Unity and Many in the Pre-Socratics

Unity and Diversity in the pre-Socratics

We  known according to Thales the foundational principle of reality is water: the moisture permeates all things and therefore it becomes the ultimate and foundational element of reality. A principle of natural moisture boils down the properties of the universe itself.

Figure 1 – The reasons for the choice of water as arche. 

We can therefore say that, behind the speculation of Thales – and other Ionian cosmologists – there is a reference to empiricism, experience, as evidenced in  the slide in Figure 1. We have already argued in previous posts as Reality, for these physiologists, is conceived as unitary, although, strictly speaking, this statement is partial, not having the first philosophers thought about the distinction between Spirit and Matter or between Form and Idea. Though this distinction will be a gradual conquest of the subsequent philosophical development, which will lead to a definitive resolution of the problem about the relationship between unity and multiplicity of things, the will to resume multiplicity in Unity constitutes, in fact, the source of philosophical speculation. As the unit can live within the Diversity? Is not there a contradiction between the manifold and the unit? How can you arrive to a synthesis of this manifold?

Probably it’s not easy to achieve this synthesis, since when there is, within the philosophical speculation, some ambiguity and a constant sloping of the Spirit into Matter and Matter into the Spirit.

Figure 2: One and Many: a central problem of the philosophical speculation. 

In any case, the early philosophers were aware that Reality can only be one, despite change we experience every moment : two or more Realities imply, in fact, contradiction and some illogical statements. On the contrary, change is real and belongs to reality , understood in its uniqueness. What we are witnessing is a sort of dialectic which must be established between the two dimensions of the One and the Many: everything is (i.e exists) while it changes in its own being and if it is , at the very moment in which there is, it is one, but at the moment which it changes, it becomes manifold. However, this same dialectic is still ambiguous and does not have any decisive implications  characterizing the next period of history of philosophy. Only when we Realize that reality has several degrees – or factors – of being, only when we begin to prioritize the Being itself, the dialectic between One and Many will be fully established.

Yet, even with Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes has begun to grasp the need for such a case: if the reality is one, then one must be the explanatory principle that it should be revived, otherwise one may not be logically consistent. And now here, now, we have just found the next step of our issue:  logic is the primary element that underlies the philosophical reasoning. Of course, as mentioned above, this reference is connected to the archetypal experience, to empiricism, to the world of the senses that suggests to Thales, for example, the evaporation produces air and freezing the ice and, by association to that, the earth: water for Thales, determines both the earth and the atmosphere. The transformations of an element in other substances have empirical genesis, but maybe it doesn’t deal with the rigorous experimental method: but even the modern science is not arousing in Ancient Ionia, intuition and logic, however, are underlying the philosophical speculation born in that fruitful land .

Figure 3: Ionian area represented the cradle of philosophy. 

If reality is, it is a constitutive principle, and it is not important whether this arché  is water, Apeiron, Air or Being itself: every matter  is able to overcome a mythic vision, to explain the origin of the universe, and thus the world itself.


All cosmologists shared a spirit of unity of the cosmos, even though every day were to interface with the inevitable presence of the Many, of diversity: you can arrive at the Parmenides‘ conclusion that the sensual changes are only illusory and thus lays the attention on its philosophy of Being, which becomes, paradoxically, the arche of the same Parmenidean philosophy You can! Similarly, Empedocles could justify the movement, the constant and eternal flow of things by the dialectic, sometimes  a little ‘mythical-mended,  between Love and Strife, despite the fact that these two forces are already beginning to predict the characteristics that the Nous of Anaxagoras will be soon assigned to the arche:things are moving because there is a great soul of the world, a rational force that permeates all things and makes them different in every moment, while always the same. You can!

In any case, whatever the answer you give to the problem of the consistence of the Many and the One, the desire to ask the previous question poses the first philosophers into the path which, at a time, leads to major forms of the philosophical speculation and towards science. Not myth, not imagination, but the logic and intuition are the protagonists of an era which, of necessity, becomes an atheist, anti-pietistic, impious. Science and religion, philosophy and faith seem to cut, although their fate, then, will be back to interconnect, but at that time you will overcome the great creations of Plato and Aristotle, also, there has been the claim a Jewish-Christian theology that has its roots in Alexandrian Neoplatonism and the first efforts of theFathers of the Church to restore and interpret the classical philosophical tradition in the light of faith.

It remains to clarify the position of Parmenides and Heraclitus, Anaxagoras and Empedocles, whom we mentioned in our reflections: intuirà is that despite their differences, and those with the Ionians, we have ascribed to cosmologists, however, the physiological which gave rise to the history of philosoph

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