BMCR 2010.03.18

Parmenides, Cosmos, and Being: A Philosophical Interpretation

, Parmenides, Cosmos, and Being: A Philosophical Interpretation. Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 2007. 108. ISBN 9780874627558. $15.00 (pb).

This slim volume (68 pages excluding the bibliography and indices) provides an interpretation of being in Parmenides’ poem without thereby delegitimizing the Doxa, i.e., the cosmological portion of the poem. Parmenides’ philosophical poem Peri Phuseôs contains two seemingly contradictory speeches delivered to the protagonist / narrator by an unnamed goddess. The first speech argues for the unity of being and denies change and movement. The second speech contains a cosmology that describes the universe as constantly changing and in motion; images of birth, death, procreation and suffering populate this section. This two-part doctrine raises two problems: a) the problem of the unity of Parmenides’ thought as a whole, especially of the relation of the cosmological section ( Doxa) to the argument regarding true being ( Alêtheia), and b) the philosophical problem of discounting phenomena. Thanassas argues forcefully for both the unity of Parmenides’ poem and the cogency of his approach. Not since G. Santillana (1967) has Parmenides scholarship seen such a robust defense of Parmenides’ cosmology.

Like the fragments themselves, Thanassas’ prose is tersely precise. The main text is divided into 6 chapters, and is followed by a translation of the surviving fragments, an eclectic bibliography (especially strong on the contributions of Continental thinkers), and an index of names and topics. This text is a useful introduction to the most significant contributions of mostly German philosophy and philology to Parmenides scholarship.

Chapter 1, “The Poem and its Legacy,” provides a brief overview of the poem. Thanassas agrees with Diels that we possess “9/10 of the Aletheia… [and] 1/10 of the Doxa” (p. 11). The poor survival of the Doxa is surprising given that Parmenides, despite putting it in philosophical quotation marks (the goddess calls cosmology the “untrustworthy opinions of mortals” [Fr. 1.30]) nonetheless took great pains to elaborate it. That less of the cosmological portion survives perhaps reveals a prejudice latent in the reception of Parmenides’ philosophy, which paid more attention to the quotation marks than to the quotation. It is also an indication of the difficulty and the need for the task Thanassas undertakes.

The misunderstanding of Parmenides’ philosophy as a problematic dichotomy, which Thanassas argues already begins with Aristotle (pp. 14, 15), endures even to this day. Although Thanassas briefly discusses Neo-Platonist contributions to this misunderstanding, his real interest is the contemporary situation. (For a good overview of the history of the reception of Parmenides in antiquity, see Curd 1998.) Contemporary Parmenides scholarship is marked by a schism between Anglo-American approaches (e.g., Calogero 1932) and Continental approaches (Reinhardt, Heidegger). Thanassas ably uses these tools to argue that being ought not be understood abstractly, grammatically or “religiously.” Thanassas’ stated aim is to “liberat[e] Parmenides from the ballast of “Platonizing” and Neo-Platonic interpretations that have been imposed on the poem. The inclusion of the Doxa section and the utterly (real) world represented here in an interpretation of the whole makes clear that this poem can never have been a treatise ‘On the One'” (p. 21). As we shall see, he is only partially successful in justifying this claim.

In the second chapter, “The Heart of Truth,” Thanassas tackles the unity of thinking and being. He translates 8.34 as “Thinking and [Being as] the cause of thought are the same”; Parmenides, he argues, provides signs for a “reciprocal meditation of Being and Thinking” (p. 41). Thanassas successfully argues in the intervening chapters 3 (” Esti, Being and Thinking”) and 4 (“The Signs of Being”) that Parmenides presents an ontology that cannot be reduced to a simple monism, but must instead take the close relationship of thinking and being as its guide. “The triad ‘Being-Thinking-Saying’ delineates the domain of Parmenidean ontology” (p. 29). Invoking Heidegger’s analysis of the distinction between Being and beings (Being is neither a “principle” for beings nor can it be understood out of “entities”), Thanassas argues that the speech on truth may be read neither as articulating the “principles” of things nor as presenting Being as a transcendent entity. This leads to an understanding of Being as the Being of the beings in the cosmos. In Thanassas’ view, Heidegger’s ontological distinction finds support in Parmenides’ statement about Being and thinking (Fr. 3) which Thanassas interprets as saying that Being is related to thinking because only thinking is capable of unifying our unavoidably plural sensory experiences. The underlying assumption of Thanassas’ argument is that thought necessarily implies the interdependence and mutual correlation of Being and thinking: Being only emerges within thinking, but conversely, thinking also needs Being as its significant object if it is to rise above the senses and affirm ontological truth. Hence “Being appears rather as Thinking’s task and goal” (p. 41).

While the Heideggerian conception of ontology provides philosophical legitimacy for the Doxa as that which provides access to Being by engaging thinking, Thanassas unfortunately does not clarify the type of thinking where this implied interdependence of thinking and Being manifests itself thematically: surely not in the kind of taxonomical, aetiological, and teleological thinking Aristotle has in mind. This point is crucial to the success of Thanassas’ argument. If the relationship of thinking and Being is unthinkable, then Thanassas’ argument, which he presents as a critical alternative to all interpretations that invoke a non-cognitive experience at the heart of Parmenides’ poem, turns out to be a petitio principii.

In Chapter 5 (” Doxa : Mixture vs. Partition”), Thanassas introduces a novel hypothesis: the cosmology is not wrong-headed, even though it is two-headed. The two forms mortals establish, Light and Night, present themselves not in opposition to each other, but as two parallel series: “Light-life-warmth-voice-visible” and “Night-death-cold-silence-invisible” (p. 75). This is an improvement on Curd’s hypothesis (1998) that the two are related as enantiomorphs (i.e., as mirror-images of each other). Thanassas emphasizes that both forms are (cf. Fr. 9.4), and that the well-known charge of logical contradiction thus does not apply to Parmenides. This is beautifully done: the simultaneous assertion of both forms rather has “existential consequences” (Hölscher 1968) that torment mortals. “Death exists no less than life” (p. 75). However, Thanassas quickly veers away from the tragic condition of mortals, focusing rather on the absence of coming-to-be and of dying in “human existence.” In the high gates guarding the theoretical ivory tower of “thinking about Being,” the tragic condition of mortals, the ones who face “painful birth and hateful death,” (Fr. 12.4) makes no dent.

Thanassas postpones discussing the Proem until the final section of Chapter 6 (” Aletheia and Doxa : the Human and the Divine”), the last in the book. While not going as far as Taran (1965) who dismissed it as a mere literary device, he clearly does not consider it central to the poem. He dogmatically asserts that “[t]he proemium’s journey is neither an anabasis anticipating the Platonic Phaedrus [contra Simplicius] nor a katabasis reproducing Pythagorean mystical motifs” (p. 85), without engaging Burkert and Kingsley’s important work on the topic. Against Jaeger, he argues that “[i]t [i.e., the Proem] does not testify to a ‘genuine religious experience’ of a poet in ecstasy” (p. 86). For Thanassas, the Proem does not attest to a first-person experience of the philosopher (p. 88) but rather functions to separate the properly philosophical domain from the poetic: “… the gate in Parmenides functions as the source and origin of ontology and of philosophical reason altogether” (p. 85). Unfortunately, Thanassas thereby falls victim to an unreflective dichotomy between reason and experience, between philosophy and piety—an anachronistic opposition that is at best ambiguous in ancient thought. In a style reminiscent of Heidegger, Thanassas asserts that the Proem and the goddess serve to underline the “remoteness and inapproachability of the philosophical region” and “philosophy’s groundlessness” (p. 86, 88), a claim not backed up by any argumentation. This interpretive attitude to Fragment 1 belies Thanassas’ efforts to present a unified defense of Parmenides’s philosophy.

Thanassas’ adoption of a Heideggerian approach is brave considering most classicists tend to reject the philosopher’s work. But while he plainly owes a debt to Heidegger, Thanassas is judicious in his use of Heidegger’s insights both with regard to what he takes over and what he rejects. Heidegger constructs a Seinsgeschichte or a “history of being” beginning with the Pre-Socratics and ending with Nietzsche. Parmenides (along with Heraclitus and Anaximander) features as one of the founding figures of this history of being. But although Thanassas follows Heidegger’s 1942-43 lecture course on Parmenides (English translation: 1999) in interpreting the goddess as Alêtheia, he shrewdly remains silent on Heidegger’s problematic Seinsgeschichte hypothesis.

Thanassas’ work could, however, have been strengthened through consulting two works. Reiner Schürmann’s Broken Hegemonies (Indiana University Press 2003) provides a brilliant and philosophically challenging interpretation of Parmenides’ thought that focuses especially on Heidegger’s appropriation of the Pre-Socratic thinker. Second, Arbogast Schmitt’s monumental work on the history of Western rationality, Die Moderne und Platon (J. B. Metzler 2003, 2008), could also have enriched and provided necessary correctives to this work, especially to what Thanassas means by philosophy, rationality, and thinking.

This book constitutes a useful addition to Parmenides commentaries. It opens up avenues for dialogue between disciplines (philology and philosophy) and approaches (analytic and Continental). My criticism of the inability of this work to open a similar dialogue between experiential and cognitive aspects of thinking in no way diminishes the value of this work: the reader is encouraged to explore this connection as well.