Ancient History & Civilisation


In the last stanza of ‘The Gods of Greece’ by Friedrich von Schiller (1759–1805), the poet laments the passing of the old gods:

Yes, home they went, and all things beautiful,

All things high they took with them,

All colours, all the sounds of life,

And for us remained only the de-souled Word.

Torn out of the time-flood, they hover,

Saved, on the heights of Pindus.

What shall live immortal in song

In life is bound to go under.1

The poem perfectly sums up a particular attitude—a Romantic attitude—that at some point mythos was replaced by logos, the desouled Word. Although (for reasons that will become clear later) this is not an attitude with which I wholly agree, it does serve as a useful launching-point for discussion.

The Greek word logos covers a wide range of meanings. It can mean ‘account’, in the sense either of ‘Story’, or of ‘amount’ or ‘value’, as in ‘He is of no account’; it can mean ‘word’ or ‘speech’ or ‘argument’; it can mean ‘proportion’, ‘principle’, or ‘formula’; it can mean ‘reason’, both in the sense of the human rational faculty and in the sense of ‘explanation’. In short, it covers a nest of what we might call logical and rational faculties and activities. What Schiller meant, then, was that at some point in history our emotional and intuitive side lost out to such ‘de-souled’ activities.

Schiller’s view is also commonly reflected, though not as an occasion for Romantic mourning, in the standard histories of philosophy. The fact that both Romantics and academics are saying the same thing constitutes a fascinating case where a truce has apparently been declared in what Plato described as ‘the ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy’ (Republic 607b). Time and again, in both abstruse academic tomes and more popular histories, we read how a revolution took place in the ancient Greek world, and how its first manifestations arose at the beginning of the sixth century BCE. The thinkers associated with this revolution are known collectively as the Presocratic philosophers—‘Presocratic’ because they preceded Socrates in thought, even if the last of them are his contemporaries in time—and they are said to have invented philosophy and science for the Western world. Here, for instance, is a quotation from an influential history:2

But no uniform picture emerges from all these [Egyptian and Babylonian] achievements, nor do the separate details coalesce to form a single body of scientific thought grounded in an all-inclusive philosophical doctrine. This had to wait for that scientific approach to the study of nature which was the creation of the Greeks in the sixth century. This approach took the form of an attempt to rationalize phenomena and explain them within the framework of general hypotheses. The object aimed at was giving general validity to the experience obtained from regarding the world as a single orderly unit—a cosmos the laws of which can be discovered and expressed in scientific terms.

The fame of the Presocratics has endured well. Even those who are not aware of them as a group have heard of the obscure aphorisms of Heraclitus, or of Zeno’s paradoxes, or of the number-mystic Pythagoras. But in this book we shall meet others: Thales, Anaximenes and Anaximander, all from the city of Miletus in Asia Minor, down the coast from Heraclitus’ home town, Ephesus; Xenophanes of Colophon, another town in Asia Minor; Parmenides of Elea (or Velia) in southern Italy, the first Presocratic to start a recognizable school of thought, whose first and most important members were his fellow Eleatic, Zeno, and Melissus from the island of Samos (where Pythagoras, too, had been born, though he lived half his life in southern Italy); Empedocles of Acragas in Sicily; Anaxagoras of Clazomenae in Asia Minor; Democritus of Abdera on the coast of northern Greece; Diogenes, from Apollonia on the west coast of the Black Sea. They all lived between about 600 and 400 BCE; Socrates, by comparison, lived from 469 to 399. The last of the Presocratics were Socrates’ contemporaries, as were the earliest Sophists, whose thought is also covered in this book.

The work of none of the Presocratics or the Sophists remains in its entirety. We have to rely on fragments preserved in later writers and reports about their thought.3 Some of these reports were written by thinkers with their own agendas, who were implicitly or explicitly unsympathetic or even hostile to the Presocratics; others are the barest summaries of complex views, which often reveal a high degree of incomprehension. Unfortunately, distortion was the name of the game. While we owe an incalculable debt to Aristotle, his pupil Theophrastus, and their successors for preserving discussions of the Presocratics, it has now been established beyond the shadow of a doubt that they viewed their predecessors almost entirely through the lenses of their own philosophies. Here is a single, notorious instance. Aristotle believed that in order to gain an overall perspective on anything, one had to ask four questions about it: What is it made of? What is its origin? What is its purpose? What is its form or appearance? In Aristotelian language, answering the first question gives us the ‘material cause’ of a thing, then the ‘efficient cause’, the ‘final cause’, and the ‘formal cause’. When he surveyed his earliest Presocratic predecessors he found them saying something—let us for the moment leave it as vague as possible—about certain material elements, such as water or fire. He found it impossible to resist the idea that they were talking about his ‘material cause’; that they were talking about what things were made of. Look, then, at T8 on pp. 12–13 in which Aristotle discusses Thales. It is clear that he is, however tentatively, claiming that Thales said that everything was made out of water. But is this the case? It is more likely that Thales said that everything started in water, or rests on water, or something like that: there are precedents for either idea in Egyptian or Near Eastern mythology.

Or here is another example. Aristotle has quite high praise for Anaxagoras, famously describing him at one point as ‘like a sober man compared to his babbling predecessors’ (Metaphysics 984b17–18), and elsewhere in the same book as ‘quite up to date in his thinking’ (989b6). But these words of praise are reserved for Anaxagoras only because Aristotle thought that Anaxagoras had intuited certain elements of his own theories. Instead of just talking about the ‘material cause’, as his predecessors had done, Aristotle thought that, in introducing mind as a motivating factor, Anaxagoras had also introduced an efficient cause, and so had made a considerable advance on his predecessors.

To be fair to Aristotle, he does not disguise the fact that he is presenting a partial picture of his predecessors. He announces his programme close to the beginning of Metaphysics: ‘Let’s take those who were engaged in the study of these matters before us and were concerned to speculate and seek after the truth. For it is clear that they too mention certain first principles and causes. The consideration of their work will also be of some help in our present enquiry, in the sense that either we will discover some other kind of cause or we will have more confidence in the four I have just mentioned’ (983b1–6). In other words, Aristotle makes no bones about the fact that he is studying his Presocratic predecessors only in order to shed light on his own theory of four causes.

Aristotle’s pupil, Theophrastus, was even more important in the history of philosophy. The doxographers (the name scholars give to the writers who summarized and discussed the views of earlier thinkers) all depend ultimately on a largely lost book by Theophrastus, called The Opinions of the Natural Scientists.4 Just occasionally, however, we can check what he said against the original; the results are not encouraging. We have not only his account of Plato’s theory of the senses, but also Plato’s original statements. It is clear that the degree of distortion is extreme.5 We cannot have confidence that our ancient secondary sources have placed the ideas of their Presocratic predecessors within the right context in any single case. Of course, they might have done in a few cases, but we simply cannot be sure. And sometimes the possibility of distortion is plain to see. Not only is the Aristotelian bias of Theophrastus, as well as of Aristotle himself, obvious, but we can often detect Stoic or Christian bias in later doxographers. Then many of the doxographers were living hundreds of years after the thinkers covered in this volume (see the Timeline on pp. xliii-xlvi), and may not have had access to the original writings, but were relying on someone else’s epitome.

Similar distortions have spoiled the record of the Sophists as well, due in this case not to Aristotle so much as to Plato. One of the avowed purposes of Plato’s early dialogues was to defend the memory of his mentor, Socrates—this was an aim he shared with Xenophon and other Socratic writers. He did this by distinguishing him sharply from the Sophists, to the detriment of the latter, who appear as mercenary, and as unconcerned with either logical truth or psychological benefit. At the same time, Plato wanted to delineate the domain and methods of what he saw as philosophy, and to this end he felt impelled to disparage the work of those with rival educational claims—the orators, poets, and, above all, the Sophists. Xenophon succinctly displays the typical prejudice of the Socratics against the Sophists towards the end of his treatise On Hunting: ‘What surprises me about the Sophists, as they are called, is that although most of them profess to educate young men in virtue, they actually do exactly the opposite. It is not just that we have never seen a man become good thanks to the Sophists of today; their writings are also not designed to improve people. Much of their writing is concerned with trivia, which can give young men vain enjoyment, but not virtue. To read it in the hope of learning something is a pointless waste of time; their treatises keep people from doing something useful and teach them things that are offensive. These are serious criticisms, but then the issue is serious; as regards the content of their treatises, my charge is that while they have gone to great lengths over style, they have eliminated the kind of sound views which educate the younger generation in virtue.’

Recovering the thought of the Sophists is also hampered by the fact that Aristotle clearly regarded few if any of them as serious thinkers who deserved his attention. This in turn meant that no doxographic tradition arose in the case of the Sophists as it did for the Presocratics. Apart from a very few original fragments, Plato is our chief source of information—and, as already remarked, he is not a reliable source.

The Presocratics as Scientists

The idea that these thinkers collectively brought something new into the world, a scientific or proto-scientific attitude, a reliance on logos, is too simple and broad a picture. It is in fact rather naïve to lump all the Presocratics together as if they were somehow identical, although it has been a tendency in the history of philosophy from Aristotle onwards. Nevertheless, it is clear that not all the people standardly classified as Presocratic philosophers fit comfortably into the Aristotelian mould. They range from shamans like Empedocles, through mystics like Pythagoras and prophets like Heraclitus, to metaphysicians such as Parmenides, philosophers such as Anaxagoras, and proto-scientists like the Milesians and Atomists. To describe Empedocles as a ‘shaman’ or Heraclitus as a ‘prophet’ is not to say that they could not make valuable contributions towards scientific or philosophical debate; but it is to say that their emphases and experiences are not those of a complete scientist or philosopher. But despite the variety of interests the Presocratics display, there is something common to them all.

Starting with the broad picture, we should ask what is meant by the claim that they invented philosophy and/or science. (Strictly, one should distinguish between those like the Milesians who brought something scientific into the world, and those like Parmenides or perhaps Heraclitus who reflected upon their predecessors’ scientific work and were therefore philosophers.) We need first an example of the kind of cosmological work they were doing. Anaximenes of Miletus is typical of the earliest Milesian phase of Presocratic thought, and is fairly easy to summarize without undue distortion.

Anaximenes said that the prime matter of the universe was air, and that this could be condensed or rarefied into the various components of the universe. When rarefied it becomes hot and fiery and forms not just fire itself, but also the fiery heavenly bodies; when condensed it becomes cold and can be seen as water and ultimately earth. These four elements form the concentric layers of the universe. Air is and always was in motion, and it was presumably this motion which in some way initiated the process of condensation and rarefaction. Of course, having thought up the twin processes of condensation and rarefaction, Anaximenes might just as well have said that water or one of the other elements was the prime constituent of things, but he chose air because it is apparently all-pervading and can appear to be indefinite, and because we breathe it in and it causes life in us. Our soul is air. The earth and all the heavenly bodies are flat, he said, and float gently on the air like leaves.

So, were Anaximenes and his peers scientists? What does it take to be a scientist? Above all, in today’s terms, it takes scientific reasoning—that is, adherence to the scientific method. Paraphrasing Aristotle, whose formulation of the scientific method is as good as any, and better than most, we can describe this as a method of both induction and deduction (or of resolution and composition, as the medieval schoolmen used to call them). The scientist (unless he is a follower of Karl Popper) starts with observation of an event; by a process of induction he reaches explanatory principles; from these principles, facts about the event in question and about related phenomena are then to be deduced. Of course, it is not that simple: it takes a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between observation and theory, refining and correcting both observations and hypotheses. But in this way the scientist has progressed from uncomprehending observation of an event to understanding why the event is as it is. From observation of the pretty spectrum of colours displayed on the wall, he has progressed to understanding that light is in fact composed of rays with different refractive properties.

In other words, scientific reasoning is a combination of forming testable hypotheses to account for observed phenomena (this may take imagination and model-making as well as logic), and of testing and re-testing these hypotheses by experimentation and logic. The resulting hypothesis should explain the observed phenomena in as simple a way as possible, should allow one to predict the behaviour of related phenomena, and should cohere with the body of accepted scientific theories and doctrines. Throughout, everything should be quantifiable, measurable, and testable as far as is possible within the limitations of the technology currently available.

There is absolutely no indication that the Presocratics were scientists in this sense. There is little sign that they undertook experimentation at all; the hypotheses they came up with about the world’s formation and constitution were not testable by scientific means; where observation and theory clashed, they invariably preferred theory to observation. They were, in short, dogmatists, not experimental scientists. Of course, it is not entirely fair to criticize the Presocratics for lack of experimentation; after all, a great deal of what interested them was not capable of empirical testing in their day; but that in itself helps to show that they should not be described as scientists in the modern sense of the word.

Even the more scientific relatives of the Presocratics, the Hippocratic doctors,6 who started working some time in the latter half of the fifth century, tended to use experiment and observation not to test one of their own theories, but either to corroborate a theory or to refute an opponent’s theory; also, the subject of their few experiments is rarely the thing itself, the part of the body they are concerned with, but something outside the body, which is supposed to have the same properties as the thing itself inside the body. In other words, simile and analogical thinking rule, as when Empedocles compares human breathing to the action of a device for gathering liquid or when Anaximenes compares lightning to the phosphoresence of water at night cleaved by an oar.

Here are two famous and typical early examples of experimentation. At On Celestial Phenomena 358b-359a Aristotle tries to support his view that sea water is a mixture of ingredients by describing an experiment in which a wax bottle is let down into sea water; when it is recovered, fresh water is found in it, and Aristotle concludes that the fresh water was percolated through the wax. From this we can conclude either that he never did the experiment himself, but was relying on hearsay, or that the water in the jar came about through condensation; in either case, he was way off the mark.

Again, at Airs, Waters, Places 18, preserved in the corpus of works attributed to Hippocrates, the author wants to demonstrate that freezing causes the lightest and finest parts of water to dry up and disappear. He left a bowl of water outside to freeze; when it was thawed again afterwards, he claimed, there was less water than there was originally. From this we can conclude that either some of the water evaporated or was drunk by animals, or he applied heat to thaw the ice and so boiled some away.

What evidence do scholars have for their view that the Presocratics, or some of them, were scientists? Here we come to what we may call ‘scientific attitudes’, as distinct from scientific reasoning or method. A short list of scientific attitudes would consist of the following:

1. The optimistic assumption that the world and its components are comprehensible; this is what Einstein was getting at when he said, ‘God may be subtle, but he is not malicious.’

2. The assumption that the human rational mind is the correct tool for understanding the world.

3. Adherence to a particular set of approaches to problem-solving; this involves, for instance, analysing problems into their component parts and then dealing separately with those parts, and starting with simple problems before tackling more complex ones.

4. Tempered curiosity: although curiosity about the world is essential for the scientist, it must not be allowed to lead the investigator into hasty hypotheses or extravagant leaps of the imagination, nor be governed by prejudice in any form.

5. A love of and facility with abstract concepts.

This is where the Presocratics fit in. Some or all of them display at least some of these attitudes. It would, of course, be unreasonable to expect them to be fully fledged scientists in the modern sense of the word but perhaps their adherence to—even invention of—at least some of these scientific attitudes is enough to justify our calling them at least proto-scientists. They tend to fall at the hurdle of tempered curiosity—that is, they tend to rush into what modern scientists would undoubtedly call wild and even visionary speculation—but they were the first to make and explore the consequences of the assumption which is absolutely crucial to the development of science, that the human rational mind is the correct tool for understanding the world. They were reductionists—that is, they formed general hypotheses in an attempt to explain as many things as possible by means of as few hypotheses as possible—and in their theorizing they relied on natural phenomena like air, rather than supernatural phenomena like the traditional Greek gods and goddesses. However, this broad picture must immediately be qualified by the reminder that the Presocratics (some more than others) retained a strong streak of what can only be called mystical thought. Given the current opposition between reason and irrationality, it is one of the ironies of history that science developed out of partly irrational roots. The kind of cosmology and cosmogony that the Ionians (the three Milesians and Xenophanes) were led to construct with the help of their scientific attitudes then came to be criticized by Parmenides and (if some scholars are right) by Heraclitus, before being reinstated ingeniously by the ‘Neo-Ionians’ who followed the Eleatics. But in all its phases Presocratic thought was holistic: it was an attempt to give a systematic account of the whole known universe and all its major features.

The Presocratics and their Predecessors

Can it really be said that the Presocratics were the first to assume that the human rational mind is the correct tool for understanding the world? Did people before the Presocratics not think, not use their brains? In what sense did the predecessors of the Presocratics not have or make use of logos?

In the history of ideas it is always specious to divide things into a before and an after. It is not the case that with the advent of Thales, or whoever the first true Presocratic philosopher was, a prior worldview suddenly came to an end and evaporated to wherever such views go for an after-life. There is also the question of selfawareness. How would Thales have characterized his own work? It is extremely unlikely that he would have called himself a philosopher or a scientist. It is not clear, then, that he had the means to distinguish what he was doing from what his predecessors were doing. In any case, what follow are the grossest generalizations.

It is plausible to say that every cave and mountain top was sacred; any snake could be a dead relative or a guardian spirit, or bird a manifestation of deity; every stream, river, copse, and settlement had its presiding deity or deities; even individual trees and rocks could be sacred. Meteorological and other large-scale natural phenomena were particularly awesome and divine. While certain places were especially holy (so that cults and eventually shrines and temples grew up there), essentially the whole world was shot through with the sacred, in the form of a plethora of deities, who ruled one’s life and required magical rites of propitiation and communication.

This polytheism did in time lead to a degree of systematization. The prime impulse towards such systematization is that, if the divine governs the whole of life, then it must especially govern the special aspects of life. In a largely peasant society like Greece, these are the significant moments of human life, and the main phases and aspects of the agricultural round. In this way, rather than there being a mere plethora of gods, each equal to any other in its particular domain, certain gods start to rise in importance above others, and the latter gods become demoted as local gods, demigods, nymphs, and so on. By and large it may be true to say that the distinction arose between the chief gods being those of natural phenomena which cannot be pinned down to just one spot and the lesser gods being those which belonged to particular localities. However, once a particular god has become prominent, he tends to absorb some of the lesser gods; so we find that Poseidon, for instance, in his capacity as god of the sea, is surrounded by sea-nymphs, who would probably have originally been local deities.

But even though there was now a distinction between prominent gods and lesser gods, there was still an incredible local variation in the number of major deities, their natures, forms, functions, titles, and provinces. The next stage of the process is probably achieved by conquest. As one settlement gains prominence over its neighbours, so its chief deity or deities gain prominence over theirs. The dozen or so major Greek gods—Zeus and his extended family—emerged as a result of this lengthy historical process of simplification due to prominence and conquest. By the time of the epic poet Homer (around 750 BCE), it makes considerable sense to speak of a panhellenic pantheon, consisting of the familiar Olympian deities and their lesser associates, all of whom are by now more or less fully anthropomorphized.

Anthropomorphism is the outstanding characteristic of Homeric religion and hence of Greek religion as a whole. Nor was it a halfhearted anthropomorphism. Not only did the gods have family trees, they also had family squabbles. Being pictured as super-humans, they could not be omnipresent or omniscient. We even hear of the gods washing, walking, eating, drinking, being wounded, and making love. The gods in this respect are just many times more powerful than petty humans; the only utterly irreconcilable gulf between the two species, which makes Homer’s Iliad a tragic poem, is that the gods are immortal.7 But for Homer the gods did not have laws, only preferences.

In order to see most clearly how this world-view differs from the one the Presocratics helped to foster, we should look briefly at the work of the epic poet Hesiod (around 700 BCE).8 In his poem Theogony Hesiod exemplifies a spirit of rationalization; he inherited the mass of greater and lesser deities and tried to make some sense of it all. We meet a huge number of individual deities (let alone all the pluralities such as the nymphs), but by the use of family trees, Hesiod attempts to order the unstructured world of the gods. A typical branch of the genealogy is that Night gives birth to Death and Sleep and Dreams; the genealogical model allows Hesiod to group deities and concepts into comprehensible systems.

If we take Hesiod to represent the summit of rationalization as far as the old order is concerned, the main point to notice about him is that he remains an unquestioning pluralist. The spirit of rationalization in him has not made the transition to reductionism; he has not made the leap from mythos to logos, because he still fully accepts the mythic framework. Not only does he not, of course, display any sign of scientific reasoning, but he scarcely displays any scientific attitudes either. The closest he gets is a concern with abstract concepts, even though they are still disguised as deities.

Just as importantly, Hesiod’s divinities are still closely related to cult. That is, they are the kinds of deities with whom an individual human being might strike up a relationship, and whom he or she might hope to sway by means of prayer or sacrifice. Now, the Presocratics were not afraid of talking about gods, but what they tended to divinize was some natural principle or process. Anaximenes, for instance, probably called air divine. Air is an impersonal natural phenomenon, which cannot be affected by sacrifice. Whereas the Greek gods were fickle, and were invoked precisely to account for disturbances in the natural order of things, the Presocratic gods manifest themselves in the operation, not the disturbance, of intelligible law.

Of course, it was not the case that before the Presocratics Greece was inhabited by ‘non-thinking savages leading their lives in accordance with random impulses and mystical associations’, as one writer has parodied the fallacy of mythical thinking.9Anthropologists have shown time and again that so-called primitive people—people governed by mythos rather than logos—do think systematically; it is just that they use different systems from the ones with which we are familiar. They have different ideas about what constitutes cause and effect, and about the nature of reality; they think more metaphorically and analogically, more imaginatively and loosely.

But it is enough that there is some kind of difference. The point is that the Presocratics, both in their scientific and in their philosophical modes, ushered in the kind of system with which we are still involved, or perhaps burdened. In other words, the Presocratic revolution was a genuine revolution—a paradigm shift of the first importance. One could say that before the Presocratics the world-view was a kind of projection. All one’s awe and fears are projected outwards. It is not that I, an individual human being, am feeling awe of my own accord: it is a deity of some kind out there who is making me feel it. Then along came the Presocratics and said, ‘No, there is order in the world. And it is precisely because it is ordered that it can be comprehended by the human mind.’ The Sophists picked up on this emphasis on the importance of human beings, and made their message: ‘I do it; I can do it.’ Then a short while later along came Socrates and made philosophy self-reflective. Instead of just saying, for instance, in the field of ethics, that such-and-such an action is good, he asked, ‘What is the good?’ Or in science, instead of a concern with the components of the world he asked how we get to know anything about the world.

It is this lack of self-reflection that makes the Presocratic answers (but not their questions) quickly outmoded and liable to criticism; without this self-reflection—that is, without the ability to form a coherent method for their studies, which is the start of true philosophy, and which Parmenides tried to urge upon them—their enquiries were doomed to failure. And so, with Socrates, philosophy had to begin all over again, and to begin with the search for what can be known, since only that can provide a firm basis for the increase of knowledge.

The Presocratic Revolution and the Sophists

To summarize a complex story in a few words, we can now see that the Presocratics differ both from the preceding world-view and from fully fledged scientism. They differ from their predecessors not so much in the kinds of questions they asked (above all, ‘What is the nature of reality?’), but in the kinds of answers they gave—in not adhering to the traditional framework, in assigning the functions of the gods to natural phenomena, in using what we can recognize as logic to reason things through coherently, in forming general philosophical hypotheses and embracing reductionism rather than pluralism, and in an unrestricted, even iconoclastic spirit of enquiry. For the first time they asked and answered searching questions about the distant past of the universe and all its parts. They differ from hard-line scientism in lacking scientific method altogether, and in lacking some scientific attitudes, in being too visionary. They were interested in constructing elegant systems, not verifiable systems. Both Plato (Theaetetus 155d) and Aristotle (Metaphysics 982b) rightly held that the springboard for philosophy is a sense of wonder or puzzlement, the irritating need to ask ‘Why?’; there can be no doubt that the Presocratics were philosophers in this sense.

In contrast to the list of distinguishing marks that I have just given, it is sometimes claimed that what distinguishes the Presocratics from their predecessors is that they based their conclusions on observation and rational argumentation. This is only partly true. Observation is not a neutral exercise, and so the assessment of results obtained from observation is liable to theoretical prejudice. There is no reason to think that Hesiod and his peers did not use observation, but the way they described what they saw differed from the way the Presocratics expressed their conclusions. As for the idea that the Presocratics were the first to use rational argumentation—to present their theories ‘as the conclusions of arguments, as reasoned propositions for reasonable men to contemplate and debate’10—all our evidence suggests that this was scarcely true of anyone before Parmenides, and so it cannot be a differentiating mark of the Presocratics as a whole.

An important chapter in the history of science was initiated or furthered by the anonymous authors of the medical treatises that have come down to us under the name of Hippocrates of Cos. Though dating these treatises is a hazardous business, some of those which we can be reasonably certain were written towards the end of the fifth or beginning of the fourth centuries show signs of an appropriate reaction against some aspects of Presocratic thought. In particular, they reacted against the dogmatism of the Presocratics—and they were right to do so, because medicine must above all else be an empirical science. So, for instance, On Ancient Medicine criticizes those who made use of ‘arbitrary postulates’, such as that everything is made up of hot, cold, wet, and dry—a typical Presocratic theory.11 In chapter 20 the author of this treatise even singles Empedocles out for criticism: the views of such people are as little relevant to medicine as they are to painting, he says. On the other hand, there are also indubitable signs of Hippocratic borrowing from the Presocratics: On the Art uses Presocratic terminology to express his scepticism about the evidence of the senses; Empedocles’ four-element theory was immensely influential in medicine, where it manifested as the famous four-humour theory (e.g. in On the Nature of Man); On the Sacred Disease stresses the natural rather than supernatural causes of epilepsy; the first part of On Fleshes applies a Presocratic kind of explanation to the origin of parts of the body.

By the end of the Presocratic era, their revolution was incomplete, but well started. It did eventually succeed, of course, and we are its heirs. Its success is the chief reason why it is so difficult to understand quite what was going on at the time: we have to try to project ourselves back to a time when for most people rationality was an untrained faculty, rather than the sharp and ubiquitous tool it is today. This kind of revolution takes centuries. Even if the Presocratic revolution did succeed eventually, there is good evidencethat it was not successful immediately. It was an isolated and specialist phenomenon, of interest only to a few intellectuals. After all, Greece had only become a literate society a century or so before Thales, and even in the time of Socrates books were still a rare phenomenon.12 Certainly by the time of the Athenian comic poet Aristophanes, in the last quarter of the fifth century, news had filtered through to the man on the street; otherwise Aristophanes’ scathing comic comments on the new intellectuals would not have been popular. But news filtering through and being met with incomprehension does not constitute a successful revolution. Significantly, intellectuals were described as deinoi—a word which simultaneously means both ‘clever’ and ‘terrifying’.

Over the next few centuries, however, we find an increasing number of intellectuals, people whose rational faculties were trained and exercised, but there was still a solid substrate of superstition in the overwhelming majority of the population. Nevertheless, in Rome school education became far more intellectual than the Greek schools on which they were modelled ever were, and there were in time enough intellectuals for the apotheosis of rationality to become redundant. The rational faculty and reasoned argument were now accepted weapons in the human arsenal. New religions arose (Mithraism and Christianity) which were based instead on emotion, because that was what was now lacking. One of our main sources for the fragments and opinions of the Presocratics are the writings of the Christian apologists such as Hippolytus: these early Christian writers rightly saw the Greek philosophers as their religious rivals. Emotion was now exalted and rationality, boosted in due course of time by the Renaissance and the European Enlightenment, could become the ordinary working tool it now is for us, and the honed tool of science and logic.

The first heirs of the Presocratics were the Sophists, who lived and travelled around the Mediterranean, selling their skills, throughout the second half of the fifth century. Like the Presocratics, they came from all over the Greek world, but (as far as we can tellfrom our surviving Athenocentric evidence) the focus of their activities was Athens. Protagoras came from Abdera in northern Greece (also the birthplace of Democritus), Gorgias from Leontini in Sicily; Hippias was a native of Elis, near Olympia in the Peloponnese, but, like Gorgias, visited Athens as part of an official delegation; Prodicus came from the island of Ceos, while the brothers Euthydemus and Dionysodorus came from the island of Chios; Thrasymachus came from Chalcedon, opposite Byzantium on the Asian side of the Bosporus. Of the Sophists represented in this book whose names we know, only two were natives of Athens: Callicles (see ‘Anonymous and Miscellaneous Texts’) and Antiphon.

It might seem puzzling to say that the Sophists were the heirs of the Presocratics, since at first glance the two groups seem to be divided, not united, by their interests. Few of the Sophists (at least, as far as we can now tell from the sparse available evidence) made any, or any significant advances in scientific matters, let alone metaphysics; if one or two of the Presocratics touched on the nature of humans and their institutions, this was still not their focus, and was a ramification of or deduction from their central interests. The Sophists were more interested in language, in all aspects of logos, than they were in the nature and origin of the world. However, the Sophists were the immediate heirs of the Presocratic scientific revolution in the sense that, once the Presocratics had made the world at least potentially comprehensible to the human mind, a humanist or anthropocentric emphasis on the importance of human beings was inevitable. The Sophists were the first seriously to raise questions in moral, social, and political philosophy. And, interestingly, this narrower focus of theirs means that their work is more alive to us today than that of the Presocratics, because whereas science has left the speculative answers of the Presocratics far behind, we still debate the kinds of questions in which the Sophists were interested.

Apart from the intellectual background, there were also social factors that helped to give rise to the Sophists. There was an intense mood of optimism in fifth-century Greece, fuelled no doubt by their almost miraculous defeat of the two Persian invasions early in the century; although it would be a vast oversimplification to say that victory over the Persians caused this mood, it was one among a number of factors, the most important of which was technological progress, which tended in the direction of stressing humanachievement, rather than human dependence on the gods. It is obvious how Presocratic influence must have played a part in this, and several of the Sophists were agnostics or atheists. Under the influence of this trend, writers as diverse as Sophocles and Thucydides began to hymn humankind. In the mood in which Sophocles wrote the famous choral ode of Antigone 332–75, celebrating humanity’s achievements, he would instantly have recognized Shakespeare’s ‘What a piece of work is man!’ (Hamlet Act 2, scene 2), and ignored its depressive conclusion.

At the same time, in Athens especially, there was far more scope than earlier for an ambitious young man to gain enormous power. Athens was no longer just one parochial small town among many others, but was the ruler of an international federation which fell short in name only of being an Athenian empire. It was hard for the old skills to cope with the new situation. And the finishing touches of Athenian democracy, a noble experiment in truly direct and participatory democracy, gave immense value to the power to speak, to persuade crowds of a point of view. Rhetoric was then, as it is now, a tool of the right to free speech and to a fair trial. It is no wonder that the peripatetic Sophists, who were often teachers of rhetoric and were always teachers of skills useful to gaining civic prominence, were frequent visitors to Athens, where they became an integral part of Pericles’ programme of cultural reform. And in addition, the increasing wealth of Athens created a leisured class with the time and inclination to take education more seriously. Standard Greek education was woefully inadequate, focusing on no more than the three Rs and a thorough knowledge of Homer (taught by a grammatistēs), knowledge of some lyric poetry and the ability to play a musical instrument (taught by akitharistēs), and sport (taught by a paidotribēs). One’s education was likely to be complete by one’s early teens, and was so little thought of that much of it was in the hands of slaves. What the Sophists offered (until this function was partially taken over in the fourth century by institutions such as Plato’s Academy) was a wide range of further educational topics, from martial arts to mathematics, designed to appeal to rich young men. And Protagoras, at any rate, was apparently committed to education not just as a means of making himself rich, if we can believe that when he drew up the constitution of the new colony of Thurii he recommended that every citizen should be taught to read and write at the state’s expense. The Sophists delivered public lectures, but their main educational forum was the seminar class of paying private pupils, as depicted in Plato’s Protagoras. Common teaching methods included the learning of specimen speeches and of antilogical commonplaces, arguing for and against certain forensic and legal topics. They also made themselves available to answer questions, often on an enormous range of subjects. They wrote books, but one gets the impression that where the written word was the main medium for the Presocratics, the spoken word was more important for the Sophists.

There is a recognizable single phenomenon, which deserves to be called the Sophistic movement, but (as we have also found in the case of the Presocratics) it is hard to pin it down, because of the variety of thinkers and their specific interests. Protagoras was a relativist and moderate sceptic who taught rhetoric and supported democratic Athens; Gorgias wrote rhetoric in the grand, poetic style, but also wrote a treatise On What Is Not, which was perhaps a parody of Eleatic reasoning; Prodicus was a moral conservative who helped establish a Greek dictionary by distinguishing near synonyms and wrote an anthropological account of the origin of religion; Hippias was a polymath who claimed to be able to answer any question on any subject; and so on. The social context outlined in the last paragraph is actually the best route into understanding the movement as a single phenomenon. There was a need for a new morality, for political theory, for the ability to speak persuasively, and for an education that both went further than the current one, and had the ability to explore some topics in depth; there was a mood of optimism and a dissatisfaction with the vast macrocosmic and transcendental theories of the Presocratics, and a tendency to question the fundamentals of society, so that they were either jettisoned or defended. The word ‘Sophist’ originally (before Plato and then Aristotle made it a term of opprobrium13) had pretty much the same implications as our ‘teacher’: Sophists were, as the name implies, clever, well-educated men (not surprisingly for ancient Greece, there were no female Sophists), who were professionals prepared, for a fee, to impart their skills to others. Even poets could be called ‘Sophists’, and it is very likely that the Presocratics would have been so described, since the words philosophos(‘philosopher’) and physikos (‘natural scientist’) only became popular in the fourth century. The particular Sophists we are concerned with were itinerant teachers, serving Athens above all, but known to have visited other communities on the Greek mainland and elsewhere (e.g. the Greek communities in Sicily). A professional interest in rhetoric and in education are common features; the sphere of their professional expertise was logos, in one or more of the meanings given at the start of this Introduction. But even where their work on logos is concerned, there are considerable individual variations of interest.14

Why Study the First Philosophers?

Cicero famously said that it was Socrates who called philosophy down to earth from the heavens (Tusculan Disputations 5.4.10), but this is too much of a generalization. Not only did a number of the Presocratics comment on human institutions such as religion and politics, and on human psychology, but this was the main thrust of the work of the Sophists. It was the Sophists, then, and not Socrates, who transformed Presocratic reductionism into a kind of humanism, and who earthed Presocratic speculation. But it was Socrates who wiped the slate clean and regenerated philosophy. Few scientists nowadays would recognize the Presocratics as their forefathers, unless they were feeling in a particularly generous mood; few philosophers would allow more than a historical interest to much of the work, and even more of the conclusions, of either the Presocratics or the Sophists. But nearly all philosophers acknowledge Socrates as their ancestor.

However, this is not to say that studying these first philosophers is of merely historical interest. Nor is it just that they are representatives of a crucial chapter in the evolution of Western thought, and that it is always instructive to look back to where we have come from, both as individuals and as social and intellectual creatures. It is also that for some reason—perhaps because they were the first—they can teach us something about the whole nature of human intellectual endeavour.

There is a curious story embedded in the middle of one of Plutarch’s many excellent essays (On the Decline of Oracles 419b–d). Plutarch was a Greek writer working at the end of the first century CE, and he sets this story somewhat earlier in the century, during the reign of Tiberius in Rome. It concerns the god Pan, who was a nature god in charge of flocks and fertility. He is a lusty, wayward, randy individual. No doubt the story is open to a number of interpretations, but I take Pan’s role in it to encapsulate something of the disorderly pluralism of the old gods. Since Pan had the ability to drive people out of their wits—to induce ‘panic’ in them—he is also an archetype of irrationality. The story goes that a ship under an Egyptian helmsman was becalmed off the island of Paxoi, which lies off the western coast of Greece, just south of Corfu. As they were drifting there, a supernatural voice was suddenly heard from the island, calling the name of the helmsman: ‘Thamous! Thamous!’ The helmsman did not reply at first, but the third time the voice called his name, he said, ‘Here I am. What do you want?’ The voice replied, ‘When you reach the sea off Palodes’—a place on Paxoi, presumably—‘you are to call out, “Great Pan is dead!”’ The boat drifted on until they reached Palodes. Thamous did as he had been instructed, but before he had even finished making the announcement—‘Great Pan is dead!’—a loud cry of lamentation and bewilderment broke out from all around them, as if many voices were all crying out at once.

This is what Schiller was getting at: the gods have gone. However, while it is true that in broad terms the Presocratics did usher in a revolution, this simple picture needs some important qualifications, which will help to put the Presocratic revolution into perspective, and to explain what they can teach us about human intellectual endeavour in general. In linear time, we build up a simple story of evolution and change, of paradigm shifts, loss of the past—of one thing being replaced by another, in this case ofmythosbeing replaced by logos. But is this not too simplistic? What, after all, is a myth? The first point to notice is that recent studies have shown that this is the way to ask the question. Rather than asking, ‘What is myth?’, one can only ask, ‘What is a myth?’, because there are so many different kinds of myths, and so many different kinds of cultures in which they have functioned.

The question is hard to answer, and it is safest to go for a minimalist position, rather than immediately taking on board some high-flown theory. Minimally, then, a myth is a traditional tale. This is a good starting-point, because it reminds us that a myth is a story, and that myths evolve within traditional, often pre-literate societies. Within such societies, a myth also has clear functional relevance to some important aspect of life. But this function is not just to help the society to perpetuate itself, as one school of thought has it; it is to help explain and form consensus reality for that community, and so to help make an individual’s experience of life meaningful.

It is true that from the idea that myth explains reality it does not follow that every attempt to explain reality is a myth, but nevertheless it is true that all systems of belief evolve to elucidate the order of things and to make sense of the world. In this sense, science is just as much a myth as anything else; it is a framework or model designed to explain and form reality for those people who accept it—that is, for those people who voluntarily become members of that society—and for only as long as there are enough people to accept it. If this is so, then so far from banishing gods, science has merely been the matrix for a new generation of scientific gods, children of the old gods.15 One person’s mythos, then, is another person’s logos. In introducing one of the eschatological myths with which he ends a few of his dialogues, Plato has Socrates say exactly that. He says, ‘I want to tell you a story. You may think it’s a mythos, but to me it’s a logos’ (Gorgias 523a).

A related point is that no replacement is ever perfect, so that logos can never entirely replace mythos. The world we have made for ourselves is not entirely rational. However much scientism might want to, it does not rule the world, only a little dusty corner of it. However much we now rely on rationality in our day-to-day lives, it cannot entirely repress the old gods. In every state, however totalitarian, there is always an underground. There is nothing rational about religious faith, which St Paul expressly defined as ‘the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen’ (Hebrews 11: 1); there is nothing rational about being overtaken by joy at some scenery or a poem or painting; on the dark side, there is nothing rational about imprisoning a fellow human being within a wall of truck tyres and setting light to him, just because he belongs to another tribe. The old gods of unreason are still there, below the surface, waiting to emerge in horrible ways if they are not allowed to do so in an orderly way.

So we can characterize the Presocratic revolution as a shift from mythos to logos, if we like, but these terms need using with caution, because there is more overlap between the two domains than might appear at first sight. Although it is uncomfortable to admit it, and many scientists especially try to brush it under the carpet, each of us is a bundle of rational and irrational impulses, and the attempt to divorce the two is as doomed to failure as the attempt to divorce science from mysticism in the Presocratics. In this sense the Presocratic combination of vision and logic is a precise model for two strands of future development in human intellectual endeavour, which should not perhaps have been allowed to separate from each other as far as they sometimes have. Or rather, the attempt to separate them is ultimately unreal, a violation which leads to abominations such as the rape of the planet and the dehumanizing loss of imagination. It is certainly not clear that Schiller was correct in claiming that the logos that is with us today is entirely de-souled. And perhaps it is precisely the fact that it has ‘soul’ that will lead, in some unexpected way, with the help of some modern equivalents to the Presocratics, to the next paradigm shift—not back to the old gods, but to yet another generation of gods. As Homer well knew, the gods in some disguise or other never die.

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