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The Beginnings of Philosophy in Greece$

Maria Michela Sassi

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9780691180502

Published to Princeton Scholarship Online: January 2019

DOI: 10.23943/princeton/9780691180502.001.0001

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Voices of Authority

Voices of Authority

(p.139) Chapter Five Voices of Authority
The Beginnings of Philosophy in Greece

Maria Michela Sassi

, Michele Asuni
Princeton University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines how Greek authors placed their activity within a recognized literary tradition, that of epic poetry, in order to give authority to their message. It first explains how a certain number of authors stress their detachment from the poetic tradition in combining the choice of new contents with new and more appropriate guarantees of truth, taking into account the views of the Homeric bard and other philosophers such as Hesiod and Xenophanes with respect to the Muses. It then considers Empedocles and Parmenides's adoption of the formal trappings of epic poetry as soundbox for their authorial voice, as well as the role played by reason in the evolution of Presocratic thought. It concludes with a discussion of how, during the second half of the fifth century BCE, prose became the medium of rational argumentation par excellence.

Keywords:   epic poetry, authority, truth, Muses, Empedocles, Parmenides, authorial voice, reason, prose, rational argumentation

The Odd Couple

In a well-known passage of the tenth book of Republic (606e–608b), Plato returns to the negative effects of poetic mimesis, already denounced in previous sections of the dialogue, to stress that the only poems that may be admitted into the city are those honoring the gods or praising noble actions, while Homeric poetry should be rejected in its entirety. To those who sing Homer’s praises because he “educated Hellas” and even base “their whole life” on the ethic code of the Iliad and the Odyssey, Plato responds that the only merit of Homeric poetry is its formal excellence, which, however, carries with it pernicious repercussions on the moral level; for to grant the Homeric Muse access to the city means to pave the way for the domain of emotionality; pleasure and pain will become the guiding criteria for human actions instead of the ordering power “of the law and of what is each time commonly agreed to be the best reason.” Thus the coexistence of irrational beguilement and rational argumentation is impossible for the sake of the polis; according to Plato, this is an “ancient quarrel” (palaiadiaphora) that crucially divides poetry and philosophy.

This formulation clearly bespeaks a strong “teleological narrative.”1 Plato is projecting into the past—as if into a primal and constitutive situation—a contrast between poetry and philosophy that became a reality only in his younger years. Moreover, as far as we know, archaic Greek culture lacked a unitary notion of poetry or literature; in this period, the various “genres” of song were distinguished according to the different performance occasions rather than following the formal and abstract criteria that would later inspire their classification in a context of literary theory, starting in the fifth century BCE. And it is only toward the end of this century that the nouns for “poetry” (p.140) (poiēsis) and “philosophy” (philosophia) are applied to specific genres that differ in objectives, contents, and form, and that prose is established as the main means for communicating philosophical contents. Furthermore, Plato exacerbates that division when, in constructing his political utopia, he characterizes poetry as the place of irrational persuasion par excellence, all the while indicating rational argumentation as the exclusive prerogative of philosophy. Yet, as we know, Plato himself is anything but indifferent to the communicative power of poetry; in contexts that require stronger persuasion,2 he eschews neither mythical narrations nor a writing style that aims at high emotional involvement, which he achieves via the dramatic structure of the dialogue. With this he shows he has inherited an ancient attitude of the philosopher to emulate, rather than deny, the poets’ qualities and prerogatives. And this attitude, contrary to what Plato is trying to emphasize, is an integral part of the beginnings of philosophy.

In the first chapter, in an attempt to identify the outlines of a philosophical thought in that melting pot of competing forms of wisdom, traditional and otherwise, that is the archaic Greek world, we set out to emphasize, among other elements, the interest in “all things,” that is, the intention to explore the nature of men and of the world. This indication was brought to fruition in the second chapter, dedicated to the first cosmologies, and in the fourth, which dealt with the discourses on the soul. As we have already noted, since Homer and Hesiod the archaic poets present themselves as authors of a global discourse on the cosmos that will soon play a central role in Greek education.3 For this reason the places and the occasions of poetry, in continuity with its initial mold, appear naturally predisposed to host moral reflections, whether in sympotic gatherings or during festival celebrations. On the other hand, in the first half of the sixth century, while the long-lasting monopoly of the poets on paideia is being established, a favorable combination of factors brings about new speculations about the nature of the cosmos in the Ionian world. At this point, the inquiry bifurcates in two directions that are documented, in statu nascendi, in a writing by that poet-political thinker and contemporary of Anaximander, Solon. In these powerful verses, Solon compares the origin of a snow- and hailstorm from a cloud to the enslavement of a people at the hands of a tyrant, and ascribes the cause of it to the “ignorance” of the dēmos itself. What needs to be done instead (by applying, we are led to believe, a forecasting ability like that of a meteorologist) is to stop the leaders before they prevail, which in turn requires an “all-encompassing knowledge” (frag. 9, line 6 West). Here the “knowledge of all things” is the awareness of the complex political tapestry showcased by Solon as a thinker and man of action, while (p.141) the natural world is evoked only as an analogy to emphasize the potential violence of the upheavals within the polis.

Let us now try to interpret this situation by adapting rather freely some of the valuable explanatory categories formulated by Yehuda Elkana.4 We might say that the construction of the Ionian cosmologies brings about the delineation of a certain “body of knowledge.” The fact that this phase apparently lacks deliberate descriptions of a methodological problem does not diminish its importance for the beginnings of the science of nature. What is important is that a program of inquiry is established de facto, thanks to the identification of new concerns, accompanied by new procedures, for correlating them to the data of knowledge. Moreover, the growth of knowledge depends on the production of apt “images,” that is, a set of conceptions around the nature of truth, the sources of wisdom, and the addressee. While the body of knowledge consists of thoughts about the world, these images (which, as Elkana argues, are socially determined) express thoughts about knowledge itself, and thus constitute “second-order thinking.” It is true, systematic thinking of this kind does not emerge from the conceptions of the Ionians, even though these conceptions show a critical stance toward the mythical framework that must be anything but conscious. At any rate, the Presocratics that immediately followed show ample evidence of a process of constructing and self-justifying the images lined up in the game of appropriation and/or denial of the communicative modalities of poetry.

The stakes are highest when it comes to the ways of granting authority to the body of knowledge. We shall see, in fact, that a certain number of authors stress their detachment from the poetic tradition (while laying the foundations for a new tradition of knowledge) in combining the choice of new contents with new and more appropriate guarantees of truth. (Let me note incidentally—I have already touched on this point and shall do so again—that this development also implies a particular audience and focused occasions of performance).5 For instance, while the mythical bard summons the Muses, the patron goddesses of the art of poetry, to support the veracity of his message, Alcmaeon and Xenophanes prefer to focus on explicating a personal methodological agenda. Both Parmenides and Empedocles follow a different, yet somewhat parallel, path. It is true that these authors remain within a mythical framework when they turn to their religious revelations (conveyed by the solemnity of epic meter); however, turning to their religious revelations does not exclude their employing rational processes. We might say that with Parmenides and Empedocles, philosophy cohabitates with poetry in the context of the hexameter; but the products of this coexistence, as I will try to show, are closer to philosophy than to poetry.

(p.142) Farewell to the Muse

The Muses are evanescent figures of the Greek imagination. In Ancient Greek, mousa is both a common noun used to refer to poetic “song” accompanied by music and also the name of the divine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (Memory), who like to approach humans and give them the task of celebrating a world of gods and heroes with verses to be ingrained in collective memory. The Muses have features of autonomous personalities in Greek mythology, yet they are represented in most literary and iconographical sources as graceful maidens who love to dance in choruses (often led by Apollo), and they are barely distinguishable from one another; although all nine of them are mentioned by name since Hesiod, only in the Hellenistic period are their respective prerogatives specified. We might be entitled to see in them the personification of an abstract notion (of artistic inspiration, to be concise), as long as we note their special status—an “incorporeal” one, so to speak—so that they reveal themselves to their chosen ones essentially through voice. In observing this, Penelope Murray reprises a suggestive definition of the ancient muse as a “voice of language”—which we owe to Joseph Brodsky6—and draws a conclusion that is important for our purposes here. The evanescence of the Muse (whose collective identity is mostly expressed by use of the singular form) makes her a figure that we may call ad usum poetae, in the sense that each author enjoys a personal, and personalized, relationship with her; thus a figure that owes its immense fortune in the Western poetic tradition to its extreme flexibility, which made possible unlimited appropriations.

It is significant that a literature characterized by the most absolute anonymity, such as that of Mesopotamia, does not contain anything of the sort; here the texts are presented as the direct result of the revelation of a preestablished traditional “treasure” that is immune from authorial intervention.7 This comparison invites us to see in the Muse a useful topos for the poet’s self-presentation as an author independent from the traditional repertoire. This is also true in a seemingly anonymous context such as that of the Homeric poems, where the Muse is summoned more than once as a guarantor of the veracity of the bard’s story (as well as of the ordered structure of the account, so that it will be both pleasant and trustworthy). We will remember in particular the opening of the catalog of ships, where the Muses are called upon to sanction the veracity of the knowledge that the poet will exhibit of things that are distant in time and space and cannot be acquired through the modalities of ordinary knowledge (Iliad 2, lines 484–487):

  • (p.143) Tell me now, o Muses who dwell on Olympus,
  • for you, o goddesses, are everywhere and know everything,
  • while we only hear the fame, and see nothing,
  • (tell me) who were the leaders and commanders of the Danaans.

Thanks to their divine nature, the Muses are ubiquitous and therefore—given that direct and visual knowledge is superior to the simple oral recounting of an event—omniscient. The task of the Homeric bard is to act as a mediator of this knowledge for the mortals, partially filling the abyss of ignorance that separates them from the world of the gods; his sophia, which grants him a central role in society, lies in the skillful use of formal means to this end.

Hesiod’s relationship with the Muses is slightly more complicated. As we have seen,8 in the proem of the Theogony (lines 26–28) he recounts how his “conversion” to poetry came about (it is not easy to determine whether the episode is perceived as real or whether it is the artificial construction of a poetic persona). The Muses approach him on the slopes of Helicon where he—a humble shepherd —is grazing his flock, and rebuke him with words that insist on the privilege granted to him, among the many shepherds who are incapable of rising above the small-mindedness of everyday life:

  • Shepherds who dwell in the fields, bad disgrace, nothing but belly!
  • We know how to say many lies (pseudea) that resemble truths (etumoisin homoia),
  • But when we want, we also know how to proclaim true things.

The emphasis on the trustworthiness of the contents that will be consigned to the budding poet should not be doubted; Hesiod will start his song “from the Muses” (as they themselves bid him to), and not only can they sing delightful hymns to their father, Zeus, but they can also speak of “the things that are and the things that shall be and the things that once were” (line 38). What is less clear, however, is the reference to the songs that are similar to truths yet false, which the Muses are also capable of inspiring. Scholars have hypothesized that Hesiod may be distancing himself from mere fiction, yet it needs to be noted that he himself does not disdain the fiction of animal tales in Works and Days (lines 202–12). Problematizing further, scholars have asked whether Hesiod may be trying to break away from the elements of falsehood he perceives in the Homeric poems and other theogonic accounts by asserting the veracity of his own story. The difficulty of identifying the potential target of this criticism has led even a scholar as attentive as Jenny Strauss Clay to argue that the poet is referring to the uncertainty of the truth of his own message; but it is simply unimaginable that a didactic poet like Hesiod, who in the Theogony (lines 226–232) lists Lies (Pseudea) among the pernicious progeny (p.144) of Strife (Eris), is authorizing a deceptive message.9 Rather, it is plausible that Hesiod, having assessed the variety of existing versions of the same myth brought about by the desire of poets to distinguish themselves during their performances, perceives this tradition—hypostatized in the Muse—as a repertoire that effectively includes both true and false stories; and this is why he must convince his audience of the superiority of his own version.10

Whereas the Homeric bard placed himself easily (or so it seems) within the existing tradition, Hesiod invites us to consider its complexity. This move, however, is not based on any explicit criteria of argumentation. Rather, the truth of the contents that the Muses pass down to Hesiod is consolidated through poetic efficacy, memorability, and the author’s own ēthos. In this sense, the poet does not cross the line, albeit thin, that separates him from a philosophical conception of knowledge—let us remember that earlier, in considering the cosmogonic model of the Theogony, we similarly assessed Hesiod’s position in relation to the history of philosophical thought.11

Throughout archaic poetry, the Muse continues to play her role as the poet’s ally, but the emphasis gradually shifts to her contribution to the trustworthiness of the poetic account rather than to its formal beauty. At the same time, expressions of “professional” awareness become more frequent as the poets become more and more able to command, through innovation, the means and potential of their technē.12 In short, after Hesiod the quality and extent of the Muse’s assistance become negotiable. At the same time the sense of the unbridgeable gap between human and divine knowledge comes to the fore and takes on highly pessimistic overtones. A good example of this can be seen in an iambic writing by Semonides of Samos (also known as Semonides of Amorgos), active during the second half of the seventh century BCE (frag. 1):

  • Boy, loud-thundering Zeus has control over the outcome
  • of all existing things, and arranges them in whichever way he wants,
  • (p.145) while there is no intelligence (nous) among men, but day by day they live (epameroi)
  • like beasts, knowing nothing (ouden eidotes)
  • of how the god will bring everything to its end.

It is worth pausing a moment to reflect on the characterization of humanity as living “day by day.” The expression recurs, in different versions of equal meaning (epameros, epēmeros, ephēmeros, ephēmerios), in various contexts of archaic lyric that exhibit a high degree of existential pessimism (the most famous of these passages is probably the one in Pindar’s eighth Pythian, line 95: “Creatures of a day (epameroi): what is one? And what is one not? Man is the dream of a shadow”). This expression is not meant to emphasize, as one might initially think, the brevity of human existence, “ephemeral” like that of an insect living “a day only” on earth. Rather, as Hermann Fränkel demonstrated with his usual acumen, the formation of the term implies that humans are “exposed to the day” (from the preposition epi and the noun hēmera) as to a limit that prevents them from knowing what will happen to them the next day; in other words, men are ephēmeroi, not because they are short-lived but because their existence is marked by an instability that they are incapable of determining beforehand, let alone overcoming.13 In archaic literature this theme is often interwoven (especially in iambic, elegiac, and sympotic contexts) with that of the helplessness (amēchania is the key term here) of a human being who is sadly aware that his or her destiny depends on the will of the gods. Yet this awareness does not necessarily translate into passively letting go. On the contrary, it is often exhortatory; the thematization of not-knowing, while marking the space for human actions, also invites this space to be filled with rational ones (we saw an instance of this earlier, when Solon counters the ignorance of his fellow citizens with an exhortation to panta noein).14

In any case, the not-knowing on which the poets pause to reflect concerns human existence and what the future holds for it, whereas the philosophers bring into question the possibility of knowing the events that are taking place presently in the real world. Moreover, the philosophers’ attitude tends to an epistemological optimism that is quite the opposite of the poets’ pessimism. Let us consider the unequivocal declarations of authors who, while they do not deny the superiority of divine knowledge and even observe its characteristic immediacy, precision, and universality, prefer to emphasize the capability (p.146) humans possess to broaden their view of nature through their own cognitive tools. Among these is the incipit of Alcmaeon’s writing (frag. 1):15

Alcmaeon of Croton, son of Peirithous, told Brotinus, Leon and Bathyllus the following things. About invisible things, about mortal things the gods possess certainty (saphēneian), while humans judge by conjecture (tekmairesthai).

The use of the verb tekmairesthai to indicate human cognitive ability is remarkable. If we consider that tekmērion in Greek denotes a strong “sign,” which tends to be distinguished from sēmeion (which also means “sign” or “clue”) in terms of its greater probative strength, we can note that Alcmaeon is claiming the validity of a knowledge (the only one achievable by humankind) that proceeds through inference from signs, that is, from the data observable in nature. In other words, he is calling on the collaboration between reason and the senses as the source of his own medical and naturalistic learning.

Xenophanes proclaims an analogous independence from the traditional sources of knowledge in various passages. In a well-known fragment, he very clearly distances himself from those mythical accounts that present civilization as a by-product of the gifts offered to humankind by divine or semidivine figures (for instance, fire from Prometheus, or agriculture from Demeter and Triptolemus). On the contrary (frag. 18):

  • The gods did not reveal everything to mortals from the very beginning,
  • but in time, by searching, they [mortals] find something better.

Another equally famous and significant text shows that Xenophanes’s stance on knowledge develops coherently along these lines (frag. 34):

No man knows (iden), or ever will know, the truth (to…saphes) about the gods and what I say about all things; for even if one succeded in saying the complete truth, yet he himself would not know (oide). In fact, opinion (dokos) is given about all things [or … for all men].

The interpretation of frag. 34 has a long and tormented history. Antiquity, as well as some modern scholars, favored a skeptical reading, according to which Xenophanes is denying completely the possibility of humans’ knowing anything about the gods or about the cosmos as a whole (and the dokos in the last line should be read as pure “illusion”). The prevailing opinion nowadays, however, is that Xenophanes’s skepticism is well mitigated by the clear definition (p.147) of a specifically human sphere of cognitive abilities.16 Here, as in frag. 1 of Alcmaeon, a prominent role is given to having clear and precise knowledge (saphēneian in Alcmaeon, to saphes in Xenophanes), presented as an exclusive possession of the gods. The instances of the verb oida (whose root *vid is the same as in the Latin videre and the English noun “vision”) to indicate true knowledge as a direct and completely absorbing experience, which humans by nature are unable to achieve, is remarkable in this sense. Yet, as in Alcmaeon, this observation is immediately tied to the proclamation of a specifically human cognitive ability; Alcmaeon’s tekmairesthai corresponds in Xenophanes to the possibility of formulating an “opinion” on the gods and on all things. This meaning of the term dokos—and a neutral one; an opinion can be either true or false—is confirmed by another text of Xenophanes, where we find another instance of the verb doxazō (another term connected to the root *dok), again in the context of an evaluation of an opinion’s cognitive potential (frag. 35):

Let these things be opined (dedoxasthō) as resembling true ones (eoikota tois etumoisi).

It is interesting to note the term etumos, which stresses the level of “authentic” truth and at the same time echoes the words with which the Muses announce to Hesiod that they can say “many lies that resemble truths (pseudea pollaetumoisin homoia; Theogony, line 27).17 But Xenophanes has transformed the topos of the opposition between divine and human knowledge, abandoning the notion that the gods facilitate the achievement of the truth and focusing instead on the possibility that humans are able to advance, solely with their capacities, insights that, if not absolutely certain, at least “resemble” and are “appropriate to” the reality they are meant to describe. This is the sense of eoikota in frag. 35, which we may also translate as “possible” or even “likely,” referring to the positive connotation of cognate words such as eikōn (“image,” “reproduction,” “portrait”) and eikazein (“to compare,” but also “to make conjectures”).18

For the sense of Xenophanes’s dokos it is still interesting to recall the words with which Hecataeus of Miletus opens his Genealogies: “I write these things as they seem to me to be true (hos moi dokei alēthea einai).”19 Here the verb dokein introduces a rearrangement of Greek mythology that will be carried out through personal perspectives and critical opinions regarding the tradition. We know that, just like Hecataeus and Alcmaeon, Xenophanes did (p.148) not simply state his agenda but fulfilled his desire for knowledge with a positive inquiry into the natural world and even constructed an image of the divine inspired by criteria of “plausibility.”20

Finally, we may note an affinity with Heraclitus’s gnoseological stance. It is interesting that Heraclitus directs his sarcasm toward Hecataeus and Xenophanes, of all people, because he accuses them of polumathiē, that is, of having a broad knowledge not subject to critical examination. The goal of Heraclitus’s polemic, of course, is to emphasize his own superiority in elaborating a personal conception of the reality of all things through a careful reading of the information provided by the senses. The statement “I went in search of myself” of frag. 101 must not be interpreted at the expense of the cognitive contribution of sense perception, which Heraclitus all but underestimates (frags. 55 and 107):

All things of which there is sight, hearing, learning; these I prefer.

Bad witnesses are eyes and ears for men, if they have barbarian souls (barbarous psuchas).

As noted earlier, the Greeks call foreign people “barbarians,” meaning that they speak an incomprehensible language and also do not understand Greek, so Heraclitus calls “barbarian” the souls of those who cannot go beyond the seemingly unrelated indications of the sensible world to grasp the deeper structure of reality; the philosopher, however, manages to do so because he is able to cultivate internally the sense of the unifying logos of all things.21 Even Heraclitus, then, relies on a cooperation between reason and the senses as the source of his knowledge, and therefore (joining, in spite of himself, the line inaugurated by Hecataeus, Alcmaeon, and Xenophanes) can do without revelations sent by gods or Muses; everything he needs he carries within himself, in his critical thinking.

Power Games

Joannes Stobaeus recounts that Pindar, in referring to some unspecified/unidentified phusiologountes, said that these “naturalists” limit themselves to “picking an unripe fruit of wisdom” (atelē karpon sophias) (frag. 209 Maehler). This criticism is probably not aimed against natural inquiry per se, but against those authors, such as Alcmaeon or Xenophanes, who carried it out without appealing to divine sources. Elsewhere Pindar warns that “blind are the minds of men if one without the dwellers on Helicon seeks … the path (p.149) of deep wisdom (batheias sophias hodon)” (Paean 7 b, lines 18–20); here the assistance of the Muses marks a clear distinction between the pious work of the poet and the activities of those who pretend to be sophoi without actually being such.22

But not all those who had something interesting to say regarding the soul and the cosmos distanced themselves from supernatural guarantees of truth. In the case of Pythagoras, for instance, we have good reason to think that his belief in metempsychosis was instrumental to his self-presentation as a wise man whose extraordinary knowledge was accumulated in the course of his many previous lives, which he recalled clearly.23 It is remarkable that this very point became the target of both the criticism and praise of other proponents of archaic sophia, in a back-and-forth of denial and/or support that may be read, in the context of the competition for wisdom, as other opinions about the best way to conquer it.

It is also possible that Alcmaeon, by dedicating his writing to members of the Pythagorean school, also meant to stress his autonomy from the wisdom claimed by their teacher by ascribing to the gods the direct knowledge of all things; according to this hypothesis, reclaiming the dignity of tekmairesthai would mean rejecting the kind of doctrines (both theological and cosmological) that find authority in an ipse dixit.24 At any rate, Heraclitus’s fragments present more explicit, even harsher polemical overtones. We have already seen how, in frag. 40, Heraclitus accuses Pythagoras, Hesiod, Xenophanes, and Hecataeus of polumathiē, that is, knowledge designed as an accumulation of notions assimilated from others instead of being the fruit of a personal interpretation of the signs gathered from phusis. We have also seen, in another fragment, that Pythagoras is the target of particular execration for having built this accumulated knowledge with a fraudulent and “bad art” (kakotechniē; frag. 129). These passages, as well as another in which we are led to understand that Heraclitus allegedly called Pythagoras an “originator of deceptions” (frag. 81), invite us to think that the person being targeted in frag. 28 is again Pythagoras, even though he is not mentioned by name:

The most renowned one of them all (ho dokimōtatos) knows and treasures apparent things; but surely Justice shall condemn the makers and witnesses of lies.

With this polemic, which is matched in aggressiveness only by the one in which he charges at magoi and purifiers (frags. 14 and 15), Heraclitus targets not the contents of Pythagoras’s thought (which are not expressly criticized in (p.150) the fragments we possess) but the exceptional fame of his intellectual persona, which he identifies with a knowledge that is not merely false but also mendacious. It is very likely that for Heraclitus, also given his different ideas regarding immortality and the soul, the “mother” of all of Pythagoras’s lies was the self-legitimizing reference to metempsychosis.25

In this light let us now analyze the entertaining scene in which Xenophanes ridicules a believer in reincarnation. In this case, too, the allusion may be to Pythagoras himself (frag. 7; Diogenes Laertius, who provides the citation, is convinced of this):

  • He once happened to walk by when a puppy was being beaten, and, they say, he felt compassion and said these words:
  • “Stop striking, because it is the soul of a dear friend
  • that I recognized upon hearing him cry out.”

These verses were surely meant to cause immediate amusement, but they also express the judgment of a “disillusioned” thinker on a belief that he deems barely “plausible.” Moreover, one can glean here a strategy for presenting knowledge; Xenophanes is also telling us that no plausible content can be credited a fortiori to someone who introduces it as an emanation of his reincarnated self.

Yet Pythagoras is not isolated in the tower of his wisdom. He has on his side Empedocles, at least, who makes the perfectly analogous, opposite move when he eulogizes the figure of a wise man (we are probably dealing here, too, with Pythagoras) whose reincarnation gives him a power of knowledge spanning a long series of past lives (frag. 129):

  • Among those was a man who knew exceptional things (eidōs),
  • endowed with immense richness of mind,
  • and capable of all sorts of wise actions;
  • and when he reached out with all the strength of his mind (pasēisi prapidessin)26
  • easily did he glean all existing things, one by one
  • in the span of ten and even twenty human lives.

(p.151) Of course, Empedocles, too, furthers his own cause. As we have seen, he presents himself as the last incarnation of a daimōn who has fallen from an original state of blessedness and, after a long cathartic journey, has come into possession of extraordinary cognitive and magical powers; he, too, just like Pythagoras, aspires to the fame of a Wundermann. By praising Pythagoras (or a similar figure), he enlists himself in the ranks of those wise men who claim to be inspired by the gods, among whom we also find Parmenides.

But now we pause on Empedocles and Parmenides, who ascribe a divine source to their sophia and, what is more, adopt the formal trappings of epic poetry. After all that we have argued regarding the relationship between poetry and philosophy, distinguishing them by their appealing to determined images of knowledge, should we group these two thinkers among the poets rather than the philosophers? In other words, is it legitimate to trace in the poetic form of their discourse a philosophical intention? This is the last, particularly thorny issue that demands our attention.

The Truth Revealed in Song

Let us turn first to Parmenides’s poem to try and outline its formal structure and its likely communicative context. It almost goes without saying that the often lengthy fragments that have come down to us (thanks mostly to Sextus Empiricus, who cites the proem, and to Simplicius in his commentaries to Aristotle’s On the Heavens and Physics) present us with a text that is not at all suitable to be memorized due to its peculiar style and argumentative structure. Thus, we should imagine that it was written down, not only—as is more obvious—during composition but also for transmission and conservation. Parmenides’s thought was soon disseminated to places far from its place of origin, as shown by the fact that Empedocles (as, later, Anaxagoras and the atomists) brings forth an account of becoming that responds both to Parmenides’s theory and to the attacks on it, incurred by the latter’s denial of movement and multiplicity—and it is possible that the unidentified authors of these attacks were the target of Zeno’s arguments, which reiterate the unity and immobility of Being through a reductio ad absurdum of the rivals’ hypotheses.27 This does not exclude the possibility of there having been an initial phase of oral transmission, when Parmenides himself was reciting his writings before an audience.

What sort of audience would this have been? A passage in Plato’s Sophist might be pointing us in the right direction, and the instance is even more significant because superfluous, from a theoretical point of view, in the context (p.152) of the dialogue. Here the Eleatic Stranger, to whom Plato assigns the discussion of the Parmenidean arguments on Being, remembers that the “great” Parmenides presented his thought to him and other young listeners (paisin hēmin) “every time both in prose and in verse” (237a, followed by a quotation of the first two lines of frag. 7: “for never shall this be proved, that things that are not are / but you, keep your thought away from this route of investigation”). If we trust Plato,28 youngsters were present at these readings and, though they may not have been the only listeners, they likely had a learning attitude. Moreover, Parmenides did not fail to comment on or clarify, in a more “daily” language, the sense of the verses after reading them,29 if only to answer questions from the audience, according to a modality of aural fruition still reflected in Zeno’s discussion of his teacher’s book in Plato’s Parmenides.30

Thus, it is likely that Parmenides’s audience was more limited, or at any rate different in composition, than the one for traditional poetry, but we cannot be sure of this, since he clearly thinks of, and represents himself, as a wise poet, writing in hexameters and using the style and vocabulary of epic poetry. However, it is also true that this formal structure is used to express highly original speculative contents. A case in point is the term eukuklēs (“well rounded”), which is formular in Homer and used by Parmenides in frag. 1 to refer to an abstract concept like Alētheiē (Truth), to denote its completeness (frag. 1, line 29, cited below).31 The expressive effects of these linguistic forays are often too convoluted,32 but they do not necessarily reflect Parmenides’s intention to distance himself from a certain poetic tradition.33 Nor did he intend, by adopting versification, to depart from the prose of the Milesians, as the latter was far from having established itself as the language “of philosophy” (p.153) par excellence.34 Rather, the epic mode appeared “naturally” available to Parmenides as the most suited to convey especially serious subjects. In particular, the use of the hexameter signals (as it will in Empedocles) that the author himself is godlike; it is worth remembering that the Greek gods expressed themselves through poets as well as oracles, and the latter were also composed in verse, almost exclusively dactylic hexameter.35

In conclusion, the reasons for Parmenides’s formal choice are inseparable from the object of his thought, presented as a transcendent truth revealed by a goddess. The proem, contained in the long frag. 1, recounts vividly and in detail how she welcomed Parmenides after a journey that brought him in an unusual manner to the boundaries of the human world. It is worth quoting this intriguing fragment in its entirety:

  • The mares that carry me as far as my spirit might go
  • were bringing me onwards, after having led me and set me upon the renowned road
  • of the goddess, which takes through all the towns the man who knows (eidota phōta).
  • It was there that I was being carried: for on it the much-knowing mares were carrying me,
  • straining the chariot, and maidens led the way.
  • The axle in the naves emitted the whistle of a pipe
  • as it was heated (for it was pressed hard by two whirling wheels,
  • one on each side), while the maidens of the Sun
  • hastened to bring me, having just left the palace of Night,
  • toward the light, and having pushed back the veils from their heads with their hands.
  • There is the gate of the paths of Night and Day:
  • a lintel and a stone threshold frame it,
  • and great sky-reaching doors close it:
  • and much-punishing Justice holds the alternate keys.
  • The maidens, addressing her with soft words,
  • skillfully persuaded her to push back for them the bolted bar
  • quickly from the gate; and when it flew open
  • the gate made through the doorposts an immense void (chasm’ achanes),
  • (p.154) swinging in turn in their sockets the two bronze pivots
  • fastened with pegs and rivets. Right through
  • the maidens guided the chariot and horses straight along the way.
  • And the goddess welcomed me kindly, took my right hand
  • in her own hand, and thus began to speak, addressing me:
  • Young man (kour’), companion of immortal charioteers,
  • who have come to our home by the mares that bear you,
  • welcome [or, rejoice!]; for it is no evil destiny that has sent you to travel
  • this road (for indeed it is far from the paths of humans),
  • but Right and Justice. It is necessary that you learn all things,
  • both the unshaken heart of well-rounded [or: well-convincing] truth
  • and the opinions of mortals, in which there is no true belief.
  • But nevertheless you will learn this too: how all the things that seem
  • must be plausible, forever pervading all things.

Hesiod’s Theogony is certainly a model that Parmenides has in mind, not only with respect to certain topographic details of the journey, which recall Hesiodic (and Homeric) descriptions of the underworld (in particular, the chasma in frag. 1 is reminiscent of the one that opens over Tartarus in the Theogony, line 733; and in the Theogony, too, we find a house of Night at whose door the paths of Day and Night take turns) but also—and especially—in the structure of the narrative of his initiation.36 Parmenides recounts, as an experience that actually took place (like Hesiod’s encounter with the Muses), a journey he made on a chariot drawn by flying mares, off the path beaten by humans, to a portal where, at the limits of the world, Day and Night follow one another every day. Dike herself holds the keys to this portal and, persuaded by the daughters of the Sun, who have accompanied their protégé, opens the door to an abyss. Once he has crossed the threshold, an unnamed goddess welcomes him, takes him by his right hand, and tells him that a privileged, yet just, destiny has brought him there, where one normally arrives after death (at the hands of an “evil fate”). This apostrophe is followed by the proclamation of a speech on the truth of Being and also on the opinions which mortals are accustomed to build around it. This distinction between alētheia and doxa reprises, and modifies, the distinction between truth and falsehood enunciated by Hesiod’s Muses. The corrective consists in opposing the true speech with a speech that is not only mendacious but formulated with ambitions of truth, and whose failure is brought about by mortals’ habit of self-deceit. Moreover, it is remarkable that the goddess promises to explore (p.155) the deceitful opinions on the sensible world in her own teaching, with the clear objective of turning her pupil from error. Fragment 2, which must have followed, if not immediately after frag. 1, within the next few lines after the end of the proem, states that the path of truth and persuasion is the one that “is,” while the one that “is not” does not bring knowledge, and must therefore be avoided; yet both are “conceivable paths of inquiry.” Coherently with this promise, the poem will fork into two parts, conventionally entitled Alētheia and Doxa; the latter will contain the exposition of a “plausible” model for explaining Being, lest any “mortal thought derail” Parmenides (frag. 8, lines 60–61).37 The apostrophe uttered by Parmenides’s goddess shows no trace of the ambiguity of Hesiod’s Muses; in this game of truth and falsehood, the cards will be revealed; there is no cheating.

The references to Hesiod with which the proem is interspersed show other significant points of departure that converge at the moment of revelation to accentuate Parmenides’s active role.38 Right away in the first line we find the personal pronoun in the accusative, me (which is then repeated several times, while in Hesiod it appears only at line 24), which puts the greatest emphasis on the figure of the poet; we read in the same line that he has been brought this far by the force of his thumos—his passion for knowledge, we might say. To be sure, Parmenides is the addressee of a revelation, but he presents this revelation as the result of a personal inquiry. An indication of this is given by the long series of stops he makes prior to arriving before the goddess, whose welcome speech then develops in the space of relatively few lines. Conversely, at the beginning of the Theogony, the arrival of the Muses is introduced by a long preamble in which the goddesses themselves approach the poet, who realizes his privileged position from a quasi-aggressive apostrophe before receiving the symbolic gift of the laurel branch and an inspired voice.

It may seem curious that, whereas Hesiod wants to have his voice heard, and starts his theogonic song with a sudden change of scene (with the likely proverbial expression of line 35: “but why should I talk about a rock or a stone?”), the speech of Parmenides’s goddess unravels without a break and coincides with the contents of the poem itself. One would be tempted to conclude that Parmenides’s persona is set aside in giving the floor to a superior authority. But if we consider the context of performance, in which the wise man strove to present his personal experience and the revelation that ensued, we must maintain that it was still his voice that was being echoed, and that the listeners ended up seeing themselves in the “you” to whom the goddess is speaking (frags. 2, line 1; 6, lines 2–3; 7, lines 2–3, etc.; an analogous shift of (p.156) identity may also take place in reading a long reported speech, if said speech is so long as to run for most of the written text).

But if we want to grasp the meaning of Parmenides’s self-presentation as an inspired wise man we cannot, at this point, limit ourselves to a comparison with the Hesiodic model, important though it is. In other words, we must admit that the imagery in the proem adumbrates an itinerary of mystery initiation, and that Parmenides is describing a mystic experience, in which a religious truth is revealed that is similar to the one achieved by mustai or followers of mystery cults (which were flourishing in Magna Graecia) after a series of ritual stages. The expression “the man who knows” with which Parmenides describes himself at line 3, and the term of endearment kouros with which the goddess addresses him at line 24 may in fact derive from the context of initiation.

Let us try to unravel the implications of this possibility. Since antiquity, and for a long time in the history of modern studies, Parmenides’s journey has been interpreted as a journey from darkness into the light, symbolizing the transition from a condition of ignorance to one of full knowledge. In the past few decades, however, another interpretive line has prevailed that both effectively explains some topographical details and gives more emphasis to the modalities of representation of archaic wisdom. According to this interpretation (largely propelled by a fundamental article by Burkert) Parmenides instead configures a katabasis, that is, a descent into a dark region reminiscent of the underworld, where he attains alētheia, through clairvoyant powers (similarly to Epimenides, Aristeas, and Pythagoras himself).39 This perspective has recently been enriched by the parallel studies of Giovanni Cerri and Peter Kingsley, who have seen the proem as the description (containing elements of the Homeric nekuia and the Hesiodic Tartarus) of a geography of Hades and/or of a place at the limits of the world where opposites (Day and Night, sky and earth) meet. Moreover, Cerri and Kingsley, still independently of one another, have proposed an identification of Parmenides’s goddess, which, although it will never be certain (there is no reason to exclude the possibility that her identity is deliberately unspecified), seems much more convincing than those proposed so far; she may be Persephone, queen of the underworld, depicted in many vases from Magna Graecia as tendering her right (p.157) hand to either Heracles or Orpheus, who have remarkably arrived to the underworld while still alive. She is called simply thea because she need not be mentioned by name, being the queen of Hades, but also because as such she must be shrouded by sacral silence.40

There is general agreement today regarding the religious configuration of the proem and the truth proclaimed in it.41 However, scholars are divided when it comes to drawing conclusions. Some maintain that Parmenides uses a set of images recognizable by his public in order to bestow more authority upon himself, perhaps in competition—in the area of Magna Graecia—with mystery religions or the teachings of Pythagoras;42 others argue that he is executing a sophisticated strategy for emotional involvement.43 But can we be certain that Parmenides (and his audience) was detached enough from the world of mystery religions and initiation rites to appropriate them and propose them again in metaphorical terms? Should we not consider the historical context in which his philosophy of Being originates and admit that what he is recounting is an actual lived experience?

The problem is that the interpreters who currently advocate for a “literal” reading of the proem (Kingsley and Gemelli Marciano) are also those who deny most vehemently the philosophical quality of Parmenides’s poem.44 There is no discrepancy, they argue, between the tone of the proem and that of the following discourse on Being, since this discourse is meant to lure the bystanders away from a partial knowledge of things and toward the mystical understanding of a reality that should be regarded as a whole, in an experience of death and rebirth that the wise man has incubated and brought to (p.158) fruition, and that he intends to reproduce in the listeners through the magic of speech. An implication of this approach is that whatever philosophical meaning has been given to the words of Parmenides is the product of a rationalistic deformation for which the major blame must be assigned to Aristotle, and which has lasted from Aristotle until now.

This reading of Parmenides, which we may call “hyporational,” is as unilateral as the “hyperrational” one of scholars who make him the founder of logic, or at least of ontology, completely ignoring the cultural context in which his philosophy was shaped (in general, they do not consider the proem or reduce it to an allegory).45 It ignores or denies, for instance, not only that the statements about Being do not have the features that we would expect of the mystic view of a divine object but also, more specifically, that the teaching of the goddess is carried out in an argumentative sequence supported by a large use of inferential particles.

This is not the place for a detailed analysis of the long and complex demonstration (frag. 8) of the prerogatives that can be attributed to Being without violating the law of noncontradiction (according to which one cannot say that something both is and is not). Suffice it to say that attributing to Parmenides a certain ability to formulate some principles of reasoning (among which is the law of noncontradiction, which will be theorized by Aristotle) does not imply that because of this he is a full-blown logician. And furthermore, the goddess’s insistence on the need to actively listen to her claims cannot be underestimated; that is, divine warrant does not mean that statements should not be checked with care. Consider for instance, in frag. 7, the admonishment to resist the superficial testimony of the eyes, of the ears, and of ordinary language, and also to evaluate the correctness of the distinction articulated, polemically, between the different paths of inquiry:

  • For never shall this be proved, that things that are not are
  • but you, keep your thought away from this route of investigation
  • and do not let much-experienced habit force you down onto this road,
  • to wield an aimless eye and an echoing ear
  • and tongue—but evaluate with the logos the much-disputed refutation
  • spoken by me.

It is likely that the logos on which the listener’s judgment must rely is not his personal “reasoning” but rather the actual “speech” of the goddess; in other (p.159) words, he will have to follow the series of arguments that will be developed (in frag. 8) about immutability, indestructibility, and the eternity of Being. In order to go down this road, in any case, the individual will have to knowingly commit to a learning process, resisting the automatism of sense perception that would set him upon the path of investigation taken by men who “know nothing” in their mixing Being and not-Being (frag. 6).46 As we can see, Parmenides’s general approach is not very different from that of Heraclitus, where the logos takes up the traits of an inspired revelation, but grasping the truth in it requires nonetheless one’s undivided rational engagement.47

Understandably, scholars who are more receptive to the “rational” moments of Parmenides’s account argue that the figure of the goddess is his “symbol for the capacity of pure reason for getting at truths,”48 and that this makes Parmenides the champion of a “demythologizing” process. But if this were the case, would it not have been just as easy and straightforward for him to express himself in prose, leaving in the backdrop (as does Alcmaeon, for instance) the gods and their otherworldly spaces? As I already noted, one loses something by giving up the image of a visionary Parmenides, who is distant from the ways of our rationality but in recompense is more concretely immersed in his own time and space. Let us suppose instead (to get past what seems to be a dead end) that starting from a search for a religious truth, and within a personal experience of revelation, Parmenides made room for other objects of knowledge and rational modalities, which he may have come to know in his native Elea, then a flourishing city and active exchange hub of both goods and ideas capable of keeping alive the tradition of Ionian culture (we will remember that Xenophanes traveled here).

The current evidence does not enable us to describe in more detail this process, which, moreover, cannot be comprehended in terms of (our) categories of rationality versus irrationality. Yet this seems to be the only way to identify as the same person the Parmenides of the proem and the author of an (p.160) elaborate reflection on Being and its requirements of knowability, whose theoretical importance has been sanctioned in the subsequent developments of philosophical thinking. What is more, this also enables us to situate Parmenides within a broader framework of discourses on knowledge than that of a religious circle; a framework that also includes the Ionian inquiry into nature. In fact, Parmenides’s reflections on the characteristics of Being prove to be quite meaningful if read against the Ionian problem of the archē of Becoming. He seems to be concerned with formulating the criteria necessary to ascertain what genuinely exists and therefore is a principle of Becoming; and the so-called pluralists, in resorting to a plurality of archai that meet the requirements of eternity and immutability (such as Empedocles’s “roots,” Anaxagoras’s “seeds,” and Democritus’s atoms), will unequivocally end up using the same criteria posited by Parmenides.49

According to this construction, Parmenides was rather bold in deciding to divulge his particular truth beyond the esoteric context within which it was revealed to him. His self-presentation as a poet-sage, his use of the “meter of the gods,” and his references to the Homeric and Hesiodic tradition, then, may have served to protect the author and his work from being viewed as a somewhat “scandalous” enterprise. Among other things, this perspective would corroborate a recent, enticing reading of the proem by Franco Ferrari, according to which we are indeed dealing here with a descent into the underworld, but the reference to the “road rich in songs” trodden by Parmenides, as well as the details described in the first ten lines of the proem, do not refer to the path that brought him there. Rather, they describe the journey he has made after the revelation, on the truth-propagating chariot of poetry.50

Between Muses and Other Gods

Empedocles, too, uses poetry as the most effective soundbox for his authorial voice. Having received a rhapsodic education based on listening and memorizing traditional (mostly epic) literature, he molds a vocabulary that is rich in Homeric, and partly Hesiodic, lexemes and yet includes a number of personal (p.161) coinages and unexpected formulae, with highly original effects (the manipulation of formulaic diction indicates that the possibility of memorizing the text now plays a rather secondary role).51

Unlike the case of Parmenides, Empedocles’s poetic flair was already appreciated in antiquity, as shown by his elevation to didactic poet par excellence and Lucretius’s model in On the Nature of Things.52 It is also interesting that Aristotle is clearly intrigued by the peculiar mix of science and poetry found in Empedocles. In fact, in the first pages of Poetics (1447b 13–18) he observes that Empedocles has nothing in common with Homer (who is rightly called a poet) except that they both write in verse, and then he tries to set the record straight by defining Empedocles as “more of a natural philosopher than a poet” (phusiologos mallon ē poiētēn). One should note, however, that Aristotle here is concerned with denying that the type of verse used is an appropriate criterion to distinguish the various forms of poetry (while he thinks that such a criterion should be the kind of mimesis employed by an author). This explains why, conversely, in other works Aristotle often mentions Empedocles as an important representative of the art of poetry, e.g., for his use of metaphor, which belongs precisely to the poet’s toolkit and not the scientist’s (see for instance the comment to the description of the sea as “the earth’s sweat” in Meteorology II, 3, 357 a 24 = 31 A 25 and B 55 DK).53 Empedocles is mentioned again in the Rhetoric (III, 5, 1407a 32–39) as an instance of a poet who, with ambiguous sentences, elicits from his audience illusionistic effects similar to those produced by soothsayers.54

It will not be surprising, at this point, that the initial section of the poem On Nature can be reconstructed (as in Diels’s arrangement of the fragments) along the lines of traditional didascalic poetry. The apostrophe to the pupil Pausanias (frag. 1) likely occurred at the beginning of the poem, even if not precisely in the first line (since the fragment contains a particle of transition, (p.162) ); in any case, it has a good precedent in Hesiod’s dedication to his brother Perses (in Works and Days) and in that of Theognis’s elegies to Cyrnus. Its traditional flavor leads one to think that in this case, too, as in the others, the mention of a personal relationship between teacher and pupil does not at all exclude the presence of a wider audience (and the same can be said, incidentally, for the dedication of Alcmaeon’s writing).55

Here we could ask ourselves whether it may be useful to apply the notion of “pseudo-intimacy” minted by Ruth Scodel to explain a problem in archaic Greek lyric in order to understand the modalities of communication in the writing On Nature: why do poems that seem to be addressed to a small group of friends survive the death of their author and are even broadly circulated? Poets such as Archilochus and Alcaeus, she argues, are anything but uninterested in audiences different from those present at the first performance of their texts; for these “secondary” audiences, the phrases that refer to the immediate, more intimate occasion nevertheless retain their role of eliciting a sense of pseudo-confidentiality in the listener, who feels as if he or she is part of an elite environment.56 Moreover, the compositional technique of the rhapsodes already resorted to a direct address to an anonymous interlocutor in order “to make the audience feel like they were physically present before the scene being described.”57 We can surmise that Empedocles’s “you” (and, I believe, even the “you” of Parmenides’s goddess) similarly aspires to engage other users of the text in other potential times and places, beyond the direct addressee, and to elicit in them a sense of a privileged call.58 It is clear that this possibility, combined with Empedocles’s references to a consolidated poetic tradition (among which is the invocation to the Muse, about which more below), is a decisive factor against those who believe that the peri phuseōs was an esoteric writing strictly functional for Pausanias’s initiation; on the contrary, this thesis fails to explain how and why the poem enjoyed such precocious and widespread dissemination59 and was transmitted by the countless citations of ancient authors, so that we did not need to wait for fortunate excavations of tombs (as in the case of the Gold Tablets or the Derveni papyrus) for it to come down to us.60

(p.163) Moreover, it is plausible that the dedication, or in any case the first section of the poem, was followed by the general lament for the human condition contained in frag. 2. Here, with the pessimistic tones that pervade much archaic Greek lyric, men are represented in a situation of extreme existential precariousness, grappling with a restlessness that prevents them from rising above the grief of the moment and gaining an understanding of “all things.”61 The last few lines of the fragment, however, introduce a moderately optimistic attitude that, as we shall see in a moment, prepares for the enunciation of a learning program. This is the invitation to the pupil, addressed in the second person singular, to remain secluded from the ignorant multitude in order to learn “not beyond the heights reached by mortal intelligence.” In the following fragment (whose contiguity with the preceding one is pointed out by Sextus Empiricus, who quotes both) this promise is accompanied by an invocation to the Muse in which the goddess is asked to facilitate a discourse that does not aim to bridge the gap between human and divine knowledge, for absolute truth is accessible only to the gods, and those who aspire to obtain it are “fools.”62 Rather, Empedocles wants to suggest to his addressee (and again, (p.164) at line 9, he switches to the second person) the possibility of an intelligent coordination of the indications provided by the apparatus of the senses (frag. 3):

  • But, gods, avert from my tongue the madness (maniēn) of these,
  • and from pious lips draw forth a pure stream.
  • And you, much-wooed white-armed maiden Muse,
  • I entreat: of those things that it is lawful for creatures of a day (ephēmerioisin) to hear,
  • send them forth, driving your well-reined chariot from the house of Piety.
  • Nor will the flowers of glorious honor force you
  • to take them up from mortals on condition of saying more than is holy
  • in rashness—and then sit on the summits of wisdom (sophiē).
  • Come now, observe with all your resources how each thing is clear,
  • not holding any sight in greater trust than hearing
  • nor noisy hearing above the evidence of the tongue,
  • nor withhold trust from any of the other limbs, wherever
  • there is a channel for understanding, but grasp each thing in whatever way it is clear.63

In frag. 131, too, Empedocles addresses an “immortal” goddess (who is here named Kalliōpeia, the “beautiful-voiced” Muse) in the traditional form of the rhapsodic hymn, reminding her that she has already intervened alongside him to help the wretched mortals (ephēmeriōn; line 1), and enlisting her help once more for the “beautiful speech” (agathon logon) on the “blessed gods” that he is about to formulate. This announcement of a religious subject led Diels to place the fragment in the section dedicated to the other writing, Katharmoi (whose contents are hotly debated). Yet the discourse contained in the “physical” writing, too, as Charles Kahn rightly sensed and as ultimately confirmed by the Strasbourg papyrus, is pervaded by a religious inspiration that would well justify mention of the gods. Fragment 131, then, may be a reprisal of the invocation to the Muse in frag. 3, although its position within the poem is not easy to determine.64 In both passages, in any case, Empedocles stresses that he is summoning the Muse as a mediator between divine and human knowledge, but also—we might say—between traditional contents and the new, unheard-of ones he sets out to propose. The choice to adhere to the poetic (p.165) tradition, in other words, serves not only as a guarantee of truth but also as protection for the author from possible accusations of impiety. Empedocles must have been aware that he was running that risk for, on one hand, his discourse on nature (and the soul) plays a strategic role in his fierce battle against the ritual of animal sacrifice and the communal consumption of the sacrificial victim, which was part and parcel of Greek religious tradition; on the other hand, the framework within which the discourse on nature is developed assigns a supreme (and hence divine) cosmological role not only to the force of Love but also to that of Strife—a negative and certainly unexpected one.65

But Empedocles also relies on other guarantees of truth. Let us remember that in frag. 115 he describes himself as an exiled daimōn fallen on earth.66 In citing the passage, Plutarch reports that Empedocles “uttered it as prelude at the beginning of his philosophy” (On Exile, 17, 607c), and this seems to indicate that it served as a self-presentation aimed at emphasizing the author’s stature as a wise man. But at the beginning of which of the two writings did this fragment appear? Diels places frag. 115 in the Katharmoi section; however, once it was agreed that there were demonological elements in the writing On Nature, scholars had good grounds for arguing that the fragment in question belonged to the latter work.67 In this fragment, then, by emulating the same Pythagoras that he so admires for his ability to extend his mind beyond the limits of a single life,68 Empedocles brings forth his semidivine status as further proof of his vast cosmogonic and zoogonic knowledge, and of the knowledge of magic that is intimately tied to the acquaintance with nature and bestows upon the author-magos a power to intervene in the workings of the elements as well as in men’s grievances, diseases, and old age (frag. 111).

I am inclined to accept the attribution of the fragment to the writing On Nature with the accompanying caveats, given the persisting difficulty of reconstructing the sequence of the contents and even the general structure of the two poems.69 Fragment 112, which surely belongs to Purifications, is a better candidate for serving as a preamble to this writing, being more in keeping (p.166) with its general character and with the conditions of transmission, and it also contrasts with the self-presentation in frag. 115. The book of Purifications may have contained, as its title seems to indicate, a description of a series of ritual acts of purification.70 We can imagine Empedocles reciting this text while setting himself up as an iatromantis, a doctor-soothsayer hailed by the crowds for his curing powers. It is likely that the target of this propagandistic operation was broader than in the cases hitherto analyzed, and that it coincided with the entire population of the city to which Empedocles arrived, as an itinerant wise man, to reveal his portentous powers, or even with a Panhellenic gathering; indeed, an ancient witness, Dicaearchus (in Athenaeus, XIV, 620 D = 31 A 12 DK), reports the poem’s great success at Olympia, where it was recited by the rhapsode Cleomenes. In fact, frag. 112 represents the best text with which to debut at such occasions:

  • O friends who in the great city on the mouth of the blond Akragas
  • dwell on top of the citadel, caring for noble deeds,
  • respectful havens for strangers, unacquainted with evil,
  • I salute you! An immortal god, no longer mortal,
  • I come to you honored among all, as is appropriate,
  • crowned with ribbons and garlands of flowers.
  • And by those to whom I come in the flourishing cities,
  • men and women, I am revered; they follow me
  • in throngs of thousands, to know the road to gain,
  • the ones in need of prophecies, the others for ailments
  • of all sorts have asked to hear a healing voice,
  • long pierced by harsh pains.

We can imagine the crowds before whom Empedocles declaims his poem while recalling—and reenacting in his performance—his triumphal entry into other cities, where he has already brought his divine and thaumaturgic presence. Some additional doubts have been raised, however, concerning the “friends (philoi)” at the beginning of the fragment, a usage not attested before; is this a reference, as it seems, to Empedocles’s fellow citizens of Akragas, and not to gods? More important, its function is unclear if Empedocles is using it before an audience in a different city.71 Starting from this observation, Eva Stehle has proposed an entirely new reading supported by painstaking and convincing arguments, and demonstrated that Empedocles is actually referring to the gods, thus anticipating with the appellation philoi his announcement that he has become a god himself after victoriously climbing the ladder of living beings; at the same time, this appellation serves the purpose (p.167) of declaring the author’s origins by evoking the deities inhabiting the summit of his native Akragas (the summit is the normal position of temples in Greek cities; we might surmise that Empedocles accompanied his declamation by pointing emphatically to far-off altitudes); furthermore, benevolence toward mortals and protection of exiles are all suitable attributes of the gods.72

If we accept this interpretation, the interplay of tradition and innovation emerging from frag. 112 becomes more complex and, if possible, even more interesting. Indeed, if the first few lines contain an apostrophe to the gods, we may recognize in them the typical structure of a rhapsodic invocation. This invocation, however, serves to further showcase the persona of Empedocles who, claiming to have become a god himself, “shifts, before their eyes as it were, from a human along with them who invokes the gods to a god intimate with gods, to whom they can appeal.”73

At any rate, here, at the intersection of highest contrast between frag. 112 and the contents of frag. 115, is an invitation to place the two texts in two different writings. In frag. 115 Empedocles presents himself as a daimōn who has come a long way, almost to the end of his ascent from the lowest forms of life, while in frag. 112 he portrays himself as a full-blown theos who has already completed and transcended the cycle of transmigrations, as outlined in frag. 146:

  • and in the end they are seers, hymn singers and doctors
  • and come as princes among humans on earth,
  • and from there they blossom up as gods, highest in honors.

In other words, Empedocles may have considered himself a daimōn who, thanks to his sophia, attained the status of theos at the peak of his career. Based on the argument hitherto developed, it is possible to suggest that the two poems of Empedocles, if not easily distinguishable in terms of contents, are at least different when it comes to the modalities of self-presentation contained in them. Admittedly, in the end we just have reprised an updated and corrected version of the old “biographical” pattern ascribing the difference between the two writings to different times of composition. But at least we have not applied the modern category of conversion from reason to religion; on the contrary, under the premise of a coherent religious view, we have followed the development not of the contents of Empedocles’s knowledge but of his authorial persona.

(p.168) The Specialization of Reason

As Cornford rightly pointed out in his extraordinary Principium Sapientiae,74 in the archaic period the traits of the philosopher emerge through a gradual process of differentiation from the poet on one hand and the soothsayer on the other, starting from an initial figure of seer and purifier incarnated in the prodigious characters of Pherecydes, Epimenides, Abaris, and Aristeas. According to Cornford, this thread extends to wise men such as Pythagoras, Parmenides, and Empedocles (and, in his interpretation, also Heraclitus), who give to their own message the force of a religious faith, thus inaugurating a powerful dogmatic trend in Greek philosophy. In this trend of “philosophic wisdom” Cornford saw a depth that, in his eyes, was absent from strictly naturalistic doctrines (starting with the Ionian cosmologies, which he confined to the mythical sphere).75 Again, it is worth using Cornford’s words to illustrate his intuition:

The great pre-Socratic thinkers of this type [i.e., divinely inspired] have not, each of them, two distinct versions of the universe—a religious one for Sundays and a scientific one for weekdays. Each has a single, unitary vision, embracing all that he believes about reality, all that he would call wisdom. In the Italian tradition the fundamental impulse is religious and moral, not mere intellectual curiosity which might lead to the acceptance of any type of conclusion about the nature of the world.76

During the same time that this framework was taking shape, the problem of the “origins of philosophy” was sparking the interest of Louis Gernet, a scholar with dramatically different training but equal acumen. Gernet also put the emphasis on the notion of metaphysical truth, attainable only through divination and well represented by those seers who, like Epimenides, were also repositories of theological and cosmological knowledge; moreover, he singled out Pythagoras and Empedocles as the heirs of this inspired attitude (which, through them, will eventually reach Plato). Gernet’s intuition would later influence Marcel Detienne’s book Masters of Truth, where poets inspired by the Muse, seers, and “kings of justice” appear as the holders of the effective expression (p.169) of a religious truth, and thus as full-fledged protagonists of the “prehistory” of the truth that Parmenides finally discovers as a philosopher.77

Detienne’s framework hinges on a close tie between the Greek noun for truth, alētheia, and the role of memory; in the unsteadiness of a world that is essentially still oral, truth, Detienne argues, is the content that the soothsayer’s words rescue from the oblivion (lēthē) into which it constantly risks falling. In insisting on this point, the scholar takes a stance against the Heideggerian interpretation of alētheia as Unverborgenheit (“unconcealment”), where the privative a- is applied to the root *leth of the verb lanthanō, which means “to conceal” and, in middle voice, “to hide oneself” or “to escape.” This most influential interpretation, which makes truth a quality of being rather than of theories about its nature, notoriously goes along with the idea that Plato and Aristotle inaugurate a transition to a conception of truth as correspondence (i.e., correctness of the assertions about beings), and thus a manipulation of Being that belongs to technē rather than to “true” philosophy. Against this view, Detienne rightly claims back for archaic Greek culture the problematization of truth as an attribute of the discourse on reality.78 However, he believes that said culture resists a rational distinction of what is true and what is false and is, instead, governed by a “logic of ambiguity” that can only be neutralized by a divinely inspired discourse. If religious truth finally becomes a “rational notion” with Parmenides, who starts “the imperious demand for noncontradiction,” this happens thanks to the “secular” opposition between two theses and two parties, which, in parallel, becomes part and parcel of the decision-making processes in the polis.79

In this axiomatic and rather brief conclusion, Detienne overlooks the fact that Parmenides’s arguments are developed precisely within a religious conception of truth.80 In fact, his entire framework suffers from a reductive opposition between religion and rationality; not only does it leave out authors such as Hecataeus, Alcmaeon, or Xenophanes, who before Parmenides reflected on the problem of knowledge without any concern about revelation; it also neglects the archaic poets’ interest for the rational organization of their discourse, which is revealed in their negotiating with the Muse(s).81 We may (p.170) now turn back to Gernet and observe that he, unlike Detienne (or Cornford), did not emphasize unilaterally the importance of the “transpositions of a mystical past onto philosophy proper” that he diagnosed in Pythagoras, Parmenides, or Empedocles,82 and he was well aware that he was focusing on just one aspect of a much broader and more complex problem.83 After everything we have said thus far, we may well agree on this point, and try to reformulate it by stating that the cohabitation (sometimes even in the same author; consider Parmenides and Empedocles) of study of nature and eschatology, religiosity and empiricism is a characteristic trait of the philosophy “of the beginnings,” even if it does not define it as a homogeneous whole.

The most accurate depiction of this situation has been ultimately given by Jean-Pierre Vernant, who reflected on it in the wake of both Cornford and Gernet. According to Vernant, the terrain of the earliest phases of Greek thought is not a field of clear opposition between rationality and reflective intelligence on one hand, religion and mysticism on the other. Instead it should be regarded as a “field of multiple rationalities,” of intellectual processes that vary depending on the author or the subject under investigation but are nonetheless recognizable as such.84 Let us add, in limine, that Empedocles somehow represents the culmination, but also the point of nonreturn, of this complexity. Indeed, if we consider the panorama of Greek culture in the last decades of the fifth century, what is more striking to us is the very disappearance of the figure of the inspired wise man,85 which goes hand in hand with the separation of natural inquiry and eschatology.86 At the same time, not by chance, another aspect that until now had accompanied the presentation of knowledge starts to disappear, namely, that search for the expressive register best suited to a certain context, whose outcomes were as diverse as the “judicial” (p.171) style of Anaximander’s prose, Xenophanes’s rhapsodic compositions, Heraclitus’s oracular language, and the religious solemnity of Parmenides’s and Empedocles’s hexameters. We may trace these developments (following Vernant and Lloyd’s “paradigm”)87 to the publicization and secularization of decision-making taking place in the Greek cities (especially in cases of full-blown democracy, as at Athens, which, not coincidentally, stands out in this period as the center of Greek cultural production). But here I prefer to refrain from searching for an exhaustive explanation and stop at a descriptive level, trying to trace an outline of some important changes in the modalities of writing and authorial self-presentation that take place in this period and signal the emergence of a new (and more standardized) style of rationality.

The most evident symptom of the transformation that took place in the last decades of the fifth century BCE, then, is the establishment of prose as the main expressive medium for a discourse that aims to draw attention to its internal reasons, without relying on the external sources of authority invoked in the poetical tradition. This is not only true of philosophy; we should not forget that the first extended prose narrative of Greek literature is Herodotus’s Histories, whose composition began around 450 BCE and stretched over thirty years.88 At any rate, prose is chosen by Zeno and Melissus, who insist, albeit in different ways, on the ontological aspect of Parmenides’s thought and consistently work on a kind of argumentative writing. A prose that tends to be rich in elaborate syntactical structures in unison with a linguistic inquiry that prefers precision over metaphors and evocative expressions is again chosen, for instance, by the Pythagoreans Philolaus and Archytas (a contemporary and friend of Plato), Anaxagoras, and Diogenes of Apollonia, Leucippus and Democritus.89

A new awareness of the advantages of a clear and structured organization of contents transpires from the incipit of the writing of Diogenes of Apollonia:

I believe (dokei moi) that at the beginning of every speech (logou) one should provide an indisputable point of departure, and that the expression should be simple and solemn.

This declaration of clarity is in (likely premeditated) contrast with the allusive patina overlaying the proems of authors such as Heraclitus, Parmenides, or Empedocles who, conversely, aim to create an enigmatic and suspenseful (p.172) atmosphere.90 This can be explained by the different nature of their audience; whereas their predecessors strived to elicit curiosity and eagerness for new contents among listeners accustomed to traditional poetry, Diogenes of Apollonia has before him, in the literate environment of Athens, an audience that is predisposed to learn about his particular opinions on nature during an articulate and clear lesson, in spite of its solemn character, which underscores the importance of the subject. It is also remarkable that Diogenes announces his intentions in the first person, without referring to a special investiture of authority. It is due to the same attitude that his fragments (as well as those of Anaxagoras) do not feature a direct polemic against rival figures; an attitude of dogmatic confidence of an author who relies exclusively on the strength of his own reasoning.

It should be noted that entrusting a sequence of arguments to a written text does not prevent its being read out loud later, partially or in its entirety. In this period, the oral dimension of performance has certainly not disappeared; on the contrary, it acquires new vitality and competitive strength. At least in that “marketplace of ideas” that is Athens (whose situation is in any case better documented than for other Greek cities), the growing production of written texts goes along with the habit of reading in large public spaces; significantly, this practice is called epideixis, a term that emphasizes the aspect of “displaying” or “exhibiting” (which, in fact, coincides with “publishing”) the argumentative skills implemented in the texts.91

This climate is marked by the advent of the Sophists, who emerge as professional teachers of rhetorical techniques to be used as powerful tools in the political and cultural debate. This also explains other developments of the communication modes of philosophical and scientific knowledge. Consider the Hippocratic doctors, representatives of a discipline pervaded by a strong professional awareness, who often say “I” (in no less decisive tones than Diogenes of Apollonia) when introducing a personal opinion or a new theory on health and disease that they discovered on their own. To give but one example, in the writing On Ancient Medicine the suggestion (presented as profoundly innovative) of an extremely individualized approach to the patient and to the search of the best remedy is enforced through constantly resorting to the pronoun egō (thirty times) and, in general, to verb forms in the first person (another twenty). Herodotus uses the first person 1,087 times, which is the sign of a similar attitude. It is especially remarkable that, both in the Hippocratic writings and in Herodotus’s Histories, a more aggressive authorial presence is (p.173) accompanied by a growing focus on methodological questions, such as the role of empirical observation and the evaluation of symptoms/testimonies as proof of an argument.92 In short, we can see arising from this complex of factors a new image of knowledge and of its source (the internal ratio of the discourse). While this image pervades the most disparate areas of knowledge, authors are free to make personal use of it, by resorting to their own reflections within their own field.

A less continuous but no less important development takes place in the second half of the fifth century BCE. For a certain period the division between the various areas of wisdom remains rather blurry, with the resulting intersection of subjects and expressive media that we observed already in the first phase of the archaic period.93 A case in point is offered by a work as difficult to classify as that of Empedocles (whose death must be dated around 435 BCE), but there are more. Consider, for instance, Ion of Chios, born between 490 and 480 BCE, who traveled through the Greek world, including Athens (Chios fell under Athenian hegemony), from about 465 to 430 BCE. He is an author of tragedies and sympotic poems, as well as prose writings of local history and mythography, biography and philosophy; his work, in other words, illustrates his versatility, and it may well be that the categorization by genre that prevailed in the last decades of the fifth century did not help its reception.94 Another author active in the second half of the fifth century is Oenopides, also from Chios, an astronomer and mathematician who also tackles such issues as the cosmic principles95 and the floods of the Nile, connecting the latter to temperatures of the subterranean waters in the region over the seasons (41 A 11 DK).96

The phenomenon of the Nile’s summer floods was particularly apt to spark the interest of the ancients, especially those who aspired to “stand out for their wisdom” about it. Those are the words of Herodotus, who devotes a long section to this specific theme in the second book of the Histories, dedicated to Egypt (ll. 19–27). Here he reports three different hypotheses concerning the phenomenon; he does not mention any names (line 20), but other ancient sources allow us to ascribe the various solutions to such diverse authors as Thales, Hecataeus, Euthymenes of Marseille (a sailor and geographer), (p.174) and Anaxagoras (whose opinion will be reprised by Democritus, 59 A 42, 5; 59 A 91 and 68 A 99 DK). And Herodotus does not fail to give his own explanation where, in singling out the role of evaporation by the sun, he comes close to a doxa attributed to Diogenes of Apollonia (64 A 18 DK). In sum, what we have here is a context where the same themes can spark the interest of geographers, historians, doctors, and natural philosophers alike, and which does not happily allow itself to be left at the outskirts of the conventional distinctions between disciplines.97

Such a distinction, however, begins to take hold during the last decades of the fifth century, within the framework of cultural transformation that I have been describing. In this phase, when ideas circulate more freely and book production intensifies, the ideal of a total “wisdom,” preferably condensed in a single writing, begins to lose ground before the diversified demands of a wider, learned public. This backdrop also explains why Democritus (alone among the Presocratics) authored several writings, each with a specialty (cosmological as well as ethical, mathematical, “musical,” and technical).98 More generally, against this backdrop the different literary genres are finally defined according to specific thematic areas and the language and methods most suitable to them.

To give a notable example, we owe the definition of the field of historiography to Herodotus, who is rightly indicated as its father. For, at the beginning of the Histories, he clearly illustrates the goal he has set for his “inquiry” (historiē), prompted by the need to prevent time from erasing the memory of human events and the glorious deeds of Greeks and barbarians, as well as to pinpoint the causes of the conflict (the Persian Wars) that brought them against each other. To salvage the memory of a glorious past by writing a work that stems from factual investigation and a great attention to the causes of events; these words bespeak the author’s desire to distinguish his own methods and agenda from those of the poets, who shared the same aspiration to preserve cultural memory.

Admittedly, the term historiē in Herodotus still retains the meaning, characteristic of Ionian culture, of a generic “intellectual activity” (only in the (p.175) fourth century will it start to designate what we now call “history”). This is, for instance, the meaning of the term in frag. 129 of Heraclitus, who criticizes Pythagoras for having carried out a broad yet superficial “inquiry” (historiē, here used in a derogatory sense) in the name of an alleged wisdom.99 It is noteworthy that in another fragment (B 35 DK) Heraclitus deplored, with similarly polemical tones, those “lovers of knowledge” (philosophous andras) who think they need to “know many things” (to be histores); and here not only the term histōr but also philosophos (in its first attestation in Greek literature)100 recur with a generic meaning, which indicates that we are still far from any definition of historia or philosophia as specific areas of knowledge. It is therefore remarkable that Herodotus so lucidly indicates both the object and objectives of his particular intellectual activity to distinguish it from the others, thus laying the foundations for the specialized sense that historia will acquire shortly thereafter.101

In the long run the definition of philosophy, too, will be facilitated, like history in Herodotus, by a need to differentiate the various intellectual roles in the cultural arena. If, however, we were to search already at the end of the fifth century for a narrowing of the notion of philosophia in terms of its own object and objectives, we would be disappointed. As we know, we will have to wait for Plato for a reflection on those terms, one that is even more explicit because it serves to discredit the educational value of rhetoric (championed by the Sophists and Isocrates).102 Before the turn of the century, however, some hints of a definition of the field of philosophy arrive from outside, from an author who presents us with one of the earliest attestations of the term philosophia in relation to a particular kind of inquiry—the study of nature—as he sets out to distance himself from it.

Such is the case, not by chance, of the author of the Hippocratic writing On Ancient Medicine, who, as I have mentioned, is remarkable for the way he exhibits the authorial awareness that is widespread among Hippocratic (p.176) writers.103 In the name of framing an approach as focused as possible on the physical constitution of the patient, our author starts with a polemic against those who scale down the etiological framework of diseases into generic “postulates” (hupotheseis) such as hot or cold, wet or dry. These postulates are legitimate (yet unverifiable) whenever one tries to explain “invisible” things like those taking place in the sky or under the earth, but they do not mean anything if applied to a reality, such as the human body, that can be observed (and the art of medicine is, in fact, based on observation). This first chapter attacks a study of nature that aims to encompass human physiology, and it is possible to identify a more precise polemical target in Empedocles, whose medical doctrines hinged upon reducing the human body to a combination of the four cosmic elements, somehow connected to the four qualities mentioned above. This framework also underlies an important tradition of medical thought that developed in southern Italy (with Philistion of Lokris, for example). In any case, Empedocles is singled out later in the text (chapter 20) as one of those doctors and wise men who claim to base their therapeutic approach on a general knowledge of the nature of man—understood as a knowledge of the compositional process by which man has come to be, within a cosmological framework. It is precisely here that the term philosophia appears with the function of stigmatizing the abstract character of natural inquiry and contrasting it with medicine, which, being based on experience and a long practice, is well worthy of establishing its dominion over all that concerns human nature:

Certain doctors and sophists [or “experts”; sophistai], say that it is impossible to know what medicine is for anyone who does not know what a man is, and that this is what whoever wants to treat patients correctly must learn thoroughly. But the discourse of those, like Empedocles and others who have written about nature [saying] what a human being is since the beginning, how he originally came to be and of what he was made, well, their discourse ends up in philosophia. But I think, first, that all that has been said or written about nature by one of these doctors or sophists pertains to the art of medicine less than it does to painting [or, writing]. I also hold that clear knowledge about nature (peri phuseōs gnōnai ti saphes) comes from no other field than medicine.

Here philosophia denotes a trend that stands out in the general field of historia, thanks to a particular object (nature) and a specific method (the hypothetical (p.177) one; but we may see in it the reasoning by conjecture that we have emphasized time and again in this book). We should not be be surprised that, for the author of On Ancient Medicine, the best representative of this kind of inquiry is Empedocles himself, for whom the interest in the physical nature of the cosmos is inseparable from the problem of saving the soul. The author’s polemic is selective, but the selection is not random; the doctor is isolating in the work of Empedocles what he perceives to be the most competitive element on the arena in which his own discipline clashes with philosophia for the monopoly on the knowledge of human nature—at the same time one wonders if Empedocles is chosen as a target also for his profession of healer.104

With a retrospective glance that prolongs and complicates that of the Hippocratic writer, Plato, in his Phaedo (96a), will call peri phuseōs historia the important research trend that once attracted a young Socrates (it must be noted that Socrates employs this expression as if it is well in use in his time).105 And again Aristotle will regard phusiologia as the most important component of the thought before Socrates (namely, before the “ethic turn” of philosophy), so as to place his own inquiry on nature in continuity with it.106 Yet again, that selective construction will not be unjustified. And in conclusion, the fact that the legacy of Presocratic thought has come down to us in an abridged and simplified form, due to the mediation imposed upon it by a world of specialized reason, should not prevent us from appreciating the indications that seeped in through that world, nor from glimpsing behind it an age during which the rationalities were “multiple.” (p.178)


(1) Ford 2002, 46 (see also 10–13 and 46ff).

(2) See above, 19–21. On Plato’s search for a synthesis between poetry and philosophy and on its realization in the mimesis of the dialogues, see Giuliano 2000.

(3) See above, 30–31.

(5) See above, 70ff and 82ff.

(6) See Murray 2005, 150. The following exposition on the status and prerogatives of the Muse in Homer, Hesiod, and beyond presupposes the readings of Roochnik 1985, 40–45, Finkelberg 1998, 68–99, Most 1999b, 342–43, Scodel 2002, 65–89, and Brillante 2006.

(7) See Xella 2006.

(8) See above, 33.

(9) See Strauss Clay 2003, 58–59. According to Detienne (1996 [1967], 72–73), these lines are declarations of a fundamental ambiguity of poetic utterances, while Arrighetti 2006 rightly defends against this kind of argument with the coherence of Hesiod’s didascalic program. However, in a recent essay, Strauss Clay succeeds as sharply as ever in reconciling the “ambiguity” and “enigmatic character” of Hesiod’s Muses with the poet’s trust that he will be instructed by them not only about the gods, but also about natural phenomena (2015, 108–17).

(10) Scodel 2001, 112–23 is convincing on this point.

(11) See above, 32–37.

(12) The process that I am describing here is, of course, rather simplified. I must at least mention Pindar’s original stance in calling himself an “interpreter” (hermeneus) and “prophet” (prophētēs) of the Muse’s oracular message; cf. Ledbetter 2003, 64–68. This trait, together with the intentionally obscure style, puts Pindar near his elder contemporary, Heraclitus; but Heraclitus, as we know, speaks only for himself.

(13) See Fränkel 1946. Cf. Romeyer-Dherbey 1999 for a valorization of the theme of “man’s random time” in Pindar.

(14) See above, 140–41. For other passages, see Föllinger (2007), who brilliantly outlines this situation. See also Lesher 1999, 225–28.

(15) Already partially quoted above, p. 72, in relation to its position at the beginning of a written text.

(16) See Fränkel 1925, Rivier 1956, Heitsch 1966, Lesher 1992, 149–86; Ioli 2003 (selected from the endless bibliography on Xenophanes’s gnoseology).

(17) See above, 143.

(19) The fragment is quoted in its entirety above, 71.

(20) Curd 2002, 126–29 takes a firm position on this point. See also Sassi 2013b and above, 97.

(21) For complementary considerations on frags. 101 and 107, see 117–18. For an evaluation of Heraclitus’s “rationalism,” to which I subscribe, see Curd 2002, 120–24.

(22) See Ferrari 2004, who starts with interesting remarks about the Pindaric notion of wisdom.

(23) See above, 120–21.

(24) This hypothesis appears in Vlastos 1953, 344n5.

(25) On the modalities and targets of Heraclitus’s polemic, see also above, 99–101, and Gemelli Marciano 2002, 96–103. On Heraclitus’s conception of the soul, see above, 114–16.

(26) The term prapides is noteworthy. In Homer it refers to a part of the chest—analogous to phrēn—that is a seat of sense perception, emotions, and intelligence; in Hippocrates and Plato the meaning of the term becomes specialized for the diaphragm. The same word appears in frag. 110 (line 1), where Empedocles invites Pausanias to rely on this organ in order to reach a state of contemplation “with pure exercises” (line 2). Gernet (1981 [1945], 359–60) saw this as an echo of a meditation practice based on the regulation of breathing through contraction and release of the diaphragm, and Kingsley gave this observation its due value (2002, 400–1). See also Frontisi-Ducroux 2002.

(27) See Solmsen 1971 for an accurate analysis of the relationship between Zeno and Parmenides’s theory, which culminates in an invitation to downscale the student’s dependence on his teacher.

(28) Of course, Plato may be projecting anachronistically onto Parmenides’s Elea a situation that was familiar to him in Athens. But I think there is no evidence that Plato misunderstood Parmenides’s intentions. Similarly, and more generally, one cannot say with certainty (as do interpreters like Kingsley) that from Plato onward Parmenides’s discourse on Being was given a philosophical sense that it could not have had in its own right.

(29) Naturally, these “extemporaneous” comments have not been preserved in the text; the report in Suda (in the entry on Parmenides) that Parmenides also wrote in prose is clearly extrapolated from the passage in Plato’s Sophist.

(30) See above, 80–81.

(31) That is, if we accept the variant eukukleos (another legitimate possibility would be the variant eupeitheos, which would emphasize the persuasive character of truth). The image of a “well-rounded” sphere, a symbol of perfection, is applied to Being itself in frag. 8, line 43.

(32) See Wöhrle 1993a for a thorough analysis of Parmenides’s work on Homeric and Hesiodic motifs, formulas, epithets, and versification.

(33) As opposed to Wright 1998, who regards the peculiar versification strategies of Parmenides as representative of the author’s will to break away from the epic tradition; cf. Osborne 1998.

(34) That the choice of verse implies a detachment from philosophical prose is argued, for instance, by Cherniss 1977, 20; by contrast, see above, 82–84. Granger (2008, 1–2, 17–18) comes closer to my position here, in that he argues that Parmenides’s formal choice contrasts the tendency of a good number of “new” intellectuals (Pherecydes, Hecataeus, Acusilaus, Alcmaeon) to record in prose form an empirical and rationalistic inquiry, independent from superhuman sources of knowledge.

(35) As noted in Most 1999b, 353.

(36) See Cerri 1995 for a careful comparison with the representation of the underworld in Homer and Hesiod. For an analysis of the relationship with Hesiod in relation to the formal configuration of the proem, see the ever-useful Schwabl 1963.

(37) I leave aside here the possibility that Parmenides may have postulated a “third way” of inquiry, as well as the idea, just as controversial, that he may have given minimal epistemic value to the cosmology contained in the second part of the poem.

(38) As has been pointed out by Tulli 1993 and 2000. See also Diller 1946, 142.

(39) See Burkert 1969, but also Gilbert 1907, and a hint of this interpretation can be found in Gernet 1981 [1945], 349. The last fruit of this research trend is Gemelli Marciano 2008, with useful bibliography. I would also like to stress the possible comparison between the topography of the proem and the otherwordly itinerary described in the Orphic tablets. Both the initiated/deceased in the tablets and Parmenides are presented with a forking road; one path leads to salvific knowledge, while the other, which is to be avoided, is trodden by the uninitiated. Cf. Morrison 1955, Sassi 1988b, and Pugliese Carratelli (1988), who proposes to identify the goddess as Mnemosyne; see also Cassio 1996 for the demonstration of a “linguistic solidarity” between Parmenides and the texts of the tablets.

(40) Cf. Cerri 1995 and 1999, 96–110, Kingsley 1999, 104ff and 272–73, Kingsley 2003, 217ff, 272–73 and 578, and Seaford 2004, 264. I have dealt with this issue elsewhere (Sassi 2006c, 112–13), with further references to the historical context of Elea/Velia.

(41) The perplexity expressed by Granger (2008, 7ff) relates to the vagueness that has been noted in both the geography of the proem and its main (anonymous) characters; we may argue that this vagueness is in line with an account of a visionary, sometimes dreamlike experience.

(42) See, for instance, Blank 1982, 168, 177. Laks (2003, 21) sees Parmenides’s enterprise as a “transposition” (a rather attractive category, which he borrows from Gernet; cf. Laks 1998, 280).

(43) See, for instance, Robbiano (2006), who acutely examines (thus preserving the philosophical potential of Parmenides’s poem) what she regards as a rhetorical strategy aimed at drawing the public to a learning process that is also an identification with Being. Conversely, Morgan (2003, 67–68) argues that the mythological construction of the proem has the (metalinguistic) goal of drawing attention to its own falsehood. Interpretations such as these, though acute, reflect the assumption that Parmenides’s world is a world of logos, where muthos is now reduced to a mere reference from which to depart or to a linguistic tool. No explicit statement by Parmenides authorizes this assumption; this is why I prefer to work from the hypothesis of an active contact between Parmenides and his traditional references.

(44) See in particular Kingsley 2003 and Gemelli Marciano 2008.

(45) As an example (a list of names would be endless), see Owen 1960. Curd (2002, 118–19) calls “hyperrational” the anachronistic aim to find in Presocratic thought elements of rationality and method that are only conceivable after the scientific revolution, and defines an approach such as Peter Kingsley’s as “hyporational.” I would like to attempt a mediation, however difficult, between the two positions.

(46) For the interpretation of frag. 7, I follow Lesher 1984, a study which, though widely cited, contains ideas that still need to be appreciated and explored (I am referring in particular to the identification of an effective play on the image of a chariot game, a metaphor of the difficulty of commanding the path of investigation with certainty, and without going off-track). See also Lesher 1999, 238–39 and, for a different reading of frag. 7 (yet complementary in emphasizing the exercise of critical reason required by the goddess), Cordero 1990.

(47) See Curd 2002, 124–25 and 133–35. On Heraclitus, see above, 98ff and 148. Cornford does not hesitate to see in Parmenides a “prophet” of logic, believing that a “metaphysical” thought “at work on the abstract concepts of being and unity” (1952, 117, 118) is quite compatible with inspiration. These considerations are found in a chapter devoted to “The Philosopher As Successor of the Seer-Poet” (107–26), where the emphasis is on the unity of religious and scientific vision in Parmenides, Pythagoras, Empedocles, and Heraclitus (another passage from the same work is cited below, 168).

(49) We have already mentioned Empedocles in this respect; see above, 130–31. Curd 1998 has emphasized this line of development with a painstaking and convincing analysis, but she ends up suggesting (reductively, in my view) that cosmology and science are Parmenides’s only interests.

(50) See Ferrari 2007, 97–114. The idea that the poem was disseminated into the circuits of archaic poetry may be supported by the hypothesis (see D’Alessio 1995) that the Parmenidean image of the chariot of poetry may have influenced Pindar in his sixth Olympic, datable to 476–468 BCE; we might surmise that Parmenides’s poem was written before Pindar’s ode if we accept Apollodorus’s chronology, according to which Parmenides reached akmē around 500 BCE, as opposed to the one emerging from Plato’s Parmenides (see above, 80–81), which would suggest a later date.

(51) On Empedocles’s language, see at least Gemelli Marciano 1990 and Bordigoni 2004 (in particular 257–63 for the reworking of epic formulae).

(52) On the relationship between Lucretius and Empedocles, cf. Cherniss 1977, 21–23, and Sedley 1998, 2–34.

(53) See also Aristotle, Poetics 1457b 13–26 (= 31 B 138, 143, 152). Apart from Aristotle’s devaluation of the heuristic power of metaphor, one should note that Empedocles’s images, rooted as they are in analogical reasoning, are perfectly tailored to his account of the cosmos; cf. Lloyd 1996, 327–29 and Wright 1998, 20–22.

(54) As noted by Palumbo 2007, 85 in her careful analysis of Aristotle’s judgment on Empedocles as poet, this passage bears the echo of the Platonic and Aristotelian condemnation of “deceitful sophistry,” but also of the identification of ambiguity as the “register of poetry.” If we remember that in the construction of the first book of Metaphysics, on the contrary, the linguistic quality of philosophy is clearness (see above, 25–26), it will become even more evident that Empedocles is especially resistant to Aristotle’s criteria for defining philosophical thought. Let us also remember that Aristotle, in Sophist, frag. 65 Rose, indicates Empedocles as the “inventor” of rhetoric.

(56) See Scodel 1996, 60.

(57) Cf. Velardi 2004, 208. This usage is attested five times in the Iliad.

(58) If not virtually all of humankind; this is precisely how Bollack explains the problematic occurrence of verbal forms in the first person plural (2001, 183–84).

(59) Let us remember that the earliest mention of Empedocles (more fully explored here, 176ff) is contained in chapter 20 of the Hippocratic writing On Ancient Medicine (last decades of the fifth century BCE).

(60) The esoteric thesis I refute here (without rejecting in toto the idea of Empedocles as a “seer”; see above, 129ff) is already suggested by Kahn 1960 (1974), 431–32 and then put forth by Kingsley 1995, 347–76; Kingsley 2002, 347–48; Kingsley 2003, 322–25; Gemelli Marciano 2001, 205–207; Gemelli Marciano 2006, 664ff. It is also accepted by Primavesi 2001, 5. In tackling the problem of the circulation of Empedocles’s writing, Kingsley 1995, 357, claims that the poem was not necessarily kept secret, since it was already protected by its being incomprehensible to the uninitiated; even so, I fail to see a reason for the text’s first exit from the initiatic context, not to mention (and this is, after all, Kingsley’s premise) that the entire story of its reception becomes the result of an enormous misunderstanding.

(61) See Calzolari 1984 for a reading of frags. 2 and 3 focused on the disparagement of human knowledge that is typical of poetic tradition in the sense that we have tried to convey; also see above, 144–45 (the adjective ephēmerios at frag. 3.4 is a key term for this reading). Elsewhere (Sassi 2015) I made the additional point that Empedocles (as well as Parmenides) transforms the topos of the precariousness of human life, subjected to the gods’ will, into a theory of knowledge where cognitive processes depend on the constant change of the physical conditions of the body, and yet the subject can attain a higher level of knowledge through by integrating his or her material constitution with that of things.

(62) It is unclear to whom Empedocles is alluding here. Diels was the first to surmise that Empedocles is referring to Parmenides, who presents himself as the depositary of an absolute truth communicated to him directly by the goddess, and this conjecture has been reprised with valid arguments by Calzolari 1984. One should certainly consider the objection by Trépanier (2004, 58) that an accusation of maniē seems “far too strong for the man to whom Empedocles’ thought owed so much”; but I would not exclude the possibility that Empedocles, concerned as he is here with gaining the favor of his listener(s), is trying to remain competitive on the foundations of knowledge, even with a wise man whose influence he profoundly acknowledges in other respects. The other objection by Trépanier, according to whom the genitive plural seems to indicate a plurality of individuals, appears even less convincing if we remember that in any case Parmenides was not the only one to claim a direct relationship with truths revealed to him in ultramundane contexts. It is far more difficult to speculate (as does Trépanier) that Empedocles is alluding to a foolishness of his own consisting of some act of ritual transgression.

(63) Cerri 2001 has a fine commentary on frag. 3; see also Cerri 2004. Most 2007, 291–92 makes an interesting connection with the proem of Hesiod’s Theogony.

(64) Cf. Kahn 1960 (1974), 429–30; Obbink 1993, 59–64 (also for other allusions of Empedocles to the Muse, e.g., frag. 4); and Trépanier 2004, 57–59 (although the scholar assumes that Empedocles was the author of a single poem, which I find tempting but unlikely; see above, 129).

(65) The first point has been observed by Wildberg 2001, 55; the second by Broadie 1999, 218.

(66) See above, 130–31.

(68) In frag. 129, quoted above, 150.

(69) For instance, Primavesi 2001, relying precisely on the esoteric character ascribed to the writing On Nature, has insisted on assigning frag. 115 to the cathartic poem on the grounds that it reflects an “exoteric” daimonology; Trépanier 2004, on the other hand, places it at the beginning of the only poem written by Empedocles according to his working hypothesis. My argument is intentionally limited to the relationship between the passages that have a justificatory-proemial function.

(70) According to the minimal, yet plausible, hypothesis by Sedley 1998, 4–5.

(71) The possible doubts are summarized by Trépanier 2004, 48–49.

(72) See Stehle 2005. Apart from this hypothesis, the accurate commentary on this fragment by Bollack 2003, 52–57 remains invaluable.

(73) Stehle 2005, 261. On the relationship between the belief in metempsychosis and the claim to have become a god that appears in the first lines of frag. 112, see above, 133ff.

(74) On which see above, 11. I prefer not to evoke here—as has often been done in the wake of Cornford and Dodds—the category of shamanism, whose application to the historical and cultural context of archaic Greece is interesting theoretically but also rather problematic.

(75) This construction privileges the empiricism of the Hippocratic doctors as a worthy opponent of the wisdom trend.

(76) Cornford 1952, 109. From this passage emerges the fortunate notion of an “Italic philosophy” characterized by a religious inclination, as opposed to an “Ionian philosophy” devoted to empirical inquiry. On the history and limits of this historiographic pattern, see Sassi 1994 and 2011.

(77) See Gernet 1945. Detienne 1967 cites many of Gernet’s studies, but the debt is more clearly acknowledged in Detienne (1994, 8–9).

(78) The criticism toward Heidegger is explicit in Detienne (1994, 20–22).

(79) See Detienne 1996 [1967], 136 (with a reference to Jean-Pierre Vernant).

(80) A brevity also questioned by Caveing (1969, 95–97), although within a positive assessment of Detienne’s general construction. Caveing emphasizes the need to consider other intellectual venues (for instance, mathematics, with its development of techniques of demonstration) to explain the “need for reason” that emerged with Parmenides. Admittedly, according to Detienne (1996 [1967], 130) Parmenides’s attitude as a soothsayer is the result of a mise en scène.

(81) A fundamental study by Cole (1983) has shown that archaic Greek poetry attests both the sense of a “remembered” truth (the only one found in Homer) and that of a truth that “does not escape.” In any case (and this is the crucial point) one can detect in this literature several allusions both to a subjective dimension of knowledge (contra Heidegger) and to a rational organization of the authorial discourse (contra Detienne).

(82) Gernet 1945, 350. I suspect that Gernet was tacitly borrowing from Diès 1913, who introduced it for Plato, the fortunate idea of a “transposition” of notions from mysticism to philosophy (see above, 125n36). The absence of a direct reference on Gernet’s part is understandable—as Riccardo Di Donato has pointed out to me—in a work lacking a bibliographical apparatus, written by Gernet in the isolation of his Algerian period (1921–48).

(83) See ibid., 359.

(84) See Vernant 1965, 207–8. Gernet’s influence on Vernant need not be demonstrated, but cf. at least Sassi 2007, 194n7. For the critical attention of Vernant to Cornford’s work, see above, 15n36 and 48n26 and Sassi 2007, 202ff.

(85) The Derveni author does not belong to this category, since he presents his doctrines as the outcome of his exegesis of the theogonic poem attributed to Orpheus. On the contrary, Empedocles, as Betegh 2001, 67 put it, “is not the exēgetēs of the divine poet; he himself is the divine poet.”

(86) The two paths will unite again in Plato’s Timaeus, that is, exactly where the cosmological and eschatological aspects of the soul converge (see above, 137).

(87) See above, 65ff.

(88) On the play of distance and detachment from the poetical tradition, concerning both form and contents, put in place by Herodotus, see Marincola 2006.

(89) On the qualities of prose, see above, 82ff. For a careful analysis of the style of the authors mentioned above, cf. Schick 1955b, 123–35; Schick 1955–56; and Nieddu 1993. It should be noted that Anaxagoras and Diogenes still offer solemn overtones in their descriptions of the archē, which is a sign of a persistent attention to the effects of an oral teaching.

(90) Cf. Mansfeld 1995, Gemelli Marciano 2002, 86–88, and Gemelli Marciano 2007a, 29–33. Corradi 2007 interestingly suggests that Protagoras’s fragment on man-as-measure may have also been placed at the beginning of the author’s writing (a suggestion that invites to see in this text, too, the programmed rejection of divinely inspired knowledge).

(91) See Thomas 2003.

(92) Cf. Thomas 1996, Thomas 2000, 235–48, and Luraghi 2006 for Herodotus; van der Eijk 1997, Roselli 2006 for the Hippocratic writers. Obviously, and conversely, this “personalistic” style is in opposition to Aristotle’s deliberately impersonal one; see van der Eijk 1997, 115–19.

(93) See above, 29ff.

(95) Sextus Empiricus (Outlines of Pyrrhonism, III, 30 = 41 A 5 DK) ascribes to Oenopis an identification of the archai of fire and air that is also reported as an anonymous doxa by Lucretius, I, 713. On the complicated tradition of this doxa, see Gemelli Marciano 1993.

(96) For a systematic study of the testimonies, see Bodnár 2007.

(97) See Thomas 2000, 136ff and Thomas 2006. There are other instances of “transversality”: the long description of the vascular system by Diogenes of Apollonia (reported by Aristotle), whose importance has been pointed out by Lloyd (2006); the presence of zoological terms in both Democritus and medical literature (see Perilli 2007b); the mostly underestimated interest for the study of nature in some Sophists (see Bonazzi 2006 and above, 29–30, for a mention of Antiphon); and the other cases considered by Cambiano 1997. Perhaps most notable, and of broader importance, is that until the end of the fifth century the reflection on causality passes through historiographical and (even more decisively) medical thought before being reverberated onto fourth-century philosophy; see Vegetti 1999 and Jouanna 2005.

(99) For Heraclitus’s polemic against polumathiē, see above, 149–50.

(100) The anecdote according to which Pythagoras minted the term philosophia (Aētius, I, 3, 8 = 58 B 15 DK) should not be trusted, as it is the fruit of that same retrospective projection of an ideal of speculative life onto exemplary figures of the Preplatonic period that we observed above, 4–5. For the retrospective ascription to Pythagoras of a memorable pairing of philosophical activity and the disinterested contemplation of a religious celebration (theōria), see also Sassi 1991; Nightingale 2004, 17–22.

(101) Herodotus’s self-image as a historian has been explored in Marincola 2006, Fowler 2006 and Luraghi 2006. Bouvier (1997, 49ff) notes, however, that Herodotus and Thucydides (and Xenophon) seem to work “on their own,” without sharing a common mission to earn history the status of a recognized discipline; this is also why historia takes a long time to mean history “proper” (and it is remarkable that the term never occurs in Thucydides). The process of self-recognition of philosophy, at any rate, will take place later.

(102) For an interesting sociological analysis of the competition for paideia in Plato and the Sophists, see Böhme 1986.

(103) For an assessment of this attestation of the term philosophia, as well as other more or less contemporary ones, see Laks 2001c, 2005a, 2005b, and 2006, 55–81. Laks’s acute observations on this delicate transition phase contradict Nightingale’s thesis (1995ff) that the birth of philosophy is an artificial construct that we essentially owe to Plato.

(104) I am reprising this image from Pellegrin 2006, 664 (see 664–69 on the “theoretical reputation” of Hippocratic medicine, seen as the “natural enemy” of philosophy in this period). The references to the “study of nature” in On Ancient Medicine have been analyzed closely by Vegetti 1998, Heinemann 2000, and Schiefsky 2005b. For a detailed commentary of chapter 20, see Schiefsky (ed.) 2005a, 298ff.

(105) See above, 174–75.

(106) This point has been acutely developed by Leszl 2006.