BMCR 2021.09.34

Brill’s companion to the reception of Presocratic natural philosophy in later classical thought

, , Brill's companion to the reception of Presocratic natural philosophy in later classical thought. Brill companions to philosophy: ancient philosophy, 6. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2021. Pp. xviii, 492. ISBN 9789004318175 €165.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The unwieldy title of this informative, if uneven, volume needs some unpacking. It is clear that we are in the domain of how early Greek speculation on nature (i.e., roughly, what we might associate with the disciplines of cosmology, astronomy, physics, biology and the meta-philosophy thereof) elicited responses from those very soon after in the philosophical tradition (here ‘Later Classical Thought’). The relevant responders of this period are identified by the editors – misleadingly, in view of the contributions of Primavesi, Couprie, and Kurfess—as simply Plato, Aristotle and the Hippocratics. Yet, as Patricia Curd notes in her foreword, determining what unifies the Presocratics as philosophers, and as natural philosophers, is not fully settled. To a large extent, the identity and aims of this group of early Greek naturalistic enquirers are things shaped and re-shaped retrospectively, whether by Aristotle’s endoxic approach, or through the lens of the 19th century historicism that brought us the beginnings of modern ‘Presocratic’ studies.

This makes the reception of such philosophies something more riddled with tensions and ambiguities than we might find in other comparable studies. The absence of manuscript traditions in which the Presocratics survive independently of their quotation and interpretation in later antiquity only adds to the complexity.

I take it that, in at least some sense, reception is about the value of prioritising a later perspective on a given corpus of material that may be compared with alternatives. It is principally (though not exclusively) unidirectional in its asking questions about interpretation, influence, and utility. The state of the evidence for Presocratic natural philosophy never quite allows us the neutrality to set aside the ‘bidirectional’ and reciprocal questions about what it is as philosophy, especially as it is understood in its antique reception. We may never be able to carve away and arrive at an unmediated ancient text in any case, but the Presocratics never give us even a flash of this temptation.

The editors of this volume are aware of this thicket of difficulties. The first chapters are offered as a propaedeutic focussed on issues of methodology and ‘grounding concepts’; the following eleven presented as mostly discrete studies on specific issues. Yet the book does not start with the kind of scene-setting and orienting materials one might expect or hope for. The introduction notes, gamely, that these first four chapters are complex and occasionally divergent. Heinemann’s contribution on inquiring peri phuseôs covers a great deal of ground on the scope of such natural enquiry and how it shifts from the Presocratics through Plato to Aristotle. There is much of interest here on early book titles, the difference between subject matter and approach, and the way nature and craft are connected by Plato and Aristotle in their natural philosophies. Yet certain scholarly disputes are recounted in detail, and it is not always easy to see the argumentative through-line. Its aim of showing ‘Aristotle’s account of nature as a reaction to Plato, who in turn reacted against early Greek philosophy’ is also ambitious for a mere twenty-five pages. As the first chapter of a ‘companion’, the piece strikes me as uneasily placed.

Yet the challenge of this first piece may be embraced as a deliberate decision by its editors to drive home to the student the complexity of any interpretation of the Presocratics. Certainly, this is impression left by the volume’s introduction. Such an approach will not find universal sympathy—I remain dubious—but it does reveal some real didactic creativity and willingness to experiment on the editors’ part.

Andrew Gregory’s chapter on Plato and the Presocratics takes a more traditional approach, and it is easy to recommend this as a starting point to the volume for those new to the subject. He offers a carefully presented perspective on the fairness of Plato’s approach to his predecessors and provides us with a series of crisp discussions on the full range of issues Plato explores in his natural philosophy, from cosmogony through zoogony, ontological multiplicity, and astronomy. This is a rich introduction to Plato’s subtle use of early natural philosophers. Recommended.

One of the editors, Justin Habash, offers a third introductory piece, focussing on nature and purpose. It is certainly evident that teleology within later naturalistic accounts is a signal contribution of the Presocratics to the broader philosophical tradition. Particularly good is Habash’s discussion of the later Presocratics’, namely Democritus’, response to Parmenides’ distinction between what is real and what merely becomes and the lesson this gives us about the variety of understandings of purposive nature in the period. It is slightly disappointing that the later contributions of the volume do not take up teleology more robustly or systematically.

The final introductory piece is Daniel Graham’s study of the reception of earlier Greek astronomy. Here we find the focus on Presocratic natural philosophers as practitioners of science, in a robust sense, that he has developed elsewhere.[1] Overall, this is an intriguing approach, and here we find an effective means of demonstrating it. Graham shows that there is genuine science in the Presocratics because there is genuine scientific progress of the sort recognisable to us. Parmenides makes the earth spherical and identifies the morning star with the evening star; such insights allow for the heliophotism of Anaxagoras, which then becomes widely accepted. What is important, Graham emphasises, is not how we might attempt to reconstruct how particular individuals were involved in these innovations. What we find instead is that certain scientific developments became part of the consensus view, allowing for an established framework and supporting the innovations of Hellenistic astronomy. That certain conceptions simply became widely accepted and no longer subject to dispute is a telling mark of the scientific for Graham (and Kuhn).

Do these four chapters constitute a successful introduction to the theme of the book? Individually, they each have merit, and some themes taken up in the second half are set out and explored. However, the tactic adopted by the editors of challenging and disturbing, rather than introducing and demarcating, leaves us with little systematic discussion of either the scope of the reception presumably under the microscope—e.g. Plato’s Phaedo and Timaeus; Aristotle’s Physics and scientific works; the Hippocratic corpus—or of the methodologies relevant to their interpretation. Partly this seems a function of the fact that, while the volume is billed as a ‘companion’, comprehensiveness and rigid consistency are neither promised nor achieved. This is not necessarily such a bad thing, but one might reasonably expect a ‘companion’, even one aimed at graduate students as this one is, to provide something more of general survey of the material at issue. That many of the works of even the central ‘later Classical’ thinkers at issue—Plato and Aristotle—are largely absent further fuels the desire for wider coverage.

In the second part of the volume, we find a series of individual studies. This section is titled ‘Hidden Reception’, and what is allegedly concealed may be roughly divided, as I see it, into two categories. On one hand, there is the search for influences that are obscured by poor evidence or that are merely indirect and in need of reconstruction. Here, we may note particularly the contributions of Primavesi, Goldin, Kurfess, and Couprie. On the other, there are those papers that emphasise something like Bloom’s ‘Anxiety of Influence’ in how ‘later Classical’ thinkers approach the Presocratics – that is, the strategies adopted to shape the tension in a text between the desire for originality and the hold of its predecessors. Here the papers of Crowley and Sattler stand out.

This is an unstable distinction, admittedly, but I offer it because it helps to capture what seems to me the most successful aspect of this volume. What I mean is that the contributions as a whole vividly reveal the ambiguity between the evidence for genuine philosophical engagement with ‘live’ options proposed by earlier natural philosophy in Plato and Aristotle and that which indicates something closer to their mere utility in a given context. Between the two poles, of course, there is a rich spectrum, and this admirably comes across to the reader.

The longest paper of the volume is Oliver Primavesi’s study of the Pythagorean influence on Empedocles. It is also the least comfortably situated within the boundaries of the collection. He takes up Simplicius’ characterisation (DK31A7=In phys. 25.19-21) of Empedocles as a fervent emulator of the Pythagoreans and argues that this stems from the importance of the Pythagorean tetrakys for Empedocles’ On Nature. Further, he argues that Empedocles’ cosmic cycle was structured on Pythagorean terms; this has implications for how the crucial terms ‘pêgê’ and ‘rhizômata’ are to be understood and for stages of the cycle itself. These are maintained to be seven in number, to comprise both zoogonic and abiotic phases, and to operate using the numerical ratios of the tetrakys. There is a great deal of detailed and fascinating exploration here, including a very helpful look at the important scholia on Aristotle cod. Laur. 87.7. Yet it is difficult to see how this piece, as important for the specialist as it is, is compatible with the organising principle of the volume. Those sympathetic to a ‘one-poem’ reading of Empedocles will also have doubts about some of the arguments offered.

Further papers on Pythagoreanism include Goldin’s neat survey of the development of logical demonstration with a particular focus on Aristotle, and Álvarez Salas’s look at Aristotle’s approach to both Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans.

The contribution of Christopher Kurfess will be of particular interest to those interested in the way Aristotle developed his surveys of earlier naturalistic thought. He first makes the claim that the extent of the influence of Theophrastus’ Natural History on Simplicius has been unfairly dismissed. He then seeks to show that Aristotle’s own version of the arguments of the Eleatics relied heavily on Theophrastus’s work. Resurrecting Burnet’s view, Kurfess offers for this thesis the nice argument that the odd paraphrase of Melissus preserved by Simplicius at In phys. 103.11ff. must be Theophrastean in origin. This is a tempting proposition, but we still need an answer as to why such a paraphrase appears as it does at this point in Simplicius’ text. After it is provided, Simplicius gives his own summary of Melissus, seemingly unaware that he has just provided an extensive paraphrase, whether Theophrastean or not. More importantly, why this paraphrase omits arguments of Melissus attested elsewhere also needs addressing. Overall, this is a speculative but attractive approach to some long-debated puzzles.

Reasons of space mean that I cannot examine in detail each contribution of this second part of the volume here. Worth highlighting are Couprie’s methodologically helpful look at what the Presocratics understood by flat earth cosmology and Crowley’s examination of the four elements hypothesis. In the latter we find a convincing survey of the reception of this very successful cosmological conception along with the promising idea that understanding this reception demands that we distinguish between the four-elements hypothesis and Empedocles’ four-elements hypothesis.

 Sánchez Castro takes on Aristotle’s approach to Heraclitus in his views on the soul. This has merit as a survey of the evidence, but it would have benefitted from recent work missing from its bibliography.[2] Vasiliou takes on the corporeality of the soul in the Phaedo, and Sattler lends fresh eyes at the old question of Plato’s reaction to Atomism. The latter is one of clearest and sharpest pieces of the bunch. Sattler is particularly sensitive to the multiplicity of kinds of reception we find in Plato. Finally, Wright offers an overview of the Platonic myths and their relation to Presocratic cosmologies. This neatly complements Gregory’s chapter in the book’s first section; these two, in conjunction with Sattler’s sensitive contribution, seem the best places for the student interested in Plato to begin.

Overall, this is a very useful collection of articles to be recommended warmly. Whether it is an effective ‘companion’, or if it achieves a ‘graduate-level synthesis of debate and the state of scholarship on key authors and topics in Ancient Philosophy’, as the volume’s series promises, are less clear to me.[3]

Authors and Titles

Patricia Curd: ‘Foreword: Some Thoughts on Interpreting the Presocratics and the Reception,’ vii-xi.
Chelsea C. Harry: ‘Introduction,’ 1-9.
Reception: Methodology and Grounding Concepts
Gottfried Heinemann: ‘Peri Phuseôs: Physics, Physicists, and Phusis in Aristotle,’ 13-43.
Andrew D. Gregory: ‘Plato’s Reception of Presocratic Natural Philosophy,’ 44-70.
Justin Habash: ‘Presocratic Echoes: The Reception of Purposive Nature in Classical Greek Thought,’ 71-90.
Daniel W. Graham: ‘The Reception of Early Greek Astronomy,’ 91-110.
Hidden Reception: Exploring Sources and Developing Themes
Oliver Primavesi: ‘Pythagorean Ratios in Empedocles’ Physics,’ 113-192.
Owen Goldin: ‘Pythagoreanism and the History of Demonstration,’ 193-220.
Omar D. Álvarez Salas: ‘Aristotle’s Outlook on Pythagoras and the (So-Called) Pythagoreans,’ 221-260.
Christopher Kurfess: ‘Eleatic Archai in Aristotle: A Dependence on Theophrastus’ Natural History?’ 261-288.
Dirk L. Couprie: ‘The Reception of Presocratic Flat Earth Cosmology in Aristotle, the Doxography, and Beyond,’ 289-322.
Tiberiu Popa: ‘Elements and Their Forms: The Fortunes of a Presocratic Idea,’ 323-351.
Timothy J. Crowley: ‘Aristotle, Empedocles, and the Reception of the Four Elements Hypothesis,’ 352-376.
Liliana Carolina Sánchez Castro: ‘The Aristotelian Reception of Heraclitus’ Conceptions of the Soul,’ 377-403
Iakovos Vasiliou: ‘Mixing Mind: Anaxagoras and Plato’s Phaedo’, 404-428.
Barbara M. Sattler: ‘Platonic Reception – Atomism and the Atomists in Plato’s Timaeus,’ 429-452.
Rosemary Wright: ‘Presocratic Cosmology and Platonic Myth,’ 453-482.


[1] Graham, D.W. (2013) Science before Socrates: Parmenides, Anaxagoras, and the New Astronomy. Oxford.

[2] E.g. Mansfeld, J. (2015) ‘Heraclitus on Soul and Super-Soul with an afterthought on the afterlife.’ Rhizomata 3: 62-93, and Carter, J. (2019) Aristotle on Earlier Greek Psychology: The Science of the Soul. Cambridge.

[3] Typos and other infelicities are fairly frequent but don’t endanger understanding.