The Arche: Reality According to the Pre-Socratic Natural Philosophers

Written by Daniel Seeker

Jan 4, 2023

The Arche.

The primordial matter of the universe.

What is reality and what is it made of? What is its essence?

Is it something we can grasp with our limited human minds, or is it much more likely that the Arche, the actual real stuff of the universe and consciousness, is something completely beyond our understanding?

The Presocratics

The Arche was for the pre-Socratic philosophers the primal matter, element or principle underlying and permeating the universe.

A substrate and foundation, which all things known and unknown rested upon.

Today I invite you to dive deeper into the heart of reality.

We’ll do this together by glancing into the minds of a handful of notable philosophers who lived about 2500 years ago. By familiarizing with each of their unique views on the concept of the Arche, we might gain wisdom by putting our own worldviews into context and perspective.

From Thales to Democritus

Historically, if we had to begin somewhere, we could go with the so called “first philosopher of the western world”, namely Thales of Miletus. From Aristotle we know that Thales believed that everything was made from and out of water. Now this could be understood literally or metaphorically. The literal approach would be to understand reality to be composed of actual water molecules in its essence.

While the metaphorical perspective would be to understand reality something akin to water at the most fundamental level. The formless qualities of water, and its supremely malleable nature, was for Thales the best candidate for the primordial arche, something in turn that made up all the rest of manifest forms existing in the universe.

For Anaximander, a contemporary of Thales in the-6th century BCE, the arche was something much more intangible and somewhat mystical in which he called the limitless, or the Apeiron. Unlike Thales and the other Pre-Socratics, Anaximander leaned towards more of an abstract principle or an immaterial and unfathomable source rather than a material cause. It was from this infinite arche and principle from which all other elements and matter emerged.

Heraclitus Heraclitus ‘the obscure’ is known for upholding that fire was the Arche, as for him “everything was exchanged for fire and fire for everything” Similar to the Arche of Thales, the arche of Heraclitus could be understood either literally or metaphorically. Metaphorically fire makes quite a bit of sense, a fire never remains still just like nature and the universe that we inhabit, fire is always moving, morphing, and changing, not only in itself as a phenomenon but also transforming all that it touches and consumes. For Heraclitus fire effectively functioned as a symbol to emphasize the primacy of change in nature.

Anaximenes, a student of Anaximander in the 6th century BCE, postulated that it was rather air or mist that was the prime source of matter. He believed that the entire constitution of the natural world could be explained by how air was condensed and dispersed in physical space. Everything around us, including water, earth, fire and all matter could thus be reduced to the degree of which air was either compressed or expanded.

In Parmenides we find, at first glance, the seeming opposite of what Heraclitus proposed, namely that nothing ever changes. Parmenides maintained that what we perceive with our senses are mostly false impressions. Moreover, underlying the seeming changeful aspects of nature lies a reality and a cosmos that is timeless and unchanging. Thus for Parmenides the Arche could be understood to be “reality as it is”, and Being itself. An eternal, unchanging and spherical being, which is the womb of all perceived reality.

For Empedocles, the Arche was not one single static thing or phenomena, but a combination of the “four elements”, namely air, fire, earth and water. It was the interaction of these elements through what he called the primordial forces of love and hate, or attraction and repulsion that made up the entire universe and how it functioned. For Empedocles reality and the universe was highly dynamic and cyclical in nature, similar to the universe conceptualized by the later Stoics.

Last but not the least, for the notable atomists Democritus and his teacher Leucippus nothing existed except for atoms and empty space, everything else was just superstition or opinion. The word atom comes from the Greek atomon, meaning indivisible, and the atomists imagined these indivisible elementary particles floating about in the vast expanse of empty space that constituted the cosmos. These atoms occasionally collided and amassed into more complex solid objects that we can observe all around us in nature and the universe, including our physical bodies and our immaterial minds and souls.

What to make of Arche?

Now as we can see these ancient natural philosophers of the Greek world had a tendency to disagree with each other on the concept of the arche, or at least that is how it appears to us from our posterior perspective. This is probably due to the fact that we have their thoughts and contemplations presented to us in a dialectical and somewhat chronological fashion, where each philosopher rebuked and proposed forth their own theories regarding the nature of the universe and reality.

Nonetheless, despite their back-and-forth dialectics, they did however have one important thing in common, and that was that in nature there existed some kind of a primordial stuff, element or principle. An ultimate substrate or foundation from which all other matter arose out of and subsequently rested upon. They called it, The Arche.

Relevant Quotes

All things are full of gods.
Thales of Miletus (Quoted by Aristotle in De Anima)

Water is the first principle of all things.
Thales of Miletus (Quoted by Aristotle in Metaphysics)

Whence things have their origin, thence also destruction happens, as is the order of things.

There cannot be a single, simple body which is infinite, either, as some hold, one distinct from the elements, which they then derive from it, nor without this qualification. For there are some who make this (i.e. a body distinct from the elements) the infinite, and not air or water, in order that the other things may not be destroyed by their infinity. They are in opposition one to another — air is cold, water moist, and fire hot—and therefore, if any one of them were infinite, the rest would have ceased to be by this time. Accordingly they say that what is infinite is something other than the elements, and from it the elements arise.
Anaximander (Quoted by Aristotle in Physics)

He who hears not me but the logos will say: All is one.
Heraclitus (On the Universe – Fragment 50)

This world, which is the same for all, no one of gods or men has made. But it always was and will be: an ever-living fire, with measures of it kindling, and measures going out.
Heraclitus (On the Universe – Fragment 20)

All things are an exchange for fire, and fire for all things, as goods for gold and gold for goods.
Heraclitus (Quoted by Plutarch)

Nothing exists except atoms and empty space; everything else is opinion.

By convention sweet is sweet, bitter is bitter, hot is hot, cold is cold, color is color; but in truth there are only atoms and the void.

Nothing happens at random, but all things for a reason and of necessity.

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Daniel Seeker

Daniel Seeker is a wandering dervish, creator of Nirvanic and a lifelong student of the past, present and future. He realized that he was made of immaculate and timeless consciousness when meditating in his hermit cave on the island of Gotland. His writings and his online course are mostly a reflection of that realizaton. Daniel has studied history, philosophy, egyptology and western esotericism at Uppsala Universitet. He’s currently writing his B.A. thesis in history which explores how Buddhist and Hindu texts were first properly translated and introduced to the western world in the late 18th and 19th century.


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