Episode 39: The Ideal before Socrates, Part II

Episode 39: The Ideal Before Socrates, Part II

     Despite being from Samos, Melissus, whom we met in the last episode, is usually categorized along with the other main Presocratic school, the Eleatics, named after the town (now called Velia) in Southern Italy where they were centered. Most of the names associated with this school were in fact from Ionia, including Pythagoras of Samos, who established a philosophical community in Sicily, and these emigrants

Southern Italy and Sicily

Southern Italy and Sicily

brought with them its inquisitive nature and rejection of the official religion. Southern Italy and Sicily, as the “wild west” of Magna Graecia may have been more tolerant of these “heresies” than the more established colonies in the Aegean.

The seminal figure in this school is Xenophanes, c. 570-c. 475, who left his Ionian home town of Colophon after it was conquered and led a life as a traveling poet in his adopted region after that. He openly satirized the anthropomorphic gods of Hesiod and Homer, pointing out how humans tend to create gods in their own image. But he is not an atheist; in fact, he follows the Ionian school in his depiction of one transcendent reality.

There is one god, among gods and men the greatest, not at all like mortals in body or mind. He sees as a whole, thinks as a whole, and hears as a whole. But without toil he sets everything in motion, by the thought of his mind. And he always remains in the same place, not moving at all, nor is it fitting for him to change his position at different times.¹

     Xenophanes was probably known to the man who has become known as the founder of the Eleatics, Parmenides, but it is unknown whether they had direct contact. Parmenides’ dates are uncertain, but place him around the turn of the 5th century, so there would have been overlap with Xenophanes, (as well as Socrates on the other side of his life, if we believe Plato’s dialogue bearing Parmenides’ name). He carries the vision of Xenophanes even further, eliminating all references to perception and even thought: his conception is that of pure Being. As Richard G. Geldard says in Parmenides and the Way of Truth, “Parmenides revealed for the first time a vision of Being not confounded with human attributes. He invented ontology, the philosophy of Being.”¹ Parmenides’ approach is unique in that it is a reasoned account set within the context of a divine poetic revelation, combining the mystical with the rational.

     This poem, of which we now have only fragments of a much-longer work, describes a meeting with a goddess who instructs him first in the way of Truth and then the way of Opinion. He is transported to this meeting in a chariot drawn by a feminine force: “wise mares” guided by “girls, daughters of the sun.” They pass through the “gates of Day and Night,” transcending this duality to the light. Thus he uses the language and imagery of the conventional religion to transcend it. And we see a reversal of the model of Hesiod: in Theogony the goddesses descend (and condescend) to him, but Parmenides is taken to the realm of the goddesses–perhaps the first example of a human penetrating the sphere of the divine.

The goddess first instructs him in the nature of Truth, which sounds a lot like the apeiron in its unity and permanence:

One story, one road, now
is left: that it is. And on this there are signs
aplenty that, being, it is ungenerated and indestructible,
whole, of one kind and unwavering and complete.
Nor was it ever, nor will it be, since now it is, all together,
one, continuous.

     While Being is, and cannot not be, non-being is not, and cannot be. This sounds obvious, but in our everyday lives of sense perceptions, we believe that things come into being, live for a time, and then pass into non-being–that is they are born and then die. But Parmenides asks:

How might what is then perish? How might it have come into being?
For if it came into being it is not, nor if it is ever going to be.
Thus generation is quenched and perishing unheard of.

     After finishing the discourse on Truth, the goddess presents him with a description of opinion, with the words, “Here I cease for you the warranted account and thought about the truth. Henceforward learn mortal opinions, listening to the deceitful arrangement of my words.” The natural question which arises is why we should want to listen to “deceitful” words, but Parmenides’ objective seems to be to help us discriminate the changeless Being from the limited accounts given in the official religions. As Jaeger says,
To Parmenides our world of Becoming is mere appearance; the world of Being is truth itself. He has no intention that his doctrine of the Existent should explain the natural world of multiplicity and motion; but in his remarkable doctrine of the world of appearance he endeavors to explain the errors of those men who have put duality in place of the One as the primal substance, and motion in place of that which persists unchanged.²

This error, he goes on to describe, is a product of the human mind–”mortals who know nothing wander, two-headed”– and is steeped in duality:

For they determined in their minds to name two forms,
One of which they should not–and that is where they have erred.
And they distinguished them as opposite in kind and set up signs
for them separately from one another: here the ethereal fire of flame,
gentle, very light, in every direction the same as itself
and not the same as the other; and that too, by itself,
opposite–unknowing night, dense in kind, and heavy.
All this plausible arrangement I recount to you
so that no mortal may ever outstrip you in knowledge.

     Most of what followed has been lost, but it is clear from this much that we have been plunged into the sensory world of multiplicity and change, becoming and ceasing. The last three lines as preserved by Simplicius read:

Thus, according to opinion, these things sprang up and now are,
and then, hereafter, having been nourished they will cease to be:
and on them men have set names, a mark for each.

     Another of the Presocratic fraternity whose name has almost become is synonym for change is Heraclitus. He is probably most associated with the idea of “flux,” that all things are constantly changing, that we can never step into the same river twice. But a closer reading of his work suggests that he was actually in the camp of Being, and that the movements he saw were examples of the the Being transforming itself. At the heart of his epigrammatic writing–which is often opaque and filled with wordplay–is the idea of the Logos (the Word or account), and of unity, which he often portrays as meaning the same thing. “Listening not to me, but to the account, it is wise to agree that all things are one.” Jaeger says, Heraclitus always keeps coming back to this one point. The unity of all things is his alpha and omega.³

The two streams of phusis and poesis come together in the person of Empedocles (c.495-c.430?). He seems to have come from a distinguished family, but as with many of these historical figures the legends may have overtaken the facts, so it is not worth dwelling on them. What we have are two poems, or perhaps two sections of one poem, with his speculations on the nature of the physical world, as well as his own report that he was a physician; hence he does seem to straddle these two worlds in a unique way. But let us remember that the main thrust of all the thinkers we have examined was the pursuit of unity, and the divisions that we expect between phusis and poesis are the artificial products of centuries of deductive thought; for the Presocratics, induction was key, brought together in the unlimited sphere of the divine. Of Empedocles Jaeger says, “In the mythical space of a world pervaded with divine figures, the two attitudes so irreconcilable from our abstract point of view will be seen to fit together as two distinct, but in the last analysis basically homogeneous, spheres for the interplay of divine forces.”4

Empedocles is credited with developing the classic division of the physical world into the four elements (he calls them “roots”) of earth, air, fire and water. These are under the influence of the opposite forces of Love (philia) and Strife (neikos), which is responsible for the seeming changes of becoming perceptible to the senses. Love intermixes these elements and strife separates them. Human souls too come under the influence of these forces, which he describes in a way that provides an allegory for man’s lost divinity that we will see later in Plato. In his poem, he announces himself to be a god:

…I, an immortal god, no longer mortal,
travel, honoured by all, as is fitting,
wreathed with ribbons and fresh garlands.
Whenever I enter a thriving town
I am revered by men and women.
They follow me
in their thousands, asking where lies the path to gain:
some want prophecies, others for diseases
of every sort demand to hear a healing word.

     But at some point, apparently under the influence of Strife, man forgets his divinity and is condemned to wander, alienated from his godlike nature, in the world of matter.

There is an oracle of necessity, an ancient decree of the gods,
That whenever anyone errs and defiles in fear his dear limbs–
one of the spirits who have been allotted long-lasting life–
he shall wander thrice ten thousand seasons far from the blessed ones.
Such is the road I now follow, an exile from the gods and a wanderer.

     He also explicitly acknowledges the immortality of the soul and the transience of the body–”The soul puts its bodies on and off as a man changes his shirt.” (Jaeger)–and is responsible for choosing what it will become, a theme that will be seen in Plato’s Myth of Er And he also describes the material world as a “roofed cave,” an image that will also be taken up by Plato in The Republic.

Ancient Athens, showing Piraeus

A map of ancient Athens, showing the wall which reached down to its port, the Piraeus

Anaxagoras, (c.500-428BC), whose dates are roughly the same as those of Empedocles, came from Ionia but moved to Athens around the year 460, establishing a tradition of philosophy in a city which had been preoccupied with war and reconstruction. His outlook is in the phusis camp of Ionia, but his teaching went further than that of Empedocles, saying that the material world is composed not just of four elements, but smaller, undifferentiated particles–something approaching atoms. “Together were all things, limitless both in quantity and in smallness–for the small too was limitless.” But like Empedocles, he postulates the existence of something not material which is necessary to order the basic stuff of the world, a something he calls Thought or Mind (nous). “All things were together. Then thought came and arranged them.” And later:

     Thought is something limitless and independent, and it has been mixed with no thing but is alone by itself. For if it were not by itself but had been mixed with some other thing, it would share in all things, if it had been mixed with any. For in everything there is present a portion of everything, as I have said earlier. And what was mingled with it would have prevented it from having power over anything in the way in which it does, being in fact alone by itself. For it is the finest of all things and the purest, and it possesses all knowledge about everything, and it has the greatest strength. And thought has power over all those things, both great and small, which possess soul. And thought has power over the whole revolution, so that it revolved in the first place.

     Because of his insistence the Mind was the first cause of everything, Anaxagoras was given the nickname of Nous. By all accounts kindly and generous, he became a teacher of Pericles and an associate of the playwright Euripides and the sculptor and architect Phidias. He was however forced into exile in the last years of his life, and was received with honors in the town of Lampsacus in the Troad region of what is now Turkey. One of his last wishes was “…that the children have a holiday each year in the month of my death,” a wish that was observed for many years.
Anaxagoras left a student by the name of Archelaus, Athens’ first homegrown philosopher, of whom little is known except that by some accounts he became the teacher of Socrates.

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¹Quoted in Jonathan Barnes, Early Greek Philosophy, Penguin Classics, 1987, p. 44. (All other quotes except Parmenides are from Barnes.)
2Quoted in Richard G. Geldard, Parmenides and the Way of Truth, Monkfish, 2007, p. 5
3Jaeger, op. cit., p. 106
4Ibid, p. 123
5Ibid. p. 134