International Catholic University


Ancient Philosophy

Lesson One: In The Beginning

1. The history of the history of philosophy

Plato and Aristotle were the first two historians of philosophy. In developing their own thought, they did so with reference to their predecessors, and this led them to pass on to us information about those predecessors we would not otherwise have had. It can be fairly said that the giving of such information was incidental to Plato's thought, whereas in Aristotle it became a conscious theme, not least because he saw a logic in the sayings in doctrines of his predecessors they themselves might have found surprising.

It is a feature of Aristotle's treatises that he reviews what his predecessors have had to say on the subject under consideration. Thus in the Physics, he devotes much of the first book to a review of what the ancients had to say about change and the product of change. Typically, he not only recounts earlier doctrines but he finds in them implications which point the way to the truth of the matter. In doing this, he often has to take note of the fact that earlier thinkers had not distinguished the disciplines as clearly as they might. Thus in Physics 1, while he discusses the sayings of Parmenides in his poem, he notes that what Parmenides is saying cannot count as a teaching about natural things, things that come to be as the result of a change, but in its range seems to fall to the comprehensive science which, according to Aristotle, crowns the philosophical quest. So too in the other natural writings he will inform us of what has been said of the particular subject at issue. The whole first book of On the Soul is devoted to a review of what his predecessors have had to say about life and the principle of life, soul. So too in the Metaphysics, the first book is devoted to a review of philosophical thinking up to Aristotle's time.

It should not of course be thought that Aristotle's interests in his predecessors is confined to these overtly historical surveys. Almost at every step of the way, he, like Plato, will find himself prompted and/or inspired what has already been said on a topic. It could be said that Plato is preponderantly interested in what those who are called Sophists had to say, while Aristotle's interests in the past is more far-ranging.

Reference has been made to the poem of Parmenides. We are always in danger of anachronistic understandings in thinking of the beginnings of philosophy. Instinctively, we would contrast poetry and philosophy. Implicit in this would be an understanding of what poetry and non-poetry are. But it is an inescapable fact that those who are accounted philosophers by Plato and Aristotle often expressed their thought in verse. Indeed, it could be said that it is only with time that philosophy comes to be expressed in prose. Thales is by common consent accounted the first of the philosophers, but we have no extant text of his. His teaching is reducible to three major propositions -- all things are water, all things are alive, and all things are divine -- but these are hearsay and we have no way of knowing how Thales himself expressed these thoughts. And if we look ahead to Empedocles, native of present day Agrigento -- the port there is called to this day Porto Empedocle -- a contemporary of Socrates, which places him at the beginning of the fourth century BC, is sometimes summarily said to have taught the doctrine of the four elements, fire, air, earth and water. Yet when we look at the fragments of Empedocles that have come down to us, we may be surprised that these elements are referred to as deities. He thinks of the all as naturally divided into quadrants each of which is identified with one of the elements or deities. Change is then regarded as the trespassing of an element into the territory of another, the result being a mixed being. Such a mixed being, as a result of trespass is seen as a standing injustice, and its dissolution, that is, the return of its elements to their allotted quadrant, amounts to justice being done. Presiding over this is the deity Moira or fate.

In short, we have a very dramatic portrayal of the changes going on in the world around us. Such an account will often be called a mythos, a story, a dramatic narrative which includes an explanation of what is going on. It is a tribute to Plato's and Aristotle's historical sense, that they see the beginnings of what they themselves were engaged in in thinkers whose writings or saying it would be all too easy to contrast with Plato and Aristotle. The two men are quite content to see the beginnings of philosophizing in what they, too, call myths. The common factor, they say, is wonder. Following Plato, Aristotle says that philosophy begins in wonder, and he holds that myth, too, is linked with, indeed, composed of wonders. Wonder in the obvious sense arises when we observe something and ask why it is has come about as it has. The controlling question here is "Why?" An answer to the question would begin with Because. In their own way the ancients were trying to give a causal account of the happenings around them. A mythical account tells a story incorporating the causal explanation. Aristotle will spend some time on contrasting the causal account of the lovers of myth with the causal accounts of the lover of wisdom, the philosopher. He will sometimes speak of the mythical or poetic theologians, suggesting that the explanations at the outset of what he is willing to call philosophizing are, in terms of divine agents, extrinsic explainers, personifications of the given or natural.

While it is not possible to equate what Aristotle says of the poet in his Poetics with the practices of the mythologists, there is indeed a connection. In speaking of what the tragic poet does, Aristotle says that he takes the old stories -- palaoi mythoi -- and imposes a myth of plot on them. Thus the traditional and ancient story accounts of what is going on around us form the material of the poet in the conscious sense. The poet, in the conscious artful sense of the term, provides a causal account of the outcome of human behavior which differs appreciably from that of the ancient mythologists. The mark of the poet is his use of metaphor. The metaphor is a kind of discourse. In likening one thing to another more known thing, the poet seeks to cast a borrowed light on the thing for which he has found a similitude. (This gift of finding a fitting and revealing similitude is the genius of the poet. We respond to what he says with the shock of recognition. While we ourselves might not have thought of the simile, once confronted with it we see its appropriateness and learn from it.) Thus in the metaphor our attention is drawn from one thing to another in way that has the former cast light on the latter.

In the Republic, Plato famously speaks of an ancient quarrel between the philosopher and the poet. In the context, he is about to banish from the ideal commonwealth he is describing poets as teachers of the young. He does this because he thinks that Homer, as preeminent example, attributes to the gods of Olympus modes of behavior we would find reprehensible in ourselves. Plato wants the gods to be spoken in a way that makes clear that they are embodiments of perfections for which we humans strive with varying degrees of success.

A simplistic way of reading Aristotle would be to say that he distinguishes between the metaphorical language of myth and the literal meaning of philosophical prose. This is simplistic because Aristotle speaks of a spectrum of argumentation at one end of which is poetic argumentation, that is, for example, the discourse involved in the metaphor. Aristotle will define what he means by the most forceful kind of argumentation, the demonstrative or apodictic, and then see an array of forms of argument which are weaker than that, but perhaps as strong as one can hope for in dealing with a given subject matter. Even within what he would call philosophical sciences, Aristotle will see demonstrative argument as defining of the discipline but by no means the dominant form of argumentation within it. The notion that the strongest form of argument will be exemplified in a variety of subject matters, not all of which permit sequences of it, as for example Euclidean geometry may seem to do, leads him to see a variety of forms of argument within the philosophical disciplines in the strictest sense, and this leads to a commodious inclusion of forms of discourse which do not exhibit demonstrative argument but which are assimilated to the disciplines that do. Thus probable and rhetorical argumentation is all we can hope for in forensic reasoning and for the most part in moral and political philosophy.

This theoretical recognition of the variety of disciplines and the forms of argument that characterize it leads Aristotle to what may seem a very tolerant view of the historical origins of philosophy.

2. The origins of philosophy

Plato, influenced by Socrates who eschewed the study of nature and preferred life in the city and moral and political problems, shows relatively little interest in giving an account of the world attained by our senses. For reasons that we will see, Plato tends to be suspicious of any claim that sensible things can ground anything like true knowledge. Aristotle, on the other hand, holding that our knowledge of material things must be the basis for knowledge we have of any other kind of being, tends to see the earliest thinkers as attempting to give an account of the physical world, that is, of developing inchoative forms of natural science.

The world around us is a world of change, of things coming into being, changing while they are, and ultimately ceasing to be. Thus the Ionian philosophers are seen as providing accounts of nature, physis, the coming into being of things. Thales is understood as having said that water is at the source of the things around us. Puzzling over this, it is noted that moisture seems to be a feature of the germination of seeds and that drying up is a sign of decay and ceasing to be. This is, of course, a construction of the meaning of those enigmatic claims attributed to Thales. Anaximenes saw air as basic, and rarefaction and condensation were the processes whereby air took on different forms which in turn it lost. Heraclitus, in this taxonomy, is thought to have cited fire as the nature or source of the things we experience.

These gropings toward a natural science, expressed in dramatic or mythical language -- as witness even Empedocles several centuries after Thales -- enable Aristotle to see these thinkers as on the way to the science that he will attempt to articulate. It would of course have been easy for Aristotle simply to dismiss these early attempts as misguided and to ignore them. But this is not his notion of man's quest for knowledge. He persists in seeing earlier attempts as attempts at natural science, and thus accords what may seem to us a surprising respect for views that may seem to have little to commend them. For Aristotle, human thought as it has come down to us is better seen as an effort to give a causal explanation, and if it fails this is because it does not discern the inner or proper bases for change and physical being.

3. From religion to philosophy?

Earlier in the twentieth century it was fashionable to speak of the evolution of philosophical thinking as the emergence from theological thinking to natural science. Philosophy is then understood as the progressive removal of the divine from the sphere of philosophy. Appeal to the divine is taken to be a surpassed phase of thought with philosophy viewed as naturalistic in a latter day sense.

This is clearly wrong. While we can find in, for example, Heraclitus rather rough treatment of those who see everything about us as the direct result of divine intervention, and the description of the gods as pretty obvious anthropocentric thinking, it is emphatically not the case that either Plato or Aristotle were interested in doing away with theology. For both of them, in different ways, theology, knowledge of the divine, is the culminating goal of philosophizing where the ultimate cause of things is contemplated. It is one thing to distinguish between a proximate and remote explanation, and quite another to say that all explanations are proximate or naturalistic.

Barfield and Lewis have suggested an interesting interpretation of this sequence. When the life principle in living things is said to be wind or air -- the etymology of psyche -- we are inclined to see an overt simile. Life is to living things as the wind is to the seemingly animate movement of the grass, for example. But this presupposes that men begin with distinct knowledge of a kind of thing and then consciously draw a simile between it and another quite distinct sort of being. It is far better to suppose, the suggestion is, that at the outset there simply was no distinction made between the living and the nonliving, say, and that when they are eventually distinguished, a language that was common to both is then appropriated to one and the other is seen as similar to it. This accords with the Aristotelian view, on which we will dwell, that human knowledge begins with concepts which gather all kinds of things confusedly within them, and then the distinguishing of what has been gathered into types and species is done, a process that goes until one has hit upon the ultimate kinds of things.

On this view, it could be said that initially there was a confusion of the divine and everything else and that when they were distinguished, it was seen that appeal to the divine cannot be the first way of explaining things. Indeed, unless there is a kind of explanation for physical things which makes use of explainers or causes of the same order, we would have no basis for speaking of the divine. Then knowledge of the divine is distinguished from knowledge of natural things in their proper or proportionate causes. But this does not make appeal to the divine otiose. Au contraire. Seeing that proximate causes are the effects of ultimate causes, and ultimately of God, is the ultimate satisfaction of the question "Why?"

4. The Dark Twin of Philosophy

If we think of the fourth century BC as the golden age of ancient philosophy -- this is the century when we have the remarkable sequence of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle -- we find that Plato and Aristotle share a concern with a kind of false philosophizing exemplified by those they call Sophists. The Sophist was one who pretended to see the truth and used modes of argumentation not to arrive at knowledge of the way things are but rather as a skill that could be put to a practical purpose, gaining power over others. For both Plato and Aristotle, the first and preeminent Sophist was Protagoras.

One of Plato's dialogues takes its title from this man, and his teaching shows up in other dialogues, for example, the Theaetetus. Plato summarizes Protagoras' doctrine in this way: What seems to be so to me is true for me and what seems to be so to you is true for you. In short, all thinking is relativized to a particular thinker. If Protagoras were right, then it would make no sense to claim to know how things truly are, that is, independently of the way they seem to me. The adoption of this view would be the death of philosophy understood as the search for the truth about things.

At first it might surprise us that Plato and Aristotle devoted so much attention to a view they found disruptive. Perhaps we might imagine them leaving the Sophist to practice his craft and teach it to others while they went on about the business of seeking the truth. But unless it could be shown that the assumption of Protagoras could not be made, that it was incoherent, Sophistry would have equal footing with philosophy. Indeed, if the philosopher left the Protagorean dictum unrefuted, his own activity would be seen as simply a personal and subjective quirk. The very nature and future of philosophy depended on confronting the Sophist and refuting him.

Plato did this quite economically in the Theaetetus. If the dictum of Protagoras is applied to the doctrine of Protagoras, it loses any public significance. That is, if it just seems to Protagoras that what seems to him is true, and so with anyone else, he must allow that one to whom Protagoras' dictum seems false is as right as Protagoras takes himself to be. That is, the dictum is both true and false. That is, it is nonsense.

This is a very brief summary of the Platonic refutation of Protagoras, but it exemplifies what both he and Aristotle took to be the correct procedure of dealing with someone who would poison the very wells of discourse and knowledge. Such a position is shown to be incoherent. If it is true it is false. Therefore, it is not a possible option to doing philosophy. Sophistry is anti-philosophy because it is anti-reason and it is anti-reason because it is nonsense.

Writing assignment:

1. Write a brief essay on the position of Protagoras and the way in which Plato and Aristotle address it.


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