The Pre-Socratics part 1: Tales of olives and beans

We finally start our journey into the second major topic I intend to dive into in this website – Philosophy. If you’re reading this, you’re probably not someone who immediately rolled your eyes and thought of a thousand better things that you could be doing than reading about philosophy. I expect that to be the reaction of the general population to this topic. Sadly philosophy has not been the best at maintaining a positive public image and is mostly seen as this esoteric spouting of academic jargon by some old men sitting on leathery chairs in a room that smells of cigars and whisky – or coming as the result of a supposed “enlightened state” you achieve by smoking copious amounts of weed. We’re still waiting on scientific research to back that one up.

What I propose to do is try to fight against those notions and share with you how some of the mainstream ideas still present in our society developed, with a particular focus in the development of epistemology – the branch of philosophy which studies what constitutes knowledge and how it can be obtained (Sim, 2002).

Where shall we start then? As with most things, it makes sense to start from the beginning. Usually, it is good practice to start any philosophical text with definitions, as it is important we’re all talking about the same thing. However in this particular case I will jump that step, as the definition of and the word ‘philosophy’ itself were not present when it first started being practiced. But don’t worry, it will come up later in the midst of a religion that forbids the sinful legumes that are beans. Yes, that wasn’t a typo. If that grabbed your attention, stick around to find out more.

Due to the difference in the impact their ideas had, often scholars will divide the early history of ancient philosophy into the pre-socratics and then Socrates (Adamson, 2014; Russell, 1946). This is a hot topic among professional philosophers, but as I am no specialist in the area, I will follow this division due to how frequently it is used currently.

Once upon a time, in the sixth century B.C., in a region called Ionia (present day Turkey) there was the O.G. of philosophy: Thales of Miletus (Adamson, 2014; Russell, 1946). Most of the early explanations about the world until the sixth century BC were supernatural and or theological – most phenomena and events in the world were said to be caused by the action of gods or other otherworldly entities such as Destiny. Thales was not satisfied with these explanations and tried to achieve answers based on logical analysis of nature (Adamson, 2014). He believed that the world could be understood through knowledge and this knowledge then applied in practical ways. If this doesn’t show the hallmarks of a scientific mind, I don’t know what will.

Something that is important to answer at this point is that considering that Thales’ views are almost scientific, how does that connect to philosophy and make him be recognized as the first philosopher? The separation of philosophy and science is a recent one (Adamson, 2014; Russell, 1946), science and scientists branching out of philosophy and philosophers. Thus at the time, the characteristics we currently associate with scientists, were the ones that defined philosophers. Personally, I think this separation should never be a full one, as any modern day scientist has (or should aspire to have) at least a portion of a philosopher inside them.

Returning to Thales, there are two commonly told stories about him and his attempts to understand the world through knowledge. The first one tells us about how Thales, through contact with Babylonian astronomers, was able to predict a solar eclipse in 585 BC (Adamson, 2014; Russell, 1946) – pretty amazing considering this was way before Google. Here we can see how, akin to a modern scientist, Thales would apply knowledge to understand and somewhat predict natural phenomena. We can also thank him for introducing geometry, which he learned from the Egyptians, to Greece (Russel, 1964). But Thales didn’t stop there. He was criticized by some due to being somewhat poor as an argument for the uselessness of spending his days thinking about things as philosophers often do (Russell, 1946). However, Thales was not one of those head-in-the-clouds philosophers. No, he was a hustler and determined to show the value of logical understanding of the world. Using his knowledge of astronomy and weather conditions, while it was still winter, he was able to predict that in the coming harvest season there would be a great harvest of olives. With this knowledge he went and placed most of the little money he had into hiring all the olive presses (used to make olive oil) in Miletus at a low price, because in winter no one bid against him. Coming the harvest season and the abundant harvest of olives, just as Thales predicted, the olive presses were highly sought after. As he had the monopoly over the olive press market, he was able to rent them out at the price he desired and was able to make a fortune (Adamson, 2014; Russell, 1946).

Thales investing in olive presses knowing they would be needed come harvest season

Besides showing the practical applications of knowledge, Thales also started the longstanding tradition of trying to understand the essence of the universe – what is the world and all things in it constituted of? His hypothesis was that water was the most fundamental of substances, all the others being formed of it (Adamson, 2014; Russell, 1964). It is speculated that his argument came from him seeing the importance of water for different forms of life (Adamson, 2014).

Another of Thales known hypothesis was that ‘everything is full of gods’. This came from his observations of magnets and their ability to move iron. This was because at the time, motion was associated with having a soul, which itself is divine. Thus, even something devoid of life such as a magnet, has a piece of divinity in it (Adamson, 2014).

These two arguments may seem ridiculous considering our current knowledge. However, their value, and what identified him as the first philosopher, comes from the systematic way Thales reached said arguments. There is a tentative approach to a theory based on arguments originating from observations, as opposed to an explanation based solely on the whims of gods. Sounds familiar? Thales is basically applying the process of induction – a modern approach to epistemology where a theory is generated on the basis of empirical observations (Bowling, 2014; Sim, 2002).

The following two pre-socratic philosophers, Anaximander and Anaximenes, also hail from Miletus and together with Thales form a group that is known as the ‘Milesian school’ (Adamson, 2014; Russell, 1964). In a way following from Thales cosmogony (study of the origins of the universe) both Anaximander and Anaximenes expressed theories about the fundamental substances that constituted the universe and everything in it.

Anaximander argued that everything in the universe emerged from single primal substance he called something in the lines of “the infinite” or “the indefinite” (from the greek apeiron, “that which has no limit”) (Adamson, 2014). He believed this substance surrounded the whole universe and that all other substances emerged from it, and then also transformed into and destroyed each other (Adamson, 2014; Russel, 1964). Although we now know better, there was logic to Anaximander’s ideas. The reason why the primal substance that constituted the universe had to be something undefined as opposed to something like water or fire comes from a notion that is common between a lot of pre-socratic philosophers: a cosmic balance maintained by opposed forced in nature (Adamson, 2014; Russel, 1964). If the primal substance that is present throughout the whole universe was something like water, then in their mind the universe would became gradually wetter and colder. Or if instead, the fundamental substance was fire, the universe would gradually become hotter and everything would burn. Thus, by having an indefinite, neutral substance from which all other emerge, there is a continuous opposition that would maintain the balance (Adamson, 2014; Russel, 1964). Anaximenes, following a similar reasoning, but for him the fundamental substance was air (Adamson, 2014; Russel, 1964). This was due to the observation that if most living things stopped breathing, they would perish. Thus, he made the connection that the soul must be made of air (Adamson, 2014; Russel, 1964). In addition to this, the characteristic of air being fluid, for Anaximenes explained the fluidity of nature, with air turning into other substances by becoming thinner and hotter – the case of fire – or becoming thicker and colder – the case of water and earth (Adamson, 2014; Russel, 1964).  He is also responsible for first coming up with the idea that earth is a flat cylinder, basically making Anaximenes the first flat-earther (Adamson, 2014; Russel, 1964).

I would like to see what Anaximenes thinks of this version of Earth

For the next pre-socratic philosopher, despite the historical clock still indicating sixth century BC, we will be moving north from Miletus to Colophon, still in what is present day Turkey. There was the birthplace of the poet Xenophanes (Adamson, 2014). His ideas were not in the same lines as the philosophers we looked at so far, but they were still revolutionary for the time. He mainly contributed with the thoughts that the gods are different from humans, that there is only one God and questioning what can really be known (Adamson, 2014). For those who don’t know, before Thales came along and tried to think critically about things, most of the explanations about the world came from the poets, in particular Homer and Hesiod and their respective texts, the Iliad and Theogony (Adamson, 2014). These texts are where we find the description of the greek pantheon of gods as we know it and how the universe was created. Basically the equivalent of a sacred text. In these texts, the gods were not only described as having human form, but also being born from parents, wearing clothes and engaging in all sorts of promiscuous activities (Adamson, 2014). If there is something Zeus is known for, is not being able to keep it in his trousers.

Greek mythology 101

Xenophanes criticized this, saying that humans were not made in the image of gods, but that instead these gods were made in the image of humans (Adamson, 2014). Xenophanes still believed in a God, but he argued that it would be worthy of reverence and as be unlike humans as possible, but always in a better way (Adamson, 2014). Thus, in typical greek fashion, reason being the only characteristic of humans that is worthy of being called divine and the one that sets them apart from animals, Xenophanes’ God is a good that does nothing but think and is incomparable to humans in both body and mind (Adamson, 2014). Xenophanes also criticized the idea of worldly phenomena being gods or caused by them. The rainbow is not some goddess named Iris, it’s just some clouds with colours on it. The sun is a god named Helios? Nonsense, it is just fire gathered in a big ball (Adamson, 2014). Here we can perceive an interesting mixture of a theistic world view with a more critical perspective often associated with atheism. But this was not his only revolutionary idea. He looks at all the affirmation he and others have made about the gods and the world, and stated that even if what they believe ends up being true, no one can really know for sure (Adamson, 2014). Philosophically, this is a very important distinction, particularly for epistemology, between what we believe and what we can actually know. It is important to understand that these two things are different, and Xenophanes was the first one to openly state this issue and doubting his own reasoning. This scepticism can almost be argued to kick-start epistemology and will later be a prominent characteristic of Plato (Adamson, 2014).

The last pre-socratic philosopher we will be covering in this text will be Pythagoras. I’m really thankful if you kept with me for this long – be honest, it was the curiosity about the sinfulness of beans that kept you going, wasn’t it? There are still some philosophers left before Socrates, however, I want to strike a balance between explaining some detail with still remaining a non-exhaustive overview of philosophy. Surprise! There will be a part 2 to pre-socratic philosophers.

Back on topic, you’ve probably heard of Pythagoras, if not at least through his famous theorem – I apologize for any flashbacks to math classes, if it wasn’t your thing. Pythagoras was born in Samos, an island of the same coast of Turkey from where the previous philosophers were from. Before he started coming up with mathematical theorems, he founded a religion, of which the followers were known as ‘Pythagoreans’ (Adamson, 2014). This religious order was based on Pythagoras beliefs about the world and how one should act in it. It even had rules that its members had to follow. Can you guess what was the first rule created by the religious order of a mathematical genius? The first rule was “To abstain from beans” (Adamson, 2014; Russel, 1964). Yes, this is where this comes up and there is never a really concise explanation for this.

There is a whole section of the interned dedicated memes of beans. Maybe this was the evil Pythagoras was trying to warn us about

One important aspect about Pythagoras was this man was surrounded in myths and legends. His followers were divided in two types: the ones interested in his esoteric ideas and the ones interested in his mathematical skills (Adamson, 2014). The more esoteric Pythagoreans are the likely responsible for these legends, probably as a way of validating their religious beliefs and further spreading them. Pythagoras probably helped to this as he supposedly saw himself as semi-divine, which spurred up stories of him being the son of a god, either Apollo or Hermes (Adamson, 2014). There are also the legends that he had a thigh made of gold and could talk to animals (Adamson, 2014). Sound more and more like a god among humans – or someone with a very active imagination. Another myth about Pythagoras that leads to another of his religious tenets was that he walked by some people beating up a dog and supposedly Pythagoras heard the voice of a deceased friend coming from said dog (Adamson, 2014; Russel, 1964). Here we can see that Pythagoras believed in the transmigration or reincarnation of souls: souls leave their bodies upon death and go into another body, even of different species (Adamson, 2014; Russel, 1964). This may sound quite nonsensical to some, but it was one of the first recorded instances of the theory of dualism of body and soul (Adamson, 2014) which will influence later philosophers such as Plato and even Descartes.

It was also through Pythagoras that the word ‘theory’ acquired its modern meaning (Russel, 1964). Initially a word associated with a mystic tradition called Orphism, it meant “passionate sympathetic contemplation”, with the one undergoing it assuming something akin to a godlike state (Russel, 1964). To Pythagoras, this “passionate sympathetic contemplation” was an intellectual state and obviously, mathematics was involved in it. However, to philosophers influenced by Pythagoras, it retained a proportion of divine revelation (Russel, 1964). Here we start seeing the gradual formation of the association between intellectual pursuits and the divine, which will be present in many philosophers. This is reinforced by the belief that the soul was separated from, and thus, difference in essence from the body. The body fades away, but soul remains throughout multiple reincarnations. Thus the soul is made of something everlasting – something divine. There was also fact that at the time, mathematical knowledge was associated with a certainty that was above the knowledge obtainable through the senses or intuition (Adamason, 2014; Russel, 1964). As previously stated, if the world of sense did not match the insights obtained through the contemplative knowledge of mathematics, then it was the world of sense that was wrong (Russel, 1964).

There are some that even attribute to Pythagoras the saying “all things are numbers” (Adamason, 2014; Russel, 1964). It can be argued that this was not meant literally, but as an affirmation of the presence of mathematics in all things in nature (Adamason, 2014; Russel, 1964). A ‘4’ is something that is present in the real world – one can have 4 apples – but doesn’t really exist as no one sees ‘4’s going around in the street. And it is a concept that is transversal throughout the world and throughout time So it is something abstract and everlasting, but that is still underlying in everything we can experience in objective reality – sounds divine, right?

Russell (1964) expressed that he believed mathematics to be the source of both a belief in an eternal and exact truth, and the existence of an intelligible world beyond the senses – a divine truth. Thus, mathematics in his modern form, as a demonstrative, deductive argument starts with Pythagoras (Russel, 1964). This perspective to mathematics made it often be argued as the ultimate intellectual pursuit, because it would allow humans a connection with the divine (Adamason, 2014; Russel, 1964). Because of these ideas and his approach to mathematics, he also responsible for the influence that mathematics will have from there onwards in philosophy and logic (Russel, 1964; Adamson, 2014), and through this he will be seen to have a great influence on Plato (Russel, 1964).

Still relating to mathematics, at the time, the Greeks, and Pythagoras by extension, viewed geometry as axioms, generally applicable ideas that are, or deemed to be, self-evident, from which theorems are derived deductively (Russel, 1964).We have to place another important epistemological marker here, as Pythagoras is describing the process of deduction – a modern approach to epistemology where theory is developed from a general idea through reasoning, this theory being tested afterwards (Bowling, 2014; Sim, 2002). But, despite all his love of numbers and their divine nature, there is something that we have been wrongly told: it is very likely that Pythagoras did not himself come up with the famous theorem. Historian often attribute this to the pythagoreans who followed him and it possibly originated after Pythagoras was already dead (Adamason, 2014; Russel, 1964). Shocking, I know. You can’t even fully trust maths textbooks these days.

And now we come to the last great contribution of Pythagoras to philosophy. Pythagoras was the first person to call themselves a philosophos, meaning “lover of wisdom”, with Sophia being the greek word for ‘wisdom’ (Adamson, 2014). A lot of you probably learned that detail in school, but as I said at the start, a good practice in philosophy is to start with definitions. Well, it was not the start of this text, but we are defining it at the start of this series of texts, so it kind of counts, right?  Simply that is how the term philosophy first came up. Philosophy will basically mean “the loving of wisdom” and obviously if you love something, you go after it. So if you like learning, you probably have a bit of a philosopher in yourself as well. Hopefully, this text has contributed to your leaning. You now know about how it all started with Thales and those who followed him, until Pythagoras came up (or not) with his theorem and hate of beans; how some ideas by these philosophers were so influential to humankind that they still last from the sixth century BC all the way to present day: the attempt of understanding the world through logic, there being a fundamental substance that constitutes everything in the universe, the rejection of the gods as being the cause of everything, and important epistemological concepts such as inductive and deductive reasoning, and the discussion of what can actually be known. But we are only starting. I didn’t plan it initially, but this will continue in part 2 of pre-socratic philosophers. If you feel you’ve learned something and want to show off your love of wisdom, please share this text all over social media and see you in part 2.


Adamson, P. 2014. Classical Philosophy: A history of philosophy without any gaps, Volume 1. 1st edition. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Bowling, A. Research Methods in Health – Investigating health in health services. 2014, fourth edition. Open University Press. Berkshire, England

Russel, B. 1946. History of Western Philosophy. Routledge – Taylor and Francis Group: New York.

Sim, J., Wright, C . 2002. Research in Healthcare – Concepts, Designs and Methods. Second edition. Nelson Thornes Ltd. Cheltenham, United Kingdom

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