Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.03.57
Chiara Robbiano, Becoming Being: On Parmenides' Transformative Philosophy. International Pre-Platonic Studies; v. 5. Sankt Augustin: Academia Verlag, 2006. Pp. 240. ISBN 9783896653833. €54.00.
Reviewed by Shaul Tor, St. John's College, Cambridge University (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Word count: 3554 words
Hailed by A.A. Long as "a full scale paradigm shift"1 in Parmenidean scholarship, R(obbiano)'s provocative monograph displays an exceptionally original methodology, resulting in some radically innovative if, I believe, fundamentally problematic theses. Rather than simply extrapolating from the poem a set of epistemological and ontological propositions, R. approaches the text from a variety of literary, rhetorical and dialectical perspectives, and finds in it a systematic heuristic guide designed to enable and help the audience to develop the unfamiliar categories and mental attitudes they would require in order to achieve an understanding of Parmenides' truth. This understanding, moreover, consists, not merely in the discursive acceptance of certain doctrines, but in a spiritual or mental transformation, culminating in the genuine rejection, and consequent elimination, of the distinction between the human knowing subject and Being as the object of knowledge. "The unique Being is what one can grasp, understand and be (at least with one's mind) if one learns a certain way of looking at reality" (p.208). Although, as I shall argue below, central aspects of R.'s elaboration of this thesis involve various difficulties, her insightful, lucid, scholarly and suggestive discussions will reward close study not only for Parmenidean experts and specialists in other areas of ancient philosophy, but also for classicists of all disciplinary persuasions, non-classicists interested in Parmenides or ancient philosophy and students of comparative literature or the ancient literature of other cultures (the volume includes a text and translation of the poem).
What follows will be necessarily selective and so partial. After offering an overview of the various chapters, I will focus in more detail on some of what struck me as the more problematic aspects of R.'s monograph.
In the first, introductory chapter (pp.9-34), R. elucidates the distinctiveness of her project by identifying both its affinities with and its divergences from previous scholarship. Developing Long (1996), she challenges the old prejudice that only with Socrates did philosophy begin to concern itself with the human observer,2 positing that the unity of Parmenides' poem consists, not in a particular message, but in the project of guiding the audience towards a certain transformation. Perhaps most significantly, R. displaces traditional exegetic norms by adopting, as the criterion of successful interpretations, the putative reactions of the audience of Parmenides' poem. Thus, rather than delimiting the text to a single construal, R. strives to recover as many as possible of the frames of reference that the poem could have evoked for its contemporary hermeneutic audience. Drawing on Iser's notion of 'the implied reader', R. aims "to reconstruct the audience as it is constructed by the text" (p.28), positing as her yardstick ideally collaborative and well-informed addressees. In the second chapter (pp.35-60), R. explores the frames and expectations raised by the generic affiliations of Parmenides' epic, hexametric poem with the verses of Homer, Hesiod and Xenophanes, such as the expectation for a truthful, authoritative and potentially iconoclastic didactic treatment of matters of great importance. She analyses both the fulfilments and the frustrations of these expectations in Parmenides' poem, advancing, for instance, the interesting suggestion that Parmenides is revolutionary in claiming to enable his addressees to make themselves knowledgeable.3
The third chapter (pp.61-88) focuses on the rhetorical strategies by which the protagonist of the poem, who focalises the journey in a first-person narrative, is offered to the audience as a model to emulate. R. helpfully demonstrates that chrê and its cognates delineate what behaviour is possible and appropriate for a given kind of agent: by receiving him as she does, the goddess intimates why the traveller, and so the audience, are required to become knowledgeable concerning both the truth and mortal opinions. In the fourth chapter (pp.89-120), R. turns to strategies of negative persuasion. The confused and indecisive mortals who wander along the wrong-ways serve as anti-models dissuading the audience from adopting these ways, while the argumentation of B8 undermines traditional explanatory methods such as cosmogonies and theories of change.4
In chapter five (pp.121-146), R. analyses the imagery of movement constructed throughout the poem as a means of helping mortals envisage their own approach to Being. I found the claim that all the various kinds of motion in the poem systematically reflect the nature of the knower's approach to Being the least convincing of R.'s proposals. Since, on R.'s own account, the poem develops rather diverse images of motion, the audience would seem to be presented with confusingly mixed messages: the motion of the journey is linear, but also circular, and, ultimately, one realises that the journey involved no movement at all. In chapter six (pp.147-176), perhaps the most successful in the book, R. demonstrates how, throughout the poem, images of opposition and division, such as the division between life and death, are overcome and replaced by those of unity. Dikê, rather than fulfilling its traditional role of maintaining the balance of the whole by preserving the boundaries that separate its constituent parts, undoes such boundaries, sanctioning, for instance, the presence of a living mortal in Hades. Dikê, Anankê and Moira, acting on both Being and the traveller, protect the integrity of Being with an external boundary rather than internal ones. Such imagery fosters the construal of a homogeneous unity that includes both the knowing mind and the Being it knows.5
In the seventh chapter (pp.177-199), R. addresses the perennial question of the relation between the two parts of Parmenides' poem. She interprets the Doxai as the untrue, untrustworthy but best possible account of the objects of their inquiry (such as change and differentiation). Since both involve Not-Being, the Doxai are themselves appropriate to these objects of inquiry: the admission of opposites (each being what the other is not) renders the Doxai both untrustworthy and able to account usefully for certain aspects of our perceptual experience that the way of truth could never accommodate. The book closes with a helpful concluding section, offering a synoptic view of R.'s approach and findings (pp.201-211).
The most daring and innovative result of R.'s methodology is no doubt her notion of 'focalised monism'.6 Simply put, R. denies that the Way of Truth expresses an ontology. Rather than teaching his audience that Being is, say, immobile and ungenerated without further qualification, Parmenides teaches his audience how to adopt a particular perspective from which Being is immobile and ungenerated. The grounds for the rejection of theories of change and differentiation, for instance, is that such theories could never lead to certain, trustworthy results: they invariably involve what-is-not, which one cannot recognise oneself and about which one cannot give clear indications to others. However, this epistemic inability "does not say anything about the ontological status of what-is-not as such." (p.111). Without assuming the non-existence of what-is-not, the arguments in B8 express rather a program of research: "an assignment for the mind, not a characteristic of reality tout court" (p.117). Unifying oneself with Being depends on successfully adopting the perspective from which Being is a unified whole: "[m]onism becomes, on this reading, what one can see if one looks in a certain way: one can learn to see everything as a unity, if one looks from a certain perspective" (p.129). In this manner, R. claims to have dispelled the notorious paradoxes of monism: the dialogic setting, involving both speaker and addressee, no longer implies a duality at odds with the monism advocated in the course of this conversation, nor does the possibility of mortal error conflict with the identity of Being and (self-reflective) cognition (p.129).
This bold interpretation runs into several difficulties. Firstly, R., following recent scholarly consensus, contends convincingly that we would be wrong to isolate existential, predicative and veridical uses of 'is'. All three senses are inextricably operative in Parmenides' use of the verb (p.80). By analogy, however, the statement that 'nothing is not' (B6.2) signifies, inter alia, the non-existence of 'nothing' or 'what-is-not', and not merely that it is "not sensible to look for something that now is not." (p.110). Indeed, R. inconsistently presupposes the non-existence of what-is-not when explaining why it cannot be recognised (p.94). Given R.'s own analysis of 'is', Parmenides does seem to hold the view that 'it is not the case that what-is-not is' where 'is' means 'exists, can sustain coherently predications of attributes, and can be the subject in true propositions'.
Secondly, R. seems to develop two severally problematic and seemingly incompatible elaborations of the notion that the ways represent 'perspectives' on reality: she sometimes speaks as if (1) the first way and the wrong way(s) deal with different objects of inquiry (e.g. what is changeless and what changes as different aspects of reality), and sometimes as if (2) they offer different perspectives on the same object of inquiry (reality as changeless and changing).7 To begin with (1), R. herself seems to recognise that B8.36f ('nothing else is or will be apart from Being') indicates the uniqueness and exhaustiveness of the object of inquiry on the first route (p.171). She refers in passing to what-is as "everything there is" (p.134, n.362). More generally, in B8 Parmenides does not engage with statements of the form 'what does not change is...', but rather of the form 'what is (to eon) does not change'. The rejection of generation and perishing, therefore, is not restricted to one class of things (only what one focuses on in the first route) but extends to all that is (to eon, what one focuses on in the first route).
As for (2), it seems undeniable that, within the perspective of the first route, Parmenides formulates statements in which what-is acts as the subject to which various attributes are predicated. To support her contention that "[n]o birth and so no death can be attributed to Being within a trustworthy account" (p.113), R. cites Parmenides' assertion that 'true trust' has pushed birth and death away (B8.27f.). But this last assertion is introduced specifically as the justification (ἐπεί) of the declarative statement that 'Being is without beginning and end' (ἔστιν ἄναρχον ἄπαυστον, B8.27). Again, even if in rejecting theories of change Parmenides signifies also an 'assignment to the mind', rather than merely a description of reality, the statement that Being 'remains where it is firmly' (ἔμπεδον αὖθι μένει, B8.30) evidently says something about Being. It is, in other words, an ontological statement. Indeed, R. herself notes that, in B8.2-6, Parmenides lists "the predicates of Being" (p.126). To make sense of focalised monism on (2), R. thus develops what we may style a 'relativistic' picture of Parmenides. Reality as seen from one perspective is different from, and indeed incompatible with, reality as seen from another, while both remain ontologically equipollent. Thus, even if the first way expresses an ontology, that ontology remains relative to its particular perspective: "Being, on the way hôs estin, is without birth and death, homogeneous, immobile and without development" (p.127). However, once we rule out the possibility that the different ways investigate non-coextensive sets of objects of inquiry, it becomes difficult to see how the first way can be epistemologically superior and yet ontologically equipollent to the wrong way(s). If the different ways simply dealt with different things, there would be no difficulty in the view that only the first leads to knowledge of truth concerning its particular objects of inquiry. But if the different perspectives produce incompatible views about reality, then their import becomes mutually exclusive, as R. herself implies when she ascribes to the Truth "the insight according to which no opposites are real" (p.162). If, then, the first route leads to a correct and trustworthy understanding of reality (as R. emphasises throughout her book), it becomes difficult to see how the stipulation that Being is immobile 'on the way hôs estin' delimits in any way the validity of the ontological statement that Being is immobile.
We can maintain focalised monism only so long as we fail to distinguish between (1) and (2). The somewhat contrary pull of (1) and (2), as well as the textual and philosophical strain of focalised monism, are reflected in instructive inconsistencies between some of R.'s own statements. While adhering to focalised monism, R. elsewhere notes in passing that the first route deals, inter alia, in metaphysics (p.178), styles it "the right perspective" (p.169) and cites favourably Coxon's view that, while the characteristics of the two Doxastic Forms are 'conventional in status', those of Being are 'objectively real' (p.186f.). R. sometimes assumes that the objects of Doxastic inquiry are also aspects of reality (concerning which we can never know the truth): "reality, in fact, from another point of view, also shows change" (117). Elsewhere, however, she writes that those who apply to reality such categories as 'birth' and 'death' "must not believe that they are real, in fact they do not describe reality as it is" (p.197). Indeed, if, as R. argues, Parmenides rejects what-is-not for the methodological and non-ontological reason that we can have no clear information about it whatsoever, he should advocate complete suspension of judgement concerning the existence or nature of such processes as change and becoming to which what-is-not is integral, and, consequently, concerning the truth-value of mortal opinions about such processes. And yet, on several occasions, R. asserts confidently that, since they involve what-is-not, the Doxai "cannot be true" (e.g. p.179, my emphasis). Most tellingly, in the very same page R. writes both that the Doxai are deceitful, since they employ arbitrary distinctions and are therefore "just a way of looking at reality", and that "Parmenides' Poem teaches the audience two perspectives: two ways of looking at reality." (p.198). Given Parmenides' alleged non-ontological monism, it is unclear why R. does not style the first way too as "just" a way of looking at reality and does not pronounce it thereby equally arbitrary and deceitful in the categories it applies to reality. Again, the Doxai, avers R., are deceitful since they teach humans to regard as real boundaries such as day and night which "can also be regarded as one and the same" (p.211). The force of the relativising 'also' is unclear: is the first route equally deceitful since it teaches mortals to regard as real an undifferentiated unity which can 'also' be regarded as divided according to night and day?
The paradoxes of monism are undoubtedly one of the most urgent scandals for the student of Parmenides (to cite Simplicius: οὐκ ἠγνόει Παρμενίδης, ὅτι γενητὸς αὐτὸς ἦν, ὥσπερ οὐδέ, ὅτι δύο πόδας εἶχεν, ἓν λέγων τὸ ὄν, in Cael. 7.559.27). R.'s radical attempt is rare and welcome if, as I think, ultimately untenable.8
Although the book's title and its final words refer to 'becoming Being', and although R. repeatedly indicates that the knower is to become identical with Being, she often speaks as if the transformation consisted in becoming like Being. For instance, in arguing that descriptions of Being could characterise also the knowing subject, R. typically suggests that an adjective referring to Being in one sense, could refer to the agent in another sense (thus akinêton in B8.26 attributes immobility to Being and mental 'steadfastness' to the mortal agent, p.144f). The difficulty is obvious: it cannot be the mortal agent as a whole who becomes Being, since, for instance, the mortal agent was born and moves. Although she never elaborates on this, R. several times restricts the transformation to the agent's mind: "Being is what one can ... be (at least with one's mind) ... one (i.e. one's mind) must become Being in order to understand it" (pp.208, 210). However, a transformation whereby Being and the mortal's mind become identical is not clearly coherent either. R. avers that birth and death are only truly 'extinguished' (B8.21) "as the knowing subject does not believe in them anymore, if the true pistis has convinced one to let go of them" (p.165). Does the knower's mind become ungenerated upon knowing and thus becoming Being? Did the mortal's mind previously have a beginning but no more? R.'s parenthetical and unelaborated restrictions of transformation to the agent's mind betray unease with certain fundamental questions that arise from her basic setup but are never addressed directly: in what precisely does the transformation consist? What is the notion of the mortal self operative in it? From what other aspects of the mortal are we to distinguish his 'mind' when restricting to it the identification with Being?
A final issue which warrants brief, closer consideration is R.'s misleadingly oversimplified treatment of Parmenides' poetic predecessors, and her account of the relation to truth and knowledge which the hexametric poet traditionally claims for himself. Homer, Hesiod and Xenophanes, avers R., "all claim to know the truth" (p.43, cf. p.48) about the subject matter of their poetry, thus recommending themselves to their audiences as dependable, trustworthy authorities. For her interpretation of Homeric poetics, R. relies primarily on the invocation of the Muses in Il.2.484ff, where, so far as I can tell, the Iliadic poet avows ignorance rather than knowledge (οὐδέ τι ἴδμεν, 486). More importantly, even if we grant the poet himself self-assured possession or knowledge of truth, the conception of poetic speech as alluring but potentially deceptive dominates the Odyssey and complicates the representation of the poet as a voice of unproblematically trustworthy truths.9
"Hesiod's Muses", writes R., "claim to tell the truth even if they can also inspire something different" (p.44). In offering this statement as a self-evident gloss of Theogony 27f., R. elides without argument centuries of continuous scholarly polemic concerning what has been described without exaggeration as "one of the most enigmatic statements about poetry to be found in Greek literature."10 All that Hesiod's Muses claim is the knowledgeable ability to articulate both truths and falsehoods that are similar to the genuine truths (or realities): they offer no clear indication as to the implications of their words for their relationship with Hesiod. The interpretation of these implications thus becomes very much a challenge of reading the subtext. 11
With Xenophanes, the truth which the poet claims to know turns out to be the second-order insight that no mortal can know the truth concerning the subject-matter of his poetry (p.44f). It is doubtful that Xenophanes would have conceptualised this second-order principle as knowledge of a truth, important or otherwise. However Homer, Hesiod or Xenophanes construct and promote their appeal in isolated passages, the prospects of poetic deception, divine inscrutability and the limitations of mortal cognition had, well before Parmenides (or Xenophanes), complicated the portrayal of the Hexametric poet as a figure of indisputably trustworthy authority enjoying a privileged relationship with the divine. As early as the Odyssey, the danger of a captivating and verisimilitudinous deception was an integral part, not only of the fascinating allure of the poetic voice, but also of its special affiliation with the truth, that is, its relation to a divine inspiration that offers otherwise unavailable avenues of information, narration and reflection.
The upshot of R.'s discussion is in itself both convincing and stimulating. Through Parmenides' use of hexameters, she concludes, "[t]he Greek audience are prepared for the possibility of new truths that put old traditional truths in a different light" (p.45). But the foregoing superficial analysis of Parmenides' predecessors embodies also a superficial account of his reactions to them. R.'s own novel contention that the progress of the poem's audience is what explains and determines its structure, imagery and argumentation calls for a more complex story about Parmenides' relation to his predecessors' models of poetry and epistemology. If the Homeric (and especially Odyssean) poetic figure, though in possession of truth, is sometimes inclined also to deception, the Hesiodic poet is arguably unclear, or perhaps even unsure, concerning the classification of his verses as true or as verisimilitudinous falsehoods. Xenophanes, in turn, apparently professes to enjoy the same epistemic potential as that of his audience, and to be subject to the same limitations, except for his revolutionary recognition of the nature of this potential and of these limitations, a recognition which itself dispels methodological and epistemological naivety and opens new avenues of inquiry and (perhaps) progress (B34, B18). How do Parmenides and his goddess draw on and supersede these different notions of the poetic voice and of the implied reader constructed by Homer, Hesiod and Xenophanes? A more comprehensive investigation of this question, drawing on R.'s distinctive methodology, may produce fresh and better-rounded explanations of the presence in Parmenides' poem of a knowledgeable goddess, who articulates both truths and verisimilitudinous deceptions, who identifies such deceptions with traditional teaching and who enables the mortal, poetic voice, and so his mortal audience, to acquire the knowledge they need in order to distinguish these two different kinds of divinely disclosed speech.
Although R.'s exposition is generally very lucid and accessible, it is also excessively repetitious: theses general and specific are throughout announced, stated and restated with sometimes burdening frequency. The English is severely under-edited, with numerous typos and ungrammatical sentences. The bibliography is sometimes inaccurate and does not refer the reader to all the scholarship referred to in the text. (A reference on page 71 to 'Dickey 1996, 9 is to E. Dickey, Greek forms of address (Oxford, 1996); a reference on page 115, n.317 to 'Curd Kenig' 1991, 253' is to P.K. Curd, 'Parmenidean Monism', Phronesis 36 (1991), pp.241-264.) But for all its minor flaws and despite -- and occasionally thanks to -- its more substantial difficulties, this provocative, daring and imaginative monograph will no doubt make a stimulating contribution to Parmenidean scholarship.
1. A.A. Long, Phronesis Vol.53, no.3 (2008), p.296f.
2. A.A. Long, "Parmenides on Thinking Being", BACAP 12 (1996), pp.125-151.
3. P.58 contains some interesting philological insights about B3.
4. P.99f. contain an excellent, remarkably lucid and wisely inconclusive discussion of the two ways / three ways question, assessing the merits and demerits of the various views.
5. See pp.169-171 for a masterly discussion of B8.35f.
6. Cf. Long's praises, see n.1.
7. E.g. (1) "certain aspects of reality that the audience should not focus on if they are looking for understanding" (p.119); the first route focuses on "what is and does not change", the other(s) on "what changes and is different" (p.86); while the first route focuses on Being, the Doxai's project "involves focusing on something else" (p.198, R.'s emphases); (2) "one can learn to see everything as a unity, if one looks from a certain perspective" (p.129, my emphasis).
8. For the most plausible model to date see the recent A.P.D. Mourelatos, The Route of Parmenides: Revised and Expanded Edition (Las Vegas, 2008), pp.xlii-xlviii.
9. Odysseus is systematically portrayed as a poet-like figure (see e.g. C. Moulton, Similes in the Homeric Poems (Göttingen, 1977), p.153) and it is specifically in reference to one of his Cretan Lies that Eumaeus compares Odysseus' 'enchanting' speech to that of a poet (Od.17.514-521).
10. P. Pucci, Hesiod and the Language of Poetry (London, 1977), p.8.
11. Although R. throws her lot in with the majority, and although there is certainly much to be said for this traditional view, numerous scholars have argued powerfully that Hesiod's Muses either implicate the poet in both kinds of poetic speech, or leave the issue unclear. See e.g. G.M. Ledbetter, Poetics Before Plato: Interpretation and Authority in Early Greek Theories of Poetry (Princeton, 2003), pp.40-61.