BMCR 2005.09.49

The Greek Concept of Nature

, The Greek concept of nature. SUNY series in ancient Greek philosophy. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2005. 1 online resource (x, 265 pages) : illustrations.. ISBN 1423743873 $70.00.

Few concepts in Greek philosophical thought are more multi-faceted, analyzed, and disputed than that of “nature” ( φύσις). Although the term is rarely used in epic literature, at least since the 6th century publication of Anaximander’s ἱστορία περὶ φύσεως, the notion of nature has been central to Greek thought. Whether the question was that of providing an account of the kosmos, discerning the relationship between what is merely customary and what is eternal in the norms of a people, or seeking guidance about the standard according to which one should live, Greek thinkers turned to the notion of nature as a cause, as a process, and as a goal or end.

Given the diversity of internal debate upon this subject amongst Greek thinkers from the pre-Socratics through Hellenistic philosophy, Gerard Naddaf’s (hereafter GN) projected three volume study of the concept is most welcome. The volume under review is a revision of the author’s 1992 L’origine et l’ évolution du concept grec de “physis” (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press), and it focuses upon the point in Greek intellectual history where speculation about the kosmos passed from a topic of mythopoetic inquiry into one of rational or causal explanation. Thus, after an introductory chapter surveying the conceptual and linguistic terrain of his book, GN devotes a chapter to Hesiod (as the immediate Greek predecessor of rational accounts of nature), another chapter to Anaximander (whom GN believes is the first philosopher to put into writing an ἱστορία περὶ φύσεως), and a final chapter surveying the notion of nature in the writings of Xenophanes, Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Empedocles, Anaxagoras, Leucippus, and Democritus. In the second projected volume, GN intends to extend his inquiry to the sophists and Plato, and in a third volume he intends to conclude his trilogy with an examination of the notion of nature in Aristotle and Hellenistic philosophy. The current volume contains extensive discussion of secondary literature (approximately 1/4 of the total pages are devoted to endnotes and bibliography), along with a complete index locorom.

GN’s survey of these different pre-Socratic thinkers is undertaken in part to illustrate several general theses. First, GN believes that Anaximander’s ἱστορία περὶ φύσεως initiates a tradition of inquiry which is, on the one hand, a continuation of mythopoetic authors, in that pre-Socratic accounts of nature include a three part schema discernible in works like Hesiod’s Theogony, namely a cosmogony (or account of the origins of the universe), an anthropogony (an account of the origins of humanity), and a politogony (an account of the origins of society); but on the other hand, pre-Socratic accounts of nature depart from such mythopoetic accounts in that they locate such explanations within human time and make use of naturalistic causal explanations, whereas earlier accounts had located their explanations in illo tempore and made use of supernatural elements as causes. Second, the pre-Socratic concept of nature comprised three interrelated notions, all of which can be found in the authors after Anaximander. Nature was understood first as origin ( ἀρχή), second as a process of development, and third, as the end or result of such a process. Finally, GN argues that the ἱστορία περὶ φύσεως tradition of inquiry was initiated because of social and political events of the 6th and 5th centuries BCE, and, although they are “scientific” in that they make use of material and efficient causes, they are also “political” in that they imply a vision of social order. The secularization that one finds amongst the pre-Socratics was in part a rejection of theHomeric pantheon and the political milieu GN claims it implicitly supported.

GN’s first chapter is devoted to arguing that the notion of φύσις in the περὶ φύσεως tradition established by Anaximander possesses the three senses of origin, process, and result. The argument proceeds largely by analyzing the linguistic origins of the term φύσις, surveying alternative interpretations in the secondary literature, and providing texts from 4th century authors such as Euripides, Xenophon, Plato and Aristotle to show that they perceived pre-Socratic authors as investigating nature in the sense of origin and growth of the universe from the beginning to modern times. The second chapter establishes mythopoetic foils to the naturalistic accounts in the περὶ φύσεως tradition of inquiry. First GN argues that the cosmogomic myths found in the Babylonian Enuma Elish and Hesiod’s Theogony provide examples of the sort of accounts which pre-Socratic authors were hoping to supersede. He then goes on to argue that Hesiod’s Works and Days marks a decisive break from the social view of the Theogony, one which is motivated by the events surrounding the Lelantine War, claiming that whereas “the Theogony represents a defense of a rigid social stratification . . . Works and Days reflects a new appreciation of social mobility” (44). Thus, Hesiod becomes pivotal in GN’s account, not only because he provides a foil for pre-Socratic rational explanations, but because his own corpus illustrates the relationship between changing societal events and accounts of nature in the sense of the whole kosmos.

GN’s third chapter, devoted to a careful study of the notion of nature in Anaximander’s ἱστορία περὶ φύσεως, is really the centerpiece of the book. According to GN, Anaximander’s notion of τὸ ἄπειρον or “the unlimited” supplies the notion of nature as beginning or ἀρχή; Anaximander’s account of the “separation of opposites” accounts for the notion of nature as a process; and his mathematical cosmology accounts for the notion of nature as end or result. In addition, drawing on the work of Jean-Pierre Vernant,1 GN argues that the geometrization of space found in the cosmological structure of Anaximander “was rendered possible through a political phenomenon, that is the birth of the Greek polis” (83). Vernant had argued that, whereas older cosmological accounts thematized space in a pyramidal structure in which there was a hierarchy of powers, Greek cosmologies were structured around what was unique to the polis, namely the notion of the agora as a central square around which all was centered and in which each citizen could speak freely as an equal. GN finds support for such a thesis in the heliocentric cosmology of Anaximander. Such a naturalistic geocentric cosmology on the one hand secularizes the natural world insofar as removes the Homeric gods from the picture, and on the other hand, reflects the societal and political changes embedded in the Greek notion of ἰσονομία. Finally, GN appeals to testimonial evidence concerning Anaximander’s work in cartography and a map of the inhabited world which he was reputed to have drawn. Although the evidence for such a map is indirect, it appears to provide an analogue for his cosmological model, although intriguingly it envisioned Egypt as the cosmological, geographical, and political center of the Earth (112).

The fourth and final chapter supplements GN’s argument primarily by showing how these same themes, with important variations, can be found in the ἱστορία περὶ φύσεως tradition which GN believes stretches from Xenophanes down to the Atomists. Although GN acknowledges the apparent differences of topics and systems in the pre-Socratic authors following Anaximander, he argues that “all pre-Socratics attempted to account for the origin and development of the present order of things and their respective accounts were comprised in the scheme of three elements: a cosmogony, a zoogony, and a politogony” (113). To justify his claim about the relationship between societal change and the new accounts of nature, GN describes the historical and political context of each one of the pre-Socratic thinkers whom he analyzes.

Given the inherent difficulties involved in interpreting the conflicting testimony and fragmentary texts of the pre-Socratics, GN provides a careful and measured interpretation which is well versed in the scholarly debate surrounding these texts. But I wish to raise one quibble about his book, concerning his attempt to contextualize the writings of the pre-Socratics, especially Anaximander, within the political and social climate in which they wrote. Sometimes the Ionian philosophers are presented as prototypes of modern disinterested scientific researchers lacking only lap-tops and lab jackets, and it is forgotten that Anaximander was a disciple of Thales, and Thales himself — although obviously concerned with understanding the material elements of the world — was a semi-legendary figure, reputed to be one of the seven sages.On the other hand, although any account of Anaximander’s map must be speculative, GN seems on solid ground in asserting that since cartography was a field of inquiry in which cosmology, history, and politics overlapped, any reputed cartographer must have based his work on anthropological and historical research; but at one point, GN draws a favorable comparison with a later fellow citizen of Miletus, namely the town planner Hippodamus, whom Aristotle in the Politics identifies as a proponent of an ideal constitution who was also concerned with the whole of nature ( περὶ τὴν ὅλην φύσιν [ Pol II.8.1267b28-29]). The problem is that, at least according to Aristotle’s account, Hippodamus comes off as a pointy-headed intellectual motivated more by his vision of rigid mathematical order than any actual experience of politics or the happenings of a city. Hippodamus, like Anaximander, placed special emphasis on the number three, and thus he divided the population into three classes, he divided land into three classes, he divided all law into three categories, and so forth ( Pol II.8.1267b31 ff.). Of course, it is unfair to impugn Anaximander’s political vision based on the criticisms which Aristotle makes of his fellow Ionian Hippodamus; yet at the same time, it is telling that of all the political reformers whom Aristotle examines in the second book of the Politics, not one of GN’s pre-Socratics is included, and Hippodamus, the only reformer who could plausible be construed as falling within the ἱστορία περὶ φύσεως tradition which GN seeks to depict, is almost lampooned Put more concisely, just because the thinkers GN examines operated within and responded to the social and political changes taking place around them, it doesn’t follow that the political reforms suggested by their view of the world were salutary or praiseworthy.

In fairness to GN, however, drawing attention to the political context of pre-Socratic accounts of nature is not the same thing as defending the political implications of their accounts.

The current study was composed in part because of the author’s interest in understanding the political criticisms which Plato makes of the pre-Socratic theological framework implied by the ἱστορία περὶ φύσεως tradition in his Laws (X.889a4-e2). Thus, although GN is to be praised for bringing greater richness to the understanding we have of thinkers like Anaximander, I look forward to seeing how he evaluates later contributions to the project initiated by Anaximander when he addresses them in his volumes on nature in Plato and then in Aristotle.


1. GN cites Vernant’s Myth and Thought Among the Greeks (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983).