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Thursday, 11 March 2010

The Nietzschean Presocratian Project

Chapter 1: The Nietzschean-Presocratian Project

Athena takes Achilles by the hair,
Hector is in the dust, Nietzsche is born

[Yeats, Meru1935]


The Hellenic Will

The Greek philosophers before Socrates/Plato - usually called the Presocratics, although Nietzsche prefers the term Preplatonics - are of vital importance to the Nietzschean project of future philosophers to the point where those Nietzschean future philosophers will have to take up from where the Presocratics - and Nietzsche - left off.

We see the consciousness of this fate ripen in a book Nietzsche was preparing to write around 1872 called 'The Philosopher' [see Nietzsche 1990]. This project was abandoned; but has left behind it a treasure-store of notes.

In them predominate the theory of the 'drives' which he was to work into the fabric of his arche of 'the will of power' in Beyond Good and Evil [BGE] (1886).

"The culture of a people reveals itself in the unifying control of this people's drives."

[Nietzsche, Notebooks 1873]

It is the philosopher who is thrown-up to fulfil this task of unifying;

"What is specific in this people comes to light here as an individual: the drive of the people is applied to solving the riddle of the universe." [ib.]

It was from his rare insight into the Dionysian nature of the ancient Greeks - an insight that overturned the standard Winckelmann/Goethe view of 'Greek serenity' - that Nietzsche derived his philosophical perspective.

"All the drives of the Greeks evince a controlling unity; let us call it the Hellenic will. Each of these drives attempts to exist on its own into infinity. The ancient philosophers attempt to construct a world out of them." [ib.]

The feeling of power as the will expands is called by Nietzsche 'pleasure/displeasure' at this stage, and he had already recognised its primacy over what is commonly known as 'truth';

"All drives are associated with pleasure and displeasure - there can be no drive for truth." [ib.]

Showing how Nietzsche continually drew on his previous work to refine it, we see here two conceptions which are to reappear later in BGE 1-10; "the drive to knowledge", and "the will to truth."

As in BGE, he denies in the early notebooks the validity of both of them, saying that, "pure knowledge has no drive", and that there can "only be a drive for belief in truth."

"Truth is a cloak for completely different impulses and drives, so that as long as one seeks truth in the world, one is ruled by drives." [ib.]

Here the rhetorical question in BGE1 comes to mind;

"Granted we want truth: why not rather untruth."?

Nietzsche, though, recognises the dangerous 'tight-rope' he has to walk between affirming the drives and examining them;

"Most people stand so strongly under the influence of their drives that they do not even notice what is happening. I want to state what is happening and call attention to it." [Notebooks 1873 ib.]


The Reformer

That superior people of antiquity, the Greeks, gave 'philosophy' to the world. But whereas most would see Socrates as the exemplar of the Greek philosophical drives, to Nietzsche he represented their decline.

It was the Presocratics, who, according to Nietzsche, represented "the most spiritual will to power."

But they were not quite the ultimate, for Nietzsche makes the startling pronouncement that the Presocratics were actually a 'prelude to the philosophy of the future';

In order to understand the Presocratics "one must recognise in them the first outline and germ of the Greek reformer: their purpose was to pave the way for him, they were supposed to precede him as the dawn precedes the rising sun. But the sun did not rise, the reformer failed." [Notebooks  winter 1872-3, Nietzsche 1995]

Here we have Nietzsche's symbol of noontide, when the sun is at its strongest - this is Zarathustra's 'moment'.

That Nietzsche came to see himself - in the guise of Zarathustra - as the Reformer is beyond doubt;

"Hence the dawn remained nothing but a ghostly apparition. However, the simultaneous emergence of tragedy demonstrated that something new was in the air: but the philosopher and legislator who would have comprehended tragedy never appeared, and hence this art died again and the Greek reformation became forever impossible." [ib.]

Nietzsche was to make this possible, as he was later to call himself - "The First Tragic Philosopher" - coming to regard himself as the fulfilment of the promise he had innocently, but so prophetically, articulated over a decade before.


Empedocles and the Eternal Return

I am a fugitive from the gods and a wanderer, trusting in mad Strife.
[Empedocles fragment B115]

 The Presocratics lost their golden opportunity in Empedocles [c. 495-35BC], according to Nietzsche;

"It is not possible to think of Empedocles without a profound sadness; he came closest to fulfilling the role of that reformer. That he also failed, was a pan-Hellenic catastrophe." [ib.]

"Empedocles came from an aristocratic background. He was an active politician, a philosopher and a medical man. He also claimed magical powers for himself, saying, 'I go about among you, an immortal god'." [Empedocles B112]

"Desiring to show his godliness, he is said to have leapt to his death into the crater of Mt. Etna. Despite all this we should not lose sight of the fact that he constructed a serious and complicated theory of the Cosmos and our knowledge of it, and that he was profoundly interested in the question of the proper place of human beings in the universe." [Barnes 1982]

"Empedocles was the first thinker to identify independent forces in nature. In his main-work 'On Nature' he described a cyclical history of the universe in which everything is compounded from four elements or roots. The primary motivating factors are the two opposing powers, Love and Strife, or attraction and repulsion [or drive/need; in fact we could compare here the 'will to power' itself]. The powers determined the development of the universe. The elements periodically unite into a divine and homogeneous Sphere. The Sphere then dissolves and the world is established in a series of stages. History then reverses itself, and the universe gradually returns to the state of the Sphere. The Cosmic Cycle rolls on repeatedly, without beginning or without end." [ib.]

Parallels to the Nietzschean doctrine of the Eternal Recurrence of the Same are obvious;

"For the coming together of all things produces one birth and destruction, and the other is nurtured and flies apart when they grow apart again. And these never cease continually interchanging, at one time all coming together into one by Love and at another each being borne apart by the hatred of strife."

[Empedocles B211]

"When Strife had reached the lowest depth of the vortex, and Love comes to be in the middle of the whirl, at this point all these things come together to be one single thing, not at once, but willingly banding together, different ones from different places." [ib. B35]


Fall and Metamorphoses

"There are still very many possibilities which have not yet been discovered, because the Greeks did not discover them. Other possibilities were discovered by the Greeks and then covered up again." [Nietzsche Notebooks 1875]

As well as 'On Nature', Empedocles wrote a work called 'Purifications' which was based on the story of 'The Fall'. The Spirits had erred [some say that the error was the eating of meat], and were punished by being incarnated into mortal form, but that there was always the possibility of redemption;

"The fall was tragic, but the future shines; we too may hope to become fellow feasters at the table of the gods." [Barnes ib.]

Empedocles believed in metempsychosis, or the transmigration of souls, saying that the best move for a human is to "become a lion, if death changes him into an animal, and a laurel if into a plant." [Empedocles B127]

Here we have an adumbration of Nietzsche's 'Three Metamorphoses of the Spirit' - from a Camel to a lion to a child - in Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883-5). Likewise we may perceive a foreshadowing of the Superman in the following;

"The wise first become seers, hymn-writers and doctors and princes among earth-dwelling men; and then, they arise as gods, highest in honour." [Empedocles B146]

It is clear in retrospect that in his Notebooks of 1873, Nietzsche is using Empedocles as a part-prototype for the Zarathustra who will appear a decade later;

"The philosophers of the Tragic Age disclose the world, as does Tragedy. In Empedocles the Pythagorean-Orphic doctrine is reinterpreted in a natural-scientific manner: he consciously masters both vocabularies, that is why he is the first rhetor. He attempts a total reform of the Hellenic." [Nietzsche Notebooks 1873]

To reveal the world of 'supra-human truth' in all its terrifying tragic nature is the task;

"The philosopher is the extension of that drive by which we, by means of anthropological illusions, continually relate with nature." [ib.]


The Revaluation

Civilisation is hooped together, brought
Under a rule, under the semblance of peace
But manifold illusion.

[Yeats, Meru 1935]

Pythagoras [born c. 582BC] is the archetypal magician of ancient times ... a precursor of Faust ... He became a disciple of Zarathustra before returning to Greece.
[B. King, Ultima Thule]

The Nietzschean project takes form in bold Presocratic brush-strokes;
"Periodicity is necessary. Empedocles even wants to apply the same cosmological principles to the case of living beings. Here too, he denies purposiveness; his greatest deed." [Nietzsche Notebooks 1873]

The nature of the drives extended into the realm of physics;

"Empedocles had conceived the thought of a tangential force, caused by reversal, that worked in opposition to gravity. He called the forces that press atoms together and give matter its solidity 'Love'. It is a molecular force, a constituative force of bodies." [ib.]

As in the macrocosm, so in the microcosm;

"This will is also a highly complex end-product of Nature." [ib.]

We are given a window into Nietzsche's workshop in these notebooks as he sets down an actual method which draws directly from his incorporation of the Empedoclean;

"The hypothesis able to explain the existing world with the fewest presuppositions and expedients should be given precedence...

"Anyone whose explanation can make do with simpler and better known forces, above all those of mechanics, anyone who derives the existing structure of the world from the smallest possible number of forces, always will take precedence over someone who sees more complicated and lesser known forces - and these moreover, in greater number - at work in the construction of the world." [ib.]

He is already applying this approach to the drives;

"We do not come a single step closer to explaining purposiveness by appealing to the instincts. For precisely these instincts are already the products of processes that have gone on for an infinitely long period of time." [ib.]

Nietzsche was to apply his 'Ockhams' Razor' [or hammer] to these 'processes' in spectacular fashion when he was to talk in BGE of the "universality and unconditionality of all as 'will to power'" [BGE 22], and to state in no uncertain terms that we live "in a world whose essence is will to power." [BGE 186]

Nietzsche's philosophy then is a resume and reworking of Presocratism as a preliminary.

But it goes further in that it presents a 'reformation' which is called by Nietzsche a 'Revaluation of All Values.'

This is the task for the 'philosophers of the future';

"Are they new friends of 'truth', these coming philosophers? In all probability: for all philosophers have hitherto loved their truths. But certainly they will not be dogmatists. It must offend their pride, and also their taste, if their truth is supposed to be a truth for everyman, which has hitherto been the secret desire and hidden sense of all dogmatic endeavours." [BGE 42]

Let us then review some of the outstanding aspects of the Presocratics.

Chapter 2: The Milesians

It was the three men from Miletus;- Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes who, in the 6th century BC postulated the notion of a first principle of all things and thereby began the practice of natural philosophy.

This first principle, which later became known as the Arche (Greek ἀρχή, beginning, first principle) [1] rested on the assumption that 'nothing can come out of nothing', and that therefore all things in the universe must derive from some primal 'stuff' which itself must be infinite and eternal. [2]

The question as to what kind of stuff this primary substance could be is fundamental to metaphysics.

Aristotle himself analyses the Milesians and their theories at length. He also defines the nature of the primary stuff thus:

"The element and first principle of the things that exist is that from which they all are and from which they first come into being and into which they are finally destroyed, its substance remaining and its properties changing." [3]

So, while the underlying 'stuff' is constant, its qualities and characteristics are prone to coming-to-be and to passing-away.

We may though, at this point, ask ourselves why it was that thoughtful men had not seemingly addressed this question prior to its discussion by the Milesians. What prompted them to make such a momentous advance?

Was it the Zeitgeist of a so-called 'Axial Age'? [4]

Even so, what had held back mankind hitherto? The stranglehold of religious dogma and the corresponding sense that men were not individuals but an amorphous mass?

Possibly. But the Ionians were not necessarily atheists - far from it. As Burkert said, at this stage "only anthropomorphism proved to be a fetter that had to be cast away." [5]



1. 'Arche' available at  (accessed 13/10/09) 2. 'Nothing Comes From Nothing' available at

3. Barnes 1987 p. 63 [the reference is to Aristotle's Metaphysics]

4. http://]

5. Burkert p. 311

The Arche of Water

Thales (fl. 585 BC), a man of noble birth, was acknowledged by Aristotle as the founder of the Milesian school of philosophy. One of The Seven Sages, he not only dared to question the orthodoxies, but also attempted to explain the world without recourse to the established pantheons of gods. He used rather his powers of reasoning when he asked himself the question:

What is the basic stuff of which the universe is made?

The question suggested that despite the world's apparent multiplicity, in fact, 'All was One'. In its very propensity to seek the truth in simplicity, it provided a blueprint for future scientific method.

The notion that there is one single substance which is the material principle of everything is known by modern philosophy as 'material monism' - and Thales was the first of the ancients known to expound it.

Such metaphysical questions are, by their very nature, ultimate questions. Here man seeks the answers to the mystery of existence itself.

By his very enquiry he begins to philosophise.

It was, therefore, by the very process of applying themselves to this question that Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes - in succession - did indeed attempt to progressively clarify the question itself, and thereby invent 'Western Philosophy'.

That they did so, and abjured any tendency towards dogmatism within their own school of thought is in itself another Milesian innovation.

Our first reaction to Thales' suggestion that the material principle of everything is water may not be so favourable. We may think that Thales had not broken away from the watery beginnings of mythology which drench, for example, the epic of Gilgamesh. Some commentators have even said that Thales spent some time in Egypt and brought back a modified aquatic cosmogony from there. [6]

At any rate, we must not be misled into thinking that Thales had merely suggested that the world is 'born' in water; he is rather insisting that all existence is in some way or other really water. [7]

Water can undergo transformations from vapour to solid, and it is also dynamic, ebbing and flowing - although it stagnates when not.

Thales enters the realm of metaphysics by broaching such questions as the nature of change, identity and appearance and reality. And yet, for all that, he was no 'dry' phusikos, for he also held that water - which embodies the soul of the world - runs through all things as spirit does. [8]

Despite all this, we still feel that Thales' theory of water is less than compelling: we find ourselves wondering why he chose water rather than air, fire or earth. Was it his study of meterology, or else the discovery of fossil sea animals far inland? Aristotle thought it due to his "seeing that the nourishment of everything is moist ... and because the seeds of everything have a moist nature, and water is the natural principle of most things." [9]


6. Barnes 1987 pp. 66-7

7. Curd p. 10

8. Barnes p. 67

9. Barnes p. 63 [Metaphysics]

The Arche of the Unbounded

Anaximander (fl. 560 BC), the pupil and successor to Thales, also addressed the problem of the primary substance, but found himself unable to accept the verdict of his master.

This in itself illustrates the profound originality of the Milesian school. The pupil is not a mere repository of orthodoxy, but is rather actively encouraged to criticise his teacher's model. [10]

As already intimated, Anaximander thought it somewhat arbitrary of Thales to posit water as the first principle over the other elements: if that first principle is -requisitely - infinite, then would it not vanquish the other elements which are derivative and therefore finite?

The pupil himself thought that all the elements must be derivative, and conceived them to be locked in constant opposition to each other. He reasoned that the first principle [11] could not be found in "water nor any other of the so-called elements." [12] Indeed, the principle must be not only infinite, but also unlimited and indefinite.

The term he used for this rather abstract notion was the Apeiron [Greek, from a- (privative prefix) + peras, boundary, limit. So - the indeterminate, the boundless, the unlimited] ;

"A certain infinite nature is first principle of the things that exist. From it come the heavens and the worlds in them. It is eternal and ageless, and it contains all the worlds." [13]

Aristotle referred to this solution, saying that "the infinite is ungenerated and indestructible ... it has no principle [i.e. origin], but itself is thought to be a principle for everything else and govern everything." [14]

In his early essay on the first philosophers, Nietzsche says of the Apeiron; "that which truly is, concludes Anaximander, cannot possess definite characteristics, or it would come-to-be and pass away like all other things: in order that coming-to-be shall not cease, primal being must be indefinite." [15]

In solving what he saw as the short-comings of Thales' watery principle, his pupil landed himself with the problem of elucidating how a mysterious non-substance such as the Apeiron could be the primary substance of a universe made up of matter. Whereas Thales accounted for 'coming-into-being' by the 'alteration' of water, Anaximander has the Apeiron causing a "separating off of the opposites by the eternal motion." [16] It apparently generates the opposing elements of the world - hot/cold, right/wrong, good/bad - which in their fluctuating give-and-take form the features of the universe while performing some cosmic morality play. The process of universal change is overseen by an impartial 'justice' which latter then is surely apart from those changes which occur.

The other problems raised by the Apeiron take us further into the question of what the primary substance could be, and advance beyond many of the limitations of Thales' position.

Notes:10. Karl Popper has written of this feature of the first philosophers and sees it as a crucial step in establishing the critical temper essential for the development of Western scientific/philosophic civilisation. He says that "if we look for the first signs of this critical attitude, this new freedom of thought, we are led to Anaximander's criticism of Thales." [Popper p. 28, 'Back to the Presocratics']

11. Simplicius says that Anaximander was the first to use the term 'principle', but this could just mean that he was the first to say that the indefinite was the first first principle - cf. Curd p. 12 and Barnes p. 71

12. Curd p. 12

13. Barnes p. 71 [Hippolytus]

14. Barnes p. 75

15. Nietzsche 1962 p. 47

16. Barnes p. 75 [Simplicius]

The Arche of Air

It was, however, Anaximenes (fl. 546 BC) - the final member of our Milesian trio - who, by grappling with the ideas of his teacher Anaximander, provided yet another 'answer' to the question. Of course, none of the theories given by the Milesians are 'correct' as such; but then neither are they failures. What they do do is illustrate the upward striving of the human intellect as it ever strains against the gravity of superstition.

In some ways Anaximenes synthesised certain aspects of both his predecessors ideas. Just as Anaximander had rejected Thales theory, so did Anaximenes reject Anaximander's. But like Thales, Anaximenes chose one of the elements, this time air [Greek aer, air, vapour], being partly influenced by the concept of the breath-soul [Greek pnuema], which he extended to mean that the totality of air or breath embodies the soul of the universe.

This was not, as it may seem at first, a retrograde step, because he had invented a way of side-stepping his teacher's objection to making an element unilaterally infinite.

He did so by postulating a process of change from singularity to multiplicity which retained the integrity of his first principle - something sorely lacking in Thales and Anaximander's accounts.

By showing how air could be transmuted while remaining the same eternally, Anaximenes made good grounds for his choice:

"Air is always in motion; for the things that change would not change if it were not for motion. For as it is condensed and rarefied it appears different." [17]

This process of the condensing and rarefying of air was itself the Universe:

"He thought we should treat the hot and the cold not as substances, but rather as common properties of matter which supervene upon changes ... For he says that matter which is concentrated and condensed is cold, while that which is rare and 'slack' is hot." [18]

Out of all the elements then, 'air' seems to be a better solution as to what out of them all is the primal element due to its better claim to ubiquity.

The difficulties inherent in Anaximenes balancing act of 'so-called elements', invites us to conceive of a continuum where there are no opposites as such, but rather gradations along a scale. All things in the universe then, are really air at various densities. The actual qualities of things such as temperature, texture, colour etc., can all be explained by the relative density of their component air which is in constant motion. All the stuffs so formed are then mixed and matched in hybrids which result in the multitudinous cosmos.

In this theory of air we arrive at the closest approximation so far to a truly prime substance of the Universe. By emphasising quantity, Anaximenes hinted strongly at the method of measurement of stuffs which was to become fundamental to scientific progress in the future. Of course, the Milesians had not the instrumentation necessary to exploit this germinal idea.

The first three philosophers actually defined the question of the first principle which had hitherto lain dormant like a plain slab of marble awaiting the sculptor's chisel. Each of the Milesians chipped away; the pupil always seeking to improve upon the work of his master. Their results are a monument to the genius inherent in man which is so rarely realised, just as the question they attempted to answer has yet to be satisfactorily settled. The different answers that they gave, in themselves, helped to pose further incremental questions; and it is this that accounts for the first philosophers' immortality.

Notes:17. Barnes p. 77 [Hippolytus]

18. Barnes p. 79 [Plutarch]

Chapter 3: The Eleatics

Space, Time and Infinity

There are few more vexing questions than those posed by Space, Time and Infinity.

Both Space and Time share the same fundamental sense of 'extension', i.e. to stretch out (cf. Latin spatium and Germanic *ti-) : Space as an extension of things, and Time as an extension of events.

I take 'finitude' to refer to the extent of that Space-Time extension, and to whether or not things have any final boundaries, or whether or not any series of events can eventually come to an ultimate end.

Despite the parity of Space & Time (particularly in view of our post-Relativity view of four-dimensional Space-Time continuum), Time, unlike Space, presents us with a problem peculiar to itself. Because, whereas in Space, generally speaking, one can move around at will in all directions, the same is not possible in Time. We are instead impelled to move in only one temporal direction; towards the future.

This asymmetry of Space-Time has no doubt engendered the feeling of helplessness that has inspired the Mythos of a Web of Fate, woven by a Goddess of Justice to which Parmenides of Elea (fl. c. 450 BC) appeals in the Prologue to his philosophical poem. [19] This is perfectly respectable however, as even the modern physicist accepts - on the macrocosmic level - an Arrow of Time which points away from a Singularity some fifteen billion years ago and which aims towards a heat-death sometime in the future. Our Doom is therefore sealed by the unavoidable entropy decreed by the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

In considering such fundamental questions of existence we may well flee from helplessness and begin to rub shoulders with absurdity in the form of paradox. Indeed, those philosophers of the Eleatic school used the paradox as a tool in their attempt to tear away the veil of illusion which they saw as shrouding 'Reality' as it really is. That this veil is often known as 'common sense' underlines the contradictory nature of our world of appearance. As Einstein is said to have remarked, "common sense tells us that the world is flat."

In antiquity, the Liar Paradox - i.e., 'this statement is false': if true it is false, if false it is true - went so far as to point out the inherent contradictions in the notion of truth itself  (It is said that an obsession with solving this Paradox led to the suicide of at least one philosopher, Philetas of Cos). [20]

Parmenides presented his philosophy as a suitably ambiguous Diarchy. On one side was 'The Way of Truth', which paradoxically totally belied any intuitive perception we may have of Reality. On the other was 'The Way of Opinion', a view described by its author as false, and which proffered an Ionian type Cosmology with Pythagorean overtones which presumably represented the sort of orthodox scientific view of his enlightened contemporaries. Needless to say , it showed a complete heteropolarity to The Way of Truth.

It is, in this connexion, well to be reminded that our views of Existence are dictated largely by the peculiar religio-scientific orthodoxy of the time, beit Newtonian, Ptolemaic, Buddhistic, Christian or any other. Not only that, but various conflicting concepts co-exist within us, no matter how vigilant we may be. So, for example, while being led through the wonders of the expanding universe by Stephen Hawking, we may still betray our anthropomorphism with every other earth-bound utterance we make. Therefore, not only must Parmenides and his follower Melissus of Somos (fl. 440 BC) [21] be situated in the current wisdom of antiquity, but we ourselves must be aware of our own cultural-intellectual orientation and its relation to them. Any assessment of their arguments in Space-Time and Infinity will necessarily involve this dialectic.


19. see first stanza :



Void and Plenum

The early Pythagoreans rarely thought of Space as we tend to now, that is as void (Greek Kenon). They rather referred to the pneuma aperion, meaning something like 'the unlimited cosmic breath'. The Apeiron as we have seen being coined by Anaximander to describe his fundamental cosmic principle. The Pythagorean Archytas [22] - as referred to by Eudemus, a pupil of Aristotle - moved away from this rather spiritual supposition and spoke instead of Space as a sort of atmosphere differentiated from the Place (Greek topos) occupied by all things. Outside of this was an infinite void. Archytas is also credited with the paradoxical query which runs: is it possible to stretch one's hand out beyond the edge of the world?

The notion of the void was taken up by Democritus (c. 460-c. 370 BC) and the Atomists who declared that Space was therefore an empty medium of Vacuum. It is against this background that Parmenides and Melissus expounded their philosophy of the Plenum. Diametrically opposed to the Atomists, the Eleatics described is as a sin against logic to even believe that one could have any cognisance of 'the empty'.

Parmenides is often credited as being the founder of Logic, basing his way of truth on what became known as the Law of Non-Contradiction, [23] a 'law' which Heraclitus of Ephesus flouted with evident glee. In his theory of flux, Heraclitus enunciated a dynamic concept of Time which flowed like a river.

The ancients, impressed by the Sophoclean wheels of inexorable fate, had in general, a cyclic view of Time which was elaborated by the Pythagoreans into an eternal recurrence, based on the idea of metempsychosis. The Eleatics, however, by pursuing hard logic pronounced Time to be unreal, and Reality to be essentially static.




Parmenidean Being

Xenophanes (c. 570 - c. 460 BC) is said by some to have been a teacher of Parmenides and the founder of the Eleatic school. His scepticism on the possibility of human knowledge progressing beyond belief would have provided an undoubted catalyst for Parmenidean enquiry. Xenophanes' description of God as being One, Perfect, Ungenerated, having no beginning, no middle, no end, as being Changeless, similar in all directions and stationary are echoed in Parmenides' theory of Being (Greek eon).

To Parmenides Being has all the above attributes, but is not a deity or an entity of any kind: it is rather the all-encompassing existence of the Whole Cosmos - a study of which has since become known as Ontology (Greek ta onta). Only through thinking could Being be discovered; with Parmenides begins the pursuit of Pure Reason:

"Thinking and the thought 'it is' are the same. For without the Being in relation to which it is uttered you cannot find thinking. For there neither is nor shall be anything outside of Being, since Fate bound it to be whole and immovable." [Parmenides quoted by Simplicius, The Way to Truth]

In our discussion on Space, Time and Infinity we come to a dilemma, for it seems that Parmenides thinks that spatial-temporal notions cannot be applied to Being. The above quote continues:

"For that reason, all these will be mere names which mortals have laid down, convinced that they were true:- coming to be as well as passing away, Being as well as non-Being, and also change of place, and variation of shining colours." [ib.]

From this it is clear the coming-to-be of the Cosmos is an illusory concept, which assertion Parmenides vindicates with an early version of the Principle of Sufficient Reason;

"For what generation will you seek for it? How, whence, did it grow? That it came from what is not I shall not allow you to say or think - for it is not say-able or thinkable that it is not. And what need would have impelled it, later or earlier, to grow - if it began from nothing? Thus it must either altogether be or not be." [ib.]

The aforementioned Melissus delivers simpler reasoning:

"For if [what exists] had come-into-being, then necessarily before coming-into-being it would have been nothing. Now if it had been nothing it would in no way have come to be anything from nothing." [Melissus from Simplicius]

The argument that nothing can come from nothing (ex nihilo fit nihil) has been referred to above  in relation to the Arche. Followed through to its logical conclusion the argument leads to the counter-intuitive results described in The Way of Truth. A way out of this paradox has usually been found via the concept of a divine Creator, although contemporary Quantum cosmology has in the no boundary condition of Hartle-Hawking a seeming 'creation out of nothing', [24] where at the very beginning of the Universe, Time is indistinguishable from Space, hence there is no prior initial state. Indeed Quantum theory today has much to unsettle received common-sense notions of Space, Time and Infinity just as did the Eleatics in the 5th century BC.

While standard notions of Space cannot be applied to Parmenides' evocation of 'what is', he does conjure up a certain image when he says Being is "like the bulk of a well-rounded ball." (ib.) He is dealing here with attempting to translate the ineffable into the less than satisfactory medium of "echoing ear and tongue." (ib.) The thought of perfection, is what Being is "for it is not lacking - if it were it would lack everything." (ib.) Melissus concurred with this, saying "nor is [Being] empty in any respect. For what is empty is nothing; and so being nothing it would not exist." He adds, probably thinking of the idea of rarefaction of one principal element as elucidated by Anaximenes, "and it will not be dense and rare. For what is rare cannot be as full as what is dense, but what is rare thereby becomes emptier than what is dense. You should distinguish between what is full and what is not full in this way: if it yields at all or receives, it is not

full; if it neither yields not receives, it is full. Now necessarily it is full if it is not empty." (ib.)

Perhaps aware that Parmenides had been careless in using the metaphor of a ball, Melissus says "it must fail to possess a body. If it had bulk it would have parts and would no longer be one." (ib.) From this we must conclude that the spatial features of the world, be they of place, void or atmosphere, are considered by the Eleatics to be illusory. Being is One, Perfect, Homogenous and Full; on this Parmenides and Melissus are in full agreement. To quote Melissus again:

"It is clear that we do not see correctly, and that those many things [we see] do not correctly seem to exist. for they would not change if they were true."



Melissus on Time and Infinity

It is when we come to the perennial problem of Time that we see the first signs of a clash between our two Eleatic innovators. Parmenides with all due consistency denies the reality of Time just as he does Space. The characteristic features of Time such as change, motion and event are not part of Parmenidean reality, of which he says "nor was it, nor will it be, since now it is, all together, one, continuous."

He is not, like most philosophers, trying to account for the problematic way Time seems to us once we begin to reflect on it. One thinks of St. Augustine's famous analysis in his Confessions [25] where he manfully chases the elusive Chronos saying; "time is nothing other than extendedness [distentionem], extendedness of what I do not know." and "the extendedness may be of the mind."

Of that one, seemingly definite aspect of Time, the now, he remarks; "how do we measure present time since it has no extension? It is measure while it passes?" It is this very ghostly aspect of Time with all its absences and longings which causes Parmenides to reject it in favour of a timeless Being, always adhering to his principle of 'what is, is' - ergo - 'what is not, is not'.

Despite agreeing that what exists cannot change, be altered or move - "for it has no way to retreat but is full" - Melissus startlingly departs from his mentor's strict canon by asserting, "it always was whatever it was and it always will be", and so acknowledging temporal duration.

Having denied the reality of Space and Time, Parmenides also denies the possibility of infinitude. This again is logical if one thinks of the latter as being merely a feature of Space and Time. At this point Melissus is in open schism with Parmenides, as he states clearly that being has infinite extension;

"It is eternal and infinite and one and wholly homogeneous."

It is notable that Melissus also uses the term 'eternal' which implies infinite extension of Time, something Parmenides avoids doing in his aforementioned denial of Time itself. His denial of the eternal or the infinite is due to their partaking of non-Being. It is for this reason no surprise that the paradoxes of Parmenides pupil and companion Zeno of Elea (fl. c. 450 BC) [26] seek to refute infinity as well as Space and motion.


The Perfection of Being

I don't take the "last limits" Parmenides talks of for Being as spatial:

"Equal in every way from the middle. For it must not be at all greater or smaller here or there. For neither is there anything which is not, which might stop it from reaching its like, nor anything which is in such a way that it might be more here or less there than what is, since it all is, inviolate. Therefore, equal to itself on all sides, it lies uniformly in its limits."

I think rather he is trying to describe the Perfection of Being, which in "not lacking" anything cannot be without bounds, in itself a lack.

While it is clear that the dogged pursuit of reason can breed monsters just as much as its sleep, the paradoxes so thrown up can be used to achieve new insights.

Parmenides was the first Presocratic philosopher to offer a developed logical reasoning to back up his assertions in the Nature of Being. His positions are nourished by, and consistent with, his main idea; - "that it is." This is the hallmark of an originator. While Melissus absorbed this teaching well, he was reluctant to completely deny - in his attachment to temporal duration and spatial infinity - "what is not".

Chapter 4: The Logos

Of the Logos which is as I describe it men always prove to be uncomprehending, both before they have heard it and when once they have heard it.



Mythos and Logos

With the rise of Ionian speculation there evolved a distinction between the two types of discourse known alternatively as Mythos as exemplified in Homer and Hesiod, and Logos as in the writings of Heraclitus of Ephesus (fl. c. 500 BC) [27]

While both Mythos and Logos are glossed as 'word', 'speech' and 'thought', the former orientates towards the telling of legends while the latter partakes of the rational.

Robert Graves, in the introduction to his 'Greek Myths' says that "true myth may be defined as the reduction to narrative short-hand of ritual mime performed on public festivals." [28] This may be too stringent a definition, but serves to emphasise how the first Natural Philosophers had to find their own kind of utterance, which necessarily branched off from that of Mythos.

In the present day, the term 'Logos' is most familiar to us from the opening line of The Gospel of St. John. The King James version of the New Testament translates Logos as 'Word' complete with capitalisation to indicate its specialised sense: "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."(John 1:1)[29] 

By introducing his Gospel with the lofty and ambiguous 'Logos', St. John echoes the way that Heraclitus began his own treatise 'On Nature';

"Of the Logos which holds forever men prove uncomprehending." (B1)


"All things come about in accordance with this Logos." (B1) [30] 

Heraclitus' Logos certainly has an aristocratic disdain for the many: "What sense do they have? They follow the popular singers and they take the crowd as their teacher, not knowing that most men are bad and few good." (B104) [31]

The great influence of the Gospels has no doubt subverted the Heraclitean meaning of the 'Logos'. In Christianity it becomes mystical, even to the extent of being another name for 'God' Himself. In the same Gospel, the Son of God is also described as the Logos 'made flesh.'[John 1:14]

Such a doctrine of Faith is quite at odds with the inquisitive and iconoclastic spirit of Presocratic philosophy; the Christian Evangelist obliges us to Believe, to wholly accept his 'Truth' and blindly follow 'The Word' as a member of the flock of the good shepherd. [John 10:11]

Such is inimical to the proud solitary position of one such as Heraclitus.

And yet should we not today - as Christianity fades - embrace Heraclitus as one of our own, saying along with Hegel that "here we see land!"? [32]


27. The Fragments of Heraclitus;;;/ Heraclitus: The Complete Philosophical Fragments


29. It seems that the transplantation of the Heraclitean Logos to St. John came via the Hellenist-Jewish philosopher Philo Judeus (c. 20 BC - 54 AD).

30.  quoted by Sextus Empiricus and also Hippolytus (both quotes in Barnes p. 101, but the term 'account' is used to translate 'logos')

31.  Barnes p. 110

32.  Hegel, GWF, Lectures on the History of Philosophy 1805/6, trans. E S Haldane, 1892-6 (available at) Part One Greek Philosophy section D: Heraclitus (available at)

 (end of first paragraph) (accessed 13/10/09)

Defining Logos

The dictionary gives a bewildering array of differing definitions for Logos. As well as the aforementioned meanings of speech, word, which it shares with Mythos, we find oracle, promise, command, proposal, agreement, decision; prose writing, history, oration, affair, incident, reckoning, reflection, reason, account, opinion, cause, end, argument, meaning and so on.[33]

Words with such a wide range of definitions are not common in English because its development has given rise to varying terms occupying incremental shades of meaning around a root concept. Such terms may descend from the Germanic Old English substratum or from subsequent Norman French/Romance imports, or else, as in the case of many technical terms, from Greek and Latin.

This makes English vocabulary more precise, but 'thinner' in meaning. By that I mean the wide pool of overlapping root meanings are often obscured or even lost. This was not the case with the Pre-Conquest tongue of Old English where the term for poetry, for example, was 'wordcraft'. The (later arrival) word 'poetry' itself, despite its ethereal associations, comes from the Greek with the sense 'to make'.[34]

All this may help to throw some light on the starkly contrasted approach various philosophers have adopted  towards the explication of the Logos. At one extreme, Martin Heidegger delves deeply into the philological and indeed poetical labyrinths (this is natural when we consider that certain terms like Geist in German will have nearly as many multifarious definitions as Logos does in Greek). While at the other, Jonathan Barnes denounces such 'Delian diving' as being 'in vain' and translates Logos as thinly as possible into 'account'.

Personally, I take the 'wider option' as the Logos in Heraclitus always seems to intimate the Universal, the Eternal, although not without the suspicion at times of some 'Greek laughter' amongst all the profundity.


34. cf. Sweet, H. The Student's Dictionary of Anglo-Saxon Oxford 1953 & Barney, S.A. Word-Hoard Yale 1977

Fire and Lightning

The mythographer Joseph Campbell describes "the world of the Logos" as "a world exclusively of males, where the mind ... can develop in its own playful way toward science and aesthetics, philosophy and athletics. " [Occidental Mythology, Campbell, J. Arkana 1991 p. 229] Which brings to mind the saying of Heraclitus:

"Eternity is a child at play, playing draughts; the kingdom is a child's." (B52) [35]

Some have tried to conflate the Logos and the 'Ever living fire', maintaining also that fire was considered by Heraclitus to be the 'Arche'. This approach can be taken so far as to identify all the various pyrotechnical and related motifs in the fragments as being synonymous with the Logos.

Analysing the fragment which runs:

"The lightning steers all things" (B64) [36]

Eugen Fink, in a brainstorming seminar with Martin Heidegger [37] says; "The movement of Logos, which brings forth and establishes, steers and determines everything, corresponds to the lightning movement that brings forth." [ib. p. 9]

Therefore the Logos is the nexus of lightning, sun, fire, and also the seasons, while "fire, which underlies everything is the bringing forth." [ib. p. 10]

Although by this method Fink establishes a certain consistency between many of the fragments which is sometimes overlooked, Heidegger pulls him up somewhat in the seminar's spirited exchanges, saying:

"Lightning, the One, Wisdom, Logos, Fire, Helios and War are not one and the same, and we may not simply equate them: rather certain relationships hold sway between ..." [ib. p. 14]

Heidegger's own treatment of the Logos [38] is, as might be expected, something of a philological tour de force. He succeeds in drawing the reader into a veritable inner sanctum where 'all things Greek' stand to become very real, and one may feel that here at last the meaning of the Logos will become clear. But Heidegger warns the reader never to assume too much, indicating that even Heraclitus' own contemporaries would have found the Logos somewhat elusive. Indeed, how else did he earn such nicknames as 'the Obscure', and 'the Riddler'!

In Heidegger's account it is worth remembering that λογοσ is akin to λογασ, which means 'gathered, picked'. Both words are rooted in λεγω, whose definitions include, 'to pick, gather, to reckon, to tell; to relate; to speak; to say' and so on. In fact the full list of definitions overlap with Logos. It seems that the primal root of Logos/Lego etc. is to be found in the sense of 'gathering' which connotation would have carried over to its use in early Greek philosophy.

To Heidegger the Logos has to do with "the unconcealment of what is present." [ib. pp. 63-4]

And "the Logos by itself brings that which appears and comes forward in its lying-before-us, to appearance - to its luminous self-showing." [ib. p. 64]

But why then does Heraclitus state in the introduction to his treatise that "men always prove to be uncomprehending."? This is because "proper hearing belongs to the Logos" and that "hearing is primarily gathered hearkening." [ib. p. 65] Heidegger uses the slightly archaic term 'hearkening' [39] to show that "here it is not so much a matter for research, but rather of paying thoughtful attention to simple things." [ib.]

The Logos is then, by this account, the 'Unique One, Unifying All' [Εν Παντα], which functions as 'the laying-that-gathers'. [cf. ib. pp. 69-73] After reading Heidegger's essay, any single word English translation of 'The Logos' may seem somewhat impoverished by comparison!

Notes:35. Barnes p. 102

36. Curd p. 37 - the word 'thunderbolt' used in Barnes instead of 'lightning'.

37. Heidegger/Fink

38. Heidegger 1984 pp. 59-78 essay 'Logos (Heraclitus Fragment B50)' (1951)

39. 'Hearken', from Old English hyrcnian from hyran, to hear cf. German horchen from horen. Skeat, W. The Concise Dictionary of English Etymology, Wordsworth 1993

Unity in Diversity


The German scholar of Greek religion, Walter Burkert, goes so far as to say that "Heraclitus, in the word [Logos] laid down in his book, is articulating the formula of all being, which is law and account, 'Logos' itself." [40]  Which makes  a good case for at least leaving the 'Logos' untranslated in any exposition of the fragments.

Someone far from being so convinced is the aforementioned Barnes; writing in his 'The Presocratic Philosophers'; "we may suppose that our fragment was preceded in antique fashion by a title sequence of the form 'Heraclitus of Ephesus says (legei) thus ...' the noun logos picks up in an ordinary and metaphysically unexciting way the verb legei."

While 'Ockham's Razor' is often useful, one must beware that a reductionist view of the Logos does not become tantamount to a rejection of what Heraclitus has to say altogether. If so we are in danger of missing the point, as made by Heidegger: "as a thinker, Heraclitus only gives us to think."

Hegel clearly understood the Logos as Universal, and so 'metaphysically exciting'. The following passage from his 'History of Philosophy' is worth quoting at length, as it includes an interesting dilation of our first fragment:

"That which appears as the Universal to all, carries with it conviction, for it has part in the Universal and divine Logos, while what is subscribed to by an individual carries with it no conviction from the opposite cause. He says in the beginning of his book 'On Nature': 'since the surroundings are reason, men are irrational both before they hear and when they first hear: for since what happens, happens according to this reason, they are still inexperienced when they search the sayings and the works which I expound, distinguishing the nature of everything, and explaining its relations. But either men do not know what they do awake, just as they forgot what they do in sleep.' Heraclitus says further: 'We do and think everything in that we participate in the divine understanding (logos). Hence we must follow the Universal understanding'." [ib. Hegel section 3]

Both Hegel and Heidegger have a similar conception of the Logos, due no doubt to their professed affinity with the Ephesian. Bertrand Russell brought Hegel and Heidegger together when he wrote that "there is a unity resulting from diversity ... this doctrine of Heraclitus' contains the germ of Hegel's philosophy, which proceeds by a synthesising of opposites." [41]

This Unity in diversity also brought out the perennial philosophical problems of change, of knowledge, and of appearance and reality.

E. L. Hussey [42] distills the frequent examples of 'unity-in-opposites' which occur in the fragments to "a parallelism or identity of structure between the operations of the mind, as expressed in the thought and language, and those of the reality which it grasps."

This implies that understanding the world is like grasping the meaning of a statement. The 'meaning of the world', like that of a statement in words, is not obvious, but yet is present in the statement, and can be worked out provided one 'knows the language'.

Hussey goes on to add that "the key to understanding the nature of the world is introspection." Whence Heraclitus' statement "I searched myself." [ib.]


40. Burkert p. 309

41. Russell p. 48

42. Hussey 1972

To Comprehend the Universe

What Heraclitus meant by 'the Logos' was no less than the project of philosophy itself. As the term 'lover of wisdom' had yet to be coined, Heraclitus needed to set his enterprise apart from the mythologists on the one hand, and - because he cast his net far wider - the physicists of Miletus on the other; he therefore pronounced The Logos.

It is said that his treatise was divided into three sections;- On the Universe, On Politics and On Theology. In truth, he sought to understand it all ; he saw this as the highest task of mankind - to attempt the complete comprehension of the Universe. This could not be achieved by intuition alone, nor could it be achieved by Reason alone; such is the Nature of the Logos.

Sir Francis Bacon said that "Heraclitus gave a just censure" to those who choose to eschew the Universal, "saying, Men sought truth in their own little worlds, and not in the great and common world." [43]


43. Bacon, F. The Advancement of Learning (1605)

Chapter 5: Thrasymachus

Socrates and the Sophists

5th century BC Athens saw its archaic legacy of Homer and Hesiod vie not only with new democratic ideals, but with a sophistic critique of all ideals (1).

During the latter half of that century, the philosopher Socrates would be engaged in debates, often with the professional teachers known as the 'Sophists' (2).

Socrates himself was commonly identified as a Sophist at the time, a notion that Plato - his best known pupil - would later seek to dispel (3), by portraying him as an "arch-enemy" of the Sophists (4).

After founding his Academy in around 387BC, Plato would write down his versions of those Socratic discussions of the 5th century, including one between Socrates and the Sophist Thrasymachus of Chalcedon, presented by Plato in the first book of his Republic [336b-354c] (5).


1) Kerferd p.1. and O'Grady, p. 23

2) O'Grady, p. 12

3) Ib., p. 166

4) e.g., Kerferd p. 55

5) Stephanus numbers in the text [in square brackets] refer to passages in The Republic

Socratic Ignorance

Despite their rivalry, Socrates is at pains to point out that he and Thrasymachus are not "enemies". [498 d] (6) He also described Thrasymachus as a "master of oratory", (7) although all this could be ironic.

At any rate, Thrasymachus is known by independent sources to have been an innovator in the techniques of rhetoric. (8)

Some scholars have speculated that the debate between them was originally a separate Platonic dialogue, and was only later appended to the Republic; and it certainly has all the features of a self-contained early dialogue.

In it, Socrates professes not to know what justice is, leading Thrasymachus to round on him and deride his "shamming ignorance" (ειρωνεια) (9) [337a].

After inviting Thrasymachus to give a definition of justice, Socrates cross-examines him with the intent of refuting his definition. The passage ends in the customary aporia with Socrates reaffirming that he still doesn't know what justice is [354b] (10).


6) cf.,The Meno [91b - 92d] where Socrates defends the Sophistic practice of charging tuition fees, but he is said to be "pretending", Dillon & Gergel, p. 7.

7) Phaedrus [266c], Plato 1967.

8) Aristotle, De Sophisticis Elenchis 183b28-34, quoted in Dillon & Gergel, p. 204. See ib., pp. 203-216 for range of ancient sources on Thrasymachus.

9) Source of the word 'irony'. Greek words in the text are derived from Loeb [Plato 1937]

10) Plato 1974 p. 101.

The Elenchus

The cross-examination is called the elenchus, meaning "to refute, to examine critically, to censure" (11).

There are two requisites for the Socratic elenchus;

(i) that the interlocutor should not make speeches, but should give concise, direct, answers, and

(ii) that the interlocuter should "say what he believes" (12).

It is clear that someone like Thrasymachus is not going to be amenable to the elenctic method. He is a rhetorician and so given to making speeches, and he bitterly complains that if he is not allowed to orate, but is instead subjected to the elenchus, then he will just answer "'Yes' and 'No', like someone listening to old wives' tales" (13) [350d-e].

In other words, he will not co-operate, and therefore the responses that he gives in the elenctic sections of the dialogue cannot always be taken as being indicative of his own thoughts. They are usually cues to make Socrates go on with his reasoning, or else misleading answers to sabotage theelenchus.

So, for instance, after affirming a series of claims made by Socrates [349c-350d], leading Socrates to conclude that "we have settled that point", Thrasymachus then replies: "I still don't accept your last arguments" (350d) (14).

In connexion with this there is the charge made generally against Sophists that they do not believe in the things they say, but are rather only interested in their ability to persuade others. When Socrates touches upon this, Thrasymachus ripostes - "What's it matter what I think ... stick to the argument" (15) (349a).


(11) Vlastos, p. 2.

(12) Ib., p. 8.

(13) Plato 1974 p. 95

(14) Ib.

(15) Ib., p. 92. 

The Profits of Injustice

Thrasymachus does manage to make two main statements around which he speechifies: the first claiming that justice "is simply what is in the interest of the stronger party" (16) [338b], and the second that "injustice pays and justice doesn't" (17) [348c].

The first is the most well-known, but the second was considered "far more important" by Socrates (18) [347e] because it entails that the unjust man is therefore 'happier' than the just man. [343c]

There are various schools of thought as to whether the two statements are consistent with one another. Guthrie, for example, thinks they are not, (19) whereas Kerferd thinks that they are. (20)

However, I want to examine the second statement alone and on its own merits as far as is possible, as I believe that it throws out a unique challenge to ethical thought. A challenge first taken up by Socrates, who agreed that justice was an "interest" (21) [339b], and so would concur at least halfway with the first statement, but could never agree with the second that injustice ever "pays better" (22) [354a] than justice.


16) Plato 1974 p. 77.

(17) Ib., p. 91.

(18) Ib., p. 90.

(19) Guthrie, p. 94, who points out that the first says that 'justice is the interest of the stronger', while the second says that it is unjust for the stronger to seek his own interest.

(20) Kerferd p. 122.

(21) 1974, p. 78.

(22) Ib., p. 101. 


 The one undeniable difference between the Sophists and Socrates is the fact that the former charged fees and the latter did not. (23) Plato made much of this, and is said to have referred to the earnings of the Sophists at least thirty-one times in his works. (24) This in a culture that had "a prejudice against wage-earning in general." (25)

Against this background, Thrasymachus' claim that injustice "pays better" assumes an added importance. Indeed, the whole of this encounter is infused with references to, and puns on, money-making, beginning with the banter between them. Thrasymachus suggests that his superior definition of justice will make Socrates pay the penalty of his ignorance, and that - being a Sophist - Socrates will have to pay a fee to him for his teaching too. [337d]

Further on Socrates introduces the curious notion of wage-earning being a separate profession or skill (τεχνη) [346c] in his elenchus, while after Thrasymachus' long second speech he implores him to stay and explain it further as it won't be a "bad investment" (26).

When Thrasymachus says that "injustice is the profit (ξυμφερον) of oneself" [344c], Socrates returns his statement back to him - not using sumpheron, but kerdaleos instead, saying "I don't think that injustice pays better" (κερδαλεωτερον) (27) [345a].

Whereas Thrasymachus' preferred sumpheron has an underlying connotation of mutuality, deriving from sym-pheron, to 'bring together, to bear jointly' (28), Socrates' kerdaleos has the sense of 'gain, wages, greediness, cunning, and tricks’ (29). So rather than directly attack Thrasymachus as a greedy money grabber, Plato's Socrates (30) indirectly saturates Thrasymachus in the language of avarice.


23) O'Grady, p. 226.

24) Ib., p. 13.

25) Ib., p. 228.

26) Plato 1974 p. 86.

27) Ib.,

28) Feyerabend, p. 359.

29) Ib., p. 220.

30) Xenophon has his Socrates call the Sophist Antiphon a "prostituter of wisdom", Memorabilia 6.13, quoted in O'Grady, pp. 227-8


And yet it is power that is at the heart of Thrasymachus' position, as he will extol the virtues of the tyrant as the exemplar of his dictum:

The tyrant "is the man to study if you want to find how much more profit (ξυμφερει) there is in wrong-doing than in right" (31) [343e-344a].

Thrasymachus notes that whereas the petty criminal is despised and punished, when injustice is committed on a large enough scale by the tyrant he is rather acclaimed as "happy and fortunate" (ευδαιμονες και μακαριοι) (32) [344b]. Profit increases according to the degree of power and the tyrant has the most concentrated form of power.

Some commentators detect an air of disillusionment in Thrasymachus here, who they say in fact is offering a sardonic critique (33) on the immoralism of his times, such as is reflected in the writings of Thucydides. Compare the Melian Dialogue: "the standard of justice depends on the equality of power to compel and that in fact the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept" (34).


31) Plato 1974, p. 85. 1937, p. 69.

32) Plato 1974, p. 86.

33) Guthrie, p. 95.

34) Thucydides V.89, p. 402


And what is this 'standard of justice' in 5th century Athens?

The Republic's sub-title is 'about justice', and the Greek word usually translated as 'justice' is dikaiosune, which has less of a legal and more of a moral sense. Indeed, some argue that 'morality' would be a preferable translation (35).

This may help us to appreciate the full force of Thrasymachus' statement, which can be seen as an outright affirmation of immoralism, taking 'unjust' to mean 'immoral'.


35) Mautner, pp. 288-9

Nomos and Physis

A persistent theme running through Sophistic thinking concerned the opposition of nomos and physis, the former being 'law', or 'convention', and the latter 'nature'. Antiphon stated that "the majority of things which are just by nomos are in a state of open warfare with nature" (36).

For Thrasymachus then, justice was a nomos, whereas for Plato it was a physis (37). In the latter case injustice would be against nature [444d]. But from the Thrasymachusian perspective injustice is 'natural' justice; it being 'right' - as Pindar has it - that the strong should rule the weak (38). By this criterion right and wrong are nothing other than synonyms for [natural] benefit [or profit] and [natural] damage [or loss] respectively, all from the viewpoint of the strong.


36) Quoted in Kerferd, p. 115.

37) O'Grady refers to Meno [100b] as evidence, pp. 233-4.

38) Pindar is quoted in Popper, p. 69

The Just Soul

Socrates' various arguments to debunk this immoralist thesis largely miss the mark because they assume a moral view of justice which is not shared by the Sophist. For example, Socrates says that the unjust cannot work together as they would be at each other's throats it being a "function of injustice to produce hatred" (εργον αδικιας μισος) (39) [351d].

Here Socrates reveals his propensity to universalise moral terms. There is no reason in the realist world of the Sophist for the unjust [i.e. the strong] not to behave equably towards one another while they exercise injustice on a grand scale over the weak [i.e. the just] [344c] - they care nothing for moral consistency.

Thrasymachus himself says that the just man will be detested by his "relations and friends" because - unlike the unjust man - his "honesty will prevent him from appropriating public funds" to "do them a service" (40) [343e].

Socrates then suggests that the unjust individual will have a conflict within his own self that will render him incapable of action, and make him 'an enemy' to himself (41) [352]). Here Socrates is inferring some kind of 'injustice in the soul' (42); but would such self-hatred [cf. 351d above] really be a case of "the just soul" (43) (δικαια ψυχη) [353e] being corrupted by 'injustice'? Would it not rather be an example of a psychopathy that can be suffered by both the just and the unjust alike, and so unrelated to the common notion of justice? (44)

Socrates says to Thrasymachus; "we agreed, did we not" that justice is excellence (αρετην) of "soul" (ψυχης) [353e]. And yet this is not the case. Both Griffith (2003) and Lee (1974) in their translations give a reference back to Stephanus 350c-d, and yet the supposed agreement there does not mention "soul". Not only that; how can Socrates say here that justice is "excellence of the soul" when he will say only a few lines later [354c] that he "doesn't know" what justice is? Is it really coherent to say that this unknown justice is an excellence and therefore the 'good functioning' [353b] of a 'soul'? Socrates admits this failure in the last lines of Book 1 (45) [354c].


39) Plato 1974, p. 87.

40) Ib., p. 85.

41) 1937, p. 99.

42) Irwin, p. 183.

43) 1937, p. 105.

44) Irwin, p. 208

45) 2003, p.36

Thrasymachus and Nietzche

That justice is 'other-regarding', is recognised by Thrasymachus when he says that justice is really the "good" (αγαθον) of "someone else" (46), while "injustice is the contrary and rules those who are simple (ευηθικων) in every sense of the word and just" (δικαιων) (47) [343c]. The just then "promote" the "happiness" (ευδαιμονα) of the unjust "to the complete exclusion of their own" (48) [343d]. This is a 'zero-sum' (49) equation, as injustice's gain is always justice's loss, and vice versa, as in Thucydides' "equality of power".

In a culture of virtue ethics which aims at self-regarding arete ['excellence and good disposition' (50)], and eudaimonia ['the state of having an objectively desirable life' (51)], then someone like Socrates - who is enmeshed in those same values - will have difficulty in convincing a Thrasymachus that justice is arete, when the latter sees it as "simple-mindedness" (52), and sees injustice as a matter of "good judgement" (53) or "common sense" (54) (ευβουλιαν εφη) [348c-d]. Socrates even admits that "every man of understanding would rather choose to be benefited by another than to be bothered with benefiting him" (55) [347d].

Therefore in such a culture "injustice" [i.e. strength] "pays" and "justice" [i.e. weakness] "doesn't" (56) [348c]. Shorey notes that this is Thrasymachus' 'Umwertung aller Werte' - a clear reference to Nietzsche's 'transvaluation of all values', which "reverses" "normal” morality (57). It is also a reaffirmation of the Homeric values of "power and success" (58) in the face of Socrates' own (unsuccessful at this stage) attempt to subvert them.

As Nietzsche wrote;

 " The Sophists are no more than realists ... they possess the courage of all strong spirits to know their own immorality", while "Socrates represents a moment of the profoundest perversity in the history of values" (59).


46) Plato 1974, p. 85.

47) 1937, p. 67.

48) 1974, p. 85.

49) Scruton, p. 592.

50) Mautner, p. 38.

51) Honderich, p. 252.

52) Thrasymachus' word eu-ethikon ['good-natured, simple, silly' (Feyerabend p. 171)] can be compared to Nietzsche's "wherever slave morality gains the upper hand, language shows a tendency to make a closer association of the words 'good' and 'stupid' ". [1998A, p. 156].

53) 1937, p. 85.

54) 1974, p. 91.

55) 1937, p. 83.

56) 1974, p. 91.

57) 1937, p. 85. Nietzsche 1968, p. xvii.

58) Kerferd, p. 119.

59) Nietzsche 1968, p. 233 and p. 235 [written in 1888]

Natural Injustice

Socrates is not able to make the step toward a morality of selflessness because he is committed to eudaimonia in which there needs to be a good outcome for the agent at some level. As he says: "it never pays to be miserable, but to be happy" (60) (ευδαιμονα) [354a], and so ends the dialogue with Thrasymachus in the aforementioned aporia.

In conclusion, the challenge of Thrasymachus' second statement remains: for what good reason should the strong and fearless man pass up the happy profits of injustice?

What would he want with the meagre pickings of other-regrading justice? (61)

As Nietzsche asked rhetorically, "doesn't life mean ... being unjust?" (62)

Despite the avowals of some modern day statesmen of an "ethical foreign policy" (63), does not an analysis of their actual political actions reveal only national self-interest lurking just beneath the surface?

 Thrasymachus need not to have "blushed" [350d], as the road of Realpolitik leads back - via Machiavelli (64) - to the "mighty man of Chalcedon ” (65).


60) Plato 1974, p. 101.

61) Irwin, p. 204. w

62) Nietzsche 1998A, p. 10.

63) Witchell, N. 1998, Ethical Foreign Policy [online]. BBC News. Available at :< 84778.stm>[Accessed 9 December 2008]

64) Machiavelli 1975, chapters VIII and XVII.

65) 1967, p. 513 (Phaedrus [267d]).


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Additional Links:Early Greek Philosophy, by John Burnet

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy[IEP]

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