Hesiod and Aristotelean Demonstration

This post is one in a series on the History of Epistemological Thought.  Previously in this series: The Epistemology of Divine Poetry.

Even though Hesiod pleads "for the Muses told me so" as his chief intellectual justification, a careful reader can glean attempts at non-divine inference in the Theogony.  In fact an extremely careful reader did just that some 400 years after Hesiod: the brilliant philosopher Aristotle.

Hesiod begins his cosmic geneology by declaring that

"in truth at first Khaos came to be."

Khaos meant space, void, or air, which to the ancient Greek, forgiveably unfamiliar with vacuums, meant much the same thing.  Khaos did not mean what the modern English word "chaos" means.  Our word "chaos" was derived from misinterpretation (whether from carelessness or poetic licence) by later authors- especially Ovid:

"Ere land and sea and the all-covering sky were made, in the whole world the countenance of nature was the same, all one, well named Chaos, a raw and undivided mass, naught but a lifeless bulk, with warring seeds of ill-joined elements compressed together."

-Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book I

In other words, the primordial chaos, according to Ovid and later authors, is a mixed-up mass of solid, liquid, and gas: rather like a cosmic cappuccino.1


But Khaos would be more appropriately translated, as Glenn W. Most did, as "chasm".  

A chasm is not, strictly speaking, cracked earth, but the crack itself: the part where there is no earth.  (Just as for the Chinese philosopher Laozi, the path (tao) was the place in the forest where there is no forest.)

Aristotle was impressed with Hesiod's placement of Khaos at the beginning of things.

Again, the theory that the void exists involves the existence of place: for one would define void as place bereft of body. 

These considerations then would lead us to suppose that place is something distinct from bodies, and that every sensible body is in place. Hesiod too might be held to have given a correct account of it when he made chaos first. At least he says: 

'First of all things came chaos to being, then broad-breasted earth,' implying that things need to have space first, because he thought, with most people, that everything is somewhere and in place. If this is its nature, the potency of place must be a marvellous thing, and take precedence of all other things. For that without which nothing else can exist, while it can exist without the others, must needs be first; for place does not pass out of existence when the things in it are annihilated. 

Aristotle, Physics, Book IV

In other words, before any thing existed there had to be a place for it to exist in.2

After Khaos, Earth (Gaia) next came to be, followed by Love (Eros).

Aristotle was also impressed at Hesiod's placement of Love (Eros) near the beginning of things.  In it, he recognized Hesiod as implying...

that among existing things there must be from the first a cause which will move things and bring them together.

Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book I

In other words before any thing underwent change, there had to have been a cause or force to bring about the change.  The first two entities were Khaos and Gaia.  Note that Hesiod never said that Khaos gave birth to Gaia: the latter just kind of "happened".  So nothing at that point had been born out of anything else yet: nothing has changed from one state to another.  Khaos and Gaia might have gone on forever without creating anything unless they felt the urge to.  This motive force, this "urge to create", had to exist first.  And Hesiod called this "urge to create" “Eros” or "Love".

So, according to Aristotle, Hesiod may have thought that the pre-existence of "place" is a necessary implication of the existence of bodies.  And the pre-existence of "cause" or "force" is a necessary implication of the existence of change.

Aristotle called such reasoning (from the universal to the particular) a deduction, or syllogism.

"Place" is contained in the category of "Body", but not vice versa; therefore, "Place" must have preceded "Body".

"Cause" is contained in the category of "Change", but not vice versa; therefore "Cause" must have preceded "Change."

What's more, Hesiod's deduction is not merely a word game (like "All As are Bs; all Bs are Cs; therefore all As are Cs").  Rather it says something about the real world.  Aristotle called a deduction that produces knowledge about reality a "demonstration."  Aristotelean demonstrations have been the holy grail of rationalist thinkers from Parmenides to Descartes to Hans-Hermann Hoppe.

As much as I respect Hesiod as a thinker with more subtlety than classicists give him credit for, Aristotle does seem to have been a tad too generous in the deductive sophistication he is crediting to the great poet.  That is not to say that Hesiod only had divine inspiration as his epistemological foundation: for the careful reader can also glean inductive reasoning from Hesiod's beliefs, as I shall discuss in my next post.


1Ovid and the other writers may have confused Khaos with the primeval, undifferentiated mud of the rival theogeny attributed to Orpheus, which in turn may have been influenced by the Mesopotamian conception of the world's primal state as an undifferentiated mass:

When on high heaven was not named,

And the earth beneath did not yet bear a name,

And the primeval Apsû, who begat them,

And chaos, Tiamat, the mother of them both,

Their waters were mingled together,

And no field was formed, no marsh was to be seen;

When of the gods none had been called into being

-Enuma Elish, Babylonian poem from the 18th century BC

2Someone allegedly asked Thales (considered the first philosopher) what the biggest thing in existence is, to which he replied:

"place, for it contains all things."

Diogenes, Laertius, The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers

Next in this series: Night, Day, and Induction.