Is reality unchanging or constant change? Can all the things in our world be reduced to some single atomic substance? Is time an illusion? What can our beliefs on the physical world tell us about how to live our lives?
John Mansley Robinson's An Introduction to Early Greek Philosophy tracks through four sections how Greek thought at the moment that natural explanations of the world begin to replace the influence of the gods and before Plato would write responses that would reverberate for millennia.
An attempt at a brief synopsis, risking, of course, gross oversimplification:
Beginning the book and part one, Hesiod explains the origins of the gods and the universe, demonstrating a belief that the universe indeed has an origin--an assumption often overlooked (2).
Anaximander finds that the infinite at one point separated out from the finite, and from there into separate elements. Natural events begin to have reasonable explanations.
Anaximenes finds that the infinite is air, the beginning of seeing the universe as made up of a single substance that itself exists in the universe.
Pythagoras introduces an obsession with mathematics while also finding that men and animals are biologically similar and belong to a single web of life. He also formulates an idea of the immortal soul.
In part two, the question of change comes to the forefront.
Heraclitus famously remarks that one cannot enter the same stream twice, as it changes moment to moment. He rejects traditional religion and finds that wisdom is simply understanding all as flux.
Parmenides takes the exact ppiste route as Hereclitus and finds that all is infact changeless. If the universe is unified, it must be one, indistinguishable, and indivisible.
Part three tackles the attempts at solving the problems posed by Hereclitus and Parmenedis.
Anaxagoras finds that all things must in fact be in all other things. So, for instance, particles of blood are in all other matter. In what we call blood in our everyday lives, the blood particles exist in a much higher ratio. The same is true for any basic substance. (Like corn!)
Democritus explains that there is a nothing or void, and it is what separates his "atoms" or smallest, indivisible particles.
The developments in natural explanations lead to a plethora of suggestions on how men should love their lives--ways that contradict the conservative Greek religious values. Inquiry becomes paramount and balance and moderation. The body, mind, and city should reflect the balance of nature that keeps the world in existence.
Finally, part four explores the ramifications of all these thoughts on parochial, patriarchal Greek society. Plato's punching bags, the sophists, appear here to exclaim that man is the measure of all things and that they can teach men--for a price--how to persuade public opinion. Here are the first mentions of moral relativism. What is best and highest is natural law, and survival is natural law. Thus, what allows the
individual and the city to survive is what one should study. Might, for the Sophists, makes right.
The last chapter of the book concerns the response of Plato. By finding the nature of nature itself, he is able to give a moral philosophy that counters the sophists and points to what he calls "the good."
In the next few posts, I'll try to outline in more detail each section.