Ancient History & Civilisation


So much of our information about the Presocratic philosophers and the Sophists is fragmentary or otherwise obscure that the temptation was to write a book in which the amount of commentary outweighed the amount of translated material. I have resisted this temptation. After a short introduction, each thinker has been allowed to speak as much as possible for himself, or, failing that, at least to be heard, however faintly at times, through the work of ancient commentators. There is a great deal of secondary ancient material, especially about the Presocratics, whose importance was generally recognized in ancient times. It is therefore well beyond the scope of a book such as this to hope for completeness. Rather, my policy has been to translate the majority of the actual fragments themselves, and a small proportion of the ancient testimonia, concentrating on those passages which are both important and relatively clear in their own right (so as to continue to let the thinkers speak for themselves as much as possible), and which seem to me to be relatively faithful to the original thinker or at least to make it plain that they are distorting him, and how they are doing so.

A few scholars are perhaps over-pessimistic about our chances of recovering the thought of the Presocratics and Sophists. In some cases we have enough genuine fragments to test the validity of the secondary testimonia; in some cases the material surrounding shorter fragments can cast light on the original context. Nevertheless, there is an immense amount of discussion among modern scholars about what each of these thinkers really thought. Naturally, scholars prefer to rely as much as possible on the actual fragments themselves, but in the case of none of these first Western philosophers are there ever quite enough of these for us to be able to see the whole picture.1 In addition, a lot of the fragments are devilishly obscure. The most unsatisfactory aspect of writing this book has been the need to omit a great deal of the scholarly arguments and counter-arguments which support certain conclusions: when whole books have been written about, say, Heraclitus, Parmenides, and Empedocles, how can one compress the evidence and the deductions from that evidence into twenty or so pages?2 But that is the necessary policy of this book, and in order to keep to it I have appended longer bibliographies than a volume like this might usually warrant. In the case of the Presocratics and Sophists reference to modern works is indispensable, since many readers will want further guidance. However, let me urge readers to start studying these thinkers simply by thinking for themselves about what any of them might have been meaning. For all the scholarly work that has gone into the area, there is little consensus: your own ideas, based firmly on the available evidence as presented in this book, are as good a way into the thought of the first philosophers as those of the most eminent of academic scholars.

The strategy necessarily adopted in this book, of assigning each thinker his own section, works satisfactorily in the case of the Presocratics, but not quite so well in the case of the Sophists. It helps to show that they were individual thinkers, not members of a school, but a great deal of material that it would be right to call ‘Sophistic’ is embedded in occasional contexts in other fifth-century writers (especially the historians, Hippocratics, and dramatists), or reflected in fourth-century literature (especially Plato). In the case of the Sophists, then, I strongly recommend supplementing this book by reading the thematic approach to the movement adopted by, say, Guthrie [10], vol. iii, or Kerferd [97].

Work on this book involved a particularly intensive use of libraries. I would like to thank the following Bloomsbury institutions and their staff: the library of the Institute of Classical Studies; the British Library; the library of University College London; the Warburg Institute Library. Individuals to whom I owe thanks for having, in one way or another, eased the process of writing this book, are: Yuri Stoyanov, Stela Tomasevic and Jurgen Quick, Clive Priddle, David and Jane Vaughan, Martin Buckley and Penny Lawrence, Melissa Hawkins, Philip and Briar Maxwell, John Bussanich, and Ingrid Gottschalk. As usual, Judith Luna’s combination of patience and clear thinking made her the ideal editor.

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