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Livio RossettiVerso la filosofia: nuove prospettive su Parmenide, Zenone e Melisso

A cura di N.S. Galgano, S. Giombini e F. Marcacci. (Eleatica 8.) Pp. 305. Baden-Baden: Academia, 2020. Paper, €59. ISBN: 978-3-89665-926-2
Benjamin Harriman
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Livio Rossetti Verso la filosofia: nuove prospettive su Parmenide, Zenone e Melisso, a cura di N.S. Galgano, S. Giombini e F. Marcacci, (Eleatica 8) Pp. 305. Baden-Baden: Academia, 2020, ISBN: 978-3-89665-926-2.

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1In this the eighth volume of the Eleatica series, the mastermind behind this wonderful tradition of conferences and subsequent publications, Livio Rossetti, provides a concise introduction to his extensive work over many years on Parmenides and the Eleatic tradition. Following in the model of previous contributions to the series, we find a detailed introduction by the volume’s editors, Rossetti’s three lectures on our three Eleatics, ten thoughtful responses by the conference participants, and finally a response to the responses.

2The great virtue of this format is that the obvious intellectual vigour elicited by Rossetti's lectures (held in Velia (ancient Elea) in 2017) comes across and the reader is invited into a world where early Greek philosophy is a subject treated with passion and real excitement. In fact, Rosetti’s three lectures on Parmenides, Zeno, and Melissus only make up a little more than a third of the volume’s pages, allowing for the full range of participant voices to emerge.

3Rossetti’s main contribution here is to outline an interpretation of what has emerged as the thorniest interpretative challenge in Parmenides’ poem, i.e. determining how its two parts are related and assessing the overall unity of his project. Much of the literature on Parmenides in recent years has taken a concern of this stripe as its object and offered increasingly sophisticated explanations of how Parmenides’ enquiry into being, associated by the poet with necessity, security, and truth, relates to ‘mortal opinions’ (B1) on the observable world. In short, how does Parmenides the metaphysician relate to (and ground) Parmenides the scientist, who made significant contributions to astronomy (B14, B15) and human biology (B18, B19)? Are the ontological commitments prior to those empirical, contingent, or are they epistemically of a differing status? What tools or distinctions are we entitled to use in trying to offer a consistent account? Is consistency, however defined, a genuine desideratum? One point that has received increasing approbation is that the second part of Parmenides’ poem must be treated as a serious intellectual contribution and not as a mere exercise or an extraneous accretion.

4Rossetti’s refreshing approach to these questions is to unpack some of their basic assumptions. Primarily, this is done with a view towards establishing the diversity of Parmenides’ project(s). In fact, he suggests that there is no clear, unified philosophy to be found in our evidence. This is because it is wrong to think of Parmenides as engaged in elaborating a single, unifying philosophical system of the sort one may associate with Epicurus or Plato (p. 59-60), or as the proponent of a great ontological system (‘Il mito di Parmenide grande filosofo dell’essere’, p. 55-59). Rather, we need the concept of a ‘virtual philosophy’ for Parmenides that allows room for the development of a self-conscious understanding that one engaged in philosophy is actually so engaged. The poet is not quite at this stage for Rossetti, and this gives us the window we need into Parmenides’ actual contribution. This is not to be found in any ontological doctrine, however subtle, but in how he opens ‘new and unexpected horizons’ (nuovi e impensati orizzonti, p. 84) for human knowledge, particularly as represented by his novel contributions to physics. For Rossetti, this broadening of human perspectives is exactly what drives Zeno and his paradoxes (esp. p. 128).

5Of course, this reframing of Parmenides and the de-centreing of his ontological commitments demand an answer as why he became a metaphysician first and foremost in the tradition from Plato onwards. Here Rossetti reasonably leans on the importance of Melissus in shaping the Eleatic tradition as one with ontology as its heart. (Mathilde Brémond usefully fleshes out this thesis in her response.) However, appealing to Melissus only takes us so far. It is certainly true that we find nothing equivalent to the second half of Parmenides’ poem in Melissus. Physics, at least in its Aristotelian sense of a discipline concerned with change and multiplicity, finds no home in Melissus’ strict monist view of an infinite, invariant, perfectly complete world. Yet one may reasonably wonder whether accepting Melissus’ subsequent influence on the received view of an ontology-heavy Eleaticism really permits us to eliminate any meaningful hierarchical relation between Parmenides’ two parts.

6This sort of worry seems to lie behind Jaap Mansfeld’s response to Rossetti. This is echoed in a somewhere different form by A.P.D. Mourelatos. Mansfeld, for his part, accepts that Parmenides’ philosophy of nature is rightly taken seriously, as Rossetti and several recent commentators have done. However,  he argues that emphasising this aspect of the poem does not entail that the distinction between ‘truth’ and ‘mortal opinions’ made in the poem’s proem may be ignored. Perhaps, as Mansfeld suggests, one may make distinctions between mere mortal views with some better (however we cash this out) than others. Yet it is unclear how opinions, e.g. that the moon’s light is borrowed from the sun or that the earth is a sphere, however correct they are, may be permitted the same epistemic security which Parmenides reserves for the subject of the poem’s first half on being. Eliminating hierarchal priority or dependence while preserving the plain sense of Parmenides’ fragments remains Rossetti’s greatest challenge and where, I suspect, he faces his most significant opposition. This remains a concern, as Mansfeld seems to imply, even if one disassociates the objects of opinion from those of natural philosophy. However, Rossetti’s response to Mansfeld and Mourelatos are worth close consideration.

7I take it, however, that the most important question Rossetti prompts is whether separating the ontological teaching from that of astronomy or physiology or empirical enquiries, by insisting on a very minimal relation between the two parts, is really needed to take the latter seriously. He suggests that the absence of an indication of how the doctrine of being and teaching on natural philosophy relate is itself telling by implicitly pointing to their independence (p. 76). Mourelatos, in his response, hopes (fantasizes?) for a more satisfying unity than Rossetti’s that might one day come to light through new archeological discoveries.

8Yet it is not obvious that all the options have been staked out. Rossetti carefully distinguishes the views of Parmenides from the Hellenistic systematicity of Epicureanism but reading through his concerns about how Parmenides’ fragments hang together recalls nothing as much as the debate on the parts of philosophy (physics, ethics, logic) of the Stoics. How the parts were to be transmitted and taught was at issue in the school in terms of their order (DL 7.39-41, Plutarch, Stoic. Rep. 1035A), and Julia Annas has prominently argued for the at least partial independence of Stoics ethics from their physics putting the question of the system’s unity front and centre. This is significant for at least two reasons. (1) It is important that Parmenides, like the Stoics, is explicitly concerned with teaching in offering both ontological doctrines and those devoted to natural philosophy. This suggests that learning must be at the centre of any interpretation of the relationship between the two parts of poem. (2) Borrowing from the Stoic discussion offers a means of explaining hierarchal dependence that is not narrowly doxastic, epistemological, or modal.

9Such a suggestion could point towards a means of preserving the seriousness of Parmenides’ commitment to natural philosophy while also allowing room for a genuine unity within his thinking. At the very least, further tools that allow for different avenues for establishing unity and for framing the relationship between the poem’s parts seem perfectly possible. As Mourelatos tells us, the fact that such means as already offered in the scholarship have not received wide acceptance should not push us into despair and frustration. However, it is not obvious (at least to this optimist) that archaeology or the blind chance of an extraordinary discovery of more lines of Parmenides is our only hope.

10Rossetti reminds us that we must continuously reassess both our assumptions and the boundaries of exegetical frameworks if this hope is to be realised. All the contributors are to be thanked for this fine, comprehensive, and challenging volume.

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Benjamin Harriman, « Livio RossettiVerso la filosofia: nuove prospettive su Parmenide, Zenone e Melisso »Philosophie antique [En ligne], 22 | 2022, mis en ligne le 10 janvier 2021, consulté le 21 juin 2024. URL : http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/philosant/5412 ; DOI : https://0-doi-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/10.4000/philosant.5412

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Benjamin Harriman

Department of Classics, University of Edinburgh

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