Philosophy [XI] random notes, history of philosophy – the moral universe in the pre-socratics…

Note: I’m following a series of downloaded 1992 lectures on the ‘History of Philosophy’ by the late Dr. Arthur F. Holmes, Professor of Philosophy, Wheaton College. These are my notes after listening, with a few added internet resources on related terms etc at the end…

Lecture#2 – The moral universe in the Pre-Socratics

Aristotle considered the pre-socratics as pre-scientific folks (and also pre-theology thinkers) speculating about the basic principles that make nature the way it is…
‘Cosmic justice in a moral universe’ ie. Moral law governing nature/ordered processes, therefore having an ordered macrocosm – nature, and an ordered microcosm – individual lives. Between these two is the emerging idea of the city state as a law governed order of society.

Early Greek mythology highlighted no true intelligence in natural processes producing any harmony or natural law; nature, the forces behind it and the gods were all arbitrary and the notion of an impersonal kind of fate called Moira which lurked behind the scenes…
Homer’s gods in the Iliad were also quite limited in what they can do. The heroic virtues of Greek heroes encompassed beauty, wealth, status, honour, but there was no concern for the needs of ordinary people.
Diké, the goddess of justice and moral order, overseas the affairs of mortals…
Hesoid’s work concerns ordinary mortals, calling for justice and honest labour amongst common people, with this being expressed in his writings, the following are some selections from Hesiod:
“Listen to justice and forget violence completely for Cronus allotted this law for men. Fish, flesh, fowl, each other may devour for right is not in them but right he gave to men and this is best by far…”
“Those who give to everyman, those abroad and those from home, straight judgements and do not transgress the just, their city flourishes, their people prosper too, peace, the children’s guardian patrols the land, and Zeus far-seeing doesn’t plan cruel was against them. Upon the men who judge honestly, famine and disaster never wait, they work at their appointed tasks with merriment, but those who delight in violence and wicked sinful deeds, far-seeing Zeus the son of Cronus plans to punish…”
“The other road is better which leads towards just dealing, for justice conquers violence and triumphs in the end…”
“get good measure from your neighbour and give good measure back…”

Examples of this moral justice can be seen in (1) Antigone burying her brother (2) House of Atreus scenario (see the internet resources regarding these examples below)…


  • peras meaning border, boundary, order
  • apeiron meaning undefined, unlimited

Xenophanes, an independent thinker who finds an alternative to the basic conceptions of Greek gods. He says of Homer and Hesiod, “who ascribed to the gods whatever is infamy and reproach among men, theft, adultery, deceiving each other… Mortals suppose that gods are bored and have ‘qualities as men’… But if oxen and horses and lions had hands and could fashion works as men do, each would fashion bodies like their own… but there is only one god among gods and men, the greatest, not all like mortals in body or mind, he sees as a whole, thinks as a whole, hears a whole, and without toil he moves everything by just a thought of his mind…”

Some selections from Heraclitus:
“those awake have one ordered universe in common, but in sleep each turns away to his own world…”
“that which is in opposition is in concert, and from things that differ comes the most beautiful harmony…”
“war is the father of all and the king of all. He renders some gods, others men; he makes some slaves, others free…”

Anaxagoras – “in everything there are portions of everything, except mind…”
The Roman, Cicero, in his book on the nature of the gods, says, “the first human thinker to hold that the orderly disposition of the universe is designed and perfected by the rational power of an infinite mind was Anaxagoras…”
Democritus views the order of the cosmos as being the result of chance as compared with Anaxagoras, who sees the order but fails to see purpose.
Some selections from Democritus:
“Everything happens according to necessity, the cause of coming into being is the cosmic cortex, things collide become entangled from larger substances…’
“Pleasure and the absence of pleasure are the criteria of what is profitable and what it not…”

Anaximander holds a teleological view, an ordered universe but not by virtue of intelligent conscious purpose…
Selection from Anaximander – “the course of coming to be of existing things is that into which destruction too happens, those processes happen according to necessity for they pay penalty and retribution to each other for their injustice according to the assessment of time…”

Key words/terms/philosophers:

Cosmic justice (from a 1988 article)
The Iliad
Antigone (play by Sophocles)
The House of Atreus
Xenophanes (c.570 – c.478 BCE)
Anaxagoras (c.500 – c.428 BCE)
Cicero (3 January 106 BCE – 7 December 43 BCE)
Democritus (460 – 370 BCE)
Anaximander (610 – 546 BCE)

Note: internet resources include Wikipedia, Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, and with others…

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