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Archetypes of Wisdom Douglas J. Soccio Chapter 3: The Presocratic Sophos Including Overview of Classical Themes
Greek Mythology Before the first Western philosophers, the most important view of life was the mythical one expressed in the Iliad and the Odyssey, two epic poems attributed to the Greek poet Homer (c.8 th century B.C.) Mythology is not sheer fantasy, but the product of a desire to understand. Philosophy and Science have both grown out of this search for explanation and justification. One function of mythology - shared by philosophy - is to help in the Search for Happiness, to convey ideas about living well and being a good person.
Sophos As early Greek civilization became increasingly refined and sophisticated, a new kind of thinker emerged known as a sophos, from the Greek word for “wise”. The sophos lived and spoke in ways that were interpreted as showing disregard for conventional values, and that set them apart from regular folks living normal lives. One of the earliest popular images of philosophers is the stereotype of an “absent-minded,” starry- eyed dreamer asking silly questions.
Woman as Sophos One of the earliest examples of a woman philosopher was Aesara of Lucania (c.3 rd century B.C.). In a fragment of her book, On Human Nature (included in the text), she claims that through the introspection and contemplation of our own souls we can discover the “natural” foundation of all law and the structure of morality.
From Sophos to Philosopher Whereas the sophos (sage or wise man) was seen as a kind of prophet-priest-therapist, the philosopher was seen as an unusual sort of thinker and truth-seeker. The very first Western thinkers identified as philosophers were initially concerned with questions about the nature of nature and about the order of the world – the “kosmos”. The earliest philosophers were referred to as the Presocratics because they appeared prior to Socrates, the first major figure of the tradition.
Thales Despite the fame of Socrates, the first Western philosopher was Thales (c B.C.) He is the first thinker to suggest that all of the things in nature are ultimately made of one basic “stuff” (which he believed to be water), since, as he says, “the nutriment of everything is moist”. This is an example of monism – the belief that reality is essentially one – whether it be one process, one structure, or one substance. Thus began The Search for a Common Principle.
Anaximander Thales’ claim that everything is composed of water was a move beyond mythological accounts, an attempt to figure out a reasonable explanation for the changes he saw in nature. Seeking reasons for holding a belief is part of rational discourse. Anaximander ( B.C.), a student of Thales, thought that a limited element like water was insufficient to account for everything. Whatever is responsible for the existence of the world must be something infinite, unlimited by space or time. Anaximander’s name for this indefinite-infinite “thing” - which produces all the particular objects in the world - was the “apeiron”, or “boundless”.
Anaximenes Just as Anaximander identified problems in Thales’ thinking, so Anaximander’s pupil, Anaximenes (died c. 500 B.C.), recognized a problem with the “boundless”. Rather than pairs of opposites, such as hot and cold, he proposed two opposing processes of exchange: condensation and rarefaction. According to Anaximenes, “pneuma” (air) is the ultimate spirit that holds the world together. And its opposing processes turn air to fire to wind to cloud to water to earth to stone – and back again.
Heraclitus The fragments of writing that remain of Heraclitus (d B.C.) reveal a powerful intellect. He claimed that all things are constantly changing. But he also claimed that there is an order to how things change, which he called the Logos. A complex Greek word, logos means “thought,” “speech,” and “meaning” (to name a few). But its most important sense was the rule according to which all things are accomplished and the law which is found in all things. For Heraclitus, the Logos is like God, but without the human qualities earlier philosophers & poets had attributed to “It”.
Pythagoras Most of us are familiar with this name – from the Pythagorean theorem in geometry class. Pythagoras (6 th century B.C.), believed that the principle of number accounted for everything in the world, expressing the mathematical relations of an ordered whole. From music to astronomy, the Pythagoreans felt that the motion of the heavenly bodies produced harmonies, which they described as “the cosmic music of the spheres”. It’s possible to think of these ordered relations – which describe how things change or move – as an example of what Heraclitus meant by the Logos.
Parmenides In contrast to Heraclitus’ notion that things are always changing, Parmenides (fl. 5 th century B.C.) felt that change was an illusion. The senses make us trust in the way things appear, while what is really the case can only be understood through rational thought. This is the distinction between appearance and reality. Parmenides claimed that there are not actually many things (though there appears to be), but only “the One” (existence itself, or “being”). And the study of being – or ontology – begins at this time.
Zeno’s Paradoxes A student of Parmenides, Zeno (c B.C.), constructed paradoxes in order to illustrate the truth of his teacher’s counter-intuitive claims. In each case, the senses tell us that there is motion (of individual objects), while rational thought shows that motion is impossible (since the space to be traversed can be infinitely divided). Zeno’s paradoxes are one of the earliest uses of a method of proof known as a reductio ad absurdum (reduce to absurdity), which shows that following a particular position leads to a contradiction (which can never be true).
Empedocles Building on Parmenides’ belief that motion is impossible because there is no non-being, Empedocles (c. 5 th century B.C.) claimed that reality must be “completely full,” a plenum without any “gaps”. Therefore, all motion must take place within reality, with things “exchanging places” with one another. Rather than an unmoving One, reality consists of six basic components: four “roots” – earth, air, fire, and water - and two “motions” – Love (which unites) and Strife (which divides). This shift back toward “the many” is referred to as pluralism.
Anaxagoras Rejecting Empedocles’ two fundamental motions, Anaxagoras (c B.C.) claimed that there is an all-pervading Mind which “sets all things in order”. Nous (Greek for “mind”) imposes an intelligible pattern to the world, affecting them without itself being affected by them. Anaxagoras also believed that “in everything there is a portion of everything,” that all things contain the stuff – or “the seeds” – of everything else. Our senses are unable to detect this, because “What appears is [itself] a vision of the unseen.”
Atomism If things all motion happens within being, and individual objects come and go, then the idea that all things contain small bits that can serve to make other things is not too much of a stretch. And the atomists – Luecippus (c. 5 th century B.C.) and Democritus (c B.C.) - claimed just that. According to them, everything in the universe consists of atoms (minute, indivisible particles) and the void (empty space containing no atoms). However, the void of the atomists is not non-being (they agree there is no such thing); the world can be One, and still have many moving parts. So, Parmenides’ problem seems to have been solved.
Reason and Necessity Atomism is a type of materialism – the belief that everything in the world is made of matter. And while this serves us well in science, raises some interesting problems. Is there is any purpose or intention in the universe? The atomists’ answer is “no”. Though there is predictable order, “nothing occurs at random” – in other words, there are no chance occurrences, and everything happens by necessity. This leads to another problem: if thinking is a material process, according to Democritus we are “cut off from the real,” unable to have certain knowledge. Instead, our only option is to rely on how we perceive things and what others around us think is true – that is, on convention.
Overview of Classical Themes Two principles produced by the desire to find explanations: 1) There is a difference between the way things appear and the way they really are. 2) There are unseen causes of events.
Overview of Classical Themes Nature vs. Convention Contemporary lessons from the past The search for Excellence The search for Happiness