BMCR 2011.11.38

The Texts of Early Greek Philosophy: the Complete Fragments and Selected Testimonies of the Major Presocratics (2 vols.)

Daniel W. Graham, The Texts of Early Greek Philosophy: the Complete Fragments and Selected Testimonies of the Major Presocratics (2 vols.). Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. xiv, 1020. ISBN 9780521608428 $99.00 (pb).


Since many of us come to the complex material of early Greek philosophy as, in some sense, amateurs, there is much to appreciate in Daniel Graham’s text and facing translation, abbreviated apparatus, short introduction, commentary and bibliography of the major Presocratics. He makes more accessible to an English audience not only the standard collection of fragments in Die fragmente der Vorsokratiker (hereafter Diels-Kranz) for these authors, but also newly discovered fragments and testimony not included in Diels-Kranz.

Not all of the Presocratics identified in Diels-Kranz (there are ninety) are included in these volumes. This is partly because of the scarcity of fragments for many of Diels’ Presocratics, and partly because many in his collection are chronologically post-Socratic. Graham seeks, instead, to bridge the gap ‘between the introductory textbook and the exhaustive collection’ (xiii) by presenting the fragments and important testimonies of twenty-one of the most commonly studied figures of early Greek philosophy. This includes the sophists Protagoras, Gorgias, Antiphon and Prodicus as well as the Anonymus Iamblichi and the Dissoi Logoi. These authors and texts are contained in a smaller separate volume along with an appendix dedicated to the fragments and testimony of Pythagoras, as well as indices and a general bibliography for the whole two-volume set.

Above all else, this collection is a sourcebook that will find a ready place on the shelves of University libraries and non-specialists who want easy access to an updated collection of the major Presocratics. Graduate students may find it a nice substitute for a Loeb edition, although even the paperback price may be beyond their budget. Although Graham’s volumes contain all of the fragments of these early Greek philosophers, it does not contain the full complement of testimonies; specialists will still use the more complete Diels-Kranz collection. However, Graham makes accessible the fragments and important testimonies of the early Greek thinkers, and thus follows Diels’ project rather closely. The layout is clear, making it very easy for the reader to dip into the thinker who interests her most (this also makes it easily excerptible for teaching purposes). The Greek is readable, with enough in the accompanying abbreviated apparatus to satisfy more advanced readers’ close analysis of the texts. The fragments themselves are well presented, often in context, with plenty of space for marginalia. The Diels-Kranz numbers are printed with each fragment or testimony, eliminating some of the unnecessary concordance-flipping that inevitably accompanies such collections.

Graham organises the fragments and testimonies into sections including the life (I), works (II), philosophy (III) and reception (IV) of these thinkers. Category three is divided by a number of subheadings usually determined by the concerns of the particular thinker, although some patterns emerge, with ‘principles’ and ‘physical theory’ unsurprisingly dominating. The fourth category, reception, sets apart testimonies marking the influence of a particular thinker. For example, Graham collects sources illustrating the influence Xenophanes was said to have had on literary writers of succeeding generations. However, this category is very difficult to define, and on the whole the criteria for including a piece of testimony as ‘reception’, rather than as explicating some particular of philosophical theory or methodology, could have been made clear either in the general introduction or the individual commentaries.

Two fundamentals of good translation are often in tension with one another: staying as faithful as possible to the author’s style, while making sure that the translation remains readable in English. This is true when translating one author, but even more so when translating the fragments and reports of twenty-one. Graham’s translations are often literal, the language generally clear and without obscurities, reflecting the structure of the text and the context of the argument. At their best, these translations allow the reader the freedom to interpret the meaning of the text. They are usually consistent and accurate1 even if they are not always good English. For example, Anaxagoras’ συμπαγῆναι in Graham’s 13[F5] (= DK B4a) is translated ‘are compacted’ where ‘are compounded’ makes for clearer English. Likewise, he translates Parmenides 17[F8] (= DK B8.34) ‘the same thing is for thinking and is wherefore (οὕνεκεν) there is thought’, when, according to the commentary, he means something like ‘the same thing is for thinking and is that to which a thought refers ’. There are also times when his translations are idiosyncratic: for example, ‘round-eyed moon’ for Parmenides’ κύκλωπος σελήνης in 24[F10] (= DK B10) and ‘faith’ for πίστις in 17[F8] (= DK B8.28), although it is translated ‘trust’ elsewhere; ‘heart’ for φρέν in Empedocles 176[F122] (= DK B114), where its context suggests more psychological overtones; ‘contour’ for Democritus’ ῥυσμος in 10 (= DK 67A6) and ‘structure’ for ἁρμονίη in Heraclitus 70[F41] (= DK B51) and 74[F44] (= DK B54). Graham is sometimes overly archaizing, as at Xenophanes 62 (= Lucretius DRN 5.660-65: “scattered fires may be descried ( cerni) at daybreak”) and potentially misleading, as at Anaximenes 7 (= the context of DK B1) where ‘supervene’ (ἐπιγιγνόμενα) will set philosophers in one interpretative direction and classicists in another.

The short general introduction provides some context for the Presocratics, although the treatment of the Sophists is somewhat thin (it might have been included in a separate introduction to volume two, since the concerns of these thinkers differ to some degree from those in the first volume). Some mention of the importance of the Greek wisdom tradition for early Greek philosophy might have helped bring together these seemingly disparate groups. The introduction to recent trends in scholarship is useful, as is the select treatment of the ancient sources. Strangely, there is no mention of the Derveni Papyrus in the introduction and very little bibliography related to this intriguing text, despite the fact that its philosophical import has been noted in Laks and Most,2 and more recently by Jourdan,3 Betegh4 and Kouremenos, Parassoglou and Tsantsanoglou.5 The papyrus is cited only in the fragments of Heraclitus, although its author has important connections with Anaxagoras and Diogenes of Apollonia, and could possibly have appeared under the ‘reception’ heading for each. This is not, therefore, an introduction for the ‘lay reader’ (7); it contains no ‘Guide to the Reader’ section to explain Graham’s own methodological choices either in his texts, translations, ordering of the fragments, organisation of the volume or typography. The limited details he does give are scattered throughout the Preface, general introduction and notes of his individual commentaries.

One of the most intriguing characteristics of early Greek thought is the lack of consensus on what constituted philosophy, let alone its aims, methods, limits, possibilities and relation to cultural developments of the period. Some of these concerns, especially as they pertain to what is now considered philosophy, are well represented in the individual introductions and commentaries, which aim to highlight the philosophical rather than philological, literary or forensic elements of the texts. The commentaries vary in length: eleven pages for Heraclitus and the non-ethical atomist fragments, two pages for Prodicus and the Anonymus Iamblichi, with most commentaries averaging five pages. Graham’s commentaries clearly set out interpretative difficulties, provide important philosophical information and point the reader toward further reading. However, the commentary is at its weakest when giving cultural context for the authors or ideas. For example, when addressing problems in Xenophanes related to the motionless god who moves things by willing alone (131), Graham draws a parallel with Genesis rather than the more obvious examples from Greek epic. So too with Empedocles’ more religious fragments; some discussion of their relation to Greek religion and cult practices or a suggestion for further reading would be useful to those without a background in Classics. Likewise, some mention of the sympotic context for philosophical discussion and education in the period before the Sophists would have provided much-needed context for philosophers reading some of the passages on which no comments have been made, particularly in relation to Xenophanes. As is often the case, the commentator’s own interests feature prominently in the notes, but Graham often raises good questions and provides generally jargon-free explanations of the philosophical details and the interpretative options available in the secondary literature. Frequent scholarly citations within each commentary, and bibliographies at the end of each chapter, provide a good starting point for further research. While most of the items listed in the bibliographies are in English, important works in German, French and Italian are also included.

The Texts of Early Greek Philosophy is to be recommended as a useful compendium of the most important early Greek philosophers. Graham provides easy access to the texts of the major Presocratics, opening the way for further investigation of these thinkers’ individual standpoints and their relation to the ancient intellectual tradition.


1. The oddest example is found at Empedocles 101 (= DK A66) where Graham chooses to repeat, nearly verbatim, Terian’s translation (in Inwood (1992) CTXT-27) of the Armenian original, rather than to provide a translation of the Latin text that he prints, which appears to be slightly altered from Diels-Kranz. The accompanying note, however, is unclear about the origin of the translation and the reason it differs so markedly from the Latin.

2. Laks, A. and G. Most (eds.), Studies on the Derveni Papyrus, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.

3. Jourdan, F., Le papyrus Derveni Collection ‘Truth myths’. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2003. BMCR 2005.10.44

4. Betegh, G., The Derveni Papyrus: Cosmology, Theology and Interpretation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. BMCR 2005.01.27

5. Theokritos Kouremenos, George M. Parássoglou, Kyriakos Tsantsanoglou, The Derveni Papyrus. Edited with Introduction and Commentary. Studi e testi per il Corpus dei papiri filosofici greci e latini, vol. 13. Florence: Casa Editrice Leo S. Olschki, 2006. BMCR 2006.10.29