BMCR 2008.08.41

Presocratics. Ancient Philosophies

, Presocratics. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Stocksfield: Acumen, 2007. 1 online resource (xv, 224 pages) : map.. ISBN9781844653911 £14.99.

James Warren’s clear and accessible introduction to Presocratic thought appears as the latest offering from Acumen’s Ancient Philosophies series.1 The series aims to produce volumes suitable for students both of philosophy and classics, presuming no knowledge of Greek and presenting all texts in translation. After an excellent preliminary discussion of the extent and nature of the sources available to the student of early Greek philosophy, Warren presents chapters on all the usual suspects in more-or-less chronological order. Thus the Ionians (including Pythagoras), Xenophanes and Heraclitus all appear, along with Parmenides, Zeno and Melissus, Anaxagoras, Empedocles, and Democritus and Leucippus. There is even a brief conclusory treatment of Philolaus and Diogenes of Apollonia. The extensive list of abbreviations and sources, chronology and map of the ancient Mediterranean make this book particularly useful for the student of philosophy without any background in classics. In addition, Warren’s willingness to define or explain basic philosophical terms ensures that the classicist with little or no training in philosophy has nothing to fear.

Warren’s treatment is remarkable for its clarity. Even, for example, when discussing the intricacies of Parmenides’ ‘What-is’ or Heraclitus’ logos, Warren succeeds in presenting the subtleties of the interpretive and philosophical issues in an enviably lucid fashion. W’s tone throughout is engaging, and he is particularly successful in presenting quite elementary points whilst avoiding any hint of condescension. One note of regret is that W’s clarity is occasionally undermined by a small number of typographical errors, most notably in his translation and discussion of the fragments of Parmenides. The slip from ‘is’ to ‘it’ is a small one, but makes a world of difference when one is struggling to understand Parmenides’ Truth.2 This small flaw notwithstanding, Warren’s book is an outstanding introduction to early Greek philosophy and should be recommended as the first port of call for both philosophers and classicists, particularly if they lack Greek.

Warren’s introductory chapter could well be prescribed as mandatory reading for anyone embarking on the study of early Greek philosophy. On the one hand, it answers basic practical questions that might otherwise leave the novice at sea. Thus, Warren explains the difference between Diels-Kranz’s A and B fragments and offers definitions of terms such as ‘doxographic’. He also explains whom he intends to treat under the label ‘Presocratic’ and why, admitting the influence of the ancient commentators and doxographers in his choice. On the other hand, Warren spells out some fundamental methodological problems about translation and the selective nature of the sources. The latter point is neatly illustrated by a comparison of Hippolytus and Sextus Empiricus in their treatments and readings of Xenophanes B34.3 Warren’s warning to beware taking even ‘primary’ texts of the Presocratics as unaffected by the philosophical context in which they are quoted has, as he notes, been made before, but it is particularly valuable in a volume aimed at undergraduates.4 Warren concludes his introduction with a consideration of how early Greek philosophers may have influenced one another’s thought, focussing on the means by which their philosophy might have circulated around the Mediterranean. At this point, one might expect to find a discussion of the degree to which such circulation depended on oral transmission. Warren seems, however, to be thinking primarily about the transmission of written treatises. He offers a fairly close analysis of two episodes from Plato, which he presents as providing useful evidence of ‘some of the most likely means by which the ideas of the early Greek philosophers were publicized and became disseminated’ (12). The first is Socrates’ claim in the Phaedo to have heard someone reading out loud from a book by Anaxagoras and to have then run out and got hold of Anaxagoras’ books for himself. Warren takes this as evidence that ‘for someone like Socrates, literate and educated, it was economically and practically possible to acquire the books of Anaxagoras’ (13).

The second episode is from the Parmenides, in which Parmenides and Zeno have come to Athens. Zeno, having brought his book to the city for the first time, has just given a performance of his work when he and Parmenides meet a young Socrates. Warren is not concerned with the question whether such a meeting ever took place. For him, ‘what matters more is that it was plausible to Plato’s audience to think of someone like Parmenides travelling across the Mediterranean and spending time in Athens and for someone like Zeno to have given a personal performance of his work’ (15-16). The general lessons that Warren wants to draw from these passages about the circulation of early Greek philosophy are useful and convincing. Some might worry, however, that Warren is pressing the text too hard in those places where his suggestions are more specific, for example in estimating Socrates’ age at the time of hearing about Anaxagoras. My concern is not that such speculations are obviously false, but that they might encourage a less sensitive reader to take Plato’s account of the Presocratics without the requisite pinch of salt. After all, Warren himself adds the caveat that ‘we might be cautious in accepting [these Platonic episodes] as accurate portrayals of even the fifth century’ (17-18). This is, it should be noted, a minor worry which does little to undermine the quality of the foundation that Warren provides for the rest of the volume.

Beyond the introductory chapter, much more remains to be praised. Warren is eager to emphasise that there is rarely a single accepted interpretation of any fragment. His general approach is to set out a variety of interpretations, carefully discussing the evidence for and against each, but refusing to endorse any. Thus, in discussing Democritean metaphysics and epistemology, Warren carefully explains the eliminativist and relativist readings of Democritean colour before judiciously noting the difficulty of deciding between them ‘precisely because they can both be supported by some of our evidence’ (170). Warren’s warning that ‘[o]ften, commentators need to explain away a particular awkward piece of evidence as misunderstanding or deliberate distortion on the part of the source’ (170) highlights an issue that it would be easy to ignore in an introductory text such as this. Readers looking for straight answers about precisely what x thought about y may find themselves frustrated by this approach. Warren’s point is, I take it, that, when dealing with the Presocratics, such frustration is inevitable.

In his acknowledgements, Warren recalls his first encounter with Presocratic philosophy: ‘I remember being confused by the idea that studying philosophy involved thinking about people who thought the world was made of water’ (vii). This confusion represents a common question for those who want to interest students, particularly of philosophy, in early natural science, i.e. if it’s wrong, what’s the point of studying it at all? Warren’s answer, set out most clearly in his chapter on the Ionians, is to concentrate on the train of reasoning which might lead one, for example, to posit that the earth rests on water and to emphasise that such reasoning might be thought to live up to our own notions of scientific thinking. Thus, Warren concludes his discussion of Anaximander with the following note of approbation: ‘He appears to have given a detailed systematic cosmological account, avoiding the need for intervention from anthropomorphic divine forces, of a world driven by regular and — in principle — wholly comprehensible forces. As such, he is certainly to be admired for the instigation of something recognizable as a “scientific” worldview and also for putting this account in the form of a treatise that could be read, debated and disagreed with by others’ (33). This emphasis on the ‘scientific’ aspect of early Greek thought may not be to everyone’s taste, but it seems a sensible line to take in an introductory work.

Warren’s chapter on Heraclitus deserves special mention. One might expect a volume which presents all its texts in translation to be rather at a disadvantage when explaining the thought of a philosopher who depends so heavily on linguistic subtleties. Warren, however, enables even the Greekless reader to develop an understanding of the deliberate obscurity of Heraclitus’ language. Taking a transliterated B25 as his example, he explains how it is ‘designed as an intriguing and aesthetically pleasing linguistic unit’ (58), pointing out its rhymes and resonant juxtapositions. Likewise, his discussion of Heraclitus’ logos succeeds in spelling out the subtlety and intentional ambiguity of this difficult term in an admirably lucid fashion.

Also notable is the clarity of Warren’s exposition of Parmenides’ Truth. It is notoriously difficult to write about Parmenides without falling into a tangle of jargon and, sometimes, apparent nonsense. Warren however, produces an explanation of Parmenides’ ‘What-is’ which is articulate and simple, in the best possible sense. Warren’s explanation of the three traditional readings of Parmenides’ einai (veridical, existential and predicative) is particularly successful and will, I suspect, prevent much undergraduate gnashing of teeth.

The choice of endnotes, rather than footnotes, is well-judged, ensuring that the page is as uncluttered as the exposition. Some references are given in parentheses in the main text, although the criterion for what is cited in this fashion, and what in the notes, is unclear. Warren offers a useful ‘Guide to further reading,’ and the references given in his notes are comprehensive, well beyond what one might expect in an introductory work such as this. I take this as another indication of Warren’s refusal to talk down to his reader.

This volume is an excellent introduction to reading early Greek philosophy, with an admirably clear exposition, accessible and useful to both classicist and philosopher alike.


1. Following John Sellars’ Stoicism (Chesham, 2006). Volumes on Neoplatonism and the Cynics are forthcoming.

2. Thus we read ‘daughter of the sun’ for ‘daughters of the sun’ (80), ‘is’ for ‘in’ (86), ‘what it not’ for ‘what is not’ (87) ‘more of less’ for ‘more or less’ (98).

3. In this context, Warren gives a translation of Xenophanes B34 (8) which differs markedly from that offered for the same fragment in his chapter on Xenophanes (50). In the ‘Guide to further reading’ Warren rightly asserts that ‘[i]t is always worth comparing two or more translations, since the differences will reveal the difficulties in working with these fragments and also point to important interpretative debates’ (183). It is not clear whether the two different translations of B34 are a deliberate attempt to stimulate such considerations or simply an editorial oversight.

4. Most notably in C. Osborne’s Rethinking Early Greek Philosophy (London, 1987).