Monday, January 30, 2023

Heraclitus and Empedocles - Everything flows - eyes roamed alone

My rummage through the early Greek philosophers has been rewarding, but it is a strange exercise.  “Readers of this book will, I suspect, be frequently perplexed and sometimes annoyed” write Jonathan Barnes in Early Greek Philosophy, a collection with commentary of the most useful and interesting Presocratic fragments, which Barnes says he finds “objects of inexhaustible and intriguing delight” (p. xxxv).  Even more than in my ordinary reading, I am forced to assemble an author from scraps.

Part of the frustration is that so often there is so little to read.  As interesting a figure as Pythagoras, perhaps more a religious figure than a philosopher, left not a single line of writing, even in the works of his followers.  I construct Pythagoras from commentaries on Pythagoras written hundreds of years after his life.  The result, for me, is rather vaporish.

So I thought I would look today at two figures, Heraclitus and Empedocles, with strong personalities, not coincidentally because they both give me more to read.

Heraclitus was an aphorist by nature.  “Character is fate,” for example, although the compression of ideas here belongs as much to Novalis as to Heraclitus. 

Everything flows; nothing remains.

One cannot step twice into the same river, for the water into which you first stepped has flowed on.  (160 of Seven Greeks by Guy Davenport, who prefers “Herakleitos”)

I’m just picking out the most famous sayings, the “wise man” stuff, although these do seem unusually wise to me, the kind of simple but deep thing I associate with the idea of a sage.  It helps – the rewards of immersion – to know that Heraclitus is responding to Parmenides and Zeno and their idea that there is, really, no change at all, but just the illusion of change.  Heraclitus argues for the reverse. 

The “river” aphorisms (“The river we stepped in is not the river in which we stand,” 169) are also linguistic arguments.  Do we agree about what “river” means, exactly?  Heraclitus prefigures Wittgenstein.  Are we arguing about something real, or just about what words means?

The principle of all things is fire.  The world operates by means of opposites.  Knowledge is of the greatest value, but “[k]nowledge is not intelligence” (6), since the other philosophers are all idiots.  Like I said, strong personality.

We’ll return to Seven Greeks when we get to Diogenes the Cynic.

Empedocles, like Pythagoras, was a mystic, in fact a god by his own testimony:

I, in your eyes a deathless god, no longer mortal,

go among all, honoured, just as I seem… (203, tr. Brad Inwood in The Poem of Empedocles, 1992)

now wandering the earth in many forms to expurgate some unspecified sins:

I too am now one of these, an exile from the gods and a wanderer,

trusting in mad strife. (209)

He died by leaping into the volcano on Mount Etna, perhaps to move on to his next stage of godhood, or more hilariously to convince people that he had vanished into heaven, a trick foiled when the volcano spit out one of his distinctive bronze boots.

Empedocles gets credit for claiming all things are a combination of four elements (fire, water, etc.), a long-lasting idea.  He combines it with two forces, Love and Strife, that constantly, cyclically cause all motion.  How is this so different than a world made of 118 elements moved by four fundamental forces?  Empedocles accepts the Parmenidean idea of existence as a motionless sphere, but only in the most extreme, perfect stage of Love, before Strife causes the cycle to start again.

More original than the cosmogony of Empedocles is his theory of evolution.  Creatures begin to emerge from the muck, but they are only partial:

As many heads without necks sprouted up

and arms wandered naked, bereft of shoulders,

and eyes roamed alone, impoverished of foreheads (235)

As these semi-creatures randomly bump into each other they are either repelled or combine to form more complex animals:

Many with two faces and two chests grew

oxlike with men’s faces, and again there came up

androids with ox-heads, mixed in one way from men

and in another way in female form, outfitted with shadowy limbs.  (237)

The poems of Empedocles is really a poem, full of metaphor and imagination.  In terms of pure imagination, I doubt any of the later philosophers are going to top “eyes roamed alone.”

Next month I am going to explore the Sophists and read some of Plato’s dialogues that focus on either the Sophists or the Presocratics.  A month from now, I hope to write about Theaetetus (Presocratics) and Euthydemus (Sophists).  Also likely along the way: Parmenides, Sophist, and Charmides.  These are mostly quite short.  Theaetetus is 120 pages.  The Sophistic Movement by G. B. Kerferd (1981) will be a good supplement.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Paradoxes and epistemology - early Greek philosophy as conceptual innovation - "Zeno argues fallaciously."

The conceptual innovation of Thales that we identify as the birth of philosophy quickly spun off other conceptual innovations.  A real conceptual innovation does not require a book or even an argument.  You say there are many gods?  But what if there were one? Or none?  Everything is made of, at the base, water.  Why not fire, or air?  The question about the basis of existence is more important than the zany answers.  Where did existence come from?  Does it change?  Can there be a thing that is not a thing, the “void”?  How does infinity work?  The questions explode.

Much effort is used to understand motion.  Does anything move at all?  The answer would seem obvious, yet Zeno of Elea shows that Achilles will never catch the tortoise, and that the arrow in the air is not actually moving at all.  I am happy to see that Aristotle finds Zeno as aggravating as I do. Here is Aristotle on the Arrow Paradox:

Zeno argues fallaciously.  For if, he says, everything is at rest when it is in a space equal to itself, and if what is travelling is always in such a space at any instant, then the travelling arrow is motionless.  This is false; for time is not composed of indivisible instants – nor is any other size.  (from Physics, tr. Jonathan Barnes in Early Greek Philosophy, 2nd ed., p. 104)

We are now used to the cinematic special effect that stops time and freezes the bullet in flight along with the jumping dog and the pouring water.  Maybe the hero will pluck the bullet out of the air.  Clearly the arrow is not moving in the frozen moment, nor in any other of the infinitely other frozen moments.  How, then, can we say it is in motion when at no point is it in motion?

I am with Aristotle here, but Zeno’s effect is to demand some deeper thinking about how motion and time work.  My experience is that I must relax into philosophy at least a bit.  Look for the useful question generated by the nonsense and worry less about, or even enjoy, the nonsense itself.

Zeno is defending the rational system of Parmenides, who argues, step by step, in the first half of a rather tedious poem, that existence consists of a single thing, a giant motionless sphere.  In the second half of the poem he describes a world with motion and things but says this is all “opinion,” a phony artifact of our unreliable senses.  Fine, go about acting like there are many things moving around, but really it’s all just that giant sphere of gray goo.  Parmenides has invented epistemology, starting with the radical position that our senses are simply wrong about everything.  The less radical, inescapable question, will never leave us: but how do we really know anything?  I had not known that the question was so old, almost as old as philosophy itself.

Next week I’ll write a bit about Heraclitus and Empedocles, who I singled out because my impression was that they are more enjoyable to read in their own right than most of the other early philosophers.  I have spent a couple of weeks testing this idea, and I think I was right.

Saturday, January 14, 2023

Thales, the first philosopher - what is philosophy, anyways?

He [Thales of Miletus] held that the original substance of all things is water, and that the world is animate and full of deities.  They say he discovered the seasons of the year, and divided the day into 365 days.  (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, p. 12, tr. Pamela Mensch)

My received history of philosophy begins with the beginning of that first sentence.  Thales deduces or imagines, sometime in the early 6th century BCE, that all things are made of water, really, when you think about it.  Heraclitus will argue: No, fire; Anaximenes says: No, air.   Anaximander, a student of Thales, picks as the basis of existence “the limitless” or “the indefinite,” an interesting swerve.  Maybe we are made of a mix of things, the four elements, say, or the more abstract microscopic atoms claimed by Democritus

Democritus in some sense got it right, sometimes uncannily right, but his system was as much an imaginative creation as anyone else’s.  Reading the early Greeks, I am witnessing not just the birth of philosophy but a step towards the invention of science, but without the scientific method, or any other method.  Water, fire, a mix: how can I tell which theory is correct?  Or, to ask the question that the scientific method can answer, how can I tell which are wrong?  The tools of philosophy do not have any better answers.

And how is any of this cosmogonizing different than what Hesiod does in Theogony?

Now sound out the holy stock

    of the everlasting immortals

who came into being out of Gaia

  and starry Ouranos

and gloomy Night, whom Pontos, the salt sea,

  brought to maturity (129, tr. Richmond Lattimore)

These stories can be enjoyed literally, but they are also blatantly allegories, attempts to answer the same questions Thales is working on.  Water and air and fire have proper names, that’s all.

The great conceptual innovation of Thales is linguistic, literary.  He removes the names, and removes the allegory.  Philosophy is what we call that.  “[H]e was the first, as some say, to reason about nature” (11) writes Diogenes Laertius, which is preposterous in a sense, but that “some” includes Aristotle who, two hundred years later, was the first writer to get serious about the history of philosophy, mostly in Metaphysics.  Thales is the first philosopher because Aristotle thinks he is.

Given how strong my sense was that “Water if the origin of all things” was the idea that was the origin of all ideas, it has been a genuine shock to discover that the idea of Thales is first found in Aristotle’s Metaphysics where it is likely misinterpreted as not.  The horrifying details are in The Presocratic Philosophers (Kirk, Raven & Schofield, 2nd ed., pp. 89-91).  We’ll never know the truth.

I have included a 17th century print, borrowed from Wikipedia and the Rijksmuseum, of Thales by Jacob de Gheyn III showing Thales doing his thing, somewhat anachronistically.  At some point people no longer wanted images from Thales, but not at that point.

Friday, January 6, 2023

Diogenes Laertius and the fun of the fragment

We have the complete Plato, from multiple manuscript sources.  We have lost every published book (widely copied scroll) of Aristotle’s, but a large mass of what are perhaps transcribed lecture notes survived, barely, in a single manuscript, so that is our Aristotle.  I don’t know the story of Xenophon’s manuscripts.  Every other Greek philosopher survives only in fragments.

“Fragments” suggests, to me, a scrap of disintegrating papyrus with a few words visible on it.  This piece of cloth once had an entire Sappho poem on it, but now we just have fragments of the poem.  Editors of the poems will use brackets to set off the gaps.

With the Greek philosophers, though, the “fragments” are quotations of now lost books found in the later books of others.  Sometimes they are quotations of quotations, centuries after the original, with a long chain of lost works in between.  Sometimes they are perhaps paraphrases.

As books disappear, the secondary source becomes the primary source.  Such is the case with Lives of the Eminent Philosophers (3rd century) by Diogenes Laertius, an eccentric but now invaluable compilation of biography, anecdotes, and quotations by and about dozens of Greek thinkers.  Laertius is now not just a source but the source for many philosophers.

If only it were a better book.  It does not compare to Plutarch’s Parallel Lives or Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Painters, both of which have entries of high literary merit.  Eminent Philosophers often feels more like a collection of notes, the material that could be shaped into a great book.

Diogenes has some weird little obsessions, the oddest of which is writing poems about how philosophers died:

The story goes that, being bald, he [Ariston] suffered a sunstrike and so died.  I have made fun of him in choliambs:

Why, Ariston, though old and bald,

Did you let the sun roast your brow?  (etc., p. 269)

The 2018 translation by Pamela Mensch of Eminent Philosophers is superb: notes (by James Miller), bibliography, illustrations, the works.  Not quite enough to recommend the book as such to anyone not, like me, engaged in a crazy Greek philosophy project.

I owe a debt to “The best books on The Presocratics recommended by Angela Hobbs,” one of many interesting entries in the Five Books series.  Hobbs is Professor of the Public Understanding of Philosophy – what a title – at the University of Sheffield.  She points to two standard books that present the fragments of the early Greek philosophers.

One is Early Greek Philosophy by Jonathan Barnes, a model of clarity, clearly well-tested on undergraduates.  Barnes works to distinguish the words of each philosopher from the interpretations.  Diogenes Laertius is inescapable.  The section on Thales, the first philosopher, is nine pages long, and half of that is straight from Diogenes.  It is the great source, what can you do.  I strongly recommend the Barnes book to anyone curious.

The alternative mentioned by Hobbs is more advanced.  The Presocratic Philosophers by G. S. Kirk, J. E. Raven, and M. Schofield spends more time interpreting the texts, which often means interpreting the sources.  What does Thales mean when he says such and such – no, what does Aristotle mean when he writes that Thales says such and such.  For some reason I am reading this book as well, and it is already leading to a new, exhausting, epistemological crisis.  Maybe I will write about Thales next week.

An alternative to the alternative would be to read each thinker as an aphorist and not worry so much about the source.  This is the approach taken by Guy Davenport with Heraclitus (and with Diogenes the Cynic, a much later figure) in 7 Greeks.  Heraclitus in 124 aphorisms over thirteen pages.  Maybe that is the way to read the fragments, with the interpretation and sources in the background.  I am reading them every which way.

Anyway, try 7 Greeks for Heraclitus or the Jonathan Barnes book for everyone. 

Thursday, January 5, 2023

Please read Greek philosophy with me - Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, dog men, people jumping in volcanoes

Greek philosophy, readalong #2.

This idea got more interesting the more I thought about it, but had more organizational problems, plus the greater problem that I do not think of philosophy as a strength of mine.  My solution has been to convert the project into literature.

Is philosophy a branch of literature?  I treat it that way.  Philosophers, generally, do not.  As I progress this year perhaps this distinction will become clearer to me, or perhaps it will disappear.

I have organized nine months of reading – does that ever seem like plenty – along conventional historical lines like in many histories of philosophy and in the valuable Lives of the Eminent Philosophers (3rd century, probably) by Diogenes Laertius.  Each month I will work on a school or writer.  At the end of the month, I will write about a key text, giving the project a readalong-like quality, although anyone can read whatever seems interesting, obviously.  Ignore me except to the extent that I am useful.

Picking a text can be a challenge.  Among the dozens of Greek philosophers active from the 6th century BCE up to the Christian era we have intact, substantial texts for four of them: Plato, Xenophon, Aristotle, and Theophrastus, and his are mostly about botany.  Everyone else exists only in fragments, or not at all.  Of course some, like Socrates, did not write anything.  What is a philosopher, anyways?

Here is what I want to read:

January: The Presocratics. The texts: the fragments of Heraclitus and Empedocles.  We will at first embrace the fragment.

The birth of philosophy in western Anatolia and spread to Italy.  Science and mysticism; forbidden beans and jumping in volcanoes.  Heraclitus and Empedocles both lead the pack in the substantial number of fragments and are particularly important to later literature.  Democritus, the inventor of the atom, was tempting, as was Pythagoras, as I understand it not actually the inventor of the Pythagorean theorem.

Tomorrow I will post some advice on how to read these writers.

February: Presocratics and Sophists.  Texts: Euthydemus and Theaetetus, Socratic dialogues by Plato.  The former is about the Sophists; the latter about the Presocratics.

March: Socrates.  Texts: Plato’s pieces about the death of Socrates, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito and Phaedo. 

Xenophon fits here, with his own Socratic dialogues and his Recollections of Socrates.

April: Plato.  Text: The Republic.

I am spreading Plato over many months because I hope to read lots of his work along the way.  I think of him as a significant literary artist.  We’ll see how much I get read.  Most Platonic dialogues (not The Republic) are quite short.

May: Aristotle.  Text: The Nicomachean Ethics.  The obvious literary choice after Poetics

June: Cynicism.  Text: the fragments of my hero Diogenes and selected satires of Lucian.  A number of Greek philosophers are exemplars of turning a severe personality disorder into a coherent ethical system.

Lucian is one of those writers who opened up later writers for me.  He solved mysteries.  He is a satirist and fantasist, not a philosopher, if there is a difference.

July: Epicurianism.  Text: On the Nature of Things (1st C. BCE) by Lucretius.  This is an epic cosmological poem, a masterpiece of Latin poetry, and also the grand presentation of Epicurian ideas.

August: Stoicism.  Text: I don’t know.  The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius is the obvious one.  On the Nature of the Gods by Cicero?  Something by Seneca?  All, again, Roman.  Stoicism and Epicurianism turned into major, long-lasting schools of thought, yet barely a scrap of writing by the founding philosophers has survived.

September: Plutarch.  Texts: some relevant essays, like “On the Daimon of Socrates.”  Plutarch is Greek, at least, not a philosopher but rather the inventor of the familiar essay.  He often wrote about philosophical subjects.  I thought it would be valuable, perhaps refreshing, to end with a more deliberately literary figure.

I hope to read a lot more than the texts I have indicated.  My plan is to write some kind of reading journal on Fridays, discussing whatever I have been reading.  Tomorrow, for example, I will write about reading Diogenes Laertius and Presocratic fragments.

Please feel free to suggest modifications and alternatives.  I don’t know who else is really interested in this, even at the level of reading one book.  I know that I sure am interested.

Wednesday, January 4, 2023

Please read the Roman plays with me (although not all of them) - Plautus, Terence, Seneca

Roman plays, a sampling, readalong #1.

Fresh off the Greek plays, I want to revisit some of the surviving Roman plays to remind myself what they are like.  Twenty-six comedies and ten tragedies have survived.  I read about half of them long ago and plan to reread fewer than that.

My idea is that I will organize by writer.

Plautus.  Twenty comedies barley survived of the more than a hundred he wrote.  We were down to a single manuscript in the 8th century.  His plays often have little gaps in them, scenes that the mice ate.  The plays are hard to date, but Plautus died in 184 BCE, so late 3rd century to early 2nd. These are actually the earliest surviving complete Roman texts, so for us the beginning of Roman literature.

If you glance at modern translations of Plautus’s plays you will quickly see which are the most famous titles.  The Manaechmus Twins and Amphitryon lead directly to Shakespeare.  Shakespearists should read those two and immediately revisit The Comedy of Errors.  Molière also has an Amphitryon – there are so many versions of Amphitryon – and Plautus’s The Pot of Gold is the basis of Molière’s The Miser.  Miles Gloriosus / The Braggart Soldier is one fans of Falstaff should not miss.  Pseudolus stars the archetypal cunning slave, the center of an endless number of plays, eventually softened into the clever servant.

I think I will stick to these: Pseudolus, The Braggart Soldier, The Pot of Gold, The Manaechmus Twins, and Amphitryon.  I will skip two I have read before, Rudens / The Rope and Casina. I am trying to restrain myself.  I have other things to do.  But it would likely be rewarding to read all twenty.

Terence.  Six comedies by Terence, written between 166 BCE and 160 BCE, the year the young playwright died – or at least disappeared – on the way to Greece where he was looking for Greek plays to pillage.  All of the Roman playwrights reworked Greek plays, the comedians looting Menander and his peers.  Menander typically took two New Comedy plays and combined the plots.  None of the Terence plays or the surviving Plautus plays match with the extant Menander, so we have no idea how original the Romans were.

Terence is sophisticated compared to the populist Plautus.  His Latin is apparently especially elegant, for all the good that does me.  I do not think Shakespeare directly adapted a Terence play, but he and his peers often quote or parody Terence.

It would be easy enough to reread all six plays, but I will try to stick with The Girl from Andros, his first play, written when he was nineteen, The Mother-in-Law, The Self-Tormentor and The Eunuch.  Chosen based on distant memory.

Seneca.  Perhaps not the Stoic philosopher, but I will assume that it is.  He wrote eight plays in the mid-1st century, none of them meant for any kind of performance.  I believe they are all imitations of Euripides.

Elizabethan and Jacobean theater are suffused with Seneca.  Most important, perhaps, are the gruesome Thyestes and the grisly Medea, along with Phaedra and Hercules Furens.

With the Romans we can read Elizabethan translations, a kind of fun unavailable with the Greeks.  The 1581 Seneca: His Ten Tragedies is the place to look.  I read Hercules Furens in this collection; it is astounding(-ly horrible).

Pseudo-Seneca and the Other Pseudo-Seneca.  Octavia is a unique specimen, a play about contemporary events starring Emperor Nero, Empress Octavia and, um, Nero’s advisor Seneca.  If Seneca did write this, he deserves a lot of postmodern credit, but I remember the play as having more historical than literary interest.

I do not know much about Hercules Oetaeus except that it is likely an imitation of Seneca – in fact in places something of a collage of other Seneca plays – and is twice as long as any of the other plays, longer than any Greek play, too.  I’m skipping it, I guess.


My idea is to read roughly a play a week but to write about them once a month.  So, Plautus in early February, Terence in early March, and Seneca in early April.

If you are interested in looking at any of these plays, please let me know if some other scheme would be more suitable.

I sometimes feel like I need to apologize for the Roman plays (thus emphasizing their influence, for example), pale silver imitations of their Greek betters.  But I read Amphitryon a couple of days ago and enjoyed it immensely.  No wonder it is rewritten so often.  It’s a great play.  It got me excited to read more Plautus, certainly, and more Romans.