Transcript: 12 - Malcolm Schofield on the Presocratics

World-leading expert Malcolm Schofield of Cambridge University speaks to Peter about the development of Presocratic philosophy, from the Milesians to Parmenides and the reactions he provoked.
Podcast series

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: We've already covered a lot of the Pre-Socratics, or really all the Pre-Socratics in previous episodes, so this episode is just kind of to wrap things up. And I thought I might start by asking you a little bit about the very first Pre-Socratics, the Milesians. So one question that arises here, I suppose, is what do the Milesians all have in common? So if we think about Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes, do you think that there's one feature or several features which binds them together and makes them a kind of school of Pre-Socratic philosophy?

Malcolm Schofield: Well I think there are two or three features that unite them. Perhaps start with Thales and Anaximander. One thing that is reported about Thales is that he was an enormously inventive practical person. And he's supposed, for example, to have used elementary mathematics, elementary geometry, to make calculations, and indeed to have more or less accurately predicted an eclipse. Anaximander likewise seems to have been keen on inventing gadgets, and he too is interested in the mathematical. He said to have been the first Greek ever to draw a map of the world. It seems to have been a primitive map constructed with compasses. So the world is round, or the earth is round, and the Mediterranean's at the centre, and you've got Europe above and Africa below and Asia on the right, at least so it seems. So that's one thing. They were people who had, if you like, a sort of technological cast of mind. A second thing that seems to be true of them is that they were trying to generate an explanation of how the physical cosmos is the way it is, that was couched entirely in naturalistic terms. The whole array of gods and goddesses, the fates, the mythology of the underworld and so forth that you find in the epic poets Homer and Hesiod, and you find in them a framework for an explanation of why the cosmos is - that's all gone.

Peter Adamson: And would you say that what really differentiates the presocratic philosophers from other cultural productions, as it were, that happened before the presocratics and during the presocratics on lifetimes, is that they were more naturalistic?

Malcolm Schofield: Well, of course, in their own lifetime we have very little other contemporary Greek material. There is the material from the Near East and from Egypt and so forth, and yes, what we have of Babylonian and Egyptian narratives are much more, if you like, theistic, explicitly theistic. Not that Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes didn't believe in deities, they clearly did, but their deities are more like, to use a much later phrase, the god of all the philosophers, than the traditional Greek pantheon or the traditional polytheism that you find throughout the Mediterranean and Near East in this period.

Peter Adamson: And it's really Xenophanes who really brings that point across most clearly.

Malcolm Schofield: Yes, Xenophanes is a fascinating character. He's also someone who works on what is now the eastern seaboard of Turkey, as they all did. His home city, Colophon, was only a few kilometres away from Miletus, where the Milesians worked, and he stands in a very interesting relationship to the Milesians. He was clearly knowledgeable about natural philosophy, indeed some of the most interesting things we know about physical speculation from this period is Xenophanes. For example, he seems to have been aware of what fossil evidence might be.

Peter Adamson: The shellfish.

Malcolm Schofield: The shellfish, yes, and the bay leaf. And he constructed from that his theory that the earth is gradually drying out. And that maps on to some concerns that are documented for Anaximander. And he certainly has physical explanations of why the earth is as it is, why the heavens are as they are, and so on. In some ways it doesn't seem as sophisticated as we can document for the Milesians. And there's a question as to whether there was an element of satire in it. Xenophanes said, well, 'everything's made of clouds.' And that is not unlike the physical explanations in terms of heat and moisture and so forth that the Milesians invoked. But you can't help suspecting that he perhaps had his tongue in his cheek a bit. But Xenophanes is interesting because he is explicitly concerned with theology. And indeed, he seems to operate in a different mode from the Milesians who wrote anything. And it seems almost certain that Anaximander and Anaximenes did write books. They wrote their books as narratives in prose of how the world began and how it developed. In Xenophanes' case, he writes verse. In fact, he's a poetic performer who travels, as he says, the Greek world. Indeed, after his early years, he seems to have moved to the west of Greece, to South Italy, mainly.

Peter Adamson: To perform at banquets, as it were.

Malcolm Schofield: To perform at banquets, and indeed, we have some of the poems he wrote about what a proper banquet should be like and what the right religious rituals should be, what the right songs you should sing are. And he seems to be very much against elaborate meat sacrifices and songs of gods and giants battling against each other. But he has, very interestingly, a critique of traditional theology. Homer and Hesiod are accused of anthropomorphism and indeed of attributing to gods the worst features of humankind. And he develops this critique by a sort of counterfactual line of thought. He says if lions could draw their gods, then they would draw lion-faced gods, just as the Ethiopians devised gods who have black faces and snub noses.

Peter Adamson: That issue about the kind of text that they produce of books as opposed to poetry brings me to something else I was going to ask you, which is, do you think we can say very much about who the pre-Socratics thought they were talking to? I mean, Xenophanes may have been performing at banquets at least some of the time, but for example, Heraclitus or even the poem of Parmenides, or for that matter, the Milesians, do you think there's any sign that could tell us who they were talking to and who they expected to be able to read their books? Or do we just have to guess about that?

Malcolm Schofield: Well, like so much to do with the pre-Socratics, it is mostly guesswork. There is quite a lot of reason to think that Thales in particular was a public figure. I mean, he's supposed to have generated ideas for a conference of all the Greek states on the eastern seaboard to make common cause together against the Persian overlord.

Peter Adamson: The Woodrow Wilson of pre-Socratic philosophy.

Malcolm Schofield: You could say so, yes. And so I think that Thales had a public role, and I'm quite sure that he would talk authoritatively to anybody who wanted to listen to him. So I don't think we have to think that he was writing only for a small coterie of intellectuals. And with Aximander it's harder to say, but the Greek cities weren't very big places. And so I think that even though there does seem to have been a kind of school developed in Miletus, we mustn't think of it as a university, I think. We must think much more in terms of public intellectuals.

Peter Adamson: And that means that actually the pre-Socratics may have been operating in a mode maybe more like Socrates, actually speaking to people in the marketplace, as it were. And maybe some of Heraclitus' riddles or aphorisms were actually presented to people in that kind of more oral context.

Malcolm Schofield: It's hard to think that Heraclitus wasn't primarily someone who was operating through oral discourse, not primarily on papyrus or whatever it was. I mean, clearly there was a book, but his thoughts do seem phrased in the kind of way that oral utterances are phrased. And similarly, anybody who writes a poem, you have to assume that they're writing it for delivery, even Parmenides, I think.

Peter Adamson: So even Parmenides would have been performing The Way of Truth?

Malcolm Schofield: Well, again, the evidence about Parmenides and his pupil/sidekick Zeno being public figures in Elea in south Italy is quite good. And so I think that Parmenides' poem must be a distillation of his teaching. But it's hard to think that he simply retired to his study alone one day after not talking to anybody for years, writing it down, and then shutting the book and leaving it somewhere and going on somewhere else. It's not really credible, I think.

Peter Adamson: And in fact, in Plato's Parmenides, it looks like the dialogue begins just as Zeno has finished reciting from his book, doesn't it?

Malcolm Schofield: That's right. It's a narrative that can't possibly be literally true, but what it testifies to is the kind of way in which ideas were spread. People would come and read from their books.

Peter Adamson: And of course, Parmenides is a nice example for us of a philosopher who seems actually to have had disciples. So there's Zeno, obviously, and there's also Melissus, and the two of them seem to have been extending Parmenides' philosophy or defending it in some way.

Malcolm Schofield: That's right. And it's quite hard to understand the philosophical relationship of Zeno and Melissus to Parmenides. Zeno is often portrayed as a sort of sophist. And Melissus, there's been some interesting work recently that suggests that some of his arguments are designed to provoke rather than to, as it were, communicate metaphysical truths that we are simply meant to take on board and accept. And whether that's true or not, with respect to Zeno and Melissus, it's very hard to think of them except as operating in a milieu in which people were arguing with each other all the time.

Peter Adamson: And they were sort of adopting a Parmenides-type position, is that the idea?

Malcolm Schofield: That's right. And the thought is, if this is the right way to think of them, trying to provoke others to thought in what you might describe as a Socratic sort of way.

Peter Adamson: That's interesting because when I interviewed M. M. McCabe in a previous episode about Heraclitus, this is exactly what she said about him, that a lot of these aphorisms, which seem almost like jokes or one-liners, are actually implicit invitations to engage in some kind of dialogue with him.

Malcolm Schofield: Well, that is absolutely right. I mean, take a famous fragment of Heraclitus, which I'm actually going to, I think, make the opening sally when I give the presidential lecture to the Hellenic Society next summer. The saying goes like this: "Ione," and Ione means something like human life, "is a child playing around, playing draughts. A child's is the kingdom." Now what on earth he meant, who knows? But it was for sure that he meant us to puzzle about it.

Peter Adamson: It's supposed to be provocative, and it is. So if we can go back to the philosophers who come in the wake of Parmenides, do you think it would be too simplistic to see the generation or two now leading up to the time of Socrates, so not really pre-Socratics anymore, but even Socrates' contemporaries... Do you think it would be too simplistic to think of them as just different attempts to find a way to defend pluralism against Parmenides? So you've got the atomists, you've got Anaxagoras, you've got Empedocles, and they all have multiple principles, either an infinity of atoms or four elements or whatever it might be, a mixture of all things with each other. Are these all just different ways to outwit Parmenides and avoid his kind of total monism?

Malcolm Schofield: I think we probably have to tell a slightly different story with respect to each of them, because I think one thing that our conversation has been bringing out is what an extraordinary diversity of views and approaches to abstract thought these thinkers engage in. And so I think there's something broadly correct in the suggestion that these thinkers who used to be called the "post-Parmenidian pluralists," rather alliteratively - and 'post-Parmenidian' encapsulated the idea that you've just articulated - that in one way or another they're trying to save pluralism from Parmenidian monism and the arguments that Parmenides deployed. But I do think there are differences. And one of the differences is actually the evidence. The evidence we have for the atomists is in some ways a lot more plentiful than for the others, but it's also more indirect. And in other words, we have very few fragments of the physical system of Leucippus and Democrates. And the reports that we have by later writers about the atomists are absolutely explicit that they were offering, in a way, a version of Parmenidianism. They were saying, 'Parmenides is absolutely right, that reality is single and it's homogeneous and that reality is a full reality, there are no gaps in it.' The only variation they really make is to say 'but there is not being as well,' which they then talk of as void, the empty. And from that they can generate their whole theory. But they're not actually, in the sources, represented so much as pluralists, as dualists... dualists who say there has to be both reality, if you like, and unreality. And it's through a complex interchange between these that you get the diversity that we find in the sensible world.

Peter Adamson: And then atomism could almost just be Parmenidian philosophy where you disagree with Zeno and say that it is possible for being to be separated from other beings, so that one atom is separate from another atom by non-being. That's right. You get an atomistic universe.

Malcolm Schofield: But they're very keen to insist that the reality that's, as it were, divorced from reality in this way is a single reality. And that's a sense in which the sources represent them as dualists, rather than a dualism between being and non-being rather than pluralists.

Peter Adamson: It's interesting, isn't it, the way we periodize this period, because we call them all pre-Socratics, as if the really fundamental thing that happens in Greek philosophy is Socrates coming along and changing the game somehow. We could maybe talk instead about pre-Parmenidians and post-Parmenidians. But is there any sense in which it's legitimate to think of Socrates as having changed philosophy so that all the pre-Socratics, in some sense, they form a single tradition, which Socrates brings to an end, maybe by being more interested in ethics than natural philosophy, for example?

Malcolm Schofield: Well, I think these very sharp divisions are always a bit dangerous, because it's quite clear that somebody like Heraclitus had a strong ethical strain in his teaching.

Peter Adamson: And even Democritus has ethical practices.

Malcolm Schofield: Even Democritus, but that relates to another of your points, namely that Democritus is actually quite a bit younger than Socrates. He's probably 30 years younger than Socrates.

Peter Adamson: He'd be surprised if told he was a pre-Socratic!

Malcolm Schofield: So yes, I think Socrates, well, famously Cicero said Socrates called philosophy down from the heavens and brought it into our homes. And that's true in a couple of ways I think: One is the focus on ethics, but also, if you like, the focus on homeliness, because I think what's absolutely different about Socrates from any of these previous people is the way that Socrates' conversations seem to begin with the purely everyday. The Republic, for example, famously begins with a conversation between him and the old man Cephalus. And it's polite conversation. He asks questions that we don't ordinarily ask in polite conversations. 'Oh, well, how's the sex life, old boy?' And Cephalus says, 'well, I'm rather glad not to have got any of that. And how are you feeling about the prospect of death?' Well, he's not afraid of death because he says, 'I've paid my debts and I've always told the truth.' And Socrates then engineers that into a conversation about justice. 'So is that what you think living a just life means? That you won't be subject to post-mortem punishment?' Now I don't think there is any sense with any of the previous people that we've been talking about that there was this kind of ordinary life dimension to philosophy as they saw it. And this was something that later writers about Socrates emphasized. You find this in Xenophon, for example, you find it in Plutarch. They emphasize this, if you like, demotic side to Socrates' work doing philosophy. All comers, any subject whatsoever can be turned into a philosophical subject. 


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