Tuesday, August 18

The Pre-Socratic Philosophers

Heraclitus, Parmenides, Pythagoras, as well as other Pre-Socratic philosophers attempted to reason and philosophize about the nature of existence and how things came into existence. Pythagoras believed that things could be explained by mathematics, stating that everything is connected by points. Heraclitus believed in the ever-present change in the universe, stating that all things had contrary properties. Parmenides, another Greek philosopher, was the founder of the Eleatic school of philosophy, taught that change is impossible, existence is timeless, and that perception is deceitful and fallacious. Prior to Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and other major thinkers, these views were popular and held by various schools of thought. It is important to note that philosophy did not merely begin with Homer in the eight century BC. Philosophy itself has been around since the beginning of mankind, with men attempting to answer questions such as, “why am I here?”, “does God exist?”, “what is the meaning of life?”, and similar ponderings. Indeed, we find recorded in the book of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible (ca.935 BC) the philosophy of one who tried pleasure, building, gardening, wealth, women, all amounting to nothing (Ecclesiastes 2:1-9). The philosopher then considered life to be “meaningless,” developing his philosophy throughout the twelve-chapter record, ending with an overall belief that “life is meaningless” without God. He also wrote that “under the sun,” toil is meaningless. The writer explains that God “has set eternity in the human heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11), and as such, life cannot be fulfilled apart from God.

Early pre-Socratic philosophers, such as Pythagoras of Samos (ca.6th century BC) disagreed with this view. Pythagoras thought that philosophy, which he called the highest music or “the celestial music of the spheres” (Durant 5), ought to be understood in terms of “the physis or nature of external things, the laws and constituents of the material world” (12). Pythagoras, who laid the foundations of mathematics and geometry (therefore making him partially responsible for physics), was also a mystic, which some believe gave him an interesting perception of nature. “According to Aristotle, Pythagoras recognized that in a particular mathematical or geometrical construct, when it is clearly understood, one knows truth” (Christian 419). When Pythagoras realized that absolute truth is not simply mental, he then took the position that what we perceive as the universe is non-material – merely abstract mathematical principles. Pythagoras stated that “the whole heaven or visible universe is a musical scale or number” (420).

His followers, the Pythagoreans, taught that numbers are the first principle of all things, believing that the universe around us could be described in mathematical terms. Galileo later noted that Pythagoras discovered that “the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics” (420). The Greek word for ordered whole, cosmos, was utilized by the Pythagoreans to convey that the universe is “an ordered whole consisting of harmonies of contrasting elements. The Pythagoreans, as aforementioned, used the phrase “the celestial music of the spheres” to describe the sound of the heavens while they “rotate according to cosmic number and harmony.” Some adherents held the concept that from birth we have heard this celestial music and therefore have grown accustomed to it so much so that we no longer recognize it, while yet others held that it was beyond our capability as humans to hear this celestial music (Soccio 65).

On the other hand, Heraclitus (540-475 or 530-470 BC) believed that all things flow forever and change, even in the smallest matter, there is unseen flux. He declared that although things may appear to remain the same, “Change alone is unchanging” (64). It has been traditionally taught that Heraclitus believed simply that everything is changing, always in a constant state of flux, although whether we was stating that everything is literally always changing or whether he meant that certain things which are held together by energy is indeterminable. He also taught that “Cosmic history runs in repetitious cycles, each beginning and ending in fire” (Durant 73). Heraclitus asserted that “Through strife, all things arise and pass away… War is the father and king of all: some he has made gods, and some men; some slaves, and some free.” Conversely, it is indicated that where strife is not present, there is decay. In this constant change, he believed that the only constant was the law.

“Nature loves to hide,” according to Heraclitus (Christian 426). As such, it is thought that he may have been referring to the invisible elements which make up our world, as he believed that even the smallest matter was in a constant state of flux. This is not unheard of, as some early Greeks were Atomists. Heraclitus postulated that change alone is unchanging, however, in the Heraclitean world, it would be a world lacking the possibility of attaining knowledge, or learning, as well as certainty. As noted by Plato, a Heraclitean world “would be a world of appearances only, a realm of opinion, not knowledge” (Soccio 127). Indeed, if change is unchanging, how do we know when change has occurred? Is change an abstract concept by which we are bound? Change is certainly present in life, from childhood to manhood, from high school to college, from toy cars to driving cars, change is something we may not be fond of, but it is present. If reality was always changing, how could truth exist?

In the fifth century BC, Parmenides of Elea, another pre-Socratic philosopher, altered other philosopher’s curiosity regarding cosmological studies. He essentially transformed cosmology, which is the study of the universe as an ordered system, into what is known as ontology, which is the study of being. Parmenides, who had come to Athens and met a young Socrates at one point, believed that none of the preceding philosophers adequately explained the process which the universe utilizes to change into the everyday experiences. He taught that change was actually an illusion, that change is merely appearance, and not part of reality. This means then, that whatever we believe about reality is nothing more than mere opinion, which, in a way is relativistic. However, if truth is relative, is not the statement “truth is relative” a relative statement and therefore self-refuting?

Parmenides concluded that change is contradictory, and he reasoned that change is a transformation from one thing into another. When something becomes something else, it becomes something that it is not. He reasoned that “since it is impossible for ‘nothing’ (what is not) to exist, there is no ‘nothing’ into which the old thing can disappear… Therefore, change cannot occur” (67). However, though his argument may seem logical, simply because an argument appears logical does not make it true. For this to be true, it would have to explain away how it is that we experience change and motion. These can be demonstrated a number of ways. Motion, for example, is a premise utilized in an argument for the existence of God devised by Thomas Aquinas. Motion is also taught in science classes, as well as assumed in many things. If motion did not exist, how would it be possible for seasons to come and go, or the day and night to come upon us, or for us to go from here to there? For this reason among others, there are issues with Parmenides philosophy.

Could these philosophies be applied to today’s society? Certainly, as much as any other. However, each philosophy comes with a set of issues. Pythagoras developed what is known today as the Pythagorean theorem, or a²+b²=c² in relation to Euclidean geometry, which is still used in mathematics. In the field of biology, it is taught that every few years, our body is fundamentally a new body, though it deteriorates with age. This could be likened unto what Heraclitus once said, “We cannot step twice into the same river, for the water into which we first stepped has flowed on” (295). As for Parmenides, there are still those in society who believe that, although not strictly Parmenidean thinking, truth is relative, as are many other things. This can be likened unto what Parmenides taught regarding change – relativists believe that absolute truth is an illusion, and that truth is relative.

Though later philosophers adopted particular teachings of Pythagoras, Heraclitus and Parmenides, those who were influenced by these ideas came from a variety of backgrounds. Socrates and Plato had similar philosophies, Aristotle was a naturalist, St. Thomas Aquinas was a Dominican friar, and a myriad of other philosophers and different philosophies. Philosophy, or φιλοσοφία (philosophia), Greek for “love of wisdom,” is not always welcome, but it is necessary. In this life, we may never have the answers. We may have a good handle on answers, which would be dependent upon the individual’s presuppositions through which they interpret the world around them, but absolute answers to the big questions, we may not find in this life. But the pondering of these questions, the quest to find truth, to gain knowledge and understanding, is what philosophers strive for, and by examining early philosophers, we see a variety of views, but one thing is constant: each philosopher was attempting to learn the truth about existence.

Sources Consulted
Durant, Will. The Story of Philosophy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1926. 5, 12, 73. Print.

Christian, James L. Philosophy: An Introduction To The Art of Wondering. 3rd ed. California: CBS College Publishing and Rinehart Press, 1981. 419-420, 426. Print.

Soccio, Douglas J. Archetypes of Wisdom. 7th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2010. 64-67, 126-127, 295. Print.

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