What contribution did the Presocratics make to the early development of philosophy? Before the Presocratics the world was under the influence of the Olympian gods who were much like humans, changeable and willful. The Greek world was wondering about what the universe was made of and how it came to assume its present form. The Presocratics were 6th and 5th century BCE Greek thinkers who were not influenced by the views of Socrates and who introduced a new way of thinking about the world and the place of human beings in it.
They sought the origins of things and the order of the universe, but in addition to science they were also interested in ethics and the criticism of contemporary religion. These philosophers rejected the myth of a cosmos ruled by gods and demons in favor of a rational one governed by universal and discoverable laws. These philosophers tried to discover principles that could uniformly, consistently, and comprehensively explain all natural phenomena and the events in human life without resorting to mythology.
When people wondered about where they came from, why and how evil came into existence, why there was fortune and misfortune in life, and how they could attain peace and happiness, they found an answer in mythology. Myth was the cradle of philosophy. Mythology is story telling based upon uncritical social beliefs and the arbitrary will of the gods; philosophy is an explanation based upon reason and principle.
The pre-Socratics approached the question of being primarily using two sets of questions: first, whether the ultimate reality can be conceived of through a model based upon sensible element(s) or intelligible element(s); second, whether the ultimate reality is absolute or ever changing. Philosopher means “lover of wisdom. ” The beginning of philosophy in ancient Greece is often given as 585 BC, the year that the first Milesian philosopher, Thales, predicted a solar eclipse. The Milesians, like Thales, were preoccupied to find the ultimate principle that governs all beings and phenomena.
Their inquiry was metaphysical in the sense that it was directed towards the discovery of the principles of being. This stance of inquiry into ultimate principles distinguishes them from the attitude of natural scientists, who are trying to find the laws and mechanisms of nature. The Milesians conceived of the world as one. In spite of the diverse appearances of phenomena, they thought that there was one unique being which was the ultimate reality and that all extraordinary diversity was its manifestation. Thales brings a new naturalistic scientific approach to explaining the world.
Thales holds that water is the fundamental substance of the world. He did not consider water to be a pure physical chemical compound. Water carried a sense of mystery and divinity. Thales conceived of the ultimate reality, which in itself has divine characteristics such as oneness, indestructibility, immutability, originality, as a sensible and visible element. The significant contribution offered by Thales is not the answer but the question and how Thales proposed to answer it. Prior to this, answer questions about the ultimate nature of the worlds would be given in terms of the supernatural.
Thales takes an important step away from mythology and superstition. Thales recognizes that the world is not just what it appears to be and asks about its fundamental nature. Change is apparent. Thales asks about the nature of that which endures change. What is the nature of the underlying substance that goes through changes? The question here raises a metaphysical issue and does so in a way that invites rational investigation rather than mere speculation or appeal to myth and the supernatural. His questions regarding the origin and nature of the universe inspired others to think along similar lines.
Other thinkers identified the ultimate reality with different material elements. Anaximander of Miletus identified it with the boundless or undefined – Apeiron. Anaximder argues that the fundamental stuff of the world is not identical with any of the known elements, but is rather the undefined boundless. Anaximander anticipates the theory of evolution. He holds that humans and other animals evolved from fish. Anaximander takes all change to be the product of imbalances among the basic elements: earth, air, fire and water.
Anaximander emphasizes the orderly nature of the universe, and indicates that the order is internal rather than imposed from outside. Anaximander does not think that the eternal indefinite stuff gives rise directly to the cosmos as we know it but the apeiron somehow generates the opposites hot and cold. Hot and cold are themselves stuffs with powers; and it is the actions of these stuffs/powers that produce the things that come to be in our world. The opposites act on, dominate, and contain each other, producing a regulated structure; thus things pass away into those things from which they came to be.
It is this structured arrangement that Anaximander refers to when he speaks of justice and reparation. Over the course of time, the cycles of the seasons, and other sorts of cyclical change including coming-to-be and passing-away are regulated and thus form a system. Anaximenes of Miletus eliminates the first stage of the coming-to-be of the cosmos rather, he returns to an originating stuff more like Thales’ water. Anaximenes chose air because he agreed that a basic principle must be neutral. Air can apparently take on various properties of color, temperature, humidity, motion, taste, and smell.
Anaximenes explicitly states the natural mechanism for change; it is the condensation and rarefaction of air that naturally determine the particular characters of the things produced from the originating stuff. Rarified, air becomes fire; more and more condensed, it becomes progressively wind, cloud, water, earth, and finally stones. The Milesians were material monists, committed to the reality of a single material stuff that undergoes many alterations but persists through the changes. While the Milesians tried to find the original matter out of which the world is made, Pythagoreans used determining principles to define reality.
For Pythagoreans, the principle of being is seen in what gives form and shape rather than what is formed and shaped. According to Pythagoras, number or mathematical principle was that which gives order, harmony, rhythm, and beauty to the world. This harmony keeps a balance both in the cosmos and in the soul. The mathematical order in beings is perceivable not by the physical senses but by senses of the soul. Pythagoras conceived mathematics as the method for liberating the soul from the bondages of bodily senses and essentially as religious training.
For Pythagoras, the soul is immortal and the cultivation of the soul is achieved by the studies of truth and the ascetic life. Pythagoras was the first person who took up the issue of virtue in philosophy. Pythagoras argued that there are three kinds of men who came to the Olympic Games, just as there are three classes of strangers. The lowest consists of those who come to buy and sell, and next above them are those who come to compete. Best of all are those who simply come to look on. Men may be classified accordingly as lovers of gain, lovers of honor, and lovers of wisdom.
That seems to suggest the doctrine of the tripartite soul, attributed to the doctrine of Plato. Pythagoreans also believed in the transmigration of the human soul after death into other animal forms. The doctrine of transmigration of souls is constituted by the following core beliefs: the soul is immortal; the soul migrates from a living thing to another upon its birth and death; the human body is like a prison of the soul, and bodily desires impede the freedom of a soul – the body is a tomb. Heraclitus is best known for his doctrine of eternal flux according to which everything undergoes continuous change.
He believed fire gave rise to the other elements and thus to all things. Fire exists not as a stable object but as a process of burning. The moment it stops the process of changing, it ceases to exist. His well-known phrase “One can never step in the same river twice”, expresses his thought that every being exists in the process of change. The river is already changing at the moment one steps into it. The water is moving past and the river bed is changing, and the river can never be the same as it was a moment ago.
While everything is in a continual state of flux, this change is not without order. Heraclitus saw a Logos or rational order as essential to the world. There is a single order that directs all things as one and this order is divine. Changes are injustices, which by natural necessity are restored in further changes. For Heraclitus the good life involves understanding and accepting the necessity of strife and change. Strife and conflict are to be accepted not regretted. He regarded the soul as being a mixture of fire and water, with fire being the noble part of the soul, and water the ignoble part.
A soul of a human, is part of the divine fire and should therefore aim toward becoming more full of fire and less full of water, a dry (purer) soul was best. Parmenides separated phenomena appearance and essence (the nature of a thing), and credited changes to matters of appearance. The world looks diverse and changes, but the essence is permanent, immutable, and eternal. Parmenides identified essence with being, and argued that we cannot even think without assuming the existence and permanence (immovability) of being; even the principle of changes must presuppose the existence of this principle itself.
Parmenides presented a number of central questions of principles. He presented the task of merging two views on the question of existence: being and becoming, immutability and change, oneness and diversity. The Parmenidean view of the permanence and continuity of the ultimate reality was logically reasonable. However, phenomena are apparently diverse and changing. Being (existing matter) is everywhere indivisible and the same, motionless and unchangeable. Reason gives us the only true idea of the world as unchanging being.
The senses mislead us in presenting the world as various and changing. In our ordinary experience of the world, our senses erroneously place Not-Being on a level with being. We get our perceptions of individual things by representing them as separated by empty space (which is Not-Being), but in reality, there is no Not-Being. Parmenides argues that human thought can reach genuine knowledge or understanding, and that there can be certain marks or signs that act as guarantees that the goal of knowledge has been reached.
For Parmenides noos is not itself an infallible capacity. One can think well or badly; correct thinking is that which takes the correct route and so reaches what-is. The human beings on the incorrect route are thinking, but their thoughts have no real object, and so cannot be completed or perfected by reaching the truth. Any thing that genuinely is cannot be subject to coming-to-be or passing-away, must be of a single nature, and must be complete, in the sense of being unchangeably and unalterably what it is.
Zeno of Elea presented paradoxes in order to support the claims of Parmenides: that real existence is indivisible, which means it is immobile, immutable, and permanent; the movement, changes, and multiplicity of the world are deceptive perceptions based upon sense experiences; truth is accessible by reason alone. Zeno paid particular attention to the contrast between the requirements of logical argument and the evidence of the senses. Despite the evidence all around us, the ordinary motion of everyday life is impossible.
Although Melissus of Samos follows Parmenides in his general views and the framework of Eleaticism, he made original contributions and innovations to the substance of Eleatic philosophy. Melissus arguments about the nature of what-is. Parmenides view is that there is only one moment the eternal present, while Melissus argues for an infinite number of moments. Melissus explicitly claims that only one thing can be: if what-is is unlimited it must be one and all alike because if there were two in number or in character they would be limited against each other.
Melissus is following in Parmenides’ footsteps, and so it is likely that Melissus argues for the same type of unity as Parmenides, namely, that The One is completely unified and cannot undergo any change, with no parts to subdivide it. He specifically states that The One cannot be rearranged, become greater or smaller, or undergo any kind of distress. Melissus argues that since the One neither came to be nor is subject to destruction, it is therefore eternal. Melissus specifically argues against the void, and rejects the possibility of rearrangement which would allow for the appearance of coming-to-be and passing-away.
He states that The One is full, because if it were empty it would be nothing, and what is nothing doesn’t exist. He then states that because The One is full, it can’t move. Xenophane advances the thesis that all is one and therefore unchangeable. Xenophanes is also important as an anthropologist in adopting the view that agriculture, the use of fire, the technology for making wine, etc. were historical intellectual developments of human civilization rather than gifts from the gods. His philosophy of religion is also significant. Xenophanes thinks that humans project their own image onto their gods.
He recognizes divinity in the impersonal unchangeable unity. Xenophanes asserts the conclusion to be drawn from his naturalistic interpretation of phenomena: the gods are not going to reveal anything to us; we are epistemologically independent and must rely on our own capacity for inquiry. That way, we discover better. Xenophanes stresses the difficulty of coming to certainty, particularly about things beyond our direct experience. He taught that if there had ever been a time when nothing existed, nothing could ever have existed. Whatever is, always has been from eternity, without deriving its existence from any prior principles.
Nature, he believed, is one and without limit and that what is one is similar in all its parts or else it would be many; that the one infinite, eternal, and homogeneous universe is immutable and incapable of change. Both Anaxagoras and Empedocles worked within the Parmenidean pattern while developing distinct cosmological systems that addressed their own particular concerns especially concerns about the proper way to live. Empedocles and Anaxagoras identified the essence of being with a number of immutable elements and explained changes by their combinations.
For Anaxagoras, all things have existed from the beginning but infinitesimally small fragments of themselves. Anaxagoras identified the ultimate reality with an infinite number of seeds. They are infinite in number and exist in every part of the cosmos. All things existed in this mass, but in a confused and indistinguishable form. He explained the process of development as a natural and mechanical one. Anaxagoras introduced the idea of Nous, a mind or reason, as the giver of order and purpose, among things in the cosmos. The mind arranged the segregation of like from unlike and was no less llimitable than the chaotic mass, but, unlike the logos of Heraclitus, it stood pure and independent, a thing of finer texture, alike in all its manifestations and everywhere the same. Everything is in everything in some proportions, however small or great. This is a move to prevent even the appearance of coming-to-be from what-is-not. Empedocles identified the ultimate reality with four elements: air, water, fire, and earth along with the motive forces of Love and Strife. He defined these four elements as immutable and permanent, and explained changes and diversity by combinations of them.
The principle of love and hate causes the combination and separation of these elements, thereby producing the diversity and changes of the world. Love as the principle of unity and hate is that of destruction. Empedocles developed a cyclical cosmology that the cosmos repeats unity and destruction by alternate domination of love and hate. Empedocles explained diversity and changes of the world, which Heraclitus grasped, as a combination and separation of these four elements. For Empedocles, each element maintains its own nature without change and the degree and ratio of the mixture of the four elements produce diversity.
Empedocles believed in the transmigration of the soul, that souls can be reincarnated between humans, animals and even plants. Atomists such as Leucippus and Democritus identified the unchanging being with countless numbers of small indivisible elements called atoms and explained changes by their combinations and movements. Atoms were different in form, size, and shape but qualitatively identical. The void is what separates atoms and allows for the differences. Quantitative differences and physical movements of atoms could explain all the qualitative diversity of the world, and mental and spiritual phenomena.
A thing comes into being when the atoms that compose it are appropriately associated, and passes away when these parts disperse. Like Anaxagoras, the atomists consider all phenomenal objects and characteristics as emerging from the background mixture; in the case of atomism, the mix of atoms and void. The shapes of the atoms and their arrangement with respect to each other and void give physical objects their apparent characteristics. Democritus identified the good with pleasantness. Pleasantness is achieved by observing justice, controlling desires, and keeping a balance in life.
Leucippus replaced the Parmenidean “One” with an infinite number of atoms, which were immutable, permanent, and indivisible units of the world, and explained changes by composition and decomposition, motion and constellation (group) of atoms. The Sophists were the first professional educators. For a fee, they taught students how to argue for the practical end of winning their case. While they were well acquainted with and taught the theories of philosophers, they were less concerned with inquiry and discovery than with persuasion. Social and moral issues come to occupy the center of attention for the Sophists.
Their tendency towards doubt about the capacity of reason to reveal truth and their cosmopolitan circumstances which exposed them to a broad range of social customs and codes, lead the Sophists to take a relativist stance on ethical matters. The Sophists claimed to be able to help their students better themselves through the acquisition of certain practical skills, especially rhetoric (the art of persuasion). The Sophists filled this need for rhetorical training and by their teaching proved that education could make an individual a more effective citizen and improve his status in Athenian society.