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).

2 thoughts on “Philosophy Before Plato No. 2”

  1. Chris, I appreciate and am fascinated by your summary insight, “Ethics should follow ontology.” A few years ago it occurred to me that (1) if evolution (the enhancement of species by variation of individuals and survival of the fittest) is an accurate description of life and therefore of reality, and that (2) if our ethics should be based on reality (ontology), then (3) all medical care (by definition, of the weak) is immoral, and moreover (4) it would be a positive good to kill and eliminate the sick and the weak. The point is, of course, that if you do not like the conclusion, and if the logic looks okay, then deny the premises! That is, if we do not like the idea of ending all medical care, maybe evolution is not a good and accurate description of life and reality.

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