Your SlideShare is downloading. ×
PHILOSOPHY IN FRAGMENTS: CULTIVATING PHILOSOPHIC THINKING WITH THE PRESOCRATICS - DANIEL SILVERMINTZ
Upcoming SlideShare
Loading in...5
×

Thanks for flagging this SlideShare!

Oops! An error has occurred.

×

Introducing the official SlideShare app

Stunning, full-screen experience for iPhone and Android

Text the download link to your phone

Standard text messaging rates apply

PHILOSOPHY IN FRAGMENTS: CULTIVATING PHILOSOPHIC THINKING WITH THE PRESOCRATICS - DANIEL SILVERMINTZ

1,299
views

Published on

Published in: Education

0 Comments
1 Like
Statistics
Notes
  • Be the first to comment

No Downloads
Views
Total Views
1,299
On Slideshare
0
From Embeds
0
Number of Embeds
0
Actions
Shares
0
Downloads
11
Comments
0
Likes
1
Embeds 0
No embeds

Report content
Flagged as inappropriate Flag as inappropriate
Flag as inappropriate

Select your reason for flagging this presentation as inappropriate.

Cancel
No notes for slide

Transcript

  • 1. r 2009 The Author Journal compilation r 2009 Metaphilosophy LLC and Blackwell Publishing Ltd Published by Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK, and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA METAPHILOSOPHY Vol. 40, No. 5, October 2009 0026-1068 The Philosopher as Teacher PHILOSOPHY IN FRAGMENTS: CULTIVATING PHILOSOPHIC THINKING WITH THE PRESOCRATICS DANIEL SILVERMINTZ Abstract: This article presents a strategy for introducing Presocratic thought to students in a manner that is both engaging and relevant. The first section addresses students’ reactions to the claim that the Presocratics were the first philosophers. The second section considers how the fragmentary state of Preso- cratic thought does not hinder its comprehension. The third section proposes a classroom exercise for testing the scientific merits of each of the Presocratic theories. The final section proposes the use of a mock trial as a means of applying the materialist approach introduced by the Presocratics to contemporary debates about free will and determinism. Keywords: Presocratics, materialism, free will and determinism, philosophy pedagogy. Euripides gave Socrates the treatise of Heraclitus and asked his opinion of it; he replied, ‘‘What I understand of it is excellent, and so too is, I daresay, what I do not understand, but it needs a Delian diver to get to the bottom of it.’’ —Diogenes Laertius (1969, 2.22) Although we have the good fortune of a massive extant literature from the ancient world, one still laments the great loss of the numerous works that did not survive. This loss is most severely felt in the history of philosophy as a result of the almost complete absence of any surviving works of the Presocratic scientists and sophists. From what may be reconstructed from the fragments we have of their works, these two groups of Presocratics speculated on nearly the entire range of philo- sophic thought: biology, physics, cosmology, theology, epistemology, ontology, ethics, politics, language, logic, and rhetoric. It is troubling to acknowledge the immense contributions made by these thinkers and yet have to admit that without the primary sources our examination of their ideas is conjectural at best. Although historians of philosophy would r 2009 The Author Journal compilation r 2009 Metaphilosophy LLC and Blackwell Publishing Ltd
  • 2. 690 DANIEL SILVERMINTZ surely prefer that we were not in this predicament, we might consider how the philosophy teacher can take advantage of this situation by using the fragments to stimulate philosophic thinking among students. In what follows, I detail how I teach students to think philosophically using the Presocratic fragments. The article begins by considering the political ramifications of presenting the Presocratics as the founders of philosophy. It proceeds by establishing a strategy for interpreting the fragments. This is followed by a discussion of several classroom exercises that are aimed at showing the relevance of these ancient thinkers for contemporary studies in the sciences and humanities. 1. The Presocratics as the Founders of Philosophy Socrates claims that philosophy begins in wonder (Plato 1921, 155e). If this is the case, it seems odd to claim that philosophy has an origin. Have not human beings always looked at the heavens and wondered about the nature of the universe? Has not every community considered questions of social and political justice when establishing legal codes? Bruno Snell boldly argues to the contrary, claiming that the Greeks are single-handedly responsible for the development of philosophy: ‘‘We must first of all understand that the rise of thinking among the Greeks was nothing less than a revolution. They did not, by means of a mental equipment already at their disposal, merely map out new subjects for discussion, such as the sciences and philosophy. They discovered the human mind’’ (Snell 1962, v). Few today would contest the contributions made by Greek thinkers in the development of Western thought, and yet we are equally reticent to make a claim for the absolute superiority of one culture over all others. Students’ sensitivities to multicultural issues demand that the claims made regarding one civilization’s unique contributions be presented in a nuanced manner. How might we present the Presocratics as the founders of philosophy without the baggage of ethnocentrism?1 Although Diogenes Laertes ultimately agrees with Snell regarding the Greeks’ role as originators of philosophic thought, he begins his account of the history of philosophy by citing the numerous counter claims advanced by other ancient civilizations: Some authorities say that the study of philosophy began among the barbar- ians. They argue that the Persians have had their Magi, the Babylonians or Assyrians their Chaldeans, and the Indians their Gymnosophists. Among the Celts and Gauls, moreover, there are persons called Druids or Holy Ones. As authorities, they cite the Magicus of Aristotle and Sotion in the twenty-third book of his Succession of Philosophers. They also say that Mochus was a Phoenician, Zamolxis a Thracian, and Atlas a Libyan. The Egyptians hold that 1 This is the claim advanced in Bernal 1987, 1991, 2006; for challenges to Bernal, see Lefkowitz 1996; Lefkowitz and Rogers 1996. r 2009 The Author Journal compilation r 2009 Metaphilosophy LLC and Blackwell Publishing Ltd
  • 3. PHILOSOPHY IN FRAGMENTS 691 Hephaestus was the son of the Nile, and that philosophy began with him; priests and prophets were its chief proponents. (Diogenes Laertius 1969, 1.1) Considering the ancient dispute regarding the founding of philosophy, we need not grant superhuman status to the Greeks. On the contrary, one might expect, as Aristotle (1924, 981b) has suggested, to find the philosophic impulse among every ancient culture with a priestly class that was afforded leisure for contemplation.2 In light of our own predicament regarding texts that have been lost to posterity, one can certainly imagine that philosophical investigations were conducted in other ancient civilizations besides Greece. Aristotle (1924, 1074b), at least, believes that each of the arts and sciences was developed and forgotten numerous times throughout history. We need not consider the Greeks the first to philosophize; they are, however, the first to do so who are not forgotten. 2. Reconstruction as Recollection Students may easily lose interest in a subject when they are led to believe that it offers no decisive answers. The fragments may be extremely provocative to one already trained as a professional philosopher, yet one cannot assume the same reaction by a student untutored in the history of philosophy. On the contrary, someone encountering the Presocratic fragments for the first time would probably read them as a set of poetic metaphors (all is water; the cosmos is a harmony; nature is moved by love and strife) rather than the foundation of scientific thought. How does one convince students that despite the poetic language with which these theories are presented, they are meant as rational claims?3 Moreover, the meaning of the fragments is ascertainable in spite of the fact that we do not possess the authors’ explanations of their theories. In my classes on ancient philosophy, I begin my discussion of the Presocratics by defending how we are able to reconstruct their ideas on account of their underlying rationality. I illustrate this point by having the students consider how a text based on rational premises differs from other sorts of texts. The Internet has made texts easier than ever to reproduce and disseminate, and one hopes that the electronic revolution has saved us from ever again suffering the loss of a great cultural work. With that said, all technological advances do come at a cost. The same technology that allows us to reproduce documents at lightning speed is capable of deleting them with the push of a button. Anyone who has lost data due to a virus or other computer malfunction can attest to the perils of electronic 2 Cf. Burnet (2005, 4), who credits the absence of the priestly class in Greece for the development of free inquiry. 3 In addition to using poetic imagery, Empedocles and Parmenides wrote their philoso- phy in verse. r 2009 The Author Journal compilation r 2009 Metaphilosophy LLC and Blackwell Publishing Ltd
  • 4. 692 DANIEL SILVERMINTZ media. And who can forget the panic in response to the problem of Y2K in the days before the millennium? In addressing our ability to reconstruct a text from fragments, I ask my class to consider the fallout if we were to suffer an electronic atrocity that wiped out all of our databases. For a generation raised in the electronic age, it is crippling when the server is temporarily down; the consequences would be almost incon- ceivable were this entire electronic world suddenly to disappear. One must further recognize that this dependence on the world of electronic information has shaped an epistemology in which the search for knowl- edge has been replaced by a set of concrete facts that may be ascertained simply by looking them up. A truth claim in the electronic age is valid merely because it has been posted on the Web. So what would be the status of truth if all the information were to disappear? I think the Presocratic natural scientists would appreciate this thought experiment about an electronic Armageddon. This is not far from similar mental exercises they conducted in formulating their theories. Consider Aristotle’s account of the Presocratic search for the imperishable sub- stance that persists through generation and corruption: ‘‘Of the first philosophers, then, most thought the principles which were of the nature of matter were the only principles of all things. That of which all things that are consist, the first from which they come to be, the last into which they are resolved (the substance remaining, but changing in its modifica- tions), this they say is the element and this the principle of things, and therefore they think nothing is either generated or destroyed, since this sort of entity is always conserved’’ (Aristotle 1924, 983b). In contrast to the modern mindset in which truth is conceived of as historically and culturally contingent, the Presocratics sought to uncover an imperishable realm that endures throughout time and place. Our thought experiment regarding the destruction of all electronic information has attempted both to prepare students for the activity of reconstructing Presocratic philosophy and to orient students regarding Presocratic epistemology. As already suggested, truth is for the Preso- cratics what is always there to behold. This conception of truth is complicated by the fact that things are not always as they appear. Heraclitus thus says that ‘‘Nature loves to hide’’ (fr. 123). The truth is what always exists even if it cannot always be seen. The philosophic impulse is born of disenchantment with the world of appearances that leaves us to consider what lies beneath it. Socrates affirms to Meno that seeking after what we do not immediately know does not prevent inquiry; on the contrary: ‘‘Supposing one ought to seek what one does not know we would be better, more able to be brave and less lazy than if we supposed that which we do not know we are neither capable of discover- ing nor ought to seek—on behalf of that I would surely battle, so far as I am able, both in word and in deed’’ (Plato 2003, 86b–c). Socrates vows to battle with all of his might in pursuit of the truth, yet how will he ever r 2009 The Author Journal compilation r 2009 Metaphilosophy LLC and Blackwell Publishing Ltd
  • 5. PHILOSOPHY IN FRAGMENTS 693 know if he has won the battle and not foolishly fought with windmills? This is essentially the critique raised by Meno, who wishes to end the beleaguering discussion with Socrates by questioning the feasibility of all philosophic inquiry. Like Meno, modern students need justification and confirmation that their efforts will not be in vain. Socrates’ creative refutation of Meno’s paradox of inquiry will provide a valuable way of defending our search for the meaning of the Presocratic fragments. Attentive to the pedagogical need to maintain students’ interest in pursuing inquiry, Socrates initially responds to Meno’s frustration by introducing the myth of anamnesis, or recollection. If the soul is immortal then inquiry is possible, since it has seen all things in a previous lifetime: They [the priests and priestesses] declare the human soul to be immortal, and at one time it comes to an end, which indeed they call dying, and again, at another time, it comes into being, but it is never destroyed. . . . Inasmuch as the soul is immortal and has been born many times and has seen all things both here and in the house of Hades, there is nothing which it has not learned. So that there is nothing wondrous about its also being able to recollect about virtue and about other things, which it already knew before. For inasmuch as all nature is akin and the soul has learned all things, there is nothing to prevent someone who recollects (which people call learning) one thing only from discovering all other things, so long as he is brave and does not grow tired of seeking. (Plato 2003, 81b–d) Although he presents it in the mythic garb of a divinely inspired story, Socrates employs recollection as a means of establishing truth as the ground of philosophic inquiry. Truth (aletheia) is in Greek literally what has become un-concealed and thus un-forgotten (alpha privative1lethes). Whether employing a postmodern thought experiment about an electronic Armageddon or an ancient myth about the immortality of the soul, our ability to reconstruct ideas from the past is predicated on the existence of truth that transcends time and place. In spite of Socrates’ claim that the soul has seen all things in previous lives, one cannot recollect something that is not true in all times and places. As the mythic elements of recollection are stripped away, Socrates is forced to reconstrue the activity as binding true opinions: ‘‘For true opinions too, for as long a time as they should stay put, are a fine thing and accomplish all kinds of good things. Yet much of the time they are not willing to stay put, but run away out of the human soul; so that they are not worth much until someone should bind them with causes by reasoning. And this, my comrade Meno, is recollection, as we agreed before’’ (Plato 2003, 97e–98a). Much as we would like to, we cannot reconstruct much from the thousands of literary works that are no longer extant. Likewise, the teenager who has recorded his feelings and emotions in a daily blog will r 2009 The Author Journal compilation r 2009 Metaphilosophy LLC and Blackwell Publishing Ltd
  • 6. 694 DANIEL SILVERMINTZ not be able to recreate many of his entries when they have been deleted. In contrast, let us assess the losses if all mathematics textbooks, both electronic and in print, were destroyed. Although much of what passed for knowledge might crumble in the ruins, the truth of mathematics proves absolutely indestructible. No evil tyrant will ever be able to eradicate logic by burning books or dismantling Web sites. Such actions can only result in a temporary loss of memory, which can ultimately be regained by recollecting the same rational procedure that had previously been followed. True, it might take some time to reconstruct differential calculus. But one need not fear that any previously held truths in the arena of mathematics could ever be permanently lost. And thus even if Aristotle has not justified his belief that the arts and sciences have been developed and forgotten numerous times throughout history, one sees the underlying logic supporting the claim. The truth may be forgotten, but it cannot be destroyed. The belief that the individual soul has lived countless prior lives and thus seen all things in a previous lifetime is without any substantiation; however, it is not unbelievable that each generation has contributed truths to the cultural memory so as to allow future generations to revive their original meaning. Let us, then, apply the method proposed in the Meno to Presocratic thought by assuming that each of the fragments encapsulates a true, or at least partially true, opinion. It is then our job to elevate the given opinion to knowledge by grounding it with a proof based on logical reasoning. Instead of approaching the fragments as an archaeological site of ruins to unearth and place behind glass, I suggest that they be treated as a living set of truths that might be validated as one does in the laboratory. 3. Presocratics in the Laboratory In spite of the fact that the Presocratics are today studied in humanities classes, one needs to keep in mind that these thinkers were first and foremost engaged in the investigation of the natural world. Although there are many foundational philosophic issues raised by this movement, these questions only come to light when one has first encountered the thinkers on their own terms as advancing scientifically verifiable claims. Of course, the reason these thinkers are not studied in science depart- ments is because their theories have been invalidated. Since we know that the universe is not composed of four primal elements, there is no need to devote time to theories that have been superseded. While study of Presocratic science might be dismissed as a useless activity by modern science departments, assessing the merits of these thinkers by the standards of the scientific disciplines lends credence to them. The modern physicist may have better tools at her disposal, but she still shares with her ancient predecessors a common search for the building blocks of life. r 2009 The Author Journal compilation r 2009 Metaphilosophy LLC and Blackwell Publishing Ltd
  • 7. PHILOSOPHY IN FRAGMENTS 695 Moreover, the ancient belief in four primal elements (earth, air, fire, and water) does not seem that far from modern chemistry’s belief that there are ninety-two naturally occurring elements. Having earlier suggested the need to orient students with regard to the difference between the Presocratic conception of truth and our own, I think it is valuable to show the similarities between Presocratic inquiry and modern scientific inquiry. The scientific revolution of the seventeenth century was largely motivated by a rejection of Aristotle’s physics; yet it might also be understood as a return to an older tradition of inquiry inaugurated by the Presocratics. Again, the absence of primary texts constrains our knowledge about the extent to which Presocratic scientific methods were developed; however, we are afforded grounds on which to speculate by Aristophanes’ satirical depiction of the natural scientists’ activities. Consider the ingenious method for observing and recording the distance of a flea’s jump presented by the playwright as an illustration of what might have been typical of other similar exercises: ‘‘He melted some wax, then took the flea and dipped two of its feet into the wax; as it cooled, Persian slippers grew around them. He took these off and was measuring the space’’ (Aristophanes 1998, 149–52). Although studying how far a flea jumps may seem like a comical affair, the mechanism of this phenomenon remains an active subject of study by modern entomolo- gists. Using high-speed cinematography, Bennet-Clark and Lucey were able to explain the mechanism as follows: ‘‘The main impulse comes from the depression of the metathoracic femur, whose depressor muscle originates on the notum. In the resting position the attachment of the depressor tendon to the femur is over-centre with respect to the trochan- ter-femoral joint. When the muscle contracts energy is stored in a resilin pad located between notum and pleuron. This energy is released by a second muscle which pulls the depressor tendon away from the over- centre position, thus enabling it to depress the femur’’ (Bennet-Clark and Lucey 1967, 59). Notwithstanding the level of detail afforded by modern instrumentation, one sees in this side-by-side analysis ancient and modern scientists grappling with the same phenomena. At the risk of committing a certain sin against the history of philosophy by attributing explanations that might go beyond our knowl- edge of the facts, let us do what is in the best interest of philosophic thinking by claiming the fragments as opinions subject to validation or falsification. If we do commit a sin, then it is no worse than that committed by Aristotle, who similarly speculates about the rationale behind the Presocratic theories. Consider his explanation of Thales’ claim that all is water: ‘‘Thales, the founder of this type of philosophy, says the principle is water (for which reason he declared that the earth rests on water), getting the notion perhaps from seeing that the nutriment of all things is moist, and that heat itself is generated from the moist and kept alive by it (and that from which they come to be is a principle of all r 2009 The Author Journal compilation r 2009 Metaphilosophy LLC and Blackwell Publishing Ltd
  • 8. 696 DANIEL SILVERMINTZ things)’’ (Aristotle 1924, 983b). As it is believed that Thales did not record his investigations in writing, we are in the same predicament as Aristotle when it comes to making sense of his thought. The pedagogical approach that I am proposing thus departs from presentations that attempt to unearth the individual thinker’s ideas in their historical context. In contrast, I suggest treating the fragments as scientific claims that are to be assessed and defended by explanations that can be developed by the resources of our own time. One thus reads the history of philosophy as proposing claims that are to be verified or rejected by the standard of truth. Consider how Euclid does not merely appropriate prior mathematical theorems but improves upon them with his own reasoning: ‘‘Euclid, who was not much younger than Hermoti- mus and Philippus, composed Elements, putting in order many of the theorems of Eudoxus, perfecting many that had been worked on by Theaetetus, and furnishing with rigorous proofs propositions that had been demonstrated less rigorously by his predecessors’’ (Proclus, Commentary on Euclid, 1, qtd. in Cohen and Drabkin 1958, 37). Adopting the scientific model as our hermeneutic for reading the Presocratic fragments, let us consider how to use them to cultivate philosophic thinking in our students. I ask students to puzzle out the meaning of the Presocratic thinkers using nothing more than a terse statement of each thinker’s theory. In the absence of the thinker’s own explanation, the student’s conjecture about his meaning may be just as valuable as Aristotle, Zeller, Burnet, Guthrie, Barnes, or Waterfield. In fact, students who bring to this activity their training in one of the scientific disciplines will certainly have specialized knowledge not possessed by many classical scholars. Students should be encouraged to draw on this knowledge and, in so doing, to regard the history of philosophy as a living and ongoing activity in which they can participate. Students are asked to explain and support each of the Presocratic theories by using evidence, observation, and hypothetical experiments.4 This line of investigation begins by simply noting the characteristics and qualities of each of the four primal elements. For example, one might consider how a student’s investigation of Thales’ argument regarding water as the single explanatory cause might proceed. A student would begin by simply observing water’s qualities: it is colorless, though it can have a green, blue, or brown tint; it has a wet and soft texture; it naturally flows downward; it fills containers of different sizes and shapes. Although a good start, these observations all assume water is observed in its liquid state. As ice, it is dry and hard and not malleable, though as snow it is soft 4 Although historians of science typically credit the experimental method as a modern development, see Burnet (2005, 27) for evidence of the Greeks anticipating modern scientific method. r 2009 The Author Journal compilation r 2009 Metaphilosophy LLC and Blackwell Publishing Ltd
  • 9. PHILOSOPHY IN FRAGMENTS 697 and plastic with a white color. As gas, it naturally rises upward and is less easily detectable with the senses. It is particularly interesting to see the contradictory qualities attributed to water (wet and dry, soft and hard, flows down and rises up) once one has considered it in its various states. These observations already suggest how one substance can appear in quite different ways. The plasticity of water to fill containers of different sizes and shapes and to assume the different states of matter lends further support for why Thales might have posited water as the solitary substance responsible for the multiplicity of existing things. Having catalogued all of water’s qualities, students are now asked to consider its various powers: it nourishes living organisms; cleanses and purifies; erodes solid matter. Students are further asked to provide verification of these claims by proposing hypothetical experiments. For example, the ability of water to both nourish and destroy can be studied by the relative vitality of plants that are given various amounts of water, from absolute deprivation to overabundance. After preparing an inventory of characteristics and powers for each of the primal causes ahead of time, students then work in groups during class time to compare notes and collectively prepare an argument to be presented to the class in defense of one of the Presocratic theories. This part of the exercise attempts to show the dialectical character of philosophy’s development. As part of their presentation, the groups must address inadequacies of previous theories that are accounted for by the theory they are defending. Without any knowledge of who might have studied with whom, students come to appreciate how scientific ideas unfold as a developing process. Sometimes, as with Thales and Anaxi- menes, one sees subsequent thinkers offering competing theories that are premised on assumptions similar to those of their predecessors. Anaxi- menes has clearly adopted Thales’ conception that a single substance can account for all things in spite of the fact that he defends a different substance. In contrast, later thinkers such as Pythagoras, Anaxagoras, and Empedocles introduce causal agents (missing from the Ionian theories) in order to explain how matter comes to be organized. 4. Presocratics in the Courtroom Once students have assessed the scientific merits of each cosmological claim, they are prepared to consider the political and social ramifications that follow from the assumptions of Presocratic metaphysics. I thus have students reconsider each of the Presocratic fragments with regard to how one might formulate theories of human behavior if one accepts the premises of each of the cosmological theories. As the first part of the assignment is meant to draw on the expertise of the science majors in the class, this part of our study of the Presocratics attempts to engage the psychology, sociology, political science, religion, and legal studies majors. r 2009 The Author Journal compilation r 2009 Metaphilosophy LLC and Blackwell Publishing Ltd
  • 10. 698 DANIEL SILVERMINTZ To help students in their consideration of the relationship between metaphysics and human affairs, I have them read Aristophanes’ Clouds. Caricaturing Socrates as a natural scientist and sophist, the playwright has him undermining the existence of the gods by reducing their powers to the meteorological phenomena along the lines of Xenophanes. Boldly proclaiming that Zeus does not exist, Socrates offers a rationalist explanation for the cause of thunder and rain: ‘‘The clouds full of water fall into each other and clap because of their density’’ (Aristophanes 1998, 384). While such an explanation may seem perfectly rational to us, it is completely shocking to a practitioner of Greek religion who believes that the forces of nature are acts of the gods used to mete out justice. The character Strepsiades cannot, therefore, accept an explanation of light- ning that divorces it from its role in enforcing justice: ‘‘But teach me where the thunderbolt, bright with fire, comes from, which burns us to ashes when it strikes, and scorches the living. For it is apparent indeed that Zeus hurls it at perjurers’’ (Aristophanes 1998, 395–97). Aristo- phanes is attempting to show that accepting Presocratic first principles leads to the sophistic conception of politics and ethics.5 Representing the sophists’ position, he has the character Unjust Speech declare: ‘‘For I quite deny that Justice even exists’’ (Aristophanes 1998, 902). Aristophanes insightfully brings to light the difficulty of justifying ethics when one accepts a materialist epistemology. Understood in this way, the sophists merely draw out the consequences for social and political thought that follow from the premises laid down by the Presocratic natural scientists. If all reality is understood solely with regard to its material constituents, then human behavior would seem to be dictated by nothing more than the play of forces, relegating ethics to physics. Like our modern psychophysiologists, the ancients working from a materialist conception reduced human behavior to its chemical basis as determined by the relative presence of one of the four humors: blood causing cheerfulness; phlegm causing sluggishness; choler causing anger; black bile causing melancholy. In contrast to the majority of Presocratic thinkers, Anaxagoras and Pythagoras offer noteworthy conceptions of the natural world insofar as they allow for a conception of human behavior that does not discount human agency. For these thinkers, humans are not merely a product of their biochemistry; on the contrary, the possession of a rational mind affords the individual the ability to tune the soul in such a way so as to bring harmony to the respective humors. The discussion about the ethics and politics of Presocratic thought naturally leads to the foundational dispute concerning whether humans possess free will and agency or whether human behavior is predetermined. This conflict is most evident in the attempt to harmonize the Democritean 5 For additional ideas on using Aristophanes to teach the sophists, see Porter 2003, 79–87. r 2009 The Author Journal compilation r 2009 Metaphilosophy LLC and Blackwell Publishing Ltd
  • 11. PHILOSOPHY IN FRAGMENTS 699 fragments on ethics with their author’s ideas on physics. In spite of the fact that Democritus affirms that atoms move by necessity, he urges men to seek instruction and to follow the path of the good man. If the moralistic fragments attributed to Democritus are authentic, then they must be construed so that the agency granted to human action does not violate the determinism of a being composed solely of atoms.6 I attempt to show the contemporary relevance of this foundational debate by having students stage a mock trial for an infamous serial killer. The American legal system assumes that individuals possess free will and that the state is justified in punishing a criminal act when it has been committed voluntarily. The prosecution must prove that the individual has both acted of his own volition (actus reus) and with the intention to create the resulting act (mens rea). While the law assumes that human beings are for the most part in control of their actions, it also acknowl- edges mitigating circumstances such as an epileptic seizure or sleepwalk- ing, in which the criteria of actus reus would not be satisfied, or mental insanity, in which the criteria of mens rea would not be satisfied. The mock trial is employed as a means of highlighting the competing claims concerning human agency and determinism that underlie the legal system. Students are given the fact pattern of a crime in which there is no dispute that the defendant committed the crime; what is in dispute is whether the defendant committed it with volition and intentionality. The class is divided into two teams responsible for either prosecuting the defendant by demonstrating her volition and intentionality or defending her by demonstrating the mitigating circumstances. Using a biographical sketch of the defendant, the defense team might argue that their client’s behavior was determined by her biochemical makeup, abusive childhood, socialization, socioeconomic status, or cultural influences. In response, the prosecution must use the same biographical facts to show how the defendant could have overcome any mitigating factors and still acted of her own volition. Initiated by consideration of the ethical consequences of Presocratic metaphysics, the mock trial ultimately engages the most contemporary debates in the social sciences that conceive of human behavior as a product of biochemistry, economic and social conditioning, and cultural formation. Let us, then, reappropriate the Presocratic fragments as a storehouse of living ideas relevant to contemporary discussions in both the natural and the social sciences rather than an archaeological site of ruins from a lost civilization! Would that the ideas of great men and women were not 6 Although Democritus offers the most extensive and explicit discussion of morals of any of the Presocratics, scholars such as Guthrie are suspicious of the authenticity of these fragments on account of the difficulty of harmonizing them with his atomistic physics. For discussion, see Vlastos 1945, 1946; Guthrie 1965, 489–92; Edmunds 1972; Kahn 1985; Warren 2002. r 2009 The Author Journal compilation r 2009 Metaphilosophy LLC and Blackwell Publishing Ltd
  • 12. 700 DANIEL SILVERMINTZ lost to posterity; yet we need not fear if these thinkers of the past had indeed seen a truth for all times. For just as the Presocratics believed that matter does not perish in the process of generation and corruption, so too the truth is always there to contemplate. Daniel Silvermintz University of Houston-Clear Lake 2700 Bay Area Blvd., Box 371 Houston, TX 77058 USA silvermintz@uhcl.edu References Aristophanes. 1998. ‘‘Clouds.’’ In Four Texts on Socrates, translated by Thomas G. West and Grace S. West. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press. Aristotle. 1924. Metaphysics. Translated by W. D. Ross. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Bennet-Clark, H. C., and E. C. A. Lucey. 1967. ‘‘The Jump of the Flea: A Study of the Energetics and a Model of the Mechanism.’’ Journal of Experimental Biology 47:59–76. Bernal, Martin. 1987. Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, vol. 1, The Fabrication of Ancient Greece, 1785–1985. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press. — —. 1991. Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, — vol. 2, The Archaeological and Documentary Evidence. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press. — —. 2006. Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, — vol. 3, The Linguistic Evidence. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press. Burnet, John. 2005. Early Greek Philosophy. Boston, Mass.: Adamant Media. Cohen, Morris Raphael, and Israel Edward Drabkin. 1958. A Source Book in Greek Science. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. Diogenes Laertius. 1969. Lives of the Philosophers. Translated by A. Robert Caponigri. Chicago: Regnery. Edmunds, Lowell. 1972. ‘‘Necessity, Chance, and Freedom in the Early Atomists.’’ Phoenix 26:342–57. Guthrie, W. K. C. 1965. A History of Greek Philosophy, vol. 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Kahn, Charles. 1985. ‘‘Democritus and the Origins of Moral Psychol- ogy.’’ American Journal of Philology 106:1–31. Lefkowitz, Mary R. 1996. Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History. New York: Basic Books. r 2009 The Author Journal compilation r 2009 Metaphilosophy LLC and Blackwell Publishing Ltd
  • 13. PHILOSOPHY IN FRAGMENTS 701 Lefkowitz, Mary R., and Guy MacLean Rogers, eds. 1996. Black Athena Revisited. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. Plato. 1921. Theaetetus, Sophist. Translated by H. N. Fowler. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. — —. 2003. Plato’s ‘‘Meno.’’ Translated by George Anastaplo and — Laurence Berns. Newburyport, Mass.: Focus. Porter, David. 2003. ‘‘An Undergraduate Course on the Sophists and Aristophanes.’’ Classical World 97:79–87. Snell, Bruno. 1962. The Discovery of the Mind: The Greek Origins of European Thought. Translated by T. G. Rosenmeyer. New York: Harper Torch. Vlastos, Gregory. 1945. ‘‘Ethics and Physics in Democritus.’’ Philosophi- cal Review 54:578–92. — —. 1946. ‘‘Ethics and Physics in Democritus.’’ Philosophical Review — 55:53–64. Warren, James. 2002. Epicurus and Democritean Ethics: An Archaeology of Ataraxia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. r 2009 The Author Journal compilation r 2009 Metaphilosophy LLC and Blackwell Publishing Ltd