Scholia Reviews ns 8 (1999) 10.

J.H. Lesher (ed.), The Greek Philosophers: Selected Texts from the Presocratics, Plato, and Aristotle. London: Duckworth (Bristol Classical Press), 1998. Pp. viii + 147. ISBN 1-85399-562-2. UKú8.95.

Robert B. Todd
Department of Classical, Near-Eastern, and Religious Studies, University of British Columbia, Vancouver

In 1900 the Senate of Cambridge University approved for Part I of the Classical Tripos a paper in which passages illustrative of Greek philosophy were set 'for translation and comment'. The contemporary doyen of Cambridge ancient philosophy, Henry Jackson (1839- 1921), thereupon prepared a slim volume of selected texts from the Presocratics, Sophists, Plato and Aristotle as the basis for his lectures.[[1]] As this century draws to a close classicists are no longer required to know much philosophy, and ancient philosophy, at least in the English-speaking world, now survives mainly within departments of philosophy. Inevitably Jackson's collection of bare texts could no longer satisfy anyone's needs -- even Cornelia de Vogel's three-volume collection from the 1950s included some notes and translation.[[2]]) As Lesher says in the preface (p. vii) to the work under review: 'Few classicists possess the training in philosophy required to do full justice to [the major works of Greek philosophy]. Yet few professional philosophers know enough ancient Greek to be able to teach directly from the Greek text.' In response to this situation Lesher has presented us with a selection of sixteen sets of texts central to the study of Greek philosophy up to the time of Aristotle, with each text serving as the basis for an extensive commentary on language and content, along with brief introductions and selective bibliographies (too selective in the case of the Crito at p. 66, where the omission of Kraut is surprising.)[[3]] Exegesis is aimed at students who have mastered the elements of Greek, and also have sufficient philosophical acumen to tackle some of the major modern discussions in English of these difficult texts. Unlike Lesher (introduction, p. vi) I have not tested this book in class, but I know that I shall want to use it, at least selectively, with senior undergraduates and graduate students.

Lesher's choice is rather narrower than Jackson's. There are only a few Presocratics (the early Ionians, Xenophanes, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Empedocles, Democritus, and Anaxagoras), and no sophists (although some of Gorgias' Encomium on Helen might have been appreciated by classicists, and is anyway an excellent illustration of argumentation). For Zeno's paradoxes, or other Presocratic material, the reader is referred to Rosemary Wright's The Presocratics (a collection published by the same press in 1985, see the introduction, p. 1). Wright is in fact much less helpful to the students targeted by Lesher; her notes consist mostly of selected translations of the more difficult phrases.

From Plato we get some of the laws' speech from the Crito (50e2-51c5, but in the old OCT, rather than the new 1995 edition,[[4]] and hence with the objectionable E)PIMELO/MENOS at 51a7), followed by a classic demonstration of the Socratic 'What is X?' question from the Meno (71e-72d) -- although that label is eschewed, as is Vlastos' paper on the subject.[[5]] We also have the passage describing the 'ascent to Beauty' from the Symposium (210e- 211e), the argument for Justice as psychic harmony from Republic 4 (443b-444c), and an argument for the forms from the Timaeus (51b7-52b5). But why not the classic argument against the definition of knowledge as true belief at Theaetetus (200d5-201c7)?

From Aristotle there is the programmatic Parts of Animals 1.5 (testimony to the renewed interest in Aristotle's biology by philosophers in recent decades; there was certainly no biology in Jackson's collection), the 'E)/RGON argument' from Nicomachean Ethics 1.7, De Anima 3.4-5 (wouldn't some of 2.1-3 have been more relevant to contemporary issues in philosophy of mind than the murky business of the 'productive intellect'?), Posterior Analytics 2.19, and Metaphysics Lambda 6-7. It is rare to see Aristotelian texts given such elementary commentaries, and there should be more of them. There is certainly a constituency awaiting the Poetics in this format.

Clearly, then, this is a selection of texts that no student of Greek philosophy can ignore, and it reflects the ethos of modern studies in Greek philosophy, in its focus on telling arguments, or (to echo Gregory Vlastos) puzzles that need cracking.[[6]] The notes are uniformly sensible and balanced; forms and constructions are carefully explained, and valuable philosophical pointers succinctly provided (notable examples at pp. 73f. and 147). The constant reference to the Greek grammars of both Smyth and Goodwin on basic points is a little irritating, and at times unhelpful (see further below).[[7]] Could students not be trusted to use the indices to these works for themselves? It is also awkward to read the (unattractive) Greek texts separately from the notes, and to have to flip back and forth between the two.[[8]] Words and phrases are translated, but complete translations (perhaps in an appendix) might have been more helpful, especially if composed in the manner of the late Montgomery Furth,[[9]] a literal form of translation deliberately designed to reflect the structure of the original. Such a creative crib might have served as a useful complement to bitty translations, which can sometimes be a hindrance. Who, for instance, would want to translate PARA/ SOI KEIME/NON at Meno 72a7-8 as 'lying with you', Lesher's equivalent for a phrase referring to the 'swarm of virtues' that Meno has just identified?

Finally, I have space only to note some very minor details that concerned me as someone on the Classics side of Greek philosophy. These are the kinds of criticisms that might be addressed in future editions of a collection that will surely be widely used, and soon reprinted.

At pp. 138f., in the last paragraph of Posterior Analytics 2.19, there are three instances of what Lesher rightly identifies (at 100b11) as a 'potential optative' in the form A)/N EI)/H. Later (at 100b15 and 16) he renders it as 'would be'. Perhaps students need to be told that this optative expresses a definite conclusion, without any implied tentativeness. Jonathan Barnes translates all three by the future indicative 'will'.[[10]] Lesher refers to Smyth's grammar, paragraph 1824 where the potential optative is said to state 'a future possibility, propriety, or likelihood, as an opinion of the speaker', but in fact one of the translations proposed there is 'must', the one germane to the Aristotelian passage in question, where a conclusion necessarily follows from antecedent premises. I am not sure that beginning students would figure this out from Smyth; Lesher might have enlightened them.

At p. 64, on Crito 51b6-7, the Laws conclude a series of prescriptions by saying POIHTE/ON TAU=TA. Lesher translates 'these must be done', and adds 'Verbal Adj. expressing necessity' (with the usual references to Goodwin and Smyth), and notes that this continues 'the notion of necessity expressed by DEI=' (for which he does not supply the reference to 51b2). The brighter students will ask why, if 'must be done' agrees with 'these', it is in the singular, not the plural. Smyth eventually tells them at 2152a : 'the impersonal construction is virtually active', i.e., we can parse POIHTE/ON in this case as DEI= POIEI=N. So POIHTE/ON TAU=TA does not just 'continue the notion of necessity' expressed by the earlier DEI=; it is in its latent syntax equivalent to that construction. Why not explain this ad loc (and apply it to the other instances of the construction that follow at 51b8 and 9-10, with Goodwin Moods and Tenses paragraph 925 cited for the latter text)? I would also send students to North and Hillard p. 130, paragraph 54(b) with paragraph 55.[[11]]


[[1]] Texts to illustrate a Course of Elementary Lectures on the History of Greek Philosophy from Thales to Aristotle (London 1901).

[[2]] Greek Philosophy: a Collection of Texts. 3 vols. (Leiden 1950, 1953, 1959).

[[3]] Richard Kraut, Socrates and the State (Princeton 1984).

[[4]] E.A. Duke et al. (edd.), Platonis Opera: Tomus I (Oxford 1995).

[[5]] 'What Did Socrates Understand by his "What is X?" Question', in Gregory Vlastos, Platonic Studies (Princeton 1981 [2nd edition]) 410-17.

[[6]] In the Preface to the first (though not the second) edition (see preceding note) of his Platonic Studies (Princeton 1973), Vlastos described his papers as 'efforts to crack puzzles'.

[[7]] William W. Goodwin, A Greek Grammar (London 1968 [2nd edition]); Herbert Weir Smyth (rev. G.M. Messing), Greek Grammar (Cambridge, Mass. 1956).

[[8]] Roll on Project Archelogos (, destined to provide us with Greek philosophical texts with hypertext links!

[[9]] Montgomery Furth (tr.), Aristotle, Metaphysics Books VII-X (Indianapolis 1985).

[[10]] On this usage see W.W. Goodwin, Syntax of the Moods and Tenses of the Greek Verb (London 1912) paragraph 238.

[[11]] M.A. North and A.E. Hillard, Greek Prose Composition for Schools (London 1938), which is currently in print with Duckworth, the publisher of Lesher's collection, still offers the most student- friendly explanations of Greek grammar around.