THE PRESOCRATICS

Introduction to the Presocratic Period

The Presocratic period begins in 585 BCE but has no fixed endpoint. It lasts until Socrates begins discussing virtue and related matters. Just when this happened is not known, but it must have happened well before he was executed by the city of Athens in 399 BCE. Not all Presocratics died before Socrates. Democritus seems to have lived until about 370 BCE.


Of the ancient texts that have survived, the vast majority survived through transmission (the copying of copies that began with the original). Of these, the great majority are the texts of Plato, Aristotle, and their commentators (most of whom were Platonists). This was not the result of chance. The dominant school had an interest in certain texts, and mostly these are the texts that have survived.
It is not easy to know what the Presocratics thought, in part because what they wrote has survived only in fragments and in reports from later in time. Aristotle (384-322 BCE) thinks of them as "ancient" (Metaphysics I.986b), and he and his student Theophrastus (late fourth to early third century BCE) are the primary source for much of what we know about them.

A standard collection of texts with English translations is Early Greek Philosophy, edited and translated by André Laks, Glenn W. Most. This is available in the Digital Loeb Classical Library. The publisher (Harvard University Press) makes this library available by subscription. ASU subscribes, so it is available through the ASU library to those who have an ASURITE ID. In the lecture notes, I link to translations in this library that are not freely available elsewhere.

The Three Parts of the Presocratic Period

The Greek "alphabet" (ἀλφάβητος) has 24 letters. The noun ἀλφάβητος (alphabētos) derives from the first two letters.

Α α, alpha, ἄλφα
Β β, beta, βῆτα
Γ γ, gamma, γάμμα
Δ δ, delta, δέλτα
Ε ε, epsilon, εἴ, ἒ ψιλόν
Ζ ζ, zeta, ζῆτα
Η η, eta, ἦτα
Θ θ, theta, θῆτα
Ι ι, iota, ἰῶτα
Κ κ, kappa, κάππα
Λ λ, lambda λάμβδα
Μ μ, mu, μῦ
Ν ν, nu, νῦ
Ξ ξ, xi, ξι
Ο ο, omicron, ὂ μικρόν
Π π, pi, πεῖ
Ρ ρ, rho, ῥῶ
Σ σ/ς, sigma, σίγμα
Τ τ, tau, ταῦ
Υ υ, upsilon, ὔ, ὖ ψιλόν
Φ φ, phi, φι
Χ χ, chi, χι
Ψ ψ, psi, ψι
Ω ω, omega, ωμέγα
One way to highlight important lines of thought in the Presocratic Period is to divide it into three parts. According to this understanding, it begins in the 6th century BCE in the city of Miletus (which is on the coast of Asia Minor (modern day Turkey)) with Thales and his fellow Milesian inquirers into nature. Parmenides challenges this new beginning. Democritus and Leucippus (the ancient atomists) bring together the insights of the prior tradition.

The Historical Context

The name of the city derives from Homer. Agamemnon has his palace and home at Mycenae. The Mycenaeans were the dominant culture until about the 12th century BCE. Mycenae is a city in in the northeastern Peloponnesus. The political organization was in terms of a palace economy. The monarch and his family controlled everything. They held a royal domain that contained most of the wealth of the city. They appointed bureaucratic officials to manage this domain and the economy, which consisted primarily in collectivized agriculture and trade.

The Collapse of the Palatial Centres

In the 12th century BCE, this palace-centered civilization completely collapses. The result is the Dark Ages, in which writing and trade ceased with the collapse of the palatial centres and corresponding economy in terms of which society was organized. Out of this collapse, a new beginning took place separated from the great civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt. In the collapse of the Mycenaean world, the population seems to survive in a new form in Athens, the islands of the Aegean Sea, and on the coast of Asia Minor. The Greeks on the islands of the Aegean Sea and the coast of Asia Minor spoke the Ionian dialect. This part of the coast came to be called "Ionia," and it was here, particularly in Miletus, the dominant city, that the enlightenment took root.

This resulted in city-states unlike those of the prior Mycenaean Civilization. The new city-states were republics. The differences in wealth among the citizens was small. There were no monarchial rulers to control everything, no bureaucracy because there were no royal holdings to manage, and no caste of priests to control religious practice. There were no mercenary soldiers. There was no money to hire them. The citizens themselves had to defend their cities. As independent rulers and defenders of their cities, the citizens demanded a role in political decision-making. In this way, the life of the citizen in the "city-state" (πόλις) was political. The Greek word πόλις transliterates as polis, and it is the etymological root of the English word 'politics.'

Contact with the Great Civilizations

Beginning in about 8th century BCE, there was a marked increase in trade and colonization throughout the eastern Mediterranean. This brought increasing awareness of the surrounding civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and, Persia. The Greeks were not overwhelmed by these cultures. They assimilated them in a way that would give rise to a philosophical tradition.

Greek-Persian Wars Further Greek and Persian contact came in the form of the Persian Wars, a series of military conflicts between the Achaemenid Empire of Persia and Greek city-states. By about 550 BCE, the Persian Empire had expanded westward. Greek cities on the eastern shore of the Aegean, including Miletus (the home of Thales), came under Persian rule. In 492 BCE, in retribution for Athenian support for the revolt of some these Greek cities against Persian rule, the Persians invaded the northern part of the Greek peninsula with the aim of taking Greece (and thus removing the threat to their empire) and punishing Athens for its support of the Ionian cities. The Persians met with success in Thrace and Macedonia (the route on land to Athens), but in 490 BCE, against all odds, the Greeks were victorious against the Persians at the Battle of Marathon. In 480 BCE, the Persians launched a second invasion. Again they were defeated but this time at great cost. The Persians won at the Battle of Thermopylae and overtook much of Greece and destroyed Athens, but the Greeks won at sea in the Battle of Salamis. A year later they won on land in the Battle of Plataea. These battles were decisive in defeating the Persian navy and army, and by about 460 BCE, the Greeks had driven the Persians from the Aegean. "When they took the town it was deserted, but in the sacred precinct they found a few Athenians, stewards of the sacred precinct and poor people, who defended themselves against the assault by fencing the acropolis with doors and logs. They had not withdrawn to Salamis not only because of poverty but also because they thought they had discovered the meaning of the oracle the Pythia had given, namely that the wooden wall would be impregnable. They believed that according to the oracle this, not the ships, was the refuge. The Persians took up a position on the hill opposite the acropolis, which the Athenians call the Areopagus, and besieged them in this way: they wrapped arrows in tar and set them on fire, and then shot them at the barricade. Still the besieged Athenians defended themselves, although they had come to the utmost danger and their barricade had failed them. When the Pisistratids proposed terms of surrender, they would not listen but contrived defenses such as rolling down boulders onto the barbarians when they came near the gates. For a long time Xerxes was at a loss, unable to capture them. In time a way out of their difficulties was revealed to the barbarians, since according to the oracle all the mainland of Attica had to become subject to the Persians. In front of the acropolis, and behind the gates and the ascent, was a place where no one was on guard, since no one thought any man could go up that way. Here some men climbed up, near the sacred precinct of Cecrops' daughter Aglaurus, although the place was a sheer cliff. When the Athenians saw that they had ascended to the acropolis, some threw themselves off the wall and were killed, and others fled into the chamber. The Persians who had come up first turned to the gates, opened them, and murdered the suppliants. When they had levelled everything, they plundered the sacred precinct and set fire to the entire acropolis. So it was that Xerxes took complete possession of Athens" (Herodotus, Histories VIII.51).

The Downfall of Athens in the Peloponnesian War

In 478 BCE, Athens set up a league of city-states (the Delian League) to clear the Aegean of Persian power. This league, which began as a defense against the Persians, became the Athenian Empire. The Athenians used funds from the league to rebuild and transform Athens in a way that made it the center of the Greek world. This led to conflict among the members and eventually to the Peloponnesian War in 431 BCE. (The Peloponnese is a peninsula in what is now southern Greece. It was home to Athens (the dominant sea power), Sparta (the dominant land power), and other city-states involved in the Peloponnesian War.) The war would end with Athen's defeat in 404 BCE and to the end of its prominence in the ancient world.

Socrates (469-399 BCE) was in the Peloponnesian War, at the Battle of Potidaea in 432-429 BCE (in which the Athenians were victorious) and at the Battle of Delium in 424 BCE (in which they were badly defeated). Plato's Charmides shows his arrival in Athens from Potidaea and return to his customary practice in discussions. In 423 BCE, he was known well enough to be a subject of Aristophanes' caricature in The Clouds of the new education in Athens.

In the aftermath of the Peloponnesian War, Socrates was caught up in the blame for Athen's defeat. In 399 BCE, he was charged as a "wrongdoer because he corrupts the youth" (Plato, Apology 24b), found guilty, and condemned to death. He was a prominent part of the change in the focus of intellectual attention away from nature and onto issues connected to virtue and how to live. Alcibiades, who was in the circle around Socrates and whose life he saved in the Battle of Potideae (Plato, Symposium 220e), was a son of a powerful Athenian family who would become notorious in the second half of the Peloponnesian War. He defected to Sparta and helped them in ways crucial to Athen's downfall and eventual surrender in 404 BCE.

The End of the Presocratic Period

The rise in interest in Athens in ethical issues connected virtue and how to live, in which Socrates played a prominent role, traditionally marks the end of the Presocratic Period.






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