John Scottus ERIUGENA
Prologue: the presocratics
Our era tends to promote the behaviour of the 1984 Ministry of Truth, which attempts to abolish history. We, on the other hand, strive to go against this mortifying trend. Nothing can be understood unless it is in the custody of time. Science developed because our ancestors tried to avoid doublethink, understanding Reality through the models they kept building, while understanding that no model can be equated with reality. A second essential characteristic of our effort is to place the progress of science within the framework of the Greek effort, while trying to keep alive the tradition that links us to that effort, especially when we create new names. while trying to keep alive the tradition that links us to that effort, especially when we create new names. We also try in our History of Sciences pages to direct readers to the originals of important texts.
To want to relate one’s thoughts on the creation of knowledge, without being regarded as belonging to the privileged groups “entitled” to do so, may seem rather presumptuous. Yet in a sense philosophy is dying for lack of contact with one of its most vital aspects – scientific creation. For thousands of years there was no arbitrary separation between Literature, Arts and Sciences, and it was only after the rise of the middle classes, once the old aristocracy lost power, that independent disciplines were created, jealously guarding their separateness.
Auguste Comte’s classification system took this to ridiculous lengths, culminating in today’s pervasive positivism. Around this floats a fog of vague thinking that relies on portmanteau words that mean everything and nothing, and which, like Humpty Dumpty, everyone takes to mean just what they want.
The paragraphs that follow were written in the early 1980s. Pessimistic as they are, they would be even more so if I wrote them today. The loss of Humanities from French secondary education has meant the disappearance of a collective memory, in a way that is probably more catastrophic and irreversible than the loss of memory in China after the ten-year Cultural Revolution. Because of this, I am anxious to stress that what follows owes everything to the long line of thinkers and writers who came before us, and to make myself clear, I would like to quote Blaise Pascal:
Certain authors, speaking of their works, say: "My book," "My commentary," "My history," etc. They resemble middle-class people who have a house of their own and always have "My house" on their tongue. They would do better to say: "Our book," "Our commentary," "Our history," etc., because there is in them usually more of other people's than their own.Pensées, 43
I would also like to emphasise the influence of the library of the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, where Lucien Herr (1864-1926) played such an important role, in the formation of these thoughts.
Those fragments of the thoughts of the philosophers of Antiquity that have come down to us have been analysed in painstaking detail in numerous scholarly works. But despite their number, and perhaps because of their erudition, they have rarely left the dusty shelves of the great libraries, except perhaps sometimes to become cultural clichés. We need to look more closely at what it is that enables us to produce the pervasive knowledge that makes our various “Western” cultures so successful (and so dangerous). To do this, I feel it is essential to go back over these ancient pages and to seek out the origins of our way of seeing and understanding the world. It is said that knowing how (savoir-faire) comes before knowing in the sense of understanding (savoir), but this often just means that what is deepest in us is forgotten, and thus unconscious: the memory of thousands of years of history during which the great and still unanswered questions were asked for the first time. Today we talk a great deal about the philosophers of Antiquity, and especially the Greek philosophers, but in the middle class wisdom that has its roots in the late nineteenth century educated upper-middle classes, culture is regarded as “what is left when we have forgotten all else”. Or, what comes to the same thing, we talk, or comment on the basis of hearsay, without going back to the sources, which are ultimately disregarded (1). Reading dictionaries, those memorials to our reference system, will soon prove this. The same compulsive superficiality encourages the belief that skimming is reading, and pull-quotes are the booksellers’ latest success story.
Anything that requires time or thought is regarded as erudite, pretentious, or too complex. But refusing to take the trouble to think has its consequences. For thousands of years after writing was first discovered, mankind invested the written word with an almost sacred dimension, and the time necessarily devoted to understanding a text formed part of the value of the text itself. It was an essential factor that allowed every reader to play a part in “constructing” the content of the text, and, over the centuries, enriching it. In a civilisation dominated by the visual image, which encourages the most automatic of human behaviours, we need to restore to the written word its role in support of thought, criticism and the construction of ideas.
I hope I will be forgiven for beginning just by borrowing some fragments of the overview that scholars have put together to record some of the opinions (δοξαι) of the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers. It is of course very difficult, perhaps impossible, to classify the various authors I refer to here. So I have organised them rather arbitrarily as follows, grouping them according to similarities in the method or content of their thinking. There will be five main groups: the Milesian physicists (the Ionian school and its offshoots), Pythagorean esotericism, Poetic or oracular thought, the Eleatic School, and finally Atomism. I might equally well have separated out the writings of Parmenides, Heraclitus or Empedocles, noting the relationships between their favourite subjects, and cutting thematically across the strata of various schools of thought. But it seems to me that, despite their slightly arbitrary character, the groupings I have chosen enable us to form a better idea of the methodical and productive approach that prevailed, establishing a context that encouraged the development of knowledge, and, after the industrial revolution, the takeover of the world by a single living species: mankind.
… it has been clear to us and to the distinguished philosophers before us who are not our co-linguists, that no man by the diligence of his quest has attained the truth, i.e., that which the truth deserves, nor have the (philosophers as a) whole comprehended it. Rather, each of them either has not attained any truth or has attained something small in relation to what the truth deserves. When, though, the little which each one of them who has acquired the truth is collected, something of great worth is assembled from this. (2).
It has been the tradition for several thousand years to comment on the knowledge created by those who have gone before us, gradually enriching it. As I hope will become clear, the central theme of this essay is that over the course of history, rewriting produces variations on ancient themes, which change little by little until they make way for real emergent creations. To comment on ancient texts is not merely to provide a learned or amusing gloss, but to ask fundamental questions, relevant to all of us, in a different cultural context, transforming them into new questions. With this appropriately modest approach, I hope that new light cast will offer the reader a new and different way of seeing, and thus encourage him or her to play a personal role in the continuing creation of knowledge.
1. Note that I do not escape this unfortunate trend. My memory made me think that I got the history of the Delphic Boat straight, whereas it was that of the Ship of Theseus.
2. Al-Kindi’s Metaphysics: A translation of Ya‘qub ibn Ishaq al-Kindi’s Treatise “On First Philosophy” (fi al-Falsafah al-Ula) with introduction and commentary by Alfred L. Ivry; State University of New York Press, Albany, 1974; p57; ISBN 0873950925.