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Presocratics (600-400 BCE)


From Mythic to Rational Mentality
Ciccarelli Creation: "It was a dark and stormy night..."
Forms of the Presocratic Quest
The Legacy of the Presocratics
Reaction against Presocratic Natural Philosophy
Protagoras the Sophist (490-421)
Socrates (c.470-399)
Contrasts between Sophism and Socrates
Ciccarelli Creation: A Dialogue between a Sophist and a Disciple of Socrates

From Mythic to Rational Mentality

The Presocratics (so-called because they precede the watershed figure of Socrates) were the first philosophers of the West. They found a way to break out of the reigning mythic mentality and sought to explain nature rationally by means of speculative principles of various kinds generated on the basis of critical observation of the world. Because of this, and because they originated in Milesia on the island of Ionia, the earliest of them are sometimes called Milesian physicists.

This shift from mythic to rational mentality can be characterized as a movement from Who? and Why? questions about the cosmos to What? and How? questions. This shift occurred in part as a side-effect of frustration with the irreconcilable conflict of answers to Who? and Why? questions that were encountered on a regular basis in the trading city of Milesia, where cosmogonic myths would have been swapped along with goods.

How can we understand what this shift in driving questions must have meant? The following story might help to explain it.

"It was a Dark and Stormy Night..."

It was a dark and stormy night. . . A child awoke and began to cry, terrified by the thunder and lightening, and his father came in to comfort him. His rational explanations about the storm did nothing to reassure the child, whose screams almost drowned out the noise of the storm. Desperate, the father tried a story -- a tactic that often comforted the child.

Indeed, slowly, the child quieted his sobs in order to listen. It was a story about the god of lightning, drawn from fragments the father recalled from a collection of mythology. Before long, however, the child stopped the narrative with a question. "Why?" he asked. "Why does the lightning god live in our sky?"

The father tried to weave an answer to the question into the story, but the child soon interrupted with another question, and then another. Always "why?" The questions pushed the father’s creativity and patience beyond their normal limits, and he finally stopped, frustrated. At that moment an enormous bolt of lightning illuminated the sky, followed seconds later by its thunderclap. Immediately, the child began screaming again.

"What does he want? What can I do?" the father wondered. First the crying, and then the questions, which seemed to have no logical purpose, just the incessant "why?" -- a stream of queries without any end. Suddenly, the father had an inspiration. It must end at the beginning, he told himself. And he started another story. This time, he began as far back as he could imagine, with the birth of the world itself. The child gradually quieted once again and began to listen. And so, as the storm continued to rage, the father retold and recreated one of the ancient stories of origins for his son, until the boy dropped off to sleep.

As he walked down the hall back to his bedroom, the father heard his daughter call out. "Dad? Is that you?"

Sighing, he opened the girl’s door. She sat up in bed. "Robert’s afraid, huh?" she asked. And then she continued, "It’s a pretty bad storm. . . but I’m not afraid." The father asked if she would like to hear a story also. She hesitated a moment. "What kind of story? " The father explained that he had told her brother some of the stories from ancient mythology. "No thanks," she said. "We already heard a bunch of those in school." And, as if he might be hurt, she quickly added, "some of them are pretty cool."

The father then kissed her good night and began to go back to bed. "But look at that one!" the girl cried, as a spectacular lightning bolt struck. The father realized he wasn’t going to get back to sleep yet, and resigned himself to at least a half hour of watching and discussing the storm with his daughter. She was extremely curious about it and she was a great talker. "I wonder what it is," she said. Her father began to explain about electricity when she broke in, "I wonder what everything is. I mean, I’m not so interested in that old mythology, but I do wonder about the world and electrons and how they are in this bed," and here she thumped the pillow beside her, "and in the windowsill and the lightning and everything. And yet things are different, they don’t look like they could be just electrons and atoms, do they? It just looks like a regular world." The father nodded. She finished triumphantly, "Your stories can’t tell us anything about that, now, can they?"

Forms of the Presocratic Quest

The Presocratic explanations of nature assumed that there were four basic elements (as compared with our much more extensive list of basic elements): earth, water, air, and fire. Their quest to explain nature had to account for these elements as well as the objects and process in nature that these elements made possible.

The Presocratic quest to answer the What? and How? questions can be understood to have taken four basic directions.

1. Quest for material principle that explains nature

Thales (c.585, Milesia): water is the fundamental material principle that divides to produce the diversity of natural objects and processes.

Anaximander (c.611-547, Milesia): the apeiron (non-perceptible ultimate) is the fundamental material principle that separates into hot and cold, wet and dry, to form the diversity of natural objects and processes.

Anaximenes (c.550, Milesia): air is the fundamental material principle that divides to produce the natural diversity of the cosmos.

Heraclitus (c.500): fire is the fundamental material principle, which allows speaking of nature as a dynamic process developing within tensions of opposites. Heraclitus said, "you cannot step twice into the same river" (contra Parmenides; see below).

2. Quest for one formal principle that explains nature

Pythagoras (c.570-c.500): religious leader, mathematician, wrestler, musician, healer, philosopher. He founded a secret society whose members believed the cosmos to be a mathematical-musical harmony.

Parmenides (c.500, Elea): reality is one, eternal, unchanging. From this it follows that the world of appearances is illusory and that the ultimate is non-sensible, reachable only by pure thought and argument (this proved to be a crucial influence upon Plato). Parmenides' student, Zeno, elaborated famous arguments for his teacher's viewpoint.

3. Quest for plurality of principles that explain nature

Empedocles (c.490-430): the four elements (fire, air, water, earth) combine or divide (through the basic principles of love and strife) to produce the order and chaos of nature as we experience it.

Democritus (c.460-380): the basic constituents of reality are numerous microscopic, solid, varied, indivisible atoms; these atoms collide in the void of space and accumulate to make the objects and processes of nature.

4. Quest for teleological principles that explain nature

Anaxagoras (c.500-428): "Mind" outside of the cosmos forms a lump of matter that is not distinguished into parts. After this initial originating event, the objects of the ordered cosmos result from natural changes requiring no special Mind-intervention (rather than being Mind-made substances).

Diogenes (c.470): Anaximenes’ air is Anaxagoras’ Mind, or intelligence; it enlivens all things. The world is optimally ordered because Mind is its fundamental principle.

The Legacy of the Presocratics

It can be argued that the Presocratics bequeathed a number of basic issues to subsequent philosophy. Here those problems are grouped into three familes, the third of which only came to the fore late in the Presocratic period.

1. The Problem of the Ultimate Nature of Reality

This problem can be expressed with the following question: What is the ultimate nature of reality, and how can we find out this ultimate nature? Forms of this question were raised in relation to:

  • Reason and Experience
  • Being and Becoming
  • The One and the Many

2. The Problem of the Constituents of Ultimate Reality

This problem can be expressed with the following question: What kinds of things, ultimately, are in reality? Forms of this question were raised in relation to:

  • The Sensible and the Non-Sensible
  • Order, Chaos and Equilibrium
  • Nature and Humanity

3. The Problem of Humanity and Ultimate Reality

This problem can be expressed with the following question: How do human affairs relate to ultimate reality? Forms of this question were raised in relation to:

  • Human Knowledge
  • The Good Life
  • The Ideal Human Society

Reaction against Presocratic Natural Philosophy

Toward the end of the Presocratic period there was a reaction against what was rightly seen as one-sided philosophical questioning: following the Milesian philosopher-physicists, the Presocratics tended to be interested in natural philosophy and not the philosophy of human affairs. This reaction has its origins within the pre-Socratics themselves, of course, and its greatest representatives were the Sophists and Socrates.

The Sophists and Socrates both made these two criticisms of the pre-Socratic natural philosophy:

  • Vain: its speculation was not controlled by precise definitions and arguments, so that it could not hope to reach worthwhile conclusions.
  • Trivial: its reflections for the most part leaves humans out, except as instances of nature. But human affairs are the most important and interesting philosophical concern.

Now Socrates and the Sophists, though having in common this critique of their predecessors and a strong interest in human affairs, differed greatly on how to think about the relevant problems, and what was possible in the way of solutions to those problems. Unfortunately, we have only secondary material by which to discern the teachings of Sophism, in so far as it can even be thought of as having a uniform mode of thought, and most of its secondary representations in Plato’s writings tend to be unflattering. The Platonic caricature of Sophism is of interest in itself, naturally enough, but we will try to reach a characterization of Sophism through what can be reconstructed of the thoughts of one of its greatest exponents: Protagoras.

Protagoras the Sophist (490-421)

Protagoras was the most famous of the Sophists, who were free-enterprise, itinerant teachers of philosophy; it is difficult to be sure about their teachings, and its is highly likely that their teachings were greatly varied, as already mentioned. However, there appear to be several theses—moderated aspects of the famous caricature of Sophism—to which Protagoras was committed.

  • Phenomenalism: Protagoras attempted to explain reality in terms of the world of appearances, with all of its contradictions. He thought observation of those appearances was a more trustworthy way of finding out about ultimate reality than pure reason, unaided by experience. Thus he rejected those elements of the pre-Socratic quest for deep explanations that tried to penetrate behind the veil of appearances. So, for example, he probably would have thought the Eleatic philosophers absurd, obsessed with a vain goal, deluded by their own infatuation of the powers of reason. There is simply not much point in trying to press beyond appearances, because human reason is an unreliable guide. This low view of human reason corresponds to a generally skeptical view of human moral and intellectual capacity.
  • Relativism: Because access to ultimate reality is not possible or practical for human reason, it is necessary to regard moral, aesthetic and political value as determined not by nature but by convention. Thus the famous phrase, "man is the measure of all things."
  • Democracy: On the one hand, virtue and political wisdom so understood can be taught to a considerable extent, and indeed must be taught if it is to be possessed at all, so the right to rule cannot be awarded on the basis of wealth or birth or social position. On the other hand, humans are notoriously corrupt, so the best way to protect societies from the tendency toward corruption of its rulers is to adopt a democratic political policy. It might be messy, but it is more resilient to corruption because power is distributed widely in a democracy. Power might corrupt, but absolute power corrupts absolutely, and this state of affairs is very likely given the natural depravity of human beings.

Socrates (c.470-399)

To see a painting of Socrates' death by Jacques-Louis David (1787) housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, click here.

Socrates was an inspiring philosopher, the teacher of Plato for probably 20 years, and a ceaseless seeker after truth and goodness, according to Plato.

It is hard to determine any facts about his life with confidence; according to Plato’s Crito and Apology, he had a wife and children, and he died by drinking poison (hemlock) after condemnation for not believing in the state’s gods (i.e. treason) and for corrupting the youth of Athens. He never wrote anything, but was an inspiring teacher.

Socrates’ influence is measured especially through Plato, his most famous pupil, who often makes Socrates a character in his dialogues, usually expressing Plato’s point of view (though not always). In the Republic, Socrates is the ideal human, the philosopher-archetype for humanity, an illustration of the key to personal happiness and social justice.

Though reputedly a brilliant dialectician, like the Sophists, Socrates opposed receiving money for his teaching as they did (he probably didn’t need the cash like the Sophists did!). He thought Sophists were not truth-seekers because of their phenomenalism and relativism.

By contrast with Protagoras, Socrates thought that ultimate reality was deceptive at the level of appearances, but that reason, freed from its indebtedness to experience, could penetrate the veil of appearances to discern the form of ultimate reality that lies beyond. This optimistic estimate of human reason corresponds to an optimistic view of the ability of humans to secure happiness and social justice through education in philosophy: the unreflective life is not worth living.

Contrasts between Socrates and the Sophists

Against the background of the pre-Socratic legacy, and the problems it raises, Socrates and Protagoras occupy opposing positions. Here, in many places, the caricature of Sophism will serve in place of definite knowledge of Protagoras’ actual views.



Protagoras and the Sophists

Reason versus Experience Socrates was suspicious of experience of appearances, and optimistic about the powers of human reason to penetrate those appearances. Protagoras was deeply suspicious of human reason and felt that only experience and careful observation of the world of appearances could be trusted.
One versus Many Socrates thought that ultimate reality was one and fundamentally unchanging in itself; this could be discovered by pure reason, so long as it could shake free of the plural appearance of reality. Protagoras thought that thinking about this problem of the one and the many was a waste of time, and so you have to be content with the irreducible plurality of the world of appearances.
Being versus Becoming Socrates thought that being was ultimately basic, and becoming a secondary quality of the world of appearances. Again, Protagoras believed it was vain to try to sort out this dilemma; you have to be content with the apparent flux of reality.
Sensible versus Non-Sensible Socrates thought not only that the non-sensible was real, but that it was the most real of all; the world of appearances was formed by it. Protagoras thought that the sensible, the experiencable, had to be the ultimate guide for human understanding of reality.
Order, Chaos and Equilibrium Socrates thought that the source of order was the unseen world of forms, and that equilibrium between order and chaos was achieved when society and personal life modeled themselves after the forms. Protagoras thought that there was no point speculating on the origin of order and chaos, and that equilibrium of individual life and human society was achieved when and so long as human beings made it so.
Human Knowledge Socrates thought that humans are able to know reality because they bear within themselves the nature of the forms, and a kind of resonance is set up between the world and human understanding, somewhat like remembering. Protagoras thought that humans could know because their experience gave them information about the world. This also indicates the reasons for the limits that exist on the human capacity to know reality.
The Good Life Socrates thought that the truly happy person is the one who can see the forms, the world of ideas, and so be free of the preliminary, finite concerns and fears of life. Protagoras thought that the happy person was the one who was self-contained, who could take fair advantage of society’s goods to secure his or her needs and desires.
The Good Society Socrates thought that pure reason could deduce the arrangement of the ideal society, which consisted in a limited aristocracy of education, so that the most gifted would rule and live communally, while others would live according to the laws set by those passing the arduous tests of education. Protagoras thought that society was responsible for delivering human beings from savagery and chaos, and that it was steadily evolving through its production of goods and culture. Avoiding the collapse of this evolution is achieved with highest probability when government is democratic.

Ciccarelli Creation: A Dialogue between a Sophist and a Disciple of Socrates

Sophist (speaking to two young men): -- and thus, there are three things that it would profit you to understand. But before I conclude, since I have already been teaching you for some time and a good teacher deserves some measure of recompense -- do you have something for me from your father?

Sophist (as he receives sum of money): Ah, that is good. Now, as I was saying -- (he breaks off)

(A disciple of Socrates approaches)

Sophist: But here is one of my detractors. Hail, friend!

Disciple of Socrates (dS): And hail, fellow teacher. I wish I could say fellow truth-seeker.

Sophist: I was just about to summarize my teachings for these two young men. Perhaps you would care to listen, to learn?

dS: I am always willing to listen. But not one coin shall you gain from me--it is not my habit to place a price on the search for wisdom. I seek wisdom as a lover seeks the beloved.

Sophist: Well, all honest citizens must earn their living. What better way than to teach? And now, here are three gems from my collection of wisdom.

dS: Display them one at a time, and, one at a time, I shall take them up and examine them; knowing, as we both must, that wisdom and gems are valued in large part by the extent to which they are free of flaws.

Sophist (turns to the 2 boys): First, I charge you to experience the world. Pay careful attention to the way that things and people appear to you, for these appearances are, in fact, your real teachers. How can you expect to know anything about the world if you do not respect the things in it? What you see, touch, hear: these things will reveal much truth to you if you take notice of them.

dS: This is curious. The appearance of things that change, die, crumble into dust (and thus the appearance of all that we see or touch in this world): can they teach us about what is eternally true, what can never change? And is not eternal, changeless truth the much-desired object of wisdom?

One of the boys: Indeed, it seems evident that truth, to have any meaning at all, must be constant and everlasting.

dS: Now, what would you consider more real: a face reflected in a pond, or the person's face itself?

One of the boys: That I can answer! The face is more real. The other will not last but a moment, and even then is shifting and fragile.

dS: Now the person's face. Is it the same at every moment throughout life?

Boy: No, of course not. Soon, for instance, I will be bearded, and then will have wrinkles around the corners of my eyes, and eventually even a creeping bald spot like yours.

Sophist (laughing): You see, I have taught the boys well; they are observant of things.

dS (smiling):You have indeed taught them to use their eyes and sharpen their tongue. True vision, however, is not merely a matter of keen eyesight. As teachers, do we not seek to make all lack of substance, whether of things or of statements, transparent to our pupils? Reason, and not merely observation, then, is the necessary tool.

Sophist: Careful thought is indeed the friend of every well-educated citizen, provided that it is applied to the fruit of experience and in the pursuit of a useful and virtuous life.

dS: Perhaps we can now apply our reason, carefully, to the fruit of this most immediate experience, our inquiry into the nature of appearances. Shall we say that the appearances of the changeable things of this world, for instance the reflection and the face, are like so many shadows compared to what is true? And that, no matter how meticulous our attention to their detail, we search in vain among them for truth itself? The realm where exist ideas like truth, changeless and eternal, must indeed be more substantial, more real than this shadow world of mere appearances; for just as we call the object that throws a shadow more real than the shadow itself, so an object subject to change and decay must have less reality than something which does not change. And truth, we have agreed, is eternal and unchanging.

Sophist: Attractive as this vision of another reality may be to one who dreams, I must speak words of common sense to these boys: the real world of experience is here about us, and it is our business to understand it so that we can lead better lives. I have no patience with a reality concocted out of too-subtle reasoning, a reality that has no relation to what a person experiences every day.

dS: I can agree that our experience of this world of appearances has real consequence. For appearances at best are suggestive of a higher reality. Since, moreover, they are even more likely to lead us astray, we do well to attend carefully to them. Here, your reason, however, and not your senses, will help you discriminate. And it is your reason, a faculty that you have as yet hardly exercised, that will carry you to the realm of higher reality and truth.

Sophist: They may perhaps be grateful that their education has not encouraged this kind of mental flight, and that their intellectual exercises have been directed toward skills that will be useful to them in their future lives as citizens of this city. But perhaps what I teach them¾ public speech, civic leadership--perhaps these things, too, are not real enough to be considered worthy of our attention?

(Doesn't wait for an answer) But this brings me to my second lesson, boys, which has to do with your response to your experiences. For people are in fact the measure of all things. Things, actions, are not good or evil in themselves--how could they be? It is people who think and deliberate and choose; and it is people who thus decide what is honorable, good, and just. But this is a great responsibility, one you need not bear alone. You must learn not only by paying attention to things, but by absorbing the collective wisdom of your fellow citizens.

dS: If this is so, I fear for our ability to lead virtuous lives. The good cannot depend upon the whim of a people. People change their minds, they make mistakes, they can have poor judgment, even about matters so important as education. (looks from boys to the Sophist)

One of the boys: This is true. (Reddens) I mean . . . that people can be mistaken. I have made errors in my calculations on many occasions.

dS: You would not trust yourself, then, to decide correctly in every situation?

Boy: I would not.

dS: But if goodness is determined by your judgment, and your judgment can be mistaken, or affected by strong emotion, then we must say that goodness itself is changeable.

Boy: That does not seem right.

dS: Would it not be more correct to say that goodness, like truth, is unchanging in its nature?

Boy: Yes.

dS: So you must see that people do not create a value like goodness, they only learn to recognize or know it, as a reality distinct from themselves. Such knowledge is not easily acquired.

Sophist: You have a very poor opinion of people. I believe that people can learn to act wisely, given adequate guidance from parents, teachers, and others. Part of such guidance involves recognition, as you say. Recognition of what, in the collective wisdom of a people, is considered good or right. This wisdom is attained through careful attention to experience, to the results of particular actions.

dS: Your speech must be judged a meritorious vessel in many ways, but most particularly as it draws attention to the goal of a worthy education, which I understand to be the revelation of the existence of changeless Ideas like justice, honor, or goodness, and their relationship to the good life.

One of the boys: Excuse me, I did not hear my instructor draw attention to this point at all.

dS: Ah, but that is because you were focusing on the place where he dropped anchor, and not on the ample berth between his mooring and the real pursuit of wisdom.

Sophist: I make no apology for emphasizing the way in which justice, honor or goodness have to do with the actual affairs of a citizen, and how people esteem these qualities in others. Some, engrossed in a fanciful world of the mind and endless conversation, have not adequately attended to the labors of our fellow citizens, or remarked their daily concerns with matters like equity in trade and fair legislation.

dS: On the contrary, I would like to be enlightened about a matter that very much concerns the problems of good citizenship. In what way can a teaching that fails to establish the true nature of truth or justice shed any light on the particular values involved in statehood and politics?

Sophist: My third lesson today is in fact a lesson about the people and their political role. You may judge it upon its merits. (Pauses here for effect) Democracy is the proper way to govern a city-state. As I have said, a well-educated people are a virtuous people, capable of great political wisdom. Of course, it all depends upon the right education. That is why I have devoted my life to this task, and the people's willingness to pay for their education is evidence of its importance.

One of the boys: Although we are familiar with the workings of democracy, perhaps you could say more about it as a vehicle for wisdom.

Sophist: Democracy is a means of bringing together the wisdom of many people. And thus the heart of the democratic process is participation. We cannot afford to lose the insight of any person simply because they lack riches or good birth.

dS: If democracy pools the ideas of the many, is it not just as likely to result in cumulative error rather than in wisdom?

Sophist: A common misconception. You see, because the opinions of many are sought, not just once, but on all matters of common interest, error is subjected to correction. For it is not possible that all the people could be in error all of the time.

dS: Even if democracy were to allow for some measure of accuracy about certain matters, I cannot agree that this holds for questions of legislation and leadership. Political wisdom, in my experience, is an exceedingly rare quality; only a few are capable of achieving it, and only after great effort.

Sophist: You neglect the fact that democracy is a proven political choice.

dS: And you neglect the fact that rule by the mob has often led to disorder, and even anarchy.

Sophist: But I recognize well that democracy is our only safeguard against the tyranny of would-be philosopher kings!

(Unable to come to any agreement on these touchy matters, they walk off in separate directions, shaking their heads, and leaving the two young men somewhat bewildered, center stage).

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