The Pre-socratic era (Origins of Western philosophy)

Credits- Study maps.

Greek philosophers in the 5th and 6th centuries started to question the world around them. They thought that greek mythology was too vague, and irrational and did not ask the right questions. They were in search of a more rational approach to the truths of life. They questioned where everything came from, what everything was, the role of mathematics and the existence of plurality in nature. They believed that not everything in the world is the same and some materials don’t stay in their present state forever. That’s why they laid the principles of change which they called archê.

The term “pre-Socratic” meaning before Socrates was coined and popularised by Hermann Diels. Socrates was alive at the same time when some of the pre-socratic philosophers existed so this term doesn’t necessarily mean philosophers before the birth of Socrates. It just means a different take from Socrates’ philosophical work. Pre-socratic philosophers produced texts. No texts have survived fully. These philosophies are based on the texts that could be gathered and quoted from the later historian which was usually biased.

There were some different schools of thought during this era. Some of them were The Milesian school, The Pythagorean school, The Eleatic school and The Atomist school. The Milesian school consisted of three important philosophers. Thales was the first. Thales claimed that a single element was water. Thales determined that water could go through changes of state like evaporation and condensation. He also knew that it was responsible for moisture. The second philosopher was Anaximander. Anaximander claimed that the single element was an undefined, unlimited and indefinite substance, known as Apeiron. The thing that separates Hot and Cold, solid and liquid is the Apeiron. His philosophy is similar to the Chinese philosophy of yin-yang. The third and last philosopher from The Milesian school was Anaximenes. He believed the single element to be air. According to him, the air is everywhere and can transform into something else. For example water, objects, clouds etc.

Anaximenes. (credits- stratis)

The Pythagorean school was formed by philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras believed that every answer to life can be found through mathematical calculations. Every rationale of life is derived from mathematics. He had a very cult-like following. His students were very true to his rules and ways of life. They’d often follow his exact instructions. His students believed that his studies were the prophecies of God.

The Eleatic school was based in the colophon. It had four main philosophers. The first one was Xenophanes. He did not believe that gods were anthropomorphic or had human characteristics in other words. He believed that there was only one god and he didn’t have a physical form but he can See, Hear, Think and control the world with his thoughts. The second philosopher was Parmenides. He believed that individual experiences don’t amount to the real truth. Truth can only be found through reason and not senses. His foundations hugely influenced Plato and the whole of western philosophy. The school of Elea started using reason to find the truth because of him. The third philosopher is Zeno. He was Parmenides’s most famous student and probably his lover too. He spent most of his life creating arguments that defended parmenides’ ideas. His most famous Argument is about pluralism. The notion that many things exist as opposed to one, will lead to more absurd conclusions. He believed plurality was an illusion. His work was later disproved but was hugely influential. The last one is the melissus of Samos. His philosophy was that what it differs from what it seems. According to him it never really is what it seems.

*I was influenced to write this article after coming across the book philosophy 101 written by Paul Kleiman*