Introduction to the Presocratic Period in Ancient Philosophy

The Presocratic Period of Ancient philosophy begins in 585 BCE.

Textual Evidence for the Presocratics

Texts survive through transmission (copying that starts from the original). The majority are from Plato, Aristotle, and their commentators (most of whom were Platonists). This was not chance. The dominant school had an interest in certain texts, and mostly these are the texts that survived.

Aristotle (384-322 BCE) and his student Theophrastus (who was Aristotle's successor at the Lyceum) are the source for much of what we know about the Presocratics.

Aristotle describes the Presocratics as "ancient" (Metaphysics I.986b), both in time and in their thinking.
What the Presocratics wrote has survived only in fragments.

Early Greek Philosophy (by André Laks and Glenn W. Most) is a now standard collection of the Greek texts with English translations. It is in the Digital Loeb Classical Library. The publisher (Harvard University Press) makes it accessible by subscription only. To those who have an ASURITE ID, the library is accessible online through the ASU library.

I regard this lack of access a problem, but I do not know the solution.

The work of individuals to produce these libraries and the texts in them is immense, but I wish there was some way to compensate these authors and the others involved so that the libraries themselves were freely available to the public. This means that the money must come from someone or some group, and the current solution takes the money from users.

In these lecture notes, I include translations of the texts I discuss.

The Ancient Philosophical Tradition

The Greek "alphabet" (ἀλφάβητος) has 24 letters. The noun ἀλφάβητος (alphabētos) is from the first two letters.

Α α, alpha, ἄλφα
Β β, beta, βῆτα
Γ γ, gamma, γάμμα
Δ δ, delta, δέλτα
Ε ε, epsilon, εἴ, ἒ ψιλόν
Ζ ζ, zeta, ζῆτα
Η η, eta, ἦτα
Θ θ, theta, θῆτα
Ι ι, iota, ἰῶτα
Κ κ, kappa, κάππα
Λ λ, lambda λάμβδα
Μ μ, mu, μῦ
Ν ν, nu, νῦ
Ξ ξ, xi, ξι
Ο ο, omicron, ὂ μικρόν
Π π, pi, πεῖ
Ρ ρ, rho, ῥῶ
Σ σ/ς, sigma, σίγμα
Τ τ, tau, ταῦ
Υ υ, upsilon, ὔ, ὖ ψιλόν
Φ φ, phi, φι
Χ χ, chi, χι
Ψ ψ, psi, ψι
Ω ω, omega, ωμέγα

Here is a possibility for how the letters were pronounced.
585 BCE is the year of a solar eclipse Thales of Miletus predicted. It is traditional to take this year to mark the beginning of Ancient philosophy. This, though, does not help us understand the change that tool place that is the coming into existence of Ancient philosophy.

To understand this, wee need to see a line of thought that runs through the following figures:

• Thales (Θαλῆς, Thalēs), late 7th to middle 6th century BCE
• Anaximander (Ἀναξίμανδρος, Anaximandros), late 7th to early 6th century BCE
• Anaximenes (Ἀναξιμένης, Anaximenēs), 6th century BCE

• Parmenides (Παρμενίδης, Parmenidēs), late 6th to middle 5th century BCE

• Leucippus (Λεύκιππος, Leukippos), 5th century BCE
• Democritus (Δημόκριτος, Dēmokritos), middle 5th to early 4th century BCE

Thales and his fellow Milesian inquirers into nature (Anaximander and Anaximenes) took steps to satisfy a need that had arisen for a new kind of explanation that did not depend on the weight of tradition for its authority. Ancient philosophy came to exist as an attempt to understand and provide explanations of this new kind. Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes seem to have been more scientists than philosophers, but in Parmenides and then later in Democritus we can see the talk about reason that marked the new philosophical tradition.

There is More to the Presocratic Period

There is more to the Presocratic Period than these six thinkers.

In this course, though, where Socrates and the reaction to him in the Period of Schools is the focus, it is enough to see how the tradition began that Socrates would transform.

The alternative is take a more strictly chronological approach that treats the first period of Ancient philosophy as consisting in the thinkers before Plato who are important for understanding him and the subsequent tradition. There is some question about who to include, but one reasonable approach would be to begin with Thales and the Milesian inquirers into nature and to end with a group of that includes Protogoras, Gorgias, and Socrates.

Rather than take this approach, I return to the figures before Plato in later lectures when this is helpful for understanding Socrates and the philosophers in the Period of Schools.

Some Historical Context for the Period

The name Mycenae comes from Homer. Agamemnon (who led the Greeks against the Trojans) has his palace there.

The "Peloponnesus" (Πελοπόννησος) is a large peninsula linked to the northern territory of Greece by "the Isthmus" (ὁ Ἰσθμός) of Corinth. The Greeks thought of it as the "island of Pelops" (Πέλοπος νῆσος), a figure of Greek mythology whose dominion is the Peloponnesus.

The Mycenaeans were the dominant culture in the Greek world until the 12th century BCE.

Mycenae was a city in the northeastern Peloponnesus. The city was organized as a palace economy. The monarch and his family controlled the economy and owned most of the the goods in the city. They appointed and controlled bureaucratic officials to manage the the production of goods, which was mostly a matter of collectivized agriculture and trade.

The Collapse of the Palatial Centers

In the 12th century BCE, this palace-centered civilization collapsed.

This resulted in the Dark Ages. During this time, writing and trade was minimal. Without the palatial centers and corresponding economy in terms of which society was organized, there was little to trade and no need for written accounts because was little collectivized agriculture.

Out of this collapse, a new political structure took root in relative isolation from the great civilizations of the ancient world. The differences in wealth among the people had become relatively small. There were no monarchial rulers to control everything, no bureaucracy because there were no royal holdings to manage, no caste of priests to control religious practice, and no mercenaries because there was no money to hire them.

At first life became more pastoral, but eventually there was a recovery of agriculture and the establishment of more permanent communities. This led to an increase in population and the reintroduction of social hierarchy. An "aristocracy" (ἀριστοκρατία) emerged. This was a social elite whose status depended in part on its public conduct. The control the aristocracy exercised over their followers in the rest of the population was a mixture of authority and persuasion. This political structure underlies the stories in the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Tensions within aristocratic society gave rise to the political system of the "city" (πόλις). The Greek word πόλις transliterates as polis, and it is the etymological root of the English word 'politics.' Those not in the aristocracy demanded a more equal role in decision-making. In this way, they became citizens in a πόλις. The members of the city (the town in the center and the villages in the surrounding territory) made up a community of citizens that made the decisions.

Greek Contact with Other Civilizations

In 8th century BCE, at about the time of the revival of agriculture, there was a marked increase in trade and colonization. This brought contacts with other civilizations.

Greek-Persian Wars

Cyrus the Great built the Persian Empire by conquering the Medes, the Lydians, and the Babylonians.

Darius the Great was the king of the Persian Empire during the first invasion of Greece in 492 BCE. (His tomb is at Naqsh-i-Rustam, in what is now Iran.)

Xerxes I was king during the second invasion in 480 BCE.
The now most famous contact was in a series of military conflicts with Perisan Empire.

This conflict started with the Athenian support of the Greek cities in Ionia.

Miletus was "the glory of Ionia" (Herodotus, Histories V.28.1). It was rich and linked to colonies for trading, including an outpost in Naukratis on the western branch of the Nile in Egypt (Histories II.178). Miletus and the other Ionian cities tried to extend their territories eastward. At the end of the 8th century BCE, Gyges (the king of Lydia) went to war to stop this encroachment (Histories I.15.1). Gyges's son, Alyattes (who reigned in the late 7th to early 6th century BCE) continued the war against the Ionian cities (Histories I.17.1).

Lydia was the kingdom east of Ionia. When Cyrus the Great (king of the Persian Empire) defeated Media (the kingdom east of Lydia), Croseus (Alyattes's son) tried to take it from him (Histories I.75.2, I.26.1). In 546 BCE, Cyrus defeated Croseus at Sardis.

"When they took the town it was deserted, but in the sacred precinct they found a few Athenians, stewards of the sacred precinct and poor people, who defended themselves against the assault by fencing the acropolis with doors and logs. They had not withdrawn to Salamis not only because of poverty but also because they thought they had discovered the meaning of the oracle the Pythia had given, namely that the wooden wall would be impregnable. They believed that according to the oracle this, not the ships, was the refuge. The Persians took up a position on the hill opposite the acropolis, which the Athenians call the Areopagus, and besieged them in this way: they wrapped arrows in tar and set them on fire, and then shot them at the barricade. Still the besieged Athenians defended themselves, although they had come to the utmost danger and their barricade had failed them. When the Pisistratids proposed terms of surrender, they would not listen but contrived defenses such as rolling down boulders onto the barbarians when they came near the gates. For a long time Xerxes was at a loss, unable to capture them. In time a way out of their difficulties was revealed to the barbarians, since according to the oracle all the mainland of Attica had to become subject to the Persians. In front of the acropolis, and behind the gates and the ascent, was a place where no one was on guard, since no one thought any man could go up that way. Here some men climbed up, near the sacred precinct of Cecrops' daughter Aglaurus, although the place was a sheer cliff. When the Athenians saw that they had ascended to the acropolis, some threw themselves off the wall and were killed, and others fled into the chamber. The Persians who had come up first turned to the gates, opened them, and murdered the suppliants. When they had levelled everything, they plundered the sacred precinct and set fire to the entire acropolis. So it was that Xerxes took complete possession of Athens" (Herodotus, Histories VIII.51).
The Persians then tried to subdue the Ionian cities. They resisted, with Athenian support, in a series of conflicts from 499 to 493 BCE, but the Persians were ultimately victorious.

In 492 BCE, the Persians tried to punish Athens for its support of the Ionian cities. They invaded the northern part of the Greek peninsula with the aim to take all of Greece. They met with success in Thrace and Macedonia (the land route from the north to Athens in the south), but in 490 BCE, against all odds, the Greeks were victorious at Marathon.

In 480 BCE, the Persians launched a second invasion. They were again defeated, but this time the Persian defeat came at great cost to the Greeks. The Persians won at Thermopylae. They then overtook much of Greece and burned Athens, but the Greeks won at sea against the Persian navy at Salamis and then later on land against the army at Plataea.

The Downfall of Athens in the Peloponnesian War

In 478 BCE, Athens set up a league of cities (the Delian League) to clear the Aegean of Persian power. This league, which began as a defense against the Persians, became the Athenian Empire. Athens used funds from the league to rebuild and transform itself in a way that made it the center of the Greek world. This led to conflict among the members of the league and eventually, in 431 BCE, to the Peloponnesian War. This war would end in 404 BCE with Athen's complete defeat and the end of Athen's prominence in the ancient world.

Socrates (469-399 BCE) was in the Peloponnesian War, at the Battle of Potidaea in 432-429 BCE (where the Athenians were victorious) and at the Battle of Delium in 424 BCE (where they were routed). Plato's Charmides describes his arrival in Athens from Potidaea and return to the practice he calls φιλοσοφία. In 423 BCE, he was known well enough to be a subject of Aristophanes's comedy the Clouds and its caricature of the new education in Athens.

In the aftermath of the Peloponnesian War, Socrates was caught up in the blame for Athen's defeat in the war and subjugation at the hands of Sparta. In 399 BCE, he was charged as a "wrongdoer because he corrupts the youth" (Plato, Apology 24b), found guilty, and condemned to death. Alcibiades was a youth Socrates was thought to corrupt. He was in the circle around Socrates (and whose life Socrates saved at Potideae (Plato, Symposium 220e)). He was a son of a powerful Athenian family and was expected to be a leader in Athens during the war, but he defected to Sparta and helped them in ways crucial to Athen's downfall and eventual surrender in 404 BCE. To some, this made Socrates responsible for Athen's demise. It seemed to them that Alcibiades and other young men in his circle had been corrupted by his influence.

Democritus and some other figures in the Presocratic Period outlived Socrates, but the Presocratic Period itself traditionally ends when Socrates starts getting a reputation for wisdom. We do not know exactly when this happened, but it had to be after his birth in 469 BCE and before Aristophanes's caricature of him in the Clouds in 423 BCE.

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