Thursday, March 10, 2016

On teaching Anaxagoras using Waterfield and Barnes

An interesting aspect of teaching the Presocratics is that each textbook collects the fragments associated with the philosopher in question differently:  often they are arranged to meet the commentator's take on what this philosopher is really trying to say. If the translation is also done by the commentator, the teacher (and learner) is faced with a package:  translation plus arrangement plus commentary plus footnotes.  Also, hardly any text includes all of the fragments:  so the commentator is selecting here as well.   In addition, there is the issue of how the fragments are situated, i.e. how much surrounding context we get.  This is not a bad thing, and I definitely prefer this package to just a collection of fragments without commentary.  But, as a teacher, one feels the need to supplement what is offered.  Then there are idiosyncrasies: Robin Waterfield (The First Philosophers:  The Presocratics and the Sophists, Oxford U. Press, 2000) is extremely wary of using Diogenes Laertius in his commentaries.  Now I know that DL is considered unreliable, and he is late, but he probably had access to books we can no longer see and he is usually fun to read.  So it is kind of hard to leave DL out of a discussion of any ancient Greek philosopher especially when teaching to undergraduates. Moreover, Waterfield can't be against DL simply because he is relatively late since he often quotes from Sextus Empiricus who is arguably equally late.  Johnathan Barnes, by contrast, in his Early Greek Philosophy (Penguin Books 2001) does use DL to start with, which makes sense to me.  DLs biography of Anaxagoras is short, so that is not a problem. Also, starting with the DL biography entails that the first actual fragment Barnes uses from Anaxagoras is "All things were together.  Then thought came and arranged them" which, DL tells us, was how the treatise of Anaxagoras began!  This is a pretty important fact, or if not clearly a fact then at least something to consider.  It is arguably an essential fragment.  Moreover, it actually sums up the philosophy of Anaxagoras in a nutshell.  This should not be surprising if it is the first sentence in a small treatise in the tradition of Parmenides.  Waterfield never mentions this fragment!  So this is one place where Waterfield really needs to be supplemented.

Another significant superiority of Barnes (or at least something one needs to attend to if one is going to work from Waterfield) is that Barnes gives material from Plato.  You would think that Waterfield, who never mentions Plato on Anaxagoras, would have to mention him since Plato was practically a contemporary. Moreover, Socrates was a contemporary, and the passages from Plato relate directly to the life of Socrates.  But no testimony from Plato appears in Waterfield!  This entails that the teacher must bring in this material.  Of course most teachers of Ancient Philosophy classes will be teaching the Apology and the Phaedo anyway and can bring up the Platonic commentary and Socratic connection at that time, but this is not excuse for Waterfield to exclude it.  One can only suspect that Waterfield is one of that strange breed of classicists that loves Aristotle so much that Plato becomes somehow irrelevant to the history of ancient thought.  I once had a colleague who quite shockingly insisted to me that one should not bother to read Plato's dialogues since Aristotle was Plato's student and everything valuable about Plato is to be found in Aristotle!   

Barnes is also a necessary supplement here since at least he includes the passage from the Phaedo (97BC-98BC) in which Socrates is describing his young interest in Anaxagoras and his disappointment that the earlier dualist had not explained everything in terms of Mind.  The other important passage is not mentioned by Barnes but is in the Apology where Socrates mentions that his accusers confuse him with Anaxagoras, whose book could be bought for a mere drachma in the marketplace. 

As I mentioned earlier, Barnes also includes a marvelous passage from Plutarch in which we learn how Pericles learned from Anaxagoras for example in rejecting superstition in favor of science.  These passages are quite useful in the classroom to give the historical context of Anaxagoras.  

I should also mention that it is worthwhile at this point to bring up Aspasia, consort of Pericles, who is also not mentioned by Waterfield or by Barnes but who is widely considered to be an important part of the intellectual circle that surrounded Pericles and whose name is often paired with that of Anaxagoras:  both of them were tried for impiety, and both, unlike Socrates, survived. Admittedly, the charge of impiety against Aspasia is only found in Plutarch, but it is still worth thinking about.  Moreover, I think it is important to incorporate the work of women intellectuals in the ancient world.  This is usually neglected even today.  See Mary Ellen Waithe Ancient Women Philosophers for a discussion of Aspasia as a philosopher who taught both Socrates and Plato concerning the nature of rhetoric.  Waithe's book is still the main source on ancient women philosophers, at least as far as I know. 

Another thing I like about Barnes as opposed to Waterfield is that he gives us the fragments and testimony from Simplicius (which constitute the most important source of material about Anaxagoras's actual book) in a continuous form, saying "Here the texts are presented in the form in which they are preserved.  This makes for repetition but it offers a better picture of the evidence." Yes, this is helpful, and untrue of Waterfield.  

However, and this is a big however, if you like your presocratic philosophy with a heavy dose of commentary, you need to go to Waterfield.  Although I have been critical of Waterfield I take his version of Anaxagoras seriously and my next post will be on that.

One other sidenote.  We teachers of the history of philosophy often like to use visual illustrations with out presentations.  The various images of Anaxagoras, not only from the ancient world, but also from later times are well known.  I tend to prefer images that are contemporary for the author.  Less well known are images of philosophers readily available on the web that appear on coins. There are several of Anaxagoras, some showing him seated on a globe, some holding a globe, some standing on a globe.  The uniformity is interesting.  Also, Anaxagoras came from Clazomenae.  We are so Athens-centric we forget that philosophy came from specific cities in Ionia.  If you go to the web sites on Clazomenae you will find that there are very interesting illustrated sarcophagi from the time of Anaxagoras, images of the ruins of the city, and pictures of a preserved olive press from the time (hard to believe!).  

An interesting new book is reviewed by Glen Van Brummelen 2015. “Daniel W. Graham. Science before Socrates: Parmenides, Anaxagoras, and the New Astronomy. [2013]" ISIS: Journal Of The History Of Science In Society 106, no. 1: 167-168.  106, no. 1: 167-168.  

1 comment:

Gerard said...

Thanks for a great reead