot be accomplished), nor speak of it. [Fr. 2]
These are his arguments against the inscrutable path:
The same thing is both for thinking and for existing. [Fr. 3]
What is for speaking of and for thinking must be; for it is for existing, but nothing is not: those things I [the goddess] bid you hold
in mind; for from this way of enquiry first I bar you. [Fr. 6]
In these fragments Parmenides seems to be saying that there is a necessary connection between our thinking and the things which
the thoughts are about. So if something does not exist, I cannot really think of it. It then follows that we can think only about things
which can exist; and whatever can be thought about must exist the claim of the Way of Truth.
The goddess goes on to show Parmenides that what exists ('Being') is the One n whole, of one kind, perfect, unchangeable,
motionless [a], and "equally poised from the centre in all directions". It is indivisible, and there is no void [b]. Being could not
come from Being, for then it would already have existed. But neither could it have arisen from not-Being, for this would have
required the existence of not-Being, and this is self-contradictory. Moreover, there is no reason why Being should have been
brought into existence at one time rather than any other [c], for this would mean that non-Being would have different qualities at
different times. So change, movement, and time, which we attribute to individual things in the world, must be illusory: the physical
world is unreal [d]. All we can say of the Real is that "It is", and that it is to be grasped only by Reason[e].
In the third part of the poem [Frs 6 and 7] there is reference to the way of ordinary opinion which appeals to sense-experience. This
would seem to steer a middle course between the other two. But Parmenides argues that it is self-contradictory [f] and is the path
followed by witless "two-headed" mortals. (He may have had Heraclitus in mind here.)

Parmenides clearly emphasizes Being in contrast to the becoming stressed by Heraclitus. But there are difficulties with his thesis.
Firstly, the word 'is' has four functions, which early Greek philosophers were not generally aware of (and which were not easily
distinguishable in the Greek language) [a]. It may be used with a predicate (as in 'The table is round'); it may enable us to say
something is true (as in ' "2 + 2 = 4" is true'); it may suggest that something exists ('John is', that is, exists); or lastly it may express
identity (for example, 'Hesperus [the evening star] is Phosphorus [the Morning Star]' both names referring to the planet Venus).
There has been much dispute among scholars as to which meaning best fits Parmenides' fragments; and on balance it would seem
that the existential interpretation makes most sense. But this leads to a second problem. Parmenides seems to be committed to the
view that names can be meaningful only if they denote or refer to existent things. Unfortunately it is not clear whether he intends it
to follow that we cannot therefore think about (1) things that do not happen (contingently) to exist (for example, unicorns); or (2)
things that necessarily cannot exist (for example, a round square which is a self-contradictory concept). Nevertheless, both
views lead to the conclusion that what does not exist (for whatever reason) cannot be thought about. This claim does, however,
depend on this 'denotative' theory of meaning, which many philosophers today reject. But despite such difficulties, Parmenides is
significant in Greek philosophy (1) as the first thinker to introduce a priori deductive reasoning; (2) for his emphasis on the
concept of Being. He may therefore perhaps be regarded as the first metaphysician.

ANAXAGORAS (c. 500 428? B.C.)

Although born in Clazomenae in Ionia Anaxagoras spent most of his life in Athens. He returned to Ionia about 450 after he had
been condemned for alleged impiety by the political opponents of his famous pupil Pericles. He was influenced by both the
Milesians and the Eleatics; and his philosophy may be regarded as an attempt to reconcile these two schools of thought.


[1] Anaxagoras rejected the idea of a coming into existence out of nothing and the cessation or destruction of Being. Change, he
said, is real, but there is no change of quality [a]. But he also said that individual things could not have come into existence from
other things: "How could hair come into existence out of non-hair, or flesh out of non-flesh?" [fr. 10]. He supposed there to have
been an original mixture (constituting unitary Being) of an infinite number of eternal elemental things or 'stuffs' (chremata). It is as
a result of the rearrangements of things through combination and separation that change occurs [b]. These 'stuffs'
included opposites [c] such as hot and cold, moist and dry; earth, air and aither (that is, upper air); and innumerable 'seeds'
(spermata) different from each other wood, bone, gold, blood, and so on [see fr. 4]. (Aristotle later called some or all of these
stuffs 'homoiomere', which means 'similar parts' [see Physics A4, 187a23; On the Heavens 3, 302a281].) Anaxagoras said that air
and aither were the greatest in so far as they were present in the greatest quantities and held the others in subjection [fr. 1]. The
others would not have been distinguishable in the original mixture because of their smallness [fr. 4]. All stuffs are infinitely
divisible [fr. 3] [d]. He argued further that "all things are in everything"; "everything contains a portion of everything" [fr.
6] [e]. Anaxagoras seems to have meant that each different stuff contains portions of all the other stuffs in small quantities, each of
which in turn contains portions of the others. Thus a piece of wood, for example, contains portions of gold, ash, bone, etc.,
although the wood stuff predominates in the mixture. And he rejected the idea that these stuffs can exist separately from the
homogeneous mixture which constitutes a thing:
And since too there are equal portions of great and small in quantity, for this reason also everything is in everything; nor can they
exist separately, but everything shares a portion of everything. Since the least cannot be, things cannot be separated nor come to
be by themselves, but as in the beginning, so also now everything is together. [Fr. 6]
[2] As for the world as a whole, Anaxagoras said that it comes into being as a result of a rotation of the boundless
(apeiron) [a]. The primary controlling substance of the cosmos is termed nous, that is, 'mind' or intelligence [b]. It is through its
agency that opposites separate out from the boundless into individual things, nous itself being pure and unmixed [fr. 13]. Individual
minds or souls are supposed to be made up of this same substance [c], though what Anaxagoras believed the relationship between
these minds and nous to be is not made clear. Nous seems to be a material rather than a spiritual principle, "albeit the thinnest of

[3] While allowing for the possibility of error in our perception of the world, Anaxagoras does not accept that our experience is
totally illusory. We can gain some knowledge of it through the senses: "Appearances are a glimpse of the obscure" [fr. 21a]. His
theory is that sensation occurs when unlikes act on unlikes [a]. Thus we can experience a warm object when our hand is relatively

Anaxagoras's idea of 'seeds' is of course original and interesting. It has been objected that his theory is not coherent because it
involves an infinite regress: all stuffs are made of other stuffs each of which contains all the others, and so on. But this regress can
probably be avoided if his idea of predominance is emphasized. While the gold, ash, and so on which make up the wood are
themselves made up of other stuffs, the gold stuff is called gold, and the ash stuff is called ash, because it contains more of that
than the other stuffs. Nevertheless this would seem to commit Anaxagoras to making a distinction between the seed gold and a
stuff gold; and it is debatable whether this can be reconciled with his idea of infinite divisibility.
There are also problems with his notion of the nous. Plato and Aristotle criticized him for using the concept as a stop-gap and
perhaps for not being sufficiently radical. Quite apart from the question whether it is spiritual or 'thinly' material (it is probable that
even in Anaxagoras's day no such clear distinction had been made), there is the problem of how the nous can remain pure and
unmixed if it in some sense permeates the individual mind.

EMPEDOCLES (c. 495 435? B.C.)

Empedocles came from Sicily. He was the author of two philosophical 'poems' which came to be known as On
Nature and Purifications. He seems also to have been something of a 'character'; there are many stories about his exploits as a
magician and 'miracle-worker'.


[1] In his On Nature [fr. 2] Empedocles said both that the universe could not have come into existence out of nothing and that it
cannot be destroyed [a]. But he did not accept the view that it is an unchanging unity. Instead he argued that all the things of the
universe are made out of four eternal material 'elements' or "roots of all", namely, earth, water, air, and fire (though he referred to
them by the names of gods), and he tried to explain real change and plurality in terms of a coming together and arranging and
rearranging of them. He did not think of this in terms of a real coming into existence or perishing of things. And he denied that
there was any change of quality [b]. He attributed coming together and separating to what he called Love (Harmonia)
and Strife (Neikos) [fr. 17] [c]. These causal 'principles' seem to have been regarded by Empedocles as being material and as
having spatial properties such as position and magnitude, but also as being fundamental forces or agencies. He distinguished four
successive stages in the eternal cosmic process or cycle: (1) Love is supreme; the One exists; the (unlike) elements are in perfect
unity, the mixture being a perfect sphere: "the many come together in one". (2) Through the intervention of Strife the One changes
into the many, as likes are attracted to likes. (3) Strife has become dominant; the elements are completely separated; plurality
exists. (4) The many change back to the One. [See fr. 17, lines 1-13; fr. 35.]

[2] According to Theophrastus (3rd century B.C.) [On the Senses 7; see also Plato, Meno 76c], Empedocles tried to account for
sense-perception by attributing 'effluences' to things. These are being given off all the time; and vision, for example, occurs when
the effluences of external objects entering through the correctly sized pores of sense-organs meet the fiery effluence which come
from inside the eye. Thus likes are attracted to like [a]:
We see earth by means of earth, water by means of water, divine air by means of air, and destructive fire by means of wretched
Strife. [Fr. 109]

[3] Although there appears to be some overlapping of the two poems, Purifications tends to be concerned more with the nature
of individual souls or 'divinities' (daimones) and their attempts, through living a life of purity, to avoid being reborn in other bodies
the doctrine of transmigration [a] and so to escape from the physical world altogether. He does not, however, explicitly say
that they are actually immortal only that they possess immensely long life [fr. 18, l. 5]. Empedocles' description of souls as
'divinities' suggests their identification with the One, the perfect sphere of Love, the Divine itself [b] (who is, "only mind, holy and
indescribable, darting through the entire Kosmos with his swift thoughts" [fr. 134] ). The differention of the daimones occurs when
the sphere, through the intervention of Strife, fragments once more into multiplicity.

Empedocles is significant in that he tried to explain the nature and changeability of things in terms of four fundamental 'elements'
which combine in various ways through the agency of Love and Strife. (This may perhaps be seen as anticipating today's quantum
physics which accounts for attractive and repulsive forces in terms of fundamental particles as being both material and
manifestations of energy.) His 'effluence' theory of perception is original and important; and he also had some interesting ideas
about what we would call chemical mixtures and about the evolution of animals and plants.
There are a number of problems of interpretation in his philosophy. Some commentators have argued for a three rather than a four
phase cosmic cycle. It has also been argued [for example, by Hussey] that the attraction of like for like [fr. 109] suggests
Empedocles invoked a third 'agency', but it is equally possible to view this as but an aspect of Strife itself. Perhaps the main
problem with his thought, according to some writers, is that there seems to be a conflict between his two poems. In On Nature he
sets out what is essentially a materialist cosmology, while Purifications is mainly concerned with religious and moral issues.
Different solutions are proposed variously by Kahn , Hussey, and Barnes. But it has to be admitted that these two positions are not
readily reconciled; his religious philosophy would seem to require a more 'spiritualistic' interpretation of Love and Strife.

ZENO of Elea (c. 490 440? B.C.)

Zeno of Elea was Parmenides' favourite pupil and accompanied him to Athens in about 448. He is famous for his so-called
paradoxes, which were seen by Plato [Parmenides, 128c] as an attempt to show the incoherence of the views on plurality held by
Pythagoras and other opponents of the Eleatic philosophers. Aristotle called him "the founder of dialectic" because of his skill in
formulating arguments logically and systematically, by means of which fallacies might be revealed.

[1] Zeno constructed a number of dialectical arguments [a] against the view that the universe is made up of many things [b]. His
paradoxes of magnitude are typical.
(a) According to a later commentator, Simplicius [Commentary on Aristotle's Physics, 139/140], Zeno said that each of the "many
things" must have no magnitude because "each is the same as itself and one" [fr. 2] Nothing more is known of his argument, but
"each is one" suggests that he was referring to the common view that things are units, ultimate and indivisible. If they had
magnitude they would be divisible and therefore not ultimate [c]. By "each is the same as itself" he probably meant that a thing is
homogeneous, that is, the same throughout, lacking internal distinction. If it were not homogeneous it would not be a genuine
(b) However, Zeno also argues that each of the many things has unlimited magnitude [fr. 1]. (i) That which has no magnitude
would not exist, for if it were added to or subtracted from an existing thing that thing would not be made respectively bigger or
smaller; what is added or taken away would already be nothing. [Cf. fr. 2: Existing things are not nothing, so they must have
magnitude, as must their parts.] (ii) Why then is each thing unlimited in magnitude? Zeno's argument is that a magnitude can be
divided into parts [c], and these parts into further parts which have no magnitude, and so on; therefore there must be an infinite
number of parts with magnitude; hence the original magnitude is unlimited. The conclusions to (a) and (b) clearly contradict each
other. The notion of a plurality must be rejected.
[2] Zeno also worked out some interesting arguments to show that motion and change cannot be coherently described and are
therefore, together with space and time, illusions of sense [a]. rather than belonging to what is real. We owe our knowledge of
these to Aristotle [see Physics 9, 239ff].
(a) The Stadium paradox [9, 239b11]. Suppose a man is running in a race from A to B. Let the distance be, say, 2 kilometres. He
must first traverse half the distance from A to B. But at this point he then has to run half this distance, thus 1 km. And so on ad
infinitum: 1 + 1/2 + 1/4 + ... So to get to the end the runner has to traverse an infinite number of distances. This is impossible,
either as a matter of logic or because a person could not perform an infinite number of tasks. Because the distance AB can be any
length we wish, he cannot get anywhere at all. So motion is impossible.
(b) A variation on this argument is a paradox which later came to be known as the 'Achilles' paradox or 'Achilles and the Tortoise'
[9 239b14] [a]. Achilles, challenged to race with a tortoise, gives him a start of half the course. By the time Achilles has reached
the tortoise's starting point the tortoise has moved on further. And so on. It would seem then that the tortoise must always be in
front, although by an ever decreasing distance. To overtake the tortoise Achilles would have to go through an infinite number of
distances. This being impossible, motion must be illusory.
(c) Another argument is the 'Arrow' paradox. Aristotle's account [9 239b 30-3, 5-9] is not very clear, but the essentials seem to be
as follows. Take any instant in an arrow's flight. The arrow occupies its own volume and not a greater one. It is not therefore
traversing a distance and is therefore not at rest. But during its flight it must always be at some instant. Hence it must be at rest
throughout its flight; it does not really move.

Zeno's paradoxes (only a few of which have been summarized above) have engendered a great deal of philosophical debate and a
variety of responses. Much of his reasoning is regarded as fallacious though it is not always easy to pin down precisely what his
errors are. One might question, say, his claim (argument 1a) that 'ultimates' cannot have magnitude. The electrons, quarks, and so
on of modern quantum physics are arguably counter-examples. His inference (in 1b) from the assertion that an object possesses an
infinite number of parts with magnitude to the conclusion that the original object has unlimited is also certainly dubious. As for the
arguments concerning motion (2a and b), we may note:
(i) The traversing of an infinite number of positions in space (and indeed instants of time, time and space being inseparable)
does not entail that the finite distance over which the race is run cannot be completed. Geometrical series of the type 1 + 1/2 + 1/4
+ ... tend to a definite limit (in this particular case to 2) as the number of terms approaches infinity.
(ii) It follows that if the course is completed, what is expected of the runner (in terms of physical 'tasks') must have been achieved
'task' here being defined as what is needed for the runner to traverse each point or instant.
It is of course an ongoing dispute as to whether or not Zeno's attacks on pluralism are tenable. Some scholars have argued that
Parmenides' monism is equally susceptible to his arguments [see Kirk, Raven and Schofield]. However, his importance as a
philosopher is not in doubt. He remains significant for his introduction into philosophy of dialectical argument, and for the
stimulus he gave to the examination by later philosophers of the concepts of space , time, and infinity.

PROTAGORAS (c. 490 420 B.C.)

Protagoras was born in Abdera, an Ionian colony in Thrace. In 444 he drafted the constitution of a new Athenian colony for the
great statesman Pericles. It is said that he was later exiled from Athens, and his books (which included On Truth and On the Gods)
burned, because of his alleged impiety towards the popular gods. His writings have not survived, and we rely on Plato, Aristotle,
and Sextus Empiricus for our knowledge of his philosophy.


[1] While the majority of presocratic philosophers were concerned to work out cosmologies and metaphysical accounts of the
world, the Sophists were essentially itinerant professional educators in a wide range of subjects in addition to philosophy. Their
main aim was to train their pupils to achieve arete (roughly, 'excellence') [a] and thereby to be 'successful' in life; and they
employed a variety of techniques (the art of rhetoric) to encourage acceptance of a particular conclusion or its opposite. As
Protagoras said, "On every topic there are two arguments contrary to each other". The Sophists varied greatly, many being
superficial and viewed with suspicion and even hostility by their contemporaries. Others, however, made important contributions to
epistemology, to language and its relation to thinking and reality, as well as to ethics and political theory. Protagoras' philosophy is
summed up in his claim that "A human being is the measure of all things, of things that are as to how they are, and of things that
are not as to how they are not" [fr. 1 in Sextus, Against the Dogmatists] a 'relativist' view [b] which all Sophists generally
agreed with.

[2] As applied to our sense experiences Protagoras' doctrine means that, for example, if honey seems sweet to some people but
bitter to others then it is sweet to the former and is bitter to the latter. There cannot therefore be any objective knowledge or
truth concerning what things are 'really' like, that is, knowledge which is the same for everybody and open to all. All qualities are
attributable to convention ['law', nomos] and not to 'nature' (phusis) [a].

[3] Protagoras's relativism in ethics is implicit in his recognition that people in other communities often held different religious
beliefs and acted in accordance with different moral codes. This suggested to him that morality is a matter of social 'convention'
rather than being grounded in 'nature' [a]. But while this might rule out the possibility of an absolute ethic applicable to all
societies, some degree of objectivity is preserved in so far as a particular standard is accepted and shared by the individual
members of a given community.

Protagoras was perhaps the greatest of the Sophists, and, despite the alleged errors of his thought, was admired greatly by Plato.
While there can be no doubt that Protagoras said that man is the measure of all things, there has been considerable argument as to
whether (1) he was referring to societies rather than to individual men, and (2) he intended it to apply in ethics as well as to
knowledge. A reasonable compromise position would be that in his epistemology it is indeed the individual man who is the
measure but in his ethics it is the society which sets the standard. His ethical relativism, however, is consistent with objectivism in
so far as a particular relativist standard is shared by all individual members of that community; and it may therefore be called
'cultural' relativism. Protagoras was thus actually rather traditional, stressing the need for commitment to the values and beliefs of
one's own society. Nevertheless, while individual relativism in perception might be compatible with communal or cultural
relativism in ethics, there could still be a tension if his statement about the possibility of 'contrary arguments' on every topic were
taken literally.

SOCRATES (c. 470 399 B.C.)

Born in Athens, the son of Sophroniscus and Phaenarete (a midwife), Socrates was a bold and courageous thinker. He grew up in
comfortable circumstances which allowed him to serve in the Peloponnesian War as a 'hoplite' (armed infantryman). Having
become dedicated to the study of philosophy he came to regard material goods as of no importance. Although he used some of the
debating techniques of the Sophists, he rejected their relativism and sought for what he regarded as genuine truth and knowledge.
(The priestesses of the Oracle at Delphi had said there was no one wiser, but Socrates took this to mean that he was wise only in so
far as he recognised his own ignorance [a]) Paradoxically, Socrates was accused by the conservative authorities of having
corrupted the youth of Athens, and was sentenced to death. True to his moral principles he accepted the verdict and drank the
customary poison.


[1] [gen. 1] When a young man Socrates studied the cosmological ideas of the Milesians and also the philosophy of Anaxagoras n
whose concept of Mind (nous) as a possible ultimate explanation of Nature particularly excited him. However, his hopes were soon
dashed when he realized that Anaxagoras in fact made no use of Mind [a], gave it no "responsibility for the management of
things", mentioning instead as cause "air and ether and water and many other strange things" [see Plato's Phaedo, 97b4-99d1]. He
thereupon set out to follow his own path (having noted the advice of the Oracle). According to Aristotle [Metaphysics, 1078b 17-
32; cf. also Plato, early dialogues], Socrates sought for universal definitions [b] by using special kinds of arguments. This can best
be illustrated by an example. Meno (in Plato's dialogue of that name) was asked by Socrates what he thought virtue (arete) was.
Meno gave a list of various instances of virtue looking after the city properly, being a careful housewife, and so on. In reply
Socrates said that he did not want examples but an account of what they all share. The process of finding out what the common
property or group of properties is Socrates referred to as 'epactic' (epaktikoi logoi) [see Aristotle, ibid.] sometimes loosely
translated as appertaining to 'inductive' or 'analogical' arguments) [c]; and it is this set of properties that constitutes the universal
'definition' or 'essence' of virtue. When engaging his pupils in conversation and rational analysis ('dialectic') about such matters
Socrates would encourage them to put forward a definition, but would then lead them into contradiction and thus expose its
weaknesses. This is his method of cross-examination or refutation (the elenchos) [d]. A new and more adequate definition would
then be proposed. In this way a universal definition might be reached. Socrates compared his role to that of a midwife; his aim is to
'give birth' to true ideas and hence to knowledge.

[2] [gen. 2] [See Plato, early dialogues.] Although his approach seems to have much in common with that of the Sophists (with
whom he had many discussions), Socrates was highly critical of their relativism particularly in ethics [a]. The universal
definitions he was primarily concerned with were therefore ethical virtue, the good, happiness. Thus he argued in favour of the
identification of an objective virtue with knowledge. By this he meant that if a person knows what is right he will do the right
thing [b]. And the right thing is the one which will promote what is in that person's best interest, namely the achieving of genuine
'happiness', that is, 'well-being' (eudaimonia) regardless of worldly consequences [c]. Socrates thus genuinely believed that virtue
can be taught [d] (though Plato makes Socrates question this towards the end of the Meno). Indeed this belief is implicit in
Socrates' use of the word 'philosophy' (philosophia love of wisdom, wisdom being regarded here as a kind of skill leading to

What we know of Socrates comes to us almost entirely through the dialogues of his pupil Plato and the writings of the historian
Xenophon; he wrote nothing himself. There has been much controversy as to how much of what is in Plato was really Socrates'
philosophy. Was he just a popular teacher of ethics, or was he also the author of genuinely original views on metaphysics? A
compromise view (Aristotle's) was that Socrates made important contributions to philosophical method but that he was not the
originator of the Theory of Forms. It is probable that Socrates' own philosophy consisted in what was put into his mouth by Plato
in his earliest dialogues.
The two fundamental claims of Socrates' thought, which undoubtedly justify the place he holds in the history of philosophy as a
radical innovator, are (1) that there are universal definitions or essences which can be discovered by the dialectical method; and (2)
that men knowing the good will inevitably do good actions. However, whether knowledge is objective in this sense and what
constitutes a universal definition or essence are issues which many later philosophers (particularly in the twentieth century)
have discussed at length. As to the second claim, it can be argued that Socrates failed to appreciate the problem of weakness of will
(moral weakness) (akrasia) [a] that many individuals do in fact often do what they know to be wrong.

(c. 460 370/ 60? B.C.)

The founder of the Atomist school of philosophy was probably Democritus's contemporary Leucippus, but it was left to
Democritus to develop the theory. Both philosophers came from Abdera. Virtually nothing remains of the writings of Leucippus;
and most of Democritus's surviving works are confined to ethics. We owe our knowledge of Atomism to a few of his other
fragments but principally to the commentaries of Aristotle (especially his On Democritus [fr. 208], quoted by Simplicius, and
in On Generation and Corruption, 316ff.). From a strictly historical point of view Democritus should not be classified as a
Presocratic, but philosophically Atomism relates to the cosmology of the Eleatics rather than to the ethics of Socrates.


[1] Democritus argues that the cosmos is composed of an infinite number of atoms indivisible ('uncuttable') and indestructible
'substances' (ousiai) composed of a common 'stuff' [a], and that its nature and change can thereby be explained in terms of
mechanical causation and the arrangements of these particles [b]. They are in constant and eternal motion, have mass, and are of
various sizes. They do not combine into a single substance but come together in a vortex and interlock for a limited time to form
larger objects. They remain like this until the cohesion of the atoms is disturbed by an external force. Atoms also exist in a limitless
space or void [c]. There has to be a void (a) for there to be motion, (b) to separate the atoms. In this way the individuality of the
atoms is preserved. The void itself is not a thing like an atom because it does not have any properties. Nevertheless the Atomists
thought of it as real. Humans, being also composed of atoms, manifest the universe as a whole Democritus says man is
a microcosm [d]. The atomist theory is not based on scientific experiments, but it was proposed by Democritus as an answer to the
arguments of the Eleatics. Democritus also thought of the interaction of atoms as eternal and necessary [e] which seems to leave
no room for 'freewill' [e].

[2] Democritus's views on knowledge were developed largely in response to the Sophists. He accepted the 'effluence' theory but
thought of these particles as atoms or images given off by objects [a]. Before they enter the sense organs they are distorted by the
air. He tried to account for perception in terms of the motion of these images or differences in their surface texture. ['Secondary']
qualities such as colour and smell (as against the actual physical properties of the atoms themselves) are therefore all subjective or
'conventional' [nomos], and so we cannot know objects as they really are [b]. Even 'mind' cannot give us the truth, as what might
be supposed to be 'mental', including the 'soul', itself consists of atoms [c] and can come into contact only with the atoms given off
by objects. On the body's death the soul atoms disperse [d].

[3] Democritus's ethics too was directed against the Sophists. The end of conduct is happiness (eudaimonia), by which he meant
not sensual pleasure but 'well-being' [a]. This is to be acquired by attending to balance or harmony a weighing up of the various
pleasures. In this way, he said, we can achieve physical health and a certain calmness or 'cheerfulness' (euthumie) in the soul [b].

Zeno had tried to show that things can be divided up ad infinitum. Democritus said that atoms cannot be split. If by this he meant
that we cannot even imagine atoms as divisible, then it is difficult to see how atoms could be said to have parts and be of different
shapes and sizes. To recognise an atom as being large would surely allow us to break it up into something smaller in our thought.
Some commentators have suggested that what the Atomists were rejecting was Zeno's claim that anything which has a size cannot
be a genuine unit; and that they may well have believed the atoms to be theoretically but not physically divisible. A thing could be
supposed to have parts without being broken down into them. According to Aristotle, however, the Atomists did not accept
divisibility in either sense. Another problem with atomism is that the atoms are said to be eternal, but no explanation for their
motion was put forward. There is also a difficulty in their ethics. The Atomists' view of the material world is that it is rather like a
machine and that everything that happens is determined and predictable. If as they supposed the human 'mind' is equally to
be understood in such materialist terms, then it might be argued that there could be no room in their system for freedom of
choice[a]. This would seem to be inconsistent with exhortations that one should follow a particular kind of life so as to achieve