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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
The main idea of Heraclitus was that "all things are
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
Yet Heraclitus believed that, in spite of continual
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
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
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."
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.