Tuesday, December 14, 2010

What it Means to Be a Prefatory Footnote: Preliminary Notes on the Presocratics

What I typically post here resemble essays more than journals, usually with an argument that is, if brief, fairly complete. This, alternately, will be something of a "think out loud" piece, in which I speculate on the rhetorical implications and possible reasons behind referring to a group of Greek philosophers between the eighth and third centuries BC as "Presocratics." Since I don't know much about them, the entry is really more a way of describing my ignorance than in rectifying it. Hopefully, there will be a followup piece that binds some of the loose ends introduced in this one.

I think that it should be fairly self-evident that something goes on when we label something a precursor to something else: the precursor becomes last year's model, so to speak, and is immediately devalued. One need look no further than what Jesus did to Isaiah or, depending on where one lives, what Mohamed did to Jesus. In fact, both the latter two traditions speak specifically of their Messiahs/prophets as being the culmination of historical processes that had the end point specifically in mind. This creates the mental effect that prophets who had previously been a kind of a plateau are now merely steps on the way to a plateau.

Naturally, the idea of Presocratics carries much the same effect. The title itself implies that none of these thinkers should be troubled over too much for what they said or wrote, but that their significance instead lies in that they paved the road for the more complete philosophical synthesis that we see in Socrates and Plato (to whatever extent we can extricate the two).

So let's examine some possible reasons that this group of teachers/philosophers/mystics might be taught to modern students in this manner. A few forms spring to mind: first, a lack of material. It could simply be (and I suspect that this is the case) that we encounter few or no texts directly attributed to the Presocratics themselves. This would be unsurprising, and the standard course of events, given the length of time since the purported historical existence of these men, but itself doesn't explain much. We have, after all, no original texts of the Bible, Socrates, Plato, or virtually any works from the ancient world that weren't, literally, carved in stone.  (Conversely, we apparently have a painfully large, and mostly painfully dull, collection of written records from the Babylonians and other such cultures that recorded everything from poetry to grain requisitions on unwieldy-but-durable clay tablets.) Yet all of these latter works are still considered of major importance and discernible historical provenance.

Secondly, we can look at the reliability of the accounts that we do have from the earliest extant sources. This probably helps some, as the earliest texts of Plato are, as I understand, from his students at the Academy, but one would imagine that the tradition by which the Presocratics reach us is probably similar. So maybe that's not much help, either, although the continuity of the Platonic tradition for centuries after Plato probably lends an authenticity that the Presocratic texts lack.

On a conceptual level, one could suppose that Socrates represents an interesting synthesis of ideas that had existed separately, much in the way that Newton created what we consider the first usably comprehensive theory of gravity, or how Darwin took the various evolutionary ideas roaming the 18th century and turned them into something elegant and parsimonious. But that only works so well, as we nevertheless view, on the one hand, Kepler, Brahe, and Galileo as worthy objects of study in their own right. (Although Lamarck, Robert Chambers,  and Erasmus Darwin fare only slightly better than do the Presocratics; perhaps we should call them the Predarwinians.)

Finally, this form of grouping could simply be a historical convention, something we approach this way because some influential scholar or group of scholars once imagined it to be the "natural" progression of the material. In any case, it's helpful to think sometimes of the categories into which we group material, and the ways that they can influence and constrain the ways that we approach learning.  As such, "Presocratics" belongs to a tradition containing such terms as "local historian," "minor battle," and "regional writer" that, perhaps intentionally, limit the amount of attention any given individual or event receives from a student of the relevant discipline.