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Your responses to the essay questions below will be graded based on the following rubric:
15 Points
your Thesis
Presents a thesis that makes a defensible claim and responds to all parts of the
(0-15 Points)
25 Points
Addresses the prompt with at least three examples of relevant evidence. (0-15
Note: Thesis can be one or two sentences and should appear in the introduction.
Examples are appropriately detailed and relevant in substantiating the thesis of the
(0-10 Points)
25 Points
Describes the importance of the philosophical works and their relationships. (0-15
Explains why the philosophical works discussed are relevant to the prompt. (0-10
20 Points
Explains the connections between the argument and the course themes and/or
historical periodization. (0-20 Points)
Organization/ The essay is well organized. Paragraphs and sentences clearly follow a logical,
readable sequence that readers will follow. Essay includes a clear introduction and
15 Points
The essay also avoids grammatical errors that undermine the demonstration of
content knowledge. (0-15 Points)
(out of 100 Possible Points)
Notes on Accuracy: Students are required to show defensible content knowledge. However, given the time
constraints, the essay may contain errors that do not detract from the overall quality, as long as the content used
to advance the argument is accurate.
Essay questions:
(1) What role did arguments for the existence of God play in the intellectual and historical changes
occurring during the ancient and medieval periods? State clearly one such argument covered in this
course. Why did some of the philosophers we have studied find this argument compelling? What
objections were raised against it? Your answer should discuss the views of at least one ancient
philosopher and at least one medieval philosopher.
(2) What is the God hypothesis? What are the phenomena it is supposed to explain? Is there still a need for
the God hypothesis to explain these phenomena or are there alternative explanations? If so, what are
those alternative explanations? Do they explain these phenomena better than the God hypothesis does?
If so, why? If not, why not? Discuss in detail.
Your responses:
A Historical Introduction to Philosophy
Professor Emeritus, Lehigh University
Visiting Fellow, George Mason University
New York  Oxford
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Melchert, Norman, author. | Morrow, David R., author.
Title: The great conversation : a historical introduction to philosophy /
Norman Melchert, Professor Emeritus, Lehigh University; David R. Morrow,
Visiting Fellow, George Mason University.
Description: Eighth edition. | New York : Oxford University Press, 2018.
| Includes bibliographical references and index.
Identifiers: LCCN 2018011655 | ISBN 9780190670610 (hardcover)
Subjects: LCSH: Philosophy–Textbooks.
Classification: LCC BD21 .M43 2018 | DDC 190–dc23
LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2018011655
Printing number: 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Printed by LSC Communications Inc.
United States of America
the soul 31
how to live 33
A Word to Instructors xiii
A Word to Students xv
Acknowledgments xxi
The Vedas and the Upaniá¹£ads 35
The Buddha 38
the four noble truths and the
noble eightfold path 39
right view 41
Non-Self and Nāgasena 43
The Brahmanical Schools 45
vaiÅšeá¹¢ika 46
nyĀya 48
The Great Conversation in India 53
Hesiod: War Among the Gods 2
Homer: Heroes, Gods, and Excellence 4
Thales: The One as Water 10
Anaximander: The One as the Boundless 11
Xenophanes: The Gods as Fictions 13
Sketch: Pythagoras 15
Heraclitus: Oneness in the Logos 17
Parmenides: Only the One 22
Zeno: The Paradoxes of Common Sense 27
Atomism: The One and the Many Reconciled 28
the key: an ambiguity 29
the world 30
Democracy 55
The Persian Wars 56
The Sophists 58
rhetoric 60
relativism 62
Athens and Sparta at War 67
Aristophanes and Reaction 69
physis and nomos
A Brief History of Ancient China 75
Mozi 77
The School of Names 80
The Later Mohists 82
Zhuangzi 83
Sketch: Laozi 88
Character 92
Is Socrates a Sophist? 95
What Socrates “Knows” 97
we ought to search for truth 98
human excellence is knowledge 99
all wrongdoing is due to ignorance 100
the most important thing of all is to
care for your soul 100
Euthyphro 103
translator’s introduction 103
the dialogue 103
commentary and questions 111
Apology 116
translator’s introduction 116
the dialogue 117
commentary and questions 129
Crito 135
translator’s introduction 135
the dialogue 135
commentary and questions 142
Phaedo (Death Scene) 144
translator’s introduction 144
the dialogue (selection) 145
commentary and questions 147
Knowledge and Opinion 149
making the distinction 149
we do know certain truths 151
the objects of knowledge 152
the reality of the forms 154
The World and the Forms 155
how forms are related to the
world 155
lower and higher forms 158
the form of the good 160
The Love of Wisdom 162
what wisdom is 162
love and wisdom 165
The Soul 168
the immortality of the soul 169
the structure of the soul 170
Morality 171
The State 177
Problems with the Forms 179
Aristotle and Plato 182
Logic and Knowledge 184
terms and statements 185
truth 187
reasons why: the syllogism 188
knowing first principles 190
The World 192
nature 193
the four “becauses” 194
is there purpose in nature? 195
teleology 196
First Philosophy 197
not plato’s forms 198
what of mathematics? 199
substance and form 199
pure actualities 201
god 201
The Soul 203
levels of soul 204
soul and body 205
nous 206
The Good Life 208
happiness 208
virtue or excellence (areté) 212
the role of reason 213
responsibility 216
the highest good 217
Confucius 220
the way of confucius 221
ritual propriety 223
good government 224
Mencius 226
differentiated love 226
human nature is good 228
Xunzi 230
The Confucians’ Legacy 233
MANY 235
The Epicureans 236
The Stoics 241
Profile: Marcus Aurelius 244
The Skeptics 246
Background 253
Jesus 255
The Meaning of Jesus 259
Wisdom, Happiness, and God 267
God and the World 270
the great chain of being 270
Sketch: Hypatia of Alexandria 273
evil 273
time 274
Human Nature and Its Corruption 277
Human Nature and Its Restoration 282
Augustine on Relativism 284
The Two Cities 285
Augustine and the Philosophers 287
reason and authority 288
intellect and will 288
epicureans and stoics 289
OUT 292
A Sea Change in the Mediterranean Basin 292
Al-Kindī, the “Philosopher of the Arabs” 294
Al-Fārābi, the “Second Master” 297
religion as subordinate to
philosophy 297
emanation and the active intellect 298
Sketch: The Celestial Spheres 299
certitude, absolute certitude, and
opinion 299
Avicenna, the “Preeminent Master” 300
existence and essence 301
the necessary existent, god 302
the soul and its faculties 304
Al-Ghazālī 306
Sketch: Maimonides (Moses ben Maimon) 309
The Great Conversation in the Islamic World 309
Anselm: On That, Than Which No Greater Can
Be Conceived 311
The Transfer of Learning 315
Thomas Aquinas: Rethinking Aristotle 316
Sketch: Averroës, the Commentator 317
philosophy and theology 318
from creation to god 319
the nature of god 324
humans: their souls 326
humans: their knowledge 328
humans: their good 330
Ockham and Skeptical Doubts—Again 335
The World God Made for Us 340
Reforming the Church   344
Revolutions 348
humanism 348
skeptical thoughts revived 350
copernicus to kepler to galileo:
the great triple play 353
The Counter-Reformation 358
The Method 362
Meditations on First Philosophy 364
meditation i 366
Commentary and Questions 368
meditation ii 369
Commentary and Questions 372
meditation iii 375
Commentary and Questions 381
meditation iv 384
Commentary and Questions 387
meditation v 388
Commentary and Questions 391
meditation vi 392
Commentary and Questions 398
What Has Descartes Done? 400
a new ideal for knowledge 400
a new vision of reality 401
problems 401
the preeminence of epistemology 402
Thomas Hobbes: Catching Persons in the Net of
the New Science 404
method 405
minds and motives 406
Sketch: Margaret Cavendish 407
Sketch: Francis Bacon 412
the natural foundation of
moral rules 413
John Locke: Looking to Experience 416
origin of ideas 417
idea of the soul 419
idea of personal identity 419
language and essence 420
the extent of knowledge 422
of representative government 424
of toleration 426
George Berkeley: Ideas into Things 427
abstract ideas 428
ideas and things 430
god 434
How Newton Did It 439
Profile: Émilie du Châtelet 440
To Be the Newton of Human Nature 441
The Theory of Ideas 443
The Association of Ideas 444
Causation: The Very Idea 445
The Disappearing Self 451
Rescuing Human Freedom 453
Is It Reasonable to Believe in God? 455
Understanding Morality 458
reason is not a motivator 458
the origins of moral judgment 460
Is Hume a Skeptic? 462
Critique 467
Judgments 468
Geometry, Mathematics, Space, and Time 470
Common Sense, Science, and the A Priori
Categories 473
Phenomena and Noumena 476
Sketch: Baruch Spinoza 477
Sketch: Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz 478
Reasoning and the Ideas of Metaphysics:
God, World, and Soul 479
the soul 481
the world and the free will 482
god 483
the ontological argument 484
Reason and Morality 485
the good will 486
the moral law 488
Sketch: Jean-Jacques Rousseau 490
autonomy 491
freedom 492
Historical and Intellectual Context 497
the french revolution 497
the romantics 498
Epistemology Internalized 498
Sketch: Arthur Schopenhauer 501
Self and Others 504
Stoic and Skeptical Consciousness 507
Hegel’s Analysis of Christianity 508
Reason and Reality: The Theory of Idealism 509
Spirit Made Objective: The Social Character
of Ethics 511
History and Freedom 516
Kierkegaard: On Individual Existence 521
the aesthetic 522
the ethical 525
the religious 528
the individual 535
Marx: Beyond Alienation and Exploitation 537
alienation, exploitation, and private
property 539
communism 542
The Classic Utilitarians 545
Profile: Peter Singer 553
The Rights of Women 555
Pessimism and Tragedy 563
Goodbye Real World 567
The Death of God 570
Revaluation of Values 573
master morality/slave morality 574
Profile: Iris Murdoch 575
our morality 578
The Overman 581
Affirming Eternal Recurrence 589
Charles Sanders Peirce 593
fixing belief 594
belief and doubt 596
truth and reality 597
meaning 601
signs 604
John Dewey 606
the impact of darwin 606
naturalized epistemology 608
Sketch: William James 609
nature and natural science 610
value naturalized 612
Language and Its Logic 617
Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 619
Sketch: Bertrand Russell 620
picturing 622
thought and language 624
logical truth 626
saying and showing 627
setting the limit to thought 628
value and the self 629
good and evil, happiness and
unhappiness 631
the unsayable 633
Profile: The Logical Positivists 634
Philosophical Investigations 636
philosophical illusion 637
language-games 639
naming and meaning 640
family resemblances 641
The Continuity of Wittgenstein’s
Thought 643
Our Groundless Certainty 645
Profile: Zen 646
What Is the Question? 652
The Clue 653
Phenomenology 655
Being-in-the-World 657
The “Who” of Dasein 662
Modes of Disclosure 664
attunement 665
understanding 667
discourse 669
Falling-Away 670
idle talk 671
curiosity 671
ambiguity 672
Care 672
Death 673
Conscience, Guilt, and Resoluteness 674
Temporality as the Meaning of Care 677
Ambiguity 680
Profile: Jean-Paul Sartre 684
Ethics 686
Woman 691
Deconstruction: Jacques Derrida 699
writing, iterability, différance 701
deconstructing a text 705
Knowledge and Power: Michel Foucault 706
archaeology of knowledge 708
genealogy 709
Liberal Irony: Richard Rorty 712
contingency, truth, and
antiessentialism 713
liberalism and the hope of
solidarity 716
relativism 719
Science, Common Sense, and Metaphysics:
Willard van Orman Quine 723
holism 724
ontological commitment 728
natural knowing 729
The Matter of Minds 733
intentionality 734
intentional systems: daniel dennett 735
the chinese room: john searle 738
consciousness: nagel, jackson,
chalmers 739
Afterword……………………………………. A-1
Appendix:Writing a Philosophy Paper……. App-1
Glossary.. ……………………………………. G-1
Credits………………………………………. C-1
Index…………………………………………. I-1
New to This Edition
hilosophy is both argument and innovation.
We try in this introductory text to provide
students with excellent examples of both in
the ongoing story of a basic part of our intellectual
life. We aim to teach students how to think by apprenticing them to a succession of the best thinkers
humanity has produced, mainly but not exclusively in the Western tradition, thereby drawing
them into this ongoing conversation. So we see
how Aristotle builds on and criticizes his teacher,
Plato, how Augustine creatively melds traditions
stemming from Athens and Jerusalem, how Kant
tries to solve “Hume’s problem,” and why Wittgenstein thought most previous philosophy was
This eighth edition continues to represent the
major philosophers through extensive quotations
set in a fairly rich cultural and historical context.
The large number of cross-references and footnotes
continue to make the conversation metaphor more
than mere fancy. And the four complete works—
Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and ­
A number of new features will be found in this
edition. Throughout, the text has been tightened up and minor sections were deleted to make
room for new material. In addition, several larger
changes have been made. These changes include the
Three new chapters introduce students to the
beginnings of philosophical conversations in
India and China, with one chapter on ancient
Indian philosophy and two chapters on ancient
Chinese philosophy.
A new chapter is devoted entirely to philosophy
in the Islamic world.
A section on Hildegaard of Bingen in a chapter
on medieval thought and new sketches of Hypatia and Margaret Cavendish, and a profile of
Émilie du Châtelet.
Again, for this edition, a student web page is available at www.oup.com/us/melchert. Here students
will find essential points, vocabulary flashcards,
sample multiple-choice questions, and further web
A Word to Instructors
resources for each chapter. The latter consist mainly,
though not exclusively, of original philosophical
texts. This means that if you want to assign students
to read, say, Hume’s Enquiry or parts of Plato’s Republic, these texts are easy for them to find. An Instructor’s Manual is available at the same site.
The text is again available both as a single hardback edition and as two paperback volumes, so it
can be used economically in either a whole-year or
a single-semester course. Although the entire book
contains too much material for a single semester, it
provides a rich menu of choices for instructors who
do not wish to restrict themselves to the earlier or
later periods.
In this era, when even the educated have such
a thin sense of history, teaching philosophy in this
conversational, cumulative, back- and forwardlooking way can be a service not just to philosophical understanding, but also to the culture as
a whole.
e all have opinions—we can’t help
it. Having opinions is as natural to us
as breathing. Opinions, moreover,
are a dime a dozen. They’re floating all around
us and they’re so different from each other. One
person believes this, another that. You believe
in God, your buddy doesn’t. John thinks there’s
nothing wrong with keeping a found wallet, you
are horrified. Some of us say, “Everybody’s got
their own values”; others are sure that some things
are just plain wrong—wrong for everybody. Some
delay gratification for the sake of long-term goals;
others indulge in whatever pleasures happen to
be at hand. What kind of world do we live in?
Jane studies science to find out, Jack turns to the
occult. Is death the end for us?—Some say yes,
some say no.
What’s a person to do?
happen to know or where you were brought
up. You want to believe for good reasons. That’s
the right question, isn’t it? Which of these many
­opinions has the best reasons behind it? You want
to live your life as wisely as possible.
Fortunately, we have a long tradition of really
smart people who have been thinking about
issues such as these, and we can go to them for
help. They’re called “philosophers”—lovers of
wisdom—and they have been trying to straighten
out all these issues. They are in the business of
asking which opinions or views or beliefs there is
good reason to accept.
Unfortunately, these philosophers don’t all
agree either. So you might ask, If these really
smart philosophers can’t agree on what wisdom
says, why should I pay them any attention? The
answer is—because it’s the best shot you’ve got.
If you seriously want to improve your opinions,
there’s nothing better you can do than engage in a
“conversation” with the best minds our history has
One of the authors of this book had a teacher—
a short, white-haired, elderly gentleman with a
Study Philosophy!
You don’t want simply to be at the mercy of accident in your opinions—for your views to be
decided by irrelevant matters such as whom you
A Word to Students
thick German accent—who used to say, “Whether
you will philosophize or won’t philosophize, you
must philosophize.” By this, he meant that we can’t
help making decisions about these crucial matters.
We make them either well or badly, conscious
of what we are doing or just stumbling along. As
Kierkegaard would say, we express such decisions
in the way we live, whether or not we have ever
given them a moment’s thought. In a sense, then,
you are already a philosopher, already engaged in
the business philosophers have committed themselves to. So you shouldn’t have any problem in
making a connection with what they write.
Does it help to think about such matters? You
might as well ask whether it helps to think about
the recipe before you start to cook. Socrates says
that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
And that’s what philosophy is: an examination of
­opinions—and also of our lives, shaped by these
opinions. In thinking philosophically, we try to
sort our opinions into two baskets: the good-views
basket and the trash.
We want to think about these matters as clearly
and rationally as we can. Thinking is a kind of craft.
Like any other craft, we can do it well or poorly,
with shoddy workmanship or with care, and we
improve with practice. It is common for people
who want to learn a craft—cabinetmaking, for
example—to apprentice themselves for a time
to a master, doing what the master does until the
time comes when they are skillful enough to set up
shop on their own. You can think of reading this
book as a kind of apprenticeship in thinking, with
Socrates, Plato, Kant, and the rest as the masters.
By thinking along with them, noting their insights
and arguments, following their examinations of
each other’s opinions, you should improve that allimportant skill of your own.
This Book
This book is organized historically because that’s
how philosophy has developed. It’s not just a recital of this following that, however. It is also intensively interactive because that’s what philosophy
has been. We have taken the metaphor of a conversation seriously. These folks are all talking to each
other, arguing with each other, trying to convince
each other—and that makes the story of philosophy a dramatic one. Aristotle learns a lot from his
teacher, Plato, but argues that Plato makes one
big mistake—and that colors everything else he
says. Aquinas appreciates what Aristotle has done
but claims that Aristotle neglects a basic feature of
reality—and that makes all the difference. In the
seventeenth century, Descartes looks back on his
predecessors with despair, noting that virtually no
agreement has been reached on any topic; he resolves to wipe the slate clean and make a new start.
Beginning with an analysis of what it is to believe
anything at all, C. S. Peirce argues that what Descartes wants to do is impossible. And so it goes.
Not all the philosophers in this book have
been involved in the same conversation, however.
While this book focuses mainly on the Western
tradition—the philosophical conversation that
began in ancient Greece—other cultures have had
their own philosophical conversations. Philosophy
arose independently in India and China as well, and
the conversations in South and East Asia have been
as rich as those in the West. This book cannot hope
to convey those conversations in their entirety, but
it will introduce you to some key ideas in each of
them. Examining early Indian and Chinese philosophy alongside Western philosophy helps illuminate
both the commonalities among those traditions—
the questions that human beings have wrestled
with all over the globe—and the differences between them.
To emphasize the conversational and interactive aspect of philosophy, the footnotes in this book
provide numerous cross-references, mainly within
Western philosophy but also between Western
and non-Western thinkers. Your understanding of
an issue will be substantially enriched if you follow
up on these. To appreciate the line one thinker is
pushing, it is important to see what he is arguing
against, where he thinks that others have made
mistakes, and how other thinkers have approached
the same problems. No philosopher simply makes
A Word to Students
pronouncements in the dark. There is always
something that bugs each thinker, something she
thinks is terribly wrong, something that needs correction. This irritant may be something current in
the culture, or it may be what other philosophers
have been saying. Using the cross-­references to
understand that background will help you to make
sense of what is going on—and why. The index of
names and terms at the back of this book will also
help you.
Philosophers are noted for introducing novel
terms or using familiar words in novel ways. They
are not alone in this, of course; poets and scientists
do the same. There is no reason to expect that our
everyday language will be suited, just as it is, to
express the truth of things, so you will have some
vocabulary to master. You will find key words in
boldface and a list of them at the end of each chapter.
Use this list to help you review important concepts
and arguments. Many of these boldfaced terms are
defined in the Glossary at the back of the book.
The Issues
The search for wisdom—that is, philosophy—
ranges far and wide. Who can say ahead of time
what might be relevant to that search? Still, there
are certain central problems that especially concern philosophers. In your study of this text, you
can expect to find extensive discussions of these
four issues in particular:
Metaphysics, the theory of reality. In our own
day, Willard Quine has said that the basic question of metaphysics is very simple: What is
there? The metaphysical question, of course, is
not like, “Are there echidnas in Australia?” but
“What kinds of things are there fundamentally?”
Is the world through and through made of material stuff, or are there souls as well as bodies? Is
there a God? If so, of what sort? Are there universal features to reality, or is everything just
the particular thing that it is? Does everything
happen necessarily or are fresh starts possible?
Epistemology, the theory of knowledge. We
want to think not only about what there is,
but also about how we know what there is—
or, maybe, whether we can know anything at
all! So we reflectively ask, What is it to know
something anyway? How does that differ from
just believing it? How is knowing something
related to its being true? What is truth? How
far can our knowledge reach? Are some things
simply unknowable?
Ethics, the theory of right and wrong, good
and bad. We aren’t just knowers and believers. We are doers. The question then arises of
what wisdom might say about how best to live
our lives. Does the fact that something gives
us pleasure make it the right thing to do? Do
we need to think about how our actions affect
others? If so, in what way? Are there really
goods and bads, or does thinking so make it so?
Do we have duties? If so, where do they come
from? What is virtue and vice? What is justice?
Is justice important?
Human nature—Socrates took as his motto a
slogan that was inscribed in the temple of Apollo
in Delphi: know thyself. But that has proved
none too easy to do. What are we, anyway? Are
we simply bits of matter caught up in the universal mechanism of the world, or do we have
minds that escape this deterministic machine?
What is it to have a mind? Is mind separate from
body? How is it related to the brain? Do we have
a free will? How important to my self-identity is
my relationship to others? To what degree can I
be responsible for the creation of myself?
Running through these issues is a fifth one that
perhaps deserves special mention. It centers on the
idea of relativism. The question is whether there is a
way to get beyond the prejudices and assumptions
peculiar to ourselves or our culture—or whether
that’s all there is. Are there just opinions, with no
one opinion ultimately any better than any other?
Are all views relative to time and place, to culture
and position? Is there no truth—or, anyway, no truth
that we can know to be true?
A Word to Students
This problem, which entered all the great conversations early, has persisted to this day. Most of
the Western philosophical tradition can be thought
of as a series of attempts to kill such skepticism and
relativism, but this phoenix will not die. Our own
age has the distinction, perhaps, of being the first
age ever in which the basic assumptions of most
people, certainly of most educated people, are
relativistic, so this theme will have a particular poignancy for us. We will want to understand how we
came to this point and what it means to be here.
We will also want to ask ourselves how adequate
this relativistic outlook is.
What we are is what we have become, and
what we have become has been shaped by our history. In this book, we look at that history, hoping
to understand ourselves better and, thereby, gain
some wisdom for living our lives.
Reading Philosophy
Reading philosophy is not like reading a novel, nor
is it like reading a research report in biology or a
history of the American South. Philosophers have
their own aims and ways of proceeding, and it will
pay to take note of them at the beginning. Philosophers aim at the truth about fundamental matters,
and in doing so they offer arguments.
If you want to believe for good reasons, what
you seek is an argument. An argument in philosophy is not a quarrel or a disagreement, but simply
this business of offering reasons to believe. Every
argument, in this sense, has a certain structure.
There is some proposition the philosopher wants
you to believe—or thinks every rational person
ought to believe—and this is called the conclusion. And there are the reasons he or she offers to
convince you of that conclusion; these are called
the premises.
In reading philosophy, there are many things
to look for—central concepts, presuppositions,
overall view of things—but the main things to
look for are the arguments. And the first thing to
identify is the conclusion of the argument: What
is it that the philosopher wants you to believe?
Once you have identified the conclusion, you need
to look for the reasons given for believing that
conclusion. Usually philosophers do not set out
their arguments in a formal way, with premises
listed first and the conclusion last. The argument
will be embedded in the text, and you need to sniff
it out. This is usually not so hard, but it does take
careful attention.
Occasionally, especially if the argument is
complex or obscure, we give you some help
and list the premises and conclusion in a more
formal way. You might right now want to look
at a few examples. Socrates in prison argues that
it would be wrong for him to escape; that is the
conclusion, and we set out his argument for it on
p. 144. Plato argues that being happy and being
moral are the same thing; see an outline of his
argument on p. 176. Anselm gives us a complex
argument for the existence of God; see our summary on p. 314. And Descartes argues that we
have souls that are distinct from and independent of our bodies; see p. 319.
Often, however, you will need to identify the
argument buried in the prose for yourself. What
is it that the philosopher is trying to get you to
believe? And why does he think you should believe that? It will be helpful, and a test of your
understanding, if you try to set the argument out
for yourself in a more or less formal way; keep a
small notebook, and list the main arguments chapter by chapter.
Your first aim should be to understand the argument. But that is not the only thing, because you
will also want to discover how good the argument
is. These very smart philosophers, to tell the truth,
have given us lots of poor arguments; they’re only
human, after all. So you need to try to evaluate the
arguments. In evaluating an argument, there are
two things to look at: the truth or acceptability of
the premises and whether the premises actually do
support the conclusion.
For an argument to be a good one, the reasons
given in support of the conclusion have to at least
be plausible. Ideally the premises should be known
to be true, but that is a hard standard to meet. If the
reasons are either false or implausible, they can’t
lend truth or plausibility to the conclusion. If there
are good reasons to doubt the premises, then the
argument should not convince you.
A Word to Students
It may be, however, that all the premises are
true, or at least plausible, and yet the argument is
a poor one. This can happen when the premises
do not have the right kind of relation to the conclusion. Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of
arguments: deductive and inductive. A good
deductive argument is one in which the premises—
if true—guarantee the truth of the conclusion. In
other words, the conclusion couldn’t possibly be
false if the premises are true. When this condition
is satisfied, we say that the argument is valid. Note
that an argument may have validity even though the
premises are not in fact true; it is enough that if the
premises were true, then the conclusion would have
to be true. When a deductive argument is both valid
and has true premises, we say it is sound.
Inductive arguments have a looser relation between premises and conclusion. Here the premises
give some support to the conclusion—the more
support the better—but they fall short of guaranteeing the truth of the conclusion. Typically philosophers aim to give sound deductive arguments,
and the methods of evaluating these arguments will
be those of the preceding two paragraphs.
You will get some help in evaluating arguments because you will see philosophers evaluating the arguments of other philosophers. (Of
course, these evaluative arguments themselves
may be either good or bad.) This is what makes the
story of philosophy so dramatic. Here are a few
examples. Aristotle argues that Plato’s arguments
for eternal, unchanging realities (which Plato calls
Forms) are completely unsound; see pp. 198–
199. Augustine tries to undercut the arguments of
the skeptics on pp. 267–268. And Hume criticizes
the design argument for the existence of God on
pp. 456-458.
Sometimes you will see a philosopher criticizing another philosopher’s presuppositions (as
Peirce criticizes Descartes’ views about doubt, pp.
596–597) or directly disputing another’s conclusion (as Hegel does with respect to Kant’s claim
that there is a single basic principle of morality, pp.
512–513). But even here, it is argument that is the
heart of the matter.
In reading philosophy you can’t just be a passive observer. It’s no good trying to read for
understanding while texting with your friends.
You need to concentrate, focus, and be actively
engaged in the process. Here are a few general
1.  Have an open mind as you read. Don’t decide
after the first few paragraphs that what a philosopher is saying is absurd or silly. Follow the argument, and you may change your mind about
things of some importance.
2.  Write out brief answers to the questions embedded in the chapters as you go along; check
back in the text to see that you have got it
3.  Use the key words to check your understanding
of basic concepts.
4.  Try to see how the arguments of the philosophers bear on your own current views of things.
Bring them home; apply them to the way you
now think of the world and your place in it.
Reading philosophy is not the easiest thing in
the world, but it’s not impossible either. If you
make a good effort, you may find that it is even
rather fun.
Web Resources
A website for this book is available at www.oup.
com/us/melchert. Here you will find, for each
chapter, the following aids:
Essential Points (a brief list of crucial concepts
and ideas)
Flashcards (definitions of basic concepts)
Multiple-Choice Questions (practice tests)
Web Resources (mostly original works
that are discussed in this text—e.g.,
Plato’s Meno or Nietzsche’s Beyond Good
and Evil—but also some secondary
The web also has some general resources that
you might find helpful:
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://
A Word to Students
Both these encyclopedias contain
reliable in-depth discussions of
the philosophers and topics we
will be studying.
Philosophy Pages: http://www.
A source containing a variety
of things, most notably a
Philosophical Dictionary.
Project Vox: http://www.projectvox.org
A source containing information about
selected women philosophers
of the early modern period,
whose philosophical voices and
contributions are being recovered
and recognized by historians of
YouTube contains numerous short
interviews with and about philosophers,
such as those at https://youtube/
nG0EWNezFl4 and https://youtube/
B2fLyvsHHaQ, as well as various series
of short videos about philosophical
concepts, such as those by Wireless
Philosophy at https://www.youtube.
e want to thank those readers of the
seventh edition who thoughtfully
provided us with ideas for improvement. We are grateful to Peter Adamson, Ludwig
Maximilian University of Munich; Eric Boynton,
Allegheny College; David Buchta, Brown University; Amit Chaturvedi, University of Hawai’i
at Mānoa; Douglas Howie, North Lake College;
Manyul Im, University of Bridgeport; Jon McGinnis, University of Missouri, St. Louis; Susan
M. Mullican, University of Southern Mississippi
– Gulf Coast Campus; Danny Muñoz-Hutchinson,
St. Olaf College; Hagop Sarkissian, The City University of New York, Baruch College and Graduate Center; Stephanie Semler, Northern Virginia
Community College; Nancy Shaffer, California
University of Pennsylvania; Georgia Van Dam,
Monterey Peninsula College; and Bryan William
Van Norden, Yale-NUS College.
We are also grateful to the specialists in nonWestern and Islamic philosophy who provided
valuable feedback on the new chapters in this edition, including Peter Adamson, David Buchta,
Amit Chaturvedi, Manyul Im, Jon McGinnis, and
Hagop Sarkissian. All errors remain our own.
Finally, we would like to thank the editorial team
at Oxford University Press, including Robert Miller,
Alyssa Palazzo, Sydney Keen, and Marianne Paul.
Comments relating to this new edition
may be sent to us at norm.mel@verizon.net or
I was aware that the reading of all good books is indeed like a
conversation with the noblest men of past centuries who were
the authors of them, nay a carefully studied conversation, in
which they reveal to us none but the best of their thoughts.
—René Descartes
We—mankind—are a conversation.
—Martin Heidegger
In truth, there is no divorce between philosophy and life.
—Simone de Beauvoir
Myth in Hesiod and Homer
verywhere and at all times, we humans have
wondered at our own existence and at our
place in the scheme of things. We have asked,
in curiosity and amazement, “What’s it all about?”
“How are we to understand this life of ours?” “How
is it best lived?” “Does it end at death?” “This world
we find ourselves in—where does it come from?”
“What is it, anyway?” “How is it related to us?”
These are some of the many philosophical questions we ask. Every culture offers answers, though
not every culture has developed what we know as
philosophy. Early answers to such questions universally take the form of stories, usually stories
involving the gods—gigantic powers of a personal
nature, engaged in tremendous feats of creation,
frequently struggling with one another and intervening in human life for good or ill.
We call these stories myths. They are told and
retold, taught to children as the plain facts, gaining authority by their age, by repetition, and by the
apparent fact that within a given culture, virtually
everyone accepts them. They shape a tradition, and
traditions shape lives.
Philosophy, literally “love of wisdom,” begins
when individuals start to ask, “Why should we
believe these stories?” “How do we know they
are true?” When people try to give good reasons
for believing (or not believing) these myths, they
have begun to do philosophy. Philosophers look
at myths with a critical eye, sometimes defending
them and sometimes appreciating what myths try
to do, but often attacking myths’ claims to literal
truth. So there is a tension between these stories
and philosophy, a tension that occasionally breaks
into open conflict.
This conflict is epitomized in the execution of
the philosopher Socrates by his fellow Athenians
in 399 B.C. The Athenians accused Socrates of corrupting the youth because he challenged the commonly accepted views and values of ancient Athens.
But even though Socrates challenged those views,
his own views were deeply influenced by them. He
was part of a conversation, already centuries old
among the Greeks, about how to understand the
world and our place in it. That conversation continued after his death, right down to the present
CHAPTER 1   Before Philosophy: Myth in Hesiod and Homer
day, spreading far beyond Athens and winding its
way through all of Western intellectual history.
If we want to understand this conversation, we
need to understand where and how it began. We
need to understand Socrates, and we need to understand where he came from. To do that, we need
to understand the myths through which the ancient
Greeks had tried to understand their world. Our aim
is neither a comprehensive survey nor mere acquaintance with some of these stories. We will be trying
to understand something of Greek religion and culture, of the intellectual and spiritual life of the people
who told these stories. As a result, we should be able
to grasp why Socrates believed what he did and why
some of Socrates’ contemporaries reacted to him as
they did. With that in mind, we take a brief look at
two of the great Greek poets: Hesiod and Homer.
Hesiod: War Among the Gods
The poet we know as Hesiod probably composed
his poem Theogony toward the end of the eighth
century B.C., but he drew on much older traditions
and seems to have synthesized stories that are not
always consistent. The term theogony means “origin
or birth of the gods,” and the stories contained in
the poem concern the beginnings of all things. In
this chapter, we look only at certain central events,
as Hesiod relates them.
Hesiod claims to have written these lines under
divine inspiration. (Suggestion: Read quotations
aloud, especially poetry; you will find that they
become more meaningful.)
The Muses once taught Hesiod to sing
Sweet songs, while he was shepherding his lambs
On holy Helicon; the goddesses
Olympian, daughters of Zeus who holds
The aegis,* first addressed these words to me:
“You rustic shepherds, shame: bellies you are,
Not men! We know enough to make up lies
Which are convincing, but we also have
The skill, when we’ve a mind, to speak the truth.”
So spoke the fresh-voiced daughters of great Zeus
And plucked and gave a staff to me, a shoot
Of blooming laurel, wonderful to see,
*The aegis is a symbol of authority.
And breathed a sacred voice into my mouth
With which to celebrate the things to come
And things which were before.
—Theogony, 21–351
The Muses, according to the tradition Hesiod is
drawing on, are goddesses who inspired poets, artists, and writers. In this passage, Hesiod is telling
us that the stories he narrates are not vulgar shepherds’ lies but are backed by the authority of the
gods and embody the remembrance of events long
past. They thus represent the truth, Hesiod says,
and are worthy of belief.
What have the Muses revealed?
And sending out
Unearthly music, first they celebrate
The august race of first-born gods, whom Earth
Bore to broad Heaven, then their progeny,
Givers of good things. Next they sing of Zeus
The father of gods and men, how high he is
Above the other gods, how great in strength.
—Theogony, 42–48
Note that the gods are born; their origin, like our
own, is explicitly sexual. Their ancestors are Earth
(Gaea, or Gaia) and Heaven (Ouranos).* And like
people, the gods differ in status and power, with
Zeus, king of the gods, being the most exalted.
There is confusion in the Greek stories about
the very first things (no wonder), and there are
contradictions among them. According to Hesiod,
first there is chaos, apparently a formless mass of
stuff, dark and without differentiation. Out of this
chaos, Earth appears. (Don’t ask how.) Earth then
gives birth to starry Heaven,
to be
An equal to herself, to cover her
All over, and to be a resting-place,
Always secure, for all the blessed gods.
—Theogony, 27–30
After lying with Heaven, Earth bears the
first race of gods, the Titans, together with the
*Some people nowadays speak of the Gaea hypothesis
and urge us to think of Earth as a living organism. Here we
have a self-conscious attempt to revive an ancient way of
thinking about the planet we inhabit. Ideas of the Earthmother and Mother Nature likewise echo such early myths.
Hesiod: War Among the Gods
Cyclops—three giants with but one round eye in
the middle of each giant’s forehead. Three other
sons, “mighty and violent,” are born to the pair,
each with a hundred arms and fifty heads:
And these most awful sons of Earth and Heaven
Were hated by their father from the first.
As soon as each was born, Ouranos hid
The child in a secret hiding-place in Earth*
And would not let it come to see the light,
And he enjoyed this wickedness.
—Theogony, 155–160
Earth, distressed and pained with this crowd
hidden within her, forms a great sickle of hardest
metal and urges her children to use it on their father
for his shameful deeds. The boldest of the Titans,
Kronos, takes the sickle and plots vengeance with
his mother.
Great Heaven came, and with him brought
the night.
Longing for love, he lay around the Earth,
Spreading out fully. But the hidden boy
Stretched forth his left hand; in his right he took
The great long jagged sickle; eagerly
He harvested his father’s genitals
And threw them off behind.
—Theogony, 176–182
Where Heaven’s bloody drops fall on land, the
Furies spring up—monstrous goddesses who hunt
down and punish wrongdoers.†
In the Titans’ vengeance for their father’s
wickedness, we see a characteristic theme in
Greek thought, a theme repeated again and
again in the great classical tragedies and also
echoed in later philosophy: Violating the rule of
­justice—even in the service of justice—brings
The idea repeats itself in the Titan’s story.
Kronos, now ruler among the Titans, has children by Rhea, among them Hera, Hades, and
­Poseidon. Learning of a prophecy that he will
be dethroned by one of these children, Kronos
*This dank and gloomy place below the surface of the
earth and sea is known as Tartarus.
†In contemporary literature, you can find these Furies
represented in Jean-Paul Sartre’s play The Flies.
seizes the newborns and swallows them.* When
Rhea bears another son, however, she hides him
away in a cave and gives Kronos a stone wrapped in
swaddling clothes to swallow. The hidden son, of
course, is Zeus.
When grown to full strength, Zeus disguises
himself as a cupbearer and persuades Kronos to
drink a potion. This causes Kronos to vomit up his
brothers and sisters—together with the stone. (The
stone, Hesiod tells us, is set up at Delphi, northwest of Athens, to mark the center of the earth.)
Together with his brothers and their allies, Zeus
makes war on the Titans. The war drags on for ten
years until Zeus frees the Cyclops from their imprisonment in Tartarus. The Cyclops give Zeus a
lightning bolt, supply Poseidon with a trident, and
provide Hades with a helmet that makes him invisible. With these aids, the gods overthrow Kronos
and the Titans and hurl them down into Tartarus.
The three victorious brothers divide up the territory: Zeus rules the sky (he is called “cloudgatherer” and “storm-bringer”); Poseidon governs the
sea; and Hades reigns in Tartarus. Earth is shared
by all three. Again, the myths tell us that wickedness does not pay.
Thus, the gods set up a relatively stable order
in the universe, an order both natural and moral.
Although the gods quarrel among themselves and
are not above lies, adultery, and favoritism, each
guards something important and dear to humans.
They also see to it that wickedness is punished
and virtue is rewarded, just as was the case among
1. Why are philosophers dissatisfied with mythological
accounts of reality?
2. What is the topic of Hesiod’s Theogony?
3. Tell the story of how Zeus came to be king of the
4. What moral runs through these early myths?
*“Kronos” is closely related to the Greek word for time,
“chronos.” What might it mean that Kronos devours his children? And that they overthrow his rule to establish cities—
communities of justice—that outlive their citizens?
CHAPTER 1   Before Philosophy: Myth in Hesiod and Homer
Homer: Heroes, Gods,
and Excellence
Xenophanes, a philosopher we will meet later,*
tells us that “from the beginning all have learnt in
accordance with Homer.”2 As we have seen, poets
were thought to write by divine inspiration, and for
centuries Greeks listened to or read the works of
Homer, much as people read the Bible or the Koran
today. Homer, above all others, was the great
teacher of the Greeks. To discover what was truly
excellent in battle, governance, counsel, sport, the
home, and human life in general, the Greeks looked
to Homer’s tales. These dramatic stories offered a
picture of the world and people’s place in it that
molded the Greek mind and character. Western
philosophy begins against the Homeric background,
so we need to understand something of Homer.
Homer simply takes for granted the tradition
of gods and heroes set down in Hesiod’s Theogony.
That sky-god tradition of Zeus, Athena, and Apollo
celebrates clarity and order, mastery over chaos,
intellect and beauty: fertile soil, one must think,
for philosophy.
Homer’s two great poems are The Iliad and The
Odyssey. Here, we focus on The Iliad, a long poem
about a brief period during the nine-year-long
Trojan war.† This war came about when Paris,
son of the Trojan king Priam, seduced Helen,
the famously beautiful wife of the Spartan king
Menelaus. Paris spirited Helen away to his home
in Troy, across the Aegean Sea from her home in
Achaea, in southern Greece (see Map 1). Menelaus’s
brother, Agamemnon, the king of Argos, led
an army of Greeks to recover Helen, to avenge
the wrong against his brother, and—not just
­incidentally—to gain honor, glory, and plunder.
*See “Xenophanes: The Gods as Fictions,” in
Chapter 2.
†The date of the war is uncertain; scholarly estimates
tend to put it near the end of the thirteenth century B.C. The
poems took form in song and were passed along in an oral
tradition from generation to generation. They were written
down some time in the eighth century B.C. Tradition ascribes
them to a blind bard known as Homer, but the poems we
now have may be the work of more than one poet.
Among Agamemnon’s forces was Achilles, the
greatest warrior of them all.
Here is how The Iliad begins.
Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’
son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans
countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many
sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.
What god drove them to fight with such a fury?
Apollo the son of Zeus and Leto. Incensed at
the king
he swept a fatal plague through the army—men
were dying
and all because Agamemnon had spurned
Apollo’s priest.
—The Iliad, Book 1, 1–123
The poet begins by announcing his theme:
rage, specifically the excessive, irrational anger
of ­Achilles—anger beyond all bounds that brings
death and destruction to so many Greeks and
almost costs them the war. So we might expect
that the poem has a moral aspect. Moreover, in
the sixth line we read that what happened was in
accord with the will of Zeus, who sees to it that
flagrant violations of good order do not go unpunished. In these first lines we also learn of Apollo,
the son of Zeus, who has sent a plague on the Greek
army because Agamemnon offended him. We can
see, then, that Homer’s world is one of kings and
heroes, majestic but flawed, engaged in gargantuan
projects against a background of gods who cannot
safely be ignored.
The story Homer tells goes roughly like this. In
a raid on a Trojan ally, the Greeks capture a beautiful girl who happens to be the daughter of a priest of
Apollo. The army awards her to Agamemnon as part
of his spoils. The priest comes to plead for her return,
offering ransom, but he is rudely rebuffed. Agamemnon will not give back the girl. The priest appeals to
Apollo, who, angered by the treatment his priest is
receiving, sends a plague to Agamemnon’s troops.
Homer: Heroes, Gods, and Excellence
map 1 The Greek Mainland
The soldiers, wanting to know what is causing
the plague, appeal to their seer, who explains the
situation and suggests returning the girl. Agamemnon is furious. To forfeit his prize while the other
warriors keep theirs goes against the honor due
him as commander. He finally agrees to give up the
girl but demands Achilles’ prize, an exceptionally
lovely woman, in exchange. The two heroes quarrel bitterly. Enraged, Achilles returns to his tent
and refuses to fight anymore.
Because Achilles is the greatest of the Greek
warriors, his anger has serious consequences. The
war goes badly for the Greeks. The Trojans fight
their way to the beach and begin to burn the ships.
Patroclus, Achilles’ dearest friend, pleads with him
to relent, but he will not. If Achilles won’t have pity
on his comrades, Patroclus says, then at least let him
take Achilles’ armor and fight in his place. Achilles
agrees, and the tactic has some success. The Greeks
drive the Trojans back toward the city, but in the
fighting Patroclus is killed by Hector, another son
of Priam and the greatest of the Trojan warriors.
Achilles’ rage now turns on Hector and the
Trojans. He rejoins the war to wreak havoc among
them. After slaughtering many, he comes face to
face with Hector. Achilles kills him and drags his
body back to camp behind his chariot—a profoundly disrespectful thing to do. As the poem
ends, King Priam goes alone by night into the
Greek camp to plead with Achilles for the body of
his son. He and Achilles weep together, for Hector
and for Patroclus, and Achilles gives up the body.
This summary emphasizes the human side of
the story. From that point of view, The Iliad can be
CHAPTER 1   Before Philosophy: Myth in Hesiod and Homer
thought of as the story both of the tragedy that excess
and pride lead to and of the humanization of Achilles. The main moral is the same as that expressed by
a motto at the celebrated oracle at Delphi: “Nothing
too much.”* Moderation is what Achilles lacked,
and his lack led to disaster. At the same time, the
poem celebrates the “heroic virtues”: strength, courage, physical prowess, and the kind of wisdom that consists in the ability to devise clever plans to achieve
one’s ends. For Homer and his audience, these characteristics, together with moderation, make up the
model of human excellence. These are the virtues
ancient Greeks taught their children.
The gods also appear throughout the story,
looking on, hearing appeals, taking sides, and interfering. For instance, when Achilles is sulking about
Agamemnon having taken “his” woman, he prays
to his mother, the goddess Thetis. (Achilles has a
mortal father.) Achilles asks Thetis to go to Zeus
and beg him to give victory to—the Trojans!
Zeus frets that his wife Hera will be upset—she
favors the Greeks—but he agrees. If Zeus grants
an appeal, that will be done. (Recall the sixth line
of the poem.) Homeric religion, while certainly
not a monotheism, is not exactly a true polytheism
either. The many powers that govern the world
seem to be under the rule of one.† That rule gives
a kind of order to the universe.
Moreover, this order is basically a just order,
though it may not be designed altogether with
human beings in mind. Zeus sees to it that certain
customs are enforced: that oaths are kept, that suppliants are granted mercy, and that the rules governing guest and host are observed—the rules that
Paris violated so grossly when he seduced Helen
away from her husband, Menelaus. Homer suggests
that the Greeks eventually win the war because
Zeus punishes the violation of these customs. However, the Greeks are punished with great losses
*This was one of several mottoes that had appeared
mysteriously on the temple walls. No one could explain how
they got there, and it was assumed that Apollo himself must
have written them.
†We shall see philosophers wrestling with this problem
of “the one and the many.” In what sense, exactly, is this
world one world?
before their eventual victory because Agamemnon
had acted unjustly in taking Achilles’ prize of war.
The Homeric idea of justice is not exactly the
same as ours. The mortals and gods in Homer’s world
covet honor and glory above all else. Agamemnon
is angry not primarily because “his” woman was
taken back to her father but because his honor has
been offended. Booty is valued not for its own sake
so much as for the honor it conveys—the better the
loot, the greater the honor. Achilles is overcome by
rage because Agamemnon has humiliated him, thus
depriving him of the honor due him. That is why
Thetis begs Zeus to let the Trojans prevail until the
Greeks restore to Achilles “the honor he deserves.”
What is just in this social world is that each
person receive the honor that is due, given that
person’s status and position. Nestor, wise counselor of the Greeks, tries to make peace between
Agamemnon and Achilles by appealing to precisely
this principle.
“Don’t seize the girl, Agamemnon, powerful as
you are—
leave her, just as the sons of Achaea gave her,
his prize from the very first.
And you, Achilles, never hope to fight it out
with your king, pitting force against his force:
no one can match the honors dealt a king, you
a sceptered king to whom Zeus gives glory.
Strong as you are—a goddess was your mother—
he has more power because he rules more men.”
—The Iliad, Book 1, 321–329
Nestor tries to reconcile them by pointing out what
is just, what each man’s honor requires. Unfortunately, neither one heeds his good advice.
The gods are also interested in honor. It has
often been remarked that Homer’s gods reflect the
society that they allegedly govern; they are powerful, jealous of their prerogatives, quarrel among
themselves, and are not above a certain deceitfulness, although some sorts of evil are simply beneath
their dignity. The chief difference between human
beings and the gods is that human beings are bound
for death and the gods are not. Greeks often refer
to the gods simply as “the immortals.” Immortality makes possible a kind of blessedness among the
gods that is impossible for human beings.
Homer: Heroes, Gods, and Excellence
As immortals, the gods are interested in the
affairs of mortals, but only insofar as they are entertained or their honor is touched. They are spectators of the human comedy—or tragedy; they
watch human affairs the way we watch soap operas
and reality television. In a famous passage from the
Iliad, Zeus decides to sit out the battle about to
rage below and simply observe, saying,
“These mortals do concern me, dying as they are.
Still, here I stay on Olympus throned aloft,
here in my steep mountain cleft, to feast my eyes
and delight my heart.”
—The Iliad, Book 20, 26–29
The gods both deserve and demand honor,
punishing humans who refuse to give it. We saw
that Apollo sent a plague because Agamemnon
refused the ransom offered by Apollo’s priest.
When humans dishonor the gods or do not respect
their prerogatives, they are guilty of arrogance, or
hubris. In this state, human beings in effect think of
themselves as gods, forgetting their finitude, their
limitations, their mortality. Hubris is punished by
the gods, as hero after hero discovers to his dismay.
The gulf between Homeric gods and ­mortals—
even those, like Achilles, who have one divine
parent—is clear and impassable. In closing this brief
survey of Greek myths, we want to emphasize a
particular aspect of this gulf: Those whose thoughts
were shaped by Homer neither believed in nor aspired to any immortality worth prizing. There is a
kind of shadowy existence after death, but the typical attitude toward it is expressed by Achilles when
Odysseus visits him in the underworld.
“No winning words about death to me, shining
By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another
some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep
than rule down here over all the breathless dead.”
—The Odyssey, Book 11, 555–5584
For these conquerors who glory in the strength
of their bodies, nothing after death could compare
to glory in this life. They know they are destined to
die, believe that death is the end of any life worth
living, and take the attitude expressed by Hector
when faced with Achilles:
“And now death, grim death is looming up beside
no longer far away. No way to escape it now. This,
this was their pleasure after all, sealed long ago—
Zeus and the son of Zeus, the distant deadly
though often before now they rushed to my
So now I meet my doom. Well let me die—
but not without struggle, not without glory, no,
in some great clash of arms that even men to come
will hear of down the years!”
—The Iliad, Book 22, 354–362
Again, even at the end, the quest for honor is
1. Describe the main characters in Homer’s poem The
Iliad—for example, Agamemnon, Achilles, Apollo,
Zeus, and Hector.
2. Retell the main outline of the story.
3. What is the theme of the poem, as expressed in the
first lines?
4. How are honor and justice related in Homer’s view
of things?
5. What virtues are said to constitute human
6. Describe the relationship between humans and
gods. In what ways are they similar, and how do
they differ?
7. What is hubris, and what is its opposite?
8. Do Homer’s heroes long for immortality? Explain.
1. Gather examples of mythological thinking that
are current today. What questions would a
­philosopher want to ask about them?
CHAPTER 1   Before Philosophy: Myth in Hesiod and Homer
1. Hesiod, Theogony, trans. Dorothea Wender,
in Hesiod and Theognis (New York: Penguin
Books, 1973). All quotations are taken from this
translation; numbers are line numbers.
2. Kathleen Freeman, Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic
Philosophers (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Press, 1948), 22.
3. Homer, The Iliad, trans. Robert Fagles (New York:
Penguin Books, 1990). All quotations are taken
from this translation; references are to book and
line numbers.
4. Homer, The Odyssey, trans. Robert Fagles (New
York: Penguin Books, 1996). References are to
book and line numbers.
f the great conversation of Western philosophy is rooted in the poetry of Hesiod and
Homer, it first sprouted in the protoscientific
thought of Ionia (see Map 1). A little more than
a century before Socrates’ birth, Greek thinkers
on the eastern shore of the Aegean Sea began to
challenge the traditional myths with attempts at
more rational explanations of the world around
them. Western philosophy was born in these attempts and in the conversation that it began. So,
it is to these first Greek philosophers that we
now turn.
It is seldom entirely clear why thinkers raised
in a certain tradition become dissatisfied enough to
try to establish a new one. The reason is even more
obscure in the case of the earliest Greek philosophers because we have a scarcity of information
about them. Although most of them wrote books,
these writings are almost entirely lost, some surviving in small fragments, others known only by
references to them and quotations or paraphrases
by later writers. As a group, these thinkers are
usually known as the “pre-Socratics.” This name
testifies to the pivotal importance put on Socrates
by his successors.*
For whatever reason, a tradition grew up in
which questions about the nature of the world took
center stage, a tradition that was not content with
stories about the gods. For thinkers trying to reason
their way to a view about reality, the Homeric tales
and Hesiod’s divine genealogy must have seemed
impossibly crude. Still, the questions addressed by
these myths were real questions: What is the true
nature of reality? What is its origin? What is our
place in it? How are we related to the powers that
govern it? What is the best way to live? Philosophy is born when thinkers attempt to answer these
questions more rationally than myth does.
In early Greek philosophical thought, certain
issues took center stage. There is the problem of
*In this chapter, we look only at selected pre-Socratic
thinkers. A more extensive and very readable treatment
of others—including Anaximenes, Empedocles, and
­Anaxagoras—can be found in Merrill Ring, Beginning with
the Pre-Socratics (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1999).
CHAPTER 2   Philosophy Before Socrates 2Philosophy Before Socrates
the one and the many: If reality is in some sense one,
what accounts for the many different individual
things (and kinds of things) that we experience?
Greek myth tends to answer this question in animistic or personal terms by referring either to birth
or to spontaneous emergence. For instance, we
find Hesiod simply asserting that “Chaos was first
of all, but next appeared / Broad bosomed Earth”
(Theogony, 116, 117). How, why, when, and by
what means did it appear? On these questions the
tradition is silent.
Then there is the problem of reality and appearance. True, things appear to change; they appear to
be “out there,” independent of us. But we all know
that things are not always what they seem. Might
reality in fact be very different from the way it appears in our experience? How could we know?
Of course, there is also the question about human
reality: Who are we, and how are we related to the
rest of what there is? These questions perplex our
first philosophers and we shall see them struggling
to frame ever more satisfactory answers to them.
Thales: The One as Water
Thales (c. 625–547 B.C.) of Miletus, a Greek seaport on the shore of Asia Minor (see Map 1), seems
to have been one who was dissatisfied with the traditional stories. Aristotle, one of the most important philosophers in the Western tradition, calls
Thales the founder of philosophy.* We know very
little about Thales, and part of what we do know is
arguably legendary. So, our consideration here is
brief and somewhat speculative. He is said to have
held (1) that the cause and element of all things is
water and (2) that all things are filled with gods.
What could these two rather obscure sayings mean?
Concerning the first, it is striking that Thales
supposes there is some one thing that is both the
origin and the underlying nature of all things.
It is surely not obvious that wine and bread and
stones and wind are really the same stuff despite all
their differences. It is equally striking that Thales
chooses one of the things that occur naturally in the
world of our experience to play that role, rather
*We cover Aristotle in Chapter 9.
than one of the gods. Here we are clearly in a different thought-world from that of Homer. Thales’
motto seems to be this: Account for what you can see
and touch in terms of things you can see and touch. This
idea is a radical departure from anything prior to it.
Why would Thales choose water to play the
role of the primeval stuff? Aristotle speculates that
Thales must have noticed that water is essential
for the nourishment of all things and that without
moisture, seeds will not develop into plants. We
might add that Thales must have noticed that water
is the only naturally occurring substance that can
be seen to vary from solid to liquid to gas. The fact
that the wet blue sea, the white crystalline snow,
and the damp and muggy air seem to be the same
thing despite their differences could well have suggested that water might take even more forms.
At first glance, the saying that all things are full
of gods seems to go in a quite different direction.
If we think a moment, however, we can see that it
is consistent with the saying about water. What is
the essential characteristic of the gods, according
to the Greeks? Their immortality. To say that all
things are full of gods, then, is to say in effect that in
each thing—not outside it or in addition to it—is a
principle that is immortal. But this suggests that the
things of experience do not need explanations from
outside themselves as to why they exist. Moreover,
tradition appeals to the gods as a principle of action.
Why did lightning strike just there? Because Zeus
was angry with that man. But to say that all things
are themselves full of gods may well mean that we
do not have to appeal beyond them to explain why
events happen. Things have the principles of their
behavior within themselves.
Both sayings, then, point thought in a direction quite different from the tradition of Homer
and Hesiod. They suggest that if we want to understand this world, then we should look to this
world, not to another. Thales seems to have been
the first to have tried to answer the question, Why
do things happen as they do? in terms that are not
immediately personal. In framing his answer this
way, Thales is not only the first philosopher in the
Greek tradition, but also the first scientist. It is
almost impossible to overestimate the significance
of this shift for the story of Western culture.
Anaximander: The One as the Boundless
1. In what way are the two sayings attributed to Thales
2. Contrast the view suggested by Thales’ sayings with
that of Homer.
Anaximander: The One as the
Let’s grant that Thales produced a significant shift
in Western thought. What next? Although he may
have done so, we have no evidence that Thales addresses the question of how water accounts for everything else. If everything is water, why does it
seem as though so many things are not water, that
water is just one kind of thing among many?
There is something else unsatisfactory about his
suggestion: Even though water has those unusual
properties of appearing in several different states,
water itself is not unusual. It is, after all, just one of the
many things that need to be explained. If we demand
explanations of dirt and bone and gold, why should
we not demand an explanation for water as well?
Ancient Greeks would have found a third puzzling feature in Thales’ idea. They tended to think
in terms of opposites: wet and dry, hot and cold.
These pairs are opposites because they cancel each
other out. Where you have the wet, you can’t have
the dry, and so on. Water is wet, yet the dry also
exists. If the origin of all things were water, how
could the dry have ever come into existence? It
seems impossible.
Although again we are speculating, it is reasonable to suppose that problems such as these
led to the next stage in our story. We can imagine A
­ naximander, a younger fellow citizen from
Miletus born about 612 B.C., asking himself—or
perhaps asking Thales—these questions. How does
water produce the many things of our experience?
What makes water so special? So the conversation
Like Thales, Anaximander wants an account
of origins that does not appeal to the gods of
Homer and Hesiod, but as we’ll see, he does not
reject the divine altogether. We can reconstruct
­Anaximander’s reasoning thus:
1. Given any state of things X, it had a beginning.
2. To explain its beginning, we must suppose a
prior state of things W.
3. But W also must have had a beginning.
4. So we must suppose a still prior state V.
5. Can this go on forever? No.
6. So there must be something that itself has no
7. We can call this “the infinite” or “the Boundless.”
It is from this, then, that all things come.
We are ready now to appreciate a passage of
Aristotle’s, in which he looks back and reports the
views of Anaximander.
Everything either is a beginning or has a beginning.
But there is no beginning of the infinite; for if there
were one, it would limit it. Moreover, since it is a
beginning, it is unbegotten and indestructible.
. . . Hence, as we say, there is no source of this,
but this appears to be the source of all the rest,
and “encompasses all things” and “steers all things,”
as those assert who do not recognize other causes
besides the infinite. . . . And this, they say, is the
divine; for it is “deathless” and “imperishable” as
Anaximander puts it, and most of the physicists
agree with him. (DK 12 A 15, IEGP, 24)1
Only the Boundless, then, can be a beginning for all
other things. It is a beginning, as Aristotle puts it;
it does not have a beginning. Because it is infinite,
moreover, it has no end either—otherwise it
would have a limit and not be infinite.
It should be no surprise that the infinite is
called “divine.” Recall the main characteristic of the
Greek gods: They are immortal; they cannot die.
As Anaximander points out, this is a key feature of
the Boundless.
Here we have the first appearance of a form of
reasoning that we will meet again when later thinkers try to justify belief in a god (or God) conceived
in a much richer way than Anaximander is committed to.* Yet even here some of the key features
of later thought are already present. The Boundless “encompasses all things” and “steers all things.”
Those familiar with the New Testament will be
*For examples, see Thomas Aquinas’ proofs of the existence of God (Chapter 15).
CHAPTER 2   Philosophy Before Socrates 2Philosophy Before Socrates
reminded of Paul’s statement that in God “we live
and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).2
We have seen how Anaximander deals with one
of the puzzles bequeathed to him by Thales. It is
not water but the Boundless that is the source and
element of all things. What about the other problem? By what process does the Boundless produce
the many individual things of our experience?
Here we have to note that the Boundless is
thought of as indefinite in character, neither clearly
this nor that. If it had a clear nature of its own,
it would already exclude everything else; it would
be, for instance, water but not fire, so it would
have limits and not be infinite. Therefore, it must
contain all things, but in a “chaotic” mixture.* The
hot, the cold, the dry, and the wet are all present
in the Boundless, but without clear differentiation.
How, then, does the process of differentiation
from the Boundless work? If Anaximander could
show how these basic four elements (hot, cold,
dry, and wet) separate out from the chaos, his basic
problem would be solved. The one would generate
many things. The question of how particular things
are formed could be solved along similar lines.
Note that at this early stage of thought, no clear
distinction is made between heat as a property of
a thing and the thing that is hot. There is just “the
hot” and “the cold,” what we might think of as hot
stuff and cold stuff. In fact, these stuffs are virtually indistinguishable from earth (the cold), air (the
dry), fire (the hot), and water (the wet). To the
ancient Greeks, the universe as we experience it
seems to be composed of various mixtures of these
elemental stuffs.†
To solve his problem, Anaximander uses an
analogy: Fill a circular pan with water; add some
bits of limestone, granite, and lead (what you need
is a variety of different weights); and then swirl the
water around. You will find that the heavier bits
move toward the middle and the lighter bits to the
*Remember that Hesiod tells us that “Chaos was first of all.”
†Much of Greek medicine was based on these same
principles. A feverish person, for instance, has too much of
the hot, a person with the sniffles too much of the wet, and
so on. What is required is to reach a balance among the opposite elements.
outside. Like goes to like; what starts as a jumble, a
chaos, begins to take on some order. Anaximander
is apparently familiar with this simple experiment
and makes use of it to explain the origin of the many.
If the Boundless were swirling in a vortex
motion, like the water in the pan, then what was
originally indistinguishable in it would become separated out according to its nature. You might ask,
Why should we think that the Boundless engages
in such a swirling, vortex motion? Anaximander
would simply ask you to look up. Every day we
see the heavenly bodies swirl around the earth: the
sun, the moon, and even the stars. Did you ever
lie on your back in a very dark, open spot (a golf
course is a good place) for a long time and look
at the stars? You can see them move, although it
takes a long while to become conscious of their
Furthermore, it seems clear that the motions
we observe around us exemplify the vortex principle that like goes to like. What is the lightest of the
elements? Anyone who has stared at a campfire for a
few moments will have no doubt about the answer.
The sticks stay put, but the fire leaps up, away from
the cold earth toward the sky—toward the immensely hot, fiery sun and the other bright but less
hot heavenly bodies. In short, Anaxminader turns
not to gods or myths to try to explain the nature of
the world, but to reasoning and experience.
Of Anaximander’s many other interesting
ideas, one deserves special attention—an idea that
connects him to Hesiod and Homer as surely as
his reliance on reasoning and experience sets him
apart. Anaximander tells us that existing things
“make reparation to one another for their injustice
according to the ordinance of time” (DK 12 B 1,
IEGP, 34). Several questions arise here. What existing things? No doubt it is the opposites of hot and
cold, wet and dry that Anaximander has in mind,
but why does he speak of injustice? How can the
hot and cold do each other injustice, and how can
they “make reparation” to each other?
*Copernicus, of course, turns this natural view inside
out. The stars only appear to move; in actuality, Copernicus
suggests, it is we who are moving. See pp. 353–354.
Xenophanes: The Gods as Fictions
Much as Homer requires a certain moderation or balance in human behavior, assuming,
for instance, that too much anger or pride will
bring retribution, Anaximander presupposes a
principle of balance in nature. The hot summer
is hot at the expense of the cold; it requires a
cold winter to right the balance. The rainy season
comes at the expense of the dry; it requires the
dry season to right the balance. Thus, each season
encroaches on the “rights” due to the others and
does them an injustice, but reparation is made
in turn when each gets its due—and more. This
keeps the cycle going.
Unlike in Hesiod and Homer, though,
­Anaximander’s cosmic balance is not imposed on
reality by the gods. Anaximander conceives it as
immanent in the world process itself. In this he is
faithful to the spirit of Thales, and in this both of
them depart from the tradition of Homer. Anaximander’s explanations are framed impersonally. It
is true that the Boundless “steers all things,” but the
jealous and vengeful Homeric gods who intervene
at will in the world have vanished. To explain particular facts in the world, no will, no purpose, no
emotion, no intention is needed. The gods turn out
to be superfluous.
You can see that a cultural crisis is on the
way. Since the Homeric tradition was still alive
and flourishing in the religious, artistic, political, and social life of Greek cities, what would
happen when this new way of thinking began to
take hold? Our next thinker begins to draw some
1. What puzzling features of Thales’ view seem to
have stimulated Anaximander to revise it?
2. State Anaximander’s argument for the Boundless.
3. How, according to Anaximander, does the
Boundless produce the many distinct things of our
4. What evidence do we have in our own
experience for a vortex motion?
5. How is the injustice that Anaximander attributes
to existing things related to the Homeric virtue of
6. What sort of crisis was brewing in Ionia? Why?
Xenophanes: The Gods as Fictions
Anaximander, as far as we know, only criticized the
gods implicitly. He focused on solving his problems
about the nature and origins of the world. Although
his results were at odds with tradition, we have no
record that he took explicit notice of this. But about
forty miles north of Miletus, in the city of Colophon
(see Map 1), another thinker named X
­ enophanes
did notice. Like Thales and Anaximander, Xenophanes was an Ionian Greek living on the eastern
shores of the Aegean Sea. We are told that he fled
in 546 B.C., when Colophon fell to the Persians,
and that he lived at least part of his life thereafter in
Sicily. Xenophanes was a poet and apparently lived
a long life of more than ninety-two years.
Xenophanes is important to our story because
he seems to have been the first to state clearly the
religious implications of the new nature philosophy. He explicitly criticizes the traditional conception of the gods on two grounds. First, the way
Hesiod and Homer picture the gods is unworthy of
our admiration or reverence:
Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods all
those things which in men are a matter for reproach
and censure: stealing, adultery, and mutual deception. (DK Z1 B11, IEGP, 55)*
What he says is true, of course. It has often
been remarked that Homer’s gods are morally no
better (and in some ways may be worse) than the
*When the Greeks talk about “men,” they may not have
been thinking about women. Women were not citizens, for
example, in ancient Athens. It does not follow, of course,
that what the Greeks say about “men” has no relevance for
women of today. Here is a useful way to think about this.
Aristotle formulated the Greek understanding of “man” in
terms of rational animal, a concept that can apply to human
beings generally. What the Greeks say about “man” may well
apply to women, too, although one should be on guard lest
they sneak masculinity too much into this generic “man.”
Their mistake (and not theirs alone!) was to have underestimated the rationality and humanity of women.
We will occasionally use the term “man” in this generic
sense, but we will often paraphrase it with “human being” or
some other substitute. Rather than the awkward “he or she,”
we will sometimes use “he” and sometimes “she,” as seems
CHAPTER 2   Philosophy Before Socrates 2Philosophy Before Socrates
band of ruthless warrior barons on whom they are
so clearly modeled. They are magnificent in their
own fashion, but flawed, like a large and brilliant
diamond containing a vein of impurities. What
matters about Xenophanes’ statement is that he
not only notices this but also clearly expresses his
disapproval.* He thinks it is shameful to portray
the gods as though they are no better than the kind
of human beings whom good men regard with disgust. That Homer, to whom all Greeks of the time
look for guidance in life, should give us this view of
the divine seems intolerable to Xenophanes. This
moral critique is further developed by Plato.† For
both of them, such criticism is the negative side of
a more exalted idea of the divine.
This kind of criticism makes sense only on the
basis of a certain assumption: that Homer is not
simply reporting the truth but is inventing stories.
Several sayings of Xenophanes make this assumption clear.
The Ethiopians make their gods snub-nosed and
black; the Thracians make theirs gray-eyed and redhaired. (DK 21 B 16, IEGP, 52)
And if oxen and horses and lions had hands,
and could draw with their hands and do what man
can do, horses would draw the gods in the shape of
horses, and oxen in the shape of oxen, each giving
the gods bodies similar to their own. (DK 21 B 15,
IEGP, 52)
Here we have the first recorded version of
the saying that god does not make man in his own
image but that we make the gods in our image.
Atheists and agnostics have often made this point
since Xenophanes’ time. Was Xenophanes, then, a
disbeliever in the divine? No, not at all. No more
than Anaximander, who says the infinite sees all
and steers all. Xenophanes tells us there is
one god, greatest among gods and men, in no way
similar to mortals either in body or mind. (DK 21 B
23, IEGP, 53)
*For a contrary evaluation, see Nietzsche, p. 564.
†See Euthyphro 6a, for instance. This criticism is ex-
panded in Plato’s Republic, Book II, where Plato explicitly
forbids the telling of Homeric and Hesiodic tales of the gods
to children in his ideal state.
Several points in this brief statement stand out.
There is only one god.* Xenophanes takes pains
to stress how radically different this god is from
anything in the Homeric tradition. It is “in no way
similar to mortals.” This point is brought out in
some positive characterizations he gives of this god.
He sees all over, thinks all over, hears all over.
(DK 21 B 24, IEGP, 53)
He remains always in the same place, without
moving; nor is it fitting that he should come and go,
first to one place and then to another. (DK 21 B 26,
IEGP, 53)
But without toil, he sets all things in motion by
the thought of his mind. (DK 21 B 25, IEGP, 53)
By contrast, we humans see with our eyes,
think with our brain, and hear with our ears. We
seldom remain in the same place for more than a
short time, and if we want to set anything besides
ourselves in motion, just thinking about it or wishing for it isn’t enough. Xenophanes’ god is very different from human beings indeed.
Yet there is a similarity after all, and Xenophanes’ “in no way similar” must be qualified. The
one god sees and hears and thinks; so do we. He
does not do it in the way we do it; the way the god
does it is indeed “in no way similar.” But god is intelligent, and so are we.
Here is a good place to comment on an assumption that seems to have been common among
the Greeks. Where there is order, there is intelligence. Order, whether in our lives or in the world
of nature, needs an explanation, and only intelligence can explain it. Though never argued for,
this assumption lies in the background as something
almost too obvious to comment on. We can find
experiences to give it some support, and perhaps
these are common enough to make it seem selfevident—but it is not. For example, consider the
state of papers on your desk or tools in your workshop. If you are like us, you find that these things,
*It may seem that Xenophanes allows the existence of
other gods in the very phrase he uses to praise this one god.
Scholars disagree about the purity of his monotheism. In the
context of other things he says, however, it seems best to
understand this reference to “gods” as a reference to “what
tradition takes to be gods.”
Xenophanes: The Gods as Fictions
ythagoras (b. 570 B.C.), about whom we have as
many legends as facts, lived most of his adult life
in Croton in southern Italy (see Map 2 on page 23).
He combined mathematics and religion in a way
strange to us and was active in setting up a pattern
for an ideal community. The Pythagorean influence
on Plato is substantial.*
Pythagoras and his followers first developed
geometry as an abstract discipline, rather than
as a tool for practical applications. It was probably Pythagoras himself who discovered the
“Pythagorean theorem” (the square of the hypotenuse of a triangle is equal to the sum of the squares
of the other two sides).
He also discovered the mathematical ratios of
musical intervals: the octave, the fifth, and the fourth.
Because mathematics informs these intervals, the
*We cover the great Greek philosopher Plato in
­Chapter 8.
if left to their own devices, degenerate slowly into
a state of chaos. Soon it is impossible to find what
you want when you need it and it becomes impossible to work. What you need to do then is deliberately and with some intelligent plan in mind impose
order on the chaos. Order is the result of intelligent action, it seems. It doesn’t just happen.
Whether this assumption is correct is an interesting question, one about which modern physics and
evolutionary biology say interesting things.* Modern
mathematicians tell us that however chaotic the
jumble of books and papers on your desk, there exists
some mathematical function according to which they
are in perfect order. But for these ancient Greeks, the
existence of order always presupposes an ­ordering
*See p. 361 for an example. Here Descartes claims that
a chaos of randomly distributed elements, if subject to the
laws of physics, would by itself produce an order like that we
find in the world. For more recent views, see the fascinating book by James Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science (New
York: Penguin Books, 1987). The dispute over “intelligent
design” shows that this is still a live issue.
Pythagoreans held, somewhat obscurely, that all
things are numbers. They also believed that the sun,
the moon, and other heavenly bodies make a noise
as they whirl about, producing a cosmic harmony,
the “music of the spheres.”
Pythagoras believed that the soul is a distinct
and immortal entity, “entombed” for a while in
the body. After death, the soul migrates into other
bodies, sometimes the bodies of animals. To avoid
both murder and cannibalism, the Pythagoreans
were vegetarians. Xenophanes tells the story, probably apocryphal, that Pythagoras saw a puppy being
beaten and cried out, “Do not beat it; I recognize
the voice of a friend.”
Mathematics was valued not just for itself but
as a means to purify the soul, to disengage it from
bodily concerns. In mathematical pursuits the soul
lives a life akin to that of the gods.
It is said that Pythagoras was the first to call himself a philosopher, a lover of wisdom.
intelligence. We find this assumption at work in
Anaximander’s and Xenophanes’ ideas of god.
Consider now a saying that shows how closely
Xenophanes’ critique of the traditional gods relates
to the developing nature philosophy:
She whom men call “Iris,” too, is in reality a cloud,
purple, red, and green to the sight. (DK 21 B 32,
IEGP, 52)
In The Iliad, Iris is a minor goddess, a messenger
for the other gods. After Hector has killed Patroclus, Iris is sent to Achilles to bid him arm in time
to rescue Patroclus’ body (Book 18, 192–210). She
seems to have been identified with the rainbow,
which many cultures have taken as a sign or message
from the gods. (Compare its significance to Noah,
for example, after the flood in Genesis 9:12–17.)
Xenophanes tells us that rainbows are simply
natural phenomena that occur in natural circumstances and have natural explanations. A rainbow,
he thinks, is just a peculiar sort of cloud. This idea
suggests a theory of how gods are invented. Natural
phenomena, especially those that are particularly
CHAPTER 2   Philosophy Before Socrates 2Philosophy Before Socrates
striking or important to us, are personified and
given lives that go beyond what is observable. Like
the theory that the gods are invented, this theory
has often been held. It may not be stretching things
too far to regard Xenophanes as its originator.
It is clear that there is a kind of natural unity between nature philosophy and criticism of Homer’s
gods. They go together and mutually reinforce one
another. Together they are more powerful than either
could be alone. We will see that they come to pose a
serious threat to the integrity of Greek cultural life.
There is one last theme in Xenophanes that we
should address. Poets in classical times typically
appealed to the Muses for inspiration and seemed
often to think that what they spoke or wrote was
not their own—that it was literally inspired,
breathed into them, by these goddesses. Remember
Hesiod’s claim that he was taught to sing the truth
by the Muses. Similarly, Homer begins The Iliad by
inviting the goddess to sing through him the rage
of Achilles.* No doubt this is more than a literary
conceit; many writers have experiences of inspiration when they seem to be no more than a mouthpiece for powers greater and truer than themselves.
Hesiod and Homer may well have had such experiences. Whether such experiences guarantee the
truth of what the writer says in such ecstatic states is,
of course, another question. Listen to Xenophanes:
The gods have not revealed all things from the beginning to mortals; but, by seeking, men find out,
in time, what is better. (DK 21 B 18, IEGP, 56)
No man knows the truth, nor will there be a
man who has knowledge about the gods and what I
say about everything. For even if he were to hit by
chance upon the whole truth, he himself would not
be aware of having done so, but each forms his own
opinion. (DK 21 B 38, IEGP, 56)
Let these things, then, be taken as like the
truth. (DK 21 B 35, IEGP, 56)
This is a very rich set of statements. Let us consider
them in six points.
1. Xenophanes is explicitly denying our poets’
claims of inspiration. The gods have not revealed
*Look again at these claims to divine inspiration on
pp. 2 and 4.
to us in this way “from the beginning” what is true,
Xenophanes says. If we were to ask him why he is
so sure about this, he would no doubt remind us of
the unworthy picture of deity painted by the poets
and of the natural explanations that can be given for
phenomena they ascribe to the gods. Xenophanes’
point is that a poet’s claim of divine revelation is no
guarantee of her poem’s truth.
2. How, then, should we form our beliefs? By
“seeking,” Xenophanes tells us. This idea is extremely vague. How, exactly, are we to seek? No
doubt he has in mind the methods of the Ionian
nature philosophers, but we don’t have a very good
idea of just what they were, so we don’t get much
help at this point.
Still, his remarks are not entirely without content. He envisages a process of moving toward the
truth. If we want the truth, we should face not the
past but the future. It is no good looking back to
the tradition, to Homer and Hesiod, as though they
had already said the last words. We must look to
ourselves and to the results of our seeking. He is
confident, perhaps because he values the results of
the nature philosophers, that “in time”—not all at
once—we will discover “what is better.” We may
not succeed in finding the truth, but our opinions
will be “better,” or more “like the truth.”*
3. It may be that we know some truth already.
Perhaps there is even someone who knows “the
whole truth.” But even if he did, that person could
not be sure that it is the truth. To use a distinction Plato later emphasizes, Xenophanes is claiming that the person would not be able to distinguish
his knowledge of the truth from mere opinion.†
(Plato, as we’ll see, does not agree.) There is,
Xenophanes means to tell us, no such thing as certainty for limited beings such as ourselves. Here is a
theme that later skeptics take up.‡
*In recent philosophy these themes have been taken up
by the fallibilists. See C. S. Peirce (p. 601).
†See pp. 149–151.
‡See, for instance, the discussions by Sextus E
­ mpiricus
(pp. 246–251) and Montaigne (pp. 350–353).
­Similar themes are found in Descartes’ first Meditation and,
in the Chinese tradition, in the work of Zhuangzi
(pp. 83–87).
Heraclitus: Oneness in the Logos
4. This somewhat skeptical conclusion does
not mean that all beliefs are equally good. Xenophanes is clear that although we may never be certain we have reached the truth, some beliefs are
better or closer to the truth than others. Unfortunately, he does not tell us how we are to tell which
are better. Again we have a problem that many
later thinkers take up.
5. Until Xenophanes, Greek thought had
basically been directed outward—to the gods,
to the world of human beings, to nature. Xenophanes directs thought back on itself. His questioning questions itself. How much can we
know? How can we know it? Can we reach the
truth? Can we reach certainty about the truth?
These are the central questions that define the
branch of philosophy called epistemology, the
theory of knowledge. Xenophanes, it seems, is
its father.
“I was born not knowing and have only had a
little time to change that here and there.”
Richard Feynman (1918–1988)
6. If we ask, then, whether there is anyone
who can know the truth and know that he knows
it, what is the answer? Yes. The one god does, the
one who “sees all over, thinks all over, hears all
over.” In this answer, Xenophanes carries forward
Homer’s emphasis on the gulf between humans
and gods. The most important truth about humans
is that they are not gods. Xenophanes’ remarks
about human knowledge drive that point home
once and for all.
1. What are Xenophanes’ criticisms of the Homeric
2. What is his conception of the one god?
3. Can we know the truth about things, according to
Xenophanes? If so, how?
4. Relate his sayings about knowing the truth to the
idea of hubris and to claims made by Hesiod and
Heraclitus: Oneness in the Logos
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