Category Archives: presocratics

The Presocratics – Heraclitus

Utrecht Moreelse Heraclite.JPGHeraclitus by Johannes Moreelse

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission)

More than anything, Heraclitus is known as the philosopher of flux. As is famously attributed to him: “One cannot step in the same river twice” (D 91). Or as he similarly notes elsewhere: “As they step into the same rivers, other and still other waters flow upon them.”

Though it is important to understand Heraclitus as a great speculative philosopher who exceeds the Ionians in complexity, it is also important to see that he sets out similarly to the Ionians — so it is not without reason that Plato classifies all these early thinkers together as “Heracletians.” As Heraclitus says, indicating his similarity to the Ionians regarding the source of knowledge: “Whatever comes from sight, hearing, learning from experience: this I prefer” (D 55). Yet, seeing and hearing are not enough. To this, as the Ionians also appear to have clearly recognized, one must add understanding. “Eyes and ears are bad witnesses for those who have barbarian souls” (D 107).

While reasoning is as important as experience, it is not something that Heraclitus unhinges from experience. Heraclitus does not engage in the same abstract thought as Parmenides, speculating on the basis of an apriori logic. For him, the world around us, where one is born grows old dies, where all things change, serves as the basis of speculation. And that speculation should lead us to see the shifts and changes occur in accord with a law-like substratum. Here he posits a teaching of both logos (of word or mind or principle) and the elements. In this “All things are one.” Yet that unity contains diversity with the process: “Fire lives the death of earth and air lives the death of fire; water lives the death of air, earth that of water.” Individual objects in the world emerge and fade away out of a relationship of the transformation of elements through time.

Though Heraclitus will refer to the logos as divine, he does not speak of it as an external force acting upon a separate material. The process of the material change of the basic elements (with fire as the most basic) is not imposed by external deities, but is the order of the cosmos itself: “The ordering, the same for all, no god nor man has made, but it ever was and is and will be: fire everliving, kindled in measures and in measures going out.” Fire, the fundamental element, which also best symbolizes the transformation of the cosmos, transforms into the other elements in a process of continual change, where difference is fundamental, but difference persists in a process of unity.

One of Heraclitus’ fundamental themes is that this change in cosmos occurs through the balancing of oppositions. As he notes: “What is in opposition is in agreement, and the most beautiful harmony comes out of things in conflict (and all happens according to strife.)” Or more poetically, dismissing those who strive to see all conflict disappear: “They do not comprehend how being at variance it agrees with itself: it is a harmony turning back upon itself like a bow and a lyre.” This conflict between opposites is fundamental to the unfolding of the logos in the cosmos. In contrast to Hesiod who sees this conflict as a curse, Heraclitus posits that strife is not only “the father of all;” “strife is [also] justice.”

Beyond merely seeing how apparent conflicts complement one another, the “divine,” objective view of the cosmos that he stresses strives to rise above the common human-centric vision of reality.   As he notes: “Sea is the most pure and most polluted water. For fish it is drinkable and life-preserving; for people it is undrinkable and deadly.”

Part of Heraclitus project is to reconceive of the divinity. It is now the cosmos as a whole or the logos that permeates it. Specific gods are part of this, but demythologized and viewed as functions of a law-like determinate universe. He notes the tension of his time, as myths are being secularized: “The one and only wise thing is and is not willing to be called by the name of Zeus.”

While this approach to reconceiving the gods is not unique to Heraclitus, he is more radical than most in that he not only rejects the traditional views of the gods, but also the rites and ceremonies honoring them, which he sees as having a corrosive effect on human beings. As he notes of ancient rites to Dionysos: “If it were not in honor of Dionysos that they organize a procession and sing the phallic hymn, what they do would be most shameless: but Hades and Dionysos are one and the same, in whose honor people rave and celebrate the Bacchic revelry.”

It is not the honoring of the gods that determine one’s fate and well-being. Rather: “Mans character is his fate.” The responsibility for what one becomes lies with oneself.  Against this backdrop, Heraclitus notes: “the people should fight on behalf of the law as (they would) for (their) city wall.”

Heraclitus does re-conceive of the divine and of nature. One dovetails into the other. He bases his speculative reasoning on the senses but thinks it takes one beyond them. At least the knowledge that we have of him surpasses that of the Ionians by explicitly taking up not only issues of natural philosophy and metaphysics but also issues of ethics and teaching of the soul. In this, he among the Presocratics is the first to approach the systemic character of the later thought of Plato and Aristotle.

The Presocratics – The Ionians

Illustrerad Verldshistoria band I Ill 107.jpgThales of Miletus “the first philosoher”

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission)

The very first of the Greek thinkers — the Ionians — lived in Asia Minor, in present-day Turkey. They were speculative natural philosophers. Thales, who Aristotle considered the first philosopher, speculated that the various distinct objects of the world all had the same substratum. Underneath the appearance of division in the world, there was a basic material unity: All things were comprised of water. While this is a scientific statement about what comprises reality, it is also a metaphysical statement. It is maintaining a basic unity among diversity.

We do not know precisely why Thales speculated that the common substance of all things was water. Aristotle speculated that it was because water is necessary for all living things. Water could also take the forms of solid (as ice), gas (as steam) and liquid (as water). In any case, what is remarkable about Thales’ view is not really the specific answer that he provides to the question. It is more the approach he initiates to address questions. He is not like the religious poet who comes bearing a message from the gods — his thoughts are not gifts of Hermes. Rather, he is speculating posting natural causes and using natural reason.

What Thales begins, various Ionian philosophers after him continue. Anaximander goes further than Thales, positing views about the origin of the diverse things in the world from a primordial unity. In the beginning was the Apeiron, the boundless or unlimited, a nondifferentiated unity. Out of it, the many things of the world emerge. Decisive here as a break in the explanatory model of the Greek religious-mythical thinkers, the emergence of the world does not occur because of the action of the gods. Neither Zeus nor Prometheus is involved. Rather, it is fundamentally the interaction of two factors — hot and cold — that are at work as the world emerges out of the unlimited. Animals are born from moisture heated by the sun. Humans originate from similar processes — natural and lawlike, even if not so clearly articulated as we might like.

Anaximenes continues reflections on these same issues. He proposes views contrasting with those of both Thales and Anaximander. Not water, he thinks, is the substratum, but air, aether. Following Anaximander, he appears to wonder that if all were comprised of water, how we would account for fire. Yet, in contrast to Anaximander, he posits a clearer mechanism through which the many arise from the original unity. The starting point for the development of the world was not the unbound but was chaos. Out if it, from a primordial breath, the many arise.

One of the main characteristics that we see in these earliest Ionian thinkers is that they do not take the authority of their tradition as a starting point for their reasoning. While they are undoubtedly influenced by that tradition, they set out to reason on the basis of what they experience …

The Presocratics

"The School of Athens" by Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino.jpg  The School of Athens fresco by the Italian Renaissance artist Raphael

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission)

The earliest Greek philosophers are typically known as “Presocratic” philosophers. Yet this designation as “Presocratic” first was explicitly used in the 18th century as historians of philosophy attempted to re-catalog the discipline’s past. As a temporal reference, the term is a misnomer since some of the “Presocratics” were also Socrates’ contemporaries. As a practical and now well-established classification, however, we might maintain the term to designate a group of Greek thinkers in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE who were intellectually concerned with issues of natural philosophy and/or speculative metaphysics that were of primary relevance prior to the Socratic and Sophist turn toward questions of ethics.

Though much of the thought of these philosophers from Thales (620-546 BCE), who is classically regarded as the first Western philosopher, onwards was focused on questions of the natural world and was proto-scientific, many of the “Presocratics” also challenged the conventional Greek views of the gods and re-conceived of the divine in various ways. They re-conceived the soul. They produced a form of thought that begins to turn against “mythological” explanation. Yet the traditional view that they represent a decisive move from “myth” to “reason” is oversimplified. For one thing, myth itself is infused with reason. For another, some of the earliest thinkers recognized as philosophers used poetry and myth among their devices for reasoning.

It is clear that mythical-religious thinkers — from Egypt to Mesopotamia to Persia and India — prior to the early Greeks had well-developed views about metaphysics, ethics, politics and the other issues of philosophy. They had philosophic perspectives, which did influence the Greeks. Thales and later Pythagoras are known to have lived in Egypt and to have been influenced by Egyptian thought. Plato had some knowledge of Zoroastrianism. Aristotle mentions dualistic ideas of the Persian Magi.

Yet we do see from the 6th century BCE onward the focus on a new kind of reasoning in Greece. It is one more naturalistic in tone than what had been dominant — that is, it does not claim to offer a revelation but to result from natural processes of reasoning. But the philosophy that was emerging was also not only a naturalistic form of reasoning. Science, in some forms independent of philosophy, was being practiced. Many of the Presocratics practiced this, too, but they also did so against the background of metaphysical questions.

Whatever the focus of their individual thought, Presocratics are characterized by the presupposition that reality is rationally structured and that some methodology of rational and/or evidence-based argumentation can be used to settle disputes about the correctness of one’s worldview. Generally, the Presocratics develop a cosmology — a vision of reality as a whole that surpasses the views of science alone.

That said, many of them also did science. Indeed, the Presocratics proposed some broad views about the natural world that we also now accept as true, even if for different reasons than those they proposed. For example, Democritus (460-370 BCE) and other early Atomists argued that all things are comprised of tiny particles known as atoms; and Anaximenes (585-525 BCE) argued that in the course of its history the earth underwent a process of evolution. Though they lacked a full scientific method that since the 17th century has led to the great development of knowledge, the Presocratics created an opening for a scientific naturalistic outlook.

Plato offered one of the earliest cataloguings of early Greek philosophy but as it played into his own system of thought. He contrasted “Heracletians,” who emphasized sense experience and the changes in the world, with “Eleatics” (like Parmenides and Zeno) who focused on the need to bend our views to logic, even if doing challenged the most common sense of our sense experience.

This classification scheme fit with Plato’s own view of himself as the more sophisticated synthesizer of these schools, who in a certain sense completed the project of early Greek philosophy. The world of sense experience, in Plato’s view, is highlighted by the Heracliteans, while the Eleatics prepare the ground for Plato’s own view of the reality of a supersensible realm of unchanging ideas. Truth, in Plato’s view, comes through conceptual reasoning, not through the sense experience. In this, he sees himself as completing the Parmenides’ project. To understand Plato and how he sees himself as responding to the thinkers of his time, this is important.

However, historians of philosophy today understand Plato’s own cataloging as deeply flawed. One recent suggestion for cataloging this early thought is topical as relating to (a) the study of nature related to cosmological order, (b) “cultural polemics”, (c) considerations of the soul, and (d) processes of reasoning. We see this group of thinkers take up these issues, some devoted with greater focus to one, some to another.