on 16 January 2017
A little reflection would infer that Socrates did not arrive out of a vacuum, that serious philosophical enterprise had been taking place before he, as it were, arrived on the scene: hence the Pre-Socratics. Parmenides is usually accounted as being a Presocratic, although according to Plato, Socrates had met him as a young man (when Parmenides was an old man) – hence the dialogue with his name, but Parmenides’s poem had already given him a reputation.
There are, in the dialogues, direct references or allusions made, to Pre-Socratic philosophers. Hesiod and Homer are not always objects of criticism, while in the Phaedo, we have this story about Socrates’s search for answers, and coming hearing someone read from a book by Anaxagoras, attributing to Mind, a causal function. So Socrates, we are told, went rushing off to find other books Anaxagoras had written to find out more about what he said about Mind. Although the text does not actually say it, this insight, which had so captured Socrates’s interest, had not been followed up, or explored, by Anaxagoras, and a much disappointed Socrates felt that he had to find another route for enquiry. One might infer from Plato, that it was Socrates who discovered dialectic; not quite, it was Zeno, Parmenides’ associate. Another example is the problem in the Phaedrus with the famous argument for the immortality of the soul, which is a ‘preface’ to the beautiful Palinode, which is famous for its sheer incomprehensibility, ending with the comment: ‘that is enough about the immortality of the soul, lets talk about the soul itself.’ In the footnote in the Wakefield translation of the Phaedrus, is a reference to Barnes; Barnes gives 5 pages to the particular issue, which was very illuminating.
There is a range of very good book available on the Pre-Socratics: Waterfield (includes the Sophists – Dhillon’s ‘The Sophists’ is excellent) and Barnes are fairly general in tone, aimed at the more general reader, treating the writers in chronological order, as does Kirk and Raven’s classic treatment of the subject, aimed perhaps more at those with some Greek or who are undergraduates. There are others which take a more thematic approach, such as Bruno Snell’s ‘The Discovery of the Mind,’ HR Dodds ‘The Greeks and the Irrational,’ and ‘Plato and his predecessors (the dramatization of reason) by MM McCabe, and a very interesting ‘reader’ – really quotes, edited by P Curd; as well as recent translations of Parmenides and Empodocles. So what is different about Barnes? The first thing is that the scholarship is up to date, and the bibliography is extensive. Notes are appended at the end so that ‘reading is not disrupted by footnotes. The first reviews commented on the care taken in the very erudite exposition, and the discipline in the use of the imagination, which has the effect of making the text in fact, very readable. This is most definitely not a ‘read through’ book; it is a ‘look up in’ book, or a ‘dip into’ at one’s leisure. Given its size, it is clearly intended for the serious reader with a serious interest in the subject, and perhaps a serious question, which if not answered, will be a nod into where it might be found. I am still dipping. This is probably the most useful background book on the Platonic Tradition I purchased last year, and I am very pleased with it.