Hegel’s History of Philosophy: Greek Philosophy

Chapter 1
Period I. — Division I. — Thales To Anaxagoras

SINCE we possess only traditions and fragments of this epoch, we may speak here of the sources of these.

1. The first source is found in Plato, who makes copious reference to the older philosophers. For the reason that he makes the earlier and apparently independent philosophies, which are not so far apart when once their Notion is definitely grasped, into concrete moments of one Idea, Plato’s philosophy often seems to be merely a clearer statement of the doctrines of the older philosophers, and hence it draws upon itself the reproach of plagiarism. Plato was willing to spend much money in procuring the writings of the older philosophers, and, from his profound study of these, his conclusions have much weight. But because in his writings he never himself appeared as teacher, but always represented other people in his dialogues as the philosophers, a distinction never has been made between what really belonged to them in history and what was added by him through the further development which he effected in their thoughts. In the Parmenides, for instance, we have the Eleatic philosophy, and yet the working out of this doctrine belongs peculiarly to Plato.

2. Aristotle is our most abundant authority; he studied the older philosophers expressly and most thoroughly, and he has, in the beginning of his Metaphysics especially, and also to a large extent elsewhere, dealt with them in historical order: he is as philosophic as erudite, and we may rely upon him. We can do no better in Greek philosophy than study the first book of his Metaphysics. When the would-be-wise man depreciates Aristotle, and asserts that he has not correctly apprehended Plato, it may be retorted that as he associated with Plato himself, with his deep and comprehensive mind, perhaps no one knew him better.

3. Cicero’s name may also occur to us here — although he certainly is but a troubled spring — since he undoubtedly gives us much information; yet because he was lacking in philosophic spirit, he understood Philosophy rather as if it were a matter of history merely. He does not seem to have himself studied its first sources, and even avows that, for instance, he never understood Heraclitus; and because this old and deep philosophy did not interest him, he did not give himself the trouble to study it. His information bears principally on later philosophers — the Stoics, Epicureans, the new Academy, and the Peripatetics. He saw what was ancient through their medium, and, generally speaking, through a medium of reasoning and not of speculation.

4. Sextus Empiricus, a later sceptic, has importance through his writings, Hypotyposes Pyrrhonicae and adversus Mathematicos. Because, as a sceptic, he both combated the dogmatic philosophy and also adduced other philosophers as testifying to scepticism (so that the greater part of his writings is filled with the tenets of other philosophers), he is the most abundant source we have for the history of ancient philosophy, and he has retained for our use many valuable fragments.

5. The book of Diogenes Laėrtius (De vilis, &c., Philoss. lib. x., ed. Meibom. e. notis Menagii, Amstel. 1692) is an important compilation, and yet it brings forward copious evidence without much discrimination. A philosophic spirit cannot be ascribed to it ; it rambles about amongst bad anecdotes extraneous to the matter in hand. For the lives of Philosophers, and here and there for their tenets, it is useful.

6. Finally, we must speak of Simplicius, a later Greek, from Cilicia, living under Justinian, in the middle of the sixth century. He is the most learned and acute of the Greek commentators of Aristotle, and of his writings there is much still unpublished: to him we certainly owe our thanks.

I need give no more references, for they may be found without trouble in any compendium. In the progress of Greek philosophy men were formerly accustomed to follow the order that showed, according to ordinary ideas, an external connection, and which is found in one philosopher having had another as his teacher — this connection is one which might show him to be partly derived from Thales and partly from Pythagoras. But such a connection is in part defective in itself, and in part it is merely external. The one set of philosophic sects, or of philosophers classed together, which is considered as belonging to a system — that which proceeds from Thales — pursues its course in time and mind far separate from the other. But, in truth, no such series ever does exist in this isolation, nor would it do so even though the individuals were consecutive and had been externally connected as teacher and taught, which never is the case; mind follows quite another order. These successive series are interwoven in spirit just as much as in their particular content.

We come across Thales first amongst the Ionic people, to whom the Athenians belonged, or from whom the Ionians of Asia Minor, as a whole, derived their origin. The Ionic race appears earlier in Peloponnesus, but seems to have been removed from thence. It is, however, not known what nations belonged to, it, for, according to Herodotus (1. 143), the other Ionians, and even the Athenians, laid aside the name. According to Thucydides (1. 2 and 12), the Ionic colonies in Asia Minor and the islands proceeded principally from Athens, because the Athenians, on account of the over-population of Attica, migrated there. We find the greatest activity in Greek life on the coasts of Asia Minor, in the Greek islands, and then towards the west of Magna Graecia; we see amongst these people, through their internal political activity and their intercourse with foreigners, the existence of a diversity and variety in their relations, whereby narrowness of vision is done away with, and the universal rises in its place. These two places, Ionia and Greater Greece, are thus the two localities where this first period in the history of Philosophy plays its part until the time when, that period being ended, Philosophy plants itself in Greece proper, and there makes its home. Those spots were also the seat of early commerce and of an early culture, while Greece itself, so far as these are concerned, followed later.

We must thus remark that the character of the two sides into which these philosophies divide, the philosophy of Asia Minor in the east and that of Grecian Italy in the west, partakes of the character of the geographical distinction. On the Asia Minor side, and also in the islands, we find Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Heraclitus, Leucippus, Democritus, Anaxagoras, and Diogenes from Crete. On the other side are the inhabitants of Italy: Pythagoras from Samos, who lived in Italy, however; Xenophanes, Parmenides, Zeno, Empedocles; and several of the Sophists also lived in Italy. Anaxagoras was the first to come to Athens, and thus his science takes a middle place between both extremes, and Athens was made its centre. The geographical distinction makes its appearance in the manifestation of Thought, in the fact that, with the Orientals a sensuous, material side is dominant, and in the west, Thought, on the contrary, prevails, because it is constituted into the principle in the form of thought. Those philosophers who turned to the east knew the absolute in a real determination of nature, while towards Italy there is the ideal determination of the absolute. These explanations will be sufficient for us here; but Empedocles, whom we find in Sicily, is somewhat of a natural philosopher, while Gorgias, the Sicilian sophist, remains faithful to the ideal side.

We now have to consider further: — 1, The Ionians, viz. Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes; 2, Pythagoras and his followers; 3, the Eleatics, viz. Xenophanes, Parmenides, &c.; 4, Heraclitus; 5, Empedocles, Leucippus and Democritus; 6, Anaxagoras. We have to trace and point out the progression of this philosophy also. The first and altogether abstract determinations are found with Thales and the other Ionians; they grasped the universal in the form of a natural determination, as water and air. Progression must thus take place by leaving behind the merely natural determination; and we find that this is so with the Pythagoreans. They say that number is the substance or the essence of things, number is not sensuous, nor is it pure thought, but it is a non-sensuous object of sense. It was with the Eleatics that pure thought appeared, and that its forcible liberation from the sensuous form and the form of number came to pass; and thus from them proceeds the dialectic movement of thought, which negates the definite particular in order to show that it is not the many but only the one that is true. Heraclitus declares the Absolute to be this very process, which, according to the Eleatics, was still subjective ; he arrived at objective consciousness, since in it the Absolute is that which moves or changes. Empedocles, Leucippus, and Democritus, on the contrary, rather go to the opposite extreme, to the simple, material, stationary principle, to the substratum Which underlies the process; and thus this last, as being movement, is distinguished from it. With Anaxagoras it is the moving, self-determining thought itself that is then known as existence, and this is a great step forward.


Translated by E.S. Haldane and Frances H. Simson, published by K. Paul Trench, Trübner in 1894.

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