The history of Greek philosophy

Neven Sesardic
(Lingnan University, Hong Kong:

It all began with Thales

a long, long time ago

when he exclaimed: “Eureka!

Everything is H2O!”


Anaximenes protested

and shouted: “Au contraire,

there’s only one stuff indeed.

But water?!—No, it’s air!”


Let’s not forget Heraclitus

whom all philosophers admire

for explaining once for all

that what only exists is…  fire.


Enter Empedocles

who said, for what it’s worth:

“Air, water, fire—great!

But please add also earth!”


Pythagoras detested some food.

Wait, was it beans or cucumbers?

Whatever. He famously claimed

“Nothing exists except numbers!”


Parmenides caused an uproar

by arguing with great skill

that the world is just a big sphere

that stands completely still.


Denying that motion exists?

Is this some kind of spoof?

No, replied his student Zeno,

providing a cogent proof.


Democritus thought that everything

consists of atoms and the void.

So today’s physics textbooks

would make him overjoyed.


The sophists defended their practice

of charging a teacher’s fee:

“Hey, everyone needs to eat,

even those with Ph. D.”


Protagoras from Abdera

made the strong argument weaker,

insisting that truth itself

is relative to the speaker.


The critics were quick to refute him

by wickedly playing along:

We think your view is just silly,

which means that, for us, you are wrong!”


Socrates taught about ethics

and how to live a good life,

yet ruining his own CV

by marrying a nagging wife.


He thought that even the vilest acts

spring from lack of knowledge,

as if people kill and steal

just because they failed in college.


His last, intense debate

was interrupted: “Knock, knock!

Excuse us for intruding,

but you have to drink the hemlock.”


Plato wrote the dialogues

and it’s very hard to say

of all those people there

who’s straight and who is gay.


He described the dazzling world

of ideas we cannot see,

which are much more cool

than anything else could be.


All we observe is shadows

and not the real thing.

Then who will guide us to the truth?

Why, a philosopher-king!


So Plato undertook the task

of showing the exit from the cave

but managed just to get himself

sold away as slave.


Thank God that his project failed,

for the utopia of this sage

looks a lot like fascism

in its early stage.


Aristotle examined

almost every topic:

from abstract to concrete,

big or microscopic.


Who’s not baffled by his terms,

telos, arché and ousia?

What the hell is he talking about?

Call if you have an idea.


His views on all key issues

were treated as the last word.

For almost a millennium

no objection was ever heard.


At last the scientists awoke

as their knowledge surged ahead.

They announced politely: “Sorry,

but we reject what he said.”


Among philosophers, however,

his standing remains quite high

although, to tell you frankly,

it's unclear exactly why.