Early Greek Philosophy
Edited and translated by André Laks and Glenn W Most
Loeb Classical Library, Harvard
University Press
Nine volumes
Hardback, £16.95 per volume

In the ancient Greek world, the 6th and 5th centuries BC were a time of momentous change. These centuries witnessed the birth of philosophy, and with it the birth of the modern mind. Early 6th-century thinkers like Pherecydes and Parmenides were still steeped in a mythical consciousness, for which the gods and spirit-realms were both real and accessible. Pherecydes' thought moves in and out of myth, as if constantly probing the dream-like fabric of living deities that composed his world, in an attempt to awake to a more purely conceptual understanding. Parmenides' great philosophical poem opens with an otherworldly journey to the gate that guards the paths of Day and Night, beyond which he encounters a mysterious goddess, who teaches him the difference between truth and opinion. In the writings of these and other early thinkers we witness the birth pangs of philosophy. By the end of the 5th century, a new consciousness has emerged. Socrates has lived and died. Plato is a young man and he and Aristotle are about to lay the foundations of a new era.

I have for years depended on the collection by Kirk and Raven, The Presocratic Philosophers, as the first point of access to the fragmentary texts and testimonia of the early Greek thinkers who preceded Plato and Aristotle. The publication of the Loeb Classical Library's nine-volume set, Early Greek Philosophy, gives us a new edition of the original texts, with fresh translations. It is a monumental achievement – the result of many years of dedicated work on the part of the two editors/translators André Laks and Glenn W Most, supported by assistants. It provides us with an invaluable additional resource, far more extensive than Kirk and Raven.

The nine volumes are divided into four main sections, prefaced by introductory and reference materials in Volume 1. This volume is crucial. If you can only afford to buy two volumes, make sure one of them is Volume 1, for it contains two vital lists of concordances, a list of abbreviations and an essential preface explaining how the translations in the subsequent volumes are organised. The four sections are: (1) Beginnings and Early Ionian Thinkers (Volumes 2 and 3), covering such thinkers as Pherecydes, Thales and Heraclitus; (2) Western Greek Thinkers (Volumes 4 and 5), covering Pythagoras, Parmenides and others; (3) Later Ionian and Athenian Thinkers (Volumes 6 and 7), including Anaxagoras, Leucippus and Democritus; and (4) Sophists (Volumes 8 and 9), including Protagoras, Gorgias, Socrates, Antiphon and many more.

The texts and testimonia the volumes comprise are organised under three main categories: biographical information (P), doctrine (D) and the reception of the doctrine in antiquity (R). This seems a useful and helpful way of organising such diverse material, but the categories are only explained in Volume 1, and someone purchasing any other volume may struggle to work out what the recurring letters P, D and R stand for. This is one example of how these volumes are not very reader-friendly.

This lack of reader-friendliness is also evidenced in the absence of an index, and in the omission of the names of any philosophers from the spines or front covers of the nine volumes, so if you want to look up Parmenides or Heraclitus you have to guess which one contains their writings.

These minor grievances, however, should not put off the interested reader, for they detract only a little from the magnificent achievement that Early Greek Philosophy represents. We owe a profound debt of gratitude to the editors/translators for their thorough and impeccable scholarship, and to the publishers for their usual high standards of production. If you can afford them, don't hesitate: you will be all the richer for having these volumes on your shelves.
Dr Jeremy Naydler

 

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