The Pre-Socratics

Dr Ben Holloway, Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

In fifth-century Greece, a group of thinkers began to think differently to their forebears. The work of these philosophers marks the beginning of the scientific and philosophical endeavor and a shift away from the mythological understanding of the world that had been popularised by the Homeric tradition.

What we know about the Pre-Socratics (philosophers prior to Socrates) is from small fragments and what other more recent philosophers have said about them. But their influence on consequent thought is immeasurable. In the following, I will try to show the contributions of the pre-Socratics to philosophy generally and, indirectly, to the theological task we inherit.

Before Philosophy

“From the beginning all have learned in accordance with Homer” (Xenophanes)

Although the story told about people prior to the Greek enlightenment is often overstated, there is little doubt that an intellectual revolution occurred in which the general understanding of the cosmos switched from being mythological to rational.

To those living in the wake of such a revolution, we might wonder how myth got such a hold of people. It is surprising to note that the works of Homer and Hesiod were the main educational content for aspiring Athenian young men.

The stories forcefully communicated the values of their culture. According to Martin Nilsson, ancient “myth was of a fundamental importance for practical and political life” (Martin P. Nilsson, Cults, Myths, Oracles and Politics in Ancient Greece, 13). For example, Homer’s Odyssey presents a world in which a king is licensed to do anything necessary to return to his throne. Odysseus must be a man of many ways (πολύτροπον). Odysseus lies, kills, and does whatever it takes to return home to rule. Such otherwise immoral acts are licensed in the name of monarchy.

Myths not only impart ideals. They do so with such force that people are carried away by them. As Ernst Cassirer notes, myths often replace reason. He wrote, “In all critical moments of a man’s social life, the rational forces that resist the rise of old mythical conceptions are no longer sure of themselves. In these moments, the time for myth has come” (Cassirer, The Myth of the State, 280).

Of crucial importance, belief in myth treats the truth of the matter as less important than the point of what is being said. It is not as important that Odysseus existed than the point of his story. Such an emphasis on the force of a narrative over and above the truth of what is said can be contrasted with the works of thinkers from the Greek enlightenment of the fifth century BC. For them, the truth of the matter took priority over the power of myth.

Birth of Philosophy

It is often stated that philosophy was born on May 23, 585 BC. The reason for such precision is that Thales (fl. Ca. 585 B.C.) had predicted that day’s eclipse by observing the motion of the planets. According to a pre-philosophical mythological worldview, a solar eclipse was interpreted as Apollos being eclipsed by Hades. But Thales made his prediction without reference to the whims of the immortals.

In contrast to many of his forebears, Thales believed that there is a rational order to nature and that humans are equipped with a matching rational intelligence. Consequently, we can make predictions about what is going to happen according to previous observations. If the world is rationally ordered and humans can know about it via reason, then we can begin to ask questions about the cosmos and expect to generate rational answers.


One such question was about a unified explanation for the cosmos. Thales thought that there must be one single substance that explains every other substance. A substance is an entity that stands (-stance) under (sub-) something else. His choice for an underlying substance was water. This might sound like an odd choice, but since life is dependent on water and it exists in different states (solid, liquid, and gas), it makes a good candidate for an ultimate substance.

Anaximander (610–546 B.C.) sought an answer to the same question but instead of positing a visible substance, he thought that our world is only one among many worlds which dissolve and emerge from the boundless (apeiron). Everything that we know about—trees, planets, cats—is finite and limited. The boundless, on the other hand, is unlimited and unknown to us. Whatever the boundless turns out to be, it cannot be anything as ordinary as water.

Anaximenes (570–526 B.C.) was a disciple of Anaximander. On the one hand, Anaximenes agreed with his teacher. Everything comes from some boundless substance. On the other hand, he agreed with Thales. The substance must be knowable. Hence, Anaximenes postulates that everything comes from a boundless ‘air’ or ‘vapor’. Indeed, he believed that even water is produced by air. Rain appears to come from compressed air and when that is compressed more, it turns to earth.

Instead of a physical substance, Pythagoras (570-440 B.C.) posited that ultimate reality is composed of numbers. His central insight is that nature can be described mathematically. If so, reality’s explanation is mathematical.

Though contemporary explanations differ from those of the pre-Socratics, the search for an ultimate explanation for the universe has been unceasing. It is a fruitful question in philosophy of religion and has generated a vast number of arguments for the existence of God (as the ultimate explanation for everything). A recent example was generated by Timothy O’Connor in his book, Theism and Ultimate Explanation.


The phenomenon of change also puzzled the pre-Socratics. For example, Heraclitus (540–480 B.C.) presents us with the doctrine of Flux famously summarized in an often (over)used quotation, “You never step in the same river twice.” Heraclitus thought that the senses are trustworthy. The senses tell us that everything is in a constant state of change. When we step a second time into a river nothing is the same as it was the first time. Think of putting your foot in a river. What changes? The water, you, the bank…everything. Thus, all is in flux. If all is in flux, then there is no unchanging substance.

In contrast, Parmenides (540–480 B.C.) thought that although according to experience everything changes, experience cannot tell you about reality. Only reason apart from experience tells us what is real. He had two governing ideas. First, nothing can become anything other than what it is. Could God turn you into a rock? No. He could replace you with a rock, but you couldn’t be a rock!

Second, something cannot come from nothing. If nothing can come from nothing, then nothing can come into existence that did not already exist. Furthermore, nothing that already exists can become nothing. Thus, everything that exists is everlasting.

Taken together, these two ideas entail that nothing ever changes.

Zeno (a disciple of Parmenides) advanced Parmenides’ thesis in a series of paradoxes. For example, consider a foot race between Achilles and a tortoise. Suppose the tortoise is given a head start of half the track. For Achilles to catch up to the tortoise, he must first traverse half the distance between himself and his competitor. But since the distance between himself and the tortoise can be divided into infinite portions, it takes an infinite amount of time to catch up. But this seems both highly reasonable and empirically ridiculous. Zeno thought that reason is more certain than perception so we should accept its deliverances over perception’s.

We inherit the contrast between what we arrive at with or without experience in contemporary thought. It has informed many discussions over the status of a priori knowledge (knowledge without experience). Theistic arguments (arguments for the existence of God) are often divided by whether they depend on a priori or a posteriori knowledge.


The pluralists reacted against the conclusions of both Heraclitus and Parmenides and attempted to show that change is possible while maintaining an underlying unchanging reality.

Empedocles (490–430 B.C.) thought the world is made up of four elements (‘roots’): earth, air, fire, and water. All things of daily experience are a mixture of the four elements. While none of the four elements change in themselves, when they are mixed in various proportions, then there is an outward change.

Anaxagoras (500–428 B.C.) thought that everything consists of ‘seeds’, an infinite number of small particles. The kind of thing the seeds comprise is determined by the preponderance of the kinds of seeds of which each thing is made. For example, hair is what it is in virtue of a great number of ‘hair seeds.’

Democritus and Leucippus (the ‘Atomists’) embraced the view that ‘what is not’ can exist in the form of emptiness (or the void). If there is emptiness, then entities can move into locations in which there is nothing. What moves are atoms, indivisible units incapable of becoming anything other than what they are. Thus, atoms do not change and are not created or destroyed. But they can move due to the existence of the void.

Atoms are too small to be seen. Thus, observation is not a reliable source for knowledge of reality. Democritus wrote, “by convention color, by convention sweet, by convention bitter: in reality atoms and void.” (Democritus, quoted in Janaway, 356). Thus, qualities such as color and taste appear real in subjective experience but are not qualities of the fundamental make-up of reality.

Intellectual History

The pre-Socratics are responsible for getting the philosophical ball rolling. Their somewhat speculative reasoning opens up a vast range of questions about the world. Without their impetus, science, at least in the Western tradition, may never have got started. But why is knowledge of their contributions helpful to us?

First, in order to understand the central questions that we have today, it is important to understand how we arrived at them. As Anthony Grayling comments, “Philosophy’s history … is a retrospective construct. It is chosen from the wider stream of the history of ideas in order to provide today’s philosophical concerns with their antecedents” (A. C. Grayling, The History of Philosophy, xv). The questions and answers we have today have their own histories. Knowing them aids our present task.

Second, understanding events history requires understanding their relationship with philosophy. As Bertrand Russell comments,

“To understand an age or a nation, we must understand its philosophy … There is here a reciprocal causation: the circumstances of men’s lives do much to determine their philosophy, but conversely, their philosophy does much to determine their circumstances” (Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, xiv).

Ideas have consequences. We aren’t merely mechanisms responding to the inputs of experience. We are first and foremost spiritual things, thinking about the world, generating theories, and promoting them through persuasive means either by myth or by reason. As Francis Shaeffer observes,

“There is a flow to history and culture. This flow is rooted and has its wellspring in the thoughts of people. People are unique in the inner life of the mind—what they are in their thought world determines how they act. This is true of their value systems and it is true of their creativity. It is true of their corporate actions, such as political decisions, and it is true of their personal lives. The results of their thought world flow through their fingers or from their tongues into the external world. This is true of Michelangelo’s chisel, and it is true of the dictator’s sword” (Francis A. Shaeffer, How Should we Then Live? 19). 

We can apply this observation to the theological task. Theologians of every era call upon philosophers to construct good doctrine. Augustine has his Plato, Aquinas his Aristotle, Barth his Kant and Kierkegaard, and so on. Hence, as Diogenes Allen writes, “Everyone needs to know some philosophy in order to understand the major doctrines of Christianity or to read a great theologian intelligently” (Diogenes Allen, Philosophy for Understanding Theology, ix, xi). Theology has never ridden free from outside influence. The important task is to make sure any outside influence is a good one. Studying their interaction in history helps us assess the merits of the relationship.

Not only should we know about history, we should be equipped to assess its ideas for their rational defensibility and their consistency with the Bible. As Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen put it, we are to “place the work of a philosopher with the context of the grand story of the gospel” (Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen, Christian Philosophy: A Systemic and Narrative Introduction, 25). Some philosophers have produced an aid to the theological task; others have forced theologians off the biblical path. Knowing which one does what requires a careful assessment of the effect of an idea on the content and method of the theological task.

Finally, we can also learn something about ourselves from the pre-Socratics’ intellectual challenge to a mythological understanding of the world. They show us something important about human attempts to understand their lives and the world in which they live.

We all are tempted to avoid rationality and rely on the more subjective components of our mental life. Myth primarily appeals to this propensity. It is partly because it is easier. There is no need to show what reasons one has for one’s beliefs. One merely says them eloquently and with the force. One can be easily swept away by forceful mythologies. But reason should keep them at bay.

It’s not that we shouldn’t concern ourselves with how we feel about our beliefs or that we shouldn’t seek to use persuasive force. It is that we should make sure we have passions for what is true. As Paul says, if the resurrection of Christ never occurred, then there is no value to our faith or our preaching (1 Cor 15:14). Correlatively, we should seek to minister the world by showing from it the truth not merely its powerful effect.

For further information about the shift from mythology to philosophy, Gilbert Melchert’s The Great Conversation is helpful. My favorite historian of philosophy is Anthony Kenny. His A New History of Western Philosophy is excellent. Diogenes Allen helps us understand the relationship between the history of philosophy and the theological task in Philosophy for Understanding Theology. Another work with a similar aim is Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen’s Christian Philosophy: A Systemic and Narrative Introduction.