The Book of Dead Philosophers
By SIMON CRITCHLEY
Pre-Socratics, Physiologists, Sages and Sophists
Philosophical thought emerged in the Greek-speaking world two and a half millennia ago. First we encounter the various sages and so-called "physiologists," like Thales and Anaxagoras, who attempted to explain the origins of the universe and the causes of nature. We will then turn to the sometimes shadowy figures, like Pythagoras, Heracleitus and Empedocles, who define the world of thought prior to the birth of Socrates and the struggle between philosophy and sophistry in Athens during the Classical period of the fifth and fourth centuries BC.
Of course, one might with some justice claim that the Sphinx was the first philosopher and Oedipus the second. This would also have the merit of making philosophy begin with a woman and continuing with an incestuous parricide. The Sphinx asks her visitors a question, which is also a riddle, and perhaps even a joke: what goes on four legs in the morning, on two legs at noon, and on three legs in the evening? If they get the answer wrong, she kills them. Furthermore, when Oedipus guesses the right answer to the riddle — man crawls on all fours as a baby, walks on two legs as an adult and with a cane in old age — the Sphinx commits philosophical suicide by throwing herself to the ground from her high rock.
(Flourished in the sixth century BC)
Thales came from the once mighty
Thales was the possible originator of the saying "know thyself," who famously predicted the solar eclipse of May 585 BC. He believed that water was the universal substance and once fell into a ditch when he was taken outdoors by a Thracian girl to look at the stars. On hearing his cry, she said, "How can you expect to know about all the heavens, Thales, when you cannot even see what is just beneath your feet?" Some feel — perhaps rightly — that this is a charge that philosophy never entirely escaped in the following two and a half millennia.
Thales died at an advanced age of heat, thirst and weakness while watching an athletic contest. This inspired Diogenes Laertius to the following execrable verse:
As Thales watched the games one festal day
The fierce sun smote him and he passed away.
Solon was a famed Athenian legislator who repealed the bloody laws of Dracon (although it was Dracon whose name was turned into an adjective). Plutarch remarks that Solon suggested that brides should nibble a quince before getting into bed. The reason for this is unclear. When Solon was asked why he had not framed a law against parricide, he replied that he hoped it was unnecessary. He died in
(Flourished in the sixth century BC)
A Spartan to whom the saying "know thyself" is also sometimes attributed. He died after congratulating his son on an Olympic victory in boxing.
Like Thales, Solon and Chilon, Periander of Corinth was considered one of the Seven Sages of Greece. To others, like Aristotle, he was simply a tyrant. However, there is a bizarre story about the lengths to which Periander went in order to conceal his place of burial: he instructed two young men to meet a third man at a predetermined place and kill and bury him. Then he arranged for four men to pursue the first two and kill and bury them. Then he arranged for a larger group of men to hunt down the four. Having made all these preparations, he went out to meet the two young men for he, Periander, was the third man.
(Possibly flourished in the sixth century, possibly a mythical figure)
A native of
Legend has it that Epimenides was sent into the countryside by his father to look after some sheep. But instead of tending to the sheep, he fell asleep in a cave for fifty-seven years. Upon waking, he went in search of the sheep, believing that he had only taken a short nap. When he returned home, everything (unsurprisingly) had changed and a new owner had taken possession of his father's farm. Eventually, he found his younger brother, by now an elderly man, and learnt the truth.
Epimenides' fame spread and it was believed thereafter that he possessed the gift of prophecy. Diogenes tells of how the Athenians sent for him when the city was suffering from the plague. He again took some sheep and went to the Areopagus, the high rock in the centre of
According to Phlegon in his work On Longevity, Epimenides lived to be 157 years old. This makes him a centurion, excluding his long nap in the cave. The Cretans claim that he lived to be 259 years old. But, as we all know, Cretans are always liars.
Anaximander somewhat obscurely claimed that the Unlimited or that which is without boundaries (apeiron) is the original material of all existing things. He discovered his own limit at the age of sixty-four.
Excerpted from "The Book of Dead Philosophers," by Simon Critchley © 2008, by permission of Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc.
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