BMCR 1995.06.05

1995.06.05, Cohen, Curd and Reeve (eds.), Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy

, , The original sceptics : a controversy. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co, 1997. xiii, 155 pages ; 22 cm. ISBN 9780872203136 $42.95 (hb).

This collection of recycled, and in some cases precycled, material from Hackett’s list of translations of Greek philosophy is “intended to introduce readers to a broad selection of some of the greatest of the ancient Greek philosophers” (Introd. vii). Hackett’s catalogue for Fall 1994 (p. 1) identifies these readers as “introductory students”. These translations, with little annotation and brief introductions, do represent at least the raw material for introductory courses in Greek philosophy, although some significant omissions (see below) ensure that they will be more useful for courses in Philosophy than in Classics departments.

The editors advocate these texts (Introd. viii) on the general grounds that Greek philosophy invented “critical rationality”, and advanced theories “to be accepted or rejected on the basis of evidence and argument”. But while the same editors also claim that Greek philosophers “recognised that there were profoundly non-rational elements in the world” (ix), and thereby resembled “their fellow poets and tragedians”, they omit the analysis of such compatriots found in Aristotle’s Poetics, and Plato’s discussion of mimesis at Republic III, 392c-398b. (This does not, however, prevent the cover of this book from being decorated with a photograph of the theatre at Epidauros!) Also missing is Socrates’ speech at Phaedrus (243a-257b), a text that “essays to describe an interaction of reason and inspiration as intimate as could be wished” (to quote M.F. Burnyeat, BICS 24 [1977] 13), although Hackett has available a new, and quite superb, translation of this work by A. Nehamas and P. Woodruff. Rhetoric too deals with the interplay of reason and emotion, yet we get nothing from Book 2 of Aristotle’s Rhetoric where the orator is coached on the emotions. Is this excluded material itself lacking in critical rationality, or does the fault lie with its subject matter?

The Presocratics and Sophists (1-82). This section will need to be extensively complemented, probably by a textbook such as J.M. Robinson’s durable An Introduction to Early Greek Philosophy (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1st. ed. 1968), or Hackett’s own useful Philosophy Before Socrates by R.D. McKirahan jr. published last year (and the source of most of the translations in this section). To read, for example, Heraclitus’ fragments (25-34) unaided is a fascinating, if rather bizarre, experience that may not immediately convince beginners that they are being exposed to critical rationality. The Sophists are treated dismissively (one paragraph in the Introduction at p. 5) as an appendix to the Presocratics, although outside Philosophy departments they are being excitingly reevaluated in the burgeoning field of rhetoric. Gorgias’Encomium of Helen, a very accessible piece of argument, indeed a paradigm of critical rationality, should have been given in full, not in the unhelpfully truncated form (78-79) taken over from McKirahan’s book (376-377).

Plato’s early and middle-period dialogues (83-472). This material will be more readily accessible, but that is due more to Plato’s qualities as a writer than to any contribution by the editors. There are the usual works needed for introductions to Plato ( Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno in full; Protagoras, Gorgias, Phaedo, Symposium, and Republic in selections), mostly in the late G.M.A. Grube’s tried and trusted versions. There are also useful selections from Hackett’s forthcoming Parmenides (by M.L. Gill and P. Ryan, whose version of 127b-128d is preferable to McKirahan’s at 57-58), and Timaeus (by D.J. Zeyl). Perhaps some material from the Theaetetus could have been added to demonstrate Plato’s continuing preoccupation with epistemology. Selections from within dialogues create a problem at Phaedo 77c (p. 215), where an “introductory student” will not readily understand the reference to the argument from opposites (at 70c-72e) when the selection begins just as that argument ends.

Aristotle (473-750). The translations here are mostly the work of G. Fine and T.H. Irwin, in advance of their forthcoming anthology chez Hackett. As noted, the Poetics and Rhetoric are not represented, nor, despite a growing interest in Aristotle’s biology in recent years, and the late Montgomery Furth’s efforts to establish its philosophical significance, do we get anything more from this part of the corpus than the methodological Parts of Animals I, chs. 1 and 5. But there is more than enough to cover a strenuous journey from the Categories to the Ethics and Politics, with stops en route to consider problems in the philosophy of science, the theory of change, and in teleology, metaphysics, and psychology. This material is more heavily annotated than the rest of the volume, and supported by a glossary (767-786). But these may not always help the beginner. The notes are particularly elliptical (nowhere, for example, is “OCT” explained), and it is puzzling to tell a student that phantasia“might be”(!) translated “imagination” as well as “appearance” (see also the confusing note on p. 768). The brief and despairing notes on De Anima III.5 will also not help anyone appreciate the most influential of all Aristotelian texts.

There are “Suggestions for Further Reading” (751-755) (Barnes ed., The Cambridge Companion to Aristotle [Cambridge, 1995] arrived too late to be included), but with no guidance on their differing value to the “introductory student”.

Hackett has effectively served the interests of both teaching and scholarship in Greek philosophy over the past twenty years by offering well-produced and reasonably-priced volumes by major scholars. The present derivative anthology may not be quite as effective as its other recent ventures in this field. Even if the paperback price of Readings makes it attractive to instructors, it is still only a basic propaideutic. The contemporary trend (as in the revised Penguin editions, the Clarendon Plato and Aristotle, and Hackett’s own excellent Nicomachean Ethics by Irwin) is towards presenting Greek philosophical texts with notes and commentary. As the humanities continue their precipitous decline, and classical texts in philosophy and many other fields assume an increasingly hieroglyphic status for students, this kind of presentation will become all the more essential. Perhaps it can soon be achieved by machine-readable annotated texts that can be readily revised and updated. Maybe there could be a students’ version of the elitist Project Archelogos, currently under way for Greek philosophy. The kind of basic anthology reviewed here may indeed have outlived its usefulness for instructional purposes.

The general quality of the translations in this volume is high, but inevitably close engagement engenders queries. In conclusion I note just one that arose in reading the selections from the Republic (253-431), here in Grube’s translations as revised by Reeve (first published in 1992). Reeve has on the whole made Grube’s prose rather more supple, but in one famous passage has, I believe, incorrectly altered its meaning. This is in Book I where Socrates asks Thrasymachus whether, if justice is the interest of the stronger, a ruler who errs can still be called a ruler, and says that he takes this to be Thrasymachus’ meaning. Thrasymachus reacts by saying that Socrates has done so because he is a sukophantes (340d1), and in picking up on this remark later both use the associated verb sukophantein (341a5, b9, c2). Here Grube used locutions involving “be captious” and “trick”, and so had Thrasymachus represent Socrates as cleverly quibbling rather than arguing seriously. In replacing this language with variants of “false witness”, Reeve sides with the majority of translators and commentators (e.g., Adam; Allan; Bloom; Jowett; Robin; Waterfield) who see sukophantes/sukophantein as metaphorical language. That is, they all (though in slightly different ways) represent Thrasymachus as accusing Socrates of unjustly denouncing him, in the manner of an informer. But there are at least three problems with this. (1) Would the macho Thrasymachus really whine in this way? (2) Can “shaving a lion” (i.e., attempting the impossible) be equated with the act of denouncing in Socrates’ remark at 341c1-2? Someone cannot stop you denouncing him or her, but can scotch your quibbles. (3) “Sycophants”qua informers denounced people behind their backs to the authorities, whereas Socrates supposedly “denounces” Thrasymachus to his face, before an audience that can hardly be identified as the metaphorical equivalent of the state. Grube was, I think, on the right track, as earlier were Cornford, Lindsay, and Rouse, all of whom used “quibbler” and “quibble”, or Shorey who used “pettifogger” and “pettifogging”. This is how we would expect Thrasymachus, who despises Socratic method (e.g., 336b-337a, 338b, 338d, 343a-344c, 349a, 352b, 354a), to respond to a query about the definition of a term. “Quibble” etc. is the sense given at sukophantein I.2 by LSJ (who illustrate it from Republic 341b<9>, and c<2>, as well as several other loci). LSJ, however, inconsistently omitted this sense under sukophantes for Republic 340d1; see R. Renehan, Greek Lexicographical Notes, 1st. Series (Göttingen, 1975), 183.