In the beginning of 2019 PhD students of the RTG 1876 focused thematically on conceptual metaphor and its applications to various source materials inside several scientific fields. After having the pleasure to hear Prof Douglas Cairns’s talk, and a very fruitful seminar on metaphors, Chiara Ferella presented a case study of her ongoing post-doc project titled “Metaphor in Early Greek Concepts of Cosmos, Nature, Body and Mind.” The focus of her project is twofold; she is looking into the metaphors which illustrate these concepts, while also examining the specific role of metaphor in the formation of early Greek theories. The aim of her research is to question the potential of the cognitive function of metaphor in structuring knowledge about abstract concepts, by exploring various perceptual and experiential foundations on which early Greek thinkers built metaphors, and consequently concepts of cosmos, nature, body and mind.
It is worth noting that Chiara’s understanding of metaphors is based on Lakoff and Johnson’s definition of metaphor as “seeing one thing in terms of another,” which involves a transfer from one conceptual domain to the other. This transfer operates from the more familiar or concrete domain to the less familiar or abstract one.
In her paper, Chiara showcased representations of the cosmos in three early Greek philosophers – Anaximander, Heraclitus and Empedocles, focusing on the specific metaphor domain of conflict. These thinkers all use the metaphor domain of conflict in their depictions of the universe, but they emphasize different aspects of it, which prompts Chiara to ask in which way relationships expressed in the source domain of conflict structure and organize knowledge about the universe?
Beginning with Anaximander, Chiara aims to show that the aspect of the conflict metaphor that he emphasizes in his cosmology is based on the idea of offense and compensation through a penalty that is commensurate to the initial offense. The notion that any conflict begins with an offense is not uncommon in Greek tradition, as Chiara reminds us that Herodotus uses the same model to describe the cause for the Persian war, where Greeks and Persians alternate in offending each other. In a similar fashion, Anaximander speaks of the elements that compose the universe, “for they pay the penalty (δίκη) and retribution (τίσις) to each other” (fr. B1). It seems that for Anaximander the elements are opposing forces, the Greek term for which implies conflict: the opposites (οἱ ἐναντίοι) implies hostile relationships between the parties, hence their confrontation is a battle. Therefore, Anaximander speaks of the vanquished party as offended, and its triumph as compensation. Chiara understands this metaphor in terms of a continuous change of opposing forms of power into one another, such as the alternation of light and darkness. But Anaximander chooses to exploit the metaphor of conflict instead of that of the cycle, emphasizing the traditional image in which one party commits an offense against the other, which then has to be compensated by a commensurate penalty. For him, as Chiara remarks, the strife of elemental forces is not unpredictable, but rather an orderly scheme in which defeat always follows aggression.
On the other hand, Heraclitus’ approach to the conflict metaphor is quite bold in a sense that he overturns the traditional images and offers rather controversial comparisons. He describes war as “the father of all and king of all” (fr. B53). Although war is traditionally linked to Ares, the god of warfare and conflict, Heraclitus redefines this well-known concept and instead equates it to Zeus, thus conceptualizing war as the supreme divine principle that rules all. In a different fragment he explains that “war is common, and right is strife, and all things happen by strife and necessity” (fr. B80).
What Chiara observes is that Heraclitus on one hand emphasizes atypical aspects of the metaphor domain of conflict, while on the other hand he conceals aspects traditionally linked to it (attacks and defences, oppressors and oppressed, crimes and compensations, etc.). Moreover, he exploits the image of the conflict in which fronts oppose each other, but they share the same impartial destiny. The principle responsible for arranging and maintaining the world in the way it is, he identifies as logos. This Heraclitean logos, as Chiara suggests, regulates the tension of opposites which generates the cosmos. Therefore, since logos, governing the tension of opposites, acts as the divine and intelligible law of the cosmos (fr. B114), conflict is essentially the same as justice.
Finally, in Empedocles’ philosophical system, the four elements that compose everything (air, fire, earth and water) are influenced by two forces governing the cosmos, commonly referred to as Love (Φιλότης) and Strife (Νεῖκος). While Love is usually perceived as a unifying force, Strife acts as a negative principle that tears elements down, usually described as wretched and evil. The opposition is more complex than it seems though, since both forces are, in fact, equally responsible for creation of living beings. This notion is attested, for instance, in Empedocles’ simile of two painters (commonly interpreted as Love and Strife) mixing four basic colours to paint all living creatures (fr. B23).
Chiara observes that the conflict between Love and Strife is the conditio sine qua non of the world, as the world only comes about when the elements are set in motion and the governing principles start to fight each other. This idea resembles Heraclitus’ image of war being the all-father, but Empedocles differs in that he emphasizes the moral implications traditionally linked to conflict. Even though both forces are equally involved in the cosmic conflict and the exchange of powers is a necessary act, it is clear that for Empedocles, the responsible force is undeniably Strife.
Bringing the two similar, yet different concepts of conflict into account, Chiara asks why Strife and conflict act as causes of our existence and at the same time as principles of evil. The reason, as she suggests, probably lies in Empedocles’ religious beliefs, within which he developed his doctrine. In the Purifications, Empedocles’ poem of a religious character, he refers to the earthly existence of humans as a punishment for a guilty deed for which we have to go through a cycle of rebirths. This prompts Chiara to interpret Empedocles’ Strife and conflict as fathers and kings of all, and, in virtue of this, as the greatest evil.
Although there were many questions raised, most of them being the subject of a rich discussion that followed, Chiara offered convincing arguments in her interpretation of early Greek concepts of the cosmos in her comparative analysis of the metaphor domain of conflict. She was able to show that metaphors play a much more important role in (analysing) early philosophical doctrines, since they illuminate and illustrate concepts that are otherwise more difficult to grasp.