The Pre-Socratics

Pythagoras, Anaximander, and Thales

The first of the ancient philosophers (at least the first recorded) was Thales (c.636-c.546 BC) who, with his younger contemporaries Anaximander (c.611-547 BC) and Anaximenes (c.585-528 BC), wondered what everything was made of. Thales said water, Anaximander said "the boundless", and Anaximenes said air. They had their reasons, but only fragments of their writings remain, so we have only a sketchy idea of the substance of their thought. Perhaps Thales favored water because water is found in all three states of matter-- fluid, solid, and gas- or because all living things contain, and indeed are born out of moisture. We can only guess as to the reasoning of Anaximander and Anaximenes.

Zeno, Heraclitus, and Parmenides

A more familiar name, especially to students of mathematics, is that of Pythagoras (c.582-c.507 BC), who believed that the essence of things was "number and figure." He believed that mathematics purified the soul, and started a quaint little religious sect of mystical-mathematical holy-rollers. Then there was the mysterious Ephesian, Heraclitus (c.535-c.475 BC), who speculated about the nature of change. It intrigued him that all things change and yet remain the same. He concluded that the substance of all things was "fire and flux" -change itself. Parmenides (c.510-?)-known as "Father Parmenides" to the young Socrates-founded an unusual school of thought. With the support of his disciple Zeno (c.490-c.430 BC) he put forth the doctrine that all change is an illusion and that reality is "the Changeless One."

Empedocles, Anaxagoras, and Democritus

Empedocles (c.495-c.435 BC) devised an interesting theory of elements--earth, air, fire, and water--as the basic changeless stuff of which changeable things were made. And then Anaxagoras (c,500-428 BC) introduced the idea that. behind all change is the working of mind-some rational principle that gives form and order to sluggish matter, This distinction between form and matter turned out to be important in the later history of philosophy and science. and it should be recognized that these ancient thinkers were, in their day, the closest thing the world had to scientists. Science had not yet left its mother, philosophy.

And so we must mention Leucippus (c.490-c.430 BC) and Democritus (c.460-370 BC) who put forth the doctrine that everything is made of tiny, changeless particles called atoms. This theory should be familiar to everybody. Some of these venerable men were eccentric, and.some were outright mad. Thales was said to have fallen into a well while looking up at the stars. Pythagoras believed it was a sin to eat beans or to wash the left foot before the right. Parmenides believed that motion was impossible, And poor Empedocles seized upon the notion that he was a god, and therefore immortal, and to prove it he threw himself into the live volcano of Mt. Etna.

Only fragments of the writings of the Pre-Socratics have been preserved. along with some testimony as to their beliefs, in the surviving works of later authors such as Plato, Aristotle, and Simplicius. Paraphrases of some of those fragments and testimony follow:

The earliest philosophers believed that the basic principles of everything were material, but they disagreed over their number and form. Thales, who originated this kind of philosophy, said it is water.
- Aristotle, Metaphysics

Heraclitus says that everything is continually changing and, comparing existence to a river, claims that one can never step into the same river twice.
- Plato

Kirk, G.S. and J.E. Raven- The Pre-Socratic Philosophers, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1960.

Parmenides speaks with some insight when he claims that, besides existence, nothing nonexistent can exist. He claims that only one thing exists--the existent and nothing more.
- Aristotle, Metaphysics

Zeno's second paradox is called the Achilles, which goes this way-- in a race the swifter runner can never catch the slower, because the pursuer must first get to the place where the pursued started, so that the slower always maintains a lead.
- Aristotle, Physics

Empedocles held there to be four material elements~ fire, air, earth and water. All eternal, these elements change in bulk and thickness through mixing and separating. But his actual first principles, which impart motion to the elements, he calls Love and Strife.
- Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle's Physics

According to Anaxagoras everything that is or will be is arranged by nous (mind); including the rotating of the stars, the sun, the moon, and the air and the aether, which are continually being separated off because of this rotation.
- Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle's Physics

Leucippus and Democritus held that the material elements are the full (atoms) and the empty (the void), and called them being and non-being respectively.
- Aristotle, Metaphysics