130 Years Before Socrates: Historical Exploration (Introduction)

Pre-Socratics in the history of philosophy are a group of Greek thinkers who lived and contemplated the nature of reality before the great Master of Western philosophy (a bit like Yoda from Star Wars), Socrates, was born. By the way, he was born in Athens in 469 BCE. Despite his monumental role, Socrates was not the first Greek philosopher. It was Thales of Miletus. At least as far as the available written records and Aristotle can tell. I have described the main philosophical projects of the so-called Milesian trio – Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes – in three separate articles. Also, there is a 2-part piece I`ve written on the historical background leading up to these first Greek philosophers (part 1 and part 2). Yet, there is still more than a century between them and Socrates. What was happening in and with Greece during this time, roughly from 590s BCE to 460s BCE? How did it influence the environment into which Socrates was born? Let`s explore that!

The first thing worth noting is that those were very busy times for Greece. Indeed, a lot was happening. Not just in terms of the sheer number of events, but also their significance. Centers of power and influence shifted, new laws and government structures were introduced, great wars were waged leaving their mark not only in historical chronicles but also in the sense of identity of people. Many of these processes took shape concurrently. Ancient Greece entered into what historians call the Classical age, leaving its Archaic age behind. 

Of course, for people living back then, it was simply ‘their age’. Our three philosophical friends from Miletus would not have known that they belonged to a different age classification than their successors. Nevertheless, what they were likely to have known was the loss of independence of their cities to much larger neighboring empires. Perhaps there was a day when Thales was remembered by his younger successor and fellow citizen Anaximenes for the advice he had given to the government of Miletus to form a political union between Ionian cities to better protect against the increasingly powerful Eastern neighbors. The advice they did not follow. Did Anaximenes think to himself “If only they’d listened to wise Thales…”? We will never know.  

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What we know is that during the period between 590s BCE and 460s BCE the following things happened, and they were of high significance to the historical development of Greece and, as part thereof, its philosophy: 

  1. Ionian city-states, Miletus among them, lost their independence and were incorporated into the gigantic Persian empire (547 BCE – 479 BCE);
  2. Athens saw the first seeds of its future democracy being sown (594 BCE), interrupted by half a century rule of a tyrant family (560 BCE – 510 BCE), culminating in political and legal reforms that ushered in the period of Athenian democracy (from ~508/7 BCE), its ‘Golden Age’, leading to increasing rivalry with Sparta; 
  3. Ionian revolt against their Persian overlords sparked the 50-years long Greco-Persian wars (499 BCE – 449 BCE) where, against all odds, Greek were victorious, and some of the battles are still remembered today.   

In the meantime, our philosopher friends were not idle. Turbulent times call for intense thinking. According to Professor Peter Adamson`s book series “A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps”, there have been at least nine thinkers during this period before Socrates came along. Of these nine, seven were from Ionian city-states. So we can immediately see, Ionia was an important Greek region for the birth, development and spread of its philosophical legacy. The classical image of an old wise man philosophizing in Athens will come later. In fact, it will not be before the days when little Socrates was running around the streets of Athens, probably driving his mother crazy.

So, who were these nine pre-Socratics? We have already met the first three of them, the Milesian trio. The others are, chronologically following the time when they were active: 

  1. Xenophanes from Colophon, Ionia (~540 BCE);
  2. Pythagoras from Samos, Ionia, but settled in Croton, South Italy (~540 BCE) => his followers will be referred to as ‘Pythagoreans’;
  3. Theano, allegedly the first woman philosopher, associated with Pythagoras, either as his wife or student, or both;
  4. Heraclitus from Ephesus, Ionia (~500 BCE);
  5. Parmenides from Elea, South Italy (~480 BCE) => his followers will be referred to as ‘the Eleatics’, most famous ones Zeno* of Elea (~460 BCE) and Melissus* from Samos, Ionia (~450 BCE);
  6. Anaxagoras from Clazomenae, Ionia, but settled in Athens (~460 BCE). 

*Although these two philosophers formally count as pre-Socratics, I have chosen to look at them separately along with others who can be seen as rough contemporaries of Socrates. My last pre-Socratic, therefore, is Anaxagoras. Why? Because as far as written records can tell, he is the first to bring philosophy to Athens, and his work will apparently influence young Socrates. 

So, where are we with our historical exploration? At the beginning. In this introduction, I have tried to sketch the map of the territory we will need to cover – the main events that were shaping Greece in the 6th/mid-5th centuries BCE. Also, I have listed the philosophers active during this period. In the upcoming articles, I will go deeper into historical exploration and follow our map. When the stage will have been set, our thinkers will appear on it with due attention paid to each of them. I hope you enjoy our journey!

keep exploring!

Resources I used for this article:

  1. Norman Davies “Europe: a history”, HarperPerennial, first edition 1998
  2. Peter Adamson “Classical Philosophy”, the first volume in his series “A history of philosophy without any gaps”, Oxford University Press 2014 
  3. Peter Rietbergen “Europe: A Cultural History”, Routledge, third edition 2015
  4. YouTube channel`s History Time video “Entire History of the Persian Achaemenid Empire (550-330 BC) / Ancient History Documentary”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=34oQfaJiy7w 
  5. Wikipedia on Greco-Persian wars: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greco-Persian_Wars  

Image(1) By Abbott, Jacob, 1803-1879 – History of Xerxes [1], published 1900, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=75985761

One thought on “130 Years Before Socrates: Historical Exploration (Introduction)

  1. Pingback: 130 Years Before Socrates: Historical Exploration (Part 1 – Persians Conquer Ionia) – humanfactor

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