Not Not To Be

Malcolm Schofield

  • A New History of Western Philosophy. Vol. I: Ancient Philosophy by Anthony Kenny
    Oxford, 341 pp, £17.99, June 2005, ISBN 0 19 875273 3

The hero of this genial and highly accessible book – first of a projected quartet – is Aristotle. What prompts Anthony Kenny’s admiration above all is evidence for the first time in Aristotle of detailed observations of natural phenomena; a sound and pioneering grasp of the roles of observation and theory in scientific method; the invention of the notion of a system of scientific disciplines; the corresponding organisation of student lectures into a syllabus of courses by the first proper professor; the creation of the first research institute and research library in the Western world. In short, with Aristotle philosophy invented the idea of ‘science as we understand it today’. His impact on subsequent human thought has accordingly, in Kenny’s judgment, been unrivalled among ancient philosophers (interestingly, the theologian Augustine is selected as runner-up).

Ancient Philosophy is itself a rather Aristotelian book. After a brisk ‘chronological tour’, it presents and analyses with exemplary clarity the most important ideas and arguments ancient philosophers contributed to the main (modern, but also mostly Aristotelian) fields of philosophical inquiry: logic, epistemology, physics, metaphysics, psychology, ethics, theology. As in Aristotle, and as with philosophers of whatever persuasion ever since, the assumption is that philosophers of previous generations are in dialogue of some sort with us. The conventional position is that they will have been raising questions that one way or another remain with us, and discussing them in terms that can stimulate contemporary philosophising. To be sure, not many philosophers these days write about Plato, Aristotle and the rest unless they are specialists, any more than they publish books on ethics if their main interest is philosophy of science or 18th-century British philosophy. But they still tend to regard Plato or Aristotle as ‘one of us’. Perhaps they wouldn’t use the word ‘hero’ in this connection. On the other hand, Western philosophy has from its beginnings in ancient Greece always encountered scepticism and hostility, whether from other intellectuals or professionals or from the powers that be in the academy or the state. If people express doubts about the continuing credibility or desirability of your subject, it’s no bad thing to be able to point to some towering intellect whose stature nobody dares to impugn, and who if not actually alive still has some sort of living presence.

For these purposes Plato might have made a better hero. Aristotle’s conception of practical reason, and of what it takes for someone to do the right thing, still makes him an attractive alternative to those dissatisfied with both Kantian and utilitarian ethics. But otherwise he probably isn’t cropping up much in philosophers’ conversations these days. Plato often does seem to be a reference point they like to use, from metaphysics to political theory to philosophy of mind. Kenny acknowledges that if we should be more impressed by good questions than correct answers, Plato has ‘an uncontestable claim to pre-eminence’ among the ancients. A few years ago Bernard Williams offered his list of the attributes that might make a great philosopher. He looked for intellectual power and depth; a grasp of the sciences; a sense of the political, and of human destructiveness as well as creativity; range and imagination; unwillingness to settle for the superficially reassuring; and – if really lucky – the gifts of a great writer. ‘If we ask which philosopher has, more than any other, combined all these qualities,’ Williams concluded, ‘to that question there is certainly an answer: Plato.’ And Plato is certainly higher in the contemporary charts than Aristotle: more translations, more conferences, more Plato scholars from South America to Japan, most hits on the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy website. Some Platos these days are postmodern and polyphonic (though Kenny isn’t letting on about that). Nobody agonises over the authority or absence of Aristotle the author. At the same time, however justified the insistence on his pioneering status as a scientist, Aristotle’s scientific reputation has never recovered from the hammering it took in the century of Galileo and Newton. Plato’s intuition that God is a mathematician – worked out, for example, in a speculative geometrical atomism – looks less remote.

For some people remoteness is no drawback. The more the Other permeates the writing and thinking of premodern philosophers, the sharper the whiff of authenticity they get. This book (like much present-day commentary on ancient philosophy) is not for them. Others now writing – Geoffrey Lloyd, Walter Burkert, Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Josiah Ober, Andrea Nightingale come to mind – do much more in very different ways to respond to the cultural density and complexity of ancient Greek thought, and to explore its development within broader or more specific historical contexts. A.A. Long’s recent book on Epictetus, like the work of Martha Nussbaum and Richard Sorabji on ancient philosophical therapy, reminds us of something lost in the modern academy and not at all prominent in Kenny, but regarded by all major Greek and Roman thinkers from Socrates on as the heart of the matter: the idea and practice of philosophy as a way of life.

In Kenny’s pages, even the strange and obscurely expressed ideas of Parmenides, most formidable of the Pre-Socratic philosophers, assume a startling lucidity and familiarity. Like Xenophanes before and Lucretius after him, Parmenides wrote in hexameter verse. When quoting Lucretius, Kenny sometimes uses the partial Dryden translation, which has led him to try his own hand at the heroic couplet. Here is his version (repunctuated by me) of Parmenides’ account of the only two possible routes for inquiry:

Two ways there are of seeking how to see:
One that it is, and is not not to be –
That is the path of Truth’s companion Trust;
The other: it is not, and not to be it must.

‘I must ask the reader,’ Kenny says, ‘to believe that Parmenides’ Greek is as clumsy and baffling as this English text.’ Baffling, yes. Clumsy? Ingenious is more the word that comes to mind – and the form itself of the heroic couplet makes the appearance of elegance hard to avoid. Even the bafflement starts to dissipate once Kenny gives us another rather more lumpish couplet, together with his commentary on it:

Unbeing you won’t grasp – it can’t be done –Nor utter; being thought and being are one.

Kenny’s interpretation turns this into something anyone in mainstream Anglo-American philosophy can sign up to:

If we understand ‘Unbeing’ as meaning that to which no predicate can be attached, then it is surely correct to say that it is something unthinkable. If, in answer to your question ‘What kind of thing are you thinking of?’ I say that it isn’t any kind of thing, you will be puzzled. If, further, I cannot tell you what it is like, or indeed tell you anything at all about it, you may justly conclude that I’m not thinking of anything, indeed not really thinking at all. If we understand Parmenides in this sense, we can agree that to be thought of and to be go together.

Well, almost. ‘Go together’ is not quite ‘are one’. Not every thought I have about X must be true. Kenny reminds us that we can think that X is P when X is not P. So if being means being true or being truly P (etc), as Parmenides presumably intends, the identification with being thought won’t work at all.

Rescuing the Greeks (and to a less than proportionate extent the Romans) from neglect, misunderstanding and obscurity of various kinds is the challenge that drives a great deal of the better philosophical scholarship (of whatever stripe) currently devoted to them. Parmenides has not always been read the way Kenny reads him. The decisive contribution came 45 years ago, in a revolutionary article published in the Classical Quarterly by G.E.L. Owen, who was to become a patriarchal figure in the study of the subject. His paper established once and for all that Parmenides’ Way of Truth needs to be understood not by reference to the presuppositions of earlier Greek cosmology, but as an exercise in pure philosophical reflection on the conditions of all intelligible thought and speech, explicitly compared with what Williams some years later described as Descartes’ ‘project of pure inquiry’. Owen took it for granted that Parmenides’ ‘is’, like Descartes’ sum, was existential in force. It was left to other scholars – notably C.H. Kahn, in a massive monograph of 1973 – to question this assumption, in the light of explorations of the Greek verb einai (‘to be’) in this and other contexts, philosophical and non-philosophical, and indeed in the light of Owen’s own subsequent work on its uses in the metaphysics of Plato and Aristotle. On a broader canvas, Jonathan Barnes’s The Pre-Socratic Philosophers (1979) painted a virtuoso picture of the whole development of early Greek philosophy that took Owen’s Parmenides as its fulcrum. Nobody has yet produced a more convincing rival story shifting the focus elsewhere.

Kenny offers us a longer sequence of heroic couplets at the start of the Epicurean section of his epistemology chapter. In extreme contrast with the a priori ratiocination of a Parmenides, the Epicureans made sensation the foundation of knowledge. One of their important arguments in defence of the thesis is articulated in Book IV of Lucretius’s great poem On the Nature of Things:

Truth’s very notion from the senses came.
What witness, then, to challenge them can claim?
Against the senses’ faith to win the day
What greater truth can chase the false away?
What right has reason sense to criticise
When from false sense that reason took its rise?
If what the senses tell us is not true
Then reason’s self is naught but falsehood too.
Can ears deliver verdict on the eyes?
Can touch convict the ears, or taste the touch, of lies?

Ancient Philosophy accords a good deal of attention to the philosophy of the Hellenistic period (the three centuries following the death of Alexander in 323 BC). This is thanks to a mostly recent rescue job on a more comprehensive scale than was needed for the Pre-Socratics, where writers like Owen and Barnes could exploit a hundred years or more of impressive scholarly reconstruction, much of it the product of the Altertumswissenschaft of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For the more extensive evidence on the Epicureans, Stoics and Sceptics (Academic and Pyrrhonian), there has remained a need both for a lot of basic analysis and evaluation of texts and for philosophical interpretation of the ideas they contain. One early achievement, due to Benson Mates (1953) and William and Martha Kneale (1962), was the recovery of Stoic propositional logic and its recognition as a system more general and powerful – and more like the logic of Frege and Russell – than Aristotle’s. The Stoic physics of the continuum was championed in a speculative monograph by the Israeli scientist Samuel Sambursky (1959). But work of the last 25 years in particular has illuminated virtually the entire range of Hellenistic thought. Here, by way of example, is the story as it now goes about what was at stake in the prolonged debate about the foundations of knowledge.

To begin with, the reliability of the senses was affirmed by Epicureans and Stoics alike with all the confidence of a new dawn. The shadows of Plato’s cave seemed to have been dispelled for good (Kenny reproduces a fascinating 16th-century Flemish representation of the cave, quite new to me – the range, beauty and often the unexpectedness of the illustrations are one of the triumphs of the volume). In fact, there was something extreme about both positions. Epicurus claimed that all perceptions without exception or discrimination are true, i.e. accurate representations of whatever they are representing. Even hazy glimpses through the fog of shapes in the distance truly reflect what is there to be seen: the camera cannot lie. Any mis-seeings or mishearings are really not that, but distorting tricks played by the mind’s imposition of its own judgments on what the senses report. The Stoics took the more obviously plausible view that some of our ‘appearances’ or impressions are true, some false. That did not mean that we had no sure way of coping with the world we live in, however. Providential nature has ensured that among our true appearances are many which are so accurate and reliable as to give us a grasp of perceptible things that could not be wrong. The Stoics would therefore not have considered themselves vulnerable to the line of argument that Kenny reproduces from Lucretius. Nor would they have countenanced the sharp distinction between reason and non-rational sensation assumed by Epicurus and Lucretius. The appearances of rational animals are themselves rational: articulable in propositional form, and as such already structured by reason.

An assault on both positions was mounted by the Sceptics now controlling Plato’s Academy, and prosecuted over a considerable period. The heyday of activity was the second century BC, when the school was headed for many years – until 137, when he stepped down – by the infinitely subtle and resourceful Carneades. Under his inspiration, batteries of arguments were launched, against the Stoics especially, but also the Epicureans and (so we are told) ‘all previous philosophers’. Against Epicurus, for example, he argued that sensation cannot register or reveal anything unless it is altered by what it registers or reveals. But once you concede that, you have to allow for the possibility of mismatch between the one and the other. Against the Stoics, exploitation of confusion over identical twins and the like was a line of objection especially favoured, as well as the already standard difficulties of explaining away alarmingly convincing dreams and hallucinations. Someone may experience what appears to be a wholly accurate and reliable impression of Publius Geminus when actually looking at Quintus Geminus. So what on Stoic theory could not be false turns out to be just that. The Stoics tried a number of lines of defence. But they insisted that truly rational persons (‘sages’) would be aware that there was something about such an impression not wholly transparent to them – in which case they would wisely suspend judgment. Suspension of judgment, however, was precisely what the Sceptics on their side invariably took to be the rational response to any and every question.

That might accordingly look like an Academic victory: how was anyone ever to know whether an apparently altogether accurate and reliable impression was or was not in fact its deceptive twin brother? But Academics for their part faced a no less difficult challenge: how can life be lived at all if it is never safe to assent to our impressions? By the beginning of the first century BC they were in disarray. One suggestion was that the rational person will say ‘yes’ to some impressions and act accordingly, but without ever assenting with the mind – rather like Euripides’ Hippolytus, whose tongue swore a pledge, but whose mind notoriously did not. Others took the line that assent based on mere opinion (not knowledge) would suffice, provided it was not rated as anything other than just opinion. Philo of Larissa, the last head of the Academy before the philosophers of Athens fled a violent Roman occupation in 88 BC, changed his stance more than once. He settled eventually for the view that there is nothing in the nature of things to stand in the way of knowledge, provided we don’t take that in Stoic fashion as consisting in accurate and reliable impressions that could not be wrong. More than one of these late Hellenistic Academics rewrote philosophical history. Thus Antiochus of Ascalon, whose writings were heavily used by Cicero, claimed that the Stoic view was what Plato taught, and had always – until the aberrations of the Sceptics – been the true position of the Academy.

Ancient Philosophy goes rather quiet at this point. Antiochus doesn’t get a mention. The admittedly obscure Aenesidemus – ex-Academic reinventor a generation later of a more radical Scepticism (which he pinned on the equally obscure fourth-century thinker Pyrrho) – is at least accorded a paragraph. Here Kenny’s philosophical tastes come into play. Pyrrhonism, so admired by Montaigne and Hume, and the subject of much recent philosophical discussion, leaves him fairly cold. Aenesidemus’s contemporary Philodemus presided over an Epicurean community in Herculaneum, apparently bankrolled by the Roman aristocrat L. Calpurnius Piso, a leading Caesarian politician. The charred remains of its library just survived the eruption of Vesuvius, and a substantial collection of carbonised papyrus rolls was discovered as long ago as the 18th century. Much improved scientific techniques and philological methods have for a good thirty years been enabling the production of new editions of barely known philosophical writings, whose potential is still underexploited. Philodemus is someone else missing from the narrative. Kenny does have a little to say about the revival of Platonism and Aristotelianism and its relationship to the growth of Christianity in the early imperial era, and Plotinus – alone among the Neoplatonists – is given generous and sympathetic coverage. We might have expected some discussion also of the voluminous Platonic and Aristotelian commentaries and other writings of later Neoplatonists like Proclus, Philoponus, Simplicius and many more. These too have for twenty years or so been the subject of considerable interpretative activity, much of it associated with Richard Sorabji’s massive translation project.

The author’s pulse quickens again when finally he reaches Augustine, ‘the last fine flower of classical philosophy’. The many dimensions of debates about freedom and determinism have always been among Kenny’s most insistent preoccupations. As he says, the difficulties in Augustine’s attempt to reconcile divine foreknowledge with Adam’s freedom to sin would occupy many future generations of Christian theologians. I look forward to hearing more of that in the next volume, which will take the story up to the Lateran Council of AD 1512.