Since I have been studying Plato this past quarter, I thought I would order F. E. Peters’ Greek Philosophical Terms: A Historical Lexicon to see what I could glean from it. I later discovered J. O. Urmson’s The Greek Philosophical Vocabulary, another book with the same objective. Here I review both as a student of Greek, not a scholar of ancient philosophy.
Introducing the Competition
F. E. Peters, an ex-Jesuit classicist and scholar of Islam, wrote his short book in 1967. J.O. Urmson‘s background is slightly different: he was also trained as a scholar of Greek philosophy, and translated Aristotle for Penguin, but went on to do work in moral philosophy. Both market their books to intermediate students of Greek language and philosophy who perhaps have studied little to no Greek but still want to understand the ambiguous philosophical terminology they encounter in ancient texts. Having taken a several philosophy courses, including three specifically on ancient Greek philosophy, I think I’m in his target audience.
Urmson’s book seems to be to be better for beginners. In his introduction, he writes that his book has 500-600 entries, so he clearly covers more terms than Peters does. For example, Urmson has 79 entries under A, while Peters has only 31.
Urmson’s definitions are much simpler and to the point. He never runs over one succinct paragraph, always with quotes in both transliterated Greek and English from various philosophers. For example, see his entry on kakos (evil, bad):
And so on, so that we get a good sense of what the word means and where to go to look it up. I do wish Urmson hadn’t transliterated the Greek: it doesn’t help the Greekless reader, and it gives me a headache because, well, Greek should be in Greek!
One of my major frustrations with this book is that Urmson seems to base his work far too heavily on Plato and Aristotle. For example, under phusis I found no mention of the pre-Socratics, only 8 citations of Plato and Aristotle. I found little on any later philosophers. Also, Urmson could have put something in his introduction about how his work differs from Peters’.
Peters’ book, on the other hand, seems better for more advanced students. Rather than providing a concise explanation for each word, he gives a history of its usage. That way the reader doesn’t try to read, say, the Platonic use of eidos (form) into the pre-Socratics or Aristotle. For many entries, Peters also explains how the word was used in pre-philosophical texts such as epic poetry. His entry on phusis runs for five paragraphs, divided by thinker:
- Parmenides, Empedocles, Atomists, Plato
For each thinker, he cites specific passages, making this book far more useful for anyone seeking to trace the history of a term in Greek philosophy. As a comparison to the entry on kakon in Urmson, here’s Peters’ version:
This format means that Peters’ entries are longer, though he covers fewer words. For example, his entry on kakon runs for two pages, versus Urmson’s one paragraph. But there are some words not in here that I felt should be. Since I was reading Crito and Euthyphro, I looked up the words discussed in those two dialogues. I found dike, eidos, episteme, kakon, and pathos, but found no mention of idea, which Urmson included. Neither lexicon included eusebeia or hosion. Hosion, which means holiness or piety, is a pretty major oversight, since that is the entire subject of Euthyphro. Nor were “holiness” or “piety” in the English-Greek index. If these words are missing, what else might be? To be fair, this book is only 200 pages, and not everything can fit.
In the back of the book, there is also an English-Greek index, so readers who want to know, say, the Greek word for “justice” or “intellect” can figure out where to look. He provides entries for many English words to account for the diversity of translations, but sometimes still misses the mark, as when he omits “right,” a possible translation for the Greek word dike.
Despite these advantages, Peters’ book might be information overload for beginners. This book is not very useful for the student who doesn’t know philosophy as well. I was hoping for something that explained terms on a more basic level, as Urmson does, rather than giving brief references to various thinkers. I don’t merely want to know that a particular thinker used a term a particular way. I’d like a brief summary of the text, or a quote from that text. Without those things this book is less useful to the student of Greek who is just starting her study of philosophy. Also, it is more dated than Urmson’s book: Peters’ book came out in 1967, while Urmson’s debuted in 1990.
Ideally, you should get both of these, as neither is obviously better than the other. Both Urmson and Peters   were reviewed favorably by academics. But if you’re on a tight budget, I would go with Peters, because his entries make it clearer how different authors define a word, and tend to be more comprehensive in covering a wide range of Greek thinkers.