- The Origins of Philosophy in Ancient Greece and Ancient India: A Historical Comparison by Richard Seaford
In his adventurous monograph in comparative philosophy, The Origins of Philosophy in Ancient Greece and Ancient India, Richard Seaford offers to explain why philosophy, which on his account originated in the sixth century BCE separately in both Greece and India, took such a similar form in both cultures.
After an introductory summary, in chapter 2 Seaford rejects the explanations currently offered both for the origin of Greek philosophy (such as the development of monumental architecture, literacy, or democratic politics), and for the similarities between Greek and Indian philosophy (including shared Indo-European inheritance, or direct influence of one on the other culture). Specifically, he rejects G. E. R. Lloyd’s hypothesis that the most important cause of Greek philosophy lies in certain political developments, and Johannes Bronkhorst’s argument that Indian philosophy originated in the transmission of debating techniques to Buddhists in North-West India from Greeks travelling there during Alexander’s campaigns (pp. 14–16). In contrast, Seaford argues that a certain complex of three ideas originated independently in Greece and India, influenced by the use of coined money and monetisation.
Seaford’s account is limited to and focused upon these three fundamental ideas that he sees as forming a “complex” and as appearing at about the same time in two cultures remote from each other--and nowhere else. These ideas are: first, that despite appearances, all things are in fact a single entity, one that may be entirely abstract (an idea Seaford designates as “monism”); second, that knowledge of “the unitary incorporeal inner self” is central both to understanding the world and well-being; and third, that after death we acquire a new bodily identity (human or animal) whose desirability depends on the ethical quality of our previous existence (an idea Seaford designates as “ethicised indiscriminate reincarnation” abbreviated “EIR”). It is striking to think that “Greek metaphysical ideas are much closer to those found in India than to any found in the vast area (including Persia) between Greece and India” (p. 246), and even more striking to think that the source of their similarity [End Page 1] might be due to the introduction of coined money and associated phenomena of monetisation. But these are the bold claims of this book.
Seaford defines “philosophy” as “the attempt to explain systematically and without relying on superhuman agency, the fundamental features of the universe and the place of human beings in it” (p. 7). Seaford focuses his account of Greek philosophy on Heraclitus, Parmenides, and Plato, three thinkers who do not seem to fit his own definition of philosophy as well as, say, Democritus, Aristotle, Epicurus or even Pyrrho, none of whom form a significant part of his account. Seaford limits his period of comparison for Greece to “from Homer to Plato” but for India “from the Rigveda to 326 BC…when Alexander crossed the Indus” (p. 7). Had he used the same time frame, all of the above Greek thinkers would be included, and I think this could have served his case better.
Seaford argues that no current theory attempts to explain the near-simultaneous appearance of this specific complex of ideas in both India and Greece, or has much explanatory power to do so: “What has much more explanatory power is the fact that both societies were, in the crucial period, undergoing significant socioeconomic change, and in particular attaining a degree of monetisation that had at the time been attained by no other society (with the possible exception of China)” (p. 8).
The parenthetical remark here is important. Supposing that China attained the same degree of monetisation as both India and Greece, we need to know whether this specific complex of ideas also flourished there. If so, then the suggestion that monetisation is important in explaining the origin of this complex of ideas would be supported. On the other hand, if this complex of...