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A Web Magazine of Arts, Culture and Orthodox Christian Spirituality

Pre-Socratic Philosophers

What we now call Pre-Socratic Philosophers proposed a rational explanation of the world - and this was a milestone in the history of thought. There had been cosmogonies before them, but they were all mythical: they described the history of the world as a battle among personified entities. They were "geneses" in the biblical sense (The Book of Genesis), which were intended to bring a people back to the memory of its ancestors, and to reconnect it to the cosmic forces and the gods.

The new theories were rational because they sought to explain the world in terms of the battle between "physical" realities, and the predominance of one of these over the others. This radical transformation is summed up in the Greek word physiswhich originally meant the beginning, the development, and the result of the process by which a thing constitutes itself.

Paideia is the desire of the Greeks to form and to educate. Since the distant time of Homeric Greece, the education of the young had been the great preoccupation of the class of nobles, or those who possess areteThis concept denotes excellence required by the nobility of blood, which, later on, among the philosophers, would become virtue, or the nobility of the soul.

In Ancient Greece, philosophical activity included everything related to intellectual and general culture: the speculations of the Pre-Socratics, the birth of the sciences, theories of language, rhetorical techniques, and the arts of persuasion. It was sometimes related more particularly to the art of argumentation.

The notion of sophia was perceived as something between knowledge and wisdom. A person who knew and had seen many things, had traveled a great deal, and was broadly cultured would be considered knowledgeable. A person who knew how to conduct himself in life and who lived in happiness would be considered wise. The two are related, since real knowledge is know-how, and true know-how is knowing how to do good.

Milesian school

The first Presocratic philosophers were from Miletus on the western coast of Anatolia in Asia Minor. Thales (624-546 BCE) is reputedly the father of Greek philosophy; he declared water to be the basis of all things. Next came Anaximander (610-546 BCE), the first writer on philosophy. He considered the first principle to be an undefined, unlimited substance without qualities (apeiron), out of which the primary opposites, hot and cold, moist and dry, became differentiated. His younger contemporary, Anaximenes (585-525 BCE), took for his principle air, conceiving it as modified, by thickening and thinning, into fire, wind, clouds, water, and earth.


The practical side of philosophy was introduced by Pythagoras of Samos (582-496 BCE). Regarding the world as perfect harmony, dependent on number, he aimed at inducing humankind to lead a harmonious life. His doctrine was adopted and extended by a large following of Pythagoreans who gathered at his school in southern Italy in the town of Croton.

Ephesian school

Heraclitus of Ephesus on the western coast of Anatolia in modern Turkey (535-475 BCE) posited that all things in nature are in a state of perpetual flux, connected by logical structure or pattern, which he termed Logos. To Heraclitus, fire, one of the four classical elements , motivates and substantiates this eternal pattern. From fire all things originate, and return to it again in a process of eternal cycles.

Eleatic school

The Eleatic School , called after the town of Elea (modern name Velia in southern Italy), emphasized the doctrine of the One. Xenophanes of Colophon (570-470 BCE) declared God to be the eternal unity, permeating the universe, and governing it by his thought. Parmenides of Elea (510-440 BCE) affirmed the one unchanging existence to be alone true and capable of being conceived, and multitude and change to be an appearance without reality. This doctrine was defended by his younger countryman Zeno of Elea (490-430 BCE) in a polemic against the common opinion which sees in things multitude, becoming, and change. Zeno propounded a number of celebrated paradoxes, much debated by later philosophers, which try to show that the supposition of any change or multiplicity leads to contradictions.

Atomist school

The first explicitly materialistic system was formed by Leucippus (5th century BCE) and his pupil Democritus of Abdera (460-370 BCE) from Thrace. This was the doctrine of atoms - small primary bodies infinite in number, indivisible and imperishable, qualitatively similar, but distinguished by their shapes. Moving eternally through the infinite void, they collide and unite, thus generating objects which differ in accordance with the varieties, in number, size, shape, and arrangement, of the atoms which compose them.


The Sophists held that all thought rests solely on the apprehensions of the senses and on subjective impression, and that we have no other standards of action than convention for the individual. Specializing in rhetoric, the Sophists were more professional educators than philosophers. They flourished as a result of a special need at that time for Greek education. Prominent Sophists include Protagoras (490-420 BCE) from Abdera in Thrace, Gorgias (487-376 BCE) from Leontini in Sicily, and Hippias (485-415 BCE) from Elis in the Peloponnesos.

The Seven Sages

This was the title given by the ancient Greek tradition to seven early-6th-century BC philosophers , statesmen, and law-givers who were renowned in for their wisdom . Traditionally, each of the seven sages represents an aspect of worldly wisdom, which is summarized by an aphorism . Although the list of sages sometimes varies, the following are usually included:

Cleobulus of Lindos: "Moderation is best in all things." He governed as tyrant of Lindos , in the Greek island of Rhodes , c. 600 BC.

Solon of Athens: "Nothing in excess." Solon (c. 638 – 558 BC) was a famous legislator and reformer from Athens , framing the laws that shaped the Athenian democracy .

Chilon of Sparta: "Do not desire the impossible." Chilon was a Spartan politician from the 6th century BC, to whom the militarization of Spartan society was attributed.

Bias of Priene: "Most men are bad." Bias was a politician and legislator of the 6th century BC.

Thales of Miletus: "Know thyself ." Thales (c. 624 – c. 546 BC) is the first well-known philosopher and mathematician. His maxim was engraved on the front facade of the Oracle of Apollo in Delphi .

Pittacus of Mytilene: "Know thy opportunity." Pittacus (c. 640 – 568 BC) governed Mytilene (Lesbos ) along with Myrsilus . He tried to reduce the power of the nobility and was able to govern with the support of the popular classes, whom he favoured.

Periander of Corinth: "Be farsighted with everything." Periander (fl. 627 BC) was the tyrant of corinth in the 7th and 6th centuries BC. During his rule, Corinth knew a golden age of unprecedented stability.

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