A Concise Critical History of Presocratic Philosophy
An Approach Based on Gorgias the Sophist
by Michael Bakaoukas M.Sc., Ph.D. University of Piraeus, Greece
Provocative aphorisms of the presocratic philosophers, such as the Parmenidean tenet what is is a whole of a single kind, since it is now all together one, cohesive have been subject to endless cycles of interpretation. I do not propose to offer here a full analysis of presocratic thought, but rather some new suggestions as to how to interpret the presocratic philosophers on the basis of how Gorgias the Sophist and scholars have interpreted them.
The original works are lost, so one should "seek to come to terms with alternative views already on record"1. On the basis of the most authoritative modern interpretations2, I analyse the philosophical controversy between the monists (Parmenides, Zeno, Melissus) and the pluralists (Ionian philosophers, Pythagoreans, Anaxagoras, Empedocles, Atomists).
My approach is genuinely Gorgianic in the sense that I am following Gorgias' insight into his contemporary presocratic philosophy, as it is stated in his 5th-century treatise On What is not. According to the philological or rhetorical approach, Gorgias' treatise On What is Not is just a rhetorical parody of philosophical doctrines3. According to the ontological approach, Gorgias is just a nihilist (or a negative dogmatic or a forerunner of scepticism) attacking the doctrines of the Eleatics and the Presocratics. There are many interpreters who hold that Gorgias is attacking the ontological doctrines of the Presocratics (especially the Eleatic tenets)4. That is to say, the majority of scholars agree that Gorgias was closely connected with his contemporary presocratic philosophy.
OntologyIn simple terms, ontology is the philosophical study of existence. Other popular ancient philosophies analyze knowledge and morality.
- N.S. Gill
This fact makes Gorgias a reliable doxographic source as regards his contemporary presocratic philosophers (Zeno, Melissus, Anaxagoras, his teacher Empedocles, the Atomists Leukippus and Democritus). Therefore, we should take Gorgias seriously as a presocratic testimony, since, as Kerferd notes, "there is nothing in the treatise (sc. of Gorgias) which might not have been expressed by Gorgias in the fifth century and there the matter is perhaps best left" (Kerferd, 1955, 5).
DoxographerDoxographers are those writers who tell us the opinions of the Greek philosophers.
- John Burnet Early Greek Philosophy
According to my Ph.D. dissertation, both Gorgias and Aristotle refer to the contradicting views of some presocratic philosophers who argue with each other about one and the same thing, i.e. the "being" (on)5. For Aristotle, "we cannot be right in holding the contradicting views [sc. of Heracleitus and Anaxagoras]. If we could, it would follow that contraries are predicable of the same subject [sc. which is not the case]" (Metaph. K 1063b24-26). Plato, also, in Sophist 245a4-6, refers to the presocratic controversy between the monists and the pluralists. In the same way, Gorgias says in his rhetorical work Palamedes that we should not believe those people who contradict themselves (Pal. 25). Similarly, Gorgias says in his rhetorical work Helen that the presocratic philosophers argue with each other (Helen 13-14). Obviously, the "quarrelling" philosophers at issue (in Gorgias' time) are the Atomists and the Eleatics. As far as we can tell from Gorgias' treatise On What is Not, the Gorgianic arguments and counter arguments refer to the monistic Eleatics who had engaged in a controversy with the pluralistic Atomists about being and non-being (or void).
Presocratic philosophy is a philosophical controversy between the monists and the pluralists, a fact that is confirmed by the late presocratic philosophy in which the Atomists replied to the Eleatics6. As I have argued in my MSc and Ph.D. dissertation (see note 5), the Atomists' reply to the Eleatics is supported not only by Aristotle but by Gorgias' treatise On What is not as well. Aristotle confirms the Atomists' reply to the Eleatics in De Gen. et Corr. A8, 323a23-32. He emphasizes four characteristics of the philosophical controversy between the monists and the pluralists: void or non-being, plurality, becoming and local movement. The same four characteristics of the controversy between the monists and the pluralists are confirmed by Gorgias, who in his treatise On What is Not refers to them as follows:
A. Being versus non-being
B. Generated versus ungenerated being
C. One being versus many beings and
D. Not moving and indivisibe being versus moving and divisible being.
For Plato as well, the Eleatics (242d5) say that being is one and indivisible and not moving (242e1, 245a8, 249d3). On the other hand, pluralists say that being is many, divisible and moving (242e1, 245a1, 249d3).
Gorgias, Plato, Aristotle (and partly the extant presocratic fragments) agree that there was a presocratic philosophical controversy between the pluralists (Ionian philosophers, Pythagoreans, Anaxagoras, Empedocles, Atomists) and the monists (Xenophanes, Eleatics). Briefly, this controversy took place as follows:
The monist Parmenides attacked the foundation of the Ionian pluralistic philosophy by asserting the unity and identity of Being. That is to say, he asserted that it is beyond the limits of logic to say, following the Ionian materialists, that a material element like fire can change forms and become something else while being the same thing. It seemed that change of all kinds could not be explained by Anaximenes' mechanism of rarefaction and condensation. The Pythagoreans, who followed the Ionians, Anaximander and Anaximenes, attacked Parmenides with a geometrical argument ad absurdum in order to prove that his thesis resulted in a self-contradictory denial of multiplicity. Against the Pythagoreans, Anaxagoras and Empedocles, then, Zeno, on the basis of the Pythagorean hypothesis of monadic points, proved dialectically that their own hypothesis of multiplicity ended in more extreme contradictions. Empedocles and Anaxagoras attempted to reconstruct the Ionian physical philoso phy by adopting the logic of Parmenides. They explained all apparent change by the aggregation and segregation of particles and reduced all change to local movement and rearrangement. There was no room for void (non-being), since even air is a material. First Zeno and then Melissus of Samos applied the strict Eleatic logic to Empedocles' and Anaxagoras' theories in order to show that if there is no void, as both presume, there can be no motion. Since it was no longer possibe to assume motion without void, the last pluralists, the Atomists challenged the monistic Eleatics and accepted the existence of void (non-being).
Notes1. A.P.D. Mourelatos, The Presocratics, Princeton, 1993, 1.
2. The interpretations of Heidel (1905), Aurnet (1930), Cherniss (1935), Iwen (1960), Guthrie (1962, 1965), Iourelatos (1971), Furley (1987), Barnes (1993) and Curd (1998).
3. (Bux, 1941: 403 ff -Untersteiner, 1954: 163-5 - Kerferd, 1981a: 93-95).
4. Grote (1869: VII 331 ff and 1875: 107-109), Gomperz Th. (1901: 480-496), Maier (1913: 223-226), Reinhardt (1916: 39 ff), Joel (1921: 726), Nestle (1922: 554), Lattanzi (1932), Calogero (1932: 157-222), Brocker (1958: 438), Mondolfo (1936: 177-182), Levi (1941: 32-34 and 1966: 204 ff), Zeller (1963: 1305-1310), Sicking (1964: 225 ff), Guthrie (1969: 199 and 1971: ch. 11), etc.
5. Michael Bakaoukas, I. 'The Argument from Illusion in Gorgias' Treatise On What is Not. II. 'Phroneisthai': Gorgias on Perception and Knowledge. III. Interpreting Gorgias from an Epistemological Point of View, MSc Diss., The University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, 1995 -Michael Bakaoukas, Gorgias' treatise on what is not or on nature. An epistemological analysis. The ontological controversy between the Eleatics and the Atomists and the intervention of Gorgias, Ph.D. Diss., Univ. of Athens, Department of Methodology, History and Theory of Science, Athens, 2001.
6. D.J. Furley, "The Atomists' Reply to the Eleatics" , in Mourelatos (ed.), The Presocratics, Princeton, 1993, 506.
This article is an abridgment of the following book: Michael Bakaoukas, The Presocratic Philosophers. A Concise Critical History of Presocratic Philosophy. A Gorgianic Approach, Helias Bartzoulianou Pub. Co., Athens, 2002, ISBN: 960-87255-0-X pp. 111 (introduction by Prof. Theodore Scaltsas, Chair of Ancient Philosophy, Univ. of Edinburgh).