Themes of Ancient Philosophy - Intro to "Introductory Readings in Ancient Philosophy" - by CDC Reeve
In the introduction to this reader on Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, Reeve gives us a brief look at some of the overarching themes present in Ancient philosophy. Here I have chosen to focus mainly on his discussion of the PreSocratics, and to leave out his very brief look at Plato and Aristotle, as well as his look at Skepticism, Stoicism, and Neo-Platonism. I believe that focusing on the PreSocratics, the fundamental questions they posed, and the vocabulary they coined, that the stage is set to engage with the rest of the history of philosophy. And so here I have bolded key philosophical terms which are helpful to know as one sets out as a journeyman philosopher.
Nature has a Nature
Reeve begins with a fundamental point about Ancient Greek philosophy, namely, that they set main question that philosophy as a discipline would spend the next thousands of years answering, and still is to this day. The first questions that they sought to answer happened to be the biggest questions about the universe that can be asked.
What is the question, you ask? Reeve sums it up with the phrase, "What is the nature of Nature?" The word nature, or "physis," comes from the Greek word for "to grow." Nature refers to entire world as a unified living and growing entity. Philosophy, as a discipline of reason, comes as a breaking with the tradition of mythology in Greece because it is based on the fundamental assumption that Nature is intelligible. If I use my rational mind to explore it, I can come to understand Nature. There is an explanation for why things happen. 2 "But what set philosophers apart was the idea that nature's orderliness was no fluke. Nature (physis), they thought, was a kosmos (a unified and orderly arrangement of parts) with a logos (a rational account including an explanation of its orderliness)."
Appearance Versus Reality
This fundamental assumption of the rational intelligibility of nature brings with it the first set of philosophical questions when it comes to proving this to be true. For example, the controversy over appearance versus reality. If Nature is a unified and orderly whole, then why are things changing all the time? At least the appearance of things is always fluctuating in Nature. And so, it must be the case that there is some dichotomy to Nature of that which is the unified, stable, rational part and that which is the changing appearance to things. "When we suppose that in order to understand nature we have to suppose it to have a non-apparent structure or arrangement, we immediately introduce a distinction between the way things appear and the way they really are. ... The point is the same whether we call 'nature' the reality behind the appearances or identify nature with the appearances and call the reality behind it something else."
Is the Human Mind Correlated to the Rationality of Nature?
Another fundamental question that arises when considering the nature of Nature is in regard to the human person. Man is a part of nature, but also reflects in himself a mirror of Nature as a microcosm of Nature. His inner rational world which informs his bodily existence is a parallel to the rationality behind the workings of Nature. What then is the relation of man's rational thoughts to Nature? Are they foreign, like man-made artifacts? Or are they reflective or the rationality behind Nature itself? In exploring our own inner world of thought as human beings, do we learn anything about the nature of Nature as well?
"Yet insofar as we are a part of nature, perhaps we can come to understand it by examining ourselves or engaging in introspection. So, we might be able to explore nature by exploring the microcosmos. These two perspectives on human beings and their attempts to understand nature are potentially in conflict: if we try to understand nature by engaging in introspection or by 'lookin into ourselves' as the philosopher Heraclitus put it, will not the results inevitably be just more representations? Will we not merely have discovered a peculiar type of artifact rather than nature's order itself? So, in a way, attempts to understand the order in nature raise problems regarding understanding itself and its very possibility." 3
What is the Fundamental Substance/Law of Nature?
Likewise, if there is a nature to Nature, this leads to the question as to what is most fundamental about Nature? Could there be a most basic substance or element which is at the root of everything else that exists? "One sort of strategy for explaining nature begins by supposing that underlying the apparent diversity in nature is a uniformity of material or elemental 'stuff' out of which things are made. A related idea is that underlying it is a set of laws according to which everything operates." The earliest Greek philosophers posed many opinions and options regarding this fundamental element or nature. Likewise, it could also be the case that the fundamental nature of Nature is not a substance, but a law, or both. This discussion inevitably leads to the question regarding the ultimate nature of Nature, not just local explanations. What is the ultimate, first and final, source of all things?
The Senses and the Mind
Going back to appearance versus reality, another early problem has to do with the struggle of reconciling the differences between the appearance of things to our senses with what we know about them rationally according to the mind. There can be many examples of times when something appears to exist in a certain manner, yet rationally we know that our sense understanding is flawed, limited, or misleading. And so in pushing towards understand that which is most real about Nature, and that which is less real and more appearance, the relationship between the mind and the senses is key in understanding.
As a side note, this back and forth of considering the different possibilities, the relation of opposites, the solution to paradoxes and contradictions, all of these dialogues represent what the Greeks called "dialectic." Dialectic is the means by which one unpacks what lays hidden in plain sight through the power of conversation. It is the means by which one arrives at a deeper understanding of truth through the back and forth of dialogue with another. 4
The Necessity of Doing Philosophy
For the Ancient Greeks, though a skeptical school does arise, philosophy is not something optional. Philosophy (philo-sophia), literally, "the love of wisdom," was a function of being fully human. To put aside the fundamental human desire of knowing is to deny an important aspect of human life and happiness. If Nature is intelligible, and we have a deep drive to know, then to know that which is most universally and fundamentally true about reality is most fulfilling. "They were people who thought that a way of life focused on a search for understanding was an intrinsically satisfying one, and that the achievement of understanding was bound to be life-enhancing - and by 'achievement' they meant correct answers to the questions they posed." 5
1 - ix
2 - x
3 - xi
4 - xii
5 - xiii