Comparative Textbook Review
Book Details: J. Annas, Voices of Ancient Philosophy: An Introductory Reader (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), xxiv + 454 pp.
Book Details: S. M. Cohen, P. Curd, & C. D. C. Reeve, Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy: From Thales to Aristotle, 2nd edn (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2000), xiv + 890 pp.
Book Details: T. Irwin, Classical Philosophy, Oxford Readers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 433 pp.
Book Details: J. H. Lesher, The Greek Philosophers: Selected Greek Texts from the Presocratics, Plato, and Aristotle (London: Bristol Classical Press, 1998), viii + 147 pp.
Annas' volume offers a broad selection of ancient sources arranged thematically. The six main sections deal with free will, the emotions, epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and politics. Sources range from Homer and Herodotus to Augustine and Boethius. Each extract is followed by a brief commentary, often including questions that could form the basis for seminar discussions. The volume is prefaced with a brief chronological outline and a timeline. A series of text boxes throughout the text offer biographical introductions to the principal figures. A selection of pictures give faces to some of the ancient names. Some teachers might find the commentary too intrusive, something that Annas acknowledges as a risk in the Introduction. Having said that, its presence gives the volume a coherence that means that this book offers a 'ready made course' for those who like its approach.
The Hackett volume by Cohen et al. follows a chronological plan. It contains a fair selection of fragments from the Presocratics and Sophists (repeating the material in Curd's A Presocratics Reader, also by Hackett), selections from Plato (including the Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, and Republic in full), and selections from Aristotle (roughly the same material in Hackett's Aristotle: Introductory Readings by Irwin and Fine). Each of these three sections comes with its own introduction. There are also maps, a timeline, a reasonable bibliography, a concordance, and a glossary. The editors offer little in the way of narrative to unify the material and it appears to be designed as a source book for existing courses rather than a volume around which one would want to construct a new course. Whther this volume will be suitable for an existing course will primarily depend upon whether it has all (or enough) of the texts that the course already includes.
Irwin's volume, like Annas', is arranged thematically, with a total of fifteen different sections. Texts and commentary are closely interwoven with one another, creating a relatively seamless narrative. Despite its thematic arrangement, a certain chronological arrangement remains, opening as it does with the Preoscratics on nature and change. A nice touch here is that the discussion is orientated by Aristotle's judgements on his predecessors, reflecting his vital role in the transmission of their ideas. Hellenistic ideas are introduced a little further on, while Plato and Aristotle remain well-represented throughout the volume. A few passages from modern writers are also included. In general, extracts are shorter than those in Annas' volume and Irwin's own text fills a substantial proportion of the book. Although clearly an anthology of texts, this volume might also be read as an extended introduction to ancient philosophy that happens to quote extensively from the primary sources. Either way, it is an impressive piece of work.
Lesher's anthology is quite different from the rest insofar as it contains texts in Greek. The author states in the Preface that his aim was to produce a volume that might be useful to both students of philosophy and classics, offering grammatical help to the former and philosophical guidance to the latter. Despite this hope, I imagine that this volume is most likely to be useful to students of classics, insofar as it assumes a basic grounding in Greek. However, philosophy students at, say, graduate level who are already familiar with ancient philosophy and who are beginning to learn Greek for the first time would probably find this volume very helpful. The extracts are very short and have a line by line commentary designed for the linguistic beginner. One might say that this volume is an annotated reader for students learning Greek who also happen to be interested in ancient philosophy. For students of philosophy who have just embarked on studying Greek, this volume may well be ideal.
Each of these volumes has its own merits and selection will no doubt depend to a large degree upon local circumstances. I shall leave to one side Lesher's volume as its scope is quite different from the other volumes under discussion here.
I am particularly drawn to Annas' volume, with its emphasis upon the vitality of ancient philosophical debates between the various schools and the way in which Plato and Aristotle are situated within a much broader intellectual context. My one reservation is that students are not offered any complete texts to read, especially no complete Platonic dialogues. It seems difficult to see how students could gain any real flavour of Plato's thought without reading at least one dialogue from start to finish. However this could easily be remedied by using a collection of dialogues as a second textbook.
Cohen, Curd, and Reeve do include a number of complete dialogues, including the complete text of the Republic. However the lack of material after Aristotle is, for me, a real drawback. This volume offers a substantial collection of texts covering early Greek philosophy - one could easily teach an entire course on Plato and another on Aristotle from this single volume - but it does not offer a representative introduction to ancient philosophy.
In many ways, Irwin's volume is the most impressive of the three anthologies in English, offering both breadth and depth. Irwin's commentary is philosophically sophisticated and yet accessible. My one reservation is that students may find themselves reading more of Irwin than they will of the ancient philosophers whom they are studying. In order to overcome this one could use one or two complete texts in translation as well.
This site was created by Dr John Sellars for the PRS-LTSN, 2002.