What is Pluralism (Ancient)?

Pluralism is a philosophical doctrine that can be attributed to three figures of 5th century BC: Anaxagoras, Archelaus, and Empedocles. All three made attempts to resolve the differences between refutation of change by Parmenides (and the Eleatic School more generally) and the manifest sense perception of the world. Their attempts could be said to have culminated in a project of looking for a singular source of all change.

First, Anaxagoras’s point of view was that all matter has existed from the beginning of time in an infinite amount of small particles. These particles did not have a particular shape or form of their own, and were given one through something independent from matter, which he called νοῦς (mind). In classical philosophy the mind was deemed central for our understanding of reality; and so Anaxagoras saw the mind as that which gave matter a shape through which we could distinguish between different things in the world. He also believed the mind to have causal effect and be responsible for motion of matter in the world. To an extent, Anaxagoras can be seen as the early advocate of Atomism.

Second, Archelaus, who was a student of Anaxagoras, nevertheless is believed to have rejected his master’s views. Because for Archelaus air was understood to be infinite, the mind that Anaxagoras held to be at the centre of creation of reality could no longer be upheld. Instead, air was already mingled with the mind, and through a process that is otherwise unclear (we have no surviving fragments from Archelaus) would lead to cold and warmth (or water and fire). It was still the mind that would separate hot from cold; a process that Archelaus believed was central to the creation of life on earth. Archelaus extended his cosmology to ethics – while all were endowed with the mind, the human species separated themselves from other animals and instituted laws within their societies. This separation from other animals led Archelaus to believe that for human beings what is right and what is wrong came “not by nature, but by custom” (οὐ φύσει ἀλλὰ νόμῳ).

Third, Empedocles was a citizen of Akragas (Agrigento) in colonial Sicily, and besides Plato’s discussion of him in several dialogues, is best known for aiming to unite the previously held four separate elements: earth, fire, water, and air. Empedocles viewed these to be in a continued change – joining and separating through time. However, unlike his predecessors, it was not the mind that caused motion and change of matter, but rather it were Love and Strife that were at the centre of change. He agreed with the members of the Eleatic School that it was not possible for something to into being from nothing (and vice versa, for something to turn into nothing). Instead, all matter was already present and continuously forming and separating. However, unlike the Eleatic School, Empedocles believed in the doctrine of reincarnation precisely because matter could not simply disappear. It is believed that on this last point Empedocles was influenced by Pythagoras.

In short, while in the modern sense of the word Pluralism is a diverse concept used in many different branches of philosophy (see here), pluralism in Ancient Greece refers to a particular philosophical period of establishing a singular cause for change.

Further Reading

Barnes, J. (2002). Early Greek Philosophy, Penguin Classics.

Fairbanks, A. (2012). Empedocles: Fragments and Commentary, Theophania Publishing.

Geldard, R. (2008). Anaxagoras and Universal Mind, ARK Books.

Leonard, W. E. (2017). The Fragments of Empedocles, CreateSpace Independent Publishing.

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