BMCR 2022.04.04

Poetry and poetics in the Presocratic philosophers : reading Xenophanes, Parmenides and Empedocles as literature

, Poetry and poetics in the Presocratic philosophers: reading Xenophanes, Parmenides and Empedocles as literature. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021. Pp. xiii, 238. ISBN 9781108843935 $99.99.


Seeing Xenophanes, Parmenides, and Empedocles as a distinct group has always been easy. They were the (chief/best) presocratic philosophers who wrote in verse, the heirs not only to Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes, but also to Hesiod and Orpheus.[1] Xenophanes’ contemporary Heraclitus, who wrote very poetic prose, saw him as a rival, providing us with the first testimony to any of the three: πολυμαθίη νόον ἔχειν οὐ διδάσκει· Ἡσίοδον γὰρ ἂν ἐδίδαξε καὶ Πυθαγόρην αὖτίς τε Ξενοφάνεά τε καὶ Ἑκαταῖον, “knowing many things does not teach intelligence; if so, it would have taught Pythagoras, Xenophanes, and Hecataeus” (B 10). It is no surprise that the poetic trio were thought of in terms of a diadoche, the two later ones learning from Xenophanes.[2] (Nobody would say that Empedocles learned from Parmenides.) In the modern era, they were included in a gallimaufry of poetical texts of a philosophical bent in Henri Estienne’s Poiesis Philosophica, fine for book collectors with about $10,000 to spare but of little scholarly value.[3] Far better and still essential for the student of the Presocratics is Hermann Diels’ Poetarum Philosophorum Fragmenta(Berlin 1901), a precursor to his Fragmente der Vorsokatiker1 (1903).

For most philosophers, however, from Plato on,[4] it matters little that these three philosophers wrote in verse, as they consider solely the surface grammar to elicit their thought and not at all the manner of its presentation. On the other hand, while classicists appreciate, as they should, Xenophanes’ role in the history of sympotic poetry, Parmenides and Empedocles tend to receive short shrift in literary histories, the former written off as a bad poet (although the literature on his own use of earlier poetry is far from small), the latter’s magnificent verses failing to receive their due worth. Exceptions have been relatively few in number.[5]

Now comes Tom MacKenzie’s book, the first of its kind to present a comprehensive case for Xenophanes, Parmenides, and Empedocles to be considered as poets as well as philosophers. As he would be the first to admit, as in effect he does in his introduction, he builds quite solidly on earlier work, not only on articles and chapters dedicated to presocratic poetry, but, also, and impressively, on broader and theoretical approaches to poetry as a whole and the various roles it plays and the less rational but still effective ways it can carry an argument and affect its audience. His argument here is cleverly a fortiori: if, as most believe, poetry can convey certain truths more effectively than prose, then so too can poetry that speaks in a persona that pretends that all one needs to do is listen to its words and arguments.

Xenophanes, the subject of chapter 1, is a particularly challenging subject in this regard. First, he writes in several meters (hexameter, elegiac couplet, and, although with only one extant line, iambic trimeter), which in Greek terms tends to mean different genres, each with its own historically determined ethos and set of subjects. Few readers today, certainly not Mackenzie, would want to concentrate on just one as the most appropriate for philosophical import, although it is necessary to examine the first two separately, at least to begin with. Earlier scholars have noted that the hexameters include the more “presocratic” material (i.e., cosmogony, cosmology, material alteration, etc.), but there are still others that might be considered outliers, on the nature of the gods and how they have been misunderstood by Homer and Hesiod, and hence also by those whom they have “taught” (B 11–16). Mackenzie makes an excellent case for Xenophanes’ having consciously used the admittedly (by Homer’s Odysseus and Hesiod, among others) mendacious epic genre to put his own readers on guard that he too is not to be trusted implicitly. This might be considered merely an epic shtick, except that Xenophanes, speaking in his own voice (not that of the Muses) elevates it to a conscious and soon-to-be familiar epistemological point in B 34 that there are things about which all we can know is that we do not know:[6] we must be satisfied with δόκος, a concept roughly equivalent in later epistemological thought to Heraclitus’ λόγος, Parmenides’ δόξα, and Plato’s ἀληθὴς πίστις/δόξα.  And this in turn is reinforced in Xenophanes’ elegies, most notably in B 2, where the accomplishments of athletic victors which benefit only the athletes themselves must take second place to his own σοφίη— that of the wise man and the poet alike— which benefits the city. At the same time, it complements Tyrtaeus 12 West, so that Tyrtaeus’ praise of the warrior is transferred to what Mackenzie nicely styles the “poet-sage”: dulce et decorum est pro patria sophizein.

Mackenzie has his biggest challenge in dealing with Parmenides as a poet, for surely never has anybody’s poetry been so damned in antiquity; Cicero, Philo, Plutarch, and Proclus all express sharply negative opinions, all with echoes in modern scholarship. Only Simplicius among ancients openly appreciates how the oddity and obscurity of his languages contribute to its meaning.[7] Modern scholars too are free in their condemnation, although others have joined Simplicius in his defense.[8] It is, admittedly, hard to know what to make of such a strikingly new voice in Greek poetry, one, moreover, whose heirs wrote only in prose. Empedocles alone among poets borrows words and phrases from Parmenides, but the former’s philosophy is Milesian and his poetics his own striking amalgamation of Hesiod and Homer. Mackenzie’s approach—“to treat the difficulties of Parmenides’ poetry as functional; that is, as designed to elicit certain responses from the audience” (65)—meets the challenge head on and quite successfully. More specifically, Mackenzie sees Parmenides as a poet who artfully uses (“manipulates” is Mackenzie’s word) the tradition to which he was heir in order to lead it to new heights of instruction. Thus, for example, although Parmenides may write in the voice of a goddess who speaks to but a chosen few, his address to public audiences (as a rhapsode at festivals, Mackenzie argues) would have the effect of entrancing and attracting a wider and intellectually curious audience. Her tone and manner are echoed later by Socrates’ Diotima. Since it is the author’s aim to show how Parmenides frames and fashions his argument, he is entitled to present the philosophical core of the poem only in outline, although he shows himself well versed in the vast scholarship on the subject that would overwhelm his more literary approach.

Mackenzie illustrates how Parmenides presents his poem as an orderly (κόσμος) attempt to describe a changing and deceptive (ἀπατηλός) world. Names/words and signs (ὀνόματα and σήματα) are all mortals (βροτοί) have to understand them, in aid of which they have need of a poet who understands the/their difficulties, one who will not, like Muses and Sirens, delight in deceiving them. Parmenides, who has been on a journey to the Truth, thus presents himself as their best hope. Mackenzie’s contrast between Parmenides and Sirens is particularly well presented (73–6), as is his review and assessment of the scholarship on the many motifs woven into the poetic narrative. I am not convinced, though, that the unveiling of the Heliads gives Parmenides “an illicit perspective on these elite, divine maidens” (85–6); rather, women unveil themselves or let their hair down when they feel comfortable, “at home”; cf. Od. 6.99–100 (Nausicaa and her age mates) αὐτὰρ ἐπεὶ σίτου τάρφθεν δμῳαί τε καὶ αὐτή, | σφαίρῃ ταὶ δ’ ἄρ’ ἔπαιζον, ἀπὸ κρήδεμνα βαλοῦσαι. That is, with the unveiling the Heliads have welcomed Parmenides to their home in the realm of light.

Empedocles has never needed defense as a poet—one has only to notice all the many echoes of his thought in both Hellenistic and Latin poetry.[9] Still, it has to be said that even among Hellenists his poetic genius goes largely unrecognized and that even among specialists there is still much to explore, even more so after the publication of the Strasbourg papyrus. Once again Mackenzie focuses on the poetic persona fashioned by the poet, in Empedocles’ case an amalgam of what we find in Parmenides, who presented himself as the almost mechanical voice of the goddess. Empedocles, on the other hand, presents himself as a fallen daimon who can give us the divine word directly—someone, moreover, whose current state results from prior impious action, so that his call for pious action carries greater weight (B 112, 115). His many clear allusions to Parmenides (see pp. 109–13) suggest that this was in fact his aim.

Empedocles’ carefully constructed persona, moreover, also draws upon the many myths of the polluted exile who is able to benefit those who take him in (pp. 135–42). Although Mackenzie (like me) believes that there was but one great poem whose contents blended what we now divide into science and religion, he successfully argues for a unified interpretation of Empedocles’ thought would allow those who believe in two separate poems to follow him;[10] see, e.g. his analysis of B 4 that finds the imagery of the cut-up innards of a sacrifice animal pertinent to Empedocles’ own philosophical and poetic activity (pp. 150–1). Here and elsewhere Mackenzie shows how Empedocles has crafted his poem to echo Aphrodite’s crafting of the cosmos, frequently comparing the construction of his verses to the way craftsmen manufacture things out of wood or how painters employ variously colored pigments; Empedocles occasionally even gives the precise ratio of the four elements that make up, e.g., bone or blood (B 96–7).

The book concludes with a 25-page “epilogue: the legacy of presocratic poetics,” which perhaps is not as successful as what precedes, although the section on Democritus’ interest in language and literature can stand alone as something one can recommend to students. I myself would have preferred more attention paid earlier to additional details of Parmenides and Empedocles’ verse craft, much of which in fact is pertinent to their philosophical aims. What, for example, is one to make of some of Parmenides’ more crabbed syntax, which allows for one sentence to be construed in two or more ways (esp. B 6.1)? Is this the mark of a poetaster or, since each construal has its own epistemological meaning, that of an unrecognized poetic genius? And, in line with what has been said above, attention should be paid, e.g., to Empedocles’ hephthemimeral lines, where the word crossing the usual midline caesura seems to do appropriately: δολιχαίονες (B 21.8), κολλήσας (B 34), ὑπεκθροέοι (B 35.12), μακραίονος (B 118.5). But this is a minor cavil. Mackenzie’s book will convince future researchers to pay more attention to the poetry of these three Presocratics.


[1] Cf. Plut. Pythian Oracle 404e (who ignores the Milesians) πρότερον μὲν ἐν ποιήμασιν ἐξέφερον οἱ φιλόσοφοι τὰ δόγματα καὶ τοὺς λόγους, ὥσπερ Ὀρφεὺς καὶ Ἡσίοδος καὶ Παρμενίδης καὶ Ξενοφάνης καὶ Ἐμπεδοκλῆς.

[2] Parmenides: Arist. Meta. 986b23 ; Empedocles: Hermippus fr. 26 Wehrli (= BNJ 1026 F 61).

[3] Henri Estienne, Ποίησις Φιλόσοφος. Poesis Philosophica, Geneva 1573, which not only includes Epicharmus and Timon of Phlius, but the prose philosophers Heraclitus and Democritus. Cheap reprints are available.

[4] Note how at Theaet. 147a Plato almost (but not quite) distinguishes sophoi (including Parmenides and Empedocles) from poets (including Epicharmus and Homer). On the well-known Platonic opposition between poetry and philosophy, cf. Mackenzie, p. 24, who also notes what I have to confess had failed to register with me, that Parmenides and Empedocles are absent from Alberto Bernabé’s compendious Poetae Epici Graeci.

[5] I’ll mention here only two significant exceptions: A. P. D. Mourelatos, The Route of Parmenides2 (Las Vegas 2008); and X. Gheerbrandt, Empédocle, Une Poétique Philosophique  (Paris 2017).

[6] Socrates and Donald Rumsfeld offer later refinements.

[7] Simpl. in Ar. Phys. 146.29–147.7 = R5b Laks-Most.

[8] For these ancient comments, see Parm. R 1–7 Laks-Most. Mackenzie surveys modern views as he introduces this chapter, giving, as we all do, high praise to Mourelatos.

[9] Joe Farrell shows how there may be less direct allusion to Empedocles than has been assumed or argued, but even at second hand, his influence is palpable: “Looking for Empedocles in Latin poetry: A skeptical approach,” Diktynna 11 (2014). This was first presented at a two-day conference held in Geneva entitled “Empédocle: un poète et sa réception,” the second day given over to papers on Empedocles in Latin poetry, several of which are also included in this issue of Diktynna.

[10] Still worth reading in this regard is Charles Kahn, “Religion and natural philosophy in Empedocles’ doctrine of the soul,” AGP 42 (1960) 3‑36.