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Greek Mythology Made Way for More Rational Pre-Socratic Philosophy

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Greek Philosophers

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This is meant as a general introduction to Pre-Socratic philosophy.

Specifically, you should see how

  1. Pre-Socratic philosophy emerged as a new way to explain the world and
  2. differed dramatically from what came before.

There are various Greek myths to explain the origins of the universe and of man. Three generations of immortal creatures vied for power. The first were personifications of such things as Earth and Sky, whose mating produced land, mountains, and seas. One Greek mythological concept of man tells of an earlier, happier time -- a Greek Garden of Eden.

What Came Before?:

Mythology ... which didn't die just because alternatives showed up.

Like Pre-Socratic philosophy would soon do, mythology also explained the world, but it provided supernatural explanations for the universe and creation.

"The basic theme of mythology is that the visible world is supported and sustained by an invisible world." - Joseph Campbell

Playing the Human World as if a Giant Chessboard

Okay. You caught me. There is an old movie from the 70s on a topic from Greek mythology that shows the gods and goddesses playing with the lives of the mortal heroes and damsels in distress as actual pawns on a cosmic chessboard, but the image works.

Hollywood aside, some Greeks thought unseen gods manipulated the world from their perches on Mt. Olympus. One god(dess) was responsible for grain, another for the seas, another for the olive, etc.

Mythology made guesses about important things that people wanted to, but couldn't see. Early philosophers also made guesses about this unseen universe.

The Change to Philosophy:

The early Greek, Pre-Socratic philosophers attempted to explain the world around them in more natural terms than those who relied on mythological explanations that divided the labor among human-looking (anthropomorphic) gods.

For example, instead of anthropomorphic creator gods, the Pre-Socratic philosopher Anaxagoras thought nous 'mind' controlled the universe.

Is That Really Philosophy?

Philosophy = Science (Physics)

Such an explanation doesn't sound much like what we think of as philosophy, let alone science, but the Pre-Socratics were early philosophers, sometimes indistinguishable from natural scientists. This is an important point: philosophy and science/physics weren't separate academic disciplines.

Philosophy = Ethics and the Good Life

Later, philosophers turned to other topics, like ethics and how to live, but they didn't give up on their speculation about nature. Even at the end of the Roman Republic, it would be fair to characterize ancient philosophy as both "ethics and physics" ["Roman Women," by Gillian Clark; Greece & Rome, (Oct., 1981)].

Periods of Greek Philosophy:

The Greeks dominated philosophy for about a millennium, from before c. 500 B.C. to A.D. 500. Jonathan Barnes, in Early Greek Philosophy, divides the millennium into three parts:
  1. The Pre-Socratics.
  2. The period known for its schools, the Academy, Lyceum, Epicureans, Stoics, and Skeptics.
  3. The period of syncretism begins approximately 100 B.C. and ends in A.D. 529 when the Byzantine Roman Emperor Justinian forbade the teaching of pagan philosophy.

There are other ways to divide the Greek philosophers. The About.com Guide to Philosophy says there were 5 Great Schools - The Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Epicurean, and Skeptic. Here we're following Barnes and talking about those who came before Plato and Aristotle, the Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics.

The First Philosophical Solar Eclipse:

This, Barnes' first period, begins with Thales' alleged prediction of a solar eclipse in 585 B.C. and ends in 400 B.C. Philosophers of this period are called Pre-Socratic, somewhat misleadingly, since Socrates was a contemporary.

Some argue that the term "philosophy" inaccurately limits the sphere of interest of the so-called Pre-Socratic philosophers.

Is Students of Nature a Better Term?:

Students of nature, the Pre-Socratics are credited with inventing philosophy, but they didn't work in a vacuum. For instance, knowledge of the eclipse -- if not apocryphal -- may have come from contact with Babylonian astronomers.

The early philosophers shared with their predecessors, the mythographers, an interest in the cosmos.

Where Does Stuff Come From?

Parmenides was a philosopher from Elea (west of mainland Greece, in Magna Graecia) who probably was an older contemporary of the young Socrates. He says that nothing comes into being because then it would have come form nothing. Everything that is must always have been.

Myth Writers vs the Pre-Socratic Philosophers:

  • Myths are stories about persons.
    Pre-Socratics looked for principles or other natural explanations.
  • Myths allow a multiplicity of explanations.
    Pre-Socratics were looking for the single principle behind the cosmos.
  • Myths are conservative, slow to change.
    To read what they wrote, you might think the aim of the Pre-Socratics was to knock down earlier theory.
  • Myths are self-justifying.
  • Myths are morally ambivalent.
    -From "The Attributes of Mythic/Mythopoeic Thought"
Philosophers sought a rational order observable in the natural phenomena, where mythographers relied on the supernatural.

Pre-Socratics Denied a Distinction Between Natural & Supernatural:

When the Pre-Socratic philosopher Thales (of eclipse fame) said "all things are full of gods," he wasn't so much singing the swansong of mythographers or rationalizing myth. No, he was breaking new ground by, in Michael Grant's words, "... implicitly denying that any distinction between natural and supernatural could be legitimately envisaged."

The most significant contributions of the Pre-Socratics were their rational, scientific approach and belief in a naturally ordered world.

After the Pre-Socratics: Aristotle and So Forth:

  • With the philosopher Aristotle, who valued evidence and observation, the distinction between philosophy and empirical science began to appear.

  • Following the death of Alexander the Great (a student of Aristotle's), the kings who divvied up and ruled his empire began to subsidize scholars working in areas, like medicine, that would do them some good.

  • At the same time, the philosophical schools of the Stoics, Cynics, and Epicureans, that were not interested in empirical science, took hold.

  • Michael Grant attributes the separation of science and philosophy to Strato of Lampsacus (successor of Aristotle's successor, Theophrastus), who shifted the focus of the Lyceum from logic to experiment.

Pre-Socratics May Have Been Rational But They Couldn't Possibly All Be Right:

As Barnes points out, just because the Pre-Socratics were rational, and presented supportive arguments, doesn't mean they were right. They couldn't possibly all be right, anyway, since much of their writing consists in pointing out inconsistencies of their predecessors' paradigms.

Sources:
Jonathan Barnes, Early Greek Philosophy
Michael Grant, The Rise of the Greeks
Michael Grant, The Classical Greeks
G.S. Kirk and J.E. Raven, The Presocratic Philosophers
J.V. Luce, Introduction to Greek Philosophy
The Attributes of Mythopoeic Thought

Related Resources

Presocratic Philosophy

Pythagoras of Samos

Epicureans

Stoics
Next: From Natural to Ethical Philosophy

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