Today’s Phrase for Latin Lovers

Rex in Regno suo superiores habet Deum et Legem.

The King in his Realm hath two superiors: God and the Law. -- Henry Care (1646-1688) on English liberties and the Magna Carta


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Ancient History

|Daily Tread

Introducing the Pre-Socratics

Today, we turn back the clock to 585 BC, to the time of the first philosophers.

It’s not as if no one had ever asked “Where do we come from” or “Why are we here?” before these guys came along. But scholars attribute the pre-Socratics (those who preceded Socrates) with being the first to turn it into a science.

As Jonathan Barnes writes in Early Greek Philosophy, “What, then, is the substance of the claim that the Presocratics were champions of reason and rationality? It is this: they offered reasons for their opinions, they gave arguments for their views.”

That’s a pretty low bar set for these pioneers to jump over. Many of their ideas would be considered laughable today: having all things created from air and returning to air, or all things being composed of specific numerical combinations.

Therefore, it’s tempting to just rush past them in our hurry to meet their namesake, the first philosophical rock star: Socrates. But I think that’s unfair to them and their new, raw ideas that obviously affected their successors, even if as an object of scorn.

After all, these pre-Socratics were attempting what we are doing today in our Daily Tread Society: starting a philosophical journey. Sure, their thinking is considered preposterous now, but they thought things, mulled them over, shared them with fellow thinkers who then crafted their own theories from them. They were beginners, like me, learning to crawl before they walked and to walk before they ran.

I’d like to shake off all that I know and get into their newborn mindset. To look at the world as they did, with an infant’s eyes, awakening from myths and oracles to look around and think, hey, there might be something more to all of this. I might be able to figure it out for myself.

Let’s look not just at their ultimate conclusions, but perhaps why they were thinking that way, remembering they had no solid footing under them to support them. Let’s let them inspire us to look anew at our surroundings and create hypotheses to test our new perspective. Let’s give them a chance to express themselves without ridicule, for now, because I have it from reliable sources that they are going to come into a lot of it later, especially from Aristotle.

They deserve their time in the sun, so let’s give them a little.


As philosophy moved civilization from myth into reality, this quote from Robin Waterfield in his introduction to The First Philosophers made me consider whether we are fully divorced from myth, even here in modern 2010:

Minimally then, a myth is a traditional tale. This is a good starting point, because it reminds us that a myth is a story, and that myths evolve within traditional, often pre-literate societies. Within such societies, a myth also has clear functional relevance to some important aspect of life. But this function is not just to help the society to perpetuate itself, as one school of thought has it; it is to help explain and form consensus reality for that community, and so to help make an individual’s experience of life meaningful.

Does that quote bring a certain Southern California town to mind? You know, the one with its name spelled out in big letters on the side of a hill?


Call for Help:

At the top of page 19, in Copleston’s volume I, he gives the definition of an intriguing concept prevalent in the pre-Socratic era that was “in close connection with the will to power.” Unfortunately, Copleston expected his readers to be more erudite than I and only gives the name of that concept in Greek.

The man who goes too far, who endeavors to be and to have more than Fate destines for him, will inevitably incur divine jealousy and come to ruin. The man or the nation who is possessed by the unbridled lust for self-assertion is driven headlong into reckless self-confidence and so to destruction. Blind passion breeds self-confidence, and overweening self-confidence ends in ruin.

Who among you out there knows the name of this concept? Please share.

Pre-Socratic Self-Quiz

Q1. Name something factually wrong with the depiction of the pre-Socratic philospher Heraclitus in the painting above.

[Answers will be provided once we reach the end of our pre-Socratic discussions.]


If you are new to the Daily Tread and would like to join our society, our general plan and syllabus can get you up to speed quickly. You can always click on the “Daily Tread” tab above to see the full path we have already traveled. Follow us at @DailyTread.



Per a request, here’s a scan of the Greek word I couldn’t read. (Blew it up as large as I could.) Does this shed any new light on it? Thanks!

Is this the Greek word for "hubris" or something else?

3 comments to Introducing the Pre-Socratics

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Prudence Paine, Frederick Copleston. Frederick Copleston said: New Post: Introducing the Pre-Socratics #tread #philosophy […]

  • Sounds like hubris. Put a scan of the word up, silly. Sheesh…
    I think also if you look fundamentally at what the pre-socratics are trying to do, it has to do with explaining motion, or change. And when you look at their answers, they’re actually very similar to what we know now. Heraclitus seems to say, all is motion and change, and substance doesnt exist – something you might think given string theory or because of Einstein’s famous equation. Or look at the problem of understanding electrons in their valences.. what if they aren’t a thing, but just a motion? And so on, and so forth.

  • Prudence

    Scan is on its way. Good to know you know how to read Greek!

    What I was trying to say about the absurdity of their theories (and how we can laugh at them today) was in relation to believing things such as humans were incubated in bellies of land-living fish until puberty when they were able to fend for themselves. Ahaha. Stupid Anaximander.

    But when you look at the underlying elements of that silliness, it still originates with something that many people do believe today, that we evolved from the sea, and now it is frequently considered laughable if you don’t believe that. So I agree with you on the similarities with what we know now.

    But your comment about E=mc^2 and “electrons in their valences” (don’t know what that means precisely, but I think I get the essence) made me look anew at Anaximander’s belief that the universe’s essential element from which all things are created was apeiron, something boundless, limitless, yet not precisely definable. What if he had an inkling of a hunch that matter was composed of subatomic particles but he merely lacked the vocabulary and the colliders necessary to expand his thinking and prove it?

    It still amazes me that we can “see” and measure atoms, can prove the existence of quarks. I don’t have complete faith in science in that what we so assuredly know to be true today often turns out to be inaccurate later—-much later when we won’t be around to listen to the future laughing.

    But string theory and the developments in physics over the past 10-20 years blow my mind. Try as I might, I just can’t wrap my head around the possibility that things don’t exist simply because we can touch them. Alternate dimensions. Pure energy.

    I can barely make sense out of the concrete world. What am I to do if I’m told it’s just all an illusion? Are you prepared for this?

    Maybe we, and Anaximander, are already in possession of all knowledge but we can only get little pieces of it right, and each succeeding generation gets to adjust the radio dial to home in on it better. What do you think?

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