Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.06.17

Gregory Vlastos, Studies in Greek Philosophy, Volume I: The Presocratics. Edited by Daniel W. Graham. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995. Pp. xxxiv + 389. $49.50. ISBN 0-691-03310-2.

Reviewed by Robin Waterfield, Teddington, UK.

This is the first in a set of two volumes collecting all of Vlastos' essays on ancient Greek philosophy. It is particularly useful because although most of his essays on the Presocratics have at one time or another been anthologized, they are still hard to come by en masse, especially since D.J. Furley and R.E. Allen's two-volume Studies in Presocratic Philosophy (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970/1975) is apparently out of print. There is no doubt, given Vlastos' seminal importance in the field, that the two volumes will between them constitute an essential advanced course in topics in ancient philosophy.

The volumes have been put together by Daniel Graham. For our volume, he has provided immensely useful indexes, a preface, introduction, and other apparatus such as a list of abbreviations. The General Index may list only main entries; for instance, I wanted to check something on Melissus, but only one out of the three entries -- albeit the most important one -- is listed (the others are pp. 220 and 242, by the way). The Index Locorum, however, seems very thorough.

The Preface explains the genesis of the book. The Introduction contains a brief biography and an even briefer survey of the essays included in the book. The biography is moderately eulogistic in tone, but no more than Vlastos deserves; it also squares well with my own memories of the man, gleaned from a shared term in St Andrews when he was the Gifford Lecturer there.

Almost as soon as Vlastos began to devote himself to ancient philosophy, the Presocratics occupied a great deal of his attention. So most of the essays in this volume are early or earlyish pieces, spanning the 1940s to the 1960s. It is hugely to his credit that despite their age, and despite the fact that several of them were written as book reviews, every single one of these essays deserves reading and re-reading, and most of them have become fundamental to the study of the Presocratic thinker or topic in question.

Graham has divided the essays into four categories: 'Concept Studies', 'Heraclitus', 'The Eleatics', and 'The Pluralists'. The first section contains 'Theology and Philosophy in Early Greek Thought', 'Solonian Justice', 'Equality and Justice in Early Greek Cosmologies', 'Isonomia', and 'Cornford's Principium Sapientiae'. The second section contains only 'On Heraclitus'. The third section contains Vlastos' five famous essays on Zeno, and also 'Parmenides' Theory of Knowledge', 'Fraenkel's Wege und Formen frühgriechischen Denkens', and 'Raven's Pythagoreans and Eleatics'. The final section contains 'The Physical Theory of Anaxagoras', 'Ethics and Physics in Democritus' and 'On the Pre-history in Diodorus'.

The only works of Vlastos' on the Presocratics which Graham decided to exclude (apart from that which occurs incidentally elsewhere, such as the first chapter of Plato's Universe) are briefer reviews (such as those in Gnomon 25 (1953), pp. 166-9, of J. Zafiropoulo, L'École Éleate, and in Philosophical Review 59 (1950), pp. 124-6, of F.M. Cleve, The Philosophy of Anaxagoras), and the article on Zeno from W. Kaufmann (ed.), Philosophical Classics (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1961), because this was so thoroughly superseded by Vlastos' later work on Zeno.

Vlastos used the tools of analytical philosophy and a kind of passionate curiosity about his subject to solve problems in ancient philosophy. Several of the solutions proposed in this volume seem to me to be incontrovertible, and have entered the secondary literature as such. I am thinking of theses such as the influence of the political concept of isonomia on the earliest Presocratics, the balance of theology and philosophy in the Presocratics, the nature of the influence of the Milesians on Heraclitus, and the non-existence of Pythagorean 'number-atomism' as a target of Eleatic criticism, to mention only four. It may be that some of these theses need a little fine-tuning, but broadly they do seem pretty secure to me.

By fine-tuning, I mean, for instance, that in one respect Vlastos may have over-estimated the influence of Anaximander on Heraclitus. He is concerned (p. 143, during the essay 'On Heraclitus') to attribute Heraclitus' idea that there is always justice or equilibrium in the world, however much flux or strife there may be, to the influence of Anaximander's famous fragment. Whereas Anaximander had suggested that the opposites encroach upon one another, until they are 'punished', Heraclitus denied the possibility of such encroachment, if that is seen as a kind of excess. There can be no excess, because justice is, for Heraclitus, universal. But why should we attribute this insight to the influence of Anaximander? Why should not both thinkers be reflecting, in slightly different ways, on the common Greek view of justice as a system of checks and balances? Dike is something that is given and received by the parties involved. The fact that the words DI/KH and XREW/N crop up in both Heraclitus B80 and Anaximander B1 is neither here nor there: only the use of XREW/N may be significant, since it is hard to see what word other than DI/KH they or anyone else might have used.

But this is a minor point, the merest quibble. Broadly, as I say, it is clear that many of Vlastos' theses have weathered well. Now, it is hard in the space of a review to comment fairly on a work of this scope and complexity. Thorough criticism of even a single essay is well beyond my brief here. It will be more useful to focus on general trends, and what I choose to do is comment primarily on a tendency Vlastos displays, which is the tendency to exaggerate. Once in a while, I find myself thinking that a solution he has proposed to a problem may be elegant, but is also somewhat far-fetched, or at least removed from the primary evidence. It is as if, in Socratic fashion, he has been carried by the logos he has created to a conclusion which, considered baldly, is implausible.

A clear case of this tendency comes in the essay 'Parmenides' Theory of Knowledge'. Vlastos collates evidence from Theophrastus and elsewhere that for Parmenides memory-loss is caused by dark beginning to dominate light, and that his theory of sense-perception depends on the presence in us of both light and dark. In short, any admixture of darkness falls short of knowledge. Vlastos therefore concludes that for Parmenides true knowledge is involved with nothing but light. 'The mind's power to think Being must imply just such a power ... to merge itself wholly with the light, and thus be as changeless as light' (pp. 158-9).

Surely this goes too far. Such a person could only be discarnate, or perhaps a god, but not a mortal human being. But B8.35-6 certainly offers us mortal humans the possibility of 'thinking Being', despite the fact that Parmenides recognizes that as mortals we are inextricably bound up with both light and darkness (B16.1-2).

One piece of evidence Vlastos draws on in support of his hypothesis is the Proem, which he sees as an allegorical journey from darkness to light (pp. 159-60). But has Vlastos got the direction of the journey right? If W. Burkert ('Das Proömium des Parmenides und die Katabasis des Pythagoras', Phronesis 14 (1969), pp. 1-30) and others are right, the Proem describes a katabasis, in which case it may actually be a journey away from light (see also J. Mansfeld, Die Offenbarung des Parmenides und die menschliche Welt (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1964), chapter 4; D.J. Furley, 'Notes on Parmenides', in E.N. Lee et al. (eds), Exegesis and Argument (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1973), pp. 1-15, at pp. 1-5; M.C. Nussbaum, 'Eleatic Conventionalism and Philolaus on the Conditions of Thought', Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 83 (1979), pp. 63-108, at pp. 68-9; D. Gallop, Parmenides of Elea (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984, pp. 6-7). One possible implication of this is that the goal of Parmenides' journey may ultimately transcend both light and darkness. What makes this interpretation all the more plausible is that we are constantly warned by Parmenides not to cut Being up, since it is all one. Parmenides' insight, then, should be into a realm of unity, not one where one of the opposites is dominant. So the basic implausibility of Vlastos's interpretation lies in the fact that he is completely separating darkness from light, which in fact, so far from being something knowledge does, is more likely to be an effort of doxa. As human beings, it is precisely because we consist of both light and dark that we have the possibility of transcending both. For further evidence from early Greek thought of the compatibility between light and darkness and of the origins of light in darkness, see P. Kingsley, Ancient Philosophy, Mystery and Magic (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), chapter 5.

Here is another instance of the same tendency in Vlastos. In this case, carried along by the conviction of his own insight, he tries to foist it on us rather dogmatically. Close to the beginning of his important discussion of Anaxagoras' 'seeds', he delivers his interpretation, which is that every seed contains in minute portions every substance, and that the particular character of any particular seed is given by the predominance within it of some single substance. In other words, seeds are basic ingredients of the cosmogonic process. All the materials of the finished world existed in the cosmic matrix as seeds. My point is that Vlastos tells us, about SPE/RMATA PA/NTWN XRHMA/TWN in B4, 'Wherever the expression "all things" occurs in the fragments, it means just what it says; it would be forcing the texts to take it in any other way' (p. 306). Of course, this dogmatic certainty is not the only argument Vlastos produces in support of his theory, but it sets the tone. And as a matter of fact, it is not the only possible reading of the expression in B4; see especially M. Schofield, An Essay on Anaxagoras (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), pp. 123-32.

Perhaps all I'm saying here is that Vlastos's aims occasionally clash with his style of presentation. He would not want us to be carried along, or carried away, by the force of his own conviction and clarity. More realistically, he is asking us to examine and re-examine evidence. That was his special forte. He was a brilliant exegete of ancient philosophical texts, but also a modest man -- modest enough to listen to others' views and to modify his own.

I conclude this topic with a couple of worries -- by which I mean that I cannot here fully articulate the reasons for these worries. The first worry has to do with Zeno. Reading Vlastos's essays on Zeno one is almost overwhelmed by the intelligence that has gone into the reconstructions of particular fragments. All the same, I worry that Vlastos's Zeno sometimes seems 100 years ahead of his time. In 'A Note on Zeno's Arrow', for instance, Vlastos has Zeno come up with a sense of topos as 'a space fitting so tightly the thing's own dimensions as to leave it no room to move' (p. 207).

Now, it seems to me that this is more or less identical with the definition of topos as 'the limit of the containing body' that Aristotle had to work pretty hard to achieve (Physics 212a6). If so, it is implausible to suggest that eno was just taking it for granted 100 or so years earlier. Vlastos might perhaps reply that what he was attributing to Zeno was in fact not Aristotle's finished definition of topos, but one of Aristotle's six axioms about topos (210b32-211a7), namely that topos is 'the immediate container of that of which it is the topos' (210b34-211a1). In this case it might be plausible to suggest that Zeno is precisely Aristotle's source for this axiom. But the notion of an 'immediate container' is purposely vague, and certainly doesn't satisfy the 'fitting so tightly ...' aspect of what Vlastos attributes to Zeno. An 'immediate container' could be at a little distance from the object it contains, thus leaving the arrow room to move.

If it is implausible to suggest that Zeno anticipated Aristotle's defintion of topos, perhaps all we need, to generate the paradox, is the looser expression paraphrased by Aristotle as E)/STI A)EI\ TO\ FERO/MENON E)N TW=| NU=N KATA\ TO\ I)/SON (Physics 239b6), which is in itself not to say much more than 'at any given moment a thing is where it is'. For a less sophisticated Zeno than Vlastos's, with a less sophisticated audience, that may have been enough to get the paradox (if not the arrow!) moving. It also reinstates time as an important element in the paradox, rather than making place alone the critical factor, as Vlastos does (on this issue see J. Lear, 'A Note on Zeno's Arrow', Phronesis 26 (1981), pp. 91-104).

To argue fully that Zeno is a less elaborate thinker (though no less acute) than we find in the pages of Vlastos could be the subject of a book, and is certainly unsuited to a review. I here only mention the worry, and point out, ad hominem, that elsewhere (pp. 233-7) Vlastos allows Zeno to make a relatively simple error. In B1 Vlastos rightly has Zeno assume that 'The sum of every infinite set whose every member has finite size must be infinitely large.' We can take a passage from Aristotle (Physics 206b7-9) to show what is wrong with this: 'If, in a finite magnitude, you take a determinate amount and add to it not by taking the same fraction of the whole, but the same proportion of what remains, you will never traverse the finite magnitude.' Vlastos concludes, with obvious regret, 'Our clever eno has walked into a booby trap.' If even Vlastos's Zeno is capable of relatively simple errors, it is worth remembering, I believe, that Aristotle, our best witness to Zeno, finds him arguing (in A21, at least) FORTIKW=S.

So I worry about the level of sophistication in Vlastos's eno. This dovetails with my second worry, which is far more general. It has to do with the degree to which all the Presocratics, or all aspects of any single Presocratic, may be susceptible to the hard analytic tools that Vlastos brings to bear on them. Personally, where Heraclitus is concerned, for instance, I find myself more sympathetic to the approach C.H. Kahn adopts (in The Art and Thought of Heraclitus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979)), which allows for linguistic density and meaningful ambiguity in the fragments as well as hard and interesting philosophy, and seems to have come up with productive results. Vlastos, however, is always trying to pin Heraclitus down. It is worth remembering how Mourelatos masterfully unpacks even the apparently super-logical Parmenides (at B16, at any rate) into three distinct legitimate translations (A.P.D. Mourelatos, The Route of Parmenides (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), pp. 253-9). As I have argued elsewhere (Before Eureka (The Bristol Press, 1989)), some Presocratic thought is poetic and visionary rather than a forerunner of analytical philosophy. Still, the results obtained by the analytical approach to ancient philosophy are often rewarding, and no one is better at extracting these rewards than Vlastos.

I have to end this review with two pedantic complaints. First, an editorial decision has been taken to transliterate 'the shorter Greek passages' (p. xi). But this is often completely pointless. Who on earth is the following sentence supposed to help (it is one of a great many examples in the book)? '[Kirk] argues this at length in his commentary on B30, KO/SMON TO/NDE, TO\N AU)TO\N A(PA/NTWN, OU)/TE TIS QEW=N OU)/TE A)NQRW/PWN E)POI/HSEN etc., to condemn ton auton hapanton as a gloss' (pp. 132-3). Obviously it takes just as much knowledge of Greek to understand the transliteration, since it refers to the Greek just quoted, as it does to read the Greek itself.

My second complaint is that there are too many misprints in the book -- far more than one would expect from a university press. True, sometimes these have merely been inherited from the original source of the reprinted essay; but that is no excuse, and even argues for a degree of carelessness at some stage in the editorial process. I cannot claim to have caught all such errors (I certainly haven't checked bibliographic references or the indexes), and many of them are pretty trivial; but mistakes in this quantity, however trivial, are irritating, and so I feel moved to list them in the hope that such a list may be of some help to readers of the first edition, and to Princeton University Press in preparing the soft-cover edition which will undoubtedly follow in due course.1


  • [1] The full list, sent to the Press, includes 23, n.84.2 'politics' not 'polities'; 24, n.89.11 'no' not 'so'; 97, n.37.1 'he' not 'be'; 134, n.19.16 'this' not 'thus'; 135, n.24.2 'this' not 'thus'; 197, n.30.5 'flagrantly' not 'fragmently'; 262.29 '1953' not '1933'; 271, n.22.2 insert 'that' between 'says' and 'at'; 274.24 insert 'of' between 'proof' and 'not-P'; 335.13 insert 'thought' vel sim. before 'is still'; 353, n.14.6 'onomatos' not 'nomatos'.