CHANGING PARADIGMS: THE NEW AXIAL ERA
have not updated our changing paradigms/dialogue with science page for
some time, and I would like to begin a discussion about what I call the
new axial era. I have used this expression many times in broadcasts and
lectures, and it is time to develop this idea more fully. In order to
do this successfully it would seem necessary to discuss the first axial
era and explain its meaning.
The concept of an
axial era was given to us by the philosopher Karl Jaspers. In examining
the monumental transformation of human thought and culture that took
place between approximately 800 BC and 400 or 300 BC, Jaspers noted
that this period of time developed profound changes in the way humans
thought, developed culture and formed societies. We do not know all of
the dynamics that drove this transformational era, but we do know that
one of the generators of this new religious and philosophical thought
was the question of permanence and change. It was this question, or
rather series of questions, that laid the foundations of modern science.
In this discussion
about the concept of an axial era, and my suggestion that we have
entered into a second axial era, we should begin with the Greeks,
although they do not form the oldest part of this transformational eon.
Beginning with the school at Miletus, the Hellenic thinkers had the
greatest impact on non-Eastern thought, and on the development of
Let us briefly
outline the idea of a second axial era, and we will develop these
ideals further as our discussion proceeds. During the first axial era
philosophy and sometimes a vague theology developed. While the ordinary
people were not immediately touched by these developments in
philosophy, they were certainly impacted upon by the development of law
codes, systems of ethics and the reshaping of religious concepts and
principles. The thought and the concepts of the philosophers gradually
trickled down to the broader levels of societies. Over decades and
centuries these concepts slowly transformed human thought. The American
Constitution, for example, was profoundly influenced by the
humanist/deist philosophers of the 16-17th centuries (and earlier). In
the latter half of the 18th century a new development began to unfold.
Science began to replace philosophy as the motor of evolutionary change
in human thought. At the same time the industrial revolution with the
passage from merchantilism to capitalism to consumer-capitalism had
already been replacing older structures of society and culture. This
latter dynamic also collapsed the traditional family structure and
created the new nuclear family. Beginning with Albert Einstein and his
transformational theories, more and more people became aware of
developments in the physical sciences. The birth of quantum mechanics,
biological and neurobiological sciences and a greater awareness of the
universe coupled with the explosion of technology, has reshaped human
thought over the past century. By degrees the philosophers and their
influence began to recede and be replaced by the physicists and
developers of new technology. The new axial era that we have been
discussing is essentially driven by physics and technology. These
elements have produced often immense changes in the worldview and the
conceptual anthropology of an ever increasing segment of the human
population. It is this process that we wish to converse about,
beginning with a review of four major elements of the first axial era;
all of which deal with questions of permanence and change. These
include the powerful influence of the great Azeri prophet Zoroaster
(who taught just on the cusp of moving into the axial era), the
development of new religious paradigms in India, China and Israel, and
the development of Hellenic philosophy and proto-science. As mentioned
above, we will begin with the Hellenic developments in the pre-Socratic
Epoch because they most clearly define the question of permanence and
change as the driving force of the first axial era.
(This chapter of our discussion of the
Axial Era is from a series of classes which Archbishop Lazar gave at St
Sava Seminary, Grayslake, Il.)
A DISCOURSE ON THE IDEA OF
AND FIRST PRINCIPLE (PROTA ARCHAI)
AMONG THE PRE-SOCRATIC PHILOSOPHERS
by Archbishop Lazar Puhalo
There is a concern
of the pre-Socratics that echoes so clearly down to the Scholastic era
in a problematic way. This matter, in a unique and powerful way,
undermined Western Christian theology and set it on a false course.
This concept is that of a "First Principle" or "First Cause."
We will discuss the developments and changes in the
concept of what constitutes the "First Principle," but let us jump
ahead a few millennia. The crises that would follow from the
dogmatization of this concept in the Scholastic era is one
demonstration of the wounding of Western theology by Platonism and
Aristotelianism. This Western theological development redirected the
Christian concern for the meaning of life to a concern about the
correct system of abstract proofs — a doctrinal position based on
claims of the validity of "First Principle." These proofs, being
essentially philosophical abstractions, seek after truth as if truth is
captured by the work of reason, or is an historical or scientific
"fact"— an object of some sort. We will discuss in another work
why this was so destructive to Western theology (and the philosophy
that was shaped by it). This development reached its zenith with the
rise of nominalism and the movement into pure science, and the
Scholastic reaction to it.
The main safeguard that kept Orthodox Christian
theology from degenerating into philosophy was the refusal to speculate
about a "First Principle" or "First Cause." Orthodoxy refused to
subject God to human reason and avoided the fall into rationalism.
Rationalism must shape itself according to philosophical tradition and
thus the rationalism of the scholastics became dependent on Plato and
The apophatic theology of Orthodox Christianity
avoids this completely. Reason is purified by faith rather than negated
by it, while faith is substantiated by experience, not by reflective
reasoning. Faith, like Orthodox theology, recognises the reality of
things that are beyond and above reason, and are concluded in a
mystery. As we approach the divine, the syllogisms of Aristotle
collapse and the "Forms" of Plato evaporate. We enter into a cloud of
unknowing and incomprehension, in which reason ceases and we apprehend
by means of ineffable experience. In such a state, reason is
regenerated by faith, and we begin to appropriate the reason of the
For now, let us trace the rise of these concepts of
First Principle/First Cause in the period of Greek philosophy before
A NOTE ABOUT FIRST PRINICPLE/FIRST CAUSE
NOTE ABOUT MOTION AND MOVEMENT
Before we continue
it seems useful to say something about motion and movement at this
point. We use the term "motion" rather than movement in all the in part
because it is translated that way in the all the various translation of
fragments that we are using. From a metaphysical point of view
"movement" was defined as passing from the potential to the actual,
where later science would define "movement" as matter in motion. The
Eleatics and Atomists are speaking of matter in motion. The Eleatics
would deny the motion of matter, at least of the First Principle or
underlying essences of Being. The Atomists insisted upon it. However,
part of the contradiction lies in the fact that "motion" was little
understood at the time. Even in Zeno's paradox of the Arrow, we see
this lack of understanding. It is doubtful if any of the pre-Socratic
philosophers would have ascribed movement to a prota archei either.
The breakthrough in the concept of motion (the
gradual passage through the idea of impetus to the theory of inertia)
is pivotal in the development of modern science. The term impetus seems
to have appeared in the scholastic era, however the theory of impetus
originated with the 6th century Byzantine scientist/philosopher John
Philiponos, in his critique of Aristotle's theories relating to the
motion of projectiles. Aristotle taught that the speed of a moving body
is proportionally related to the force that moves the body.
Consequently, he said, no object can be moving unless it is forced to.
This approach, since it attributed to what on the surface appeared
obvious, the validity of a natural law, became practically doctrinal
and cast a shadow over physics until the appearance of Newton's
Principia, where Newton correctly related the force to the acceleration
instead of speed. Actually, Aristotle would suggest that a rock thrown
into the air falls back to earth because earth is its natural home. The
rock, he held, will fall faster (rather, with more exuberance) as it
nears the earth, because it is being drawn back to its natural place.
The theory of gravity was yet a long way off. The Eleatics could never
have guessed that momentum is the measure of a body's motion that is
equal to its mass times its velocity. They might have guessed that a
body is at rest unless acted upon by some force, but they could not
have fathomed a force that might act upon a First Principle (whether
defined as an uncaused causer or not) in such a way. Thus, the First
Principle could have neither motion nor movement. It could not be set
in motion, nor could it be passing from the potential to the actual..
THE ROOTS OF THE
We can now perceive the universe in ways undreamed
of less than a century ago. As we learn more about the cosmos
with these new tools that expand the range of our senses, our
"internal model" of the universe inexorably changes.
Our inner vision of reality grows into a new shape in response to
the new knowledge (Joel Davis)
Karl Jaspars, the
existentialist philosopher, delineates the era of approximately 700-500
B.C. as an "axial period." He suggests that in this era a radical
change in social thinking developed worldwide — or at least in
the area of civilisation stretching from Egypt to China. This dramatic
series of developments took place in the areas of religion and ethics,
and in many basic elements of the ideas of interhuman relations. This
era saw the appearance of Zoraster with his dualistic religious-ethical
system, of Lao Tse and Confucius in China, the Buddha in India, the
great prophets such as Isaiah in Israel and the dawn of philosophy in
the Hellenic world. All these movements sought to come to grips with
the great existential problems that faced mankind: "being," meaning,
freedom, bondage, becoming, dissolution, etc.
The contradictions between change, continuity and
permanence and the apparent contradiction between matter and spirit
(which would form a basis of Gnosticism), have so dominated man that
they generated the natural religions, philosophy and science. Change,
the nature of change and its causes, was certainly a mystery in ancient
times. The difficulty in treating cancer today reveals that it is still
somewhat of a mystery. It was not only the apparent contradiction
between change and permanence, of winter and summer that occupied the
minds of the thinkers of the era. The problem of the co-existence of
good and evil had concerned human beings since the beginnings of
intelligent thought. Seeking solutions to these problems was the
driving force of the axial period.
More primitive cultures dealt with change by means
of rituals which often imitated it, and with myths (cosmogonies and
cosmologies) which sought to explain it. The first school of authentic
rationalists we encounter sought to deny it. The ultimate solution to a
lack of understanding is denial.
Why, precisely, the question of change should have
dominated the foundations of philosophy, is an interesting question. We
must note, though, that it also dominated much of the cultural and
religious patterns that preceded the birth of authentic philosophy, and
resurfaced so profoundly in the early 1800s with Hegel.
Earlier contemplation of change resulted in the
birth of magic — an attempt to control change, in rites of
passage — an attempt to celebrate or guide it, and in religious
rituals aimed at influencing the Cause of the changes. Change was,
however, simply accepted as the profound inevitability of "being."
Existence was seen as a constant stream of change, a flux of being and
becoming. All the ancient cosmogonies and cosmologies addressed the
apparent cyclical nature of change, typified and amplified first by the
seasons and then by observations of the heavenly bodies. Each cosmogony
established a model of reality for its own culture, however many
similarities there might have been among them. It has occurred to me
that the establishment of the "divine monarchy" was an attempt to have
more "local" influence on the often chaotic and frightening changes
that took place. We have only to recall that the city of Nippur in
Chaldea once flourished on the banks of the Euphrates. Now, its ruins
rise like a nondescript massif in a barren, windswept desert. The
Euphrates had changed her course and abandoned the city, leaving death
and decay where once life had flourished in green gardens. Even the
rise of empires may have been driven in some small part by the desire
to control the unknown, to gain some little dominion over change and
that which was "different."
When and in what manner the first antithesis between
change and permanence was posed in likely beyond speculation. Just as
uncertain is the circumstance and era in which the question of the
conflict between good and evil, spirit and matter arose. The philosophy
regarding these contradictions would blend with mysticism to form the
Gnostic sects that were to bedevil Christianity for centuries.
The religious movements of the axial era focused
more on the paradox of good and evil, while in the Hellenic world we
witnessed the rise of philosophy, which concerned itself largely with
the question of change and Being — that is, the coming into
existence and passing out of existence of things, while there was so
evidently both continuity and permanence. The Gnostic systems that
arose in this era and later sought to combine both philosophy and
religion in solving the quandary of good and evil. They developed
schools which I would describe as mystical rationalism, and intertwined
the questions of change in the material world with the problem of good
In the course of their deliberations, the Hellenic
philosophers developed methods of thought and fundamental ideas that
would be sometimes an aid and sometimes a hindrance to future
philosophy, and ultimately to Western Christian theology.
We are not going to discuss the rise and systems of
the great religions or of the developments in Judaism of this era. We
are concerned here only with the pre-Socratic Hellenic philosophers.
Moreover, we are concerned especially with those elements of
speculation among these thinkers that would eventually distort
Christian theology, particularly in the scholastic era.
THE DEVELOPMENT OF
Empedocles: It is impossible to find a truly wise
That is likely true, for only a wise man would know a wise man if he
The paradox we
have mentioned may be described in a manner which will be a bridge for
us between the various schools that arose. I would like to suggest
that, so far as the Hellenic philosophers are concerned, the impetus
was provided by the discovery of mathematics as a system.
There must be a permanent principle, since the
universe is permanent. This is further proved by the immutability of
the laws of mathematics. If there is change, then there must be a
permanent principle underlying change; for, paradoxically, if there
were nothing permanent, there would be nothing to change. Only what has
Being can change; non-being has nothing to change, either sporadically
nor in a continuous manner.
Since we are in the realm of speculation, and since
Thales of Miletos, who began the quest for a First Principle, and
Pythagoras of Samos were contemporaries (6th century B.C.), let us
conjure the notion that the paradox of immutability and change, of
dissolution and permanence arose from the discovery of mathematics and
the awe of its mysteries. Geometry and mathematics are proof of a
permanent world. Their laws never change no matter how abstract they
appear. We will come back to this thought later, as a bridge between
Parmenides and Zeno in Elea of Sicily.
The quandary of change and permanence lies also at
the root of medicine and the physical sciences. Anthropologists and
ethnographers may look at change over mere decades or centuries or
millennia, evolutionary biologists and geologists over millions of
year, physicists over billions of years. For medicine, it is much more
pressing. Birth, growth, maturity, illness, aging, death and
dissolution are changes which shape the immediate awareness of every
individual. Change and permanence can be urgent and vital matters.
If the rationalism with which the pre-Socratic
philosophers approached these questions seems crude, sometimes
ludicrous, we will do well to remember that fifteen hundred years
later, the Scholastics became mired in the same bog of rationalism. We
would also do well to reflect on some of the startling insights that
the pre-Socratics hit upon by means of pure intuition, and to observe
that Zeno's four paradoxes were profound enough to occupy some notable
minds up to the 20th century. Zeno could give us such paradoxes and
construct dialectic, the ultimate realist Heraclitus of Ephesus could
presage Hegel and the Atomists could hint, however vaguely, at quantum
mechanics. We still use Pythagoras' odd and even numbers, squares and
cubes of numbers, etc. It seems to me, at least, that we ought not to
lightly dismiss the pre-Socratics with their groping in the dark toward
knowledge that we can now take for granted. We now have some
understanding of the inexorable force of entropy, and the first two
laws of thermodynamics, which the Milesians and Eleatics appear to have
suspected was out there some place. Imagine what a Thales or a Zeno
would have done with our advantage and the tools now at our disposal.
THE QUEST BEGINS IN MILETOS OF IONIA
To see the world in a grain of sand
and heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
and eternity in an hour
Thales of Miletos
Thales is generally credited as the first to
systematize this question of the antithesis of change and permanence.
He is also credited with developing the philosophical quest for a
"First Principle" or First Cause" (prota archai) of all that exists in
order to respond to the paradox. In essence, this quest appears to be a
search for a principle underlying permanence. To be the principle of
permanence, it would have to be the cause of "Being." In this case,
Thales may be thought of as the founder of ontology.
Let me speculate on the idea behind this (though the
speculation is not entirely original). Everything that exists changes
and decays. If this is so, then there must be some unchanging,
undecaying essence (or mode of being) which is always the same. This
essence is what things come from, and what they return to when they
decay (or, what they change into at the end of their cycle). Aristotle
asserts that the more ancient philosophers held that, in the most
concise manner of speaking, nothing actually comes into being or loses
its being, because the First Principle (or, original element) always
remains the same. The First Principle is permanent; it is a principle
Since they had no way of examining how things began
and ended, they had to speculate by means of reason and experience, or
reason based on observation. They saw that the earth and people were
always the same even though they changed, and that, for example, trees
died and decayed as do humans, etc. Thus, they reasoned that there must
be some primal substance from which all things arose, and returned to
— perhaps they had the idea that everything was recycled through
I suggest that this concept of First Principle, at
least as it appears in the system of Thales, is the matrix of Platon's
kosmos noetos? Thales had the idea that there must be some natural
physical entity (φύσυς) from which all things
come into being. There may have been one such entity or many, but there
was an entity either for all or for each. Actually, it is not clear
what the earlier philosophers considered to be the nature of the First
Principle, and whether there was one or "one for each." Platon's "world
of ideas" (kosmos noetos) is a "First Principle." We assume that Platon
is the originator of the "kosmos noetos" and that it was his solution
to a philosophical problem willed to him by the pre-Socratics. The
question of the relation of permanence and change he answered with a
permanent world of ideas reconciled to the material world of change.
In any case, things change, but the essence of them
does not. We might note also, that for Thales, that which would later
be identified as "soul" was really the motor force in things, that is,
the vital principle that causes motion in them. There does not seem to
have been an actual concept of "spirit" or "spiritual" connected with
either "soul" or "First Principle" in Thales' system.
It seems worth mentioning that Thales travelled to
Egypt, where he learned such geometry as was known there at that time.
He was also familiar with Chaldean (Babylonian) thought. Thrasibulos,
who was King of Miletos in the 7th century B.C. had opened the trade
and intellectual door to the East. Considering the cosmogonies of both
Egypt and Babylon, it is not surprising that Thales considered water to
be the original element. In Babylon, Enki was not only the god of
water, but of wisdom and craftsmanship. One might also suspect that his
attempt at a rational explanation of the origins of the universe was in
part driven by the fact that he was the best engineer of his era, and
that he applied engineering concepts to his system. We have no way of
knowing whether or not Thales considered the ancient cosmogonies to be
allegorical expressions of physical principles. It is clear, however,
that he was seeking specific physical explanations and rejecting all
mythological constructs or explanations of a symbolic type. Thales
observed the predominance of water in his world, and the "river of
stars" that we call the Milky Way could have appeared to be a direct
homologue to the earthly waters.
As we mentioned above, it is not certain whether or
not the Ionian School of Miletos introduced the quest for the First
Principle, but Thales is credited with beginning it.
It is my understanding that this quest was a desire
for some stability in a world of constant change, which nevertheless
always appeared to be the same. One is led to think of Hubble's
evidence for the "cosmological principle." Combine the fact that the
location of heavenly bodies is in constant change with the cosmological
principle which states that at any given time, the universe on the
large scale looks the same, no matter who observes it and regardless of
their vantage point, and one may have some basis for Thales concept of
"changeless change," of an unchangeable essence behind the ever
changing world. The cosmological principle is not entirely correct, but
if Hubble could propose large scale cosmic isotropy in 1925, we should
not miss the fact that the pre-Socratics hinted at it, however
simplisticly, long before.
Thales gave philosophy the concept of an ultimate
stability which accounted for the contradiction between corruption,
decay, death and permanence. He also instigated a definition of psykhe
(psyche) that provided for motion and action in material things.
From all that is known of his system, Thales was
satisfied with a material First Principle and a non-abstract psyche.
"Soul" as we understand it is too abstract and spiritual a translation
for the Milesian concept of "psyche." Thomas Hobbes would approve.
Anaximander Son of Praxiades
The disciple of Thales, Anaximander, added
"dimension" to the concept of the unchanging essence — the First
Principle. He also made the First Principle more abstract. For him, it
had to be something without spatial limit (to apeiron). We need not go
into his arguments (as much as we know of them) as to why this First
Principle, which he called "the unbounded" could not be one of the four
elements (all of which are mutable). He maintained Thales idea that the
First Principle was the element from which all things arose, and into
which they passed again at their dissolution.
One point that we might remember for our future
discussion of Platonism and theology is the idea of the substratum. It
seems to me that Anaximander introduced the idea of the First Principle
as an essential substratum. He reckoned that the four elements could
not be the Prime Cause (First Principle) because of their
transmutability and limitedness. There must be another, a boundless and
unchanging substratum. Following Thales, this substratum would be
material (though Anaximander appears not to have thought so). We will
encounter the term "material substratum" again in the works of the
Platonist heretic Origen in the 3rd century A.D. One can read more
about Anaximander's ideas of the First Principle in Aristotle's
Physics, where he compares Anaximander's ideas with those of
Anaxagoras. We have the information we need for our discussion.
Anaximenes Son of Evrostratos
(ca. 560-520 B.C.)
According to Aristotle (Metaphysics I:3) a colleague
of Anaximander, Anaximenes decided that air is the First Principle, and
that all things that exist are brought into being by a rarefaction and
condensation of air. In this regard, he made the prime essence more
diaphanous, though still material, and diverged from Anaximander.
So what have we come to? First, the rationalized
"First Cause" or "First Principle." Secondly, the quandary of change.
The problem of changingness vs permanence, of continuity and eternity
troubled all the Greek philosophers. We will also see the unfolding of
the denigration of sense experience and intuition in favour of
rationalism. Shortly, we will also see the beginnings of the famous
Scholastic era debates about how many angels can dance on the head of a
pin, and if a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to
hear it, does it actually make a noise.
Next let us look a little at this question of change
and unchangingness, which the Milesians raised and the Eleatics
THE ELEATIC SCHOOL
Out of the formless fire, the
narrow orbs are woven, Those over these out
but a portion of flame streams through them all.
....Then shall you know the
etherial nature of each of its tokens—
Each of the signs in the ether, and all the
Wrought by the unblemished sun's
whence they have arisen.
Then you shall hear of the
and of her nature, and likewise
discern the heaven that surrounds them.
Whence it arose, and how by her sway Necessity
bound it firm, to encircle the
periphery of the stars.
(Fragment from Parmenides poem On
The Eliatic school would rapidly diverge from the
Ionian by abandoning the Milesians' tenous analogy. This they would
replace with non-empirical reason. The ancestors of the pure
rationalists deduced the elements of reality on the matrix of their
concept of lingustics and their understanding of the processes of
thought. I might speculate that, considering their concern with nature
of thought, they may have shaped their understanding of reality on the
basis of their understanding of the hegimonicon (the seat of the
reason/spirit/life-force in the human organism).
Xenophanos of Colophon.
The Ionian school came to Elea in Italy in the
person of Xenophanos of Colophon. Xenophanos may or may not have been
the first of the philosophers of Elea, because Platon says, in his
Sophist: "Our Eleatic tribe of philosophers, beginning with Xenophanos,
and even earlier, embodied in a parable this truth that all things, in
a manner of speaking, are in truth one." Hence, we may allow that there
was some collection of philosophers who had been at Elea before
Xenophanos. He was, nevertheless, the "spiritual father" of the Eleatic
School. His critiques of Thales and of the Pythatorenas (particularly
their doctrine of reincarnation) were important elements in setting the
direction of the Eleatic school.
Just incidently, I would like to suggest the direct
connection between the meaning of the name Xenophanos and the "Eleatic
stranger" in the Sophist and Politicos: Xeno= stranger; phany =
In the context of our study, what are we going to
look for in Xenophanos?
(1) First of all, we will find in this school, as in
Miletos, the same preoccupation with the paradox between change and
permanence, between the everchangingness and the apparent "sameness" of
everything in the cosmos. We will be interested in Xenophanos' approach
to solving the problem.
(2) We will note the rudiments of the thought which
led to the concept of "the Unknown God" mentioned by Apostle Paul (Acts
(3) We will look for any forerunners to the ideas of
(4) More directly to the point of our pursuit, we
will look for any concepts which may have foreshadowed Platon's kosmos
noetos and his ideas about the "untruth" of sense perceptions.
In the fragments of Xenophanos, we find the opinion
that the beginning and end of all things is in earth and water. We all
sprang, he says, from earth and water. All things that come into being
are earth and water (see Fragments 8, 9 and 10). Remember that, in
Babylon, it was the mythological Ninusag — earth — that
gave life and Enki — water — that sustained it.
It is not difficult to see why Xenophanos reaches
this conclusion when we read about his "cyclical" concept. I wonder if
the conclusions in the fragment cited above are not empirical.
Certainly the theory is correct so far as it goes. Man really is a mud
pie that can squeak. Apart from the observations of this philosopher
that we will note below, it is not difficult to imagine a careful and
contemplative observer noting that the basic constituents of all living
things are water and mineral.
With regard to the paradox of change, Xenophanos had
actually observed fossils of sea life in the quarries of Syracuse, in
the marble from Paros, in Malta and, perhaps, in the mountains (since
he mentions the fossils of fish, seals, etc in mountain rocks). He
concluded that these fossils had been pressed into mud, which later
solidified. He deduced from this that land and sea were once intermixed
and had separated out by evaporation (the "moist principle"). By some
means, perhaps by observing erosion and the formation of estuaries by
sediments, he concluded that, eventually, earth and sea would be
re-mixed. Life would then vanish as all returned to mud and then the
entire cycle would be repeated. Notably, he says that this change takes
place "in all worlds."
Nevertheless, he asserts that nothing ever passes
into non-being, nor does anything arise from the non-existent. His
disciple Parmenides expressed this thought by saying that being is
immutable because one thing cannot arise from another thing which is,
in its essence, unlike itself. In other words, everything that is is
formed from these primordial First Principles, water and earth.
Aristotle would later counter that everything is simultaneously passing
into non-existence and coming into existence, and that this is the
nature of permanence.
So far as "change" is concerned, Xenophanos is
cognizant of the dissolution of things, and since he observes that it
is "the whole" that has no genesis nor passage out of being, it would
seem that he infers that the elements are unchanging and cyclical.
There is change, but it is not absolute; it is a fluctuation in the
form of the principle elements in which things dissolve into these
elements to be reconstituted as they were before, from these same
It seems worth noting that Xenophanos preceded
Socrates in the deconstruction of the Olympian theogony. Xenophanos,
like the Pythagoreans, was concerned with ethics. He makes it clear
that the heroes and deities of Homer and Hesiod were no bases for
decent ethics or human moral evolution. They were, in his words,
murderers, liars and frauds. Of course, he was safely in Sicily when he
made these observations, whereas Socrates was quite unsafely in Athens.
It is clear that Xenophanos had no notion of
reincarnation or the transmigration of "souls," because he ridicules
the Pythagoreans for their belief in it (as did Empedocles). His
cyclical idea is quite material. We find these idea developed further
by Parmenides. It was he who shaped the Eleatic doctrine with his
opposition to the Heraclitean doctrine of "change"
Heraclitos of Ephesus (early 500's B.C.) was an
"antisubstantialist." We will discuss Heraclitos' and the concept of
"becoming" later. At the moment, we need a brief description of his
system because the disciple of Xenophanos, Paramenides will debate it.
Xenophanos denied that change is real, and his disciple Parmenides
asserted that change would be self-contradictory, therefore it cannot
be real (for reasons we will mention below), Heraclitos agreed that
change was contradictory, but said that since this is so, contradiction
is the very essence of reality; therefore change is in the nature of
They are tragic whose dreams are flouted, more
tragic still are those who never realise that they might dream
(Archipelago, June, 1964)
Parmenides, the disciple of Xenophanos, is the real
founder of the Eleatic School. It was his debate with Heraclitos of
Ephesus (mentioned above and discussed below) that generated the
ideology of the school.
When Apostle Paul passed through the agora of Athens
and climbed up to the Areopagus, he noted a monument to "the unknown
God." Exactly where this nascent monotheism began, it is impossible to
say, but it is certain that it was developing in the school at Elea.
The "One" and the "All" might not yet be defined as deity, but as a
fundamental concept, it led toward a monotheistic view, even if in a
Xenophanos, as we noted decried the Olympians:
"Homer and Hesiod have ascribed to the gods all deeds that are a shame
and a disgrace among men — thieving, murders and fraud" (Fragment
8). Parmenides follows with: It never was nor shall be, but the ALL
simultaneously now is; the one continuous ONE. What genesis will you
seek for it? How and from where has it risen? I shall not allow any to
tell me, or to consider of what it is not. For, no one can describe or
imagine how NOT-IS IS, how after or even before its beginning, it
issues from nothing...."
As Aristotle says, Parmenides "gazing up into the
expansive heavens, simply declared, `the One is god'." The "divine
being" is changeless and immutable. Dare we read into Parmenides the
idea that the One is also the arche? For something to "be," he says, it
must be complete, whole, without change, or motion and permanent.
Sense perceptions, Parmenides asserted, are
non-being, unreal and inaccurate. Only thought is real and true ("I
think, therefore I am.") Platon would later agree with this assertion
about sense perceptions.
Let me surmise that Parmenides was constrained to
this conclusion because his reason told him that all things are one
while his visual perception indicated otherwise. He asserts, on the
basis of his reason and contemplation that Being is immutable, because
one thing cannot arise from another that is in its essence unlike
itself. To think otherwise, he insists, is self-contradictory. Being
is, he teaches, the single, permanent essence underlying apparent
(perceived by the senses) differences in objects. Only by eliminating
these differences can we conceive actual reality, eternal, unchanging,
limited only by itself.
The conundrum of "knowledge" was still, for
Parmenides the paradox of unchanging change. In my view, this is the
dynamic of the quest for a "real cosmos," a universe of "being" beyond
the appearance of sensual experience. Knowledge, Parmenides would
assert, can be achieved by reason, not by experience. Our sense
perceptions can deceive us as things not only do not always appear to
be the same, but they often appear different from one time to the
other. Only reason can be trusted to lead to knowledge. There is some
cause for such notions. Place a pencil in a glass of water and look at
it through the water. It should appear to be disjointed or "jogged."
Take it out of the water, and it appears whole and straight. At a time
when a fata morgana, such as the one that appeared so often in the
Strait of Messina, and other mirages, could not be explained, it is not
a great wonder that sense perception was not always trusted. This is an
idea that would be revisited by Cornelius Janssen in the 17th century,
in quite a different context, and with much less justification.
Allow me to suggest that both the Milesians and the
Eleatics were mystical rationalists. Mystical, because they sought the
unseen and ineffable by means of unseeingness, mystical also because
like the Pythagorean syncretists, they were in awe of the transcendence
of numbers, of mathematic principles and of transcendental First
Principles that might underlie and substantiate the mere appearances of
the four elements (for, Parmenides held that the four elements were
"mere appearances"). Parmenides could utilize the mathematical ontology
of the Pythagorean brotherhood, and his notions of a "real world of
being" was informed by the cosmology of Croton.
Rationalists they were because they sought to arrive
at this knowledge by means of reason, of rationalisation, discounting
empirical substantiation and, perhaps, even the intuition derived by
empirical means. Knowledge of the real world of being was
transcendental wisdom; the path to it was in the world of thought, not
the world of experience. There was some sort of heteronomism — no
matter how crudely understood.
I will not condone Aristotle's condescending
dismissal of the early Eleatics (Metaphysics I:5). Neither Xenophanos
or Melisos were so crude as he asserts. Aristotle could criticize these
pre-Socratics, but he could not disguise the osmosis by which both he
and his mentor became their heirs and developed better explanations of
Being and of change, precisely upon their foundations. One could as
well assert the "crudeness" of the pre-Baconian or pre-Cartesian
Mystical rationalism was to become common again in
the late Latin Middle Ages. As an example of this mystical rationalsim,
we recall the paradox: How many lines can be drawn through a dot ●? The
answer: an infinite number of lines; hence a coincidence of opposites,
namely, the infinite in the finite. The mathematician philosopher
Nicholas of Cusa (----) would use this concept to demontrate the
Incarnation of Christ. The long reach of the Eleatic school might in
itself be a coincidence of opposites. No era of later Western
philosophy would be un-affected by it.
WHERE ARE WE NOW?
"We pass through this world but once. Few tragedies
can be more extensive than the stunting of life, few injustices deeper
than the denial of opportunity to strive or even to hope, by a limit
imposed from without, but falsely identified as lying within." (Stephen
We can see that the philosophers we have been
discussing are deeply concerned about the paradox of change and
permanence (as well as the quandary of matter and spirit). In that
context they are concerned about the dynamic force of both and about
the generator of all that exists. It would appear that they were
concerned to find a Constant which maintained the equilibrium between
change and permanence, and that generator must be the force that
started the entire process of being. Some of the early philosophers
would deny actual change, others would seek its limits, while others
would be interested in defining it.
Let us pause to summarize my two premises. I surmise
that what we are observing in the quest for a resolution of the paradox
and the search for a First Principle is a restatement of ancient
cosmogonies. Chaldean, Egyptian and ancient Hellenic creation myths are
being first allegorized and then re-interpreted under the influence of
a mathematic mysticism. The ancient generative nature deities are seen,
first as material elements, driven by a First Principle or First Cause,
and then they are gradually spiritualized. Aristotle hints at this idea
in his criticism of the pre-Socratic philosophers.
A new transcendentalism is introduced into this
process by a fascination with the apparent paradox of the abstract
concreteness of numbers. The inevitability in mathematic processes may
even have generated a sense of predestination which the Gnostics would
later develop. In the era of the Milesians and Eleatics, not to mention
Croton, there would have been a great deal of excitement in the curious
and inquiring minds of the philosophers, with the unfolding mystery of
numbers and mathematics and the almost sacred geometry of the Egyptians.
The thinkers in all societies, from Pythagoreanism
to Confucianism, appear to have been consumed with the mystery of the
seeming contradiction of change and permanence, of coming into being
and dissolution. The Greeks had the new found instrument of numbers and
mathematics to whet their burning curiosity about the mysteries of
Being and of the universe. Every operation in mathematics is a change,
and yet the value of a given number and the results of given
combinations remains unchanging. No matter how one expresses an
arrangement of digits, the sum of a given quantity of them is always
the same. Two ones and two ones will equal four; three ones and one one
will equal the same. If Pythagoras could give numbers shape and
dimension: triangles, squares, cubes, etc., and assign meaning to them
then it might be evident that, while the shape or appearances of
numbers change, the value of each remains the same — unchanged.
Perhaps to some mind, this seemed to demonstrate an unchanging change.
Indeed, since numbers are not observable in nature, thus they must
belong to a higher spiritual reality, discerned only noetically. This
was the basis of Plato's Ideas, and of Nicholas of Cusa's
perambulations ---- centuries later.
Underlying the mystery of mathematics, the
philosophers may have reasoned, there is some immutable First Principle
that accounts for permanence, repetition and "sameness" in a world
which human observation declared to be changing (and Parmenides
asserted that change is an illusion of our finite perspective).
Let me become yet more speculative for a moment. The
digit is one. All succeeding numbers are composed of ones. Anything
lesser is composed of divisions of one. Adding ones together creates
the appearance of change, but the prime factor — the One —
remains unchanging. All numbers, shapes and forms arise from the One.
The One is the First Principle. If a larger number decays into its
constituent parts, it returns to the One, for all numbers are composed
of ones. One could not have guessed that everything a computer would do
is just ones and zeros.
Perhaps we can now pass on to Zeno by observing
that: Either the One is a source of unity, and there are not Many, even
though there appears to be, but ultimately, only one; or, there are
many but the One is the source or cause of All. If such notions are
understood as actual realities, and number as a revelation of this by
type, then we might better understand the course of mystical reasoning
of the Milesians and Eleatics. We must consider Pythagoras on his own.
This is my own interpretation, but if number was given a mystical
sense, whether in itself or as a type of a higher reality in another
dimension, then this thesis is at least feasible. The quest for a
unified "theory of everything" is not new.
Zeno was the disciple of Paramenides and to me he
was the star of the Eleatic School. He spent considerable energy
defending his teacher against the opponents of his theories of change.
Indeed, Platon makes a point of this in his dialogue Paramenides. Since
this is the case, we will not add much to our discussion of change and
First Principle from Zeno's work. We cannot pass him by, however.
Let us look briefly at the most unique feature of
Zeno's thought, the foundation of dialectic. His "dialectical method"
was direct and clear:
1.) Of two contradictories, one
must be true, the other untrue.
2.) An entity cannot both be and
not be at the same time.(The "law of non-contradiction").
3.) Presuppose the contradictory
of what you desire to test. Establish its absurdity by the "law of the
excluded middle." The other (non-absurd) member of the pair of
contradictories will be true.
Here is an example, and this example relates
directly to Zeno's approach to change and First Principle:
1.) Being is either one or many.
2.) Assume that it is many.
3.) If Being is many, then Being
4.) Between the point of many,
there other "manies," therefore, "many" is both finite and infinite.
This, according to the law of the excluded middle, is an absurd
proposition, and Being is one.
Perhaps I should explain, before we go one, the
rationale which excludes the existence of "many." The Eleatics denied
the existence of empty space. As there was no empty space to keep the
principles of being separated, they would merge. Each entity would
always be in direct physical contact with another, there being no space
between them, and they would merge. Thus, even if in the "beginning"
there had been many, they would long since have merged into One, and
thus, Being is One, not many.
If you do not grasp the rationale of this, you are
in good company, however, this is the nature of dialectic. So renowned
was Zeno for his dialectical skills that Plutarch notes it in his Lives
of Noble Greeks and Romans. Zeno, Plutarch remarks, had developed a
method of making the same entity appear at once both like and unlike,
both one and many, both are rest and in motion. Perhaps we should also
regard him as the proto-politician.
For Zeno, change was not "real," Change was only a
"change of place." In this regard, one cannot pass silently by the four
remarkable paradoxes of Zeno. While we need not discuss them in the
context of this paper, I want to observe that I doubt if they were
arguments against the possibility of motion, as they appear to be.
Rather, they would seem to relate to the problem of infinity. I do not
want to overreach the observation, but I cannot resist noting that in
the third paradox, The Arrow, I am reminded of a principle in quantum
mechanics. "The flying arrow," Zeno says, "is at rest, because a thing
is at rest when occupying its own space at a given moment. At every
instant in its flight, the arrow does occupy its given space." This is
a far more complex assertion than it appears, at first glance, to be. I
simply want to note that, in quantum mechanics, one cannot measure both
the motion and the location of a particle at one and the same time. One
or the other can be measured at any given moment, but both cannot. If
the location of a given particle is located, its velocity vanishes. If
its velocity is measured, its location vanishes. In the instant when
its location is measured, even though it is a moving particle, we may
say that at that instant, it is at rest.
Actually, the paradoxes of the arrow are resolved
only by modern theories of continuity and infinite sets. What to me is
his "great paradox," The Stadium, is discussed by Bertrand Russell in
his The Principles of Mathematics. That fact alone demonstrates its
significance. It appears that this problem was not solved until early
in the 20th century. Russell observes, "This static theory of the
variable is due to the mathematicians; and its absence in Zeno's day
led him to suppose that continuous change was impossible without a
state of change, which involves infinitesimals and the contradiction of
a body being where it is not." (p.351).
The principles and physics of velocity were not
known in Zeno's time. Moreover, he was not a mathematician and he took
the state of mathematics in his own time for granted. All things
considered, the four dilemmas that he set forth are quite remarkable.
HERACLITOS OF EPHESUS:
The beginnings of Empiricism
"Most men have no comprehension even of such things
as they encounter, nor to they understand what the experience, though
they themselves are convinced that they do" (Heraclitos, Fragment 17).
Heraclitos of Ephesus (early 500's B.C.) considered
what he called Logos to be the First Principle. It is not clear what he
meant by Logos. It is literally translated as word but it may have
indicated a cosmic reason or intellect. Other philosophers would refer
to the idea of a cosmic reason or intellect, as Logos. It is my view
that Heraclitos has in mind cosmic intellect when he uses the term
Wisdom, Heraclitos held, was a virtue indwelling in
all people, though not often accessed or practised. He appears to be
the first of the Greek philosophers to deal with the problem of a
living "soul." It is often difficult to define exactly what the Greeks
meant by the Intellect nous. It is used randomly to express mind,
intellect, spirit or soul. Nevertheless, Heraclitos touches upon an
afterlife recompense as well as a care for the soul in this life, and
this was a feature of his concern for ethical behaviour. He warns, "It
is difficult to struggle with the heart, because it is ready to sell
the soul in order to purchase its desires" (Fragment 85). "Man's
character determines his fate" (Fragment 119) and "There are things
that await men after death that the do not anticipate or even dream of"
(Fragment 27). "...condemnation will most assuredly overtake the
authors of lies and false witnesses" (Fragment 28).
Heraclitos, though perhaps not so arrogant as
Aristotle, had little use for the views of his predecessors:
"Great learning does not instil
wisdom, otherwise it would have taught Hesiod, Pythagoras, Xenophanos
and also Hecataeus" (Fragment 40). "Hesiod is the teacher of most men
and they are convinced that he knew nearly everything. But he was a man
who could not even tell night from day, not knowing that they are one"
Heraclitos differed sharply from the Eleatics in
that he considered change to be self-evident. If change is
self-contradictory, as Parmenides asserts, then contradiction is in the
order of nature. "All things flow and nothing abides. "One cannot step
into the same river twice. We both step and do not step into the same
river; we both are and are not" (Fragment 81). "The living and the dead
are all the same, as are the waking and the sleeping, the young and the
old, because the first change into the second and the second, in turn,
change into the former" (Fragment 88). For Heraclitos, change or
becoming is a perpetual movement from one phase of being into another.
His dictum that you cannot step into the same river twice (Fragment 42)
and that we both do and do not step into the same river (Fragment 81)
were cited above. He uses these dicta to assert that change is
constant. The river we put our foot into is not the same river by the
time we are in it up to our waist. The river is always in a process of
Change and contradiction are essential "laws of
nature" — the Heraclitean doctrine of flux (all things are in
flux — panta rei).
Heraclitos is certainly a source of Hegel's thought.
He coined the terms "strife of opposites" and "opposite tensions," by
which he indicated that opposites such as permanence and change exist
together. Balance, he asserted was provided by a "hidden attunement."
For all his abstraction, Heraclitos in the end, chose one of the
four elements as the principle of the world. For him, it was fire:
"This universe, and the same for all...; it always
has been and ever shall be an ever-living fire, fixed measures kindling
and fixed measures dying out" (Fragment 30).
Anaxagoras of Klazomenai
Anaxagoras perceived a set of First Principles which
was limitless. He seems to have offset this with a First Cause which he
referred to as nous (understood as either mind or intellect) developed
the idea that the First Principles were composed of homoiomeries. It is
not completely certain how he understood this. It could refer to things
that are alike being attracted to each other, or things being
manifested from like things that contain them. My view is that the
latter best describes Anaxagoras' theory. One might suspect that this
was the source of Aristotle's idea of why a rock falls back to earth
when thrown upward.
I read homoiomeries to indicate complimentaries or
complimentary essences. I surmise that Anaxagoras is asserting that the
First Principles consist in the complimentaries which generate things
like themselves from essentials contained in the complimentaries.
Anaxagoras certainly was not reconciled to the idea
of anything coming into being ex nihilo, or of any existing thing
passing into non-being. He uses the example of food. Since the food we
eat generates the organs and parts of our bodies, the food must contain
the essence that generates those body parts.
Anaxagoras agrees in the deceptiveness of sense
perception. It cannot penetrate beyond surface appearances; for this,
the "eye of the reason" is necessary. Reason decrees that the essences
of all that is manifested are contained in the complimentaries from
which they arise. "All things were in one; Mind separated them and
placed them in order."
Change, for Anaxagoras, was the combining and
separating of things. Nothing comes into being or passes out of being,
rather things arise from their complimentaries and separate again into
their essential constituents. "We Greeks are in error to use the
expressions `to come into being' and `to pass our of being.' For no
entity comes is to being or is ever annihilated. To the contrary,
entities are mixed and separated our from already existing things.
Thus, it would be more proper to say `commingling instead of
`originating;' `dissolution' in stead of `destruction.' (Fragment 17).
Moreover, "It is essential to be aware that when things are separated
one from another, the whole is neither increased nor diminished; for it
is impossible that there would be more than the whole, but the whole is
always equal to itself." (Fragment 5).
Mind (or, intellect/reason), as First Cause, seems
to have been the "systems operator" of all these processes. He says,
"Mind began to set all things in motion and make a differentiation of
all that is in motion. Whatever Mind set in motion was all separated.
When things were set in motion and separated, rotation caused them to
become yet more separated" (Fragment 13). Again, "Mind, which is
eternal, is most certainly where all other things are — in the
surrounding mass, in the things that have been differentiated and in
the things that are in the process of being differentiated" (Fragment
14). Mind was not intermixed with anything but was somehow present in
Anaxagoras proposed a peculiar concept of the
operation of the senses. In this case we might say that sensation is
allelomeric. Things opposite to the sense they were acting upon caused
the sensation, since "like cannot act on like."
Anaxagoras' theory of knowledge is not so clear. For
him, either a purpose or a process of knowledge is the ability to
define and limit that which can be defined and limited. "We cannot
know," he says, "by word or act, the number of things that have been
differentiated (Fragment 7). Because of the weakness of our senses, we
are not able to discern truth (Fragment 21).
EMPEDOCLES OF AKRAGAS
I am now one of these: a fugitive from god and a
wanderer relying on raging strife (Frag.b115, On the Exile of the
Had Empedocles lived in our own time, he would have
been referred to as a "renaissance man." His interests were so broad
and his influence so profound that he was considered to be the founder
of the Italo-Greek school of medicine, a formative theoretician of
democracy, a botanist and zoologist, among many other things. He was
also a theologian of paganism and an ethicist.
His theory of change is what interests us at
present. Empedocles was influenced by both Parmenides and Pythagoras,
but perhaps most by Anaxagoras. He developed Anaxagoras' ideas about
change and permanence into a unique approach of his own. Empedocles
returns to the Milesian four elements, which he considered to be the
rhizomes from which all thing arise. Change may be natural and in the
natural order of the universe, but it is, to a certain degree,
illusory. Where Parmenides held that change was completely illusory,
Empedocles held that "absolute becoming" is impossible as change is
only relative. It actually occurs, but it is only a dissolution and
reconstitution of permanent entities. These entities coalesce, separate
and coalesce anew. Similar to Parmenides, Empedocles held that change
does not involve the coming into being or passing our of being of
anything that is real. There is only the combining, separating and
recombining of Permanent "First Principles."
The concept of a cosmos which alternates between two
states of conditions is perhaps the most striking feature of Empedocles
system. His two states are "love" and "strife," two forms which he
appears to have borrowed from the Pythagorean table of opposites. He
assigned a life cycle to the universe in which the force of love
produced unity and homogeneity alternating with the force of strife
which produced dissolution. Dissolution was not annihilation, however,
but a separating out of entities or conditions into layers or even
discreet units (the condition is not completely clear in the fragments
of Empedocles' writing that come down to us). Love is a state of peace,
concord, affection and unity of being. When it occurs, it is a
"restoration," it breaks down differences and produces undifferentiated
unity. Strife presents the exact opposite set of conditions, and
precisely inverts the value of the "love state." It produces
differences and violence. Strife promotes the ethics of a "fallen
world," a world of imperfection, while love promotes a transcendental
ethics which moves toward perfection. Under strife, the spirit is in a
condition of exile, exiled by the values which are an inversion of
those of love. Love is the natural home of the spirit.
Since strife is a force of discord and multiplicity,
it is the cause of ktisis — the forming of the material cosmos,
and it strives to maintain this present creation. The relationship of
this idea with similar doctrines in Gnosticism is obvious.
Empedocles sees strife as a source of violence and
asserts that this is why in the "strife cosmos" we have worship by
means of living sacrifices: sacrifice is a form of ritualized violence.
While one is tempted to ascribe a vague hint of
entropy and counter entropy into the theory, that would perhaps be too
much of a stretch. Still, one is reminded of the principle of entropy,
if not the first two laws of thermodynamics. Empedocles' universe
alternated between order and stochasticity (rather than actual chaos),
harmony and cacophony, blending and dissolution. He assigned a
periodic, cyclical concept to these alternating states, which is a bit
reminiscent of teachings held in India.
While the Pythagoreans (who influenced Empedocles)
held that the nature of the four elements was geometrical and
mathematical, Empedocles asserted that they are material. Nevertheless,
I suspect that Empedocles took either his two principles of love and
hate (or, harmony and strife) from the Pythagorean table of opposites,
or borrowed the concept of opposites from it.
In passing, I would note that Empedocles advocated
the concept of the fall of spirits into the prison of the fleshly body.
This idea, present in Orphism, found its fullest expression in the
later Gnostic sects.
As a footnote, both Empedocles and Anaxagoras were
of the opinion that plants are motivated my desire and perceive
pleasure and pain. They were joined by Democritos in holding that all
plants have mind and intelligence. They did assert that plants were
inferior to animals. Of more importance was Democritos of Abdera's
realisation that the brain is the location of the hegimonicon: the
thoughts, intelligence and the soul (by whatever definition). This may
seem to our era to be "the obvious," but it was not. There were many
varied theories about the seat of the hegimonicon, but the transference
from the pericardial region or the heart proper to the brain would have
in calculable implications for medicine and psychology. Indeed, it was
in this same period that Alkmaeon would found the concept of empirical
psychology. THE ATOMISTS
Men achieve tranquility through moderation in
pleasure and through the symmetry of life. Want and superfluity are apt
to upset them and to cause great agitations of soul (Democritos,
As we have seen, Heraclitus held that, since change
was a basic aspect of nature and, as Parmenides held, it is a
contradiction. Contradiction is, therefore, a basic aspect of nature
and reality. Parmenides and the Eleatics declared that change is an
illusion, and does not occur at all.
The Atomists (4th century) offered a compromise.
They suggested that change is an aspect of reality, but that reality as
a whole is unchangeable. Change, they theorized consisted in the motion
of the unchangeable constituents of reality. They called the
constituents or entities "atoms." Everything that exists, they
asserted, is composed of atoms. Anything not composed of atoms is
non-being. Leucippos of Miletus
Leucippos moved to Elea where he studied the systems
of Xenophanos and his disciples. He would likely have also looked into
the Pythagorean Brotherhood at nearby Croton. Leucippos soon diverged
radically from the theories of the Eleatics, however. The Eleatic
philosophers did not accept either change or the existence of "empty
space." The denied multiplicity of Being, the existence of "the many"
or "manies." Since we discussed this in the segment on Zeno, we need
not touch on it further here. Leucippos held that there could be no
motion without empty space. That which is Being is a plenum —
that is, completely filled, a multiplicity, unmerged and yet with no
emptiness. Space, then, is a plenum because it is completely filled
with matter: space is not empty, and yet there is no merging of Being.
Empty space, Leucippos held, would be non-being. Following Anaxagoras,
he presumed that space was filled with ether — a rarefied,
minuscule atom which nevertheless did not impede motion for other
atoms. He asserted that, though being is a plenum, it is not One,
rather there is a multiplicity of the essence of Being. This infinite
number of Beings is invisible on account of their minuteness. These
essentials of Being, he called atoms (dense bodies).
For Leucippos, reality or "First Principle" of
existence is the indestructible atoms in constant motion. It is the
combination of atoms that forms things, and all change is attributable
to the re-formation of atoms. Dissolution or passing our of being
occurs when these atoms separate. These atoms move in space, for there
is space. Even though space is a plenum, there is space for movement
which out the necessity of the merger into One.
Leucippos introduced the concept of scientific
determinism with his dictum that "nothing can be produced without a
purpose, rather everything results from a cause and by reason of
necessity." (Fragment 58). His two main works, The Great World Order
and On the Mind were the basic handbooks of atomism. They wre
incorporated in to the writings of his disciple Democritos of Abdera.
"In truth, we know nothing
about anything, but everyone shares the currently prevailing opinion"
(Democritos, Fragment 7).
Democritos was the
most remarkable of the Atomists. He was a materialist/empiricist. His
striking intuitions account for the different properties of materials
by positing differing shapes of the atoms that make up the material.
While his corpuscular atoms may bear little resemblance to what is
known of atoms today, his insight is startling. We now know that it is
the arrangement (rather than the shape or size) of atoms that make
elements differ, and that the number of electrons determine the
In a further
remarkable insight, Democritos observed that the cohesion of atoms made
objects solid while a looser association of atoms formed liquids. Atoms
in rapid motion, he said, produced gases.. The "elements," the four
fundamental building blocks of reality recognised by the Greeks, all
consisted of atoms.
Democritos had no
tools with which to correctly understand atoms, but his intuitive
concepts of the nature of things is astonishing. We need not discuss
his errors here because it is only with access to the instruments of
the 19th and 20th centuries that he could have avoided them.
that the soul (ψυχύ) and reason/intellect/mind
(νους) are one and the same thing. This
entity belongs to the class of primary and indivisible bodies and has
the capacity of motion both because of its minute size and its
spherical shape. The most mobile of shapes is the perfect sphere, and
it is the shape of reason/intellect and of fire. This soul is the
principle of movement, understood here as motion.
As noted, the
Atomist were convinced of the movement of atoms and of matter.
Democritos proposed that ether fills all of space, making space a
plenum. He believed that it was the ether that carried the heavenly
bodies in their circuits. If this seems primitive, we should remember
that Descartes in his own time would suggest that heavenly bodies move
because they somehow contact each other and created movement by their
contact. We should also recall that, in the 1800's, when Maxwell's
theory of light as an electromagnetic wave was proved, the idea of the
ether was reborn since it was thought that the wave must move through
some substance. Moreover, it was felt, this motion could not be
measured except relative to something substantial. This newer concept
of ether persisted until Einstein's theory of relativity finally
dispelled it in 1905. Nevertheless, the theory of "dark matter" and
"dark energy" is still reminiscent of Anaxagoras' and the Atomists'
theory of ether.
TO THE PRE-SOCRATIC PERIOD
The student of the
pre-Socratics will undoubtedly have noticed the pre-occupation with the
perfection of the spherical shape. The same will be true with
Aristotle, who passed the idea on to the Scholastics and into Latin
cosmology and theology. We will have occasion to focus on this fact
later, when we reach the era of the Scholastics. In all likelihood,
this idea either arose from or was promoted by the Pythagoreans.
The Atomists, like the Sophists were more
empiricists than rationalists. The Eleatics, indeed, wore themselves
out attempting to rationalise all experience, and that is perhaps, what
exhausted the school. The Atomists rejected the peculiar ontologism of
the Pythagoreans and the Eleatics. They defended the Milesian (Ionian)
notion of the indestructibility of matter, which the Eleatics also
held, in their own way. Unlike the Eleatics, the Atomists accepted the
empirical aspect of knowledge. Atomic theory was quite materialistic.
The atoms were unchanging material elements, consistent with the view
of Parmenides, but they combined this idea with the doctrine of local
motion, consistent with the assertions of Heraclitos. This motion, they
believed, accounted for change.
The Atomists understood matter to be the only
reality, and this reality is manifested in the three modes or accidents
(understood as a mode which is not relevant to the definition of the
thing) of matter — form, order and position. These modes are
determined, they said, by motion.
We are not discussing the contributions of the
pre-Socratics to the understanding of mathematics, as that would be the
subject of a different study. We will not leave it unmentioned,
however, because it indicates both the impressiveness of their
intuition and the significance of their contribution (which is too
often dismissed). As an example, we know from Archimedes that
Democritos recognised that the volume of any pyramid is one-third that
of a prism having the same base and height, and that the volume of any
cone is one-third that of any cylinder having the same base and height.
Democritos also moved away from mathematical ontologism and toward
The influence of the pre-Socratics did not vanish.
Aside from the example given above, we might recall that, in the early
1600's Pierre Gassendi, the Epicurean philosopher, would reexamine the
atomist theories. He advocated them, not in any metaphysical sense, but
in a more scientific sense. In turn, John Locke would be influenced by
Gassendi's representation of the ancient atomist's concepts. Locke, who
was essentially and empiricist with a primary interest in the
epistemology, in the theory of knowledge, had the idea of molecules
made up of atoms. He believed that atomist theory was useful in the
understanding of the construction of ideas and knowledge. We could cite
far too many other example to continue with.
Reason has its
limits. The history of Western Philosophy repeats itself because of
those limitations. Metaphysics deals with being (permanence) and
becoming (change). The treatment of these principles is found
everywhere in the Hellenic or pre-Socratic period, while Plato and
Aristotle become the point of departure for all those examining
metaphysics thereafter. Alfred North Whiteheads says that all
philosophy after Plato and Aristotle is but a set of footnotes to them.
The "universals controversy" in the Latin Middle Ages (the Scholastic
era) has its roots in their philosophies. The realists are a kind of
Platonists and nominalism is a variety of Aristotelianism (or, perhaps
materialism). Aquinas tried to mediate the extremes. The same problems
that vexed the ancient and medieval periods are repeated in modernity.
We cannot escape the limitations of reason by any means other than
faith, however, the medieval Scholastics would attempt to rationalise
faith, and in that manner, transfer the natural limitations of reason
unfortunate development in Scholasticism is the application of the
principle of Being to God. We read in some catechisms that God is the
"supreme Being." From an Orthodox Christian point of view that is a
clearly heretical statement. The Scholastics would propose that as
everting has "being", God is the Supreme Being; He has being, but is
the "highest being." Orthodoxy would proclaim that God is hyperousios
— beyond being.
concept of God as "supreme being" would certainly refer back to
criteria and concepts established by the Eleatics. It is a logical
development ofthe effort to define a First Principle in the context of
The idea of a dichotomy, even and opposition,
between spirit and matter developed in the Hellenic era is another
major problem that afflicted Western theology and philosophical thought
from Augustine, through John Locke to the present.***