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on 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.