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VINE VOICEon 19 July 2010
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. The gods were the projection of human characteristics on to immortal gods who took little interest in the disordered affairs of men. The Presocratics argued that the real world was ordered and because it was ordered it could be comprehended by the human mind. Although they asked the same questions as their predecessors they assigned the functions previously mooted as belonging to the gods to natural phenomena. Thales, generally accredited as the first philosopher, believed the earth rested on water. Anaximander argued that an unseen element, aspeiron (air), held everything together and had ideas regarded as proto-evolutionary in essence.

The first Sophist was Protagoras c.440 BC. He had a good reputation as a teacher although his writings are only known at second hand. He was interested in the correct use of words and appears to have been an agnostic, commenting that "Man is the measure of all things" and opining that "Concerning the gods, I have no means of knowing whether they exist or not or of what sort they may be, because of the obscurity of the subject, and the brevity of human life." Most Sophists were itinerant teachers and developed a reputation for charging fees to explain virtue and excellence to up and coming politicians. Rhetoric was important in ancient Greece and, in his portrait of Sophists, Plato tried to present them as expounding deception rather than truth. It is in this sense that the word remains in the English language and it is Plato's teacher, Socrates, whose reputation has remained intact.

Waterfield deals with fourteen Presocratics and eight Sophists. Each chapter is followed by relevant original text and a bibliography of relevant books and articles for further reading.Waterfield, perhaps inadvertantly, makes the case for a revival of Classical studies at secondary school level. The reduction in the teaching of Latin and Greek in the postwar education syllabus has robbed a generation of knowledge of some of the main influences which have created our current modes of thinking. In addition, they have made it more difficult to understand how previous generations, who were schooled in Classics, thought and acted. Unlike the self improvers of the nineteenth century it is hard to imagine students of today making the effort to further their knowledge through additional study. A very impressive introduction to the subject and worth five stars.
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on 12 June 2016
…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. It’s in this context that Socratic dialogue gains significance. Socrates demonstrated that people had a much weaker grasp on knowledge than they assumed, thus undermining natural and conventional truth, popular morality, and traditional politics. No wonder they killed him.

If you’re thinking of buying Burnet’s Early Greek Philosophy on Kindle for a quid, think twice and give this a go instead. Burnet was writing yonks ago (like dinosaur time) and whilst the content and fragments he uses are all still the same, his interpretation is a little dull compared to Waterfield’s, who had me thinking about an old subject in new ways. That’s all you can ask really. 5 Stars.
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on 29 December 2010
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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on 30 May 2014
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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on 17 March 2013
This book is a very nice easy lovely read. This book is also very good for those studying at university.
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on 16 November 2014
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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on 20 November 2015
Purchased as a gift. All arrived on time and as described. Good introduction to an interesting area of study.
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on 30 July 2015
I was obliged to read the first hundred pages of this as recommended reading for a course on Ancient Greek philosophy however I soon discovered Jonathan Barnes excellent book on presocratic philosophy and kicked this book into touch without giving it a further thought.
Waterfield seems to be an academic who revels in complexity and thereby completely loses the point of what he is studying. The presocratic philosophers have an amazing range of depth and beauty in their thought which immediately comes shine through in the hands of an author like Barnes.
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on 26 February 2015
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