Thursday, September 29, 2011

Lake Superior Pre-Socratics


What better place than on the shores of Lake Superior (north and south) with sea gulls keening on the beach and ships passing in the distance, to ponder the works of that rag-tag bunch of thinkers known as the Pre-Socratics, many of whom lived and wrote on or near the eastern shores of the Aegean Sea at a time when the works of Homer were established classics but Plato had not been born? These men don’t constitute a “school” of any sort, but quite a few of them incorporate water, air, atmosphere, hot and cold, and other elemental sensations into their theories. Almost as if they’d been camping.

We can learn a few things from them about the differences between science and philosophy, a few things about intuition and speculation, and also about how easily specious logic can lead people astray. Some of these thinkers uncannily anticipate entire schools of modern thought in a single sentence or aphorism. (And there are times when a single line is about as much as we need to remember.)

Thales of Miletus, by all accounts the first of the lot, is famous for suggesting that everything is water. From such a simple view many interpretations have arisen. Thinkers from Aristotle to Etienne Gilson and beyond have offered glosses on the remark, all of them much longer than the original. I probably don’t need to point out that in fact, everything is not made of water. Thales remark may be considered important as among the first attempts to say something very broad and at the same time very simple, about the nature of the cosmos. Call it science, call it philosophy. Strictly speaking it’s neither. But it does expose the urge to “unify” things which seldom bears much fruit, and is far more likely to be reductive than illuminating.

Alongside Thales remark we might set the more nuanced views of his near contemporary Anaximander, who argued that the universe is composed of four elements—earth, air, fire, and water. He further postulated a contrary succession of motions involving hot and cold, wet and dry. These elements and qualities, related but opposed to one another, offered much greater potential for both description and explanation than anything to be found in Thales work. They later formed the basis of an analysis of character, with the humors—sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic, and melancholic—coming about due to various combinations of the primal elements. This theory enjoyed a very long run, not being abandoned until the nineteenth century. (For an exhaustive treatment of the history of the humors see Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humors, by Noga Arikha.)

It’s been argued that both Thales and Anaximander were engaged in scientific rather than philosophical enquiry. Well, the distinction isn’t that easy to make, even today. And we ought also the consider the possibility that their reflections were poetic in nature. We can say with some degree of certainty that in the works of Parmenides we meet up with some genuine abstract philosophizing—the results are not impressive.

Parmenides followed a line of argument from one shaky point to the next, arriving at a conclusion that no one today would accept. In brief, he reasoned that every thing occupies a space. (This might even be considered a definition: a “thing” is something that takes up space.) But he went on to argue that every space must have a “thing” in it. (Why?) But movement requires empty space, because a thing needs to move somewhere. Because there is no empty space available, nothing ever moves. Thus, he concludes, the universe is one big unchanging block of thing-ness.
Parmenides delivered this theory in verse form, and as we read it we can, perhaps, gain some sense of his overriding awe in the face of the fullness of being. In one crucial passage he writes:


How might what is then perish? How might it come into being?
For if it came into being it is not, nor is it if it is ever going to be.
Thus generation is quenched and perishing unheard of.
Nor is it divided, since it all alike is.
Neither more here (which would prevent it from cohering)
Nor less; but it is all full of what is.
Hence it is all continuous; for what is approaches what is.
And unmoving in the limits of great chains it is beginningless,
And ceaseless, since generation and destruction
Has wandered far away, and true trust has thrust them off.

This passage has the tone of a Hymn to the Lord, though the subject of the passage is not a god, but a far less personal what is—something that we’d be more likely to call being.

If the tone of the poem has a certain ecstatic appeal, the argument has none. After all, things do change. Neither generation nor perishing can be quenched by a groundless assertion to the contrary. Yes, it’s difficult to envision a time when there was nothing rather than something, and Parmenides’ verses make that point clearly. But he nowhere gives a convincing argument for the notion that the supple and multifarious beings we see before our eyes—the rocks, the gulls, the passing clouds—must in fact be a unchanging, unified block of undifferentiated stuff, like a huge block of granite.

Between Anaximander and Parmenides we see an opposition between types of philosophizing that has parallels throughout the subsequent history of philosophy. On the one hand, some philosophers attempt to explain or establish grounding principles for the fact that things change. Their philosophies are dynamic, just like the world they’re attempting to understand. Other philosophers retreat into abstract realms of their own devising, whether they be logical, ludic, mathematical, or “critical,” in an effort to escape the flux of the world via static, artificial constructions.

Both Anaximander and Parmenides have successors who continued further down the paths they chose—either toward accuracy and truth, or towards irrelevancy and nonsense. Parmenides’ friend Zeno became famous as the purveyor of mathematical paradoxes. However, life is neither mathematical nor paradoxical, and Zeno’s work will provide little nourishment to those who are genuinely interested in what life is all about. On the other hand, Anaxagoras added another crucial element to the picture of life as a ceaseless flux of hot and cold, wet and dry, earth and fire and air and water. That element was “mind.”

One of Aristotle’s disciples quotes Anaxagoras to the following effect:

Mind is something infinite and self-controlling, and it has been mixed with no thing, but is alone itself by itself. For if it were not by itself but had been mixed with some other thing, it would share in all things…for in everything there is a share of everything, as I have said earlier…[Mind] is the finest of all things and the purest, and it possesses all knowledge about everything, and it has the greatest strength. And mind controls all those things, great and small, that have soul.
Anaxagoras goes on to describe how mind controls the revolutions of the celestial bodies, and how its influence is increasing in ever-widening circles, and how individual things separate off in what seems to be some sort of centrifugal action. Yet nothing separates off completely, because everything contains at least a portion of everything else.

And the dense is separating off from the rare, and the hot from the cold, and the bright from the dark, and the dry from the wet. And there are many shares of many things, but nothing completely separates off or dissociates one from another except mind. All mind, both great and small, is alike.
It would be tendentious to describe Anaxagoras’ concept of “mind” as an anticipation of the modern “world soul.” Yet the comparison is tempting, and less far-fetched, perhaps, than the suggestion that his theory of “spinning off” contains the kernel of the modern scientific truth that heavy elements are created and hurled out into the universe when stars explode. Or as Joni Mitchell put it in “Woodstock”:

We are star dust
We are carbon,
and we’ve got to get ourselves back…
To the garden.
In any case, several elements in these theories put Anaxagoras well ahead of the pack. He recognizes that no two things are alike. He acknowledges that affinities exist between things, because they’re made of similar stuff, or spun off from the same source. He recognizes a sphere that’s utterly distinct and set off from matter—one that has an important part to play in determining what shapes matter takes. And he suggests that everything within this separate sphere of “mind” is somehow alike. (The collective unconscious?) Finally, he argues that this powerful force of “mind” is in the midst of an ongoing process that might almost be described as “developmental.”


Aristotle criticized Anaxagoras for coming up with a great idea and then doing nothing with it. He may be right. Perhaps I’m “connecting the dots” a little too freely here. Yet among early attempts to explain how the universe got to be the way it is, I find the one put forth by Anaxagoras quite appealing.

Two other Pre-Socratic thinkers may also make a serious claim to our attention—Pythagoras and Heraclitus. Modern scholars describe Pythagoras as the best known and also most obscure of the Pre-Socratic philosophers. They’re convinced he had little, if anything, to do with the mathematical theories associated with his name, and they engage in lively academic disputes over whether he urged his many disciples to avoid eating beans, due to their digestive peculiarities, or whether he loved beans above all other vegetables.

For myself, I love beans of all varieties—Tuscan beans, Boston baked beans, re-fried beans, cassoulet, you name it. (Not lima beans, though.) And the Pythagoras that interests me is the traditional one who explored the relations between number and harmony, and spoke of the music of the spheres as if he could hear it. The Pythagoras I’m referring to noticed that strings vibrating in harmony will be of varying lengths bearing a simple mathematical relation to one another. Similarly, the sides of a pleasing building fa├žade often exhibit mathematical dimensions that differ…but exhibit similar “harmonic” patterns. It’s the birth of aesthetics!

The Pythagoras that interest me, whether real or conventional, went on to commit the classic mistake to which philosophers are prone—he elevated the mathematical relation to a position of eminence above that of the phenomenon it describes. Taking the symbol for the reality, he reified the number, and ended by suggesting that only number is real. Opps!

Heraclitus comes across as the most distinctive personality among the Pre-Socratics. He was referred to as Heraclitus the Obscure by Aristotle, and other commentators called him “The Mocker” or “The Riddler.” His doctrines are similar in some ways to those of other Pre-Socratic thinkers. The warm grows cold, the dry moist. That kind of thing. But because he presented his ideas in brief and often cryptic one-liners, they have taken on the aura of being less concerned with matters of natural science and more seriously concerned with what we now refer to as metaphysical speculation.

His most famous saying is, “You never step into the same river twice.” This remark exposes the difficulty of dealing with the man’s views. For Heraclitus’ book is lost. We know of his works only through the references of other, later writers. Here are several other versions of the same remark:

We step and do not step into the same rivers, we are and we are not.

On those who enter the same rivers, ever different waters flow—
And souls are exhaled from the moist things.


Heraclitus’ most famous general notion is that opposites are one in the same. How can that be? To take an example, a single point on a circle is a start…and also its end.

Among other personal favorites:
A man’s character is his guardian divinity.
The fire, in its advance, will consume all things.
(Or: Fire will come and judge and convict all things.)
The path up and the pat down are one.
Unapparent connection is better than apparent.


Heraclitus had a general distain for the learned, and a number of his epigrams along these lines have a mocking tone:
Let us not make aimless conjectures about the most important things.
A foolish man is put in a flutter by every word.
For human nature has no insights; divine nature has.
God is day and night, winter and summer, war and peace, satiety and famine.


Political comments include:
People should fight for the law as for the city walls.
Violence should be quenched quicker than arson.


The upshot if it all, a but stern, a bit grim, might be found in the remark:
One should know that war is common, that justice is strife, that all things come about in accordance with strife and with what must be.

Or better yet:
Combinations—wholes and not wholes, concurring differing, concordant discordant, from all things one and from one all things.

Such remarks, isolated and enigmatic, have made Heraclitus the darling of modern philosophers from Hegel to Heidegger. And perhaps with good reason. He was onto something. But it’s a harsh something, decidedly Western, and quite unlike the one-liners of his Chinese contemporary Lao Tzu.

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