The Pre-Socratics: A Brief Overview

“The greatness of the pre-Socratics […] lies not only in the fact that philosophy began with them. For this can be argued about and has actually been argued about. Rather, it lies in the fact that many essential questions, themes and conditions of science and philosophy are to be found for the first time in the statements of these pioneers that we have received.” (Mansfeld & Primavesi, 2011, p. 9).

With these sentences, Mansfeld and Primavesi introduce their reworking of a collection of texts handed down to us by the Pre-Socratics themselves and the most important secondary testimonies of their doctrines and work. And in a somewhat later sentence, they characterize these questions and themes as follows:

“If there is an exemplariness of the pre-Socratics, it is above all founded in a critical and rational attitude, which should not be a mere cultural-historical fact, but which today hardly has to be achieved less than at that time”.

The pre-Socratics showed this new attitude in dealing with questions about the origin and nature of the world. Instead of inventing or embellishing stories with supernatural actors, they used observations of nature to find answers to their questions. In doing so, they relied on regularities of nature and used analogies and generalizations. To a certain extent, they invented rational reasoning, discovered logos as a tool of thought in the search for the truth about the constitution and order of nature. Equipped with today’s knowledge, we recognize here the first beginnings of our scientific age.

Things in common

One will first ask oneself why it is precisely those philosophers who worked before Socrates that are grouped together. In particular, this question arises when one notices that Zenon (-490 to -430) and Democritus (-440 to -370), for example, can already be regarded as contemporaries of Socrates (-469 to -399).

It is probably decisive that with Socrates a completely new topic arose in this so young philosophy. The philosophers before Socrates were natural philosophers, they were concerned about the order in the world and its beginning, about the “physis” – they were, so to speak, the first physicists. Socrates, on the other hand, “was the first to call philosophy from heaven to earth”, as Cicero (-106 to -34) said in his conversations in Tusculum (Cicero, 2008, pp. V, 10-11), and Diogenes of Laertius learned through several intermediaries that Socrates had recognized that natural philosophy was no good for “us” [by which he probably meant himself and his discussion partners]. So, he turned to the moral doctrine (Laertius, 2015, p. 77). Ethics became the new topic, questions about the best rules for the togetherness of people and for a “good” and happy life. One speaks of a Socratic turning point: Away from physics – towards ethics. This marked the beginning of a new era in philosophy.

Legacy and life data

Only a few fragments of the works of most pre-Socratics have survived. Our knowledge of their doctrines is often based on equally fragmentary works by Plato, Aristotle, Theophrastos and many later doxographers.

Much has been written and puzzled about the pre-Socratics. I found the books by Schupp (Schupp, 2003a) and Pichot (Pichot, 2000) particularly illuminating, in addition to the Mansfeld and Primavesi collections. The work “Lives and opinions of famous philosophers” by Diogenes Laertius, written around 220, is also worth reading, alone because of the many anecdotes. One gets an impression of how much fantasy must have been involved in such reports.

Fig.1 shows the life data of prominent pre-Socratics. With the ellipses the philosophers are grouped together who are assigned to a certain school.

Fig. 1: Chronology of prominent Greek philosophers from the 7th to the 2nd century BC (© J. Honerkamp)

Thales of Miletus created the earliest of these schools, the School of Miletus. The Pythagorean school around Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans played as influential a role as the school of Elea, whose most important representatives are Xenophanes and Parmenides. Elea was a coastal city of an Greek settlement in southern Italy. The philosopher Heraclitus, who is also listed here, cannot actually be assigned to any school. The philosophers Anaxagoras, Zeno of Elea, Empedocles and Democritus are the most prominent representatives of the pluralists and atomists. These were mainly active in Athens.

Areas of activity

As can be seen in Fig.2, most of the important philosophers and mathematicians of Greek antiquity did not live and worked in the Greek motherland, but in the coastal cities of Greek settlements, whether in southern Italy, Sicily, present-day Turkey or Egypt. It was not until Anaxagoras that Athens became the center of Greek philosophy.


Fig.2: Areas of activity of ancient Greek philosophers (after (Symonyi, 1990, p. 59)).

You can understand that. The basis of every civilization was already at that time trade, administration and building activity. Trade, in particular, attracted people who were courageous enough to take on the dangers of a journey and who could also get used to the conventions and customs of other countries. From the coastal towns there must have also been a lively cultural exchange with the respective hinterland, e.g. with Babylonia or Egypt. All this may cause a certain alertness and open-mindedness and favor unconventional thoughts. Moreover, the coastal cities had become rich precisely because of trade and allowed lifestyle that even nonconformists could endure or even appreciate.

This was an atmosphere in which philosophical thoughts could flourish and which attracted philosophers. Thus, we know from some pre-Socratics that in their young years they had travelled the world a lot, whether as traders, as refugees from political persecution or in search of a teacher. Here you can also see that cultural exchange can bear fruit in the long run. The ascent of an overseas settlement of Europeans in the 16/17th century comes to mind at this point: The United States of America soon attracted many intellectuals from Europe and has been culturally and economically dominant since the early 20th century to the present day.

The cultural situation of the time

The pre-Socratics could not know that the questions of the origin and nature of the world as a whole were also being discussed in other important cultural areas of the world at that time. There had probably always been a lively exchange of ideas about gods between all the cultures around the Mediterranean. But independently of this, Confucius (ca. -551 to -479) appeared in China and taught that the world had an order and that man’s highest goal was to live in harmony with this order. In India, between -800 and -600, a collection of philosophical writings, the Upanishads, was created. In our context the Vaisheshika is particularly interesting, a system of a natural philosophy in which five basic elements are mentioned; besides the four, which were also named by the Greeks, there was also the ether here. In Persia, Zoroastrianism spread from -800 to -300, and in Palestine the biblical prophets worked.  The philosopher Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) therefore coined the term “Achsenzeit” (axis time) for the period from -800 to -200. In the meantime, however, many historians see this as not particularly meaningful.

There was a parallel development not only in the field of myth and a beginning natural philosophy. People learned to carry out elementary calculations with numbers and to find solutions for simple mathematical tasks independently of practical problems. The Dutch mathematician B.L. van der Waerden studied the early mathematics of the Chinese and Babylonians and found astonishing parallels in problems and proposed solutions. Likewise, strong similarities with the mathematics of the Hindus were noticeable. Since the knowledge about Pythagorean triangles was also used in the construction of the megalithic monuments in southern England (Stonehedge) (cf. a later blog post), van der Warden sees the source of all this knowledge in a megalithic culture of the period from -3,000 to -2,500, and thus assumes a very early cultural exchange in the field of mathematics (van der Waerden, 1983, p. XI).

But I rather believe that humans were always roughly at the same evolutionary stage and therefore had to solve the same problems in their world. Trade, administration and construction require planning and therefore some skills in arithmetic and geometry. This phenomenon of parallel development shows at most the universality of mathematical thinking.

Be that as it may. The fact is that the ancient Greeks decisively developed the mathematics they received from the Babylonians and Egyptians and made it into a first science. In a blog post about the Pythagorean school I will address this. With this step, which was initiated by this school, the Logos has thus become “alive”, for mathematics acquires its rigor and infallibility by using only logical rules of inference in its deductions (cf. a later blog post). The Greeks discovered the mathematical proof. This is the uniqueness of ancient Greek culture.

With the rediscovery of this culture at the time of the Renaissance in Western Europe, it was possible to build on it and thus set in motion a development that for a certain time led to the cultural and economic dominance of the Western world. However, this soon seems to be a matter of the past.

Cicero, 2008. Tusculanae disputationes/Gespräche in Tusculum. Lateinisch/Deutsch. Stuttgart: Reclam.

Laertius, D., 2015. Leben und Meinungen berühmter Philosophen. Hamburg: Felix Meiner.

Mansfeld, J. & Primavesi, O., 2011. Die Vorsokratiker. Stuttgart: Philipp Reclam jun..

Pichot, A., 2000. Die Geburt der Wissenschaft – Vone den Babyloniern zu den frühen Griechen. Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft Hrsg. Frankfurt, New York: Campus.

Schupp, F., 2003a. Geschichte der Philosophie im Überblick – Bd.1 Antike. Hamburg: Felix Meiner.

Symonyi, K., 1990. Kulturgeschichte der Physik. Thun: Harri Deutsch.

van der Waerden, B., 1983. Geometry and Algebra in Ancient Civilizations. Berlin: Springer.


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