Ancient philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A130-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 16, 2024, from

2. The sixth and fifth centuries bc

The first phase, occupying most of the sixth and fifth centuries bc, is generally known as Presocratic philosophy. Its earliest practitioners (Thales; Anaximander; Anaximenes) came from Miletus, on the west coast of modern Turkey. The dominant concern of the Presocratic thinkers was to explain the origin and regularities of the physical world and the place of the human soul within it (see especially Pythagoreanism; Heraclitus; Anaxagoras; Empedocles; Democritus), although the period also produced such rebels as the Eleatic philosophers (Parmenides; Zeno of Elea; Melissus), whose radical monism sought to undermine the very basis of cosmology by reliance on a priori reasoning.

The label ‘Presocratic’ acknowledges the traditional view that Socrates (469–399 bc) was the first philosopher to shift the focus away from the natural world to human values. In fact, however, this shift to a large extent coincides with the concerns of his contemporaries the Sophists, who professed to teach the fundamentals of political and social success and consequently were also much concerned with moral issues (see Sophists). But the persona of Socrates became, and has remained ever since, so powerful an icon for the life of moral scrutiny that it is his name that is used to mark this watershed in the history of philosophy. In the century or so following his death, many schools looked back to him as the living embodiment of philosophy and sought the principles of his life and thought in philosophical theory (see especially Socratic schools).

Citing this article:
Sedley, David. The sixth and fifth centuries bc. Ancient philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A130-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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