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The Presocratics

ed. by Philip Wheelwright

March 22, 2000

I just started reading this book and I'm totally engrossed in it. My friend Jim loaned it to me tonight, and I read the introduction. I'm interested to find out how he develops his thoughts about chthonic, ouranian and mystic ways of thinking.

March 28, 2000

What I'm really digging in this book is oddly, not the source material -- though some of that, especially Heraclitus and Parmenides, has been quite intriguing -- but Wheelwright's commentary. He writes with a terse preciseness which I find quite beautiful to read; for instance, at the beginning of Chapter 6, "Atomism", he says:

The theory of atomism... presents itself to the contemporary mind in two contrary guises. It tends to have a quite different look, a different philosophical weight and import, according as we consider it from the standpoint of our own conceptual habits and presuppositions or in the context of early Greek intellectual history.

This ties in with his habit of reminding the reader that the questions and means of answering questions which we take for granted intellectually were not part of the Ancient Greek world at all -- the Presocratic philosophers were operating within a totally different context, and it helps to bear this in mind when reading their work.

March 31, 2000

Today I read about Democritus. His ideas seem thousands of years ahead of his time; look for instance at this fragment, which seems to me to anticipate calculus:

If a cut were made through a cone parallel to its base, how should we conceive of the two opposing surfaces which the cut has produced -- as equal or as unequal? If they are unequal, that would imply that a cone is composed of many breaks and protrusions like steps. On the other hand if they are equal, that would imply that two adjacent intersecting planes are equal, which would mean that the cone, being made up of equal rather than unequal circles, must have the same appearance as a cylinder; which is utterly absurd.

Democritus speaks of reality (atoms, which have size and shape as their only true qualities) and convention (we perceive the objects around us as having manifold sensible attributes). This separation reminds me of Plato's theory of ideas (which it precedes historically), which I have identified as mystical.

April 2, 2000

Democritus writes the following dialog between Intellect and the Senses, which I believe summarizes in a nutshell my reactions to the book thus far:

INTELLECT: It is by convention that color exists, by convention sweet, by convention bitter.

SENSES: Ah, wretched intellect, you get your evidence only as we give it to you, and yet you try to overthrow us. That overthrow will be your downfall.

I am tempted to let this stand by itself; but instead I will briefly explain my understanding of it. The various metaphysical doctrines -- the monism of Thales, Heraclitus' idea of an ever-changing universe, Parmenides' idea of a static, unitary universe, even the more intuitively acceptible pluralistic doctrines -- all assert that the world is a certain way. As such, they all imply the need for an explanation of why our human perception of the world is the way it is; some kind of mapping between what is there and what we see is called for.

The spirit rebels against such denial of the immediacy of our perceptions; this is the protest which Democritus has the Senses make; and they accurately assert that "That overthrow will be your downfall." For without the rooting in reality previded by perception, a brain would be utterly useless.