BMCR 1996.07.01

1996.7.1, Curd, ed., McKirahan, trans., Presocratics Reader

, , A Presocratics reader. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co, 1996. xii, 126 pages ; 22 cm. ISBN 9780872203266. $7.95.

This slim new volume adds yet another useful title to Hackett’s collection of books related to presocratic philosophy. This growing library of both new and reprinted works includes volumes on individual authors, such as M. R. Wright’s monograph on Empedocles (1981; repr. 1995) and Charles Kahn’s on Anaximander (1962; repr. 1994), more general treatments such as Edward Hussey’s The Presocratics (1995) and Richard McKirahan’s Philosophy Before Socrates (1994), and the anthology Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy, edited by S. Marc Cohen, Patricia Curd, and C. D. C. Reeve (1995). In fact, this last work forms the basis of this new volume: A Presocratics Reader is in essence a fascicle, amounting to Part One (“slightly revised and expanded” according to the preface) of Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy. 1 The first section of Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy is, in turn, indebted for its translations to McKirahan’s Philosophy Before Socrates; hence the translations in A Presocratics Reader (hereafter “APR”) are credited to Richard McKirahan. 2

Clearly the book is intended for use in undergraduate survey courses in philosophy, ancient philosophy, or Greek civilization. Unlike Kirk, Raven and Schofield’s The Presocratic Philosophers (2nd ed., Cambridge, 1983) or McKirahan’s Philosophy Before Socrates, APR contains a bare minimum of notes and commentary. Instead, its aim is to let the (translated) words of the philosophers speak for themselves. Therefore in terms of scope and price its main competitors in the market will be Kathleen Freeman’s Ancilla to the Presocratic Philosophers (Harvard, 1957, $11.95) and Jonathan Barnes’Early Greek Philosophy (Penguin, 1987, $10.95).

Readers and classroom instructors will appreciate several aspects of this new volume. Most welcome of all will be the excellent translations by McKirahan. 3 Additionally, the selection of authors and fragments included is as good as one could hope from such a compilation. Indeed, this is one of the book’s strengths, for APR (unlike Barnes’ Penguin collection) extends its view beyond the earlier presocratics to include selections from the sophists Protagoras, Gorgias, Antiphon, and Critias. This adds a valuable resource which is sure to be welcomed and used to advantage. The book includes a brief introduction, headnotes for each major figure and school, a timeline, three maps, a list of suggestions for further reading, and a concordance to the standard Greek edition by Diels and Kranz.

The book does suffer, however, from some deficiencies and unfortunate omissions. Although the publisher’s promotional flier for APR praises as a strength the book’s “unobtrusive, minimally interpretive editorial material,” I nevertheless think that the editor would have done well to risk intruding a bit more. It is unclear to what extent the problem is attributable to a lack of editorial attentiveness or to an impatient publisher performing a quick cut-and-paste job in order to rush the book into print.

First, although APR sometimes includes short discussions of key vocabulary in the headnotes for various authors and schools, no glossary or appendix discussing terminology, philosophical and otherwise, is added. Our editor could have utilized additional explanatory footnotes in lieu of a glossary, but these, too, are lacking. For example, in APR’s Milesians fragment 18 for Anaximenes (DK A7), we have the line, “Cloud results from air through felting, and water when this happens to a greater degree.” In his own book McKirahan included a short footnote on “felting”, but this is not carried over with his translation into APR. Second, APR has no indexes: there is neither an index of source passages nor a general index of names and subjects. Third, the introductory sections are wanting in several respects. For instance, we receive only a select rather than a complete treatment of the sources for the fragments. Also, the preface lacks a “Guide to the Reader” section to explain the typography: What is the uninitiated reader to infer when he or she sees words or phrases within pointed brackets, square brackets, and regular parentheses?

More importantly, perhaps, the introduction fails to set the right tone for the presentation of the fragments which follow. As an introductory-level text APR does surprisingly little to inform the reader about the many textual problems and pitfalls of the fragments. 4 A cautious approach to the fragments should be advised, since for various reasons it is often difficult for editors to agree on what a fragment says, much less understand what it means. 5 But the reader of APR, finding only six textually-related footnotes, will come away without a clue to the great textual difficulties involved with many of them. The fragments of the presocratics are not pretty, but their presentation in APR is. Therefore it is essential that the preface or introduction not neglect to offer an up-front explanation of the important editorial decisions that have been made concerning the translation and presentation of the fragments, decisions the reader ought to be made aware of.

One of these decisions concerns the question of whether to include the immediate context of each fragment. The editor of APR has chosen not to do this. Although this decision results in a more straightforward and unencumbered view of the fragments on the page than one gets (for instance) in Barnes, at the same time it has some unfortunate consequences. For example, it eliminates the opportunity for understanding how the source authors understood the fragments, and so eliminates a tool we might have used to improve our own understanding of them. Moreover, without their contexts the nature of the extant evidence for the fragments is hidden: Does the source author seem to be paraphrasing or quoting directly? Where exactly does the source author leave off and the actual fragment begin? The problem is especially acute for the Milesians, since the lone fragment of Anaximander, the only primary source for Milesian philosophy, must be extricated from a lost work of Theophrastus repeated by Simplicius. 6 As it turns out, here is an instance where APR does present the fragment within its context; Curd and McKirahan quote Simplicius, and the fragment is left embedded in Simplicius’ statement. However, no quotation marks or other indications are given to distinguish the fragment itself from its surrounding context! Was this an editorial decision or an editorial oversight? Here would have been an ideal place to discuss the issue of the contexts of the fragments or to refer the reader to such a discussion in the introduction. Even if the editor decides that she does not want to include the contexts, readers should be made aware of the further consequences of that decision.

Once the determination has been made about what material to include, the next area of decision concerns translation. The translations of the fragments in APR are uniformly of high quality. Due to the vexed status of many fragments, however, a fundamental question for any translator is what text or variants should be read. It is not exactly clear what position the editor of APR takes on this issue. There are scattered about a few very brief asterisked footnotes which indicate a decision one way or another regarding a specific textual reading. But most of these notes have been imported along with the translations; one is at a loss to discern any guiding principle behind what gets noted and what does not. In any case, the editor may as well have eliminated all these notes, for what they are worth. For example, APR’s Pluralists fragment 35 (Empedocles DK B16) includes the footnote, “Reading Esti gar hôs paros ên (Lloyd-Jones).” How this will help the reader (especially a Greekless reader in an introductory class), I do not know. The editor does not indicate what else might have been read, nor are we given any further information about what Lloyd-Jones’ role in all this is or where to go to find out. The problem is that Curd has incorporated McKirahan’s note without McKirahan’s supporting commentary and bibliography. The story is generally the same for the few remaining footnotes. 7 Again, it appears to this reviewer that the editor ought to edit. Either adequately address important textual problems 8 or admit up-front that they are being glossed over: a reader new to the presocratics and having APR as his or her first introduction to them at least ought to come away knowing something about how and why textual variants are a distinct possibility, rather than having to find it out afterwards upon looking at some other text or treatment. This does not mean that APR should be turned into something it was not meant to be, a full-blown critical edition of the fragments, but rather it is a call for greater editorial engagement. By doing less the editor believes she is doing more, that is, letting the philosophers speak for themselves. But when significant editorial decisions about the texts are made but not noted, who is doing the speaking?

Turning now to the question of how Curd’s APR compares with its competitors by Freeman and Barnes, it appears that a preference may hinge on where one draws the line between what is “helpful but unobtrusive editorial material” and helpful but cumbrous material. By deciding to do so little—in this reviewer’s eyes, too little—APR is most similar in format to Freeman’s Ancilla to the Presocratic Philosophers. Although Freeman’s Ancilla is more comprehensive than APR’s“selected” fragments, the selection in APR is judicious and thorough enough that instructors are not likely to require any of the fragments that have been left out. More significantly, however, the superior quality of APR’s translations ought to turn former Ancilla buyers into eager APR purchasers. Persons looking for more exegesis and aids to the reader may prefer Barnes’ Penguin edition of the presocratics. Barnes manages to include most of the features which are wanting in APR, such as indexes, a complete treatment of the sources, a guide to the typography, the immediate context for each fragment, and a very helpful and thorough introduction. At the same time, rather than embedding the fragments within his own extended commentary, he still maintains as his focus the words of the philosophers themselves. Yet in terms of range (i.e., having the section of fragments from the sophists) and cost, many instructors may prefer APR.

APR offers a useful and inexpensive resource for instructors in philosophy or Greek civilization courses wishing to introduce their students to these engaging and influential thinkers. But I hope that we soon will see a second edition of APR which incorporates many of the components this current edition lacks, components which will make the book even more useful for both the instructor and student.

  • [1] The expansion mentioned in APR’s preface is the addition of a time line which charts the chronology of the authors, and a new section on Diogenes of Apollonia. The revisions are limited to some minor corrections and changes in the headnotes, translations and footnotes. [2] For a review of McKirahan’s original book see Richard Wallace’s in Greece and Rome 42 (1995), p.102. [3] Some of the translations in APR have been added or modified by Curd and others. All such changes have been clearly noted in the text. [4] The most that APR has to say about this is in the opening to the “Sources” section (p.7): “Not a single Presocratic book has survived intact; what we know of the Presocratics is gathered from quotations or summaries in other philosophical works, so our knowledge is fragmentary.” [5] Curd herself does not set a good example in terms of caution. Consider her argument from the introduction in which she tries to distinguish the “outlook” of the presocratic thinkers from that of Homer and, especially, Hesiod. “Part of this outlook,” Curd writes (p.1) of the presocratics, “was a commitment to argument and critical inquiry, together with a view about the nature of justification.” She goes on to state (p.2) that Thales “had reasons for holding [his view that everything is really water] and arguments to back it up.” This does not seem unreasonable (so to speak), but where does the evidence come from? Curd looks for support in a passage from Aristotle’s Metaphysics (983b18 ff., Thales DK A12), but it is clear that here Aristotle is merely guessing at what Thales might have been thinking: “Maybe he got the idea from seeing that the nourishment of all things is moist, … ” Is it from this that we are to discern Thales’ views about “the nature of justification”? Although she later (p.7) warns her readers that Aristotle can be “polemical” and often presents “summaries of positions rather than quotations,” this did not prevent her from forging ahead with a discussion of Thales’ “arguments.” [6] See Charles H. Kahn’s Anaximander and the Origins of Greek Cosmology, (Columbia University Press, 1962; Hackett reprint, 1994), especially pp. 12-24. [7] Even Curd’s own footnotes display the same deficiencies. Consider her note to the translation “backwards-turning” in APR’s Heraclitus fragment 46 ([DK B51] “They do not understand how, though at variance with itself, it agrees with itself. It is a backwards-turning attunement like that of the bow and lyre.”) Curd adds the note, “Reading palintropos here.” Once more we are left in the dark about what is at stake. [8] Let me point to one example from the proem to Parmenides’ poem. APR has: “The mares which carry me as far as my spirit ever aspired / were escorting me, when they brought me and proceeded along the renowned road / of the goddess, which brings a knowing mortal to all cities one by one.” Aside from the minor point that there is no explicit possessive “my” attached to “spirit” ( thumos) in line one, there is a textual problem with “all cities” ( pant’ astê) in line 3. There is no ms. support for astê, which is an emendation from Mutschmann. [See Coxon, “The Text of Parmenides: fr. 1.3”, Classical Quarterly ns 18 (1968) 70-75 and Tarrant, “Parmenides B1.3: Text, Context and Interpretation”, Antichthon 10 (1976) 1-7.] Most contemporary scholars (e.g., Austin, Coxon, Cordero, Gallop, Lombardo) rightly reject pant’ astê and make other attempts with the phrase. I was hoping that we had begun to put pant’ astê to rest; it is a disappointment to see it resurrected in McKirahan and APR.