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

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Heraclitus and the Odyssey

My favorite saying of Heraclitus is “Strife is justice.” It makes sense, that we will gain our piece of the world through our toil, perseverance and battle. We will get what we earn, what we deserve, even if it may not be what we originally set out to achieve, and even if the results are not what we expected. If we want more, we must strive more.

The sticking point, though, comes in jealousy. In working so hard, enduring so much strife, it can aggravate us to see someone else gain what we desire through seemingly no strife at all. It can make the end result of our strife seem unfair, unjust.

The Odyssey contains an excellent example of this:

As Odysseus comes home to Ithaca after his hard ten years’ journey, he arrives at his house disguised as an old beggar. He wishes to observe all the men that have feasted upon his wealth and lived in his home, courting his wife, while he has been away. It is time to take retribution and to reclaim what is rightfully his. He takes a spot at the threshold.

But Irus, another beggar, considers the threshold to be his property. All of it. He is the king beggar of the house. Running errands and doing chores for the suitors, he has earned this spot, and he does not wish to share it with some newcomer who just waltzes in and wants the same rewards that he had to toil to achieve.

To Irus, the threshold is his just reward for all his strife, for all that he has had to endure at the hands of the suitors. He warns Odysseus that he will fight him if the old man doesn’t get out of his threshold.

From Irus’ perspective, he has fought already for what he has, and the stranger hasn’t striven at all. But he can’t see that it is the stranger’s house of which he is trying to proclaim a portion. He doesn’t realize that he is trying to claim another man’s rightful share, even if Irus thinks he is the one that has truly earned it.

He hollers at Odysseus, telling him he better get up and move on, or else he will haul him out by the foot.

Odysseus replies that neither in deed nor word does he harm the beggar, nor does he begrudge the men giving him food and goods, even if they give him lots of it–enough to cause envy. “This threshold will hold us both, and thou hast no need to be jealous for the sake of other men’s goods,” the disguised Odysseus tells Irus.

For Odysseus, he too believes that strife is justice, and justice is about to rain down hard upon all the suitors and unfaithful maids of his household. But the justice he is searching for is not affected by the beggar’s gains. Odysseus is focused on his own, and offers the man a chance to coexist in their own strifes.

Irus refuses, however, and the suitors use the fight as a source of entertainment, guaranteeing a reward for the victor. When Irus falters at the sight of Odysseus’ muscular thighs, the suitors push him forward, and the two men come to blows. Well, two blows. Irus lashes out at Odysseus’ shoulder, and Odysseus, consciously choosing not to kill Irus with one powerful blow and thus reveal his identity, gives him one strike beneath his ear, knocks him out, and hauls the bloody beggar out of the house…by the foot.

Therefore, the next time you fear someone is encroaching on your justice, take a moment to consider whether the threshold would hold you both. If so, it may be best to devote your energies to your other battles.

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Meditation on Heraclitus: Strife Is Justice

Many months ago, as I was working my way through the pre-Socratic philosophers, I was reading my Heraclitus, loving him. Then suddenly, I came across this concept of his:

Strife is justice.

Those three little words socked me in the chest and took my breath away. It seemed to contain truths on so many levels.

I started one essay on it, but couldn’t find an ending. I started another, and couldn’t end that one either. So I just began avoiding Heraclitus. And then because I hadn’t finished Heraclitus, I, in my perfectionistic obsessive way, felt I couldn’t move on to the next pre-Socratic in line. I was stymied.

The reason I couldn’t finish the essays was because there was a nagging hole in my “Strife is justice” belief—and i didn’t want to face it and have another belief crumble without something to replace it.

See, I’ve always believed that if you work hard, you will prevail. Hard work (strife) doesn’t mean you won’t fail. It just means you will eventually get your reward (justice) if you keep trying. It may not be the justice you expected, but it will come.

That belief has pushed me through hard times and rallied me when I was tiring, lagging behind. And it’s given me courage to set off on new paths, take risks, because I felt confident I would get my reward.

It works on metaphysical and material levels, on personal and communal levels, except for one nagging thing: Some people seem to win their reward without having much or any strife. Some people just waltz up to the front of the line.

Doesn’t that punch a big hole in the whole “strife is justice” thing if that can happen?

In writing my other essays, going into the various applicable levels of it, I came up with myriad excuses to justify my clinging to the concept while watching some escape it:

Maybe they had already striven and have fully earned it. Maybe they will have to strive to hang on to it, without having the tools all the strivers have already learned and practiced. Perhaps they won’t meet their justice in this life, but it will still come.

All true, but also all unsatisfactory in closing the mammoth believability gap that question opened.

So lo these many months I have seen and quietly noted instances proving that “strife is justice” indeed, but with no explanation for the exceptions coming to me, to allow me to complete my essays.

But today I found that a new friend was also struggling with the concept of justice. It upset her that, in a certain instance, justice was not swift nor assured. I could sympathize, but something in me still made me confident that it would come, although maybe she would never learn of it or know the full extent of it.

With those thoughts rambling around my brain, still feeling silly I was trying to keep the nagging question at bay, I popped in a good old country CD, Lee Ann Womack’s I Hope You Dance, and click! A little light turned on.

I’ve always listened to the title song and imagined sending its lyrics out into the ether to dear ones, and today was no different…until I thought, wait, what about me? Why don’t *I* try to more actively live that way? Why can’t I sing that song to myself? (in a non-narcissistic way, of course!)

Read the simple lyrics. Listen to them. See if you can guess where I’m going with this:

It’s all about strife, striving and doing it in the most beautiful, challenging, purposeful, gratifying, graceful manner you can. The joy, satisfaction and pride of that kind of strife is its own justice.

Listening to those lyrics it occurred to me that I was looking at it all the wrong way. If I live my life according to the “Strife Is Justice” precept, going along, working hard—or not working hard and knowing I have only myself to blame for not getting any reward—does it change things for *me* if someone else gets a freebie tossed their way? Does it give me an excuse not to strive? Or, should I be like some others who mainly strive to get in with the people that always get let into the club while everyone else waits behind the rope?

Does it affect my justice? No. Because nothing is owed to me, and life is not a zero-sum game. Just because one person gets their justice doesn’t mean there’s no justice left for me.

It’s the age-old liberal trap that I was falling into. That it’s unfair, gosh golly! I could try to game the system, get some freebies, arrange my life choices so that I can continue to receive those freebies. Or I can get out there and strive like hell. I can fall on my face, but I can pick myself back up. I can open up my world, my opportunities by getting out there.

It doesn’t change things for my life if I worry about what’s happening with other people’s lives, whether they are getting the harsh justice they sorely deserve.

Instead I need to wake up each morning, and strive. I need to go for the gusto and live like the lyrics in Womack’s beautiful song.

If I attack each day in that manner, I shape my own justice. I control my frame of mind. I can love, I can forgive, I can live. I don’t have to permit others to drag me down. I can exercise my hope and optimism and courage, and gain the strength to hang on tight in times of trouble—and maybe have a little extra left over to help pull others along when they need a hand.

All the others that appear to be getting strife-free rewards won’t be waltzing by me in line, because I won’t be in any line waiting for my justice. I’ll be dancing to it myself.

P.S. In searching for a suitable YouTube copy of I Hope You Dance with the lyrics shown, I came across this video that some guy put up his own thoughts instead of the lyrics. He has some nice things to say, some of them relevant to “Strife Is Justice.”

Strive on.

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Meditation on Heraclitus and Theory of Flux

On the theory of flux, Plato wrote in Cratylus:

Heraclitus says somewhere that everything moves and nothing rests; and comparing what exists to a river, he says that you would not step in the same river twice.

18th century sculpture of Heraclitus by Marinali

Tangents and Non Sequiturs From Prudence:

While Heraclitus was theorizing more about the essence of physical things being unstable, transitory, in a constant state of flux, it seems to carry through to more gossamer elements, such as moments in time, as well. Every moment is different. Moments of the past can never be recreated again in their totality. Something, many things (everything technically), will have changed, and thus alter the total experience of the moment. New obstacles will have tumbled into our path; old ravines will have been bridged.

As such, we must temper our assumptions and not expect to be able to recreate the perfect moment or dodge the speeding train again. Instead, each recurring event will be something different, perhaps even entirely unique. Resistance to change is futile, because everything is in a constant state of flux. At most we can try to manage the change, attempt to limit or control it as best we can.

The holidays often are a time when we depend on tradition and ritual to restrict changes to our celebrations. We can get our hopes up that the best moments of the past will happen again (and that experience will allow us to avoid the worst), if we just try hard enough. So we make all the right preparations, have everything in its place, and somehow it doesn’t seem quite the same again.

That’s a moment when we can become disappointed and sulk, or we can enjoy the new energy and let each new moment surprise and thrill us. We can make it a moment that we will want to try to recreate again.


Pre-Socratic Self Quiz:

Q7. In the tradition of the earlier pre-Socratics, such as Anaximander and Anaximenes, Heraclitus believed the world was composed of one primary element? What is it?


Up Next: Even More Heraclitus!

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Meditation on Heraclitus, Knowledge and Truth

On finding the truth of things, Heraclitus said:

If you do not expect the unexpected, you will not find it, since it is trackless and unexplored.

Raphael's Michelangelo as Heraclitus in the School of Athens

Tangents and Non Sequiturs From Prudence:

In the macro sense, Heraclitus’ words go beyond the Boy Scout motto of “Be prepared.” They say to me, “Go seek.” I need to hear his words on the lazy days, when ennui tinges my going through the motions of daily chores and duties. If I’m in a rut, I’m merely treading over my own footsteps. What can I hope to find there, going over the same old ground? On those days especially, I need to take a chance, intentionally go in search of something new, no matter how small or insignificant, to cultivate my sense of anticipation, to create new paths and explore them.

In the micro sense, Heraclitus’ words also prod me to expand my horizons in my quest for information. If I always return to the same sources, I have limited my scope willingly, expecting them to provide me with the unexpected and defining the truth according to their views and principles–again being lazy. Instead, I need to venture into unknown and opposing realms, to make my own discoveries and verify (or adjust) my own truths.

Then I can carry these discoveries and truths back here to report on the new frontiers, paths and oddities I have found—or to simply provide material for those days when someone else feels too lazy to explore.


Related Bonus Quote

On knowledge, Clement wrote in Miscellanies V:

For philosophical men must be versed in many things, according to Heraclitus, and it is in truth necessary to “wander in the search to be good.”

Tangents and Non Sequiturs From Prudence:

This seems to reiterate much of what the first quote said, just from a slightly different vantage point. I leave it for you to ponder, and even comment on here, if you dare.


Pre-Socratic Self Quiz:

Q6. in his The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, Diogenes Laertius writes that Heraclitus wrote a book…

And he deposited this book in the temple of Diana…having written it intentionally in an obscure style, in order that only those who were able men might comprehend it, and that it might not be exposed to ridicule at the hand of the common people.

What is the book about generally, and what are its three discourses?


The Daily Apologia:

I am sorry once more, for abandoning the daily postings for so long. I’ve fired up the philosophical treadmill once more, and hope to get back to regular postings. Perhaps not daily, but certainly more frequently.

I also apologize for the last Daily Tread posting: Heraclitus’ Aphorism Bonanza. It was entirely incomplete, and certainly no bonanza because I’d barely begun it. Unfortunately, I must have accidentally published it instead of keeping it in draft mode. Oops. (Can you be an absent-minded philosopher?) Once I discovered my error, I thought it better to leave it than to confuse those that had already read it.


Up Next: More Heraclitus!

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Heraclitus' Aphorism Bonanza

Part of the allure of Heraclitus for me is his wordsmithery, which earned him the nicknames of “The Obscure” and “The Riddler.” He is described variously as producing fragments that are “cursed by their enigmatic obscurity, which was already notorious in ancient times….” If these fragments were dense in meaning back then, translation into English and into modern usages fogs their clarity all the more.  Another expert writes: “The Riddler delights in puns and word-play—most of which are lost in translation.”

In introducing Heraclitus in The First Philosophers, Robin Waterfield says:

It is even possible that Heraclitus did not write a coherent treatise, but a series of longer and shorter aphorisms, suitable for an oral culture, which frequently rely on metaphor and paradox.

As quoted by Sextus Empiricus in Against the Professors:

But the general run of people are as unaware of their actions while awake as they are of what they do while asleep.

On opposites being one:

The sea is most pure and most polluted water: for fish, drinkable and life-preserving; for me, undrinkable and death-dealing.

On immortality:

Immortals are mortals, mortals immortal: living their death, dying their life.

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Meditation on Xenophanes and Knowledge

Xenophanes, poet philosopher

From Hippolytus, in Refutation of All Heresies:

Xenophanes thinks that the earth mixes with the sea and in time is dissolved by the moisture, offering as proof the fact that shells are found in the middle of the land and on mountains; and he says that in the quarries in Syracuse there was found an impression of a fish, on Paros the impression of a goby deep in the rock, and on Malta traces of all sea-creatures. He says that these were formed long ago when everything was turned into mud—the impressions dried in the mud. All men are destroyed when the earth is carried down into the sea and turns into mud; then they begin to be born again. And this is how all the worlds begin.

Tangents and Non Sequiturs From Prudence:

Imagine being the first person to figure out the cause of fossils—and to get it right. (Just think of all the wrong guesses that must have floated around.) We haven’t come much further in the intervening 2,500 years in our fossil origin knowledge. Like Xenophanes, we still use fossils as our proof of the earth’s stages of development.

I’d love to be like Xenophanes and discover something. The pace of modern life, the need for multitasking just to keep up, makes it difficult to truly observe anything, let alone make those observations more incisive. I’m trying to relearn that mindset. Turn observation into play, to look upon the world around me, which I know is filled with highly scientific and rational rationales and principles, and create my own scenario for its being the way it is. And when I’ve dreamed up my own theory, I can go and look it up and see just how far off I was, to see how I would have fared as a scientist in Xenophanes’ day.

It’s a much more entertaining use of brain power than the time I spend rehearsing the list of things I must not forget at the grocery store. I’d hope more productive, too, in the long run. Alas, it’s difficult to turn off the grocery lists in my head.

Granted, with all the knowledge we have gained since Xenophanes’ day, it would be difficult to look upon something all mankind has seen already and see something no one else has seen. To have something click in just my mind, then to not just push it aside to move on with my day, but instead to stop and take heed of my unique perspective, to recognize its uniqueness, to pursue that perspective and test it, and end up discovering some fantastic principle in something so ordinary. That’s numerous obstacles to overcome to get to the buried nugget of truth.

But surely these nuggets must exist all around us, awaiting close inspection. How could we possibly know everything about the world around us? And the truth of what we do think we know keeps shifting as new discoveries are made. How can we be sure of anything?

In Strobaeus’s Anthology I, he quoted Xenophanes as saying:

Not at first did the gods reveal all things to mortals,
but in time, by inquiring, they make better discoveries.

I take that to be similar to a previous discussion here in which I asked, what if man has all the knowledge of the world in him, but is still learning how to tune it in, able to see only a tiny bit of it right now?

Through mere observation and imagination, Xenophanes constructed an entire cycle of creation and destruction. He got it right in that parts of the world were once covered in water and created those sea fossils inland. As far as we now know, the earth is not simply mud in a continual rotation of dissolution and desiccation.

But to believe our knowledge is flawless, unimpeachable, in any age, is the height of arrogance. As Robin Waterfield writes in The First Philosophers, in paraphrasing Xenophanes’ philosophy of knowledge:

We cannot attain infallible knowledge, and we are limited by the experiences we happen to have encountered. Enquiry can improve matters [see Xenophanes quote above], but even so we will never attain certainty about the big questions of life. This thesis in turn depends on a thesis about the senses: Xenophanes is implicitly saying that the reason we will never attain certain knowledge is that the information we receive through our senses is incapable of taking us there.

Xenophanes could never be assured of the truth he found. We are still arguing over his theory, though not in the manner he intended it to be interpreted:

Xenophanes’ theory fits in well with the world flood tales that preceded him in the Babylonian story of Gilgamesh and the Hebrew story of Noah (while omitting the religious implications and causes of those tales). But what if the universe gave him a hunch that flooding is a part of a pattern, not a one-time event? Do we have any proof that it’s impossible to occur again?

The Bible does promise it will not happen again. Al Gore and his band of global warming hoaxers claim it will. As for me, this is one instance I hope Xenophanes got it wrong.


Pre-Socratic Self Quiz:

Q5. Xenophanes was (one of) the first to reject the then-popular Homeric conception of anthropomorphic gods. What form did Xenophanes say that god took?


The Daily Apologia:

Seems as if I’m always apologizing here, so today’s apology is: I’m sorry that I posted no meditations in the last two days. Try as I might to get something up daily, I’m finding it a bit of a struggle, as meditation requires unhurried focus, something of which some days are in short supply. Rest assured that I will not give up on my attempts. It just seems that I will experience more failure than I would like on that front.

On the bright side, failure is always superb fodder for mediation, so I expect it will work its way nicely into these posts. In the meantime, if I’ve nothing new for your reflection, then please do feel free to add to the discussion on the other postings. Or even, if you dare, submit something of your own for me to post on a Prudence Delinquency Day.


Tomorrow: Heraclitus

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Meditation on Alcmaeon, Physician Philosopher

From Clement’s Miscellanies VI:

Alcmaeon of Croton says that it is easier to be on your guard against an enemy than against a friend.

Tangents and Non Sequiturs From Prudence:

This seems to be the perfect advice to give to all the new incoming US Senators and Representatives.

The Prudence translation: Beware the welcome party until you are sure you can tell the difference between a smile and bared teeth.


Pre-Socratic Self Quiz:

Free Day! No quiz.

Celebrate by making up your own question that will show how brilliant you are when you answer it with ease.


Tomorrow: Xenophanes

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Meditation on Pythagoras and Women

From Porphyry, Life of Pythagoras:

After that, [Pythagoras’] reputation greatly increased: he found many associates in the city of Croton itself (not only men but also women, one of whom, Theano, achieved some fame), and many, both kings and noblemen, from the nearby non-Greek territory. What he said to his associates no one can say with any certainty; for they preserved no ordinary silence. But it became very well known to everyone that he said, first, that the soul is immortal; then, that it changes into other kinds of animals; further, that at fixed intervals whatever has happened happens again, there being nothing absolutely new; and that all living things should be considered as belonging to the same kind. Pythagoras seems to have been the first to introduce these doctrines into Greece.

Tangents and Non Sequiturs From Prudence:

It wasn’t until I read that paragraph that I realized I could not name a single female philosopher until reaching the 20th century and Ayn Rand.

I don’t go around taking score on gender diversity in anything really. I figure that if you excel at something, you will be admitted to the club. It doesn’t bother me that some fields are predominated by women and others by men.

But as I am just starting on this philosophical journey, I have to wonder, am I venturing into an area that women typically don’t excel at? Why is there such a dearth of women philosophers? Don’t worry, it won’t scare me off. I’m used to going places where I make a surprising addition. I just hadn’t considered the possibility that I wasn’t supposed to be doing this.

Could it be as Larry Summers said, and was roundly chastised for, about women mathematicians and scientists: that even in the brain, we’re just built different. Gary Kasparov, the former world chess champion and Russian politician, once said that women could never equal men in chess either. Our brains just couldn’t handle the mathematical complexities. I don’t know. Perhaps it’s true. But that doesn’t mean of course that we can’t make our own contributions to the science, or have occasional “freaks of nature” that do find themselves competing on the same level. It would, of course, be nice to see more women give it a try.

It does strike me as odd that the first mention I find of a female philosopher is one attached to Pythagoras, whose philosophy was heavily intertwined with mathematics (see preceding paragraph).

I looked up Theano on the internet, and found a website dedicated to women philosophers. It turns out that Theano was Pythagoras’ young wife who took over his school upon his death. Ah, so that’s how you become the first famous female philosopher. (Not to take away from her own intellectual abilities, which in her writings showed she was one smart cookie.)

The website has lists of women philosophers in different eras. Upon review, there are a few names that I recognize, but couldn’t tell you why I have heard of them. Upon reaching the 20th century there, I see that I left Mary Shelley Wollstonecraft off my one philosopher list. (I hadn’t really thought of her as a philosopher, even with her Vindication of the Rights of Women, but I can the classification now. Apologies to Mary.) There was also Iris Murdoch, whom I know as a novelist, but wasn’t aware of her philosophical writings.

It’s funny. The one female philosopher that I could name—Rand—and who had a great impact in my conservative/libertarian evolution, she wasn’t to be found at all on the Women Philosophers website.

Pre-Socratic Self Quiz:

Bertrand Russell’s The History of Western Philosophy, says:

The influence of geometry upon philosophy and scientific method has been profound. Geometry, as established by the Greeks, starts with axioms which are (or are deemed to be) self-evident, and proceeds, by deductive reasoning, to arrive at theorems that are very far from self-evident.

Q4. What 18th century American document models itself on this method?


Tomorrow: Alcmaeon

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The Ionians

The philosophical scientist emerges in Ionia, with the epicenter being Miletus, a coastal town, now in Turkey, on the Aegean Sea.

Of its three famous philosophical sons, I’m somewhat partial to Thales. He seems to have been continually applying his intellect to all manner of sciences: geometry, astronomy, engineering. He may have been the one to coin the motto “Know Thyself.” And it seems he was the prototype for the stereotype of the absent-minded scientist.

In Theodorus, Plato wrote:

The story about Thales is a good illustration [illustrating the detachment of the philosopher from the humdrum reality of the world—ed. note, R. Waterfield, The First Philosophers]: how he was looking upwards in the course of his astronomical investigations, and fell into a pothole, and a Thracian serving-girl with a nice sense of humor teased him for being concerned with knowing about what was up in the sky and not noticing what was right in front of him at his feet.

I know how easy it is to trip, stumble, fall into a hole, when lost in hypotheses and assumptions, perhaps even overlooking the fact that what I’m seeking is right here in front of me. In fact, I’m finding it a bit intimidating to be so publicly hacking my way into a jungle unknown to me. Mainly it’s the knowing that I will at times hit impassable dead ends and have to backtrack to find the right path, and when I sheepishly turn around, all my followers will have to sigh and turn around with me.

As soon as I read Plato’s tale of Thales, it immediately reminded me of one of my favorite Sufi dervish tales from the 14th century. It should keep me humble.

The Grammarian and the Dervish

One dark night, a dervish was passing a dry well when he heard a cry for help from below. “What’s the matter,” he called down.

“I am a grammarian, and I have unfortunately fallen, due to my ignorance of the path, into this deep well, in which I am now all but immobilized,” responded the other.

“Hold, friend, and I’ll fetch a ladder and a rope,” said the dervish.

“One moment, please!” said the grammarian. “Your grammar and diction are faulty; be good enough to amend them.”

“If that is so much more important than the essentials,” shouted the dervish, “you had best stay where you are until I have learned to speak properly.”

And he went on his way.

Meditation on Thales:

From Aristotle, On the Soul:

Thales too  (as far as we can judge from people’s memoirs) apparently took the soul to be a principle of movement, if he said that the stone has a soul because it moves iron…. Some say that the universe is shot through with soul, which is why Thales too thought that all things were full of gods.

Tangents and Non Sequiturs From Prudence:
I’ve often heard it said that there can be no soul if there is no god. While I can understand why belief in God requires a belief in soul, I don’t understand why a belief in soul (energy) mandates a god.

Aristotle can put me in the category of Thales and the “Some say” in believing the universe be “shot through with soul” (at least until I’ve studied his essay on the soul).

Meditation on Anaximander:

From Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s “Physics”:

[Anaximander] says that the original sources of existing things are also what existing things die back into “according to necessity; for they give justice and reparation to one another for their injustice in accordance with the ordinance of ‘Time’, as he puts it, in these somewhat poetic terms.

Bertrand Russell retranslates this as, “Into that from which things take their rise they pass away once more, as is ordained, for they make reparation and satisfaction to one another for their injustice according to the ordering of time.” Russell warns that our word “justice” is not the same as this use.

Tangents and Non Sequiturs From Prudence:
Whether the meaning of “justice” is a little off, I find it most intriguing that the concept results in a zero-sum game. If one thing outgrows it’s position and encroaches on other things, it must then be destroyed in reparation (even though Anaximander believed in the limitlessness of the essence of things). It took too much, so taking too little is required for balance–and it’s happy to comply.

You only get so much. Use it as you will. Don’t resist destruction, it’s natural.

I think I would be a very bad element. On the lam, still growing.

Don’t all things resist their destruction?

Meditation on Anaximenes:

From Plutarch, On the Primary Cold:

Anaximenes says that matter in a compressed and condensed state is cold, while in a dilated and ‘loose’ state (this is more or less exactly how he puts it) it is warm. And so, he says, when people say that man emits both warmth and cold from his mouth, they are not saying anything unreasonable. For breath gets cold when it is put under pressure and condensed by the lips, while when the mouth is is relaxed the breath that escapes becomes warm as a result of its being in a rarefied state.

Tangents and Non Sequiturs From Prudence:
It’s worrisome that I’m learning basic science from someone 2,500 years ago. Does everyone else know that your breath does change temperatures when you blow through closed lips versus open-mouthed? What physical properties cause that change?

Kudos to Anaximenes for scientific explanations of his theories.

Pre-Socratic Self Quiz:

Q2. What is Urstoff? What did each of our three philosophers today believe was the Urstoff?


Was there a concept or quote that you found more intriguing or important to your understanding?

Tomorrow: Pythagoras/Alcmaeon

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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.]


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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?