“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants”


Tthe blind giant Orion carried his servant Cedalion on his shoulders to act as his eyes (Library of Congress–cropped)

These are the words of Sir Isaac Newton, 1675 A.D., quoting a well-known saying coined a few hundred years earlier. He was reminding us of the debt that current scholars owe to the great ones of the past. Newton was a physicist, mathematician, astronomer, alchemist, inventor, theologian and natural philosopher.

What “giants” might Newton, who discovered the laws of gravity and invented The Calculus, have in mind for himself? We cannot know this (or at least I don’t), but I imagine he would include the three most-quoted ancient philosophers: Socrates, and his student Plato, and his student Aristotle.

But whose shoulders did these giants stand on? The quick answer is, the “Pre-Socratic philosophers.” I will explain, briefly, how I came to this subject. It’s because of beer and friendship.

A friend and I share birthdays in early January whose exact dates bounce against each other. I was with him in his flat, watching him and his särbo, also my friend, bottle their latest batch of beer. After the event, he brought out a fine bottle of bubbly wine he had received on his fiftieth birthday two years prior.  So, we drank the wine, and then some beer. It was good.

I had been perusing the titles of a great many books lining the walls of the flat while the beer-bottling ensued, so my friend offered to lend a book to me upon my taking leave of him. I hadn’t any particular book in mind, but after a few seconds’ thought, he selected “The Pre-Socratic Philosophers,” by Kirk, Raven, and Schofield, which he allowed me to keep for one month.

Sir Isaac Newton, 1642 – 1727

I had heard the phrase “pre-Socratic” applied to ancient thinkers, and am even aware of some of their names–Pythagoras comes most readily to mind. Upon later dipping into the book, I saw more names which were familiar by sight, but not to any depth of knowledge: Parmenides, Anaxagoras, Zeno, and so forth.

Now, with the book at hand, I take it upon myself to further acquaint myself, and you the reader, with these “giants,” and to list their contributions to Western civilization and the world.

But first, to offer an analogy to the relationship between the Pre-Socratics and the Socratics (Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato), and thence between the Socratics and all who followed, I here quote H.E. Krehbiel on the great musical composer, Ludwig van Beethoven:

Beethoven was a gigantic reservoir into which a hundred proud streams poured their water; he is a mighty lake out of which a thousand streams have flowed through all the territories which the musical art has peopled and from which torrents are still pouring to irrigate lands that are still terrae incognitae.

The first image, the “hundred proud streams,” include the major pre-Socratic philosophers and groups:

Anaximenes of Miletus
Melissus of Samos
Pherecydes of Syros
Thales of Miletus
Zeno of Elea

The analog to “Lake Beethoven” into which these and other proud streams poured, is the group of Socratic philosophers (Socrates, Aristotle and Plato), “out of which a thousand streams have flowed through all the territories which (philosophy and science) has peopled, and from which torrents are still pouring…”—and undoubtedly Newton would have included himself in the latter group of recipients.

To buttress this notion, Alfred North Whitehead once noted: “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato”.

The book my friend lent me has a long initial chapter explaining the nature of the world of thought and belief that preceded the Pre-Socratics, showing the significance of their contributions; that is, taking humankind from worldviews based on myth to an understanding based on examination of the world, using conscious intellectual processes toward the development of philosophical and scientific principles.

I hastily add here, that these twenty-three and others did not all agree with each other, just as scholars in a collegium will not, but they all had taken the leap from the uncertainties of myth into the greater certainty of their own formulations on the how the world (including the solar system) was and is formed, who and what man is, and what man’s place in the world is.

From Mythology to Science and Philosophy
Ancient, as well as current mythologies, attempt to explain the world, providing supernatural answers to questions about creation and the universe.

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

The human animal wants to know “why?” The mythologies did, and still do, satisfy many people, but the early Greeks wanted answers that were more tangible and logically consistent.

Alexander of Macedon (Getty Images)

The Greeks were, and still are, a traveling people. Even before Alexander of Macedon brought Hellenism to the far reaches of the world which was known at the time (from a European point of view), Greeks were sailors, merchants, historians, and scholars who visited, often settled, throughout the Mediterranean and beyond, including Egypt, North Africa, the Levant, lands surrounding the Black Sea including Turkey, and further east. Elements of what would become the sciences, mathematics, and philosophies propounded by the “pre-Socratics,” were developed earlier in many of the places known to the Greeks, including Egypt (think about pyramids) and Mesopotamia—”the land between the rivers” Tigris and Euphrates, in what is now Iraq.

What the Pre-Socratic philosophers did differently was to take these elements of knowledge, then add their own thought to them within a different framework. They attempted to explain the world around them in more natural terms than those who relied on mythological explanations that divided the labor among anthropomorphic gods. They looked for causes, and the principles underlying them. (Source)

Thus, Western philosophy, science, and mathematics were born, almost three thousand years ago. I now offer summary reviews of the major players, with mention also of some of Socrates’ contemporaries and later philosophers who were influenced by him (and by Aristotle and Plato) and some of the Pre-Socratics.

It began Thales in Miletus, Region of Ionia in Anatolia

Thales of Miletus

The acknowledged first among the Pre-Socratics was Thales of Miletus. Miletus (Milet in Turkish) was located on the western coast of Anatolia, near the mouth of the Maeander River in ancient Caria. It is now a ruin.

Philosophical ideas
Thales’ main preoccupation was to define the substance(s) which form the world around us. For this reason, many call him the world’s first scientist. He attempted naturalistic explanations to material phenomena, using a method which doesn’t resort to mystical or mythological explanations.

Thales believed in one single transcendental God, without a beginning or an end, who expresses itself through other gods. His idea of justice revolved around both the letter of the law and the spirit of the law – both justice and fairness were important to him (this pattern of thought is prominent in the Greeks of today).

His idea of happiness included three major attributes: a healthy body, a resourceful soul, and a having teachable (learning) nature. Among his core ideas, highly controversial during his lifetime, was the idea that we should expect the same support from our children as we give to our parents.

Science and Mathematics
While meditating on the effects of magnetism and static electricity, Thales concluded that the very power to move things without the mover itself changing was a characteristic of life; in other words, a magnet is also alive. If so, he believed, there would be no difference whatsoever between the living and the dead – if all things were alive, then these were supposed to have souls or divinities. The conclusion of this argument implied an almost complete removal of mind from substance, which, for the first time, opened the door to a non-divine principle of action. This is an idea which philosophers continue to explore and debate.

Cosmological dictum: Water
Thales claimed water is the basic element (the primary principle) in everything. The idea that the entire world derives from water is an example of material monism (similar to Anaximenes’ later idea that everything in the world is composed from air). According to Aristotle, Thales explained his theory by analyzing the biological principles: all life depends on water – remove the water from a plant and it dies; deprive animals water and they die; all seeds are themselves nothing but moisture; heat (in the form of sun and moon) is generated out of moisture and kept alive by it.

Earth is spherical: It is believed that Thales was the first one to claim that Earth has a spherical form.

Earthquake theory:
Seneca attributed to Thales the following theory: on the occasions when the earth experiences an earthquake, it is actually fluctuating because of the roughness of oceans. This explanation, albeit wrong, is the first one to explain a natural phenomenon without invoking any supernatural or mystical entities.

Thales is believed to have anticipated an eclipse of the sun – the one which occurred on 28th of May 585 B.C, according to Herodotus.

The solstice: Diogenes Laertius mentioned that Thales ‘was the first to determine the sun’s course from solstice to solstice’, acknowledging the Astronomy of Eudemus as his source.

The seasons: Thales is the first one to logically explain the seasons as we know them. (Source)

Two other philosophers are part of the “Milesian School” (that is, from Miletus): Anaximander, and Anaximenes. They introduced new opinions contrary to the prevailing belief of how the world was organized, in which natural phenomena were explained solely by the will of anthropomorphized  gods. The Milesians conceived of nature in terms of methodologically observable entities, and as such was one of the first truly scientific philosophies.

The Other Ionians
Closely associated with the Milesians are those in the “Ionian School,” HeraclitusAnaxagoras, and Archelaus. The collective affinity of this group was first acknowledged by Aristotle who called them Physiologoi (φυσιολόγοι), meaning ‘those who discoursed on nature.’ They are sometimes referred to as cosmologists, since they were largely physicalists who tried to explain the nature of matter. (Source)

Pythagoras of Samos
Pythagoras was famous as the founder of a strict way of life that emphasized dietary restrictions, religious ritual, and rigorous self-discipline. Pythagoras succeeded in promulgating a new more optimistic view of the fate of the soul after death and in founding a way of life that was attractive that drew to him many devoted followers.

Dicaearchus identifies four doctrines of Pythagoras that became well known: 1) that the soul is immortal; 2) that it transmigrates into other kinds of animals; 3) that after certain intervals the things that have happened once happen again, so that nothing is completely new (viz: “there is nothing new under the sun”); 4) that all animate beings belong to the same family.” Pythagoras presented a cosmos that was structured according to moral principles and significant numerical relationships. The heavenly bodies (planets, sun, moon) also appear to have moved in accordance with the mathematical ratios that govern the concordant musical intervals which produce a music of the heavens, “the harmony of the spheres.”

The reader might well ask, “well what about the Pythagorean Theorem; wasn’t he most famous for that?”“… not only is Pythagoras not commonly known as a geometer in the time of Plato and Aristotle, but also the most authoritative history of early Greek geometry (Eudemus) assigns him no role in the history of geometry. The first Pythagorean whom we can confidently identify as an accomplished mathematician is Archytas in the late fifth and the first half of the fourth century.

“What emerges from the evidence is not Pythagoras as the master geometer, who provides rigorous proofs, but rather Pythagoras as someone who recognizes and celebrates certain geometrical relationships as of high importance.” (Source)

My unscholarly takeaway from this discussion of Pythagoras is that he propounded the immortal soul, and identified the (ideally) harmonious relationships between sentient entities, including heavenly bodies. Perhaps he was the first philosopher of religion. As for his name being associated with the famous theorem, a logical explanation is that one of his many students formulated it and the school’s name, that is Pythagoras’s, was attributed.

Xenophanes of Colophon
Xenophanes was born in Ionia, where the Milesian school was centered and which may have influenced his cosmological theories. What is known is that he argued that each of the phenomena had a natural rather than divine explanation in a manner reminiscent of Anaximander’s theories and that there was only one god, and that he ridiculed the anthropomorphism of the Greek religion. He has been claimed as a precursor to Epicurus, who represented a total break between science and religion.

Many later writers identified Xenophanes as the teacher of Parmenides and the founder of the Eleatic “school of philosophy”—the view that, despite appearances, what there is is a motionless, changeless, and eternal ‘One’. (See below about the Eleatic School).

In The Republic, Plato shows himself the heir of Xenophanes when he states that the guardians of his ideal state are more deserving of honors and public support than the victors at Olympia, criticizes the stories told about the gods by the poets and calls for a life of moderate desire and action. Xenophanes’ conception of a “one greatest god” who “shakes all things by the  will of his mind” may have influenced Heraclitus’ belief in an intelligence (nous) that steers all things, Anaxagoras’ account of the nous that orders and arranges all things, and Aristotle’s account of a divine nous that inspires a movement toward perfection without actually doing anything toward bringing it about.

The Eleatic School
The Eleatics were a school of philosophy founded by Parmenides in the early fifth century BC in the ancient town of Elea. Other members of the school included Zeno of Elea and Melissus of SamosXenophanes is sometimes included in the list, though there is some dispute over this. Elea was a Greek colony located in present-day Campania in southern Italy.

Parmenides developed some of Xenophanes’s metaphysical ideas. Subsequently, the school debated the possibility of motion and other such fundamental questions. The work of the school was influential upon Platonic metaphysics.

The goal of philosophy is to attain the truth. The path to truth is via reason and logic. Reason will distinguish appearance from reality. Nature is comprehensible and logical.

Philosophy The Eleatics rejected the epistemological validity of sense experience, and instead took logical standards of clarity and necessity to be the criteria of truth. Of the members, Parmenides and Melissus built arguments starting from sound premises. Zeno, on the other hand, primarily employed the reductio ad absurdum, attempting to destroy the arguments of others by showing that their premises led to contradictions (Zeno’s paradoxes).

The main doctrines of the Eleatics were evolved in opposition to the theories of the early physicalist philosophers, who explained all existence in terms of primary matter, and to the theory of Heraclitus, which declared that all existence may be summed up as perpetual change. The Eleatics maintained that the true explanation of things lies in the conception of a universal unity of being.

According to their doctrine, the senses cannot cognize this unity, because their reports are inconsistent; it is by thought alone that we can pass beyond the false appearances of sense and arrive at the knowledge of being, at the fundamental truth that the “All is One”. Furthermore, there can be no creation, for being cannot come from non-being, because a thing cannot arise from that which is different from it. They argued that errors on this point commonly arise from the ambiguous use of the verb to be, which may imply actual physical existence or be merely the linguistic copula which connects subject and predicate.

Though the conclusions of the Eleatics were rejected by the later Pre-socratics and Aristotle, their arguments were taken seriously, and they are generally credited with improving the standards of discourse and argument in their time. Their influence was likewise long-lasting; Gorgias, a Sophist, argued in the style of the Eleatics in On Nature or What Is Not, and Plato acknowledged them in the Parmenides, the Sophist and the Statesman. Furthermore, much of the later philosophy of the ancient period borrowed from the methods and principles of the Eleatics. (Source)

The Others

All this is much to read and digest at one sitting, so I will merely list the Pre-Socratics I haven’t featured above, with a summary sentence or two and a link to sources for more reading.

Democritus: is primarily remembered today for his formulation of an atomic theory of the universe.

Empedocles: established four ultimate elements which make all the structures in the world—fireairwaterearth— whereby the states of matter are represented, being energies, gasses, liquids, and solids.

Leucippas: Given credit by early sources for being the originator of the atomic theory, but later scholarship asserts it not true, so Democritus gets the credit.’

Philolaus : the successor to Pythagoras who argued that at the foundation of everything is the part played by the limiting and limitless, which combine together in a harmony. He is also credited with originating the theory that the Earth was not the center of the universe.

Pherecydes of Syros: Aristotle considered Pherecydes being, in part, a mythological writer and Plutarch, in his Parallel Livesinstead wrote of him being a theologian. He taught on the subject of metempsychosis (transmigration of the soul, especially its reincarnation after death.)And, finally, the Sophists, represented by Protagoras.

Protagoras: In his dialogue, Protagoras, Plato credits him with having invented the role of the professional sophist. He also is believed to have created a major controversy during ancient times through his statement that, “Man is the measure of all things”, interpreted by Plato to mean that there is no absolute truth, but that which individuals deem to be the truth. The concept of individual relativity was revolutionary for the time and contrasted with other philosophical doctrines that claimed the universe was based on something objective, outside human influence or perceptions.

I criticized Protagoras as representing modern-day hubris.

For consideration:

What modern persons might be the heirs to the thinkers of The Enlightenment, such as Sir Isaac Newton? One name comes immediately to mind: Edwin Hubble.

What other scientists, philosophers, and otherwise deep thinkers born since 1850 are standing (or have stood) on the shoulders of Newton and other Enlightenment figures?

Addendum, dated 17 April 2018

I am perusing a book just purchased, “After Virtue,” by Alasdair MacIntyre, Third Edition. The author writes that Aristotle is “the protagonist against whom (he has) matched the voices of liberal modernity…”

Further, he writes: “Aristotle, of course, recognized that he had predecessors…”