Philosophers before Plato

Inquiring about what matter is made of

The earliest known philosophers around the Mediterranean, before Socrates, wondered about things. What are things composed of? How do things effect other things? Why do things change? Are there greater powers controlling things?

People had stories, myths and religions to answer these questions, but the true philosophers tried to look fresh at these questions, with the hope of finding answers that are not simply based on traditions and what is passed down from elders as the authoritative truth. Greece and the area around it gave birth to many intellectually free thinkers, who had the ability to express themselves quite persuasively, in speech and in writing.

There isn't any writing we have from a man named Thales of Miletus, but other writers talked about Thales as some kind of historical genius, said to be born in 624 and dying in 546 B.C., a few hundred years before Plato. Greeks thought of him as the first scientific philosopher, who first inquired of what everything is made of. Some might have said that the universe is composed of spirits or gods, having some relation to man, animals, plants and earth. Others might have said that iron is composed of iron, wood composed of wood, and blood composed of blood, each evident substance merely composed of what it is. But for Thales these were not sufficient explanations. They did not get at the core of things, and they left man with a sense that there were many separate things and substances in the world, but nothing unifying the world or no one element underlying all evident substances. Thales wanted to know what all this is made of, the underlying essence of it all, and he was more of a materialist in that he was looking for the basic matter of existence. He was not interested in many kinds of primary elements; rather, he believed that everything, or all of the many, must be made of one singular primary element.

So he began from the intuition that all material things are composed of one essential element or primary substance, one basic foundation having one basic principle. Thales answer was that water must be the primary substance, which seems rather odd to think, but it probably follows from his belief that the earth is flat and all land is floating on water. Yet the importance of Thales to philosophy was his inquiry to know the one great essence of all matter, the unifying principle of all nature.

This intuition about the universe is still held by many scientists, that there is, at the final core of matter or energy, one basic element of energy or at least one basic universal law unifying all other theories. 

Anaximander was another Milesian philosopher, who had been a pupil of Thales. He believed that the most primary substance of all things could not be something definite like water or any known element. Definite elements, he argued, could only be variations of  something indefinite. It did not seem logical that the essence of all definite elements and things could itself be one of the definite and known elements. Therefore, specific or definite elements must emerge from an indefinite source. So unlike definite and finite elements, the primary source must be infinite or boundless. Anaximander says that this indefinite boundless source, from which all definite elements emerge, has an eternal motion and separates first into warm and cold, then into moist and dry, then into earth and air. He gives many further theories for how things are, most of which are too odd to mention. Yet he advanced philosophy further from Thales in his attempt to give more rational explanations for how things come to be.


Pythagoras was an important teacher around 500 B.C., who merged spiritual ideas with mathematics, and who influenced the thinking of Plato. In the Pythagorean teaching the underlying truth of all things is a geometry of numbers. Pythagoras found that numbers have an intrinsic relation to geometric form, since any number can be represented by a distinct shape, as for instance a point, a line, a triangle and the square, being 1-2-3-4. Numbers are not just abstract concepts, though, but have shape or structure that is three dimensional rather than merely flat. And these geometric forms constitute an invisible causal realm, structuring the sensed world. Numbers, thus, geometrically form the invisible structure underlying all things, that is, the inner structure of anything is a geometric form of numbers which limit and proportion that thing.

So unlike the intuition of Thales, that the essence of all is a material element, Pythagoras intuited that the unifying essence and principle of any and all things must be a relation of numbers. At the most fundamental level of existence there are pure geometric numbers or forms, each with its distinct proportion. This means that numbers are first in the universal order of things, and all natural phenomena is modeled on relations of numbers. Plato's idea of the Forms was, of course, influenced by this Pythagorean theory of permanent and perfect geometric [invisible] forms structuring the material world.

Pythagoreans also correlate geometry with music, so they seriously studied music as well as mathematics. They discovered that lower and higher octaves of the same basic tone must have a 2:1 ratio, and that harmoniously sounding notes of a musical scale are based on other numerical ratios. This fact supported their broader belief that numerical proportions, or geometric forms, structure all things. Distinct geometric forms have distinct corresponding sounds, or musical vibrations, and the differences in these forms or vibrational sounds accounts for the differences in world phenomena.

So, in answer to why things of the sensed world are different, they express different inner geometric structures or forms, like different musical vibrations or notes. Pythagoras even suggested that all pairs of opposities, found in the world, are because of their geometric numbers being odd and even. In other words, odd numbered geometric forms cause opposite things from even numbered forms. Having number and geometry as the fundamental sub-structure of the universe gave the Pythagoreans a firm sense that the universe has, in essence, a rational order.

Balance and harmony became the grand principle both of metaphysics and ethics. The heavenly bodies of the universe followed mathematical rules of harmonious proportion, and all natural species approximated an ideal proportion based on a certain geometric form. Even the health of the body was believed to be dependent on a harmonious balance of hot and cold, wet and dry, and various other chemical opposities.

Religious or moral behavior should also be based on proportion. This meant that an exact kind of reasoning, as that used in mathematics, should guide the human towards a most perfect life of order and harmony. The right sense of morality and excellence, in the Pythagorean reasoning, is obviously based on the potential perfect order of number-geometry and the potential perfect harmony of music (which is also based on geometric proportion). This gives a clear paradigm for the good life, whereby the dominant theme is an order like that found in geometry and a harmony like that found in music.

This became the paradigm of classical thinking, the Apolloan model for the refined and civilised man. Although there is little doubt that groups of people were already following this sort of ethical model, long before Pythagoras, it is true that Pythagoras became the tortch-bearer and crusader for the refined, ordered-structured life, guided by reason and constraint of the sensual passions. For Pythagoras was both a mathematical genius and a religious leader, who consolidated his own philosophical school as a spiritual community in its own right,  He was leader of a spiritual way which considered itself the purest and most perfect way, with strict rules and regulations.

Pythagorean ethics stood in exact opposition to the popular Dionysian religion of ecstatic rituals involving animal sacrifices, blood and wine drinking, trance dancing, and unreserved sexual revelry - that is, people letting loose their wildest, untamed nature in a social frenzy and chaos of sensual madness - for the purpose of uncovering and renewing their sense of unity with others and the spirit of life. If the Pythagoreans modeled themselves after perfect geometric forms, the Dionysians modeled themselves after the unpredictable chaos of nature, weather, fate, life and death. No religions could be more perfectly opposite than these.

Instead of wine and irrational frenzy purifying the soul and uniting it with the Dionysian spirit of nature, the Pythagoreans studied mathematics, made ordered-harmonious music, abstained from meat and alcohol, kept themselves exceedingly clean, and constrained their sexuality to the minimum. By purifying the soul in this way, and by practicing certain meditation techniques, Pythagoreans believed it was possible to achieve a mystical union and immortality with the greater universal Being. They also believed that a person is later reborn as something corresponding to the way in which they had lived, so it made good sense to live not as an animal, but as a ratified being, and to hopefully achieve final liberation from all reincarnation. Of course this greatly paralleled the more eastern religions of that time.


Heraclitus began teaching a new philosophy about the same time as Pythagoras, around 500 BC. He puzzled over the question of permanence as opposed to impermanence. Philosophers and religious teachings had spoken of the world, the human soul, and spiritual deities as though these were unchanging things. But does anything stay the same? We may feel to be the same person today as we were yesterday, but how can we really be the same if our bodies are always getting older and our minds are always being impressed by new experiences?

The main idea of Heraclitus was that "all things are in flux," and his popular saying was that "you cannot step twice into the same river." A river is a constant flow of water, so the water that you step into at one moment is not the same water that you step into in another moment. This illustration became an analogy for all things. Whatever is, right now, passes by in an instant of time, like water in the river, never to be again, but replaced by something new though seemingly the same. Permanency and stability is the grand illusion, while change and impermanence is the ultimate truth. Everything is continually changing, so what is at one moment is not the same at another moment. This also implied an infinite amount of diversity, since in every moment there are differences.

Yet Heraclitus believed that, in spite of continual change, there must be a unity in the change and diversity. He reasoned that there must be something which is changing, and he argued that this must be fire. But for Heraclitus, fire is not merely the primary element of all things, as though this were a simple alternative to water as suggested by Thales. Thales suggested a primary element of all matter, but could not explain how this one element produced change and diversity. Yet Heraclitus believed that fire could answer this question. A fire is always changing, either getting weaker or stronger. It has to be fed to get bigger or remain about the same, and it is always giving away itself. So fire is always in a process of transformation, never remaining exactly the same, though it is still fire. Thus fire can be postulated as the unitary essence of all things, but always in change. The basic principle of  all change is fire, which meant that all things are forms of fire in continual change.

His idea of fire was similar to basic energy, as any one thing is either kindled by the fire energy of something else or is giving its fire energy to something else. In other words, there is an exchange of fire going on between all things, which produces change, as things are either gaining fire or loosing it. There is always this exchange going on, but in the overall world there is no loss in the quantity of fire. The fire is simply being transferred here and there, moving from one thing to another, which produces this world of change. Heraclitus also explained a downward and an upward path of fire, saying that the downward path is a condensation and congealment into earthly matter, while the upward path is a reversal back to the primary fire energy.

Yet this whole process of change is not merely accidental or random, but rather the result of a Universal Reason, called the Logos. Thus the fire in all things, including the soul of man, is directed by Universal Reason (also called the One). This Reason holds all things in unity and orders all things to change according to its rational principle or law. So Heraclitus has a theistic view of things-in-change, though it is a pantheism since this fire of reason moves in all things or all things are essentially fire. There is the One in all diversity. All human beings, thus, share the same Reason.

But then why do men often think and act in so many different and opposing ways? To explain this, Heraclitus said that some people have reason awake, while others have reason asleep. Those awake in reason have one ordered universe in common, while those asleep have their own separate thoughts. Those awake in reason also realize the necessity of strife and conflict, and they see the unity of reason in such conflict, while those asleep are distressed by conflict and long for the end of strife. The wise and awake realize that "the most beautiful harmony" comes from opposition and differences, that what appear to be contradictory forces and inharmonious events are in reality harmonious from the greater perspective of things. Heraclitus even suggests that from the view of the Logos, "all things are fair and good and right, but men hold some things wrong and right."


Parmenidies was another philosophy concerned with the problems of change and how diversity can be a unity. He was born around 510 B.C., younger than Heraclitus though familiar with his ideas. Parmenidies founded the Eleatic school of philosophy, and like Heraclitus, his ideas were well known to Plato. It is also said that a young Socrates briefly studied with him. Parmenidies rejected the very notion of change, arguing against Heraclitus, that if there is a unitary substance or reality behind all things, then change must be an illusion of mere appearances. If there is just one reality, or one absolute stuff constituting any and all things, then it is logically absurd to think that this one can ever change, for that would imply more than one possible reality - what reality is now and what reality is after its change. Whatever really exists must absolutely exist; it must be absolutely what it is and nothing else. Something either is or is not. So, what is could only be what it is, not something else (of which it supposedly changed into).

Furthermore, it is logically absurd to think that anything could come into being from non-being, or change from non-existence to existence, since this would imply that non-existence [non-being] exists before existence [being]. In other words, we cannot possible even think of non-being without thinking of this as being. Thus, assuming that a philosopher is talking about what is thinkable, no one can talk about non-existence without thinking about it. But if they are thinking about non-existence, then they are thinking about 'that' , and so already denying that "it is not."

So Parmenidies is catching the philosopher in a logical contradiction. He is showing that one cannot logically talk about, or think about, anything that is really changing or coming into being from non-being. Thus the very notion of change, either from one reality to another or from non-reality to reality, must be rejected because it involves a logical contradiction. All that one can clearly think about is what is, and since all that is is existent being, it follows that all apparently different  things are really just one - existent being itself.

This is the final conclusion of Parmenidies. The one common reality of all things is their existence, so existence is the only true reality. When one can say of anything existing that it is, then everything existing must be It. All things are It existing. And this one reality cannot be divided, nor changed to something else, because this would imply that more than one It, which again, is absurd. Parmenidies regards this one Reality, or It, as one complete and continuous material mass without spaces, indestructible, eternal, unchanging and motionless.

Parmenidies is obviously disregarding our natural sense knowledge of the world, for this is not how life appears to be. He is suggesting that real truth can only be known by reason or logic, and that our natural senses can give us nothing more than opinions and often confuse the important distinction between reality and appearance.

Previous philosophers had also used reason to go beyond an ordinary or common-sense view of reality, such as Thales suggesting just one element constituting all things and Heraclitus suggesting that nothing is ever the same from one moment to the next. These are certainly not common-sense views; that is, they are not ideas derived just from ordinary sense experience. But the arguments of Parmenidies is rationalism to the extreme, and he is the first to completely reject any truth value from sense experience, while maintaining that truth must absolutely follow reason and logic. Yet it could be argued that Parmenidies is reasoning from a mere 'logic of language', confusing what we can say about reality, given the limits of language, regarding what reality could possibly be.


Parmenedies' pupil, Zeno, about twenty-five years younger, defended his teacher's important distinction between unreliable sense-appearance and reality known by reason. He also defended the proposition of one inseparable and indivisible reality, without change or motion. Zeno argued that the opposing view of this reasoning has a few problems virtually impossible to resolve. By doing this he hoped to show that the opposing view had more logical problems than his own view.

The following is one of his illustrative arguments, which can  also be called a paradox. The Pythagoreans say that the universe is divisible into separate forms, and each of these are divisible into mathematical units called numbers. So any length or distance can be divided into a number of units, however small, while only a point has no divisible length. So imagine a racecourse with a runner reaching the end of a distance in some finite time. But there is logical problem in this. The distance can be divided in half, says the mathematician, and the runner reaches that halfway point. Then the remaining distance can be again divided in half, while the runner reaches this point. The problem is that this dividing measurement can go on infinitely, while the runner never reaches his goal; and moreover, his distance attained keeps getting shorter over time. How then can the runner ever reach the end? If the mathematician keeps dividing the distance in half, it is impossible for a runner to ever reach the end in a finite time. Thus, either motion or divisible distance could not exist. Together they contradict one another.


Around the same time as Zeno, about 450 B.C., Empedocles tried to reconcile the belief in an unchanging unitary reality with the obvious appearance of change and diversity of objects. He proposed that there are four unchanging, eternal kinds of matter: water, air, fire and earth. The diversity and change of things is because of different and changing mixtures of these four primary elements. Two basic forces, Love and Hate, determine how these elements relate. Love brings the elements together and Hate divides them.

Anaxagoras (500-428 B.C.) agreed with Empedocles' unchanging elements of matter, yet instead of Love and Hate working in opposition to determine the nature of things, he proposed that one great Mind (Nous) produced order from this unchanging matter. By the power of this Mind, matter is separated into various substances and qualities by a rotary motion causing an expanding vortex throughout matter. So Mind works on a pre- existing matter and is in matter. Yet this Mind is not really like a creator God, since it has no definable purpose, except producing order, and it does not create the original matter. Still, he brought in the idea of mind over matter.

Leucippus, a contemporary of both Empedocles and Anaxagoras, proposed a new theory about material things, called atomism, and his friend Democritus worked out more of the details in this theory. They described the universe as being composed of material atoms in an empty space. These atoms are indivisible, imperceptibly small, and without space in themselves. There are an indefinite number of these atoms which can differ in their size and shape. They exist in the vast universal space, or receptacle, and this space is not material. So what was new in this theory was the idea of solid material elements existing in an empty receptacle space. Sensed objects are made of lots and lots of these imperceptible atoms, the atoms interlocking with one another like shapes of a puzzle.

Yet this materialistic theory of the atomists did not suppose any mind or rationality behind the interaction and movement of atoms. Neither is there any theory or explanation of free will. Democritus did proposed a theory that sight and other sense knowledge is caused by an effluence of atoms radiating from objects to the eyes or to the other sense organs. The atomistic view went out of popular discussion after Plato and Aristotle, until Newton revived it, and modern physics still maintains an atomistic view though divisible into smaller elements and more space, and Einstein later proved the indestructibility of material atoms.

The Sophists deny any possibility of absolute Truth

So then a skeptical mood began to take place in the Mediterranean, partly because of all the many competing theories of nature, none of which seemed provable over any other, Therefore many philosophers abandoned these questions, and they began questioning about the possibility of any certainty in knowledge. Generally they focused instead on practical questions of justice and of what is good for society.

A group of teachers began questioning the long-held beliefs and customs of the Greeks. These teachers called themselves Sophists, meaning intellectuals. They had traveled about the many different cultures of Asia Minor and the Mediterranean, where from they concluded that values are merely relative to one's upbringing and education, not absolute. And because there are no absolute truths of goodness, justice and beauty, they concluded that men should best learn how to persuade others to agree on one opinion over another. The decision of what to argue for would be based on what is most practically beneficial to the person or to his society. This reasoning made good sense, they argued, because there are no absolute truths of value.

So one might as well persuade and educate others to the values that have the most practical benefit, even if this were motivated motivated by selfish intent. The Sophists taught the skills of persuasive argument and leadership to anyone who could pay for their lectures, classes and tutoring. Athens allowed free citizens to argue political decisions in public forums, so the Sophists educated these people in philosophy and the arts and also trained them in the art of persuasive speech, called rhetoric. They also trained people to be lawyers able to persuade a jury to one side or another in judicial cases. This was the practical role of the Sophists in the new democracy of Athens.

But on the negative side, it tended to give persuasive power to those of just selfish intent. So in spite of the good they brought to society, many began to denounce the Sophists for teaching the youth to question the religious traditions and customary ethics. It also did not seem right to teach people to make bad behavior look good and good behavior to look bad, through persuasive argument in the courts. Besides, their schools were available only to the wealthy class, and people wondered whether they were just out for their own benefit.

Finally, there was the question of whether or not these were really philosophers. Were they at all even interested in finding truth? Were they even interested in true justice or in making life better? Difficult questions. They did have a philosophy of what is good. It just was very different from the more usual approach, which included the belief that there is no absolute truth in justice or in what is definitely good behavior. And maybe they did believe that they were making life better by the abandonment of traditions and a false hope in any absolute truth or value.

The most famous Sophist was Protagoras, best known for his saying that "man is the measure of all things," of the truth and good that is and of the truth and good that is not. Of gods and religions beliefs, we cannot know what is true. All that we can know is from our personal perspective. What is too cold for one person is too warm for another. If two people look at an object from different perspectives, they may perceive the object differently. So there is no one standard for truth, and there is no way to distinguish between appearance and reality.

It follows, then, that there is no absolute truth, since there is no absolute perspective available to any person. Even if there was an absolute reality, no one could grasp it because of their limited senses and perspective. Thus, absolute truth is ultimately incomprehensible to any human being. Knowledge is relative, for it depends on a personal perspective. It is absurd to believe that something is cold, in an absolute meaning, for it is cold only relative to a particular sensibility. And in the same way, something is good only relative to the needs or desires of certain people. There are no natural moral laws, as if necessarily true for all people, or as if we could possibly discover such natural laws. If people feel differently about what is good, how can we possibly know who is right, unless we presuppose one group as superior over another? But this would be mere prejudice, already presupposing that some people are morally better than others.

So in conclusion, moral rules are merely a matter of social convention, decided by human beings. But Protagoras did not take an extreme relativist position of suggesting that each person decide for themselves what is right and wrong. Instead, he advocated that people follow the laws and customs of their society, in the aim of peace and order, though it should certainly be permissible for anyone to try to change these laws, by persuasion, towards their better interests. So he advocated the education of youth in the tradition of their elders, not because of any truth in these traditions but because this made a more stable society. Still, this vocal appeal for education to follow practical needs, rather than a sense of absolute truth, had the obvious effect of undermining the accepted presupposition of tradition - that it is true.