As Bertrand Russell said — Philosophy begins with Thales
The Pre-Socratic philosophy began in the 6th century BCE. The Pre-Socratics were primarily concerned with the arche of the world, or the principal/original substance. Overall, the impact that these philosophers had on philosophy has been enormous, with contributions to diverse areas ranging from naturalism and rationalism to scientific methodology. Below is an overview of the philosophies of some of these philosophers.
Thales of Miletus (620–540 BC)
Thales is believed to be the first person to inquire about the basic substance of which the universe consists. He also questioned the first cause of existence, and the nature of the force that led to the creation of everything.
Thales claimed the basic substance to be water. Water, as the ultimate underlying element of creation, was clearly apparent to Thales. He explained how water exists in three forms — as vapor, liquid water and ice. It has the power to support life and to move rocks. Furthermore, it is an essential resource required to sustain human life.
Thales is believed to be the first person to have studied astronomy. He wrote two books on the equinox and the solstice. He is also believed to be the one who first divided an year into 365 days.
Anaximander of Miletus (610–546 BC)
Anaximander disagreed with his teacher Thales on his definition of the first cause. He said that no natural element (water, in case of Thales) could be the first cause as even the natural elements have a source of origin. He claimed it (the first cause) to be apeiron or infinite instead.
He defined apeiron as the eternal creative force with follows the natural pattern while bringing things into existence and then destroys them, only to recreate them in varied forms.
He also deducted that the moon reflects sun’s light. Among his other achievements are the invention of the globe, the map and the clock (a version of each atleast, which might be considered antiquated after advancements made since).
Almost 2,000 years before Darwin, Anaximander also discussed the theory of evolution.
Anaximenes of Miletus (585–525 BC)
Anaximenes was a younger contemporary of Anaximander, and a letter correspondent with Pythagoras.
As per him, the arche was air. He claimed that air converts to different forms like water, earth etc. through the phenomena of rarefaction and condensation.
Pythagoras (582–496 BC)
Arguably one of the most interesting takes on the matter of the arche, Pythagoras said that mathematics was the underlying principle of truth and reality. His most famous contribution, the Pythagorean Theorem, is believed to have been developed from Egyptian ideas.
He compared numbers and creation by pointing out that both have neither beginnings nor endings.
Pythagoras also claimed that the human soul is immortal and passes through various incarnations and gains knowledge with each life that it goes through. This is the Pythagorean concept of transformation.
Pythagoras did not leave behind any written work, and it is believed that a major part of his thought/teachings has been lost.
Xenophanes of Colophon (570–470 BC)
As per Xenophanes’ doctrine, existing things consist of four elements, and there are an infinite number of unchangeable worlds.
He also broke away from the traditional conception of God as anthropomorphic and instead said that the form of God is spherical.
He is also believed to be the first person to claim that everything that exists or is produced is impermanent and perishable.
Heraclitus (535–475 BC)
He is also known as ‘the weeping philosopher’. As per him, fire is the arche. In a very obscure way, he explains that it is through changes in fire that different things exist. He also claimed that the universe is finite and that there is only one world, which will eventually be consumed by fire as per fate.
He claimed that he knew everything there was to know, and many believe him to be arrogant in nature. He wrote a book divided into three sections of Universe, Politics, and Theology.
His popular phrases include ‘all is flux’ and ‘one can never step into the same river twice’.
Parmenides of Elea (510–440 BC)
Parmenides was a monist, i.e., he believed that reality consisted of only one single substance. This substance was both indestructible and uncreated. He also believed that the essence of reality, which resides in every human being, is unchanging, for change is an illusion.
He also claimed the senses to be unreliable as they suggest that change exists.
Anaxagoras (500–428 BC)
Anaxagoras said — “All things were mixed up together, then Mind came and arranged them all in distinct order.”
By this, he meant that the First Cause of existence was Mind or nous. He believed that there had originally been a single mass of indestructible stuff/seeds which was later separated and arranged by the mind into different things.
Zeno of Elea (490–430 BC)
Zeno, pupil of Parmenides, defended his teacher’s claims by proving through logical paradoxes that plurality, as shown by the senses, was an illusion, and that the reality was uniform.
Empedocles (490–430 BC)
Empedocles, on the other hand, completely disagreed with Parmenides and Zeno. He believed plurality to be the vital nature of existence.
He claimed the opposing forces of strife and love to be the deciding factors of reality. Love brought things together, whereas strife differentiated them.
Democritus (460–370 BC)
He was the first person to propose the theory of atoms. He said that the universe consists of thing made up of tiny, uncuttable building blocks or atoms. So, for him, the arche was atom.
In contrast to Heraclitus, Democritus is known as ‘the laughing philosopher’ because of his cheerful nature.
Protagoras (481–420 BC)
It was Protagoras who said — “Man is the measure of all things.” Through this statement, he meant to emphasize of the relativity and subjectivity of things.
He also claimed that nothing could be known of God, so there is no use on both affirming the existence of God, or denying it.
Diogenes of Sinope (412–323 BC)
Believed to be one of the founders of Cynicism, Diogenes emphasized the importance of self sufficiency and the futility of luxury. He also believed that the concept of manners was a lie. He strongly believed in the power of truthfulness and is known to have walked the streets on Athens with a lantern in his hand, for his search of an ‘honest man’.
None of his original works have survived.
The Pre-Socratics introduced a new method of inquiry which questioned the nature of the world and the place of humanity in it. They are now thought of as the first philosophers and the first scientists of the West.