The Pre-Socratics part 2 – All is One, One is All

Welcome back to our delve into the world of philosophy in search of were a lot of our present day ideas have originated from and the search for knowledge has developed over the years. Last time we had finished learning the origin and meaning of the word ‘philosophy’ itself and pondering on some of the great questions that were started by philosophers and mostly still prevail to present day.

The next philosopher, Heraclitus, will pick up on one of those questions and will continue the pre-socratic trend of identifying a fundamental principle of the universe (Adamson, 2014).

Another common trend for pre-socratic philosophers was to try explaining change and opposition. In a sense seeking to answer both questions, Heraclitus thought that everything in the world formed a unity that was composed of opposites (Adamson, 2014; Russell, 1946). This was Heraclitus’ core doctrine and main teaching of his philosophy: everything there is, is a unified whole, but a whole which includes many different things (Adamson, 2014). This firm idea that everything is part of a unity is called monism, and Heraclitus was the first philosopher to endorse it (Adamson, 2014). Heraclitus defended that opposites combine in strife, producing a harmony. Due to this he valued war and hardship, as he thought that everything was made and passed away through strife (Russell, 1946). There is unity in the world, but this unity results from diversity (Russell, 1946). Heraclitus goes so far as to argue that there would be no unity if there were no opposites to combine (Russell, 1946).

Looking and the person himself, form what is recorded of him, Heraclitus does not appear to be a friendly character, as he would often criticize his contemporary and preceding philosophers, including Pythagoras (Russell, 1946), as well as humankind as a whole. He is believed to have said that humans are selfish and will only act for their own good. Maybe he was just applying his theory and trying to create harmony through strife.

His second most prized doctrine is that of everything being in a constant state of flux – that our world is a world in perpetual change (Russell, 1946).

He often would express his theories through one-liners, even writing a book full of these. ‘You cannot step twice into the same river; for fresh waters are ever flowing in upon you.’ (Adamson, 2014; Russell 1946) Even though this book and his peculiar way of resenting his philosophy earned him the nickname “the riddler”, it was in this book that Heraclitus first introduced to philosophy a very useful word – logos (Adamson, 2014).

If Heraclitus was known as ‘the riddler’, do you think there was also a pre-socratic Batman? Maybe he lived in Plato’s cave.

Logos means something like ‘word’, but with a meaning that also expands to ‘account’ and ‘reason’(Adamson, 2014). Difficult to translate, but logos is very useful, as it will allow to create all words that end in ‘-ology’. For example, ‘antropology’ is ‘giving an account’ (logos) of man (anthropos) and ‘biology’ means giving an account (logos) of life (bios) (Adamson, 2014).

Heraclitus theory of perpetual flux can be very uncomfortable, as it means nothing ever remains the same. Science has been fighting against this notion, trying to find some type of everlasting, permanent substance (Russell, 1946).  I think the positive idea we can take from this is that just as the things we like will change and end, so will the bad moments and things we don’t like.

Possibly as a culmination of his idea that reality is in a state of flux and the harmony of opposites through strife, Heraclitus said that Fire was the fundamental substance (Adamson, 2014; Russell, 1946).

Heraclitus explored multiple subjects and pioneered a style of systematic and all-encompassing philosophy that will be continued by this next philosopher: Parmenides (Adamson, 2014), who lived in the fifth century BC and was from Elea in Italy (Adamson, 2014; Russell, 1946).

Parmenides can be said to be the first philosopher to have a clear interest in metaphysics – the study of existence and what exists (Adamson, 2014; Russell, 1946). Like Heraclitus, Parmenides has a similar doctrine of unity, saying that reality itself is one (Adamson, 2014).  In opposition to Heraclitus, Parmenides claims that this unity exists because nothing ever changes or moves (Adamson, 2014; Russell, 1946). It is curious how the same conclusion about the nature of reality can be reached by two opposed theories – maybe Heraclitus was right about opposites combining into harmony. Parmenides goes so far as saying that any type of multiplicity such as different objects, colours or even different events happening at different times are mere illusion (Adamson, 2014; Russell, 1946). Parmenides reached this extreme world view through his belief that he can understand the nature of all reality using purely abstract arguments. He justified this, simultaneously enriching epistemology, by exploring the differences between belief and genuine knowledge. In his well-known poem, “On Nature”, Parmenides talks about the way of opinion and the way of truth (Russell, 1946), warning us that the way of belief is not as firmly grounded as the way of truth, not being trust-worthy (Adamson, 2014; Russell, 1946). The main message of the poem is that we should not trust the senses and instead follow philosophical argument to wherever it may lead (Adamson, 2014; Russell, 1946).

Illustration of Parmenides talking about the way of truth, colourized.

We see again deduction appearing in the stage of philosophy, with Parmenides basing his arguments on pure reason as opposed to observations about the world around us (Adamson, 2014). But what is the actual deduction Parmenides uses to reach the conclusion that everything is a unity and nothing ever changes or moves?

Parmenides starts by looking at two paths of reasoning about everything that exists: either something “is and must be”, or something “isn’t and can’t be”, that is his question. He immediately rejects the second option because it involves thinking about things that do not exist and we can’t think about non-being in a meaningful way (Adamson, 2014). This is because, according to Parmenides, when you think or use a name, you must think of or use the name of something, thus, thought and language require a subject outside of themselves (Russell, 1946).

He also comes up with a third option, where something “is and is not”, but expresses this is an even worse path of enquiry because it is contradictory in addition to also including thinking about non-existence (Adamson, 2014).

So, Parmenides decides the path of being, ‘is and must be’, is the one worth following for the way of truth. He then starts by pointing out that being cannot ‘begin’ to be, and neither can be destroyed, as that would involve coming from or becoming ‘non-being’ – and we don’t talk about that under Parmenides’ rules (Adamson, 2014). This is the line of reasoning that makes Parmenides argue that nothing changes, as it would involve something coming from or going into ‘non-being’ (Adamson, 2014). However we can easily argue back that not all change involves creation or destruction. If we observe an octopus in its natural habitat, it can easily change colour, for example from its normal pink to green, without the involvement of non-being. Well, Parmenides would disagree and say that the green of the green octopus replaces the non-being of green in the octopus or that the green octopus comes to being after there is no green octopus (Adamson, 2014). This serves as an argument for the unity of being over time – because there is no change, something can’t be something at one time and another thing at another time – as well as at any given time – if there was a change, a part of it would have to be different from another, which would require non-being (Adamson, 2014). Another implication from this argument is that being is continuous and that there can be no division of being, as the separation would involve gaps of non-being (Adamson, 2014). I, for one, can argue that all this metaphysics is causing a headache to come from non-being into my head.

The issue with this argument is that Parmenides assumes that words don’t have meaning in themselves, always having to refer to something that exists, ant that they have a constant meaning, always being used to refer to the same something (Russell, 1946). We know this is not always the case. I particularly like the example given by Russell (1946), about the word ‘Unicorn’. We utilise this word to refer to something we all know is imaginary, but despite it not existing, some sentences using the word ‘unicorn’ can be true and others can be false. If I say that a unicorn has one horn and cows have two horns, we need only to look at a herd of cows and count the number of horns. However, in the case of the unicorn the only evidence for the supposed number of horns would be in fantasy books. Considering this, instead of ‘Unicorns have one horn’, the correct statement would be ‘Certain books assert that there are animals with one horn called “unicorns”.’, because all statements about unicorns are actually about the word ‘unicorn’ itself (Russell, 1946).

Despite the somewhat fallacious nature of the argument, it represented a development in philosophy as Parmenides was performing a logical deduction, starting from the principle of “accepting ‘being’ and rejecting ‘non-being’” and following any consequences of that assumption (Adamson, 2014; Russell, 1946). He offers and explanation for the abstract phenomenon of being itself through applying reason above the information of the senses to reach a systematic deductive argument (Adamson, 2014). Together with this, his arguments about words always referring to something out of themselves started the concept of substance as the persistent subject of varying predicates, which has remained one of the fundamental concepts of philosophy, psychology, physics and theology since then (Russell, 1946).

 I admire Parmenides’ intellectual consistence and the willingness to pursue an argument to wherever it may lead, even if its conclusions defy common sense. Our personal experiences as informed by our senses can lead us to see patterns where there are none and make mistakes. However as we can see in Parmenides example, applying logic in a way that ignores reality can also lead to mistakes. This is just the start of the debate between pure logic and observation as a means of obtaining knowledge, which will last for many centuries.

But what about you? What do you think is the way of Truth?

We haven’t finished the pre-Socratic philosophers yet – there are a lot more than I thought. So stick around while I try to better understand the nature of knowledge and how we can obtain it.

And as always, if you learned something and/or found this text interesting, please share it all over social media so you can help others learn. See you in the next one.


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

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

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