Sunday, December 16, 2012


Giannis Stamatellos, Introduction to Presocratics: a Thematic Approach to Early Greek Philosophy with Key Readings. Malden, MA; Oxford; Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. Pp. x, 162. ISBN 9780470655030. $29.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Benjamin Harriman, University of Cambridge (

Version at BMCR home site


This slender volume is the latest attempt to introduce students to early Greek philosophy. Stamatellos' book is accessible in length (discounting appendices and the like, a mere eighty-one pages), broken up into bite-sized chapters, and written in fluent prose. It is also innovative in structure.1 Diverging from the standard model of taking each historical figure in more or less chronological order from Thales to Democritus, Stamatellos opts for a thematic approach whereby he offers six short essays on topics he takes to be important not only for the Presocratics but also for their modern philosophical successors. Quite why he thinks it desirable that he take up topics of interest to both ancient and modern philosophers is left unsaid and points to my most significant worry. I was left wondering both why Stamatellos thinks one should read Presocratic philosophy, and who he is trying to convince to do so. Is it simply out of intrinsic historical interest? Do early Greek thinkers have something significant to contribute to modern philosophical debate? Whatever the merits of the book, and there are several, as we shall see, the failure to offer a persuasive argument for pursuing the subject matter is a disconcerting omission.

A short introduction sets the Presocratics in their historical place, offers a list of factors that may have contributed to the emergence of philosophical thinking in Greece, and provides a potted history of Presocratic historiography. Next there is a chapter devoted to biographical details of the figures to be discussed in the remainder of the book. Stamatellos does accomplish these practicalities simply and without fuss. However, I wonder if some of the historical particulars offered (e.g. that the Milesians formed something like a philosophical school, that Heraclitus deposited his book in the Temple of Artemis, etc.) might be more appropriately recounted with the disclaimer that our evidence for such details is extremely weak.

Stamatellos' thematic approach begins in earnest with Chapter 3: Principles. Here he offers a resolutely Aristotelian account of the Milesians before turning to the material archai of Xenophanes, Heraclitus, and Diogenes of Apollonia. Some may chafe at the dominance of Aristotle and the well-known limitations of his approach to earlier thinkers, and I would like to have seen some acknowledgement of the dangers of uncritical reliance on him. However, Stamatellos does an excellent job of conveying why early thinkers would posit primary entities patently in contradiction with common sense. A section on Pythagoras is similarly clear and to the point; although I was disappointed to read the inaccurate claim that Aristotle took Alcmaeon of Croton to be a Pythagorean thinker.2 Next, Stamatellos takes up the pluralists Empedocles and Anaxagoras. Interestingly, here he chooses not to approach their work as reactions to Parmenides. The chapter concludes with a few remarks on the atomism of Leucippus and Democritus.

Next, Stamatellos provides a brief chapter on kosmos. He sets up the Milesian views in contrast with the world-image we find in Homer. Quite why this is a meaningful comparison is not discussed and I was left wanting a fuller explanation of the motivations behind the cosmological pictures offered by the philosophers. Stamatellos then goes on with the claim that the Eleatics challenged "the very basis of cosmology by arguing against change, generation and plurality". Certainly the denial of change and generation is a challenge to those cosmological pictures previously offered. I doubt however that this amounts to an attack on the basis of cosmology itself. One can, after all, eliminate all the standard tools of an intellectual inquiry without necessarily denying the importance of the inquiry itself. Stamatellos himself speculates that Parmenides may have been influenced by Anaximander's image of cosmic "wheels" that encircle the earth (B12, A37). He then gives a good summary of the views of Anaxagoras and Empedocles, although I found it odd that Stamatellos would attribute to Anaxagoras alone the attempt to explain phenomena such as thunder and lightning naturalistically. A final section details the views of the Pythagoreans.

Being comes next. This is a chapter largely focused on the Eleatics. Stamatellos accepts a three-path interpretation of Parmenides B2 and B6, where the third route is a compromise between being and not-being. He suggests that this third way, and B6 more generally, is an attack on Ionian or Heraclitean philosophers. Stamatellos also adheres to the "strict monism" interpretation whereby Parmenides held that exactly one thing exists. He then provides a compact but lucid description of how Empedocles took up Parmenides' denial of generation and destruction but altered it to conform with the "internal and continual reorganization of the material constituents of being". However, I doubt the wisdom of claiming that Empedocles accepted Parmenides' understanding of not-being as empty space. This is an identification made by Melissus, not Parmenides.

Zeno figures next, as Parmenides' pupil and defender. It makes sense in this context to discuss Zeno's attempts to show the absurdity of holding that there is a plurality of things. However, the inclusion of an analysis of Zeno's "millet seed" paradox strikes me as confused and beside the point here. It is, however, the inclusion of Zeno's paradoxes of motion in this chapter that is most mysterious. No doubt the paradoxes served to promote the Parmenidean argument that motion is impossible. Yet surely such a discussion would be better placed in a section on natural philosophy: an opportunity the thematic approach of the book itself provides! The chapter concludes with a good summary of the views of Melissus. Stamatellos next takes up soul. This chapter is clear and to the point, if a bit perfunctory, and includes an excellent section on immortality and time. He then tackles knowledge in one of the book's strongest chapters. Stamatellos begins with Xenophanes' criticism of anthropomorphic conceptions of the divine. He has it that Xenophanes attempted to supplant the confused tradition of polytheism with a singular god, unlike humans in body or mind. A note on Xenophanes' continued references to gods in the plural would have been helpful here to ease confusion. After a few remarks on Empedocles, atomism, and Xenophanes' scepticism about human knowledge, the Eleatics are considered. One might think that Stamatellos' discussion of Zeno's millet seed would have been better placed here. A helpful discussion of Democritus' ethics and the role his physics plays within it is followed by section on the relations between perception, truth, and the possibility of knowledge for the Presocratics.

The final essay on ethics is the one for which I had highest hopes and about which, perhaps inevitably, found the most to question. Again, Homer and Hesiod have a looming presence in the background. I reiterate my concern that Stamatellos neglects to explain why Homer and Hesiod are important. Is it that Homeric and Hesiodic values are the same as those held by the contemporaries of the philosophers under discussion? Presocratics like Heraclitus and Xenophanes directly criticised Homer and Hesiod, but a student, particularly one coming from a philosophical and not a classical background, would undoubtedly want to know more. Stamatellos provides a further discussion here of Xenophanes' criticism of the Homeric and Hesiodic depictions of the divine. However, in this chapter I had expected to read some discussion of Xenophanes' positive ethical commitment to a notion of good order (eunomia).

Stamatellos next, somewhat obscurely, dives into a section on virtue ethics. I take the point that some Presocratics had an interest in the nature of virtue, but I do not see how it follows from this that a mention of Platonic Forms and the importance of moderation for Aristotle is anything less than confusing.

Writing an introduction to any subject is a difficult task. Stamatellos does do an admirable job of lucidly explaining alien concepts to the novice. There were frequent moments in reading the book when I wished that I had first approached a topic as Stamatellos presents it. I cannot help but wonder, though, whether some of the worries I have expressed above would have been alleviated had Stamatellos had a clearer notion of his audience. Sometimes it seems as if young philosophers are the target, sometimes simply anyone interested in the subject. What I felt was most present by its absence was an attempt to define just what makes the Presocratics important and worthy of study. However, what Stamatellos does succeed in accomplishing is to demonstrate the wisdom the thematic approach. He does not always use it to its full advantage, but one can see how useful this approach would be if it were more widely adopted.

Also included are several appendices providing translations of the main fragments by M.R. Wright, a note on the sources for Presocratic texts, and a rather helpful outline of the reception, ancient and modern, of the philosophers. A glossary, a decent bibliography, and an index round off the book.


1.   The excellent introduction by Catherine Rowett (previously Osborne) is the closest parallel, being partly thematic in structure: Presocratic Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2004).
2.   Although later sources do sometimes call Alcmaeon a Pythagorean, Aristotle clearly does not hold this view. See Metaphysics 986a27. In Diogenes Laertius (5.25) we also learn that Aristotle composed a work specifically targeting Alcmaeon.

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