Socrates was one of the most relevant figures in philosophy. His influence in this field of discipline was so extensive that every philosopher who came after him followed in his footsteps. Though the history of philosophy considers Socrates as a central figure, there were lesser known but equally important philosophers who came before him. These individuals are known as Pre-Socratic philosophers. Now the philosophy before the time of Socrates and the philosophy that Socrates influenced shared similarities and differences.
This essay seeks to discuss what makes these philosophies alike and what sets them apart. What was the pre-Socratic tradition all about? What was its subject matter? To properly describe the pre-Socratic tradition, there are several themes to consider. First, this tradition deviates from mythology and religion (Soccio 62). During the Greek civilization, the knowledge of the people was founded on either mythology or religion. The answers to their inquiries were provided for them by the stories of gods and goddesses. Pre-Socratic tradition relies on neither mythology nor religion.
Second, its main preoccupations are nature and the world (Soccio 63-64). The thinkers before the time of Socrates were not satisfied with what was already established about how nature was or how the world worked. Instead, they posed their own questions on the workings of nature and the universe. Third, the pre-Socratic tradition used reason in their explanations behind the ways of nature and the world (Soccio 64). Prior to the emergence of these thinkers, the only explanations available were those which were mythological or religious in nature.
As was earlier stated, the pre-Socratic tradition deviated from mythology and religion. This deviation is due to the preference for rational investigation. The pre-Socratic thinkers attempted to verify their views with reason (Soccio 64). These three themes define what the pre-Socratic tradition was about. There were many thinkers who were part of the pre-Socratic tradition. Three of these thinkers were Thales, Heraclitus and Anaxagoras (Soccio 64). All three pre-Socratics were preoccupied with discovering the ways of the world with the use of reason rather than mythology and religion.
Thales was the first significant pre-Socratic thinker in history. He upheld the belief that water was the element behind all things. For Thales, every single thing in the world was created with water. He simplified the complex workings of the world into a single substance—water (Soccio 65). The conclusion that Thales had arrived at was not based on religious speculation or mythological presumptions. Instead, he created a rational explanation for what he observed in nature (Soccio 65). Just like Thales, Heraclitus also inquired about the world and the element which kept it together.
If Thales believed it was water, Heraclitus thought it was “Logos” (Soccio 67). “Logos” is not actually an element per se; it was more of a principle. The word “Logos” itself has several meanings, but Heraclitus affirmed that it is the law which maintains everything and is contained in everything (Soccio 68). The Heraclitean “Logos” is the one responsible for the world order (Soccio 68). Lastly, Anaxagoras continues the tradition of the two aforementioned thinkers by proceeding with the inquiry about the cosmos.
If Heraclitus believed that it was ‘Logos” which dictated the order of the world, for Anaxagoras it was “Nous” (Soccio 73). “Nous” is not an element, principle or process. It is defined as the Mind which sets the pattern of the universe. This “Nous” influences the things of the world without being contained in them (Soccio 73). The pre-Socratic tradition is different from Socratic philosophy. It is through the differences between the two in which Socratic philosophy can be defined. The pre-Socratics were interested on cosmology—the causes behind the workings of the world (Soccio 63).
They investigated on nature and the world. Meanwhile, Socratic philosophy is not limited to cosmology. Socrates himself did not write anything, and his teachings were only reflected through the works of other thinkers (King 23). One of those thinkers, and the most influential Socratic philosopher, was Plato. Socratic philosophy is interested in a wide range of philosophical disciplines, which include epistemology, ethics and metaphysics (King 24). The metaphysical influence of Socrates is evident in Plato’s theory of Forms (Kraut).
Another difference between the pre-Socratic tradition and Socratic philosophy is approach. Pre-Socratic thinkers did not have a specific approach to philosophy. Initially, they were more concerned with subject matter rather than method (Soccio 63). On the contrary, Socrates is recognized for his approach or method. It was Socrates who started the process of cross-examination or elenchus; this is popularly known as the Socratic Method (King 23). This process does not impart knowledge; it includes a system of questions which soon reveal what a person really knows.
Plato followed this method, as most of his works were dialogues which feature Socrates (King 24). Just like Socrates, Plato believes that knowledge is not acquired, but simply recollected (King 24). The pre-Socratic thinkers and the Socratics also share similarities. For instance, how do these people count as philosophers? The answer is the same for both. They are philosophers because they were dedicated to seek the answers for questions about nature, the world or life in general.
A philosopher is not distinguished for his wisdom; rather, he is defined by his love for it (Soccio 63). A philosopher is a thinker who seeks out the truth; he devotes his energy in investigations and observations which would bring him closer to the truth. Pre-Socratic thinkers, Socrates and the other Socratics are similar in this account, as they all love wisdom and inquire about the truth. Another similarity between the pre-Socratic thinkers and the Socratics is rational discourse. All these thinkers support their arguments with reason.
Rational discourse necessitates the use of reason in establishing views on reality so that it could be properly verified (Soccio 65). It is a fact that Socrates had a monumental influence on philosophy. However, that does not mean that pre-Socratics have a lesser role in the development of philosophy. The role of Socrates in the history of philosophy is just as important as the thinkers that came before him. Between the pre-Socratic tradition and the Socratic approach, there are more differences than similarities. Regardless, both of these have made remarkable contributions to philosophy in general.
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Topic: The Pre-Socratic Tradition and Socratic Philosophy
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