This anthology, edited by the Greek scholar Robin Waterfield, consists of a series of extracts, with commentary, from the work of a number of Greek thinkers who lived in the couple of centuries before the first megastar of western philosophy, Socrates – hence the name by which they are known to us: Presocratics. Well, “a series of extracts” is pushing it, since not many of them wrote anything down, so the way we know what they thought is largely through secondhand (and no doubt distorted) accounts, whether by disciples, critics (including Plato, Socrates’ chief scribe and the second megastar of western philosophy, who pitted some of them in dialogue against his hero), or historians writing many centuries later. What survives is a series of fragments, like the cracked mosaics of some ancient palace floor.
That’s enough, though, to throw light on their strange and distant world. And yet in some ways not so distant: for these men (all men) were the first to think like we do. Anyone who has read their precursors, the great Greek epic poets Homer and Hesiod, knows that the gods pulled all the strings: whatever a phenomenon might appear to be, it ultimately had a supernatural cause. We don’t know what it was that triggered the shift away from mythological thinking to the search for explanations in nature; but somehow, with the Presocratics, it happened, and it’s been with us ever since.
Some of the wackier beliefs of Pythagoras’ followers sound like those of a new age cult (the moon “is inhabited, just like our earth, but by creatures and plants which are taller and more beautiful; for creatures there are fifteen times as strong as those here, and never excrete anything, and their day is fifteen times longer than ours”), but they also laid the basis for much of modern mathematics, including mathematical relationships in music. And while some Presocratic scientific speculations sound quaintly cute to modern ears (“the sun is larger than the Peloponnese”, exclaims Anaxagoras), others were spot on (“the moon does not have its own light, but gains it from the sun” – Anaxagoras again), while still others are almost eerie in their prescience (Anaxagoras hypothesized a “big bang” origin for the universe – though set in motion by Mind – while Democritus posited atoms in motion and the combination of elements, and even asserted that the Gods – like us – were the products of atomic combination). There’s a mystical streak too – most of these thinkers believed that everything is one, and that nothing can come into being from non-being – but without that precluding a fair dose of common sense: Heraclitus held that “what awaits men after death cannot be anticipated or imagined”.
The Sophists, by contrast – or at least their flashier representatives – come across as superficial, boorish trivializers, interested only in egotistical point-scoring and well deserving of the opprobrium in which history has held them; though again, since we lack original sources, it’s hard to know how much of this impression is based on malevolent caricature.
For the most part, though, these distant philosophers seem just like us, fumbling with all their native curiosity and ingenuity towards the most coherent explanations of the universe they can find; but they were there first, and we owe them.