What, even bedbugs?

Jonathan Barnes

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

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’.

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