What are the best books on...


Angela Hobbs recommends the best books on

The Presocratics

They were young, they were radical, they influenced everything from Nietzsche to The Sound of Music. Angela Hobbs introduces the best books on the Presocratics.

  • 0140448152.01.LZ_


    Early Greek Philosophy
    by Jonathan Barnes

  • 0521283574.01.LZ_


    The Sophistic Movement
    by G. B. Kerferd

  • 0915144816.01.LZ_


    by Plato

  • 0199552568.01.LZ_


    Ecce Homo
    by Friedrich Nietzsche

  • 0521274559.01.LZ_


    The Presocratic Philosophers
    by and M. Schofield

Angela Hobbs

Angela Hobbs is Professor of the Public Understanding of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield. She is the author of Plato and the Hero and a contributor to the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Save for later

Angela Hobbs

Angela Hobbs is Professor of the Public Understanding of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield. She is the author of Plato and the Hero and a contributor to the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Save for later

Let’s begin by saying who the Presocratics were.

Well, of course, they didn’t think of themselves as the Presocratics. In most cases, obviously, they came before the life of Socrates, they didn’t know he was going to be born. We’re talking about thinkers from about 585 BC, which is when the first one, Thales, was flourishing on the coast of Asia Minor, up to thinkers who were roughly contemporaneous with Socrates, like Democritus, who was born around 470 BC, and then some of the Sophists such as Protagoras — a bit older than Socrates but still in the fifth century. So, for the most part, these are thinkers of the sixth and fifth centuries BC. They weren’t a group in any sense of the word, they mostly didn’t know each other. Heraclitus is from Ephesus on the coast of Asia Minor, Parmenides and Zeno from southern Italy, Democritus from northern Greece. They’re mainly from the fringes of the Greek world, which I think is important because they’re right in the trade routes. They’re where the major Greek cities are setting up colonies. In other words, they’re thinkers who live in places where they’re coming into contact with a lot of other cultures. They are people who can see that there are other ways of thinking and living and worshipping and so on than those common in the mainstream Greek world.

So, why do we now call them philosophers?

They wouldn’t have seen themselves as that — the word ‘philosophy’ probably only emerges in the fourth century anyway — or possibly in the mid-fifth century when the verb starts to be used. They would have seen themselves as natural scientists, on the whole — as physikoi. I think two things make us consider them the founding fathers of philosophy: one, they’re asking these very basic huge questions such as ‘What is the cosmos made of? What are its constituents? Is it made of water or fire or air or a mixture? What are the origins of the cosmos?’ ‘How does it come to be? Does it even come into being? Has it always been?’ ‘What’s the place of humanity within the cosmos?’ ‘Can we trust appearances? Or do appearances deceive us? What’s the relationship between appearances and reality? How much can we trust our sense data and our sensory organs? Are our sensory organs the best way of understanding and getting to reality, or should we be using reasoned deductive argument? ‘Is everything fixed and stable, or is everything actually flowing and changing and always in motion even if we can’t see it like that all the time?’

“Of course, they didn’t think of themselves as the Presocratics, they came before the life of Socrates, they didn’t know he was going to be born.”

These are huge questions which have remained at the core of western philosophy ever since. But it’s not just because of them asking these, because clearly a number of these questions are also indirectly being raised by Homer and other poets, particularly those concerning humanity’s place in the cosmos: it’s because they are using particular rational methods to try to explore these questions — particular kinds of inductive and deductive arguments; particular kinds of conceptual analysis. So, it’s the combination of these huge basic questions with reasoned argument for trying to explore the questions, which allows us to think of them as philosophers.

There are, then, these highly intelligent people – so far as we know all male – and we only really know about them because other people have written about them and fragments of what they wrote have been preserved.

Exactly. So, one of the challenges with interpreting the Presocratics — but, of course, it’s a challenge that also makes them more fascinating and intriguing and allows us all to have a way in — is that we only have these fragments remaining, often embedded in very much later Greek texts. What we call the Ancient Greek world goes on for well over a thousand years. So, some of our texts are from as late as around 550 AD — over a thousand years after the earliest Presocratics were thinking and writing. It’s very hard to know sometimes what’s a direct quote, what’s a paraphrase, sometimes when it’s even just the later author giving their own opinion; but that, for me, just adds to the fun, and means there’s room for all these different interpretations. There will always be room for someone new to the subject to have a view on the Presocratics.

Their interest for us is partly that they are the first western philosophers, and that they led to the emergence of philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle that we like to think of as full-blown philosophers. So, these people are the prototypes. But also they often have a poetic style: even in the fragments that survive, there are ideas that are communicated in such a metaphorical way that they carry on having a resonance for many people, not just philosophers but for literary artists as well.

Yes. This is another thing which makes them so beguiling, that they’re, on the whole, not writing in straightforward Aristotelian prose. Why not? Perhaps it’s partly because philosophy is such a new discipline. People are trying to work out how to think it, how to write it, and it may have been more natural for them to write in poetic form than prose: prose is only just emerging as a literary form; poetry is a more integrated part of the culture. So, you’ve got Parmenides writing in dactylic hexameters for instance. But I don’t think it’sjust that poetry was a more natural way for them to express themselves. Certainly in some cases, such as Heraclitus, they’re thinking very hard about how to express their thoughts in a way that best embodies those thoughts and doesn’t contradict those thoughts.

So, for instance, Heraclitus writes in these poetic aphorisms and paradoxes, and these help him express his view that human knowledge is necessarily limited, that complete knowledge of the cosmos is available only to God, and that the human viewpoint is necessarily perspectival, relativistic, limited to our position in time and space, and to all sorts of other things. If he just wrote in plain sentences he might look as if he was claiming an objective knowledge that humans can’t have. So one possibility is that he develops this aphoristic, metaphorical, paradoxical way of writing because he thinks that his kind of philosophy could only be expressed in metaphor and paradox. This gives rise to really intriguing questions such as: Are all these people philosophers? What is philosophy? How do you write and think philosophy? Is there more than one way of doing it? Plato is going to be very interested in this question later, and he’s going to say that some of the Presocratic philosophical positions are so extreme that they can’t be put into language, and he’s going to say that about Parmenidean monism and extreme Heraclitean flux, and also extreme Protagorean relativism.

The first book you’ve chosen is edited and annotated by Jonathan Barnes and is called Early Greek Philosophy, carefully avoiding labelling these thinkers the ‘Presocratics’. Why have you chosen this book?

Because I think it gives you a very lucid, incisive, accessible way into the subject: it gives you quotes in translation very clearly marked out from Barnes’s commentary about them — indeed, clearly marked out from the rest of the later Greek material. It’s just a very easy book to navigate. Barnes is a great expert on Presocratic philosophy: he’s also written very scholarly tomes — highly recommended tomes — and I’ve given this, which is his Early Greek Philosophy, as a lively, clear, and sparkling introduction just to get people started. He’s a fine writer as well, so it’s a very good way in. If people enjoy it, then I would recommend that at some point in their studies they go on and read Barnes’s magnum opus on the subject, The Presocratic Philosophers, which is a tougher read but hugely worthwhile. Early Greek Philosophy doesn’t include the sophists — we’ll come on to the sophists in a bit and I’ve got a different book recommendation for that. So, it doesn’t contain all the early Greek philosophers that I would hope people would read, but it’s an excellent introduction.

You’ve said this book doesn’t include the Sophists. Who were the Sophists? How were they different from other early Greek thinkers?

The sophists were itinerant professional teachers who travelled the Greek world, basically training rich young men, or more likely young men who had rich fathers, how to get on in public life. The training they gave — a sort of embryonic higher education training — would be largely based on philosophy and rhetoric: how to construct a good argument; the kind of material to put in your arguments and how to present them to make a persuasive case in the political assemblies or law courts, for instance. The assemblies and the law courts were where you needed to make your mark as a professional man. The sophists were the people who trained you how to do it. Now, again, some of them knew each other and some didn’t. They have a very bad press because Socrates and Plato didn’t think much of most of them. Plato does, though, take one or two of them seriously — figures such as Protagoras. But on the whole we’ve inherited a negative view of them. They’ve got a reputation, particularly with Socrates and Plato, for teaching people how to win at arguments rather than how to search for the truth.

Get the weekly Five Books newsletter

Plato — following Socrates, as far as we know — keeps saying the true philosopher should search for the truth in collaboration with others, philosophy shouldn’t be this very aggressive, hostile, competitive business. The sophists are teaching you how to win, how to defeat your opponent — if necessary by making your weaker argument look like the stronger argument — hence our word ‘sophistry’ for specious, fallacious, tricksy, deceptive reasoning. There is an element of that — that is true. However, that’s not the whole story. Some of them, such as Gorgias and Protagoras, are very substantial thinkers: Gorgias and his work on what-is-not, on not-being, was and is highly influential, and Protagoras really challenges the traditional religious framework when he says that ‘Human is the measure of all things, of things that are, that they are, and of things that are not, that they are not.’ This might mean that it’s up to human cultures to decide their own values and their own reality — which would be radical enough, but I think that it’s even more extreme — I think that Protagoras is claiming that it’s simply up to each individual to create and construct their own reality. A really radical position which swiftly leads to solipsism. They are very interesting and important thinkers, and actually Plato does treat Protagoras in particular with some respect, especially in the Theaetetus.

This leads to your second choice of book.

The book which really puts the sophists on the map as serious and interesting thinkers, and not just as specious fraudsters, is my second selection: G. B. Kerferd’sThe Sophistic Movement which was published in 1981, but is still, I think, the finest book on the subject. Again, it’s clear without remotely dumbing down, it gives you subtle nuances of position, and is at times challenging to read, but it’s also accessible and enjoyable. He’s very good, for instance, on two characters who appear in Plato’s Gorgias and Republic. One of them, Callicles in the Gorgias, is said to have been trained by sophists, and the other, Thrasymachus in the Republic, is himself a sophist, based on a genuine historical figure. Their positions are very often just lumped together in the secondary literature as ‘might is right,’ but Kerferd distinguishes them beautifully. He shows that although both Callicles and Thrasymachus think that conventional morality is a hypocritical and cynical cover for self-interest and not to be trusted, there are nevertheless important differences in their positions about who’s exploiting whom.

Callicles argues that morality is a cover in which the majority who are individually weaker but collectively stronger hide behind their invention of conventional morality in order to suppress and exploit the naturally stronger few, whereas Thrasymachus in the Republic says that the only test of strength is whether you actually possess political power, and those who have political power make the laws in their own interest, and then they say that obeying these laws is justice and conventional morality. In this way they hoodwink the populace into being conventionally moral: the people think that being ‘moral’ is a good thing to be when actually all they’re doing is serving the interests of the ruling party who made the laws in their own interest. Kerferd makes it clear that, whereas for Callicles morality is a device of the weak majority to suppress the naturally stronger few, for Thrasymachus morality is a device of the de facto strong — those who are in power — to suppress the weak majority. So, there are different kinds of cynical exploitation going on, there are subtle differences. Kerferd applies the same care to all the sophists and shows them to be very important and substantive philosophers in their own right.

They sound fascinating from your description of them and their insights into political power and its meaning and underpinning will have resonances today for many people, I’m sure. Yet they’ve more or less been lost to the history of philosophy as it is traditionally told. They have prominence in Classical Studies departments, but these are not thinkers we hear much about in Philosophy departments, except as characters within Plato’s dialogues.

Well, I would add two caveats to that. First, in one of Plato’s dialogues in particular, the Theaetetus, which we’ll discuss in a moment, the sophist Protagoras has a major part, and though he’s ultimately defeated by the character Socrates (or at least defeated to Socrates’s own satisfaction), Plato does take him seriously. Secondly, the sophists are important in Nietzsche’s thought, and we do teach and read Nietzsche. We know that Nietzsche was lecturing on the sophists when he was at Basel in the late 1860s; we know he lectured on Callicles in Plato’s Gorgias; and we know that he spoke very approvingly of Callicles. E. R. Dodds has an edition of Plato’s Gorgias in which he gives us a very interesting appendix where he notes precise similarities between phrases in Callicles’s speeches and phrases in Nietzsche’s The Genealogy of Morals and other works, such as Thus Spake Zarathustra. Dodds very persuasively argues that Nietzsche’s study of the sophists, and particularly his study of Callicles, hugely influenced the development of his own theory of the Overman, the Übermensch. The detailed linguistic similarities are very compelling. So, actually, we may not always know we’re studying the sophists, but if we read and study Plato’s Theaetetus, which a lot of people do since it’s one of the seminal works in western epistemology, we are actually engaging with some sophistic ideas. And if we read Nietzsche we certainly are. So they’re not exactly lost: they’re just a bit hidden.

Your third book choice is a particular edition of Plato’s Theaetetus. It’s the one with a very long and celebrated introduction by Myles Burnyeat – I think it’s possibly the longest piece of writing published by this important philosopher and classical scholar.

Yes, it’s a book length introduction and it’s a major work. Plato’s Theaetetus asks what knowledge is, and several possible definitions are explored in depth and eventually dismissed, though considerable progress is made. In the opening sections of the dialogue, which look at the theory that knowledge is perception, Socrates and Theaetetus explore the ideas of both the Presocratic philosopher Heraclitus and his theory of flux, and also those of Protagoras and his theory that each individual human is the measure of all things, of things that are, that they are, and of things that are not, that they are not — the strong version of Protagorean relativism that we were discussing just now. Plato brilliantly shows that there is a very powerful natural link between Protagorean relativism and the Heraclitean view that all is flux, because if your view of the world is that everything is always flowing, always in motion, always changing, and nothing is ever still, then there could be no stable, objective, universal knowledge to get hold of. Knowledge could only be perspectival to the particular perceiver in time and space – except that the perceiver, of course, is also always flowing, always changing, their sensory organs are always changing…so in what sense could you have even individual perspectival knowledge?

Plato shows the connection between a Heraclitean metaphysical view of the phenomenal world — we are not talking here of Heraclitus’s belief in an underlying Logos which regulates the flux — and an epistemological view which says that extreme individual relativism is the only kind of ‘knowledge’ that we could possibly have. Burnyeat writes about this with great insight in his introduction: it is the most detailed, thoughtful, and challenging exploration of Protagorean relativism and how it connects to Heraclitean flux that exists. He writes about the whole dialogue, and there are many other theories about knowledge in the dialogue, but in terms of the early Greek philosophers, Burnyeat’s profound exploration of Heraclitus and Protagoras is really wonderful. It’s real philosophy. It shows how a modern philosopher can take an ancient text and do genuine creative philosophy with it. He’s also a clear and good writer, but I won’t pretend it’s the easiest read, simply because the ideas involved are difficult and you have to concentrate. He takes you through different interpretations of positions and different arguments for and against those interpretations, and you have to hold your ground and keep focused. But it’s so rewarding and so worthwhile.

And one of the most intriguing issues addressed is whether some views in philosophy can even be expressed in words.

Absolutely. In the Theaetetus, Plato himself is very interested in this question. He says that you can’t actually put extreme Heraclitean flux into language as we understand it because that would involve using words like ‘is’ — but there would be no ‘is’ if everything is always in a state of becoming. And you can’t even say ‘everything is in a state of becoming’ because you’ve said ‘everything’ and you’ve said ‘is’. You can’t say ‘white is always changing’ because what would ‘white’ be? There would be no ‘white’. Plato says we’re going to need a new language in which to express Heraclitean flux, and he further suggests that extreme Protagorean relativism can’t be put into words at all, because if you say ‘all knowledge is relativistic’, that itself is an objective claim — a claim that you’re putting forward as a universal, objective truth. Burnyeat is very interesting on all this.

Similar ideas, I would add, also emerge in Plato’s Parmenides, a dialogue about the Presocratic philosopher Parmenides who argues that there is just one thing, being – there are no divisions in reality, there is simply one thing that’s being. Again, Plato argues that that theory cannot properly be put into words either – you can’t name or describe the One; you can’t even say that the One ‘is’, since it does not exist in time. It can’t be thought or known at all. (And I’m sure that Plato is aware of the irony of making even these negative claims about it.) So, Plato is just so fresh and radical and relevant to modern thinkers in the way he explores these issues of what philosophy is. Can every philosophical position be put into words, and if it can’t, can it still be considered a philosophical position? Is philosophy something which has to be expressed in language? These are questions that have particularly caught the imagination of some philosophers in the last sixty years or so, and Burnyeat is wonderful on them.

It strikes me that, from what you’ve said, it’s these early philosophers that made Plato think. These are the people who really got him started.

Absolutely. I will go out on a limb and say you cannot properly understand Plato unless you have read some Heraclitus and Parmenides and thought hard about them. Plato is also, as we’ve seen, very interested in Protagoras and some of the other sophists and other Presocratics such as Zeno, who appears to deny the possibility of motion, and Democritus who says that everything is only atoms and void. But above all he’s fascinated by Parmenides, the philosopher of being, and Heraclitus, the philosopher of flux and motion, at least so far as the sensible world goes (again, the changing phenomenal world is for Heraclitus ordered by the Logos). What’s so interesting is that Aristotle, who of course studied with Plato for many years and knew him very well, tells us that as a young man Plato became acquainted with Cratylus and Heraclitean beliefs. Cratylus had been a student of Heraclitus — whether he was a real student or just a follower we don’t know — but he was even more extreme than his master. Heraclitus says something along the lines of ‘you can’t step into the same river twice’ — that’s the famous quote, though whether he said it in precisely those words we can’t be sure (Plato says he said it in those words). Cratylus, however, says that you can’t even step into the same riveronce because if everything is always flowing then identities can’t even come to form. It’s not just that flux and change break down identity, they stop identities being created: you can’t step into the same river once because there would be no ‘you’ and no ‘river’. Later on Cratylus apparently stopped speaking to his students altogether and would just move a finger! He’s my hero. I love Cratylus. Now, Plato, according to Aristotle, thought that Cratylus was telling the truth about the sensible world, about the world of appearances. According to Aristotle, to the very end of his life Plato never lost that extreme Heraclitean view of the sensible world, the phenomenal world. He thought that this is a world of becoming, a world of change. Now, because Plato also thought that knowledge had to be in relation to being — to a fixed, stable object — Plato thought this phenomenal world could not be an object of knowledge. It was not available for knowledge. At the very best, you could have a true opinion about it, but you could not have genuine knowledge of this world.

“Protagorean relativism can’t be put into words at all, because if you say ‘all knowledge is relativistic’, that itself is an objective claim.”

Therefore, if there is to be knowledge at all and if you’re going to avoid scepticism — and Plato is very keen that knowledge should exist — then there’s got to be another realm which is stable and which can be known. So Plato deduces that there must be another realm, and that there are these eternal, unchanging, non-sensible, perfect entities called Forms, such as the Form of the Good and the Form of Beauty. Plato’s famous theory of Forms — a metaphysical theory — actually comes from his epistemology: it comes from his belief that this world is in flux and can at best only be an object of opinion, not knowledge. He could have given up at that point and said that there is no knowledge, as Protagoras seems to have done, but Plato was determined that knowledge should exist and so says that it is of another realm. Of course, we might want to take issue in terms of the way Plato distinguishes knowledge from belief in relation to their fields rather than their reliability, but that is a discussion for another time. The point in relation to the Presocratics is that if you go through the main argument for the theory of Forms at the end of Republic V, you can see the powerful influence of both Heraclitus and Parmenides. Both philosophers are used by Plato in very precise ways in the construction of his argument for Forms. Firstly, Plato takes Parmenides’s argument — Do you think something or nothing? You’ve got to think something. Do you think something that is or something that is not? You can only think something that is etc. — and then goes on to say that this ‘is-ness’ is the object of knowledge, and it can only be this Parmenidean ‘is-ness’ that is the object of knowledge, but it can’t exist in this world because this world is Heraclitean, therefore there’s got to be another realm. So he’s blended Parmenides and Heraclitus in Republic Book V to come up with his theory of Forms. And you see this throughout Plato: he’s greatly influenced by many of the philosophers who came before him, but particularly by Parmenides and Heraclitus.

Now, to jump something like two and a half thousand years, another philosopher who is clearly massively influenced by the Presocratic philosophers, one whom we’ve already mentioned, is Friedrich Nietzsche. You’ve chosen his Ecce Homo as your fourth book.

Yes. Nietzsche particularly loves Heraclitus. Nietzsche comes to reject any notion of being: he regards the notion of being as one of the great fictions. The notion that there is such a thing as ‘being’ or moral truth or God — these are all fictions according to Nietzsche. So he loves Heraclitus whom he sees as this philosopher of change and flux, but that’s not the only reason that he loves Heraclitus: Nietzsche is also an advocate of Heraclitus’s belief in the creative tension that arises out of the clash and pull of opposites. Heraclitus writes, for instance, that “you must know that war is common, that justice is strife, that all things happen out of strife and necessity”, and “They do not comprehend how, in differing, it agrees with itself — a back-turning harmony, like that of a bow and a lyre.” Nietzsche really gets hold of this idea. In The Birth of Tragedy, one of Nietzsche’s earliest published works, all his classical training is brought to bear — it’s where he gives his analysis of what he calls the Dionysian and Apollinian forces. He comes back to The Birth of Tragedylater on in Ecce Homo when he’s reviewing his life’s work. In his essay in Ecce Homo entitled “The Birth of Tragedy” he writes that when he’s in the proximity of Heraclitus he feels ‘warmer and better than anywhere else’. It’s a relief that Nietzsche felt cosy somewhere: he didn’t feel cosy in many places. What does he love about Heraclitus? He loves Heraclitus’s affirmation of passing away and destroying, of which he says, ‘this is the decisive feature of a Dionysian philosophy’ — the philosophy he explored and partially advocated in The Birth of Tragedy. He loves the fact that Heraclitus, as he sees it, says ‘Yes’ to opposition, to war, and ‘Yes’ to becoming. He loves Heraclitus’s repudiation of the very concept of being (again, this doesn’t take sufficient account of Heraclitus’s notion of the Logos, but that is also for another discussion).

‘All this’, says Nietzsche, ‘is clearly more closely related to me than anything else thought to date.’ So, he sees himself in a Heraclitean tradition, and I think that’s one of the clues as to why Nietzsche experiments with style in the way that he does throughout his life, because his writing includes poetry, songs, aphorisms, and paradoxes, as well as more conventional essays. He’s always experimenting with style, just as Heraclitus was. Because Nietzsche saw himself as a philosopher of becoming, a philosopher of change, as he at least thought his hero Heraclitus had been, he thinks that his style has got to keep moving, it’s got to keep dancing. He’s got to keep experimenting and can’t have a fixed style because that would be to sign up to being, and he’s repudiating being. Nietzsche wants a style, or rather styles, of becoming. So Nietzsche’s style is absolutely an intrinsic part of his meaning here. The form is part of the meaning in just the way it was for Heraclitus. Nietzsche is interested in other Presocratics too, but it is particularly Heraclitus who inspires him. To get a sense of how the Presocratics went on inspiring people, in both form and content, have a look at Ecce Homo. It’s a wonderful work in many ways, and in the essay “The Birth of Tragedy” in particular it certainly gives you a sense of Nietzsche’s intellectual history.

It strikes me that the triumvirate of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle are the orthodoxy and the Presocratics are the unorthodox precursors of these orthodox thinkers, and that it’s the later unorthodox radical thinkers who found their inspiration in the Presocratics and then went on to suppress the Aristotelian views.

Well, that’s up to you! You have, in fact, given me a very Nietzschean view of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle that I personally don’t hold. For me, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle are all extraordinarily radical, fresh thinkers. And, don’t forget Socrates got put to death for it. And near the end of his life Aristotle went into exile because he said he thought the Athenians were going to commit a second crime against philosophy and he didn’t want to give them the chance. Plato only got away with it because he lived outside the main centre of the city in a place called the Academy that had a sign over the door saying ‘Let no one enter here who has not studied geometry’ — a very good way of making yourself look like the strange man at the end of the pier who the politicians don’t need to worry about, because you’re just a harmless eccentric. I think they’re very unorthodox. But I completely agree with you that the Presocratics and the sophists at their best were extraordinarily innovative thinkers. What I want to get rid of is this notion that the people we term ‘ancient philosophers’ were like the 18th century sculptures of them — venerable sages with beards, éminences grises, figures of the establishment. They weren’t. They were absolutely non-establishment. They were genuinely radical. They got into trouble with the establishment again and again. They had books burnt, they had to go into exile, they got into real trouble. And many of them were young when they were writing: Zeno was 24 when he published his collection of forty paradoxes which contained the very famous paradoxes which say that motion is impossible. Motion, of course, depends on notions of time and space. Zeno argues that if time and space exist, they must be either finitely or infinitely divisible — but both the finite and the infinite divisibility of time and space are profoundly problematic, so motion can’t exist, it must be an illusion. There must just be motionless being, as Zeno’s teacher Parmenides had claimed. But is Zeno really arguing this or is he in fact being mischievous? Is he really saying that you actually can’t move away from me talking to you in the marketplace, or is he perhaps saying that maybe time and space do exist, but we humans have not yet found a way to articulate them without contradicting ourselves? (And we may wonder whether we have yet — certainly not to everyone’s satisfaction.) So perhaps Zeno is saying that we have not yet found a way to articulate motion.

So, they were young, they were radical, they were fresh, they were extraordinary thinkers. Democritus, for example, said everything is just atoms and void and we can’t have direct access to it — and it’s not just that you don’t have direct access to all the atoms and void that make up that table, you don’t even have direct access to the surface of that table because the surface of that table is atoms and void floating off through air (itself comprised of atoms and void) and meeting the atoms and void coming out from your eye. It’s this sort of collision of the atoms and void in your eye and the atoms and void in the table, all altered by the atoms and void in the intervening medium of the air, it’s all this which gives rise to your sensation of looking at the surface of the table. But you don’t even know exactly what the direct surface of the table is like. Extraordinary stuff! He did all this without a laboratory. And he also said there were other worlds. Other worlds! Extraordinary. And we mustn’t forget Xenophanes, another one of my heroes. He questions the anthropomorphic nature of the Greek gods in a way which was immensely radical. He says each people depicts the gods in its own image. So Greek images of gods look like Greeks, but if you go to Ethiopia — a generic term for Africa — you’ll find that pictures of the gods there have dark skin and different features. And if you go to Thrace in northern Greece — this is my favourite — their gods have red hair and blue eyes. Brilliant! And he said if cattle and horses and lions could paint, cows and horses would paint gods looking like cows and horses. Given the pressure at the time to conform with the state religion, this is astonishing. So, to sum up, these are people looking at the world and thinking: is the world how it looks to me? Do I trust my sense data? Do I trust the appearances? Is reality actually something different from how things appear? I seem to see change and movement but perhaps everything is just stable, maybe there’s just one thing. I think I see colours, but Democritus tells me that colours don’t actually exist in objects themselves, it’s just atoms and void and the sensation of colour arises from the collision of atoms that we discussed before.

Colour is what we would now call a secondary quality, so Democritus is prefiguring the great 17th century philosophers such as Locke. So, yes, the Presocratics are genuinely radical but, to go back to your question, I would say that Socrates and Plato and Aristotle don’t lose that radical nature. It’s Nietzsche who gives us this negative view of it all going horribly wrong when Socrates comes along: that philosophy was doing fine until Socrates. But I think Nietzsche is deeply unfair to Socrates and Plato, and in fact I think Nietzsche at least partly knows that, he is actually intrigued by Socrates and Plato, particularly Socrates, and keeps coming back to him.

What is your final book choice?

I think people interested in early Greek philosophy will want an erudite tome which is the result of proper scholarship but is not so dauntingly forbidding that you can’t get into it. My choice is Kirk, Raven, and Schofield’s The Presocratic Philosophers; the second edition, published in 1983, in which Kirk and Raven’s original work was heavily revised by Malcolm Schofield. It doesn’t include the sophists, but we’ve got Kerferd for them. This is a wonderful book, and it’s got the fragments there in translation and also in the Greek which is really helpful: it gives you the tools to check what the various scholars say. And it includes a number of interesting interpretations. They do give their own views, but they’re fair: they also allude to opposing views. So, it’s a very open-minded and balanced book, and it gives somebody new to the subject a lot of materials to go further. Obviously scholarship continues to move on, so if you want a more up- to-date work, James Warren’s book on the Presocratics is also very good.

For anyone approaching the Presocratics for the first time, then, I would say start with Barnes’s Early Greek Philosophy — and then go on to the Kirk, Raven, and Schofield for a more detailed discussion of the Presocratics and Kerferd for the sophists. To see how these thinkers inspired later philosophers, read Nietzsche’sEcce Homo, and then, when you’re really feeling up to it, tackle Burnyeat’s edition of the Theaetetus — particularly the opening and middle sections in which he discusses Heraclitus and Protagoras and the connections between them. So, in the order of difficulty and getting deeper into it, that’s how I would do it.

We’ve talked earlier about Nietzsche being inspired by the Presocratics and you said in the introduction that they’ve not just inspired philosophers but, partly because of the very interesting experimental ways in which they write and think, they’ve inspired other literary artists as well.

People might also want to look at Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being in which one of the leitmotifs of the book is a bowler hat, and those who know the film or the book will know that it’s a rather erotically charged bowler hat and has a big role to play throughout the work. Kundera writes that the meanings of Tomáš’s and Tereza’s lives and relationship flow through the bowler hat as water flows through Heraclitus’s riverbed. Parmenides also figures in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. And modern physicists and mathematicians are still writing papers about Zeno! Their line is: ‘Ok, these paradoxes must be solvable. Of course there must be motion.’ But they’re still disagreeing about exactly how to solve the paradoxes. And we haven’t really talked enough about Parmenides. He wrestles with: What is being? What is not being? Does nothing exist? I would suggest that you approach Parmenides by thinking about the sentences ‘nothing exists’ and ‘nothing does not exist’. What do they mean for you? What happens if you put inverted commas around the word ‘nothing’ in each case? How does that change the meaning in the sentences? Can you think nothing, without inverted commas?

He says you can’t think nothing. There will be something in your head, even if it’s only an image of blackness. Nothing comes from nothing — that’s where that famous line comes from and it ends up in The Sound of Music: “Nothing comes from nothing / Nothing ever could / So somewhere in my youth or childhood /I must have done something good”. ‘Nothing comes from nothing’ comes from Parmenides — I do hope Hammerstein knew that. So these are wonderful thinkers who sparked western philosophy into life and are still sparking it. They’ve also fed into maths, into physics, into literary works, and Hollywood. It’s extraordinary that people don’t study them more. I’ve taught them for nearly thirty years and in my experience, people in their late teens and early twenties (and older, of course) absolutely love the Presocratics. They just seem so modern, so fresh, so radical, so willing to explode received wisdoms and to challenge authority figures. I always tell my students they don’t need to bother with taking a psychedelic drug ever again and risk burning their brains: you can have a psychedelic experience just studying the Presocratic philosophers without damaging your health. So take a copy of these in your pocket on a Friday or Saturday night when you go clubbing. You don’t need to bother with silly pills!

Interview by Nigel Warburton

October 13, 2015

Support Five Books

Five Books depends on donations to keep going. If you've enjoyed this interview, please consider giving a gift.