Introducing Greek Philosophy
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Introducing Greek Philosophy

Rosemary Wright

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Introducing Greek Philosophy

Rosemary Wright

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Aimed at students of classics and of philosophy who would like a taste of the subject before being committed to a full course and at those who have already started and need to find their bearings in what may seem at first a complex maze of names and schools, "Introducing Greek Philosophy" is a concise, lively, philosophically aware introduction to ancient Greek philosophy. The book begins with the Milesians in Asia Minor before moving over to the developments in the western Greek world, then focusing on Socrates, Plato and Aristotle in Athens, finishing with the Hellenistic schools and their arrival in Rome, where the main ideas are set out in the Latin poetry of Lucretius and the prose of Cicero.The book eschews the method of most histories of ancient philosophy of addressing one thinker after another through the centuries. Instead, after a basic mapping of the territory, it takes the great themes that the Greeks were engaged in from the earliest times, and looks at them individually, their development in argument and counter-argument, from the beginnings of recorded Greek history, through the various upheavals of tyrannies, democracies, oligarchies and kingships, to their introduction into Rome in the first century BC.

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1. Mapping the territory

When, at the opening of his Metaphysics, Aristotle mused on the origins of philosophy, he characterized the philosopher by his ability to generalize, to abstract universal principles from individual instances, and to cope with problems beyond the comprehension of the average mind. He further contrasted the man of experience who knows facts with the man of wisdom who asks “Why?”, and suggested that it was through curiosity that individuals now and in the beginning became philosophers, first asking the obvious questions, and then gradually worrying about more complex issues (Metaphysics 982b12). Aristotle goes on to suggest that there is an inborn craving for knowledge – not for practical purposes but for its own sake – and that in its pursuit the most satisfying human life is to be found.
Such a philosophical way of thinking came into the public domain in the early sixth century BCE, and in a specific area, namely the islands and western coast of Asia Minor, known collectively as Ionia. Mutual exchanges between Ionia and the older civilizations of the Babylonians, Hebrews, Phoenicians and Egyptians had increased in the sixth century BCE with trade expansion, the spread of Greek colonies and the inexorable westward encroachment of Persian power. Political movements in the Greek world generally, together with the emergence of city-state democracies, fostered independent argument, reflection and decision-making, as constitutions and laws were hammered out within the polis, rather than being externally imposed. The city centre was no longer a palace from which a ruler issued edicts, but an open public space, the agora, in which social and political issues were continually discussed, and then given formal expression as the result of individual voting in the assembly. Instead of submissive acceptance of a single authority on the part of the populace there were speeches for and against difficult decisions to be made, dialogue between the parties involved and personal choices concerning the decision on which side to cast one’s vote. The new politics therefore contributed to the spread of public speaking and independent judgement. The emerging science of medicine was also important in the development of intellectual skills. It involved a method of abstraction from individual case studies to the establishment of general principles, and these could then be applied to new instances; in this way the necessary combination of theoretical reasoning and practical expertise was acquired. This method was also being extended to abstract mathematical calculations and to principles of law, both of these disciplines becoming important as land was divided and constitutions drawn up in the recently founded colonies.
In all these activities verbal expression was crucial, and the Greek language was proving a tool of precision, especially with the practice (unknown to the Semitic languages) of introducing vowels and their signs between the consonants. The language developed into a lucid, elegant and concise means of communication, inherently balanced, and capable of fine nuances of meaning. With the adaptation of the Phoenician alphabet and the spread of literacy through the population (where previously knowledge of letters had been the preserve of an elite class), what was said in this language could then be written down and published extensively, then read at leisure, studied and criticized. In an amazingly swift movement of people and ideas, Presocratic philosophy1 swung over from Ionia and the east to the opposite side of the Greek world, to the colonized towns of southern Italy and Sicily. It moved with Xenophanes as he travelled throughout Greece from his native city of Ionian Colophon; Pythagoras migrated from the eastern island of Samos to the Italian Croton; Parmenides settled in neighbouring Elea; and Empedocles rose to prominence in Sicily. It was not until the time of Pericles in the fifth century that Athens emerged as the third and most enduring centre of philosophy, attracting intellectuals from all over the Greek world. Anaxagoras and Democritus were drawn to Athens from the east, sophists came there from western and northern colonies to captivate the new generation of aspiring politicians, and then, in the fourth century, Aristotle moved down to Athens from Thrace, followed soon after by Epicurus from Pythagoras’ island of Samos and the Stoic Zeno from Cyprus. Only Socrates and Plato were native Athenians.
Antecedent to the emergence of philosophical thinking was the legacy of the Homeric epics: the Iliad, the war poem of the last year of the siege of Troy and the Odyssey, which tells of the return home of the Greek hero Odysseus from Troy to Ithaca. Throughout the Greek world these were a unifying factor, known, quoted and used authoritatively in a variety of contexts. In the history of philosophy the poems are most relevant for their ethics and theology.2 Moral principles were adapted to the changing political climate, and success at “being best” moved from prowess in the battlefield to wielding power and influence in the city-state. A greater challenge, however, was to the Homeric divinities. These had been portrayed as gods and goddesses, in form and dress like human beings, tall and powerful, jealous, spiteful, quarrelling among themselves, interfering in mortal affairs, intent on revenge for any slight to their prestige and, most notably, untouched by age or death. The philosophical attack on this Homeric theology, along with its replacement by other views on what it means to be divine, was started by some of the Presocratics and was continued most notably by Plato and then, on different grounds, by the Epicureans. Theological disagreements began the long-standing quarrel between poetry and philosophy.
The traditional version of the gods and their origins found in the Homeric poems was then supplemented by Hesiod, who came from Ascra in Boeotia, the region that contained Mount Helicon. This was thought to be the home of the Muses, whom Hesiod claimed as the inspiration of his works, which were also composed in the Homeric epic metre. One of the two poems attributed to Hesiod is the Theogony, roughly contemporary with the Book of Genesis in the eighth to seventh century BCE, and relating a comparable theme of the initial division of dark and light, and the emergence of the cosmic masses of earth and sky. Hesiod uses a genealogical model of mating and begetting rather than a creator god to explain the arrangement of the world-system, the articulation of the earth’s surface into its natural features and the appearance of meteorological phenomena. The succession myths of the gods and their great battle with the Titans were woven into this material as well as an aetiology for the discovery of fire (in the myth of Prometheus), an interpretation of the sufferings that are integral to human history and an explanation for advances in law and culture. Hesiod did not invent his material (except perhaps for some of the names to complete various lists) but collected it from a number of sources, and then wove it all into a story that involved a comprehensive account of theological myth, contemporary cult practices, phenomena of the physical world and events in human life. The poem is important as a bridge connecting ideas from the ancient Near East with the new lands of Hellas,3 and as mediating between the myth-making of the past and the search for non-mythical explanations of the world as we know it.
Between Hesiod and the first philosophers lurk the shadowy figures of Orpheus, Musaeus and Epimenides. They are credited with cosmogonies that begin with such vague Hesiodic entities as Chaos, Night, Aither and Erebus, and relate the subsequent production of an egg, and the emergence of a significant personage or personification from it. Another early mythographer, Pherecydes of Syros, narrated a different genealogy starting from Zas (i.e. Zeus) and Chronos (Time), which involved the biological model of a tree rather than an egg to explain the first beginnings, and also, spread upon the tree, an embroidered cloth that portrayed the natural features of earth and sea.

The three Milesians

It was from the main city of the Ionian coast, the busy port of Miletus, with its close links to the hinterland, that the first named philosophers – Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes – came. Their interests and methods, which involved in particular a search for a unifying account of the origins and present diversity of the physical world, became known as Milesian or Ionian. Thales was on the list of the Seven Sages, and sayings attributed to him formed part of the repository of received wisdom. He wrote nothing himself, but, as far as we can judge from the comments of Aristotle (Metaphysics 983b20), he explained the source of life, which continues to nourish and maintain an animate world, by the abiding presence of one stuff – “water”. He was said to base his theory on observations that both semen, the source of life, and nourishment, which supports it, are moist, that heat is generated and fuelled by moisture, and the buoyancy of water keeps the earth that floats on it stable. Aristotle admits that he is filling in gaps, and there is no way of knowing how far Thales’ own arguments went, but three features are incontrovertible: the expectation that the complexities of the world can be readily explained in physical rather than theological terms, a new confidence in the explanation offered and the stimulus provided for others to criticize, adapt and develop the first attempts at such an explanation.
Anaximander, Thales’ successor, wrote down his thoughts in the first recorded prose work in European literature. Only one sentence survives, probably dealing with opposites such as hot and cold, wet and dry: “From the source from which they arise, to that they return of necessity when they are destroyed, for they suffer punishment and make reparation to one another for their injustice according to the assessment of time” (DK 12B1).4
Here the opposites are viewed as “things”, acting and reacting on each other like quarrelsome neighbours. At some time or place one encroaches on its counterpart, and that in turn, at another time or place, makes good the loss and itself becomes the aggressor. Gains and losses balance out overall in a cosmic equilibrium (known as isonomia), which is exemplified in the succession of bright days and dark nights, hot, dry summers and cold, wet winters.
In Anaximander’s cosmology, according to the ancient sources, the whole system of balanced opposition began when something capable of producing hot and cold was separated off from the “limitless” (apeiron), the vast and characterless origin of all things. As a result of a violent rotation this developed into a fiery sphere surrounding a mist-shrouded earth, and then the various features of the world emerged. Explanations were given for the appearance of sun, moon and stars at proportionate distances, and for eclipses, storms, earthquakes and the like. The earth was thought to be drum-shaped, with living things on the undersurface (literally the “antipodes”, feet opposite feet), and to stay where it is in the centre because there is no reason for it to move in one direction rather than another. Anaximander is credited with drawing the first map, centred on Greece, and for introducing the gnōmon (a form of sun-dial to mark hours, solstices and equinoxes) from Babylon. He also suggested that the human race originated, not from earth, but from creatures in the more protected environment of the sea.
These first moves in the study of nature, which were to develop into the different sciences of meteorology, geography and anthropology, were firm strides rather than faltering steps. It was thought that the world could be made intelligible in its own terms and the results justified by reason, argument and observation; these results were then made public and available for scrutiny and criticism.
Anaximander’s views were indeed immediately challenged by his fellow townsman Anaximenes, who, like Anaximander, wrote in prose, of which one sentence is extant: “As our soul (psychē), which is air, maintains us, so breath (pneuma) and air (aēr) surround the whole world” (13B2). In this fragment there is a new use for the word psychē (soul), which is no longer viewed as a shadow of the former self flitting endlessly in the realm of the dead, but as the ever-present principle of life, which holds together, strengthens and controls the individual. In addition a connection is established between the relationship of soul/air to us and breath/air to the whole world order, so that it too is alive and controlled. Anaximander’s indeterminate “limitless” now has a character, that of the air we breathe, essential for life and an obvious candidate for the boundless source of that life. Anaximenes then argued that all things could be derived from this one intermediate and indeterminate substance according to differences in quantity: when thinner, air would have the appearance of fire; when thicker of mist; then it could condense further to become water; and further still to produce earth and rocks. We have the understanding here of the functioning of a “first principle” that explains and is responsible for the original emergence and subsequent maintenance of life.

Pythagoras of Samos

The island of Samos is close to Miletus and the Ionian coast. Pythagoras was one of its most famous citizens, but he was compelled, most likely for political reasons, to emigrate, and he, and his philosophy, moved westwards, over to Croton, the Achaean colony in southern Italy. His influence increased in the Italian towns, and he again became involved in local politics, “honoured by the men of Italy”, according to one of the few direct references to him by Aristotle (Rhetoric 1398b14). Pythagoras himself retired to the neighbouring city of Metapontum, but there were various attacks on his followers in subsequent years, and it is reported that their houses and meeting places were burnt down, until Achaeans from the Peloponnese finally restored order. The most famous of these early followers were Philolaus of Croton (470–390 CE) and his younger contemporary, the mathematician Archytas of Tarentum, who was said to have been a close friend of Plato.
Pythagoras was an oral teacher and left no writings. He is named only once by Plato as “teaching a way of life still called Pythagorean”, and it is said that his followers were interested in music and astronomy (Republic 530d, 600b). Aristotle is similarly noncommittal, and speaks indirectly of “the Italians called Pythagoreans” “some of the Pythagoreans” or “the so-called Pythagoreans” when quoting views attributed to them. By his time many strange stories concerning Pythagoras himself were circulating, and Aristotle collected some of them into an essay On the Pythagoreans, from which only a few quotations survive. Much later there came the emergence of the “Neo-Pythagorean” movement with the revival of Plato’s philosophy in Neoplatonism, and many versions of a “Life of Pythagoras” were written, most notably by Porphyry and Iamblichus in the third century CE, but for the most part based on dubious authority.
Three interests however can with some confidence be attributed to Pythagoras himself, and these were important in early philosophy. The first is in the development of mathematics. The details of the famous “Pythagorean proof” – that the square on the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle is equal to the sum of the squares on the adjacent sides – is probably later, from the mathematician Euclid, but the principle was known, and led to the discovery of irrational numbers.5 This created difficulties for arithmetic, and resulted in more attention being given to geometry (the study of plane figures), stereometry (the study of solid figures) and astronomy (the study of bodies in movement). The second interest was in music and harmonic theory. When it was discovered that something as beautiful and abstract as a melody depended on the exact mathematical ratios of the lengths of vibrating strings on the lyre, it was suggested that the planets, moving at proportionate speeds, might also produce different notes of the octave as they circled the heavens, resulting in the “harmony of the spheres”. And, if mathematical ratios were essential in these different contexts, perhaps the principle should be extended, and everything might have a numerical basis. The examples we have are very simple – justice as four (still remaining in the expression “four-square”), marriage as five, which is the sum of the first odd and even numbers (3 + 2, the unit being discounted) – but the underlying principle of a formal mathematical structure for apparently random phenomena was of crucial importance. The third interest was in the soul in two pa...

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Citation styles for Introducing Greek Philosophy
APA 6 Citation
Wright, R. (2014). Introducing Greek Philosophy (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2014)
Chicago Citation
Wright, Rosemary. (2014) 2014. Introducing Greek Philosophy. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Wright, R. (2014) Introducing Greek Philosophy. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Wright, Rosemary. Introducing Greek Philosophy. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2014. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.