BMCR 2008.05.25

La costruzione del discorso filosofico nell’età dei Presocratici. The Construction of Philosophical Discourse in the Age of the Presocratics

, , La costruzione del discorso filosofico nell'età dei presocratici = The construction of philosophical discourse in the age of the Presocratics. Seminari e convegni ; 5. Pisa: Edizioni della Normale, 2006. xii, 397 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 8876421807 €30.00 (pb).

Table of Contents

This multi-authored volume is a collection of papers, most of them written in English, which were originally presented at the Secondo Symposium Praesocraticum held in Pisa in September 2004. Maria Michela Sassi, who organized the colloquium, has edited a fine volume that supplies us with an up-to-date and in-depth overview of current approaches to early Greek philosophy.1 The volume consists of a brief preface by the editor, fifteen papers grouped in four thematic sections, and a useful index locorum compiled by Francesca Pelosi.

The contributions to the volume cover not only the familiar figures that appear in the standard handbook of Hermann Diels and Walter Kranz,2 but also various thinkers whose doctrines and explanatory patterns overlap with the Presocratic philosophers (e.g. the Orphics, the Hippocratic authors, the Derveni author) or provide some evidence for their intellectual enterprise (e.g. Euripides, Plato, Aristotle). This offers considerable assistance to the reader in reconstructing the complex context in which the Presocratic philosophers shaped and expressed their ideas. Particular emphasis is laid on some neglected pieces of evidence; old questions are examined afresh; and new interpretative suggestions are offered.

The opening section of the volume deals with cosmic models and the destiny of the soul (“Modelli del cosmo, itinerari dell’anima”), two topics which, although they might sound entirely unrelated, are often inextricably intertwined in early Greek philosophy. In the first paper, Maria Michela Sassi (“Anassimandro e la scrittura della ‘legge’ cosmica”) examines a number of legal inscriptions in order to show that Anaximander’s fragment, the oldest surviving piece of Ionian philosophy, is, to a great extent, formulated in the terminology of statute law. Based on this observation, Sassi elucidates some controversial aspects of Anaximander’s fragment, and then investigates to whom and under what social conditions he might have addressed his metaphor. Gábor Betegh (“Eschatology and Cosmology: Models and Problems”) offers a general interpretative framework for the main models that describe the close relationship between the soul and the cosmos from Homer to Plato and promises to focus on the individual doctrines in subsequent studies.3 Betegh notes that the “journey model”, as he calls it, is centered on the traditional belief that the souls of the deceased travel to a particular underworld realm on account of their past deeds. According to the “portion model”, on the other hand, the soul is composed of a stuff that has major cosmic functions and, in most cases, occupies the highest position in the cosmic hierarchy. An examination of some key texts illustrates how the two models are used: a set of Orphic fragments provides sufficient evidence for the integration of eschatological ideas into the “portion model”; the Phaedo shows that the “journey model” can be perfectly combined with philosophical arguments; the Derveni author and Empedocles constitute two characteristic examples of early Greek thinkers who employ both models without linking one to another, whereas the cosmology of the Timaeus offers the first example of their joining. In an equally well-argued paper, Oliver Primavesi (“Apollo and Other Gods in Empedocles”) is concerned with the much-discussed problem of the relationship between Empedocles’ cosmic cycle and his story about the fallen daimon. Primavesi demonstrates that the latter is patterned on the myth of Apollo’s exile and, after excluding other alternatives, that it allegorizes the cosmic cycle. Of particular interest is his suggestion that the “long-lived gods” should be identified with the Sfairos and the four “roots” under total separation. If this suggestion is correct, it lends additional credibility to a symmetrical reconstruction of the cosmic cycle, radically different from that defended by Denis O’Brien in the monumental Empedocles’ Cosmic Cycle: A Reconstruction from the Fragments and Secondary Sources.4

The second section comprises five studies that deal with various issues ranging from ethics to epistemology and argumentation (“Saggezza, sapienza, argomentazione”). Kendall Sharp (“From Solon to Socrates: Proto-Socratic Dialogues in Herodotus”) suggests that some basic features of Plato’s dialogues can be found in three Herodotean stories about archaic sages, who display their wisdom in conversing with Croesus. Carl Huffman (“Aristoxenus’ Pythagorean Precepts: A Rational Pythagorean Ethics”), by contrast, draws our attention to a lesser known text. He focuses on Aristoxenus’ Pythagorean Precepts, an indispensable source of the Pythagorean way of living, which, however, has attracted less attention in the literature to date. In setting out the basic ethical principles underlying the Pythagorean Precepts, Huffman explores their relation to current ethical systems and the central doctrines of early Pythagoreanism. His promise to publish a new edition of the Pythagorean Precepts soon is undoubtedly good news for the academic community, given the high quality of his previous studies in Philolaus and Archytas.5 The subsequent three papers expound the development of Eleatic philosophy from its origins to its impact on later thinkers. Emese Mogyoródi (“Xenophanes’ Epistemology and Parmenides’ Quest for Knowledge”) considers the great importance of Xenophanes’ epistemology in the formation of Parmenides’ ideas. Christof Rapp (“Zeno and the Eleatic Anti-Pluralism”) provides us with a comprehensive overview of the Eleatic arguments against plurality. Starting with an illuminating analysis of seven types of monism, he briefly outlines the differences and similarities between the fundamental doctrines of Parmenides and Melissus, and then scrutinizes the distinctive features of Zeno’s arguments. This survey of Eleatic philosophy is completed by Patricia Curd (“Gorgias and the Eleatics”) who defends the thesis that Gorgias’ On What is Not is a thorough assessment of Eleatic arguments about the nature of what-is. According to Curd, Gorgias takes advantage of deficiencies in Parmenides’ demonstration in the Way of Truth in order to demonstrate that both what-is and what-is-not have the same ontological status.

The diverse intellectual trends in early Greek thought are the subject of the next section (“L’eterogeneità dell’impresa intellettuale”). M. Laura Gemelli Marciano (“Indovini, magoi e meteorologoi : interazioni e definizioni nell’ultimo terzo del V secolo a.C.”) carefully analyzes and classifies the various types of intellectual authorities that appear in tragedies composed before the end of the fifth century, considering their emergence and juxtaposition in light of the historical context. Like Huffman, Geoffrey E. R. Lloyd (“Diogenes of Apollonia: Master of Ducts”) concentrates on an issue that has been inadequately addressed by scholars: the elaborate description of the flebes in the human body by Diogenes of Apollonia. Lloyd sheds light on crucial questions regarding Diogenes’ method and motivation for describing the vascular system in detail, as well as his place in the intellectual disputes of the fifth century. The multifaceted interests of Diogenes, Lloyd concludes, provide another good example of how anachronistic and misleading is the distinction between “natural philosophy” and “medicine” in early Greek thought. The third study of this section is devoted to the heterogeneity of the Hippocratic Corpus. Amneris Roselli (“Strategie espositive nei trattati ippocratici: presenza autoriale e piano espositivo in Malattie IV e in Fratture e Articolazioni“) argues that the sharp contrast between the styles of the author of Diseases IV and the author of On Fractures and On Joints indicates their different aims and ways of composing medical treatises and addressing to their audience.

The first attempts by Hippias, Plato, and Aristotle to record and present earlier philosophical doctrines in a systematic way are thoroughly examined in the last section (“Gli inizi di uno sguardo retrospettivo”). Jean-François Balaudé (“Hippias le passeur”) explains why Hippias’ Synagoge differs from the treatises On Nature. István Bárány (“From Protagoras to Parmenides: A Platonic History of Philosophy”) argues persuasively that in the quasi-doxographical passages of the Sophist and the Theaetetus Plato portrays the prehistory of philosophy as a kind of ongoing strife between adversaries, which is definitely and properly settled by Plato himself. Mantas Adomenas (“Plato, Presocratics, and the Question of Intellectual Genre”), looking at the same texts from a different perspective, investigates Plato’s views on the genre and form of his predecessors’ discourse, and brings out five typical deficiencies that Plato often attributes to them. In the final contribution, Walter Leszl (“Aristoteles on the Unity of Presocratic Philosophy. A Contribution to the Reconstruction of the Early Retrospective View of Presocratic Philosophy”) criticizes the view that all Presocratic philosophers are equally concerned with the problem of change, and formed their systems by correcting and modifying the doctrines of their predecessors. Leszl inspects some studies of Harold Cherniss in order to illustrate this modern approach, and then questions its very assumptions about the unity and dialectical development of Presocratic philosophy. In the main part of his study, Leszl examines whether ancient authors used an alternative approach, laying particular emphasis on Aristotle’s accounts of the previous tradition of natural philosophy.

Overall, most papers provide us with original and thought-provoking interpretations concerning a wide range of issues related to early Greek philosophy, lucidly defended and accompanied by comprehensive bibliography. This is an intellectually rich and meticulously produced volume which, without doubt, constitutes an important contribution to our knowledge about the formation and development of rational thinking in ancient Greece, chiefly before Socrates. It will be of great value not only to specialists in ancient philosophy and history of the ideas, but also to readers with interests in the intellectual trends in ancient civilizations.


1. The papers from the first colloquium in Presocratic philosophy are published by A. Laks and C. Louguet (eds.), Qu’est-ce que la Philosophie Présocratique? What Is Presocratic Philosophy? (Lille, 2002). Reviewed at BMCR 2003.01.32.

2. H. Diels (ed.), Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, vols. ι 6th edition, revised by W. Kranz (Berlin, 1951-2).

3. A recent consideration of Heraclitus’ doctrines can be found in G. Betegh, “On the Physical Aspect of Heraclitus’ Psychology”, Phronesis 52 (2007), 3-32.

4. See, also, O. Primavesi, “Empedokles in Florentiner Aristoteles-Scholien”, Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 157 (2006), 27-40.

5. C. A. Huffman, Philolaus of Croton: Pythagorean and Presocratic. A Commentary on the Fragments and Testimonia with Interpretive Essays (Cambridge, 1993), and Archytas of Tarentum: Pythagorean, Philosopher and Mathematician King (Cambridge, 2005).