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Thread: Justice depends on confrontation: The pre-socratics speak out

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    Justice depends on confrontation: The pre-socratics speak out


    The Greek philosophers are deceptive. It is easy to take the position that they are almost contemporaries because they make so much contemporary sense. Essentially, this paper will take the opposite position in contending that any such interpretation of the Greek philosophers has to ignore so much of the territory in dispute as to miss much of the meaning.
    In “Sometimes Worthy Homer Nods,” but not often, we isolated a position in Homer which turned out to be the inverse of the modern practice of holding the individual as constant and his emotions as variables, in saying that the emotions are the constants and their environmental expression the variable.
    The pre-Socratics are a group of thinkers represented by a handful of fragments. These philosophers sought to find the wisdom for manipulating their reality in themselves rather than delegating the primary cause of change to the gods. In essence, the Greek philosophers were interested in the power to manipulate their own emotional and physical reality by speculating on the sources of the power necessary to do so and on the attitudes and knowledge necessary for the realization of this goal. Emotions remain as the primary reality test as to the state of one’s particular purpose but the scope of that purpose has broadened to include concerns that were formerly the property of the gods. The pre-Socratics, while speculating broadly, were indelibly pragmatic in seeking a satisfactory, useful means of dealing with what they saw and how they felt about it. Their success at this is reflected in the longevity of active speculation concerning their conclusions and by the mystical and semi-mystical schools that grew up around them. They proposed not simply an explanation of reality, but a mode of behavior in dealing with that reality.
    However, the beginnings of this speculation are not to be found in the pre-Socratics. They reflect a long process. In the pre-Olympian gods one finds a fixed positional consistency that is not present in the Homeric gods. One is impressed by the almost total lack of personification in these more ancient deities. They represent laws that are not subject to review. In a sense, the younger gods of Olympus are the progenitors of contingent reality and a departure from "the Mind of the Past." The ancient gods show the fixed morality of a tribal ethos. The very existence of rational gods whose positions on any given problem are defined not traditionally but situationally is a precursor to the speculation of the later Greeks. In essence, the younger gods themselves were the first challengers of tradition. In the nature of their speculations, the pre-Socratics can be seen in many ways to harken back to this older tradition in seeking the general laws that operate in existence.
    In the pre-Socratics we are faced with a difficult task of interpretation, primarily because of the fragmentary nature of the material. However, one theme does run fairly consistently throughout, that being the problem of seeming. What is the relationship between emotion, intellectual and physical reality, or more basically between mind and matter. We have seen how this question is answered in Homer; now we will go through the pre-Socratics seeking both variations and similarities with an eye on whatever continuity may be present throughout.
    The evidence concerning Thales' position is limited to one fragment:

    Some say that it (soul) is intermingled in the universe, for which reason perhaps, Thales also thought that all things are full of gods.1

    This is basically a repetition of the animistic Homeric view and shows very little change from the assertion that Achilleus "does dishonor to the dumb earth in his fury."
    In Anaximander we see the first hint of a teleological purpose superseding the gods:

    And the source of coming-to-be for existing things is that into which destruction too happens, "according to necessity; for they pay penalty and retribution to each other according to the assessment of time."2

    However, from this scant evidence his position on the nature of things appears to be similar to that of Thales. There is no real evidence for ascribing a position to Anaximenes, the last of the Milesians.
    Again, there is scant evidence as to Pythagoras' position, except for the assertion that he felt "that all living things should be regarded as akin,"3 and that one should "follow the gods and restrain your tongue above all else."4 Here, once again, one sees the inter-relatedness of all things and the introduction of a very important concern, the power of words and their effect on one’s position in reality. One sees in him also the exclusion of inanimate objects from the realm of consideration of what is vital.
    In Xenophanes we meet a fascinating passage:

    No man knows or ever will know the truth about the gods and about everything I speak of: for even if one chanced to say the complete truth, yet oneself knows it not; but seeming is wrought over all things.5

    It may well be that Xenophanes in this reflects a more traditional view on the relationship between men and gods and the limitations of men in appreciating the truth. This interpretation is supported by his assertion:

    There is one god, among gods and men the greatest not at all like mortals in body or mind.6

    But in saying that "seeming is wrought over all things," he is also possibly introducing a duality between emotion and intellect in that the former is not a true guide to the validity of the latter. This position exists in Homer in the goddess Delusion, but is secondary to the validity of emotional reality testing. This question will arise again in Parmenides.
    Heraclitus purports that:

    Sane thinking is the greatest virtue, and wisdom is speaking the truth and acting according to nature, paying heed.7

    Again, we have an intermingling of psychic and physical reality with profitable action being based on a concordant relationship between the two. One might posit a kind of dualism in that there is a sort of a choice involved as to whether one acts wisely or not though this position is not supported by his assertion that:

    Character is man's fate.8

    Here the translation of ethos anthropo daimon is problematical and a better rendition might simply be: "man is rotten to the core." Daimon refers to fate and the gods but "gods" in the sense they were known then, not the sense dimly attributed to God now; the reason existence is such a mess is rather obvious in that the gods are largely a bunch of scoundrels.
    Before Christ, gods were viewed as sufficiently terrifying in their wrath and purposes as not to require much concern about a Devil. Yahweh was a relatively reasonable personage but was deemed awful in the extreme. Other gods were more openly demonic and self-interested, witness Zeus and company and their delight in war and revenge and destruction. A clearer and more proper association with the implacable character of natural justice was, evidently, expressed by the Erinyes or Furies. But gods frequently had rather small purposes, i.e., their own prominence and power and worked in association with a limited group. This self-interested purpose united them with the mortals that were struggling and fighting and promoting themselves here, there and everywhere and anyone who accumulated enough power promptly declared himself a god (e.g., the Pharaohs, Alexander the Great, the Caesars, etc.)
    For our purposes, Parmenides is perhaps the most important of the pre-Socratics, partially because we have more surviving evidence and partially because much of this evidence is related to our topic.

    You must learn all: both the unshaken heart of well-rounded truth and the opinions of mortals in which there is no true belief.9

    Parmenides makes a distinction which might well be seen as a precursor to the Platonic forms. It also harkens back to Xenophanes' position on the limitations of mortals in appreciating the truth. However, what is most interesting is the Homeric fashion in which he describes the truth as a coupling of emotion and intellect. "The unshaken heart of well-rounded truth" describes the uniting of these two psychic functions and the assertion that it is not a mortal trait supports this interpretation. However, he goes on to say:

    These are the only ways of thought that exist for thinking.10

    Without, or actually even with, the Homeric context to aid interpretation, this is a difficult passage. Thought in both Homer and apparently also in Parmenides is either in active correspondence with reality or it is delusional and is not truly thought:

    For the same thing can be thought as can be.11

    However, this interpretation, though supported by the first passage cited concerning "the opinions of mortals," is not apparently supported by:

    One way, that is and cannot not-be, is the path of persuasion, for it attends on truth; the other that it is-not and needs must not-be, that, I tell you, is a path altogether unthinkable. For you could not know that which is-not (that is impossible), nor utter it.12

    The key to this passage may lie in the term "the path of persuasion" which it will be recalled has a direct Homeric parallel. A thought may exist without sufficient reality to define or rather persuade actualization, but a thought totally separated from what is cannot even be conjured.

    Nor will the force of credibility ever admit that anything should come into being, beside being itself, out of not being.13

    If this interpretation is valid, this makes Parmenides' conception very close indeed to the Homeric except in diminishing the role of mortals in the formulation of reality.

    Therefore all things that mortals have established, believing in their truth, are just a name.14

    In essence, reality becomes a kind of divine thought separated from men by their ignorance. It is in this separation between the divine realm of being and the human world of seeming that one might see a hint of the Platonic forms.
    There is little relevant material in Zeno; however, in Melissus one finds:

    It is clear therefore that we have not been seeing correctly, and that those things do not correctly seem to us to be many; for they would change if they were real, but each would be as it seemed to be. For nothing is stronger than that which is real.15

    Here he expands on Parmenides' last quoted passage in asserting the difference between reality and names attached to it in that there is only one reality and it is misinterpreted by not seeing it properly. The problem is that words are not reality but only mortal attempts at reaching an inherently divine position of correspondence with what is real, the thought of the gods. However, we might note here that reality is not a detached, distanced being in the Greek vision, but was often seen as a conscious presence involved in the definition of events (neither indifferent to nor separated from them). We should recall that Anagke, the Goddess of Reality or Necessity, was rarely worshipped because she just gives it to you the way it is and insists on its being thus. Anagke is one of the old gods, like the Erinyes, who know nothing of "contingent reality" except as disgrace and iniquity. As a being she was often construed in line with Melissus' comment concerning reality above: "Nothing is stronger than dread Anagke." She is a spirit of grounded, raw reality much like an active, individuated sense of the Mind of the Past, echoing Tunggal, Tuhan, Allah and Ingsun in relation to Purba Wisesa (Natural Law) in the Javanese experience and Bali's marvelous Acintiya.
    We might also inject that in Heraclitus we have a very clear picture of how what comes to be transpires mechanically. Eris, the Lady of Sorrow, Goddess of Confrontation, Strife or Hatred, is what Anagke, our stated and knowing Goddess of Reality or Necessity, has to work with in defining what happens. Without active Eris, without confronting the problem and suffering it down, there can be no justice in that we all, i.e., reality, get tied up in unrecognized beauty and horror, undifferentiated glory and infamy, and are forced to hold the undigested material as such until it can be sorted out.
    The process here could be compared with the problems of relating to a tyranny: without confrontation, the contented despots (as Dionysius counseled Apollo at Delphi, thus earning the censure of Plato: "Keep ever the pleasant life of a tyrant") will just carry on indefinitely with their palaces and secret police and impunity; with confrontation, things are likely to get a bit hot and ugly for a while but justice becomes possible eventually.

    One must know that war is common and justice is strife, and that all things happen by strife and necessity.16

    The problem of verbalization arises again in Empedocles, who apparently felt that correspondence with the divine realm was possible and brought back the power of man seen in the Homeric epics. It is interesting that he felt himself a god telling a story and that he felt that other men would have difficulty with his tale.

    Friends, I know that truth is present in the story that I shall tell, but it is actually very difficult for men, and the impact of conviction on their minds is unwelcome.17

    The unsettled and unreal nature of words is brought out in his assertion:

    For that which is right can well be uttered even twice.18

    But he also felt that there was not only a weakness in words, but a terrifying strength as well in the minds of men.

    Will ye not cease from this harsh-sounding slaughter? Do you not see that you are devouring one another in the thoughtlessness of your minds?19

    In Empedocles one might say that the potential strength of man in dealing with his reality is once again asserted and that some mortals, such as Empedocles, can rise above their ignorance to affect the shaping of what is. It is interesting to note that Empedocles' "love and strife" is pre-stated in The Iliad in a passage in which Zeus says:

    Let us consider then how these things shall be accomplished, whether again to stir up grim warfare and the terrible fighting, or to cast down love and make them friends with each other.20

    In dispute with Parmenides, Empedocles asserted an animistic reality which, like the Homeric, was participant.

    For all things, be assured, have intelligence and a portion of thought.21

    Anaxagoras carried this even further in saying that:

    In everything there is a portion of everything.22

    which smacks of the microcosmic/macrocosmic vision and the lahir/batin tradition in Javanese mysticism. As in Homer, all are involved in the process of defining reality.
    Democritus took a slightly different tack in saying once again in a very Homeric fashion that:

    The hopes of right thinking men are attainable, but those of the unintelligent are impossible.23

    and that:

    Pleasure and absence of pleasure are the criterion of what is profitable.24

    Asserting once again the primacy of emotional goals for to define pleasure in one’s existence becomes the purpose and proof of right thinking.

    The criterion of the advantageous and the disadvantageous is enjoyment and lack of enjoyment.25

    Once again, we meet with an assertion of the interrelated nature of reality and the potential power of man in shaping it.

    To a wise man, the whole earth is open, for the native land of a good soul is the whole earth.26

    If nothing else, this little survey shows that neither the influence nor the position of Homeric thought had diminished. As with all of these philosophers, my life too has been but an effort to confront the problem of being and serve justice. In Java’s suhul being, we needs be have what is called Tekading Ingsun (Divine Resolve): "I didn't make this mess but I sure am going to clean it up!"


    1. Thales in Philosophic Classics, ed. Walter Kaufmann. (New Jersey, 1968), p.7.
    2. Anaximander in Kaufmann, op.cit., p 8.
    3. Pythagoras in Kaufmann, op.cit., p. 12.
    4. Idem.
    5. Xenophanes in Kaufmann, op.cit., p. 14.
    6. Ibid., p. 13.
    7. Heraclitus in Kaufmann, op.cit., p. 17.
    8. Idem.
    9. Parmenides in Kaufmann, op.cit., p. 19.
    10. Ibid., p. 20.
    11. Idem.
    12. Idem.
    13. Idem.
    14. Idem.
    15. Melissus in Kaufmann, op.cit., p. 33.
    16. Empedocles in Kaufmann, op.cit., p. 39.
    17. Ibid., p. 36.
    18. Ibid., p. 39.
    19. The Iliad, trans. Richmond Lattimore (Chicago, 1967), p. 113.
    20. Empedocles in Kaufmann, op.cit., p. 38.
    21. Anaxagoras in Kaufmann, op.cit., p. 41.
    22. Ibid., p. 42.
    23. Democritus in Kaufmann, op.cit., p. 47.
    24. Idem.
    25. Ibid., p. 49.
    26. Ibid., p. 46.

    Last edited by Elok; 08 Sep 2021 at 13:20. Reason: Errors

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