Reviewed by Dr. John Butler, editor, 'the Quint' Humanities Journal
A.H. Coxon, Ed. The Fragments of Parmenides. Edited with New Translations by Richard McKirahan
and a New Preface by Malcolm Schofield.
Las Vegas: Parmenides Publishing Company, 2009.
The name of Parmenides of Elea, the eminent Greek philosopher of the fifth century B. C. E., may only be familiar to readers of Plato’s eponymous dialogue and students of Pre-Socratic philosophy. A quick glance at Parmenides’s remaining fragments, which are in verse, reveal a densely cryptic mind, which is not made much clearer by the quotations from him which can be found scattered around the works of later philosophers. Moreover, Parmenides’s writings sometimes border on the mystical, and one may be forgiven for wondering whether it is even possible to conjecture accurately from a series of fragments and quotations in other authors what he thought, or even to make a coherent translation of Parmenides’s rather arcane, quasi-religious language. In the end, the answer to the latter question is a resounding “yes,” with the qualification that readers turn to the late A. H. Coxon’s revised and expanded edition of Parmenides, with new translations by Richard McKirahan and a new, enlightening preface by Malcolm Schofield, a book which is a wonderful example of what some might call “old-fashioned” scholarship in the very best sense of the word, and which will serve for many years as a model for future presentations of such works. Reading Coxon’s copious commentary on the fragments and poring over the formidable array of notes, not to mention sensing how much this scholar must have loved what he did, is enough to put the contemporary generation of scholars, translators and editors to shame. The text is also bilingual, both for the actual writings of Parmenides himself and for the citations of fragments in other authors, which will appeal to specialists and Greek scholars alike. Parmenides of Elea is a lucky man to have such a champion, and this book will, if properly read and studied, restore him to his proper place as an important and innovative thinker of the first order. Parmenides Press has, too, it must be said, added to the pleasure of this book with an attractive, well-designed format on good-quality paper which makes it a delight to look at and to hold in one’s hands.
Parmenides belongs to a group of philosophers known as “Pre-Socratics,” which of course denotes those thinkers who were active before the time of Socrates and Plato. Much of the philosophical discourse in these early days concerned the nature of reality, and the question being asked was “Is there one reality or are there many?” Some philosophers, such as Heraclitus, believed that reality was both; our senses can see oppositions and transformations in reality, and then reason tells us that even though we can see change everywhere, things still remain the same. Parmenides simply doesn’t buy this; for him, reason tells us that reality is one, and also tells us that if what exists is one, then it can’t be many at the same time. Furthermore, as the prologue to Parmenides’s book informs us, he was instructed to convey this wisdom by the divine. “The mares that carry me,” he writes,” kept conveying me as far as ever my spirit reached, once they had taken and set me on the goddess’ way of much discourse, which carries through every stage to meet her face to face a man of understanding” (48). Parmenides, incidentally, wrote in verse, which was conceived to be the highest form of literature and therefore closest to the divine and fit for expressing only the highest thoughts, those which concerned the cosmos and the deeds of the gods who inhabited it. The poetic form he uses is hexameters, which was also employed by Homer in his epics (Parmenides employs a plethora of Homeric words and phrases) and by Hesiod in his Theogony, where we also encounter a poet who claims to have received directions from the divine, in this case the Muses. This is what gives Parmenides his uniqueness, but also leads to controversy in interpretation and frustration with the fact that what we have is so fragmentary. Here is a philosopher who will declare that reason (λόγος) is paramount, that our everyday perceptions of reality are mistaken, and that there is no such thing as not-being, yet he gives us this information through the agency of divine revelation. This seems, to me, to be the one of the most interesting aspects of the Parmenides paradox. “It is not lawful,” he declares, “that Being should be incomplete, for it is not defective, whereas Not-being would lack everything” (75). This is the essence of Parmenides’s philosophy; our senses are deceptive and unreliable (as Descartes would also claim in the seventeenth century), reality itself does not change because its underlying material cannot be effected either by creation or destruction, and that what we perceive to be movement and change is simply an illusion. What looks to modern readers like a tendentiously mystical tone is simply the poetic form and language, which Parmenides uses effectively to lend his sentences authority. The translation captures the tone admirably.
It’s not the place of a reviewer for a general university audience, however, to write as if he were contributing a scholarly article to a philosophical journal, even if he were an expert on the subject. It is the presentation of this material which is under review here, and for that we can have nothing but praise. Malcolm Schofield’s preface is clear and puts the fragments in their intellectual context; his discussion of the apparent paradox between rationalism and mysticism mentioned above was particularly interesting to this reviewer. Schofield considers the belief that Parmenides’s prologue is really allegorical, and believes that whilst elements of it can be interpreted that way, it was “intended as an account, symbolic in detail but cosmological in its setting,” and further that it was “at once literal and symbolic,” appealing both to imagination and intellect. It wasn’t a “revelation” as we might use that word today, but perhaps more like a Joycean “epiphany,” where one gets a sudden feeling of comprehension, where everything suddenly comes together and makes sense. Sometimes this is accompanied by a feeling that there is a supreme intelligence present in the world, hence the “goddess” who allows Parmenides to see and understand the truth. Schofield also gives us detailed information about Parmenides’s influence on Plato, Aristotle and later Greek philosophy, which is important in our understanding of what effect he might have had on more modern philosophers who discussed the nature of being, such as Leibniz. Parmenides’s great contribution is in fact his discussion of being, and for that he may be considered one of the founding fathers of ontology, the study of the basic nature of reality. This is where his great importance lies.
A.H. Coxon (1909-2001) taught at Edinburgh University from 1933 to 1980, having studied at Oxford with Sir David Ross, the eminent Aristotelian scholar. On his retirement in 1980 he started to work on this edition of Parmenides, which appeared in 1986, followed thirteen years later by his second book, The Philosophy of Forms: An Analytical and Historical Commentary on Plato. Coxon was a scholar who remained unpublished until he felt he had something significant to say, and these two books, appearing when their author was seventy-seven and ninety, are a fitting legacy to his prodigious scholarly skills and the experience of many years teaching and living ancient philosophy. As stated above, what shines out here is Coxon’s sheer love of his subject and his enthusiasm for conveying everything he knows in an accessible way. As with so many great scholars, he sometimes assumes rather too much of his readers, but these moments are rare, and one could argue that it feels good to be addressed by such a man as if one were almost as knowledgeable and erudite as he himself must have been. The same can be said for Malcolm Schofield’s introduction, which is a worthy addition to the Coxon text and commentary. As well, Richard McKirahan’s editing is first-class, and the decision to print a bilingual text, to include all the secondary testimonia and the full text of Coxon’s commentary, together with a concordance, indexes and Greek-English glossary, was a very wise one. As the reviewer from Phronesis regreftfully stated, this book is indeed “the product of an academic world that no longer exists and…of a general literary and scholarly culture which is fast disappearing.” The efforts of McKirahan and Schofield go a fair way to proving that statement wrong, and Parmenides Publishing will, I hope, continue to aid and abet scholars like them in further giving it the lie. Students and scholars alike can benefit from books like this, as can a general interested reader; it is not necessary to read Greek to benefit from a book like this, although the reviewer now wishes that he had studied that language harder in those far-off days when he was required to do so!
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