Philosophy Series: The Presocratics Part II
In part two of my Philosophy Series, a long time coming, I’d like to finish off my review of the Presocratics. In part one, I went over Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Pythagoras, Xenophanes, Heraclitus, and Parmenides.
In this post, I’ll go over Anaxagoras, Empedocles, Zeno of Elea, Leucippus, Democritus, Diogenes of Apollonia, Melissus, and the Sophists.
Born around 500 BCE, Anaxagoras was a pluralist who sought to reconcile Parmenides’ theory that the changing world is unreal and sense experience is fake news with the fact that we do seem to experience, well, the world.
In other words, can we reject change, as Parmenides does, while giving a rational account for the change that we do experience (rather than simply writing it off as unreal)?
I like this idea of trying to reconcile these two concepts because it seems to me a little too easy to simply say that our sense experience is fake news without then providing an account of what the nature of reality actually is. It’s pointing out a problem without providing a solution. Unless Parmenides does provide a solution? I’m not sure. But as I mentioned in my first post in this series, there are several different interpretations of Parmenides and what he could possibly have meant, but I’ll save that for another post.
So anyways, Anaxagoras tries to reconcile these ideas from a pluralist standpoint, arguing that the basic substances of the universe are themselves whole, one, and unchanging, though they can mix with and separate from each other. Remember that Parmenides argued that only what is could be genuinely known, and what is is whole, unchanging, and one, meaning that we can’t trust our sense experience as real since everything always appears to us to be changing.
Anaxagoras seems to accept the premise that what is is whole, unchanging, and one, and therefore that change isn’t real, but he wants to provide an account for the change we do experience. It’s not enough to say nothing is real and everything we experience is fake. We clearly do experience the changing world around us. So how to explain that?
His solution is to say that there are many substances that fit the description of “genuine being” (whole, unchanging, and one), and it’s these substances mixing together and separating that account for the change we seem to experience.
“The Greeks are wrong to accept coming to be and perishing, for no thing comes to be, nor does it perish, but they are mixed together from things that are and they are separated apart. And so they would be correct to call coming to be being mixed together, and perishing being separated apart.” (Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics, 163.20-24 = 59B1) – Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy, page 46.
So it seems that Anaxagoras is saying that what we perceive in our everyday sense experience as change, as coming to be or perishing, is actually simply the basic substances of the universe mixing together and separating, all the while remaining one and unchanging themselves.
For example, it appears to us that a seed changes into a tree. But on Anaxagoras’ account, the tree was already in the seed. Or rather, the substance of the tree was already in the seed so that a seed growing into a tree is not a substantive change. Similarly, death is not a substantive change, rather it’s simply the basic substances that had mixed together to become that thing now separating back into those basic substances.
Interestingly, Anaxagoras views Mind or Nous as a separate entity that is not mixed with anything. Mind knows and controls all things and it was Mind that set the original motion into place that began mixing things together to produce what we experience. This sounds of course a lot like the idea of a divine intelligence, but it is in question whether Anaxagoras actually connected the idea of the Nous to a divinity, and many reports stated that he denied that connection.
So does this actually reconcile Parmenides’ rejection of change with the fact of our sense experience? I’m not sure Parmenides would agree with it, since he’d likely argue that what is one and unchanging can’t be mixed with anything else. It seems to me that this comes down to your definition of mixing together. Can two things be mixed together and each thing still remain unified and one? Or does mixing together mean substantive integration into each other?
Of course, we do know that Anaxagoras was thinking in the right direction, since atoms are the smallest units of matter, though they too can be split into their elementary particles.
Like Anaxagoras, Empedocles was a pluralist who sought to reconcile Parmenides with the fact of our sense experience. He argues that there are six basic substances, earth, air, fire, water, love, and strife, and that earth, air, fire, and water are mixed together by love and pulled apart by strife. Similarly to Anaxagoras, he argues that this mixing together and pulling apart doesn’t constitute a substantive change but does result in what we perceive to be change.
I think this entire line of thinking is really interesting because it shows how interested these philosophers were in understanding the nature of reality and the nature of the world and the cosmos we inhabit. Through reason and simply thinking it through, Parmenides came to believe that change is impossible since what is cannot not be and what is not cannot be, and further that what is cannot perish and what is not cannot come to be.
Given this, he thought whence this world? Because all that we perceive is constantly changing and appearing to come to be and perish. Later philosophers would say, okay you make a good point about the whole what is and what is not thing, but can you really disregard everything we experience as fake news? Doesn’t this world that we experience count for something? Isn’t there something objective in the subjective?
I love that without knowing it, they really were on to some scientific truths. For example, the fact that our eyes and brains order our vision for us, which is the reason that you miss the gorilla in the background when you’re counting the number of times a ball is being bounced. In order to focus on one thing, our brains block out other sense perceptions so that we don’t get overwhelmed. This is still one of the coolest things about humans, in my opinion.
It’s the same reason you have to learn how to pay attention to everything around you when learning to drive and to tell your eyes what to look for so that your brain doesn’t block out too much. Since our brains are constantly ordering our perceptions for us, we have to train ourselves out of that when learning to drive, so that we don’t miss important information that may cause or prevent an accident. But anyways, the point is these guys were kind of right! We really can’t trust our sense perceptions 100%, but there is something real and material underlying our reality.
Zeno of Elea
Next we meet Zeno of Elea, who’s main claim to fame seems to be that he disagreed with Anaxagoras and Empedocles, arguing that their attempts to reconcile Parmenides with our sense experience fails because of what I mentioned above: they’re simply postulating a plurality of substances where Parmenides seems to argue that there can only be one real unchanging substance.
Zeno is also famous for several paradoxes, which I won’t go into here, but for a good overview of his most famous Dichotomy Paradox, check out this Ted-Ed video.
Leucippus & Democritus
Leucippus and Democritus were atomists. While not much is known about Leucippus, he is believed to have been the teacher of Democritus. Atomism is the theory that atoms are the basic units of matter and thus reality. There are an infinite number of atoms that move around in the void, coming together and separating but never really changing, thus again hoping to reconcile our sense experience with Parmenides’ rejection of change. Like the pluralists, the atomists argued that coming to be and perishing are not substantive changes when we see them, rather it’s simply the atoms coming together and separating.
Again, I love this line of thinking because it shows how much these philosophers really wanted something stable and objectively real to undergird reality. As I mentioned above, while they seem to have agreed with Parmenides that what is real cannot undergo change, they weren’t satisfied with the idea that what we experience is simply fake news, an illusion, with nothing of substance underneath. They thought, “Well, there must be something.” Further, I wonder if what they really wanted was to know that there was some meaning to existence and to the sensible world.
After all, if everything is an illusion, then we might as well just be brains in vats, and there’s no point to anything. But among these philosophers responding to Parmenides, and even in those before him, there was a very real instinct, and perhaps even need, to attribute meaning to our existence.
Consider this fragment attributed to Democritus:
“No thing happens at random but all things as a result of reason and by necessity.” (Aetius, 1.24.4 = 67B2) – Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy, page 65.
As we saw with Anaxagoras’ Nous, the instinct and need for rational meaning is there and strong.
Apart from their metaphysics, it seems with Democritus and perhaps also with Leucippus that we see an epistemology and also something of a deep life philosophy in terms of how to live the good life.
“There are two kinds of judgment, one legitimate and the other bastard. All the following belong to the bastard: sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch. The other is legitimate and is separated from this.” (Sextus Empiricus, Against the Mathematicians, 7.138 = 68B11) – Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy, page 70.
“Best for a person is to live his life being cheerful and as little distressed as possible. This will occur if he does not make his pleasures in mortal things.” (Stobaeus, Selections, 3.08.35 = 68B235) – Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy, page 71.
Diogenes of Apollonia
“For without intelligence it could not be distributed in such a way as to have the measures of all things – winter and summer, night and day, rains and winds and good weather. If anyone wants to think about the other things too, he would find that as they are arranged, they are as good as possible.” (Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics, 152.12-16 = 64B3) – Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy, page 73.
With the Sophists we see a departure from the natural philosophy and metaphysics of the other Presocratics and see a turn rather to moral and social philosophy. However, the Sophists seem to have been more interested in winning arguments and exploring how to make the most of civic life, which for them meant speaking persuasively and convincingly. They only took on students who could pay and would often give talks to paying groups.
Antiphon seemed to believed that there are two types of laws, the laws of the city and the laws of nature, and the best way to live is to follow the laws of the city when you are around witnesses, and to follow the laws of nature when you are alone.
If you break a law of the city, and no one notices, according to Antiphon, then you haven’t done anything wrong. However, if you break a law, or decree, of nature, then even if no one witnessed it, you will still suffer “as a result of the truth.”
He also seems to criticize the laws of the city as reactive, meaning they allow people to suffer unnecessarily. For example, you can’t harm someone, but if they harm you first and you defend yourself then that is good according to the law. For Antiphon, this simply meant that people have to suffer more than they should. It’s not clear, since we only have fragments, if he’d be more satisfied with a Minority Report-type situation, but he seems to be quite cynical of the law.
“But as things are, it is obvious that the justice that stems from the law is insufficient to rescue those who submit. In the first place, it permits the one who suffers to suffer and the wrongdoer to do wrong, and it was not at the time of the wrongdoing able to prevent either the sufferer from suffering or the wrongdoer from doing wrong. And when the case is brought to trial…it is open to the wrongdoer to deny it. However convincing the accusation is on behalf of the accuser, the defense can be just as convincing. For victory comes through speech.” (Oxyrhynchus Papyrus XI no 1364, ed. Hunt, col. 1 line 6-col. 7 line 15 = 87B44,) – Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy, page 87.
Interestingly, we see some more tiddly bits of deep life philosophy with Antiphon and another Sophist named Critias.
“One’s own character inevitably comes to resemble the things one spends most of one’s day with.” (Stobaeus, Selections, 3.31.41 = 87B62; tr. Curd, with Reeve and Cohen) – Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy, page 87.
“Whoever does everything to please his friends, gives instant pleasure that later becomes hostility.” (Stobaeus, Selections, 3.14.2 = 88B27; tr. Curd, with Reeve and Cohen) – Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy, page 88.
To summarize this post, we’ve done a brief review of the Presocratics after Parmenides. See my first post in this series to read about the Presocratics up to Parmenides. It seems that most philosophers after him were trying to respond to his ideas and grapple with the consequences of his rejection of change and the validity of our sense experience.
Anaxagoras attempted to reconcile the change we do perceive with Parmenides’ rejection of change through pluralism, positing that there are many substances that fit Parmenides’ description of genuine being (whole, unchanging, and one), and it’s these substances mixing together and separating (but not changing substantively) that accounts for the changes we experience in the sensible world.
At the same time, Anaxagoras held that Nous, or Mind, was truly a separate, whole, unchanging entity (though not necessarily divine), and that it was Nous that basically set the world into motion.
Empedocles responded to Parmenides with his own pluralistic theory, arguing that the basic substances are earth, air, fire, and water, and that these are either mixed together by love or pulled apart by strife.
Leucippus and Democritus did the same but changed the basic substance of reality to atoms, arguing that the change we experience is a result of atoms arranging and rearranging themselves, coming together and then separating. Like Anaxagoras, Democritus seems to have believed in a rational order to the cosmos, if not a divine one.
Zeno of Elea, famous for his paradoxes, disagreed with all these guys and said that to fit with Parmenidean theory, there can only be one unchanging substance.
Diogenes brought things back to monism, arguing that material monism, particularly that all things are air, was the way to go when reconciling Parmenides with our experience of change. Since change is impossible, all things that are, though they may seem different to us, must come from the same substance.
Following the Democritean idea that nothing is random and that all things that happen do so by reason and necessity, Diogenes similarly argues for an intelligence behind the cosmos in what appears to be the precursor to Leibniz’s Best of All Possible Worlds Theory, the idea that the world that currently exists must be the best of all possible worlds since God created it (and that God would only have created the best of all possible worlds). Though perhaps we can say that Democritus was more the father of this idea (though he probably wasn’t the only one alive during his time who believed there must be a rhyme and reason behind all things.
Finally we get to the Sophists, who moved away from natural philosophy and instead occupied themselves with moral and social philosophy, how to win an argument, and the difference between manmade laws and natural laws. Antiphon, for his part, seemed quite skeptical of the laws of the city, since such laws are reactive and people can still get hurt or come to harm through the wrongdoings of others. Further, the wrongdoer could then, with his, words, convince a jury of his innocence. Certainly the Sophists were aware of and understood the power of words and speech in persuading an audience.
We did it!
If you’ve stuck with me to the bottom of this post, thank you! These posts are a way to get my thoughts out, learn (or relearn) different ideas and concepts, and really try to understand them. I find writing things down and thinking through ideas slowly and carefully are what I need to really understand philosophical concepts well.
Next up in my philosophy series, Plato!
Cohen, Marc S., Patricia Curd, and C.D.C. Reeve, editors. Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy: From Thales to Aristotle. Third ed. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2005.