Table of Contents

Title page

To Rosemary


The origins of Western philosophy and science can be traced back to the early Greek philosophers of the sixth and fifth century BCE, known as ‘Presocratics’ – that is, those who preceded Socrates. The main figures are Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes, all three from Miletus, on the Ionian coast of Asia Minor; the widely traveled Xenophanes of Colophon; Heraclitus of Ephesus; Pythagoras from the island of Samos; Parmenides and Zeno, known as ‘Eleatics’ on account of their origin from Elea in south Italy; Melissus from Samos, also placed among the Eleatics for his support and adaptation of Parmenides’ arguments; and then, finally, the ‘pluralists’ (also called ‘Neo-Ionians’) – physicalists who posited more than one basic principle in their ontology: the Sicilian Empedocles; Anaxagoras of Clazomenae; and the ‘atomists’ – Leucippus and Democritus, both of them connected with Abdera in northern Greece.

This book aims to offer a concise philosophical introduction to the Presocratic thinkers and in doing so it follows a thematic exposition of the topics discussed by these Greek pioneers. It intends to show how Presocratic thinking formed, creating the early Greek philosophical tradition, and how one Presocratic responded to another. In this way it hopes to demonstrate their innovative philosophical explorations.

The book comprises of a series of short essays on six philosophical themes significant to Presocratic inquiry. The six themes are: principles, the cosmos, being, soul, knowledge and ethics. These themes emerge as important philosophical topics not only in the history of ancient Greek philosophy, but also in modern philosophical inquiries and they have been selected for this reason. They also indicate the wide range of philosophical interests found in the Presocratic tradition, which embraced the origins of cosmos and being, the nature of the soul, the foundation of human knowledge and the values of human life. However, as this is a short, introductory book, the analysis of each theme is not intended to be exhaustive. Nor are the selected themes the only ones discussed in the Presocratic tradition. Controversies that surround many of the issues related to Presocratic scholarship in each of these areas can only be hinted at, while signposts to further study can be found in the bibliography. Furthermore, this short study is of an introductory nature and the treatment of the six Presocratic themes is mainly doxographical. Hence this book does not address scholars and advanced students of ancient Greek philosophy; rather it targets non-experienced readers and people who are interested in Presocratic philosophy, hoping to motivate them into further reading and exploration of the early Greek philosophical tradition.

Within this framework, we begin with the role and importance of the Presocratic pioneers in ancient Greek philosophy and historiography (chapter 1); this is followed by a brief account of the life and work of individual thinkers (chapter 2). The first theme concerns the basic principles that the Presocratics postulated. Its presentation will take us into the material explanations of the Ionians, the Pythagorean apprehension of the formal principle, and the pluralistic approaches of Empedocles, Anaxagoras, Leucippus and Democritus (chapter 3). There follows a study of Presocratic cosmologies, contrasting the Ionian development of the Homeric image of the cosmos with the mathematical structure of the universe put forward by the Pythagoreans and with the pluralistic views of the universe that are found in later Presocratics (chapter 4). This leads into the subject of the nature of being itself, where particular emphasis will be placed on the main arguments of Parmenides’ controversial denial of non-being in favor of a unified, timeless and indestructible being; on Zeno’s famous paradoxes of motion and refutations of the plurality of being; and on Melissus’ notion of the infinity of being (chapter 5). The concept of the soul as source of life and intelligence is our next theme, and it includes a brief discussion of transmigration, time and immortality (chapter 6). Then we shall explore pioneering work on epistemology, work based on the early discrimination between truth, knowledge and belief, which is fundamental in this field; and here we have included a brief account of the Presocratics’ criticism of traditional polytheism, human knowledge and sense-perception (chapter 7). Chapter 8 is an introduction to Presocratic moral philosophy; it moves from the heroic ethics found in Homer to an early form of virtue ethics propounded by Heraclitus and Empedocles, and from there to Democritus’ ethics. A general conclusion is offered as the ending chapter of the book (chapter 9).

A translation of the main fragments by Rosemary Wright is offered in Appendix A for general reference. Two other appendices have been added: one on the Presocratic sources (Appendix B) and another on the legacy and reception of Presocratic philosophy in later thought and traditions (Appendix C). Finally, the book is supplemented with a glossary of Greek terms, a glossary of philosophical terms, and, of course, a general bibliography and an index.

I owe special thanks to Professor Leo Catana and to the Center for Neoplatonic Virtue Ethics (University of Copenhagen) for offering me an academic environment for this project and the opportunity to discuss topics in detail. I am also grateful to Professor Andrew Smith, Dr. Dionysis Mentzeniotis, Professor Evangelos Roussos, Evita C. Alexopoulos and my friend, Kostas Andreou, for their advice, help and encouragement. I am thankful to my student, Costas Kalogeropoulos, for designing the map. I would also like to acknowledge the assistance I have received from Galen Smith and Haze Humbert of Wiley-Blackwell; I am grateful for their patience and attention throughout the production of this book. I also thank the anonymous reviewers, whose critical comments and insights have brought many improvements. My wife Alexandra, my daughter Antonia, my son Aristoteles and my mother Antonia provide, as always, unstinting love and care. The volume is dedicated to Rosemary Wright for her inspired teaching, philosophical motivation and unconditional support over the past twelve years.

Giannis Stamatellos


Time (BCE)ThinkerBirthplace
c. 800–750HomerChios
c. 750–700HesiodAscra
born c. 600PherecydesSyros
fl. c. 585ThalesMiletus
fl. c. 550AnaximanderMiletus
fl. c. 545AnaximenesMiletus
c. 570–483XenophanesColophon
fl. c. 540PythagorasSamos
fl. c. 500HeraclitusEphesus
c. 500–450AlcmaeonCroton
c. 470–385PhilolausCroton
fl. c. 480ParmenidesElea
fl. c. 450ZenoElea
fl. c. 440MelissusSamos
c. 460EmpedoclesAcragas
c. 450AnaxagorasClazomenae
fl. c. 450LeucippusMiletus (?)
born c. 460DemocritusAbdera
born c. 440DiogenesApollonia

Reference Guide to the Presocratics

The Diels–Kranz (DK) edition of 1951 is the standard reference work in the field of Presocratic scholarship. The DK numbering system has remained the standard way of referring to the Presocratics, and it has been followed in this book. Testimonies form the A section, and fragments form the B section. For each Presocratic, A section material includes ancient accounts of his life, writings and doctrines, and B section material consists of the extant texts (longer or shorter fragments from a work, or just a few words or phrases quoted by someone else). Individual fragments and testimonials are numbered sequentially – and so are individual philosophers, who are designated by their sequential number. For example, Thales is number 11 in Diels–Kranz, so a reference to the third testimonial concerning his life would take the form DK 11A3.

In this book, for the sake of brevity, when a Presocratic is under discussion (or has already been named), this type of reference will be abbreviated to its A or B part; so DK 11A3 will become Thales A3, or simply A3. However, to make it easier for readers to connect quickly to the DK edition and find the reference in question easily, we attach here an alphabetical list of concordances between each name and the corresponding number in DK:

Alcmaeon24 (vol. 1)
Anaxagoras59 (vol. 2)
Anaximander12 (vol. 1)
Anaximenes13 (vol. 1)
Archytas47 (vol. 1)
Democritus68 (vol. 2)
Diogenes64 (vol. 2)
Empedocles31 (vol. 1)
Heraclitus22 (vol. 1)
Leucippus67 (vol. 2)
Melissus30 (vol. 1)
Parmenides28 (vol. 1)
Philolaus44 (vol. 1)
Pythagoras14 (vol. 1)
Thales11 (vol. 1)
Xenophanes21 (vol. 1)
Zeno29 (vol. 1)


The Eastern Mediterranean in the Sixth and Fifth Century BCE




1.1 Periods of Ancient Greek Philosophy

1.2 The Presocratics as Pioneers

1.3 Presocratic Historiography


‘Ancient Greek philosophy’ is the general phrase used for the philosophical explorations of Greek thinkers who flourished approximately between the sixth century BCE and the sixth century CE. It is usually divided, conventionally, into four historical periods:

1 the Presocratic period (c. sixth to fifth century BCE)

2 the classical period (c. late fifth to fourth century BCE)

3 the Hellenistic period (c. late fourth to first century BCE)

4 the late Hellenistic and Roman period, which extends far into late antiquity (c. first century BCE to sixth century CE)

1.1 Periods of Ancient Greek Philosophy

The Presocratic period covers the Ionians: Thales (fl. c. 585 BCE), Anaximander (fl. c. 550 BCE), Anaximenes (fl. c. 545 BCE), Xenophanes (fl. c. 540 BCE) and Heraclitus (fl. c. 500 BCE); Pythagoras (fl. c. 540 BCE) and the early Pythagoreans, for instance, Alcmaeon (c. 500–450 BCE) and Philolaus (c. 470–385 BCE); the Eleatics, namely Parmenides (fl. c. 480 BCE), Zeno (b. c. 490 BCE) and Melissus (fl. c. 440 BCE); and later thinkers, usually classified as ‘pluralists’: Empedocles (c. 460), Anaxagoras ( c. 450 BCE) and the early ‘atomists,’ Leucippus (fl. c. 450 BCE) and Democritus (b. c. 460 BCE ). Another important late Presocratic was Diogenes of Apollonia (b. c. 440 BCE).

The main figures of the classical period, which revolves around Athens, were Socrates (469–399 BCE), Plato (427–347 BCE) and Aristotle (384–322 BCE). Plato, the most famous follower of Socrates, established his own school, the Academy (c. 385 BCE), in northwest Athens; Aristotle, who was never an Athenian citizen, made extensive visits there and studied for 20 years in Plato’s school before setting up one of his own, the Lyceum (c. 335 BCE). Other influential thinkers of the classical period were the sophists, for instance Protagoras (fl. c. 460 BCE) and Gorgias (b. c. 480 BCE), who used to tour the Greek city states as independent teachers but were especially attracted to Athens. The sophists did not constitute an organized school of thought; rather they were professional intellectuals who used to teach rhetoric, politics and philosophy for a fee. They were strongly criticized for their views by Plato and Aristotle. Plato’s dialogue The Sophist includes a genuine critique of the sophistic movement, while Aristotle’s criticism can be found in his work Sophistical Refutations. Plato’s criticism is also expounded in dialogues such as Protagoras and Gorgias, named after famous sophists.

The Hellenistic period begins approximately after the death of Aristotle in 322 BCE and includes the following schools of philosophy:

1 The Stoic school (the “Porch,” Stoa), founded by Zeno of Citium (c. 334–262 BCE). Cleanthes (c. 330–230 BCE) and Chrysippus (c. 280–208 BCE) were the best known scholarchs (heads) of the Old Stoa after Zeno. Stoicism survived until and throughout the imperial times, with significant thinkers such as Seneca (c. 1–65 BCE), Epictetus (c. 55–c. 135 CE) and Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121– 180 CE).

2 The Epicurean school, known as the “Garden,” founded by Epicurus of Samos (341–270 BCE). Metrodorus (c. 331–278 BCE) and Hemar­chus (d. 278 BCE) were eminent thinkers in Epicurus’ succession. The Roman poet Lucretius (c. 90–50 BCE) was an important later Epicurean.

3 The Skeptic school, which had two branches: Pyrrhonian and Academic. The original and more radical form of Skepticism was established by Pyrrho of Elis (c. 360–270 BCE), from whom its name derives. Academic Skepticism was a later and milder (compromise) development, related to Plato’s Old Academy in Athens, which went through a Skeptical phase and developed a probabilistic epistemology under the leadership of dialecticians such as Arcesilaus (c. 316–c. 241 BCE) and Carneades (214–129/8 BCE).

4 Finally, the Cynic school founded by Antisthenes of Athens (c. 445–c. 360 BCE), initially a student of Gorgias, but later a pupil and follower of Socrates. Diogenes of Sinope (c. 404–c. 323 BCE) was a follower of Antisthenes and probably the most popular of the Cynics.

The late Hellenistic and Roman period, which extends far into late antiquity, includes the philosophers and the philosophical schools that flourished in the Roman Empire (c. 250 and 750 CE). During this period there was a revival of classical philosophy, which was mainly preoccupied with the careful study and systematic commentary of the works of Plato and Aristotle. The most important names here are Alexander of Aphrodisias (fl. c. 200 CE), Plotinus (204–270 CE), Porphyry (c. 232– c. 305 CE), Iamblichus (d. c. 326 CE), Proclus (412–385 CE), Damascius (c. 460–538 CE) and Simplicius of Cilicia (fl. c. 530 CE).

Damascius was the head of the Platonic Academy in Athens at the time of its closure by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in 529 CE. Whereas this date is usually considered to mark the end of ancient Greek philosophy, it should not be understood as the immediate ending of the activities of ancient Greek thinkers. As it is reported in Agathias’ Histories 2.30–1, Damascius and another six philosophers of the Academy, including Simplicius, migrated to Persia and joined the court of King Chosroes I (r. 531–579 CE), in order to continue their philosophical activities. However, they were quickly disappointed and returned to Athens, as Agathias notes, where they enjoyed freedom from persecution after a treaty that Chosroes concluded with Rome in 532 CE. In recent studies it has been alternatively supported that the aforementioned philosophers moved to Harran, where they joined a Platonic Academy that played a significant role in the transmission of Greek philosophy to the Islamic world. The case has also been made that Simplicius, and probably other philosophers, moved to Alexandria, where Christian Neoplatonists worked systematically on commentaries to Aristotle. The school of Alexandria, as it is known today, seems to have been active until 641 CE, when the city was captured by the Muslims.

1.2 The Presocratics as Pioneers

Why did philosophy emerge in the Greek city states of Ionia in the east and in Magna Graecia (south Italy and Sicily) during the sixth century? There were a number of contributing factors, such as the early travels and explorations of the Greeks in the Mediterranean world, the special character of Greek polytheism, the emerging social structure of the polis and the development and promulgation of the Greek language in written texts.

Trade and Travel

The Greeks of the sixth century BCE came in contact with other civilizations such as the Babylonian, the Hebrew, the Phoenician and the Egyptian. They traveled to Egypt and the Near East, engaged in trade or colonization, and, as a result, came across other customs and traditions, exchanging experiences, goods and ideas. This exchange and exploration contributed to the open-minded, pluralistic and comparative investigation of early Greek philosophy.


Ancient Greek religion was primarily a religion of cult practices, and not just a corpus of myths or a canon of sacred texts. It was an open-ended and multi-divergent narrative about the Olympian gods, without a strict or authoritative priesthood. The unrestricted character of Greek polytheism permitted to some extent divergent theoretical approaches and philosophical interpretations about the cosmos and the gods.


The Greek alphabet and syntax eased the way for precision and communication in abstract and categorical thinking. Medical and mathematical treatises appeared alongside texts on geography and astronomy or the great work of Herodotus, the ‘father of history.’ Despite considerable dialect variations, these works became generally available, in a common and unifying Greek language, used both privately and publicly.


The political and social structure was also important for early Greek philosophical inquiry and dialogue. In the sixth century BCE political movements in the Greek world generally, together with the emergence of city state democracies in particular, fostered a plurality of practices and customs and promoted critical reflection, independent argument and decision-making.


Literary education in the Greek world was based on the epic poetry of Homer (the Iliad and the Odyssey) and Hesiod (roughly the Theogony and the Works and Days). Epic poetry was used as an authoritative voice to express human heroism, divine activity and the structure of the natural world. Lyric poets later turned to analyzing their conflicting emotions and, in a more private setting, raised awareness of the self. Greek education and culture encouraged questioning and a dialogue on various topics. Against this background, the Presocratics further evaluated, criticized and developed traditional worldviews and beliefs about the nature of the cosmos and of human life.


The ancient Greeks promoted the spirit of competition in such athletic events as the Isthmian, Nemean, Pythian and the Olympic games. The games included exhibitions in music and poetry, while the tragedians competed for prizes on a regular basis. The best competitors were excellent not only in physical skills, but also in intellectual abilities and talents. A spirit of intellectual competition and challenge can be found in the arguments and counter-arguments of the Presocratic thinkers.

Critical Dialogue

The early Greek thinkers were in a critical, yet creative philosophical dialogue with their teachers and disciples. Anaximander challenged the cosmological views of his compatriot Thales, while Anaximander was in turn criticized by his pupil Anaximenes. Heraclitus disdained the wide learning of Pythagoras and Xenophanes; he was followed by Parmenides, who refuted Heraclitus’ own theory of becoming and Ionian material monism. Zeno’s paradoxes of motion and the infinite divisibility of matter were tackled in different ways by Empedocles and Democritus, while Anaxagoras’ theory of mind was specifically criticized by Socrates as inadequate and disappointing.


Prose became the new medium of expression for most of the Presocratics. Pherecydes of Syros seems to have been the first to compose a work in prose in a philosophical context, which was probably contemporary with Aesop’s Fables, while in the sixth century Anaximander and Anaximenes wrote their books On Nature in prose, as a medium more suited to its subject matter than the elegant poetic style of Homer and Hesiod. However, some Presocratics such as Xenophanes, Parmenides and Empedocles rejected the new medium of prose and went back to the meter and style of earlier formal poetry, adapting it to their ways of thinking.

1.3 Presocratic Historiography

The adjective ‘Presocratic’ (Vorsokratiker in German) is a term introduced by German scholars of the nineteenth and early twentieth century to denote, historically and philosophically, the period before Socrates (469–399 BCE). Whereas from a historical perspective the term ‘Presocratics’ identifies those thinkers who lived before the time of Socrates, from a philosophical perspective the Presocratic tradition contains a lot more than the ‘naturalistic tradition’ that precedes the anthropocentric spirit of Socrates’ ethical teaching. Earlier ethical inquiries can be found in Xenophanes, Heraclitus, Empedocles and the Pythagoreans. Moreover, Presocratic thinkers did not all have the same philosophical views. For instance, Parmenides’ theory of being contrasts Heraclitus’ theory of becoming, while the materialism of the early atomists is quite different from the material monism of the Milesian thinkers. Thus it could be suggested that the phrase ‘early Greek philosophers’ might be more appropriate in the light of these philosophers’ intellectual innovation.

In modern Presocratic scholarship two tendencies can be identified: (1) the historico-philosophical approach, which begins with such German scholars as Zeller, Nestle, Diels and Kranz; and (2) the analytical approach, which includes British and American scholars such as Burnet, Cornford, Cherniss, Dodds, Vlastos, Owen and Barnes. The former is an approach in the continental tradition, incorporating elements of Hegelian dialectical historicism and phenomenology; the latter follows a line of philosophical argumentation and formal logic inaugurated by G. E. Moore, Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein. However, it has to be noted that in recent Presocratic studies these two tendencies have merged into a project of historical, philosophical and anthropological exploration of early Greek philosophical tradition.

Modern interest in early Greek philosophy can be traced back to 1573, when Henri Estienne (better known under his Latinized name Stephanus) collected a number of Presocratic fragments in Poesis philosophica. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth century there were available editions on Empedocles and Parmenides. In the early nineteenth century Simon Karsten edited the three philosophers who wrote in verse: Xenophanes, Parmenides and Empedocles. In 1838 Ritter and Preller published the first edition of Historia philosophiae Graecae (the tenth and last edition appeared in 1934), which included the Presocratics.

Eduard Zeller was the first scholar to study the Presocratics systematically, which he did in his massive and influential history of Greek philosophy Die Philosophie der Griechen (1844–1852). His exposition followed a historical classification, reflected in its division into three volumes. Volume 1 dealt with the Presocratics, from Thales to the sophists (Vorsokratische Philosophie); volume 2 was devoted to philosophers of the classical period, from Socrates to Aristotle; and volume 3 embraced the entire Hellenistic period and beyond, going from the early third century BCE until late antiquity (sixth century CE). Zeller’s book went through many editions.

In 1879 the German scholar and classicist Hermann Diels published another monumental and hugely influential book: Doxographi Graeci, a collection of those ancient sources that included summaries of the views of early Greek thinkers; such views are found particularly in authors of the Hellenistic and Roman period (like Plutarch or Galen) and of late antiquity in general, but also in mainstream classical philosophers (like Plato and Aristotle). Diels is also the one who coined the term “doxography” from the Greek doxa (“opinion,” “view”). His research focused on topics concerning physics and metaphysics – theology, cosmology, astronomy, meteorology, biology – but not on ethics. In 1883, F. W. A. Müllach edited the Fragmenta philosophorum Graecorum, which included a number of Presocratic fragments with a Latin translation and, occasionally, a short commentary. In 1887 Paul Tannery, in his book Pour l’Histoire de la science hellène, set the Presocratics in a scientific framework. The first English “textbook” on the Presocratics, Early Greek Philosophy, had been published only five years before, in 1892. It was written by the famous Scottish scholar John Burnet. The first complete edition of the Pre­socratics, however – Diels’ monumental Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker – appeared only in 1903. In 1934 Diels’s pupil Walhter Kranz prepared a fifth edition of it, and in 1951 he published the sixth and final edition, which included revisions and corrections in the form of supplementary notes in each of the three volumes. This Diels–Kranz (DK) edition of 1951 became the standard reference work in the field of Presocratic scholarship.