Category: Persons

Presocratic Philosophers

Philosophy emerged in the Greek-speaking areas in the 6th cent. BC and the earliest philosophers have been dubbed the Presocratics. Their fragments -all that remains of their works- contain theories attempting to describe the origins and fundamental structure of the world.


The term denotes the philosophers who lived before Socrates’ time (even though, as we shall see, some of the so-called Presocratics were in fact contemporaries of his or even of a slightly later generation). Although they have often been described as “natural philosophers”, their intellectual pursuits were not limited to the natural world, but extended into the world of humans. Compared to earlier perspectives, such as those recorded in Homer’s and Hesiod’s epics (8th-7th cent. BC), the earliest philosophers effected the transition “from mythos to logos”. This, however, does not mean that these pre-philosophical narratives were irrational, nor that with the advent of philosophy the role of myth becomes altogether eclipsed (as suggested, par excellence, by the role of myth in Plato’s work). In general, the birth of philosophy coincides with the rejection of the authority of traditional mythical narratives and the formulation of theories that rely on arguments and seek to provide rational accounts for natural phenomena, while emphasizing the unity of the cosmos.

None of the works composed by the Presocratics has survived intact. Therefore, we have to rely a) on the testimony of later authors; and b) on fragments that, employing the tools of philological criticism, can be recognized as actual quotes from their works.

The three Milesians

Thales is considered the first philosopher; he was also one of the “Seven Sages”. He was born in Miletus in c. 620 BC and developed an array of theoretical and practical skills; he delved into astronomy, mechanics, and geometry, while it was reported that he successfully predicted a solar eclipse. No actual fragment of his has been preserved. Probably influenced by earlier (Greek or Eastern) cosmogonies, Thales argued that the Earth floats on water, which constitutes the arche (=first principle) of everything. He is also credited with the view that everything is ensouled and filled with gods.

Anaximander also hailed from Miletus; he was born in c. 610 BC, and claimed that no particular (material) element can be said to be the arche: his first principle is the apeiron (= the infinite, or limitless). This is something spatially limitless, qualitatively indefinite and immortal, which reigns supreme over everything and is, perhaps, suggestive of something like the open horizon. Anaximander is the author of the earliest extant fragment in Western philosophical tradition; according to what is argued in it, all beings return to their source through a process of decay and destruction “as is ordained; for they make reparation and satisfaction to one another for their injustice according to the appointed time” (Β 1).

The triad of Milesians is completed by Anaximenes, who had his floruit at c. 550 BC. His arche is air (aer); it produces everything there is by being successively subjected to the processes of rarefaction and condensation. This is probably the earliest attempt to reduce qualitative differences to quantitative fluctuations.

The emigrants

Pythagoras was said to have been born on the island of Samos in c. 580 BC and emigrated to Croton in Magna Grecia, where he established a community of philosophical interests and political aspirations. He never wrote anything himself, and as a result both his life and his views are shrouded in mystery. The habit of invoking his authority, however, established the trend of Pythagoreanism, which was to influence philosophy for centuries to come. Xenophanes was born in Colophon of Ionia in c. 570 BC, but spent most of his life in Magna Grecia. He composed in poetic meter and his most substantial philosophical contribution is his view that human knowledge is limited and precarious. He scorned the anthropomorphism of traditional religion and maintained that there is only one immovable god, possessing comprehensive faculties of sense perception and intellection. In his cosmology everything originates from water and earth.

The apogee

Presocratic philosophy saw its heyday in c. 500-480 BC, with Parmenides and Heraclitus as the most prominent figures. The former is customarily described as the founder of the so-called “Eleatic School” under which Zeno and Melissus are also subsumed. The term, however, is misleading: a) to claim that philosophical teaching had already become organized and institutionalized into “schools” during that period is hopelessly anachronistic; b) Melissus was not even from Elea, but a prominent Samian statesman and admiral, who found novel uses for some of Parmenides’ philosophical concepts; and, finally, c) with respect to Zeno, it is quite uncertain that he even espoused Parmenides doctrines and pursuits. He mainly employed Parmenides’ style of argumentation (the reductio ad absurdum), to deny motion and multiplicity.

Parmenides and Heraclitus had a major impact on the next generation of philosophers. Anaxagoras was born in Clazomenae of Ionia in c. 500 BC; he became the first philosopher to spend a significant part of his life in Athens, before he was forced to leave to avoid an indictment for impiety. His philosophy accepts the existence of an infinite multiplicity of spermata: these “seeds” are the basic building blocks of the world; they are ingenerate, for they have existed forever. Every being in the physical world contains pieces of all the “seeds”, but each is defined by the seed that is dominant within it. The principle that informs and guides all material processes is nous (=intellect, or mind): this is the sole unmixed hypostasis.

Empedocles was born in Acragas of Sicily in c. 495 BC, and adopted (just like Xenophanes and Parmenides) a poetical style of composition. Fragments from two of his poems have survived. In his On Nature the world and its evolution are described as the offshoot of the interactions and mixture of four basic elements, which are dubbed rhizomata (=roots; earth, water, air, and fire) and are influenced by two cosmic forces: philotes (=love) and neikos (=strife) His Purifications, a work exhibiting manifest Pythagorean influences, narrates the wanderings of a soul (daemon) that roams in search of purification.

The Atomists were next: we know very little about Leucippus; Democritus was born in Abdera soon after Socrates, in c. 460 BC. In the atomist view, the world is made up of atoma: these are stable, immutable, and indivisible elemental particles, distinguished on the basis of shape and in constant motion within the void; through their compounds the give rise to the physical bodies of the sensible world.

Plato and the Presocratics

Although it cannot compare to Socrates’ radiance, the philosophy of the Presocratics formed a constant source of influence and a point of reference in Plato’s thought. Plato draws themes, questions and motifs from this tradition, but approaches their philosophy not as a repository of unassailable truths, and without being overly concerned with providing an “objective” account of the views of these earlier philosophers. His most significant and interesting contribution to what we might now call the “History of Philosophy” is to be found in the Phaedo; in this dialogue, “Socrates’ philosophical autobiography”, he initially describes an extreme mechanistic version of Presocratic natural philosophy (96a-97b) and then moves to the expectations Plato’s Socrates harbored after learning about Anaxogoras’ nous (97b-99c). These expectations are contradicted, however, for Anaxagoras does not employ the concept of nous in a teleological manner (so as to show that everything has been arranged by it as the “optimal” possibility), but resorts to materialistic and mechanistic explanations.

Greater influence was exerted on Plato’s thinking by Parmenides and Heraclitus, as well as by the movement of the Pythagoreans; from them Plato inherited his faith in the immortality of the soul, as well as his devotion to mathematics as a component of philosophical training (see Academy) and as a key to understanding the structure of reality.

The other Presocratics have a less intense presence and impact. Thales makes an appearance, in a passage of a certain anecdotal vein, as an exemplary philosopher (Tht. 174a-b), while Xenophanes is depicted as the leader of the Eleatics (Soph. 242d). A reference to “Sicilian Muses” in the Sophist (242d) is an allusion to Empedocles; his appears to be the middle path between Eleatic monism and the indefinite multiplicity. The complete lack of any reference to Democritus puzzled many scholars since ancient times already; yet his atomic theory appears to be indirectly present in several of Plato’s dialogues and has exerted significant influence on Platonic thought.

Author: Panagiotis Thanassas
  • Kranz, W. , Diels, H. eds. Οι Προσωκρατικοί. Οι μαρτυρίες και τα αποσπάσματα.. Αθήνα: Παπαδήμας, 2007.
  • McCabe, Μ.Μ. Plato and his Predecessors: The Dramatisation of Reason. Cambridge, 2000.
  • Kirk, G.S, Raven, J.E., Schofield, M, The Presocratic Philosophers. Cambridge, 1983.
  • Graham, D.W, The Texts of Early Greek Philosophy: The Complete Fragments and Selected Testimonies of the Major Presocratics. Cambridge, 2010.
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