BMCR 2020.04.08

Mortal and divine in early Greek epistemology: a study of Hesiod, Xenophanes, and Parmenides

Shaul Tor, Mortal and divine in early Greek epistemology: a study of Hesiod, Xenophanes, and Parmenides. Cambridge classical studies . Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017. xiii, 406 p.. ISBN 9781107028166 £90.00.


In examining perhaps the earliest Greek sources that meaningfully inquire into how humans come to know the world around them, Shaul Tor has crafted a compelling narrative of a tradition of what might be called theological epistemology. Engaging with issues of archaic Greek religion, philosophy, and poetics, this book will be relevant to scholars working in all three fields. Tor argues for this tradition in such a way that, even if one disagrees with him when it comes to some of the thornier issues of interpretation, the broad picture he paints remains convincing.

Unlike much of the evidence with which Tor deals, the basic thrust of his argument is simple: for Hesiod, Xenophanes, Parmenides, and Empedocles (who is included in the book’s final chapter, though not in the title), “philosophical epistemology” is “an essentially theological enterprise” (48). Among factors that can obscure this claim, Tor singles out a tendency to use the word ‘rational’ or ‘rationalising’ in at least two different ways: on the one hand, ‘rational’ can denote the secularising or irreligious as opposed to the irrational religious; on the other, ‘rational’ can describe the activity of human reason, especially the tendency to systematise and reason through inference. Despite a brief examination of several areas or genres in which these two senses of rationality might coincide, Tor insists that they need not and indeed, for the authors Tor will now examine, do not. For Tor, early Greek epistemology can be both rational—that is, logical and systematic—and still profoundly religious and even theological.

Having thus positioned himself, Tor turns in Chapter 2 to Hesiod, whom he sees as standing near the beginning of a tradition that Xenophanes and Parmenides react to in different ways. In essence, Tor argues that Hesiod sets up an epistemological problem: how can mortals, as inherently limited creatures, come to know things of which they have no direct experience? How is it that Hesiod the Boeotian shepherd can make statements about the nature of the kosmos? Tor notes, as have many before him, that Hesiod himself raises this question in the proem to the Theogony, when the Muses appear to the poet and inform him that they know how to speak both ψεύδεα πολλὰ ἐτύμοισιν ὁμοῖα (in Tor’s translation, “many falsehoods which are like verities”) and also ἀληθέα (“truths”). Historically, this passage has been interpreted either as asserting the truth of Hesiod’s poetry over that of other poets, or as posing a sort of enigma or riddle. Aligning himself more or less with the second of these interpretations, Tor suggests that Hesiod leaves the enigma presented by the Muses unresolved, and in fact that this is precisely the point of their speech: to draw attention to the poet’s “epistemic predicament” (102). There is much here to provoke thought for any scholar of Hesiod: if (as many will) one agrees with Tor that the proem of the Theogony is not meant simply to assert the truth of Hesiod’s own poetry, then the emphasis on epistemic predicament is an attractive reading.

Tor reads the Works and Days in a similar vein, arguing that the poet problematizes his own knowledge. He takes as emblematic the passage in which Hesiod discusses seafaring (lines 646-93), admitting his own lack of experience in this regard but then stating that he will nevertheless speak forth the mind of Zeus, since the Muses taught him how to sing a “wondrous song” (ἀθέσφατον ὕμνον, 662). According to Tor, this is “the poet’s old admission of ignorance and simultaneous truth-claim” (98); he also suggests that line 10 of the proem (ἐγὼ δέ κε, Πέρση, ἐτήτυμα μυθησαίμην), due to the optative μυθησαίμην, is not a straightforward truth-claim. Readers may find more to disagree with here than in Tor’s take on the Theogony—his insistence that the Muses are as involved in Hesiod’s poetics in the Works and Days as they are in the Theogony, for instance, could be controversial—but ultimately Tor’s contention that Hesiod and his Muses establish “not an epistemological position but an epistemological framework, which identifies the problem of epistemology as the problem of understanding the nature of the interactions between mortal and divine” is convincing (102).

Chapter 3 moves from Hesiod to Xenophanes. Tor’s consideration of Xenophanes’s epistemology focuses on one of the main routes of access mortals had to specialized or supernatural knowledge in antiquity: divination. According to Cicero (Div. 1.3.5), Xenophanes is the only ancient other than Epicurus to have “done away with” divination entirely (104); modern scholars have generally accepted this, arguing in addition that this implies that Xenophanes also rejects poetic inspiration, which relies on a similar view of divine disclosure. After laying out careful definitions of divination and related concepts (the attention paid to clear definitions is a strength throughout this volume), Tor moves to consider one of his main pieces of evidence for Xenophanes’s views on divine disclosure, fragment B18 DK: οὔτοι ἀπ’ ἀρχῆς πάντα θεοὶθνητοῖσ’ ὑπέδειξαν / ἀλλὰ χρόνῳ ζητοῦντες ἐφευρίσκουσιν ἄμεινον (in Tor’s translation, “Indeed gods did not from the beginning intimate all things to mortals, but as they search in time they discover better”). One interpretation of this fragment takes it as a categorical rejection of divine disclosure to mortals; another sees ἀπ’ ἀρχῆς πάντα as qualifying this rejection. Tor agrees with the latter and argues for adding the verb ὑπέδειξαν as a further qualification: gods do not disclose things to mortals “in an indirect, cryptic, and even underhanded manner” (117), which he argues is the force of the preverb ὑπό. Instead, Tor argues, what Xenophanes means is that the gods disclose things to mortals in a different way, namely as phenomena, objects of everyday experience and perception. This view comes in both a more and a less radical formulation: according to the first, which Tor calls “universal disclosure” (136) and tentatively favors, the gods purposively enable mortals to perceive everything that they do in fact perceive; the second is more qualified, admitting only that the gods enable some particular mortal perceptions. On either of these views, it is then up to mortals to correctly interpret and infer from these perceptions to reach conclusions about the gods and the nature of the kosmos, something which mortals can be better or worse at. (Xenophanes, naturally, is the best of all.) As with Hesiod, then, Tor sees Xenophanes as elucidating the epistemic predicament of mortals vis-à-vis the gods; unlike both Hesiod and Parmenides, Tor views Xenophanes as skeptical about the possibility that a mortal could ever attain divine knowledge.

The extent that one is convinced by Tor’s analysis of Xenophanes will depend on the extent to which one believes his readings of individual fragments, especially B18, but also B34, B36, and B38. Even further, it may depend on the extent to which one believes his interpretations of single words, for instance ὑπέδειξαν in B18 or τετελεσμένον in B34. These are sometimes subject to doubt, as for instance when Tor claims of τετελεσμένον that in Homer it “is invariably associated with statements about future states-of-affairs” (129) without considering the tense or mood of the verb with which the participle is associated. To be sure, freighting interpretations on a single line or word is a danger inherent in working with fragmentary material, and if Tor occasionally pushes a reading too far, he also offers an accumulation of evidence, with multiple alternative readings that could support his views.

Tor now turns to his interpretation of Parmenides, which comprises the majority of the volume (153 pages, without counting the appendix devoted to the topography of Parmenides’s proem, significantly more than the space allotted to Hesiod and Xenophanes combined). Usefully, he offers a brief introduction to his two main chapters on Parmenides before plunging in, laying out the division of the poem into two parts—Alêtheia and Doxa—and summarizing the ways in which past scholars have approached this infamously knotty text. Tor suggests that there are three main questions that can be raised concerning the two parts of the poem: first, an “aetiological question”: why did Parmenides bother to write Doxa? Second, an “epistemological question” concerning the ways that the mortal addressee of the poem can and must conceive of the universe; and third, an “ontological question: given the doctrine of Alêtheia, what precisely is the status of Doxastic things?” (160) Tor addresses the aetiological question in Chapter 4, “Why Did Parmenides Write Doxa?” and the epistemological question in Chapter 5, “How Could Parmenides Have Written Alêtheia?” Although the ontological question is not as pertinent as the other two questions to the main thrust of Tor’s argument, it is treated briefly at the end of Chapter 5.

To do Tor’s painstaking analysis of Parmenides justice would take far more space than is allotted to this review, and in any case what may be most helpful is to offer a synoptic overview: Tor’s argument is fine-grained to the degree that the reader can occasionally lose sight of the forest for the trees. As in earlier chapters, in Tor’s arguments about Parmenides the occasional weaknesses in individual readings are compensated for by strength in numbers and alternatives. In Chapter 4, in order to explain why Parmenides wrote Doxa, Tor undertakes a thorough review of Parmenidean epistemology, arguing that mortals perceive hot or bright elements through the hot in them and cold or dark elements through the cold in them, and that Doxa is meant as an accurate account of this way of perception; where mortals go wrong and where Doxacan be deceptive is if they mistake it for a necessary account of what really is instead of an account of the way that mortals, limited and contingent creatures, experience the world. Chapter 5 then follows from this account of mortals, asking, if Parmenides and the kouros of the poem are this kind of creature, how could Parmenides have written Alêtheia, a true account of what-is that ought to be beyond a mortal’s capacity? Tor’s answer to this question suggests that a mortal can in fact negotiate the boundary between himself and the divine, at least temporarily approximating divine thought and becoming godlike. In order to prove that Parmenides would have conceived of this as possible, Tor draws on an impressively wide field of evidence; this is unfortunately necessary since there is little to no direct evidence in what survives of Parmenides. Some of Tor’s arguments in this section will likely be relatively uncontroversial, for instance a claim that human souls are conceived of as having some aethereal element to them already in Parmenides’s time; others, such as the claim that fragment B12.3-6 in combination with some testimonia of Simplicius demonstrate that Parmenides subscribed to a theory of metempsychosis, will likely garner more disagreement.

Tor calls his sixth and concluding chapter “Retrospect and Prospect.” The former serves as a traditional conclusion, considering the ways in which Hesiod, Xenophanes, and Parmenides relate to one another and form parts of the same tradition; the latter looks to Empedocles as a continuator of this tradition of theological epistemology. While Hesiod sets up the poet or philosopher’s epistemic predicament, situated between mortality and the divine, Xenophanes resolves this predicament one way—the gods disclose phenomena to mortals, but mortals can never attain divine knowledge—while Parmenides offers a different resolution, the possibility that a mortal could become godlike in his way of thinking. For Tor, Empedocles’s innovation in this tradition of theological epistemology is to make “the issue of self-identity a central philosophical concern” by representing himself as both limited and mortal as well as immortal and daimonic.

This volume is handsome and well-produced: I note only two errata, both on p. 324, where both “sore” and “sour” should read “soar.” Tor is to be congratulated on a learned monograph that is sure to produce fruitful conversations among those with interests in early Greek poetry, philosophy, religion, or all three.