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Prometheus: god of in-between

At the heart of a cluster of manifest characteristics that constitute the trickster personality, one singularly stands out: they are gods of in-between. That is, tricksters easily slip back and forth across formerly impassable boundaries with ease, particularly between sacred and profane registers of existence. They are the out-of-bounds outlaws of this world, subverting social conventions in unrestrained and unthinkable ways. They are trick-players and shape-shifters, but by undergoing ridicule themselves they ameliorate the social faults of humanity and transform culture in unfamiliar ways.

A fine example of this leud taboo breaker, a god that straddles the finite and supernatural realms, is the Olympian rebel Prometheus who was securely fastened to a rock by Zeus’s edict for stealing “the flowery splendor of all-fashioning fire” and giving it to humanity. I should say, more accurately, he was nailed, wedged, fettered, shackled, harnessed and tortuously clamped in a solitary ravine for hunting out the source of fire and, having stolen it, presented it as a gift to the god-neglected and wretched humans. Bound and crucified, Prometheus paid the ultimate price for kicking against the goad of the status quo among the gods. Indeed, Prometheus found trouble for himself by his own cunning.

In this sense, Prometheus’s status among the gods is eminently unstable. He does not belong to the realm of humans, but at the same time he is banished from mount Olympus, a double outcast if there ever was one. Like some of the more bellicose philosophers, Prometheus inverted the pre-established priorities among the gods and valorized the lowly.

There is not ‘too much’ for this figure. No order is too rooted, no taboo too sacred, no god too high, no profanity too scatological that it cannot be broached or inverted. What prevails is toppled, what is bottom becomes top, what is outside turns inside (Mythical Trickster Figures, p. 37)

The asocial character of the taboo violation explains how the trickster, represented as the friend of humans, he who struggles with gods in order to ameliorate the human lot, may also be represented as an asocial being, he who ends up being banished from the community. Because he takes upon himself the gravest of social faults – breaking the rules upon which the social order depends – the trickster incarnates embryonically the expiatory being who will take upon himself the sins of humanity and set humans free, by virtue of the familiar process of redemption (p. 83)

The diametrically opposed characters of Prometheus and, say, Hephaestus, the one who regretfully carries out Zeus’s order to bind Prometheus, is analogously represented in the distinction between shamans and tricksters in North American Indian culture. According to this distinction, the shaman acts in good faith as a devout follower of the spirits he revers and is in return accepted by that other world, the supernatural. For the shaman, the spiritual experience is serious business. The supernatural spirits are to be worshiped, not mocked. The trickster-thief on the other hand seeks no divine aid or approval. Trickster is an outsider to superhuman powers, relying on his or her own wit rather than divine power.

It is true that both the shaman and the trickster-thief go into another world, and both engage in combat with spiritual beings. Nevertheless, there is a difference, a very significant one, I believe, between the shaman’s journey and that of the fire-bringer: the former goes with the aid and companionship of his tutelary spirit or spirits, while the trickster goes alone or is accompanied by companions who are as unendowed with supernatural powers as he. Moreover, the trickster rarely fights with the beings he encounters on his journeys: most typically he outwits them with a trick (pp. 103-4)

Doubtless, Prometheus outwitted the Olympian gods, namely Zeus, in absconding fire and delivering it to the aid of humans. It was not by power, that is, that Prometheus acquired fire, but by struggling with the social order of the gods by tricks. The outcome was not entirely successful, however, on his end. As most trickster narratives end, the trickster him- or herself must in the end pay the ultimate price in death, usually in one way or another falling prey to his or her own tricks. The trickster figure imaginatively has far-reaching political implications in resisting the underlying symbolic structure of society, but one is never guaranteed calculated success. As Prometheus discovered, considered dissent often ends tragically. That does not necessarily mean, however, that socio-political apathy wins the day. One must, at least, be aware of the costs.


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.

Xenophanes: ancient negative theologian?

As a general overview, Xenophanes of Colophon contributed predominately to the areas of theology and epistemology. Most significant of all, he observed that the depictions of gods varied from culture to culture. However, given this descriptive performance of comparative cultures, Xenophanes is in no way a relativist. Although he agrees that gods are a product or projection of culture he is in no way skeptical about the existence of gods. Or, what amounts to the same, he assumes that they exist and proceeds to consider what they are like. The disagreement is simply in the details, not in the existence. Rejecting a potential relativist move, Xenophanes offers a solution to what god or the gods are like. In this sense, he is looking for the most accurate depiction of god; and only one can and must be true.

To begin with, Xenophanes posits that it would be ridiculous to assert that one single culture’s conception of the divine is correct and that all other gods are in toto inferior. This, after all, was the position of most Greek contemporaries of Xenophanes. Rather, the reasonable path, according to Xenophanes, is one in which we recognize that no prior view is absolutely correct. Moreover, we should enquire “into the nature of gods, this time trying to avoid letting [our] view be colored by the peculiarities of [our] own particular cultural circumstances” (James Warren, Presocratics, p. 45). We can, in short, curtain our anthropomorphic tendencies.

Doubtless, this paves the way for skepticism and indeed skeptics begin much as Xenophanes did by pointing out disagreements and contradictions inherent to beliefs, ultimately concluding that there is no more reason to prefer one side of a conflict to another. In other words, according to skepticism, we should suspend judgment and keep the matter unresolved. Xenophanes, on the other hand, proposes that we continue to search rather than merely lead a life of inner tranquility in response to unsettled opinions. As will be shown, he utilizes a positive and rational theology, even if that means we must accept conclusions that are inconclusive and provisional.

The poets Homer and Hesiod were “generally considered to be authorities” on religious matters in ancient Greek society (p. 46). According to them, the gods act in egregious ways much as humans do and, incidentally, to even greater extents (e.g., quarreling, jealousy, murder, incest, lust, ambitions, etc.). Xenophanes observes this and turns this into an argument concerning what gods should be like. As Xenophanes reasons, the gods should not resemble us in appearance or thought but are superior to human beings. Surely the gods do not think or behave in the same way mortals do. On the other hand, they are not wholly unlike mortals either because the gods still think in some fashion.

In other places Xenophanes seems to suggest that there is one god superior to other gods. However, he stands in contradistinction to Western theology because he never considers god to be omniscient, omnipresent, or benevolent. “The overall picture of Xenophanes’ god reveals what Xenophanes takes to be the essential attributes of any divinity: effortless power and superior cognitive and causal abilities” (p. 49). What is worth mentioning is that Xenophanes is chiefly interested in highlighting the differences between gods and humans. In extension, he shows the limit of humanity’s understanding and knowledge (epistemology). Likewise, we are always embedded in a particular cultural context and individual circumstances that distort our perspective of the divine.

There exists, most of all, a vast gulf between human and divine understanding. Although we must settle with faith given our mortal limitations, Xenophanes argues we can approximate towards clear and true knowledge. As anticipated above, we can therefore have better and worse beliefs. But, then again, how are we to classify “better or worse likeness to truth”? (p. 52). While Xenophanes carries with him a notion that progress is possible, he does not “specify how we go about this enquiry” (p. 53). As he seems to suggest in particular fragments, we will never know if we hit on the right answer. What we might ask of Xenopahnes is: is internal consistency or correspondence with data considered steps in the right direction? We know that Xenophanes attempted to explain natural phenomena by meterological and cosmological reasoning elsewhere without recourse to divine agency, which might suggest an affinity with our aforementioned question. But in all things, “our beliefs are affected by surrounding circumstances” (p. 56).

Early Greek philosophers


Philosophy, more or less, begins with Thales. As tradition holds, Thales is the first so-called Greek philosopher. However, this is based only on historical recording. He could have, after all, been reflecting on a longer tradition that preceded him. Record has it that the early philosophers regularly frequented Egypt and the Near East which undoubtedly suggests that there may be validity to the notion that Thales—and others—borrowed many ideas from cultures and traditions older than themselves. One thing is for sure, the Ionian tradition that Thales and his pupil Anaximander founded made a decisive and deliberate break from “cosmologies based on divine genealogies and anthropomorphic gods,” in direct contrast to Hesiod’s Theogony and Pherecydes’ Theology (James Warren, Presocratics, p. 24). The project of early Greek philosophy centered around the search for the arkhe (source, beginning, origin) of all things. In other words, “the most fundamental and everlasting matter out of which all things are composed and into which they all eventually decay” (p. 25). This investigation proceeded by physical and metaphysical enquiry.

Since we do not have any primary sources on Thales we must rely upon other philosophers, namely Artistotle, who recorded and interpreted the thoughts of early thinkers.  According to Artistotle, Thales believe all matter originated from water; or at least all matter is some form of water. Thales postulated, furthermore, that the earth floated on water which explained the cause of earthquakes. Perhaps, even, he considered all objects—including inanimate ones—to possess souls in order to account for change and motion. He was interested, most of all, in explaining natural phenomena; a problem most ancient Greek philosophers shared.


Anaximander followed Thales in also giving a natural and philosophical account of the universe. His arkhe or source, however, was boundless (apeiron). As such, his ontological position was polemically against Thales. Given the boundlessness of the world Anaximander conjectured that the cosmos could never be exhausted and allowed the generation of innumerable worlds. Furthermore, the boundless figure of Anaxminader’s cosmology was eternal as well as the source and mover of all elements—much like any description of traditional gods, ironically. “The apeiron is an attempt to explain the observed variety and change in the world by offering a single ultimate source and cause of all the different and opposed elements in the world” (p. 31). Anaximander also recognized a “scientific” worldview and is attributed the bearer of the principle of sufficient reason. In brief, Anaximander held that if one argument was reasonably sound, it proved nothing if the opposite proposition possessed just as much supportive evidence. One position, therefore, must be more reasonable than another for it to be considered legitimate. Given this brief description, we can see why Anaximander was led to confidently speculate that there was some reason and explanation for the ways of the world. Hence, he recognized a world that was predictable in is some sense.


Anaximenes continued in the footsteps of the Ionian tradition by enquiring into the “single stuff” that underlies the origin of all things. His novel contribution, however, was to replace arche with aer (air) as the substance that underlies other substances. Furthermore, Anaximenes explained the plurality of existence based upon a sliding scale of density (e.g., the more rare air was it gradual became fire whereas the more condensed air became it transformed into wind). By this explanation Anaximenes showed that all things were unified. But, in order to account for the difference between animate and inanimate things, Anaximenes posited that it was breath (pneuma) or soul (psyche) that animated air (aer). Although, according to critics of Anaximenes, the two poles tend to be conflated and “closely assimilated” in his thought.


Pythagoras wrote nothing himself but was the first to be called a “philosopher” in his time. He is, of course, famous for his discoveries in mathematics—specifically in arithmetic and geometry—but “[t]he long-lived Pythagorean tradition has obscured much of the original nature of his teachings and sources throughout antiquity are too eager to ascribe various later philosophical and mathematical theories directly to Pythagoras” (p. 37). From what we know of Pythagoras, he believed in the immortality of the soul, reincarnation—or metempsychosis, that nothing is new per se but everything recurs, and that all ensouled creatures are akin. It is also known that upon emigrating to Italy around 530 BC he founded a secret and moral society that was famously vegetarian (given the possibility that one might accidentally eat a reincarnated acquaintance).