Monday, November 19, 2012

Presocratic Philosophy: Parmenides

In contrast to Heraclitus’s understanding that “all things flow,” Parmenides advocated a fixed and stable reality. In many regards, Parmenides can be understood as the exact opposite of Heraclitus: he participated in his city’s government and had a reputation for making excellent laws for Elea in southern Italy. Whereas Heraclitus was an empiricist, Parmenides was a rationalist, relying on knowledge based on reasoning and inference. Perhaps the only point that both philosophers agreed on was that the universe had always existed and never had to be created. But whereas Heraclitus was the philosopher of flux par excellence, Parmenides wrote of a universe “whole and of a single kind and unshaken and perfect.” For Parmenides, reality is uncreated and timeless, a plenum, or complete fullness of all that is. It is motionless and the same everywhere, like a ball equally balanced in every direction from its center. This view contrasts with Heraclitus’s that reality consists of opposites in balance.

We have about 150 lines of a philosophical work in verse preserved and passed on to us via a transcription by Simplicius, a 6th-century Byzantine philosopher. The poem has a prolog and two sections: “The Way of Truth,” which concerns matters apprehended by reason, and “The Way of Seeming, or Opinion,” which deals with the senses. This second section begins, “Here I end my trustworthy discourse and thought concerning truth; henceforth learn the beliefs of mortal men, listening to the deceitful ordering of my words.” That’s not a great way to sell empiricism! From the titles of these two sections, we can see that part of Parmenides’s philosophical project is going to address the tension between some ultimate reality and appearances, between an ultimate truth and mere opinion. Parmenides is going to criticize those who spend their time thinking about opposites, which, it would seem, are mere appearances that don’t reflect the true unity of reality. He then goes on to condemn any reliance on the senses.

His distinction between reason and the senses is going to lay the foundation of much of the philosophy that comes after him, especially Plato’s. His poem is also one of the first attempts to employ reason and to reason from purely abstract logic to the nature of the world. Parmenides is sometimes called the father of idealism because his description of “The Way of Truth” seems to portray nonmaterial reality, though that may not necessarily be the best way to understand him.

Nevertheless, we need to understand something about both Heraclitus and Parmenides because they set the stage for Plato’s philosophical project, giving him a framework in which to develop his own rational system. Throughout the Republic, Socrates will sometimes allude to these two philosophers, and it becomes clear that he dismisses Heraclitus’s view, falling more into Parmenides’s camp of rationalism. But whereas Parmenides might not be an idealist after all, Plato is very much one.

Idealism is the philosophical view that reality is ultimately in some sense mental or dependent on the mind. According to idealism, the proper objects of knowledge are ideas. We typically contrast idealism with materialism, the philosophical view that reality is composed of material substance with physical characteristics, such as atoms or cells.

Socrates differs from the natural philosophers by moving philosophy away from the natural sciences and physics to the world of the mind. He also changes philosophy’s focus to ethics and virtue, how to live a good life, how to be happy. For Socrates, the project of ethics and knowledge go hand in hand: we have to know what the good is because once we know it, we will be it. If we know what the good is, it becomes impossible to do evil. All wrongdoing, then, has an epistemological basis: knowledge is virtue. No one knowingly does evil. This runs directly counter to the Christian understanding of sin: “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn't do it, sins” (James 4:17) or “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Romans 7:15).

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Presocratic Philosophy: Heraclitus

We've already talked about the natural philosopher Thales (c. 624-546 BCE), who reasoned that water was the source of all. Coming out of that monistic tradition, we have two natural philosophers who set the stage for Platonic philosophy, posing some of the preliminary questions that Socrates and Plato are going to grapple with: Heraclitus of Ephesus (fl. 504-501 BCE) and Parmenides of Elea (fl. 501-492 BCE).

Heraclitus was from Ephesus, a city that Christians might recognize from the book Ephesians of the New Testament. It is on the west coast of Asia Minor in modern-day Turkey. He came from an aristocratic family but apparently gave up a comfortable life, refusing to participate in local government and instead devoting his time to philosophy while living simply off the land. About 100 fragments of his work are extant, and they, for the most part, come down to us indirectly. That is, throughout the work of other philosophers, we have people who report what Heraclitus wrote. We are entirely dependent on later quotations, paraphrases, and secondhand reports for our understanding of Heraclitus’s philosophical project.

For Heraclitus, the world has always existed. It did not come into being; it did not need to be created. The main problem that Heraclitus spent time on was the problem of change. To him, change is constant and universal. The three themes that span the fragments we have are flux, fire, and the cosmic unity of opposites. He wrote, “This world-order … always was and is and shall be: an ever-living fire, kindling in measures and going out in measures.” Aristotle viewed Heraclitus as a material monist who understood the source of all things as fire. For Heraclitus, fire was both the prime matter of the universe as well as its form. Fire was the Logos incarnate, the material enactment of the principle of change and flux.

Heraclitus called the underlying structure of the universe “the Logos,” and that is the thing that remains constant beneath constant change and flux. In many regards, we can understand Heraclitus as an empiricist: he saw and experienced everything changing, people growing old and dying, the seasons coming and going. He wrote, “I prefer whatever comes from sight, hearing, and learning from experience.” But beneath such change, an eternal logical structure existed: perhaps you’ve heard the expression, “the only constant thing is change.” That type of paradox would appeal to Heraclitus, who was fond of the way in which opposites fit together into a larger, more logical form. He wrote, “It is wise … to agree that all things are one,” and, “Thinking is shared by all.” As part of how he maps the paradox of reality, we have such fragments as, “The beginning and the end are shared in the circumference of a circle,” and, “The way up and down is one and the same.”

His philosophy of constant change can be read in such fragments as, “The sun is new every day,” and, “One cannot step twice into the same river.” Not only has the water in the river changed, but the person doing the stepping has changed as well. Heraclitus also wrote on war: “One must realize that war is shared and Conflict is Justice, and that all things come to pass in accordance with conflict,” and, “War is the father of all and king of all.”