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Was Parmenides a True Poet?

(Read at the annual meeting of the Classical Association of Atlantic States, Wilmington, DE, October 9, 2009)


{Note to website viewers: The handout for this paper, to which links appear in the following, is in pdf format in order to preserve a better font for the Greek text.   This means that to return to the paper from the handout you will need to use your browsers "back button.}


In an Ionian migr settlement in Italy at a time somewhere around 500 B.C.E., a certain Parmenides composed a piece in dactylic hexameter, of which fragments survive. The one that we believe began the work says (see handout #1): ἵπποι, ταί με φέρουσιν, ὅσον τ΄ ἐπὶ θυμὸς ἱκάνοι/ πέμπον, ἐπεί μ΄ ἐς ὁδὸν βῆσαν πολύφημον ἄγουσαι/ δαίμονος, etc., the horses, the females that carry me as far as the heart might desire, when they went to lead me, brought me to the much-discussing way of divinity, and so on to give details of the journey. This fragment will eventually conclude with a goddesss welcome to the narrator and her statement that she will teach him certain matters. Then other fragments give extracts of the teaching. Especially, the 8th (see handout #1, pg. 2) says μόνος δ΄ ἔτι μῦθος ὁδοῖο/ λείπεται, ὡς ἔστιν, a single account of a way still remains: is, and goes on to discuss the properties of this entity that we call a conjugation of to be, and to make claims about why it, as opposed to is not, is the matter of interest.

Today I want to offer the hypothesis, that is, an idea for further study, that Parmenides was originally someone trained in recitation of traditional epic, a so-called rhapsdos, who at some point had a mystical experience of this is, and in his poem simply attempted to communicate this experience using the means with which he was familiar.

That position would of course oppose the traditional set of readings which hold that Parmenides gave a philosophical tract in verse form that argued for pure Being as the ultimate entity, perhaps in opposition to the views of some earlier figures from Ionia who had said that the ultimate principle was some material entity like water. Such commentators may acknowledge that the fragments owe some of their imagery or rhetorical force to epic, but implicitly see the versification as an artificial translation of thought represented in the thinkers own mind as intellectually-argued prose. From this starting point authorities such as, most recently, Nstor-Luis Cordero, Patricia Curd and Daniel Graham debate what Parmenides meant in metaphysical terms, and others such as Scott Austin and John Palmer discuss him in terms of his logic, given such apparent conundrums as that he says in one place that non-being cannot be discussed, but elsewhere in fact discusses it.

However, others assert that the fragments display too much expertise in epic composition for their author to be dismissed as a poet per se. This trend came into its own in Alexander Mourelatoss 1970 book, which goes into some detail on the use both of epic motifs and themes and of epic phraseology. And the latter aspect especially has since been studied in more detail, in particular by Robert Bhme, the Parmenides editor A. H. Coxon, and Franco Ferrari. The parallels of localized phrases to epic are numerous, and as witness handout #2 lists some that I have found in the research of others or on my own for the first 5 verses of fragment 1. You can inspect them at your leisure, but just to take an example, the very first phrase, ἵπποι ταί με φέρουσιν, parallels ἵπποι θ΄ οἳ φορέεσκον, also the horses that carried, namely, carried Achilles, in Book 2 of the Iliad.

It is true that these phrases amount to the trees rather than the forest, and in the course of a fierce attack on Mourelatoss book, Leonardo Tarn makes the point that such matters can be taken from one genre to another, so that the use of epic forms alone does not an epic poet make. But we can go beyond how words are used inside a verse. One dimension of the problem is how Parmenides treats meter. (Go to handout #3) Martin Henn has discussed his meter in some detail, especially to account for the fact that in epic the two-hemistich structure is absent in about 1% of verses. Such lines bridge over the normal word break within the 3rd foot of the verse, the so-called caesura, and most of them fall into a regular pattern of three cola of increasing length, a verse type that Geoffrey Kirk has called the rising threefolder. Kirk thinks that the epic poet uses this pattern because its rhythmic variation provides a welcome contrast after several normal lines. In our case, the goddesss actual opening speech to the chariot rider has one. In particular, the fourth line of her address is τένδ΄ ὁδόν, γὰρ ἀπ΄ ἀνθρώπων ἐκτὸς πάτου ἐστίν, this road, indeed, yes away-from humans it is a far pace. The singling out of yes away-from humans in mid verse perhaps underlines the sense that the youth is now in an immortal realm, particularly after the goddess has begun with three lines in normal rhythm.

That is an example of how the fragments words serve to convey images, and we can explore the process further beginning at the beginning again in handout #4. First we have horses, whereupon the second word tells us that these are female, and then we learn that they can go as far as you want, in particular to a road where there is a lot of discussion. That verse, verse 2, completes a syntactically self-contained couplet, but semantically one wonders what road this might be. In answer, an enjambed word at the beginning of v. 3 says that the road is associated with a deity, and a relative clause then says that the deitys road leads an intelligent person everywhere. That is a nice succession of images, but I want to point out a particular effect created by the juxtaposition of the enjambed word δαίμονος with the succeeding relative pronoun; namely, this makes us sense that it is divinity that makes the road efficacious. For a parallel we need go no further than the beginning of the Iliad. It of course says that μῆνις, the wrath of Achilles, caused countless troubles for the Achaeans; however, the second line begins with its adjective οὐλομένην, baneful, followed by the relative clause that speaks of the troubles, and the juxtaposition creates a poetic sense that it is the banefulness of the wrath that caused the troubles, if not in terms of strict syntax. Then, looking back at handout #1, in a few more lines about our narrators journey we learn that the chariots axle sounds like a pipe as a result of the wheels pressure. That detail is not necessary for the so-called allegory some say fragment 1 constitutes, but it does serve to make the image more realistic. Theoretically, the reason the poet can insert such details is that, as is well known, epic composition is parataxial in nature, as with Homer adding a few lines to flesh out the similes that compare some hero with, say, a lion.

Of course those who call Parmenides the arch-rationalist but a bad poet do not focus on the journey to the goddess, but on the fragments giving her purportedly philosophical argument, especially fragment 8. I grant that here the verse does not flow as smoothly. For example (handout #1, page 2), lines 7-9 assert that we are not allowed to say or think that is comes from not-being, because it is neither said nor thought how is is not. The words do not exactly roll off the tongue. But possibly the problem is only that so-called philosophy was new at the time, as opposed to Homer treating Achilles versus Hector; or Hesiod, humans versus nature. Empedocles, who is generally considered a good poet, came after the field had had more time to develop, perhaps devising better wordings in the process. There are certainly many epic phrases in fragment 8, as the apparatus to Coxons edition shows. And one can at least note a phenomenon that Irene de Jong pointed out a few years ago, namely, the epic use of the Greek particle γάρ. (handout #5) One normally thinks of γάρ as for in the sense of locally connecting the next thought to the previous one, in a quasi-causal sense. But de Jong argues that in Homer it sometimes functions as a contextual particle, like, say, the particle οὖν that often serves to resume a narrative after a long digression. In particular, γάρ often embeds an extended narrative within Homers discourse of the moment. For example, early in the Iliad the elder Nestor is attempting to persuade the Achaeans to listen to him, and offers the example that some warriors of old did so. He says that he had fellowship with them, for they called me of themselves, and for seems to include the following thoughts, I fought alongside them, etc. Coming to Parmenides, fragment 8.5-6 claims that is never was, nor will it be, since it is entire, a unity, and indivisible, and then says for what ancestry will you seek for it? One usually interprets the particle as governing only that sentence, but the next clause, whence did it grow is clearly of the same type, so that the for is easily read as governing it too, if not even more in the sequel.

Now apart from the issue of Parmenides as poet, there is lately a movement to assert that he did not so much offer the solution to an intellectual puzzle as attempt to change the audiences life, perhaps in a mystical way. Here Peter Kingsleys work is engaging at a semi-popular level, and in more conventional scholarship Chiara Robbianos 2006 book in particular argues in detail that Parmenidess poem wants to transform an audience into embracing its approach to the world. This issue is related to a key point in construing the actual text; namely, are the daughters of the Sun who guide the narrator in fragment 1, beginning in line 5, really taking him to the light? Cordero, for example, stresses that reading. However, an alternative construal, recently embraced by Giovanni Cerri, Glenn Most, and Laura Gemelli Marciano in addition to Kingsley and Robbiano, is that the maidens have emerged from the underworld to take the speaker back into it. Some also say the goddess who will teach him is specifically Persephone after her capture by Hades. One can point, for example, to the similarity of lines 11-12 with some of the underworld description in Hesiods Theogony (and I leave this for you in handout #6). Furthermore, Gemelli Marciano is the latest to argue that the later, purportedly philosophical fragments make their claims dogmatically, not through reason. Finally, she cites anthropological and psychological authority to the effect that all this is typical of mysticism.

I add that mysticism may solve the long felt problem that Parmenides gives no subject for ἔστι when he first introduces it in fragment 2. This leads many interpreters to say that he must really mean something like what is, not simply is. But one can have a mystical experience about a part of speech other than a noun. As witness there is the entity extolled in the Indian Upanishads, tman, which in original Sanskrit was simply the reflexive pronoun itself. Why not a verb, then, a process? As Jean Bollack says (in the paper referenced in handout #3), when a person does anything at all, he or she is doing, so I find it easy to believe that Parmenides as mystic could see is as the essence of reality, interpreting it only later in the fragments as associated with nouns like being.

In sum, on the one hand, although both mystical and philosophical interpreters tend to deny that Parmenides was a poet per se, the guy knew his stuff. On the other, the mystical interpretation is respectable. Thus my proposal is that he was a trained bard who had a mystical experience that later people would read as philosophy. To become convincing this hypothesis will have to deal in detail with more traditional perceptions, but we should study the possibility.