Who Were the Pre-Socratics, and What Were the Important Pre-Socratic Schools?
Socrates, born in Greece in 470 BCE1, left such an indelible mark on Western philosophy that it hardly seems possible to engage in philosophical discussion without referencing his ideas and influence. But, Socrates and his contemporaries did not invent philosophy. The Greek philosophers that came before him are known as the Pre-Socratics, and they developed a number of different schools of intellectual thought.
Thales of Miletus is widely considered the first of the Pre-Socratics.2 He endeavored to explore the first cause: what led to existence of the natural world?3 Other philosophers followed him. Some took up his school of thought, while others disagreed with Thales and developed their own philosophical approaches.
Nearly 100 philosophers are considered a part of the Pre-Socratic group.2 Some of the prominent figures beyond Thales include Anaximander, Heracleitus of Ephesus, Anaximenes, Xenophanes of Colophon, Empedocles, Anaxagoras and Pythagoras.4
Pre-Socratic Schools of Thought
While there are differing schools of thought among the Pre-Socratics, as a group they represent a move away from a mythological world view to a more rational approach to understanding life.5 Some of the major Pre-Socratic schools of thought include:
- Milesian School. The Milesian School was developed in the town of Miletus. Naturally, Thales of Miletus played a key role in this philosophical approach. Other Pre-Socratics like Anaximander and Anaximenes belong to the Milesian School.6 These philosophers focused on determining the first cause. Anaximander even put forth an early idea of evolution.7
- Ephesian School. The Ephesian School stems from the ideas of Heracleitus of Ephesus. This philosophical approach is steeped in the idea that change in the world is constant.8 Heracleitus believed it to be essential to accept change, even in its more violent forms (i.e. war).2
- Atomism. Leucippus and Democritus were prominent proponents of atomism, which focuses on the belief in “uncuttable units of matter,” referred to as “atomon.3” Atomists also believed that these uncuttable units are made of the same substance, one that cannot be destroyed. Atoms simply change form.2
- Pluralism. Pluralism was built by the ideas of Anaxagoras, Empedocles, and Archelaus. These philosophers also focused on change, but did so in a way that different than other schools of thought, such as the Eleatic School. Strife and love are core ideas in pluralism.2
- Pythagoreanism. Pythagoras is a perhaps one of the most recognizable Pre-Socratic names due to his contributions to mathematics. Pythagoreanism contains both philosophical and religious elements. In this school of thought, mathematics is essential to understanding reality. Followers of Pythagoreanism also believed in the transmigration of souls (reincarnation).10
- Sophism. “Sophism” is derived from the Greek words meaning “wise” and “wisdom.11” Sophists actually taught philosophical concepts and rhetoric in Ancient Greece.2 Prominent Sophists include Thrasymachus and Hippias. This school of thought holds that there is no absolute truth, rather relative truth.11
We have to wonder, can studying the Pre-Socratic thinkers of the time help us to understand what it means to be human?
Have you studied any of the Pre-Socratic philosophers and if you have, what do you guys think?