A History of Western Philosophy

Mastery and Nature in Antiquity

So far, we have been working with the hypothesis that the story of western thinking, and the prejudices it carries, have their roots in an idea, and a logic, that is common to the first principles of truth, nature, and freedom. This idea and this logic is ‘mastery’. We have seen that several things combined which complemented each other in creating the conditions for how the West understood everything. These conditions were:

  • The great chain of being that was based on the principle of plenitude (everything that can be created must be created because the Creator is Good); and the principle of continuity (what is created must form a continuous chain because if there were gaps, something that could have been created would be missing = not Good).
  • The Aristotelian logic of identity, non-contradiction and excluded middle, which established independence, self-movement, self-sufficiency, and mastery as the criteria that made truth true, nature natural, and freedom free. 
  • That this logic defined truth as pure, and error as anything that was compound; it defined nature as self-moving, and anything moved by something else was seen as not having a nature of its own; and it defined the free man as a master and the slave as a person who did not have an independent will of his own. 

In the previous lecture we began to see how all of this when put together began to create the cultures of inequality in class (natural stations in life), in gender (natural characteristics related to intellect, body and rationality) and in ‘race’ (natural differences between phylogenetic differences). We will go back to these issues in due course.

Implicit in our lectures so far has been the question as to why differences in being became a hierarchical chain of being.  No doubt this has something to do with the distinction between things that can claim their own mastery and things that cannot. In philosophy there is a term that sums up this mastery quite neatly. It said that something that is its own identity, something not compromised by dependence upon something else, something that cannot be reduced to any simpler form of being, is something in-itself. So far we can say that the ancients believed in truth in-itself, nature in-itself, and freedom in-itself. This is why they are referred to as first principles. They are principles in-themselves. And we have seen too, that the in-itself is defined by the logic of mastery. Created things are not pure, by logical definition, because they depend upon or are contingent upon something else. They are imperfect. The perfect was defined as that which was true (self-identity), natural (self-moving) and free (its own master). 

For Aristotle, and long after him, what met all three criteria was intellect. Therefore, truth was intellectual substance, and the imperfect was material or matter. Since there appeared to be things in the universe that were more and less capable of intellectual activity, some things were therefore nearer perfection and some things further away from it. Here is the root of the way difference became hierarchy. Intellect and matter between them defined a ‘natural hierarchy’ that was already implied by and carried within the criteria that defined truth, nature and freedom (i.e., mastery and identity in-itself).

In this lecture we will focus on how this played out in the idea of ‘nature’ a little more closely. Perhaps we still use ‘nature’ today in ways which carry the logic of mastery. Is it the case that whenever you describe something as ‘natural’ do you implicitly refer to nature in-itself? Or if you say that it is something’s or someone’s ‘nature’ to be a particular way, do you mean that it is their identity in-itself? And would this mean that you can keep nature as a thing in-itself separate from being changed by nurture, or by culture? 


Aristotle defined nature, or physis, in a number of ways. From physis we get physics, but it meant the philosophy or logos of nature, or natural philosophy. It did not originally mean experimental science, and often it was not about systematic or rigorous observation. Instead, it was mostly about speculation or thinking about the natural world around and above us. Aristotle calls the early Pre-Socratic philosophers physikoi (Metaphysics, 1005a). 

In their book Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity (1965) Arthur Lovejoy and George Boas noted 6 different but related uses or characteristics of ‘nature’ in Aristotle. 

1. Nature is instinct and not reflective; [act naturally]

2. Desires are natural, and therefore not reflective; [satisfy your natural appetites]

3. Different natures define different kinds of creatures (as in the Great Chain of Being)―some are qualified by nature to rule, some are qualified by nature to be slaves, some are qualified by nature to be higher or lower in the hierarchy; some are ruled by body (women, slaves), some by reason and intellect (male masters); [creatures have different natures]

4. Some natural abilities are higher than others [think of Plato’s three parts of the soul, and of the Great Chain of Being]. 

5. Nature provides us with purposes that ought to be fulfilled. If, e.g., we can speak then we ought to. We are bound to use that which nature provides; [it is natural to fulfil the purposes of our natures. I must do that which is natural to me, otherwise I wouldn’t be being me!]

6. The nature of a thing is its truth in-itself, its own end or identity [its nature is what it is, or as we have seen, this mastery of itself is the logic of how the concept of nature is defined]. 

Put all these together and you get something like this; nature is its own law, free from dependence upon human intervention [again think of the difference between nature and nurture].  It is a first principle of internal self-organisation.[1]

Finally, here, perhaps we should add two further meanings: 1. Nature implies the eternal movement of life, growth, decline, death and rebirth, and 2. Nature refers to the physical stuff from which things are made [the world of nature].

Early Greek physis

‘Early Greek philosophers … perceived a need to describe reality rationally, conceiving a “world”—a totality of existence—in which the drama of events proceeded in a regular manner rather than reflecting the chaos of divine whimsy. Those philosophers envisioned “an orderly, predictable world in which things behave according to their natures.”[2] The Greeks called that world the kosmos … In their effort to comprehend their kosmos, the Greeks pondered those patterns and tried to infer from them the mechanism of the heavens.’ (Siegfried, T. (2019) The Number of the HeavensMassachusetts, Harvard University Pressp. 37)

The Ionian School 

From the city of Miletus came the Milesian school of thought, notably Thales (c.625-545), Anaximander (c. 610-547) and Anaximenes (c. 585-525). They sought to understand the logos, the organizing (or first) principle (the nature) of the world in terms of the Urstoff, or the primary element. Thales believed the nature of the world was water, Anaximander thought it was a boundless unknowable, and Anaximenes thought it was air.  

Heraclitus and Parmenides

Heraclitus, c. 6th century BCE, is often remembered as the philosopher of flux and instability. He is famous for the saying ‘you cannot step into the same river twice’ because the water is never the same. Everything is in motion; nothing is at rest. But he also had a concept of the One, or of unity in difference. From him we begin our understanding of the logos. He described it as an underlying universal principle, through which all things come to pass and in which all things share.

‘the Logos is common to all’ – Fragment 1

It is ‘that which is wise’ – Fragment 108

It is that of which ‘all things are one thing’ – Fragment 50

It is that ‘which is common to all’ – Fragment 114.

For him, the One consists in the tension of opposites. 

‘What opposes unites … all things come about by strife’ – Fragment 8.

This theme of the relationship between the One and opposition, or between unity and conflict, repose and revel, is one that follows us up to the present day; indeed it is part of Black Lives Matter and of feminism, part of how to define disability, part of sexual identities, and part of our relationship to climate and the environment – part of any struggle against a totalizing definition, that which opposes it, and what results from the tension between them. 

For Heraclitus, the Urstoff, the primary element, was fire, because in fire all things are in flux. It can change everything into itself by means of strife.

Parmenides (6th century) is often contrasted to Heraclitus, He thought that change, or the eternal process of becoming, is really an illusion, because the One is Being. His reasoning was that if something is becoming it must have come from Being or from non-Being. If it comes from Being then it already is, and nothing can come from non-Being, so it isn’t. Being, therefore, is what is. Change is merely an illusion because what is, already is. Nothing ever becomes; it already is. 


Empedocles, (494-434), originally from Sicily, agreed with Parmenides that matter was indestructible, but saw that change had to be explained. His solution was to argue that objects are composed of material particles which are indestructible, but which mingle and interchange. He suggested that the ‘roots’ of all kinds of matter were four fundamental and eternal material elements – earth, air, fire water. They cannot become each other, but by their mingling they can become all concrete objects. When they conjoin, things become. When they separate, things cease to be. But the roots never become or pass away. Empedocles saw two active forces, or agents of change here―conjoining was produced by love or attraction into harmony; destruction was produced by hate or strife into discord. He said that this continued in an eternal cycle of love (where all the elements are mixed up and there are no objects) and hate (where they are separated into the 4 elements). Then love begins its work of mingling and conjoining again. The world as we know it is always halfway between the victories of love and hate, neither pure mixing nor absolute separation.

Greek Atomism

An alternative to the ‘elements’ version of the roots of nature came from the early Greek Atomists, two hundred years before Aristotle. These ‘physicists’ did not make their material speculations into ‘concepts’, or therefore into ideas, or gods. They kept them as material speculations. As we go through their thinking, see if you think they also had a logic, and if so, to what extent it agreed or disagreed with that which we have looked at from Aristotle. 

Democritus and Leucippus

The two names most associated with atomism are Leucippus (no dates) and his pupil Democritus (c. 460-370). The key to atomism is that its first principle holds that all being is made up by atoms and empty space. The term ‘atom’ is from the Greek ‘atomos’ meaning ‘uncuttable’. That which is uncuttable is that which resists infinite regression to another cause. Like a first principle, it cannot be reduced to anything less than itself. As such each atom is its own identity, independent and self-sufficient.

Atoms were invisible and indivisible, solid, infinite in number, and moved around in empty space, or the void. The void would become a source of much controversy. Parmenides had said that empty space, or nothing, was impossible. (Modern quantum theory states that even a vacuum, no matter how empty, is never completely devoid of an electromagnetic field). For Democritus atoms were made of physis, the stuff of nature. They interact with each other by direct contact, and while being impermeable, they collide with each other and form different aggregations. These combinations are what we know as objects in the world. The atoms which are simpler in size and shape combine to form the 4 elements of earth, water, fire and air.

 In a further materialist move, Hippocrates turned the 4 elements into a theory of the body and its personalities. This was called the 4 bodily humors and argued that health required equilibrium between them. Galen (later, AD 129-c.200) turned this into a psychological theory of the 4 temperaments or the 4 humors―sanguine (even tempered), choleric (dominators), melancholic (easily depressed) and phlegmatic (calm and unemotional). [3]  The Four Temperaments  https://sites.google.com/site/psychologyofpersonalityperiod8/home/type-and-trait-theories/galen-s-personality-theory   

Note that with Democritus there are no divine or mysterious forces, just eternal and self-sufficient primal motion.


We now turn to Epicurus (342/1-270) who was born on Samos. He founded the famous Epicurean School in his own garden. Most of his writings are lost. But he bequeathed one of the most important developments within Atomism. He accepted Democritus’s theory of atoms, because it largely fitted his own view that gods did not intervene in human affairs, and that since sensation is life, so death, which is without sensation, is not an afterlife but rather extinction. Atoms are eternal but what is composed of atoms, including the soul, was not. Death returns us to atoms.

 Erwin Schrodinger, the famous quantum physicist, wrote this on the question of the soul in Pre-Socratic atomic theory. He says that the atomists inherited the old misconception, firmly anchored in the language up to the present day, that the soul is breath. All the old words for soul originally meant air or breath: ψυχή, πνεύμα, spiritus, anima, (Sanskr.) athman (modern: expire, animate, inanimate, psychology, etc.). Well, this breath was air, and air was composed of atoms … It has a terrible consequence, which has haunted the thinkers of many centuries and in slightly changed form still puzzles us today. The world-model consisting of atoms and empty space implements the basic postulate of Nature being understandable, provided that at any moment the subsequent motion of the atoms is uniquely determined by their present configuration and state of motion. Then the situation reached at any moment engenders of necessity the following one, and this the next following one, and so on for ever. The whole going-on is strictly determined at the outset, and so we cannot see how it should embrace also the behaviour of living beings including ourselves, who are aware of being able to choose to a large extent the motions of our body by free decision of our mind. If then this mind or soul is itself composed of atoms moving in the same necessitous way, there seems to be no room for ethics or moral behaviour. We are compelled by the laws of physics to do at every moment just exactly the thing we do; what is the good of deliberating whether it is right or wrong? Where is room for the moral law if the natural law overpowers and entirely frustrates it?[4] 

He accepted the existence of the void on the grounds that if there was no space there would be no movement. He believed that atoms had weight, and by all travelling at the same speed they had a natural motion of straight lines and travelled in one direction to the bottom. But this had a problem. It meant that if everything travelled in its own straight line, at the same speed, there would be a lack of collisions and so things would not be compounded or formed. So, he reasoned that atoms, at times, must deviate from this natural motion and swerve―the clinamen. This was due to some kind of mechanical failure, not due to any divine intervention. It had no teleology or purpose behind it. It meant that atoms in the swerve were free from any pre-ordained movement.  Chance therefore played large part in this universe. 


If Epicurus thought that the universe was based on the clinamen, or chance swerves and collisions, the Stoics saw a different natural universe.

Zeno (336/5-262) founded the Stoic school, named after the Stoa or covered porch where he and his followers carried on their education. Stoic natural philosophy turned to Heraclitus for the doctrine of the logos and of fire as the elemental substance. Behind it, or in it, was God, a principle of intellect who arranges everything and is the consciousness of the world. But this God is material―active fire―and everything comes from this God and returns to it. It is not soul as distinct from the material of the world, it is its finer form. So, the individual soul is also material. This finer form is the seed of individual things in the world. But there is also a development from Heraclitus. The Stoics believed that God formed the world, and then, in a universal conflagration, took the world back to itself as fire. Thus, there is a never-ending series of creations and destructions, but each reincarnation resembles its predecessor in every way, so that people perform identical actions in each reincarnation.  

The political principle here is not chance, but neither is it freedom. It is fate; and people can learn to do with their assent what it is they are fated to do within this cycle of conflagration. But fate here is the way of nature for the Stoics. And, perhaps Stoicism’s most famous characteristic, freedom is to be found where each individual can decide her attitude to fate, welcoming it as an expression of truth, or rejecting it either out of ignorance or a misplaced sense of power over nature. Seneca offers a later example of such stoic thinking.

Never have I trusted Fortune, even when she seemed to offer peace. All those blessings which she kindly bestowed on me – money, public office, influence – I relegated to a place whence she could claim them back without bothering me. I kept a wide gap between them and me, with the result that she has taken them away, not tom them away. No man has been shattered by the blows of Fortune unless he was first deceived by her favours. Those who loved her gifts as if they were their own for ever, who wanted to be admired on account of them, are laid low and grieve when the false and transient pleasures desert their vain and childish minds, ignorant of every stable pleasure. But the man who is not puffed up in good times does not collapse either when they change.[5]

And again, 

I’ve come across people who say that there is a sort of inborn restlessness in the human spirit and an urge to change one’s abode; for man is endowed with a mind which is changeable and unsettled: nowhere at rest, it darts about and directs its thoughts to all places known and unknown, a wanderer which cannot endure repose and delights chiefly in novelty. This will not surprise you if you consider its original source. It was not made from heavy, earthly material, but came down from that heavenly spirit: but heavenly things are by nature always in motion, fleeing and driven on extremely fast. Look at the planets which light up the world: not one is at rest.[6]

Note how, once again, nature and freedom (science and politics) feed into one another. The nature of the kosmos and the nature of freedom are one and the same. To know this, and to live with this truth, is the truth of stoicism.

Copleston offers some concluding thoughts here about the problem of the One and the many. 

But though the early Cosmologists were inspired by the idea of cosmic unity, they were faced by the fact of the Many, of multiplicity, of diversity, and they had to attempt the theoretical reconciliation of this evident plurality with the postulated unity -in other words, they had to account for the world as we know it. While Anaximenes, for example, had recourse to the principle of condensation and rarefaction, Parmenides, in the grip of his great theory that Being is one and changeless, roundly denied the facts of change and motion and multiplicity as illusions of the senses. Empedocles postulated four ultimate elements, out of which all things are built up under the action of Love and Strife, and Anaxagoras maintained the ultimate character of the atomic theory and the quantitative explanation of qualitative difference, thus doing justice to plurality, to the many, while tending to relinquish the earlier vision of unity, in spite of the fact that each atom represents the Parmenidean One.

We may say, therefore, that while the Pre-Socratics struggled with the problem of the One and the Many, they did not succeed in solving it.[7]

We are left with some questions. Did the Pre-Socratic Greek natural scientists explain the world non-hierarchically, and was it the intellectual philosophers who later explained difference in terms of hierarchy? Or, were the scientists already working with the same logic of mastery, granting truth to that which was materially primary and independent and simple? Are they both using the same logic of a first principle? And what of Stoic ‘freedom’? Is fate a master, or, with Epicurus, is fate enslaved to the chance events in atomic movement? 

[1] It is worth noting that, for Aristotle, nature is not something that is perfected without the process in which it becomes perfect. Perfection is in the end, not the beginning. It is actual, not potential.

[2] David C. Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 393.

[3] See Pedersen and Pihl, (1974), chapter 11.

[4] Schrödinger, E. (2014) Nature and the Greeks and the Science of Humanism, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, pp. 79-80.

[5] Seneca, (1997) On the Shortness of Life, London, Penguin, p. 39

[6] Seneca, (1997) On the Shortness of Life, London, Penguin, p. 41.

[7] Copleston, SJ, (1962) A History of Philosophy volume 1, Part 1, New York Image Books. p. 77.

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on reddit
Share on whatsapp
Share on email
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on reddit
Share on whatsapp
Share on email

Also In this Lecture Series


And so, we reach an interesting problem.  There is the

A History of Western Philosophy: Prejudice and Inequality

This series of lectures is an educational resource free to use under the conditions of the Creative Commons licence below. 

Sign up to be notified when the next series is released