The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and Sophists

The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and Sophists

The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and Sophists

The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and Sophists

Synopsis

The first philosophers paved the way for the work of Plato and Aristotle - and hence for the whole of Western thought. Aristotle said that philosophy begins with wonder, and the first Western philosophers developed theories of the world which express simultaneously their sense of wonder and their intuition that the world should be comprehensible. But their enterprise was by no means limited to this proto-scientific task. Through, for instance, Heraclitus' enigmatic sayings, the poetry of Parmenides and Empedocles, and Zeno's paradoxes, the Western world was introduced to metaphysics, rationalist theology, ethics, and logic, by thinkers who often seem to be mystics or shamans as much as philosophers or scientists in the modern mould. And out of the Sophists' reflections on human beings and their place in the world arose and interest in language, and in political, moral, and social philosophy. This volume contains a translation of all the most important fragments of the Presocratics and Sophists, and of the most informative testimonia from ancient sources, supplemented by lucid commentary.

Excerpt

Melissus is something of an oddity in the history of philosophy. a convinced Eleatic, who came up with some powerful arguments in defence of Parmenidean monism, he also served as the military commander of his island home, Samos, in which capacity he even managed to defeat the great Athenian leader Pericles in a battle in 441. One cannot help thinking that he must have temporarily shelved the changelessness of the Parmenidean 'what-is' in order to engage in politics and warfare, and so that by his very life he demonstrates that Parmenidean monism was epistemological -- a state of mind, rather than an ontological statement about the world.

In his short treatise, Melissus started with the assumption that there is something that exists (fi), and then deduced the consequences of this assumption in a rigorous fashion. the deductive nature of his work enables us to order the few fragments we possess with some confidence. From the premiss that there is something that exists, he deduced, in order, that this existent thing is not liable to generation and destruction (F2), is of unlimited magnitude (F3), eternal (F4), single (F5), homogeneous (though the text where he proved this is missing), unchanging, and motionless (F6). It is tempting to see the assertion that it is of unlimited magnitude as a response to Zeno's argument that anything of no magnitude cannot exist.

Melissus reached substantially the same position as Parmenides, but by a somewhat different route. Despite the raft of properties of what-is in respect of which Melissus straightforwardly agrees with Parmenides -- that it is eternal, single, homogeneous, ungenerated and unperishing, changeless, and motionless -- there is arguably some disagreement between them. Consider his denial of void: not only can there be no internal void, and so no change, there can be no emptiness beyond what-is either. Whereas Parmenides had said (F8 ll. 26-33, 49 on p. 60) that what-is was constrained within limits, for Melissus what-is has no limits. Not only is it everlasting in time, but it is of unlimited magnitude (F3). It is beginning to look as though, on Melissus' version (whatever we are to make of Parmenides in this respect), what-is is corporeal; and this seems to be confirmed by the idea that what-is is full, and can have no emptiness in it. in other words, it is apparently a solid body. But what, then, are we to make of F7, which plainly says that what-is is incorporeal? Many scholars are inclined to think that in this case Simplicius (who preserves all these . . .

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