“I searched out myself.” In this fragment of Heraclitus, which wafts down to us from the turn of the 5th century BC, we are struck by an unprecedented level of self-awareness. Heraclitus elsewhere says, “You would not find out the boundaries of the soul, even by travelling along every path: so deep a measure does it have.” This is “depth psychology”. According to Heraclitus, we must seek out the logos of our own soul, what Freud was to call the unconscious. Only then may we reflect, in full knowledge of our subjectivity, on the cosmos around us. “Egotism” (to use Sassi’s term) was a defining characteristic of what we now call Presocratic philosophy.
The main thing that the Presocratics have in common is that they come down to us as fragments, snatches of birdsong from the early morning of Western thought. But despite the tattered nature of the tradition, we have, for the first time, not just one or two names, as of the epic poets, but a crowd of names, jostling for space among the wisdoms that emerged in the Greek world in the 6th and 5th centuries BC. The Presocratics insisted on naming themselves – and on the intrinsic value of the hard-won insight of the individual.
Paradoxically, they had no names for their identity or endeavour. They obviously didn’t call themselves “Presocratics” (the term originates in 18th-century scholarship). Nor was there, in their time, a word for that activity which we call, since Plato and Aristotle, “philosophy”. Sassi, while recognising the subjectivity of these categories, is nonetheless able to advance coherent and elegant theories about this group of thinkers. Her insights are achieved through a series of deeply honest close readings of the texts.
Sassi cautions against seeing the Presocratics as the “founding fathers” of Western philosophy: theirs was a very different, disparate kind of wisdom. Yet the scholarly community finds this narrative difficult to shed. Most undergraduates will still glean from the standard textbooks a notion of the Presocratics as representing the sudden gymnastic saltation of Greek thought from the dancing horse of myth on to the back of the more judicious beast of reason. The standard collection by G. S. Kirk, J. E. Raven and M. Schofield, The Presocratic Philosophers, describes the transition from pre-philosophical thought to the Presocratics in terms of paradigmatic images of “rebirth”, which recreate, despite the more progressive protestations of the authors, the old story of the triumph of logos over mythos. Sassi’s caution is needed.
The destiny of Heraclitus’ work will stand as a salutary reminder of the fundamental difference between the Presocratics and our own intellectual endeavours. Heraclitus is said to have left his book as a votive offering in the Temple of Artemis. Sassi postulates that this was a strategy to ensure both the authority of the book as a religious offering and, even more, its accessibility for the many. Both of these motivations speak to the value and sincerity inherent in Presocratic philosophy. How many of us, these days, would subject our research outputs to a panel of gods – or be brave enough to deposit our books in a railway station or doctor’s waiting room, in the certainty that they would be read and understood for generations to come?
Emma Gee is lecturer in Classics at the University of St Andrews. Her latest book, Mapping the Afterlife from Homer to Dante, is forthcoming with Oxford University Press New York.
The Beginnings of Philosophy in Greece
By Maria Michela Sassi; translated by Michele Asuni
Princeton University Press
Published 30 July 2018