David Sedley, Creationism and Its Critics in Antiquity. Sather Classical Lectures, 66. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. Pp. xvii, 269. ISBN 978-0-520-25364-3. $29.95.
Reviewed by Börje Bydén, Stockholm University
In case you haven't noticed: 2009 is Darwin Year. On 24 November, 150 years will have passed since the theory of evolution by natural selection was first fully presented and defended, in the first edition of the Origin of Species. Darwin's theory dealt the coup de grâce to the teleological way of thinking about nature which had dominated the minds of both the learned and the lay for more than two millennia, before it was gradually undermined by the rise of modern science (though, typically, perhaps, it spawned more arguments in its last phase than it ever did before). At least that is what people used to think where I come from. But then they had not yet been confronted with American Creationism.
'Creationism' in the contemporary everyday sense of the word is the view that the account of creation in Genesis is literally true and can be supported by science. According to recent polls, up to 66 percent of Americans share this view.1 Historically, this sense of the word seems to have developed from the more precisely defined (though extensionally wider) notion that the biological species inhabiting the earth have not evolved gradually from variants of other species but were created the way they are from the outset. Creationism in the everyday sense emerged in opposition to Darwinism. It invariably (I think) comes in a package with the belief that the biological species were created the way they are so as to be well adapted for a purpose. That is to say, it is closely related to a teleological way of thinking about nature.
When did the teleological era begin? It is perfectly clear that the orderliness and purposiveness of the natural world were matters of paramount concern to Aristotle and Plato (and to Socrates, if we can trust certain passages in Xenophon and Plato). But what about the Presocratics? The traditional view, which is very much indebted to Aristotle and Plato, is that some Presocratics, notably Anaxagoras, did introduce cosmological principles with a potential to explain natural phenomena in terms of their purposiveness, but failed to make consistent use of these principles, presumably because the purposiveness of natural phenomena was not really a crucial issue for them. In the twentieth century, scholars have been tempted to consider Diogenes of Apollonia, a contemporary of Socrates, as the first clear exponent of a teleological outlook on natural philosophy.
In the book under review, based on his 2004 Sather lectures, David Sedley traces the career of the teleological way of thinking from its beginnings throughout the Hellenistic period. He deals with what we may call 'external' and 'internal' teleology alike (these terms will be explained below), as well as with anti-teleology, devoting a chapter each to Anaxagoras, Empedocles, Socrates, Plato, the Atomists, Aristotle, and the Stoics, with a short epilogue on Galen.
This is an extraordinarily engaging book, even though I am not convinced that all of its theses will stand the test of time. Bold in its suggestions, ingenious in its argumentation, it is written in a style that is clear and comprehensible, even for the non-philosopher or, I think, the non-classicist. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that it defies summary, because it brings into its compass such a wide range of related subjects, as witnessed by the hundreds of footnotes and the five appendices, but especially by numerous shorter or longer digressions, carefully woven into the main argument in such a way that readers will rarely lose their sense of direction.
The book endeavours to show, in Sedley's own words, 'how the major thinkers of antiquity developed their ideas on our world's origins and causal structure in a context of open-ended debate' (p. 243). It sets out to 'illustrate how the discrete episodes that constitute the whole [sc. of ancient philosophy] come adequately into focus only when we arrange them into a continuous history' (p. 244). This is a highly laudable aim, and Sedley's book succeeds admirably in achieving it.
That is not to say that it contains no imperfections. My most serious complaint with Creationism and Its Critics In Antiquity concerns the title, which can hardly fail to be misleading. In his preface, Sedley immediately draws a parallel between the teleological way of thinking about nature in classical antiquity and the contemporary American debate about creationism. His aim is, he says, 'to use history in order to shed new light on the debate' (p. xvi). On that account, Sedley might be expected to talk in this book about 'creationism' in the anti-Darwinist sense mentioned above. He does not. Which is only reasonable, after all, since American Creationism is dependent on two historical phenomena, both of which were unknown to classical antiquity: the theory of evolution by natural selection, to which it reacts; and the Judaeo-Christian revelation, which it defends. But nor does Sedley seem to talk about 'creationism' in the sense in which the word is mostly used in contemporary discussions of ancient philosophy. This is a sense which seems to derive from the history of mediaeval thought, where 'creationism' usually denotes the belief that God has created everything in time, as opposed to various forms of 'eternalism', notably that standardly attributed to Aristotle. In the context of ancient philosophy, the sense is extended to cover any doctrine that affirms the divine creation in time of the present world, even if it is from pre-existing material, such as the cosmogony in Plato's Timaeus (on a literal interpretation).2
In Sedley's book, however, 'creationism' is stipulated to be 'the thesis that the world's structure and contents can be adequately explained only by postulating at least one intelligent designer, a creator god' (p. xvii). If I understand correctly, this thesis can be analysed as the conjunction of the following two propositions: (1) if the world as a whole is purposively organized we must postulate an external creator; (2) the world as a whole is purposively organized. These two propositions form the premises of a teleological argument for the existence of God. A more traditional term for the position that affirms both of these premises I think would be 'cosmic external teleology'. It does not seem to entail the doctrine that the world has been created in time (which is no doubt why many later Platonists could adhere to it without affirming this controversial doctrine). Since it does not, it is not so easy to see what reason there is for calling it 'creationism'.
Timaeus in the eponymous Platonic dialogue does (on a literal interpretation) affirm the doctrine that the world has been created in time (but not on the basis of the teleological argument). He certainly subscribes to premise (2) of the teleological argument, and arguably he is committed also to premise (1). He is thus a 'cosmic external teleologist', but also a 'creationist' in the standard sense that he posits a creation of the world in time (if one from pre-existent matter). And so it is hardly a coincidence that a literal interpretation of the Timaeus plays a pivotal part in Sedley's narrative, inasmuch as Plato's 'likely account', on the one hand, represents a conscious effort to draw out the implications of earlier teleologically oriented natural philosophy; and, on the other hand, provides a point of reference for all later developments, which are understood by Sedley (if I am not mistaken) as being either attacks on it or attempts to defend it.
But the two propositions that together make up 'cosmic external teleology' are mutually independent: you can affirm one and deny the other; and, if you do, you are free to deny or affirm the conclusion at will. In which case, of course, you are not a cosmic external teleologist. And the doctrine of the world's creation in time is a separate thesis from these, as is that of the creation of the biological species. In sum: if 'creationism' according to Sedley is 'cosmic external teleology' supplemented by the doctrine of the world's creation in time, then it is not clear to me that the majority of thinkers discussed in this book could be said to take a clear position either for or against it.
But if the ancient philosophers did not take a clear position on creationism as defined by Sedley, then it seems questionable whether there ever was such a thing in antiquity as a debate about it. I for one am not convinced. What emerges from the pages of Creationism and Its Critics in Antiquity is, in my view, rather a series of partly overlapping debates about questions pertaining to teleology, the beginning of the world, the nature of the divine, and indeed, the origin of species, among other things. One especially salient (and rewarding) theme is the role of the metaphor of craft in ancient teleology, external as well as internal. Another is the variable element of religious motivation in introducing teleological considerations in natural philosophy. And there are others. In the following, I shall try to recapitulate some of the more important or intriguing points in each chapter, with some critical remarks.
According to Sedley, there was no debate amongst the earlier Presocratics (the 'monists') about divine creation, since the world was assumed by them to be alive and full of gods. The first thinker clearly to distinguish mind (or intelligence, nous) and matter was Anaxagoras. Anaxagoras' nous, Sedley argues, is not a divine power, but is introduced 'as supreme cause of matter's organization' (p. 25) on purely scientific grounds. His matter is characterized by the co-presence of an indefinite number of opposite sensible qualities, none of which nous shares (it is 'unmixed'). Nous creates the world (and others just like this one) by causing and maintaining the famous vortex, which separates and stratifies things in such a way as to set up 'environments which will enable seeds to germinate, with plant and animal life the outcome' (p. 23). While later divine craftsmen are artisans, Anaxagoras' nous is a farmer. Obviously, it is the fact that nous plans that qualifies this cosmogony as an example of 'creationism'. To say that it is intelligence and not some blind natural force that causes and maintains the vortex is tantamount to saying that there is a conscious purpose behind it all. What purpose? Sedley speculates that nous is breeding human beings in order to take its abode in them. In doing this it perhaps acts out of self interest; if so, Empedocles' divinely beneficent Love provides a contrast (p. 62).
As Sedley admits (p. 21), quite a bit of reading between the lines is required to arrive at this interpretation. It might also be objected that it failed to recommend itself to Anaxagoras' most competent and sympathetic readers in his own lifetime, e.g. Plato's Socrates, who read his book in extenso, had an excellent grasp of the Greek and a good head on his shoulders, and who--most importantly--was looking especially for teleology. Yet perhaps it is not necessarily at odds with Socrates' view in the Phaedo, where what he complains about is, after all, not Anaxagoras' failure to recognize that the world must be purposely created and ordered, but his failure to show exactly how purpose played a role in its actual workings. On the other hand, it is clear that Sedley is generally very sceptical of both Plato's and Aristotle's readings of the Presocratics. If it is true, for instance, as he argues, that '[t]he joint project of Plato and Aristotle is to resist Presocratic causal presuppositions, viewed as wrongly emphasizing material necessitation at the cost of teleological explanation' (p. 184), but also the case that 'the idea of an intelligently structured world was pervasive in Presocratic thought' (p. 182 n. 25), it seems to follow that both Plato and Aristotle fundamentally misunderstood Presocratic thought.
Sedley is not very explicit about precisely what scientific motives he considers Anaxagoras to have had for introducing nous, but presumably he has in mind those mentioned by Aristotle in Metaphysics 1.3: (1) the fact that things change cannot be explained by reference to their matter but implies an efficient cause; and (2) the fact that things are well- or ill-ordered should not be attributed to chance. It is not clear why these motives must exclude religious ones, or why Sedley thinks nous 'is not overtly a divinity' (p. 25). I must say I find it hard to understand how an intelligent--indeed, omniscient--self-governing and infinite (B12) as well as eternally existing (B14) creator and designer of the world could be anything but divine. Sedley seems to agree implicitly in his definition of 'creationism' (given above), where the expression 'a creator god', tacked on as a non-restrictive appositive, appears to be simply synonymous with 'intelligent designer [sc. of the world's structure and contents]'.
According to Aristotle in Metaphysics 1.4, Empedocles added Love and Strife to his four material causes in order to account for the fact that nature exhibits both order and beauty and their opposites. This seems to ascribe a fair degree of teleological thinking to the Agrigentine philosopher. If anything, however, Aristotle's puzzle in Physics 2.8 (which is generally taken to reflect Empedoclean teaching), about whether the bodily parts may not be 'produced by necessity, and their fitness for their functions be an undesigned result',3 has rather contributed to place Empedocles in the anti-teleological camp. While not denying this aspect of Empedocles' cosmogonical and zoogonical teaching, Sedley wants to reclaim for him also a 'vital role in the history of creationist thought' (p. 52). As far as I have been able to make out, this role consists in, on the one hand, developing the model of divine craftsmanship in much greater technological detail than is found in Hesiod and other precursors, and in this way 'inaugurating the long history of creationist explanation in terms of divine technology' (p. 57), and, on the other hand, attributing the creation of the world to the beneficence of Love, thus preparing the ground for later, 'more articulated theories of divine beneficence' (p. 62).
The prospects for a re-evaluation of Empedoclean doctrines may appear to look unusually good after the new fragments recovered from the Strasbourg papyrus (as well as the Aristotelian scholia recently discovered by Marwan Rashed) have opened up new avenues of inquiry. Sedley takes us some distance down a few of these, especially in three of the four appendices to the chapter. (The remaining one argues that Lucretius, De rerum natura 5.864-70 is a translation of a passage from Empedocles' poem(s).
I cannot here enter into an extended discussion of this fascinating account, but let me at least point out one problem of some importance for the evaluation of Empedocles' position vis-à-vis teleology. Most life forms are attributed by Empedocles to the influence of Love. Now, Love is, as Sedley emphasizes, sometimes described by Empedocles as a craftswoman. According to Sedley, her creative activities take place in two stages: in the first, 'organic materials and ... single organs and limbs' are intelligently and purposively designed (p. 60); but in the second, the single organs and limbs are randomly combined into a plethora of life forms, some of which, notoriously, have proved less than viable (B61), others of which, however, are the animals and human beings that we have around us today.
If this is true, how are we to explain the fact that Love in the second stage abandons the method of intelligent and purposive design in favour of the random combination of limbs? Doesn't this conspire to cast doubt on her will or ability to conceive and implement a grand plan for the cosmos? Sedley's reply is that a process of random combination may have been suggested to Empedocles by the sheer manifoldness of the evidence, consisting not only of the countless races of existing mortal creatures (B35.16), but also of mythical minotaurs and chimaeras as well as contemporary freaks of nature, interpreted as hybrid forms, and that the assumption of such a process may not be inconsistent with the principle of intelligent creation--something which, he claims, is illustrated by present-day convergentist evolutionism. I do not think this is a very convincing reply, and it makes me wonder whether it would not be easier to resolve the tension between intelligent design and accident in Empedocles' zoogony by taking the analogy between Aphrodite's creation of the eye and the preparation of a lantern in B84 as nothing more than a poetical simile, the point of which seems to be to illustrate the fact that the eye's internal fire, but not its external water, can pass through the eye membranes. Apart from this analogy there seems to be little evidence in favour of intelligent design on the part of Love, whereas Aristotle, Phys. 2.4, 196a23-24 and Simplicius, In Phys. 371.33-35, testify against it. It may be noted that the verb used in B84.8 for Aphrodite's creative act is λοχεύσατο, 'she gave birth to (or brought to birth)', which obviously has nothing to do with the craftswoman metaphor.
If Sedley is able to find more teleology than has usually been detected in Empedocles, he gives short shrift to those interpretations of the fragments of Diogenes of Apollonia which make their author a central figure in the history of this style of thought. Instead, he puts forward Socrates as the instigator of a radical break, who allegedly 'develops a teleology that is far more overtly and explicitly anthropocentric than anything we have met in his predecessors' (p. 80).
Sedley's case is largely based on Xenophon's accounts of Socrates' conversations with Aristodemus in Memorabilia 1.4, where the natural endowments of humankind are praised for their purposiveness, and with Euthydemus ibid. 4.3, where a number of natural phenomena, and indeed other animals, are declared to exist for the convenience of humankind. It presupposes that Xenophon's accounts represent Socrates' ideas more or less accurately. If they do, this is an admirable feat on Xenophon's part, who may have composed the Memorabilia more than 40 years after he last saw Socrates; all the more so, if, as Sedley claims, (1) these ideas were so original that they represented 'radical innovation, owing little if anything to Presocratic cosmology' (pp. 81-82), and (2) these ideas, significant though they were, were not attributed to Socrates by Plato, except in the late Philebus, which Sedley says (p. 82) probably draws on Xenophon. Unless we are willing to ascribe a better understanding of Socrates to Xenophon than to Plato we may thus be reluctant to agree with Sedley that the 'originality and significance [of the material] make it a natural assumption that its authorship really does in essence belong to Socrates' (p. 82). (One may note in this connection that the early Stoic source assumed by Sedley for Sextus Empiricus, M. 9.92 is careful to describe the passage as 'attributed to Socrates by Xenophon'.)
Alternatively we may doubt whether it was really that original and significant. The purity of Diogenes' teleology may have been exaggerated by Walter Theiler and others, but Sedley himself has done much to bring out the teleological features in Anaxagoras and Empedocles in the preceding chapters; and other extant texts from the mid-fifth century expressing related ideas are mentioned in Sedley's footnotes (esp. p. 80 n. 12; cf. p. 54 n. 73), but never taken up for serious discussion. In a different context Sedley also mentions the fact that Socrates in Plato's Philebus (28d) attributes the view that 'the universe and this whole word order ... are ... governed by reason and by the order of a wonderful intelligence' (trans. D. Frede) to his predecessors as 'a useful antidote' to the 'widespread perception that the Presocratics ... did not think teleologically' (p. 1 and n. 2). Moreover, it should be kept in mind that what Xenophon is trying to show in these chapters is that Socrates was not only a critic of other people's vices, but himself a model of virtue, especially of piety and temperance. It seems to me that it would have been counterproductive for him to depict his hero as a spiritual revolutionary. At any rate, Sedley's claim that the 'link of intelligence to goodness ... had to await the arrival of Socrates for its full articulation' (p. 90) is gainsaid not only by Diogenes of Apollonia B3 and Heraclitus B102 but also by Aristotle, Metaph. 1.3, 984b8-22, who clearly thinks that Anaxagoras (and perhaps even Hermotimus before him) introduced his nous in order to explain why things are well-ordered.
As Plato reports in the Phaedo (97b-99c), Socrates in his youth was kindled with enthusiasm for Anaxagoras' project, but soon became disappointed with the results. He had expected to learn not only that the world was created and governed by intelligence--this he took for granted--but how this actually worked. At 99d he claims to have given up on natural philosophy, but Sedley sees in the Phaedo's final myth a prefiguration of the 'likely story' of the Timaeus. Instead of taking the claim at 99d (and the denial of knowledge at 99c) as a case of Socratic irony, Sedley prefers to think that Socrates 'does not fully see the theological subtext of the myth', which means, I suppose, that he takes it as a case of Platonic irony. In his old age, Sedley suggests, Socrates had encountered anti-teleology in the form of atomism, and so felt compelled to argue positively for teleology: this is the phase reflected in Xenophon's Memorabilia. One may object here that the arguments adduced by Sedley (pp. 134-35) against a Socratic influence on Democritus seem to work at least as well in the other direction. Indeed, Democritus' famous remark that nobody knew him in Athens (B116) seems more relevant as evidence of Socrates' ignorance of Democritus than of the converse.
While Xenophon drew the inference that Socrates had advocated the complete eschewal of natural philosophy, Plato set out to fulfil his teacher's youthful expectations. The Timaeus tells the 'likely story' of the making of a likeness (a likeness, namely, of the realm of Forms). It is, of course, the paradigm case of cosmic external teleology (or, as Sedley puts it, 'the ultimate creationist manifesto', p. 133). But ever since the first generation after Plato exegetes have been divided over the question just how literally this 'likely story' was intended. To start from the beginning, is Timaeus' assertion (28b) that the world has come into being to be taken at face value, or is it a pedagogical device designed to express the fact that the world is eternally dependent on a divine cause? Sedley argues carefully for a literal interpretation, pointing especially to the reference to the 'ancient coming-to-be' of the world in Timaeus' final prayer in Critias 106a (pp. 98-107). At the same time, he fails to see any compelling philosophical reasons for Plato to insist on a 'genetic' account of the world's causation rather than the 'static' reinterpretation that most later Platonists favoured. The fact that Plato did so, he concludes, is rather due to 'the seductive explanatory power of his craft analogy' (pp. 106-7).
In order to elucidate the craft analogy, Sedley refers to a passage in the Gorgias (500e-504a) in which three 'hallmarks' of craft are formulated. These are (1) that the craftsman 'looks to an ideal model'; (2) that he knows the causes that will bring about the desired product; and (3) that he aims for the best possible result. The craft of the demiurge is analysed in terms of these three hallmarks on pp. 107-27. Notably, this analysis features a brave attempt to explain the apparent imperfections of the world without recourse to the inherent recalcitrance of matter. According to Sedley, the demiurge is--and must, for Plato, be--in absolute command of his material (p. 116). Since the demiurge is also superlatively good, the resulting theodicy is to be solved, if I understand Sedley correctly, by elevating the apparent imperfections to necessary conditions for perfection: justice presupposes the punishment of evil souls, and without justice the world would be an immeasurably less than perfect place. Thus the existence of evil souls is something good. Regardless of the intrinsic merits or demerits of this exegesis, I was a bit surprised to see that Sedley on p. 210 invokes the support of the Stoics for it, since it is clear that their appropriation of the Timaean material involves, as Sedley says, the stripping away of '[v]arious non-Socratic features' (p. 209), inter alia the transcendent Demiurge and the whole realm of Forms. Consequently, even if the Stoic notion of prime matter owed much to Plato's discussion of 'auxiliary causes' (46c-e), it can hardly be excluded that Zeno and his followers simply chose to stop short of importing any absolute necessity resistant to reason into their system.
Partly as a result of the recent interest in the Late Antique commentators, many scholars today tend to emphasize the common ground between Plato and Aristotle rather than the points of conflict. Sedley is no exception. Obviously, Aristotle is no 'creationist' even according to Sedley: faced with the alternative of conceiving the world to be either both intelligently created and intelligently administered or neither, he opts for the latter, like the atomists. But he is nonetheless 'the greatest teleological thinker of antiquity, probably of all time' (p. 167); and his most brilliant move was to separate the notion of purposiveness from the notion of a purposing mind, thus giving rise to what is sometimes called (though not by Sedley) 'internal teleology'. What drove him to this move, according to Sedley, was a theological consideration: God's activity is superlatively good; thus it must be pure contemplation; thus it precludes any active involvement in the world. So God must be delivered from the duties of creating and administering the world, with which he was charged in the Timaeus. Nevertheless, some of the 'explanatory power' of the craft analogy was saved, as Sedley points out, through Aristotle's insistence on the similarity of the causal processes of nature to those of craft. And, of course, even if nature takes over the function of efficient cause, God is still for Aristotle the ultimate final cause. The internal teleology of Aristotle's natural world is 'ultimately to be understood as a shared striving towards godlike actuality' (p. 171).
This invites the question whether even for Aristotle the world as a whole has a purpose, and '[l]ower species exist for the sake of higher ones' (p. 201), as seems to be suggested by a vexed passage in Politics 1.8. If so, how could he avoid the absurd conclusion that Carneades later drew from Stoic premises, that it is in the interest of the pig to be slaughtered and eaten by human beings? The Stoics, Sedley suggests, would have been hard pressed to find an answer, since they granted that Porky's mission in life was to end up as ham and sausages (rather than to enter into a relationship of mutual advantage with some human beings). But Aristotle would be able to point out that there is no inconsistency in assuming the existence of final causes both on a special (or 'local') and on an absolutely general (or 'global') level (pp. 198-203; 236-38).
In Physics 2.4-9 (which forms the focal text of Sedley's whole discussion of Aristotle), Aristotle tries to undo the attempts of atomists and other materialists to explain natural phenomena solely in terms of necessity and chance. This he does partly by following Plato's lead in treating simple material necessity as subsumed by conditional necessity. He does not, however, deny, as Sedley claims that Plato does, that simple material necessity can be a source of imperfection: for, whereas in Plato's case this would have implied that the demiurge is weak, in Aristotle's case it simply amounts to the concession that nature makes mistakes (cf. Phys. 2.8, 199a33-b4).V. The Atomists
VII. The Stoics
Epilogue: A Galenic Perspective
This review is already much too long, and I shall only repeat, with regard to Sedley's treatment of the Hellenistic schools (pre-Hellenistic atomism is dealt with in the first section of chapter V), that it emphasizes the influence of the Timaeus as well as that of Socrates, as portrayed by Plato and especially Xenophon. The epilogue on Galen is added in order to provide a Late Antique commentary on the debate of the preceding centuries, but it is a mere five pages long and does not leave me with a very clear idea of what the 'Galenic perspective' was. Galen was, of course, an arch-teleologist; yet, as Sedley shows, he somewhat unexpectedly comes down on the side of Xenophon's Socrates, condemning as useless abstract natural-philosophical speculation on such questions as 'whether...some god acted as [the world's] craftsman, or no god did, but some irrational and unskilled cause by luck made it as beautiful as if a supremely wise and capable god had supervised its construction' (Plac. Hipp. et Plat. 126.96.36.199-12, quoted p. 242).
Creationism and Its Critics in Antiquity organizes a double debate. It reconstructs a past debate (or series of debates, if what I've said above holds water) with as much openness, fairness and honesty as ingenuity and boldness; in so doing it irresistibly provokes an ongoing debate with the reader. For the seasoned and critically minded (but not necessarily specialist) reader, this is likely to be a most enlightening and entertaining experience. For the green and gullible, I think some guidance is probably required.
There is a Bibliography, an Index Locorum, and a (rudimentary) General Index. The book is excellently produced. I found no misprints, not even in the Greek.
2. The first occurrence of the anti-Darwinist sense of 'creationism' recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from 1880. Before Darwin, the word was employed to render German 'Creatianismus' (sic), i.e. the belief in God's creation in time of every individual soul, as opposed primarily to the minority Christian view known as 'traducianism' (according to which all souls except Adam's have been transmitted to the individuals from their parents). This was by far the most common use of the term throughout the nineteenth century. Thus, when Franz Brentano in 1882 published a paper entitled 'Über den Creatianismus des Aristoteles', what he wished to discuss was the Stagirite's view on the origin of the human soul.
3. W. D. Ross, Aristotle's Physics (Oxford 1936), 356.