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Pre-Platonic Philosophers

A question that many of the pre-Platonic philosophers, and Plato as well, will take up concerns
the relation between being and appearance, and its epistemological corollary of knowledge and

Heraclitus is interested in the relationship of opposite (appearances). Every property or substance
can become, or can be transformed into, its opposite. One fragment says, The same thing is both
living and dead, and the waking and the sleeping, and young and old; for these things
transformed are those, and those transformed back again are these (67). Rather than other
philosophers to follow, who understand becoming to be a transition from being to non-being or
non-being to being, Heraclitus recognizes that a thing admits of both opposites. Thus, while the
appearance of opposition is evident in becoming, there is within this transition the endurance and
permanence of being. Elsewhere, he considers this dimension as what is in common to all, rather
than existing only in some parts but not others.

In other fragments, this dimension of permanence is associated with nature, logos,
harmony, and the divine [law] (See 1, 2, 39, 45, 47, 48, 49). The harmony of opposites is not
immediately apparent, but is rather withdrawn. Likewise, nature likes to hide. This dimension
requires effort in order to recognize it. However, it exists not only through its manifestation in
finite appearances, but also in its own right; All human laws are nourished by one law, the
divine law; for it has as much power as it wishes and is sufficient for all and is still left over
(48). Logos is what is common to all, despite the differences and oppositions in appearances.

Heraclitus feelings towards humans are regarded as misanthropic. Many fragments condemn the
opinions of humans, which tend toward thinking of what is similar to themselves. Other
fragments suggest similar behavior in animals, who regard their surroundings as better than
others. On the other hand, Heraclitus praises knowledge and wisdom for recognizes nature and
the unity of all things; Right thinking is the greatest excellence, and wisdom is to speak the truth
and act in accordance with nature, while paying attention to it (43). Being content with what
one is used to leads to (false) opinions because one remains ignorant of alternative possibilities.
Heraclitus is perhaps suggesting that one should [inquire] into many things (31), in order to be
able to recognize the unity amongst the plurality of appearances. There does not seem to be an
explicit reason (e.g. rewards) for why following wisdom, knowledge, truth, and nature is better
than following opinion. There is a fragment which claims that the best renounce all for one
thing, the eternal fame of mortals (4). Moreover, because wisdom and knowledge is often
compared to a conscious, waking life, whereas ignorance and opinion is considered a sleeping
life, a life of reason is more powerful and beneficial than the alternative. Finally, he claims
that the soul has a self-increasing logos [reason, rationality]. The life of wisdom and
contemplation increases the logos of the soul, perhaps, as well as the benefits of such a life.
Parmenides begins by giving two versions of two different ways of inquiry, first the way of 1)
persuasive Truth and 2) opinions of mortals, both of which he must know; and second the way of
1) being and 2) non-being, the latter he can know nothing of. Non-being is unthinkable and it is
impossible for nothing to be. Opinion thinks that both being and non-being exist, or in other
words, it considers either that which is not to be, or that which is to not be. Opinion, which is not
truth, is to maintain that something which is not actually is, or that something which is to not be.
Opinion gives the name of non-being to what appears opposite from being (e.g. light and dark).
Truth shows, however, that it is impossible for nothing to be. Because nothing cannot be, being
must be ungenerated and imperishable. Being will not be, nor was it, because becoming suggests
that nothing either was or will be. Being is continuous.
Finally, being and thinking are the same. This seems important for it shows the recognition that
what is contradictory in thought (for nothing to be) is contradictory in being. Also with respect to
fictional, unreal beings, insofar as they are thought, they are possible. Because non-being is
impossible, fictional beings strictly speaking are not not. They therefore are. This suggests that
anything that is possible, or in other words is not self-contradictory, participates in being.
Becoming is unreal, because being is, and non-being is not, but rather change is a matter of
alteration between light and dark, both of which are.
The atomists, Leucippus and Democritus, admit of two elements atoms and void. Atoms
(uncuttables) are what is and void is what is not. However, they nevertheless admit that both
atoms and void are equally necessary for the motion and appearance of things. Differences in
appearances are produced by differences in shape, position, and arrangement of atoms and their
aggregates. There are unlimitedly many atoms, but they are (mostly) all too small to be sensed.
Atoms form aggregates by contact, but contact only means close proximity, for if atoms
actually touched one another, they would necessarily form a single being, which is
impermissible. Leucippus claims that atoms are always in motion, because becoming and change
are unceasing in things that are. Democritus claims that atoms themselves only differ in size and
shape. These differences, combined with their combining in different arrangements and
positions, produce the variety of appearances. In order to stop an infinite regress of division of a
body, Democritus claims that there must be some indivisible body, or being, which composes the
macroscopic level. Because appearances are reducible to atoms and void, claims about
appearances and macro-level phenomena are only by convention. Differences in sensations are
only produced by the effects of the object on the perceivers body, all at the atomic level. Thus
different people will form different opinions about the same objects. Only atoms and void are
real. However, there is an epistemological difficulty in validating this claim, since our sensations
are always at the macroscopic level. Democritus says that people are separated from reality
we know nothing about anything, but for each person is a reshaping [of the soul by the atoms
from without] In fact it will be clear that to know in reality what each thing is like is a matter
of perplexity. By subtracting all experiential data from an appearance, only atoms and void are

Nothing happens by purpose or chance, but rather everything happens by necessity.

Because atoms and void are the only real content, the atomists ethical position is to seek what is
beneficial. They encourage people to live almost ascetically, because any pleasure is produced
by things that can change. Democritus says to all humans the same thing is good and true, but
different people find different things pleasant. Knowing that only atoms and void are real, it is
foolish to focus ones life in the transient macro-level effects. Through the knowledge of
atomism it is wiser and more fruitful to seek longer lasting well-being.

Dissoi Logoi

Anonymous Iamblichi

Protagoras argues that thought (logos) is primary over being. For this reason, man is the
measure of all things of things that are, that they are, and of things that are not, that they are
not. Only things which humans judge to exist in fact exist. However, unlike Parmenides, which
presents another form of thought-being coupling, Protagoras thinks of thought as looser and has
more to do with convention. For this reason, he claims to make the weaker argument the
stronger. He is able with rhetoric to convince people that things which previously were not,
actually are, and of things which previously were, are not. Furthermore, his claim that there are
two opposing arguments for everything suggests that being can never be absolute, because being
is always a predicate of thought. Because thought can hold that a thing may or may not be,
persuasion is possible.

Gorgias Encomium to Helen defends Helen by saying that she did what she did either on
account of fate and necessity, by force, or by persuasion. Gorgias claims that it is the nature of
things, not for the strong to be hindered by the weak, but for the weaker to be ruled and drawn by
the stronger, and for the stronger to lead and the weaker to follow. Therefore, a God could
always will Helen to do anything, and likewise a stronger human could have forced to Helen to
act. Furthermore, speech, whether divine or human, also acts according to the same logic.
Gorgias notices that speech can affect human emotions and behavior. He compares speech to a
drug, both of which will affect a person according to the will and strength of the agent. He says
that there are three modes of discourse, which one must study in order to learn the art of
persuasion: that of astronomy, logically necessary but false argumentation, and verbal
disputation of the philosophers. The first exhibits persuasion of one opinion over another, and
moreover does so concerning incredible matters. The second is able to persuade the crowd in a
single speech using persuasive art. The third exhibits swiftness of thought [which makes] the
belief in an opinion subject to easy change.

The first section of Gorgias On Nothing attempts to show that nothing is. The claim that nothing
is will be demonstrated by showing that what-is is not, nor is what-is-not, nor can both what-is
and what-is-not be. What-is-not cannot be, because if what-is-not is, then what-is would not be,
because opposites have opposing attributes. Gorgias here takes the claim that what-is is not to
be self-evidently false (it is certainly not the case that what-is is not), which means that what-
is-not cannot be. This argument is peculiar in that it accepts the claim that opposites must have
opposing attributes (which seems wrong) and it also holds self-evident that what-is is (a claim
which he will refute in the following). He also argues against the being of what-is-not by
claiming that if what-is-not is, then it would both be (it is) and not be (it is what-is-not), which is
a contradiction.

He argues next that what-is is not. If what-is is, it would either be eternal (ungenerated) or
generated, or both simultaneously. If eternal/ungenerated, then w/o beginning. If w/o beginning,
then unlimited. If unlimited, then it is nowhere. If anywhere (~nowhere), then it is in something.
If in something, then in something else larger than it, or in itself. If in itself, then it and in-it are
the same, and it and in-it are two, not one. If in something else larger than it, then it is not
unlimited, because something else is larger than it. If nowhere, then it is not. Therefore, what-is
is not eternal.

If generated, then it came either from what-is or from what-is-not. ~What-is, because it begs the
question. ~What-is-not, because what-is-not cannot generate anything, because what-is-not
cannot be.

What-is cannot be both generated and eternal, because they exclude one another.

If what-is is, it would be one or many. If one, then either quantity, continuous, magnitude, or
body. If quantity, magnitude, continuous, or body, then divisible. If divisible, then not one. If
many, then composed of ones. Not one, therefore not many.

Neither can what-is and what-is-not both be, because neither are. Therefore, nothing is. Having
concluded that neither what-is nor what-is-not is (which seems contradictory), the conclusion to
be made for Gorgias must be that being is an inadequate category. This will be supported in the
third section of On Nothing, where he argues that being is only communicable through logos.

The second section of On Nothing argues against the claim that if something is it is conceivable
to humans. He argues that if what-is is thinkable, then what-is-thinkable also is. However, he
argues against this because what-is-not is also thinkable, just as what-is-thinkable, in certain
circumstances, is not. This argument comprehends being in an obviously different way than
Parmenides. For example, Gorgias rejects the claim that Scylla and Chimeara are (i.e. they are
things-that-are-not), but accepts that they are thinkable. By being, Gorgias must then mean
externally existing, or even just real. Parmenides, on the other hand, accepts that anything that is
thinkable is also possible, but non-being is not possible, and therefore anything that is thinkable
must also be.

The third section of On Nothing argues that what-is cannot be expressed or communicated. Here,
he argues that what-is and what-is-communicated are of different attributes. What-is are objects.
What-is-communicated is Logos.

The first section of the Dissoi Logoi attempts to show that the just and the unjust are the same.
The argument cites several examples of actions which appear self-evidently just, or unjust. Then
it provides further conditions which make the just action appear unjust, or the unjust action just.
It then concludes that any action can be either just or unjust (based on the circumstances of the

The second section of the Dissoi Logoi attempts to show that a true statement is the same as a
false statement. True and false statements differ only by the state of affairs it describes. Thus the
same statement is true if it describes events that are, or it is false if it describes events that are
not. The statement itself is only a sequence of words, and so it can be either false or true.

The third section of the Dissoi Logoi argues against the claim that wisdom and virtue can
neither be taught nor learned. The argument neither claims to, nor does, prove that wisdom and
virtue can be taught or learned, but only shows that the proofs for the opposing view are not
sufficient. Such proofs are historical in nature, namely that there has never been a teacher, or if
there had been then there would be adequate students, etc.

Antiphon begins by saying Justice is a matter of not transgressing what the laws prescribe in
whatever city you are a citizen of. This differs from what nature prescribes. Living and dying
are matters of nature, and living results for them form what is advantageous, dying from what is
not advantageous. He continues to say that laws and justice are often in conflict to nature, and
are built around the possibility of acting around witnesses. Antiphon even thinks that laws more
often than not harm people according to nature. Obedient people suffer due to their obedience
more than they gain in return for being obedient. Furthermore, recourse to the law is decided in
trial, where the disobedient, unjust people are also able to convince a jury.

Critias says that laws were created in order to punish wrongdoers. Because laws could only stop
obvious crimes, wrongdoers could continue their injustice in secrecy. In response to this, Critias
claims that divine justice and gods were created, in such a way that all activity was monitored by
the gods, in order to punish any and all injustice. Gods were created to take advantage of
humans intrinsic fearfulness of natural occurrences.

Anonymous Iamblichi claims that law and justice are better than the natural way of life. S/he
claims that even if a person were of such a nature that s/he did not need society in order to
survive, that a group of people would be able to overcome her/him if s/he chose to act unjustly.
The second half of the passage cites several examples of how a just community prevents against
the difficulties of a natural existence. Such difficulties include bad fortune, pleasure-activity,
safety in sleep, and avoidance of war. Non-observance of the law allows these difficulties to
have greater effects. Finally, the passage concludes by saying that tyranny results from injustice.
When law and justice are not observed, a community resorts to a stronger leading the weaker.
This is only possible if the entire community ignores the law, for a single wrongdoer can be
overcome by a law-abiding community.