Book Review: The First Philosophers: The Presocratics And The Sophists

The First Philosophers: The Presocratics And The Sophists, a new translation by Robin Waterfield

To call this book a translation is a bit misleading. To be sure, there are translations to be found here. But the general gist of a translation is that there is a bit of introductory material that helps explain the context of a work and then the reader has the chance to read the translated material and come to one’s own conclusions. This book, it must be admitted, does not have that tendency that one is used to saying. Instead, every single section of this book–and there are a lot of sections here–has a somewhat heavy-handed introduction, sometimes as long as the translated material, that tries to frame how it is that the philosopher in question should be viewed, and then many of the translated materials themselves are not writings from the thinkers themselves but of quotations of the writer as cited by others, and then also how the writer was evaluated and viewed by other writers. The result is that one barely gets a chance to see the material of these ancient writers except beneath layers of interpretation, and that prevents the reader from getting to know these first philosophers at all, and that is a great shame, to the extent that they are worth getting to know.

This book is more than 300 pages long and is divided into two large parts with numerous smaller elements. The book begins with a preface and acknowledgements, after which there is an introduction, select bibliography, a note on the texts, and then timeline of the thinkers included here. After this material, which is nearly 50 pages of unnumbered pages, the book proper begins with an exploration of the pre-Socratic philosophers who survive–often barely–in the historical record. This part includes a look at the Milesians Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes, Xenophanes, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Zeno, Melissus, Pythagoras and his school, Anaxagoras, Empedocles, the atomists, and Diogenes. The second part of the book discusses the sophists, namely Protagoras, Gorgias, Prodicus, Hippias, Anitphon, Thrasymachus, Euthydemus and Dionysodorus. Each of the discussions contains three parts: an introduction that expresses the translator/editor’s own view of each philosopher and his work, translations of fragments and writings from others that discuss and evaluate the philosopher, and then sources. After that the author discusses the Double Arguments and various anonymous and miscellaneous texts before the book ends with explanatory and textual notes, a concordance with Diels/Kranz, and an index of translated passages.

And that is an open question. Is it worth getting to know the first philosophers? The translator/editor obviously thinks so. If he views the presocratic philosophers as generally having the wrong answers, he appreciates their agnosticism and the questions that they ask of the earth. And it is similarly clear that the author appreciates the political aspects of the sophists, and seems also to want to defend the ethical interests of some of the philosophers who have been lumped into that school as well. All of that invites the question on the part of the reader as to whether a sophist who has ethical concerns and an appreciation of moral development that comes from philosophical learning is really a sophist at all. Even as a reader who has a certain degree of skepticism about the approach of most of these philosophers, it is clear that some of them are well worth knowing at times for the content of their thinking (Heraclitus, for example), and some for the questions that they brought up (Zeno, for example), but it is rare when a philosopher here has a moral perspective that is worth appreciating. There are a few, and those are to be treasured, but even here it depends on how one interprets their fragmentary thinking, whether kindly or not.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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