The First Philosophers : The Presocratics and Sophists, Paperback

The First Philosophers : The Presocratics and Sophists Paperback

Edited by Robin Waterfield

Part of the Oxford World's Classics series

5 out of 5 (1 rating)


The first philosophers paved the way for the work of Plato and Aristotle - and hence for the whole of Western thought.

Aristotle said that philosophy begins with wonder, and the first Western philosophers developed theories of the world which express simultaneously their sense of wonder and their intuition that the world should be comprehensible.

But their enterprise was by no means limited to this proto-scientific task.

Through, for instance, Heraclitus' enigmatic sayings, the poetry of Parmenides and Empedocles, and Zeno's paradoxes, the Western world was introduced to metaphysics, rationalist theology, ethics, and logic, by thinkers who often seem to be mystics or shamans as much as philosophers or scientists in the modern mould. And out of the Sophists' reflections on human beings and their place in the world arose and interest in language, and in political, moral, and social philosophy.

This volume contains a translation of all the most important fragments of the Presocratics and Sophists, and of the most informative testimonia from ancient sources, supplemented by lucid commentary. ABOUT THE SERIES: For over 100 years Oxford World's Classics has made available the widest range of literature from around the globe.

Each affordable volume reflects Oxford's commitment to scholarship, providing the most accurate text plus a wealth of other valuable features, including expert introductions by leading authorities, helpful notes to clarify the text, up-to-date bibliographies for further study, and much more.




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Western philosophy was born in Greece in the 6th century BCE. It is no coincidence that this is when the Greeks became a literate culture, as writing is an essential prerequisite to the transmission of complex ideas. Unfortunately the original writings of philosophers before Plato have perished; all we have are fragments quoted in other works and the commentaries of others on their ideas. These "Presocratic" philosophers are still no less important to the development of Western thought than Plato, Aristotle, and the others who built on their ideas.The Sophists were a group of teachers active in Athens at the time of Socrates and Plato. They tutored upper class young men and gave lectures, all for a fee. In training men for political and legal careers, they emphasized being able to argue either side of an issue, not necessarily finding the truth, so they were often ridiculed as mercenary teachers of elocution and rhetoric rather than great thinkers. The term "sophistry" is still used derogatorily. Yet many of them produced works of original thought as well, and deserve to be ranked as contributors to our intellectual heritage.Robin Waterfield, the translator, has organized the bits of surviving information about these men into two categories: fragments (their own words, usually quoted or paraphrased by someone else), and testimonia (comments by other classical philosophers and historians on their ideas). Each philosopher or school is in its own chapter, Presocratics first, then Sophists. Each chapter has an introduction of several pages summarizing the philosopher's ideas and contributions. The fragments and testimonia are then arranged in a sequence that logically presents the source material for that person. The fragments and testimonia are numbered and cross-referenced to the introduction, so you can either read the essay first, then the source material, or read each fragment or testimony as it is mentioned in the introduction. There are end-notes to explain names and obscure references. I found the organization of this book to be perfect in the way it clearly distinguished the ideas of each philosopher, explained them in a clear and readable manner, pointed out which ideas were original and which had been passed down from a predecessor, and clearly distinguished what the philosopher had himself said from what was attributed to him.Philosophy in the 6th and 5th centuries BCE was a much broader field than what we now associate with the term. It included not only abstract thought and the nature of knowledge, but religion, astronomy, physics, biology and medicine. There is great variety in what the philosophers represented here chose to write upon:-- Anaximander of Miletus, for example, developed a theory for the origin of life that we would be tempted to call proto-evolution, as he imagined all life coming originally from the sea. -- Zeno of Elea grappled with the idea of infinity and finally concluded "If every existing thing is infinitely divisible into parts, then either nothing exists or everything is one." He also famously argued that motion is impossible! Because before you can reach your goal you must reach the halfway point...then the halfway point of the remaining distance...then the next halfway point...and so on. Since there are an infinite number of halfway points, it would take an infinite amount of time to move even the shortest distance.-- Pythagoras, known chiefly as a geometer, explored the nature of the soul and believed in reincarnation. He preached vegetarianism and, for unknown reasons, the avoidance of beans. His disciple Empedocles of Acragas wrote emphatically: "Wretches, utter wretches, keep your hands off beans!"-- Empedocles also gave us the theory of the four elements--earth, water, fire, and air--which Aristotle later developed and which remained state-of-the-art knowledge for two millennia.-- The amazing Atomists, Leucippus and Democritus of Abdera, using no instruments but their intellect, developed the atomic theory that is still the basis for our understanding of the universe: All matter consists of combinations of a few basic elements comprised of tiny, indivisible particles separated by empty space. You have to read the ideas of their predecessors to realize how truly revolutionary a notion this was at the time. They also correctly described the formation of the earth, stars and planets from spirals of material in a vacuum condensing into solid bodies. They knew that the sun, moon and stars were solid bodies just like the earth, and postulated the existence of other worlds, other moons, and other suns. Centuries before Galileo they theorized that some worlds could have several moons and even multiple suns.-- Protagoras the Sophist declared that "Man is the measure of all things." What he meant by this, though, was not our concept of Renaissance humanism, but the idea that what we know of the universe and ourselves is based entirely on the evidence of our senses, and one man's senses are as valid as another. If I say the vase is red and you say it is green, then it is both red and green; it has no intrinsic properties, and there is no such thing as an absolute truth. All is perception.The above are just samples of the often profound but sometimes laughable ideas presented in this marvelous volume. Robin Waterfield's writing and translations are superb. Best of all, you can enjoy this book with no background in philosophy whatsoever, because this is where it all begins.

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