Historical Introduction to Philosophy/Presocratics and Socrates

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Thales 624-545 B.C.E.[edit]

Thales was born in Miletus (the New York Harbor of its day) had the opportunity to participate in society and was encouraged to. His main interests were natural philosophy, mathematics, and astronomy. He wrote “On Nature” and with his use and understanding of physics, he was able to measure the Egyptian pyramids by using a stick, ratio and the geometrical shape of a triangle. He studied weather and was able to make money after predicting an early harvest by renting all of the area's olive oil presses. His name is included in most of the lists of the seven sages of Greece. One of his finest accomplishments was to redirect a river for King Croesus’s army to cross. Another was his prediction of a solar eclipse in 585 B.C.E. He was in search of the arche or first principle of the universe. His conclusion was all is water. From water we come to water we go. His idea was that the world rests on water and has a soul or spirit. That, motion is life he concluded that magnets could move iron-creating motion therefore giving life to the world.

Anaximander 610-540 B.C.E.[edit]

Anaximander was possibly a student of Thales and showed great interest in geometry, astronomy, and philosophy. Anaximander was the first to write prose specifically for Philosophy. He invented the sundial, giving the Greeks a way to measure time. He was also the first Greek to give us a map of the world. His main argument was that all is the “boundless” and has no specific qualities, therefore, creating opposites. Water is wet, fire is dry, and water puts out fire. It is eternal because it gives rise to opposites. Divine because it is deathless and indestructible. He believed that the world is surrounded by concentric circles made up of the earth in the center then water, air, fire. Thus using the idea of four elements, two pairs, and opposites, all things happen through time mixing together creating change and cycles. Conflict leads to resolution and the unbounded is cyclical and continuous. Keeping the earth up because of the balance, it creates. He argued that the earth was the center of the cosmos and has no reason to move.

Anaximenes 545 B.C.E.[edit]

Anaximenes too was a student of the philosopher before him. He believed that all is air, and it has no limits and never dies. His empirical research led him to believe that what is alive breaths and has a soul. He felt that this must also be true of the cosmos. Arguing that what happens to the smallest creature must also happen on a greater level. Condensation of air creates water to snow then ice. Like Thales, Anaximenes believed that, the earth rested on something and his something was air.

Xenophones 570 B.C.E.[edit]

Xenophanes, a traveler and roaming poet, was born in Colophon not far from the city of Miletus. Many historians believe that he was the teacher of Parmenides. Xenophanes was interested in poetry, religion, and natural philosophy. He was the first to try to discredit the gods. His main argument was that humans project their thoughts and actions onto the gods. That is, humans believe the gods look like them, and every society describes the gods differently according to how the people look. He believed that humans have knowledge from experience, or perception is different for each human.

Pythagoras 570-497 B.C.E.[edit]

Pythagoras was the leader of a popular religious cult named after him. He and his followers called the Pythagorean Brotherhood lived a regimented life in Croton Italy. They shared material possessions similar to the idea of a commune. He believed in reincarnation and the transmigration of the soul. The soul is immortal and humans can reunite with the divine if they are perfect and purify themselves. That incarnation is punishment for bad things humans do. In order to be worthy of the divine we must think, act, and live correctly to end the cycle of rebirth. His main argument is that the world is a place of order, and that order comes from numbers. He studied math and furthered the study of geometry. He developed a system of harmonics using a 2:1 ratio. For the Pythagorean Brotherhood the sacred number was 10, the sum of 4+3+2+1. The Brotherhood believed that math and numbers are the ultimate stuff of the universe and incorrectly thought that all numbers could be written as one whole number divided by another.

Heraclitus 540-480 B.C.E.[edit]

Heraclitus was born in Ephesus near Colophon not far from Miletus to an aristocratic family. He shunned his duties, preferring the study of everything from philosophy to politics. His main argument was that the cosmos or universe is ruled by order, or logos. He is known for his riddles, such as "the way up is the way down"; think of the path to a mountaintop. He felt that Nature has order and we should live life according to the order of the universe. Again, Heraclitus studied the philosophers before him and built upon their ideas. Like the philosophers before him, he believed that the “all” led to one thing and that thing is change or flux. He once said, "One cannot step in the same river twice".

Parmenides of Elea 515-445 B.C.E.[edit]

Parmenides was born in Elea, Italy and was most likely a student of Xenophanes. Like many of the philosophers before him was interested in finding the “one”. He was considered to be the first rationalist. For many students of philosophy his argument is extremely difficult to understand. "What is, is, and What is not, is not" was Parmenides main argument. Therefore, if we say nothing exists, we are in fact acknowledging something because nothing is in fact something. We (people) cannot think outside the box, because there is no box. He believed that two ideas cannot be true at the same time. For him the “one” is the mysterious X factor, that is, appearance is not actuality. He believed that knowledge comes from reason not perception. If something is different, it cannot be the same and if we have change then nothing can be the same for it is dynamic. Therefore, all is an illusion and there is no beginning and no end. The world is eternal, whole, unique, immovable, indivisible, and homogenous. The mysterious X factor is “Being”.

Zeno of Elea 490-430 B.C.E.[edit]

Zeno was born in Elea in 490 B.C.E. and was a student of Parmenides. He is famous for his paradox of the turtle and Achilles and using it to defend his teacher Parmenides. Imagine Achilles and a turtle are in a race, the turtle gets a head start. For Achilles to catch up to the turtle he must travel half the distance of his intended goal. The turtle is still moving, so again he must travel half the distance. As you can see, he will never catch the turtle, therefore motion is an illusion.

Empedocles ???-440 B.C.E.[edit]

Empedocles seems to have tried to merge the ideas of Parmenides with those of Pythagoras. He asked what accounts for change and concluded that the four elements [1]are the cause. For change to occur, there must be forces to move elements. Those forces are love and strife. Empedocles gives up the idea the “One”. Let us use cake as an example of change. In order to have cake we must have the correct proportions of cake elements. The universe must have both love and strife to move the elements. Again using the cake example, we love to eat cake, but cake is unhealthy and full of calories, so if we want to continue to be healthy we will not indulge in the cake. Love attracts unlike elements, strife attracts like elements. This fight between love and strife is and kablam we move to something new.

Anaxagoras 500-428 B.C.E.[edit]

Anaxagoras was born in the city of Clazomenae in Ionia. He used Parmenides’ idea of the mysterious "X" factor, and may have been writing an answer to Empedocles’ idea of change. He agreed with the idea of the four elements and believed that any kind of stuff we have has always been there. Using cake as another example: if we have cake, we have cake stuff. One of his main arguments was that substances do not change, they do not just suddenly come into being but they are uncreated and indestructible. In fact, he thought that there are an infinite number of elements. For things to be created there must be the correct ratio of elements demonstrating the Pythagorean influence. Another of his ideas was that there is no smallest only smaller. He was disliked and put on trial for saying that the sun was not a god.

Leucippus (dates widely disputed), and Democritus 470-360 B.C.E.[edit]

Both Leucippus and Democritus are known as atomists who believed in the great void and that atoms are the only things that exist. They concluded that the “divine” equals immortality, and power. In addition, they believed, nothing happens randomly, but rather everything happens from necessity. Democritus was a professional student and wrote more than fifty books. In the fourth century, Christians destroyed his work. Think of the earth as a circle, if the circle is full then stuff cannot move around. If we have space, we have room for movement. Think of the mind as the circle if atoms bounce around this leads to thought.

The Sophists[edit]

They were not interested in facts. Actually, they were interested in making money by teaching citizens to win argument by any means. Mostly by making the opposing person's argument weak. Some of the most famous sophists are Protagoras 490-420 B.C.E. Famous for his quote “a man is the measure of all things.” Gorgias 483-375 B.C.E. Antiphon and Thrasymachus show up later in Plato’s Republic.

Socrates 469-399B.C.E.[edit]

Socrates was born in 469 to a middle class family in the city of Attica. During the Peloponnesian War, he served as an infantryman and was recognized for his courage. He did not record his ideas and much of what we know of him comes from the writings of his student, Plato.

Socrates became famous for strolling around the agora (marketplace) and questioning citizens about ideas such as “What is justice,” or “What is knowledge,” and challenging the person by questioning every answer he/she gave in response. This great philosopher was put on trial for “corrupting the youth” and “questioning the gods” he was found guilty on these trumped up charges. He had the choice of being exiled or drinking Hemlock, a poison that would kill him. Remaining true to his beliefs, he drank the hemlock.

Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” He believed that knowledge is virtue and humans never intentionally do wrong. In addition, that ignorance is evil and in order to be moral, humans must educate themselves. He believed that the only thing he really knew was that he knew nothing. In addition, that being true to yourself was the most important thing a man could do. His method of questioning frustrated most anyone he encountered. This “method” would lead men to reevaluate their answers and truly examine their beliefs. Basically, these people suffered from buyer’s remorse. They bought into false beliefs and came to regret their choices after being questioned by Socrates. He is still a great influence for many people.


Based on the book Landscape of Wisdom by Christopher Biffle.

1 Imagine you are standing and looking forward, now imagine you are Thales seeing many things unified by “one”. You say to the person standing next to you that all (or many) is_.


2 Next, you are Heraclitus talking to your neighbor and you say “I believe all is .”


3 Lucky you! Now you are the great philosopher Parmenides on the subway talking to the person sitting next to you and he/she asks you what you “the many” or “all” is, and you reply_.

Who is Mary Cordova?
Have you seen Donnie Darko?

4 Following your exhilarating subway adventure you are dressed in a pinstriped suit and Italian shoes, no you are not a lawyer, but close you are a sophist. You start collecting money from those around you and offer to teach them.

how to do the Macarena.
to hail a taxi.
truth is not important, winning arguments is what counts.
How to get a table at Rao’s.

5 After your subway ride you are transformed into the philosopher Socrates walking down fifth avenue, you start asking the people passing by___.

for the time.
to forget about the one, and ask “what is holy?”
how you got here in the first place?
for the directions to the Guggenheim.


  1. Insert reference material

Work Cited[edit]

  • Landscape of Wisdom, Christopher Biffle
  • The Story of Philosophy, Brian Magee
  • Get a Grip on Philosophy, Neil Turnbell
  • Looking at Philosophy, David Palmer
  • Longmans Standard History of Philosophy
  • Philosophy 101, Sparkcharts
  • Great Ideas of Philosophy, The Teaching Company Dr. Daniel Robinson

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