NOTES ON PRESOCRATIC PHILOSOPHERS
NOTES ON PRESOCRATIC PHILOSOPHERS
D. R. Khashaba
I am reading A Presocratics Reader, second ed., edited by Patricia Curd, trsnslation by Richard D. McKirahan and Patricia Curd (2011). The following notes are not comments but peripheral thoughts that occur to me while reading. All quotations are from the second edition of the book. (Exceptionally, the last note is a direct comment on Curd’s text.)
The first Ionian thinkers appear to have posed scientific questions. They sought knowledge about the natural world, but we can never know what metaphysical yearnings for the Whole, what incipient visions of the All, were mixed in their physical speculations. Perhaps Anaximander’s thinking was more metaphysically oriented than the thinking of either Thales or Anaximenes. Heraclitus who saw the evanescence of all things in the natural world found permanence in a principle, the Logos, and reality in the inner secret of our being, the psuchê. This insight came to full fruition in Socrates-Plato. After Plato, the best philosophers have been interpreters of Plato; the others have been either confusing philosophy with science or have been scientists mistaking themselves or being mistaken by others for philosophers.
What we know about the earliest philosophers is pieced together mostly from disjointed fragments and whatever meaning we surmise in those scraps can only be highly conjectural. But we are more likely to underrate than to overvalue what has come down to us. When Aristotle says: “From what is related about him, it seems that Thales too held that the soul is something productive of motion, if indeed he said that the lodestone has soul, because it moves iron”, our modern positivism-ridden mentality will dismiss that as a sample of pre-scientific thinking. Our modern thinkers fail to see in it the philosophical insight that finds ‘uncaused’ motion unintelligible . Motion without a mover is a very useful scientific fiction, but when we are expected to accept that as self-explanatory we must demur if we care to preserve our sanity and our rationality.
Perhaps we may reasonably say that Anaximander was the first metaphysician. While Thales and Anaximenes were cosmogonists thinking about the primary stuff of all things, Anaximander in the idea of the apeiron was introducing the metaphysical idea of the All. In speaking of justice and retribution as first principles he realized that the ultimate source of all things, the archê, cannot be simple but must have inherent difference. After Anaximander, we have to go to Heraclitus and Parmenides to find the metaphysical idea taken up once more. In Plato the metaphysical and the cosmological are clearly distinguished and separated. After Plato there is no justification or excuse for confusing or mixing these two radically distinct approaches. But unfortunately the confusing and the mixing are still rife in philosophical thinking. Anaximander’s thinking was also maturely metaphysical when he said that motion is eternal. In vain do we seek the origin of the world in something outsuse the world. This absurdity which is excusable in the most primitive myths curiously survives in monotheistic religions. Greek polytheism (perhaps in common with other polytheisms) made the gods arise from a more primordial source, such as chaos or Heaven and Earth as eternally existing.
The word god or gods as found in pre-Socratic texts (as indeed in any philosophical context) is misleading and must be employed with great caution. Thales says all things are full of gods, which indicates the metaphysical insight that all natural processes are only intelligible as intelligent activity. It is the same insight affirmed in Plato’s finding all things ultimately to be nothing but dunamis (activity). Xenophanes spoke of a non-anthropomorphic god who controls the cosmos by thought. Neither Thales nor Xenophanes was referring to the gods of the Olympus nor to anything resembling Yahweh any more than Spinoza did. Whether Xenophanes thought of god as within the world or outside the world there is in any case no indication that he thought of god as the creator of the world. He denied any communication from god or the gods to human beings, which excludes any revelation or revealed religion.
The Milesian thinkers had all noted that all things change and pass into one another. Heraclitus emphasized this, making it into a metaphysical principle: the whole of the natural world is in flux; nothing in nature is permanent, stable, or constant. To call such things real is a mockery, as Plato was to affirm. Heraclitus saw reality in the logos that governs the flux and in the psuchê that comprehends the logos. He anticipates Parmenides in affirming the unity and the eternity of the All: “This kosmos, the same for all, none of gods nor humans made, but it was always and is and shall be: an ever-living fire, kindled in measures and extinguished in measures” (tr. Patricia Curd). In affirming the unity of opposites and in his paradoxical statements, Heraclitus brings out the relativity of all determinate statements.
Plato revered Parmenides. He found in him the metaphysical idea of the Whole, the idea of metaphysical reality. Like all Greek thinkers, Parmenides rejects authority in the sphere of knowledge, insisting on the autonomy of thought: in his poem the goddess, while declaring all things to the young man, enjoins him to examine the arguments she gives for himself. This is what distinguishes Greek philosophical thinking from the traditional wisdom of, say, Egyptian, Babylonian, or Hebrew sages and prophets. Parmenides anticipates Plato in dividing human knowledge into knowledge proper concerning principles, the fruit of reason, and opinion relating to perceptible things. Thus in the first section of his poem he speaks of the One; in that area what is thought and what is real are one. The second section deals with the multiple changeable actualities of the perceptible world. This corresponds to Plato’s distinction between alêtheia, attained when the mind reflects in itself and by itself (phronêsis), and doxa or pistis, which is all we can obtain when dealing with the perceptible world. (This is the gist of the ‘divided line’ in the Republic.) It is very difficult for the modern mind to grasp that this is still strictly true of our most advanced natural sciences. In the Sophist Plato, in correcting his own youthful over-emphasis on the permanence and unchangeability of the Forms, remedies the negativity of Parmenides’ conception of the One, which renders the actual world completely unthinkable. Unless we see the real as activity, dunamis, and not as either a thing or an abstract idea, the existence of the actual world becomes absolutely unexplainable. The cosmological account in the doxa section of Parmenides’ poem, like all theories and doctrines relating to the natural world, including our most advanced scientific theories, is a myth that is only justified in so far as it ‘saves the appearances’, that is, in making actual states of affairs intelligible. Philosophical doctrines are likewise myths, but there is a difference. Strictly philosophical doctrines have no actual facts to conform to: their value resides exclusively in their coherence, in their intelligibility: they are not mutually exclusive; we can enjoy diverse visions, diverse portrayals of the subjective realm. Also in the Republic Plato loosens the forbidding exclusivity of Parmenides’ two paths, the path of what-is that is knowable and the path of what-is-not that is ubknowable and unspeakable, for Plato finds the object of opinion to share of being and not-being. — Plato’s emphasis on the dialectical polarity of the One and the Many as ground principles in philosophical thinking is a reconciliation and transcendence of the opposition of the real One and the Unreal Many in Parmenides.
Zeno of Elea bared the fictionality of the concepts of space and time and of infinite divisibility. The paradoxes he devised exploit the inherent contradictoriness of these concepts. Modern philosophers and logicians introduce clever but essentially specious arguments for evading the paradoxes rather than admitting the inherent paradoxicality of all our working concepts. The Socratic elenchus shows clearly that all determinate comcepts inescapably have imperfection in the principle of their formulation. This is the insight that Plato universalizes when he insists that the ground of all determinate formulations of thought must be demolished by dialectic. Zrno’s argument against multiplicity is the same as Bradkey’s argument in the first part of Appearance and Reality. Indeed it is the insight behind all metaphysical idealism and pantheism; I wanted to mention monism here, but unfortunately the term monism has been corrupted by empiricists, making it amount to a denial of soul, mimd, spiritual reality, or metaphysical reality. Aristotle’s criticisms of Zeno’s arguments are beside the point, since Zeno’s intention was not to prove anything positively but to show the contradictoriness of common concepts.
Some early negative impression – whence I do not know – made me expect little of Empedocles. Simultaneously with A Presocratics Reader I happen to be reading Hölderlin’s Hyperion (English translation, edited by Eric L. Santner) and am intrigued to read in the Chronology: “Toward the end of the summer Hölderlin begins plans for a tragedy based on the life and death of the philosopher Empedocles, who, Hölderlin writes, was ‘a sworn enemy of all one-sided existence and thus ... dissatisfied ... even in truly pleasant conditions simply because they are particular conditions.’” I have always seen the transience of all particular determinate things as a basic metaphysical insight. I will now read the Empedocles section of the Reader with heightened interest. — The notion of Love and Strife as ultimate principles fits in with the Heraclitian “ever-living fire, kindled in measures and extinguished in measures”. If all things are constantly perishing and constantly coming to be, and if this process is not a blind tumbling of Lucretian atoms, we need to see the whole process as a rhythm, an ebb and flow, a dialectic polarity. This is the insight underlying the Hindu opposition of Vishnu and Shiva, or the Egyptuan Osiris perpetually destroyed by Set and revived by Isis and in the process giving birth to Horus. — Empedocles seems to have been averse to all bloodshed: “No altar was drenched with the unspeakable slaughter of bulls, / but this was the greatest abomination among humans, / to tear out life and devour the noble limbs” (tr. Richard McKirahan). (Possibly he was here describing the reign of Love.) In another fragment we read: “… whenever anyone pollutes his own dear limbs with the sin of bloodshed”. — “For know that all things possess thought and a portion of intelligence.” This apparently supports the view that no being bereft of intelligence is intelligible, but we are not justified in attaching a definite interpretation to the words.
Anaxagoras was a cosmogonist in the tradition of the Milesian school. The role of nous (mind) in his system was nothing new. All of his predecessors, implicitly or explicitly, saw mind in the origin of things. It seems that there were no ‘materialists’ among early Greek thinkers. (Protagoras questioned the existence of gods but that is not the same as denying primal intelligence.) Socrates’ disappointment with the book of Anaxagoras is understandable. It is true that (in what seems to be the longest connected fragment we have) we read that “Nous has control over all things that have soul, both the larger and the smaller. And Nous controlled the whole revolution, so that it started to revolve in the beginning” (tr. Patricia Curd), but then we hear of nothing but separations and mixtures, of the dense and the rare, of the warm and the cold, and the like. This was not the mind Socrates was interested in: he wanted the mind to order human life, to determine purposes and goals and ideals. — Anaxagoras was more of a scientist than a philosopher. He sought rational explanations for natural phenomena: the light of the moon is derived from the sun; a rainbow is the reflection of the sun in the clouds; the egg-white is birds’ milk. I cannot detect in him the metaphysical yearning for the All, for the Reality beyond all existents. His cosmos is simply the objective sum-total of all things, in which nous is just a physical moving force.
It seems that materialism as understood by the moderns was unknown to any Greek thinkers up to at least the end o the fourth century BC. Diogenes of Apollonia who is said to have adopted “material monism” argues that air, his single basic stuff, is intelligent and divine. Leucippus is said to have written a book on Mind. Sextus Empiricus tells us that, like Plato, “Democritus supposed that only the intelligible things are true (or, ‘real’)” ( A Presocratics Reader, p.114). This is a testimony to the sanity of the Greeks in classical times as against our moderns who are content with a, strictly speaking, mindless and senseless world.
In her prefatory note to the section on Gorgias Patricia Curd describes Gorgias’ On Nature, or, On What Is Not as “a fascinating response to (or parody of?) Eleatic metaphysics”. She says further: “This essay, written in the 440s and so contemporary with Melissus, influenced later philosophers, including Plato” (p.148). With all due respect for Professor Curd’s scholarship, I find the suggestion that Plato was influenced by this piece preposterous. From all we know of Gorgias, he had no interest in or taste for metaphysical questions. In this bizarre piece Gorgias was probably mimicking or lampooning the Eleatics, perhaps Melissus in particular. Plato in the Sophist examined the notion of not-being (what is not) sanely, profoundly, and plainly, and what he says there is fully congruous with his treatment of reality and unreality in the Republic. If chronology permitted it, I would have said that Gorgias was in part parodying Plato’s Parmenides. That Gorgias would have failed to understand that dialogue would not be surprising, seeing that scholars throughout twenty-four centuries have been riddled by it although, in my opinion, its message is simple and clearly spelled out in the dialogue itself. But it is highly unlikely that Gorgias lived long enough to read the Parmenides. I have written repeatedly on the Parmenides and will not expand on the subject here.
Cairo, December 29, 2015.