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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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1. Heraclitus of Ephesus


Heraclitus of Ephesus (540 – 480) is probably the most original, but also one of the least accessible among the Pre-Socratic philosophers. He has a reputation as an aristocrat, a staunch enemy of democracy, and abuser of the crowd, referring to the famous saying by Bias that “many are worthless, good men are few” (22 B 104, LIX). Even the doxography of his thinking presents a fairly ambivalent image, often laced with anecdotes caricaturing his personality more pronounced than usual compared to other thinkers of this epoch, although often based directly on his work. In contrast, Heraclitus was a major inspiration; in some aspects he was followed by, for example, the Stoics, sceptics, and his contribution was recognised even by Early Christian thinkers.

The treatise by Heraclitus, with the attributed name, On Nature, raises ambivalent responses as well. Even if, ← 13 | 14 → in comparison with earlier authors, we have disproportionately more fragments available, their interpretation is not altogether simple and has aroused controversies from the times of ancient doxography until the present. The cause is an unusual and engaging literary style, for which he earned the nickname, Dark (Skoteinos). According to the Peripatetic school, his writing was a prime example of how not to compose philosophical writings. In contrast, according to Diogenes Laertius, Socrates was reportedly heard to say about the treatise: “The part I understand is excellent, and so too is, I dare say, the part I do not understand; but it needs a Delian diver...

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