Western philosophy began in ancient Greece around six centuries BCE. The earliest philosophers sought to answer questions about the nature of the world and the universe. This is no different from what religion does. However, in contrast, philosophers began trying to explain the world and the universe through experience and systematic reasoning. Rather than appealing to mythological explanations, they sought theories based on hypotheses, arguments, and evidence. Coming from the reaches outside mainland Greece, these thinkers would provide the foundation for both philosophy and natural science.
- Thales of Miletus
- The Milesians
- Other philosophers from Ionia
- The philosophers from Elea: nothing changes and everything is one
- The Pluralist school: a refined revision of change
- Atomic theory
- Leucippus and Democritus
- The move to Athens
- The Sophists
Knowing the truth leads to wisdom, argued these philosophers. In fact, the English word philosophy is a descendent of the Greek word philosophia, philos meaning “loving” and sophia meaning “wisdom.” Love of wisdom.
Philosophy in the West is considered to have begun with a man called Thales, c. 600 BCE. He lived in a Greek city-state called Miletus in the ancient Greek region of Ionia, in present-day Turkey. Thales and his followers, known as the Milesian philosophers (the philosophers from Miletus) are often classified as natural philosophers. They tried to understand nature. A common theme in their philosophy was the question, Is there a basic substance out of which everything is made?
Thales of Miletus (c. 600 BCE)
What we know of Thales comes from later sources, as the man himself didn’t write anything. A colourful anecdote about him comes from Plato’s Theaetetus, telling the story of how an absent-minded Thales fell into a well because he wasn’t looking where he was walking. It is a common stereotype still applied to philosophers and scientists even today. They are so absorbed in their thinking about big, abstract things that they fail to see the little things!
In turn, this can be vindicated with another anecdote about Thales, this time from Aristotle’s Politics. It seems Thales was rather poor. However, through his study of astronomy, he predicted a large harvest of olives. While it was still winter, he invested the little money he had on all the olive business in Miletus. Being out of season and thinking him mad, no one was interested in bidding against him. When the season came for making oil, it turned out he made a fortune. This way, he showed everyone that philosophers can easily make money if they like, but that their ambition lies elsewhereto show everyone that philosophy can and does have a practical side!
Presumably, his interest in astronomy also led him to fix the length of the year at 365 days. He is also said to have used the word cosmos, the first word to describe the universe.
So, what is everything made of?
Looking around us, we see an enormous variety of things: solid, liquid, gas, living, inanimate, and so on. It seems reasonable to suppose that there must be some source that is common to all these things.
2. The Milesians
By looking at the world around him, Thales observed the prevalence of water: it’s everywhere! We have seas, lakes, snow, and rain. When earthquakes happen, the seas roar up in waves and beat the land. When we breathe, we breathe out vapour. We sweat. We cry. Therefore, Thales concluded, water must be the foundation of everything, the underlying source and origin of the world: the arche.
Thales had considerable influence on other Greek thinkers and on Western history. Other philosophers from Miletus, influenced by Thales, would also search for the arche.
Anaximander of Miletus (c. 580 BCE), a follower of Thales, held that the arche was one indefinable substance that he called apeiron, or the boundless. It is neither water nor any of other element. If any element were infinite, it would take over and destroy the others. Take fire, for example. If fire were infinite, it would burn earth and destroy water. If, on the other hand, water were infinite, it would put out all fire. Therefore, the infinite is something other than the elements. From this one infinite, eternal, indeterminate thing, other elements came to be.
Anaximenes of Miletus (c. 560 BCE) was a student of Anaximander. He agreed with his teacher that the underlying substance was one and infinite. However, unlike Anaximander, Anaximenes defined the substance as air governed by some form of mind or intelligence called nous. In different substances, it evaporates and condenses to form other things. We are surrounded by air in its thinnest state. When it condenses, it becomes wind, then clouds. When further condensed, it becomes water, and earth, and stones, and all the other things. While Anaximenes’ theory may seem far-fetched to us, it illustrates an important distinction with Anaximander’s. While the teacher placed reality beyond what can be known, calling it indefinable, the pupil made it squarely observable.
3. Other philosophers from Ionia
The influence of the Milesian philosophers spread to other neighbouring cities in Ionia.
Pythagoras (c. 530 BCE) is best remembered today for the Pythagoras theorem, a mathematical and geometrical formula about right-angled triangles. Described by Bertrand Russell as “intellectually one of the most important men that ever lived”, he is quoted as being both Parmenides’ and Plato’s main source of inspiration.
Pythagoras and his followers held that numbers formed the foundations of the cosmos. Mathematical knowledge seems to be exact and certain, and does not need observation. Rather, it can be arrived at simply by thinking. Consequently, it was thought to give us an ideal form of knowledge. Geometry deals with exact circles, but no circular object that we can perceive through our senses is perfectly circular; there are always imperfections and irregularities, even if microscopic. However, the perfect circle exists as a thought, as an idea. It’s a mathematical object that can be reasoned, and, as such, does not succumb to change time, change, or decay the same way a wooden wheel does. From this, it seems to follow that thought is nobler than sense, and the objects of thought are more real than those we can perceive through our senses.
Xenophanes of Colophon (circa 525 BCE) believed all things to be made out of earth and water. However, his more memorable views are about the gods. He is thought to have been the first Greek thinker to offer a complex and partially systematic account of divine nature. He points out how the great Greek poets, Homer and Hesiod, have attributed to the gods all those things that are disgraceful in human beings: adultery, deceit, stealing, and others. These gods, Xenophanes said, speak with a human voice and wear human clothes. If oxen, horses, or lions had hands with which they could paint and produce works of art, their gods, in turn, would be in the form of oxen, horses, and lions, too.
Xenophanes concluded that there must be one god who is greatest among both gods and men. This greatest of gods is unlike us mortals in either form or thought. With the ability to see, think, and hear everything, he is also able to move everything through thought alone, without himself moving.
For Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 500 BCE), the one constant thing in a constantly changing world was the logos. Things in the world have opposing tendencies: hot water goes cold; ice melts; living things grow, then decay. The meaning of logos is subject to interpretation. However, it is commonly understood to mean “reason”: a universal principle of order and knowledge which Heraclitus symbolised by fire. “No man ever steps in the same river twice,” he reportedly said. And, “panta rhei“, everything flows.
Since antiquity, the difficulty in understanding his philosophy earned him the name “The Obscure”, partly because of his fondness of paradoxes, metaphors, and contradictions.
4. The philosophers from Elea: nothing changes and everything is one
Another important center for ancient philosophy was the city of Elea, in southern Italy and then part of Greater Greece. The Eleatic philosophers were a group founded by Parmenides of Elea (c. 475 BCE). With his followers Zeno of Elea (c 460 BCE) and Melissus of Samos, Parmenides would reject the validity of sense experience. This stands in contrast to the Milesians, who has an empiricist view of knowledge; that is, the Milesians saw knowledge as the result of information we receive through our senses.
Using logic and reasoning, Parmenides concluded that only one thing exists: all things are One. For things to change, they have to go from being to non-being. Imagine you leaving the room: from your “being” in the room to your “non-being” in the room, and vice versa.
However, Parmenides argues that even non-being is being. Our ability to think and talk about non-being transforms it into being. Thus, there really is no such thing as non-being. Non-being is in fact being. They are one; all things are one. Since all things are one, then nothing can be changed; change is an illusion. Therefore, everything that we can think of is a false representation of the unity of everything. We call such a philosophy of oneness, monism. Reality, according to Parmenides, is like a perfect sphere infinite, unchanged, and eternal. The senses cannot understand this unity, since they give us inconsistent information. It is only through rational thinking that we can go beyond the false appearances of senses. Only then can we arrive at fundamental truths.
5. The Pluralist school: a refined revision of change
In contrast with the monism of the Eleatic school of Parmenides, the Pluralists rejected the idea that the diversity of nature can be reduced to a single principle. Marking a return to Milesian natural philosopher, they tried to reconcile Parmenides’ rejection of change with what our senses actually tell us.
Anaxagoras (c. 450 BCE) suggested that there are numerous principles in nature. Everything is infinitely divisible. In everything there is a portion of all these ingredients, even in the smallest fragment contains some of each element. These ingredients combine in different doses to create different materials and objects. In everything, there is a portion of everything and of all opposites, such as hot or cold, white or black.
In contrast with his predecessors, he regarded the Nous, or mind, as a substance that enters all living things and distinguishes them from dead matter. It is an infinite substance which governs itself, and remain pure in that it does not mix with other things.
Later Christian and Islamic philosophers in the middle ages would develop the idea of a cosmic mind to account for God, the immortality of the soul, and even the motion of the stars.
Empedocles (c. 440 BCE) was a pluralist who reduced the primary ingredients of the universe to four “roots”: fire, air, earth, and water. These roots are simple, eternal, and cannot change. However, between them, these “root” are enough to explain change and diversity. These four roots come together and separate, and when we experience change we experience differences in the proportions of these amounts. Empedocles called the force that brings the roots together, Love. The one that separates them, he called Strife. These two forces grow and shrink; the go through a cycle of taking it in turns to dominate each other. As Bertrand Russell explains, “when the elements have been thoroughly mixed by Love, Strife gradually sorts them out; when Strife has separated them, Love gradually reunites them.” However, neither force wholly escapes the other.
The roots themselves cannot be reduced further, but, also, nothing new can come into being that is not made of these four roots.
Empedocles’ theory of the four roots became standard belief for the next two thousand years, known as the dogma of the four classical elements.
6. Atomic theory
The atomic theory of Leucippus and his pupil Democritus (c. 415 BCE) was also a response to the Eleatic school of Parmenides. The two were strict determinists, denying that anything can happen by chance and that, on the contrary, everything happens in accordance to natural law.
Very little is known about Leucippus. However, it is probable that the atomism that made Democritus famous was actually invented by Leucippus.
They proposed that all matter was composed of small, indivisible particles called atoms. If you take any chunk of stuff and start dividing, you’re eventually left with tiny, practically invisible particles that you cannot divide further. We call this particle an atom, which is the Greek word for ‘cannot be cut.’ These atoms, which have existed forever, have different shapes are scattered and float in infinite empty space which he called ‘the void.’
According to Democritus, atoms and void are the only things that exist. Some atoms have hooks, some have loops; some are convex, some are concave. Sometimes they crash into each other randomly and link up, forming the objects that we see in everyday life. Likewise, human perceptions are also caused by atoms. For example, bitterness would be caused by a small jagged atom skimming the tongue, whereas sweetness would be caused by a larger, smoother, more rounded atom. Smells function similar to flavours; colours, sounds, and textures are similarly explained by the qualities and properties of their essential atoms.
As well as natural science, Democritus also wrote commentaries, and works about mathematics, literature, and ethics. In the latter, the snippets of writings that have survived to this day are of an instructional nature.
His emphasis on the value of ‘cheerfulness’ earned him the nickname the ‘laughing philosopher.’ For Democritus, being happy with absence of fear is the definition of ‘good.’ It is an internal state of mind rather than something external to it. Moderation and mindfulness are beneficial in the pursuit of pleasures.
7. The move to Athens
Around 450 BCE, Athens was the cultural centre of the Greek world. People from all over the region made their way to Athens looking for fame and good fortune. Gradually, a democracy evolved, with popular assemblies and courts of law. These were at the centre of the city’s life. The reputation and status of individuals could be made or broken depending on how well they performed in public debates. For democracy to work, people had to be educated enough to be able to take part in the democratic process.
Among those arriving in Athens were a number of wandering teachers and philosophers from the Greek colonies. In the city, some of these wandering intellectuals made a living out of teaching the citizens against payment. The natural philosophers had been largely interested in the nature of the physical world. These new wandering teachers, known as the Sophists, were as suspicious of traditional mythology as were the natural philosophers. However, in contrast with the latter, they held that we have no way of knowing the truth. In philosophy, this position is called skepticism.
Instead, these Sophists, including Protagoras (c. 450 BCE) and Gorgias (c. 430 BCE), chose to focus their thinking on people and their place in society. Their skepticism of the truth extended to human nature and behaviour. Moral rules that govern how we should conduct ourselves were up for discussion. They argued that actions can be justified on the basis that nothing is absolutely right or absolutely wrong. Rather, everything is relative. They were skilled in rhetoric, the art of knowing how to say things in a convincing manner.
Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle
Socrates (c. 400 BCE) is a defining figure in Western philosophy in ways few other philosophers are. He is credited with having made a definitive move in philosophy beyond speculation about the cosmos and nature, and into morality. He also developed what we now call the Socratic method. Also known as Socratic dialogue, this a method of investigation that works by asking question after question, identifying contradictions in one’s beliefs and ideas and then fixing them.
What we know of Socrates is mostly through the works of his eminent student and younger contemporary, Plato (c. 380 BCE). After Socrates’ execution in 399 BCE, Plato left Athens to travel to Egypt and Italy, among other places, before returning to set up the Academy and write his dialogues. Almost all his dialogues feature Socrates as the main character. It is generally accepted that the Socrates in the earlier dialogues sounds more like the real one, with Plato taking more liberty with the character in his later works, using him as a mouthpiece for the writer’s own ideas.
Aristotle (c. 350 BCE) started as a student and member of Plato’s Academy, where he spent almost twenty years. After Plato’s death, he left Athens and, at the request of Philip, king of Macedon, tutored the king’s son who would eventually become Alexander the Great.
Although Aristotle wrote hundreds of works, many of them treatises and dialogues publication, only around a third of his original work has survived, none of it intended to be published. Despite this, his effect on subsequent philosophy was immense, including Islamic and Christian philosophy, logic, ethics, and other areas.
Pre-Socratic: before Socrates?
In the 18th century, the term Pre-Socratic was coined to gather those thinkers who came before Socrates, and with them those who had not adopted Socrates’ method of inquiry. By calling them “Pre-Socratic” we seem to relegate them to mere precursors to greater things. Perhaps, this is partially a result of much of their work and writing being almost entirely lost, compared to the large amount of surviving works by Plato and Aristotle. Their collective surviving writings can be gathered in one volume. Knowledge of their views overwhelmingly comes from quotes, paraphrases, and discussions by later authors. Perhaps, a more appropriate way to call them would be first Western philosophers.