Pre-Socratics, Physiologists, Sages and Sophists
Philosophical thought emerged in the Greek-speaking world two and a half millennia ago. First we encounter the various sages and so- called “physiologists,” like Thales and Anaxagoras, who attempted to explain the origins of the universe and the causes of nature. We will then turn to the sometimes shadowy figures, like Pythagoras, Heracleitus and Empedocles, who define the world of thought prior to the birth of Socrates and the struggle between philosophy and sophistry in Athens during the Classical period of the fifth and fourth centuries bc.
Of course, one might with some justice claim that the Sphinx was the first philosopher and Oedipus the second. This would also have the merit of making philosophy begin with a woman and continuing with an incestuous parricide. The Sphinx asks her visitors a question, which is also a riddle, and perhaps even a joke: what goes on four legs in the morning, on two legs at noon, and on three legs in the evening? If they get the answer wrong, she kills them. Furthermore, when Oedipus guesses the right answer to the riddle—man crawls on all fours as a baby, walks on two legs as an adult and with a cane in old age—the Sphinx commits philosophical suicide by throwing herself to the ground from her high rock.
(flourished in the sixth century bc)
Thales came from the once mighty port of Miletus, close to the present Turkish coast, whose harbour long ago dried up thanks to the unending attention of silt.
Thales was the possible originator of the saying “know thyself,” who famously predicted the solar eclipse of May 585 bc. He believed that water was the universal substance and once fell into a ditch when he was taken outdoors by a Thracian girl to look at the stars. On hearing his cry, she said, “How can you expect to know about all the heavens, Thales, when you cannot even see what is just beneath your feet?” Some feel—perhaps rightly—that this is a charge that philosophy never entirely escaped in the following two and a half millennia.
Thales died at an advanced age of heat, thirst and weakness while watching an athletic contest. This inspired Diogenes Laertius to the following execrable verse:
As Thales watched the games one festal day The fierce sun smote him and he passed away.
Solon was a famed Athenian legislator who repealed the bloody laws of Dracon (although it was Dracon whose name was turned into an adjective). Plutarch remarks that Solon suggested that brides should nibble a quince before getting into bed. The reason for this is unclear. When Solon was asked why he had not framed a law against parricide, he replied that he hoped it was unnecessary. He died in Cyprus at the age of eighty.
(flourished in the sixth century bc)
A Spartan to whom the saying “know thyself” is also sometimes attributed. He died after congratulating his son on an Olympic victory in boxing.
Like Thales, Solon and Chilon, Periander of Corinth was considered one of the Seven Sages of Greece. To others, like Aristotle, he was simply a tyrant. However, there is a bizarre story about the lengths to which Periander went in order to conceal his place of burial: he instructed two young men to meet a third man at a predetermined place and kill and bury him. Then he arranged for four men to pursue the first two and kill and bury them. Then he arranged for a larger group of men to hunt down the four. Having made all these preparations, he went out to meet the two young men for he, Periander, was the third man.
(possibly flourished in the sixth century,
possibly a mythical figure)
A native of Crete, the setting for Epimenides’ famous paradox. Epimenides’ original statement was “Cretans, always liars.” He appears to have intended this literally, as the great Cretan lie is the belief that Zeus is mortal, whereas every sensible person knows that he is really immortal. However, in logic, this paradox takes on a more acute form. Consider the sentence “This statement is not true.” Now, is this statement true? If it is, then it is not; if it is not, then it is. This is a perfect example of a paradox. That is, it is a proposition whose truth leads to a contradiction and the denial of its truth also leads to a contradiction.
Legend has it that Epimenides was sent into the countryside by his father to look after some sheep. But instead of tending to the sheep, he fell asleep in a cave for fifty-seven years. Upon waking, he went in search of the sheep, believing that he had only taken a short nap. When he returned home, everything (unsurprisingly) had changed and a new owner had taken possession of his father’s farm. Eventually, he found his younger brother, by now an elderly man, and learnt the truth.
Epimenides’ fame spread and it was believed thereafter that he possessed the gift of prophecy. Diogenes tells of how the Athenians sent for him when the city was suffering from the plague. He again took some sheep and went to the Areopagus, the high rock in the centre of Athens. He commanded that a sacrifice be made at each spot where a sheep decided to lie down. In this way, apparently, Athens was freed from the plague.
According to Phlegon in his work On Longevity, Epimenides lived to be 157 years old. This makes him a centurion, excluding his long nap in the cave. The Cretans claim that he lived to be 259 years old. But, as we all know, Cretans are always liars.
Anaximander somewhat obscurely claimed that the Unlimited or that which is without boundaries (apeiron) is the original material of all existing things. He discovered his own limit at the age of sixty-four.
Sadly, it is now almost universally assumed by classical scholars that Pythagoras never existed. It seems that there was a group of people in southern Italy called Pythagoreans who invented a “Founder” for their beliefs who, accordingly, lived and died in a manner consistent with those beliefs. But let’s not allow Pythagoras’ mere non-existence to deter us, as the stories that surround him are so compelling. They are also illustrative of the wider point that disciples of a thinker will often simply invent stories and anecdotes that illustrate the life of the master in whom they want to believe. Perhaps we should be suspicious of this desire for a master.
Be that as it may, Pythagorean doctrines were bound by an oath of secrecy, so we know very little prior to the version of them that appears in Plato. These include a belief in the immortality and transmigration of the soul and the view that the ultimate reality of the universe consists in number. Pythagoreans regarded even numbers as female and odd numbers as male. The number 5 was called “marriage” because it was the product of the first even (2) and odd (3) numbers (the ancient Greeks considered the number 1 a unit and not a proper number, which had to express a multiplicity). Pythagoreans also believed that their master had established the ratios that underlie music. This had huge influence in the notion of musica universalis or music of the spheres, where the entire cosmos was the expression of a musical harmony whose key was given in mathematics.
However, the Pythagoreans also observed a number of other, more worldly doctrines, involving food in particular. They abstained from meat and fish. For some reason red mullet is singled out for especial prohibition, and Plutarch notes that they considered the egg taboo, too. Pythagoras and his followers also inherited from the Egyptians a strong revulsion to beans, because of their apparent resemblance to the genitalia. Apparently, “bean” may have been a slang term for “testicle.” But there are many other possible reasons for this dislike of beans.
There are some fascinating remarks in the Philosophumena [Philosophizings] or the Refutation of All Heresies by the Christian Bishop Hippolytus written around ad 220. According to him, if beans are chewed and left in the sun, they emit the smell of semen. Even worse, if one takes the bean in flower and buries it in the earth and in a few days digs it up, then, “We shall see it at first having the form of a woman’s pudenda and afterwards on close examination a child’s head growing with it.” Of course, as many of us know to our cost, beans should be avoided as they produce terrible flatulence. Oddly, it was because of beans that Pythagoras is alleged to have met his end. But I am getting ahead of myself.
So the legend goes, Pythagoras left his native Samos, an island off the Ionian coast, because of a dislike of the policies of the tyrant Polycrates. He fled with his followers to Croton in southern Italy and extended considerable influence and power in the region of present-day Calabria. Porphyry, in his Life of Pythagoras, relates how a certain Cylo, a rich and powerful local figure, felt slighted by the haughtiness with which Pythagoras treated him. As a consequence, Cylo and his retinue burnt down the house in which Pythagoras and his followers were gathered. The master only escaped because his followers bridged the fire with their own bodies. He got as far as a field of beans, where he stopped and declared that he would rather be killed than cross it. This enabled his pursuers to catch up with him and cut his throat.
Yet, there is another story, related by Hermippus, that when the cities of Agrigentum and Syracuse were at war, the Pythagoreans sided with the Agrigentines. Unbelievably, Pythagoras was killed by the Syracusans as he was trying to avoid a beanfield. Thirty-five of his followers were subsequently burnt at the stake for treachery.
Diogenes Laertius devotes possibly the worst of his verses to this incident, which begins thus: “Woe! Woe! Whence, Pythagoras, this deep reverence for beans?” The wonderful second-century satirist Lucian depicts Pythagoras in Hades in dialogue with the cynic Menippus, in which Pythagoras is pestering Menippus for food.
pythagoras: Let me see if there’s anything to eat in your wallet.
menippus: Beans, my good fellow—something you mustn’t eat.
pythagoras: Just give me some. Doctrines are different among the dead.
(dates unknown, fourth century bc)
One would be forgiven for thinking that the history of philosophy is something of a boys’ club. In this book, where I can, I will seek to rectify this view. It might be noted that in 1690, the French classical scholar Gilles Ménage wrote Historia Mulierum Philosopharum (The History of Women Philosophers). Ménage—somewhat opportunistically it is true—identifies sixty-five women philosophers. In the ancient world, the philosophical school that attracted the most women was without doubt the Pythagoreans. These include Themistoclea, Theano and Myia, Pythagoras’ sister, wife and daughter respectively.
However, I’d like to get back to the topic of beans. This brings us to Timycha and a story told in Iamblichus’ Life of Pythagoras. After the persecution of the Pythagorean community by the Sicilian tyrant Dionysius, Timycha and her husband, Myllias, were captured and tortured. The purpose of the interrogation was to find an answer to the following question: why do Pythagoreans prefer to die rather than tread upon beans? Timycha was pregnant and Dionysius threatened her with torture. Before she was killed, Timycha bit off her own tongue and spat it in the tyrant’s face for fear that she might betray the secrets of the Pythagorean sect.
Traditionally Heracleitus was known as the “weeping philosopher” or “the obscure.” He was, according to Plutarch, afflicted with terrible diseases. All that remains of his work are 139 fragments. Some of these are as obscure as his moniker would suggest: “Souls have a sense of smell in Hades.” Others are colourful illustrations of his views on the relativity of judgement, such as “Donkeys prefer chaff to gold,” and “Pigs wash themselves in mud, birds in dust and ashes.”
The cause of Heracleitus’ tears was human behaviour, in particular that of his fellow citizens of Ephesus. As the first of his extant fragments insists, everyone should follow logos, a term meaning something like the law, principle or reason for the existence of the universe. However, the vast majority of people do not follow logos, but act instead as if they were asleep and have as much awareness of what they do as chaff-munching donkeys.
Heracleitus became such a hater of humanity that he wandered in the mountains and lived on a diet of grass and herbs (no beans are mentioned). Sadly, his malnutrition gave him dropsy and he returned to the city to seek a cure. It was through this cure that he met his end, for he asked to be covered in cow dung. Now, there are two stories of Heracleitus dying in cow dung. He apparently believed that its action would draw the bad humours out of his body and dry up his dropsy. In the first story, the cow dung is wet and the weeping philosopher drowns; in the second, it is dry and he is baked to death in the Ionian sun.
(There is a third story told by Diogenes Laertius, which relates that Heracleitus’ friends were unable to remove the dried cow dung from his body and, being unrecognizable, he was devoured by dogs. This confirms fragment 97, “Dogs bark at those whom they do not recognize.” Sadly, they also bite.)
Aeschylus is not usually seen as a philosopher, although the handful of his plays that survive are full of deep wisdom about how mortals must, in the repeated refrain of The Oresteia, suffer into truth. In the surviving fragment of the Niobe, Aeschylus writes,
Alone of gods Death has no love for gifts,
Libation helps you not, nor sacrifice.
He has no altar, and hears no hymns;
From him alone Persuasion stands apart.
Aeschylus fought with great distinction in the battles against the Persians at Marathon and Salamis, and his military prowess was proudly mentioned in the epitaph on his tombstone. It is Aeschylus’ tombstone, however, that is apparently the origin of the amusing, but apocryphal, story of his death.
It was widely believed that Aeschylus was killed when an eagle dropped a live tortoise on his bald head, apparently mistaking his head for a stone. Apparently, the great tragedian was represented on his tombstone slumped over, while an eagle—the bird of Apollo—carried off his soul to heaven in the form of a lyre. However, a lyre looks like, and perhaps was originally, a tortoise shell strung with a few strings. Presumably, someone ignorant of the iconography mistook “eagle-taking-the-soul-of-dead-poet-to-heaven-in-the-form-of-lyre” to mean “eagle-drops-tortoise-on-head-of-sleeping-poet-killing-both.”