The “Diels-Krauz” collection (or one of its many translations) is, to this day, the authoritative work to read, when studying the first generations of Greek thinkers and their ideas. In it, a chapter is dedicated to each of these men who pioneered both in the fields of empirical science and philosophical speculation, and coined some of the most important and enduring concepts (“cosmos” (universe), “physis” (nature), “archè” (principle) and “logos” (discourse/reason)).
Given the fragmentary state of our sources, it is very difficult to determine the exact content and scope of the theories put forward by the Presocratics. Commentators rarely agree with each other when it comes to define what exactly these philosophers were asserting. There is a history of the early Greek thinkers, but there is also a history of all the commentators on Presocratics philosophy, some very famous, such as Nietzsche and Heidegger, and some less well known.
To avoid perplexity or disappointment, it’s always good to keep that in mind. But this state of affairs shouldn’t stop us from surveying these “philosophical ruins”. Although we rarely reach the level of certainty we would like, we’re always drawn back to them, because of the paradoxically very rich conceptual heritage they give access to, and because this is our heritage. It is a shattered mirror from the past that we can scrutinize, hoping to see what we looked like 2500 years ago.
The gradual development of philosophical thought took place on three main reflexive fronts: theological (to address the question of God), cosmological (to address the question of the world) and anthropological (to address the question of man). In the process, the last two objects (the world and the human being) gradually appeared as signposts pointing toward the first one. That is to say: 1) that both the cosmological reality and the anthropological reality proved not to be self-explanatory, and 2) that the more thinkers were digging into both the mystery of man’s existence and the mystery of nature, the more they were led to further explore what was beyond the physical realm, namely what was to be identified as the metaphysical realm (in Greek, “meta” means “beyond”), where a satisfying answer to the mysteries of man and the world could possibly lie. This is why, in the review we begin of some Presocratic thinkers and the account we will give of their ideas, we will pay attention to their cosmological and anthropological ideas to the extent that they are related to their theology, hoping to shed some light on what will remain our focus: the development of natural theology in its earliest stages.
In two previous articles, I’ve already pointed out two or three things that were new in the Presocratic project of inquiry into nature. In finishing this introduction, it is fitting to describe more thoroughly the beginning of the “philosophical revolution”, before we start looking in greater detail at how this new way of thinking unfolded in each particular case. So here is a ten-point description of the intellectual revolution initiated by the Presocratics.
- What Presocratics philosophers/scientists study before anything else is nature (phusis), but they also reflect on political and logical matters.
- The Presocratics see the natural world around them as a “cosmos”, an orderly and harmonious totality, a unified system.
- This orderly character means that nature is comprehensible in itself, without constant references to divine interventions to explain every single aspect of it.
- Their inquiry into nature is aimed at discovering the cause, the first principle, (the “archè”), the driving force inside nature explaining the existence and the continuation of the world.
- This inquiry is mostly conducted by observation and reasoning.
- The success of that quest for intelligibility depends on the development and the mastery of a technical philosophical vocabulary, whose purpose is to properly name and identify what is the object of their inquiry.
- Presocratics abide by certain logical principles ensuring the validity of their thought (even if logic is not yet the fully developed art of thinking it was meant to become in the works of Aristotle).
- In dedicating their life to scientifically and philosophically study the natural world around them, they laid the foundations of what would end up being called science and philosophy.
- This dedication informed their whole life and prompted them not only to think, but also to live in a more and more specifically philosophical way. Thanks to them, philosophy was to be construed in the long run as a way of life.
- This understanding of philosophy not only as an intellectual activity but as a complete way of life would be aimed at living to the full the supreme activity of man on earth: living the good life, i.e. a life rooted in contemplation (“theoria” in Greek) and flourishing in wisdom (“sophia”).
Revised and modified: 2020-06-19