Monday, February 06, 2006

An oracle of Necessity: Western origins of causation

But where things have their origin, there too their passing away occurs according to necessity; for they pay recompense and penalty to one another for their recklessness, according to firmly established time.

(Anaximander, Hermann Diels "Fragments")

With respect to the Presocratics, the idea of natural laws emerged as an analogue of social laws. In what many consider to be the oldest surviving fragment of western written philosophy (see above) Anaximander (of Miletus, c. 610-546 BCE) talks of the necessity of the cessation of a thing's existence as recompense for its coming into being. What seems to be at stake here is a cosmic balance which, following its "reckless" disruption, is restored by necessity. Of just what this "necessity" comprises is not clear from the single Anaximander fragment above but a cursory glance at fragments from the Presocratic philosopher and mystic, Empedocles (of Acagras in Sicily, c. 492-432 BC), predictably, locates it within the authority of the gods:

There is an oracle of Necessity, ancient decree of the gods, eternal and sealed with broad oaths...

(Empedocles, Fragment 115)

These views are generally described as “socio-morphic” because they explain things like the origins and present state of the cosmos or the regular/periodic routine of nature as being the result of decrees and/or arrangements made by the gods. These divine decrees were predominantly conceived in the context of the regular arrangement of society or the edict of a law giver. In particular, social systems of retributive justice were applied to explain the phenomena of orderly nature.

More to follow.

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