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The First Philosophers The Presocratics and Sophists (Oxford World's Classics) Paperback – 26 Mar 2009

4.6 out of 5 stars 9 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: OUP Oxford (26 Mar. 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 019953909X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199539093
  • Product Dimensions: 19.3 x 2.3 x 12.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 29,705 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description

About the Author

Robin Waterfield, whose many translations include works by Plato, Plutarch, and Aristotle, currently resides on a farm in Greece. His career spans both academia and publishing.


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By Neutral VINE VOICE on 19 July 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Robin Waterfield has a well earned reputation as an authority on ancient Greece and this discussion of the Presocratic philosophers and the Sophists reinforces that view. Primary sources are limited but Waterfield avoided the temptation to rely on secondary commentaries and has translated many of the actual fragmants and ancient testimona in order to allow the philosophers to speak for themselves. In addition, he makes the point that as there is little consensus on what the ancient philosophers meant readers should think for themselves.

The Presocratic philosophers are so called because they lived before Socrates, although the last of them was his contemporary. The initial period of Presocratic philosophy is from 580 - 430 BC. The Presocratics are considered together but do not, as a whole, form a specific school of thought although Parmenides of Elea did have followers. What we know of them is what was recorded by later writers, known as doxographers. We also know that those records reflect the philosophies of the writers themselves. Hence Aristole, using his four causes analysis, suggests Thales believed everything was made out of water, a suggestion from which Waterfield dissents. Similarly Plato in defending Socrates' memory disparages the Sophists. As Plato is the main source of information about the Sophists the need for critical appraisal is imperative.

The Presocratics were not scientists in the modern sense of the word. They did not carry out experiments to prove theories and where observation and theories clashed they tended to prefer theory. The Presocratics retained a strong degree of mystical thought. At the time of Homer the primary attribute of religion was anthropomorphism.
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…Parmenides said ‘everything is one’. Zeno agreed with Parmenides, Pythagoras agreed with no-one but himself, whilst Democritus thought chairs, dogs and even Pericles’ mum were all made of teeny tiny indivisible atoms, but what the hell did he know. This is Pre-Socratic philosophy; a world of thought caught between mysticism, genius, and absolute speculative madness.

But as with any kind of madness, there’s some sanity to be got at here too. Waterfields’ The First Philosophers offers the reader a view of both the reason and the ridiculous in each thinker, ranging from Thales at 580 BC to Critias et al around 410 BC.

The philosophers are set out chronologically and each is given two sections; a narrative summary followed by their collected fragments and testimonia. It took me a while to get used to this set-up. Most other editors tend to place the fragments within their narrative account, as if it’s some kind of essential scaffold without which our understanding of Pre-Socratic thought would resemble nothing more than a pile of unseemly rubble. But actually, reading the fragments all together helps each writer’s voice stand out more clearly. Heraclitus sounds like a grumpy curmudgeon, Parmenides does a great impression of Homer, and Protagoras sounds like a friendly old head-teacher who’s seen it all before and is keen for everyone to just get along.

The biggest eye-opener is the section on the Sophists, who, with their emphasis on relativity, are portrayed as proto-Postmodernists (and, yes, hypocritical money-grabbing leeches). The idea that truth is a matter of convention rather than something absolute was a major advance in a society where natural disasters and the cycle of the seasons so dominated people’s lives and livelihoods.
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Robin Waterfield has the respect of Greek Scholars. I found this illuminating, very well organised/structured, clear, and a nice background for those interested in where, as it were, Socrates came from. Renaissances do not come out of the blue; someone has to have done some work first!
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Robin Waterfield whom introduces, narrates and translates the Greek Works has done an amazing job with this book. The Introduction introduces the many perspectives there have been concerning the Presocratics and the Sophists, steering clear of any distinct Dogmatism, he proposes a beautiful relevance of these early Philosophers and how their movement is not so detached in principle from all philosophical or intellectual endeavor.
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read this book all the way through waterfield is very good in his selections and introductions, and open-eneded in his presentation. this book will give you a good overview of the presocratis and sophist, and you can proceed froom there
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