The Presocratics (7 - 5 B.C.)

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. Thier objective was to define the nature (fisis) 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 Punic Wars (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.

Aeschylus was a Greek playwright in classical Athens. He participated in the Marathon and Salamis battles during the Punic Wars. He wrote the
play The Persians in response to these experiences.

His best known work is Prometheus in Chains which tells of the punishment imposed by Zeus on Prometheus for giving fire to humans. The tragedies of Aeschylus have a moral background. Some illustrate the idea that we cannot escape the evil deeds of our ancestors and the consequent divine retribution. Others stage the conflict between the individual and the state, between humans and the gods and the fight against the old enemy, Time. Another theme is the threat that violence can exert on reason and persuasion,
in short rhetoric verses brute force.

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.

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