THE PRE-SOCRATICS (7th - 5th cent. BC)

We could say that western philosophy and science began on the islands of Miletus and Samos, near the Anatolian coast, with a new Greek vision. This has shaped European thought.

Greek culture traditionally had conceived humans as puppets in the hands of the gods. At the time of the Persian invasion of the Aegean islands in 547 B.C. philosophers, probably highly influenced by Persian ideas, began to speculate on the composition of the universe, the geometry of nature, the role of humanity and the existence of the gods. The novelty of their perception was that humans were independent of the gods and could project their world without them. The Greeks were also original in their belief that the universe formed a harmonic unit, what they called Cosmos. This implied the concept of the universe as a system that could be analyzed and understood. This was
the scientific vision that established the foundations of our western perception of the universe.

One of the most famous concepts is that of Pythagoras of Samos which proposes that we can understand nature through mathematics. This marked the beginning of the investigation of nature by humanity and our vision of dominion over it. The Pythagorean concepts emanating from Samos incorporated Eastern sources such as astronomy, Babylonian mathematics, and India's ideas about reincarnation. Archaeological investigations have discovered a Babylonian tablet, written in cuneiform and classified as Plimpton 322, which describes trigonometry calculations a millennium before the Pythagoreans. But to them we owe the fact of bringing knowledge to the West, to the south of modern Italy.

From Samos it is easy to understand why ideas came from the East: it is an intermediate point on the Eurasian continent. In fact, the word 'Asia' in ancient Greek meant Anatolia, the Turkish coast visible from the islands of Samos and Miletus. There began the geography of the lands of the Fertile Crescent and the first civilisations: Persia, Egypt, India and China.

Miletus, Samos and Anatolia were also part of the Persian empire whose excellent communications helped the flow of ideas.

Thales lived in the Greek city of Miletus, Ionia, in the 5th century B.C. He was a mathematician and an astronomer. He founded the Miletian school of natural philosophy (today's physics) where Anaximandro was a student. Their objective was to define the nature (physis) that was at the base of all material. He defined it as water. (Anaximander, on the other hand, argued that the first principle was air.)

Thales explained earthquakes through the hypothesis that land floats on water and when waves move it causes earthworks. The novelty of this explanation is that it is offered as a hypothesis that can be confirmed, or not. Furthermore, it has no reference to the supernatural or mythological explanations of the earlier Greek tradition. Thales' greatest contribution was his inquisitive and open approach to natural phenomena.

In religion he recognized a single transcendental God who has no beginning or end but who expresses himself through other gods. (A conception very similar to Zoriastrian monotheism, the official religion of the empire of the day, the Persian.)

Politically, he was in favor of benign tyranny more than democracy. He was a nationalist in matters of gender and nationality: he thought that men were better than women and Greeks superior to all others (called 'barbarians').

Herodotus was a Greek from the city of Halicanaso, an Aegean port in Asia Minor, part of the Persian empire. He published his Histories between 426 and 415 B.C. Their objective was to explain the unexpected Greek victory in the wars against the Persians (500 to 449 B.C.)

Unlike Homer Herodotus does not claim an inspiration from the Muses. However, he opens his work with a tribute to the world of the Homeric hero and his effort to achieve glory (kleos). After all, both authors were reporters of the great Greek events and preserved them for posterity. Herodotus also combined the two major themes of the Homeric epic: travel and war. He uses the history of the Persian imperial expansion to delve into the cultures of the colonizers and colonized in the century that preceded the wars. History and culture intermingle in his story.

Although his way of exploring the world is proto-scientific, what distinguishes Herodotus' historical research is his approach. The 'why' is a constant in his work. Why did the war between Greece and the barbarians start? Why are there floods on the Nile? ...

The search for origins is another major theme in the Histories. He explains the disparate references presenting them as part of a Cosmos, an ordered and understandable world. Herodotus' story makes sense because it is a story that shapes a logical universe. (In a similar way Hesiod had 'explained' and made sense of the world of the gods by presenting his genealogy. Similarly, Thales and his contemporaries were trying to make logical sense of the physical world.)

Despite its debt to the Greek tradition of Homer and Hesiod, the Herodotus Histories represent the transition from a mythical and archaic vision, like the Homeric epic, to a new perception that manifests itself in a way of investigating more accurately how the world works.

Zeno of Elea is famous for his paradoxical logic. Many of his arguments revolve around the notion that time and space are infinitely divisible. Zeno was the first to demonstrate that the concept of infinity is problematic.

He gave the example of a runner in a race with a turtle. His logical paradox demonstrated that a fast runner could never catch up with a slow one. As his mentor Parmenides said 'motion is an illusion'.

In fact, the paradoxes were designed to support Parmenides' distinction between appearance and reality. It is complete and united and cannot be destroyed so appearances are illusions. Our confidence in the reality of motion, change, and the existence of multiple objects implies absurdities. These abstract approaches intrigued many later philosophers including Plato and Aristotle. This latter went beyond Zeno's paradoxical thinking through his 'dialectics' which confronted two ideas in order to come to a synthetic conclusion.

Phidias was faithful to the classical
ideal of Greek culture: the perfect harmony between the virtues of beauty and morals, between ethics and aesthetics.

He started as a painter and distinguished himself as a sculptor. All his works have been lost to posterity, but it is known that as artistic director of the Parthenon he carved two statues of Athena that were on the Acropolis. He also created a giant sculpture of Zeus made of gold and ivory for the Temple of Olympia.

Phidias's style must have been monumental. It shaped the human body perfectly and rendered it in a harmonious and contained way. These are the parameters of the classic style of the 5th and 6th centuries.


The pre-socratic philosophers were struggling against the traditional interpretation of nature (physis) which attributed natural events to the works of unpredictable gods. They were trying to formulate new accounts based on a belief called the Cosmos: the universe is a complex and orderly system and so is intelligible to rational thought. These novel interpretations took the form of asking basic questions about the world, and its Essence, that is, its metaphysical meaning, beyond our sensory perception. As a response the Pre-socratics invented a metaphor: The Essence of Nature is Matter. Essence was understood within three subcategories: substance, form, or a pattern of change. This made sense because objects around them had these characteristics. For example a tree: its substance is wood; its form is roots and branches and its round shape; its pattern of change is growth from seed to sapling to maturity to death.

Thales believed that particular things are instances of something general. This led to his concluding that the common particular elements earth, air, fire, and water were all examples of a general thing. He noticed things contain water. The earth lies on water. All life depends on water. As he thought that one was more general than the others, he affirmed that the basic nature of everything is water. He believed that this general conceptualisation was true, which converts it into a metaphysical statement. 

Anaximander was Thales' contemporary and detected a flaw in his compatriots thinking. His argument was that any of the four elements was held to possess two of the four qualities (Cold, Hot, Wet, Dry). If reality were water, as Thales proclaimed, then all reality must be wet and cold or hot. Yet fire is real but is hot and dry, so water cannot be the ultimate reality. Anaximander proposed a new (metaphoric) reality: The Essence of Being Is Indeterminate Matter. For him it was the apeiron, the unbounded, the indeterminate.

Anaximanes came up with a different solution. His (metaphoric) reality was that the Essence of Being is Air. He reasoned that Air is common rarified matter and its form is what makes it the essence of matter, since it is what distinguishes one thing from another. He also argued that all four elements are differing forms of Air:
- Water is condensed Air since water is denser than air
- Earth is condensed Water since earth is denser than water
- Fire is rarefied Air since fire is less dense than air.

Heraclitus, contrary to other Aegean philosophers who considered Being as something static, proposed a new vision of the world as constantly in flux, becoming instead of being. This is summed up in his saying: "Everything flows" (Greek: πάντα ρει). Heraclitus' metaphor of reality is: The Essence of Being is Change.

The Pythagoreans argued that they had discovered a type of form which would explain the existence of things and their characteristics: numbers. They could be used in geometry to measure the earth, in music to determine scales, cords, meter, rhythm and pitch and in astronomy to describe movements observed in the sky.

Pythagorean philosophy fitted easily into the Greek metaphorical concept that Thinking is Mathematical Calculation. Ideas are numbers and logical conclusions are sums. The Pythagoreans were a religious sect and numbers were part of their mystical experiences. Theoretical physics today is part of that same tradition in popular presentations when they suggest that the causal essence of the universe is found in mathematical formulae.

We can find a similar analysis of the world in many other major pre-socratic metaphysical thinking.
Parmenides and Zeno, his disciple, thought that The Logical form of Thought was the Essence of Being.
Democritus and Leucippus proposed that The Essence of Being was Atoms and The
Sophists, like Protagoras, argued that The Essence of Being was Appearance.

The pre-socratic tradition of the three basic metaphors for essence has been continued to the present day where we can find the images of materialist metaphysics in Essence Is Matter, formalist metaphysics in Essence Is Form, and process metaphysics in Essence Is Patterns of Change. They entered contemporary thinking through the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle.

The Pre-socratic philosophers were stepping away from the traditional reasoning about Nature which was based on the whim of the gods. However, just as traditional religious thinking assumes that there is a divine reason for the way things are, the pre-socratic metaphysical question of the Essence of Being has permeated Western thinking so that many people formulate metaphysical questions in terms of God and the Nature of God. This is because theological thinking has been conceptualised in terms of Being and the Nature of God as the Essence of Being. It is ironic to note that pre-socratic thinking was an attempt to escape explanation of the world based on divine interventions, yet their questions reformulated today still include the monotheistic belief in a Divinity. Is this the matrix of Western metaphysical thought?

More information...
Philosophy in the flesh by Lakoff & Johnson

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