“Like the poor, the Pre-Socratics will always be with us,” Fr. Lawrence Dewan O.P.+

To be ordered, there must be a difference between before and after. If everything is the same, then one cannot have order. A proto-philosophical attitude is to wonder at the cause of the differences, and to ask why. The answer to the inquiry varies according to the subject matter and the questioner. The philosophers before Socrates also asked why. The first recorded philosopher was Thales.

Thales had a naïve wonder of the world, naïve in the best sense. His stance had an openness of Being. He noted that the world is an amazing place, which is a proper place to start. Thales wanted to understand the unifying principle to what he saw. Adaequatio intellectus et rei, the classic definition means the correspondence of the mind to reality and when attained, the person has come into contact with the truth. For man, knowledge enables men to come into contact with the truth of the thing. Man does not need to eat lion to come into contact with a lion. Man studies them, watches them, and so enters into the contact with lion. Thomas Nagel, a post-modern philosopher, shared Thale’s stance of honest inquiry. Nagel offers the same insight, “The largest question within which all natural science is embedded is also the largest question of philosophy- namely, in what way or ways is the world intelligible?”[1]

Plato in The Sophist writes about the Battle between Battle between the Gods and Giants. From the dialogue between the stranger and Theatetus, two bedrock-starting points emerge – man has a body and he thinks. It is because man is a type of amphibian who is not quite at home in a purely materialistic account nor an account that gives exclusionary preference to being. With both body and mind it has given rise to the irreducibly complicated philosophical and moral history occurring down to the present times. Sophists sold wisdom through word-craft. Philosophers seek wisdom by the mind aligning with reality and so come to truth.

Thales and his followers sought to come into contact with the underlying principle of nature by reducing the vast number of principles to the few and ideally to the one. This desire to reduce many things to a single cause is noble and reflective of the origin of all that is One. Thale’s hypothesis was that water underlies all material things. Thales observed that without water there was no life, that it was powerful enough to erode mountains and volcanoes rose from oceans. Thus, water undergirds reality.

Anaximander, a pupil of Thales, thought the limitless, a certain nature, is the principle of all existing things. This eternal, limitless, and ageless principle contains all the worlds. He was the first to use the term principle. Principle is a type of primal chaos where the Universe originates in the separation of opposites in primordial matter. He also posits a telos, where dying things are returning to the principle from which they came, apeiron.

Anaximenes, another Pre-Socratic, posited air was the fundamental principle. Again, one sees a reduction of the many to one, often with materiality being the primary cause. Agreeing with Anaximander, Anaximenes believes the cosmos arises from pre-existing matter, material monism. This class of Pre-Socratic philosophers sees materiality as the cause of being. They are the original materialists.

Pythagoras, a cult figure from the beginning of his emergence, coins the word philosopher. Sophist, wise ones, was too proud of a word for Pythagoras. He preferred the term lover of wisdom, indicating he had more to learn. With his ability to tell a narrative, Pythagoras attracted followers. “Pythagorean was the first to take up mathematics and proposed that its principles were the principles of all things.”[2] This concept that all things can be explained mathematically will resurface with Descartes during the Enlightenment Project.

Parmenides is also a Pre-Socratic and takes a completely different position from the materialists. He introduces a Nominalist concept of reality. The only real thing is Being, the One, everything else passes away. The only thing true is the One, all else comes into being and passes away, and thus is an illusion. What man sees is transitory and the names given to things are from custom. Richard Rorty will recapitulate the conclusion of Parmenides. Language is untrustworthy in describing the world. Things you see in the world are not real.

Democritus the Atomist will posit there are only atoms and the void. A saying attributed to Democritus by Sextus Empiricus and other ancient writers, “ By convention sweet and by convention bitter, by convention hot, by convention cold, by convention colour: in reality atoms and the empty.” Democritus and Parmenides discount individuals. It is only atoms or only being that is real, all else is illusion. The smallest bits, even if it is a Higgs Boson, are in what everything consists. From the beginnings of philosophy, one sees deep division and turmoil concerning reality. We should not be surprised that in our own age there is deep division as to the questions and purpose of human life. Every age, must answer the same questions for itself, which is a hard task given our fallen nature.

What we learn from the Pre-Socratics is that nothing comes to be from non-being. [There is something preexisting: matter or being.] The principles are finite in number. The principles must be contraries such as hot or cold. They cancel each other out and are not prior to one another. Finally, the underlying must be a principle as well. It is also seen that philosophy is not over, nor one of necessary progress, nor easy. Old question still need to be asked, thought through and rearticulated. True philosophy begins in posing questions, not dogma received.

            [1] Thomas Nagel, Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False (Oxford University Press: New York, 2012), 18.

            [2] Aristotle, Metaphysics I.5.985b23ff