Maria Michela Sassi Translated by Michele Asuni 2018. The Beginnings of Philosophy in Greece. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 209 pp.

A short but densely argued book by an author totally at ease with her subject. And therefore a pleasure to read, even if the detailed and extensively referenced academic issues discussed go way further than I need. However the author would surely argue that when so much of the material is available only as second- or third-hand accounts and has been the subject of conflicting assessments, there is no escaping a detailed and systematic discussion. And anyway, I am surely not among the intended readership otherwise why would words like gnoseology be used [= the philosophy or theory of knowledge].

Some of the questions raised are recurring chicken and egg topics, like “did philosophy build polis or the other way around?”, “did literacy build thinking or did thinking come first?” and other circular arguments endlessly debated by philosophers. What I did not find in this discussion was any suggestion of how ecology and wealth of society must have been crucial (a Jared Diamond approach). But surely a stable and wealthy society would be (and still is) crucial for a significant number of thinkers to have the luxury of thinking about more than how to survive and obtain food.

It seems that the philosophical ideas were first discussed among elites (wealthy) who first gathered in homes, perhaps to read aloud texts brought back from travels. And that ideas from other societies were important in initiating critical assessment. For example other cultures each imagined their gods in their own image, bringing into question the universality and existence of such culturally aligned deities. And critical thinking by sarcasm; Xenophanes:

The Ethiopians say that their gods are snub-nosed and black, the Thracians that they have light blue eyes and a rosy complexion.

But if oxen, horses or lions had hands, … horses would draw the forms of their gods similar to horses, …

The chronological chart on pp xix - xx was vital so I have this heavily truncated and lightly annotated version:

year BCE who / where what
776 First Olympic games  
750-725? Homer is the background rather than the focus to Sassi’s book
700 Hesiod earliest of the notable “pre-socratics” - some say influenced by the Bablylonians
620-610 Athens and Miletus tyranny
600 Thales “father of philosophy” according to many
555 Anaximander first to imagine a world without gods
  Samos construction of temple of the Hera
550 Samos construction of the tunnel of Samos begins
545 Anaximenes student of Anaximander
530 Xenophanes the traveller
525 Pythagoras probably known to Anaximander (according to Carlo Rovelli)
497 birth of Sophocles  
494 Miletus tyrant Aristagoras destroys the city and castrates the population
490-480 Persian Wars  
440-430 Herodotus writes history systematically
  Sophocles probably writing many plays in this period
431-404 Peloponnesian War  
427 birth of Plato  
415-413 Democritus  
403 democracy restored in Athens  
399 death of Socrates  

But Anaximander emerges as the figure who had the earliest impact and about who we have best knowledge, although almost nothing first-hand. Nevertheless, his originality and independence stands out not just because the work of others has mostly been lost. So has that of Anaximander. Maria Sassi’s thorough and fascinating treatment has all the elements of the summary by Carlo Rovelli. First to conceive of a world without gods. Thought it natural to question earlier thinkers. Probably the first to choose to write prose rather than verse.

Much of the final part of the book seems to be about philosophy and religion - not of so much interest right now. I skipped through that.

The index is hopelessly inadequate: omits, eg, Miletus, Thales, Zeno and no doubt dozens of other people and places.

On the other hand, the bibliography is extensive. Just a few of those of special interest:

Barnes, J. 1979. The Presocratic Philosophers. Volume 2. Empedocles to Democritus. London: Routledge.

Couprie, D.L., Hahn, R. & Naddaf, G. 2003. Anaximander in Context: new studies in the origins of Greek philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Ferrari, G.R.F. 1984. Orality and literacy in the origin of philosophy. Ancient Philosophy 4: 194-205.

Hahn, R. 2001. Anaximander and the Architects: the contributions of Aegyptian and Greek architectural technologies to the origins of Greek philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Kahn, C.H. 1960. Review of Hahn 2001. Ancient Philosophy 22: 143-152. [and many others by the same author]

Shapiro, H.A. ed. 2007. The Cambridge Companion to Archaic Greece. Cambridge: CUP.