Presocratic Philosophers on Life and Death: Ancient Origins of a Modern Debate

Principal investigator: Caterina Pellò


What makes us alive, distinguishing living things from the non-living? When does life begin and end? What happens at death? 

This project focuses on Presocratic biology - that is, theories of life, death, forms of life, and vital functions in early Greek philosophical and medical texts. Nowadays, the ethics of life in both medical and non-medical contexts is generating much controversy over issues such as the boundaries of life, the concept of death, and the differences between human and non-human animals. Similarly, among ancient Greek philosophers and physicians there was an exchange of ideas about life and death. The aim of this project is to provide a comprehensive account of early Greek biological theories in the works of fifth-century thinkers like Heraclitus, Empedocles, Anaxagoras, Diogenes of Apollonia, Democritus, and the Hippocratics.

While scholars have extensively studied Aristotle’s biological works, earlier Greek theories of life remain partly unresearched. We will investigate how the Presocratics pioneered novel and ground-breaking ways of studying the phenomenon of life, which includes enquiring into what happens at birth, how to explain the varying living functions in different animals, such as movement and respiration, and what happens in sleep and at death. The project has three objectives: first, it will provide a comprehensive study of Presocratic biology. This synoptic view will bring out the philosophical strategies, developments, parallels, and divergences of the Presocratic approach to living and dying and, in turn will shape our understanding of the cultural milieu in which Plato and Aristotle developed their own theories. Second, it examines the connections between ancient medical texts and the Presocratic fragments. This will invite us to redefine the boundaries of Greek philosophy and introduce medical treatises as a new, rich, and so far unexplored source of evidence for Presocratic philosophy. Finally, this project will lead us to address questions that remain central in contemporary biological, ethical, and metaphysical debates about life and death.


Events and publications:

21-22 March 2024: Workshop "How to Excel at Life? Ways of 'living well' before Aristotle", University of Geneva