Scholia Reviews 18 (2009) 13.

Andrew Gregory, Ancient Greek Cosmogony. London: Duckworth, 2008. Pp. xii + 314. ISBN 978-0-7156-3477-6. UK£50.00.

Robert Hannah
Classics, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand

The question of the origin of the universe continues to attract us. In quantum mechanics, we are presented with hypotheses of parallel universes, multiverses, ‘many worlds’, which imply a notion of universes before or after our time, and of multiple ‘creations’ and the possibility of sempeternity (perpetual time).[[1]] The very first moments of cosmic birth are the object of great, and expensive, interest, as we await results from running the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva in the hope of gaining an inkling about what happened in the first millionths of a second of the beginning of the universe.[[2]] While strictly a question of what happened after birth rather than of the birth itself, of cosmology rather than of cosmogony, the issues are not unrelated. Nor are they new. It is well to be reminded by Andrew Gregory’s excellent book how long-standing and perennial are some of the questions surrounding the universe’s origins. Throughout this book there is an engaging allusion to modern cosmological concerns -- sufficiently frequent for Big Bang, Quantum Mechanics and Steady State to be granted their own abbreviations (BB, QM and SS).

Gregory necessarily starts with a caution about what his book is about, and what it is not about. Fundamentally, it is ‘about ancient theories of how the cosmos began’ (p. xi). The book is not about Greek philosophy, nor about Greek science, although, of course, these will inform the discussion. Neither, for that matter, is it a book about Greek mythology or theogony, inasmuch as the cosmos is subject to the caprice of the gods, nor about Greek cosmology, insofar as this entails questions of the nature and organisation of the cosmos, aspects of interest to philosophy and science. Nonetheless, Gregory does not ignore what these other resources can offer. Mythological accounts of creation form the focus of chapter 1. Despite the strong evidence for Oriental influence on Greek thought, and in this context particularly on Greek cosmogony, Gregory nonetheless argues for Greek innovation in the realm of philosophical cosmogony.

Chapters 2–8 (pp. 26–139) -- about half the book’s text -- deal with the Presocratics, and we enter the realm of the uniquely Greek philosophical engagement with cosmogony, where the protagonists often appear to be conversing and arguing with one another. In Chapter 2 Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes introduce the concept of multiple kosmoi, a concept with which we may still engage, as I indicated earlier, even if, as Gregory warns us, our explanations (and our very understanding of what constitutes an explanation) may differ. Gregory also argues for all three Milesians eschewing chance in the emergence of the kosmos and instead believing in ‘an active originative substance’ (p. 56). In Chapter 3 Gregory finds evidence for distinguishing Heraclitus as not only not following the Milesian multiple kosmoi theory but also not believing in a beginning to the kosmos, and therefore having no cosmogony whatever. Parmenides, Empedocles and Anaxagoras occupy Chapters 4, 5 and 6 respectively, and with these figures Gregory enagages more thoroughly with the fragmentary and often difficult literary evidence. With Parmenides we encounter for the first time the rejection of creation from nothing (ex nihilo), an issue of considerable importance much later. Gregory emphasises how radical and problematic Parmenides’ cosmogony is, until it is countered by the correspondingly radical Christian notion of a god who creates time and space along with matter. The idea of successive kosmoi is promoted by Empedocles, along with a role for chance, which generates non-identical kosmoi. Contemporaneously, Anaxagoras accepts only a single kosmos, and is the first to ascribe to an independent intelligence a role in its creation. Chapter 7 discusses two figures, Leucippus and Democritus, the originators of atomism. The two (Gregory does not seek to distinguish the indistinguishable) explore the novel idea of an unlimited number of co-existent kosmoi (in contrast to Empedocles’ unlimited number of successive kosmoi), and influentially seek to establish a principle of accidental occurrence for the origin of these worlds. Chapter 8 mops up a few stray Presocratics -- Xenophanes, the Pythagoreans, Archelaus, Diogenes of Apollonia, and the elusive author of the Derveni papyrus -- among whom little innovation is discernible for Gregory.

The second half of the book (Chapters 9–14) then cover successively Plato, Aristotle, the Epicurus (via Lucretius), the Stoics, early Christianity in general, and finally the Neoplatonists and Christians (Sallustius, Philo, Proclus, Philoponus, Plutarch, Theophilus, Tertullian, Hermogenes, Origen and Augustine -- in that order, to suit Gregory’s themes, rather than in chronological order). A Conclusion (Chapter 15) draws the major concepts of ancient Greek cosmogony together. Plato rejected multiple kosmoi and accidental origins, and instead argues influentially for a single kosmos created by a divine ‘craftsman’. Aristotle, on the other hand, while promoting a single kosmos, argued for its eternity (on the now unsustainable grounds of ‘natural’ place and motion) and thus for no cosmogony as such. The difficulties Aristotle had in entertaining the notion of a cosmogony find their parallels, Gregory demonstrates, in modern physics. Epicurus pursues the atomist tradition, refining it and responding to criticisms of Leucippus and Democritus. He reinstates a cosmogony without god, as well as multiple kosmoi. While his influence will be relatively small in later antiquity, Gregory finds that his concerns resonate in some aspects of modern cosmology. Stoic cosmogony, like that of the Presocratics, is unfortunately known mainly through fragments. It supports cyclical regeneration of the kosmos, innovatively through the fiery, phoenix-like process of ekpurôsis. Christianity reintroduces the notion of creation ex nihilo, although, Gregory argues in his analysis of the interpretation of Genesis 1: 1–12 in Chapter 13, it was not always a core concern. Creation from pre-existent matter was considered, as was the activity of god before the creation of the kosmos. Christian thinkers introduce the idea of an absolute beginning for time, space and matter in the act of creation, which makes any question of ‘before’ creation meaningless, as Augustine famously pointed out.

The chapters are supported by extensive notes (pp. 247- 82), and a useful bibliography. I would have preferred to see the ancient sources differentiated, but this deficiency is well countered by a very helpful index locorum (a Duckworth feature), an index of names, and a good general index.

Gregory explores all the issues with care and clarity. Original texts are presented in clear translations. Problems are unbundled, solutions offered, and remaining issues honestly acknowledged. Innovation is emphasised at appropriate points, and in some unusual places at times. The nod to modern concerns is not superficial but serious, and while the intricacies of modern physics are naturally simplified, Gregory does not avoid mentioning them. This may not be a textbook by design, but it deserves to be one in courses in the history and philosophy of science, and indeed in philosophy in general.


[[1]] See Martin Bojowald, ‘What happened before the Big Bang?’ Nature Physics 3.8 (August 2007) 523–25; Paul J. Steinhardt and Neil Turok, Endless Universe: Beyond the Big Bang (New York 2007); Michio Kaku, Parallel Worlds (New York 2005); Martin Rees, Before the Beginning: Our Universe and Others (London 1997).

[[2]] The attempt was begun on 10 September 2008 with the aim (in layman’s terms) ‘to smash protons moving at 99.999999% of the speed of light into each other and so recreate conditions a fraction of a second after the big bang’, but had to be aborted on 19 September, and is due to resume ‘not . . . before spring 2009’ (