Mosaic of the Academy of Plato, Pompeii, circa first century BCE

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Mosaic of the Academy of Plato, Pompeii, circa first century BCE

Philosophy was either born once, or born three times, or didn’t need to be born at all. The least plausible of these options is also the most widely believed: that all philosophy worthy of the name can be traced ultimately to a unique origin among the ancient Greeks. To see things in this way is to think like an Aristotelian. Aristotle’s unparalleled influence as a philosopher in his own right is matched by his influence as a historian of philosophy. It was he who surveyed earlier Greek thinkers and identified some of them—beginning with Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximines, all from the city of Miletus on the Mediterranean coast in modern-day Turkey—as meriting the title of “philosophers.” We call these figures and those who came after them, up to the time of Plato, the “pre-Socratics.” But Aristotle saw himself as the culmination of Greek philosophy, with Plato merely the last and most important of the pre-Aristotelians.

The discipline still called by the Greek word “philosophy” continues to bear the stamp of Aristotle’s intellectual project. Even most of its subdisciplines—logic, ethics, metaphysics, philosophy of mind, political philosophy, epistemology—were first given dedicated treatment in his treatises. But as Maria Michela Sassi observes toward the beginning of her rich investigation of the origins of philosophical thought in Greek culture, the absence of the word “philosophy” does not imply the absence of philosophy. The pre-Socratics did not use the term to describe their own productions; for that we must wait until Plato.

Which brings us to two other births of philosophy, in ancient India and China. These cultures too lacked the name “philosophy,” yet produced what we now recognize as extensive philosophical literatures. Aristotelian logic and epistemology meet their match in the Indian Nyāya school, and his ethical teachings have often been compared to those of the Confucians. If you prefer your philosophy delivered in a more elegant and dramatic form, such as we find in Plato’s dialogues, then you need only turn to the philosophical exchanges presented in the Upanishads or the Bhagavad Gita.

Sassi refrains from theorizing about why philosophy arose independently in three cultures around the same time. This is sensible, and not only because any theory is bound to be highly speculative. It is also because there are good reasons to doubt that Greece, India, and China were the only societies that practiced philosophy, indeed to doubt that philosophy needed to be born or “invented” in the first place. Why not assume that philosophy is just a universal aspect of human culture? To explore this hypothesis, we need some idea of what it means for thoughts to be “philosophical.” This is a notoriously difficult question to answer, though most people probably feel that philosophy is like pornography: we know it when we see it. Provisionally, we might agree to apply the term to all abstract reflection on deep questions concerning ethics, knowledge, being, language, and so on. If that is what we are looking for, then perhaps we will find philosophy just about everywhere.

One body of literature that adopts this inclusive approach is devoted to traditional African societies, whose living oral traditions have been studied for their philosophical content. Not all scholars of African philosophy have been content to equate philosophy with what might be called “folk wisdom,” though. In Henry Odera Oruka’s project of discovering “sage philosophy” by interviewing wise representatives of traditional African culture (in Oruka’s case, in his native Kenya), a basic presupposition was that folk sages are to be distinguished from truly “philosophic” sages. The latter are distinguished by being outstandingly reflective and critically minded, and also for their commitment to ethical and social advancement.

Oruka argued that the wisdom of such African sages is comparable to the wisdom of the pre-Socratics. The difference is just that the latter had the historical good fortune to be identified as “philosophers” by Aristotle and his heirs. In a similar vein, Bryan Van Norden’s recent plea for the integration of Chinese and Indian thought into Western curricula observes that these traditions are more obviously philosophical than the frequently gnomic and obscure remarks of the pre-Socratics.*

So the right question to ask about pre-Socratic philosophy is not why Greek culture alone gave rise to philosophy, but why Greek culture gave rise to the specific tradition of philosophy that led to the achievements of Plato and Aristotle. It is this question that Sassi sets out to answer, treating philosophy more as an ancient literary genre than a universal cultural phenomenon. In doing so she avoids another temptation to which others have frequently succumbed: she does not stress just one cultural factor, such as technological developments or the invention of writing, but explores many and gives them all their due weight. She is intrigued, for instance, by the observation that metal coinage was introduced in the Mediterranean around the time of the earliest Greek thinkers, at the start of the sixth century BC. But since direct causation is “barely verifiable” here, she goes only so far as to say more generally that economic prosperity and social mobility were surely a spur to intellectual development.


She reaches similar conclusions regarding the transition from oral culture to written culture. Scholars have been discussing this shift at least since Plato, who in his Phaedrus complained that dependence on written texts undermines our habits of memory (one can only imagine what he would have made of smartphones). More recently and more optimistically, it’s been suggested that the spread of writing made it possible to move away from the conservativeness of oral culture, which is intended primarily to retain the wisdom of the ancestors, toward a more innovative mode of discourse. (This is the kind of thought that has driven Oruka and others to criticize African “ethnophilosophy,” the ascription of philosophical doctrines to entire traditional African societies on the basis of anthropological and ethnographic research.) As with the coins, Sassi finds the shift from orality at most a necessary, but not sufficient, factor for the emergence of Greek philosophy. Perhaps a figure like Parmenides would have been impossible without writing, but you need more than the idea of writing things down to have ideas like Parmenides’.

Then, too, writing was not unique to the Greeks. We have many texts from Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt, some of which are already philosophical in character, such as the Egyptian works of ethical instruction and an extraordinary dialogue in which a suicidal human speaker argues with his own soul. And even the writings of the Greeks were often passed on orally. At the beginning of one of Plato’s dialogues, Socrates is shown having just heard a reading of a book by Parmenides’ student Zeno. One of the many entertaining anecdotes about Diogenes the Cynic has him, a couple of generations after Plato, attending the reading of a tiresomely long work, noticing that the speaker’s papyrus roll is almost at its end, and calling out to the rest of the audience, “Courage, men, there’s land in sight!”

Among the pre-Socratics, Heraclitus seems to have been particularly aware that his written remarks would not only be read but heard. His famous aphorism that you can’t step into the same river twice actually reads, “Upon those that step into the same rivers different and different waters flow.” The assonant and rhyming Greek version sounds not unlike flowing water: potamoisi toisin autoisin embainousin hetera kai hetera hudata epirrei.

If it wasn’t writing as such that gave rise to philosophy in Greek, then perhaps it was a certain kind of writing. It’s striking that a philosophical figure, Anaximander, may have been the first Greek author writing in prose whose work survives. Other pre-Socratics, including Parmenides and Empedocles, wrote in verse, though this could have been a way to challenge the cultural supremacy of poets like Homer and Hesiod. Sassi inclines toward seeing the poets, like oral culture in general, as inherently conservative: they are “custodians of a traditional knowledge on the gods toward which the philosophers can afford to take different positions.” This is, once again, to side with Aristotle. He believed that implicit philosophical views could be extracted from the poets, but that those views were expressed without full clarity.

The modern-day reader who has struggled through Aristotle’s own works will probably be thinking: he’s one to talk. But what makes Aristotle difficult to read is an abundance of dense rational argumentation, precisely what we do not find in the epic poets. Sassi sees argument as a distinctive feature that differentiates early philosophy in Greek from other kinds of Greek literature, like the poetry of Hesiod, whose story of the birth of the gods and emergence of the cosmos is not established by argument but “passed down” to the poet by the Muses.

But if it is explicit argumentation that makes the difference, this is not something we can find in all the pre-Socratics, if only because our evidence is too scanty. If Thales had an argument in mind when he said that magnets have souls, we don’t know for sure what it was. Heraclitus was known as the “riddler” in antiquity because of the inscrutable nature of his remarks. He intentionally chose to leave his reasoning implicit, even if it is often tolerably clear what the arguments might have been, as in the famous aphorism just mentioned: the example of rivers shows that change and stability coincide. If we’re in the game of making implicit arguments explicit, though, we can play it with passages from Hesiod or Homer as well. That’s what Aristotle was doing when he ascribed certain positions on philosophical questions to these and other poets. Later pagan thinkers, and even some Christians, would continue to weave together Homeric exegesis and philosophical exposition.


So are we still following Aristotle’s more or less arbitrary decisions when we classify certain of his predecessors as philosophers and others not? Probably so, in that we exclude figures like the Athenian statesman Solon, whose contributions to political and ethical thought so impress Sassi that she puts him “on par with the other Pre-Socratics.” She points out that Solon, like the others, did not make appeals to the supernatural. This is one of the most notable, and frequently noted, features of the early Greek thinkers whom Aristotle saw as his predecessors. He sometimes called them physiologoi, meaning those who inquire into or speak about nature (in Greek physis, the root of our word “physics,” which, naturally, is also the title of one of Aristotle’s treatises). Sassi comments that the pre-Socratics accorded nature “a reverence traditionally reserved for the gods.” It was not only a matter of reverence, but also and more centrally a tendency to offer natural explanations in place of supernatural ones.

Often the explanations pushed toward the same goal cherished by modern-day scientists: a unified theory of the universe. Thales may have believed that everything derives from water. Aristotle schematically classifies him and other pre-Socratics by the “principles” they recognized, with several early cosmologies invoking just one single material principle like air, fire, or, in the case of Anaximander, the more abstract apeiron (“infinite” or “indefinite”). Individual phenomena in the cosmos were given tailor-made naturalistic explanations, which might or might not try to connect these phenomena to a grand theory of everything: heavenly bodies are bowls of fire (Heraclitus) or blazingly hot stones (Anaxagoras); thunder and lightning occur when the air is cleft like oars cleaving the sea (Anaximenes); what we see as a rainbow is simply color in the clouds (Xenophanes). It is no coincidence that Thales is credited both with being the first pre-Socratic and with being a savant of physical science. We’re told he measured the height of the pyramids based on their shadows, wrote about nautical navigation, proposed dividing a river so that an army could cross two shallower streams rather than one deep one, and made a fortune on the olive oil market by predicting a bumper crop and buying up all the olive presses.

Another fine example of the naturalizing tendency in early Greek literature is a text that is not typically considered as part of pre-Socratic philosophy, though Sassi does discuss it: On the Sacred Disease, which belongs to the Hippocratic corpus. The title is misleading. In fact the anonymous author argues precisely that epilepsy, the disease in question, is not visited upon individuals through divine intervention but is a natural phenomenon, no less than any other disease. He rejects as fanciful the notion that the gods choose specific people to have epileptic fits and inveighs against the quacks who offer cures using magic or rituals. Here, evidently, we have a rationalist doctor defending his practice. Yet he hastens to add that epilepsy is in a different sense sent by the gods, because the forces of nature are themselves divine. Thus, he concludes, all diseases are sacred and all are human.

More generally, as Sassi rightly argues, it would be a mistake to suppose that the pre-Socratics began to think philosophically because they stopped thinking religiously. Among the very few testimonies about Thales, one records him saying that “all things are full of gods.” Xenophanes, like Plato after him, criticized traditional Greek religion not because he was an atheist but because he thought anthropomorphic accounts of the gods were an insult to the transcendent perfection of divinity. Sassi points out that several pre-Socratics claimed that their own accounts of the world came from religious revelations. This applies to the first Greek philosophical work that we can reconstruct with any confidence, the Poem of Parmenides. (Happily it was quoted at length by the late-ancient commentator Simplicius, who wanted to give his readers the basis for understanding Aristotle’s discussion of Parmenides but who also had his own religious motives: he wanted to preserve a classic of pagan thought for posterity at a time when Christianity had come to dominate the cultural scene.)

Aristotle; mezzotint by Gottlieb Heiss, 1684

Austrian National Library

Aristotle; mezzotint by Gottlieb Heiss, 1684

Parmenides is honored as the “father of metaphysics” for his bold account of the nature of being. He moves from the claim that nonbeing can be neither thought nor spoken to the assertion that all being is one, unchanging, and spherical in form. If this sounds like madness, at least there is method in it. Unlike Heraclitus, Parmenides offers explicit rational arguments, challenging his readers to follow a chain of inferences to an inevitable, if quite literally incredible, conclusion. But before we reach this argumentative stretch of the poem, his audience has already read (or heard) a prologue that describes the author’s horse-drawn voyage through “the gates of the paths of Night and Day,” and then into the presence of a goddess who promises to teach the “unshaken heart of well-rounded truth.” The poem is simultaneously a rational deduction and a divine revelation.

At least as disquieting for those who like their rationalism neat is Empedocles. He offers a more complex cosmology than the earliest pre-Socratics, with the two principles Love and Strife making their effects felt upon the four material elements that would, thanks to him, become standard in Greek and then medieval philosophy: air, earth, fire, and water. The elements are cyclically transformed as the contrary influences of Love and Strife wax and wane. When Love is at its peak, the elements are brought together into a single sphere, in what may be an evocation of Parmenides’s spherical “being.” Under the rule of Strife the elements are sifted apart into concentrically arranged regions. The cosmos as we know it arises during the transition from one of these opposed states to the other, and Empedocles offers detailed causal theories about that cosmos. For instance, he thinks we can see because our eyes are made of the same material constituents as visible objects, namely the four elements.

This all sounds more or less like philosophy as Aristotle would like to have it, even if he criticizes Empedocles on numerous points. But not for nothing did the classicist Werner Jaeger describe Empedocles as a “philosophical centaur,” owing to his combination of religious or mystical elements with naturalist explanation. Sassi follows a nice distinction made by Gábor Betegh between seeing the soul as a “portion” of the cosmos and as being on a “journey” within the cosmos. As she observes, Empedocles combines both perspectives. If his theory of perception depends on the idea of the human as a “microcosm,” made out of the same ingredients as the world, then his intriguing remarks about reincarnation (“I have already been once a boy and a girl, a bush and a bird, and a leaping journeying fish”) and his pleas to the gods for insight place his philosophy in the same sort of religious setting invoked by Parmenides. For Sassi, this impression has been confirmed by one of the most exciting discoveries for ancient philosophy in recent years, a papyrus that turned up in Strasbourg and contains previously lost fragments of Empedocles’ writing.

As that anonymous Hippocratic author might have put it, then, pre-Socratic philosophy was human, but it was also sacred. Why then is it commonly assumed that philosophy could have developed only by distancing itself from religion? In part it’s because we falsely assume that ancient philosophers thought of themselves in the way that Enlightenment philosophers (supposedly) did: as pursuing reason wherever it might lead without heed to religious doctrines. In part it’s because the early philosophers took a certain distance from pagan religion; Xenophanes, for example, as Sassi puts it, purged “traditional belief…of its philosophically unacceptable traits.”

But the most important answer is, yet again, Aristotle. His master Plato did not practice philosophy as a nonreligious or antireligious enterprise. To the contrary, in Plato’s Timaeus, the title character’s account of the cosmos begins with a prayer, and several of his dialogues conclude with myths of the afterlife that evoke Greek religious imagery. Aristotle, by contrast, largely ignores Greek religious beliefs, and what he does have to say sounds rather condescending. Thus in his Metaphysics, after arguing that the heavens move because of separate intellects that somehow provoke everlasting circular motions, he adds that this might be the truth underlying obscure statements about the gods handed down by former generations.

Naturally enough, Aristotle highlights the features of pre-Socratic philosophy that speak to his own concerns. He is interested in Empedocles’ answer to the question “How many principles do we need to explain the natural world?” (two: Love and Strife, plus the elements), but not his answer to “Should I avoid eating meat just in case the slaughtered animal was my reincarnated father?” (yes). So for Aristotle it was the naturalist, “scientific” strain within pre-Socratic thought that qualified them as philosophers; this is why he called them the physiologoi. Thanks to him, it is these aspects that are typically highlighted when the pre-Socratics are presented to today’s undergraduates as the beginnings of philosophy, not just in Greece but in the entire world.

Aristotle was not the only thinker of this time to put his faith in argument rather than religious revelation, in logos rather than mythos. A group of early Greek thinkers barely mentioned by Sassi, and usually excluded from the ranks of pre-Socratic philosophers, claimed a mastery of argumentation sufficient to justify the handsome fees they took from young aristocratic students. These were the sophists. Often seen as the foil and chief antagonist to philosophy in the fifth and fourth centuries BC, sophistry was excoriated by Plato because it used words for the sake of persuasion rather than truth, while Aristotle analyzed it more calmly as an exercise in diagnosing logical fallacy.

But there is a case to be made for placing the sophists among the early Greek philosophers. Protagoras, with his famous adage that “man is the measure of all things, of those that are, that they are, and of those that are not, that they are not,” can be seen as the father of relativism, and Gorgias wrote a short work called On Nonbeing that reads like a parody of Parmenidean metaphysics. Perhaps it was just a joke, or perhaps it was intended to justify the sophistical stance that words can be used only to convince, never to tell it like it really is.

But the best reason to admit that the sophists were philosophers is also one of the best reasons to say that the pre-Socratics were philosophers. Both groups of thinkers engaged in what we might call “second-order” reflection. That is, they were intensely concerned with the nature and status of their own discourse and arguments, their own logoi. Hence we read in a famous fragment of Heraclitus: “Listening not to me but to the logos, it is wise to agree that all things are one.” Xenophanes stressed the distance between human opinion and divine truth: even if one happened upon the complete truth by chance, one would still not have knowledge. This sentiment is not far from the views of the sophists. They also thought deeply about the nature of thought and speech, and came to think that logos can only ever be a tool for producing certain effects, like power in the Athenian democratic assembly, rather than being a means to discover objective truth, which is at all events unattainable. That’s a philosophical position if ever there was one, indeed a position that seems to have a good deal of currency in the sophistic politics of our own day.