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Who Started All This Philosophy Business?

Carl Murray reports on a heated argument in Hades.

We are in the Underworld – in the Philosophers’ Corner. Some of the early Greek philosophers (or rather their shades) have been earnestly debating such profound problems as ‘What is the world made of?’ and ‘Is there an underlying unity?’ On this occasion however they have strayed onto the question of who was the first philosopher. So far, the one thing on which they are agreed is that whoever it was, it certainly was not Socrates – he was far too obsessed with ethics. Thales, Pythagoras, Parmenides and Heraclitus among others are demanding the right to assert their claim. King Minos, one of the judges in the Underworld, intervenes to establish some control over the proceedings. He invites Thales to have first say.

Thales of Miletus I am not just a thinker, I am a practical man. I am a geometer and an astronomer. I have predicted eclipses and diverted rivers. And don’t believe all that gossip about my falling into a ditch when I was studying the stars – I am not an absent-minded professor. My real claim to fame rests on my revolutionary insight that everything is derived from water and consists of water in some sense. I am aware that after my demise that know-all Aristotle tried to pick holes in my theory; but I maintain that to refute it you have to reason with me without resorting to dogmatic assertion or some mythological explanation – I mean, you have to do some philosophy. Therefore I started it all.

King Minos I don’t wish to appear judgemental about this Thales; but damn it, I’m a judge, so I’ll judge. You’re a natural philosopher, or rather a philosopher of nature. You could just as well claim to have started Physics as Philosophy.

There’s a loud outburst from Anaximander – also of Miletus.

Anaximander of Miletus My compatriot Thales totally fails to answer the question ‘What does the Earth rest on?’ If it rests on water, as he claims, then what does the water rest on – and so on ad infinitum? Incidentally, he isn’t the only practical man from our city. In case you have forgotten, it was I who invented a sundial and an all-weather clock, and made a map of the known world and the stars. But I am more proud of my theory that the stuff of which the world is made is ‘the infinite’ or ‘the indefinite’ – my original term to apeiron does elude exact translation, I’m afraid. However you want to translate it, it is the fundamental principle that generates such properties as hot and cold, but which cannot be identified materially as water or air can. This is all rather subtle and sophisticated, and has been misunderstood by my contemporaries, but some later thinkers grasped the importance of my work. Someone called Martin Heidegger has, I believe, called my theory one of the greatest insights. He is right of course – in this if nothing else.

King Minos Thank you, Anaximander. I note the testimony of Herr Heidegger, and I rule that support from much later thinkers is admissible, but carries a low tariff in this court. As with your fellow Ionian, Thales, it is not entirely clear to me whether you are a philosopher or a physiologos, or physikos, or some such person. However I shall suspend judgement on this. Now it is time to hear from Pythagoras of Samos. Perhaps you could begin by enlightening us as to why you migrated from Ionia, that hotbed of philosophic /scientific enquiry, to Southern Italy?

Pythagoras of Samos Initially the climate of Southern Italy was more congenial, metereologically, politically and intellectually – though it did get rather hot there later. While my contemporaries in Miletus and Ephesus were asking ‘What is the world made of ?’ the Greek thinkers in Southern Italy were more open to, shall we say, a less reductive and more mystical understanding of reality. Also, it was becoming ever clearer to me that it is not the stuff of which things are made – water, air et cetera – that’s important, but their structure. Their structure is of course determined by the concept of ratio or proportion. The key to understanding our world is mathematics. You are no doubt aware that the whole cosmos, from its furthest reaches down to each tiniest part, has a structure that can be expressed in mathematics. I hear that in later years some fellow workers in the field combined philosophy with mathematics. I refer to Galileo, Descartes, Leibniz, Whitehead, Russell, Einstein, and others who as we speak are working on a grand Theory of Everything. You, King Minos, will probably rule all this to be inadmissible evidence. However, rather nearer our own time, I heard that above the entrance to Plato’s illustrious Academy were the words “Let no one ignorant of Mathematics enter here.” Does this not suggest that philosophy and mathematics are, shall we say, symbiotic?

King Minos Thank you, Pythagoras, but as the presiding judge I ask the questions here. How, for instance, do you think you can be taken seriously as a philosopher if you make ludicrous prohibitions on the eating of beans and meat by your followers? As for your doctrine of the immortality of the soul and its transmigration into other humans and even animals, you have asserted this as a matter of religious dogma without attempting to offer any proof. Telling someone not to beat his dog because you recognised in its whimpering the voice of a dead friend will not do, I’m afraid. And banning people from eating meat on the ground that it might contain the soul of your recently-deceased grandmother smacks of eccentricity and obscurantism.

Pythagoras If you were an initiate and a devout follower of my teachings all would be clear. You would see how my cosmology and mathematics cohere with my religious doctrines and the Way of Life I advocate. But you are not an initiate, and so these things shall remain secret. I shall keep holy silence.

King Minos Exactly! It is the very secrecy of your doctrines that makes it impossible for you to be regarded as someone who values or even tolerates rational enquiry. You have left nothing in writing – but then neither did Socrates, as you constantly remind us. However, I am impressed by your famous theorem about triangles – if indeed it is yours, and not filched from the Babylonians – and by your work on harmony in music. I find your notion of the music of the spheres particularly seductive, even if scientifically dubious. Finally, your hypothesis that the basic structure of things can be expressed numerically deserves recognition as an intellectual achievement of importance, although I find it difficult to take someone who insists on worshipping the triangle and the number ten entirely seriously. I hereby judge that you are a visionary mathematician and a religious mystic rather than a philosopher in the strict sense, or even a scientist.

Let us hear now from Heraclitus of Ephesus. I trust he is not suffering too much today from his chronic and lachrymose melancholia. And we must all make allowances for his well-known tendency towards cryptic utterance.

Heraclitus of Ephesus It is true that I have a reputation for being as enigmatic and obscure as the Delphic oracle. Apparently even the great Socrates said that my philosophy is “so profound that only a deep-sea diver could get to the bottom of it.” But the truth is that the world is such a complex puzzle that no simple statements could do it justice. So if I am oracular, it is with good cause. But if you wake up from your deep mental sleep and open your minds, you can grasp my idea that nothing in this world is truly permanent, and everything is in a state of flux. Change is an inescapable fact of the universe. To put it in more abstract terms, there is no such thing as Being, there is only Becoming.

King Minos Is that what you meant by saying that you cannot step into the same river twice?

Heraclitus Ah yes, the river! This concept has been much misunderstood and wilfully misinterpreted. A river is always in motion, and so in a fundamental sense is the world, despite appearances to the contrary. You step into a river once and then a second time. Are you stepping into the same river even though the waters are different? At the risk of being oracular again, it is and it is not the same river. This is something the great but hyper-logical Aristotle could not allow. The river combines flux – ever-changing waters – and stability – the banks, source, channel et cetera. So flux is not totally chaotic; there is a counterbalancing principle. The river is single despite the flux. This is an example of what I call ‘Unity in Opposites’, rather like a strung bow or a lyre, where tension is generated between two opposed things. This tension or strife is essential to life. This is the Logos. Now as for Fire and the Soul…

King Minos Er, thank you Heraclitus. Most interesting. That will be all for the moment. You have shown yourself to be a pioneer in philosophical speculation, but the fragmentary nature of your maxims leaves us in the dark about your supporting arguments – if there are any. Let us hear what Parmenides has to say. He was muttering darkly to himself when you said “It is and it is not” and “There is no such thing as Being, only Becoming.”

Parmenides of Elea I at least have committed my thoughts to writing – albeit in verse that some find unfathomable. However, Professor Heidegger has pronounced that my poem The Way of Truth is a better example of philosophical writing than Plato’s Dialogues. My message is simple but challenging. Trust your reason and intellect and not your senses, even if the results sometimes seem paradoxical. You will find that underlying the world of the senses there is a real world of unchanging singularity. This singularity, the One, is the sole reality. Being is all that exists. Non-being is impossible. You cannot think or speak about what does not exist. Likewise, Becoming is ruled out, because ‘what is’ cannot become what it is not. Therefore change and motion are impossible and illusory.

King Minos All this abstract talk of Being and non-Being is intellectually very exciting, if rather baffling. It looks as if you’ve invented something new. We could call it ‘ontology’. Yes I like the sound of that. This ontology could become a growth area. But there seems to be something fishy about the way you’re using – or is it abusing? – expressions like ‘it is’ and the verb ‘to be’. Does it mean simply to exist, or does it have other meanings as well? This could undermine your whole theory. By the way, why can’t I say that something does not exist? I can think about Pegasus, so why can’t Pegasus exist in my mind, even if a winged horse has only a mythical existence, so to speak? However my main worry, Parmenides, is, how does your theory square with experience and with the evidence of the senses?

Parmenides It doesn’t – and so much the worse for the senses. The laws of logic cannot be mistaken, but our eyes can. The Sun, for example, seems to rise and set and circle our Earth; but as some of my successors have demonstrated, by admirably rational methods, the Earth moves round the Sun. This is very gratifying.

King Minos Parmenides, you have presented us with some profound if rather abstract questions which will exercise our intellects. Perhaps, as I have heard Herr Hegel say, this is the beginning of philosophy proper. I suspect that he and others like Herr Heidegger see themselves as completing the task begun by you – especially when they can see anticipations of their own theories in the extant fragments of your work. However, rather like your concept of Being, Parmenides, this so called ‘philosophy’ of yours seems already to have achieved total stasis. No further development seems possible or necessary. Your logical deductions and abstractions are awe-inspiring, rather like a cold bath, as Herr Nietzsche says. Or as Aristotle less charitably puts it, “although these opinions appear to follow logically, it is next door to madness, if one considers the facts.” You need to get out of your armchair, Parmenides, become more physical, and a bit less metaphysical. If this philosophy business is to have any future at all, you can’t ignore the evidence of the senses.

Addressing all present:

Before our next session, gentlemen, it might be a useful exercise in group therapy if you could come up with a working definition of what a philosopher is, and then perhaps we can decide who was the first. The Court is adjourned.

Loud protests come from Anaximenes, Xenophanes, Empedocles, Anaxagoras and Zeno, while Democritus laughs not so quietly to himself in the corner.

© Carl Murray 2007

Carl Murray is a classicist, a singer, and an adult education lecturer in Philosophy and also in Opera.

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