BMCR 2014.11.22

The Presocratics and the Supernatural: Magic, Philosophy and Science in Early Greece

, The Presocratics and the Supernatural: Magic, Philosophy and Science in Early Greece. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013. ix, 279. ISBN 9781780932033. $130.00.


Critiques of Presocratic naturalism highlight a tendency towards a “Hellenocentric”1 view of Greek rational achievement, claiming that supernatural aspects of Presocratic thought are often minimised or even ignored.2 How can we assimilate supernatural processes, such as magic, mysticism or metempsychosis, into a rational naturalistic framework? In this welcome contribution to the discussion, Gregory investigates whether the Presocratics really considered such processes as supernatural in operation, and seeks to re-establish that the majority of them intentionally reject supernaturalism altogether. His admirable approach incorporates not only the familiar members of the Presocratic philosophical canon, but looks to the Hippocratic corpus and the wider literary tradition for answers. He also fully explores the notion of Presocratic targeting, that is, that the writers of this period specifically drew upon famous passages from Homer and Hesiod to emphasize their shift away from traditional theology.

The introductory first chapter provides a useful overview of recent scholarship against the naturalist interpretation, which appropriately situates Gregory’s intentions. He swiftly moves through issues of translation and terminology; despite being nominally an investigation into the supernatural, this term is replaced by the less anachronistic ‘non-natural’, i.e. anything which falls outside the Presocratic view of nature. (9) The discussion of just what their conception of nature was, however, falls short, with reference only to a few of the definitions of φύσις in LSJ and a brief account of Lloyd’s ideas on the matter. A long list of things the book is not (a sort of methodological ‘disclaimer’) ensures Gregory’s intentions and boundaries are clear from the outset; indeed, the introduction acts as a microcosm of the book itself. As informative as this may be, a more cohesively organised structure would have eliminated some problems of repetition, while also perhaps allowing for more detailed background discussion.

Before jumping into the Presocratic analysis, the second chapter capitalises on the more abundant evidence of Plato and Aristotle to establish that, in close proximity to the Presocratics, it was clearly possible to theorise on seemingly non-natural topics yet remain well within a naturalistic framework. Three areas are convincingly examined: alchemy, astrology and the microcosm/macrocosm analogy. The chapter additionally benefits from a strong comparative discussion of the Renaissance natural magic tradition, particularly William Harvey and Giordano Bruno. Both maintained a strict adherence to their respective inherited Aristotelian and Platonic notions of naturalism: Harvey’s discovery of blood circulation in the 17 th century drew on alchemical terminology derived from the Aristotelian theory of matter; while Bruno’s conclusions on blood circulation were drawn from the application of Neoplatonic microcosm/macrocosm analogies.

The third chapter deals with the Milesians collectively, although the focus is clearly on Anaximander (43-57), who is then followed by Anaximenes (57-60), Diogenes of Apollonia (60-61), and finally Thales (61-66). The first half of the chapter swiftly progresses through ten case studies of the non-natural within Anaximander’s philosophy, most notably arguments for Anaximander specifically targeting Hesiod’s Theogony, Anaximander as the source of a meteorological category in the doxography, and a pantheist interpretation of the divine apeiron. Owing to the vast nature of the project, analysis is kept brief and thus close engagement with the textual evidence itself is often missed; most noticeably when arguing that Anaximander targets a passage of Theogony, the two most important lines from the latter, on which the argument is based, are surprisingly paraphrased rather than cited in full. Gregory assimilates the Aetian doxographical category heading “Concerning thunder, lightning, thunderbolts, hurricanes and typhoons” into the Anaximander testimonium and claims it is a direct response to Theogony 845-846; this alleged intertextuality relies on the questionable conclusion, not drawn until a couple of pages later, that the doxographical category is actually derived directly from Anaximander himself. Gregory finds the idea that the category was created by either the doxographers or Aristotle as “odd” (46, 47), and proposes Anaximander himself grouped these phenomena together in direct response to Hesiod. There are many philological issues here which need to be addressed more fully. Anaximander’s rationalist position is convincingly defended against claims that a belief in the divine must equate to a belief in the non-natural. Thus, while for Anaximander the apeiron is divine, through its invariant actions it still remains “part of nature and obeys natural laws, so there is nothing non-natural about it.” (51); Gregory further clarifies Anaximander’s position by equating it with the modern category of atheistic pantheism. Indeed, with all of the Milesians, Gregory successfully shows that their postulation of a divine principle substance is not at all problematic or indicative of non-natural belief but rather can be easily aligned with ideas of pantheism/panpsychism.

The fourth chapter shifts focus to the Hippocratic treatise On the Sacred Disease, the famous fifth-century attack on the belief that epilepsy was caused by the gods. It is often praised for its rational position; yet it also betrays a certain religious piety in its criticisms of magical practices. Gregory persuasively reconciles this piety with the naturalistic pantheist view; for him, a pantheist’s belief in nature as divine can accommodate pious actions, and may even involve places of worship where the pantheist may make recompense to divine nature for any improper action. Gregory identifies a similar reaction to Homer and Hesiod, as seen in the Milesians, in how On the Sacred Disease naturalises not just epilepsy, but physical and mental illnesses in general. The fifth chapter takes a closer look at some problematic passages in On Regimen which may appear contrary to a natural system of belief. The use of the micro/macrocosm analogy, prophecy, and even the contentious chapter On Dreams are all comfortably reconciled with a naturalist interpretation. In highlighting similarities between a number of Presocratic philosophers and Hippocratic authors, Gregory shows that an inclusive approach to the work of this period has clear advantages. The discussion of prophecy in particular clarifies the position of Hippocratic prognosis in relation to, and in the face of, accusations of augury. Both chapters on the Hippocratics constitute a useful introduction to several of the more traditionally non-natural aspects of Hippocratic medicine which reinstates an entirely naturalist reading.

The sixth chapter begins with Xenophanes (101-110). With named attacks on Homer and Hesiod, he clearly fits with the notion of Presocratic targeting; and, closely following Mourelatos, Gregory shows that the idea of the meteorological discussions in Xenophanes as bearing any non-natural sentiments can be easily dismissed. Interpreting references to plural gods as merely emphatic or formulaic, Gregory identifies Xenophanes as a monotheist whose invariant and non-interfering god remains entirely natural (108). Particular emphasis is placed on the use of prayer in Xenophanes’ Fr. 1 as rather than following a petitionary or intercessory formula, the speaker simply asks that they may do what is right. Gregory emphasizes this as a significant philosophical break away from traditional religious practice. A quick look at some points of interest from Heraclitus (110-113), the Derveni Papryus (113-116), Anaxagoras (117-120), Thucydides (120-121), Aristophanes (121-122) and Euripides (122-124) then follows. This is an ambitious task for the remaining 15 pages; consequently, the chapter proceeds more as a sourcebook as Gregory gathers together a very useful range of texts, but due to obvious constraints of space is not able to discuss them in any great detail.

Chapter seven looks to Pythagoras (128-138), Philolaus (138-144) and Archytas (144-147). This strong chapter provides a clear historical overview to the Pythagorean question. He acknowledges that while Pythagoras was evidently not the mathematician or philosopher of legend, he did instigate a tradition which facilitated later discoveries in these fields. Pythagorean ideas of metempsychosis mark a shift away from Homeric depictions of the soul, and although Gregory is hesitant to draw any firm conclusions on the nature of the process itself, arguments cited from Huffman and Barnes encourage a reading against any non-natural interpretation. Was Pythagoras a shaman? A defining aspect of shamanism is identified as a mediation between the living world and a spirit world; Gregory finds this incompatible with metempsychosis, and, in turn, finds no account of metempsychosis within shamanism. He does however acknowledge some significance in the Pythagorean legends, particularly the story of the golden thigh, and possible magical or ritualistic symbolism. Indeed, he concludes that some early Pythagoreans were interested in magic but appropriately stresses that this does not attribute any magical beliefs to Pythagoras himself nor even to the majority of Pythagoreans. Philolaus and Archytas are used as clear examples of the variance of Pythagorean views; neither indicate any mystical belief but rather focus on numerological and mathematical investigations respectively. The eighth chapter then examines numerology more closely; this in-depth examination successfully separates Pythagorean cosmic numerology, which was carried out with clear philosophical intentions, from earlier primitive isopsephic numerology. Gregory certainly rescues Pythagorean numerology from Burkert’s accusations of pre-scientific and primitive belief, and provides a thorough, though often dense, account of their attempts to form a mathematical conception of nature.

The ninth chapter considers Empedocles, who poses similar problems to the Pythagorean tradition in that elements of his extant work lend themselves to interpretations of magic and mysticism. Based upon features of cosmology and cosmogony, Gregory derives a convincing naturalist reading of Empedocles owing to his conception of a system which entirely rejects teleology and instead emphasizes the role of chance. His reasoned approach is reflected in his careful terminology; he prefers to describe Love and Strife as principles of association and disassociation, thus avoiding confusion from the common terminology of ‘force’ which may denote properties rather than entities in themselves. Additionally, the comparison of Strife’s cyclical ascendancy to a lava lamp is a perfect illustration of how the action unfolds in an entirely irregular manner. The second half of the chapter outlines the more non-natural aspects of Empedocles’ work, throughout which Gregory remains relatively cautious in drawing any definitive conclusions. Although he rightly acknowledges that poetic style and convention counteract a fully literal reading of the problematic Fr.111, he surprisingly then later asserts that Empedocles believed in Hades and necromancy (181). This comes as part of a slightly over-wrought attempt to force Empedocles into the model of Presocratic targeting, specifically again of Homer and Hesiod.

The final chapter examines Leucippus and Democritus. Meteorological phenomena are explained as entirely natural processes; indeed Democritus argues that it was the initial fear of such phenomena which was responsible for the origins of belief in the gods. Gregory again argues for these natural explanations, in addition to those of plague and human generation, as a targeting of Homer and Hesiod. Claims that Leucippus and Democritus were forerunners to mechanical philosophy, or indeed mechanists, are dismissed altogether. He finds their materialism is instead expressed by way of biological analogue; this detracts nothing from their naturalist position and draws them more in line with previous Presocratic methods of explanation. Was there a belief in some sort of gods? Gregory tackles the question of just what eidola refers to by suggesting the choice reflects another instance of Homeric targeting; it is not only reference to the gods, but a range of supernatural Homeric phenomena including ghosts and dreams. This affirms the atomists’ atheism, and moulds their rejection of the non-natural into part of a wider tradition. As with Xenophanes, Gregory identifies a new form of prayer which marks a shift away from traditional religious formats; this philosophical prayer is only concerned with achieving the right attitude. Comparative examples of prayer formulae beyond Homer would have helped establish a much clearer picture of contemporary religious practice; while a more thorough use of the ample bibliography on the topic would have clarified a few issues. 3

Overall, Gregory provides a thorough introduction to the debates on Presocratic naturalism. He successfully shows that, in many instances, what may seem at first glance to be supernatural was actually carefully integrated into a naturalist conception of the world. His inclusive approach should be particularly invaluable for those who have not yet ventured beyond the confines of the standard philosophical canon. While some chapters benefit from detailed examinations, others are lacking engagement with the textual evidence and its context; as a result, parts of the book read rather as a sourcebook than a directed discussion. There is unfortunately a significant lack of care in editing; abundant errors occur throughout. While most are minor, the more noticeable include: a paragraph on the apeiron which seems to have been misplaced (47), differing translations of the same passage (51, 59), unfinished sentences (79), Anaxagoras called Anaximander (117).


1. Von Staden, H. (1992), ‘Affinities and Elisions: Helen and Hellenocentrism’, Isis 83:4, 578-595.

2. While Gregory uses an entirely lowercase ‘presocratic’, I prefer to restore the capitalisation.

3. Noticeably missing is Pulleyn, S. (1997), Prayer in Greek Religion, Oxford.