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Humanities Libertexts

3.1: The Presocratics

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  • In the Iliad and the Odyssey, the early Ionian epic poet Homer offers a view of the world as under the influence of the Olympian gods. The Olympian gods were much like humans, capricious and willful. In the Homeric view of the world, human qualities are projected onto the world via human-like gods. Here explanation of the natural world is modeled on explanation of human behavior. This marks the world view of the epic poets as pre-philosophical and pre- scientific. However, even in the early epic poems we find a moral outlook that is key to the scientific and philosophical frame of mind. In Homer and in later Greek tragedy, we find stories of the grief that human hubris brings upon us. The repeated warnings against human pride and arrogance make a virtue out of humility. Intellectual humility involves recognizing the fallibility of human thought, in particular one’s own. The willingness to submit one’s own opinions to rational scrutiny is essential to moving beyond the realm of myth and into the realm of philosophy and science. Intellectual humility makes it possible to see the world and one’s place in it as a matter for discovery rather than a matter of self-assertion.


    The Melisians

    The beginning of philosophy in ancient Greece is often given as 585 B.C., the year that the Milesian philosopher Thales predicted a solar eclipse. Thales brings a new naturalistic approach to explaining the world. That is, his proposed explanations for natural phenomenon are given in terms of more fundamental natural phenomenon, not in supernatural terms. The step away from supernatural myth and towards understanding the natural world on its own terms is a major development. Thales is interested in the fundamental nature of the world and arrives at the view that the basic substance of the world is water. His reason for thinking that water is fundamental is that of the four recognized elements - earth, air, fire and water - only water can take the form of a solid, liquid, or a gas. According to Thales, earth is really water that is even more concentrated than ice and fire is really water that is more rarified than steam. While his view sounds absurd to us, the significance of his contribution is not the specific answer he gives to the question of the ultimate nature of the world, but how he proposes to answer this question. Thales takes an important step away from projecting ourselves onto the world through myth and superstition and towards explanations that invite further investigation of the world as it is independent of human will.

    Pythagoras (fl. 525-500 B.C.) traveled in Egypt where he learned astronomy and geometry. His thought represents a peculiar amalgam of hardnosed mathematical thinking and creative but rather kooky superstition. Pythagoras holds that all things consist of numbers. He saw mathematics as a purifier of the soul. Thinking about numbers takes one’s attention off of particular things and elevates the mind to the realm of the eternal. Scientific thinking, on this view, is not so far from meditation. Pythagoras is responsible for the Pythagorean Theorem which tells us that the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the remaining sides. He also discerned how points in space can define shapes, magnitudes, and forms:

    • 1 point defines location

    • 2 points define a line

    • 3 points define a plane

    • 4 points define solid 3 dimensional objects

    Pythagoras introduces the concept of form. The earlier Milesians only addressed the nature of matter, the stuff of the universe. A full account of the nature of the world must also address the various forms that underlying stuff takes. Form implies limits. For Pythagoras, this is understandable in numerical terms. Number represents the application of limit (form) to the unlimited (matter). The notion of form takes on greater sophistication and importance in the thought of Plato and Aristotle.

    Pythagoras led a cult that held some rather peculiar religious beliefs. The more popular beliefs in the Homeric gods are not concerned with salvation or spiritual purification. There was the Dionysian religion, which sought spiritual purification and immortality through drunken carnal feasts and orgies. Pythagorean religious belief also aims at purification and immortality, but without the intoxication and sex. Pythagoras founded a religious society based on the following precepts:

    • that at its deepest level, reality is mathematical in nature

    • that philosophy can be used for spiritual purification

    • that the soul can rise to union with the divine

    • that certain symbols have a mystical significance

    • that all brothers of the order should observe strict loyalty and secrecy Members of the inner circle were strict communist vegetarians. They were also not allowed to eat beans. Pythagoras might have done well in Ballard.

    The last of the Milesians we will discuss is Heraclitus. Heraclitus (544-484 B.C.) was born in Ephesus on the coast of Asia Minor. He is best known for his doctrine of eternal flux according to which everything undergoes perpetual change. “One can never step in the same river twice.”The underlying substance of the world is fire or heat according to Heraclitus. This is the least stable of the elements and explains the transitoriness of all things. Everything is a kindling or extinguishing of fire. While everything is in a continual state of flux, this change is not without order. Heraclitus saw Logos or rational order as essential to the world. Changes are injustices, which by natural necessity are redressed in further changes. Heraclitus held ethical views worth noting as well. The good life involves understanding and accepting the necessity of strife and change.


    The Sophists

    Most of early Greek philosophy prior to the Sophists was concerned with the natural world. The desire to explain an underlying reality required natural philosophers to speculate beyond what is observable and they lacked any developed critical method for adjudicating between rival theories of substance change or being. In this situation, it is easy to see how many might grow impatient with natural philosophy and adopt the skeptical view that reason simply cannot reveal truths beyond our immediate experience. But reason might still have practical value in that it allows the skilled arguer to advance his interests. The Sophists were the first professional educators. For a fee, they taught students how to argue for the practical purpose of persuading others and winning their way. While they were well acquainted with and taught the theories of philosophers, they were less concerned with inquiry and discovery than with persuasion.

    Pythagoras and Heraclitus had offered some views on religion and the good life. Social and moral issues come to occupy the center of attention for the Sophists. Their tendency towards skepticism 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 Sophist’s lack of interest in knowing the truth for its own sake and their entrepreneurial interest in teaching argument for the sake of best serving their client’s interests leads Plato to derisively label the Sophists as “shopkeepers with spiritualwares.”

    One of the better known Sophists, Protagoras (481-411 B.C.), authored several books including, Truth, or the Rejection (the rejection of science and philosophy), which begins with his best- known quote, “man is the measure of all things, of those that are that they are, of those that arenot that they are not.” Knowledge, for Protagoras is reducible to perception. Since different individuals perceive the same things in different ways, knowledge is relative to the knower. This is a classic expression of epistemic relativism. Accordingly, Protagoras rejects any objectively knowable morality and takes ethics and law to be conventional inventions of civilizations, binding only within societies and holding only relative to societies.

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