Department of History
University of California, Irvine
Instructor:    Dr. Barbara J. Becker


Week 1.  Likely Stories

Fragments of Pre-Socratic Philosophy


The Ionians

The pre-Socratics were a diverse group of intellectuals who lived in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE.  They did not hail from mainland Greece, but came instead from poleis (self-contained, town-like communities of Greek citizens) located on the Ionian Sea (within the boundaries of modern-day Turkey).


We know very little with certainty about the lives and work of the earliest pre-Socratics.  What we do "know" is based largely on hearsay and fragmentary evidence:  vague and sometimes critical comments made about their ideas by intellectual successors.

Here, for example, is a statement about the reputed founder of natural philosophy, Thales of Miletus (640-546 BCE), written in the third century, AD:

Thales was the first of the Greeks to devote himself to the study and investigation of the stars, and was the originator of this branch of science; on one occasion he was looking up at the heavens, and was just saying he was intent on studying what was overhead, when he fell into a well; whereupon a maidservant named Thratta laughed at him and said:  In his zeal for things in the sky he does not see what is at his feet....
Although sketchy, the picture of the Ionians that emerges from these fragments is one of critical thinkers who planted and nurtured the seeds of a whole new way of thinking about the structure and function of the natural world.  Their approach was built upon what they called "philosophia" (love of wisdom)--a method of rational analysis with which they sought to define a world view free of intervention from the gods.  This does not mean that they all thought alike, or came to the same conclusions.  In fact the Ionians were just as diverse ideologically as they were geographically.  For them, identifying the best explanation for a natural phenomenon was a competitive process requiring reasoned criticism and debate.

What could a scholar living in 4000 AD say with certainty about William Shakespeare (1564-1616 AD) if the following were the only written words about him that remained?:
  • ...so important are Shakespeare's works that only the Bible can compare with them in their influence upon our language and thought.  Shakespeare has said so many things so supremely well that we are forever finding ourselves thinking in his terms.  (There is the story of the woman who read Hamlet for the first time and said, "I don't see why people admire that play so.  It is nothing but a bunch of quotations strung together.")
    • --Isaac Asimov (1920-1992 AD)
  • Dear Palamon, dearer in love than blood
    And our prime cousin....

    • --W. Shakespeare, Two Noble Kinsmen, Act I, scene ii
  • The poor Transylvanian is dead that lay with the little baggage.
    • --W. Shakespeare, Pericles, Act IV, scene ii
  • Though this be madness, yet there is method in't.
    • --W. Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act II, scene ii


The Milesians

The first Ionian philosophers adopted a materialistic world view.  Sometimes called Milesians in honor of Thales, these philosophers suggested that any object's natural tendencies to move, or change (water into steam, for example) can be analyzed rationally if the basic elements that compose the object are identfied.  Of prime importance, then, was uncovering the nature of the simplest building block from which all the many different things we observe in the world around us are made:  the first principle, or arché of the universe.

Thales of Miletus (fl. 585 BCE)

Thales seems to have been an orator rather than a writer.  Believing that the best philosophy is based on the fewest hypotheses, Thales concluded that water must be the first principle.  Here's what Aristotle (384-322 BCE) had to say about Thales and his views:

Most of the early students of philosophy thought that first principles in the form of matter, and only these, are the sources of all things; for that of which all things consist, the antecedent from which they have sprung, and into which they are finally resolved (in so far as being underlies them and is changed with their changes), this they say is the element and first principle of things.

As to the quantity and form of this first principle, there is a difference of opinion; but Thales, the founder of this sort of philosophy, says that it is water (accordingly he declares that the earth rests on water), getting the idea, I suppose, because he saw that the nourishment of all beings is moist, and that warmth itself is generated from moisture and persists in it (for that from which all things spring is the first principle of them); and getting the idea also from the fact that the germs of all beings are of a moist nature, while water is the first principle of the nature of what is moist.

And there are some who think that the ancients, and they who lived long before the present generation, and the first students of the gods, had a similar idea in regard to nature; for in their poems Okeanos and Tethys were the parents of generation, and that by which the gods swore was water, the poets themselves called it Styx; for that which is most ancient is most highly esteemed, and that which is most highly esteemed is an object to swear by.  Whether there is any such ancient and early opinion concerning nature would be an obscure question; but Thales is said to have expressed this opinion in regard to the first cause.
    --Aristotle, Metaphysics, i. 3 ; 983 b 6.

Some say that the earth rests on water.  We have ascertained that the oldest statement of this character is the one accredited to Thales the Milesian, to the effect that it rests on water, floating like a piece of wood or something else of that sort.
    --Aristotle, On the Heavens, ii. 13; 294 a 28.
And Thales, according to what is related of him, seems to have regarded the soul as something endowed with the power of motion, if indeed he said that the loadstone has a soul because it moves iron.
    --Aristotle, On the Soul, i. 2; 405 a 19.
Anaximander of Miletus (fl. 555 BCE)

Anaximander (611-547 BCE) may have been a student of Thales.  Several inventions, including the sundial, are attributed to him.  He is reputed to have written the first Greek philosophical treatise, but only two fragments of this work remain.  We find them enclosed by quotation marks within the following statements:

fr. 1 [Anaximander] says that this [the Apeiron] is "eternal and ageless," and that it "encompasses all the worlds."
     --Hippolytus, Refutation of all Heresies, i. 6.

fr. 2 And into that from which things take their rise they pass away once more, "as is proper; for they make reparation and satisfaction to one another for their injustice according to the ordering of time," as [Anaximander] says in these somewhat poetical terms.
     --Theophrastus, Opinions of Physics.

Theophrastus (c. 372-287 BCE) was one of Aristotle's students.  Much of what we know of Anaximander comes from works attributed to him.

Anaximander agreed with the basic tenets of Thales, but disagreed his with choice of first principle.  Anaximander asserted that water is not enough:  If the arché were water, everything would be wet, but there are things that are dry and hot.  To account for the observed diversity in the world, Anaximander suggested that the arché must have an anonymous, neutral basis without observable properties or physical characteristics.  He called this the Apeiron.  This is a difficult word to translate.  The Apeiron has no boundaries but it is also able to assume all possible forms and properties.  English words that come close to conveying its meaning are "boundless," or "limitless," or "unrestricted."  Here is what Theophrastus has to say about Anaximander's views:

Anaximander of Miletos, son of Praxiades, a fellow-citizen and associate of Thales, said that the material cause and first element of things was the Apeiron, he being the first to introduce this name for the material basis of things.  It is (he said) identical neither with water nor with any other of the so-called elementary substances, but is something different from them, which is unconfined and from which arise all the heavens and the worlds within them....   He does not think that things come into being by change in the nature of the element, but by the separation of the opposites which the eternal motion causes.

At the beginning of the present world, something was separated off capable of begetting hot and cold out of the eternal.  From this arose a sphere of flame which fitted as closely round the earth's atmosphere as the bark around a tree.  When this had been stripped off and enclosed in rings, the Sun, Moon, and stars came into existence.  As for the sea:  at first, the whole terrestrial region was moist; and, as it was dried up by the sun, the portion of it that evaporated produced the winds and the turnings-back of the sun and moon, while the portion left behind was the sea....

Anaximander said that the Earth is cylindrical in shape, its depth being one-third of its breadth.  It swings freely, held in its place by nothing, staying where it is because of its equal distance from everything else.  It is hollow and round, like a stone pillar:  we live on one of the flat surfaces, the other being the opposite face of the cylinder.

In the heavens there are wheels of fire, separated from the fire of the world and surrounded by air.  In these wheels are breathing-holes:  like the holes of a flute, through which the fire is visible [as the Sun, Moon and stars].  When the breathing-holes are stopped up, eclipses take place.  And the moon seems to wax and wane as the passages open and close.  The wheel of the Sun is 27 times the size of the Earth, while that of the moon is 18 times as large.  The Sun's wheel is the highest [farthest] while the lowest [closest] are the wheels of the stars.

Animals come into being through vapours raised by the sun.  Man, however, came into being from another animal, namely the fish, for at first he was like a fish.  Winds are due to a separation of the lightest vapours and the motion of the masses of these vapours; and moisture comes from the vapour raised by the sun from them; and lightning occurs when a wind falls upon clouds and separates them.
     --Theophrastus, Opinions of Physics

Compare Theophrastus's description of Anaximander's ideas with the following commentaries written several centuries later:
[Anaximander] says that that which is productive from the eternal of hot and cold was separated off at the coming-to-be of this world, and that is a kind of sphere of flame and this was formed round the air surrounding the earth, like bark round a tree.  When this was broken off and shut off in certain circles the sun and the moon and the stars were formed.
     --pseudo-Plutarch, Miscellanies, 2.

Anaximander said that the sun is a circle twenty-eight times the size of the earth.  It is like the wheel of a chariot with a hollow rim full of fire.  At a certain point the fire shines out, through an opening like the nozzle of a pair of bellows....  An eclipse of the sun results from the closing of the opening through which the fire appears....  [T]he stars are compressions of air in the form of fire-filled wheels and they throw out flames through openings in a certain place....  The moon is a circle nineteen times as large as the earth: it is like a chariot-wheel, the rims of which is hollow and full of fire, like the circle of the sun, and it is placed obliquely, as that of the sun also is; it has one vent like the nozzle of a pair of bellows; its eclipses depend on the turning of the wheel.
     --Aëtius, II, 20-25.

Anaximenes of Miletus (Fl.. 535 BCE)

Anaximenes (556-480 BCE) argued that the arché is pneuma, a word synonymous with air and indistinguishable from vapor, wind or breath.  Anaximenes saw air as the mean between the opposites of hot and cold, wet and dry.  Air is not visible in its "normal" state.  And it can produce transitions from one state to another.  Like his predecessor, Anaximander, Anaximenes wrote down his thoughts.  Here is a fragment from his work:

"Just as," [Anaximenes] said, "our soul, being air, holds us together, so do breath and air encompass the whole world."
     --Aëtius, I, 3, 4)
Theophrastus provides a more complete account of Anaximenes' views:
Anaximenes of Miletos, son of Eurystratos, who had been an associate of Anaximander, said, like him, that the underlying substance was single and unbounded.  However, according to him it was not characterless, as it was for Anaximander, but had a definite character; for he said that it was Air.

He said that, while the Air was being thickened like felt, the Earth first came into being.  The Earth is like a table in shape.  It is very broad, and can accordingly be supported by the Air.  The Sun, Moon and other heavenly bodies, which are of a fiery nature, are likewise supported by the Air because of their breadth.  The heavenly bodies were produced out of moisture rising from the Earth.  When this rarefied, fire was produced:  the stars are composed of the fire thus raised aloft.  Revolving along with the stars there are also earthy bodies.

The heavenly bodies do not move under the Earth, as some supposed, but round it; like a cap turned round on one's head.  The Sun disappears from sight, not because it goes below the Earth, but because, having gone a long way from us, it is concealed by the higher parts of the Earth.  The stars give no heat because they are so far away.  They are fixed like nails in the crystalline vault of the heavens, though some say they are like fiery leaves painted on the heavens.
    --Theophrastus, Opinions of Physics


There were other influential philosophers of the time. Pythagoras of Samos (580-500 BCE), for example, argued that the first principle is number:

[T]he so-called Pythagoreans, who were the first to take up mathematics, not only advanced this study, but also having been brought up in it they thought its principles were the principles of all things.  Since of these principles numbers are by nature the first, and in numbers they seemed to see many resemblances to the things that exist and come into being -- more than in fire and earth and water (such and such a modification of numbers being justice, another being soul and reason, another being opportunity -- and similarly almost all other things being numerically expressible); since, again, they saw that the modifications and the ratios of the musical scales were expressible in numbers: -- since, then, all other things seemed in their whole nature to be modelled on numbers, and numbers seemed to be the first things in the whole of nature, they supposed the elements of numbers to be the elements of all things, and the whole heaven to be a musical scale and a number.  And all the properties of numbers and scales which they could show to agree with the attributes and parts and the whole arrangement of the heavens, they collected and fitted into a scheme; and if there was a gap anywhere, they readily made additions so as to make their whole theory coherent.  E.g. as the number 10 is thought to be perfect and to comprise the whole nature of numbers, they say that the [spheres] which move through the heavens are ten, but as the visible [spheres] are only nine, to meet this they invent a tenth -- the 'counter-earth'.
     --Aristotle, Metaphysics, i. 5.

Heraclitus of Ephesus (510-475 BCE) proposed that the harmony and stability seen in the universe is the result of a dynamic equilibrium of opposing forces.  The arché in Heraclitus' ever-changing system is fire:
There is an exchange:  all things for Fire and Fire for all things, like goods for gold and gold for goods.

Heraclitus says somewhere that all things are in process and nothing stays still, and likening existing things to the stream of a river he says that you would not step in that same river twice.
     --Plato, Cratylus

The Eleatics

Parmenides of Elea (fl. 480 BCE) marked a major turning point in Greek thought.  In his work, On Nature, he presented his successors with a conundrum, a crisis of explanation which they would have to confront and either accept or refute.  What can we know for certain?  And how can we distinguish it from matters of opinion?  Is the diversity in the world that we observe real?  Or is it only an illusion?  When something appears to change into something else, where does that new thing come from?  Did it already exist?  In what form?

Here is an excerpt from Parmenides' On Nature (Peri Physeos):

The mares, which carry me as far as my heart desires, were escorting me.  They brought and placed me upon the well-spoken path of the Goddess, which carries everywhere unscathed the mortal who knows.  Thereon was I carried, for thereon the wise mares did carry me, straining to pull the chariot, with maidens guiding the way.  The axle, glowing in its naves, gave forth the shrill sound of a musical pipe, urged on by two rounded wheels on either end, even whilst maidens, Daughters of the Sun, were hastening to escort me, after leaving the House of Night for the light, having pushed back the veils from their heads with their hands.

Ahead are the gates of the paths of Night and Day.  A lintel and stone threshold surround them.  The aetherial gates themselves are filled with great doors, for which much-avenging Justice holds the keys of retribution.  Coaxing her with gentle words, the maidens did cunningly persuade her to push back the bolted bar for them swiftly from the gates.  These made of the doors a yawning gap as they were opened wide, swinging in turn the bronze posts in their sockets, fastened with rivets and pins.  Straight through them at that point did the maidens drive the chariot and mares along the broad way.

The Goddess received me kindly, took my right hand in Hers, uttered speech and thus addressed me:  "Youth, attended by immortal charioteers, who come to our House by these mares that carry you, welcome.  For it was no ill fortune that sent you forth to travel this road (lying far indeed from the beaten path of humans), but Right and Justice.  And it is right that you should learn all things, both the persuasive, unshaken heart of Objective Truth, and the subjective beliefs of mortals, in which there is no true trust.  But you shall learn these too:  how, for the mortals passing through them, the things-that-seem must 'really exist', being, for them, all there is."

The Way of Objectivity (Aletheia)
"Come now, listen, and convey my story. I shall tell you what paths of inquiry alone there are for thinking:
#1. The one: that it is and it is impossible for it not to be.
"This is the path of Persuasion, for it accompanies Objective Truth.
#2. The other: that it is not and it necessarily must not be.
"That, I point out to you, is a path wholly unthinkable, for neither could you know what-is-not (for that is impossible), nor could you point it out.
"Whatever can be spoken or thought of necessarily is, since it is possible for it to be, but it is not possible for nothing to be.  I urge you to consider this last point, for I restrain you firstly from that path of inquiry (#2), and secondly from:
#3. The one on which mortals, knowing nothing, wander, two-headed, for helplessness in their breasts guides their wandering minds and they are carried, deaf and blind alike, dazed, uncritical tribes, for whom being and not-being are thought the same and yet not the same, and the path of all runs in opposite directions.  For never shall this be proved:  that things that are not, are.  But do restrain your thought from this path of inquiry, and do not let habit, born from much experience, compel you along this path, to guide your sightless eye and ringing ear and tongue.  But judge by reason the highly contentious disproof that I have spoken.
"One path only is left for us to speak of:  that it is.  On this path there are a multitude of indications that what-is, being ungenerated, is also imperishable, whole, of a single kind, immovable and complete.  Nor was it once, nor will it be, since it is, now, all together, one and continuous.  For what coming-to-be of it will you seek?  How and from where did it grow?  I shall not permit you to say or to think that it grew from what-is-not, for it is not to be said or thought that it is not.  What necessity could have impelled it to grow later rather than sooner, if it began from nothing?  Thus it must either fully be, or be not at all.  Nor will the force of conviction ever allow anything, from what-is, to come-to-be something apart from itself; wherefore Justice does not loosen her shackles so as to allow it to come-to-be or to perish, but holds it fast.

"The decision on these matters depends on this:  either it is or it is not.  But it has been decided, as is necessary, to let go the one as unthinkable and unnameable (for it is no true path), but to allow the other, so that it is, and is true.  How could what-is be in the future?  How could it come-to-be?  For if it came-to-be, it is not, nor is it if at some time it is going to be.  Thus, coming-to-be is extinguished and perishing unheard of.

"Nor is it divisible, since it all alike is.  Nor is there any more of it here than there, to hinder it from holding together, nor any less of it, but it is all a plenum, full of what-is.  Therefore, it is all continuous, for what-is touches what-is.

"Moreover, unchanging in the limits of great bonds, it is without beginning or end, since coming-to-be and perishing were banished far away, and true conviction drove them out.  Remaining the same, in the same place, it lies in itself, and thus firmly remains there.  For mighty Necessity holds it fast in the bonds of a limit, which fences it about, since it is not right for what-is to be incomplete.  For it lacks nothing.  If it lacked anything, it would lack everything.

"Since, then, there is an ultimate limit, it is completed from every direction like the bulk of a perfect sphere, evenly balanced in every way from the centre, as it must not be any greater or smaller here than there.  For neither is there what-is-not, which could stop it from reaching its like, nor is there a way in which what-is could be more here and less there, since it all inviolably is.  For equal to itself in every direction, it reaches its limits uniformly.

"The same thing is there for thinking of and for being.  Look upon things which, though absent, are yet firmly present in thought (for you shall not cut off what-is from holding fast to what-is, since it neither disperses itself in all directions throughout the order of the Cosmos, nor does it gather itself together).  It is the same thing, to think of something and to think that it is, since you will never find thought without what-is, to which it refers, and on which it depends.  For nothing is nor will be except what-is, since it was just this that Fate did shackle to be whole and unchanging; wherefore it has been named all things that mortals have established, persuaded that they are true:  'to come-to-be and to perish', 'to be and not to be' and 'to shift place and exchange bright colour.'"

The Way of Subjectivity (Doxa)
"Wherever I begin, it is all one to me, for there I shall return again.

"Here I stop my trustworthy speech to you and thought about Objective Truth.  From here on, learn the subjective beliefs of mortals; listen to the deceptive ordering of my words.  For they made up their minds to name two forms, one of which it is not right to name at all (here is where they have gone astray) and have distinguished them as opposite in bodily form and have assigned to them marks distinguishing them from one another:

#1. Here, on the one hand, aetherial flame of fire, gentle, very light, everywhere the same as itself...

#2. But not the same as this other, which in itself is opposite:  dark night, a dense and heavy body.

"All this order I present to you as probable, so that no mortal belief shall ever outdo you.  But since all things have been named light and night, and their powers have been assigned to each, all is a plenum of light and obscure night together, both equal, since nothingness partakes in neither.

"You shall know the nature of the aether and all the signs in the aether, the destructive works of the splendid Sun's pure torch, and whence they came-to-be.  And you shall learn the wandering works of the round-faced Moon, and its nature, and you shall know also the surrounding heaven, whence it grew and how Necessity did guide and shackle it to hold the limits of the stars.  The Moon:  night-shiner, wandering around the Earth, an alien light, always looking towards the rays of the Sun.  The Earth:  rooted-in-water.  And you shall learn how Earth and Sun and Moon and the aether common to all, the Milky Way and the outermost heaven, and the hot force of the stars did surge forth to come-to-be."

Go to:
  • excerpt from Plato's Timaeus; and
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