Presocratics in review


Heraclitus is known in antiquity as “the obscure” and is famous for playing with paradoxes in his writings. His work survives now only as a collection of short fragments, but from what we have it is clear that he was a very careful and intentional writer who deliberately used language in a precise sense. Given the evidence, it is reasonable to conjecture that his original writings—including those that are now lost to us—contained sets of sayings or aphorisms. Characteristic of these fragments is a lack of overarching order or argument. Furthermore, they offer a variety of possible interpretations and can never be pinned down with a single meaning. In this sense, the puzzling ambiguities and paradoxes of his writings suggest that they are intentionally enigmatic in order to provoke thought rather than settle it. It goes without saying he never teaches directly nor gives a clear declaration of his own views. Instead, he encourages others to reason for themselves rather than take others’ views on good authority. This requires personal engagement and participation on the part of the student, ostensibly a favored style of instruction for Heraclitus.

The Stoics are indebted to Heraclitus in some ways for his suggestion that “the world [is] thoroughly infused and governed by a rational causal principle (which he sometimes called logos, sometimes god)” (James Warren, Presocratics, p. 63). In a well-known quote, Heraclitus declares “all things are one.” Stated otherwise, all apparent differences and contradictions are grounded in an underlying and fundamental unity. It is only the partiality of the human viewpoint that visualizes oppositions. Moreover, the apparent tension between disparate things is the requisite for harmony. What is needed then is a proper “fitting-together” or arrangement of two apparently opposed things. In light of this pronouncement Heraclitus argues that we should come to recognize that which is common to being and reject private speculative thinking that is reducible to a particular perspective.

Turning now to his cosmological thought, “Heraclitus in some way privileges fire as the most important of the constituents of the cosmos” (p. 65). For Thales it was water, for Anaximander the boundless, for Anaximenes air, but for Heraclitus fire. According to Heraclitus, fire transformed into other elements by “strict ratios and orderings” (ibid.). In other words, the world was constituted by an elemental exchange of fire. Not that all things are composed of fire, Heraclitus argued, but everything has some ratio of equivalence to fire. This, in many ways, was a material monist view in line with other Milesian cosmological accounts. “Heraclitus’ universe is in many ways similar to those of his Milesian predecessors; it involves regular and regulated elementary transformations and it singles out one particular element for a special role” (p. 66). His cosmological account, however, was perhaps more dynamic; that is, he was more concerned with change and transformation that his predecessors.

“Heraclitus was often associated with a very radical doctrine of ‘extreme flux’: the idea that the world is subject to constant and thorough changes such that nothing at all is stable for any time” (p. 71). As another of his famous quotes goes, “it is impossible to step into the same river twice.” Along similar lines Cratylus, who was acquainted with Herclitean views, scoffed at even speaking because, he argued, whatever he was trying to name would already be changed by the time he had spoken it. It is unlikely that Heraclitus himself was this extreme. Rather, the river remark elucidates the unity maintained by—not in spite of—the different waters flowing in it. In other words, the constantly moving water is “a necessary condition of the river’s stability” (p. 73). Change, movement, rhythms, and cycles are the preconditions for identity in this respect. This is similar to how Heraclitus conceives of the structure of the cosmos; namely, that stability presupposes instability.


Parmenides is, according to James Warren, “perhaps the most celebrated of all the early Greek philosophers” (p. 77). One of the reasons for this is, no doubt, his declaration that reality is full and complete as it is and, therefore, there is no way to understand change. What is more, there is no coming to be or passing away for Parmenides. What is cannot come to be from what is not. What is is ungenerated, undying, and eternal presence. It just is.

To look more carefully at the arguments of Parmenides we must turn to his “Way of Truth,” a fictitious tale about a journey an unknown man takes with a goddess on the path to truth. As we learn from the goddess, there is a strict separation between what is and what is not. What is, according to the goddess, is that which neither comes to be nor passes away; “it must be whole, single, perfect and so on” (p. 87). The reasoning for this is that what is in no way can come forth from what is not. Another way to make sense of this is to show the impossibility of something coming into existence out of nothingness (what might also be termed creatio ex nihilo). On the other hand, it is completely plausible that something would come from another thing. What is also turns out to be indivisible and homogeneous. There are, moreover, no parts that are distinct within the whole because it is properly uniform and without variation. This accounts for why change or movement of any sort is ruled out. If an object were to move, after all, it would require a void (or what is not) to move into.

It is clear, for example, that she [the godess] has shown that there can be only one thing at all: what we call a radical “eliminativist” monism. That very strange view would hold that reality is single in the sense that there is indeed only one thing, which is perfect, unchanging and so on (p. 95)

Following consistently the ban on “[what] is not”, it has turned out that we are left with an unfamiliar reality, which leaves no room for change, plurality, motion, difference, people, days or nights (p. 99)

It is difficult to underestimate the lasting legacy of Parmenides. The conclusions of the “Way to Truth” are so innovative and startling that it is altogether unsurprising that it came to have such an enormous influence on all subsequent Greek intellectual thought.

The argument concludes by denying that there can be any change, any coming-to-be and perhaps any plurality and difference at all. If the argument is sound, reality must be unchanging, perfect, homogeneous and everlasting and our common apprehension of a world full of difference, change and plurality is very mistaken… The “Way to Truth” is a challenge to any cosmological account (p. 78)

To give one example from the “Way of Truth” as a transition into the “Way of Opinion” we will recall one instance of Parmenides journey in which he is led by the goddess to the gate of the House of Night. The rhetorical effect of entering the House of Night—or, more precisely, going beyond it—is to suggest that the gate marks the horizon where it is neither day nor night on the other side. It is a place, in short, where change and difference no longer exist.

Throughout the Greek poem Parmenides continually refers to his initiation of Truth in pilgrimage-like terms. For instance, the journeyman is instructed to stick to the path of the “Way of Truth” rather than be deceived by the illusions of other mortals. Humans, so says the goddess, fail to make the proper distinction between being and nothingness and subsequently wander around as “two-headed” or duplicitous beings. This theme is continued in the “Way of Opinion.” Here the goddess gives an account of the deceptive and bogus opinions of mortals; or, what is the same, “an explanation of how people generally go wrong” (p. 100). The “Way of Opinion,” in this sense, is positioned in contradistinction to other Greek cosmologies. Whereas we mortals readily accept incorrect stories of reality, the goddess is out to prove what is wrong with our accounts (even if they do happen to be ever so persuasive). Her hope, in the end, is that we will never abandon the “Way of Truth” once we realize that all other cosmological accounts are hopeless.

Now that we are armed with the Truth we can diagnose the errors, the missing of being and not-being in all this, and we can spot the many reminiscences of phrases or ideas in the “Way of Truth”, now subtly perverted. And we are similarly armed against any other cosmology that might be proposed (p. 102)

Zeno and Melissus

Given Parmenides lasting effect regarding the unchanging essence of what is, philosophers henceforth speculated about the origin and composition of the cosmos under the shadow of Parmenides, especially in attempting to account for processes of change and generation within the universe. Two thinkers in particular who extended the thought of Parmenides were Zeno and Melissus – the three together often subsumed under the descriptor the Eleatic school.

Zeno is the more famous of the two and had a penchant for paradoxes “designed to show the difficulties involved in maintaining a number of intuitive beliefs about space, time, plurality and motion” (p. 104). His ideas, for the most part, are passed down to us by Aristotle. To give an example of his paradoxical arguments, consider a line AB that must be traversed. Doubtless, on this line there are potentially an infinite amount of points regardless of how long the line is. In order to cross from point A to point B, it goes without saying, one must necessarily pass through every point on the line. However, if one were to pass through every point on the line it would take an infinite amount of time to travel between points A and B. Therefore, Zeno defended Parmenides argument that movement and change are nonexistent.

This paradoxical impasse would leave subsequent philosophy stumped until the likes of Aristotle who provided a solution. The answer, for Aristotle, involved the understanding that a “duration of time is not composed of instants (just as a geometrical line is not composed of points)” (p. 108). In other words, even though a line could be divided infinitely, that is rarely the case. Moreover, it is unreasonable to think of motion in terms of the present or strict “now” instances. “Instead, motion and rest turn out to be things that we attribute to things in virtue of their having been in different locations in the past from those they are in now” (p. 109). At the very least, Zeno has succeeded in revealing that some of our basic assumptions regarding plurality, change, and motion are not altogether simple notions. Hailed by Aristotle as the first “dialectician,” Zeno showed a great ability to upset the apparently commonsensical and unquestionable presuppositions of others by unmaking their internal inconsistencies.

Like Zeno, Melissus also defended Parmenides vision of an unchanging, infinite, and ungenerated reality. What is more, he went beyond Parmenides by applying “Parmenidean modes of thinking in a new context” (p. 112). For instance, Melissus ruled out motion since that would require unoccupied space or what we might also name the void (what is not). In this sense, he focuses more on questions of change and variation rather than being. And unlike Parmenides who gives his poetical account of the cosmos out of the mouth of a goddess, Melissus argues in prose as a mere mortal who is “driven by force of argument to question its truth” nonetheless (p. 113-4).

Ultimately, after the Eleatics all subsequent philosophizing is forced to contend with how and why we perceive variety and change in the world. It also has to account for, moreover, how it is that things or properties change, grow, move, and so on over time.

We should note that what is new, after Parmenides is not a sudden refusal to countenance generation from nothing… What is new, rather, is the self-conscious denial of generation from nothing based on some form of a priori reasoning, for which Parmenides can surely be credited as the source (p.116)

To this extent sense and appearance are increasingly distrusted after Parmenides. Briefly put, philosophy following the Eleatics is more prone to consider how much we can trust our senses and what perceivable observations we should hold as true. It is aware for the need of more sophisticated epistemological approaches to appearance and reality.


Anaxagoras moved to Athens from Ionia early in his life. This is significant because Athens was a growing influence in the Aegean around the mid 5th century BC and a lively philosophical center of thought. He wrote solemn prose and is famous for his “introduction of nous, or mind, as some kind of causal principle” (p. 119). Most interesting of all, he held the idea that “seeds”, fundamental constituents that compose all other things, are the “building blocks out of which all things in the cosmos are constituted” (p. 123). Furthermore, every substance is a product of intermingling ingredients by particular portions and ratios. Things are what they are, therefore, according to which fundamental characteristics are predominant in relation to all the others that remain latent. Moreover, Anaxagoras makes the startling claim that all objects contain a portion of everything in them. It is only by certain elements gaining predominance over others that we fail to perceive the ones dwarfed. Hence, as Anaxagoras tells us, “we should conceive of coming to be and passing away as processes governed by ‘combination and separation’” (p. 127).

Anaxagoras, however, creates an ontological dualism to account for the difference between some things in the world that think and are alive and others that do not exhibit these same characteristics. It is nous that presumably explains these differences. “Nous begins a revolution within the homogeneous mixture, which, perhaps on the model of some kind of centrifuge, begins to distribute the items in the mixture in a variegated fashion” (p. 132). That is to say, nous plays a pivotal role in the development of the universe. It seemingly exerts a power of influence over things that is more than just a purposeless motor force. Nous, in other words, deliberately and purposefully orders the cosmos.


A colorful, fascinating, and charismatic figure, Empedocles has fascinated philosophers for ages by his mysterious luster. To roughly divide his work in two, Empedocles wrote about cosmology—On Nature—as well as on ritual and purification—Purifications. This division, however, is not set in stone. Moreover, the fragments we possess that are generally ascribed to two different books could very well have come from a single work that was merely entitled two different names. These two trajectories of thought, at the very least, create sever difficulties for interpretive work that attempts to retain a certain unity and coherence to what evidence we have of his writing.

Empedocles readily accepts the Parmediean “ban on absolute coming to be and passing away” and conceives of material reality as mere mixtures and re-mixtures of preexistent substances or “roots” (p. 137). The four roots—what Empedocles identifies as fire, air, earth, and water—combine in various ratios to produce the variety and differences we see today in the universe we inhabit. Furthermore, there also exists love and strife, which mix in varying ratios and alternate dominance over one another. Love and strife, moreover, exercise control over the roots. In their isolation, love’s intention seems to be “to unite disparate elements and provide a complete harmonious mixture” (p. 138). Strife, on the other hand, tends towards chaos and separation. As mentioned previously, they have to do with arranging combinations and ratios of the four roots. This intermingling “of basic stuffs can be mixed together in different amounts to generate a similar variety of things” (p. 140).

What we might ask of Empedocles is whether or not love and strife act deliberately or cooperate as craftsmen of the cosmos. Is there purpose, if we can call it that, to generate a cosmos? Is there a cycle to their predominance? “Whatever the precise overall balance of power between Love and Strife in the present state of the cosmos, it is obvious that the four roots are at present neither entirely separated nor entirely intermingled” (p. 141). This would suggest that there is in some respect a symmetrical relationship between the two. In other words, the destruction and separation of some entities is needed for the generation and recombination of others. There is, however, an “asymmetrical” alternative view that interprets strife to be mere entropy and disentegration in contrast to love which is the only condition for creation. Although it is difficult to ascertain any certainty favoring one interpreation over another, it is quite clear that Empedocles means to say that “our cosmos is the product of the workings of both Love and Strife” (p. 145). As the author puts it, Empedocles stresses “the antagonism and simultaneous presence of these two forces in our current cosmos” (p. 146).

To be brief, Empedocles also put forth some startling ideas in his Purifications. In the work itself he refers to himself as a god and as a daimon. As the story goes, daimones, according to Empedocles, can move from one life form to another, thus anyone who dares to eat meat risks cannibalism—an influence from Pythagoreans no doubt. In sum, Empedocles believes that by recognizing our daimon nature we can become emancipated. How this fits with his cosmological account, however, is a mystery.

Democritus and Leucippus

Democritus and Leucippus are famously known as atomists. We know much more about Democritus however. It is thought that he outlived Socrates by about 50 years and was interested in a broad range of topics, but subsequent philosophy has privileged mostly his physical theories; namely his atomist cosmology. “According to them, the universe is a limitless expanse containing two kinds of thing: the void (empty space) and atoms (everlasting and indivisible bits of matter). As the countless atoms move in the void they come together and disperse to create various worlds and all thing things in them” (p. 153). Democritean atoms, or atomos in Greek meaning uncuttable or indivisible, can neither be created nor destroyed. Moreover, they are the most fundamental, everlasting, and unchanging components of the universe.

In contrast to the Eleatics, Democritus and Leucippus accepted the void and posited it as necessary for motion to exist. In this sense, they trusted their senses more than the Eleatics. As we saw previously, “[f]or anything to move there must be somewhere for it to move to. This somewhere must be unoccupied, else it could not move into it. And, when it moves, it must leave behind some new unoccupied space” (p. 156). For this reason, Parmenedies and his followers Zeno and Melessius rejected movement because it required as a precondition “what is not” for “what is” to occupy it. For the atomists, on the other hand, atoms and the void are mutually interdependent—however paradoxical this may sound.

The atomists also held that the elements were the fundamental building blocks that produced larger extended bodies when combined. “Items can change either through the introduction of new atoms (as in cases of growth) or the loss of atoms; they can also change by their atoms being rearranged or realigned…” (p. 166). Atoms cannot, however, be created or destroyed.

What is more, atoms possess no internal void or division themselves. “[T]hey are homogeneous and full or solid” (p. 161). In other words, an atom is one in its being. The atomists also suggest that atoms, while still remaining indivisible, vary in every imaginable shape and size. They also conclude that there exist an infinite amount of atoms and that the universe is similarly infinitely extended. Although the atomists rely on empirical evidence to make these conjectures—particularly that there is a plurality of things and that movement occurs—they do not take into account why or how the cosmos is ordered. Perhaps this is intentional. According to Democritus and Leucippus there is no “guiding intelligence” or even any reasons whatsoever to the cosmos. What is more, order is not permanent and will eventually dissolve.

Given this superabundance, it is no longer the case that our cosmos is something special whose existence and specific nature needs to be explained. Rather, it becomes inevitable that given the infinite universe at least one cosmos like ours must have come to be, since every possible cosmos must come to be (p. 164).

That is, there is no special cause to our universe. We necessarily came to be out of the infinite chance of the cosmos. A later criticism of the atomists, especially put forward by Epicureans, is that the mechanistic nature of the universe as described by Democritus and Leucippus does not allow for human freedom.

Given what we know of the atomists, we still have yet to account for human perception, such as the apprehension of color. Are our perceptions to be trusted then? Furthermore, how legitimate is our knowledge of the world, after all, if only atoms and void are real but unperceivable? Various ancient reports present divided views of Democritus in response to this challenge. We may divide these into the staunch skeptic view [Eliminativism] and the conventional view [Relativity]. According to the former, color is not real and therefore our senses cannot be trusted in giving us access to the true nature of the world. On the other hand, the latter accept that “color is not a property of atoms and the void” but affirm in some sense the notion that colors do arise within a sensory interaction between objects and perceivers. As alluded to above, the same evidence supports both positions.

Surprisingly, the vast majority of Democritus’ fragments are regarding ethical and political ideas as well as contemplating what it means to live a good life. In short, he recommends a life of balance and moderation. In other words, he prioritizes the median between two extremes. For instance, he rejects both asceticism and hedonism as propitious ways to live. Moreover, he advocates social and political harmony—a harmonious meeting between individuals and society. It is, however, unclear how all this relates to his atomism. Is there, after all, an ideal arrangement of atoms in an individual? The fragments remain reticent on this issue.


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