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The Presocratics and the Supernatural

Magic, Philosophy and Science in Early Greece

Reviewed by Stephanie Magowan

Critiques of Presocratic naturalism highlight a tendency towards a “Hellenocentric” view of Greek rational achievement, claiming that supernatural aspects of Presocratic thought are often minimised or even ignored. How can we assimilate supernatural processes, such as magic, mysticism or metempsychosis, into a rational naturalistic framework? In this welcome contribution to the discussion, Gregory investigates whether the Presocratics really considered such processes as supernatural in operation, and seeks to re-establish that the majority of them intentionally reject supernaturalism altogether. His admirable approach incorporates not only the familiar members of the Presocratic philosophical canon, but looks to the Hippocratic corpus and the wider literary tradition for answers. He also fully explores the notion of Presocratic targeting, that is, that the writers of this period specifically drew upon famous passages from Homer and Hesiod to emphasize their shift away from traditional theology.

The introductory first chapter provides a useful overview of recent scholarship against the naturalist interpretation, which appropriately situates Gregory’s intentions. He swiftly moves through issues of translation and terminology; despite being nominally an investigation into the supernatural, this term is replaced by the less anachronistic ‘non-natural’, i.e. anything which falls outside the Presocratic view of nature. (9) The discussion of just what their conception of nature was, however, falls short, with reference only to a few of the definitions of φύσις in LSJ and a brief account of Lloyd’s ideas on the matter. A long list of things the book is not (a sort of methodological ‘disclaimer’) ensures Gregory’s intentions and boundaries are clear from the outset; indeed, the introduction acts as a microcosm of the book itself. As informative as this may be, a more cohesively organised structure would have eliminated some problems of repetition, while also perhaps allowing for more detailed background discussion.

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