Posted by: Elmer Brabante | May 4, 2014




The pre-Socratic philosophers (around 600 BCE) were the earliest rational thinkers in the Western civilization. Their philosophies centered on the questions, “What is the world made of?” “How did the world come into being” and “How can we explain the process of change?” The western Ionian seaport of Miletus across the Aegean Sea from Athens was the meeting place between the East and the West, where Oriental, Egyptian and Babylonian (Eastern) philosophies influenced the development of what came to be the enduring Greek philosophy. While Eastern philosophies probed nature’s depths intuitively and spiritually, early Greek thinkers viewed nature cognitively and scientifically. Pre-Socratic philosophy represented a paradigm shift from the mythical explanation of the origins of the cosmos to intellectual, scientific attempts to understand the origins of the universe.


The men traditionally referred to as the Seven Sages were philosophers, statesmen and legislators of the late seventh and sixth centuries BCE. Exactly who were in the list was later named by Plato as: Thales, Pittacus of Mytilene, Bias of Priene, Solon of Athens (the father of Athenian Democracy), Cleobilus of Lindus, Myson of Chenae, and Chilon of Sparta. Except for Thales, they were not really philosophers in the modern sense, but practical politicians. However, in that respect their speeches and sayings can be seen as ultimate precursors of the Classical period’s greatest thinkers about ethics, politics and morality (Socrates, Plato and Aristotle).



  1. HERODOTUS (c. 484-425 BCE)

Herodotus became the father of history. His subject was the history of the Archaic period (c. 750-480 BCE), and his underlying theme was the meeting of the Greek world with the cultures of Asia Minor, the Near East and Egypt. His work shares some of the preoccupations of the Presocratic philosophers in its fascination with the nature of different human cultures and the underlying causes of human actions, especially warfare, without reference to gods or divine will. His style was rather anecdotal than analytical, and he is often very naïve, but his curiosity and questioning attitude , and his attention to all sides of an issue, using both Greek and non-Greek sources, link him methodologically with the Presocratic philosophers.

  1. THUCYDIDES (c. 455-400 BCE)

Called the “pioneer of scientific history,” Thucydides unlike Herodotus, concentrated on a wholly Greek subject, the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta (431-404 BCE). He was more analytical historian than Herodotus was, brilliantly unraveling the complex processes of decision-making or failure to decide that determined the fortunes of the parties in the war.


Most of the Presocratic philosophers thought that material principles alone were principles of all things. They had varying ideas of what the primordial substance was; but they could scarcely even have conceptualized a single origin for the universe if they had not already formed a concept of the universe as an ordered whole whose order should be determined: it was neither the creation of some gods or divine force nor a disordered mess intractable to intelligent explanation. The word they used for this order was kosmos, a word cognate with kosmeuein, to arrange or set in order. Heraclitus is probably the first Greek thinker to use kosmos clearly in this sense of the ordered world. The early Presocratics also argued that the world was governed by some regulatory force; this idea lies behind the Anaximander’s notion of cosmic justice, which maintains balance in the universe. Heraclitus and Parmenides were also concerned with cosmic justice.

Mathematics was an important part of Presocratic philosophy. The Greeks traditionally regarded Egypt as the wellspring of mathematics, but it was they who applied deductive reasoning to it. Thales introduced the notion of mathematical proof and made some basic geometrical discoveries. Mathematics was central to Pythagorean movement: numerous discoveries in geometry and music, including the famous theorem about the square of the hypotenuse, have been attributed to Pythagoreans rather than to Pythagoras himself. Among other things, Pythagoreans proved the existence of “irrational” numbers, with a drastic effect on the rest of their theory of the universe.

Most of the Presocratic philosophers were aristocratic or propertied citizens, active in the government of the cities or as military leaders; but mere practical political advice hardly counts as philosophizing. The Pythagoreans were primarily interested in the soul, and believed in reincarnation. Their view of philosophy as a way of life also shows where their main interest lay. On the whole, even the later Presocratic philosophers were not explicitly interested in ethical theory, though they did concern themselves with theories of mind, its distinction from matter, and the nature of knowledge.

  1. THALES OF MILETUS (625-545 BCE)

Thales was famous for having observed or perhaps predicted the first accurately datable event in Greek history: a solar eclipse on 28 May 585 BCE. His interests in eclipses  would well have sprung from Miletus’ links with Lydia, and through Lydia with Babylonia, where eclipses had long been studied by astronomers.

Thales is widely considered to have broken new ground when he theorized that water was the original substance out of which everything else was created. This was a breakthrough, because for the first time, there was a reasoned argument to support a theory, based on Thales’ empirical observation not only on the behavior of water itself (freezing, evaporation, thawing), which caused it to change from one thing to another and reverse the process while still demonstratively water, but of the reliance of all life forms on water for nourishment. Thales’ realization that a substance could change without losing its essential nature was also important; and it was an idea carried forward by Anaximenes, the youngest of the three Milesian pioneers, in his concept of rarefaction and condensation in the universe.

Thales also held the earth floats on water, like a floating log. However, he did not explain what the water itself rests on, or whether it is limitless, as might have been appropriate for the primordial substance. Thales also theorized that all things are full of gods, and the magnet is alive for it has the power to move iron.




The second of the Milesians, Anaximander proposed that the universe not only originated in a single primordial substance but was subject to a single law. Unlike Thales, Anaximander posited that this substance, the material principle of everything that exists, was not only familiar earthly substance but something that he called apeiron, “the boundless”. Anaximander believed that everything in the world derived from four elements—air, water, earth, and fire—that existed necessarily as pair of opposites. But he disagreed with Thales’ view that any of the four could be the underlying substance on its own, because each of them needed its opposite to maintain its existence. Beyond the four elements, he argued, there had to be something that had no opposite: accordingly he hypothesized the apeiron. As well as being limitless in extent, the apeiron was “eternal and ageless, ungenerated and indestructible,” and from it came the heavens and “all the worlds”.

Perhaps springing from the notion of constant change, Anaximander conceived of a process of generation among animals that looks at first sight like a distant ancestor of a theory of evolution. Viewed more closely, his ideas about this process seem to owe more to observation of the development of insects from larvae: that the first animals were born in moisture, surrounded by prickly bark, from which they later emerged on dry land, and for a short time lived in a different kind of life. He posited the emergence of human beings out of fish or fish-like creatures in a similar process, not emerging and taking to the land until they were able to fend for themselves.

Anaximander was the first man to make a map of the earth—which he conceived of as cylindrical,  set in the center of a spherical universe around which the sun, moon, and stars circle, equidistant from the earth, in a celestial wheel. He conceived of a series of wheels or hoops, set at different distances from the earth, hollow and filled with fire, and punctuated by openings or vents; light or fire showing through these vents accounted for the appearances of the heavenly bodies. The hoop of the sun was twenty-seven greater than the earth, that of the moon eighteen times greater. Phases of the moon and eclipses were explained in terms of the blocking and opening of the vents. This picture may seem extremely fanciful, but it contains two revolutionary features: (1) the notion that the universe was spherical, and (2) the idea that it was the circular shape of the hoops that prevented them from falling in towards the sun.


The third in the succession of early Milesians, Anaximenes, pupil of Anaximander, adopted Thales’ idea that the primordial stuff was an observable substance, choosing air, and proposed that the single law that governed the generation of matter was one of rarefaction and condensation. Here was another process of continual change and motion. The most rarefied condition of air was fire; successive degrees of condensation produced wind, clouds, water, earth, and finally, at the densest, stone. Rarefaction was caused by heating, condensation by cooling. The movement involved in rarefaction and condensation also made matter visible or invisible.

On the shape of the universe, Anaximenes also looked back to Thales: his earth, sun and other heavenly bodies were all fiery, shaped like flat discs, and airborne, turning in a circle above the flat earth. The heavenly bodies would not fall through the air because, being flat, they offered resistance. Anaximenes’ model of the universe and in particular the earth proved highly influential: Anaxagoras and Democritus are among those who agreed with him.


  1. PYTHAGORAS (Born 570 BCE)

Pythagoras believed in the transmigration of souls and established a religious sect centered on that belief. Pythagoreans’ belief in reincarnation, their communal way of life, their secrecy, and their veneration to the founding figure make it difficult to identify individual members of Pythagoras’ circle to detect what is original to Pythagoras.

Pythagoras marks the beginning of a different tradition of thought from that of the Milesians. He did not concern much with nature, being more interested with the soul and its qualities. He saw both the universe and the soul as endless and unchanging, the same things recurring eternally, and within this scheme the soul was subject to a series of reincarnations. Pythagorean philosophy was full of mystical and religious thought. Much of it was expressed in short sayings or aphorisms, called akousmata (“things heard”), which included the famous advice to abstain from beans but also statements about the universe, for example that the planets were bearers of divine vengeance, the purpose of thunder was to frighten souls in the underworld, and earthquakes were gathering of the dead. Other akousmata took the form of instructions or prohibitions that seem frankly superstitious: Put your right shoe first, don’t have children by a woman who wears gold, don’t look in a mirror by lamplight, etc. These are less scientific than the Ionian pioneers, ant hey make no use of reasoned argument at all.

Pythagoreans had speculated that everything in the world, and the relations between things, could be explained in terms of numbers. Their attempt to establish measurability combined the intellectual and the mystical in a way that seems strange to us: they thought, for instance, that marriage is five because it joins the first even (female, limited) number with the first odd (male, unlimited) one. Even the soul had a number. They noticed as well that musical intervals could be expressed numerically, related to the lengths of strings on a lyre. From this they postulated that if musical harmony depended on numerical ratios, the harmony of the universe could also be expressed numerically.

In the fifth century BCE, Pythagoreans split into two factions: Aphorists (akousmatikoi), and Mathematicians (mathematikoi), reflecting the two sides of Pythagorean thought.


  1. XENOPHANES (580-480 BCE)


Poet-philosopher Xenophanes was the first philosopher of religion. He was extremely critical of the traditional portrayal of the gods in Homer and the epic poems, where they behaved so disappointingly like humans, forever committing “theft and adultery and mutual deception.” This does not mean that Xenophanes was an atheist; on the contrary, he could be very pious. His remarks are a critical analysis of religion as it was practiced in the day. He believed that people imagined God in their own image.

Xenophanes hypothesized on non-mythological theology centered on a single or supreme god—it is not entirely clear from the surviving fragments whether he is referring to just one god or a god that is the greatest of many. The important thing is that this divinity is not a person but an abstract, impersonal divine principle, similar to mortals neither in shape nor in thought, able to shape all things by the force of its mind alone, capable of accomplishing everything while always reposing the same state or place—and ultimately unknowable to human minds.

His theory of the fundamental primary substance was earth and water, or a mixture of the two. In meteorology, Xenophanes made a remarkably prescient observation that clouds are formed by vaporization caused by the heat of the sun, and used this concept to suggest explanations for a number of astronomical phenomena. In short, Xenophanes combined a new approach to belief in divine order with the lively inquiry into the nature of the world and its contents typical to his Ionian predecessors.


  1. HERACLITUS (540-475 BCE)

Nicknamed the “weeping philosopher,” Heraclitus was paired with Democritus who was the “laughing philosopher”. Central to Heraclitus’ philosophy was that the natural universe is governed by a law of opposites held in tension, as in a bow and a lance. In general, he saw the universe as made up of pairs of opposites similar with Anaximandrian idea, but with the difference that Heraclitus saw justice and strife as themselves necessary. This paradoxical unity of opposites can be shown in many images: the sea is most pure and polluted water; for fish, it is drinkable and preserves life; for men, it is undrinkable and it kills; or his famous riddle: the path up and down is one and the same. Thus, the same road can appear in two opposite ways, depending on which direction you are looking at it. It tells us that the natures of things are not absolute in themselves but relative to our point of view. On the other hand, it appears as more complex metaphor referring to the process of cyclical change by which the cosmos eternally comes into being.

Fire was the element Heraclitus choose as the primordial substance—or rather the primordial process of the world. He maintained that the world always existed and had been made neither by god nor man, but always was, is and will be, an ever-living fire, kindling and being quenched in proportion. Everything else had arisen from this eternally ongoing process of combustion. From this process a universal harmony emerged.

In contrast to the idea of oneness and stasis put forward by his Eleatic contemporary Parmenides, Heraclitus claimed that everything changes and nothing remains. The process of change is the logos—the logic or rationale—of the universe. Heraclitus rejected the accepted Greek religion but believed in the existence of something divine, which he identified with the eternal cosmic fire.

Heraclitus was emphatic on the imperfection of human knowledge: Me do not understand the things they meet with—not even when they have learned them do they know them. In particular, most divine acts escape our knowledge. The individual’s subjective knowledge is incomplete, and wisdom lies not in learning but in the soul’s awakening to the logos: wisdom is one thing, to grasp the knowledge of how all things are steered through all.  His theories have been considered precursors of the laws of conservation and energy; is ideas about divine logos found their way, via Plato, into Christian theology. The opening words of the gospel of John (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”) may echo this logos, reaching right back to Heraclitus.

  1. PARMENIDES (Born 515 BCE)

Parmenides used logical argument to prove that being, or “what is” is single, without beginning or end, continuous, and also finite and spherical; and that, contrary to the evidence of our senses, our belief in plurality and change in the world is erroneous and the material world around us is an illusion. The logical theory begins with the statement that something is, or something is not. The reason is that we can only conceptualize and speak about things that exist; we are unable to do this with things that don’t exist. He also offered the startling theory that the entire universe consists of one thing, which never changes, has no parts, and can never be destroyed, calling this single thing the One.


  1. ZENO (Born 490 BCE)

A friend of Parmenides, Zeno is best known for his series of logical paradoxes, which illustrate the method of reduction ad absurdum—proving or disproving a statement by taking its consequences through strictly logical steps to the point of absurdity. He asserted that our senses do not give us reliable knowledge but only opinion. The most famous of the paradoxes are four arguments proving the impossibility of motion, apparently supporting Parmenides’ idea that motion was illusory. Two of those paradoxes are:

(1)    Achilles and the tortoise. In a race, the fastest runner can never overtake the slowest, for the pursuer must first reach the point where the pursued set out, so that the slower one must always be in the lead. Imagine the Greek epic hero Achilles, famed for his speed, in a race with a humble tortoise. If the tortoise, as the slower contestant, is given a head start, it will always remain ahead; for by the time Achilles has reached the point from which the tortoise started out, the tortoise has moved on—by a shorter distance than Achilles has covered, admittedly, but still it has moved on. And whenever Achilles reaches a point that the tortoise has just left, it is still ahead. Since there is an infinite number of points Achilles has to reach where the tortoise has already been, he will never catch up, for even though the distance between the racers becomes infinitesimal, it can never shrink to nothing. Zeno argues, hence, that motion is impossible.

(2)    The paradox of dichotomy, or halving. If something is divisible, theoretically it can be cut in two infinite number of times, until it either becomes an infinite number of infinitesimal pieces from which the whole could be reconstituted, or else disappears into nothing, which would mean that the whole thing was constituted from nothing—which is impossible. Therefore, Zeno concludes, there cannot be a plurality of things but just the one. Aristotle saw this paradox as a variation on Achilles and the tortoise, but there is a further problem in it, illustrated by the case of Achilles and the racetrack, or indeed anyone progressing from point A to point B. There is no competitor this time, but to get to the end of the track—from A to B—you have to reach the halfway mark; before you can get there, you have to  get a quarter of the way there; before that, an eighth of the way… and so on till, in the end, with infinitesimal divisions of the distance, it will take you forever just to start off.

In all of these arguments, Zeno was counterattacking the adversaries of Parmenides, taking seriously their assumption of a pluralistic world where a line or time is divisible. By pushing these assumptions to their logical conclusions, Zeno attempted to demonstrate that the notion of a pluralistic world lands one in insoluble absurdities and paradoxes. He therefore reiterated Parmenides’ thesis that change and motion are illusions and that there is only one being, continuous, material, and motionless. In spite of Zeno’s valiant efforts, the commonsense view of the world persisted, which prompted succeeded philosophers to take a different approach to the problem of change and constancy.



  1. EMPEDOCLES (490-430 BCE)


Empedocles was an impressive figure in Agrigentum, Sicily. Legend has it that since he wished to be remembered as a godlike figure, he ended his life by jumping into the crater of Mount Etna, hoping to leave no trace of his body so that people would think that he had gone up to heaven.

He agreed with Parmenides that being is uncreated and indestructible, that it simply is. But unlike Parmenides, Empedocles believed that existence consisted not only of One but many which are changeless and eternal. He philosophized that the objects that we see and experience do come into being and are also destroyed, but such change and motion are possible because objects are composed of many material particles. Thus, although objects can change, the particles of which they are composed of are changeless—the four eternal material elements: earth, water, air, and fire. What explains the changes in objects that we see around us is the mixture of the four elements, but not their transformation. There is “only the mingling and interchange of what has been mingled.”

Empedocles’ account of earth, air, water, and fire constitutes only the first account of his theory. The second part is an account of the specific forces that animate the process of change. The Ionians assumed that the stuff of nature simply transformed itself into various objects. Only Anaximenes made any detailed attempt to analyze the process of change with his theory of condensed and expanded air. By contrast, Empedocles assumed that there are two forces, Love and Hate (Harmony and Discord), that cause the four elements to intermingle and later separate. Hate causes the decomposition of things. The four elements then mix together or separate from each other depending on the amount of Love or Hate that is present.

Four stages of the cycle, according to Empedocles, are: (1) Love is present and Hate is completely absent. Here, the four elements are fully commingled and are held in Harmony by the governing principle of Love. (2) The force of Hate, lurking nearby, starts to invade things, but there is still more Love present than Hate. (3) Hate begins to dominate, and the particles fall into Discord and begin to separate. (4) Only Hate is present, and all particles of the four elements separate into their own four groups. There, the four elements are ready to begin a new cycle as the force of Love turns to attract the elements into harmonious combinations. The continues without end.


  1. ANAXAGORAS (500-428 BCE)


Anaxagoras’ major philosophical contribution was the concept of Nuos (mind), which he distinguished from matter. He agreed with Empedocles’ theory of mixture and separation of the existing substances, but rejected the latter’s ambiguous, mythical notions of Love and Hate. Anaxagoras thought that the world and all its objects well-ordered and intricate structures; there must then be some being with knowledge and power that organizes the material world in this fashion—this rational principle is his concept of the Nuos.

According to Anaxagoras, the nature of reality is best understood as consisting of mind and matter; before mind has influenced the shape of and behavior of matter, matter exists, as a mixture of various kinds of material substances, all uncreated and imperishable. Even when this original mass of matter is divided into actual objects, each part contains portions of every other elemental “thing” (spermata, or seeds).

Aristotle criticized Anaxagoras’ philosophy in this wise: Anaxagoras uses reason as a divine machine for making the world, and when he is at a loss to tell from what cause something, then he drags the reason in, ascribing events to anything rather than reason. Anaxagoras seemed to provide an explanation only of how matter acquired its rotary motion, leaving the rest of the order of nature to be a product of that  motion.



“Atom” literally means “uncuttable” or indivisible. Atomism constituted a systematic, internally coherent natural philosophy explaining everything in the perceptible world. What is innovative about the theory is that it never suggested that the movement of atoms is governed by any intelligence or intentionality, divine or otherwise, either operating upon or inherent in the primal substance. Atomism appears as the first truly materialist answer to Heraclitus’ Logos, Parmenides’ One, Empedocles’ Love and Strife, and Anaxagoras’ Nuos. By positing indivisible units of matter, the atomists were also providing an answer to Zeno’s paradoxes showing that motion is impossible.

Atomism was extremely influential. It was taken up by Epicurus and Lucretius. Less directly, it seems to have had some influence on Plato, who presents a theory based on a different conception of indivisibles. We cannot trace a direct line from ancient atomism to the modern atomic theory of the twentieth century, for it was not a scientific theory resting on experimental method. Yet lacking the advantages of experimentation, Leocippus and Democritus theorized purely materialist explanation of the world, using concepts that prefigure, however distantly, the way we understand the structure of matter today.

  1. DEMOCRITUS (460-370 BCE)


Democritus, “the laughing philosopher,” was probably the most prolific Greek philosopher after Aristotle. He wrote on ethical subjects (contentment, meanliness or virtue, wisdom); on natural science (a vast range of topics ranging from a description of the whole world of treatises on flavors and colors); on various natural phenomena such as the heavens, the atmosphere, fire, sounds, plants and animals; on mathematics, literature, medicine and even farming. This laughing philosopher set great value on cheerfulness or contentment in his ethical writings, defining the general goal of life as joy, contentment or tranquility, and locating it in the soul. But it is above all for the theory of atomism that both he and Leucippus are remembered.

Democritus was concerned with two other philosophical problems: the problem of knowledge and the problem of human conduct. Being a thorough materialist,, Democritus held that thought can be explained in the same way that any other phenomenon can, namely, as the movement of atoms. He distinguished between two different kinds of perception, one of the senses and one of the understanding, both of these being physical processes. When our eyes see something, this something is an “effluence” or the shedding of atoms by the object, forming an “image.” These atomic images enter the eyes, and other organs of sense, and make and impact upon the soul, which is itself made up of atoms.

Democritus further distinguishes between two ways of knowing things: “there are two forms of knowledge, the trueborn and the illegitimate. To the illegitimate belong all these: sight, hearing, taste, touch. The trueborn is quite apart from these.” What distinguishes these two types of thought is that, whereas, “trueborn” knowledge depends only on the object, “illegitimate” knowledge is affected by the particular conditions of the body of the person involved. In ethics, Democritus stressed that the  ost desirable goal of life is cheerfulness, and we best achieve this through moderation in all things along with the cultivation of culture.




Leocippus was the founder of the atomist school. He proposed that the universe consists of two basic constituents: indivisibly small atoms, of which an infinite number (but not infinite variety) exist, and void of nothingness, which is also infinite, and in which the atoms move eternally. There is a limitless quantity of shapes among them (since there is no more reason for them to have one shape than another).

Leocippus affirmed the reality of space and thereby prepared the way for a coherent theory of motion and change. He described space as something like a receptacle that could be empty in some places and full in others. As a receptacle, space, or the void, could be the place where objects move, and Leocippus apparently saw no reason for denying this characteristic of space. Without this concept of space, it would have been impossible for Leocippus and Democritus to develop their view that all things consist of atoms.



Discussion of the Sophists centers much on method as on content. Te word sophists, apparently a word invented only in the fifth century BCE, means someone whose calling is that of wisdom or knowledge, and it came to be applied to peripatetic professional teachers, who travelled around teaching the rhetorical and language skills necessary to argue a case and other practical capabilities needed by men engaged in politics and the law, rather than theorizing about nature for its own sake. As itinerant teachers, they did not found schools, but as participants in the dialogues of Plato, their posterity came to be assured. Very few of the sophists were born in Athens.

The Sophists were highly influential in the development of the method of adversarial debate and advocacy, and in promoting a skeptical, questioning approach to knowledge and judgment. But they did not entirely abandon speculation about the nature of the world. In particular, they thought about knowledge and its relation with reality. The social changes of the fifth century BCE meant that the philosophy turned its attention away from questions about the nature of knowledge, morality and justice.  On the whole, Sophists did not concern themselves with cosmological or physical speculation; they were more interested in studying how we know and what is knowable than in increasing the store of what we know. This concern had come to them from theorists such as Parmenides, and it was developed by both Protagoras and Gorgias, two of the principal Sophists.

The Sophists also claimed to teach “virtue”—which they understood, for practical purposes, broadly as the qualities necessary for a successful public career in a city-state. This was the basis for the bad reputation they acquired, principally from Plato, who mocked and attacked them mercilessly in several works because they “taught wisdom for money.” But Plato’s idealism and political conservatism were naturally antithetical to the Sophists’ pragmatism and relativism. A central preoccupation of much of his thought was to arrive at impregnable definitions of justice and goodness. The Sophists on the other hand were more comfortable with the shifts that were occurring in these concepts, and said that such definitions depended on who was doing the defining. They argued that some opinions are preferable to others for particular people and particular purposes, but they are not necessarily more or less wise, or even truer.

  1. PROTAGORAS (485-411 BCE)

Protagoras was the first and arguably the greates of the Sophists, like Democraticus and the first Sophist to come to Athens. He was a friend of Pericles and suffered the fate of many friends of Pericles, being accused of “impiety” and having to leave Athens in a hurry: he was apparently drowned in a shipwreck on his way to Sicily.

We know of Protagoras’ ideas mainly through Plato, which is unfortunate, since Plato usually sets these ideas up only in order to demolish them. Protagoras has become generally known as the father of relativism—a label that shows him to have been diametrically opposed to everything Plato stood for. His chief claim to fame is familiar, and endlessly debated, aphorism, “Man is the measure of all things.” In this, he was suggesting that there is no reality apart from what we perceive. And if our perceptions are the guarantee of the reality of thigs, then the center of the universe is humanity. Protagoras accepted no absolutes existing anywhere beyond human perception and judgment, as regards the nature of the gods, the nature of the worlds around us, or to the nature of virtue and justice. Taken to their logical conclusions, these ideas could legitimate the rejection of any kind of law or morality.

Protagoras was also an agnostic: while not disbelieving in the gods, he questioned the possibility that humans can know about them. His key insight on the limits of knowledge was that truth requires a measure external to itself, and the best available measure was human knowledge and experience, and that truths are not objectively true without reference to anything else but held true within systems of thought or collectivities, such as the city.

  1. GORGIAS (483-378 BCE)

An extreme sceptic, Gorgias refuted all possible views on existence and non-existence, claiming that nothing exists; or if it does, it is unknowable; or if it is unknowable, we cannot articulate it to anyone else. He seems to have been influenced y Empedocles and Zeno. Gorgias was specifically interested in the use of speech and language on the emotions, and mentions the way tragedy can inspire pity and fear, thus prefiguring Aristotle’s views on the effect of tragic drama in his Poetics. In a defense of Helen of Troy, who was traditionally held responsible for theTrojan War, Gorgias even went so far as to claim that words are by their very nature deceptive and fraudulent and that Helen was innocent because she had been overcome by the power of persuasion.

Gorgias was a also a stylistic innovator, applying to prose the figures of speech and rhetorical effects usually confined at the time of poetry. Plato criticized him in the dialogue that bears his name, arguing for the distinction between rhetoric and philosophy.




Prodicus came up with a utililarian  explanation of traditional theology, suggesting that the sun, the moon and other heavenly bodies were regarded as divinities because they were useful to the development of human society. The polymathic Hippias appears in two dialogues of Plato named after him, being ironically criticized by Socrates for getting rich from teaching. He is interesting for having made, possibly for the first time, the distinction between law (nomos) and nature (physics) as the basis of morality. This view was developed further by Antiphon, who asserted more radically the nature is “truth” and its edicts “compulsory,” whereas human law is mere “opinion” arrived at by consent, and that is preferable to break human law in order to follow natural law than the reverse.

Tharismachus is represented in Plato’s Republic as putting forward the thesis that justice can be defined as the interest of the stronger and that governments make laws for their own advantage. This is the kind of argument that earned the Sophists a bad name; but there is strong philosophical point in Bertrand Russell’s approval of them because they were “prepared to follow an argument wherever it might lead them,” even though that plae was often one of profound skepticism.



  1. Reblogged this on CzesarianScribe.


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