Episode 38: The Ideal before Socrates, Part I

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      Since its founding by Socrates and Plato over 2500 years ago, “Idealism” has been the rootstock of all Western philosophy.  Alfred North Whitehead of course said famously that all Western philosophy consists of a series of footnotes to Plato, and Plato’s formulation of the Ideal set the tone for something new and unique in the world.  It is rational without being dry; spiritual without being religious; it acknowledges the shortcomings of humans, but also believes they can be as gods.

However, it’s important to realize that there was a strong philosophical tradition before Plato of which he was in large part an inheritor, from Socrates certainly but others also.  In this episode we’ll look at some of these Pre-Socratics, but first let’s take a look at the conception of the “higher powers” as they manifested in the religious practices of Greece at this time. There is always the “establishment” religion, and always some presence of the Ideal, and frequently they are at odds, based as they are on two fundamentally different attitudes toward the “Divine” and man’s relation to it.

Athena and Herakles

Athena and Herakles. Her helmet is off, and she carries an owl.

The Greeks in general practiced a polytheistic religion derived largely from the account of the gods given in Hesiod’s Theogony. In his account, the gods were a cast of characters who often resembled irrational and spiteful adolescents–kind of like high school with life-and-death powers. They are immortal–they cannot die–but were born; hence theogony. The undisputed king of the gods was Zeus, who gained that title after an extended battle for control. There also existed a variety of other superhuman creatures in the pantheon–demi-gods, heroes, muses, fates, graces, and monsters. Often they are associated with a particular power; for example, the sea-god Poseidon was also seen as the “earth-shaker,” in charge of earthquakes, and Demeter was in charge of grain and the abundance of the harvest. There are others who are metaphorical embodiments of particular virtues or characteristics, such as fear (Phobos) or peace (Eirene).

The presence of all these gods appealed to the basic human need for storytelling. What made them gods were their superhuman powers, not their virtue, and so stories of the actions of the gods flourished, especially when there was sex and violence involved, as there often was. Aphrodite would delight in making male gods especially, even Zeus, consumed by lust and  causing them to engage in all manner of deviant sex with other goddesses as well as humans, always producing a child as a consequence. Persephone, daughter of Demeter, was abducted to the underworld by Hades, and as a result of the joint-custody arrangement they work out, crops did not grow while Persephone is in Hades.

In the Homeric epics, Iliad and Odyssey, the gods played a crucial role, but more often than not by disrupting human plans or putting them in impossible moral situations.
Often the ill effects such as earthquakes or famine experienced by humans were just byproducts of the gods fighting amongst themselves, and if approached in the proper way, they might spare you from these unintended consequences. For the most part the gods seemed uninterested in the plight of humans, even though humans spent much of their time trying to appease them with prayers and animal sacrifices. In Athens, these rituals became ingrained into the life of the people in the form of major and minor holidays and festivals which often featured mass animal sacrifices, theatrical performances and athletic competitions. Each Athenian home usually contained a small shrine of its own for personal devotions and entreaties; for example, a farmer might have a shrine to Demeter, goddess of grain. Given the relatively tolerant approach of the Athenians to other viewpoints, it may come as a surprise to see the extent to which traditional religion was embedded in the life of the city. Although there was not a priesthood or houses of worship per se, the union of “church” and state was total and barely questioned.

One aspect of the religious tradition which moderns often find baffling is the conception of the afterlife. The god Hades ruled over the kingdom of the underworld, also called Hades, where humans were reduced to mere wraiths and shadows, seemingly regardless of whether they have lived a good life or bad. In a passage often cited in The Odyssey, (Book 11, lines 480-490) Hades is shown as a place where “…the senseless dead men dwell, mere imitations of perished mortals,” one of whom is Achilleus, the hero of the Trojan War. Odysseus, attempting to honor his heroism says: “…thou, Achilles, no man aforetime was more blessed nor shall ever be hereafter. For of old, when thou wast alive, we Argives honored thee even as the gods, and now that thou art here, thou rulest mightily among the dead. Wherefore grieve not at all that thou art dead, Achilles.’ ” But Achilles answers: ‘Nay, seek not to speak soothingly to me of death, glorious Odysseus. I should choose, so I might live on earth, to serve as the hireling of another, of some portionless man whose livelihood was but small, rather than to be lord over all the dead that have perished.”   The meanest human life is still superior to that of a king over the these dark wraiths.

So as a deep source for storytelling, and as an explanation for why things are the way they  are, the presence of myriad gods served a valuable purpose; as a unifying theology it did not. And the tendency of theology is always toward unification. As H.D.F. Kitto says in The Greeks:

But the future of Greek religious thought lay neither with the mythology nor with the Olympian gods nor yet with the more personal ‘mystery’ religions which were complimentary to the Olympian cults. It lay with the philosophers. The Greek element in Christianity is considerable, and it derives from Plato. The Zeus of Aeschylus, pure and lofty as he is, was yet too much the god of the Greek polis to become the God of mankind, just as the God of the Jews could not become also the god of the Gentiles without considerable change. It was Greek philosophy, notably Plato’s conception of the absolute, eternal deity, which prepared the world for the reception of a universal religion.¹

      Paralleling the establishment religious practices in Magna Graecia, these philosophers, “lovers of wisdom”–brought forth descriptions of the Ideal. Although they are usually lumped together under the rather condescending title of “Pre-Socratics,” each brings a different perspective and personal experience to the study. Some came from a perspective of phusis, “physics,” or the study of the causes behind natural phenomena. Others came from a more poetic or mystical viewpoint. But all were led to a vision of an arché, or first principle, the source of what can be observed in the world of phusis, or of nous, the mind. Their formulations of this first principle prepared the ground in which Socrates and Plato could flourish.

In contrast to the “cast of characters,” these descriptions of the philosophical tradition are notable for their lack of human traits. Although they may differ somewhat in details, and insofar as the indescribable can be described, what comes through is a vision of pure Being: eternal, changeless, self-contained, all-powerful. That so many different descriptions from so many different authors endured is a testament to how seriously it was taken and how far its influence spread. Even when quoted by much later authors, these fragments speak to a common experience of people living in different times and places: an experience of unity and bliss.

Just as the accounts given by the Presocratics agree in their overall description, it is also worth noting the similarities to Eastern philosophy, particularly the Vedic traditions of India.² To oversimplify: the One Reality, the Brahman, is eternal, unchanging, all-blissful, while the world of the senses, Maya, is an illusion, transient, constantly changing, and consequently full of loss and sorrow. As we shall see, this is perfectly congruent with the descriptions given by many who preceded Socrates, as well as Socrates himself. And while the normal tendency of the mind is to look for instances of direct contact between these cultures, brought about by trade or exploration, it is perfectly reasonable to expect that something whose nature is eternal and all-pervasive would appear the same to individuals regardless of geography or history. The Katha Upanishad says, “The Self-existent Lord pierced the senses to turn outward. Thus we look to the world outside and see not the Self within us. A sage withdrew his sense from the world of change and, seeking immortality, looked within and beheld the deathless Self.”³ This is what the sage always sees regardless of when or where he looks within.

Map of Ancient Greece

Ancient Greece. The island of Samos is due east of Athens.

We will never know who was the first sage in the West to have this realization, but it hardly matters. The names we do have show that there was a long and vibrant “counter-cultural” tradition, and the one name most often cited as first was Thales of Miletus (c. 625-c. 545 BC), who founded a tradition of thinkers to come out of this town in the Greek colony of Ionia in Asia Minor. As with all the figures who came before the writing of history had become a science, many of the stories about him are legends and impossible to prove, but there is a consensus that he was among the first to explore natural phenomena without reference to the Hesiodic gods. He observed (some say predicted) an eclipse of the sun in the year 585, which he said was caused by the moon moving in front of it. He is also said to have made studies of magnetism, electricity, and geometry. But despite his pioneering work in giving explanations based on observation, he also searched for primary causes (he thought everything derived from water), and is credited with the phrase “panta pleure theon”–”everything is full of gods.” While this may seem like a reversion to the accepted theology, it is subtly different. As Werner Jaeger says in The Theology of the Early Greek Philosophers,4

The assertion that everything is full of gods would then mean something like this: everything is full of mysterious living forces; the distinction between animate and inanimate nature has no foundation in fact; everything has a soul. Thales would thus have made his observation of magnetism a premise for inferring the Oneness of all reality as something alive.

A similar sentiment is also found in Kitto:
…most significant of all is the fact that he assumed, in spite of appearances, that the world consists not of many things but of one. Here we meet a permanent feature of Greek thought: the universe, both the physical and the moral universe, must be not only rational, and therefore knowable, but also simple; the apparent multiplicity of physical things is only superficial.5

     With the standard cautions about their ability to be verified, there are also these attributions to Thales from Diogenes Laertius’ The Lives of the Philosophers, written some 900 years later:

It is not many words which show an intelligent opinion:
search out one wise thing
choose one good thing
for thus you will stop
the ceaseless tongues of babbling men.
When asked what is difficult, he said, “To know yourself.”…
What divine, “What has neither beginning nor end.”
How can we live best and most justly? —
”If we do not ourselves do the things we blame others for doing.”
The motto “Know thyself” is his…6

     What is seen here is a kind of democracy brought to the spiritual world. For Thales and his followers, our lives are not subject to the whims of autocratic gods; they are under our own control. Rather than sacrifices, we need knowledge, in particular about ourselves. To be happy–indeed to be godlike–we need to “choose one good thing,” and “not ourselves do the things we blame others for doing.”
This theme is carried forward in another of the Milesian school–some say he was Thales’ student, others that he was an “associate”–Anaximander, ca. 610-ca. 540 BC. An observer of the physical world but also a speculator, he expanded on Thales’ view of water as the primal substance by declaring that life came from the sea–that men in fact evolved from fish. However, he rejects water, or any other physical substance, as the basis of the physical world, since it could not be the source of other elements of a different nature, such as fire or earth. His solution was something that more closely invokes the Ideal in being without limit. To quote Jaeger again, “So the thing with which the world begins can only be something that is identical with none of its given substances, and yet is capable of giving rise to the immensity of them all. The distinguishing property of this something must therefore be the fact that it is itself unbounded; and so Anaximander calls it by this very name–apeiron.”7  As far as I can determine, this is the first recorded example in Western thought of a power that is unlimited and indestructible.
Aristotle, in his Physics, also specifically mentions Anaximander in conjunction with this idea.

Aristotle, from the Nuremberg Chronicle

Aristotle, from the Nuremberg Chronicle

Again, it (the boundless) is ungenerated and indestructible and so is a principle. For what has come into being must have an end, and there is an ending to every destruction. Hence, as I say, it has no principle but itself is thought to be a principle for everything else and to encompass everything and to steer everything–as is said by those who do not set up any other cause (for example mind, or love) apart from the limitless. And it is also the divine; for it is immortal and indestructible, as Anaximander and most of the natural scientists say.8

      These qualities are also reiterated by another Ionian, Melissus of Samos9, whose dates are uncertain, but who was contemporary with Socrates. He also adds the logically consistent quality of unity to the limitless: “In this way, then, it is eternal and limitless and one and altogether similar to itself. And it will neither perish nor become larger nor change its arrangement nor suffer pain nor suffer anguish. For if it undergoes any of these things it will no longer be one.”10


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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License Graphics are not copyrighted, and are believed to be in the public domain.  Music courtesy of Stefan Hagel, and used by permission.

¹H.D.F. Kitto, The Greeks,Penguin Books, 1991, p. 202-3
2This subject has been explored quite thoroughly in Thomas McEviley’s The Shape of Ancient Thought, Allworth Press, 2001
3Eknath Easwaran, trans., The Upanishads, Nilgiri Press, 1987, p. 90
4Werner Jaeger, The Theology of the Early Greek Philosophers (The Gifford Lectures), Wipf and Stock, 2003, p. 21
5Kitto, op. cit.
6Diogenes Laertius, quoted in Jonathan Barnes, Early Greek Philosophy, Penguin Classics, 1987, p. 15ff.
7Jaeger, op. cit., p. 24
8Artistotle, quoted in Barnes, op. cit., p. 22
9Not much is known of his life, except that according to Plutarch, he was also a general of the Samian navy and defeated the navy of Pericles in a battle in 441.
10Quoted in Barnes, op. cit., p. 96