The Pre Socratic Philosophers

The tension in Western philosophy between regarding death as transformation and thinking of death as final appears at the very outset of what is conventionally regarded as the beginning of Western philosophy, in the fragmentary remains of writing that have survived from thinkers in the early Greek colonies of Asia Minor, especially the Ionians. Anaximander (ca. 610-547 b.c.e.) and Heraclitus (ca. 533-475 b.c.e.) in particular were singularly impressed with the transitoriness of all things, as captured in the best-known corruption of a Heraclitean fragment, "One cannot step into the same river twice" (Kirk and Raven, fr. 217). The attempt to reconcile opposites—such as life and death—and to perceive the underlying unity, even harmony, in all of reality was preeminent for the pre-Socratics.

The very earliest surviving pre-Socratic fragment, from a book attributed to Anaximander, contains a passage that allows one to see both of the subsequent views about death—death as final and death as transitory—that have dominated Western thinking:

And the source of coming-to-be for existing things is that into which destruction, too, happens, "according to necessity; for they pay penalty and retribution to each other for their injustice according to the assessment of Time." (Kirk and Raven, fr.112)

Jacques Choron, to whom all subsequent accounts of death in Western philosophy are indebted, reads this passage as evidence of how impressed Anaximander was with the terrible fact that things perish, but also as expressing the hope "that somewhere and somehow death shall have no dominion" (p. 35). Further, there is the suggestion that despite appearances, death is not annihilation: In the everlasting boundlessness (aperion), individual death is not meaningless, perhaps not even final.

In what is now southern Italy, Pythagoras (ca. 572-497 b.c.e.) struggled with these same realities, teaching that the soul suffered from embodiment, longed for release and reunion with the divine, possibly at death experienced transmigration into possibly other life forms, and could be purified in part through the process of rebirth. For the purification needed to overcome death and to be evermore united with the divine, it was most important to live a philosophical life, especially one that paid considerable attention to the contemplation of mathematical truth. This very abstract, highly intellectual element in Pythagoreanism distinguished it from the Orphic cults and Dionysian predecessors that so influenced it, and gave Pythagoreanism considerable appeal for Plato.

Continuity and change, constancy through flux, permanence and impermanence, death, extinction, and recurrence are the enduring concerns of pre-Socratic philosopher/ scientists. If, as mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) has suggested, the whole of Western philosophy is but a series of footnotes to Plato, it might equally be said that the history of Western philosophy on death is but a series of footnotes to Plato's predecessors.

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