Creationism and Its Critics in Antiquity 
by David Sedley.
California, 269 pp., £17.95, January 2008, 978 0 520 25364 3
Show More
Show More

Why are there peacocks? And why are there pigs? ‘Nature loves beauty and delights in diversity: that is well shown by the tail of the peacock, for there nature makes it evident that the bird is born for the sake of the tail and not vice versa.’ ‘Pigs are born to be slaughtered, and god has added a soul to their flesh as a sort of salt, thereby providing us with pork.’ Those engagingly dotty opinions were advanced neither by a simpleton nor by a cynic: they were promoted by Chrysippus, the best of the Stoic philosophers and one of the three or four finest logicians in the history of the world. God, Chrysippus maintained, made all things bright and beautiful, and he made them for our benefit and our delight. ‘What, even bedbugs?’ someone asked. ‘In the bedbug,’ he replied, ‘God has given us a natural alarm clock.’

The Stoics occupy the last section of David Sedley’s enthralling book. For Creationism and Its Critics in Antiquity is not about the book of Genesis, nor about early Christian debates over God’s creative activities, nor yet about the dispute between the pagan Platonist Proclus and the Christian Platonist Philoponus on the eternity of the world. The ‘Judaeo-Christian tradition’ is mentioned only twice, en passant. Creationism, here, is the ‘thesis that the world’s structure and contents can be adequately explained only by postulating at least one intelligent designer, a creator god’; and the thesis implies neither that the creator created ex nihilo, nor that the world was created at some time in the past. The book proceeds more or less chronologically: Anaxagoras, Empedocles, Socrates, Plato, the Atomists, Aristotle, the Stoics. (An epilogue spends a page or two on Galen.) The final score is Creationists 5, Critics 2.

Many scholars have thought that one of the achievements of the earliest Greek philosophers was to give a godless account of the origins and nature of the world: they weren’t atheists, they just thought that science and philosophy had no business with the immortals. And scholars have generally urged that the last of the Presocratics, Diogenes of Apollonia, was the first philosopher to invent an argument from design and so bring creationism into the game. Sedley turns this upside down: on the one hand, there is no argument from design in Diogenes; on the other hand, ‘that the world is governed by a divine power is a pervasive assumption of Presocratic thought.’

It is in the writings of the fifth-century philosopher Anaxagoras that we find the ‘first Greek manifesto of rational creationism’, and the manifesto includes Anaxagoras’ ‘most decisive philosophical innovation’: he is the ‘first dualist of mind and matter’. But it must be acknowledged that, for Anaxagoras, the ‘agenda was not essentially religious in motivation, but scientific’: it was only later that his ‘doctrine of creationism’ was appropriated by ‘the religious lobby’.

Empedocles stands in the lobby – but his ‘agenda is at once a scientific one . . . and a religious one’. It is Socrates – Socrates as Xenophon discovers him – who has a ‘fundamentally religious motivation’, who produces a ‘teleology that is far more overtly and explicitly anthropocentric than anything we have met in his predecessors’, and in whom there is an ‘almost complete absence of scientific explanation’. The ‘disengagement of religion from physics’ is a Socratic novelty.

If the engagement between religion and physics was brokered by the Presocratics and broken off by Socrates, it was back on again with Plato. Plato’s Socrates says, on his deathbed, that he would love to take up physics again if only he could find a teacher: ‘by planting this link in his text, Plato legitimates his own lifetime project, portraying his later move into physics not as a betrayal of Socrates but as the very development that Socrates himself would above all else have welcomed.’ This ‘later move’ is made in the Timaeus; and although the Timaeus is Plato’s work on physics, it is ‘nothing if not a religious discourse’ – it’s ‘the ultimate creationist manifesto’.

Plato’s demiurge, as his name implies, is an artisan – a divine carpenter. More exactly, he is a master carpenter who delegates most of the humdrum sawing and planing to the lesser gods. The demiurge and his assistants produced the best of all possible worlds; and since the demiurge took as his blueprint the Form of animal, the world itself is one enormous animal. What made fatuous godlings toil? Well, the demiurge had a cunning plan: the ‘purpose of virtually everything in creation’ is that of ‘enabling rational souls to progress, through the study of astronomy, to philosophy’.

Here the ancient Atomists come on stage, though in fact the earliest of them were earlier than Plato, and the ‘emergence of Atomist materialism would make immediate sense as a response to . . . Socratic theology’. With the advent of Atomism, the Greek philosophers confronted for the first time the choice ‘between accident and design as the origin of life’. The dilemma ‘could not have been formulated before the final years of the Presocratic era. For only then, with the emergence of Atomism, was the alternative of a purely accidental origin for life forms even conceived.’ First Democritus, and then Epicurus, tried to show that Socrates’ god and Plato’s demiurge were idle – and impious – hypotheses. The universe could be explained ‘by appeal to accident on an infinite scale’, and Epicurus tried ‘to show how accident is fully capable of accounting for even the most purposive-seeming features of the world’.

The crucial fact was the infinitude of the universe, in space and in time. For if the possible permutations of things are ‘constrained by the spatial and temporal dimensions of a single world, it takes either a sophisticated theory of evolution or a considerable act of faith, if indeed not both, to suppose that mere accident is enough to explain the origin of the eye.’ But once the possible permutations have an infinite field to play in, then absolutely everything which is possible must, somewhere and somewhen, come about in actual fact. Thus ‘the existence of our world is . . . neither a bizarre fluke nor an act of god, but a simple working out of distributive inevitabilities on an infinite scale.’

Aristotle was no Atomist, and his universe was strictly finite in space (though infinite in duration). Nor, of course, was Aristotle a Platonist. But he was Plato’s pupil, and his ‘teleological worldview’ is a ‘reasoned modification of Plato’s creationism’. The crucial modification was this: whereas ‘Plato, like nearly every other thinker in and well after antiquity, associated teleology with conscious purpose,’ for Aristotle, ‘pretty well everything in nature has a purpose, despite the fact that no intelligence either conceived that purpose or administers it.’

Aristotle’s argument is straightforward. On the one hand, god is perfect, his activity is the best activity, and the best activity is intellectual contemplation: so god does nothing but contemplate: ‘there can therefore be no demiurge . . . In which case, the world is uncreated and functions without divine oversight.’ On the other hand, purposes are evident throughout nature: spiders build webs in order to catch flies, the heart pumps in order to send blood to the extremities of the body, and the starry heavens are fixed above our heads in order to be contemplated. So it is impossible to explain natural phenomena without invoking teleology; indeed, ‘for Aristotle the entire functioning of the natural world, as also that of the heavens, is ultimately to be understood as a shared striving towards godlike actuality.’

Yet ‘without the admission of a creative or productive intellect operative in natural processes, how can purpose exist in nature?’ Well, Aristotle answers, there’s nothing at all odd about that: the arts and crafts don’t deliberate (how could they?), and yet they act purposively. The art of masonry doesn’t think, let alone intend; but it is the art of masonry, embedded in the mason’s soul, which builds the prison – and builds it for a purpose. ‘In craft and nature alike, an essential Form serves as a moving cause which brings about its own imposition on the relevant matter.’ In this way, ‘Aristotle’s natural world . . . is not one in which intelligent purpose dominates, as it does in Plato’s. Nevertheless, he considers natural purpose to be omnipresent in that world’s structure all the way down.’

The Stoics reinstated God: the existence of bedbugs is to be explained in terms of goals and purposes; but these are not the aims of an impersonal nature but the intentions of an immanent divinity. There was nothing essentially new in the Stoic view, save some of the details. ‘The single most significant ancestor of Stoic physics is Plato’s Timaeus,’ from which the Stoic Zeno extracted the school’s fundamental argument for a teleological view of the world. Socrates, too, was a Stoic hero; and the passage in Xenophon where Socrates develops his argument from design ‘possessed canonical status in the Stoic school’.

There Sedley’s story ends. The Sather Lectures on which the book is based are delivered to ‘a broad university audience, classical and non-classical alike’; and there is nothing in Sedley’s book to daunt or discourage a non-specialist reader. But there is plenty for specialists too: for example, an innovatory interpretation of Empedocles’ cosmic cycles, and a limpid discussion of the ‘act of creation’ in the Timaeus, which incontrovertibly demonstrates that Plato’s universe had a temporal beginning.

Specialists will cavil here and there (that is their métier). Non-specialists will be stimulated to raise a few doubts and queries. Here is a handful. Should we really believe that the early Presocratics were crypto-creationists? The evidence seems rather light. For example, Sedley likes the suggestion that Anaximander’s account of the structure of the heavens was influenced by ‘the principles of architecture’; and in that case, he urges, ‘the postulation of a cosmic architect is not lagging far behind.’ But isn’t the architectural suggestion pretty speculative? And even if the universe does display architectural features, does that suggest that it has been designed by some celestial Norman Foster?

Again, was Anaxagoras really the world’s first dualist? He thinks that mind or intelligence must be a very special sort of stuff (otherwise it couldn’t do what it does); but he doesn’t think that it’s immaterial: what he says is that it is the ‘finest and purest of all things’. It is thinner than air and smoother than Campbell’s soup; but like air and soup it is a corporeal stuff. Sedley thinks that that is ‘as close an approximation to the now familiar separation of the incorporeal from the corporeal as was conceptually possible in the first half of the fifth century BC’. But why suppose that the ‘familiar separation’ was conceptually impossible for poor old Anaxagoras? Perhaps it was conceivable but not in this particular context conceived? (And a good thing too.)

Or what about Sedley’s account of Plato’s famous Forms? He says that ‘the Form of a table is neither a table nor a diagram nor set of instructions for making a table, but rather the ideal function of a table, which it is left to the carpenter to embody in the materials at his disposal in whatever way he judges best.’ But is there such a thing as the ideal function of a table? Aren’t there Forms of things which are functionless: the Form of justice, say, or the Form of equality? Again, isn’t a Platonic carpenter supposed to copy the Form of table? Didn’t the demiurge imitate the Form of animal? But how can you copy or imitate a function? And in any case, doesn’t Plato say that the Form of table is a table? Isn’t it the paradigmatic table, the item to which the term ‘table’ applies most strictly and most truly?

As for the Atomists and the dilemma they introduced into the debate, Sedley speaks as though philosophers then had to choose between two rival modes of explanation: either by design or else by accident. But ‘appeal to accident’ isn’t a mode of explanation. Luck isn’t a lady, tonight or any other night – nor a blind force either. If I ask you how you holed the ball in one and you reply ‘Sheer luck,’ you haven’t offered me an explanation: you’ve ruled out one particular explanation by indicating that it wasn’t because you intended the ball to go into the hole that the ball went into the hole. If the Atomists say that the world comes about by chance, they don’t mean thereby to explain how the world comes about: they mean to exclude one particular sort of explanation.

In any case, isn’t it odd to say that, according to Epicurus, oaks grow from acorns by accident? After all, Epicurus thinks that there are good solid material causes which ensure that great oaks rather than mighty hornbeams from little acorns grow. And what has infinity got to do with the matter? ‘Think of the millions of other things which acorns might produce: how wildly improbable that they should produce oak trees.’ ‘Ah yes; but since the universe is infinite in space and time, acorns are bound to produce oaks somewhere and somewhen. (And also, of course, to produce hornbeams and hippopotami.)’ There’s something rum about that little exchange.

Or – a last non-specialist question – is Aristotle really just Plato minus the demiurge? Aristotle himself once suggests that he was the first philosopher to take final causes seriously or to explain things in terms of goals and ends, and Sedley rather surprisingly concurs: ‘In the Timaeus intelligence is, to put it in Aristotelian terms, a goal-directed efficient cause. Aristotle . . . is in my view quite right that none of his predecessors, Plato included, had anticipated his discovery of the final cause, i.e. made goals themselves causes.’ But in that case, isn’t Aristotle’s view of things far more than a ‘reasoned modification’ of Plato’s? Well, if you ask Plato why the heavens are studded with stars, he will say something like this: ‘They were so designed by an intelligent demiurge in order that rational beings might do astronomy.’ To be sure, intelligence is not named there as a final cause (how could it be?), but the formula ‘in order that’ is an essential part of the explanation, and what can that formula signify but a final cause?

When creationists consider the world’s structure and contents, they find a Klimt-like beauty in the peacock’s tail, they notice a Tompion-like complexity in the structure of the human eye, and everywhere, from the pigsty to the welkin, they detect aims and goals and purposes. The tail must surely be the work of an intelligent aesthete. The structure must have been produced by an expert clockmaker. And how could there be so much purpose in the world if there were no divine purposer? Anti-creationists admit the beauty and the complexity but see no reason to adduce artists or mechanics. On the other hand, they are likely to resist the suggestion that the universe is full of purpose.

On this last point, Sedley seems to side with the creationists; at any rate, he says that, whatever else you may believe, ‘you cannot avoid saying that the heart is for pumping blood, the eyelid for protecting the eye . . . Adequate non-teleological explanations of the parts of the eye are simply not available.’ But you can quite easily ‘avoid saying that the heart is for pumping blood’. True, if you don’t realise that the heart pumps blood, then you’ve missed the first thing about hearts. True, you might then say that the function of the heart is to pump blood. But you can recognise functions without turning them into purposes. Hearts pump blood: it doesn’t follow that they are there in order to pump blood. And if you do say that hearts are for pumping blood, either you imply that some designer so intended things or else you babble; for Aristotle’s natural purposes are unintelligible. (It’s no good saying that arts and crafts are non-intelligent purposeful producers. The art of masonry has never built a prison: it’s the construction workers who do the construction work.)

But perhaps when he adverts to hearts and eyelids Sedley isn’t speaking in propria persona. He is a historian. He presents and interprets the evidence. He does not pass judgment. ‘What is the value of conducting such a historical exercise? For my money, it lies precisely in treating both sides of the ancient debate with equal sympathy. The object is not to determine who was right, but to understand each position’s rationale from the inside.’ Not that Sedley is a dispassionate observer of the old thinkers. On the contrary, if he does not judge the truth of theories, he frequently, and with enthusiasm, assesses the theorists. Socrates is ‘breathtakingly innovative’. Aristotle makes a ‘uniquely seminal contribution to the philosophy of biology’. Zeno ‘has formulated a breathtakingly audacious argument’, and has produced a ‘meticulous Stoic meditation on a classic Platonic text’. Above all, Sedley lauds the Timaeus. It is a ‘uniquely rich and seminal text’. It is ‘the most influential of all Plato’s works, and probably the most seminal philosophical or scientific text to emerge from the whole of antiquity’. And ‘it could hardly be denied that Plato had been stunningly successful in explaining the natural world as the product of craftsmanship.’ Well, I deny it with both hands. Plato’s efforts are not stunningly successful: the Timaeus is a dismal commixture of pseudo-science and cod philosophy (and it is written in disgusting Greek). ‘Is this science or fable?’ Sedley asks of one passage, and gives a darkling answer. He does not consider a third possibility: that it is guff. The Timaeus is incontrovertibly a text of the first importance, as Sedley says, ‘seminal’, but from its seeds grew rank and stinking weeds.

If – to switch the metaphor – the Greek philosophers discovered a few nuggets of gold, most of what they offer is dross, and there is no sense in denying it. But the history of dross may be both brilliant and enthralling, it may offer both instruction and amusement; and since human intellectual minings have thrown up far more dross than gold, the history of dross is neither a small nor an insignificant subject. I think Sedley has been working on dross (I work largely on dross myself). But the scholarly book he has written is golden.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences