Monday, May 21, 2018


Aryeh Finkelberg, Heraclitus and Thales' Conceptual Scheme: A Historical Study. Jerusalem studies in religion and culture, 23. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2017. Pp. x, 415. ISBN 9789004337992. $145.00.

Reviewed by Tom Hercules Davies, Princeton University (

Version at BMCR home site


In this book, Aryeh Finkelberg presents a novel interpretation of Greek intellectual history over the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. Chapters 1-10 are a close study of the thought of Heraclitus. Chapters 10-14 argue that the ideas ascribed to Heraclitus should be used to interpret Thales and other early Greek thinkers. The main argument, then, is that Thales is the originator of, and Heraclitus our best evidence for, an Archaic Greek soteriological religion founded on the view that the world is cyclically produced from and reabsorbed into a cosmic God. Finkelberg calls this the "Thaletan mysteriosophic cosmo-theology," and argues that it undergirds the entire tradition known as "Presocratic philosophy"; all major figures of that tradition drew from Thales' well. The title therefore undersells the book: while the bulk concerns Heraclitus and Thales, Finkelberg also presents in considerable detail his original views on Anaximander, Anaximenes, Xenophanes, Parmenides, and Orphic thought. Two methodological discussions surround this revisionary history. The book is more than a study of Heraclitus; it is the summation of a career devoted to the study of early Greek thought, and as such rich, learned, often idiosyncratic but always stimulating.

Chapter 1 treats Heraclitus' biography and treatise: Finkelberg demonstrates that the book was widely available and read up to the first century A.D., and survived, with fewer but equally keen readers, into the twelfth. Chapters 2-3 argue that Heraclitus taught a cosmic cycle. First, fire generates the sea. The sea then divides itself entirely into earth and bright exhalation. The bright exhalation fills the superlunary region, where, ignited by a remnant of the primordial fire, it burns in the bowls of the heavenly bodies. As it burns, it "loosens" the earth, and the sea reemerges as a secretion. The earth continually melts into sea, and the sea evaporates into the bright exhalation, which, as it burns, reverts to the originary fire. Eventually, all the differentiated world will be fire once more, and the cycle will begin anew.

Chapters 4-5 hold that Heraclitus identified his bright exhalation with the soul of the world. The cosmic cycle of elemental transformation from earth into water into the bright exhalation, then, is an ascent from body to soul, and accordingly the stars are "intelligent beings indwelling the heavenly bowls whence they descend to become human souls." (86). Humans are theatres for a proxy war between the bright exhalation and earth: the soul and body of the world battle as the soul and body of a human being. Heraclitus' horror of psychic liquefaction (B36, B117, B118) is rooted in his conviction that the soul may physically revert to its watery state; humans must, through ascetic practice, keep their soul dry and light enough to ascend after death to the superlunary realm, where they may live as astral δαίμονες until the great conflagration. Those whose post-mortem purity is less than stellar must undergo remedial dehydration on the Moon, while some impish souls, bored of astral existence and craving the pleasures of the flesh, descend to slum it in a mortal frame once more. Chapter 6 locates these teachings in the wider cultural framework of salvation cult in Archaic Greece.

In Chapter 7, Finkelberg reinterprets the famous doctrine of flux attributed to Heraclitus: rather than the general relativism reported by Plato, it refers to the changes undergone by the cosmic God, of whom all created things are mere transient states. Chapter 8 surveys Heraclitus' epistemology, and his theory that human beings inhale their minds from the rational body surrounding the cosmos. Chapter 9 treats Heraclitus' notion of λόγος, which Finkelberg claims "stands for both the agent of the management of all things and the knowledge of how all things are managed" (189). Whereas the senses provide only qualified knowledge (sea water is good for fish, bad for humans), the λόγος has and is knowledge that is universally valid. Chapter 10 connects Heraclitus' moral teachings to his epistemology. To conquer bodily pleasure and ensure our soul a spot among the stars, we must strive for the self-knowledge and self-restraint attendant upon a grasp of the λόγος.

Scholars of early Greek philosophy will read the above with skepticism. A world-soul, an intelligent περιέχον, astral existence after death, the unity of the human intellect with God—these are precisely the ascriptions for which our secondary sources are typically charged with anachronism; theories accidentally imported or smuggled in by doxographers, but properly belonging to later developments in Greek philosophy. And Finkelberg's reconstruction of Heraclitus is through-and-through dependent on the reports of our secondary sources; these reports strongly condition his interpretation of the fragments. But Finkelberg anticipates objections along these lines. His methodological Introduction defends our secondary sources against the view that interpretations of early Greek thought must work from the ipsissima verba, and that testimonial evidence is to be evaluated against the fragments. Finkelberg rightly argues that fragments are incomplete evidence: inherently ambiguous, the context of their quotation in our sources should condition our interpretations. The scholar's duty is to accommodate all evidence, including testimony. This discussion is worth a review of its own: it is salutary to see a direct treatment of methodology in a work on the Presocratics, especially one enriched by extensive engagement with literature on historiographical theory and practice. I will unhappily limit myself to a few critical remarks.

Finkelberg succeeds in his argument against blanket rejection of the testimonial tradition. But he has a more ambitious goal: to show that skepticism regarding our sources is, per se, an error in historical method. He argues, for instance, that to reject evidence on suspicion of untrustworthiness is to fall into the "fallacy of the possible proof, viz. deducing the falsity of a piece of evidence from the possibility of its being such" (5). Not so. The skeptical interpreter need not deduce the positive falsehood of evidence in order to discount it. The serious possibility of falsehood may be held sufficient grounds for rejection. Some readers of Finkelberg's book will reject its conclusions not because they are positively false, but because there is no overwhelming probability that they are true. Finkelberg may disapprove of this interpretive stance, but that does not make it fallacious.

Finkelberg also claims that distrust of secondary evidence is elicited by "the scholar's presuppositions about what can or cannot be true of, say, Thales." As Finkelberg lays it out, this would be question-begging: testimony is pronounced inaccurate because it contradicts a scholar's prior hunch about a figure, but the scholar is obligated to reconstruct the figure from a corpus of evidence including precisely this testimony (5). This is true so far as it goes, but suspicion about evidence is not always motivated by external presuppositions. It can be grounded in concerns internal to the analysis of that evidence: Did our source have access to a reliable text? Does he habitually read primary texts, or crib from handbooks? Is he a careful and judicious reader of texts that remain extant? Does he quote from texts or memory? Such considerations can motivate distrust without reference to presuppositions about the figure our source reports, so are not question-begging at all. So Finkelberg fails to convincingly rule out skeptical objections on purely methodological grounds, and fails to show that as a matter of principle we should place our trust in the testimony of secondary sources. Each reader will have to assess Finkelberg's use of secondary sources the old-fashioned way: case by case, and by their own evidentiary standards.

Finkelberg's positive proposal for interpreting secondary evidence centres on a method of "iterative reflection": the scholar must look for "agreements, complementarities, and convergences" between independent reports, gradually integrating the available evidence into a meaningful whole. "The argument is cumulative, progressively persuasive and explanatory, for the emerging whole is explicatory of the parts" (7-8). It seems right that a strong interpretation will, as it develops, furnish new insights into previously intractable evidence. But there is also a serious danger in this cumulative approach: in deciding the significance of an ambiguous fragment or report, Finkelberg sometimes opts for a reading because it is compatible with his theory as so far developed, while the equally possible alternative would contradict it. The reader who seeks independent confirmation of the preferred reading will not always find it in Finkelberg's argument. So the "emerging whole" does more heavy lifting than its parts, and the cumulative structure is unstable: if the reader is unpersuaded at any stage of the argument, much that follows will be rendered unpersuasive, and I expect that many readers will sooner or later encounter an interpretive gulf they cannot follow Finkelberg across.

Those still persuaded at the end of Part 1 will face a perilous leap indeed. Part 2 is built on Finkelberg's conviction that, absent sufficient primary evidence for Milesian philosophy, Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes must be assimilated to the "context of contemporaneous discourse"—namely, to the foregoing interpretation of Heraclitus. This principle, Finkelberg insists, is not "merely permissive" but obligatory: "whenever the evidence on the Milesians admits of an interpretation to the same effect as the evidence on Heraclitus . . . it must be interpreted to that effect" (247 n. 35). Accordingly Finkelberg ascribes the central ideas of Part 1 to Thales: he too must have taught the "notion of the divine as a pantheistic and creator deity, of the world as created and controlled by the divine soul/mind, of the soul as a portion of the divine soul, and of human life as an initiatory experience" (310-11).

I find this interpretive principle difficult to accept. Imagine we had lost the works of Plato and Xenophon, and so our best evidence for the thought of Socrates. Could we fill the gaps by assimilating all three figures to Aristotle? After all, Aristotle lived in Athens a generation after Socrates, and worked as Plato's student and colleague for two decades: the link is in fact far stronger than that between Heraclitus and Thales (whom Heraclitus never mentions). But reconstructions on these lines would be misleading and anachronistic. I see no reason to believe that reading Milesian philosophy to align it with Heraclitus should do any better, and no reason to accept that I am obligated to read in this way. If Heraclitus is truly our best evidence for Milesian philosophy, so much the worse for students of the Milesians. The treatments of the Milesians in Chapter 12, and of Xenophanes and Parmenides in Chapter 13, are predicated on Finkelberg's principle of generalization, and stand or fall according to whether the reader is prepared to entertain the principle.

Despite these concerns, Finkelberg's book is essential reading for scholars of Presocratic philosophy, particularly for the careful and learned treatment of philological problems, and the detailed analysis of virtually every fragment of Heraclitus. I do not say this as a polite concession—everybody working on Heraclitus must now make a habit of consulting Finkelberg's well-prepared indices. Every few pages, the reader is treated to a close examination of some issue or piece of evidence. These passages are scattered like jewels throughout the main argument: even those who break faith early will find much to admire in later chapters. Highlights include the phraseological comparison of ps.-Linus with the surviving fragments (51-7), Finkelberg's persuasive argument that the analogy between σῶμα and σῆμα originates not in Orphic thought but with Heraclitus (98-100), a brilliant piece of sleuthing involving an anecdote from Ioannes Siceliota (166-7), and the stimulating appendix to Chapter 9, which argues that the coincidentia oppositorum idea so often associated with Heraclitus is a Hegelian mirage (212-15). The appendix on Marcus Aurelius' habits of quotation alone constitutes a major contribution to Heraclitean studies. One of the most useful features of the book is Finkelberg's fine ear for echoes, paraphrases, and allusions to Heraclitus (and other thinkers) in later authors, often resulting in new insights into the meaning and arrangement of our fragments (e.g. 76-9, on B76a/b and B60). Some identified allusions carry more conviction than others, but that is to be expected; Finkelberg's sensitivity to and diligent enumeration of many possible parallels is a major service to future scholarship on Heraclitus.


Typographical mistakes are not such as to impede understanding, with the possible exception of some mistyped names: Andaximander for Anaximander (136 n. 37); herakitischen for heraklitischen (157 n. 32); Sexus for Sextus (175); Shleiermacher for Schleiermacher (212); Heraclius for Heraclitus (245); Chrisippus for Chrysippus (297).

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