Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.04.53

Néstor-Luis Cordero, By Being, It is. The Thesis of Parmenides.   Las Vegas:  Parmenides Publishing (distributed by the University of Chicago Press), 2004.  Pp. 215.  ISBN 1-930972-03-2.  $28.00.  



Reviewed by Chiara Robbiano, Leiden University & Utrecht University, The Netherlands (c.robbiano@let.leidenuniv.nl)
Word count: 2863 words

In conformity with the 'mission statement' of Parmenides Publishing, which begins with the words "The aim of Parmenides Publishing is to renew interest in the origin and scope of thinking as a method" Cordero focuses throughout his book on two central and traditionally recognised methodological issues: Parmenides' thesis, i.e. the establishment of fact of the being of being and the not-being of non-being, and the question whether the goddess singles out two or three ways of inquiry.

In the first two chapters and very sporadically in the rest of the book C. tackles Parmenides' method from a less conventional point of view: he looks into the method that Parmenides himself uses in the proem in order to grab the audience's attention (22) and he is ready to take into account literary, rhetorical, anthropological and religious issues which may have played a role in the attempt Parmenides made to communicate his insight in a certain context,1 where some images and concepts may have had a impact on his audience of future philosophers and helped them to assimilate Parmenides' message. Following Hadot's approach (11) to ancient philosophy2 he speaks of the attempts of the first philosophers to offer visions of reality in accordance with which one was supposed to live (19). C. is sensitive to passages in the Poem that make a call on the audience and require their effort (39) and shows interest in issues of intertextuality when he tackles the effect of passages of the Poem on a contemporary audience acquainted with the Phaethon myth (25-26). C. recalls the usual didactic aims of the dactylic hexameters in which Parmenides expresses himself (15), and describes the relation between the goddess and the traveller as similar to the relation of a professor and a student of philosophy. The future philosophers who read Parmenides' Poem must learn a method, which partially coincides with the method Parmenides himself uses to persuade them and guide them. For instance, the arguments that the goddess uses in order to make them aware of the lack of truth of the opinions of the mortals are arguments that they must make their own in order to judge (cf. end of fr. 7), by means of the argumentative speech (logos) that she has taught them from fr. 2 onwards, the polemical proof against the foundation of opinions that she has just given in fr. 6 and fr. 7 (137). According to C. she criticises not only the senses but also the intellect, the nous, which is under the influence of the mixture of limbs (fr. 16) (137-8).

Parmenides' thesis is analysed very thoroughly and clearly especially in chapters 3, 4, 5, 9. One of the crucial issues of chapter 3 is the problem of the lack of subject of estin at fr. 2. 3a and 2. 5a. After a very learned analysis of the various interpretations that this lack of subject has generated -- the transmitted text is wrong; there is an implicit subject that can be found elsewhere in the poem; no subject is needed -- C. maintains that the verb produces its own subject. That means that Parmenides does not start from a subject and tells us something about it, but starts from an undeniable certainty, i.e. that now, in the present, 'is'. Like 'is writing' lets us know that the fact of writing is happening now, by saying 'is' Parmenides communicates that fact that 'is' is going on, that the fact of being is present now. In C.' s words: "I do not deny that there is a subject, but I do not believe that this subject must be extrapolated from the passages in which it is found. The subject must be analytically extracted from the meaning of estin as Parmenides' fundamental thesis" (53). The analytically extracted subject will turn out to be "'eon' or 'einai', 'that which is', 'the fact of being', '[that which is] being" (53).

In Chapter 4 C. observes that Parmenides expresses the idea of being through different forms of the verb 'to be', but he begins with the conjugated verb in the present tense in order to avoid any kind of 'reification' of the notion and especially in order to stress the reference to the present moment. In researching the dynamic of Parmenides' exposition, C. is very precise and makes essential points, e.g. he makes it clear that the first way establishes the being of being and the non-being of not-being, which is the principle of identity without which no thinking is possible. Cf. e.g. p. 72: "I hold that it makes no sense to speak of 'a way of being' as opposed to a 'way of not-being' since both ways speak of being and not-being. To persist in speaking of the ways of being and not-being, we would have to call the first way the 'way of being that is' and the second the 'way of not being that is' (or 'of being that is not').

In Chapter 5 C. sets out to explore the relation between being, thinking and speaking. Here C. endangers the consistency of his interpretation by regarding the relation between the three as necessary. He maintains that since esti has an absolute and necessary character (and this is proved by the fact that its negation is impossible) thinking and speaking cannot dispense with it. C. reads e.g. in fr. 6. 1-2 the necessity to think and to say that there is being. C. takes chrê and cognates always to imply necessity, without properly defining his notion of necessity; he both talks about the indissoluble, necessary relationship of being, thinking and expressing, and he regards as possible that this relationship does not obtain, in which case thinking and speaking will be false: "Parmenides shows, for the first time ..., that thinking and speaking must grasp and express that which is; if they do not, they are condemned to stray, wander off, and reproduce illusions, wishes and opinions" (89). A solution to this problem is to assume that 'must grasp' does not refer to an absolute necessity, but to a task of the philosopher, a task that he may well not fulfil. Mourelatos 19703 has suggested interpreting chrê and cognates as expressing subjective duty (which can also remain undone) and has rejected the value of inevitability. This alleged absolute character of chrê and cognates will produces unwelcome consequences if combined with C.'s 'negative' interpretation of the doxa. We shall come back to this shortly.

In Chapter 6 C. reiterates his great achievement: his critique of the approach of the majority of scholars that take it for granted that in the Poem three ways of inquiry are presented. As C. himself mentions (148) his "completely dichotomous interpretation of Parmenides' philosophy" dates back to his doctoral thesis of 1971. C. is convincing in following L. Tarán, Parmenides. A Text with Translation, Commentary and Critical Essays (Princeton, 1965), in showing that at the beginning of fr. 6 only one way is presented. This is crucial in order to realise that in the whole Poem only two ways are discussed, never a third. Then he defends his own conjecture (see N. L. Cordero, "Le deux chemins de Parménide dans le fragments 6 et 7", Phronesis 24 (1979) 1-32) for the gap in fr 6. 3: it must be a form of archesthai, which can be applied to two contradictory ways, the first one in 6. 1-2 and the second one in 6. 4ff. The form of archesthai that C. suggests is the second person and the future tense; the whole sentence is: prôtês gar t' aph' hodou dizêsios arxei. C.'s version of the beginning of fr. 6 is: "It is necessary to say and to think that by being, it is, since it is possible to be, and nothing[ness] does not exist. This I order to proclaim since you <will begin> with this first way of investigation, but then with that made by mortals who know nothing..." (124).

In Chapter 7 C. shows that throughout the poem the same dichotomy can be found and nothing refers to three possibilities.4 He also discusses the second way which turns out to be the way already presented in fr. 2. 5: the two ways presented in fr. 2 are the alêtheia and the doxa presented at the end of fr. 1 (145). In fr. 6 the second way shows its foundation. The second way is "an artificial way, invented by those who ignore the unbearable weight of the fact of being and therefore relativize it" (125). The mortals invent this way, as the text says if we read in line 6. 5 plattontai ('make' 'create'), which occurs in all the manuscripts of Simplicius, and which the editor of the Aldine edition replaced with plazontai ('stray', 'miss', 'wander') and which C. has restored. However, C. denies the possibility of using this way: "In fragment 6 the Goddess expands on it [sc. the second way], explains who made it and who its hypothetical 'users' are (hypothetical, since the way is untravelable)" (127). This comment, which depends on C.'s belief in the necessity of thinking and saying that that which is being is, or in C.'s words that "by being, it is",5 is incompatible with the assumption that doxa and second way are one and the same. Superficially it may seem plausible to defend a negative interpretation of the doxa, if one wants to identify it with the second way, which asserts the being of non-being. And indeed if the first way leads to truth, then the doxa, which accepts the being of non-being, cannot be true. But C. does not only say that it is not true, he speaks of the impossibility of following the negative way (92): "as only X exists, it is necessary to think and to express X as the presence of that which is being is absolute and necessary, all thinking and speaking must refer necessarily and absolutely to that which is" (95). The trilogy (93) being, thinking and speaking must, according to C., necessarily be on one line. However, at least the level of 'expression' is not governed by any necessity or impossibility. It can, in fact, detach itself from the ontological and epistemological level and produce names which are not true: the logos can both be pistos (fr. 8. 50) and form a kosmos which is apatêlos (fr. 8. 52) and eoikos (fr. 8. 60). C. does not seem to be aware of this problem, but he gives hints, which could lead to a solution, by calling the doxa another 'point of view' (31). In fact, one possible solution, which I discuss at length in my forthcoming PhD dissertation, Becoming Being. On Parmenides' transformative philosophy, is to regard the doxa as a different point of view on reality, one which is indeed not true, but suitable to give an account of the changing world. The monism of the first way, which C. attacks and attributes to Plato's interpretation of Parmenides, can be then successfully described as focalised monism: i.e. it is what one sees if one looks in a certain way, i.e. if one walks on the first way and follows a certain method. C. comes very close to recognising this when he regards Parmenides' monism as only 'linguistic': "...Parmenides, who like all philosophers reflects upon 'ta onta' ('things'), discovers that if these exist it is because they have 'something' in common which is unique, and for that reason they are considered to be 'to on', 'that which is being'. The only oneness detectable in Parmenides is linguistic; the singular replaces the plural; reflection upon on replaces reflection upon onta. Just as the life studied by a biologist is 'one', although it manifests itself differently in every kind of living thing, the fact of being that Parmenides discovered is also 'one', since there cannot be various kinds of 'being': it is or it is not (8. 15)" (176). Therefore, C. could have concluded that according to a point of view, the one of the first way, everything is one, since everything is being; while according to another point of view, the one of the doxa, things are different from each other, they change and later they are not. If C. had let go of the old interpretation of the oneness of being, thinking and speaking, his complete interpretation would have been more coherent.

Moreover the doxa and the second way must coincide with the philosophical systems (which are real and not just hypothetical) that assumed e.g. that the eternal principle of the cosmos could undergo transformations and, by becoming this or that, result in generation of things. For Parmenides the principle must be free from generation and corruption, therefore the only genuine principle can be the fact of being. As C. notices e.g. at p. 172, Parmenides in fr. 8, by describing how the force of conviction that sends away generation and corruption, criticizes such contemporary theories, which he would regard indeed as doxai or as products of those who walk on the second way: i.e. those who make use of not-being in their theories.

In Chapter 8 C. regards the doxai as "empty and contradictory opinions" (151). Since Parmenides states that there is no truth in the opinions C. concludes that all the interpreters who have found some positive value in the opinions have relativized or distorted Parmenides' words (152). He does not argue against these interpreters,6 whose names he does not mention, and, even if he regards opinions as a different point of view on the same reality, he never considers the possibility that a different point of view may find something other than truth. He measures the doxai against the standard of truth alone. On the other hand it must be said that the majority of scholars regard the doxa, as C. does, as utterly deceptive7 and as the useful description of a mistake of the mortals.8

C. rightly points out, as did Mourelatos in 1970 (see note 3), 195ff., that the doxa is not the way of seeming and that doxa is not appearance: it consists rather in human viewpoints and conjectures. For Parmenides, differently than Plato, there is no distinction between 'being' and 'appearing': things or beings are particularizations of the fact of being and not appearances of it. While the philosopher grasps being, the mortals believe there are just these different things (153). C. makes a very important point when he claims that the object of opinions is that which is; opinions refer to it but say something wrong about it (154). Again, the fact that in Parmenides there are no two worlds had already been made by Minar 1949, Chalmers 1960 and de Rijk 1983 (see note 6). C. explains that the doxa is a point of view that instead of recognizing the alternative 'it is or it is not' maintain that 'it is and it is not'. This leads the holders of opinions to see reality as founded on principles that mix, separate and transform themselves; they see reality as composed of names (155). Doxa consists in names, as C. points out. However, it is not a vicious circle (167); in fact, these names are ordered in such a way as to result in a cosmos, and they have a value even if they do not reveal the truth. They are the result of a different perspective (based on opposites).

In Chapter 9 C. describes the sêmata given in B8 as proofs, signs, witnesses in favour of Parmenides' thesis, i.e. the necessary and unique character of the fact of being -- which is surprising since he has repeated the necessary character of the thesis throughout the book and again in this chapter (168). He just tackles a few points, and for the rest he recommends the analysis of Tarán and others. At p. 174 he surprisingly translates pelazei ('draws near', 'approaches') as 'touches' (fr. 8. 25).

C. offers also a text of the Poem, his own translation, a bibliography (which also refers the reader to the second edition of his Le deux chemins de Parménide, Paris-Bruxelles 1997 and to the website of Parmenides Publishing, where, however, I could not find any bibliography), a list of ancient authors cited, a list of modern authors cited. No indices are included.

An undisputable merit of C. book is to offer clarity about important textual issues, combining an incredible conscientiousness -- which is the result of the consultation of an enormous amount of manuscripts -- and insight in offering, or reiterating, his own conjectures, not only in fr. 6. 3, but i.a. in fr. 1. 3 where he conjectures kata panta (30); in fr. 8. 35 where he follows Proclus manuscript, which instead of having en hôi pephatismenon estin, has eph' hôi pephatismenon estin; and in fr. 6. 1 (see Tarán 1965 and Cordero 1979). My doubts about the necessary relation of being, thinking and speaking and about the impossibility of the doxa have not prevented me from enjoying the clarity of his argumentations throughout the book and the brief suggestion of the importance of the effect on the audience of a philosophy meant to have an impact on one's life.


Notes:


1.   Note that at pp. 8-11, where C. briefly investigates Parmenides' Phocean origin, he does not mention Kingsley's studies, which draw much philosophical relevance from the practices of the Phoceans: Kingsley, P. 1999, In the Dark Places of Wisdom, Inverness, California and Kingsley, P. 2003, Reality, Inverness, California.
2.   Cf. e.g. Hadot, P. 1995, Philosophy as a Way of Life, Oxford (original: 1987).
3.   Mourelatos, A. P. D., 1970, The Route of Parmenides, New Haven and London, Appendix III: The Meaning of chrê and Cognates, 277ff.
4.   Quite surprising is that C., when he lists scholars who adopted his hypothesis does not mention Curd, P. 1998, The Legacy of Parmenides: Eleatic Monism and Later Presocratic Thought, Princeton (148-9). Also note that at p. 152 he mentions Curd 1992 but that she does not appear at all in the bibliography.
5.   "... the negation of the thesis is inconceivable, unimaginable, inexpressible. It is the impossibility of admitting the negation of the thesis that gives it its absolute and necessary character. As that which is not being is impossible, unthinkable, and inexpressible, it is necessary to say and to think that only that which is in being, is" (92).
6.   E.g. Minar, E. L. Jr 1949, "Parmenides and the World of Seeming", American Journal of Philology 70, 41-55; Coxon, A. H. 1986, The Fragments of Parmenides. A Critical Text with Introduction, the Ancient Testimonia and a Commentary, Assen; Curd, P. 1998, The Legacy of Parmenides: Eleatic Monism and Later Presocratic Thought, Princeton; Rijk, L. M., de 1983, "Did Parmenides Reject the Sensible World?" in L.P. Gerson, ed. Graceful Reason: Essays in Ancient and Medieval Philosophy Presented to Joseph Owen, CSSR, Toronto, 29-53; Chalmers, W. R. 1960, "Parmenides and the Beliefs of Mortals" Phronesis 5, 5-22; Cerri, G., 1999, Parmenide di Elea, Poema sulla natura. Introduzione, testo, traduzione e note; testo greco a fronte, Milano.
7.   Owen, G.E.L. 1960, "Eleatic Questions" The Classical Quarterly 10, 84-102.
8.   E.g. Reinhardt, K., 1916, Parmenides und die Geschichte der griechischen Philosophie, Bonn (1959 Frankfurt/M.); Barnes, J. 1982, The Presocratic Philosophers I, London, Sedley, D., 1998, "Parmenides", in E. Craig, gen. ed. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, vol. 7, New York, 229-235.

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