3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
The Cosmos is Made of All Powerful WATER. Sorry, Air!... or is it fire? Oh, I give up...,
This review is from: Early Greek Philosophy (Kindle Edition)
I'm going to say right now that if you're looking for the most thorough account of Pre-Socratic thought then the first 3 volumes of Guthrie's History of Greek Philosophy is what you want. Burnet on the other hand is more readable and about half as long. So for the non-students and the generally inquisitive Burnet's is the better buy.
Early Greek philosophy really stands somewhere between mysticism, genius, and absolute speculative madness. Burnet describes it as the fruit of "an over-civilised age with no very definite religious convictions." Given the mobility of people in the region, skipping between islands and settling new colonies, the feeling of making one's own way lends itself well to the exploratory mindset we see in the Milesian School of the 6th century bc, where Burnet begins. But he makes it clear from the start that "it is necessary to insist on the scientific character of the philosophy", and more often than not Burnet is able to quote examples and observations the Greeks themselves were making at the time.
Despite the vagueness of the chronology, Burnet's general narrative is sound. The Ionic materialists and their transcendent Pythagorean counterparts dominated the early scene until their systemic flaws were worked out by Parmenides. His paradox that logical monism denies a sensible world was resisted against but comprehensively undermined both Ionic cosmology and Pythagorian enumeration, which came to be surpassed by the less grandiose but more substantially empirical Hippocratic schools. By the time Leukippos came along with his (correct) atomic theory no-one really cared any more. Cosmology was seen as something impersonal and unknowable compared to the ethical and epistemological dialectics swilling around Athens at the end of the 5th century bc.
Despite being written over 120 years ago, this book's still got it. Burnet's style is refreshingly modern, even if every so often he does give into that male Victorian whim of disallowing any possible doubt by simply ridiculing opposing ideas. It made I chuckle to imagine Burnet, presumably sporting a Norfolk Coat, cricket bat, and immense beard, pounding about the halls of St Andrew's haranguing students on the details of Hereclitean Exceptionalism. Just don't get characters like him at university these days. Read him, enjoy him. Great book.