BMCR 2019.04.07

Un altro Parmenide

, Un altro Parmenide I. Il sapere peri physeos. Parmenide e l'irrazionale. Bologna: Diogene, 2017. 184 pages. ISBN 9788893630559. €20,00.
, Un altro Parmenide II. Luna, antipodi, sessualità. Bologna: Diogene, 2017.. 206 pages. ISBN 9788893630573. €20,00.

[The Tables of Contents are listed below.]

Livio Rossetti has developed in recent years an ‘alternative’ understanding of Parmenides’ legacy and this two-volume book presents the results of this research.1 Recent scholarship on Parmenides can be divided into two main groups: historians of philosophy from the analytic tradition have focuses on fr. DK B8 or on the argumentative structure outlined in fragments 2-8, whereas many scholars from continental Europe have stressed that Parmenides’ poem is designed to offer a transformative existential experience, not to expand a theoretical doctrine.

Even though some scholars have considered also other aspects of Parmenides’ oeuvre,2 Rossetti maintains that the Eleatic philosopher’s place in the history of science is still underappreciated, probably because his thought is often referred to as a “philosophy of being” (I.10 ff.).

Rossetti’s Parmenides, on the contrary, is an “organ player” who can play in several registers, a polymath who masters many domains of inquiry (II.182-4). Parmenides’ polymathia cannot be reduced to a unified body of doctrines, nor to any ‘guiding idea’. According to Rossetti, we can only speak of Parmenides’ ‘virtual philosophy’, i.e. of a philosophy that can be deduced from the methods that the Eleatic philosopher adopted in his researches but that is not explicitly expounded in his surviving fragments. Rossetti believes that it is not possible to pinpoint the specifics of this ‘virtual philosophy’ (I.182: ‘[l]a sua filosofia virtuale rimane insomma “dietro le quinte” e mi chiedo se troveremo mai il modo di farla affiorare e identificarla con apprezzabile precisione’). This is probably the most contentious claim of this book, since we have been accustomed to think of Parmenides as a systematic thinker and not as a polymath whose ideas are not unified in any doctrinal framework.

In the first chapter of his book, Rossetti attempts at singling out the ‘other doctrines’ included in Parmenides’ poem. Rossetti’s list includes Parmenides’ researches on the shape of the earth, on the structure of living beings, his rejection of male chauvinism and his important contribution to the development of formal reasoning. Rossetti analyzes these doctrines in the following chapters of his book. This survey of Parmenides’ ‘other doctrines’ is new and constitutes a valuable contribution to scholarship.3

In a compelling second chapter, Rossetti explains why Parmenides’ scientific contributions have passed unnoticed. Rossetti hypothesizes that Parmenides’ teachings were highly unconventional and his contemporaries were not ready to acknowledge the value of his insights. Regrettably, the scarce attention from the contemporaries and from subsequent generations ended up depriving us of many sections of the ‘scientific part’ of the poem. Rossetti considers also the predecessors who might have been a source of inspiration for Parmenides. If one accepts the idea that the Eleatic thinker is not ‘the philosopher of being’ but an extraordinary polymath, it is natural to conclude that Anaximander was more of an inspiration to him than Xenophanes or Heraclitus might have been, regardless of any filiation that later traditions wanted to detect (see on this also ch. 5 on cosmology).

In the third chapter, Rossetti notices that Melissus is the father of a “philosophy of being” that from Plato onwards has mistakenly been projected on Parmenides himself. B8.50-61 and B9 are supposed to act as a bridge between the ‘doctrine of being’ (expounded in B8.1-49) and the scientific sections of the poem (B10 ff.) according to traditional interpreters. According to Rossetti, the goddess merely states that the analysis of being has come to a conclusion (B8.50). As far as I know, this observation is new and Rossetti deserves credit for that. Furthermore, the following lines (B8.51-61) are not supposed to be a bridge between the first and the second logos of the poem, because the astronomical, biological, and ethical doctrines expounded in the latter half are no less true than the doctrine of being. At B8.50-2, Parmenides writes:

ἐν τῶι σοι παύω πιστὸν λόγον ἠδὲ νόημα
ἀμφὶς ἀληθείης· δόξας δ’ ἀπὸ τοῦδε βροτείας
μάνθανε κόσμον ἐμῶν ἐπέων ἀπατηλὸν ἀκούων.

According to Rossetti’s reconstruction, the goddess clearly states that the persuasive discourse (πιστὸν λόγον, “il logos affidabile”) is now finished (ἐν τῶι σοι παύω, “con ciò ti termino”, I.98), and this means that Parmenides deliberately avoids inferring all the implicit conclusions of his doctrine of being. His philosophy is thus destined to be a ‘virtual’ one, i.e. a potential philosophy that can be derived from the principles that the Eleatic thinker set forth in B8.1-49. Melissus is credited with having derived all these implicit consequences (I.108-13), thereby leading Rossetti to observe that Aristotle’s poor opinion of the philosopher of Samus can hardly be explained (I.111 n. 160: ‘come possa, Aristotele, aver giudicato Melisso agroikoteros è per me un interrogativo che rimane privo di vere risposte’). Rossetti, however, maintains that the goddess is probably puzzled and unable to lead the kouros any more because she maintains that (1) her interlocutor needs to learn (μάνθανε, “apprendi”) the opinions of the mortals (δόξας … βροτείας, “le opinioni dei mortali”, I.98), and (2) he needs to pay attention to the deceitful order (κόσμον … ἀπατηλόν, “ordine ingannevole”, ib.) of her sayings. These lines do not form a bridge between the doctrine of being and the ‘opinion of the mortals’, and it is hard to identify the cosmological and biological sections with the ‘opinions of the mortals’ because Parmenides seems to be persuaded of the truth of his teachings.

I wonder whether the key to these difficult lines may be offered by what Rossetti writes on B8.1-33 (cf. ch. 9). According to Rossetti, Parmenides focuses on the formal structure of arguments. One might be tempted to infer that the logical validity of an argument hinges on its formal structure, not on the contents that are dealt with by the argument. I suspect that this distinction might be at play also in the remarks of B.8.51-2, and the kouros needs to learn the formal structure (κόσμον) of arguments pertaining to the opinions of the mortals, despite its being deceitful (ἀπατηλόν) because of the intrinsically misleading matter of such arguments, i.e. ‘opinions’. I do not know if I am a good Melissus to Rossetti, but it seems to me that the above interpretation would nicely fit with what Rossetti says in his ch. 9, on B8.1-33, and would also explain why the goddess uttered such puzzling words at lines B8.51-2.

In the fourth chapter, Rossetti questions the communis opinio according to which B1.31-2 would refer to the second logos, i.e. to the cosmological/biological sections of the poem. He agrees with Cordero in maintaining that the doctrine about physis and the ‘opinions of the mortals’ are two different bodies of teaching but rightly defends, contra Cordero, the ordering of the fragments offered by Diels on the basis of Simplicius, In De Cael. 558.3- 11 Heiberg (I.125-6). Rossetti maintains that lines B1.31-2 are obscure (‘appare inevitabile disporci a pensare che gli ultimi esametri di B1 introducano tutt’altro che nel migliore dei modi agli insegnamenti che la dea si accinge a impartire’, p. 128). Rossetti concludes this chapter by observing that the Proemium does not seem to straightforwardly introduce a transformative experience, as many interpreters have proposed in recent years. Its generic character and the quality of the verses are perfectly compatible with its being an introduction to the exposition of Parmenides’ doctrine.

In the fifth chapter, Rossetti observes that doxographic sources might be right in attributing to Parmenides the neologism ‘pseudophane’ to describe the moon (cf. Anaxagoras, DK 59A77, quoted at II.19). Rossetti derives many conclusions from this attribution: first, Parmenides is likely to have known Anaximander’s cosmology (Anaximander called the moon ‘pseudophae’ according to the same doxographic source); second, in developing Anaximander’s cosmology, Parmenides is likely to have rejected Xenophanes’ idea that the sun and the moon are gasses and that the earth is flat; third, Parmenides describes the moon as always ‘looking at’ the sun.

In the sixth chapter, Rossetti considers the topic of the ‘antipodes’ and suggests that it is likely that Parmenides was aware of their existence. The chapter includes a survey of ancient authors who talked about the antipodes (Plato, Aristotle, Cicero and Lucretius). The evidence for ascribing to Parmenides this discovery hinges on Proclus, in Parm. IV, 862.24-34 Cousin (= 862.20-26 Steel), 863.15-16 Cousin (= 863.12-13 Steel) and 863.21-5 Cousin (= 863.17-20 Steel). In these three passages, Proclus maintains that Zeno was aware of the existence of the antipodes. The Neoplatonic philosopher further argues that (i) Zeno talks about the antipodes in his Peri physeos and (ii) refers to them as if their existence is commonly agreed upon. This is enough evidence to suspect that Parmenides, who claimed that the earth is a sphere (cf. ch. 5), also discovered the existence of the antipodes, despite Diogenes Laertius’ testimony that Plato was the first to use the word ‘antipodes’ in a philosophical text (DL 3.24, cited at II.38). In my opinion, the validity of Rossetti’s argument rests on the idea that a virtual public of the Eleatic performances should be posited – an idea that I find very convincing and worth pursuing further.

Chapter Seven focuses on biology and, specifically, on fr. B18, preserved in Latin, where Parmenides discusses the generation of human beings. Contrary to Aristotle, Parmenides does not maintain that the generation of female beings is the consequence of a defect in natural processes. Rossetti argues that Parmenides’ statements presuppose the idea of a ‘double semen’, that explain the generation of men and women. Interestingly, Parmenides says that something may happen during the process of generation to bring it about that the gender of the baby is other than heterosexual male or female (II.81). From these (and other) premises, Rossetti deduces that Parmenides might have opposed homophobia, because within his theory homosexuals are ‘born that way’ (II.82.3).

In the eighth chapter, Rossetti focuses on the female presence in the surviving fragments, suggesting that Parmenides’ overall positive attitude towards women and the feminine world at large seems to be at odds with the hierarchy among men and women that was commonly accepted in antiquity.

In the ninth chapter, Rossetti deals with the ‘prehistory of logic’ as is fleshed out in B8. Rossetti does not think that the formalisation of Parmenides’ arguments is of any help to our understanding of the Eleatic philosopher’s claims. Yet, a closer reading of the poem suggests that Parmenides was paying attention to the rhetorical structure of his arguments, so that his listeners could only agree with the conclusions he was putting forth. The very structure of Parmenides’ arguments involves the enunciation of the demonstrandum, a series of arguments connected to each other by means of hypotactic particles, and a conclusion that resembles the quod erat demonstrandum of the later mathematical tradition. Rossetti’s analysis is persuasive and avoids the opposite extremes of attributing to Parmenides an anachronistic knowledge of modal logic and of turning the Eleatic thinker into the author of a series of obscure riddles that do not have any distinguishable argumentative structure.

It is to be hoped that Rossetti’s challenging book does not pass unnoticed, as Parmenides’ ‘minor doctrines’ did. As Rossetti observes, much of the recent scholarly literature on Parmenides is a series of lengthy footnotes on (the first part of) fragment B8. Rossetti’s book is a courageous contribution to Parmenides studies because it is designed to challenge this interpretative tradition in a radical way. Rossetti’s arguments will certainly open new paths for scholars working on Parmenides in the years to come.

Tables of Contents

Volume I – Il sapere peri physeos. Parmenide e l’irrazionale
Prologo, I, p. 9
Capitolo 1. Verso un inventario degli insegnamenti ‘secondari’ offerti dal poema, I, p. 29
Capitolo 2. Quale sapere caratterizza il secondo logos ?, I, p. 67
Capitolo 3. Che ne è della filosofia di Parmenide?, I, p. 93
Capitolo 4. Parmenide e l’irrazionale, I, p. 119
Appendice. Le formule di transizione e gli inserti metadiscorsivi, I, p. 159
Riferimenti bibliografici relativi al volume I, I, p. 163
Indice dei nomi, I, p. 173

Volume II – Luna, antipodi, sessualità, logica
Capitolo 5. La luna secondo Parmenide (in B15), II, p. 15
Capitolo 6. All’origine della nozione di antipodi (a ritroso da Platone a Parmenide), II, p. 33
Capitolo 7. Patrimonio generico e identità sessuale (in B18), II, p. 63
Appendice. Fecondazione e generazione secondo i medici ippocratici, II, p. 85 (by F. Giorgianni)
Capitolo 8. Destra-sinistra e tante femmine, II, p. 97
Capitolo 9. L’arte della dimostrazione (in B8.1-33), II, p. 113
Capitolo 10. Epilogo, II, p. 149
Riferimenti bibliografici, II, p. 185
Indice dei nomi, II, p. 201.


1. See, for example, L. Rossetti, ‘La structure du poème de Parmenide’ Philosophie antique 10 (2010), 187-226. Rossetti was the keynote speaker at the 2017 edition of ‘Eleatica’, a series of conferences dedicated to the Eleatic philosophers. The proceedings are expected to be published with Academia Verlag.

2. See, for example, J. Bollack, ‘La cosmologie parménidéenne de Parménide’ in R. Brague and J. F. Courtine (eds.), Herméneutique et ontologie. Hommage à Pierre Aubenque (Paris, 1990), 19-53.

3. After the publication of his book, Rossetti presented a new and more complete list of Parmenides’ ‘other doctrines’ in ‘Parmenide astronomo e biologo’, International Philosophical Inquiry 43 (2019), 54-71. ​