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History of Philosophy I

From Heraclitus to the Sophists


Michal Zvarík

This coursebook addresses key presocratics from Heraclitus to the sophists, who stand at the origin of philosophy as cornerstone of European spirituality. Readers might find that already at this point we encounter timeless and actual questions concerning the human condition in the world, limits of our knowledge, or the problem of adequate articulation of reality. Later thinkers did not philosophised from scratch, but criticised or were inspired by their predecessors. The coursebook thus provides an introduction to presocratic thought as an important field of our spiritual history.


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5. The Presocratic Atomists


    We do not know much about the life of the Greek atomists, Leucippus (5th century BC) and Democritus (approx. 460 – 370). Democritus came from Abdera, as well as the sophist Protagoras. Today, it is not quite pos- sible to adjudicate the exact share of individual authors in the formulation of atomistic theory. It is possible that Leucippus elaborated the overall character, while Democritus developed it for specifi c areas of interest. Curiously, most of the fragments we have fi rst-hand are about the ethics of Democritus.14 In ontology and natu- ral inquiries we are to a much greater extent dependent on the reports and comments of later authors.   68 5.1. Atoms and Void In the spirit of Pre-Socratic pluralism, atomists also respond to Eleatic philosophy by attempts to reconcile some moments of their concept of existence with the way we experience reality. In accordance with Parme- nides, they argue, therefore, that coming to be and per- ishing do not exist. Since it is impossible that something was created from nothing and something disappeared into nothing, there must be an eternal, permanent, and unchanging existence that is one. For Leucippus and Democritus, this characteristic carries an atom. Against the spirit of the Eleatic doctrine, they argue that the num- ber of atoms is infi nite and thus multiplicity does not deny or exclude rationality. An atom, according to them, is replete, immutable, and internally inviolable. The con- cept of the atom should therefore resolve the diffi culties raised by Zeno’s aporia. According...

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