BMCR 2012.08.20

Becoming God: Pure Reason in Early Greek Philosophy. Continuum studies in ancient philosophy

, Becoming God: Pure Reason in Early Greek Philosophy. Continuum studies in ancient philosophy. London; New York: Continuum, 2011. x, 179. ISBN 9781847061645 $120.00.


Miller’s main questions are well worth asking: (1) How did Heraclitus, Parmenides, the Pythagoreans, and Plato conceive of divinity? (2) Did these philosophers think we can become divine? (3) Given that each of them thinks we can (at least in some sense), what methods did these philosophers prescribe for doing so? (4) Assuming that all prescribe the use of reason to become divine, how did each understand the nature of reason? (5) Who offers us the best account of reason and, thereby, the best method for becoming divine? Needless to say, Miller is not the first to raise these questions. However, he may be the first to attempt to answer all of them in less than 120 pages (not including endnotes). Indeed, any one of these questions calls for a monograph.

Miller’s answers to questions (1)-(5) are surely intriguing. With regard to question (1), he claims that all of these early philosophers accept some version of Aristotle’s formulation of the essence of divinity as thought thinking thought. 1 In response to questions (2) and (3), Miller argues that without exception these philosophers recommend reasoning as the means either to become divine or to become like the divine or, at least, to become somehow associated with the divine. In answering question (4)—how the philosophers understood the nature of reason—Miller claims that the majority of them embrace what he calls the “Principle of Consistency” (i.e. the Principle of Non- Contradiction) as the supreme principle of reason. Heraclitus is the exception, positing what Miller calls the “Principle of Chiasmus”. This latter principle is supposed, by Miller, both to be more comprehensive than the Principle of Non- Contradiction and to facilitate reasoning by means of contradiction. Addressing question (5), Miller thinks that only Heraclitus provides us with an account of reasoning compatible with becoming divine or becoming like the divine or, for that matter, becoming anything at all.

Before offering comments, I will first summarize the chapters of the book.

In the introductory chapter, Miller announces the main themes of the book. First, he briefly discusses the claim that Heraclitus, Parmenides, Plato, and Aristotle believed we can become god or like god by means of reason. Second, he briskly distinguishes between thought governed by the Principle of Non-Contradiction (hereafter denoted by ‘PNC’) from thought governed by the Principle of Chiasmus (hereafter denoted by ‘PC’). Third, he claims that a paradox arises for those who attempt to become god by means of thought governed by the PNC: since PNC entails that becoming is impossible, we cannot become divine if PNC is true. Fourth, siding with Heraclitus, Marcus Aurelius, and Nietzsche, he swiftly argues that god, self, and pure reason are governed by PC and that becoming divine is impossible unless we think according to PC.

In Chapter 2, Miller develops his interpretation of the Heraclitean fragments. He offers terse explanations of the river fragments, the fragments about fire, and the fragments about the divine. He notes some of the complexities surrounding Heraclitus’ use of logos and harmonie. The main point Miller wishes to establish is that, for Heraclitus, we become divine by thinking according to PC. This is because, according to Heraclitus, god, self, and time are identical with PC. Miller quickly broaches Aristotle’s account of time and Zeno’s paradoxes, claiming that we cannot explain any process of becoming if we think according to PNC. He asserts that PC is more comprehensive than PNC and that we can understand all unity in terms of contradiction and all contradiction in terms of unity.

In Chapter 3, Miller explains the Parmenidean and Pythagorean conceptions of reason, the self, and the divine. With regard to Parmenides’ poem, he claims that Parmenides introduces PNC and uses it to argue against Heraclitus’ PC. He argues that, for Parmenides, the self and the divine are identical with thought governed by PNC. Miller claims that Parmenides is prone to the following paradox: we cannot become divine if PNC is true. Before addressing early Pythagorean thought about the divine, the self, and reason, Miller provides a general overview of Presocratic philosophy and compares early Pythagoreanism with the ancient Greek mystery cults and with Zoroastrian and Vedic thought. These surveys are intended to help us see that the early Pythagoreans “enjoined their initiates to become divine through pure thought of the divine.” (77)

In Chapter 4, Miller focuses on Plato’s thought. Taking the Phaedo as his reference point, he argues that in the middle dialogues Plato developed Pythagoreanism in light of Parmenides’ PNC. He briefly discusses the following topics: the Meno paradox, the theory of recollection, the nature of Platonic dialectic, the Forms, the Form of the Good, and the nature of the human soul. He concludes that, for Plato as for Parmenides, we become divine by thinking according to PNC.

In the concluding chapter, Miller summarizes his principal ideas. First, he reviews why we cannot use PNC in order to become divine (or anything else). Second, he recapitulates the main reasons for thinking that only thought governed by PC allows us to become divine.

Miller fails to adequately support his answers to questions (1)-(5), although it is doubtful that anyone could do so in such a short book. The shortcomings are several.

First, Miller does not provide close readings of the available textual evidence relevant to his main claims. This is most obvious with regard to his discussion of Plato’s dialogues, but Miller remains at a comfortable distance from the philological and philosophical complexities of the fragmentary texts from the Presocratics.

Second, those looking for a thorough discussion of the existing scholarship on any of the main topics will be disappointed. Miller addresses very few of the competing interpretations of the various texts he considers. He is extremely selective with regard to relevant secondary literature, and it is unclear on what basis he makes his selections. For example, in chapter 3, he pays very close attention to Peter Kingsley’s work on ancient Greek religion, but he ignores the major commentators from the Franco-German and Anglo-American traditions.

Third, and most frustrating, crucial points are left undeveloped. The most egregious of these omissions concerns Miller’s treatment of PNC and PC. With regard to PNC, Miller ought to have explained exactly how thought governed by PNC is supposed to function. Miller never explains—either with regard to each philosopher or in general—the different logics generated by the different principles. To this end, he could have addressed either the ancient debate about PNC or the contemporary debates about its status. With respect to the notion of Heraclitean chiasmus, the need for explanation is far greater than that for PNC, since the chiasmus is hardly ever discussed in the philosophical literature. Miller offers us a brief exposition on the rhetorical notion of chiasmus and, at best, suggests how PC is supposed to function as a logical principle. It is left entirely unclear how PC is more comprehensive than PNC. Yet the notion of chiasmus and PC are absolutely essential to Miller’s main argument. It would have been helpful if Miller had at least broached the issue of how his view relates to concepts of chiasmus deployed by recent continental philosophers.2

Two other concepts basic to Miller’s project—the concept of thought thinking thought and the concept of pure reason—are left largely unexplored. It would be interesting to know how the early philosophers conceived of thought thinking thought, if for no other reason than that Aristotle prized this activity above all others. Miller suggests at various points that thought thinking thought is identical with PNC for Parmenides and Plato and with PC for Heraclitus. It is difficult to know, given Miller’s account, how we might explain divine activity by identifying it with a logical principle. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that he also identifies the self and pure reason with PNC (for Parmenides and Plato) and with PC (for Heraclitus).

Lastly, Miller’s discussion of time is altogether wanting. Miller argues against reasoning governed by PNC because such reasoning cannot make sense of time. He argues on behalf of Heraclitean PC on the ground that it can make sense of time. The onus to explain why rests on him. Part of the answer depends on how we understand PNC and PC, and I have just noted that Miller does not help us there. The other part of the answer depends on how we understand time. The metaphysics of time and temporality have received an enormous amount of careful attention by philosophers throughout the history of Western philosophy and, of late, in both analytic and Continental circles. But for a very brief discussion of Aristotle’s account, Miller ignores all of it.

In closing, it is unfortunate that the publisher chose to print endnotes as opposed to footnotes. The chapters of the book add up to only 117 pages, but there are hundreds of notes—some quite substantial—associated with each chapter. As a consequence, the attentive reader must spend an inordinate amount of time flipping back and forth from the chapters to the notes.


1. Metaphysics Lambda 1074b34-5.

2. See, for examples, Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s The Visible and the Invisible (translated by Alphonso Lingis) (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968), and Jacques Derrida’s Positions (translated by Barbara Johnson, Chicago) (University of Chicago Press, 1983) or his Dissemination (translated by Alan Bass) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982).