The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and Sophists

Salvator_Rosa_-_Démocrite_et_ProtagorasWhen one begins a study of Western philosophy, especially with a focus on the history of philosophy, Plato is the most common starting-point. That’s reasonable enough, since he was, as far as I know, the first major philosopher from whom we have a lot of material, and so influential that Alfred North Whitehead famously commented that the rest of Western philosophy is “footnotes to Plato.”

However, there were several philosophers who do predate Plato. The problem, though, is that we don’t have complete works from these men, just fragments and testimonia. Fortunately, The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and Sophists, translated and edited by Robin Waterfield, collects many of these fragments in an accessible way for a general audience. Waterfield also translated the edition of The Histories that I read and reviewed recently, and his translation is just as good here as it was for Herodotus (in style, of course, since I can’t vouch for accuracy), and his introduction and annotations are consistently helpful.

Now, the nature of this material presents a couple significant problems. One is that because we only have the testimonia of other writers and mere fragments of the philosophers’ own work it can be difficult to piece together exactly what their ideas were in some cases. Furthermore, it can be difficult to follow many of these sections. In any other book, but especially philosophy, I’m used to reading through extended arguments point-by-point. Here, though, we often only have bits-and-pieces of arguments, or summaries by later writers. Sometimes, I found Waterfield’s introductions to each section was clearer and more instructive than the source material he translates.

That said, anyone with an interest in philosophy, especially the history of philosophy, will find plenty of interest here. My favourite passages tend to be the short sayings and pieces of moral advice, since these don’t really suffer from the lack of context. For example, Democritus of Abdera’s advice, “A man who is content, and undertakes actions which are just and legal, is happy asleep or awake, healthy, and carefree. But a man who ignores justice and fails to act as he ought is distressed by the memory of his actions, frightened, and self-reproachful.” It reminds me of the Book of Proverbs’ “The wicked flee though no man pursueth, but the righteous step forward bold as a lion.”

Speaking of Democritus, there’s a testimonia from Cicero relating a story (which Cicero isn’t sure is true) that he blinded himself; he also neglected his own estate so he could focus on his enquiries without distraction. “Even if,” Cicero writes, “he located happiness in knowledge, still he wanted it to be a consequence of his enquiries that he should be of good cheer. After all, he calls the chief good ‘contentment’ and often ‘equanimity’, which is to say, a mind freed from fear.”

Many of the Presocratics seem primarily concerned with metaphysics and cosmology. There’s a lot of speculation about the heavens, origins, and fundamental matter. It’s not a subject I have much interest in typically, even when I get a full argument, and I’m unsure how much those with more interest in the subject will get out of it, except as a historical curiosity, due to the fragmentary nature of most of it.

The Sophists seem more interested in rhetoric, though they occasionally touch on other topics, as well. Antiphon, for example, offers some more moral observations such as, “There is nothing worse for men than lack of discipline. It was recognition of this fact that led earlier generations of men to accustom their sons to discipline, and to doing what they were told, right from the start. The idea was that when they were grown up they should not be upset by any serious changes they met.”

Antiphon also seems to have been an early universalist. In one fragment, he writes that “by nature there is nothing at all in our constitutions to differentiate foreigners and Greeks.” He continues later, “For we all breathe the air through our mouths and nostrils, laugh when our minds feel pleasure or cry when we are distressed; we hear sounds with our ears; we see with our eyes thanks to daylight; we work with our hands and walk with our feet.” The structure of this argument reminds me of Shylock’s famous speech from The Merchant of Venice beginning “Hath not a Jew eyes?”

Gorgias of Leontini (his friends knew him as “Gorgeous”) is one of the best-known figures in the book, known partly for appearing in Plato’s dialogues and for his own work, The Encomium of Helen. Much of his work concerns the art of rhetoric; in The Encomium, for example, he writes:

The power of the spoken word bears the same relation to the arrangement of the mind as that of drugs does to the conditions of bodies. For just as various drugs expel various humours from the body, and some put an end to illness while others put an end to life, so some words cause distress, others pleasure, and others fear, while some arouse courage in those who hear them, and others drug and bewitch the mind by some evil persuasion.

“Gorgeous” Gorgias’s view of rhetoric is summed up well by Protarchus, a pupil of his, in an excerpt from Plato’s Philebus, “when I heard Gorgias speak he often used to say that the art of persuasion is easily the most outstanding science, the reason being that it enslaves everything in voluntary, unconstrained submission to itself; it is, in other words, the most noble science by a long way.”

Waterfield collects work from about two dozen philosophers, so it’s impossible to do justice to all of them in a brief review. Is it worth reading? I found the book wildly hit-and-miss, simply due to the nature of any anthology, and especially one with source material as fragmented as this, but would still say that it’s a must-read for anyone interested in the history of Western philosophy or who wants a greater familiarity with the Greek Classics. For a general reader, though, it’s safe to start with Plato and Aristotle, and come to this work later.

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