BMCR 2022.08.09

Penser les dieux avec les présocratiques

, Penser les dieux avec les présocratiques. Etudes de littérature ancienne, 28. Paris: Rue d'Ulm, 2021. Pp. 249. ISBN 9782728807475. €23.00.

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

This volume collects the papers of the numerous scholars who participated in the research seminar  held at Centre Léon-Robin (CNRS, Université de Sorbonne) from 2017-2020, which focused on whether the Presocratics introduced a radical new way of interpreting the world (a rational approach, the mirror opposite of mythical tales), or whether they followed and directly reappraised Greek religious traditions in their works? The trait d’union of the various contributions is the attempt to determine what value the Presocratics attributed to the Greek gods or, more generally, to the divine sphere, frequently mentioned in the surviving fragments. All papers either offer new perspectives or confirm—with convincing arguments—widely accepted interpretations. It is therefore appropriate to give an account of all their research results.

The first paper by Rosemary Wright analyzes the cosmologies of the Presocratics—the so-called naturalists. She concludes that all of them are atheistic: they do not follow the idea that some divine force directly intervenes in the ordering of the cosmos. Indeed, Anaximander’s apeiron is not a divine principle. Anaximenes reappraises the same non-divine conception of Anaximander’s apeiron and characterizes it simply as air. Xenophanes opposes traditional theology with a non-personal principle, the One. Heraclitus’ logos-fire is a non-divine element that rules the cosmos. Eternal life—gods’ distinctive feature—compels these thinkers to exclude birth and genesis of the first principle. They ‘dogmatically’ attribute this new conception of eternity (ab aeterno, and not exclusively a parte post) to a non-divine arche, while Parmenides demonstrates with many logical argumentations that being possesses this characteristic. With Empedocles, Anaxagoras, and the Atomists this atheistic cosmology reaches its pinnacle. Plato’s anti-mechanistic reaction of his Timaeus and Book X of the Laws later ‘restored’ the importance of a divine dimension directly involved in governing and ordering the cosmos.

In his contribution, Glenn Most considers the entity called Chaos in Hesiod’s Theogony: it is an immense depth, an abyss (this meaning could be inferred from those words connected to the same semantic area that recurs several times in the poem). Chaos is connected to the Earth perhaps because it begins where Earth ends. Chaos, the abyss, is a cosmogonic and theological idea and simply serves as a starting point for the narration of the genesis of the cosmos. Furthermore, it is the dimension to which all terrible things can be traced back (a sort of justification of the existence of malevolent entities and evil deeds).

In his article, Philippe Rousseau analyzes Hesiod’s role as it emerges from his poems. Hesiod suggests that he is a chosen one, the bearer of a valid and useful message: more precisely, his Theogony offers the theological basis for the moral message of his Works and Days. Hesiod aims at showing that everything is subject to Zeus’ reign of justice and that both other gods and humans must submit to this order. Human (moral) evil can be justified in light of ignorance of Zeus’ order (and, consequently, in light of failure to recognize the need to abide by its rules). This is a detailed analysis that offers a plausible interpretation  of Hesiod’s poems and his character: he is both a poet and a moral guide.

Alberto Bernabé’s paper focuses on the Derveni Papyrus and shows how it fits perfectly into the groove of post-Parmenidean cosmogonies, since it rejects the conception of the genesis of the cosmos. In addition, Bernabé highlights the anonymous author’s etymological and allegorical readings of traditional divinities, in particular Ouranos, Kronos, and Zeus, who are described as different manifestations of “intellect”, nous, which must be identified with air according to the anonymous author. Bernabé exemplarily illustrates how the Derveni Papyrus—following the conviction that mythical language is actually an encrypted language for philosophical notions—transforms traditional myths into a philosophical cosmogony.

Luan Reboredo studies the divine epithets in the indirect testimonies concerning Anaximander’s thought. According to Aetius (1.7.3), Anaximander’s gods are the apeiroi ouranoi. Discarding the interpretation that these are either infinite worlds or celestial rings, Reboredo suggests that the apeiroi ouranoi are in fact “celestial things”, that is to say the stars; as such, Anaximander considers them deities (Theophrastus could be the original source of Aetius’ testimony—as well as his statement that the “apantes ouranoi” are the gods). In this way, the author argues that Anaximander divided the cosmos into three levels: the apeiron beyond the sky; the stars and celestial things, namely the gods; the sub-celestial world, namely that which perishes. This proposal has the advantage of attributing the cosmic cataclysm described by Anaximander only to the sub-celestial level: in this way, one cannot assume the destruction of what is eternal (the god-stars). Furthermore, the author suggests that the function of the apeiron is to impose an eternal movement on the cosmos, which gives rise to opposite qualities, to celestial things, and finally to the sub-celestial world.

Federica Montevecchi employs the conceptual categories of Apollonian and Dionysian to analyze the figure of archaic intellectuals. Based on the divine model, which must be conceived of as power and potentiality (the Dionysian) capable of determining itself (the Apollonian) under the sign of knowledge and action, the archaic sages shaped their own figures by assuming the same nature as the gods, which unites knowledge and action. Heraclitus combines the Dionysian (the unity of opposites) with the Apollonian (the subordination of everything to the principle of the unity of opposites, which thus determines everything): this is Heraclitus’ exclusive knowledge and truth, which he employs as a guide for his actions. For Parmenides—whose philosophical system perhaps gives greater importance to the Apollonian (the prevalence of the One-all)—“il dire consapevole”, “conscious saying” (legein), favors “il capire intuitivo”, “intuitive understanding” (noein), and vice versa: this true knowledge legitimizes his ethical life and political commitments. This conception is irrelevant for Zeno: for him, truth is not the knowing subject, i.e., the divine word of the sage who knows the nature of the god and acts in accordance with it, but the object of knowledge, whose truth is assured by demonstrations. As such, words coincide no longer with action, but with the start of a dispute. Although the translation of legein and noein does not seem ‘canonical’, this paper effectively shows a crucial turning point in the history of Western philosophy: the secularization of the character of the intellectual.

Livio Rossetti considers the emphasis on female gender for the divine entities mentioned by Parmenides in his poem: an in-depth analysis of the various figures shows that in some cases there are manifestations, projections, or personifications of these divine beings, transformed into cosmic values, principles, or mechanisms; however, the feminine gender always prevails (for this reason, fr. 13 Diels-Kranz must be considered spurious, since Eros—a male divinity—is mentioned). This is certainly an intentional choice: Parmenides’ preference for female gender effectively reflects the image of ‘taking care of someone’, i.e. a relationship that allows an individual to improve through constant monitoring and attention.

Carlo Santaniello considers the complicated notion of Empedocles’ daimon. Rejecting the allegorical interpretation (according to which the cycle of the daimones is the same as the physical cycle of the four roots) and holding that the daimones are neither composed of elements nor of particles of Philia, Santaniello argues that the daimones are somehow immaterial entities hosted in creatures, to whose body they are united. Different bodies correspond to different levels of consciousness, which can eventually grant daimones the ability to recall, through memory, their previous incarnations and then to acquire an excellent knowledge, which in turn can purify them during their various incarnations. It is an interpretation that offers new insights and helps understanding a fundamental yet obscure part of Empedocles’ thought, opening up to the possibility of introducing the concept of immateriality in the Presocratics and an innovative research perspective: the existence of a third poem that recalls On Nature and Purifications (to whose discussion the author will dedicate a forthcoming paper).

The article of Fulcran Teisserenc analyzes Protagoras’ conception of the gods. Different forms of atheism can be attributed to the sophist: a “necessary” or “absolute” atheism, i.e., the denial of the existence of the gods as “autoi kath’autoi”, a corollary of Protagoras’ well known thesis “homo mensura”; the atheism of Protagoras himself, or “relative negative atheism”, which follows Protagoras’ claim that he has had no experience of the gods nor even an experience of their non-existence, as such something that refers exclusively to the case of Protagoras’ life (to his own ways of experiencing things); and finally, a “relative positive atheism”, which must be attributed to those souls that are on the verge of death and can thus effectively claim to have never experienced the gods. It is a multifaceted atheist theory that can be reconstructed from those of Plato’s dialogues that mention the sophist.

Valeria Piano employs Euripides as a valuable source to reconstruct the various notions and tenets of the Orphic movement, especially in the 5th-4th centuries BCE: in this way, the diffusion of books, texts and leaves attributed to Orpheus and his followers is confirmed, as well as the presence of sacral and religious figures, the tendency to offer allegorical and naturalistic exegeses of traditional religion, the admission of a naturalistic theology and a rational eschatology, with human souls preserving their identities in the eternal afterlife, subject to the reign of justice that governs everything. These concepts are present in Orphic texts, gold leaves and tablets, the Derveni Papyrus, and are echoed in Euripides’ tragedies: they represent then the ‘core’ of the Orphic movement.

Rossella Saetta Cottone focuses on Euripides’ Iphigenia in Tauris. Iphigenias’ critique of traditional myths and bloody rites allows Euripides to highlight the need to conceive of the gods as guided by benevolence and fraternal love (philia), to abolish bloody rituals, and to recover also those religious traditions that are marginal in comparison with the Olympic one and are linked to the centrality of the earth. This could be an echo of Xenophanes’ tenets, especially his criticism of traditional representations of the gods and his conception of earth as the principle of everything.

The volume closes with the short contribution by Alessandro Stavru, who explains the true meaning of some verses of Aristophanes’ Birds (vv. 1553-64), where Socrates is presented as a psychagogos, an “evocator of souls”. This could be a reference to the figure of Pythagoras and the Pythagorean precepts widespread in the 5th-4th centuries BCE and centered on an ascetic life dedicated to self-purification. Consequently, these verses do not only recall the nekyomanteia of the Odyssey, but they also mock the Pythagorean austere way of life.

I believe that the volume, even in its ‘polyphony’, offers a unitary work, with a common and shared thesis: the Presocratics’ appropriation of the previous religious tradition, to which they impress a new direction both in a cosmological and in a moral sense. Each paper represents a useful contribution for scholars specialized in a single thinker, with innovative readings on the aspects considered by the various authors. The volume has also the merit of not reappraising the belief that Hesiod and the Athenian tragedians and comedians were ‘merely’ and exclusively poets or playwrights: in fact, they were intellectuals profoundly imbued with what we could call ‘philosophical attitudes’ (the need to give a—cosmological and moral—sense to the world). However, if read together and in succession, the articles offer a perfect general introduction that considers a fundamental—as well as preliminary—issue in the study of the Presocratics, at the same time innovative thinkers and intellectuals indebted to Greek religious traditions.

Authors and titles

Rosemary Wright, Is Presocratic Cosmology Atheistic?
Glenn Most, L’invention du Chaos
Philippe Rousseau, The Mission of the Chosen Bard. To Reveal the History of the Gods in Order to Reform the World of the Men
Alberto Bernabé, Les dieux dans le Papyrus de Derveni. À propos d’Ouranos, de Cronos et de Zeus
Luan Reboredo, Le divin, les dieux et le mouvemente èternel dans l’univers d’Anaximandre
Federica Montevecchi, L’uomo divino: azione e conoscenza in Eraclito, Parmenide, Zenone
Livio Rossetti, Les déesses de Parménide
Carlo Santaniello, Are Empedoclean Daimons Really Made of Anything? The Nature of the Daimon and Fragment 115
Fulcran Teisserenc, L’être et le non-être des dieux chez Protagoras
Valeria Piano, Ancient Orphism and “Presocratic” Philosophy in Euripides’ Tragedies. Some (Scattered) Thoughts
Rossella Saetta Cottone, Une anthropologie religieuse à la manière de Xénophane dans l’Iphigénie en Tauride
Alessandro Stavru, Socrates psuchagogos. À propos d’Aristophane, Oiseaux, v. 1553-1564.