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1 November: Plato & Aristotle:  (Nearly) The First Philosophers

Anthony Hooper

Plato and Aristotle are widely considered to be the first philosophers, and both are often discusses as if they were geniuses who began philosophical discourse ex nihilo. In this talk Anthony argues that both Plato and Aristotle arose from already well established streams of thought, including materialistic, sophistic, pre-logical, and mythological modes of explanation. 

I In looking for a place to start a discussion of the history of philosophy, Plato and Aristotle seem to be the natural choice. Not only are these figures often attributed with inventing the philosophical method, but their treatments of ethical, political, metaphysical, ontological, epistemological, linguistic, scientific, and aesthetic issues – i.e., all those issues which form the core of modern philosophical discourse – are considered foundational in these disciplines. And the dominance of these two figures in the history of Western thought cannot be disputed, as every major philosophical school eventually traces its roots back through Plato and Aristotle. But in this paper I wish to look more deeply into the issue of whether Plato and Aristotle can really be called the first philosophers. To do this I will go back to pre-philosophical modes of thought, and that of the so-called Presocratic philosophers, before considering Plato and Aristotle themselves. I wish to consider both the methods of the thinkers in each of these periods, as well as the content of their thoughts, in order to determine what original contributions (if any) Plato and Aristotle made to the history of philosophy. II To begin the story of Western philosophical thought it is first necessary to consider those modes of thought that were pre-philosophical. The dichotomy upon which the boundary lies between these two periods is often thought to hinge on that of muthos and logos, or ‘myth’ and ‘argumentation/logic’. According to this view, prephilosophical modes of thought are characterised by myth, and philosophy from Plato and Aristotle onwards by logic – with the Presocratics engaging in a mode of thought that combined both. In this paper we will get some insight into the validity of this position, and to ruin the suspense this suggestion won’t look too healthy. But from this account what is at least true is that Western thought, in all regions of Europe (and beyond) began in myth. The first of the periods that I will consider encompasses all of human history until roughly 700BCE. At this time, as much as at any other in human history, people demanded explanation of the world around them, and to satisfy this demand they appealed to mythology. The paradigm of myths of this time are not those of Homer or other epics, which appeared quite soon before the end of this period; but instead, regional and colloquial myths unique to certain areas. These stories were either didactic, instilling notions of what is right and wrong to do – such as those of Narcissus and Sisyphus –, or they were explanatory, attempting to give an account of particular phenomena – for example, the naming of the ‘Aegean’ sea (Aegeus or Aegea). Characteristic of myths at this time is that they were: i) specific in scope, in that they concerned particular events or phenomena, rather than attempting to give a rigorous account of the world as a whole; ii) their objects of concern were mainly heroes and strange mythical beasts – although they did increasingly concern gods towards the end of this period; and iii) the authority to which mythmakers appeal is divine; that is, their justification for their accounts was that, when recounting a myth, they spoke not with their own voice, but a divine one. Importantly, this meant that mythmakers were, by and large, beyond either reproach or challenge from their audience, as one could no more challenge the poet than one could a god. Such was the way that humans sought to explain the world for the majority of our existence, but in 700BCE a dramatic development occurred. It did not, however, come from philosophers or scientists; instead, it occurred within poetry itself. At the turn of the 7th century the poet/theologian Hesiod published the two works for which he is most famous: Theogony, an account of the origins of the gods, and Works and Days, a strange book that describes the five ages of man, as well as offering helpful hints to farmers and homemakers. Like for the mythmaking that came before, Hesiod’s authority came from his claim that he was speaking with a divine voice, and the objects of his work were, for the most part, still gods and heroes. But what is unique about Hesiod is the scope of his mythmaking. Instead of giving an account of a series of individual events, he writes a myth about the beginnings and workings of the world as a whole. For the first time in human history, we have an idea of the world in which we live as a ‘cosmos’ – not a random and chaotic sphere in which things happen merely by chance; but a ‘world order’ which is both principled and explicable. All things in the world, according to Hesiod, occur because of a divine principle; that is, the world, both as a whole, and in its particular parts, is organised and controlled by the gods. This may not seem like an overly dramatic development, as Hesiod still appeals to the gods for his account of the world; gods whose actions are unpredictable, and whose reasons for acting are unknowable. But only with a conception of the world as organised, and, at least potentially predictable, could philosophical thought begin to germinate. III The first thinkers who engage in a mode of discourse that could be identified as at least proto-philosophical are found a mere century after Hesiod, in the 6th Century BC. Interestingly enough (or, actually, essentially), we do not find a single figure standing alone and monolithically amidst the mythmakers; instead, we find three. These figures are Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes, members of the Milesian school (named after their home city, Miletus, in Asia Minor), the first of the Presocratics. Thales particularly was a poster-child of wisdom in the Ancient world, and he was something of a polymath. He was renowned as a mathematician and engineer, although he was most famous for one dramatic event in particular. According to Herodotus Thales predicted an eclipse that occurred in 585BC, which, dramatically enough, happened during a battle between the Lydians and the Medes. Although this was probably more likely a good guess rather than a prediction, that Thales was involved in such a task is indicative of the huge impact of Hesiod’s idea of the world as a ‘cosmos’. Astronomical events, more than any other phenomena, were thought to be the doings and realm of the gods, but yet Thales obviously thought that these events were predictable. The most importance contribution of the Milesians to the history of philosophical thought is found in their account of material change. According to each of these figures, the universe as a whole was originally made up of a single original substance (or ‘principle’), either water, the indefinite, or air, and the ‘cosmos’ came about through the material change of this substance. Although there is little for either modern philosophers or scientists to derive from this position, it is indicative of an incredible shift in the way people think. First, the objects of their inquiry were not gods or heroes, but rather material substances; i.e., the natural world. Second, their justification for their conclusions was empirical and rational (SAY HOW). And third, because of this, their positions were subject to discussion. Because these thinkers appealed to capacities which all (or many) humans possess, it meant that others were now in a position to challenge their views. It is for this reason that it is important that the Milesians were a ‘school’ of thought. They were not just people who offered unique and final accounts of the world; instead, they were figures who offered their positions for critique, and sought to refine the views of others. Explanation, at least in the Milesian school, ceased being an individual exercise, and became a communally discursive activity. In the Milesians we see a dramatic evolution in philosophy, both in respect to their subject matter, as well as to the way in which they thought. Even in the first steps of philosophy we already have evidence of empirical and rational thought, but at this stage the way in which these tools were wielded was still quite haphazard, and we would now think of their arguments as involving incredible leaps of logic. And the Milesians did not lie entirely within the realm of logic either. As can be seen from the sole remaining fragment that remains of the work of these three figures, from Anaximander, mythic thought was still intertwined with their own: “for they (the material elements of the world) give recompense and pay restitution to each other for their injustice according to the ordering of time”. For most of the 6th Century BCE the beginnings of philosophical thought were completely tangled with scientific thought. But at the end of this century, in another figure from Asia Minor, Heraclitus of Ephesus, we see a dramatic broadening of the philosophical exercise. For Heraclitus, too, it is of paramount importance that the world is ordered, as only be being so can thought capture reality. Heraclitus also sees the natural world as fundamentally ordered, and he draws conclusions from this that (appear) to be quite similar to that of the Milesians – although he offers fire as the first material principle of the cosmos. But where Heraclitus differs from the Milesians is that he believes that human thought is equally capable of navigating the ethical and the metaphysical realms. With Heraclitus, philosophy is no longer concerned merely with material change, but with such questions as how we ought to live, and what we ought to do. And furthermore, he does not merely accept a particular view of the cosmos as a premise; instead, he raises it as an issue that needs to be considered. For Heraclitus, the world is not merely a predictable cosmos, but a cosmos of opposites (such as hot and cold) that are continually in flux, transforming from one into the other. But perhaps the most important contribution of Heraclitus is that, barely one hundred years after non-mythical thought came on the scene, philosophical thought has already become a problem to be discussed. In some of his more memorable fragments Heraclitus declares Pythagoras an ‘artful knave’, and says that Homer should be beaten with a stick, because of the way that they have attempted to view the world. According to Heraclitus, we cannot merely let our fancy run free in our explanations of the world; instead, we should appeal only to things that can be verified by the senses for our explanation. However, Heraclitus is not a simple empiricist. He believes that empirical thought alone is not sufficient for knowledge. We cannot merely look at, and feel a lyre in order to recognise its nature; instead, we must reflect on our sensations and see that the lyre is built upon opposition. Rational modes of thought, and not just empirical investigation, then, are necessary for knowledge for Heraclitus. In Heraclitus, philosophy has expanded from being concerned with material change, to the consideration of ethical, epistemological, and metaphysical issues. But as for the Milesians, (some would say) that even with Heraclitus, philosophy still lacks rigour. The demand for rigour, however, was met with gusto by the next figure to be considered: Parmenides. Parmenides came from the opposite side of the Greek world to the Milesians and Heraclitus. He did not live in Asia Minor, but in a region referred to as Graeca Major, Greek colonies in Sicily and the southern coast of Italy. In Parmenides the history of philosophy puts aside the myriad of issues that it now concerns, in order to focus on one issue alone: that of ‘being’ itself. That is, Parmenides is less concerned about what exists in the world than about the mode that is existence itself. His question is: what does it mean for something to be. Parmenides conducts philosophy in a hitherto unique way – one that is the bane of Ancient philosophy students the world round, and which Bertrand Russel aptly describes as one in which philosophy is raised to “raw thought”. He does not appeal to the senses to describe the world, but instead believes that the nature of the world must be logical. In order to discover the world, then, we need not go out and study it; instead, we only need to think about what it must be like to be internally consistent. To get some insight into Parmenides’ style, let us consider the following passage: Come now, and I shall tell, and do you receive through hearing the tale, Which are the only ways of inquiry for thinking: The one: that it is and that it is not possible not to be, Is the path of Persuasion (for she attends Truth): The other; that it is not and that it is right it should not be, This I declare to you is an utterly inscrutable track, For neither could you know what is not (for it cannot be accomplished) Nor could you declare it. Through appealing to rational thought alone to describe the world Parmenides arrives at a picture of the world that is counter-intuitive. According to Parmenides there is no such thing as generation or destruction; everything that is, has been, and will be forever. There is no such thing as motion. And if anything is something, it is wholly and only that thing. So a hot thing is entirely hot, and in no way cold. A dog is only a dog, and in no way anything else. But despite Parmenides’ commitment to logic and incredibly rigorous argumentation, he still does not fall only within the realm of logic. His work is infused with striking mythological elements, as we can see from the opening of his work: The mares which bear me as far as my desires might reach Were carrying me, when they led me into the many-voiced way Of the deity, who leads the knowing mortal straight on through all things. Such was the force of Parmenides’ arguments that for almost a century after his writing philosophical thinkers could not escape his pull. As counter-intuitive as his conclusions were, in the fifty years following his writing, thinkers such as Anaxagoras, Empedocles, and the Atomists, Democrtius and Leucippus, all designed their cosmologies so as to satisfying Parmenides’ account of what-is. IV Parmenides, and those thinkers who followed his work closely (a group known as the Eleatics) dominated philosophical thought for much of the 5th Century BCE. But during this time, particularly in the middle of this century, another unique group of thinkers arrived on the scene. Although they can in no way be referred to a school, and, indeed, possibly never met each other, or read each other’s work, they are grouped together under the term ‘Sophists’. In Ancient Greek the term ‘sophist’ originally just meant ‘a wise person’, but by the end of the 5th Century it came to refer to this group particularly: individuals who would travel from town to town, and teach students how to win at arguments at all costs in exchange for a fee – a particularly useful skill in the litigious Greek cities of the time. Members of this group share two basic philosophical positions, and a single method. These positions are that: i) there is no such thing as objective truth; there is instead only subjective perceptions of situations; and ii) that there is no such thing as objective good; there is instead only advantage. In holding these two beliefs truth and virtue took a back seat as the goals of discussion and investigation. The only end of discussion for the sophists was winning whatever you may desire. And to achieve this end a new mode of discourse was invented – what we would now refer to as ‘dialectic’. Dialectic is a discussion comprised of a series of questions and answers between two interlocutors with the intent of showing that the person answering the question has inconsistent views on a topic. Given that there is no truth, so one can not prove another’s answers false, the only way to ‘win’ a discussion is to catch someone contradicting themselves; a hunt that, if successful, ends with roaring applause and laughter from any assembled audience. (EG: Mum example) V The sophistic movement seems to be a strange bed fellow with philosophy, which is, by definition, the search for wisdom. Indeed, the goals of the sophists, and the premises of sophistic thought, were often (but not universally) criticised by philosophers in the Ancient (and modern) world. But its method was to gain a central place in the history of philosophy in the character of Socrates. Because Socrates wrote nothing down, and because the three portraits that we have of the old Athenian – that of Aristophanes, Xenophon, and Plato – all paint him quite differently, it is impossible to know exactly what Socrates said, or how he said it. But given Aristophanes’ caricature in the ‘Clouds’, and Plato’s early ‘Socratic dialogues’, we can say with some certainty that his method was quite similar to, and for many indistinguishable from, that of the Sophists. But why would this be so, for someone whose aim is wisdom? The answer is that, although Socrates aimed for wisdom, he did not think that he himself possessed it, and so had no wisdom to offer. The problem here is that, if one does not know what is true, then how can a group of interlocutors know if one of them stumbles across the truth? For Socrates, like the sophists, the answer is consistency. Reality, for Socrates, is without contradiction, so any account of reality must be internally consistent. The best litmus test, then, for a series of ignorant interlocutors to test the truth of any position, is to determine whether their view is contradictory or not. If it is, then this is a sign that that person does not know the truth, and must seek to develop their understanding. Socrates believed this to be a particularly pressing task, especially in the realm of ethics. We only have one shot at living a good and virtuous life. And the only way that we can assuredly do this is to know exactly what it is to be virtuous. It is for this reason that Socrates was so adamant in ensuring that ethical matters, including the nature of such things as justice, courage, piety, and even knowledge, took centre stage in philosophical discussions. VI After this incredibly innovative period that lasted over 200 years we now arrive at Plato. And yet, there seems to be very little left for Plato to contribute to the history of philosophy. We already have thinkers recommending empirical and rational modes of thought; dialectic is already an established tradition; and all of the major topics have already been introduced into philosophy by other thinkers. The scope of his philosophical exercise is not unique either, as figures like Heraclitus and Empedocles already engaged with a variety of philosophical issues. We cannot even say that Plato was the first philosopher to wholly embrace logic, as his works, particularly from the middle of his writing period onwards, are littered and infused with incredibly memorable myths. In what sense that can we say that Plato was the first philosopher? In a purely historical sense I wish to suggest that we can’t, and can more rightly say that he was ‘nearly’ the first philosopher. But just because Plato is not an ahistorical genius who invented philosophical thought ex nihilo does not mean that we cannot say that he is truly the greatest of philosophers. Although no different in scope or method, the rigour of his thought, and the power of his presentation ensure that, along with Aristotle, he will always be the first among philosophers. Let the wage promised to a friend by fixed; even with your brother smile - and get a witness; for trust and mistrust alike ruin men. Do not let a flaunting woman coax and cozen and deceive you: she is after your barn. The man who trusts womankind trusts deceivers. There should be an only son to feed his father's house, for so wealth will increase in the home; but if you leave a second son you should die old. But Zeus can easily give great wealth to a greater number. More hands means more work and more increase. If your heart within you desires wealth, do these things and work with work upon work. Work and Days 370-380

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