This is a transcript of Episode 1 on Ionian Philosophy.
Hey guys, it’s Stephen West. You know, simply by downloading this podcast, you’re part of an elite group of humans that seek to educate themselves. Now, you may listen to this podcast and think it’s terrible. I know I would. But don’t forget about the thousands of other podcasts out there that are actually good. Please never stop this quest you have to expand your mind. Cause in my opinion the world needs a lot more people doing what you’re doing. Thanks for listening.
You’re listening to the Philosophize This! Podcast with Stephen West.
Hello everyone, it’s me Stephen West, and boy do we have a lot of great philosophy stuff to talk about today! You know, I just learned something, everybody. It turns out that if you’re listening to this podcast right now, if you were to trace back your family’s heritage as far as you could go, if you were to follow the branches of your family tree all the way up to the canopy of that family tree, you’d find that you come from the Sub-Saharan plains of Africa. Yeah, it turns out all humans that are alive today can trace their roots back to those same, eastern, Sub-Saharan plains. Now, I’m not a paleontologist, folks. Do I look like a paleontologist to you? I’m not trying to attack anyone’s beliefs here. This idea that we’re talking about, that at one point all humans lived in Africa, is called the “Out of Africa” theory, and there’s several other reputable arguments against it. During my research, I realized that how humans colonized the globe is one of the most heavily debated topics in all of human history, and I’m not attacking anyone.
If you want my opinion, the “Out of Africa” theory is probably like most things in history. We’re probably completely wrong, and in ten years some new evidence is gonna turn up that changes how we think about things for the next ten years and so on and so forth. But the reason I’m bringing it up today is because, to understand early philosophy, I think it’s important to understand the early human decisions that made philosophy even able to exist in the first place.
So, bear with me for a second, guys. The story begins here: Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, every human lived together, in Africa. One big, happy family, right? We were a nomadic, tribal people, we loved to move around, but more importantly we loved to socialize with each other. This desire to socialize with each other is a hallmark of the human species no matter how far you go back in history. I mean you even see it today, right? This is why people love social media. This is why we lock a guy in solitary confinement for three months and he comes out completely insane. There’s something inherent in the human brain that wants and needs social interaction, and even humans one hundred thousand years ago weren’t an exception to this. The archeological records show that we would sort of congregate around these makeshift fire pits in caves, I mean just basically in places where we had a strategic advantage against predators and were able to sit around and just, talk. Now, I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that there probably wasn’t much to talk about back then, I mean we were sitting around a fire, so my guess is in between sets of Kumbaya we’d start to talk about things that were plaguing us, like I don’t know, the fact that it’s 170 degrees outside every day in Africa. Or the fact that there’s absolutely no drinkable water anywhere to be found, and that fun little problem probably always leads into the anecdote that your uncle always likes to tell about that day he went to go drink from one of these stagnant pools of dirty water and he got trampled by a hippo like it’s Black Friday at Walmart cause he tried to drink its home.
Africa wasn’t perfect, people, that’s all I’m saying. Africa had its problems. So, instead of complaining about these problems endlessly, we went north, to a place called the Fertile Crescent. Nice neighborhood. You’ve probably heard of it before. If you don’t know what the Fertile Crescent is, it’s right where Europe and Africa meet together by the Mediterranean Sea, there’s kind of a crescent shaped temperate land there. It’s temperate because it’s only a mere 110 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, so, obviously we kept moving. If you get a chance, take a look at one of these maps that shows the migratory paths of these early humans. You can pull it up on Google Images, no problem, but if for some reason you can’t find it or have a boycott against Google, check it out on stephenwestshow.net. We’re gonna have it posted up there as well. There’s a fork in there at the Fertile Crescent. We obviously decided we weren’t gonna keep going north, but then there was kind of a disagreement. Some of these humans went westward over to the area of Greece, Italy, and eventually to Western Europe and some of them went east over to India and China, north to Russia, then crossed the world famous international ice bridge to Alaska and they stopped by Sarah Palin’s house for a few days and eventually made their way down to South America, where the Incas and Mayans eventually cropped up.
But try to imagine being one of these early humans for a second, people. You have no idea what lies ahead of you. I mean, you’re just walking. When these people started moving, they had no idea if the continent of Africa was just surrounded by a pool of lava or something. I mean, they had no idea if something like the Grand Canyon was just over the next hill, they had no idea where their next meal was gonna come from, no idea if, while they were trying to navigate all these problems, there was some ruthless predator stalking them and hunting them the entire time, not to mention that all of this is uncharted, un-navigated terrain where at any point you could just, slip, fall, break a hip, something, right? There was no Saint Joseph’s Medical Center around the corner for these guys back then, and even a slightly mangled arm was just a complete death sentence. The entire thing is just, terrifying to me. If we lived back then, you guys would see me back in Africa cowering in the corner, just working really hard on trying to invent the air conditioner as soon as possible, making do.
What these early human settlers did to cope with the adversity that was thrown their way was they employed the idea of strength in numbers. You see a lot of early military conflict where this concept is used, but this greatly precedes any military conflicts. This proceeds civilization. They realized there was a serious threat to their existence and they only had a handful of people to work with and they grouped together, always around geographic areas with an abundance of resources. This is the first point I want to touch on. If you look back at any progress the human species has made over the course of history, if you look back to any group of humans that did well, their success can be distilled down, not to the fact that one race of people or one group of people were more clever than another, cause we were all really clever, right? It can be distilled down to how much of that cleverness needed to be used to gather the basic necessities of life. And it makes sense, right? If you don’t need to worry about where your next meal is gonna come from or whether a pack of wolves is gonna steal your baby in the middle of the night, you can focus on other things, like art, science, government, and philosophy as it turns out.
Philosophy really is just one of these extra things made possible by extra human brain power. Do you know what I’d compare it to? I’d compare it to the show the Walking Dead. And if you’ve never seen the Walking Dead, I’ll make this quick. So on one hand you have Rick, the protagonist of the series. He has this nice multicultural group of friends he’s always trying to protect and their life is terrible. They’re like the early human settlers; they’re always on the run. Heaven forbid anyone stops to have a five minute, heartfelt conversation about their life before the zombies took over, cause there’s zombies in every bush. You just hear, like, (zombie moan) and then there’s this giant zombie dog pile on top of someone and you never see them on the show again. They have no idea where their next meal is gonna come from, they’re always eating those disgusting cans of Vienna sausages, their life is just like the early human settlers. They have no idea what the next day holds for them but, conversely you have Woodbury. Formerly a residential street, you got walls, towers, armed guards constantly looking out for threats. The people in that city, although they live in the same volatile, unpredictable world as the other people, their strength in numbers allows them to focus on other things, like why they’re taking orders from the only non-pirate in the history of the world to wear a black eye patch.
Now, western philosophy begins in two geographic areas that are actually right next to each other. Do you remember that fork in the road that we were talking about at the Fertile Crescent? Well one of those paths goes westward on that fork and these two geographic regions we’re talking about right now lie along that westward path, Greece and Italy. Both these areas are just groups of these little Woodbury style cities that are closely knitted together. All Pre-Socratic thought is organized as coming from one of these two geographic regions. One is the Italian style of thinking, as you can probably guess, that’s modern day Italy and Sicily, that area over there. And the other one, the one we’re gonna talk about today, that’s the Ionian or the Greek style of thinking. That’s modern day Turkey and Greece and where those two countries meet the Mediterranean Sea, that whole region right there, that whole coastline is known as the Ionian coast. Now, both these geographic regions not only knew about each other, they influenced each other, they refuted each other, and that little high school rivalry dynamic that existed between them, it turned out to be extremely beneficial for the progress of philosophy in the long run.
But before we talk about them and all their brilliant ideas, I think it’s important to address the elephant in the room. Ironically, it’s an elephant that I’m sure next to nobody even cares about, but to be fair there’s got to be at least one 60 year old white dude that teaches philosophy at NYU listening to the podcast right now and he’s going to be really upset if I don’t address this. The term Pre-Socratic. Major source of contention in the philosophical world. Countless fights have been started at philosophy themed bars over the years because of this. But it’s something that’s interesting to know, and it basically comes down to this. In 469 BC, a guy named Socrates was born that was a complete game changer for the world of philosophy. No question about it. I mean, people that don’t know anything about philosophy have heard his name before. He had such a profound influence on which philosophical questions were asked and who could ask them. Because I mean, before him, philosophy was something reserved for the elite and the rich to study. And he kinda made it so that pretty much everyone was a philosopher. It was huge. It was a big day in philosophy actually. So big that in the early 1900s some guy was writing a book on ancient Greek philosophy, and he just decided to refer to everyone that came before him as a Pre-Socratic thinker. Like Pre-Socratic. Like before Socrates. And the term kinda just stuck I guess. Now, there’s really good arguments on both sides, but some people don’t like the term Pre-Socratic. They say it undermines just how brilliant all of them were and even kinda insinuates they were inferior to Socrates in some way.
Personally I can kinda see where they’re coming from. I mean, try to imagine if you had a sister named Jessica, for example. Let’s say Jessica got all straight As through high school. Head cheerleader. Valedictorian. Got accepted to Cambridge. Was knighted. Basically she’s an accomplished person for all intents and purposes. And you’re back in downtown Cleveland working at some pickle factory. I mean, I don’t judge you. It’s got good benefits, right? But imagine if your parents, every time they were talking to their friends, was like “Hey, ah yes, you’re a Pre-Jessica child. Yes, Pre-Jessica”. Wow. I have no idea why your parents are related to the Monopoly guy in that example, but you can definitely see how it would be condescending, right? Now, if you do any basic research online, you’re gonna find a ton of people that say it’s appropriate to label them something different because Pre-Socratics dealt with strictly metaphysical claims. Metaphysics is the study of what everything around us is made of and how did it get here. Where Socrates didn’t deal with stuff like that. He dealt with issues surrounding epistemology. Epistemology is the study of knowledge. How do we know what we know? And I guess if you read that online it’s like most things on the internet. It’s not entirely true. Yes, it is true they dealt with less issues of epistemology than Socrates. But they definitely did address them. So to use that as your only validation to cast them into exile on this Island of Misfit Philosophers before Socrates is just dishonest. But that said, we’re still gonna call them Pre-Socratics because pretty much everyone else does.
And it actually works in coalition nicely with our purposes here today. I mean, at least whenever I’m learning anything, it really helps to be able to categorize things into different groups. It helps me remember it better. Like, when I think of early western philosophy, I think of it in three chunks. There’s the Pre-Socratics. Then the next chunk is Socrates, Plato, Aristotle. Then the next chunk would be Post-Aristotle to the medieval period, etc. I mean it just makes it a lot easier. But just as long as we keep in mind that we’re categorizing them not because they’re inferior to Socrates in any way, but just to identify them for their own unique characteristics. I mean, you have to keep in mind that when these first Pre-Socratics started popping up, which is right around 620 BC, two thousand years ago, the breaking scientific news at the time was that magnets were alive and had souls. I mean, it made sense, right? I mean, you held a piece of metal up to it and it created its own movement. So it’s basically alive. That’s how they saw it. And the guy that came up with that theory was an amazing guy. And he’s not only the guy that we’re going to talk about first here today, but he was the first philosopher of all time. And his name was Thales
Thales was the OG of philosophy. I mean, nobody came before this guy, you guys, nobody. He had nothing to pull from. Nothing to go off of. He was it. He really was the first person to look around him at all of the amazing nature. All the rocks, the trees, the birds, and say maybe all this wasn’t put here by some supernatural god. Maybe there’s a rational explanation for everything. But the way I always think about him is if TV existed back when Thales was alive, this guy would have been The Bachelor. He would be the perfect bachelor for a number of reasons. First, have you ever seen one of those Greek likeness statues of the guy? The man could be mistaken for a Greek god. If you glanced at him out of the corner of your eye, you might think that the gods actually exist. He was a strapping, attractive man. Chiseled features. Full-bodied, voluminous curly hair. He was like a guy on an Herbal Essences commercial. Strong jawline. I can’t say much about his eyes, cause as you know, these Greek likeness statues don’t have pupils. I guess we hadn’t evolved them yet? But if he had pupils, there’s no question they’d be deep, generous, battle-hardened eyes. But that’s not all. No. I mean just being a pretty face doesn’t get you on The Bachelor. You gotta be the whole package. He was very highly educated for his time. Really well-versed in geometry and astronomy. Two subjects that historians think he picked up during his travels to Egypt earlier on in life. I mean, this guy just goes on vacation and, you know, learns two complete areas of study that no one else around him knows. I mean, no big deal. So there’s no question he had an extremely high intellect. But the main quality that makes him a shoe in to play The Bachelor was that he was incredibly rich. And not to mention, a genius business man.
There’s an infamous story about him making a ton of money in the olive industry during one particular harvest season and the story generally goes like this. Back then, everyone thought there was a direct relationship between how pleased the harvest gods were and how many crops were yielded at harvest time. Thales didn’t buy that. He looked around and noticed that whenever there was a significant amount of rainfall on a particular year, that would therefore be transmuted into a significant amount of crops come harvest time. So, on one of these years when it was raining more than usual, he just went out and bought up all of the olive presses in town, knowing that everybody was gonna need them. Essentially he got a full monopoly on the entire olive industry, and then when that significant harvest of olives inevitably came, he just sat back and cleaned up. I mean, he just cashed checks while people rented equipment form him all season long. And to make it even worse, he said the only reason why he even did it was to show everyone how easy it was to get rich. I mean he didn’t even need the money.
And if you look at this story, in a weird way, you get a pretty good idea of who Thales was on the whole. It kinda encompasses what his entire life was. I mean, put yourself in his position for a second. He was a philosopher dedicated to find rational explanations for everything around him during a time when all the people around him just kinda mindlessly attributed everything that happened as divine intervention from some god. I mean, basically, he lived in modern day Alabama. Yeah. Now do you feel bad for this guy? But by knowing the sorts of things everyone was reading back then, we can really understand just how far outside the box he was thinking. I mean, it really speaks to how amazing it is that he even came up with the theories that he did, hearing this stuff. Just for some context, I’m gonna read an excerpt from something called Theogony from a guy named Hesiod, and this was written in the 7th century BC, and for all intents and purposes, this was the bible of everyone living at the time. It explained the origins of the gods, the origins of man, it gave explanations for tons of everyday things, like earthquakes, thunder, lightning. Apparently, all of these were just the result of some god doing something in the god realm. And this whole book, this story would have definitely been required reading for anyone living back then. More importantly, as far as explanations for the world around him are concerned, this was all Thales had. This is it. And this particular passage explains why some boats that are out at sea experience high winds. This is their god explanation of high winds at sea:
“And from Typhoeus come boisterous winds which blow damply, fitfully upon the seas. Some rush upon the misty sea and work great havoc among men with their evil raging blasts. For varying with the season they blow, scattering ships and destroying sailors. And men who meet these upon the sea have no help against the mischief. Others again over the boundless flowering earth spoil the fair fields of men who dwell below, filling them with dust and cruel uproar.”
Now as far as I’m concerned, this is what makes Thales such an influential figure in philosophy. All his theories aside, I think this is what makes him so amazing. I mean, most pioneers, if you look at history, they’ve been forced to innovate. Some need wasn’t being met, so for the sake of survival, they had to flip the script, so they did. Thales, he had explanations for everything. And not only did he have to come up with completely novel rational ones, but he lived in a world where everyone saw him as an outcast, and he had to tell them they were wrong and crazy. For that, he’s a hero to me, and it more than makes up for the whole “magnets are alive” thing. But to be fair to him and just to address that real quick, there were just a lot less words back then than there are today, and it’s been speculated by modern historians that saying something had a soul or was alive, it really was just alluding to the fact that it had some divine mysterious properties that couldn’t really be explained at the time. But Thales didn’t just talk about magnets. I mean he had a ton of really interesting theories. The most notable of all his theories, the one if you read a book on Thales that you’re gonna read about first, his claim to fame. It’s his theory that all things around us are made up of various different forms of water. He said everything was made of water. It’s actually really interesting how he came to this conclusion. Cause he had reasons. I mean, it’s not like he just randomly said water. He had several reasons why it seemed like a completely rational concept at the time.
Firstly, he looked out at the ocean and saw there was a ton of water out there. First things first. He actually thought that all land is just floating on top of a large body of water, like a ship or something. Or like a log on a lake, as he put it. Secondly, he saw that every single life form he saw needed water to survive. Not to mention all the different forms water came in. I mean, you have ice, which is very hard and sturdy. You have liquid water, which not only is a different form of water, but it molds to any shape that it’s held in. You have steam, that’s water in the form of gas. I mean, basically he just saw water as a very versatile substance overall. And he concluded that because water was essential to life. Because it could take on basically any form it was held in. Because it was capable of motion. Because it was capable of change. That all things must just be water somewhere between ice, water, and steam. Now, in the world of metaphysics. If you remember, metaphysics is the study of what everything around us is made of and how did it get here. The idea that everything is made up of a single fundamental substance like water is called monism. And basically all the Pre-Socratics agreed with this line of reasoning. They just disagreed on what that single fundamental substance was. Some thought it was fire, some thought it was air. There are a few different examples. But above everything, Thales was a teacher. He loved to teach people. he came from one of those little Woodbury style cities called Miletus, and his students and his students’ students became known as the Milesian school of thought to history. Thales taught a bunch of people, but the most notable is a guy named Anaximander.
Anaximander that is one of these guys that had a lot of brilliant ideas, but he has one big idea that people still talk about today. It had to do with this. Basically, he couldn’t imagine how the first human beings ever came into existence in the first place. His rationale was, “Look, we’re completely defenseless at birth, right? How did we even survive into maturity in the first place? I mean, we’re babies. How do we take care of ourself?” He concluded that the only way this could have happened is if the first human beings lived in the bellies of a fish that just kind flopped around on the beach for years while we grew inside of them and then eventually once we were able to be self sufficient, fend for ourself, we cut our way out of the belly and just went on with our days. And that’s where humans come from. Now, there’s a lot of people today. Well, not a lot. Some people today in this post-Darwin world that say “Wow, look. This guy’s a genius. Here’s a primitive version of the theory of evolution. He saw it coming, right? He’s a genius.” Uh, no. That’s not what it is, actually. It’s a theory of how the first humans would survive to maturity if we existed in some alternate universe where babies could just manifest themselves inside the belly of a fish. And start a new species. And honestly I think most of that speculation comes from people that don’t read things very well. But you can’t really hate on Anaximander that much, right? Philosophy didn’t need to continue. He carried on the tradition. He taught a bunch of people himself. His most notable student was a guy named Anaximenes who, like Anaximander, had a lot of brilliant thoughts himself.
But if we’re gonna talk about the Milesian school, the most important thing to note about all these people is that Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes were the three crown jewels of the Milesian school of thought. I mean, if you wanted to generalize even further, you could. You could say that Thales had the brilliant, innovative ideas, and Anaximander and Anaximenes were just slightly more sophisticated versions of them that came years later. It turns out people like Anaximander and Anaximenes weren’t enough. Philosophy would need someone that was going against the grain. Someone so arrogant and so disconnected from the conventional way of thinking that they could innovate an entirely new rational explanation for things around us. And the guy that did that is the next guy we’re gonna talk about. His name was Heraclitus.
There have been a ton of philosophers over the years that have locked themselves away in a castle, trying to isolate themselves away from the public so they don’t pollute their thoughts with their conventional ways of thinking. You know, trying to think better with no distortion. But there’s probably nobody out of all those people that enjoyed the isolation more than Heraclitus. He was not a people person. He would have made the worst hostess at Applebee’s in the history of the world. He was an angry, “get off my lawn” kinda guy that had nothing but contempt for everyone around him that didn’t understand him or his theories on existence. I mean, the stories are everywhere. Look up any story where someone talks to him or asks him a question. How about look up a story where people even just give him passing compliments. He just belittles them or insults them every single time.
There’s one story that a guy named Diogenes tells about Darius the First, the king of Persia. One of, if not the most, powerful men in the world at the time sending Heraclitus a letter, complimenting him. I mean, Darius the First is just telling him he’s fascinated by his book on natural philosophy that he just released. He’s captivated by his explanation for the order of the universe and that the Greeks never give enough recognition to brilliant thinkers like Heraclitus and that he would love for him to come to his castle in Persia and explain some things to him that he doesn’t fully grasp. And Heraclitus gets the memo and sends back this.
“All the men that exist in the world are far removed from truth and just dealings. But they are full of evil foolishness which leads them to insatiable covetness and vain glorious ambition. I, however, forgetting all their worthlessness and shunning satiety, and who wish to avoid all envy on the part of my countrymen and all appearance of arrogance will never come to Persia, since I am quite contented with a little and live as best suits my own inclination.”
And I know what you’re thinking. “Come on, we’re gonna vilify this guy for that? Can we really label this guy antisocial?” I mean, so what? He’s a little “meh” about traveling across the world to see a Persian king hell bent on conquest. That’s not that uncommon of Greeks at the time, right? Well, yeah that’s true. But how about the quotes that come during that phase in his life where he’s known as Heraclitus the Hustler? I mean, there are several people that have written about this giant chunk of his life where all Heraclitus did all day every day is just play dice. or a primitive game very similar to dice. i mean, he just played it all day. he just took people’s money. when a group of citizens banded together and deemed him to be this immensely intelligent person and begged him to write laws for the city so that things would be better. he just looks at them and goes “You wretches, what are you you wondering at? Is it not better to do this than to meddle with public affairs in your company?” He was mean, man. he was like scrooge. but unlike scrooge, he didn’t have billions of dollars in dirty money to buy tiny tim a prosthetic leg at the end of the book. so he didn’t even have a redeeming quality. he compared everyone around him with people that were in a deep sleep or drunk. he said people are like children and their opinions are like their toys.
there’s this story about him that takes place when he’s an old, old man. on death’s doorstep. plagued by a condition called edema, where the body retains excess fluids. it was causing him a great deal of pain. so to try to cure himself of this he goes to all the doctors in the area and asks them for their advice. but after talking with them, he just completely discounts everything they have to say because he sees himself as intellectually superior to them. and his genius medical idea to cure himself of it was to bury himself up to his neck in cow manure and just sit in the sun. i’m not joking. yeah, he did it. his thinking was the sun would heat up the manure to the point that it would extract all the excess liquid from his system. long story short, he died in that cow poop cocoon he fashioned for himself that day. very sad ending to a great life.
But long after his death, Heraclitus would become known as the riddler. It’s because he wrote in this weird paradoxical style of writing. This style of writing confused people more than it impressed them. But that might have been exactly what he was going for. On several different occasions, he made it clear that he wanted his thoughts and doctrines just kept secret. away form everybody. Nobody should know about this stuff that I’m writing down. and even though his ideas were truly groundbreaking, his whole demeanor. His whole “I’m gonna yell at everyone all the time and listen to emo music all the time” thing. that didn’t get him a ton of followers looking to carry on his legacy. so, at first we had Thales, right? he defined everything by it’s unchanging essence. but Heraclitus wasn’t like that at all. he saw everything in the universe as being governed by some divine logos, as he called it. now, it’s not entirely clear what he meant by the world logos. but the general consensus among people a lot smarter than i am that have dedicated their lives to philosophy say that it seems to be that he meant some universal cosmic law that governs all things. see, he thought that what we think of as opposites are actually just one thing. day and night? they’re really just one thing in his eyes, just at opposite ends of a spectrum that have day and night constantly battling one another. or as he liked to explain it, and he probably made this up when he was hustling people out of their money every day, “day and night are just two sides of the same coin.” and probably said it really weird like that too.
He said that everything is in a permanent state of flux or change. an example of this is when day changes into night and then back into day again. the universe is kept in a state of unity by these battling opposites. he also thought that because things are constantly changing you can never really definite exactly what something is. and this leads me to his most famous saying. the one everybody’s heard. it’s about a river. he said “you can never step into the same river twice.” that may seem a little extreme at first, but let me explain. What he meant by this is that if you step into a river, water touches your foot, right? You get wet. If you took that foot out of the water and then put it back in again, it would get wet by touching a completely different set of water molecules. So it’s not the same river. But when humans look at a river, they see it as one unchanging massive fixture in a landscape. nobody had really thought of this before. I mean, some things can not be moving in one way, but be moving all over the place in another. one other example of this is like when you spin a top. it stays in one fixed point on the table, but it’s actually spinning and changing rapidly in a circular motion. but either way, his point about the river was a good one. and being a guy that buries himself up to his neck in manure, i’m sure the townspeople loved the idea of him doing his philosophy work inside of a river. To reiterate, he was saying this: day and night are one and the same. hot and cold? one and the same. he saw these kinds of opposites as similar things to rivers. see, nothing retains it’s identity for very long because it’s constantly changing like the water molecules in the river. it’s in a constant state of flux, battling toward one end of the spectrum or another.
One other reason it’s obvious to him that these opposites were related in some way is that one of them always gives the other one its significance. An example of this is like, only by being hot can we truly appreciate what being cold is. only by being sad can we truly appreciate the feeling of being happy. But a modern example i guess could be the idea of hunger. let’s say I’m sitting at home alone and hungry, as usual. So i go to my freezer and i get a hungry man TV dinner. but immediately after i finish eating that brownie with the bits of corn inside of it, my friend calls me up and says “hey, hey Steve, i got a promotion. let’s go out to dinner and celebrate” well, personally, right then, i would just shove a pink highlighter down my throat and throw the TV dinner up all over the ground, but that’s only because i know that everything tastes better on an empty stomach. being hungry helps me appreciate the feeling of being full, much like Heraclitus was talking about. now, maybe you agree with Heraclitus, maybe you disagree. Socrates famously said Heraclitus suffered from a serious case of flux in the head. that’s funny, yeah? i mean, if you don’t like Heraclitus, you’re in good company. Plato, one of the most notable philosophers of all time, he did him dirty as they say. I’m only half kidding. it’s not really that big of a deal, but one of the very few followers of Heraclitus, his name was Cratylus. and he took this flux theory we just talked about that Heraclitus had just come up with and he created this super extreme version of it that didn’t actually make any sense and was pretty ridiculous, but then Plato took it and attributed it to Heraclitus. and Aristotle wrote Heraclitus off completely on that basis alone, and i mean it was basically an ancient Greek soap opera. but like i said, it doesn’t really matter now. because in modern times, we have the luxury of seeing things as they really were. and there’s no question Heraclitus brought to light a lot of important concepts, like things being full of change while appearing to be at rest, like the river. and the connectedness of everything in the universe like things are actually one, just in a constant state of flux. but with each successive generation of philosophy, ideas mature. ideas grow. because the next guy always has the luxury of looking at the people that came before him and using their ideas to embellish his own ideas. and it’s through that process that the next guy we’re gonna talk about came up with what many people claim to be the crowning achievement of all Pre-Socratic thinkers. his name was Democritus.
Democritus is known as the godfather of the idea that everything around us consists of atoms and empty space. Democritus took Thales’ idea of monism and he turned it into a taboo, hated doctrine that was almost completely destroyed over the years. he really is a great example of the ability of long forgotten or long denounced philosophical views that are way ahead of their time to have kind of a resurgence once science catches up to philosophy. cause from 470 BC all the way even to the 17th century during the scientific revolution around Galileo people just completely dismissed his ideas. i mean even Aristotle and Plato didn’t like or endorse them at all. Plato even went as far as to say he’d prefer to have all of his books burned. but, the only reason they weren’t is because they were already in too wide of circulation to make a difference. you can’t get all of them. i guess after Plato and Aristotle, Epicurus liked what he had to say a little bit. but shortly after Epicurus, thought was dominated and controlled by the Christians who had no place for the idea of atoms existing. if they didn’t like what you had to say they just squelched you. Democritus and his teacher Leucippus came up with a completely mechanistic view of what the universe was made of. they said that everything was atoms and empty space, or void as they called it. also, they claimed there was no after life, which really made the Christians mad. they said that the atoms that make up your body are just carried away to eventually make up other things. and if all that didn’t get them enough hate, the best known version of atomism. the one that everyone thinks of back then was presented in an openly anti religious poem called De Rerum Natura by a guy named Lucretius. Democritus himself though was really well-traveled. really well educated. somewhere along these extensive travels he’s said to have seen particle of dust floating in around in shafts of light shining through a window. and he said to just start thinking of the prospect of everything being made of particles so small they cant be seen with the naked eye. the word atom can be separated into two parts. it really means “uncuttable”. “a” means not and “tom” means “to cut” and this idea that the world is made up of a seemingly infinite amount of little particles that can’t be cut, it went really well with something else he was trying to get to the bottom of. see he had this problem that was created by a combination of two lines of thinking. one of these two lines of thinking was a paradox presented by a guy named Zeno, and Zeno is a guy that’s known for just crating these amazing paradoxes that have even led people into madness. there’s a story of a guy that just thought about one of his paradoxes so long he was driven into madness. he was never the same again.
But the one that was causing Democritus and Leucippus problems you’ve probably all heard it before. or at least a modernized version of it. and if you haven’t, here’s one, it basically went like this. let’s say Usain bolt is running the 100 yard dash at the Olympic games. Zeno says that in order for Usain bolt to get to the finish line, he first has to travel half the distance to the finish line. right? there’s a halfway point in between those. 50 yards. and then he must travel half the distance between that halfway point and the finish line, and so on and so forth until he’s just standing right be the finish line vibrating. he could never actually finish the race is what Zeno said. Democritus and his teacher Leucippus thought this whole paradox remained completely unsolvable because it relied on the idea that the halfway distance can be divided into infinity. so they hypothesized about some particle that was so incredibly small that it couldn’t be divided anymore. then the paradox would be solved, right? so that was the first thing they were considering. the second thing they were considering was an idea by a guy named Parmenides who we’re gonna study extensively in the next episode. but his main thing that they were addressing was his idea that something can’t come from nothing. and that change is impossible because of that face. nothing can come into existence because it didn’t exist before it came into existence. that was his way of thinking.
Their answer to this was that the atoms things are made up of don’t in themselves change, but the configuration of atoms changes. some going away, some new ones being attracted. the everyday items that these atoms are making up look like they’re changing because atoms are leaving them, but they’re not actually changing. they’re really just made up of this fundamental one unchanging substance. their entire theory actually fits in really well with all of Parmenides theories. the only huge difference in the fundamentals between Democritus and Leucippus and Parmenides is that Parmenides thought that empty space was impossible. where Democritus spoke of the universe consisting of atoms and void. the void being the empty space in this case. but if you look at the atom of Democritus and Leucippus, it actually greatly resembles what Parmenides refers to as “the one”. Parmenides thought everything is one. there is no empty space. w’ere all just made up of one, big giant thing. the universe is one thing. in an abstract way, this is kind of what Democritus and Leucippus were talking about with their atom. those two things are very similar. Parmenides’ ideas of the one and Democritus and Leucippus’ idea of atoms. and both cases they’re eternal, they never change, they have no parts, and no empty space inside. if any of this is confusing to you, i wouldn’t worry about it to much. next episode, we’re going to focus on Parmenides very seriously. but just real quick. if there’s another line of thinking that their theory was influenced by, it would be by the pythagoreans. and their idea that the universe is made up of combinations of units that are held up to be the purest form of matter. the pythagoreans are another group of people we’re gonna discuss next time too. in the case of the pythagoreans thought, it was numbers. in the case of Democritus, it was atoms. that’s the difference. so, the idea of atomism is often attributed mostly to Democritus. this guy Aristotle spoke about the ideas originating from Leucippus, his teacher. and considering the work as published in the year 450 BC, that would make Democritus only 10 years old at the time. so it’s widely considered by philosophers to just be a collaborative effort associated with the many, many other books Democritus wrote. Democritus actually wrote more books than all of the other Pre-Socratics combined. but their idea was simple at it’s core. there were atoms with different shapes and sizes flurrying around in the void until they eventually collided with one another to make up the every day items that we see. like attracts like was the theory behind it. and it was a very common Greek idea at the time. it meant things that are similar to each other tend to be attracted to and around each other. they saw it all over the place in nature, right? creatures flock with their own kind. as Democritus put it, doves flock with doves. cranes flock with cranes. pebbles are always in a group on the beach. in fact, they actually just applied the idea of atomism to account for everything. i mean, why stop? they’re on a roll, right? they also thought that every item has different types of atoms that correspond to the properties or characteristics of the actual item. for example, they thought when something tasted a certain way, it was directly related to the type of atoms it was made up by. they thought sweet things are made up by large, rounded atoms, and that’s what made them taste sweet. sour things were made up of jagged, bulky atoms with many angles, and that’s what made them taste sour. oily tasking atoms are find, round, and small, and so on. they didn’t have any evidence to support this. it just kinda seemed like common sense to them at the time, and for 2000 years people agreed. he describes this in his own words and sounds like one of the biggest bad asses in the history of philosophy. it’s one of my favorite quotes in all of philosophy that I’ve read. it goes like this: “by convention sweet, by convention bitter. by convention hot, cold, by convention color. but in reality atoms and void.” Democritus was a rationalist. he preferred to use reason to arrive at knowledge. he didn’t trust the senses. he famously is known to think of everything in terms of “true born” knowledge which is using reason to arrive at conclusions and bastard knowledge, which not only is very mean of him, but also is any evidence gained through the senses. he basically says that the sense are weak. the sense are deceptive. they have small limits imposed upon them. when something gets too small for the human eye to see it doesn’t not exist. just because the eyes can’t see it. that’s why he thought the best way to arrive ti conclusions is through reason. and it makes sense wit his entire theory of atomism being based on something that he himself can’t see. here’s a few other neat facts about atoms from Democritus: he thought that we were constantly being rained upon by this atomic rain. atoms constantly entering and exiting the body. he also applied it to all things weather, too. saying that thunder is causes when a cloud’s atoms get uneven and forces down the cloud. that’s what creates that massive crashing sound. Democritus and Leucippus basically took all the ideas that they thought seemed best and slightly adjusted them to that atoms would fit into the picture it’s pretty amazing that in this game that philosophers play at arriving at rational explanations for the things around them, to cover so many bases and give explanations for os many things with one single theory is pretty incredible. it really is the one size fits all approach to explaining the universe. the concept of atomism would go on to affect a massive amount of philosophers and scientists and all sorts of people. a few of the more notable ones would be Galileo, like i said, Robert Boyle on his things having primary and secondary qualities paper, and eventually john lock and his famous treaties on the properties of things. but before we end it’s important to say a few things. yes, it’s amazing he had the insight to use reason to guess correctly that the world is made up of these colorless, odorless particles that are too small to see. but, there were a ton of philosophers that used that same reason to come to a ton of incorrect conclusions and to attribute the glory and the entire concept of atoms to Democritus completely undermines the brilliance of future scientists that worked their butts off in the lab to prove these things on a scientific basis. secondly, maybe you’re saying “ah, he said these particles are uncuttable. and didn’t we cut open the atom in 1932 famously?” yes, you’re right, guy. but we also named that particle the atom. the only thing that means is that we were idiots 2000 years later when we started branding names into the sides of particles. maybe the atom of Democritus will be found some day. it certainly hasn’t been disproven, right? modern string theory doesn’t seem to be going in that direction, but there’s no question the theory of atomism is probably the most significant thing to come out of any of the Pre-Socratics.
So let’s try to tie this all together guys. A wise man once said to me “the answer is always completely obvious once you already know the answer.” These men we’re thinking about today. They lived a long time ago. And i’m going to let you in on a secret. Spoiler alert. Better go grab your walker with the little tennis ball on the feet so you don’t collapse when I tell you this. Pretty much everything these men hypothesized, turns out, it’s completely wrong. I know,it’s shocking right. but what is shocking to me is that some people think these guy are stupid or closer to the apes or less evolved than we are because how could they actually believe any of this stuff? the only reason we don’t believe this stuff today is because we have the luxury of going to the library and reading about them suggesting it thousands of years ago. and i guarantee you thousands of years form now the people that live then will be looking back at the crazy stuff we think now and they’ll be making fun of us. saying that we’re closer to the apes, it’s the nature of science though right? experiment and progress until you reach an irrefutable truth. and for anyone who hasn’t check recently. we’re nowhere near those irrefutable truths. when it comes to everything. I mean just 50 years ago we had doctors endorsing cigarettes in magazines. so philosophize this. look around you. What do you take to be absolutely true that probably will be proven someday to be completely false.