Perictione II on Metaphysics

Introduction

This lesson focuses on a fragment of text from the late Pythagorean philosopher Perictione II (probably of Sparta, c.3rd-2nd century bce) on metaphysics.[1]

Courses and Texts

Courses

This lesson would easily fit into any of the following: a) ancient survey course at any level, especially one with attention to metaphysics or philosophy of science, b) a Plato course that covers the Meno, Phaedo, Republic, Sophist, or Timaeus on metaphysics and philosophy of science c) an Aristotle course that covers the Categories, De Caelo, Parts of Animals, Physics, or Metaphysics on  metaphysics and philosophy of science, d) a historically-centered metaphysics or philosophy of science course, or e) a course on the history of women in philosophy.

Secondary Texts for Instructor

The excerpt from Perictione’s work is translated with commentary in Mary Ellen Waithe’s (1987) A History of Women Philosophers, Vol. 1: 600bc-500ad, pp. 55-57. The Greek text, from Stob. 3.1.120-21, is collected with notes in Holger Thesleff (1965) The Pythagorean Texts of the Hellenistic Period, pp. 146.

Overview

The present text is attributed to “Perictione the Pythagorean, [from the work] ‘On Wisdom’ (Peri Sophias).” It lays out a sophisticated view of the proper object of Sophia or philosophy. If we adopt the term ‘metaphysics’ for the study of being, then Perictione contrasts metaphysics from the sciences (natural and mathematical) on the basis of universality: metaphysics is the study of what is common to all things, while the sciences study what is present only in some cases.

Perictione begins with a claim shared with Anaxagoras and Aristotle: “man was born and exists to contemplate the principle (theōrēsai ton logon) of the nature of the whole (tas tō holō phusious)”. Wisdom is a matter of possessing an understanding of these matters, including the purpose of these things. Hence Perictione’s view is teleological in terms of both the subject and object of contemplation.

The rest of the passage distinguishes metaphysics from special sciences. Philosophy is the search for the basic principles that apply universally, and wisdom is the possession of these principles. Natural science, mathematics, and other fields are restricted to attributes that do not apply universally. The passage ends with a metaphysical correlate: philosophy helps us see god, which is implied to be the best thing. Other objects are “separated…in seried rank and order”.

Discussion Questions

  1. What are the teleological features of Perictione’s view?
  2. What is the difference between metaphysics and other sciences in this passage?
  3. How does wisdom (as a faculty) compare to sight and hearing? What does this tell us about Perictione’s conceptualization of wisdom more broadly?
  4. What does Perictione’s discussion imply about the relationship between metaphysics and other sciences?
  5. What is the role of god in Perictione’s passage?

Activities

  1. Compare the relationship between metaphysics and other sciences to Plato’s treatment of dialectic in Republic VI-VII and/or Aristotle’s treatment of the sciences in Metaphysics E.
  2. The Perictione fragment does not give examples of the objects of wisdom. Working in groups, suggest examples and defend this suggestion.
  3. Perictione states that there is a ‘single basic principle’ that all kinds of being can be analyzed in terms of. Working in groups, determine what this basic principle is, what the other kinds of being are, and how they are related.

Author Information

Jerry Green (The University of Oklahoma)
jgreen@ou.edu

[1] Note that there is some controversy over who Perictione II was. Most scholars distinguish Perictione II from both Perictione I (who wrote in the Ionic dialect and likely lived a century prior) and from Perictione the mother of Plato. It is possible that ‘Perictione’ was a stock name taken as a pseudonym that does not refer to any specific person.