history, as we know, isn’t true. it’s just the most popular opinion about what happened in the past. it’s not what actually happened. nobody knows what happened. but it’s a reasonable estimate and that’s close enough. philosophy is a subject with a history nearly as old as human writing. before humans were scratching in the mud and letting it dry, they were thinking deep thoughts like “why am i here”, “what is life” and “who am i” but few answers really arose at first and people were mostly too busy having to fight against the elements (and other people — some things never change and the violent primitivism of humans is one of those) for survival to spend much time worrying about it in practice. this all changed with the rise of the west’s first real urban hotspot of leisure thought. this is the first of a short series of articles devoted to the history of philosophy. it’s meant to be an introduction, not an exhaustive history. someday i’ll finish my book on philosophy through the ages. but not today. today we just look at the high points. we’ll start with a walk through western thought then move to india and finally look at east-asian philosophy. this may seem odd as western philosophy is the newest of the three but i’m writing in english for a predominantly-western audience and this will feel like something closer to home at first and give a good background to understand where other philosophical traditions fit the story. keep in mind, though, that few of these ideas were new or revolutionary in a global sense. they might have been new to the west. but most of them had been floating around indian cities for centuries and chinese courts for quite a bit longer than that. there are rarely new thoughts. just new people to think them.
let’s begin, though, with the sixth century before the common era in the thriving metropolis of athens, where we find something we now call the “athenian school” — there was no school in the modern sense but it was certainly centered on athens so one-of-two ain’t bad. we usually talk about the first group as the pre-socratic philosophers. which is like talking about the pre-common-era roman empire. it didn’t know it was pre-anything at the time and these philosophers thought they were absolutely revolutionary. they were. they just had no idea what kind of firestorm was about to erupt in philosophy a few short centuries later.
these weren’t a single group. it’s just how we think of them. this was mostly a reaction to the idiocy of religion — yes, even people three-thousand years ago had realized after thinking about it any notion of a world controlled by deities made no sense — there must be natural laws governing movement and change. they focused on the workings of the world around them, what we can think of as cosmology. having tackled that, they also talked about ethics and society, in other words what was good or bad, right or wrong. how should we live? practically speaking, they did the work of modern physicists and philosophers as a package-deal. how does the world work and how are we supposed to live in it?
the problem with the pre-socratics is that almost none of their writings survived. three thousand years is a lot for writing at the best of times (not quite three thousand but more than two and much less than four so we’ll just use that as an estimate and not worry about its inaccuracy as it doesn’t matter) but what really intervened was the same thing that’s destroyed humans for all history, even before it was recorded — war and violence. it’s hard to keep a scroll or book intact even if it doesn’t have to survive fights and fires. with them it’s almost impossible to imagine anything lasting more than a few years. and it realistically didn’t. but that’s ok. we have a good sense of what they talked about because others who came later wrote about them. realistically, there was a trio that is commonly imagined to have started the ball rolling, two with problematically-similar names and an outlier, anaximander, anaximenes and thales (the great-great-grandfather of western philosophy). all three were from miletus on the aegean cost. the other three were from not far away — remember, this was the most prosperous part of the western world at the time. it’s not coincidence all the intelligence was being generated in a small area. give people enough peace and luxury and they’ll get to thinking. make them fight for their survival and they’ll just have to do that. the other three were perhaps names you’ll be more familiar with already, especially one — pythagoras (yes, the guy who loved triangles), heraclitus and xenophanes.
when we think about these six philosophers, the first three are mostly known for thinking about where the world comes from, the origin, in other words. the other three had different focuses. pythagoras focused mostly on the relationship between numbers and the world (and definitely made a lot of progress on it — his eponymous theorem is still taught today in every modern school and you probably remember it, though not in the language he originally discussed it as algebra and symbolic notation were still many centuries away when he died). xenophanes is famous for his criticism of religious idiocy (in particular deity anthropomorphism) and heraclitus talked at length about impermanence (when we talk about vedic teachings in india and the rise of early buddhism, this will sound awfully familiar, though in that context it is far older and less shocking to those who heard it) and constant change as the source of both life and existence.
a little later in a city (town, really) called elea (originally velia but that’s a story for another day and now known as magna graecia, though it doesn’t much ressemble its old versions to say the least) another school or group of philosophy was born (we call it the eleatic school because we’re creative like that and names of places are easy to remember) and it was founded by parmenides with support from zeno and melissus (you can think of xenophanes as loosely belonging to this school, too, as he was a bit of a crossover in both time and location). parmenides looked at the world and sent out a colossal fuck-you to heraclitus — no, impermanence isn’t the important thing — the world is based on a single rigid structure and nothing ever changes. change is an illusion. zeno and melissus supported him and the first wholesale debate between philosophical systems in the west began.
anaxagoras and empedocles showed up and offered another option — pluralism. they said the world wasn’t just made of one thing but many. democritus and leucippus talked about segregate atomism, that all things are made of tiny component parts (this, by the way, is true, though perhaps not quite in the way they imagined it as they thought the parts were indivisible — atom means unbreakable — and we now know even the elemental atoms we speak of are made of subatomic particles, though this is a thoroughly-modern discovery necessitating thousands of years of technological progress beyond their abilities) and those pieces don’t change, only the composition of their joining and separating. that’s actually a pretty good description of the world and the best one to show up before the twentieth century of the common era so we should take a moment to give them some hardcore respect.
one more group is worth mentioning before moving on — the sophists. sophia, knowledge, is probably the most significant focus of philosophy in the premodern period. today we usually think of philosophy as being about understanding and ethics but they didn’t have the generalized knowledge floating around in society we take for granted. so they had to build that first and did an exceptional job doing it — at least until christianity showed up and put the brakes on human progress for a thousand years, give-or-take. the sophists were mainly concerned with philosophy, math and language and the two we usually talk about were protagoras and gorgias. protagoras said you have to understand both sides of an argument to truly have knowledge (if only we could get modern politicians and the general public to realize this!) and gorgias spent a great deal of time talking about the idea of not minimizing unpopular arguments to make them go away. his main focus was to show people you can actually use logic and understanding to fight against ideas, not just pretend there aren’t opposing forces. the sophists are sometimes dismissed as an afterthought but their focus on deeply understanding multiple sides of a debate, thoroughly discussing and refuting each point then coming to a logical conclusion are the underpinnings of what modern society should be and in scientific exploration truly is (most of the time) today.