Greek Philosophy 201, 202

Experimentation in the Art of Thinking

I: Prolegomena

II: PreSocratica

Students think of Greek Philosophy as a course in Plato and Aristotle, with some interesting antecedents from a previous generation of experimenters curiously called The PreSocratics. This makes an overly tight circle of documents, with almost nothing of importance from a previous world and too much to effectively grasp in the effect on the European consciousness of the following millennia. There is so much written material, amplified by libraries of commentary and refutation, that it is easy to delve into the narrow core of this philosophical tradition and excise what does not fit our philosophical preconceptions.

But there are are Preconditions in several stages which made the experimental tenor of Greek experimentation after 7th c. BC expectable and possible.

I: Behind Greece was a flourishing civilization still active around 12th c. BC, . It had control over the eastern part of the Mediterranean world, it was skilled in shipbuilding and business practices, it had two styles of writing one of which we can read an early form of Greek, another in a different system with a different language and possible a different population, which we have but cannot read. The widespread range of commerce brought the Hellenic lands into close contact with the older highly developed East, with various cultural traits we now connect with the Semitic and Hamitic civilizations.

II: But there were other threads which came with the invasion of an Indo-European populations which probably entered Greece from the north as a split-off from the massive cross-Europe I-E movements. The Greek language got its basic form from this thread, but it turns out that only half of Greek words are of a traceable IE source, which must point to processes of a crossing and mixing which we cannot exactly decipher. Some I-E connects must have been ancient, e.g. the basic vocabulary of the language and its pitch-sounding of the words, but there are also later loans which must have come from a developed culture in the Indian peninsula. Greek religion looks to be ancient, chthonic and European on the one hand, but it is also in some ways Vedistic and Indian if not Indus Valley influenced on the other hand.

III: ANd on the other hand there were important cultural Losses and Lacunae throughout the Hellenisic area after 12th c. BC, which eradicated part of the old population, lost the transmission of information by a writing system, and failed to hand down the recording and counting techniques which a commercial trading society must have had. But there were also shades of a partly recalled historical record, and a mixed shelf of religious figures which could be chthonic, celestial or borrowed from Semitic sources or even traceable from a remote IE background. In the middle period of the little understood and un-documented Dark Age centuries between 11th and 7th c. BC, there was no regularized priestly class capable of codifying and transmitting a theological code, with the result that later reviving Greek societies might have significant elements of an ancient religion, but in fact no real theology at all. The elaborate texture of theic variances in the preserved Mythological Corpus makes this clear.

IV: THus, the revived and rekindled Greece after the 7th c. was in a rather special position. It had elements of a long inheritance, but these had been fragmented and could be seen only in a haze of undocumented thinking or in the oral tradition of a poetic class of bards. But the writers of the Cycle as we guess its shape, were not ancient, they were probably improvisers of the 7th c. and later, with the resualt that the Greek world which was waking from its long sleep after Homer was singularly free from the strictures of a standardized historical and cultural code. One thinks of the reinvigoration of flora which takes place after a widespread forest fire, taking over the burned area with a new challenge and freedom. Just so after a cultural submerge, what evolves has a new kind of freedom to reshape and to experiment, which a culture locked in an older code will not experience.

V: These factors conduce to the thesis that the revival of activity in re-borne Greek after 700 BC was special in several critical respects. It had inherited elements from a long past, but because of the garbled and unclear handing-down of that past, it also saw a new vista of potentialities. In such a framework, we find various new trends in Greek thinking starting to emerge, unfettered by notions from a religious or historical past. New worlds have a way of generating new thinking, this has been a significant trend in the long course of our historical record worldwide.

We find a parallel situation when the European societies after 1700 began to move away from the format of their Feudal history, they began to instantly advance into a new area of lucubration which included not only politics and religion, but also science, with a new concept of industry, expended force levels through machinery, and a radical social awareness of the populace. The immediate factor which prepared for these changes was in all probability the Little Ice Age of the 14th through 19th centuries, with its devastating territorial warfare as a critical factor for change in the late 18th c. Thinking of History as the transmission of tradition, we often miss the importance of the lacunae which immediately preceed new periods,which often generate an interest in new thinking and new social contracts.

VI: Greece after 600 BC was in the throes of vast social and commercial expansion. An alphabet was found essential and the alpha-beta Semitic system with its brilliantly clear phoneticism was borrowed under the name of one Kadmos, whose tri-consonantal name shows its original as the word for "East" in the Semitic tongues. Metalworking at Athens expanded from local trade for use to exporting of products, necessitating ships and a protecting navy, as well as mining for silver above bronze for coinage, borrowing of foreign temple architecture and marble figures for revived shrines of the ancient gods. And with this unfolding of the world via the port of Piraeus, Athens evinced new ways of putting together old words as tentative experiments for new concepts, as the ideatic tool-box of the cultural and commercial expansion.

VII: It is a small step from the question "What if we did....?" and "How is it that this is so. . . .?" to questions about the planetary movements or the relative relationship of the Now to the Later in a flowing river, or the absolute difference between the high and the low road as a matter of basic relativity. Many new concepts like Pythagoras's "Number is the first thing. . ." or the Proof of Euclid's Theorem Book I, 5, were conceived and valued even thought there was no immediate need for them, to be discovered later as of supreme value in the trailing centuries of an originally Hellenic inspired world-culture. The great systems of Ptolemy and Galen and Aristotle are founded ultimately on the simple questions which the PreSocratics were using to expand the range of their thinking processes.

So what we call "Greek Philosophy" is by no means the history of the surviving data from the Hellenic and Hellenistic periods, but a radical new way of putting questions where questions had not heretofore been raised, and suggesting answers which one way or another would become part of the intellectual fabric of the Western World. With these things kept in mind, students will be in a good position to open the pages of Plato and Aristotle as more than curious and surprising reading assignments, but rather a chronicle in the original world of Ideatic Experimentation.

The PreSocratics

There has been so much attention given to the PreSocratics, that a few words of caution are required. There were no thinkers who ever thought of themselves as PreSocratic Philosophers, in fact the term was only created later as a reflex of Plato's brilliant Philosophical Novelettes, which we know as the Dialogues. Plato goes back to a point when Socrates was at his strongest, and puts together from fact and scholarly imagination a series of resumés which give a picture of the later group of thinkers whom Socrates would naturally have known. But when we speak of the PreSocratics, we include other earlier figures also drawn from both Plato, Aristotle and much later sources, but this does not constitute the existence of a true PreSocratic Corpus.

There is no complete edition of the PreSocratic Fragments online at the present time. The best presentation is still Kirk and Raven : The PreSocratics, Cambridge l957 and reprinted, with Greek text and each passage trnaslatied. Or Wheelwright: The PreSocratics, Odyssey Presss l966 and reprinted, with a good English translation. I mention these older books as complete sicne there are only selections online, which defeats purpose ofm serious study. But there are full online materials on Heraclitus and Pythagoras at Wm. Harris' site, the philosophy page.


In fact there is no such corpus. What we have is a collection of every scrap of text and every reference to an early Greek thinker, as drawn from a variety of sources which include late Hellenistic writers on Philosophy for school use, the chance remarks of some late "Doctors at Dinner" who reminisce on their readings in the classical literature, as well as remarks from Christian authors intended to dispute and disparage the view of early non-Christian thinkers as vain and ridiculous. From such a farrago of more than a thousand years of comments, we have assembled a "corpus" to include every incidence and ever scrap from the table of the early thinkers. It is valuable because it is all we have for the history of the field, but it is badly fragmented and chancy in the transmission, and parts of it are contradictory and possibly incorrect. When we open a Spark Review we expect to find everything briefly mentioned and in clear order; but when we open Kirk-Raven, we have a lot guessing and homework to do before we can begin to get at the gold behind the dross.

I: There are two uses of this PreSocratic collection. The professor who has studied the texts in detail, will make out a historical schema for the class, by which he traces the development of Greek thinking from the earliest Ionian guesses to the academically secure graduate courses which Aristotle wrote for hsi advanced students. Glances at the later materials will be folded into the history in due order and students may have the impression that it all is leading somewhere, on the one hand to the full text of the Plato which we have, and also to lost writings of lost thinkers about whom we know little more than what these fragments hint. But in Academe we like order and the PreSocratics can be adjusted to stand in a relatively straight line.

II: There is another use which should be of use to the student who is more concerned with the questions than the answers. The standard list of the PreSocratic persons includes some twenty items: Xenophanes, Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Zeno, Melissus, Empedocles, Anaxagoras, Leucippus, Democritus, Pythagoras, Philolaus, Protagoras, Gorgias and of course Hippocrates, followed by a later Euclid summarizing two hundred years of mathematical thought. This would come to about three hundred pages in English translation, this is the material of the "PreSocratic Corpus".

At the present time we live in the global presence of the Web, and a quick search with google will call up a brief report on each of the above names. At that point one can turn to the text in Kirk-Raven or Wheelright and see what we know the person to have said. Fragmentary and short, often unclear at times inexplicable, these text materials can be used by the serious thinking student of the Greek mind as an unfettered venture into what new ideas these ancient words can possibly suggest. What is important is the fact that Greek thinking has a peculiar fecundative quality, it conspires in some unknown ways to produce new and often discrepant thoughts, often to the surprise of the modern reader. Many of these Fragments contain germs of idea which we have later found to be important, many hint at ideas which have not yet matured into full bloom. Using this ancient Collection in the manner of a Western I-Ching, as a way to connect one's mind with a special kind of generically apt text, one can come to the study of Greek philosophy by a very surprising back-door.

We start our normal Course Reading with selections from the major texts translated from Plato's six volumes in the OCT Greek original, or parts of Aristotle's polymathic and voluminous treatises on everything from Pure Reason to Science. But since we know that this is not the full story of the New Thinking which evolved from 700 BC on into the latest Byzantine Greek ages, it is a healthy enterprise to search among the PreSocratic scraps for traits which do not show up well in our 4th century well-manicured academic treatises. When thought gets canonized in an Academy, ancient or modern at the hands of a class of professional teachers, some of the initial mystery tends to get lost. Some searching among the bits and scraps of this earlier collection may give a sense of the fluidity of ideas as they occur in a series of generations. Thought, like Heraclitus' figure for a river in constant motion, is a continuum. We read it at moments when it seems temporarily static, but it has the same continual flow as the river of time.

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College