While the lyric poets, the tragedians, and the artists shared the people’s feelings, and tried at one and the same time to express and to guide them. a few other men, whom the Greeks called physiologists (students of nature) or philosophers (lovers of wisdom), tended to withdraw from the crowd, to commune with themselves, and to make their own souls. The former group could enjoy more completely the Hellenic games and festivals and could share with relative freedom the people’s interest in myths and omens. The philosophers could not do that to the same extent, if at all, for meditations were engrossing their thoughts; they were doing their best to understand the nature of things, of men, and of gods; not only could they not share popular superstitions and fancies, the very freedom of their thoughts was unavoidably challenging these ideas. It was their role then, and it is their role today.

The poetic and artistic creations were publicized and acclaimed, and the poets and artists who had distinguished themselves became popular heroes; the activities of the philosophers were more esoteric and easily gave rise to suspicions and jealousies. Instead of being praised and worshiped, the philosophers might become public enemies and scapegoats.

On the other hand, as knowledge of things was becoming more abundant and more precise, the philosophers were driven to limit the sphere of their own meditations and to think more deeply. That process was very gradual. We might say that it was hardly perceptible before 450. The philosophers of the first half of the fifth century are still very much like those of the preceding century, though they are already very different from the “prophets.” ⁵⁷² After the middle of the century, some of them are closer to what we still call “natural philosophers.” The great men of science, like the two Hippocrates, and the great historians, like Herodotos and Thucydides, belong definitely to the second half of the century.

Athens was the center of intellectual life; yet philosophers did not need to be as near to it as did the artists. As always, they were moved by contrary impulses; the wish to find a proper audience and worthy disciples would draw them to the leading city, while the desire for quietness and solitude would entice them away from it. Moreover, Athens was not by any means the only center of attraction; the glory of Hellenism was much increased by emulation between many cities scattered far and wide. Most of the philosophers shared the wanderlust of the poets and traveled considerably across the Greek world; of course, all of them visited Athens at one time or another and probably more than once, but relatively few settled there permanently. For one thing, the political vicissitudes were too many and peace too precarious for permanence.

The thoughts of the early philosophers are very imperfectly known to us, for their works are lost, and we have only fragments and the sayings of doxographers,⁵⁷³ indirectly and poorly transmitted. Often we have only a series of obscure sayings to depend upon, and much ingenuity has been spent in their interpretation. In a book like this one, it would be a waste of time to do so. Suppose we found a new interpretation, how could we be sure that it represents the author’s original meaning? However plausible, it would remain uncertain. We might as well discuss the Pythian oracles. Our task is more modest: we shall evoke these early philosophers, without trying to explain their views with more precision than our very scanty information warrants.

In this chapter we shall focus the reader’s attention on a dozen men: four Ionians — Heracleitos, Anaxagoras, Melissos, and Leucippos — and the other eight coming two by two from four other parts of Hellas — Parmenides and Zenon from Magna Graecia (southern Italy), Empedocles and Gorgias from Sicily, Democritos and Protagoras from Thracia, Antiphon and Socrates from Attica (note that only one in six came from the country around Athens). Of these twelve, only three (Heracleitos, Parmenides, and Zenon) may be said to belong to the first half of the century, and three to the second half (Melissos, Democritos, and Socrates); the six others flourished chiefly in the middle part.


The chief of the twelve Ionian cities (d decapolis) on the western coast of Asia Minor, Ephesos, was famous all over the ancient world because of its great temple to Artemis.⁵⁷⁴ It is there that Heracleitos was born and, as far as we know, spent most of his life. He had traveled extensively in his youth but came back to his native city, and we are told (by Diogenes Laërtios) that when he had completed his great book On the whole (Peri tu pantos) he deposited it in the temple of Artemis; it is also said that he made it as obscure as possible and therefore he was called Heracleitos the Dark One (ho scoteinos). His book was said to have been divided into three parts, dealing respectively with the universe, politics and ethics, and theology. That is possible and the 130 fragments that remain of it can be (and have been) arranged in three groups corresponding to that division.⁵⁷⁵ Even when the whole of it was available, the book was so difficult to understand that the king of Persia, Darios, son of Hystaspes, invited Heracleitos to come to his court and give him the necessary explanations; Heracleitos declined the invitation, saying that he had a “horror of display and could not come to Persia, being content with little, when that little is to my mind.” The two letters are quoted in extenso by Diogenes Laërtios, and I mention them because they help us to locate Heracleitos in the time sequence. Darios I ruled from 521 to 485; Heracleitos’ book was thus written before 484, and we may say that he flourished in the beginning of the century.

The two letters are plausible. We know that Heracleitos was contemptuous of men, including kings and even philosophers. For he remarked that “much learning does not teach understanding, or it would have taught Hesiod and Pythagoras, as well as Xenophanes and Hecataios.” ⁵⁷⁶ Like the other Ionian philosophers, he assumed that in spite of appearances there must be some unity of substance in the universe, and he postulated that the primordial substance was fire. Why fire? Probably because of what we might call his second principle: the eternal flux of things (panta rhei); ⁵⁷⁷ that was perhaps his dominating idea: everything is always changing, up or down. Now fire, which flares up and goes down, and changes its appearance at every moment, is a good symbol of the ceaseless universal change; moreover, look at the Sun, the great source of everlasting and everchanging fire. His third principle was that the apparent disharmony of the world hides a profound harmony, for every change happens in accordance with a universal law.⁵⁷⁸ Each quality implies its opposite; the existence of each thing implies its nonexistence somewhere else. These opposites are reconciled in the general scheme of nature. “God is day and night, winter and summer, war and peace, surfeit and hunger.” ⁵⁷⁹ This tallied with Heracleitos’ other view that it is the invisible harmony that matters, not the visible discordance and ugliness. Most men are too stupid to see the beauty that is hidden below the surface. Heracleitos was a sad man, for he saw the relativity and vanity of all things; we cannot hold fast to anything, because everything runs away. Popular tradition considered him the typical pessimist, as opposed to the typical optimist, Democritos; the first was always crying and the second laughing.

Heracleitos, we may conclude, was a philosopher and poet in the old Ionian style, not much of a man of science, even less so than Xenophanes. Yet, in his book On the whole, he begins with physics or with nature, then considers political questions, and finally discusses theological ones — a good order. We may end our account with one of his political maxims: “People must fight for their laws as for the city walls.” ⁵⁸⁰ That is worthy of the Parthenon.


With Anaxagoras, the last of the lonians, we enter more definitely into the scientific field. The contrast with Heracleitos is astonishing, for the latter spoke like a poet and seer, and Anaxagoras like a cool-headed physicist. His main work was a treatise on nature (Peri physe s) of which seventeen fragments remain; we have no reason to doubt the genuineness of those fragments, which cover about three pages of printing.

Anaxagoras was born at the beginning of the century at Clazomenae, one of the twelve Ionian cities, situated about the middle of the western coast of Asia Minor, somewhat north of Ephesos. As Ephesos was a great center of pilgrimage, it is highly probable that young Anaxagoras went there and met Heracleitos. At any rate, he moved to Athens soon after the Persian Wars, being the first Ionian philosopher to do so. This shows once more that Athens had become a focus of attraction. Anaxagoras was fortunate in that he gained the friendship of Pericles, who was then the most powerful man in the city. Pericles’ admiration is so well described by Plutarch that it is worth while to repeat the latter’s description verbatim.

But the man who most consorted with Pericles, and did most to clothe him with a majestic demeanour that had more weight than any demagogue’s appeals, yes, and who lifted on high and exalted the dignity of his character, was Anaxagoras the Cla-zomenian, whom men of that day used to call “Nus,” either because they admired that comprehension of his, which proved of such surpassing greatness in the investigation of nature; or because he was the first to enthrone in the universe, not Chance, nor yet Necessity, as the source of its orderly arrangement, but Mind (Nus) pure and simple, which distinguishes and sets apart, in the midst of an otherwise chaotic mass, the substances which have like elements.

This man Pericles extravagantly admired, and being gradually filled full of the so-called higher philosophy and elevated speculation, he not only had, as it seems, a spirit that was solemn and a discourse that was lofty and free from plebeian and reckless effrontery, but also a composure of countenance that never relaxed into laughter, a gentleness of carriage and cast of attire that suffered no emotion to disturb it while he was speaking, a modulation of voice that was far from boisterous, and many similar characteristics which struck all his hearers with wondering amazement.

A little further in the same Life, Plutarch remarks:

Moreover, by way of providing himself with a style of discourse which was adapted, like a musical instrument, to his mode of life and the grandeur of his sentiments, Pericles often made an auxiliary string of Anaxagoras, subtly mingling, as it were, with his rhetoric the dye of natural science. ⁵⁸¹

We shall come back presently to the discussion of Anaxagoras’ ideas, but what astonishes one is the impression conveyed by Plutarch that it was Anaxagoras who enhanced the prestige of Pericles and not vice versa. This is a great tribute to the importance that the Ionian philosopher had obtained in Athens; it is also a great tribute to the Athenian public of that time. Would our own people have more respect for a philosopher than for a leading statesman? It is said also that Euripides was Anaxagoras’ pupil. We must think of Anaxagoras as the first teacher of natural philosophy in Athens, the forerunner of Plato and Aristotle.

According to him, there is neither coming into being nor ceasing to be, but there are only commixtures (symmisgesthai) and decompositions (diacrinesthai). The universe was originally a chaos of innumerable seeds (spermata) to which Mind (nus) gave order and form by a movement of rotation (perich r sis). Note that the “seeds” are not elements, for each is as complex as the whole, nor atoms, for there is no limit to the subdivision of matter — and that their number is undetermined. The two main points are, first, the introduction of mind as contrasted with matter, mind being power gradually transforming chaos into cosmos; second, the idea of an initial and eternal vortex by means of which the organization of matter takes place. The introduction of nus originated the contrast between mind and matter, but it would be an exaggeration to call Anaxagoras the founder of philosophic dualism. His nus is not well defined and may be interpreted as a physical force as well as a spiritual one.⁵⁸² The initial vortex and its use for the gradual organization of the universe suggest the cosmologic theories of Kant and Laplace, but is only a vague adumbration of them. Nevertheless, the fact that such a comparison occurs to our minds is much to the honor of the first Athenian philosopher.

Anaxagoras’ compromise between the naïve Ionian monism and Pythagorean pluralism is remarkable. The whole of the universe and its parts, however small, are homogeneous; their differences are only differences in size, not in composition. ⁵⁸³

Let us quote the first fragment ⁵⁸⁴ to illustrate the tone of his prose (so different from the poetic one of Heracleitos):

At the beginning all things were confused, infinite in number as well as in smallness, for the infinitesimally small existed. But all things being together, none was apparent because of its smallness [none was large enough to be perceived]; everything was occupied by air and aether ⁵⁸⁵ both of which are infinite, because of all things, it is these [two] which are greatest in number and size.

Such depth and subtlety of thought as appear in the fragments of Anaxagoras with so little basic knowledge to support it is as amazing as the Parthenon, which was being built in the same period. How could Anaxagoras do it?

Our astonishment increases when we realize that his scientific knowledge was not only meager but mostly wrong. His cosmologic views were forward, yet his astronomic knowledge was decidedly backward as compared with that of the Pythagoreans. One cannot give him much credit for his explanation of eclipses of Sun and Moon by the interposition of Moon, Earth, or other bodies, because the explanation was not a novelty and because it was combined with crude ideas such as that the Earth and other planets are flat, that the Sun is larger than the Peloponnesos, and so on. He suggested that the Moon was a body like the Earth, with plains and ravines, and was inhabited. The great meteoric stone that fell in 467 at Aegos Potamoi (the “goats’ river” in the Thracian Chersonese, or Gallipoli Peninsula, the northern shore of the Dardanelles) was said by him to have fallen from the Sun; this is the first dated meteorite in the world’s history.⁵⁸⁶

Anaxagoras was deeply interested in anatomy and medicine. He is said to have studied the anatomy of animals and to have made experiments on them. He dissected the brain and recognized the lateral ventricles. He ascribed the occurrence of acute diseases to the penetration of bile (black or yellow) into the blood and the organs.

He attempted to square the circle and wrote a book on scenography, the application of perspective to the designing of stage backdrops and properties. He would thus be one of the founders of the mathematical science of perspective. That story is plausible because the contemporary importance of the drama created a need for good (if very simple) scenery, and it was natural enough for dramatists to apply for that to a man of science; it would have been especially natural for Euripides to consult his teacher Anaxagoras.⁵⁸⁷

The learned men of Greece were relatively well acquainted with Egypt and its great river, so utterly different from the miserable rivers or torrents of their own country, and they speculated on the cause of the annual innundation, thanks to which the land of Egypt might be called a gift of the river (d ron tu potamu). Anaxagoras claimed that the flood is due to the melting of snow during the summer on the mountains in the interior of Lybia. Herodotos reported that explanation and rejected it. The correct explanation was first given by Aristotle and Eratosthenes: the flood is due not to the melting of snow but rather to the tropical rains that fall during the spring and early summer about the upper waters of the Blue and White Niles. Anaxagoras’ explanation was not quite correct, but it was rational, and he was the first to assert that the flood originated in the mountains where the Nile begins its course.⁵⁸⁸ It took thousands of years before people generally accepted the true explanation, for the solution was found and lost many times. The story of ideas concerning the Nile floods is a good example of the difficulties of establishing and preserving truth before modern times.

We do not discuss Anaxagoras’ astronomic ideas, because the discussion of each item would require considerable space, and it is not worth while. He was an astounding cosmologist, but he was not an astronomer. He was somewhat of a mathematician and might perhaps be called a theoretical physicist. He was a genuine man of science, asking himself scientific questions and trying to find rational answers. Though the Athenians had begun by admiring him, they were repeatedly shocked, not so much by definite assertions, as by his general attitude of mind, the attitude of a rationalist who brushes superstitions aside; such an attitude seems blasphemous to the bigot.⁵⁸⁹ This would be a sufficient explanation of the charge of impiety that was leveled against him, but it is possible that his prosecution was partly caused by the wish to harm his patron, Pericles, who had become highly unpopular at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War. Many friends of Pericles were indicted; the most illustrious of them, Pheidias, was condemned to imprisonment and actually died in prison. Euripides had shown more foresight and had abandoned Athens c. 440, before the situation had become as grave as it was to be ten years later. Pericles managed to save Anaxagoras from prison but not from exile.

Whatever were the real causes of Anaxagoras’ accusation — his friendship with Pericles or perhaps Persian leanings⁵⁹⁰ — the pretext was religious. Anaxagoras was indicted for rationalism (c. 432). He was certainly not the first victim in the incessant war between bigotry and science, but he is the first known one. We may not call him a martyr of science, because his sentence was simply one of banishment, but he was the first man in history who was punished for thinking freely, for following the dictates of his reason and his conscience rather than the opinions of the community. We do not know the details of his life in exile, but he finally established himself in Lampsacos, a city of Mysia, on the southern shore of the Dardanelles. Why did he select that place of retirement? He simply joined other refugees. When the glorious city of Miletos (the cradle of Ionian philosophy and the leader of the Ionian revolt) was destroyed by the Persians in 494, many of the Milesians took refuge in Lampsacos. Later another refugee (or call him a traitor), Themistocles, had settled there. This was less attractive, but we may assume that the Milesians had created in Lampsacos a tradition of Hellenism and philosophy. This would appeal to Anaxagoras, who there spent the last years of his life and died in 428. It is not probable that he had time to establish a school of philosophy, but his presence must have strengthened the Hellenic tradition of that locality, which was to be in the following century the birthplace of Anaximenes, one of the companions and historians of Alexander the Great.


When Phocaea, the northernmost of the Ionian cities, was taken by the Persians, many of its inhabitants established new homes at Elea (or Velia), on the western coast of South Italy. It is possible that another Ionian, Xenophanes of Colophon, settled for a time in that city and awakened the philosophic spirit of some of its children. At any rate, a great philosopher, Parmenides, one of the founders of metaphysics, was born there, and may have been the pupil of Xenophanes when the latter was an old man.

Parmenides is the typical metaphysician: he is passionately concerned not with appearances, but with the means of reaching the truth beyond them; the necessary means he believes to be not observational, experimental, as a man of science would, but purely logical. One should be able to reach the absolute truth, he seems to think, by pulling on one’s own logical bootstraps. We should not blame a man of the fifth century for entertaining such illusions, inasmuch as almost every metaphysician has shared it down to our own day.

Parmenides tried to develop Ionian monism as rigorously as possible against pluralism or Pythagorean dualism. This he does like a mathematician more interested in rigor than in common-sense reality. His “what is” (to eon) or Being fills the totality of space; the non-Being is pure space, emptiness (absolute vacuum). This (non-Being) cannot exist, yet it can be thought and expressed (as we have just done). Starting from that premise, Parmenides concludes that the universe must be one, and limited, yet must fill the whole of space; for reasons of symmetry it must be spherical; vacuum is unthinkable, for the universe is equally full in all its parts; the universe of Being is eternal, changeless, motionless. Change and motion are unreal. Note that the conclusions are exactly the opposite of those reached by his Ionian contemporary, Heracleitos. Parmenides’ premise was wrong; hence, he could not possibly reach correct conclusions; it does not follow that Heracleitos’ conclusions were right.

The formulation of Parmenides’ metaphysics (for this is definitely metaphysics, not science) was continued by one of his disciples, Zenon of Elea, and completed by another, Melissos of Samos.⁵⁹¹ It would seem that Eleatic philosophy was already constituted before Parmenides’ departure to Athens at the age of 56. According to Plato, Parmenides conversed with Socrates, who was then very young. This would place his arrival in Athens about the middle, and his birth about the beginning, of the century. We shall not discuss the transcendental monism of the Eleatic school, but it was necessary to indicate its occurrence and to introduce Parmenides and Zenon, whose astronomical and mathematical views will be dealt with in the next chapter.

Parmenides’ thought is fairly well known, because many lines of the poem in which he summarized it have been preserved. The poem begins with a preamble and is divided into two parts dealing with truth (ta pros al theian) and with opinion (ta pros doxan). The old Pythagorean dualism is replaced with a new logical dualism, truth versus opinion. His ideas were deep, or at any rate obscure; to do justice to them one would have to repeat them in extenso and examine them verbatim; even then one could not be sure of reaching a clear understanding of them.

Zenon completed Parmenides’ “demonstration” by showing the logical absurdities to which one is led if one assumes that plurality and change are real. It was probably because of his systematic use of the reductio ad absurdum that Aristotle called him the discoverer of dialectics.

If we accept the statements that Zenon was born in 488 and that he was forty-four years old when he accompanied his master to Athens, the visit of both occurred in 444; the date is plausible, though I would prefer to say that they were in Athens about the middle of the century.

As to Melissos, he was the admiral of the Samian fleet and obtained a measure of success against Pericles, yet could not prevent the final defeat of his native island in 440. Did he go to Athens in or soon after that year and become Parmenides’ disciple in that city? He it was who carried transcendental monism to the extreme. He declared that the changes of the phenomenal world are only illusions of our senses and that reason cannot recognize the reality of Being under any of its changing forms.⁵⁹² The real cannot be finite and spherical, as Parmenides taught; it must be infinite, because if it were not, there would be empty space outside of it. It is strange to think that Ionian monism, transplanted into the Pythagorean climate of South Italy, had blossomed out in such an intransigent and paradoxical fashion.

We shall come across Parmenides and Zenon later on, but for the present we must abandon them, since we are dealing with the history of science, not with that of metaphysics.


The philosophers of whom we have spoken thus far — Heracleitos, Anaxagoras, Parmenides, Zenon — as far as we know them or can read between the lines of their writings, were strange personalities, but none was quite as strange as the Sicilian with whom we are going to deal now. Empedocles was born at Agrigentum (on the south coast of Sicily) c. 492. He was not only a philosopher but a poet, a seer, a physicist, a physician, a social reformer, a man of so much enthusiasm that he would easily be considered a charlatan by some people, or become a legendary hero in the eyes of others. His birthplace was one of the most beautiful cities of the ancient world, but the Carthaginians destroyed it c. 406 and it never recovered its lost splendor. During Empedocles’ lifetime, it was still a very wealthy and sophisticated center of Greek culture, and Empedocles belonged to one of its prominent families. Its wealth and amenities had attracted many distinguished men, such as Pindar and Simonides, perhaps also Bacchylides, Xenophanes, Parmenides. When the Pythagoreans were driven out of Croton some of them found refuge in Agrigentum. The sea view from the hills is magnificent and the lowlands around the city include sulfur and salt mines, hot springs, and other marvels which could not fail to stimulate inquisitive and ready minds. There is nothing to prove that Empedocles traveled in Egypt and in the Orient, as has been suggested, but he traveled in the Greek world, and the Greek world came to his native city. He could not help partaking in the ferment of ideas — philosophic, religious and scientific — that was then occurring everywhere the Greek language was spoken.

His writings included purification songs (Catharmoi), three books in verse on nature (Peri physe s), and a poem on medicine (latricos). Some 450 verses (of all of his writings) have come down to us; these are but a fraction of the whole, yet they are sufficient to give us definite ideas about his style and his thoughts.

He postulated the existence of four elements or roots (rhiz mata) — fire, air, water, earth — and two moving forces, the one centripetal, love (philot s), the other centrifugal, strife (neicos). Everything that exists is made up of these elements, which are themselves unchangeable and eternal and which may be united or reunited by love, or else separated and disintegrated by strife. The theory of the four elements was a strange compromise between Ionian monism on the one hand and complete pluralism on the other.⁵⁹³

“Why four elements?” one might have asked, but apparently nobody ever bothered about that, except that a fifth element was eventually added by Plato and by Aristotle. In spite of its arbitrariness, that hypothesis had a singular fortune, for it dominated Western thought in one form or another almost until the eighteenth century.⁵⁹⁴

These cosmologic views lasted so long, because it was equally impossible to prove or to disprove them before the birth of modern chemistry. On the other hand, astronomic ideas were more tangible. Those of Empedocles seem very crude; he conceived the heavens as an egg-shaped surface made of crystal, the fixed stars being attached to it but the planets free.

He was capable, however, of making physical observations and even experiments. There is one experiment to his credit that would suffice to give him an honorable and permanent place in the history of science. That experiment, with a clepsydra, enabled him to prove the corporeality of air. He was probably led to it by the arguments concerning the reality or the nonreality of empty space. The ordinary clepsydra was a closed vessel the base of which had one or many small holes; there was also a hole at the top. Now, if that upper hole was closed with one’s finger and the clepsydra dipped into water, it would not fill itself, while as soon as the finger was removed the water rushed in. Various other experiments, equally simple, would have pointed to the same conclusion. For instance, if one tries to push an empty vessel with a broad opening under water, bubbles of air emerge from the surface; these bubbles, which can be seen and heard, must represent a material reality. Incidentally, the reference to Empedocles’ use of a clepsydra is the earliest in Greek literature, but the Greeks must have used clep-sydras of one kind or another before that time, for that instrument was already known to the Egyptians of the Eighteenth Dynasty and to the early Babylonians. The Greek theory of it is rather late, however, as we cannot trace it back further than Cleomedes (1–1 B.C.).⁵⁹⁵

Empedocles also made a series of observations concerning vision and light. How is it that we see an object? According to Aëtios, Empedocles seems to have reached a compromise: some emanations (aporroai) are emitted by the luminous bodies and are met by rays issuing from the eyes. The compromise suggests that other Greek thinkers had already tried to answer that riddle. Pythagoras and his followers claimed that vision was caused by particles emanating from the body; others, that it was the eye which emitted feeling rays. These fancies may seem vain to the modern reader, but he should consider that they imply a definite advance upon the men who took vision for granted and made no attempt to explain it; it did not even occur to them that an explanation was needed.⁵⁹⁶

Empedocles’ speculations concerning the speed of light were equally hazardous but more fortunate, for they were confirmed by observations made by the Danish astronomer, Roemer, twenty-one centuries later (in 1676) ⁵⁹⁷ and by experiments that were completed only within the last century. Empedocles argued that light must have a finite velocity. This was not of course a result of observation but of pure reasoning. Aristotle is a good witness for that, because he made similar statements twice; ⁵⁹⁸ it is worth while to quote the first (and longest) of these statements:

Empedocles says that the light from the Sun arrives first in the intervening space before it comes to the eye, or reaches the Earth. This might plausibly seem to be the case. For whatever is moved [in space], is moved from one place to another; hence, there must be a corresponding interval of time also in which it is moved from the one place to the other. But any given time is divisible into parts; so that we should assume a time when the sun’s ray was not as yet seen, but was still travelling in the middle space.

Various anatomic and physiologic “discoveries” are ascribed to Empedocles. He recognized the labyrinth of the ear and said that respiration takes place not only through the movement of the heart but also through the whole skin. He showed the importance of blood vessels, blood being the carrier of innate heat. Blood issues from the heart and flows back to it; this is not an anticipation of circulation but rather of the tidal theory, which was developed by Galen (11-2) and was accepted with various qualifications until the time of Harvey (1628) and even somewhat later. It would seem that that tidal theory was already extended by Empedocles to the whole world; there are cosmic tides (or call it a cosmic breathing), even as there are tides (or breathing, blood pulsations) in the individual bodies. That view tallied with the idea of alternations between the two cosmic forces: love and hatred. It, too, enjoyed much popularity for centuries; it reappeared over and over again in the writings of many thinkers (for example, Leonardo da Vinci and even Goethe).

His medical views were equally prophetic: health is conditional on the equilibrium of the four elements in the body, disease is caused when their balance is upset. That theory of health and disease was often modified and amplified,⁵⁹⁹ but it continued to be accepted just as long as the four elements themselves; it even survived them and is not completely eradicated to this day.

Other “anticipations” have been read in his obscure writings, such as views of the unity of nature, of organic evolution and adaptation, or “remembrances” such as those concerning the transmigration of souls.⁶⁰⁰

This portrait of Empedocles, in spite of its rich variety, is not yet complete, for there was in him also, and perhaps uppermost, a social reformer and missionary. The marshy lands around Agrigentum were very unhealthy; he drained some of them at his own expense. He used to travel from town to town preaching and singing his verses, purifying the souls of men and healing their bodies; he is even said to have brought back to life a woman of Agrigentum. He was a kind of salvationist and wonderworker. His fame was already considerable (if not of the best kind) during his lifetime, and he became a hero soon after his death. Legends gathered fast around his memory, as they did in the case of Pythagoras and of the early saints. They were exuberant enough to obliterate the truth, and we do not know the circumstances of his death. According to one set of legends, he threw himself into the crater of Aetna (Etna), or slipped into it while he was observing its activity; it is even added that the volcano vomited one of his sandals (this is the kind of circumstantial evidence that is attached to every legend in order to accredit it in the minds of uncritical listeners). According to another story, he had fallen into disgrace — not an unusual fate, for popular approval is as fickle as it is intense — and was obliged to leave Sicily. He first went to Italy; there is good reason to believe that he was in Thurii (Lucania) soon after its foundation (445), and afterward passed to the Peloponnesos and was in Olympia in 440; his Purification songs were sung by a rhapsodist at the Olympic games of that year ( = Olympiad 85.1). After that his tracks are lost. Did he go to Athens? There is nothing to prove it, and it is not very probable. A provincial thaumaturge would hardly have been welcome in Athens and might have fared very badly. Anaxagoras, less enthusiastic and less eccentric than Empedocles, had been driven out of the city, and not many more years would pass before the condemnation of Socrates. It is more plausible that Empedocles remained in the Peloponnesos, wandering from place to place, with a young friend, Pausanias son of Anchitos. It was to this Pausanias that he dedicated his Physics (see the preamble of it), and therefore we may assume that that work was written during these years of exile. According to a lovely tradition, he died somewhere in the Peloponnesos c. 435–430. His friends, including Pausanias, were gathered around him at a feast. When the darkness had fallen, the guests of this last supper heard a loud voice calling Empedocles, the heavens were illuminated, and he disappeared.⁶⁰¹

Short as it is, this sketch reveals that Empedocles the Sicilian was very different from the other Greek philosophers, except perhaps Pythagoras and the Orphic poets. There is something Oriental in him, oddly combined with genuine scientific velleities. The Oriental ingredients may have filtered through to his receptive mind from Persia, Babylonia, or Egypt, or even from India, or they may have been simply original aspects of his own mysterious nature. Empedocles was so great and rare a man that he left no school; none of his admirers or disciples, not even the faithful Pausanias, was able to continue the master’s work.


After that Sicilian interlude, we may now return to the Greek mainland and to Greek rationalism, and witness the development of a new general explanation of the world: the atomic theory. Returning to Greece does not mean escaping the Orient, however, for Oriental influences had pervaded for centuries the Eastern Mediterranean world. In order to appreciate the significance of the new theory, let us try to forget all that we know and ask ourselves how the universe is constituted. There are two possible answers: it is made out of one stuff or of many. The first answer had been given by the Ionian physiologists, but even in the beginning it showed weaknesses that could not be cured except by adding qualifications implying a denial of the original monism. Thus, Anaximenes postulated that the Urstoff was air, and the plurality of aspects was explained as caused by thickening or thinning out. It is easy enough for us to accept that explanation, because we know that air is composed of innumerable particles which may be brought together or on the contrary removed farther and farther away, but without that image it is impossible. How could one understand the rarefaction or the condensation of a substance if it is made of one piece? One might thus say that Anaximenes was already a pluralist in disguise.

A similar statement might be made apropos of Pythagoras and his followers, who accepted the concept of empty space. True monism, as Parmenides and the Eleatics had clearly seen, implies a plenum.

The philosophies of Anaxagoras and of Empedocles were definitely an abandonment of the monist impasse. They walked out of it, and mankind with them, forever. Anaxagoras, postulating the existence of a governing intelligence, introduced dualism; Empedocles, with his four elements and his couple of forces, completed a kind of pluralism. The next step was taken by the atomists, who postulated the existence of an infinity of separate particles scattered in the infinity of empty space.

The ancients (for example, Aristotle, Theophrastos) were already agreed that the atomic theory had been invented by Leucippos, who flourished about the middle of the fifth century, and developed some thirty years later by Democritos. We must first make the acquaintance of these two extraordinary men.

Very little is known about the first, not even his birthplace, which is variously given as Elea, Abdera, and Miletos. Miletos is the most plausible, and we shall call him Leucippos of Miletos. The two other places, Abdera and Elea, were probably suggested, the first because of a confusion with Democritos, the second because Leucippos began his life as a disciple of the Eleatic school and was actually a student of Zenon (at any rate, such a tradition was current). It is quite possible that he visited Elea, and highly probable that he stayed in Abdera. One can imagine the birth of atomism as a reaction against the fantastic ideas of Parmenides. It is said that Leucippos explained the atomic theory in a book curiously entitled The great world system (Megas diacosmos), but that book is also ascribed to Democritos, as well as a smaller one called The small world system.Leucippos’ writings are lost, but one saying is definitely credited to him: “Nothing happens in vain [without reason], everything has a cause and is the result of necessity.”⁶⁰³

Democritos is far better known.⁶⁰⁴ To begin with, there can be no doubt about his birthplace, Abdera in Thrace, or about his time, for he tells us himself that he was a young man in Anaxagoras’ old age, being forty years his junior. That tallies well with another tradition, according to which he was born in the 80th Olympiad (460–457); it also tallies with what we are told of his relation with Leucippos. We shall not be far wrong if we place their floruits respectively in 450 and in 420; or, to put it otherwise, the atomic theory was constituted in the third quarter of the century, in Abdera.

The mention of Abdera may surprise the reader, though he must be aware by this time of the ubiquity of genius in the Greek world. Abdera, at the northern end of the Aegean Sea, may seem far away; yet it was an ancient and flourishing city. Curiously enough, it acquired the reputation of being the abode of stupid people; ⁶⁰⁵ yet it gave birth not only to Democritos, but also to Protagoras and to Anaxarchos; ⁶⁰⁶ if it was (as we believe) the cradle of the atomic theory, few cities in the world deserve as much glory as Abdera. Athens might be the center of the Greek world, but it was not by any means the whole of it, nor the only fountain of merit; it was rather — by the middle of the century — the place where merit might hope to obtain its best reward. That reward was not always forthcoming. Democritos went to Athens and saw Socrates, but was too shy to introduce himself to him. He said, “I came to Athens and no one recognized me.” If he came very late in the century, it is probable that the Athenians had not much use for him. He wrote a good many books of which the titles (but hardly more) have come down to us, arranged in groups of four.⁶⁰⁷ As far as can be judged from those titles, they confirm the stories concerning Democritos’ education. On his father’s death, he resolved to spend his inheritance (which was considerable) in research abroad. Such a decision was not a novelty in Greece; we have seen that the philosophers and the poets traveled as much as they could. Most of them, however, were satisfied to move about in the Greek-speaking territory; a few were attracted by the mysterious East, which they all confidently believed was the source of ancient wisdom. Democritos traveled on a larger scale and for a very long time. Wherever he went, he sought out the learned men and studied under their direction. He spent five years in Egypt, learning mathematics, and he went as far as Meroë (on the upper Nile). At that time (after 449) peace between Greece and Persia made it possible for a Greek to travel in Asia Minor.⁶⁰⁸ Democritos took advantage of that to proceed to “Chaldea” (he actually went to Babylon, being the first Greek philosopher to do so), and from there to Persia, even, possibly, to India. The main point was that Democritos was not a mere sight-seer or tourist, nor a business man, but a philosopher in search of knowledge. How much knowledge was he able to gather? Could he read hieroglyphics or cuneiform? Probably not, but he was an intelligent man, alert, inquisitive, capable of checking the information that he received from one source with that obtained from another. He was certainly able to learn many things from his Egyptian, Chaldean, or Persian informants. How many? Must we conclude that he brought back the atomic theory from the East? We shall come back to that presently.

Before discussing that theory, we must complete our portrait of Democritos. He was not only one of the fathers of the atomic theory, but his was an encyclopedic mind, interested in all the branches of philosophy, and also in all the branches of science. His knowledge of mathematics, astronomy, and medicine will be examined in other chapters; here we must restrict ourselves to his views on psychology and ethics. He was the first to attempt a scientific explanation of enthusiasm, the state of a human soul possessed by God — it may be called divine inspiration, but it is also artistic creation, genius, and folly ⁶⁰⁹ — and this led him to the study of many kinds of psychologic and even metapsychic problems. His interest in ethics may be inferred from the collection of apothegms (gn mai) ascribed to him. Are these sayings genuine? Who can tell? Some are like proverbs which, even if they come to us in the form coined by him, could not be called his; they represent not his own wisdom but the accumulated wisdom of his people. They are the earliest collection of their kind in European literature, and are remarkable on that ground alone. Here are a few examples:

Do not try to know everything if you do not wish not to know anything.

Courage is the beginning of action, but chance is master of the end.⁶¹⁰

The great pleasures are derived from the contemplation of beautiful works.

Cheerfulness (euthymia) comes to man through moderation in enjoyment and harmony of life; excess and defect are apt to change and to produce great movements in the soul.

It is a great thing in misfortune to think aright.

He who does wrong is more unhappy than he who is wronged.

It is better to take council before acting than to repent.

[Yet] Repentance over shameful deeds is the salvation of life.

It shows a high soul to bear an offense meekly.

He who gets a good son-in-law finds a son, but he who gets a bad one loses a daughter.

The man who has not one good friend does not deserve to live.

Learn the statesman’s art as the greatest of all and pursue those toils from which great and brilliant results accrue to men.

A man should consider state affairs more important than all else and see to it that they are well managed. He must not be contentious beyond what is fair or clothe himself in power beyond the common good. For a well-managed state is the greatest of all successes and everything is included in it. If it is preserved, so is all besides; if it is lost, all is lost.

Most of those ethical, economic, and political maxims were commonplaces among gentle people of Democritos’ time; some are a little in advance of it and one can already hear in them a Socratic or Platonic, even a Christian, ring. Democritos insisted not only on moderation but on cheerfulness, and this was especially meritorious during the evil days that he must have witnessed. As he died in very old age, perhaps a centenarian, his life extended into the second quarter of the fourth century.⁶¹¹

Let us now consider the atomic theory, which Democritos received from Leucippos but which he developed into a consistent and fairly complete explanation of the world.

As against the universal flux of Heracleitos, Democritos postulated the relative stability of being, and as against the static unity of Parmenides, the reality of motion. The world is made of two parts, the full (pl res, stereon) and the empty, the vacuum (cenon, manon). The fullness is divided into small particles called atoms (atomon, that cannot be cut, indivisible). The atoms are infinite in number, eternal, absolutely simple; they are all alike in quality but differ in shape, order, and position.⁶¹² Every substance, every single object, is made up of those atoms, the possible combinations of which are infinite in an infinity of ways. The objects exist as long as the atoms constituting them remain together; they cease to exist when their atoms move away from one another. The endless changes of reality are due to the continual aggregation and disaggregation of atoms. As the atoms themselves are indestructible, one may consider the theory as an adumbration of the principle of conservation of matter.

But how do the atoms move? How do they come together or separate? Why are they grouped in one way or another? An infinity of such questions can be asked which Democritos could not answer and in many cases could not even formulate; the exact formulation of these questions has been very slowly and painfully established by the chemists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and their work is not yet done and never will be. The atomic theory is determinist and mechanical. As far as man’s will and freedom are concerned, determinism is limited by man’s ignorance and by the infinite complexity of causes. Democritos did not conceive a spirit distinct from matter, but some groups of atoms he thought were subtler than others, and he conceived a whole gamut of such groups from the heaviest and most earthly to the lightest and most ethereal. The soul (or vital principle, psych ) is corporeal but made of the lightest atoms (like fire) and the most mobile (spherical in shape for greater mobility). There is a share of those lightest atoms (that is, of souls) in everything; this idea enabled the early atomists to explain sensations, thoughts, and psychologic phenomena of every kind. The word psych occurs repeatedly in the Democritan fragments and may mean “mind” as well as “soul.” There is some kind of psych everywhere, or, to put it otherwise, the whole universe is animated (besouled), but there are no gods, there is no Anaxagorean nus, no Socratic providence. The superiority of the soul over the body, or of the less corporeal groups of atoms upon the more corporeal, was for Democritos a matter of such conviction that he did not discuss it but reaffirmed it many times; his “materialism” was thus dominated by a very genuine kind of idealism. Furthermore, he conceived some of the lightest groups of atoms, which he called eid la (hence our word idols, but the meaning here is simulacra, images, phantoms, fancies), as scattered everywhere and capable of influencing our fate. This was an ingenious expedient to explain the facts implied in dreams, visions, divination, and other mysteries. The apparent hardness of his theory was compensated by its vagueness and its elasticity. The theory was extremely comprehensive; it could give some interpretation of most facts, from the most material to the most immaterial.

As Bailey remarks,

Democritos was neither a skeptic, nor a rationalist, nor a phenomenalist, he does not fit into any of the modern categories; he neither denied nor affirmed the truth of all sensation nor of all thought; but built for himself a “theory of knowledge,” subtle and almost paradoxical, but based directly on his atomic conception of the world. The final realities of the universe, the atoms and the void, are real and are capable of being known by the mind. Phenomena are built up of the final realities and retain the primary properties of size and shape: as such they are real and can be known by the senses. The mind may safely make its deduction from phenomena, both because the phenomenon as a unity of these primary properties is real and because sensation — the mere perception of the real phenomenon — is the same as thought. But once go beyond these primary properties, beyond the reality of the phenomenon, and you are attributing to the object what is really the subjective experience of your senses, and thought based on those “conventions” will lead you nowhere.⁶¹³

There have been controversies as to the source of the atomic theory, by scholars to whom the Greek origins (Pythagorean, etc.), to which reference has been made before, seemed insufficient. Atomic theories were developed in India by philosophers of the Ny ya and Vaiseshika schools, at a time that cannot be determined but that is almost certainly later than the time of Christ.⁶¹⁴ Assuming that those philosophies were preceded by earlier speculations, much earlier (Brahmanic, Buddhist, or Jaina), did the Greeks know of the earlier ideas? Could they have been influenced by them? That is not impossible, and Democritos himself may have heard of them while he was in Persia or in India(?). Such assumptions are unproved and gratuitous. The atomic hypothesis was one that wise men, trying to reconcile the unity and relative stability of nature with its ceaseless changes, were bound to make sooner or later. How could one harmonize monism with pluralism? It is not surprising that the hypothesis occurred to Hindu minds, and also independently to Greek ones. The Greeks were quite capable of reaching that solution by themselves, and so were the Hindus.⁶¹⁵

One of the traditions concerning the Oriental origin of the atomic theory must be mentioned here, because it is so unexpected. The theory was ascribed by Posidonios (I–I B.C.) to a Phoenician, Mochos of Sidon, and by Philon of Byblos ⁶¹⁶ to another Phoenician, Sanchuniaton of Beirut, whose works he translated into Greek; a part of that translation was preserved by Eusebios (IV–1). Both Mochos and Sanchuniaton were supposed to have flourished before the Trojan War; of the latter it was said more specifically that he flourished in the time of Semiramis.⁶¹⁷ As far as we can judge from the text of Eusebios, their doctrines were very remote from the atomism of Leucippos and Democritos. The Phoenicians, who were very clever dragomans and middlemen, may have transmitted some Hindu theory; they may even have invented a theory, but that would be for them a unique achievement.

Knowing the Greeks and the Phoenicians as we do, we are not at all surprised that the former invented the atomic theory; we would be exceedingly surprised if the latter had done so.⁶¹⁸ The Phoenician stories are not convincing: Oriental influences of many kinds impinged upon the eager mind of Democritos while he was living in the East, but the invention of the atomic theory was ascribed not to him but to his teacher Leucippos.

When judging the Greek atomic theory, we must beware of two exaggerations; the one consists in equating it to the modern theory invented by Dalton at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and the other in rejecting it altogether from the history of science, because of its vagueness. There is, of course, an immense difference between the Greek idea and the Daltonian, all the difference that exists between a philosophic conception that could not be tested and a scientific hypothesis, inviting a long series of experimental verifications. On the other hand, there is no doubt that the theory of Democritos, as revived by Epicuros and popularized by Lucretius, remained an intellectual stimulant throughout the centuries. It was driven underground by Jewish and Christian teachers, but it never died. The account of its vicissitudes is one of the most remarkable in the history of knowledge.


Let us return again to Athens and try to consider the intellectual landscape from the point of view of a well-educated man who lived in that city in the second half of the century and tried to understand the world around him. Not to speak of political conditions, which were getting worse every day, he must have been exceedingly perplexed by the conflicting doctrines that were discussed around him. Would he believe Heracleitos or Parmenides, Anaxagoras or Empedocles, or would he follow the atomists? Or would it not be simpler and safer to attend the mysteries and panegyrics, to do his duty as a citizen and share the popular superstitions? Where could the truth be found? In the midst of such perplexities (aggravated by economic and political unrest), a good man might be forgiven if he were driven into bigotry, skepticism, or any other form of despair. What is the good of it all? Is there any truth? And if there is any, can mortal man attain it? The most perplexing question of all was this one. If he had growing sons to look after, to whom would he intrust their education?

The need of teachers was felt acutely, and it was now satisfied by a new class of them (there have always been teachers of some kind or another, for no civilization could continue otherwise) who were called sophists. In the usage that established itself about the end of the fifth century, a “sophist” (sophist s) was a professional teacher of grammar, rhetoric, dialectics, eloquence, a man who taught young men to behave themselves, to be wise and happy. Some of these sophists were good men, perhaps most of them were, yet others, more conspicuous, were moneymakers and hypocrites (that is unavoidable). It would seem that the bad teachers increased in numbers as time went by and the name sophist acquired gradually the bad meaning that it has preserved to this day.

There is nothing to be gained in the company of rascals, but it is worth while to get acquainted with three illustrious sophists of the golden age: Protagoras, Gorgias, and Antiphon. The first two are immortalized by Platonic dialogues, bearing their own names as titles and giving portraits of them that are convincing and not unattractive.⁶¹⁹

Protagoras of Abdera. Protagoras was born in Abdera (Democritos’ birthplace) about 485, and when he was thirty he set out on his travels all over Greece as well as in Sicily and Magna Graecia, lecturing and teaching. He was the first to be called a sophist, and he reaped the first harvest. He was enormously successful and during his forty years of teaching he accumulated ten times as much money as the sculptor Pheidias. He came many times to Athens, and some of his stays may have been long enough to make him well known in the city; he obtained Pericles’ favor. The tale of his material success is unpleasant and ominous; other men must have been stimulated by it and have been led by it to embrace a career that could be so lucrative; any profession that offers such rewards is terribly jeopardized. The new profession began too well; no wonder that it went from bad to worse and that dialectics and sophistry acquired a sinister reputation. Protagoras’ success may have been facilitated by the fact that his philosophy was a kind of Hera-cleitian relativism, and such a philosophy was acceptable in an age of increasing disillusionment. In one of his books, dealing with truth, he said that “man is the measure of all things”; hence, there cannot be any absolute truth. Another saying of his was even more indiscreet: “As to the gods, I cannot say whether they exist or not. Many things prevent us from knowing, in the first place the obscurity of the matter, then the brevity of human life.” This was too much for Athenian democracy, which was very sensitive on religious matters and whose nerves had been unhinged by various profanation.⁶²⁰ In 411, Protagoras was accused of impiety. The people who had bought his books were told by the town crier to bring them to the agora, where they were to be burned; ⁶²¹ he was exiled, or else he was condemned to death but managed to escape. He could cheat the Athenian judges but not nemesis: the ship that was carrying him to freedom was wrecked and he perished.

One more remark must be added. The sophists were teachers of good speech; this implied grammar, and Protagoras, the first sophist, was ipso facto the first grammarian; he called attention to the genders of words and distinguished various tenses and moods of the verbs; he was also, of course, the first teacher of practical logic. We shall come back to that later on, but it was worth while to witness the birth of Greek grammar.⁶²²

Gorgias of Leontini. While the first and most illustrious of the sophists was a Thracian, his greatest rival, Gorgias, came from Sicily. He was born at Leontini (not far from Syracuse) c. 485. The exact date of his birth is unknown, but he was already growing old (g rasc n) in 427, when he was sent as an ambassador of his native city to Athens, and he is said to have survived Socrates and to have died a centenarian. It is also said that he was a disciple of Empedocles. Like Protagoras, he traveled considerably but spent many years in Athens. He earned much money and spent it fastuously. He was essentially the same type of man as Protagoras, the first sophist, but a bit worse. As far as can be judged from the few remaining extracts, one feels that both of them were skeptically minded, but that Protagoras was more of a philosopher, while Gorgias was already the full-fledged sophist of evil memory, the man who claims that what is likely is more worth while than what is true, and that he can make small things look great and vice versa — the dialectician, the orator who thinks more of the form of his speeches than of their content. He affected a good Attic dialect and loved to use archaic words and rare metaphors. Yet Plato was rather indulgent to him in the dialogue called after him. The Gorgias was written at about the same time as the Republic (c. 390–387) when Plato was preparing to open the Academy, but the action can be dated 405, when Socrates was sixty-four and Gorgias, at the top of his fame, an old man of eighty.

Gorgias wrote rhetorical essays, recited sportive poems, and delivered festive speeches in Olympia and Delphi, preaching peace and unity; but who would allow himself to be persuaded by a man whose main intention was to be elegant and persuasive, yet who could speak just as well (and everybody knew it) on the opposite side? In order to convince other people, one must be convinced oneself, and Gorgias was not. Granted his dialectical background, he was not a dishonest man, but his vision was dimmed by his success.

Antiphon of Rhamnos. The third sophist represents a type different from that of the two others and helps us to realize that there were various species in that genus. He was born in Rhamnos (not far from Marathon) at about the same time as the two others (c.480), and became a professional orator.⁶²³ He was the leader of a school of rhetoric,⁶²⁴ his most illustrious pupil being Thucydides. Some fifteen of his speeches are preserved, all of which were written for other people or for the sake of exercise. Of his many speeches only one was delivered by himself, the one prepared for his own defense in 411, and that speech, which should have been the best and the most moving, is unfortunately lost. He was a politician and took part in the government of the Four Hundred (in 411); after the abolition of that oligarchy, he was put to death.

In addition to his speeches he composed a little book called The art of avoiding grief (Techn alypias), which was the earliest book of a very popular genre — the “consolations.” Men are afflicted in many ways, and there is none but knows grief and sorrow. They all need comfort, and a good book of consolation is sure to be welcomed. Antiphon has had imitators in almost every country and every age; it may suffice to mention Boethius and Joshua Liebman.⁶²⁵

Protagoras, Gorgias, and Antiphon were the best kind of sophists and even they are not very attractive and would hardly deserve eternal remembrance, except that they and their kind help us to understand the intellectual climate in the second half of the century. The problems raised by the activities of the sophists are familiar to us, because they are the problems of education. When a society becomes more sophisticated, as was the case with Greek society by the middle of the century, there is an unavoidable tendency to change the old education into something new that will transmit the newly acquired refinement and disillusionment to the next generation. There is then a conflict between the old people and the young; that is of course the eternal conflict between succeeding generations, but greatly intensified by sudden cultural progress. Moreover, no kind of education, even if it is the very best, is good for everybody. One might claim that while it improves good boys it quickens the deterioration of the bad ones. Even so today some men gain nothing in college except snobbishness which accentuates their stupidity. It is clear that even the best sophists could not prevent the evil tendencies of an Alcibiades, but it is equally true (a fact of repeated experience) that any kind of education is good only for the boys who are attuned to it and may be harmful to others who are not. The contemporary Greek criticism of the sophists was vividly illustrated in some of the plays of Aristophanes, for example, in the Banqueters (Daitaleis; lost), acted in 427, or the Clouds (Nephelai), produced at the great Dionysia of 423. It would not be difficult, I imagine, to compile a long list of plays, from the days of Aristophanes down to our own, that would illustrate the perennial disgust of old men with new education and the real dangers of such education even at its best. In Athens the conflict was terribly embittered by the vicissitudes of a losing war, by demagogic excesses and economic anxieties. The conservatives had apparently good reasons for blaming the newfangled educators and the average good man was frightened by the increase of skepticism and impiety, the gradual abandonment of the old rites, and the discredit of the popular beliefs.


Among the sophists castigated by Aristophanes were Euripides and Socrates. We are already acquainted with the former, and we are now ready to be introduced to the latter, one of the noblest men in the whole history of mankind. Aristophanes’ presentation of him as a “poor wretch” ⁶²⁶ was not only malicious but foolish; he confounded him unjustly with the mercenary sophists who made “the worse appear the better reason,” or with the sophisticated ones who attached more importance to things in heaven (ta mete ra) or under the earth (ta hypo t s g s) than to the duties of men. Socrates was not at all a “meteorosophist,” ⁶²⁷ but he was in the eyes of the Athenians a sophist, a teacher of youth, and as such he must share a measure of their resentment. This explains Aristophanes’ conduct without excusing it, for he at least should have known better.

Socrates was born in Athens in 470; his father, Sophroniscos, was a sculptor and his mother, Phainarete, a midwife. They were simple people but not poor and could provide for him as good an education as was then available. He was trained in his father’s profession but early showed an interest in philosophy. Such an interest could easily be stimulated and satisfied in Athens, where philosophic discussions were taking place all the time at the theater, at the agora, or in the streets. He had acquired some knowledge of arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy, and as to politics, it was in the Athenian air, far more pervasive than philosophy, in fact unescapable except for the dumb. He was drafted as a soldier, and was many times engaged in warfare; he took no part in public life, except on two occasions when he displayed civic courage of the highest order. His appearance was singular because of his picturesque ugliness; he had a snub nose and heavy lips, and reminds one (if the London statuette can be trusted) of an old-fashioned and kind muzhik.⁶²⁸He was robust and capable of enduring fatigue, hardship, and the inclemencies of weather in a measure that astonished his companions; he dressed in the plainest manner, walked always barefoot, and his diet was extremely frugal. This was not asceticism, for it implied no self-denial; Socrates lived very simply because he liked it best that way.

The peevishness of his wife, Xanthippe, has become proverbial, but one wonders whether it has not been exaggerated in order to bring out in stronger relief his own kindness and forbearance. She bore him three sons, the eldest of whom was already adult at the time of his father’s death; ⁶²⁹ the two others were much younger (this would suggest that he was married relatively late).

He left no writings of his own, and we know him only through the books of two of his disciples, Plato and Xenophon. The portraits painted by them agree as to the essentials, but are colored the first by Plato’s idealism and the second by Xenophon’s more earthy common sense. In the Platonic dialogues wherein Socrates appears and speaks, it is impossible to determine just how much of his speeches must be ascribed to him and how much to Plato; ⁶³⁰ we cannot give to the former without taking something away from the latter. Yet Xenophon provides an excellent means of comparison and correction. When he and Plato agree, we are on safe ground, and leaving out some details without importance, the image of Socrates that has come down to us seems to be a very good likeness. There is no man of antiquity whom we know better, for thanks to Plato’s art and to Xenophon’s goodheartedness we can almost see him and hear him talk.

Though he spent his life teaching the youth, Socrates was different from the sophists in that he never was a regular schoolmaster, did not keep a school or a regular meeting place, did not deliver lectures, and did not expect any payment. The contrast between the wealth acquired by such men as Protagoras and Gorgias and the poverty of Socrates is very impressive; he was obviously another kind of man. Moreover, he despised the sophists and never failed to denounce their skepticism and their levity. It is that very fact which makes Aristophanes’ accusation so odious; he was selecting as an example of the sophists their best adversary. How could a man as well informed as Aristophanes was commit such an outrage?

The following extract from Xenophon’s Memorabilia gives one a good general idea of Socrates’ personality, and incidentally a glimpse of Xenophon’s own.

Moreover, Socrates lived ever in the open; for early in the morning he went to the public promenades and training-grounds; in the forenoon he was seen in the market; and the rest of the day he passed just where most people were to be met; he was generally talking, and anyone might listen. Yet none ever knew him to offend against piety and religion in deed or word. He did not even discuss that topic so favored by other talkers, “the Nature of the Universe”: and avoided speculation on the so-called “Cosmos” of the Professors, how it works, and on the laws that govern the phenomena of the heavens: indeed he would argue that to trouble one’s mind with such problems is sheer folly. In the first place, he would inquire, did these thinkers suppose that their knowledge of human affairs was so complete that they must seek these new fields for the exercise of their brains; or that it was their duty to neglect human affairs and consider only things divine? Moreover, he marveled at their blindness in not seeing that man cannot solve these riddles; since even the most conceited talkers on these problems did not agree in their theories, but behaved to one another like madmen. As some madmen have no fear of danger and others are afraid where there is nothing to be afraid of, as some will do or say anything in a crowd with no sense of shame, while others shrink even from going abroad among men, some respect neither temple nor altar nor any other sacred thing, others worship stocks and stones and beasts, so is it, he held, with those who worry with “Universal Nature.” Some hold that What is is one, others that it is infinite in number: some that all things are in perpetual motion, others that nothing can ever be moved at any time: some that all life is birth and decay, others that nothing can ever be born or ever die. Nor were those the only questions he asked about such theorists. Students of human nature, he said, think that they will apply their knowledge in due course for the good of themselves and any others they choose. Do those who pry into heavenly phenomena imagine that, once they have discovered the laws by which these are produced, they will create at their will winds, waters, seasons and such things to their need? Or have they no such expectation, and are they satisfied with knowing the causes of these various phenomena?

Such, then, was his criticism of those who meddle with these matters. His own conversation was ever of human things. The problems he discussed were, What is godly, what is ungodly; what is beautiful, what is ugly; what is just, what is unjust; what is prudence, what is madness; what is courage, what is cowardice; what is a state, what is a statesman; what is government, and what is a governor; — these and others like them, of which the knowledge made a “gentleman,” in his estimation, while ignorance should involve the reproach of “slavishness.” ⁶³¹

This description in Xenophon’s homely but pleasant style is very interesting, because it evokes the philosophic and scientific puzzles that the Athenians were expected to solve and that caused Socrates’ rebellion. The word is not too strong. Socrates, who was depressed, as every good citizen was, by the vicissitudes of incessant wars, by the political intrigues, by economic difficulties, was irritated by the childish discussions and the empty discourses of the sophists, and also by the unwarranted hypotheses of the philosophers and the cosmologists. Before trying to account for the cosmos, would it not be better to put our own house in order? Instead of trying to understand inaccessible objects, should we not make clear the things that we can control? We are men; should we not try to know ourselves and other men before everything else? This reminds one of a story told by Aristoxenos of Tarentum (IV–2 B.C.). A Hindu sage met Socrates in Athens and asked him, “You call yourself a philosopher; what do you concern yourself with?” Socrates answered that he was studying human things, whereupon the Hindu began to laugh and remarked that it was impossible to understand anything about human things as long as one did not know the divine things. The anecdote is doubly interesting, in that it shows a very definite contrast between the Socratic and the Hindu manner of thinking and also because it is one of the very few definite examples of intercourse between Greek and Hindu philosophers. The presence of the latter in Egypt and Greece is plausible enough.⁶³²

The objection of the Hindu philosopher was partly met in the Platonic dialogue, Alcibiades I, a dialogue between Socrates and Alcibiades when the latter was eighteen years old; the time of it would thus be 432. In the third and last section they discuss the Delphic maxim, “Know thyself,” and Socrates argues that to know oneself one must consider one’s soul and especially the divine part of it. He concludes, “This part of the soul resembles God and whoever looks at this and comes to know all that is divine, will gain thereby the best knowledge of himself.” ⁶³³ Is the AlcibiadesI genuine? Some scholars consider it to be genuine but an early work written at the very beginning of the fourth century. Others claim that it is apocryphal and Bidez⁶³⁴ adduces this very passage in order to prove it. Even if the dialogue is genuine, does the section to which reference has been made represent Socrates’ thought or Plato’s? The dialogue might be genuine and yet the words ascribed to Socrates apocryphal, as such.

Socrates’ objection to astronomy as expressed by Xenophon is hardly above the level of the old Yankee gibe, “People are always talking of the weather, but they do nothing about it.” It was thus foolish and unfair to call him, as Aristophanes did, a meteorosophist, for he was just the opposite. The end of Xenophon’s quotation (above) is particularly good; it sums up the main tendency of Socrates’ teaching. We might put it this way: “Let us be humbler than the physiologists, and more honest than the sophists. The knowledge that we must try to obtain is determined by our needs, personal and social; the main thing is to know how to live happily and honorably and to be good citizens.”

This required the use of a special method, the application of which would be to all men what his conscience is to each individual. Morals and politics must be built carefully on a sound basis. Metaphysics must be subordinated to ethics. If we wish to discuss profitably, we must analyze our propositions, define the terms that we are using, and know exactly what we are talking about. We must classify the things we are dealing with, that is, we must try to know them in relation to other things; this again requires description and definition of each of them. One might then proceed by induction (epag g ), that is, by enumeration of all the particulars to be considered, and reach a logical conclusion. The dialectical art used by Socrates he called obstetric (maieutic ), in remembrance of his mother’s profession. By astute questions he brought out from the people he interviewed the admission of their errors, and the recognition of the truth. In a conversation with the courtesan Theodote he was even bolder, and explaining to her “how to make friends” he called himself a procurer.⁶³⁵ This episode is a good illustration of Socratic irony and of his eagerness as a teacher. Indeed, he was ready to talk with everybody whom he might meet in the streets or in a friendly house, to engage them in a discussion, bring out his own favorite ideas, and oblige them to admit their validity.

Socrates was the first semanticist,⁶³⁶ explaining to the people with whom he talked the danger of using “big words” or abstract words of which they did not grasp the meaning.

Virtue, he insisted, is largely a matter of knowledge, and hence it can be taught. The outstanding virtue is temperance (moderation). His notion of God was very different from the abstract intelligence (nus) of Anaxagoras; it came close to our idea of Providence (pronoia). We must care for our soul, and be grateful for it to the divine Providence; our consciousness of it is our true self. Piety is one of the essential virtues, and one of the first conditions of it is an impulse toward the divine. There was thus in Socrates a certain amount of mysticism,⁶³⁷ a mysticism not of the Hindu kind but tempered with rationalism and common sense. He was also somewhat of a missionary, for he believed that he had received a definite mission, to care for the souls of his fellow citizens, and to teach them truth and goodness, and it was his duty to obey that divine command. As he put it in his proud Apology (Fig. 59).

Fig. 59. Beginning of the Apology of Socrates in the Greek-Latin edition (3 vols., folio; Geneva?: Henricus Stephanus, 1578). [From the copy in the Harvard College Library.] The Greek was edited by Henri Estienne = Henricus Stephanus (1528–1598) ; the Latin translation is by Jean de Serres = Johannes Serranus (1540–1598). The works are grouped in six syzygies (conjugations). The pagination of this edition is preserved in every scholarly edition. For example, this is page 17 of volume 1; in the Loeb Classical Library edition, at the beginning of the Apology, one will find in the margin St. 1, p. 17. For the title page, see Fig. 81.

Know that the God commands me to do this, and I believe that no greater good ever came to pass in the city than my service to the God. For I go about doing nothing else than urging you, young and old, not to care for your persons or your property more than for the perfection of your souls, or even so much; and I tell you that virtue does not come from money, but from virtue come money and all other good things to man, both to the individual and to the state. If by saying these things I corrupt the youth, these things must be injurious; but if anyone asserts that I say other things than these, he says what is untrue. Therefore I say to you, men of Athens, either do as Anytos ⁶³⁸ tells you, or not, and either acquit me, or not, knowing that I shall not change my conduct even if I am to die many times over.⁶³⁹

In the Gorgias, Socrates explained that it is better to suffer than to do wrong, and that the unjust man is less unhappy if he is punished. The Gorgias was Plato’s own apology, but there is no reason to doubt the authenticity of the ideas that he ascribes to Socrates. Our doubts must be restricted to the lights and shades, for no witness can give a testimony but he colors it with his own feelings.

One would like to go on and to quote more of Socrates’ sayings, as one would quote from the Gospels, but it is better to send the reader back to the early dialogues of Plato and to Xenophon, for all those sayings are more luminous in their context, and we must try to evoke Socrates in his wholeness. We realize that he was utterly different not only from the sophists, but also from the philosophers who had preceded him, even from the wise Democritos. He introduced something radically new in human experience — lay wisdom combined with sanctity; he made of ethics and politics parts of religion.

His was an eccentric personality, often rough and cynical, very rational in spite of the strange mystical tendencies that have already been mentioned. He often referred to the divine voice that was guiding him, and his singular charm and personal magnetism were explained in mystical terms, for example, in Alcibiades’ speech in the Symposion, and more elaborately in the Platonic dialogue Theages.⁶⁴⁰ The best way to illustrate his singular greatness is to tell the story of his death.

His activities as described by his disciples were innocent enough; yet it is easy to imagine that his irony must have wounded the vanity of many people, and the simplicity of his life was an implied disavowal of the men whose main purpose was to obtain more money (honestly or not) and to indulge themselves. Socrates was in fact a living reproach to them all, and we can hardly expect them to have liked that. In spite of his benevolence, he made enemies who were bent on his destruction. The Athenian democracy was devout to the point of superstition, and Socrates’ rationalism, though tempered as it was by mysticism, was shocking to them; his very mysticism was so different from their bigotry that it created an additional grievance. The enemies of Socrates and those who were jealous of him and could not bear his self-righteousness any longer welcomed Aristophanes’ calumnies, embellished them and circulated them. Soon after the expulsion of the Thirty Tyrants in 399, he was indicted in the following terms: “Socrates is guilty of rejecting the gods acknowledged by the state and of bringing in strange deities; he is also guilty of corrupting the youth.” He was condemned to put himself to death by drinking a concoction of hemlock. It must be added to the credit of the Athenian democracy that he was almost acquitted, for his guilt was decided by a majority of only 30 out of 501 judges. That majority would easily have been won in his favor, if he had taken any trouble to obtain the assembly’s good will by cautious words, if he had defended himself in good earnest; he did the opposite and his apology was a masterpiece of irony, the kind of speech that was bound to turn narrow-minded people against him.⁶⁴¹

It so happened that his condemnation was pronounced on the morrow of the day when the sacred ships had sailed for Delos, and it could not be carried out without profanation until their return a month later. He had thus a whole month to spend in prison, a month which Athenian generosity enabled him to pass in the communion of his friends and family.⁶⁴² The conversations of Socrates with them are preserved in Plato’s dialogues,⁶⁴³ especially in two immortal ones, Criton (on duty) and Phaidon ( on the soul) . Criton was a lifelong friend of Socrates, a man of substance, who visited him in his prison and tried to persuade him to escape. It is possible that the judges themselves would have welcomed that solution, but Socrates rejected it. The first duty of a citizen, he insisted, is to obey the laws of the city, even if their application is unjust. Injustice cannot be corrected with injustice. If the city has condemned him to die, any escape from the ordeal would be a kind of treason; he must die. This dialogue is the noblest defense of the law that has ever been written. It is Plato’s, of course, but it represents Socrates’ views, for the latter, in fact, did not try to escape.

The Phaidon (Figs. 60, 61, 62) records the conversation of eight people in the prison during Socrates’ last days, and mentions a great many more. The philosopher is glad to die; ideas are eternal, and his soul will continue to live afterward. The Phaidon ends with a description of Socrates’ death, which must be quoted in extenso:

When Socrates had said this, he got up and went into another room to bathe; Criton followed him, but he told us to wait. So we waited, talking over with each other and discussing the discourse we had heard, and then speaking of the great misfortune that had befallen us, for we felt that he was like a father to us and that when bereft of him we should pass the rest of our lives as orphans. And when he had bathed and his children had been brought to him — for he had two little sons and one big one — and the women of the family had come, he talked with them in Criton’s presence and gave them such directions as he wished; then he told the women to go away, and he came to us. And it was now nearly sunset; for he had spent a long time within. And he came and sat down fresh from the bath. After that not much was said, and the servant of the eleven came and stood beside him and said: “Socrates, I shall not find fault with you, as I do with others, for being angry and cursing me, when at the behest of the authorities, I tell them to drink the poison. No, I have found you in all this time in every way the noblest and gentlest and best man who has ever come here, and now I know your anger is directed against others, not against me, for you know who are to blame. Now, for you know the message I came to bring you, farewell and try to bear what you must as easily as you can.” And he burst into tears and turned and went away. And Socrates looked up at him and said: “Fare you well, too; I will do as you say.” And then he said to us: “How charming the man is! Ever since I have been here he has been coming to see me and talking with me from time to time, and has been the best of men, and now how nobly he weeps for mel But come, Criton, let us obey him, and let someone bring the poison, if it is ready; and if not, let the man prepare it.” And Criton said: “But I think, Socrates, the sun is still upon the mountains and has not yet set; and I know that others have taken the poison very late, after the order has come to them, and in the meantime have eaten and drunk and some of them enjoyed the society of those whom they loved. Do not hurry; for there is still time.”

And Socrates said: “Criton, those whom you mention are right in doing as they do, for they think they gain by it; and I shall be right in not doing as they do; for I think I should gain nothing by taking the poison a little later. I should only make myself ridiculous in my own eyes if I clung to life and spared it, when there is no more profit in it. Come,” he said, “do as I ask and do not refuse.”

Thereupon Criton nodded to the boy who was standing near. The boy went out and stayed a long time, then came back with the man who was to administer the poison, which he brought with him in a cup ready for use. And when Socrates saw him, he said: “Well, my good man, you know about these things; what must I do?” “Nothing,” he replied, “except drink the poison and walk about till your legs feel heavy; then lie down, and the poison will take effect of itself.”

At the same time he held out the cup to Socrates. He took it, and very gently, Echecrates, without trembling or changing color or expression, but looking up at the man with wide open eyes, as was his custom, said: “What do you say about pouring a libation to some deity from this cup? May I, or not?” “Socrates,” said he, “we prepare only as much as we think is enough.” “I understand,” said Socrates; “but I may and must pray to the gods that my departure hence be a fortunate one; so I offer this prayer, and may it be granted.” With these words he raised the cup to his lips and very cheerfully and quietly drained it. Up to that time most of us had been able to restrain our tears fairly well, but when we watched him drinking and saw that he had drunk the poison, we could do so no longer, but in spite of myself my tears rolled down in floods, so that I wrapped my face in my cloak and wept for myself; for it was not for him that I wept, but for my own misfortune in being deprived of such a friend. Criton had got up and gone away even before I did, because he could not restrain his tears. But Apollodoros, who had been weeping all the time before, then wailed aloud in his grief and made us all break down, except Socrates himself. But he said, “What conduct is this, you strange men! I sent the women away chiefly for this very reason, that they might not behave in this absurd way; for I have heard that it is best to die in silence. Keep quiet and be brave.” Then we were ashamed and controlled our tears. He walked about and, when he said his legs were heavy, lay down on his back, for such was the advice of the attendant. The man who had administered the poison laid his hands on him and after a while examined his feet and legs, then pinched his foot hard and asked if he felt it. He said “No”; then after that, his thighs; and passing upwards in this way he showed us that he was growing cold and rigid. And again he touched him and said that when it reached his heart, he would be gone. The chill had now reached the region about the groin, and uncovering his face, which had been covered, he said — and these were his last words — “Criton, we owe a cock to Aesculapius. Pay it and do not neglect it.” “That,” said Criton, “shall be done; but see if you have anything else to say.” To this question he made no reply, but after a little while he moved; the attendant uncovered him; his eyes were fixed. And Criton when he saw it, closed his mouth and eyes.

Fig. 60. Beginning of the Phaidon, p. 29 of the Greek princeps of Plato’s works (2 2 parts folio, Venice; Aldus and Marcus Musurus, 1513). [From the copy in the Harvard College Library.] All the dialogues are arranged in tetralogies, and the four dialogues dealing with Socrates’ trial and death form the first tetralogy. See Fig. 80.

Fig. 61. Frontispiece of the first English translation of the Apology and Phaidon. ( London, 1675.) [From the copy in the Harvard College Library.]

Fig. 62. Title page of the first English translation of the Apology and Phaidon; the translator is not named. [From the copy in the Harvard College Library.]

Such was the end, Echecrates, of our friend, who was, as we may say, of all those of his time whom we have known, the best and wisest and most righteous man.⁶⁴⁴

For comparison wtih Plato’s, this is Xenophon’s final estimate of their Master:

All who knew what manner of man Socrates was and who seek after virtue continue to this day to miss him beyond all others, as the chief of helpers in the quest of virtue. For myself, I have described him as he was: so religious that he did nothing without counsel from the gods; so just that he did no injury, however small, to any man, but conferred the greatest benefits on all who dealt with him; so self-controlled that he never chose the pleasanter rather than the better course; so wise that he was unerring in his judgment of the better and the worse, and needed no counselor, but relied on himself for his knowledge of them; masterly in expounding and defining such things; no less masterly in putting others to the test, and convincing them of error and exhorting them to follow virtue and gentleness. To me then he seemed to be all that a truly good and happy man must be. But if there is any doubter, let him set the character of other men beside these things; then let him judge.⁶⁴⁵

As this book is written for men of science, it is well to add a few medical remarks:

Plato’s description of the death of Socrates is a classic clinical account. It is startlingly in accord with what one would observe under similar circumstances now. The poison hemlock is conium, the dried full-grown but unripe fruit of Conium maculatum. Conium is generally powdered after drying and it contains not less than 0.5 percent of coniine. This alkaloid was discovered in 1827 by Gieseke. It is the simple chemical, propylpyridine. Related alkaloids occur in conium, but they all have the same biological action. This is essentially a paralysis of the peripheral endings of motor nerves. The action comes on from the periphery and quickly comes to the diaphragm, which when it ceases to move, causes asphyxia and death. There is further evidence that there is paralysis of the sensory fibers but this is not as marked as the paralysis of motor nerves. Hayashi and Muto have shown that the phrenic nerve is more susceptible than other nerves. The phrenic controls the movements of the diaphragm (Arch. Exp. Path. Pharmakol. 48,1901). You will find descriptions of the action of coniine in any good pharmacology. ⁶⁴⁶

The condemnation of Socrates was inexcusable, but the manner of his execution was decent and compassionate. When we compare it with the sordid, clandestine, inhuman executions committed within our lifetime in many countries, not by individual murderers but by government orders, we are thoroughly ashamed.

His death was dignified in the extreme. There was no bitterness in his words, no anger, no denunciation. It was the death of a just and noble man. In its restraint and grace, it is a counterpart to some of the sepulchral monuments of that time.⁶⁴⁷

It is certain that the circumstances of Socrates’ death helped considerably in the establishment of his fame. In the first place, they inspired the veneration of his immediate disciples and sanctified him, and later they helped to fire the enthusiasm of Plato and Xenophon, who preserved his thoughts and transmitted them to posterity. Socrates’ death is a magnificent climax to the efforts that Greek philosophers had made for more than a century in order to reach the truth. It consecrated the wisdom which he had attained partly because of their investigations and partly because of his own genius and sanctity.

Among the friends who attended his last moments were Echecrates of Phlius, one of the last of the Pythagoreans, Phaidon of Elis, Apollodoros of Phaleron, Cebes ⁶⁴⁸ and Simmias, both Thebans, Criton of Athens and his son Critobulos, Aischines “the Socratic,” Antisthenes of Athens, and Euclides of Megara. It is remarkable that five of Socrates’ immediate disciples (three of them present at his death) were themselves the founders of philosophic schools, to wit, Phaidon, who started a school in his native town Elis, Euclides, founder of the Megarian school, Antisthenes, founder of the Cynic school, and the two who were not present, Aristippos of Cyrene, chief of the Cyrenaic school, and Plato. The absence of the last named was due to illness, and we may well believe it, as it is stated in the Phaidon, by himself. One may say that the whole development of Greek philosophy after the fifth century was influenced by Socrates. We must not forget that during his long activity as an itinerant teacher and counselor Socrates must have made a deep impression upon the minds of people who were not philosophers or writers, yet were able to transmit his ideas, bad but powerful men like Critias and Alcibiades, and a great many others who were not so conspicuous for their qualities or their vices and whose names have not been recorded. Socrates was the first Greek philosopher to establish a moral system and to give priority to moral values. From then on, moral and political ideas were given more importance, and it would be no exaggeration to say that all the Western treatises on the subject derive directly or indirectly from his teaching. His life and death have helped to govern the ethics of the Western world. Their influence has not been cancelled or diminished by the progress of Christianity.

This is a history not of philosophy but of science, and it has sometimes been claimed that however good Socrates’ influence may have been on philosophy, it was bad on science. Bearing in mind his rebellion against the astronomers, the meteorologists, and all the men who considered the heavens and the underground instead of the ordinary level of human life, some critics would call him a reactionary. Olmstead goes so far as to state that Socrates’ influence on science was catastrophic. ⁶⁴⁹ We answer: on the surface, yes, but in reality, no. The men of science who have followed me so far and have read my account of the pre-Socratic philosophers have probably become as impatient and rebellious as Socrates himself. The scientific method of those philosophers was bad, their speculations, based upon insufficient knowledge, were futile, their astronomic views were often silly; they were altogether on the wrong track. Even if one allows (as I do) that those adventures were unavoidable and necessary, they had lasted long enough. The philosophers of the fifth century seem to have exhausted all the fantasies of their age. There was something admirable in their boldness; but there had been enough of that. It was necessary to call a halt and Socrates did it. If he went too far, at any rate somebody had to do what he did, and perhaps no one else would have done it as well.

Moreover, some of his ideas were positive contributions which were necessary for the future development of science. First was his insistence upon clear definitions and classifications. There is no point in discussing if we do not know as correctly as possible what we are talking about. That is fundamental in science, even more than in philosophy. Second, he used a good method of logical discovery (his maieutics) and dialectics. Scientists must be trained to argue without logical flaws; otherwise, they will reach erroneous conclusions. Third, he had a deep sense of duty and respect for the law. The healthy growth of science requires moral purity, truthfulness, individual and social discipline; the bad citizen cannot be a good scientist. Fourth, his rational skepticism provides the basis of scientific research. The scientist must be ready to free the ground of prejudices and superstitions before he can begin to build. Of course, Socrates’ doubting was not sufficiently thorough with regard to such matters as divination, but that was the fault of his environment. Our skepticism is always conditioned by the beliefs, however absurd, that are widely accepted by the majority of our neighbors.

Earlier philosophers were hardly aware of the fundamental importance of those four points; Socrates was fully aware of it, and he insisted upon them repeatedly, with great vigor; for that reason alone he would deserve a very high place in the history of science. His rebellion against sophistry and premature declarations of any kind is one in which every man of science would gladly join. In particular, the refusal to make unwarranted statements is the beginning of scientific wisdom.

Socrates’ distinction between useful and nonuseful knowledge was not so happy; that was reactionary. When he decided that it was ridiculous to study the stars or the “so-called ‘osmos’ of the Professors,” ⁶⁵⁰ he was simply shutting a door that should have remained wide open. One may condemn bad scientific methods or futile controversies, but it is impossible to decide a priori which investigations are useful and which are not. The whole history of science is there to prove it; nothing might have seemed more silly to Socrates than to investigate the behavior of objects in close proximity to a piece of magnetic iron or of rubbed amber; and yet that was the way to the knowledge of magnetism and electricity and to all the electrical industries which have changed the face of the world. Socrates originated the endless quarrel between “pure and applied science,” which may be settled by the remark that the latter would not grow or even exist without the former; he originated the other quarrel between “common sense” and the scientific paradoxes; as we now know, our common sense is often wrong, and the “paradoxes” disguise the real truth. He cannot be blamed too much, however, for making such mistakes at a time when the scientific experience of mankind was still rudimentary.


This chapter, devoted to philosophy of the fifth century, is already very long, though it was restricted to the achievements of a relatively small nation, the Greek-speaking peoples. Within a century, they formulated some of the fundamental problems of philosophy; they did not solve them, but those problems are still teasing the intelligence of men. It would be rewarding to examine the philosophic ideas that were discussed in other nations of the same century, but that would carry us too far. For instance, it would be interesting to evoke K’ung Chi (V B.C.), a grandson of Confucius and the reputed author of two of the “Four Books,” ⁶⁵¹ the Doctrine of the mean and possibly the Great learning, and Mo-ti (V B.C.), who combined utilitarian views with extreme altruism, and is sometimes called the founder of Chinese logic. Parallels with contemporary Hindu philosophy are made impossible, however tempting, by very doubtful chronology. There is one comparison, however, in which we may be permitted to indulge briefly, and this is one with the Book of Job.

That comparison is the more permissible, because it does not oblige us to go to countries as remote as India or China; it suffices to go to a country that was very close to the Greek world, though it remained curiously separated from it. The date of the composition of the Book of Job is uncertain, but the fifth century (or fourth) is the most probable. ⁶⁵² The author was either a Jew or an Edomite,⁶⁵³ in any case a Palestinian, and Palestine was closer to Attica than were many Greek outposts. He was familiar perhaps with Babylonian sources ⁶⁵⁴ and certainly with Egyptian ones; that is, he had drunk from the same sources as some of his Greek contemporaries, and yet the fruit of his meditation was very different from theirs. Consider that mystery for a moment: the Hebrew and the Greek imitated Egyptian models and produced respectively Hebrew and Greek masterpieces. What is imitation? Every man imitates his predecessors (the process of education is to a large extent a method of imitation of accepted models), but he imitates them according to his own genius; if he has any genius, he creates something new.

The Book of Job ⁶⁵⁵ is one of the masterpieces of the world’s literature. Tennyson called it “the greatest poem of all times.” Its subject is one that must always exercise the thoughts of man and vex his soul. How can one explain undeserved punishment, why do the wicked prosper and the good suffer? The theologic problem implied is called theodicy (so named by Leibniz), the vindication of the justice of God which permits natural or moral evil. How can the existence of evil be reconciled with the goodness and omnipotence of God? Job (meaning the author of the Book of Job) realizes that in view of God’s inscrutable transcendance and of man’s puny understanding the problem cannot be solved. A man’s miseries engross his thoughts, but they are insignificant in the scheme of things. How dare we judge? Job’s anxious questioning is deeply moving, because we know no more than he does.

The integrity of the Book of Job is questionable, and its composition heterogeneous. ⁶⁵⁶ We should not pay too much attention to its inconsistencies and ambiguities, for they are natural enough in the language of passionate men and the glory of poetic diction. The Book of Job is a poem, not a scientific treatise. The man who wrote it was a poet of genius, who described with vigorous terseness the marvels of creation and the wisdom of God. He combined knowledge and realism with a vivid imagination, his language is magnificent, and he uses images that have seldom been equaled.⁶⁵⁷

Out of the immemorial wisdom of the Ancient East, the Hebrew prophets had developed the idea of monotheism, endowing a national God with universal jurisdiction, and making of him the living symbol of moral perfection and of absolute justice; out of the same longing, the Greek philosophers had tried to explain the unity of the world on the basis of positive knowledge, and their idea of God was related less to morality than to physics and cosmology. Strangely enough, Job’s God is in some respects closer to the Greek examples than to the Jewish one. He never refers to him by a personal name; his God is not a national but a cosmic one. This coincidence, however, is accident. There is no reason to assume that the author of Job was influenced by Greek models in any way (or vice versa). It is, therefore, highly significant that comparisons have been made between the Book of Job and Aischylos’ Prometheus bound. This proves once more the unity of human genius, which is one of the forms of the unity of nature, and the image of the unity of God.

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