Introduction to Western Philosophy: Who Were the Presocratics?

While reading up on Richard Feynman, I stumbled upon a fascinating article called The Feynman Technique: The Best Way to Learn Anything. This Farnam Street (FS) piece breaks down the Nobel Prize-winning physicist’s recommended method of learning. The basic premise is that if you want to learn something, pretend that you’re teaching it to a sixth-grader.

Now, due to a very real shortage of sixth-graders in our household, I’m modifying my application of the Feynman Technique. I’m substituting the teaching part with writing, specifically writing articles about Western Philosophy.

This is my attempt at a sixth-grade-worthy Presocratic Cheat Sheet.

Who were the Presocratics (Pre-Socratics)?

The Presocratics were a group of ancient Greek philosophers who flourished around the 6th and 5th century BCE. These ancient thinkers were often credited for kickstarting philosophy in the West and for being some of history’s first scientists. Using their commendable observation skills, an array of ancient math techniques, and the power of inference and deduction, the Presocratics sought to find rational answers to some of mankind’s hardest questions. We’re talking—Why are we here? Where does life come from? What is the Universe made of? How did the Universe begin? How was the world formed? Really thought-provoking questions.

With the advancement of science and technology, we can now say definitively that these philosophers did get a lot of things wrong. But they also got some things right—chief of which is asking the right questions. By asking the difficult questions and going for it, the Presocratics succeeded in changing the way man thinks, forever.

Presocratic philosophers have contributed greatly to science, math, and philosophy. One can even say that they have ushered in the birth of cosmology, logic, and metaphysics. Thanks in part to these early theorists, mankind has broken the tradition of blind belief, turning instead to critical thinking.

Socrates and the Presocratics

Now, with the way the word is structured, Pre-Socratic, it’s easy to assume that these thinkers all came before Socrates. But that assumption is only partially true. While a great number of Presocratic philosophers did precede the Athenian Gadfly, a few of them were his contemporaries.

See, contrary to its confusing prefix, Presocratic isn’t a chronological term. It’s more of an umbrella term or identifier used to describe a group of ancient Greek thinkers that were NOT influenced by Socrates’s teachings. In the end, it all boils down to a difference in topic. Bear in mind that:

Socratic teachings focus on ethics, political philosophy, moral philosophy, epistemology, teleology, and eudaimonia (the life worth living).

While Presocratic philosophy keeps the spotlight on nature, reason, existence, reality, and the universe. Sure, some of these early thinkers did touch on ethics, politics, and religion, but for the most part, their studies had more of a scientific bent. Dissatisfied with the ancient creation techniques, the Presocratics sought to find alternative, logical explanations for the universe’s, the world’s, and man’s existence.

My philosophy reads. Used some websites for research but most of the info here come from three books: Philosophy 101, A History of Western Philosophy, and A New History of Western Philosophy

The Different Presocratic Schools

There were several important schools and major players in the Presocratic scene. The following list is just going to be a quick run-through—a cheat sheet of sorts. I do plan on writing longer articles for each school or philosopher, but until then, we’ll go with key points.


The Milesian School gets its name from the ancient town of Miletus, a Greek colony situated on the western coast of Anatolia (a.k.a., modern-day Turkey). Its philosophers were preoccupied with finding the “material cause” or “basic material” of the universe—a substance which they referred to as the primary principle, the quintessential substance, or archê.

The school produced three key Presocratic thinkers: Thales of Miletus, Anaximander, and Anaximenes.

Thales of Miletus (c. 625-545/624-548 BCE)

“Water is the first principle of everything.”

Thales of Miletus is one of the most impressive philosophers on our list. He’s a member of the Seven Wise Men of Greece and is often regarded as the founding father of Western Philosophy—though some insist that this is a title he ought to share with Pythagoras of Samos.

Primary Principle: Water
Thales posited that all things originated from water. Depending on who you’re reading, he may have come to this conclusion based on his observations of how water can shift from gaseous to liquid to solid and back again via condensation, evaporation/vaporization, freezing, and melting.

Believed that the Earth is… a flat disk that rests on water.

Is Credited With… Measuring the height of the pyramids through the shadows they casted. He used his own shadow to find the right time to take the pyramids’ measurements.
Had pretty good estimates of the size of the moon and the sun.
Could determine the distance of ships from the shore.

Anaximander of Miletus (c. 610-546 BCE)

“The Earth is cylindrical, three times as wide as it is deep, and only the upper part is inhabited.”

Anaximander of Miletus is thought to have been Thales’s student and successor. He’s also arguably the first philosopher to have kept writings of his work.

Primary Principle: Apeiron
Like Thales, Anaximander thought that everything in existence originated from one substance. But unlike his master, Anaximander thought that this substance wasn’t something readily visible or tangible like water, earth, or fire. He thought it was a boundless, unlimited, interminable, and undefined stuff, which he called Apeiron.  This substancethen produced opposites like hot and cold, dry and wet, which then brought on the creation of the world and all things in it.

Believed that the Earth is…cylindrical in shape.

Is Credited With… Making the first star chart and the first map of the world.
Creating the earliest Greek sundial.

Anaximenes of Miletus (c. 586-526 BCE/fl. 546-526 BCE)

“Just as our soul, being air, constrains us, so breath and air envelops the whole kosmos.”

There’s still some debate as to whether Anaximenes was a student or a friend of Anaximander’s, but what isn’t up for debate is how Anaximenes also subscribed to the idea of a quintessential or primary substance.

Primary Principle: Air
Anaximenes believed that air was the primary substance that made up and brought about the creation of the world. Like Thales, Anaximenes got this idea by observing his surroundings. He thought that air could transform itself into a myriad of other things like clouds, fire, water, wind, and even earth.

Believed that the Earth… was flat, like its surrounding heavenly bodies. He also asserted that the Earth breathed—which, if you think about it, is only partially wrong.


“All things are numbers.”

Now here’s a Presocratic school that’s named after its founder. With his invaluable contributions to math (specifically geometry) and philosophy, Pythagoras of Samos might just be one of the most important men in history. And yes, this is the same Pythagoras of the Pythagorean Theorem fame.

On Math and God. Pythagoras of Samos was a curious fellow. A true mathematician at heart, he asserted that mathematics is the key to learning more about the order and structure of the world and the universe. To Pythagoras, mathematics is everything—and the fact that we can explain much of the world through numbers shows that God is likely a geometer.

On Mysticism. Beyond being a school of mathematics, the Pythagorean School was also an ascetic religious brotherhood with exact rules and rituals. These practices ran the gamut of practical to borderline illogical. We’re talking selective vegetarianism, exclusively wearing white clothes, putting on the right shoe first, and the avoidance of beans at all cost.

Is credited with… inventing the word philosopher, from the word philosophos, which means ‘lover of wisdom.’
Discovering harmonic progression and harmonic mean. (The relationship between numerical ratios and musical intervals.)


“All things are from earth and in earth all things end.”

Xenophanes of Colophon wore a multitude of hats. He was a poet, a philosopher, a staunch critic of polytheism, and a theologian. He had a long life which he spent continually learning, traveling, and writing. Xenophanes often wrote about cosmology and his criticisms of mythology and religion.

On Cosmology. Xenophanes believed that there was a natural link between earth and water, and that water once covered the earth. This was a theory he posited after discovering fossils of sea creatures inland. He also believed that we experienced a new sun every day. Now, whether we’re talking solar regeneration or the actual replacement of the sun, I’m not quite sure. But either way, it’s not as solid as his theory on earth and water.

On Religion. Xenophanes was very much against polytheism and the idea that the gods were anthropomorphic. He criticized mythology and asserted his belief that there was only one God (monotheism) who could control everything with His thoughts.

Is credited with… the observation of fossil records.


The Ephesian School of philosophy was established during the 5th Century BCE and was based on the teachings of one philosopher—Heraclitus of Ephesus.

Heraclitus of Ephesus (535-475 BCE)

“You cannot step into the same river; for fresh waters are ever flowing in upon you.”

Most of us have come across the saying, “You can’t step in the same river twice.” The expression is often used as an illustration of how everything changes with the passing of time. Well, now it’s time to get to know the Greek philosopher who said it first—Heraclitus of Ephesus. Heraclitus is considered the most famous and the last of the Ionian Philosophers.

On Religion and Cosmology. Many historians think that Heraclitus may have been inspired by the philosophy of Xenophanes of Colophon. They definitely share certain beliefs. Both were very critical of religious sacrifice and the religion of their times. The two philosophers also suggested that the sun was new every day. This was consistent with Xenophanes’s belief in the Cosmic Principle of Reparation or the idea of the Universe as flux—a.k.a. the reason you can’t step in the same river twice.

Primary Principle: Fire
Heraclitus also had a theory on the primary substance of the universe. He believed that the world was ever-living fire. That the soul was made of fire and that fire had the power to change into any other element.


The Eleatic School of philosophy was established in the 5th century BCE in the ancient city of Colophon in Ionia (present-day Turkey). Its founder, Parmenides of Elea, is believed to have been one of the students of Xenophanes of Colophon.

Parmenides of Elea (510-440 BCE)

“Ex nihilo nihil fit.” (Out of nothing, nothing is produced.)

On Reality and Metaphysics. If Heraclitus was all about movement and flux, Parmenides of Elea was the Ephesian thinker’s opposite. To Parmenides, everything is permanent and static. Nothing is ever in motion. The past, the present, and the future are one and the same.

He also believed that the only thing that is true is what is or what exists. And that to arrive at that truth, to understand and see reality for what it truly is, one has to use pure logic and reason. There’s no room for the subjective data provided by one’s senses because reality has nothing to do with what we experience.

Is Credited With… creating the founding charter for logic-based Metaphysics and Ontology.

Zeno of Elea (490-430 BCE)

“There is no motion, for whatever moves must reach the middle of its course before it reaches the end.”

On Motion. Like his predecessorParmenides, Zeno of Elea believed that nothing is in motion. Since he was a master at creating clever paradoxes, he used these arguments to illustrate the impossibility of movement. His most popular paradox may have been the Achilles and the Tortoise Paradox.

The paradox presented a race between Achilles and a tortoise—hardly seems fair, I know. But then, Zeno decides to try to level the playing field. Why not give the slow-moving tortoise a bit of a head start? Now, common sense tells us that despite the head start, Achilles should be able to catch up to the tortoise after a sprint. However, Zeno disagrees. According to the philosopher, there is bound to be a gap that never ends. Every time Achilles reaches the point where the tortoise was a moment ago, the tortoise would have since moved on.

Melissus of Samos (440 BCE)

“What was ever, and ever shall be. For, it came into being, necessarily, before its generation, there was nothing; so, if there was nothing, nothing at all would come from nothing.” QUOTE

On Reality and Metaphysics. If the idea of nothing arising out of nothing sounds familiar, that’s because Melissus of Samos expounds on the ideas of his master, Parmenides. Like Parmenides, Melissus believed in the unchangeable nature of the Universe. He saw the universe, and actually everything in existence, to be fixed, homogenous, and indivisible.

To the Presocratic philosopher, when a thing is x, it always will be x, and never not x.* Now, I know that sounds tricky, but author Paul Kleinman helps break this idea down in his book Philosophy 101. In Philosophy 101, Kleinman gives us the example of cold water. Imagine a glass of cold water—maybe straight from the fridge or filled with ice cubes. There’s no doubting the coldness of this cold water.

If we were to follow Melissus’s logic, that cold water will remain cold forever. But all of us know from experience that this simply isn’t true. A glass of cold water left on the counter for a day or two is bound to come down to room temperature. If it’s left in a hot car, the water may even become warm over time. And if you wait long enough, it will evaporate leaving no trace of water at all. So much for permanence, right? But that’s exactly Melissus’s point. Beyond absolute truth—or Parmenidean truthnothing ever really is, it just seems.

On Pain and Vacuum. Melissus didn’t believe in pain and the vacuum. As per Melissus, pain isn’t real because the experience of pain implies imperfection in Being. As for the vacuum, its nothingness implies the absence of existence, which goes against the idea of the permanence of Being.

EMPEDOCLES (c. 494-434 BCE)

“Hear first the four roots of all things: shining Zeus, life-bringing Hera, Aidoneus, and Nestis, who wets with tears the mortal wellspring.”

Now, here was a philosopher who was able to bring together multiple philosophies and make them his own. Empedocles fuses the philosophies of the Ionians to explain the origins of the universe. Because he borrows concepts from different philosophers, many have alleged that Empedocles may have been a student of Pythagoras, Parmenides, or even Xenophanes. Aside from being a famous philosopher and an avid student to the earlier masters, Empedocles was also a democrat, a counsellor, and a physician.

On the Four Classic Elements as the Roots of the Universe. Empedocles is credited for bringing together the four classic elements—Water (Thales), Fire (Heraclitus), Air (Anaximenes), and Earth (Xenophanes)—and presenting them as the base ingredients of the Universe. What sets Empedocles apart from his predecessors, however, is that he presents these elements as equal contributors/ingredients. 

Now, if the four elements are ingredients, implying passivity from their end, they’re going to need a catalyst or an agent of change to bring them together and to get them to interact. According to Empedocles, these agents are Love and Strife. Love unites the elements and Strife pulls them apart. This “coming together and breaking apart” action is what leads to the creation of more complex beings.  

ANAXAGORAS (c. 500-428 BCE)

“All things were together, infinite both in number and in smallness; for the small too was infinite.”

As far as philosopher nicknames go, Anaxagoras has one of the best ones. He was called “The Mind,” a nickname he received due to his study of the Nous (Cosmic Mind) and the role it plays in the creation of the universe.

On the Concept of Nous/The Cosmic Mind. A student of Anaximenes, Anaxagoras, like his master, had a special interest in the way the Universe worked. He believed that the Nous/Mind was divine and unlimited and that it was separate from the body. According to Anaxagoras, the Cosmic Mind set creation into motion and still continues the development of the Universe.

Is Credited With… being the intellectual ancestor of the Big Bang Theory. One of Anaxagoras’s cosmology theories is that the Universe began as a primordial pebble—compact and dense with possibility. The pebble started spinning and threw off air and ether to create the moon and the sun. Anaxagoras also posited that the Universe was ever-expanding, creating multiple worlds like ours.


“Nothing exists except atoms and empty space; everything else is opinion.” – Democritus

The Atomist School was started by Leucippus of Miletus (fl. 5th century BCE) and was continued by his student Democritus of Abdera (c. 460-370 BCE). Because the two philosophers are often mentioned together, it’s difficult to distinguish each one’s contribution to the theories of Atomism. So, to keep things simple, in this section we’re going to be discussing the Atomist ideas in general.

On Atoms and the Void. The Atomistsbelieved that the physical universe was made up of the Void (the great nothingness) and these miniscule and indivisible bodies called Atoms, (atom being the Greek word for indivisible). So, yes, I think we’re pretty much talking about the same atoms that we studied in science class.

Now, according to the Atomists, atoms are so tiny that it’s impossible to see them with the naked eye. They are also infinite in number and exist in the void. While the void may be vast, the atoms are in constant motion, which means that they frequently collide. Upon impact, the atoms merge to form anything and everything that’s visible and in existence.

Other Philosophy Posts:

Philosophy 101: The Six Branches of Philosophy

Memento Homo: Finding Meaning in Your Mortality

What is Philosophy?

Kenny, A. (2012). A New History of Western Philosophy (Reprint ed.). Oxford University Press
Kleinman, P. (2013). Philosophy 101: From Plato and Socrates to Ethics and Metaphysics, an Essential Primer on the History of Thought (Adams 101) (Illustrated ed.). Adams Media
Russell, B. (1967). A History of Western Philosophy) Simon & Schuster/Touchstone

Presocratics Entry at

Socrates – Wikipedia

Hermann Alexander Diehls – Wikipedia

Presocratics – Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Pre-Socratic Philosophy – Wikipedia


Achilles Paradox – Britannica

Feynman Technique – Farnam Street

Philosophy 101: The Six Branches of Philosophy


A/N: Taking a chronological approach to self-studying philosophy

This year, I have decided to take self-studying Philosophy seriously. Up to this point, I’ve been casually listening to an assortment of podcasts and reading and abandoning texts from Sartre, Plato, Aristotle, Epictetus, Simone de Beauvoir, Descartes, Kant, and Hobbes. Now, if that reads like a mess, that’s because it is.

I have been blessed with a very short attention span, which means that I am almost-hopeless at single-tasking. That spills over to reading. At the moment, I have five unfinished books on my bedside table. Every day, I read a few pages from each book—but it’s a real struggle not to add another one to that pile.

So, as you can see, I am a person that needs structure otherwise I’m all over the place. Hence, the decision to study Western Philosophy chronologically. I figured it would be easier for me to follow the birth and development of various philosophical movements this way, as opposed to randomly moving through philosophers or philosophical teachings.

That being said, on to today’s learnings.


In a previous post called What is Philosophy?, we defined Philosophy as a study that “seeks to uncover the nature, root, and meaning of life, being, reality (metaphysics), ethics, and knowledge (epistemology).” As is evident in that definition, Philosophy is a study that covers a lot of ground. And like other complex fields of study, it is one that contains a multitude of classifications. Today, we’re going to be focusing on its six main branches or themes.

(Note: some sources leave out logic and politics in their lists, but I’m keeping those in.)


Metaphysics is the philosophical branch that studies reality, existence, the nature of being, the physical world, and the universe.

It seeks to answer difficult questions like, what is the nature of reality? How can we say that the world exists outside of our thoughts? How did mankind come to be? How was the universe made? Was the universe made?  How can our disembodied minds control or affect our physical bodies? How can we prove the existence of something? Can “nothingness” exist? Etc.


Then there’s my favorite branch, Epistemology. So, Epistemology is often referred to as the theory of knowledge. It delves into the definition, scope, and parameters of knowledge and knowledge formation. It seeks to explain how we acquire knowledge, how knowledge relates to notions like justification, truth, and belief, and how and where it falls in the spectrum of certainty and error.

It is a study that asks big questions like what is knowledge? What can we know for certain? How do we know what we know? How can we acquire knowledge? What is a justified belief, and what makes it justified? Etc.


Logic is the branch of philosophy that studies reasoning. It teaches us how to differentiate between good and bad reasoning and how to construct valid arguments. It seeks answers to questions like, what is valid reasoning? How can you distinguish between a good argument and a bad argument? How can you spot fallacies or errors in an argument?

Now, we’ve all studied logic in one form or another. In Math class, logic came in the form of puzzles or word problems that required the use of inductive or deductive reasoning to arrive at the right equations or solutions. In English/Speech class, we studied fallacies and paradoxes and solved riddles with inferences, which taught us how to create convincing and logical arguments and how to debate properly. And the list goes on.


Ethics, also known as moral philosophy, is often referred to as the study of morality. It seeks to address questions about how we should live our lives, how we define proper conduct, and what we mean by the good life. It’s a study that teaches us what the virtuous life is like and how we can put these virtues into practice.

Ethics concerns itself with questions like, what is the good life? How should we act? What do we mean by virtue? What does “right” even mean?


In the world of philosophy, Aesthetics refers to the study of everything related to beauty, art, and good taste. This includes how we define art, how we feel when viewing art or witnessing beauty, how we judge works of art, and how we form our taste.

This branch of philosophy concerns itself with questions that include: What is art? What makes an artwork successful? Is art an expression of feelings? Can it be a “vehicle of truth?” Is “good taste” innate or learned? And, is art and morality connected?


Last on our list is Politics or Political Philosophy. As you can already tell from its name Political Philosophy examines various concepts related to politics, government, laws, liberty, justice, rights, authority, state, and even ethics (ethical ruling). It discusses how states should be built and run, and how its constituents should act.

It posits and attempts to answer questions like What is government? What makes a government work? Why do we need governments? What rights and freedoms should be granted to a state’s constituents? Why should the constituents follow any of the laws set by the government? What is the extent of the power of the government? And so on, and so forth.

Now, these six themes are very broad representations of the many categories in Philosophy. Of course, within these themes/branches are even more philosophical movements that give birth to more studies—seemingly ad infinitum. But that is the nature of philosophy. It’s a thinking subject. It’s a progression. It’s meant to move us forward, oftentimes by looking backwards.

Not-so-random thought:

When one thinks oneself out of a box, it’s only a matter of time before we’ve thought ourselves into another box to think out of.

Kleinman, Paul (2013). Philosophy 101
Blackburn, Simon (Third Edition, 2016). The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy

Memento Homo: Finding Meaning in Your Mortality


Image by: Reimund Bertrams from Pixabay

Frank Herbert once said, “To suspect your own mortality is to know the beginning of terror, to learn irrefutably that you are mortal is to know the end of terror.”

Now, being inspired by aphorisms like YOLO (you only live once) is one thing. I mean, true, there is emphasis on having one life, but it’s easy to stay positive when the conversation is about life or living. However, when you throw in words like mortality and impermanence, when the focus shifts to death, well, that’s when things can take a turn for the bleak. For most people, myself included, the idea of facing one’s impending death is a terrifying thought.

Sure, one can talk about death and the permanent peace that comes with it. But oftentimes when such talk arises, it’s one that’s cloaked in abstractness. For the healthy person, at least, death may seem like a concept—a faraway thing separate from the reality he/she inhabits.

The truth is that few people want constant reminders of the impermanence of everything—especially life. It’s certainly not small-talk material. And yet, many mental health experts believe that facing and accepting one’s mortality can be an important ingredient to a better life. In Stoicism, for example, the path to eudaimonia, a.k.a. the life worth living, requires reminding yourself of the transient nature of your life and everything and everyone you hold dear.

In Massimo Pigliucci’s enlightening book, How to Be a Stoic, he asks the readers to come to terms with the impermanence of everything. He introduces the short Latin phrase used by Roman generals to remind themselves of their mortality—memento homo, Remember, you are only a man.

Now, I don’t quite know where the phrase originated from, but according to this source, Julius Caesar had asked an Auriga (slave) to whisper it to him during his victorious march.  Memento homo was a way for the great Roman General to keep his mortality and humanity in mind in the face of his great achievements. I guess in a way it was there to keep the general’s head in the game by keeping his ego in check. And that makes perfect sense. Ancient Rome was a place rife with plotting, conniving, and murder. Letting your guard down at any moment could prove fatal. Just ask any of the 80+ Roman emperors who were assassinated.

That’s all well and good for the ancient Romans, but how exactly does facing our mortality benefit us, the modern common folk? Well, for this lifelong student, the following advantages come to mind:

Contemplating and accepting our mortality gives us time to make preparations for the inevitable.

A former colleague once joked about the best graduation gift he’s ever received. It was a funeral plan, complete with his own plot of land where he could set up camp permanently in the very distant future. I remember we all got a big laugh out of it. We were all in our early 20s and the gift had seemed ridiculous then. Fast-forward to a decade later and the gift no longer seems ridiculous—if anything, it’s practical. The last few years have taught me that death is almost always unexpected. And while I’m not telling anyone to start purchasing funeral plans, or start giving them out to friends and family at Christmas, at a certain point, we’ll all have to start making some preparations.

Whether it’s setting up a trust fund for the kids, investing in life insurance, drafting a will, or creating a map that details the location of buried treasure, I think it might somewhat help our loved ones when it’s our time to go. Of course, having a ready last will and testament will not lessen the pain experienced by one’s family, but it might prevent further friction between them. I have heard about too many families fight over property, money, and other assets. If we can help save them from that kind of pain, why wouldn’t we?

Pondering death can motivate us to live our lives intentionally.

When somebody asks you, “What is your life’s purpose?”, sometimes it may sound like a loaded question, an opening for judgment. There is pressure to give an answer that would be considered noble, grand, or laudable. Now, I know a lot of people who struggle with this question. However, the upside of choosing your life’s purpose is that you get to decide on which things give your life meaning. The truth is that you define your own goals and objectives. No one else has the right to fault you for whatever answer you may have, or if you choose not give an answer at all. As the Wiccans put it, “Do what you will if it harms none.”

And the beauty of pondering and accepting the inevitability of death is that, in a way, it can help motivate you to pursue your dreams and to focus on the things that give your life value. Life is short—oftentimes, it feels too short. So, there’s no better time to start building the life you want than the present. Whether or not you achieve all your dreams isn’t as important as going after them. That is what it means to live your life with purpose.

Remembering that we must return to dust teaches us to appreciate what we have.

Take a deep breath and picture everything and everyone you love. Let your mind’s eye dwell on every detail of every person, pet, item, or place that brings your life tremendous joy or meaning. Do you have a clear picture yet? Now, imagine each one fading into nothingness. One day, everything and everyone we love will be taken away. Either we’ll go first or they will. This is the impermanence of everything.

It’s hardly a comforting thought, I know. But you know what is comforting? It’s the fact that we’re still here—and if we’re lucky, most of the things and people we love are still here as well. Our time on Earth is very limited. So, why don’t we spend the time we have left to show our love and appreciation for our loved ones? Now, before the clock runs out.

Thinking about death offers liberation from stigma and definition.

This is where memento homo really kicks in. Imagine being one of those triumphant Roman generals. You have vanquished your enemies and you might just be the most powerful man or woman in one of the most powerful empires of all time. You are the top dog. It’s so easy to get swept up in the hype (whether yours or other people’s), and you may even fancy yourself god-like with all your amazing achievements. Then, an Auriga comes up to you and whispers, “Remember, you are only a man.”

Now, let’s flip the coin. Imagine being the general who is forced into retreat. The advancing powers have left your army decimated and you have escaped by the skin of your teeth. You are cloaked in shame and are consumed with the guilt of having disgraced your family, your ruler, and your people. You weep at the thought that your name is forever sullied by your defeat. Then, the Auriga’s words ring clear in your memory, “Remember, you are only a man.”

While, as mentioned earlier, the reminder brings a unique set of advantages to an actual general/dictator/emperor, remembering that you will one day be gone and even forgotten is still pretty good advice today. It teaches you to see yourself beyond your reputation (how other people see you), your greatest strengths, and your most staggering failings. You are going to be just one of the many people who have graced the Earth. You are neither your greatest achievement nor your greatest failure. There’s a certain poignancy and freedom that comes with truly understanding that statement.

Knowing and understanding this can help free you from whatever definition or stigma you may carry inside of you. Here is a simple fact of life. We all win some and lose some and that’s all part of the journey.

Accepting our mortality reminds us to be mindful and to live hic et nunc (here and now).

The minute we’re born, our body’s countdown to the end begins. It’s a peculiar clock. There’s no way to see how much time we have left. We have no way to halt or significantly slow its pace, though a myriad of things can quicken its ticking. This should be a reminder to us that each moment we have is precious and should not be wasted.

I believe that instinctively, we all know this to be true. And yet, so many of us still spend our days just half-present. Somehow the days meld together into an unrecognizable heap that by the end of the week, we can’t even remember what we had for breakfast last Wednesday. While man has yet to discover how to physically time travel, our minds have become proficient at living in the past and worrying about the future. Going through life in this manner, speeding through life just half-there to experience the ride is a surefire way to gather deathbed regrets. And what use is regret when you can no longer rectify your errors?

This is where the importance of mindfulness and living in the hic et nunc (here and now) comes in. When faced with certain death, you wouldn’t want to be the person who spends your final hours taking stock of the countless should’ves, would’ves, and could’ves. So, slow down. Be here now. Live every moment with intention and appreciation. Make use of the time you have left wisely and deliberately.

What is Philosophy?


Image by morhamedufmg from Pixabay

The word Philosophy is rooted in the Latin word Philosophia—a portmanteau of the two Ancient Greek words: philos which means loving and sophia, which means wisdom. So, you can say that the literal and original translation of Philosophy is the “love and pursuit of wisdom for its own sake.”

Nowadays, however, the word has taken on a broader meaning. In everyday conversation, the word is often used to refer to a person’s values and ideologies. It’s not uncommon to hear people refer to their belief systems as their philosophy/ies in life. And the usage would still be correct. However, for the purpose of this post, and most succeeding posts pertaining to this subject, we’ll be examining and using the definition of the academic discipline called Philosophy.

Merriam Webster offers a broad definition of Philosophy as “the study of ideas about knowledge, truth, and the nature and meaning of life.” While Wikipedia offers a more comprehensive definition with, “Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental questions about existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language.” Now, whether you choose to go with the Merriam Webster definition or that of Wikipedia’s, you come away with a fundamental understanding that Philosophy is a thinking subject. One that requires effort, action, and deliberateness. It is a subject that seeks to uncover the nature, root, and meaning of life, being, reality (metaphysics), ethics, and knowledge (epistemology). It’s also an incredible history lesson because it gives you a glimpse of the prevalent ideologies and belief systems of various civilizations throughout the ages.

If the definition seems expansive, that’s because it is. After all, as I mentioned in an earlier post, Philosophy is regarded as the mother of all sciences. Through the constant thinking, imagining, and overthinking of various philosophers throughout history, humankind has come away with a thirst for discovery and knowledge. If curiosity killed the cat, the philosophers’ curiosity birthed modern science, critical reasoning, logic, and many of the plotlines of today’s best works of art, film, and literature.

Trivia Time: Plato’s belief that everything in the universe is patterned after “invisible geometrical shapes” (Platonic solids) helped start the study of Modern Chemistry. His telling of the story of “The Ring of Gyges” in The Republic is also the inspiration behind Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.” As for Aristotle, he happens to be the father of the species-genus classification that we use in Science today! He also believed the world was round long before Copernicus was even born. He came away with this conclusion after studying the lunar eclipse and the shadows created by the Earth against the Moon. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg!

So, you see, Philosophy has taught us a great many things throughout history—and it continues to offer us a plethora of learnings today. By offering us multiple perspectives on life, meaning, reality, et al., it helps expand our mindset. It teaches us to become more logical, introspective, openminded, and consequently, empathic. And since creativity means venturing past reality into the realm of possibility, there’s a great chance philosophy can also help widen and deepen our thinking process, i.e. make us more creative. All good things in my book.


Recommended Read: The website Philosophy Basics offers an excellent collection of the many definitions of Philosophy that you’ll find online and in various dictionaries.

Related Articles:

Writing Exercise: A Book that Changed My Life

Thoughts on Philosophy: Is studying philosophy pointless? Does it make you pretentious?

Thoughts on Philosophy: Is studying philosophy pointless? Does it make you pretentious?


Photo by Janeb13 (from Pixabay)

In a previous post called Writing Exercises: A Book that Changed My Life, I talked about how Sophie’s World started my love for Philosophy. Now, let me begin by saying that I am by no means an expert on the subject matter. In fact, when we were studying the subject in college, I was a rather mediocre student. As was the case with Math and Physics, my love affair with Philosophy was very one-sided. But it’s a love of mine that’s endured the years, and one that I’m keen on nurturing and strengthening—occasionally through short courses but mostly through reading and listening to lectures and podcasts.

Now, over the years, I’ve noticed that Philosophy has a bit of a reputation problem. As a conversation topic, unless you’re surrounded by other enthusiasts, it’s bound to be a pretty quick stopper. People may nod or hmm politely, but it’s not very likely that you’d get any follow-up questions. Some people may even find the very word itself to be a bit of an internal ugh or eyeroll trigger. According to some friends, it’s just because philosophy is one of those things that are hard to get into. Some people find the subject inaccessible, boring, or even useless. Others have confessed to just finding people who talk about it really smug and annoying. And yes, the word pretentious did come up frequently and forcefully.

And honestly, I get it. I really do. People like what they like and are entitled to their opinions. I also see how philosophy isn’t exactly the most relatable or accessible, outwardly practical or interesting subject out there. In fact, a lot of philosophical texts are loaded with highfalutin words and stubbornly abstract concepts. I also get that some philosophy fans do come across as pretentious, arrogant, argumentative, and snooty know-it-alls. And hey, maybe some of them really are all those things and more. But what I’m really more interested in and concerned with are the harsh generalizations about the subject and its students that I’ve heard about or seen, (mostly online).

I think a lot of these misconceptions and generalizations stem from a misunderstanding of what philosophy is and what it’s used for. But before we get into the definition of philosophy and an enumeration of its uses, (things I’ll tackle in a separate post), I’d like to share a few of my thoughts on some of the criticisms levied against philosophy and its students.  Just my two cents, really.

  1. Not everyone who studies philosophy is pretentious or intellectually arrogant. To say that everyone who studies philosophy is pretentious or an intellectual snob is a pretty heavy generalization. As I’ve mentioned earlier, I’m sure there are some philosophy students who think they are smarter than the average joe or jane, but that’s not an always and everybody case. In fact, some of the most low-key, quiet, and humble people I’ve met happen to be philosophy professors or graduates. Pretentiousness and intellectual snobbery occur in every possible realm of study where conflicting opinions could arise—which is basically everywhere and regarding everything these days. I believe that being pretentious or having a superiority complex is more of a personality thing than a byproduct of studying or loving a specific subject.


  1. Philosophy is only as boring as every other subject you can think of. The word boring is incredibly subjective. What’s boring to one person is another person’s passion. Philosophy isn’t and doesn’t have to be everyone’s cup of tea.


  1. Many philosophy books feel inaccessible with their highfalutin words and hard-to-understand concepts. But there’s a solution to that problem. I don’t know about other philosophy fans, but I find original texts (translated into English) hard to grasp at times. To make it easier to study a particular branch of philosophy, I usually take short online courses, read Introduction to Philosophy books, and listen to various lectures just to get a better grasp of what a particular philosopher is teaching. I also think that some texts are designed to be hard reads with circuitous verse or logic, (Plato, anyone?), because the writer wants you to really pause and digest what you’re reading. It’s healthy brain exercise.


  1. Yes, some philosophers and their students may seem bullheaded or argumentative at times, but the end goal isn’t (or shouldn’t be) to be proven right. A philosopher’s quest is always to get to the truth of a particular belief or statement. This is where the Socratic Method comes in. As you can tell from its name, the Socratic Method refers to the teaching technique used by Socrates. Unlike most of today’s instructors, Socrates didn’t teach via key points and definitions. Instead, he taught by asking a lot, and I mean a lot of questions. It was his way of seeking truth. Naturally, this method annoyed a lot of powerful people during Socrates’ time, which eventually and unfortunately earned the philosopher his death sentence. Philosophers are truth-seekers, and sometimes this means pitting their beliefs against the beliefs of others as a way to check the strength and verity of their assumptions. Sincere philosophers will welcome being proven wrong if it means bringing them closer to the truth.


  1. We are all philosophers, sort of. Okay, so maybe very few of us have published books or articles on philosophy, and even fewer have earned MAs and PHDs in the field. But if you closely examine the foundations of many of our beliefs and principles, a lot of them are rooted, (at least partially), in some ancient philosophical movement. For example, in his book How to Be a Stoic, Massimo Pigliucci points out the similarities between an Epictetus quote (Stoicism) and The Serenity Prayer. The Epictetus quote partially reads, “Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens. Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us.” Now, consider the start of The Serenity Prayer, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” See the similarities? This belief that we ought to recognize and focus our efforts on the areas that we can control is also one that transcends religion. It’s a nugget of wisdom that secularists also try to practice.


  1. Philosophy has a lot of practical everyday uses. Though it may not be as obviously practical as studying medicine or law, or any other empirical subject out here, Philosophy is NOT a useless endeavor. In fact, here’s a bit of trivia: Philosophy is the mother of all sciences. Modern science, as we know it, along with the study of logic (mathematics) and even language arose partially from the efforts of the ancient philosophers. So, that alone shows the importance of the subject. But what about its everyday uses? Well, from experience, studying the different branches of philosophy has made me more openminded and emphatic. I find that the more I study philosophy, the less inclined I am to make snap judgments about things and people. The discipline has also improved my critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving skills by pushing me to think logically and outside the box. And lastly and most importantly, it has inspired me to always try to do good by others. All fine things in my book.

Writing Exercise: A Book that Changed My Life

My 2010 Copy of Sophies WOrld
My tattered copy of Sophie’s World

Some books will make you smile for a moment, others will make you weep and ache for days—I’m looking at you, Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel. But my favorites are the ones that stick with you forever, the ones that change the course of your life in one sitting. Now I’ve been fortunate enough to have read a number of life-changing books, and today, I’ll be featuring one of my earliest favorites—Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder.

It was one of my payday gifts to myself. The book had sat, fat, shiny, and bright blue on the cramped shelf, occupying more space than the other novels beside it. Price-wise, it was a bit more than what I’d pay for if I got another Penguin Classic. But I’m a sucker for hefty books in pretty packaging—one of my reading mottos being, “More pages = more bang for my buck.” So, with just a glance at the title and the author, Sophie’s World made its way home with me that night.

In case you haven’t read Sophie’s World, (a book I highly recommend but understand isn’t for everyone), here’s a bit of a warning: it reads more like a crash course on the history of philosophy than an actual work of fiction. Sure, the part that is fiction is very compelling and well-written, but the bulk of the book consists of philosophy lessons being fed via mail to the novel’s protagonist, 13-year-old Sophie Amundsen.

Now, this structure may be off-putting to other readers. And that’s fair. Most of the time, we pick up novels as a means to escape real life, not to be inundated by lengthy history and philosophy lessons. However, to me, Sophie’s World was the spark that started my lifelong love for Philosophy and Philosophy Books. Now, prior to this book, I have read and loved other think-reads from great authors like George Orwell, Milan Kundera, Alan Lightman, and Kurt Vonnegut. But Sophie’s World was the book that inspired me to really study philosophy. To read Plato, Sartre, and Kierkegaard (to name a few), to watch lectures, to take certificate courses in Coursera, and to listen to podcasts like The Partially Examined Life and Philosophy Bites.

By introducing me to philosophy, Sophie’s World has helped give direction to my life. It helped shape my life’s purpose, which is to keep learning, to constantly seek truth, and to always strive to do good. And for that, I am very grateful.

What about you? What’s one of your biggest literary game-changers?

Quotes and Lessons from Carl Sagan’s Billions & Billions



Celebrated astrophysicist, cosmologist, astronomer, astrobiologist, Pulitzer-winning writer, and world-renowned scientific genius Carl Sagan was a man that wore a multitude of hats. And boy, how he wore each hat so well! Beyond being a highly lauded scientist, he was a pop culture icon that brought the most complex of scientific ideas into the everyday consciousness of the everyman.

In Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium, Sagan condenses a plethora of scientific learnings and juxtaposes them with his views on humanity’s role in preserving the Earth and all its lifeforms. To quote the great scientist,

“We are privileged to influence and perhaps control our future. I believe we have an obligation to fight for life on Earth—not just for ourselves…”

He teaches this essential lesson through a series of essays (and transcribed speeches) dealing with various and seemingly disparate topics. Some of the topics tackled in his essays include the power of exponential notation and growth, man’s quick but ultimately limited progress in exploring the mysteries of the universe, the importance of morality, the great debate on abortion, the possibility of extraterrestrial life, how man is destroying the world through global warming, and the razor-sharp and double-edged sword that comes with technological growth.

Now, if that last sentence reads like a mouthful, that’s only because the book itself is overflowing with information that spans, not just the scientific plane, but the moral, the political, and the philosophical arenas of thought as well. Mind-blowing is one of the quickest terms that come to mind when I think of Billions and Billions, but it is a word that still feels greatly lacking. I’ve been awestruck by truly great text before, by works like A Room of One’s Own, An Unquiet Mind, and Existentialism is a Humanism. But this is the first time I’ve been both awestruck and struck dumb by one book.

Carl Sagan was truly a man that was larger than life, and much of his learnings (both personal and academic) have been poured out into the essays in Billions and Billions. I feel that any attempt from my end to come up with a standard review for this book will only come out clumsy and wanting. So, in lieu of an actual review, let me instead present to you a list of my favorite quotes and lessons from Billions and Billions. (Sagan’s quotes are in italics.)

Read and enjoy.

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In Preparation for Spring Cleaning: The KonMari Tidying Order

Some weeks ago, I wrote a post about how a messy workplace affects a person’s creativity and productivity. While I’d like to think that the messy state of my life and my possessions is simply the manifestation of my, gulp, creative mind, 31 years of transforming living spaces into pig sties has taught me what productivity experts have been saying and rhyming for the last decade—MESS really does create STRESS.

I can’t begin to count and recount the multitude of anxiety attacks I’ve suffered over “losing” key items like my keys, my wallet, other people’s paychecks, and even a land title/car registration or two-wenty. I once ‘lost’ my mobile phone only to find it ringing in the fridge.

Now, I know, these things happen to the best of us. The unprecedented success of Mari Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, is testament to how millions of people see the disorganized state of their affairs as a setback when it comes to their pursuit of productivity and happiness. Many of us perceive tidying as the hallelujah solution to most, if not all of our problems.

So, with spring, (and consequently, the period for Spring Cleaning), just around the corner, I thought it best to impart some of finest lessons I’ve learned from Mari Kondo’s ‘life-changing’ book—particularly the KonMari Tidying Order. I’m hoping that this will help you get a head start on your annual spring cleaning project too.

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Book Review: Good Benito by Alan Lightman


Title: Good Benito
Author: Alan Lightman
Genre: Fiction, Bildungsroman
First Published: 1994, Pantheon Books

In a world where the everyman struggles to perfect one craft, Alan Lightman is one of those rare individuals whose immense talents lie in multiple fields. Not only is Lightman an award-winning novelist, he is also a celebrated physicist and social entrepreneur. In his fictional works, he deftly injects a touch of physics into the novel’s equation. His first novel, Einstein’s Dreams offers a whimsical and fictionalized take on a slice of Einstein’s life—featuring dreams that lead up to the theoretical physicist’s formulation of the theories of relativity.

Einstein’s Dreams was an absolute delight to read. Its stunning prose and breathtaking ideas left a serious and indelible imprint in my mind’s landscape. So it was with tremendous excitement that I turned to Lightman’s second novel, Good Benito.

Simply put, Good Benito is a non-linear account of the life of Bennett Lang, a physicist trying to make a name in the world of science and academics while struggling to comprehend and navigate the chaotic plane of human emotions and relationships. Each chapter reads like a vignette, showing an episode of Bennett’s life. We see his journey from an emotionally stunted child, creating his first ‘rocket,’ to an assistant professor for a second-tier college—still trying to find his place in the academic world.

Along the way, we meet a myriad of interesting, well fleshed-out, and incredibly flawed characters that helped shape Bennett’s viewpoint of the world. We meet his emotionally distant father who had dreamt of being a WWII hero but now wishes he had died with his men, his lonely mother trying to find happiness anywhere she can, his African American nanny who has let him into her life but refuses to let him into her house, his uncle with a severe gambling problem, and his self-destructive wife who pushes Bennett into becoming a cruel version of himself. We see how a promising romance and marriage devolves into an emotionally abusive relationship that ends in divorce.

All this, we witness through Lightman’s naked, prosaic, but impossibly precise prose. Though not as beautifully, or rather as poetically, written as Einstein’s Dreams, what makes Good Benito so compelling is how grounded the whole work feels. The matter-of-fact and yet introspective and eloquent manner by which Lightman writes ensures that the reader is along for the ride in this strikingly profound novel.

Rating: A+

Book Review: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

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Full Title: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing

Author: Marie Kondo

Genre: Non-Fiction, Self-Help, Organizing

Originally Published: 2011

**Translated from Japanese by Cathy Hirano


I’m a hoarder. I’m a hoarder of a very specific sort. More than clothes, makeup, or shoes, I like to hoard books, CDs, journals, and an assortment of office supplies. At my messiest, these items would take up so much floor space that walking from one end of the room to another was a very real ordeal. Books, magazines, and half-finished journals would occupy the expanse of my bed, and I’d take to sleeping partially on top of them.

Now, while dealing with clutter has always been a part of my everyday existence, it doesn’t mean that I enjoy being the messiest person in the household. For the last couple of decades, my mother and I have been butting heads over my ‘mess’ on a daily basis. So, when I got Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up as a Christmas present, I saw it as an opportunity to finally become more organized.

Besides, the book couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. The year 2015 had brought massive changes to my life. It was the year I got diagnosed with Graves’ disease and saw the end of a major relationship. After months of feeling lost and feeling at a loss, the book came as a sign that it was time to turn over a new leaf. Time to start over.

So, I started 2016 by cracking open my copy of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up—and boy, was I glad I did! True to its name, this book from Marie Kondo truly is life-changing.

To properly organize one’s household, Kondo advises the reader to follow these basic rules:

  • Organize the house completely and thoroughly in one go (ikki ni). This is a period that generally lasts six (6) months.
  • Start by discarding, keeping only items that “Spark Joy.” I must admit the ‘spark joy’ bit did sound a little gimmicky at first, but it’s a gimmick that actually works. What she basically asks from the reader is to only keep items that he/she needs and loves.
  • Sort by category and not by location. Kondo points out that people don’t usually keep the same types of items in one place. Sorting by category instead of by room/space allows the reader to cull his/her belongings properly.
  • When sorting by category, follow this order: Clothes à Books à Paperwork à Miscellaneous Items (Komono) à Sentimental Items. Kondo intentionally puts clothes first and sentimental items last to help bolster the reader’s confidence in his/her culling abilities. It is a lot easier to decide on which shirts to keep than it is to pick out which pictures deserve album space and which ones need to be discarded.

Now, more than just offering concrete and doable tips on how to eliminate mess in the household, Kondo also forces her readers to take a closer look at their chosen lifestyle. To try to figure out why we hold on to so many items that we no longer need—or even truly want.

Working for the family business—which means working at home in my jammies—did I really need dozens of stilettos, scarves, necklaces, and cocktail rings? I have how-to-books on style, building capsule wardrobes, and makeup application—all of which I’ve read, none of which I’ve followed. I still had all my college textbooks, handouts, and notes. I had palanca letters from grade school and high school classmates. And while these items provided hours of joy as I flipped through their pages, I realized they were all good for that one moment of reminiscing.

A few weeks into my organizing phase and I realized that beyond being a book hoarder, I also have a tendency to hold on to items for sentimental reasons. While I had no problems getting rid of five large bags of clothes, dozens of shoes, and a box of accessories, I still couldn’t bring myself to let go of pictures and letters from people who are no longer a part of my life. And yet, as Marie Kondo puts it, “Truly precious memories will never vanish even if you discard the objects associated with them.”

And that’s what I mean when I say that the book is life-changing. I was forced to ask myself why I was holding on to the past so much. I realized that a lot of it had to do with a fear of the future. See, most of the items I kept, which had lost their purpose long ago, came from a period of intense, carefree happiness. Band pictures and drafts of old songs, bodycon dresses that were two sizes too small, a chandelier earring that I wore during a night-out with old friends. These items predated my exit from the corporate world, a family member’s long-term illness, and the onset of my own physical limitations. I was holding on to these things because I was afraid I’d never feel those lighthearted moments again. And maybe I won’t.

But going through this organizing phase, this dogged application of the Konmari method, I came to the realization that things change. People change. I’ve changed. And maybe, just maybe that’s not such a bad thing. As we grow older, and hopefully wiser, our priorities shift—and consequently, the things that make us happy take on different forms. In my 20s, happiness meant getting gussied-up for booze-fueled all-nighters. These days, I get the same amount of satisfaction by going to a coffee shop and reading for hours, writing my novel, spending time with my family, having coffee-fueled talkathons with friends, and watching TV show reruns with my boyfriend. Some people may think my current life is boring, but the fact is, with my life now, I am never bored. And that’s all that matters.

Reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo has done more than just minimize my morning squabbles with my mother. It’s made me more appreciative of the things I own and the life I have now. And therein lies the magic of this book.

Rating: A+

Comments: It would have been an A++, except (SPOILER ALERT), Kondo has owned up to tearing pages out of her favorite books.