Preparation for Leadership in the Apostolic Era.

Life within God’s family after Jesus’ Resurrection and Ascension is not identical to the life of discipleship when Jesus was physically present, nor can it be precisely how today’s church prepares leaders. When Jesus was physically present, his call was to come and physically follow and be with him (Matthew 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-20; Luke 5:2-11). When Jesus ascended into heaven, the apostles’ call was to trust and believe in the Risen Christ and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, continue to follow Jesus as leaders of a small, unpopular, and sometimes persecuted fellowship of Christ-followers. He would be invisibly present by the power of the Holy Spirit. After the resurrection, the call was (and is) to follow Jesus, who is present in his people by the power of the Spirit. The call at the time of the apostles is identical to the call for training leaders within the church today.

First Deacons. After Pentecost, we are told that the early church met in intimate fellowship:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the people’s favor. And the Lord added to their number daily those being saved (Acts 2:42-47).

As the number of disciples increased, there was a need for more leadership. The intimacy of the community was being tested by the difficulties associated with growth. The apostles, therefore, had to appoint additional leaders. Here is how it happened:

In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them (Acts 6:1-6).

How had these men been prepared? By spending time with the apostles, hearing their teachings, participating in the community, practicing hospitality, and sharing their lives and faith with others. They had no formal education. They had what might be called “relational education.”

Paul. Paul is another unique example. His conversion was unique, dramatic—and doubted by some leaders of the early church and with good reason (Acts 9:26). Barnabas, a great leader of the early church, had confidence that Paul’s conversion and talents were important and real. Therefore, we are told:

But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul, on his journey, had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus. So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord (Acts 9:27-28).

If we read between the lines, we can see that Paul was spending time in the fellowship of the Apostles, receiving the same intimate discipleship training and preparation, experiencing the communal life of the church, and using his gifts as he matured as a disciple and prepared for further leadership in the church.

As the church grew beyond the limits of the Holy Land, there was an additional need for leadership. The church eventually sent Barnabas to Antioch to see how things were going there and ensure that the rapidly growing congregation was healthy. At that point, Barnabas brought Paul into the leadership team of the church:

News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and many people were brought to the Lord. Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people (Acts 11: 22-25).

Paul’s preparation for leadership was not complete. He spent another year under the leadership and guidance of Barnabas, who kindly prepared him for ministry. Then, the Holy Spirit spoke to the church at Antioch, and Barnabas and Paul set out on their first missionary journey.

Now in the church at Antioch, there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch), and Saul.  While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off (Acts 13:1-3).

The order of names is important. Paul is still apprenticing with Barnabas. A close reading of the events of the First Missionary Journey shows that Paul was nearly ready to lead and was beginning his career as the greatest missionary of the early church. [1]

John Mark. After returning from the First Missionary Journey, there was a period of rest and reporting. When the two missionaries prepared to leave on their second trip, intending to communicate the decisions of the Council at Jerusalem to the churches, Barnabas and Paul had a disagreement that sheds more light upon the training of leaders in the early church.:

Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord. He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches (Acts 15:37-41).

John Mark had left the little missionary company during the first Missionary Journey, perhaps from homesickness or some other reason. Paul was unwilling to forgive and forget and continue to train John Mark for ministry, but Barnabas was. Therefore, they split up, and Barnabas, true to his character, continued to train John Mark while Paul undertook to disciple another missionary in the making, Silas.

History records that John Mark eventually became the traveling companion of Peter was with Peter near the end of his life, wrote the gospel we have as Mark, and was a leader of the post-Apostolic Church. He was not ready for leadership when Paul rejected him, and Barnabas continued his training, but he became a leader of the early church.

Church tradition holds that Mark was Peter’s interpreter in Rome. In addition, tradition has it that he wrote the gospel that bears his name. Finally, Mark is also said to have been an evangelist and responsible for establishing the church in Alexandria in Egypt. Paul, Barnabas, and Peter were all a part of his preparation for leadership.

Silas. Silas was a leader of the church in Jerusalem, sent by that church to Antioch, and a traveling companion of Paul until his death. Silas both traveled with Paul and ministered independently of Paul with others, including Timothy, on occasion (Acts 15:14Silas was with Paul at Thessalonica and is mentioned as a co-author of the letters of Paul to that congregation (1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess1:1). He seems to have ministered with Peter at some point in his ministry (I1 Peter 5:12)). Legend makes Silas the first bishop of Corinth. Paul and Peter seem both to have been responsible for his development as a leader.

Timothy. During the second Missionary Journey, Paul attracted yet another disciple he trained for leadership. Timothy was the child of a Greek father and a Jewish/Christian mother (Acts 16:1-2). He was a good potential cross-cultural missionary because, like Paul, he could move comfortably in both the Greek-speaking society of Asia Minor and the Jewish culture of the diaspora of the day. He was well-liked in Lystra (v. 2). Timothy would remain a companion of Paul until Paul’s death. He was with Paul, probably in Rome, when the letter to Philemon was written (Philemon 23). Tradition has it that he later served in leadership in the church, eventually becoming a bishop and martyr to Christ.

Luke. The second missionary journey produced yet another future church leader, Doctor Luke, the writer of Luke and Acts and one of the most important figures in transmitting the apostolic witness to future generations. [2] He was with Paul on the Second and Third Missionary Journeys. Luke was with Paul in Rome when Paul wrote his letter to Timothy (2 Timothy 4:11) and with Paul when Philemon was written (Philemon 23). Church tradition holds that he survived Paul’s death and completed his books about the life of Christ and the actions of the Apostles before his death.

Onesimus. I want to deal with one more early church leader who was subject to intense personal discipleship training by Paul, Onesimus, whom we know of because Paul interceded for him in the book of Philemon. Onesimus was a slave. He escaped from Philemon, his master, and eventually joined Paul and acted as a surrogate son and helper for the now-imprisoned Apostle (Philemon 10-11). Onesimus has become a dear brother and friend to the apostle, who sends him back to his master with a plea for mercy (17-18). Tradition has it that Onesimus later became the bishop of Ephesus, where he may have been instrumental in collecting the letters of Paul. He was put to death, and the church recognized him as a martyr for Christ.

Implications for Pastoral Training

It should come as no surprise to any reader that the Scriptures of the Early Church and the witness of the Gospels support and encourage changes in the way pastors and other church leaders are trained. It is not primarily the duty of Christian Colleges and Seminaries to train church leaders. It is primarily the responsibility of the church to train leaders from among those who have shown promise to existing church leaders.

The second conclusion is that church leadership training must be personal, intimate, and authentically mentoring. Jesus mentored the Apostles in a close, personal relationship. The Apostles and their immediate followers mentored the next generation of church leaders in just the same way Jesus mentored them. By the time the New Testament closes, we are at least in the third generation of mentoring leaders in life-transforming life and community. [3]

As the church of the 21st Century comes to grips with the need for a new generation of apostolic leadership, it should revisit the role of mentoring and personal relationships in the preparation for ministry. Traditional seminaries, online training, and other “cognitive-alone” based strategies will not solve the problem of training a new generation of church leaders.

A possible complaint to my conclusions might be that they underestimate the need for cognitive training and seminary-level curriculum for church leaders. This would be a misinterpretation. I am both happy and grateful for my seminary education and the education that has borne fruit in the lives of many leaders I have known. Such training is important and necessary for many leaders to develop their potential for service to the church. However, cognitive learning is not enough, as the decline in many churches served by traditional seminaries illustrates.

I am arguing for the idea that existing pastors and leaders must make mentoring the next generation of church leaders a priority. Denominations and other groups should act to make this an expected task of church leaders at all levels. The future of the church is at stake.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] It is not the purpose of this essay to go into the details of Paul’s missionary techniques or success. I hope to cover this in a future essay on the leadership and training of missionaries.

[2] Both Timothy and Luke had daily intimate contact with the Apostle. Timothy was recorded as having been given special duties, for he was well-liked in the Jewish-Greek diaspora. I will give more time to Timothy later as we look at the two letters Paul wrote to him; however, the length of this blog means it will have to wait for another writing.

[3] Jesus mentored the Apostles, who mentored Paul and Barnabas, who mentored John Mark, Silas, Timothy, Luke, and Onesimus.

Jesus Prepares Leadership for the Apostolic Church

Training new church leaders is of the utmost importance for the future of Christianity in our society. There is a deep and growing lack of leaders equipped to grow the church under the conditions we face in America and Europe. In many denominations and fellowships, there have been dramatic examples of a decline in faith, morals, and fidelity to the Biblical witness and traditions of the church. Congregations are entitled to view their pastors and leaders as examples of Christian spirituality and character for themselves, their families, and community members.

It is foreign to a Christian understanding of Christian leadership that spiritual and moral standards either do not exist or are not modeled and transmitted by the leadership of local congregations. This means that, in addition to intellectual preparation, there must development of Christian spirituality and character among church leaders of all kinds. We see this exact kind of holistic preparation in the New Testament, beginning with the ministry of Jesus.

The Community Jesus Formed

The New Testament gives Christians insight into how Jesus prepared his disciples for future leadership. [1]The process was personal and communal. Scripture records that Jesus began his ministry by inviting the disciples into a personal relationship. Matthew describes it like this:

As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and Simon’s brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once, they left their nets and followed him. Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James, son of Zebedee, and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and father, and followed him (Matthew 4:18-22).

Jesus found Peter, Andrew, James, John, and the other disciples as they went about their ordinary day-to-day lives. He did not say, “Stop what you are doing for a few moments and accept me as your Lord and Savior before going on with your life as before.” He did not ask for a merely intellectual commitment, “Recognize I am the Son of God, then you can go back to living the way you did before.” He did not ask them to read his latest book or enter a training program so that they could read and interpret the scriptures according to a confessional ideal. He said, “Come, follow me.” In other words, he invited them into an intimate, interpersonally intense relationship that would end with their becoming leaders of the Christian movement. [2]

This commitment involved more than their minds. It involved a break from the past and physically following him in a life-changing encounter. Jesus began his ministry by creating a family-like group of disciples, unique individuals he was forming into a community of faith. [3] This should encourage contemporary people to see that there are limits to what classroom-centered and online training can accomplish. It was true in the time of Jesus and it is true today.

Jesus called ordinary people into whom he poured his life so that they could pour their lives into the lives of others. In the beginning, they were not ready for leadership. They were not even believers. Nevertheless, Jesus saw their potential. He trained them. He lived with them as if they were his family for three years. He put up with their failures, folly, and shortcomings. He loved them enough to sacrifice his life for them (and us), just as if they (and we) were his biological children. In the end, he called his disciples “Brothers.” Then, he set them loose to change the world and build the same community wherever they went. They did exactly that.

Jesus’ Method of Pastoral Preparation

How did Jesus manage to form and sustain his earthly family of disciples and get them ready for their future ministry? Here are a few concrete things he did:

  • He called his community of disciples into being (Luke 5:1-11).
  • He shared his life with them in a deep and meaningful way (all four Gospels).
  • He prayed for them (John 17:6ff).
  • He taught them (Mark 1:21).
  • He enabled them to see the power of God (Luke 7:11-17, as one example).
  • He loved them (John 13:39).
  • He allowed them to lead (Mark 6:6-7).
  • He rebuked them (Mark 9:36-39).
  • He gave his life for them (Mark 10:45).

These things were experienced and witnessed in the context of a personal, intimate relationship. From beginning to end, Jesus’ conducted his mission in and through relationships with people who were so close to him that they became his new family (Matthew 12:50). This is how Jesus fulfilled the most central part of his ministry: getting a small group of men and women ready for the day when they would lead others to faith in God the Father, whom Jesus called “Abba,” or “Daddy,” by the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus trained those he met so that they too would become children of God (John 1:12). As part of this discipleship group, his disciples learned the character and skills they would need to share the faith throughout the Roman world.

Jesus Mighty Deeds and Empowering Mission

Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels are interspersed with mighty deeds of power and his preparation of the disciples to do likewise. For example, in Luke, Jesus chooses the Twelve and then demonstrates to them his power over sin and death:

One day soon afterward Jesus went up on a mountain to pray, and he prayed to God all night. At daybreak, he called together all of his disciples and chose twelve of them to be apostles. Here are their names: Simon (whom he named Peter), Andrew (Peter’s brother), James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas,James (son of Alphaeus), Simon (who was called the zealot), Judas (son of James), Judas Iscariot (who later betrayed him). When they came down from the mountain, the disciples stood with Jesus on a large, level area, surrounded by many of his followers and by the crowds. There were people from all over Judea and from Jerusalem and from as far north as the seacoasts of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases, and those troubled by evil spirits were healed. Everyone tried to touch him because healing power went out from him, and he healed everyone (Luke 6:12-18).

Soon after this event, Jesus sent out the Twelve to engage in the ministry for themselves. (Luke 9:1-4). In Mark, we are told that Jesus sent the disciples out “two by two,” that is in a community with instructions as to how to carry out their mission (Mark 6:7). They went out and preached as they had seen Jesus preach and performed the same kinds of deeds they had witnessed (Mark 6:13). They were able to do these things not just because of what Jesus taught them, but because of what they had witnessed in community with him.

This same cycle of community formation, learning, watching, and then experiencing ministry and mission is the proper formula for training leaders today, just as it was for Jesus. To do this, however, the means and methods we use for leadership training must be modified in the direction of a communal, hands-on mentoring experience. This is not just true for seminaries and the professional training of pastors but also for training lay people.

In my case, I was a Sunday School Teacher, Youth Leader, Deacon, and Elder in a good church before I went to seminary for professional training. When I arrived, I had many basic skills to lead a congregation. I had watched competent leaders, professional and lay, manage a congregation in good times and bad. I had seen successes and experienced failures. I needed a better understanding of theology and ministry, but I was prepared to move into a new phase of leadership. This is exactly how the church should train leaders today. They should be identified and trained in local congregations, mentored significantly, given opportunities to prove themselves, and then sent for professional training. This does not let seminaries off the hook for character and spiritual training. They too must not just give “professional education” but also provide spiritual and moral training for leadership by those who have proven themselves.

Transmitting the Story and its Meaning

The gospel writers are univocal as to the wisdom, character, and spiritual depth of Jesus of Nazareth and the formative influence he had upon his followers. The Gospels are the “mediated memories” of the Apostles, either directly by someone who personally knew Jesus or as mediated by those who received the memories of Jesus from an apostolic source. They represent a recollection after time had passed and the disciples had time to ponder the meaning of what they had learned and heard from Jesus. What the disciples had learned was life-transforming.

All we know about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus we know that the disciples told the story to others, who also retold the story. Eventually, some hearers wrote the story down for future generations. Matthew tells the story from the perspective of a Jew for a primarily Jewish community of faith. Mark tells the story from the perspective of the disciples (Peter), who are portrayed as clueless a good bit of the time about the meaning of Jesus’s life. [4] Luke tells the story from the perspective of a Gentile follower of Jesus trained by Paul. John tells the story from a distance in time through the eyes of someone who has thought about the meaning of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in the gentile world.  In the end, however, they remembered his life, his love, his teachings, and his mighty acts, which they did not so much study as observe in action and life

Every Christian leader should have a similar life-transforming experience as a significant part of the preparation for ministry. Small groups of believers, which call people into a relationship with Christ and each other, allow people to share their Christian walk, deepen their prayer lives, and experience a life-transforming community, are primary vehicles for the Christian life. These groups are a source of Christian teaching, places of loving care, a source of guidance in difficult times, and provide leadership for a growing fellowship of Christians. From the ranks of growing disciples, the church can and should choose some for additional training and leadership in the church.

Jesus’ Interpretation of his Life and its Meaning

Near the end of Luke, on several occasions, Jesus reflects on the meaning of his life and its importance to the disciples. When he met the disciples on the Road to Emmaus, he said to them:

How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself (Luke 24:25-27).

When Jesus met the disciples for the last time, according to Luke, he gave them final instructions as to the meaning they were to attach to his life, death, and resurrection:

He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms. Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:44-49).

It is interesting where in his gospel, Jesus places these teachings—in the end, after all the mighty deeds were done, all the sermons preached, and after they had witnessed in community what God was really like. Then, as his final teaching, Jesus gave them a lesson in Old Testament interpretation. To the Jews, the Old Testament had three parts: The Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings, which included the Psalms. It is most likely that Jesus undertook to explain his messiahship by teaching from each of these sources, showing how he fulfilled the clues and prophesies of scripture concerning the nature and mission of the Messiah. He did not do this at the beginning of his ministry and then send them out. Instead, throughout his ministry, he showed them, taught them, and brought them to a deeper understanding of the scriptures, an understanding that would continue to grow as time went by.

I have placed the issue of Biblical and Theological training last in this essay, not just because of the ending of Luke, but because it seems to me that it does come last. First, we meet Jesus. Second, we decide to follow Jesus. Third, we experience Jesus in the community of faith. We worship Christ in community. We listen to sermons. We take communion. We pray. We learn how to be in a small group and lead it. We learn a good deal as we go along. We attend Bible studies and retreats and the like. Finally, we are ready for a deeper dive into theology and the meaning of Christ as we are fully and finally prepared for ministry.


This is only a brief review of some of the central events through which the original Twelve were prepared for their sending into the world to fulfill the Great Commission. Today, many scholars and church leaders believe that we are in a “New Apostolic Era.” Western Christians largely live in secular, post-Christian societies. Existing churches are faced with great obstacles not just in sharing the Gospel with new believers but even in maintaining the faith and life of their existing members.

The solution to the decline of the churches goes beyond teaching. It involves creating a new generation of leaders who can form small communities of believers, just as the First Century church created small communities of believers. This requires leaders who understand group dynamics, not just intellectually but practically. It requires that those who lead congregations have experience in leadership at the most basic level of discipleship and Christian formation and more technical education. This means that denominations and churches will have to revise how they train leaders and churches will have to take a more active role in leadership development. There is no other way.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] The apostolic preparation of leaders, exemplified by the book of Acts, will be considered in a future essay, as will the Pastoral Epistles of 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus.

[2] See G. Christopher Scruggs, Crisis of Discipleship: Renewing the Art of Relational Discipleship (College Station, TX: VirtualBookworm, 2022), 27-28. A good deal of the material within is based on research done while preparing Crisis of Discipleship.

[3] Id, at 110-111.

[4] Although the disciples seem to have hoped he was the expected Messiah, and Peter at some point declares him to be so, that declaration does not prevent them from denying Jesus and drifting away, even betraying him.

Philosophy Before Plato No. 2

This is our second week on the Pre-Socratic Philosophers. Their work is essential, and philosophers today struggle with many of the same questions that motivated the earliest thinkers. This week, we will see that struggles in our time between materialism and idealism, between a world that works from power and a world that honors love, and between a world in which justice is merely a name the winners of the struggle of life place on the fruits of their victory were present in the ancient world, just as they are present today. In particular, we will look at Empedocles because his work, in some ways, leads to the work of C. S. Peirce.

Years ago, while studying a thinker in the tradition of narrative ethics, I wrote a paper critiquing the narrative move because of its infinite malleability based on the prejudices and preferences of interpreters. I compared this modern narrative thinker with Augustine, whose ethics are based upon love and the insight that “God,” the ultimate principle of the universe, is “love” (I John 4:8). My thesis was that an ethic based upon an ontological view of the world, what the world “really is” is always superior to a view that floats on some interpretation of a narrative.

My catchline was, “Ethics should follow ontology”—a conclusion from which I have not wavered. In my subsequent thinking, that insight has been a guide and spur to deeper thought. These blogs are fundamentally a look at political philosophy and theology, but the attempt is also an attempt to think through a defendable ontology that supports and undergirds respect for human freedom of thought, speech, and action. Empedocles considered that Love, similar to what Peirce called “Agapism” was a fundamental aspect of reality. This insight matters, for if there is an attractive, cherishing principle at work in reality, there are consequences of ethics and politics.


Democritus (460-370 B.C.) is credited with initiating that movement of physics and philosophy which we might call “materialistic atomism.” The word “atom” comes from a Greek word, atomos, which means “uncuttable”. For the atomist, all material things are reducible to particles, out of which all other material objects are composed. Democritus was a materialist and skeptical of any explanation of human behavior, including moral behavior, not grounded in his materialistic ontology. Democritus believed that human life was originally like that of animals. As such, Democritus sees human beings and society as developing evolutionarily. He sees the gradual development of human communities as motivated by the need for mutual protection and cooperation in the quest for survival. Thus, human institutions, including governments, have evolved and continue to evolve to meet human needs. [1]

His work remains important today. There is an element of materialistic evolution at work in the development of society, and much of what occurs in our world can be studied and understood in materialistic terms. While post-modern physics casts doubt on the view that material forces can be the complete explanation, they continue to explain a great deal.


The name of Protagoras (490-520 B.C.) is connected in the history of philosophy with the school of “Sophism.” Plato condemned sophists as consisting of those who conducted philosophy for gain and the pleasure of debate without any real interest in truth. Protagoras is credited with the phrase, “Man is the measure of all things,” which is interpreted as meaning that there is no objective truth, only human opinion. In this way, Protagoras is a forerunner of post-modernism. Philosophy is not the search for truth but an endless discussion of topics of philosophical interest.

Protagoras investigated what he called “orthoepeia” (proper use of words) and was one of the first philosophers to write on grammar (syntax). In this endeavor, he is the first representative of a school of linguistic analysis so prominent in the 20th Century. He is important for this reason, if for no other.

Protagoras disbelieved in the Greek gods and was an atheist by the standards of his day. His views on the existence of the good, true, and beautiful, which he considered mere names, make him the first nominalist, or at least the fountain of the idea from which nominalism emerged in the Middle Ages. [2]


Empedocles (492-432 B.C.) was, like Pythagoras, a mixture of a philosopher, scientist, and poet. He was active in a democratic movement against tyranny and an orator of note. He developed the cosmogenic theory that the universe is composed of four classical elements: earth, air, fire, and water.  Empedocles also saw the world as a cosmic cycle of change, growth, and decay. His philosophy is similar to that of Heraclitus but with the difference that instead of strife being the fundamental principle of the universe, the cosmic cycle results from the interplay of Strife and Love or what we might see as a combination of blind material forces and attractive, relational and noetic forces.

For Empedocles, Love involves the attraction of different forms of matter into unity, while Strife involves their separation. Empedocles taught that there was a time when the fundamental elements and Love and Strife existed in a condition of rest and inertness, without mixture and separation, in the form of a sphere (representative of God). The uniting power of Love predominated in the sphere, and the separating power of Strife guarded the extreme edges of the sphere. Since that time, however, Strife has gained more sway, and the actual world is full of contrasts and oppositions due to the combined action of both principles. [3]

Thus, Empedocles writes:

Twofold is what I shall say: for at one time, they [i.e., the elements] grew to be only one. Out of many, at another time again, they separate to be many out of one. And double is the birth of mortal things, double their death. For the one [i.e., birth] is both born and destroyed by the coming together of all things, While the other, inversely, when they are separated, is nourished and flies apart.

These [elements] incessantly exchange their places continually,

Sometimes by Love all coming together into one,

Sometimes again, each one carried off by the hatred of Strife. [4]

Love and strife are dual agents in the formation of the universe from its elementary components. Empedocles’ views are somewhat similar to C. S. Peirce, whose triad of Chance, Order, and Love mirrors, in some ways, Empedocles’s ideas. Peirce’s “Chance” is similar to Empedocles’ “Strife” and Empedocles’ Love is similar to Peirce’s notion of agapistic cherishing. Peirce also adds the notion of order or regularities, what he sometimes called “habits of nature.”

Empedocles was similar to Pythagoras in that he believed that the mind was primary and then the importance of numbers. As a scientist, Empedocles believed that the world was spherical, as it is, and that it did not rest on water but floated freely in space. For Empedocles, the universe was made up of fundamental elements, fire, water, earth, and air— the elements that Empedocles observed in the physical universe.


By the time of Plato and Aristotle, Greek thinkers had deduced in a crude but real way some of the fundamental ideas with which modern metaphysics and physics struggle. The visible world we observe and in which we live (what might be called the “Newtonian World”) is made up of stable elements, particles that we might call material. This world is largely deterministic. However, underneath that Newtonian world is another stratum of reality that is not material and not deterministic (the Quantum World), from which the Newtonian World emerges. This Quantum World is not material but rather mathematically discerned and structured and is best described as waves existing in a quantum field. It is the most fundamental reality we can currently observe and understand.

Thus, our world has characteristics that early on were discerned by philosophers:

  1. The seen world is made from entities that cannot be seen but are subject to physical laws that the human mind can discern.
  2. This seen world is, in some sense, not material. Today, we think of this non-material aspect of reality as disturbances in a universal field. Aristotle called the potential of the universe “Potentia,” constantly changing and emerging into new patterns.
  3. Not only is the invisible world constantly changing and evolving, but so also is the visible world in which we conduct our daily lives, including our political lives. This gives rise to Heraclitus’ view that flux is the only constant.
  4. Finally, some of the Pre-Socratics believed that there is a principle active in the world that seeks “justice” or a right and sustainable ordering of reality. This notion of Justice bears some resemblance to the Hebrew notion of Shalom, or everything being in its proper place and related to others properly. Socrates denied the sophist view and defended the reality of abstract ideas like justice. Plato’s Republic is an attempt to give further understanding of the idea of Justice and what it might look like in an ideal society.

The Great Synthesis

By the time of Plato and Aristotle, Greek thinkers had deduced in a crude but real way fundamental ideas, which modern physics and philosophy have extended in fruitful ways. They also developed important ideas fundamental to politics and government. Plato struggled with the status of ideals, of general concepts such as “Good,” “True,” “Justice,” and others, including what we would call general concepts like “human.” To respond to the nominalist critique, he developed his theory of Forms. In his view, the ideal world, which Pythagoras had outlined and defended, was made up of eternal Forms in which individual objects participated as imperfect copies. Thus, the term “Human” became concrete in every human being as an imperfect copy. All human justice becomes concrete in every human political act in relative terms but can never be absolute.

Aristotle disagreed with Plato’s conclusions concerning Forms. In his view, universals cannot be separated from particulars. Aristotle is also interested in the relationship between the flux of experience, or change, and what he calls “potentia,” or the possible future, which is implicit in the notion of change. Actuality (energeia) is that power that brings things into being or be brought about by them, the realm of events and facts. Potentiality (dynamis), on the other hand, is the power to effect change, the capacity to make a transition into different states.[5]

Aristotle believed what Plato described as Forms are, in reality, common features shared by individual objects. Aristotle is not a nominalist (generals are merely words for particulars), but his thought can lead in that direction. In the realm of political philosophy, Aristotle, unlike Plato, was not so interested in the perfect state (the form of political entities) as in the workings and emergence of actual polities. The same is true of justice. Aristotle was not so interested in the ideal of justice as he is in the concrete form it takes in human affairs. In this way, Aristotle is a forerunner of modern political science and a great philosopher of continuing importance.


The pre-Socratic philosophers set the stage for the insights of Plato and Aristotle, the two greatest Greek philosophers, and in many ways, set the stage for all the philosophic work to come. They made the first step of insight that the perceived world was not ultimate but instead was based upon unseen principles that could be rationally discerned. They began a debate about the nature of that ultimate reality that continues today. They also discerned the foundations of the justice problem and began the insight that our human notion of justice is somehow “natural” but different from natural law in the sense of the laws of nature. Nevertheless, the idea that nature and human society seek a situation of peace or shalom, where everything and everyone is in a proper and equitable place, is present.

The pre-Socratics began the process of asking ontological questions upon which future theories of justice might be based. They were concerned with the reality and the nature of the reality, of concepts like the good, the true, the just, and the like.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] “Democritus” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (downloaded November 10, 2022).

[2] Nominalism refers to the view that universals or abstract ideas, such as “justice,” do not exist but are mere names. There are at least two main versions of nominalism. One version denies the existence of universals – things that can be instantiated or exemplified by many particular things. The other version specifically denies the existence of abstract objects – objects that do not exist in space and time. See “Nominalism” at (downloaded February 13, 2023). In this series, I have defended the position of C. S. Peirce that universals and abstract ideas are real though they lack physical existence being noetic realities.

[3] “Empedocles” in The Basics of Philosophy (Downloaded February 11, 2023)

[4] “Empedocles” in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Downloaded February 11, 2023)

[5] Tim, “Actuality vs Potentiality in Aristotle, June 4, 2012, ” in Philosophy & Philosophers, June 4, 2012, (downloaded October 28, 2022).

Philosophy Before Plato No. 1

This week, we are going back in time to the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers. Alfred North Whitehead, in his book Adventures in Ideas, made the oft-quoted observation that all philosophy is but a commentary on Plato. [1] It might equally be said that all of Plato is but a commentary on, and an extension of, pre-Socratic thought. The pre-Socratic thinkers have continuing relevance for philosophy. [2] In particular, Heraclitus, who maintained that the world is constantly in flux and conflict was important for Plato. Heraclitus is also important background for understanding Nietzsche and modern process thinking. The problems that consumed the pre-Socratics are the problems that challenge all human beings and remain relevant in every age.  Although the answers human beings give to fundamental questions become more sophisticated, there is continuity in both the questions and answers.


Histories of European philosophy normally begin with Thales of Miletus (circa 585 B.C.). Thales had some knowledge of mathematics and geometry and was famous for predicting an eclipse in the year 585 B.C. He speculated that all things humans observe can be reduced to water. If this sounds a bit simplistic, it helps to recognize what lies behind this conclusion. Thales believed that what we observe in the world is fundamentally explainable by something deeper that we do not directly observe. The idea that what we observe is not ultimate but that there are deeper layers of reality than appear on the surface of things is a major step in the emergence of a way of thinking  we would call “theoretical.” Thales’ insight was not the result of observation alone but required an act of contemplation as to what lies beneath observable phenomena.


Thales’ follower, Anaximander (610-546 B.C.), speculated that the world we observe is not made up of any kind of earthly substance, such as fire, water, earth, or what have you. Instead, Anaximander believed that reality is made up of a “primal substance” that is infinite, eternal, and ageless. This primal substance can transform itself into the actual, physical substances we observe in the natural world. This is a major step beyond Thales. Anaximander had two insights of continuing importance:

  • The world we see is made up of things we cannot directly see and observe. Today, we would call this unseen primary substance, “fundamental particles”.
  • Second, the fundamental substance is not like other substances, bounded by space and time. It is, in fact, not a “substance” at all. Postmodern science would also agree with this observation. What is fundamental is not a “substance” as we use that term in ordinary life. Fundamental particles are wave-like disturbances in a universal field.

Plato, as we shall see, was motivated to locate what is eternal and foundational for the changing world of everyday life in something that is not a substance, but an ideal. This is the foundation of his theory of Forms. For Plato, forms are a non-material building block of reality.

Anaximander also began a way of thinking that we might call “evolutionary.” He theorized that the things we see were not so much “created” as “evolved” from a primary substance as a result of a principle of motion or what we might call “process.” The world as it exists today has not always been as is but has evolved over time. Modern science would agree with this idea.

Important for the development of political philosophy, Anaximander felt there was a kind of cosmic principle of justice at work in nature by which the world is seeking a state of equilibrium, what in Judeo-Christian terms we might call, “shalom,” or a state of proper relationships resulting in natural, personal and social peace. This insight is the beginning of the idea that there is a principle of justice or order at work in the natural world that might also be observed in human society and among human beings. Justice is somehow coordinated with the notion of a proper relationship between people.


Pythagoras lived from four 570 to 490 B.C. He was originally from Samos, an island off the coast of modern Turkey. He eventually immigrated to southern Italy, where most of his philosophical activity occurred. Pythagoras was also important in the development of Plato’s thinking. In many situations, Plato seems to be expanding upon ideas that begin with Pythagoras. In particular, Plato’s theory of the Forms (ideal forms of reality) extends Pythagoras’s view that mathematics is the fundamental reality. It is likely that Plato’s idea of forming the Academy, the first philosophical school in western history, was somewhat pattered upon the community formed by Pythagoras in southern Italy.

If Anaximander represented an evolutionary, scientific move in Greek thought, Pythagoras represents a movement towards an idealistic, mystical, and mathematical interpretation of the world and human life. Pythagoras saw the physical world as a representation of an immaterial, spiritual, and ideal reality, of which mathematics represents the supreme achievement. In this view, the fundamental reality was mathematical.

Plato also looks beneath the flux of ever-changing material reality and seeks an ideal world of order upon which the material universe depends. He identifies the Pythagorean notion of mathematical reality with his idea of Forms, which possess a kind of Pythagorean ideal reality. Beyond the flux of everyday life and experience, there is an unchanging noetic world of Forms that yield unity instability to the world. The ideal world of the Forms gives an order to notions of truth, goodness, justice, and morality. It ties the ideal world of philosophers with the concrete world of ordinary life. In later life, Plato was even more attracted to Pythagoras, and the abstract ideal of mathematics was important in his developing thought.

For Pythagoras, numbers are fundamental to reality. They are real and exist, not in this material world but in a world of completely abstract ideas. Let us take the so-called “Pythagorean theorem”. It states that the square of the hypotenuse of a triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. Pythagoras is normally described as having “discovered” this relationship not created it. The word “discover” implies that the relationship existed before it was discovered. It is a part of reality, not just a “calculating convenience” human beings have adopted. In other words, the Pythagorean theorem is in some sense a description of an invisible realm of numerical relations that exists whether we understand it or not.

Pythagoras’s idea that the world is made up of numbers resonates with both modern idealistic philosophy and the writings of those who regard information as fundamental and the world as something of a gigantic computer. In these interpretations of fundamental reality, consciousness, and human perception (ideas) cannot be excluded from our definition of reality, and in some sense, human consciousness is fundamental to reality. Mind and matter are related so that matter is not fundamental—an observation that modern quantum physics supports. In any case, in any such interpretation, the ultimate building blocks of the universe are not material but ideal or “noetic.”


This brings us to Heraclitus (5th-6th Century), a philosopher of the first rank, famous for considering the ultimate reality as a kind of flux or motion. He wrote in an aphoristic style, and his most famous saying has to do with the observation that in some sense, “One never steps into the same river twice,” for the water into which we step flows downstream, and, when we step again into a river, in some way it is a “new river.” For Heraclitus, the world and human existence are not stable but constantly changing. Many philosophers see in Heraclitus the beginning of what we call “process philosophy,” which in the 20th Century produced the work of Bergson, Hartshorne, Peirce, Royce, Teilhard de Chardin, and Whitehead, among others.

Commensurate with his idea of reality as a relational process, Heraclitus believed that the fundamental element of the universe was fire. Fire is not a strictly material thing. Fire exists as heat consumes whatever is burned in the fire. The heat of a fire is not a visible, tangible reality. It might be that Heraclitus is a materialist of sorts, but it is not clear to me that this is the case.

Heraclitus represents another aspect of a process notion of reality: the idea that the world we perceive is in a constant state of motion and change. For Heraclitus, there is no stable structure to the universe. It is “one colossal process” of events, changes, evolving facts, and the like. [3]  Material things are not fundamental. The ever-changing process of the world is fundamental. Heraclitus’ choice of fire as fundamental indicates a tendency to see matter as a derivative of something powerful that is in itself fully material, an observation shared by modern quantum theory.

Heraclitus had a political philosophy that derived from his theories (or was perhaps the cause of his theories). During his lifetime, Heraclitus, a member of the royal family, experienced the dissolution of the ancient laws of Ephesus. He experienced the excesses of a democracy that descended to mob rule. He saw an older, traditional way of life disappear. Thus, his notion of the inevitability of change extends to his political thought. He did not believe that any concrete set of social institutions or political order could sustain itself forever. Not only was the universe subject to the law of change, but so were human institutions. [4]

Heraclitus had a “Darwinesque” vision of political reality as determined by force and conflict.  Heraclitus saw what he called “strife” as a fundamental aspect of reality, evident in nature and human striving. He felt that this strife, what we might call the “struggle for survival,” is fundamental to human life and human society. Thus, he glorified war and minimized the persuasive and relational forces of society and human relationships. Not only is Heraclitus the founder of what we might call process philosophy, but he is also a forerunner of modern theories of power politics. Heraclitus viewed strife as a fundamental principle of reality and social life and viewed war as a fundamental fact of social revolution.

Heraclitus was a cynic concerning political virtue as a separate ideal and seems to have supported existing institutions. In political theory, he represents the view that personal virtue is the source of political morality. He criticized his fellow citizens for banishing a distinguished leader. He distrusted political democracy and thinks that few people possess the virtue necessary for a polity to thrive. Like Plato, Heraclitus believed that just laws reflect and grow out of the implantation of universal principles by the state. His notion of justice may also have been an outgrowth of his belief in reality as emerging from a conflict of opposites. [5]


Karl Popper sees similarities between Heraclitus and modern political theories and between the times in which Heraclitus lived and our times:

It is surprising to find in these early fragments dating from about 500 BC, so much that is characteristic of modern historicist and anti-democratic tendencies. But apart from the fact that Heraclitus was a thinker of unsurpassed power and originality, and that, in consequence, many of his ideas have (through the medium of Plato) become part of the main body of philosophical tradition, the similarity of doctrine can perhaps, be explained, to some extent, by the similarity of social conditions in the relevant periods it seems as if his store assist ideas easily become prominent in times of great social change. [6]

During times of social change, it is easy to abandon stable notions of justice and adopt radical, even revolutionary, and harmful ideas. The dislocations of the Industrial Revolution (with the consequent emergence of Marxism) and the current dislocations of the information age revolution and the emergence of a “Post-Modern Era” (and the temptation towards a technological oligarchy) are symptoms of the results of vast and not clearly understood intellectual, social, and political changes.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] A. N. Whitehead, Adventure of Ideas (New York, NY: Free Press, 1933),

[2] See, Bertrand Russell, History of Philosophy (New York, NY: Simon & Shuster, 1945) for an extended treatment. My rendition of the pre-Socratic philosophers is based primarily on Russell’s work.

[3] I owe this insight to Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 11.

[4] Id.

[5] Graham, Daniel W., “Heraclitus”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>. (Downloaded November 1, 2022).

[6] Popper, at 16.