Friday, April 21, 2017


John Sallis, The Figure of Nature: On Greek Origins. Studies in Continental thought. Bloomington; Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2016. Pp. ix, 254. ISBN 9780253023124. $85.00.

Reviewed by Samuel Ortencio Flores, College of Charleston (

Version at BMCR home site


In this contribution to the Studies in Continental Thought series, John Sallis endeavors to recover the meaning of the term φύσις in ancient philosophical thought as a concept separate from its typical translation as natura in Latin and 'nature' in English.1 He thus leaves φύσις untranslated for much of his discussion, although he begins to use the term "nature" nearly synonymously with it in his last two chapters. To accomplish his task, Sallis undertakes a reinterpretation of the fragments of Anaximenes, Heraclitus, and Empedocles, as well as close readings of Plato's Theaetetus and Phaedo. The chapter on Theaetetus also includes a digression on the fragments of Parmenides.

Chapter 1 ('The Reign of Artemis') examines the prevalence of the goddess Artemis through the archaic and classical Greek world. Sallis focuses on Artemis' relationship with the world outside the Greek polis and the cultivated fields that surround it. He suggests that the goddess has a dual force as huntress and protector: she demands the sacrifice of Iphigenia but also offers her escape; she is a lion among women, but also a comforter to those in childbirth. Sallis claims that Artemis' dual nature reflects the ambivalent force of φύσις, which both threatens and nurtures, imposes deprivation and grants abundance. He links the prevalence of Artemis with the multitude of early philosophers who wrote texts entitled Περὶ Φύσεως (the three pre-Socratic writers Sallis discusses at length each fall into this category). Sallis provides a general outline of the similarities between depictions of Artemis and φύσις, but he relies too heavily on the evidence of Homer and Euripides. His argument would benefit from a more systematic study of Artemis within the context of Greek religion and thought more generally.2

Chapter 2 ('Open Air: On Philosophy before Philosophy') focuses on Anaximenes' fragments on ἀήρ as an ἀρχή. The chapter opens with a discussion of the subject-matter of philosophy before it was called "philosophy" Sallis notes that the first to be called "philosophers" had an orientation towards the study of φύσις, but he attempts to read the earliest philosophers (particularly the Milesian school of Thales, Anaximenes, and Anaximander) outside the context of Aristotle's materialist narrative of them in Metaphysics 1. He suggests that ἀρχή is not a material principle for the earliest philosophers, but that Aristotle retrojects his own materialist understanding onto the earlier immaterial concept. Sallis emphasizes that ἀρχή can mean both "beginning" and "sovereignty," and he suggests that the Milesians understood this double meaning whenever they used the term. As an immaterial ἀρχή, the ἀήρ of Anaximenes is conceptually different from the 'element' (στοιχεῖον or elementum) air: it is the space and context in which all things appear.

Chapter 3 ("Enshrouded Nature and the Fire of Heaven") examines the four fragments of Heraclitus that use the term φύσις (B1, B112, B123, and the disputed B106). Sallis offers a new reading of fragment B112: "Sound thinking is the greatest virtue and wisdom: it is to speak and act the truth, apprehending things according to φύσις" (30). Sallis' reading suggests that fragment B112 complements B1 ("I distinguish each thing according to φύσις and declare how it is," 29) and the two fragments together define φύσις as that which provides the space for illumination. Sallis then uses fragments B123 and B106 to demonstrate that φύσις is analogous to day (ἡμέρα) (or more generally "light") and to define φύσις as "that from and through which things are brought to light as they are" (33). By this account, fire (πῦρ), especially the "fire of heaven" (the sun and thunderbolt), holds a preeminent place in Heraclitus' thought because it brings other things to light (i.e. it is through fire that other things appear).

Chapter 4 ("Radical Gatherings: The Imperative of Philosophy") uses a section of Empedocles᾽ fragment B3, an exhortation to "consider by all means how each thing is manifest" (43), as a basis for understanding φύσις in Empedocles' thought. Sallis reads Empedocles' fourfold ἀρχαί of earth, sea, air, and aither as that through which everything becomes manifest. These four "roots" (ῥιζώματα), as Empedocles calls them, are not things in themselves, but through them all things become manifest, and the roots are not separate from the things which they make manifest. Sallis concludes by defining φύσις in Empedocles as the processes of Love and Strife, the two forces that bring together and separate the roots.

The final two chapters, which consider the concept of φύσις in Plato, take up the majority of Sallis' study. Chapter 5 ("Monstrous Wonder: The Advance of Nature"), divided into five sections, is a close reading of the Theaetetus. Sallis briefly prefaces the chapter by defining the "monstrous" as that which exceeds nature (ὑπερ-φυῶς) while at the same time belonging to nature.3 The first section ("Openings, Chronology, Topology") examines the complex dramatic frame of the dialogue, which connects the Theaetetus not only with the subsequent conversations of the Sophist and Statesman, but also with the dialogues set in 399 that lead up to and end at Socrates' death (Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo). The second section ("Appearings") examines the initial appearances of characters in the dialogue. Theaetetus looks like Socrates, that is, he is a double of the philosopher in appearance; the young Socrates is a double of the philosopher in name; and Socrates himself, as midwife of knowledge, is an imitator of Artemis. In the final three sections ("Ventriloquy, the Protagorean Λόγος, and the Scene of Φύσις," "The Scene of Philosophy," and "Parerga"), Sallis illustrates how Theaetetus imitates the philosopher in deed, beginning with his "monstrous" wonder (ὑπερφυῶς ὡς θαυμάζω, 155c), which acts as the beginning of philosophic investigation, and further developing through the course of his conversation with Socrates, in which the two try to define knowledge, and by which Theaetetus enacts a philosophic ascent in an attempt to exceed nature and become like god. Although Theaetetus and Socrates ultimately fail to define knowledge, Sallis suggests that they make advances in this ascent before being "drawn back toward the mundane, which ultimately means toward φύσις, toward the earthly—and toward the limit of all limits, death" (157).

In Chapter 6 ("Earthbound: The Return of Nature"), divided into seven sections, Sallis gives a close reading of Plato's Phaedo. The first section ("Theseus") begins with an examination of the dramatic frame of the dialogue and how it distances the speakers Phaedo and Echecrates from Phaedo's narration in both time and space, before giving an in- depth analysis of the role of the Theseus myth that pervades the dialogue. The second section ("Down to Earth") highlights the prevalent role of Pythagoreanism in Socrates' depiction of the body as a prison for the soul in order to preface the next three sections ("Mythologizing," "Remembrance," "Ascent"), which closely examine Socrates' first three arguments for the immortality of the soul. The sixth section ("Second Sailing"), which considers Socrates' intellectual autobiography (99c-d) as the "philosophical center of the Phaedo" (227), Sallis suggests that Socrates' inquiry into φύσις allows him to understand his own φύσις and, further, that his retreat into λόγοι is in fact a return to the study of φύσις as it is manifest through λόγοι. The closing section ("Song of the Earth") focuses on Socrates' closing myth of the soul and its abrupt turn towards discussing the earth.

Sallis' book provides an innovative look at the development of natural philosophy and its reception in Plato outside the typical context of Aristotelian metaphysics and "first philosophy." His reframing of φύσις as not just an abstract entity but a place or context within which understanding is possible provides an important contribution to the study of natural philosophy and further illuminates the connections between Plato's philosophic project and that of his predecessors. Each chapter can be read in its own right as a careful and thoughtful study of an ancient thinker on nature.

All this being said, it is difficult to ascertain his intended audience. His discursive writing style guides the reader along the flow of his logical method, but it may prove difficult for a novice to pre-Socratic and Platonic philosophy. His brief introductions to each chapter do not always provide an indication of what is to come, nor do his conclusions always signify clearly the overarching themes of the chapter.

The book also neglects to situate itself within current scholarly contexts. The prologue introduces the book's initial problem, but there is no final conclusion to suggest any resolution. Most of the scholarship referenced in his footnotes predates the last two decades, and there is no final bibliography or list of works cited. These factors limit the text's utility as a resource for those who desire to study further the many scholarly issues at play. For example, Sallis dismisses Plato's Forms as mere "theory" (218), and in fact never uses the term "Form:" he translates εἶδος and ἰδέα throughout as "look" because of their etymological connection with "seeing." However, he only gestures at the debate on this issue without offering further discussion or bibliography.4 Therefore, a reader hoping to benefit from Sallis' many provocative interpretations and insights would be well-advised to review the major scholarly debates surrounding the pre-Socratic fragments and Plato's Theaetetus and Phaedo in advance.5


1.   This book may serve as a complement to Sallis' The Return of Nature (Bloomington: Indiana University Press 2016), a study of the concept of "nature" in Emerson, Hegel, and Schelling, published in the same year in the same series; but he makes no mention of the latter book in his discussion.
2.   For example, Stephanie Lynn Budin, Artemis (Abingdon / New York: Routledge 2015).
3.   This chapter seems to be a further development of Sallis' article "The Flow of Φύσις and the Beginning of Philosophy: on Plato's Theaetetus," Proceedings of the Boston Area Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy 20 (2004), 177-93.
4.   For example, R.M. Dancy, Plato's Introduction of Forms (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004) (BMCR 2006.08.29).
5.   For example, Gerard Naddaf, The Greek Concept of Nature (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2005) (BMCR 2005.09.49); David Sedley, Creationism and its Critics in Antiquity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007) (BMCR 2009.05.16).

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