Empedocles, born in around 494 BCE, spoke of four unchangeable elements—fire, air, water, and earth—which are pulled into war between two divine powers, Love and Strife. The result of this constant war is a unity of opposites. In comparison to our theories now, ideas from the past can sound bizarre—even fantastical. But we’re always in debt to the past.
Born 2500 years ago, how would you have made sense of the natural world? How would you have explained the various natural phenomena before you—from magnetism to horrible diseases, to the presence of stars?
Empirical evidence was sparse: unrecorded or barely repeatable. Bound to speculation, you’d have been forced to rely on a verbal exchange of terrible ideas and shaky thought experiments.
How would you have applied reason? One can enter a dreamworld concocting ideas.
Socrates was born in 470 BCE. From 6th century BCE to the time of Socrates, Greek thinkers known as the ‘Presocratics’ mainly focused on cosmology: its beginnings, the fundamental constituents, and how these constituents combine via natural laws. It all started in Ionian town Miletus with Thales (born c. 624/623 BCE), Anaximander (born c. 610 BCE), and Anaximenes (born c. 586 BCE).
Let us join a handful of Presocratic philosophers in thought and reflect upon a small sample of their surviving ideas.
It is the 6th century BCE. The trend of thought is along the lines of myth; the trajectory will now turn towards naturalism. What did they dream up?
Despite the ample riches and overconfidence many Presocratics were able to boast, they lacked reliable information and technological resources with which to investigate the world.
They probed nature with bare minds.
Heraclitus was born in around 535 BCE. He spoke of logos, the order in the Universe behind change. But, ironically, change is the only thing that endures.
Heraclitus’s ideas centred on the idea of conflict. Everything in nature is in a state of flux—forever flowing—despite the appearances of calm we witness.
‘Fire’ is at the heart of things: in its worldly state it transforms materials with heat and energy; in its higher state as the soul.
Opposites are two sides of the same coin. There is no life without death, no wakefulness without sleep, no up without down, no day without night, no high notes without low notes … While, individually, each pair is in conflict, together they are one.
To recognise facts like these is to be attuned to logos (the principles of things), guiding mind and nature alike into seeing that everything, at the level of reality, is changing.
While Heraclitus was right to spot chaos in the world, he overgeneralised it. Not all things are chaos and one, are they?
Parmenides, who was born in 515 BCE, is depicted in The School of Athens (1509–11) by Raphael. Fun facts about Parmenides: he came from modern-day Italy; he possibly met Socrates, who he was older than; and he mentored Zeno, who loved puzzles and paradoxes to do with infinity.
Parmenides’ most-famous piece of philosophy is the claim that reality is unchanging. This completely upturns Heraclitus’ view, according to which we can only speak of nature’s transience.
Notably, Parmenides claimed we’re not able to speak of ‘what is not’, which has no place in language (as ‘meaningless sound’). It is impossible to utter false statements about reality; the mind can only understand reality by ‘touching’ what there is, the eternal ‘One’. This we can speak of. Whatever it is—whatever we think comprises reality—Parmenides said it’s always there. His ideas came in the form of running arguments—a ‘cold bath of […] awe-inspiring abstractions’, according to Nietzsche.
Parmenides’ view inspired Plato into thinking there are pure, unchanging Forms, which are not born and do not die, and Hegel (‘the transient has no truths’).
However, surely, we can say what is not (e.g., ‘The Moon is not made from cheese’).
Forever the fools
Democritus (1628) by Hendrik ter Brugghen. Democritus was born in 460 BCE. During his life he helped develop atomism, leading to the birth of scientific philosophy. Controversially, Democritus believed there is no afterlife and offered mechanics in place of deities. He famously claimed that invisible atoms move in an infinite void; these atoms form the objects we recognise in everyday life. Plato and Aristotle and the Christian Church were all wrong to condemn Democritus’ work and push it out of existence—and their neglect was in vain; for it inspired the likes of Galileo in giving Democritus a 17th-century rebirth. (Rijksmuseum)
In comparison to our theories now, ideas from the past can sound bizarre—even fantastical. But we have the benefit of hindsight. Though speculative and wildly wrong, some of the solutions posed by these philosophers are ingenious in their own ways—influential and even recognisable today (as in the case of Democritus’ atomism above).
We’re always in debt to the past. We reap the benefits of generations of thinkers who philosophised and recorded their findings before us. Fragments of verse and poem were handed between generations. Songs were shared. Sheets were stained with quill, pencil, and pen. Even if only a fraction remains, we deduce and speculate.
We’ve been slowly enriched with books, schools, museums, and libraries … People of the present collect the fruits of knowledge sown before them.
Today our thoughts can be boundlessly arranged on personal computers, from which we seamlessly share ideas with one another. We have the Internet—hello!—as a means to transmit and store information and we continue to expand into new territories.
We gather results from experiments using equipment of increasing power as we figure out new ways to stare more deeply at those fundamental constituents and at that which we will never touch.
And in what ways will our theories be proven primitive and way off the mark?
We might never have answers to the following questions.
What is dark matter? Is time travel possible? What is consciousness? What’s inside of a black hole? Can the other sciences ultimately be reduced to physics? How did the Universe begin? Will it end? Why is there something instead of nothing?
Before these dazzling questions, where will your mind go? Imagination is an amazing tool with which you can wander unrestrained in your search for answers.
In a sense, we do not stand in categorically different positions to Presocratic philosophers.
We may compare our privileged views to theirs and think favourably of them; but neither are our views immune to revision nor do we have the answers we seek, to their questions and ours. We are forever fools.