The Presocratics

Anyone who's ever contemplated Raphael's celebrated painting The School of Athens knows that the painting centers, quite literally, around Plato and Aristotle (the former pointing up toward his transcendent Realm of the Forms, while the latter attempts to ground his understanding of reality on a much more naturalistic conception). A quick glance also reveals a few other obvious personalities: Socrates, Diogenes the Cynic, Pythagoras, and Euclid (or perhaps Archimedes?). But if you look even closer, you can see that this painting is also paying homage to the Presocratics, those thinkers who dared to imagine the cosmos might be intelligible to human beings, and who set out to prove it.


In the process of attempting to understand and explain the world, these thinkers came up with many of the concepts that are still highly influential today: the uniformity of nature, mathematics as the foundation/expression of all reality, mind as a potential cosmic principle, atoms as the basic constituents of the universe, explanatory reductionism, physical necessity, methodological naturalism, reductio ad absurdum, materialism, teleological explanations, anthropomorphic skepticism, the questioning of the nature/reality of space and time, presentism and the block universe, the difference between appearance and reality, and many, many others.

With many thanks to philosophy professor Peter Adamson and his fantastic podcast, History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, the following selection of audio clips provides a great and accessible introduction to the thoughts of these daring and intellectually creative thinkers. It is because of the move from mythos to logos begun by the Presocratics that it has been possible for human beings to unshackle ourselves from the chains of superstition and ignorance to which we were subject before there was any philosophy or science, and to come to realize that though our knowledge may always limited, it is nevertheless not only possible and worth pursuing, but perhaps a delightful moral obligation.

It all started with Thales, who shocked the world with his successful prediction of the solar eclipse of May 28th 585 BCE, and who said that "water is best":




Once the spark of logos had been kindled, Anaximander would think up his cosmic principle of apeiron (the indefinite, boundless, infinite), and Anaximenes would offer up the first idea of a scientific mechanism to explain change:




It would not take long for Xenophanes to recognize that our point of view can influence our perception and our judgments, and that we therefore have a natural predisposition to impiously anthropomorphize our ideas about the nature of the gods:




And then, in a truly odd mix of uber rationalism and mysticism, Pythagoras would argue that number is the fundamental reality of the cosmos, and would warn to stay away from beans!




Do things really exist? If everything we see changes, as experiences implies, then perhaps 'things' are actually processes, and everything is in flux. There is no being, only becoming, or so thought Heraclitus:




But why trust the senses when we know they are prone to deceiving us? Pure reason, on the other hand, is objective, and it works independently of our biases. And pure reason implies that change, of any kind, is logically impossible. Parmenides, the founder of the Eleatic school, argued that there cannot be any becoming, only being:




And if you thought he was just being cheeky, his students Zeno and Melissus set out to prove their master right with a set of paradoxes that continue to perplex, delight and frustrate thinkers of all stripes down to our own day:




So how do we reconcile being, which seems to be the necessary presupposition for any kind of possible predication, with becoming, which is what our sensory experience tells us is a basic fact of the world in which we live? Perhaps a combination of indestructible, indivisible and unchangeable particles, atoms, moving around the empty space of the void, and organizing themselves in countless collective configurations? According to Leuccipus and Democritus, this compromise would preserve the strengths of the Heraclitean and the Eleatic schools without being subject to their weaknesses:




But whence order? According to Anaxagors, perhaps behind all the regularity of the cosmos, and especially behind the construction of living organisms, there is a teleological principle of Mind responsible for organizing it:




Pythagoras may have started a religion, but Empedocles declared himself a god, and jumped into a volcano to prove it! (Unsuccessfully, I'm afraid.) Still, it is from Empedocles that we get the ancient conception of chemistry: air, earth, fire and water. Everything we see around us, he thought, is just different combinations of these elements (or roots, as he called them), mixed through the cosmic principles of Love and Strife. Oh, and we also get a bit of a precursor to the idea (not the theory) of evolution:




Well, when you take Empedocles seriously, you start to understand why so much of ancient medicine was concerned with finding the right balance between the four fluids (or humours) contained within the human body: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile:




And finally, from the Sophists we get an attempt to question the validity and limits of the kinds of claims made through language and on the basis of our experience. Doesn't the form of our perception, as well as the form of our linguistic expression, in some sense influence or determine the nature of our conclusions? But if so, is objective knowledge possible?




It is in this intellectual context that a brilliant and charismatic thinker would emerge, and who would eventually become the embodiment of philosophical brilliance, humility and principle that has made its way through the centuries. That rascal was, of course, Socrates.

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