Early Greek Thought: Before the Dawn – Prologue

This is the Prologue from Early Greek Thought: Before the Dawn, published by Bloomsbury Publishing in 2011.

Prologue: Before the Dawn

We must call into question a longstanding mythology, and its ceaseless repetition, that is tragically alive in both the Analytic and Continental traditions – that the ‘Pre-Socratics had the grandiose audacity to break with all traditional forms of knowledge’ (Badiou, in his essay, ‘Lacan and the Pre-Socratics’[i], on Lacan, and himself – and, a plethora of the same).  We must also seek to call into question the contention that poetics is inferior to mathematics, and thus, to ‘science’.  We must attempt to think differently, amidst a responsive engagement with early Greek thought, so as to retrieve the originary impetus for philosophical thought.

Each of the repetitive variants of this unacknowledged mythology must be dismantled in an attempt to not only retrieve an ‘indigenous’ interpretation of archaic Greek thought – but also, to expose the deceptively mythological character of contemporary meta-narratives of the ‘origins’ of ‘Western’, ‘Occidental’ philosophy.  Early Greek Thought: Before the Dawn will set forth an interpretation of the major Hesperian thinkers, before Socrates and Plato – the so-called, ‘pre-socratics’ or ‘pre-platonic’ philosophers.  Practicing a hermeneutical methodos and style, inspired by early German Romanticism, Nietzsche and Heidegger, we will excavate the context of emergence of early tragic thought through a genealogical exploration of the mytho-poetic horizons of the archaic world, in relation to which, as Plato testifies, the ‘Greeks’ were merely ‘children’.  This approach will be contrasted with those who have, in both the analytic and continental ‘traditions’, merely repeated anachronistic ideologies of so-called ‘Presocratic philosophy’, either from the valuations of Plato, Aristotle, and their progeny, or the Modernist reductions to a materialist physics, or, contemporary scientism and mathematicism.

We will seek to disclose ‘philosophy in the tragic age’, as a creative ‘affirmation’ of a ‘contestation’ of mytho-poetic narratives and ‘ways of being’.  Not only will our ‘meditation’ draw upon the ‘exceptions’ – the usual suspects – of the Continental tradition, such as the early German Romantics, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Bataille, Patôcka, Krell and the Post-structuralists, but will also explicitly engage the prevailing scientistic and ‘philological’ mummifications[ii] of tragic thought that have remained hegemonic, since the ‘falsifications’ of Plato.  Our emphasis will be upon a cultivation of a nuanced understanding of the fragments of the archaic thinkers from within these contexts of their emergence, not only singly, but gathered as expressions of an extant life-world and its linguistic-cultural tradition – expressions uttered amid an opening conversation amongst thinkers.  We will invite each tragic thinker to this conversation, game, to this unique topos (place) for each of their perspectives, a perhaps ‘novel’ emergence amidst the epochal discordance[iii] of archaic mytho-poetic horizons.  In this way, we will articulate an interpretive engagement with the tragic thinkers which will, due to its orientation (contexts of emergence, narrative, poetic topology), facilitate the possibility of a fertile encounter with the thought of archaic Greece that is not merely a ‘function’ of repetitive anachronism, nor a mere ornament to our own (discordant) philosophical ‘conversation’ in the contemporary world.  In this way, it is the intention of this work to cast new light upon the significance of early Greek thought not only as ‘history of philosophy’, but also, for our own insurmountable tragic truth.

The mediations are ‘divided’ into two parts, one which concerns itself with the method of interpretation, in light of an attempt to retrieve an indigenous understanding of early Greek thought.  The second part invites the early ‘Greek’ thinkers to a ‘conversation’, in which each will participate in a disclosure of the tragic thinkers amidst their context of emergence.

We will begin with a meditation upon the ubiquitous motif of the dawn – upon its near mystical ambiguity, irony and wit, in the assertion that the ‘Greeks’ enacted the ‘beginning’ of an Occidental ethos that essentially and historically surpasses the ‘East’, and its mytho-poetic topographies.  With this meditation upon the impossibility of a pure ‘beginning’, we will turn to the mytho-poetic lifeworld of the tragic thinkers, so as to understand the topos of departure – though not beginning – of archaic thought.  Specifically, we will set forth a ‘rough sketch’ of the hermeneutic context of emergence for tragic thought by tracing its sources to the agonistic contest of archetypal poetic figures, and horizons, of mythological poetry from the fertility of Homer, Hesiod, Archilochus, Sappho, Orpheus, and myriad other ‘voices’.

From amid this ‘chaos’ of perspectives, we will begin an exploration of the question of method with respect to the various possibilities for an interpretation of early Greek, tragic thought, turning first to Nietzsche, with his Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks and The Birth of Tragedy, which, it may be argued, lays out the first rigorous attempts to disclose an indigenous interpretation of the ‘pre-platonic’ philosophers.  After a reflection upon the ‘incomplete’ character of the former work, we will trace his scenario of the birth of tragic thought, as set forth in Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, from out of a primal conflict betwixt the aesthetic forces of the Dionysian (Orpheus) and the Apollonian (Homer and Hesiod).  Breaking free of the hold of either tradition, the archaic poet-thinkers created a new morphos and network of tragic thinking, one which, however, was not a mere harmonization (Hegel), but a temporary, tragic topos of artistic expression.

We will next turn to Heidegger’s radical questioning of Nietzsche’s interpretation of ‘philosophy in the tragic age of the Greeks’ with his own persistent emphasis upon the status of the primordial thinkers of Greece as having first apprehended ‘Being’.  Heidegger seeks to clear away Nietzsche’s genealogical tracing of mytho-poetics and the ‘personality’ of the early Greek thinkers, in preference for his own radical indication of truth as Aletheia, a ‘Primordial Word’, of which Heidegger claims, Nietzsche had no inkling.

In our final chapter on method, we will turn to the Post-structuralists and their attempt to lay out an interpretive strategy, which would not only serve to disrupt the repetition of the motif of the dawn, prevalent in both Nietzsche and Heidegger, but also to set free Nietzsche’s genealogical tracing of tragic thought and poetics from Heidegger’s eccentric emphasis upon the ‘primordial thinkers’ of Greece, to the exclusion of the possibility of an understanding of the emergence of the tragic age from amid its own mytho-poetic context.

In light of our meditations upon perspective, we will first lay out a provisional sketch of the context of emergence that arises from the specific contributions of the Apollonian and Dionysian aspects of an archaic lifeworld – of Being and Becoming, the Question of the First and of the Elements, and the Question of the Motive Force and Configuration of Change.  In this light, the context of emergence will act as hermeneutic key and horizon of orientation for our interpretation of the specific topographies of early Greek thought.  Beginning a ‘sketch’ of the Ionian thread of early Greek thought, I will turn to Thales, seeking to fathom the meaning of the specific features of his thought upon Being and Becoming – of not only his assertion of Water as the First, but of the divine circularity of the transmutation of the elements – beyond the anachronistic assertions that Thales was not only the ‘first philosopher’, but also a natural scientist.  It will be in this way that the context of emergence will allow us to divine a reading of Thales which traces the precise influences upon his thought in its specificity.

We will next turn to the provocations of Anaximander, whose inferred criticisms of Thales will be the ‘prairie fire’ for the incipient conversation that was to become ‘philosophy’, a novel discourse of a mixed and unstable expression.  In light of this emergent topos of contestation, we will turn to Anaximenes (‘Air’) and Xenophanes (‘Earth’), and, the ‘reasons’ each has given for his own position in relation to the question of the first as articulated by Thales and Anaximander.  We will, in this way, invite each of the subsequent thinkers into the dynamic conversation of early philosophy, from Heraclitus, tragic thinker of flux – and the dice throw of the child (Nietzsche), to Pythagoras – an eternal recurrence of all, transmigration as a complex symbola, which shelters the Pythagorean philosophia, including its other aspects, ‘cosmology’, ‘music theory’,’ mathematics’, ‘medicine’ and ‘ethics – amidst a ‘poetic dwelling’.

We will also explore the ‘alleged’ challenge of Parmenides to all previous (and as it turned out, all future) modes of thought, in what has been repeated in the Canon as a ‘breach’ not only to the ‘archaic’ traditions of mythological narratives and any thought which is tainted by these archaic mytho-poetic horizons.  We will contest this interpretation through an exploration of the radical implication of Schürmann’s reminder to us that the goddess of Truth also revealed to the ‘thinker’ – to know also the ways of mortal thought.  In this way, we will lay out a tragic reading of Parmenides which is distinct from those who either declare that Parmenides was the first ‘logician’ or who was a mere ‘ontologist.’

We will turn to Empedocles and Anaxagoras and their own responses to Parmenides – if there are any grounds for such an assertion.  In light of our radical questioning of the Canonical image of Parmenides, we will, after reviewing the ‘standard’ view, set forth a reading which emphasizes the continuity of horizons between Parmenides and the so-called ‘radical pluralists’.  We will explore Empedocles disclosure of his doctrine of the Elements and of the two Roots, Love and Strife which must tragically contend each with the other as they circle in a vortex, giving rise to the one and the many which separate off in a cycle of eternal recurrence.  In this way, the question of the first is displaced into an explicit and perhaps non-foundationalist (Niethammer) indication of the becoming of the Kosmos, an interpretation that is most radically disclosed in light of the context of emergence.

Anaxagoras, our next voice, can be regarded as calling into question the seeming lack of specificity of Empedocles as to the precise existence of specific objects.  Moreover, it is, perhaps, for this reason, that he suggested the Nous and the seeds of ‘existence’ to account for the possibility of such a specificity.   Such a conception implies is that each thing – in line with Parmenides – must have existed, always.  In this light, each thing exists as a ‘seed’ in everything else, and the ‘birth’ of any one ‘thing’ emerges from a ‘separating out’ of that which is always already there.  Mind (Nous), a separate disseminates ‘separation’, and originally initiated the rotation (recall the vortex of Empedocles). In this way, ‘Mind’ replaces Love and Strife, but maintains the unity of opposites, except perhaps for that part of existence which is endowed with Mind.  While this may be a plausible reading, it will be the context and the implications of the Nous which will be highlighted, with an emphasis upon the tragic continuity of Empedocles and Anaxagoras (with Parmenides amid the context of emergence) over against the anachronistic, canonical logic which would insist upon a clear and inevitable transition between Parmenides and Plato – to the exclusion of an ‘indigenous’ understanding of these thinkers.

Although it would seem that we are already caught by the spider of Plato, we need to resist the mere ‘coronation of reason’ with an honest encounter with Democritus, who, though a contemporary of Socrates, invokes an alternative narrative with respect to the alleged debate that had arisen in response to (or with) Parmenides.  Again – we can argue that there is a tragic continuity between Parmenides and the so-called ‘radical pluralists’, one which obviates the question-begging trajectory which would assert the supremacy of Plato and the tradition which arises with his break with archaic mytho-poetics.  Democritus shows clearly that the issue at hand is not the Mind in the sense of Socrates and Plato, as he, paying special tribute to Anaxagoras, dispenses of such a notion altogether.  Democritus lays out his topography of ‘Atoms and the Void’ as a meditation upon the call of the Goddess for us to know Being and Becoming.  Tragic thought – in any case… one that, however, is not merely random, in terms of our own contemporary notions of ‘chance’, but one attuned to Chance as Fate, a goddess, for which we thirst.

The last chapter on Plato ‘brings to a head’  the interpretive dilemma of anachronism in light of not only Socrates’ specific ridicule of Anaxagoras, but also of the deep prejudicial ‘image’ of the ‘ascending’ development of Greek thought.  After our exploration of alternative readings of the tradition, we will turn to Plato and his own susceptibility to differing Janus-faced readings.  We will acknowledge, in this context, an alternative reading which exceeds Nietzsche’s own merely repressive reading of Plato toward an interpretation which, as with the romantics, seeks to intimate an aesthetic Plato, one that is expressed in his affiliation with Beauty.  Nevertheless, it will be shown that even this Plato remains susceptible to Nietzsche’s criticisms in light of the apprehension of the lie of mere beauty amidst the tragic economy of the sublime.

We will close with a brief exploration and criticism of Badiou’s essay, ‘Lacan and the Presocratics’, to which we referred at the beginning, in which he merely repeats the Canonical definitions of early Greek thought, with the addition of his own Lacanian insistence upon the two critical targets of this present study – that the ‘Presocratics’ broke with all existing forms of knowledge, and yet, however, these early thinkers remained in a state of ‘primitivism’ who persisted upon the level of poiesis as they were not capable of an access to the Real through mathematization (itself an absurd suggestion in light of Thales own prediction of an eclipse).

Our disclosure of the ‘context of emergence’ is specifically intended to disrupt such a reading, one which disappointingly merely echoes the Canon without any questioning insight.

[i] Badiou, Alain (2006)  ‘Lacan and the Pre-Socratics’, in lacan.com.

[ii] Nietzsche, F. (1989) Twilight of the Idols, New York and London: Penguin.

[iii] Foti, Veronique (2006) Epochal Discordance: Holderlin’s Philosophy of Tragedy, Albany: SUNY.

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