Imagine You’re A Presocratic Philosopher Living 2600 Years Ago

It helps us understand early Western philosophers and their search for “a theory of everything”.

Katharina Ellemunt
Nov 4 · 12 min read
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Imagine knowing nothing you know now, living in the early sixth century BC (okay, you wouldn’t name it “BC”, I mean, how could you know?): Does the term “philosophy” even exist? Certainly, there didn’t exist separated sciences as we understand them today.

So imagine you’re a fellow citizen of an Ionian city in Asia Minor, Miletus. Many people around you are believing in Gods: “The thunderstorm yesterday in the evening? I’m sure Zeus was in anger” or the rainbow as a messenger from Olympus.

You love being in nature, you’re curious, you’re admiring the variety. Wherever you are, you see the same patterns nature seems to follow. But something suspects you. Are Gods really creating all of this? You think not. There must be something else. And you begin searching for it. You’re even writing down your thoughts and considerations.

Later, people will find your work and call it the beginning of natural philosophy. People all over the world will study it and learn about you. But some won’t understand. They will laugh at you, thinking how ridiculous it is, believing that there is one principle. They will say, it is irrelevant, it’s not what philosophy is here for. ‘If I want to know how the world operates, I would have studied physics,’ some fellow students of philosophy told me.

But you don’t know anything about this. You don’t know that from the original philosophy more and more “sciences” will split off, physics, chemistry, biology, and psychology. First, everything was just out of a keen interest in the world around us. As people found out more about it, they began to separate different knowledge.

So, I don’t understand when students are lamenting about how unrelated today’s philosophy is to ancient natural philosophy. Okay, the early natural philosophers focused on finding “a theory of everything”, they wanted to explain nature and the entire universe, and had various ideas for how everything’s working.

While today, this is more the concern of physics and biology, the fundamental idea beneath remains the same: To ask questions and try to answer them logically. That’s what philosophy is still today, even though the subject might have changed to more human-focused topics, for example, ethics.

If you know the origin of philosophy and how it emerged, then can you understand what followed from that, with what basis more known philosophers started, like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, or the Stoics, etc.

Long story short: Learning how philosophy began and the further process is crucial for understanding why it is today as it is.

So, here’s a quick overview of the very first Western philosophers and their search for a “theory of everything”. It was thought that all natural phenomena could be pared down to a unifying explanation.

These philosophers are called the Presocratics, engaged with nature and proof that Gods don’t exist. They believed that the earth is an organism, it is accessible to human reason, and it brings about our concept of order.

But who are these Presocratics and why are they named like that?

It wasn’t one philosophical school, it doesn’t consist just of philosophers who were before Socrates in time.

But it is a common denotation for the philosophers who were prior in their thinking than Socrates, namely, interested in nature and physics. Socrates was more interested in ethics, and generally, humans.

We only have fragments (quotes) and testimonies (reports). Often it can be difficult to distinguish those. That means we don’t know for sure if the report coincides with the exact wording or just the ideas of the philosophers.

First, let’s look at the city of Miletus in Asia Minor during the first half of the sixth century BC. This is also roughly the time of the Buddha in India and Confucius in China (second half of the sixth century BC).

The most important Milesian philosophers are Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes. Heraclitus was a native of a near city, Ephesus, and Parmenides was from Elea, a city in southern Italy. His ideas were influential, so we’ll look at the reactions of Empedocles and Anaximander.

They all focused on finding the principle (Greek word Arché, Latin principium) with extraordinary optimism. They were curious about the world and how everything works, believing there is a “theory of everything”.

Principle means two things: beginning (foundation, cause) and principle in our understanding. But for the question, what is this principle exactly? They all had different ideas. Also, they asked:

Different philosophers had different ideas for the ultimate material. We’ll leave aside Thales of Miletus, who gave primacy to water as the main constituent of things. Anaximander proceeds more generally with his idea of a “limitless thing.”

Anaximander of Miletus

Anaximander had a special term for the principle of the world: The Aperion. It literally means “limitless, unrestricted”. But we don’t know for sure if it was meant as a substantive or as an adjective.

It wasn’t that important for him to name one concrete substance, but rather a primary property.

Every change in the world follows this specific regularity, this limitless thing.

So, it is a process, and the universe is changing continually. He points at a regularity: It is an eternal change according to special laws, and this change is necessary.

So, the only thing that remains unchanged is the regularity of the change process.

To put it crudely, one could project this idea also on its personal life. Do you feel sometimes anxious and overwhelmed about the change in your life? I’m sure there was some wiseacre who told you: It is totally normal, well, it is the essence about life: The constant change! Probably you weren’t impressed, but now you can even answer, ‘Wow, people knew that already 2600 years ago.’ You’re not really telling me something new.

Anaximenes of Miletus

He was another Milesian philosopher and the student of Anaximander.

Unlike his teacher, Anaximenes had a pretty concrete idea of the principle of the cosmos, for him, it was just air.

The idea is that the world conforms to our human constitution—air is essential for us and we need to breathe. He uses an analogy between humans and the world. The Ancient philosophers often believed in was between macrocosm and microcosm: The body needs air to live, so Anaximenes concludes the entire world, the cosmos, does the same.

He thought that everything, all matter, and all substances emerge through thinning or thickening of air. For example, thickened air results in water, if it is further thickened it becomes earth, and then rock, etc.

Important is for what he uses air, namely as the answer to both questions, “from what did the world emerge?” and “of what does the world consist now?”

Obviously, this theory doesn’t coincide with our understanding of physics. But it is still pretty interesting what people were thinking of. Who knows, maybe in another two thousand years people will laugh at us and our current understanding of the world and the universe.

Heraclitus of Ephesus

From Heraclitus, we have a lot more sources. He is known as an important philosopher and the one who speaks in riddles.

Also convinced that the world is one entity, he calls the one principle Logos, an entity of opposites. But these opposites are related to one another. And again, the entity maintains and determines everything.

According to Heraclitus, nothing happens randomly in the world, but consistency and cyclic repetition determine everything.

The important thing here is: The entity, or Logos, depends on the continuous change. And this change consists of the perpetual alternation of these opposites.

The force of nature regulates change in a reasonable manner. And because as humans we have reason, we can predict this change.

This one is very important because people at that time merely believed in Gods that cause unpredictable natural phenomena.

Everything that happens, happens according to Logos. But most people don’t understand Logos, according to Heraclitus.

The majority of humans don’t understand this entity, the continuity of the world. They don’t ask, why is it like this? Why is the world structured like this? As if they were sleeping, Heraclitus assumes. They just take it for granted.

Everything that is in the world is changing (but it’s a regulated change), and nevertheless, things keep their identity. He goes even so far that because of the constant change, identity can be obtained.

Heraclitus concludes: Logos is a reasonable, natural structure, and responsible for every regularity. If we don’t understand Logos, we don’t understand the world which is structured logically.

Later, Heraclitus and his idea of the cosmos as a “living organism equipped with reason” served also as a model for the Stoics.

The Presocratics were also present in other places, for example in the city of Elea, in the south of Italy.

Parmenides of Elea

You need to know that the most common literary genre was poetry. Therefore, it wasn’t unusual that also philosophers wrote their teachings in poems. There wasn’t one specific form to write philosophy (as it is today, to write philosophical essays, for example).

Parmenides writes a kind of didactic poem, where at first a goddess speaks. It works like a revelation. What this goddess declares, ‘there is something that is, a being’. And something that is not, is a not-being.

So far, so good. But the main proposition of Parmenides is that:

The changing thing has always a new identity, it is not.

Material entities such as a person have always different properties, therefore they don’t qualify as a being. What do different properties mean? Well, now I’m tired, and tomorrow, I won’t be tired, etc. I’m always different. Because of their changing, not-beings don’t have a stable identity.

You may ask now, what being means and why according to Parmenides all people and animals and everyone who changes is not a being. It is confusing because we usually associate “being” with existing.

But Parmenides does not.

He says that not-being doesn’t mean not existing, it means changeable.

So what is a being?

The things which have always the same properties, they are unchangeable and have never emerged. Examples are humanity, justice, etc. They are beings, they have a steady identity.

For humans it’s intricate: The body is changing, but what about the mind? Usually, one would assume that the mind is the core of identity. But isn’t the mind changing as well?

This was the first attempt of an ontological classification: Parmenides differentiates between two classes of entities.

But he not only differentiates between two classes, but he uses epistemology as well:

I’m sure that most would disagree at least now: I mean, does he say that e.g., my dog who’s barking right now isn’t a being because he is changing and therefore I can’t perceive him? But I can perceive an abstract term like “justice”?!

Maybe it’s not meant as perceivable through sense perception, maybe it’s meant to comprehend it with our mind. If I tell people the word “justice”, I’m sure they have an image, an idea of it in their mind that’s fairly universal. But if I’m telling different people about my dog, I’m sure they don’t have the right image of it in their mind (everyone would imagine a different dog)! But that’s just my consideration (perhaps now, you’ll see your dog with fresh eyes).

Parmenides connects ontology (metaphysics) and epistemology.

According to the philosopher, the world is a whole, harmonic being, and it brings order (although there are changes in the world, they are only ostensibly). And our mind, our reasoning can capture the being.

For Parmenides, change is not the important thing here, rather, what change explains: The unchangeable, the one principle.

The origin of the world

In one part of the poem, he describes how the world has emerged. Wait, what? Didn’t he propose the fact that the world is a being and therefore it doesn’t change and couldn’t have emerged?

Parmenides says the world is a being and if it has emerged at some time, it would have emerged out of not-being, and that’s by definition impossible. But still, he asks where the world comes from.

He speaks through the goddess from his poem: We can have opinions, but they’re just describing a possibility. We have to be careful. For Parmenides, it isn’t illogical to speak about the world’s phenomena, but he clearly states: It remains insufficient because it is just possibly like that.

Later, also Plato declares that his entire cosmogony is just a possible theory. Cosmogony is the study of the origin of the universe, the cosmos.

The cosmogony of Parmenides

Parmenides reduced everything to two principles, light (also called fire) and night, whose mixture and change determine everything. He even assumes that the earth is a sphere.

But if we can’t get any knowledge about the origin of the world, why does Parmenides try to describe it nevertheless? Because he wants to criticize the traditional cosmogony because it doesn’t regard his theory of being and not-being. Or maybe it’s just meant as a parody, that would explain why he tells a detailed cosmogony when he has already proved that it’s impossible.

We see the philosophers were pretty competitive, which comes from the general rivalry and competition at that time in other areas of life such as politics and athletics.

Heraclitus vs. Parmenides

A big difference between Heraclitus and Parmenides is that Heraclitus wrote down all his beliefs and reflections about nature and logos like this. He just formulated statements. Although he speaks about logic, he doesn’t seem to apply this logic to his words.

Parmenides, on the other hand, uses for the first time in the history of philosophy an argumentation, recognizing that these explanations require evidence and argumentation to support the conclusion and also to criticize other viewpoints.

But both — Heraclitus and Parmenides — view the world as reasonably, harmonically structured.

They believe that the world is steady, continuous and unchangeable. Both refuse to believe that the world emerged at some time.

The world isn’t its phenomena, but one entity.

To go back to the microcosm: Just as a person, who doesn’t want their person to be reduced to one false action, could state: I’m not what I seem to be, I am not my action. I am one whole identity.

Finally, we will have a look at two reactions to Parmenides’ cosmogony:

  1. Empedocles
  2. Anaxagoras (no, he’s someone different than Anaximander and Anaximenes that we discussed before)

1. Empedocles

He took part in the Pythagorean in Sicily, in the south of Italy. He wrote two didactic poems, where he presents his theory about the world. He believed that the origin of the world is impossible.

In the poems Katharmoi (purifications) and Peri physeos (on nature) he presents his theory: The world is constantly changing, and change is the mixture of four elements: water, earth, fire, air.

Empedocles was the first who spoke about these four elements as the fundamental elements of the world. These elements could correspond to Parmenides’ beings.

And who is responsible for this constant change, the mixture, and the division of the elements? Empedocles says there are two cosmic forces: Love and dispute.

So in this sense, everything in the world consists of beings. Everything that exists has previously existed but in a different mixture. Also, the world proceeds in four stages—in every one of them—one element is present.

Love is the force when things emerge and the dispute is equivalent to death.

But, we have two testimonies about Empedocles, one is from Simplicius and the other from Aristotle.

And in one report, love is the force that unites and gives birth (and dispute means death) and in the other report, the dispute is uniting (and love separating). Thus we don’t know exactly what was Empedocles’ theory. But in the end, it is unimportant which force does what. I think of it as both: Because whenever something ends (=dies) something new emerges from it.

Important is, that Empedocles propagates a material cause and an efficient cause. The material causes are the four elements and the efficient causes are love and dispute.

2. Anaxagoras

The second reaction of Parmenides comes from Anaxagoras. He agrees with most Parmenides has said, although he also thinks (just as Empedocles) that we can speak about the origin of the world, and not just in probability.

He believes that in the beginning, everything was a mixture of everything, consisting of many elements. (Surprisingly close to what we know today, right?)

And what changes over time is just the mixing ratio, not the fundamental materials. And those materials are endlessly small and many. So not just four elements as Parmenides said, but a lot more.

The example Anaxagoras presents is about the origin of a human (there we have this analogy between human and world again).

He says that every component of a person can be led back to the original semen. Still, the person is something entirely different from the semen (again, surprisingly similar to our knowledge today).

And just as this example shows, it is the same with the world: In the beginning, there was an original mixture, material, and from it emerged all the different aspects we see today.

But what was the cause for the division of this original material, so that different entities have emerged? Of course, Anaxagoras has an answer for that: It is the spirit, the intellect. So that’s the efficient cause that carries out the activity.

This intellect can be described with three properties:

  • It is outside the mixture, thus something pure and uniform, to be able to divide the mixture.
  • Also, the intellect puts everything in order, hence it is the cause for the order.
  • This action is reasonable, therefore the intellect and reason can be put on a level.

Anaxagoras thinks as the first that the cause isn’t just reasonable, but reason itself.

Later, also Plato adopts his belief. (Aristotle has another opinion, namely that nature is reasonable.) But that’s another story.

A Philosopher’s Stone

A place for a discussion of the ideas all around us in society, culture, philosophy, and more.

Katharina Ellemunt

Written by

Philosophy student. Now I primarily write about philosophical topics concerning life, death, society, history, language, and critical thinking. Come along!

A Philosopher’s Stone

A place for a discussion of the ideas all around us in society, culture, philosophy, and more.

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