The Pre-Socratics may be thought of as deficient, lacking something, primitive in the derogatory sense. But there is also the opposite perspective: These men were not primitive, without sophistication, but primeval, deeper, more receptive to origins.
Think how peculiar this appellation is: “Pre-Socratics.” A whole slew of thinkers, poetical, aphoristic, prosaic—condemned to be known as the precursors of a man who wrote nothing! Forerunners are, it seems, ipso facto inferior to the rightly anointed. Take John the Baptist, the canonical precursor, who says of himself: “…he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear.”(Matthew 3:11) That holds not only for individuals, but also for communities. Our forefathers, the writers of the Federalist Papers, thought of those Greek city states, the poleis, whose frame or politeia was a direct democracy, as the unstable antecedents of the reliable representative republic they were proposing for America—not that the Greek democracies did not have some representational features, but as Madison, remarkably, puts it: “The true distinction between these and the American Government lies in the total exclusion of the people in their collective capacity from any share in the latter…”(Federalist 63) So the superiority of our successor republic lies in erasing direct popular participation altogether—and here is my presumption: Just as the founders as successors to the Greeks had a deeper understanding than they did of the chief, philosophically opaque, element of modern politics—representationalism, so, on the contrary, John the Baptist as forerunner of the Christ lacked his revelatory power: John baptizes with water, but Jesus will baptize with the Holy Ghost; what John is doing is significant but opaque.
My point is that as “pre-somebodies,” the Pre-Socratics may be thought of as deficient, lacking something, primitive in the derogatory sense. But, of course, there is also the opposite perspective: These men were not primitive, without sophistication, but primeval, deeper, more receptive to origins, to everything for which the Germans have that awe-bestowing prefix ur, as in Ursprung, the “original leap.” Of course, I am thinking of Heidegger, for whom, what professional philosophers like to regard as a progress is, in fact, a progressive occultation and a withdrawal of Being.
What did the man who devised the designation actually mean? In 1815, Friedrich Schleiermacher, the philosopher-theologian (and the superb translator of Plato), in an address “On the Worth of Socrates as a Philosopher,” declared that Socrates was pivotal in the history of philosophy. The reason seems a little underwhelming; it was that before him there were different schools of philosophy pursuing different kinds of philosophy, but after him, although the kinds were still distinguished, every school cultivated all kinds. Thus Schleiermacher is kindly crediting Socrates with preventing an incipient academic specialization. This view must have seemed plausible, because Schleiermacher’s label “Pre-Socratic” stuck and is now used for collections of texts without further comment.
Of course, the notion that Socrates was epochal, not as the human phenomenon of the Platonic dramas, but as a historical event, appears in the first history of philosophy, Book I and II of Aristotle’s Physics and again in Book I of the Metaphysics. In the latter, Socrates is presented as “busying himself with moral matters and not at all with the whole of nature [as did the preceding so-called “physicists”], however seeking in those matters the universal, and being first to fix his thinking on definitions” (I.6)—a far more epochal distinction than Schleiermacher’s. Here, too (I.5), he calls those who became “the Pre-Socratics” the “first wise men.” This description seems to me significant in two ways: First, it implies that they were not “lovers” of, here meaning “not in secure possession of,” wisdom, but that they were actually wise, and that delineates accurately the prevailing mode of the two I will single out in a moment. Second, it raises a question: In calling them the “first wise men,” does he just mean “earliest” or is there a hint that they studied “first things,” and were concerned with what Aristotle calls “the first [science]” or “first philosophy”?(VI.1)
Let me inject myself here, unhopefully, into this epoch-framing debate. Why don’t we give up “Pre-Socratics” and call these folks “Pre-Professionals” and their successors “Post-Socratics,” with Socrates as pivot between them? That would relocate the disparagement away from the “wise men” to the professionals, where Heidegger, at least, might agree it belongs.
That, however, isn’t going to happen, because nothing is more sticky than historical epoch terms. Take, for example, our grandest epoch-division, with which I grew up: B.C. and A.D., “Before Christ” and “In the year of our Lord,” Anno Domini. In our era of offense-taking, some folks couldn’t bear to live in the epoch of a young Jewish rabbi, so now we write B.C.E., “Before the Common Era,” and C.E., “Common Era.” But the turning point is still the birth date of Joshua or Jesus of Galilee, whenever that actually was, except we’ve masked that fact. Concerning Socrates, as an epochal figure, I have my own take on the respect in which he is indeed a pivot: It is he who turns the wisdom (sophia) of the divinely initiated into the longing for wisdom (philosophia) of a mere mortal left to his own devices, so that Pre-Socratic truth passes into Socratic questioning; past this inflection, this cusp, which is the human singularity called Socrates, his hypothetically held thoughts stiffen into doctrines maintained by schools.
So back to the Pre-Socratic epoch of philosophy. Aristotle, as I said, the first practitioner of history of philosophy—perhaps as rousingly mystifying a notion about philosophy as ever arises within it—refers to an early school he calls, as I said, the “physicists” (physikoi) or the “account-givers of physis (physiologoi),” among whom he places all the Pre-Socratics including Heraclitus (III.5), but evidently not Parmenides (I.2), both of whom were certainly older than Socrates. These so-called physicists were surely philosophers—as Aristotle says of them, they were “the ones who philosophized first.”(Metaphysics I.3) And they were not crude materialists, mere believers in stuff, in matter. They “thought that the principle of all things was in certain kinds of material,” which changed the qualities of matters while persisting beneath them. So when I translate Aristotle’s term for the physicists’ focus, hyle, as “material” and not as “matter,” I mean that they thought of the underlying principle, be it water, air, earth, or fire, not as sensory stuff experienced by its own qualities, but as bestowing sensible moistness, lightness, lumpishness on the distinct matters that constitute nature in one of its aspects. To these they added agencies of continuous or periodic change; somewhat imaginatively or, if you will, mythically conceived, such as Love-and-Strife.
When Aristotle calls these deep inquirers into the principles of the palpable world “physicists,” he implies, I imagine, that they are not yet what I might call “meta-physicists.” They give an account of physis in terms which yet belong to the sensed world; they ground nature in its own terms. (The Pythagoreans are, perhaps, an early exception; their principles are numbers and ratios, though these appear sensorily.)
We all know that the title of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, the greatest book in its line, is explained in two ways. First, mundanely: the composition that came “after,” meta, the Physics. And second, more thoughtfully: The composition called The Metaphysics follows the one called The Physics (a plural in English as in Greek), because the many-faceted inquiry called “physics,” the search for the notions explaining bodies undergoing change, precedes “metaphysics,” the singular inquiry into the principles “beyond,” meta, those reached in the book on moving beings, the Physics. You will all remember that the Physics ends with a logic-driven proof that if the inquiry into moving bodies is to find a resting place, then there must be a true principle of motion, a real beginning, which must be such that it can move others without itself being in want of an explanation of its motion—that is, an unmoved mover. And then the Metaphysics is the subsequent inquiry which develops the terms that can be used to transcend physics and delineate an unmoving but movement-causing divinity: Nous, the god who is mind, an unloving beloved, the aboriginal unmoved mover, the self-sufficient “self-thinking” being (noesis noeseos).
For the rest of my talk, I want to excise the physiologues who, though on the brink of this step beyond and thus philosophers, are still not quite metaphysicians—except for these two: Heraclitus and Parmenides. By generation, they certainly belong to the first philosophers, but I will claim that they are also “first philosophers” in Aristotle’s sense of the term “first philosophy:” the knowledge of the ultimate individual being (ousia), if there is one, and of Being (to on) as Being (Metaphysics VI.1)—its ever pursued and ever perplexing subject.(VII.1) “First” philosophers they are—but not quite.
Heraclitus, the first of the first, needs more defense in this respect than Parmenides. Aristotle counts him among the physicists because he makes fire a first principle. It is a misunderstanding: Heraclitus does indeed bring in a physical fire, an analytic agent, so to speak, of matter. But his primary fire is identical with his world principle, the Logos. This fiery Logos is both a discerning, dividing, analytic cosmic ruler and an intra-world arche or ruling beginning. Arche is the word usually translated as “principle,” literally “what seizes first place.” Heraclitus is far more wonderful than that; the Logos-Fire is not a mere cosmic captain.
While I’m at it, let me relieve him of a silly but tightly attached epithet: the “Philosopher of Flux,” who is said to have said that “All is flux” (panta rhei, “everything flows; nothing stays”), a notion which no one of his taut ingenuity, which made him the first discoverer of physical transformations tightly controlled by numerical ratios, could have perpetrated. (I’ll come back to those ratios, logoi in Greek.) As to “Everything flows” – in fact, he didn’t say it. Plato reports “that those around him” attributed the notion that all things are in flux to him, and has Socrates add “like leaky pots.”(Cratylus 440 c.) I’ll add: Beware of Heracliteans, the Heraclitus-followers; they make willful mincemeat of him, including the propagation of his obscurity: “Heraclitus the Obscure.” He isn’t obscure; he’s saying deep things concisely. Heraclitus just isn’t disciple-friendly, congenial, sociable—the pre-schooler of philosophy, you might say.
Heraclitus is generally believed to be somewhat Parmenides’ elder, perhaps by a “short” generation, a quarter century. But though close in time, they lived apart in place. Heraclitus, the one generally thought of as the philosopher of flux, was entirely sessile as far as we know, living all his life among his despised Ephesians. Parmenides of Elea, on the other hand, the defender of motionlessness, travelled as far as Athens, where he got into a chronologically difficult, but intellectually entirely feasible, conversation with young Socrates.(Plato, Parmenides)
I want to interject myself here again: I had the good fortune to find myself on the site of his beloved city, Elea, where he functioned as statesman. I can tell you: I was suddenly seized with awe, because here the most astounding thought of all occurred to a human being capable of giving it utterance—that of all-pervasive Being.
My point is that neither place nor time seem to me of the slightest consequence to my project for the rest of this talk: I want to put Heraclitus and Parmenides into conversation with each other, and in doing so to transmute a problem in the empirical history of philosophy—meaning an only circumstantially insoluble puzzle, into a reflective question within philosophy itself—meaning an abiding perplexity stemming from the nature of things. That genuine question is: Which philosopher is truly first? More precisely put: What is first, Logos or Being? Or is that perhaps not the best way to put the question? Should it perhaps be: Are the two Founding Fathers talking about different things in somewhat the same way or about the same thing in different ways, or—may the god Apollo helps us—about different things in different ways?
Let me right now exclude this last possibility. If it were actual, the history of philosophy would be as insignificant as the dated list of English kings which their young subjects used to be driven to learn by heart. For what animates philosophy’s history is that it is dialectical, that is to say, conversationally antithetical: It moves in oppositions that are congenial enough to be heard and taken up in responsive talk. I think it can be shown that these first two were—and I don’t know how else to put it—providentially fraternal in their opposition. Sometimes the heavens don’t wait for the historians to bestow meaning on what is usually a mere mess of happenstance but actually arrange for significance to eventuate.
What then are Heraclitus and Parmenides speaking about that is the same—one writing appropriately in aphorisms, the other fittingly in hexameters?
They both speak of the All. Heraclitus, as we would expect, always says it in the plural: panta, “all things” (in fourteen relevant places). Parmenides always uses the singular, pan, “everything” (in eight relevant fragments). This ambition to comprehend the whole of what there is, not from within as a sensing being among sensible things, but from without, as an apprehending intelligence that can reach beyond the sensed world, puts these two squarely among the “transcenders,” among Aristotle’s metaphysicians.
They bear themselves, however, not as lovers of a wisdom to be pursued, that is, as philosophers, but as knowers of a wisdom that has been imparted to them. Both speak as initiates, Heraclitus in an oracular style rivalling that of Apollo’s temple in Delphi (Heraclitus, fr. 93), Parmenides as an initiate, out doing Homer, the poet-pupil of the Olympian Muses, who could not claim to have reached the inner heart of truth in a piping chariot, as did the philosopher-poet.(Parmendies, fr. 1)
What is the frame of mind of a human being who is the first in his world to utter: “all things” or “everything?” It is scarcely possible to recapture the wonder of it for the speaker who has so leaped beyond the world that is home, to imagine his sense of being set apart from the rest of humanity, which sees from within and not from beyond. Evolutionists are committed to the notion that intelligence developed in a continuum, in tiny increments. Yet insight does not seem to arrive that way, but rather in a life-altering jolt: the world-principle speaks to a solitary who can hear, or a youth’s chariot bursts through the welcoming gates of the House of Truth—and their thinking veers into new ways.
The Logos, speech itself, speaks to solitary Heraclitus and bids him see and hear and feel in what way “all things” cohere. Aletheia, Truth itself, speaks to Parmenides, the future statesman, and orders him to forgo all speech but the one word that conveys the way in which everything “is” seamlessly one.
What the Logos tells Heraclitus is that it—perhaps I should say “he,” for it is a god we’re speaking of (D.-K. 32)—Speech himself, discriminates and collects all things just as his subordinate words, his logoi do: They distinguish all things by different names, proper names, and they gather all things under the same name, for behind the word Logos stands the verb legein, whose first meaning is “to gather” and only then “to speak.”
What Truth tells Parmenides is the one and only word that tells the truth: “Is,” esti. Greek syntax permits esti to be a complete sentence, one word that comprehends the whole. There is no personal pronoun to divide “is” from itself, to make us ask “what is?” is. All “not-is” is not to be spoken, and the diversity it spawns not to be regarded, says Parmenides’ Truth while Heraclitus’s Logos enjoins both listening to his utterance and looking into the teeming cosmos.(D.-K. 89) Truth demands silence and withdrawal into Being. (I should remind you here that Parmenides also enters a second way, the “Way of Seeming [doxa]” which yields a fanciful cosmogony. I used to be in some perplexity about why he spoiled his single-minded grandeur by taking the previously proscribed way of the “double-pated” folk [dikranoi, D.-K. 6], who dither distractedly. Then I read Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics  in which he asserts that even Parmenides’ solidly homogeneous Being requires a complementary “restriction” by Seeming [74 ff.]. Now I’m in total perplexity: Isn’t that a nullifying intrusion into the unbreachable uniformity of Being that is Parmenides’ great insight?)
Let me at this point recollect what I’ve laid out so far and make clear where I’m going. These two have in common the thought of a whole. This is a spectacularly new thought—the notion that the Whole is to be comprehended in its Wholeness, the idea that Wholeness comes from outside the Whole, is imparted from beyond. It is, as I would put it, a logical necessity that wholeness should elicit the following duality: A whole might be a “one-over-many,” a captained collection, an embattled unity of co-existences. Or it might be a “one-is-one,” and all alone, a fused unity devoid of inner discrimination. The third case, a whole of total multiplicity, is not thinkable, like that “all-is-flux” falsely attributed to Heraclitus: If there is only multitude, sheer diversity, then there is no whole and nothing to transcend, since such a flux is subject neither to an inner organization nor to an outer delimitation. For if there were limits, somewhere the fluxing would have to cease, double back on itself, develop vortices or whatever—some structure.
For all their primeval grandeur, Heraclitus and Parmenides were human, and so had temperaments. Perhaps some context of their lives, respectively in Asia Minor and in Western Italy had some effect on their thinking—who knows? In any case one of them, Heraclitus, chose to stay put and to behold the world as a heterogeneous collection, while the other, Parmenides, decided to travel and to view it as a homogenized unity. Having claimed that their first concern was the same, the Whole, I would now like to show how they lay out these wholes in what I’ll call “antithetical complements.” I mean that they don’t talk past each other but—almost—responsively, to each other. They don’t, however, argue; they announce.
One more preliminary: To do these Pre-Socratics justice as being, both of them, “ontologists,” devotees of Being, it is, I think, necessary to believe what you see in the transmitted texts. For example, when Heraclitus utters paradoxes such as this one: the cosmic wisdom does and does not want to be called by the name of Zeus (D.-K. 32), we must not set it aside as high-handed obscurantism but receive it as an exact enunciation of a significant thought: The Logos both appears and withdraws as a godhead, appears so when the initiate is in a mood of worship, withdraws when he is in the mode of thinking. Or when Parmenides says that “to be and to think is the same” (D.-K. 3), we must accept it as a remarkable possibility instead of fiddling the text into saying something flabby like: “The same thing is there for thinking and being.” Both of these apostasies are committed by willful scholars. Yet, in dealing with these early wise men, “having it your way” is the same as “not getting it.”
So now to some specific comparisons, five particularly responsive appositions, some of which I have already broached. Take them, if you will, as testimonials to what seems to me, once again, to be one of the few truths revealed by time: The Western philosophical tradition is “dialectical,” I mean self-opposing, from its very inception—and ever after, even when dialectic becomes quibbling.
The participants in this conference will recognize my source references, and they’re cited in my manuscript (by the fragment numbers in Diels-Kranz, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker). Heraclitus (b. circa 544 B.C.E.) always comes first, because he is usually regarded, as I’ve said, as being Parmenides’ (b. circa 515) elder by about a generation. (A “generation” that puts fewer than thirty years between the birth of the father and the son is sometimes called a “short” generation by chronologists.)
So then, One: Heraclitus exhorts us to listen to Speech Itself, to the Logos Himself and to “say the same,” homologein, as says the Logos about his cosmic “collecting,” to agree with him. (Again, I say “his,” because this Logos is Heraclitus’s divinity.) The actual word for “collect,” syllegein, is not voiced but is, I think, to be heard by the hearing listener.(50) Parmenides, on the other hand, is effectively consigned to silence by the goddess, Truth Herself, when she proscribes negation and predication (I, 2). The fact that the goddess herself speaks and uses negation is an overt self-contradiction that presages the downfall of this grandest of all thoughts.(Sophist 237 ff.) Heraclitus’s paradoxes speak his mind while Parmenides’ contradictions refute his. As their enjoined missions differ, so do their means. Heraclitus speaks in pithy paradoxical prose, often framed as “nominal” or “gnomic” sentences, meaning sentences that lack the copula “is,” and speak verbless, that is, timeless wisdom; such as hen: panta, “everything [is] one.”(50) For Parmenides, this copula-word, esti, becomes, as I’ve said, all by itself a sentence; it is the positive proposition of his teaching (2), which is delivered in epic hexameters. The stylistic contrast mirrors their character, Heraclitus is, as I said, a sessile solitary, a curmudgeonly despiser of his fellow-citizens (21), who speaks sparely and brusquely of cosmic truths to his unreceptive fellow-citizens, and who devises his own aphoristic prose; Parmenides is a well-loved statesman in his city and traveler in Greece, who came to Athens, where he instructed an eager young Socrates in dialectic (Plato, Parmenides), and who sings his teaching in Homeric resonances.
Two: The basic terms of their language (as distinct from their style) also attest their antithetical fraternity. As I said, Heraclitus always speaks severally of “panta,” “all things,” “everything.”(8, 10, 50) Parmenides always speaks jointly of “pan,” “all, the whole.”(8) The antithesis itself is this: For Heraclitus the constituents of “everything” are alternately locked in mutually supported stasis, in inimical stability, hostile reliance, like stand-up wrestlers who but at and abut on each other in a temporary hold (51), and then again are pulled apart by the referee, here the Logos. Thus the collection of striving elements is transformed, not chaotically, but according to precise mathematical ratios, called logoi, in Greek, the plural of logos. These ratios are the mini-agents of the Logos at work in the world; they supervise transformations of matter obeying the dictates of a very modern chemical law: the law fixing the ratios of masses in the transformation of substances; for instance, so much of water into so much of earth, in every case of transformation.(31) This Heraclitean cosmos is simultaneously positive and negative, discontinuous and unbounded, with a ruling Logos who at once governs from beyond the collection and is actively immanent.(4, 108) Such a world is twice oppositional: Each being opposes its other individually, and all elements collectively are transformed into others; there is strife and stability, decomposition and reconstitution.
Parmenides’ “whole” is internally without differentiation and so without negation, change, or locomotion—a perfect, impenetrable, well-balanced sphere, continuous and contained, homogeneous and bounded.(8) This impenetrability of Being to otherness is also its translucent to itself, as thought is penetrable to thought—for Being is Thought.(3) Parmenides never asks about the features of its surround, since all that is, is within. Nor does he ask about the name of its location, since that would have to be the Is-not, the Nothing, the very term and thought he has forsworn. I might remind you here that Heidegger will, as it were, supplement Parmenides in his essay “What is Metaphysics” (1929). He surrounds the region of beings and Being with “The Nothing” for which Dasein is the “place-holder” amidst worldly beings, having been pulled into the Nothing by means of an ontological feeling called “anxiety,” thence to view beings as a whole.
Three: Heraclitus’s cosmos is a rational, that is, ratio-governed, collection of numerically related elementary stuff; the bodies shaped from it are in relations of tension, which is a force governing matter that is at once attractive and repulsive and everywhere the same in the tension-effecting connection, say a bow-string.(51)
Parmenides’ world is, on the contrary, a thought, as I’ve just mentioned. He says unequivocally: “For it is the same to think and to be”—to gar auto noein esti te kai einai.(3. And he says it again, 8) That’s the text, which Plotinus (Enneads V.1), who has Pre-Socratic empathy, translates just as I have. I’ve already mentioned that scholars can’t believe their eyes: Parmenides, in the early fifth century B.C.E., is speaking like a German idealist—Fichte, Schelling—of early nineteenth century C.E.! To me it makes sense: Utter simplicity is the inception of idealism. The ratifying text here is Plato’s Parmenides, in which Parmenides seems to have travelled to Athens just to demonstrate in young Socrates’ presence that contradicting conversation, the kind called dialectic, is potent and necessary training for formulating perplexities but perfectly impotent and even stymieing in attaining ultimate insight. For example, to settle the Heraclitean-Parmenidean question, “Many or One?,” which is also, not accidentally, the central issue of Plato’s dialogue, thought must outstrip speech. Thus, incidentally and cunningly, Parmenides secures his goddess’s silence as ultimate: Dialectic must go silent within sight of Truth, as Plato emphasizes in his Seventh Letter.(341 c ff.)
Four: These antithetical brothers share the root of irreconcilability: extremism, but in opposing directions. Heraclitus is, to my mind, sui generis, one of a kind, never repeated among his successors, even those who actually quote him. Plato makes Eryximachus, the physician-banqueter of the Symposium (his name means “Belchbattler;” he cures Aristophanes’ hiccups), draft Heraclitus into the service of harmonizing Love.(187a) Nietzsche finds him—ludicrously—comforting.(Ecce Homo, 3) Even Schopenhauer, closest to Heraclitus in advancing strife as a world-principle—though, to be sure, farthest away in the ultimate pessimism of his world-mood—ends by looking for an escape from conflict in disinterested esthetic contemplation and renunciation of the trouble-making will.(The World as Will and Representation, Bk. VI) Heidegger, who, to be sure, understands Heraclitus’s cosmic war as both world-generating and world-preserving, attributes to him not, indeed, an ultimate, but an originary unity, a “collectedness of Being” (Introduction to Metaphysics, 47, 130)—which is contradicted in a fragment that says: “Out of all things, one and out of one, all things” (10)—turn by turn: all things collected into a unity and the unity dispersed into all things.
Those mitigators are the Post-Socratics. Not so, never so, Heraclitus. He finds kingliness in war (polemas, 53), justice in strife (80), advantage in abrasiveness (8) and truth-telling in self-contradiction. He even censures Homer for praying that battle might disappear among gods and among men. I might inject now that Heraclitus seems to me, in his feel for his tensely muscular cosmos and his adoption of a brusquely handsome language, closest of all to Hobbes—though Hobbes is, most peremptorily, no metaphysician, but both a materialist and a mechanist, while Heraclitus’s discerning Logos is both a metaphysical principle and an immanent operator. Under him, stress and strain is thus ultimate, neither in fact nor in wish resolvable; when the antagonists come apart, when their enlivening agon and their invigorating agony ceases, it is only to mark a world-transformation and a new polemical array. There is, in my reading, nothing else like this in ontology—this ultimate clash of joyfully irreconcilable, vividly assertive beings, held in their controlled confrontation by the World-speaker, a Referee, the divine Logos himself: articulate thinking in the service of a pervasively tensed cosmos.
Parmenides’ wholism too is never again equaled in the western ontological tradition, as far as I know—though perhaps it has its negative counterpart in the Nirvana of the East. His Being commands total submersion and ultimate silence. These are not conditions much to the taste of actively thinking human beings and so, in Plato’s greatest ontological dialogue, the Sophist (241d), a sort of “parricide” is committed: Father Parmenides is dialectically killed so that the Unity of Being may be penetrated by Otherness, diversity of kinds established, gradations of beings grounded, speaking and its negations recovered, the capacity to tell truths and falsehoods regained and with it the ability to distinguish thoughtful human beings from pretenders, philosophers from sophists.
So much for their shared extremism at opposite ends of the ontological spectrum, Heraclitus at the remote end of terminal discord, Parmenides at the far terminus of ultimate union.
Five: In my title-question, “Pre-Socratics or First Philosophers?,” I suggest that these two men might have been philosophers. Well, I must now draw back, as I’ve already intimated, and say instead: They were actually pre-philosophers. For though the word philosophy was said to have been coined by Pythagoras for his attachment to his arithmetical principles (D.-K. I 454, 35), I think of philosophy in the Socratic sense: wisdom loved, as distinct from wisdom possessed. Heraclitus himself, a younger man than the Pythagoras he despised, uses the word—he often borrows where he denigrates (40)—as an adjective. He says: “Wisdom-loving (philosophous, 35) men must inquire into a pretty large lot of things.” (For “inquire” he uses the verb of the term historia with which Herodotus starts his History.) That seeking of information, now called “research,” is not, at least to Socrates, the way of philosophy, which goes inward by way of recollection to recover congenital knowledge rather than outward in a roving search to find facts. Heraclitus doesn’t even use “wise,” sophos, much of human capacities (118); his words are phronesis and nous, discretion and intelligence: for him gifts of discrimination, befitting the Logos and his manifold cosmos.
Parmenides doesn’t, in what we have, speak of wise men or wisdom-loving at all, but rather he calls himself “the man who knows” (eidota phota, 1), whom Truth has chosen “to find out [just once] all things” (panta pythesthai, 1). The others are “double-pated know-nothings” (dikranoi, eidotes ouden) who think, indiscriminately, that “ever-to-be and not to be” are the same—or just that “nothing is.”(6)
Heraclitus and Parmenides are both men who alike think of themselves as in the know, not conceitedly, as self-sufficient discoverers, but proudly, as recipients of gifts from their respective divinities. Yet what they know is nearly antithetical: Many/One.
I’ll conclude, first with an observation about these great Greeks—but perhaps not only them. It could be that many thinking Greeks and their successors adopted this mode because it both suited their dispositions and their experiences, the mode namely of complementary antithesis, of reciprocally necessary opposition. The Latinate languages help; for example, ob-ponere and cum-ponere, “to oppose” and “to compose,” to confront and to reconcile, are etymologically and semantically abutting notions. A prime philosophical product of this way of seeing the world is the old Pythagorean Table of Opposites (Aristotle, Metaphysics I.5), among whose pairs are One/Many and Men/Women. An even earlier example, a poetic case of such complementing opposition, is presented by the Iliad and the Odyssey, each of which is the other’s specific other: Short-lived Achilles/long-lived Odysseus, confining camps/movable seas, warring males/seductive demigoddesses, stark reality/vivid fantasy. Or, in the hybrid realm of fictional hero and real-life initiate, there is the elderly hero Odysseus “of many turns,” who has sailed all over the sea and has known the towns of many men and the young, inexperienced sage-to-be, Parmenides, who derives his chariot overland, straight into the heart of a single truth; both tell of their journey to realms beyond in epic hexameter.
So these two, Heraclitus and Parmenides, incarnate the oppositional mode—as it were, providentially—at the very beginning of articulate thinking and published thought: Heraclitus is the teller of Manyness, of ultimately unresolvable, paradoxically unifying antagonisms, Parmenides the voice of Oneness, of primordially unbreachable, speech-defying, seamless unity.
This might be a good moment to ask an intriguing but essentially idle question: Why does the proponent of multiplicity precede the adherent of unity chronologically, even if it is by a little? Let me try a conjecture: I’m persuaded that thinking and speaking can occur separately—people can think without speaking and speak without thinking—but all I’ve read tells me that they develop conjointly. Now “infants,” meaning “speechless” babies, who, soon after birth, can see pretty perfectly, who can distinguish depths, discern bodies, notice identities, are still “non-speakers” and probably only potentially thinkers, “not-yet-thinkers.” In other words, the discernment of the senses precedes the reflection of the intellect: Seeing precedes speaking. Perhaps philosophy recapitulates ontogeny, and our tradition of inquiry into Being tracks our development as human beings. We can see and distinguish the Manyness before we can think and say its Oneness. Who knows!
Were these two fathers superseded by their progeny? Were they left behind in the progress of thinking, in the course of which seers turned, via one true amateur, Socrates, into professionals and revealed wisdom pivoted, by way of question-asking into problem-solving? Were they voices crying in an uncultivated wilderness, foretelling the anointed proficients? Were they primitive beginners—or never-again-equaled originators?
Hegel and Nietzsche had deep respect for them as forerunners; Heidegger, more radically, regards them as the bearers of Being, our existence’s only true preoccupation, whose illuminations were dispersed and vaporized by subsequent professors of philosophy. Their wisdom is to be brought back in an act of repetition (Wieder-holung) which is accomplished by the “destruction” (Destruktion), or, in the accepted mitigating translation, the “deconstruction” of the ontological tradition between us and them.(Being and Time, para. 6)
To me, Socrates, the pivot-point between the few Pre-Socratics and all the subsequent philosophers, seems to be the incarnate answer to this Heideggerian extremism. The first philosophers speak awe-inspiring but riddling truths, which demand mulling over and questioning—enough for two-and-a-half millennia and then some. Their own awe, which still elicits ours, is earliest. The latest is Heidegger’s explicitly willful, that is, forcibly disruptive, question-asking and his insistence that philosophical questioning is about “extraordinary things” and is done by extraordinary people (Introduction to Metaphysics, pp. 16, 10, 133), by rare “authentic” existences impelled by ontological anxiety.
Between awe and anxious aggression stands Socratic questioning in its modestly receptive, ironically knowing, faith-borne openness. That, to me, makes him the game-changing pivot-point, and rightly the name-bestowing epoch-maker. Though deeply indebted to both Heraclitus and Parmenides, he serves, in the Platonic dialogues, particularly in the Sophist, as the instigator of equally deep questioning of these Pre-Socratics’ great terms: Logos, Being, Nonbeing. And he also—critically—anticipates his latest and, for the time being, last successor, Heidegger, in respect to questions and instigations. For Socratic questions are not driven by will, but drawn by love.(Symposium 204e, Phaedrus 234c; both play on the homonymic features in Greek of “love” [eros, gen. erotos] and “question” [erotesis].) His occasions are not the extraordinary, but the ordinary; and his philosophizing is carried on in that self-confidently, self-deprecating mode called eironeia in Greek, for which the translation “irony” is not quite adequate: It means a dissembling modesty that claims ignorance but intimates knowledge. This Socratic irony, it seems to me, is the precise counterpart to a question. For a question also claims ignorance—else, why would it be asked?—and intimates knowledge—else, how could it recognize its answer? (Meno 80d).
Let me finish by putting the same thought in a different way. What is it that put Socrates between “Pre-” and “Post-”? Why is he, in truth, a hinge, a cusp, a point-of-inflexion between primeval awe and anxious willing? To be sure, it is a very asymmetric “pre” and “post”—half a century before, two-and-a-half millennia after. Nonetheless, the nineteenth century name for the subjects of our conference does put him at the center and declares him a turning point. Why, really? Because he turns wisdom into the love of wisdom (sophia/philosophia), by putting a question mark to reverent awe; awe with a question mark is “wonder” (thauma) and, as he says: “This passion especially belongs to the philosopher—wondering; for there is no other origin of philosophy than this.”(Theaetetus 155d) I think that Socrates is epochal because he undergirds truth-seeking with the motive-feeling of wonder, which is not an excludingly arcane anxiety, but an inclusively ordinary capacity—that for a non-rapacious arousal of interest. From that vantage point the question of my title, “Pre-Socratics or First Philosophers?,” can be answered like this: If the wonder-inciting knowledge of his own ignorance be the philosopher’s mark, then Heraclitus and Parmenides, the initiates, were pre-philosophers, Pre-Socratics, not yet knowing ignorance. But if coming within awed sight and telling of what is now and ever the concern of philosophy, the Voice of Logos and the Truth of Being, then they were indeed the first metaphysicians in a double sense: They were the first men to practice First Philosophy, the first to mount an inquiry into an active, discerning world-principle, Logos, a steadfast, timeless world-constituent, Being, and its forbidding shadow, Non-being, utterable by the voice, but unspeakable as a thought.
This essay was originally published here in January 2016, and appears again in celebration of Dr. Brann’s ninetieth birthday. It was given as the keynote address for the 2016 annual meeting of the Metaphysical Society of America: “Thinking with the Pre-Socratics,” Annapolis, MD and is published here with permission of the author.
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The featured image is “Heraclitus” by Hendrick ter Brugghen, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.