Philosophy in the ancient world is not primarily the formulation of cosmological or even ontological doctrines, but the practice of a disposition, the training in a comportment, cultivation of openness to modes of experience. This is not to say that accounts of space, time, and matter, of substance and quality, of becoming and vanishing, did not play a role in the philosophy of the ancient Greeks or any other peoples. A keenness for facts and for theoretical frameworks runs from Thales, who knew enough about the physical universe to predict an eclipse and divert a river, to Epicurus’ claim that there was only atoms and the void. But these discourses always function in ancient philosophy in such a way that their meaning inheres in the way they relate to the ethical and self-transformative practices at the heart of philosophy.
Something of what that aim was can be gleaned from Lucretius. De Rerum Natura is indisputably a work of cosmology, but it has its organizing motive in the desire to free its understanding readers from fear.
Death to us
Is nothing, nor concerns us in the least,
Since nature of mind is mortal evermore. (III.830-832)
In this Lucretius faithfully transmits the tradition he lays claim to. Metrodoros of Chios, Epicurus’ immediate disciple, enjoined his students: “Remember, born mortal, with a finite life, you have risen thanks to the science of nature, as far as the infinity of time and space; you have seen what is, what will be, and what was.” Pierre Hadot, in his invaluable study What is Ancient Philosophy?, points out that Metrodoros’ words are in continuity with a poetic practice: Hesiod, for instance, tells that the muses “breathed into me a divine voice to celebrate things that shall be and things that were; and they bade me sing of the race of the blessed gods that are eternally” (Theogony 30-34). In other words, philosophy’s cosmogonic and theogonic vision is a legacy claimed from the oral tradition of the rhapsodes. The aim was the same: to deliver the philosopher from the fear of death and the tedium of a life half-lived. As Hesiod says, the muses bring “a forgetting of ills and a rest from sorrow.” Philosophy is no different, except that the relief it brings is claimed to be permanent, no mere respite but a genuine release. Plato maintains—for reasons that are the opposite of Lucretius’—that it delivers definitively from the fear of death:
--Do you think [asks Socrates], that a mind habituated to thoughts of grandeur, the contemplation of all time and all existence, can deem this life of man a thing of great concern?--Impossible, said he.
--Hence, such a man will not suppose death to be terrible?
--Least of all. (Republic 486a-b)
The poetic tradition from which philosophy picked up was an oral one, and it is clear from the Phaedrus that Plato, for one, preferred it so. Plato’s dialogues seem to me to be elaborate and very cunning devices meant to pull into play as many as possible of the different levels of communication that arise naturally in the course of ordinary conversation. The Seventh Letter famously expressly rejects the notion that philosophical realization can be captured in words at all; “Only after long partnership in common life devoted to [philosophy], truth is kindled as it were in one soul, by a flame leaping from another.”
Note that philosophical life is said to be common, shared. Hadot cites Seneca: “The living word and life in common will benefit you more than written discourse….The path of precepts is long, but that of examples is short and infallible.” Philosophical apprehension of truth does not occur by the thinker sitting alone. It is inherently an activity that transpires among thinkers together. This is how I read Plato when he has Socrates say that he does not learn anything from the trees or rocks, but that he can learn from the citizens of his city. (Later I will argue that this distance from the natural world, its claim that nature is inarticulate, is part of the distance that already separates Plato from the ancient poetic tradition). The work of sitting by myself and thinking hard is an indispensible part of philosophy, but only a part. It is completed by what happens when I am confronted by another, by a mind not my own, someone who challenges me, disputes my claim, calls on me to consider some further case or some other premise. Together we triangulate towards the truth.
And what is the nature of the realization in question? The most telling clue I can find is in Epinomis 991e:
To the man who pursues his studies in the proper way, all geometric constructions, all systems of numbers, all duly constituted melodic progressions, the single ordered scheme of all celestial revolutions, should disclose themselves, and disclose themselves they will, if, as I say, a man pursues his studies aright with his mind fixed on their single end. As such a man reflects he will receive the revelation of a single bond of natural interconnection between these problems.
Such “interconnections” are not always logical or empirical; they may be free-associative. The parallel between Silenus and Socrates, or between the Tyrant and the number 729, for instance, rely on such indirect rationales. When Plato conceded to use writing as a tool for philosophy, he had recourse to a very large range of devices—an expansive “toolbox,” as John McCumber puts it—to simulate and spark such realizations. But these “prodigious and baffling” (Republic 587e) chains are easily simulated in the hypertext manner by links. Such hypertext is one reason I have genuinely high hopes (and some grave concerns) for philosophy on the internet. It remains to be seen whether the era of books is over; but it is indisputable that we are living through a great transition in communication, and because human beings are “social animals,” this is likely to have deep and unforeseeable impact upon us. Philosophy is bound to respond to this shift as it did before at the advent of writing and of print. One need not be a technological determinist to conclude that the shift has an impact upon the way human beings are together, which means, the way they are at all. Philosophy must confront technology because, among other reasons, technology shapes human community, which means, the very possibility of philosophy itself—the common life in which alone philosophical attention is fostered.