BMCR 2012.02.43

Parmenides, Plato, and Mortal Philosophy: Return from Transcendence. Continuum studies in ancient philosophy

, Parmenides, Plato, and Mortal Philosophy: Return from Transcendence. Continuum studies in ancient philosophy. London; New York: Continuum, 2011. xv, 212. ISBN 9780826457530. $120.00.

Two years ago, I took a wild ride down the Amalfi coast with my nearly 80-year-old mother, journeying to Velia (ancient Elea) in search of the geographical origins of Parmenides. After a hike up to the small museum on top of the ancient site, (my mother could not make it up the hill) I found the bust of Parmeinides (sic) that allegedly (at least, according to Kingsley1) connected the Pre-Socratic philosopher to an ancient line of healers. Looking out over the wide expanse of the Mediterranean, it was easy to imagine the journey of Parmenides to Athens; and so to meditate on the ever expanding ripple of Parmenidean philosophy, undulating into the 21 st century.

Adluri’s book takes the metaphor of journeying that we find in the Proem of Parmenides’ poem, The Way of Truth, and uses it to explicate the structure of Parmenides’ philosophy: the human aspiration to metaphysics and to the realm of timeless being resolves itself back in the world, where philosophy must occupy the hearth of the mortal lifespan. Human beings, according to Adluri’s interpretation of the poem, ever dissatisfied with the crisis that mortality constantly affords them, seek to take shelter in the harbor of a disembodied truth, but this realm of logos cannot be our final bourn. Along the way, Adluri interweaves a meditation on the philosopher as a mortal figure, precisely not an immortal goddess or discarnate intelligence. Adluri’s beloved teacher, Reiner Schürmann, who approached the remote summit of Parmenides via the boulevard of Heidegger, and Socrates himself, whose unique death is celebrated in the timeless philosophy of Plato, are the figures who guide Adluri’s own journey through ancient philosophy, back to the moderns.

The book begins with a preface by the prolific Plato scholar, Luc Brisson, and then proceeds through six chapters, accompanied by Introduction, Conclusion, and an Appendix that offers a new translation and commentary on the fragments of Parmenides’ poem. The introduction is an extended mise en scène of the work, in which we meet the ghost, as it were, of Adluri’s mentor, the Heideggerrean philosopher, Schürmann, whose death brackets the entire narrative.2 Proceeding to Chapter One, we encounter the major conceptual repertoire of the book: thumos, journeying, and phusis, or the cycle of birth and death. Adluri emphasizes the role of the thumos in the Proem, reading Parmenides against the background of Homeric psychology. As a psychological faculty that exists only and solely within the bounds of a mortal lifespan (here distinct from psyche, which in some of the Homeric texts has a shadowy continuation in Hades) thumos, meaning instinctive human drive, which also has an impulse towards its transendence In Chapter Two, Adluri outlines his strategy for reading the poem: the three sections—Proem, the Way of Truth, and the Doxa/Cosmology, form a coherent whole. The speech of the goddess, the logos of immortality, is not truly on offer for the initiate: it is only preliminary. We must return to the cosmos, as Odysseus returns from Thrinacia and from Ogygia to Ithaca. In Chapter Three we learn why this return is the actual telos of the poem. The individual’s life is a journey that takes place within the confines of birth and death; the journey’s destination, then, can only be realized in terms of a finite existence, what Adluri calls “radical individuality.” The loss of a unique and irreplaceable individual is tragic in the sense that tragedy teaches us the separation between mortal and immortal. It is here in the tragic knowledge of mortality that Adluri specifically locates the interpretation of Schürmann.

Chapter four takes us into the words of the goddess herself, words that, according to Adluri, actually prove to be incoherent! After initial skirmishes over issues that have occupied recent and ancient commentators (the identity of the goddess; the direction and locus of the journey) the chapter homes in on the denial of temporality, the coincidence of being and thought that can only obtain in the “now” of logos, whose truths are timeless. This timelessness thus negates the principle of non-contradiction, which states that opposite states of affairs cannot obtain with respect to the same thing at the same time. This law only works in the world of time, and so already presupposes phusis. The final chapter of Adluri’s reading of Parmenides attempts to integrate the fragments from the Way of Seeming into the poem’s meaning as a whole. Paradoxically, it is the Way of Truth (the way of atemporal being) that deceives the kouros. It is exactly the incoherence of the goddess’ speech that guarantees the truth to which the mortal must finally be reconciled, the truth of being and not being; of birth and death. In the doxa, the goddess becomes, in Adluri’s words, “the arch-critic of metaphysics.”

After his reading of Parmenides, Adluri offers an interpretation of the charioteer in Plato’s Phaedrus, based on the recognition of imagistic and intellectual affinities between the texts of Plato and Parmenides. As his previous reading was inspired by Heidegger, so this chapter spars with Derrida’s “Pharmacy”; accordingly, deconstruction is not a lesson that we are or should be content to learn. Adluri finds the modern more compelling than the post- modern and shows that the hyperouranian topos, to which the Phaedrus’ soul-charioteer aspires, the realm of logos, is overshadowed by the reach of Socrates himself. Socratic identity, and hence Socratic mortality, inform the linguistic play on Pharmakon throughout the dialogue: Socrates is the Pharmakos—destined to be put to death— and this association prevails over Derrida’s insistence that the Pharmakon is to be equated with logos.

A Conclusion reveals that the entire book is predicated on Heidegger’s Seinsgeschichte, Nietzsche’s rejection of metaphysics, Arendt’s notion of singularity, and general theological formulations at work in the twentieth century.

There is also a kind of postscript on the topic of Luther’s reading of Paul, to which Heidegger devoted some papers in the 1920s. At this point in Adluri’s text, I struggled to keep up with the book as a treatment of Parmenides, but perhaps that very difficulty is not amiss. After all, in this review, I have tried to describe the compass of Adluri’s work insofar as it is a reading of ancient philosophy. But Adluri suggests at places that the book actually reflects his own philosophy, in some senses a reply to Heidegger that (unlike what Adluri finds in Heidegger) emphasizes and valorizes the singular life of any person: irreplaceable, irreducible. In this critical notice of Heidegger, Adluri’s humanism and compassion profoundly infuse his work. One suspects that this book is more of an homage to Schürmann, a recognition and lamentation of the mortality of his own teacher, than a universal guide to the untruth, as it were, of metaphysics.

As a classicist, I found the book to be an interesting journey into reaches of Parmenides that I would not otherwise have had the opportunity to traverse; antiquity need not be our only destination. In this sense, the book was, for me at least, initiatory. For this very reason, much of the conversation was over my head, as I am not particularly a fan of Heidegger. But there is no doubt that Heidegger’s work on Pre-Socratic philosophy has been and continues to be important. The book is, for the most part, beautifully written and rich with allusions to classical texts and readers of these texts. I have my doubts that we are meant to dismiss the goddess’s words, namely, that the only path for inquiry “is that it is, and cannot not be,” as somehow deceptive. In the confines of this particular journey, a review for BMCR, I am afraid that I do not have the resources to defend the enterprise of metaphysics against its modern and postmodern detractors, other than to note the obvious: father Parmenides has not after all succumbed to the conspiracies of the parricides. For all that his philosophy is here presented as mortal, obviously the goddess’s words have been echoing across the Aegean, down through time, and they will continue to incite us, no doubt hubristic mortals, to embark on the journey of metaphysics, to seek if not to find our home in the realm of being and truth.


1. Peter Kingsley, In the Dark Places of Wisdom. Golden Sufi Center. 1999. 57-8.