Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.01.12

J.H. Lesher, The Greek Philosophers: selected Greek texts from the Presocratics, Plato, and Aristotle.   London:  Bristol Classical Press, 1998.  Pp. viii, 147.  ISBN 1-85399-562-2.  £8.95.  



Reviewed by R.W. Sharples, University College London
Word count: 2200 words

This is not so much a sourcebook for the study of Greek philosophy, as a coursebook or reader written with the specific aim of providing a selection of texts suitable for study in the original Greek. In his preface L. remarks: "Sadly ... few classicists possess the training in philosophy required to do justice to [ancient philosophical] works. Yet few professional philosophers know enough ancient Greek to be able to teach directly from the Greek texts. As a result, students in both philosophy and classics programs rarely have any opportunity to study the works of the ancient Greek philosophers in any depth." He goes on to say that he hopes that providing both grammatical and philosophical commentary will help to counter the situation.

While sharing his regret at the situation described, and hoping that it will improve and that the importance of philosophy as an integral part of Greek (and Roman) culture and the need for philosophically informed approaches to it will be increasingly recognised by classicists in general, we should welcome L.'s book not just as a remedy for a problem but as a positive contribution in its own right to the subject and its teaching both in philosophy departments and in classics departments. Quite apart from their philosophical content, the texts in this book will also provide students with an introduction to a range of different styles of Greek prose. (On p.56 L. notes that "Anaxagoras, in standard archaic style, returns to the account of composition from which he began" in lines which are here omitted; to include them would have made that point clearer, and would not have imposed much extra burden on the students). There is however no explanation of metre; one cannot include everything, but a note in this regard on Xenophanes fr.14 (iambic trimeter + dactylic hexameter), in particular, might have been helpful. Each chapter ends with helpful and judicious suggestions for further reading in the modern literature. The book presupposes a prior knowledge of Greek equivalent to that gained from completing books 1 and 2 of Athenaze, and no prior philosophical knowledge.

L.'s extracts from the texts are short. That is welcome; some Greek language courses overestimate the amount of text that can be covered in detail in the teaching time available. L. estimates that each of his 16 sections requires three class contact-hours. In terms of the amount of Greek covered that is generous -- ch.6, for example, contains just 25 lines of Anaxagoras. L. does say that "students in classics will probably want to read larger amounts of Greek than can be gone over during class" (p.1). A large part of the three hours is however going to be spent in exposition of the philosophical arguments and the philosophical context of the extracts. For L. has emphatically not pulled his punches philosophically. Ch.14 is the account of the Active Intellect from Aristotle, De anima 3.5, which L. justly describes as a contender for the description "the hardest section of the hardest chapter in the hardest book of the history of philosophy"; some of the others, especially towards the end of the book, are almost as rich and complex in the philosophical and interpretative issues they raise. Even so, Parmenides could perhaps be tackled in less than the six hours L. envisages (p.1). L.'s introductions often give, in just two or three pages, masterful summaries of the whole works from which the extracts are taken and of the issues they raise.

In commenting on the individual chapters I have tried to judge the impression which may be gained by students with little or no prior knowledge of the subject; this is a review of the book as a pedagogical tool rather than as a series of philosophical interpretations -- though here too L. makes some interesting contributions. Ch.1 gives us two passages for each of the three Milesians, including Aristotle's account of Thales' material principle and the extant fragment of Anaximander. L.'s statement that "the Milesians appear to have regarded each other's accounts not as products of the poetic imagination to be praised or criticised on aesthetic grounds, but as factual accounts to be accepted, rejected or modified on the basis of how accurately they reflected the real nature of things" (p.4: italics mine) might lead unwary students to exaggerate the empirical element in Milesian thought; if Anaximander's objection to Thales was that, if everything was water, fire could never come to be, that is an argument based on our experience of the natures of two substances, but it is not a systematic attempt to test a theory by how well it corresponds to our experience of the world as a whole. p.4 suggests that Anaximander's apeiron is indeterminate in nature, but on p.8 the term is explained spatially, which may puzzle readers; that apeiron is for Anaximander probably indeterminate both in size and in qualitative distinctions is spelled out at p.53, but that is in the context of the discussion of Anaxagoras. L. mentions the question of whether Aristotle was right to present the Milesian archai as persisting substrates in connection with Thales (p.6) but not in connection with Anaximenes; his own formulation ("air is transformed into other sorts of things", p.11) avoids suggesting the Aristotelian view, but as students will encounter it in other textbooks some discussion might be in place.

Ch.2 gives us 15 fragments of Xenophanes, and ch.3 23 fragments of Heraclitus (including, helpfully, all four versions of the river-fragment; in connection with fr.49a it would have been a kindness to the reader to explain that Heraclitus Homericus is different from Heraclitus of Ephesus). Ch.4, on Parmenides, includes only fr.2, fr.7, the first nine lines of fr.8, the transition to the Way of Seeming from the end of fr.8, and fr.9. It is a pity not to have any of the prologue, though it is paraphrased in the introduction to the chapter. More regrettable from the perspective of philosophical interpretation are the omission of fr.6 (crucial for the identification of two rejected ways, and hence for Parmenides' whole strategy in the Way of Truth, and for Parmenides', or his goddess's, contempt for mortals) and the fact that we do not have more of fr.8, especially 38-41 for Parmenides' view of the relation between appearance and reality. L. himself regards Light and Night in the Way of Seeming as fundamental powers which Parmenides accepts provided they do not exist independently or imply not-being (p.35; cf. p.42, "when correctly understood as mutually interdependent and fully realized substances", and p.48 on Empedocles as developing the Way of Seeming); this interpretation is at least open to question, and L. has not had the space here to develop it fully. At p.37 the view attributed to "most translators" involves interpreting damÈ as active rather than, with L. himself, as passive; L. does not actually say this, so readers may be puzzled.

Ch.5 includes just 16 verses of Empedocles and 13 of testimonia to Democritus. The selection from Empedocles makes his thought appear more restricted to a standard "philosophical" agenda (epistemology, production of compounds from the elements) than it actually is -- nothing on the cosmic cycle or reincarnation, for example, and not much to demonstrate Empedocles' importance in the history of didactic poetry. Ch.6 consists of Anaxagoras, fr.12, on Mind; the commentary takes up the important insights of Lesher's 'Mind's knowledge and powers of control in Anaxagoras DK B12', Phronesis 40 (1996) 125-142.

Ch.7 comprises an extract from the speech of the Laws in Plato's Crito, together with Socrates' concluding comment. L.'s discussion, as always, is full and helpful, setting out the issues clearly (4 pages of introduction and 2 of commentary for 1 of text), and rightly favours the view that the Laws do not speak for Socrates or for Plato. Ch.8 is Meno's claim that arete differs in different cases and Socrates' insistence on a single eidos (71e-72d). L. well contrasts the Socratic and Platonic search for an essence with Wittgensteinian "family resemblance". Ch.9 is an extract from Diotima's speech in the Symposium (210e-211d), with an introduction highlighting Gregory Vlastos' criticisms in 'The individual as an object of love in Plato' (Platonic Studies, Princeton 1973, 3-34); ch.10 is the account of justice in the soul from Republic 4 443b-445a, introduced by an analysis of the argument of the Republic as a whole and of the relation between Platonic justice and justice as ordinarily understood. Ch. 11 examines the Theory of Forms, taking Timaeus 51b-52b as its text. The reference to the Receptacle as apprehended by "an illegitimate line of reasoning" is explained in the commentary (p.97), and a comparison with Parmenides is drawn, but it is left to teachers to explain why the introduction of the Receptacle as necessary (cf. 52c) can be seen as an answer to the Sophist's Parmenidean problems about the status of images (cf. 239d-240b).

The section on Aristotle begins with the appeal to study lower animals in Parts of Animals 1.5, its introduction spelling out general contrasts between Plato and Aristotle in metaphysics and epistemology. The grammar of the reference to the final cause at 645a24-26 is explained, but there is no general discussion of the place of teleology in Aristotelian biology; it might also have been mentioned at p.109 in ch.13, on the ergon argument from Nicomachean Ethics 1.7, where L. notes that "as a matter of logic ... it is entirely possible for the parts of an organism to have a function without the organism as a whole having one" (italics mine). The introduction to this chapter links the argument of 1.7 both with the discussion of contemplation in book 10 and also with present-day interest in virtue-ethics.

Ch.14 is the account of the Active Intellect in De anima 3.5 (also including part of 3.4). The reference at the end of the introduction (p.114) to contemporary debate about Aristotle's theory of soul and to the claim that it offers an alternative to mind-body dualism follows rather abruptly on the end of a discussion of intellect, which is, arguably, the part of soul which least well fits Aristotle's general hylomorphic position; not all readers may be sufficiently alert to the difference between soul and mind. L.'s argument that, for Aristotle, "each human intelligence possesses some portion of a deathless and eternal divine intelligence" and that this is "virtually the consensus ancient view of the nature of reason" (p.124) is a positive contribution to a very long-running debate. On p.125, should the end of line 8 not read "referring τούτου either..."?

Ch.15 is perhaps the most demanding in purely philosophical terms; it is the concluding chapter of the Posterior Analytics, on how knowledge of first principles can be achieved. L. rightly holds (p.137) that nous is not for Aristotle any sort of non-empirical intuition; in the introductory section of the chapter, at p.130, his position seems more aporetic, but what he says there needs to be read in conjunction with what he says at p.137 and also at p.138, where the exact location of the difficulty is made more explicit.

Ch.16, on the Unmoved Mover in Metaphysics labda, is introduced by a discussion of the relation between study of substance in general and study of the supreme substance, and of the systematic nature of Aristotle's thought as a whole. The chapter heading indicates that the extracts come from labda 6 and 7, but we are also given the discussion of goodness as immanent or transcendent, with the analogy of the order in an army and its commander, from the beginning of labda 10. Whether the Unmoved Mover, as L. claims, contains in its thought "the abstract conceptions of such entities", where "such entities" means either "all parts of the natural realm" or perhaps perfect specimens of such parts (pp.144-5) is controversial; and in saying that "all parts of the natural realm are inspired by the perfection embodied in an eternal and divine substance", he should perhaps have emphasised that, for all parts other than the heavenly spheres and (in some contexts) human beings, such inspiration does not involve intellection on the part of the aspirants themselves. L.'s interpretation of 1072b11-14 as implying that the Unmoved Mover is necessary for the existence of other things in all three senses of "necessary", including being "a force which counteracts natural impulses" (p.145), seems questionable; controversial, too, is the interpretation of the Unmoved Mover as an "organizing intelligence" (p.147: my italics). Just because readers familiar with Jewish, Christian or Muslim ideas are likely to interpret references to God in terms of efficient causation, a warning that Aristotle's position may be different would not be out of place.

Any review is likely to concentrate on points of disagreement or on what the reviewer would have done differently; I fear this review has been no exception. I should therefore emphasise in conclusion that any student who works through this book will have gained familiarity not only with a number of different styles of ancient Greek writing, and with the facility of the Greek language for expressing complex ideas, but also with some of the minds, and indeed some of the passages, which have been most influential in the history of human thought.

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