Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.12.28

Giovanni Cerri, Parmenide di Elea, Poema sulla natura: introduzione, testo, traduzione e note.   Milan:  Rizzoli, 1999.  Pp. 295.  ISBN 88-17-17297-9.  L.18,000.  

Reviewed by H.-C. Günther, University of Freiburg / Breisgau (
Word count: 3590 words

The BUR Classici Greci e Latini series has long established itself as a most useful collection of competently edited and commented pocket editions of classical texts, which, though aimed at a wider readership than the specialist scholar only, has proved of much value even for the professional classicist. In this series the Hellenist from Naples Giovanni C(erri) has now produced the edition of a particularly difficult and important text, an edition, which on the whole stands well up to the general level of the series.

C.'s edition of P(armenides) is preceded by a comprehensive but concise general introduction of almost exactly 100pp., followed by some extracts from modern interpretations (Zeller, Cornford, Calogero, v. Fritz, Russell, Geymonat, Severino, Curd1) and a useful selective bibliography (127ff.). After the Greek text with facing Italian translation C. gives some further 130pp. of detailed commentary on all aspects of the text, not shying away from explaining, where necessary, even arid linguistic or textual details.

C.'s introduction, which carries the rather presumptuous title La riscoperta del vero Parmenide, is divided into fourteen sections (1. Il poema di Parmenide e la difficoltà di interpretarlo, 2. Lo sconcerto della critica moderna, 3. Nascita della ricerca scientifica in Grecia, 4. La nascita del pensiero filosofico: il principio che nulla nasce dal nulla e il concetto di 'elemeto', 5. Identificanzioni sovversive: la riflessione di Eraclito, 6. Scheda biografica di Parmenide, 7. Parmenide scienziato, 8. La riflessione metodologico-epistemologica [frr. 2-7/8, v. 7], 9. Il monismo ontologico: dall' "essere" copulativo all'Essere esistenziale [fr. 7/8, vv. 7-54], 10. Il parmidenismo inconsapevole di Hawking, 11. La seconda parte del poema: i risultati provvisori della ricerca scientifica, 12. Le origini del travisamento, 13. Perché Parmenide scrisse in versi?, 14. Il proemio).

Already a brief look at this table of contents makes the general tendency of C.'s approach to P. quite clear. In his first two methodological chapters he rightly points to the difficulty apparent in one or another way in all modern interpretations of P., i.e., to reconcile the respective interpretation of the first part of the poem which appears to insist on the unique existence of being (τὸ ἐόν) with the second part, containing P.'s cosmology, i.e. to give an interpretation which pays due regard to the coherence of the two parts on ἀλήθεια and δόξα. C. proposes to solve this problem by setting the fragments, as he claims, firmly into their historical context, i.e., the scientific research of P.'s predecessors and contemporaries. Thus he arrives at a revaluation of P. which makes him appear not a precursor of dialectic or metaphysical thought, but -- taking up a line of interpretation foreshadowed in different ways by Cornford and Popper -- rather a natural scientist in the vein of Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes. Thus P., before presenting his -- according to C. -- highly accomplished own cosmology, develops in the first part of the poem a monist scientific methodology which foreshadows modern views like that of Hawkins.

C. bases his interpretation not only on a concise, yet well documented material basis; in the second, methodological chapter he also shows a remarkable sensitivity to the fallacies of interpreting so-called 'primitive' cultures on the lines of simplistic dichotomies of rationality versus mythology or religion. C. thus gives an interpretation which deserves serious attention and a much more precise and detailed criticism than is possible in this review. In what follows I must limit myself to a few general remarks and to pointing to a few problems which I see in C.'s interpretation and translation of the crucial fragments on 'being' of the first part of P.'s poem without expounding my own interpretation of the respective texts, which, of course, is equally open to criticism and which every reader, interested in it, can easily find in my own publications.

Although C. is highly sensitive to simplistic evolutionist interpretations of primitive cultures, he is -- as are true for the highly popular anthropological approaches to antiquity and indeed foreign cultures in general -- not really conscious of the fact that in his interpretation, the yardstick according to which this culture is measured is our way of thinking: the achievement of presocratic thinkers is great according to C., because it anticipates modern scientific research and methodology. Welcome as such reevaluations of 'primitive' cultures may be they still fall short of truly appreciating these cultures in their otherness and in their own right.

As regards C.'s brief account of the scientific achievements of Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Pythagoras and P. himself, he must rely, of course, heavily on the indirect tradition. Although I do not at all believe that we should be hypercritical in regard to this tradition, C. seems to me to rely on it too uncritically (as by the way he does in regard to the biographical tradition of P.).2 In particular, he shows himself unaware of the fact, that, even if we belief in the attribution of certain findings to a certain author, it remains mostly unclear what reasons he had for any particular view and to what degree it was general speculation or based on empirical observation. These problems become all too apparent in what C. has to say about P. as a great natural scientist. Of the three achievements C. claims for P., in the first two cases (sfericità della terra, pp. 53f.; identity of evening and morning star, p. 55) the attribution to P. is dubious (C.'s interpretation of the double attribution to P. and Pythagoras is arbitrary in both cases); the third case (that the light of the moon is a reflection of that of the sun pp. 55f.), which we find in the direct fragments of P. as well, is already attested for Thales. C.'s. claim that P. had better grounds for this hypothesis than Thales rests on pure speculation; we neither know Thales' nor P.'s reasons for their respective beliefs.

In chapters 7 and 8 C. gives his interpretation of P.'s fragments on the 'two ways' (frr. 2-7) and the extensive fragment on the nature of the ἐόν (fr. 8). C. starts from εἶναι taken in the copulative sense, which he even restricts further to εἶναι "is equal to". He had prepared for this in chapters 4 and 5, where he tried to show the development of a scientific methodology based on the principle that "nothing originates from nothing", which led to a principle of explanation reducing one phenomenon to another and thus equating apparently different phenomena by what he sees as a terminological use of εἶναι in phrases like 'A is B' in the sense of 'A is equal to B', i.e., A and B are two different manifestations of basically the same phenomenon. This concept is most sharply expressed in Heraclitus, whom C. sees in a way as P.'s predecessor, but it lies also at the basis of the theory of elements as well as of atomism, though these theories fall short of reducing all phenomena to one single principle, whereas P. carries this approach radically to the end. Thus P. claims in the end the existence of one sole material entity as the principle of all variously appearing phenomena, and thereby makes a transition from εἶναι in the copulative to εἶναι in the existential sense, with the proviso that scientific research has up to now not been able to reduce all phenomena to this sole principle. Hence all P. at the moment can do is present a cosmology according to the present state of knowledge (the δόξα-part), hoping that future research will approach the overall identification at which his methodological axiomatics aim.

According to this concept C. makes already in his translation a clear distinction between "essere", "e" etc. in the copulative sense and Essere taken in the sense of existence. Thus the first way of fr. 2 is the way of rational explanation (identified by C. with νοῦς), called the way of "e", because it aims at asserting 'A is equal B'. The second way, the way of "non e", C. identifies with the πολυμαθία and ἱστορίη of epic theogony and Ionian history which simply collects material, without giving a rational explanation in the sense demanded by P. Moreover C. thinks -- as many scholars before him -- that in fr. 6 a third way is mentioned -- which confuses "e" and "non e", and he takes P.'s polemics -- as again others did before him -- as directed against Heraclitus (cf. his commentary pp. 205ff.).

Now, even if one excepts P.'s words in fr. 2 about the first way as a slightly awkward and obscure formulation for what C. wants it to say, it is completely impossible to understand what P. says about the second way, the way of 'non being' as a description of the method of ἱστορίη, i.e., the mere collection of facts without offering a rational explanation. One could describe this method as lacking the identification necessary for rational explanation and thus not leading to assertions 'A is equal B', but one cannot describe it, as P. does -- even in C.'s translation -- as l'altra come "non e", come sia necessario "non sia". Mere collecting of data does not say there is non-equation and in particular it does not say there can necessarily be no equation. C.'s whole interpretation already fails quite obviously with the first text by which he tries to prove it. It does even less justice to P.'s words in fr. 6, 1f. Here C.'s translation of χρὴ τὸ λέγειν τε νοεῖν ἐὸν ἔμμεναι is so obviously impossible that it needs no comment;3 and what follows is simply unintelligible as a reason for what C. wants this sentence to say. The 'third way' which scholars have commonly found in fr. 6, 4ff. rests on Bergk's supplement εἴργω in line 3. However, P.'s words in fr. 2 (μοῦνος) exclude in my opinion a third way, and we have to read with Nehamas' ἄρξω. But even if there were a third way mentioned in fr. 6, an identification with Heraclitus would be most unlikely. P. clearly speaks of the attitude of the average men (βροτοί), the attitude of the πολλοί, not of the philosophy of any particular thinker. In general close examination of the text of the relevant fragments makes it abundantly clear that C. has to try to force P.'s words to comply to an hypothesis which he reached on external grounds without due regard to what the text actually says.4

The most welcome and convincing section of C.'s introduction is the one on P. as a poet. In contrast to the almost unanimous disregard for P.'s poetical abilities C. puts P. as a poet in the same rank as, e.g., Lucretius.5 Moreover C. gives substance to his positive revaluation of P.'s poetry by excellent remarks on the language, style and metre of single verses and phrases in his commentary. Of course, C. is right that P. chose poetry as the most convenient and common mean in his time to expound his thinking to the public, but, even if one accepts such an exterior reason as the main reason for his choice (which I think is not true), we are still confronted as interpreters with a poetic text, not a philosophical tractat. This means we can only understand it as poetry, and it is a pity that C. apparently does not take account of what this means for our approach to the text. Had he done so his interpretation would have to be quite different. Instead of interpreting the text as a whole as philosophical poetry he offers in conclusion an interpretation of the proem -- the most obviously poetic part -- which, though containing many excellent remarks on poetical style and topoi, as does his commentary on the passage, reduces the text to a poetic metaphor and thus is sadly lacking in philosophical substance.

Given the notorious problems of the text of P. in many places it is no wonder that C. chooses to print his own text rather than to rely on any previous edition, although the scope of the book does not allow him to give a critical apparatus but only to discuss his textual choices in the commentary. He generally shows good sense in the constitution of the text and proposes a couple of intelligent and in two places even compelling original solutions: with the due caution, C. himself expresses, I would accept his solutions for fr. 7/8, 38 and 62. πάντ' τ' <ἔ>ῃ in fr. 1, 3 is simple and ingenious but I still prefer the even easier πάντ' ἄ[σ]τη as perfectly intelligible and more in tune with the poetic style of the passage, and I reject C.'s choice of πάντα περ' ὄντα in fr. 1, 32 instead of the commonly preferred πάντα περῶντα. While discussing some quite futile or less relevant conjectures C. does not even mention Wilamowitz's δαίμονες for δαίμονος in fr. 1, 3, which I find plausible though perhaps not necessary. Nor does he mention Nehamas' supplement ἄρξω (instead of Bergk's εἴργω in fr. 6, 3) which, as I have said above, alone gives the fragment the correct meaning. But in general C.'s discussions of textual matters in the commentary are reasonable and his textual choices sound.

The translation is a good compromise between literalness and a fluent, easy and pleasant to read Italian. And in general I am happy to say that C.'s Italian is -- as far as I can judge -- far beyond the average stylistic level one is used to encounter in today's scholarly publications.6 If in the interest of stylishness C. in a few places may sacrifice precision in the translation facing the text this is amply made good in the commentary, where before his notes on individual lemmata he regularly gives strictly literal translations and/or precise paraphrases, which make it abundantly clear how he understands the text. Except for those places, where his translation is conditioned by an interpretation of the text which I do not accept, I cannot find much fault with it. Only sapere incrollabile for ἄτρεμες ἦτορ seems unacceptably vague, and, disappointingly, C., elsewhere so illuminating in his comments on poetic diction, finds this -- in conjunction with εὐκυκλέος ἀληθείης -- remarkable and, in my view, philosophically highly relevant expression not worthy of comment (though he rightly keeps εὐκυκλέος in the same line, but without adequate interpretation of the word in its reference to ἀλήθεια).

On the whole C.'s commentary is even and well balanced in the information it provides. In accord with his most welcome revaluation of P. as a poet the author is particularly good in his remarks on linguistic detail and matters of poetic style and diction; one will also be most grateful for the great number of parallels he cites: they are always to the point and most useful and sometimes go beyond of what one can find also elsewhere (cf. e.g. his excellent remarks on fr. 1, 6, 9-10, 11, 15; fr. 13; fr. 14 to cite only a few places). One would very much hope that C.'s work will serve as a stimulus for further research into P.'s poetic language and style. Where C.'s is wrong in his comments on details, his translations or general interpretation of fragments, this is almost always the result of his general line of interpretation of P., which I have already commented on above. Thus I can limit myself to pointing in addition to his comments on two important fragments he treats in the commentary only.

Fr. 4 quite obviously does not fit easily into C.'s interpretation of the first part of the poem; thus he offers an impossible translation (interpolating tra loro to be understood with ἀπεόντα and παρεόντα) and an interpretation of this crucial fragment which hardly deserves serious consideration. Fr. 16 he translates and understands quite correctly, but, since it does not fit his preconception of P.'s dogmatic 'theory of knowledge', he tries to limit the damage by assuming quite arbitrarily that the text refers only to sensazione-percezione in contrast to true scientific knowledge, although the text speaks of νόος and νόημα. In fact, his general thesis forces C. to make a distinction between places like this and fr. 2, 2, where according to him νοεῖν, νόος and νόημα are used in what he calls the ordinary sense of the word pensare, and its 'terminological' use in P. which he translates capire razionalmente (v. on fr. 3). This distinction is completely arbitrary, the result of naively attributing to P. a fixed philosophical terminology in the modern sense. Even e.g. Aristotle's terminology -- if one wants to apply this term to his philosophical language at all -- is remarkably flexible and only intelligible with due regard for this fact. Moreover, both of C.'s translations of νοεῖν, pensare and capire razionalmete, are quite imprecise, not to say wrong (for the meaning of the words in question see now my Grundfragen des griechischen Denkens [Würzburg 2001] 44f., 79f., 219).

To sum up: C. has produced a book which offers an original, consistent and intelligent interpretation of P., based on sound scholarship and presented in a clear and attractive manner. C. is right in insisting on an interpretation which does justice to both parts of the poem, but that is in my opinion not done by reinterpreting the ἀλήθεια-part as a mere prelude to the δόξα-part but by establishing the relation between ἀλήθεια and δόξα by trying to understand what P. says in fr. B 1, 29-32 and 7/8, 58f., and here C. fails. C. is quite right in rejecting interpretations which make P. the 'father of logic' and the inventor of the principle of contradiction (had P. expressed this principle in such an obscure and obviously incorrect manner, as the supporters of this interpretation assume, this would be an extremely dubious merit indeed), but C.'s interpretation of the fragments on being and the two ways starting from the copulative sense of εἶναι is equally unconvincing. However, a great merit of this book lies in the fact that instead of repeating over and over again established truisms of past research the author focuses on expounding his personal view concisely, putting it only briefly into the frame of the current discussion without bothering the reader with boring accounts of previous research and undue regard for full bibliographical references. To what degree one finds C.'s interpretation convincing is of secondary importance; C. certainly throws new light on the fragments and deserves consideration. Every serious student of P. will learn from this book -- as I myself certainly have -- if only in order to clarify his own understanding of the text. In fact, there is -- at least to my knowledge -- no modern commented edition of P. of comparable brevity as useful as C.'s (Coxon is no match in my opinion; the two volumes edited by Aubenque, which I would regard indeed as the modern standard work of reference both for text/translation and as a guide to interpretation, is, of course, of quite different scope and proportions).

Having said this and having pointed out that the merit of C.'s book lies exactly in its consistent one-sidedness I cannot but append at the end a stern warning of crucial importance. And since C. has shown in this work not only his serious and competent scholarship but made shine through a clarity of thought and a broadness of culture and outlook not at all common among mere classicists today, I have some hope that this warning will not go completely unattended.

The major shortcoming of C.'s whole approach is his almost naive overconfidence, not so much in regard to his own abilities but in regard to the exclusive value of one method alone, which, if his words are taken literally, verges on the grotesque. In fact this belief is so strongly rooted in C.'s whole outlook that his interpretation makes P. himself emerge as a firm believer in the absolute value of scientific dogmatism. Thus C. claims in his foreword to have at long last understood thoroughly the general meaning of P.'s text as well as the precise meaning of almost every single fragment after years of scholarly research on the lines of the correct philological method. In view of such a statement it may be useful to remind ourselves that there cannot be one single approach or method which will enable us to elucidate all aspects of the text of a great thinker or poet; and C. has stressed rightly that P. is both. Poetry and, I dare say, thinking -- if it is truly thinking -- is ambivalent, or better multivalent by nature and thus what it has to say will never be exhausted by any interpretation, far ranging though it may be.

There are various kinds of approaches, and all of them can only throw light on a tiny fraction of the complex multitude of aspects inherent in the great works of thinkers and poets of the past. Therefore there must be a general openness of mind for fundamentally different methods and approaches with radically different aims. Otherwise research will inevitably degenerate into self centered academic sterility. In order to arrive at truly new, relevant and illuminating insights without falling into this trap, we need the radical courage to go beyond established truths and methods and thus to err, maybe, profoundly, but above all, this courage must be coupled with modesty; modesty of the researcher towards himself and even more humility in front of the inexhaustible richness of the great tradition of the past.


1.   Needless to say that any such choice will be subjective, and my own one would be very different. I shall not complain about the absence of Heidegger, whom C. has the good sense rather to ignore completely than to criticise in cheap asides, so often found in publications by classicists. But one may be surprised that e.g. Reinhardt's epoch making study is not on his list. Stenzel's Metaphysik des Altertums (München - Berlin 1931) is not even mentioned in the bibliography.
2.   The investigation of the transmission of Heraclitus, desiderated once by Reinhardt, applies to the Presocratics in general. Without such an investigation the indirect tradition can be used only with extreme caution.
3.   In general it must be said that no interpretation which is based on a neat division between εἶναι in copulative and existential senses will do justice to the text. On the contrary, it is essential for the understanding of Greek philosophical texts even beyond Plato and Aristotle that such a distinction in Greek thought does not exist (as is well known, Aristotle in his review of the various usages of εἶναι does not make it).
4.   For two other fragments which quite obviously do not fit C.'s general line of interpretation see below.
5.   Much as I share C.'s admiration for Parmenides as a poet, comparing him to Dante is perhaps a little too presumptuous.
6.   This is, of course, true, not only of Italian but equally of German or English publications. But as Italian is such an exceedingly beautiful language I find the treatment it regularly undergoes today particularly painful.

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