BMCR 2014.07.35

Eraclito: Frammenti

, Eraclito: Frammenti. Milano: BUR Classici greci e latini, 2013. cliv, 405. ISBN 9788817028943. €19.50 (pb).

Francesco Fronterotta gives us a very good edition of the fragments of Heraclitus, with a thorough individualized commentary on each text, and a new Italian translation. The volume does considerably more than provide readers with “un’edizione italiana utilizzabile”, offering a broad view of the present state of our knowledge of the testimonia on the life and thought of Heraclitus, and especially of the few remaining quotations of his written work. The main body of the book (just a bit shy of four hundred pages) consists of the bilingual edition of the scarce fragments (Italian and Greek), and an extensive commentary on text and translation, systematically oriented to situating Heraclitus in his historical and philosophical context.

The volume opens with a long and substantial Introduction comprising five sections: 1. Fragment, testimonium or quotation: the “text” of the writings of the Presocratics. 2. The image of Heraclitus. 3. Life and work. 4. Doctrine. 5. Heraclitus, the obscure. Fronterotta deals competently with the necessary generalities and insightfully discusses some of the main themes and problems posed by the texts themselves, as well as several perspectives in the philosophical tradition, ancient and modern. The section on Heraclitus’ doctrine gives a full sketch under the following headings: the λόγος; the unity of opposites and becoming; fire, cosmology and the conception of nature; the soul and its functions; and ethics, politics and religion. Besides the introduction, preliminaries include a note on the text, where the editorial method is briefly presented and justified, assuming as basic the editions of Diels-Kranz and Marcovich (tables of concordance are provided in the appendix, together with a list of sources), and a thematically organized bibliography (not exhaustive, but paying special attention to works from 1950 to 2011).

Although the compilation is presented as Heraclitus’ Λόγος περὶ φύσεως, (“Ragionamento sulla natura”) it does not set out to be a critical edition or a reconstruction of the original book, but a conjectural re-ordering of the remains, according to the author’s best assessment of the available materials (an intermediate solution between an arbitrary ordering, such as Diels-Kranz, and a full reconstruction of the original, such as Mouraviev). As a rule, the commentary does an excellent job at presenting the context of each fragment, without neglecting general and even minute textual matters. It also systematically describes the main lines of interpretation and the objective problems, often discussing recent work and offering the author’s own interpretation. The 116 fragments are arranged in six different clusters (“ambiti argomentativi”), many individual fragments overlapping occasionally two or more themes, and forming a single coherent and continuous whole: the λόγος (12 fragments), the contents of λόγος: conflict and unity of opposites (21), fire (11), epistemology (29), psychology (9), and ethics, politics and religion (34).

It would be impossible to do full justice to Fronterotta’s work and especially to his detailed commentary in this limited space, but it is safe to say that the main objectives of the book have doubtless been accomplished. It is certainly well written and (for committed readers) its contents are clear enough and relatively easy to follow through labyrinths of words rich in textual and philosophical problems. Organization and presentation of the materials convey a balanced overview of Heraclitus’ philosophy.

Fronterotta’s version of Heraclitus as a philosopher starts with the conception of the λόγος, translated as “ragionamento” in most cases (DKB1, B2, B45, B50, B108; all references to the fragments are here made according to Diels-Kranz numbering), but also as “discorso” (B87), “fama” (B39) and “rapporto” (B31). In the first approach (section 1), three key fragments (B1, B2 and B50) take the foreground, and λόγος is interpreted as “an objective and universal reasoning, in the sense that it expresses a regulatory principle of an ontological nature and general value” (p. 25), equivalent to the ξυνὸν πάντων, and analogous but not identical to the single divine law (B114). Some of the complexity of the original Greek meaning is bound to be lost in any single translation, but although the author makes up for these limitations by treating Heraclitus’ λόγος as closely linked to the true nature (φύσις) of its objective contents, the translation of λόγος as “reasoning” risks obscuring the real possibility that Heraclitus may be indeed expressing with this word the idea of the objective rationale of things themselves, as a necessary condition for knowledge and stable reasoning. This is all the more likely since λόγος is presented in B1 as “subsistent as such”, and as that according to which all things happen, but especially because men are explicitly reproached for not understanding before having heard it. Although Fronterotta is surely right in stressing that λόγος is not to be thought of anachronistically as a causal agent, Heraclitus’ actual language, τοῦ δὲ λόγου τοῦδ’ ἐόντος αἰεὶ ἀξύνετοι γίνονται ἄνθρωποι (B1), suggests from the beginning an “ontological” application, without excluding strong epistemic and “linguistic” senses and resonances. Fronterotta translates this beginning thus: “Gli uomini rimangono sempre nell’incomprensione del ragionamento che sussiste come tale”. I find this type of syntactic approach appealing, in so far as it takes τοῦδε as predicative with ἐόντος: “of the reasoning (λόγος) which is this” (“del ragionamento che è questo”: p. 15, note 9). However, I cannot help but wonder if it is even desirable to try to dissipate the ambivalence of the adverb αἰεί, which—as the well-known Aristotelian complaint has made plain to see—works equally well with what precedes and what follows.

Gradual unfolding of the λόγος is effected through development of the idea of unity of knowledge, leading to the doctrinal core in section 2, unity of opposites and rationality as conflict, symbolized by πόλεμος (and ἁρμονίη, both charged with a strong universality and exemplified in several particular contexts (ontological, physical-cosmological, physiological, anthropological and epistemological). Fragments included in this section deal with unity and identity of opposites (especially with the dynamics of ἓν πάντα), and the proportional relations structuring life, sleep and death. Section 2 closes with a concentration on the theme of becoming and flux, including an insightful treatment of the river fragment (B12).

Section 3 is the shortest, devoted to fire, which is interpreted along traditional physical and cosmological lines, featuring the famous identification of fire with κόσμος (B30). The solar fragments are also included, as well as three fragments from Hippolytus, regarding which Fronterotta concludes with a judicious dismissal of eschatological readings.

Section 4 offers a systematization of epistemological ideas, which take off from the theme of the epistemic nature and value of the senses. B35 is rightly stripped of the reference to ‘philosophers’ and read as a sort of ‘positive πολυμαθία’. This section contains Heraclitus’ criticism of mere belief, systematically deployed against the figures of traditional poets and sages, such as Hesiod and Homer, Archilochus, Thales, Pythagoras, Xenophanes, and Hecataeus. The grouping ends with texts dealing with ignorance as the defining mark of human perspective in sharp contrast to divine knowledge of the totally unified oppositions, the hidden true nature of things.

Section 5 deals with the nature and the functions of the soul, which is viewed within a physical framework. B45 (on the soul’s limits and its deep λόγος, where I fail to see why the reading ἐξεύροι ὁ would be “grammatically less adequate”) and B36 (on the cycle of death and birth of soul, earth and water)—both endowed with long and thorough commentaries —put ψυχή in a cosmological scenario. B117 and B118 (on the wet soul of the drunkard, and its opposite, the dry, wise and luminous soul) are interpreted as providing a physiological instantiation of cosmic patterns. Other relevant fragments (B20, B48, B27, and B63) are refreshingly read as a critical revision of human eschatological expectations.

Section 6, the longest, presents fragments dealing with ethics, politics and religion, in a broad sense. The positive ethical paradigm is, in principle, open to all and grounded in self-knowledge. It consists of a morality of measure and good sense, of knowing one’s own limits and of moderation, which is taken (perhaps too naïvely) to be best exemplified by the higher aristocratic values. This paradigm should be followed also by the many, whose morality is frontally rejected and depicted sarcastically as animal behavior. Interpretive treatment of Heraclitus’ ethics and politics seems to me too dependent on scholarly consensus and consequently deprived of a richer philosophical interest (particularly when confronted with Plato, with whom several striking similarities have been for the most part overlooked by modern scholars). A handful of fragments that criticize religious practices and beliefs give a sketch of these as notoriously irrational, while B52, B119 and B18, the texts selected for the conclusion, are interpreted as a final exhortation to a better kind of life.

The book is exceptionally well presented, the paperback binding is strong and the volume is comfortable to handle). The summary is too brief, lacking the subdivisions that structure the introduction, as well as the series of fragments within each section of the edition itself.

To sum up: In an area where new editions and in-depth critical discussion are seldom produced, Fronterotta’s Eraclito offers the indispensable texts and the main problems of translation and interpretation of a fundamental Presocratic philosopher. I deem this splendid book a valuable tool and an important contribution to Heraclitean scholarship, from which interested readers and specialists will benefit for years to come.