BMCR 2020.10.25

Interconnectedness: the living world of the early Greek philosophers

, Interconnectedness: the living world of the early Greek philosophers. International Pre-Platonic Studies, Volume 7. Sankt Augustin: Academia Verlag, 2018. 305 p. ISBN 9783896657237 €39,00.

Interconnectedness is a valuable, and in many ways an original, contribution to the history of ideas in the ancient world, and its discussions are still relevant.

The Introduction to the volume is followed by six chapters with the following titles: 1: A Presocratic Trajectory from the Origin of the World to Animals and Plants; 2: Creatures of Chance and Logos; 3: Being in the World: Animals’ Sensations and Plants; 4: Plants: Animals Upside Down; 5: Animals and the Soul; and the more particular chapter 6 on Plato’s Timaeus headed: ‘The World as a Living Animal and the Specializations of the Soul’. These chapters are all extensively annotated with reference to ancient authors and relevant modern discussions. Many of their footnotes could be the basis for articles in their own right: for example, footnote 64 in chapter 2 is a mini-essay on physiognomy; the first footnote in Chapter 4 on the full status of plants as animals ranges directly from the Presocratics to parallels in Manichaeism and Indian thought; and footnote 42 of chapter 5 deals with the ‘dying of souls’. A brief ‘Conclusion’ follows these chapters, and draws out the main thread, summarised as: ‘all living beings sprang from qualitative variations of the same physiology, which derived a shared kinship with nature and a continuous relationship with the environment on which they vitally depended’ (p. 114). From the start Zatta sets out the enquiry into nature as a field of reference for the processes, ‘laws’ and phenomena discussed by the early Greek philosophers. Consequently, whether or not there existed a concept of physis from the beginning, already with Anaximander the processes that brought living beings into life were seen in terms of phuein, a coming-into-being that was spontaneous, intrinsic to the subject of becoming, and prior to sexual reproduction.

In the Introduction Zatta maps out her territory. While recognising the achievements of such stalwarts of Presocratic scholarship as Havelock and Guthrie, and their more recent successors, she is ready to take issue with them for their concentration on human characteristics and developments. She aims to extend the framework to encompass the related study of all forms of life in the way in which an animal, a plant or a human reproduces itself, senses the cosmos and lives in it (p. 10). And this is not an exclusively historical exercise, nor a teleological one, since plant-animal-human links, along with the emergence of birds and fish, are commensurate in terms of habitats, capacities, behaviors and types of life’ (pp. 16-17).

In the first chapter Zatta, following Naddaf and Laks in their interpretation of Aristotle (PA 1, 640b5-13), states firmly that the study of animals belongs with the history of the cosmos, and in the majority of cases a study of plants is also to be included. In the common phrase ‘humans and the other animals’ she claims an inclusive discourse (with the possible exception of Alcmaeon), and downplays more recent tendencies (as found in Lloyd and Osborne for example) to relate characteristics that are particularly human to Presocratic theory. It was the development of the cosmos itself that brought with it the interdependent forms of life, with birds in the air and fish in water following alongside the related plant, animal and human manifestations in the interconnected living world, summarised in Democritus’ term mikros kosmos for the human as an object of medical and philosophical study.

The first chapter deals with various Presocratic cosmologies as illustrations of the basic theme of the interconnectedness of life. The monists considered all forms of life derived from a common substance, with no intervention from Prometheus-type figures to give humans superiority. As the cosmos itself developed (and the earth tilted on its axis) distinct habitats emerged, adapted for diverse forms of life. Among the pluralists Empedocles is given special treatment here, in that his theory of everything being composed of four roots moving under the influence of opposed forces of attraction and repulsion could explain both the basic structure of diverse life-forms, and the subsequent variations appearing through the different stages. The simplicity of such an elemental world view was taken to extremes by the atomists, with the claim of there existing fundamentally, throughout a boundless cosmos, only atoms and void, ‘is’ and ‘is not’.

In the next chapter, Zatta investigates the complications arising subsequently to basic beginnings, and here she looks at the results for different internal structures of such developments through both chance and logic. At first, such complications were the result of chance – ‘a fortunate combination of basic materials under the effects of external forces’ (p. 46). Then the haphazard nature of such a process became standardised with the emergence and recognition of gender differentiation, sexual reproduction, embryology and birth according to ‘kinship’. Zatta might have added here the growth of the interest in the theory and practice of medicine beyond Alcmaeon, and that, along with philosophy and history, early prose treatises were medical works, obviously using the study of animals for conclusions on human health and disease.

Although shorter, the fourth chapter on plants as ‘Animals Upside Down’ is perhaps the most original, interesting and provocative in Zatta’s volume. The long initial footnote sets the topic in its context, and its conclusions are supported by argument and evidence throughout. Alcmaeon on plants, Empedocles citing ‘olive-trees bearing eggs’, and co-relating leaves, hair, feathers and scales in identity of functions, Democritus on plants as zōa engeia (‘animals rooted in the earth’), having a shorter life-span, and ‘upside down’ because their roots were equivalent to animal heads in taking in nourishment, are all brought in as supporting evidence. The fifth chapter, on ‘Animals and the Soul’, rounds off the previous discussion by introducing the chronology of the emergence of the concept of ‘soul’ and its application as ἀρχή of life. This is related to what went before but acquires new relevance when the cosmos itself is seen to belong essentially with the range of interconnectedness, as primary and ever-present.

The last of the main chapters, on Plato’s Timaeus, is rather different, as it stands in stark opposition to what has gone before. Plato’s myth here gives a radical revision of the relation between humans and other forms of life. The human head can still be used by Plato as ‘our root’ (τὴν κεφαλὴν καὶ ῥίζαν ἡμῶν), keeping the whole human body upright as it is drawn towards its origin in the sky as a plant is to earth. Instead of connectedness, however, there is inherent division between the apex of living form found in the adult rational male and all else – females, animals, and other forms natural life. Trees and plants (the ‘upside-down animals’) are ignored and fish are sneered at, living a senseless silent life in water. Male human reason, now firmly situated in the head, dominates, and other aspects of being alive – eating, drinking, feeling – are subordinated to it, and their detrimental results physically located lower in the body. As Zatta concludes here: ‘the world of animals embodied the defeat of reason’ (p. 109). Her argument is strengthened by Timaeus being dated immediately after Republic (as is suggested five times in its prologue) and closer to Phaedrus, for it was after composing these three dialogues that Plato changed tack completely with his Parmenides, and honoured two of the greatest Presocratics, father Parmenides and Zeno, by making them spokespersons for his renewed interest in logic and epistemology.

A brief conclusion brings these six chapters on ‘Interconnectedness’ to an end, with its main emphasis in the Presocratic corpus on continuity through different forms of life. It has been argued that humans might be more intelligent but animals have more acute senses, and nonhuman animals in plant form have a shared kinship with nature and a continuous relationship with each other and their immediate environment. However, we are not yet half-way through Zatta’s intriguing book. The Introduction, Chapters and Conclusion are next followed by 174 pages of ‘Sources’. These are presented as a list of ‘general statements’ mainly from Aristotle, followed by relevant quotations from the main Presocratics and finishing with aspects of Plato’s Timaeus. All this material is set out in the texts of the original languages with translations, following mainly, for the Presocratics, the Loeb edition of Laks and Most, and Bury’s edition of Timaeus. The whole is rounded off with a General Index and full bibliography of the editions, translations and commentaries used.

Why would over half of this volume be devoted to texts and translations of sources? A more comprehensive edition as an ‘intellectual genealogy’ is promised for the future, but what is presented here is a reflection on the multiplicity of aspects of the early Greek philosophers’ study into the range of living beings from plants, animals and humans to their cosmological framework. The generalities begin with selective quotations from Aristotle on Parts of Animals and De Anima, from Theophrastus, De Sensu, from Plato’s Phaedo, and then some Pliny and Hippocrates. After a glance at the Orphic poems, the sources then concentrate on the key texts related to ‘interconnectedness’ in the early philosophers from Thales to Democritus, and finish with extended selections from Plato’s Timaeus to illustrate and justify the earlier analyses.

The general result in this ‘sources’ section is the reverse of normal academic practice, where arguments are given in the main pages, and the reference to supporting texts in footnotes or endnotes. Here the arguments are in often lengthy and detailed footnotes, whereas the sources in the original languages and translations are set out extensively over 170 pages. This substantial display of the range of material being studied to justify the contributions to the initial thesis is not otiose. However familiar the reader may be with various individual pieces of text, some are quite obscure, and it is profitable to be reminded of their relevance to an impressive undertaking in a new context. The evidence introduced to support the various chapters contributes to the exposition of an original study of interconnections, bringing together apparently different forms of life from seemingly different genres to an allotted place in a coherent whole. Especially crucial is the inclusion of the range of plant life into this overview, which is occasionally brought up to date in the discussion of modern views of plants as animals. One could add the fight for plant rights in the recent best-selling Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer (Milkweed 2013).

The clarity and elegance achieved in the complexity of the presentation of the variety of sources, texts, languages and scripts throughout is a credit to the press. Interconnectedness is an excellent means of introduction to early Greek philosophy, a stimulus to further study of its pioneering work on the natural world and an appreciation of Aristotle’s endless patience with the minutiae of its wonders.