Friday, May 6, 2011


Franco Ferrari, Il migliore dei mondi impossibili: Parmenide e il cosmo dei Presocratici. Aio 636. Roma: ARACNE editrice, 2010. Pp. 207. ISBN 9788854833951. €14.00 (pb).

Reviewed by E. F. Beall (

Version at BMCR home site

Preview – Table of Contents and Introduction

The title of the book under review recalls the phrase coined by Leibniz (and satirized by Voltaire), usually rendered "the best of all possible worlds" in English. The best of "impossible" worlds here is of course the subject of "opinions" that Parmenides describes as faulty even though necessary to grasp during his praise of the Way of Truth. Franco Ferrari mainly focuses on the inferior entity, building on recent serious attention to it especially by Giovanni Cerri and Peter Kingsley, as opposed to the traditional stress on the more veracious Way.1 The book itself reads like a record of Ferrari's own way through the material, solving problems large and small in the order that they arise in the text. He eschews any grouping of material within a chapter by type of question asked, and relegates only the narrowest of textual questions to footnotes. This approach may deter readers who prefer a more structured composition; yet Ferrari does give insight into Parmenides's meaning as well as clarify textual issues. He is aided by an impressive knowledge of ancient Greek literature as well as modern Parmenides scholarship by ex-perts and others (even including the physicist David Bohm and the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.)

In detail:

In Chapter 1 (13-37) Ferrari will eventually establish a proemium for the "Way of doxai," but first he gives an exegesis of fragment B16 on one aspect of the human tendency toward illusion (the similarity of thought to bodily processes), including critical discussion of the syntax and related testimonia. Then he finds that these lines fit well if placed immediately after the goddess's acknowledgement of this Way at the end of B8. He then discusses B16's relation with some fragments of Empedocles; detours into a dis-cussion of B3; and finally lists the verses making up the proemium with this reordering of the Diels-Kranz arrangement: B8.50-8.52, a lost verse to the effect that there is no true consciousness outside of being, B8.34-8.41, B8.53-8.61, B16, and B9. Thus Ferrari's reading supports a dissident position, proposed in the 1930s and now argued by John Palmer, that B8.34-41 should be moved into the space between B8.52 and B8.53.2 It is certainly unpleasant that most authorities decline even to note this possibility proposed by reputable scholars; still, the arguments for the transposition have been almost entirely syntactical or semantic in nature: some attention to just how the transmission supposedly went wrong is needed.3 For all that, at least for me Ferrari's proposed array yields a coherent presentation: fragment B9's reduction of all to light and darkness ties up the sec-tion particularly nicely when it follows the krêsis ("fusion") of entities noted in B16.

The second, more theoretical chapter (39-79) will attempt to make precise how this Way "of Illusions" is such in relation to the Way of Truth, but first Ferrari reviews the old issue of whether Parmenides proposes two or three Ways. Commentators who think of two maintain that the Way of doxai must be the same as the Way of not-Being which fragment B2 says is the only Way possible other than that of Being, and of which B6 for-bids consideration. However, Ferrari does not see how the doxai can be forbid-den when B1.31-32 and B8.51-52 say the kouros is to learn them, and in effect opts for three ways. He then examines B1.31a-32, to suggest (plausibly) that the juxtapo-sition of dokimôs and dokeunta constitutes an "etymological short-circuit," whereby the positive connotation of the former lends an air of respectability to the latter, and also (tenuously) that the connection of onta to einai similarly makes the "existents" "be" in time rather than making them atemporal. Then, after some remarks about fragment B6, Ferrari seems to suggest that, given the frequency of repetition in epic, both of two possible sequences might have appeared in the original po-em: B1.28-32 plus B7.2-6a plus B8.1b-2a (which follows Sextus Empiricus in leaving out 7.1), and B7.1-2 plus a lacuna plus B8.1b-2a, respectively, either of which leads to the priority of the Way of Being.

I feel that this point needs further clarification, but instead the chapter next proceeds di-rectly to the general properties of the deceptive Way. Ferrari first notes a long Greek tra-dition of denouncing the opinions of mortals, which B6 only particularizes to thought that is suspended between Being and not-Being (not specifically refuting Heraclitus); then observes that deception is not unreal just because it is deceptive (in the process arguing trenchantly against a number of commentators' attempts to get around the implication of apatêlon in 8.52); then suggests that the goddess points out that humans name two forms because this reifies them; and then asserts that our physical cosmos is attractive precisely because it has properties like the Being of the Way of Truth.

Next, in a densely argued section, he compares the relation of the two Ways to that of Bohm's "explicit" and "implicate" orders; invokes an assertion by Hopkins that the infe-rior Way is found in the space between the two principles of Being and not-Being; and examines Parmenides's difference from Leibniz's position as well as his similarity thereto. That is, Leibniz says shortly after his "best world" slogan (noted at the outset above) that any entity reflects the entire universe, and for Ferrari this recalls: B9.1, saying that all is full of light and night; B8.24, that all is full of Being; and B4, that even absent things are conceptually present by virtue of the contiguity of things. The section ends by placing B4 after B6, albeit with both still before B8, and the chapter ends by suggesting that the relation between the Ways is like that between the lies of Hesiod's Muses, which resem-ble the truth, to the truth itself. That is not a new idea, but the development leading up to its specific expression here is intriguing.

Chapter 3 (81-119), of which I only have space to note some highlights, mostly explores the physics of the Way of doxai and its relation to Presocratic and Orphic cos-mogonies, as reconstructed from the higher numbered fragments and related testimonia. The points of departure are: (1) light and darkness as the governing principles, as per B9; and (2), with Cerri and Kingsley, Plutarch's identification of B12's "helmsman" goddess as Aphrodite. Of particular interest is Ferrari trying his hand at the notorious problem of reconstructing Parmenides's concentric rings, cited in the testimonium A37. He finds that a hypothesis (essentially Diels's from 1897) of a central fire, with outer wall of night and the physical cosmos in between as "mixed" rings, is plausible with some pre-Kranz text choices. However, Ferrari argues that what he takes to be Theophrastus's exegesis in the second part of A37, i.e., that the goddess of B12 is in the mixed rings, is wrong: she is in the true center (that is, the central fire). Moreover, Simplicius's statement while re-porting B13, that she conducts souls between corporality and incorporeity, implies her responsibility for transformations between body and soul. The chapter concludes with an argument that the relation of Being to becoming for Parmenides was like that of his an-cestral motherland Phocea's relation to its colonies such as his Velia (Elea).

Chapter 4 (121-140) "touches upon" (sfiorare, 121) some classic problems of what Being meant to Parmenides. Ferrari contends that the entity is atemporal if by "time" we mean biological time (sequence of births and deaths) as opposed to an analytic continuum, given certain text choices and syntax construals for B8.2-6. Then he avers that neither is Being spatial in the sense of extension implying the possibility of a vacuum, notwithstanding the physical objects cited in some fragments. He ends with a review of the possibilities for the subject-less esti of B2.3-5, 8.2; here he tends to favor an impersonal subject but also concludes that Parmenides is unclear (plausibly as far as grammar goes: I myself suspect that this esti only reifies a non-nominal part of speech, much as did ancient India with the reflexive pronoun âtman).

Chapter 5 (141-172) treats fragment B1, the poem's proemium on the journey of the kouros. Ferrari begins with an argument similar to Kingsley's that Parmenides was a doctor-mantic associated with a Velian cult of Apollo. He then presents the case from a 2003 paper (also a chapter of a 2007 book),4 to offer a novel solution to some recognized problems. He argues that we may resolve the dispute over whether the jour-ney is toward the light or is a katabasis by construing the first part of the piece to concern the return of the kouros to the realm of light, but only after he has re-ceived enlightenment in the lower depths by "the" goddess, as stated in the remainder. As to "her," he holds that the citations in the two parts (at 1.3 and 1.22) refer to different deities, whom he identifies as Dawn and Night, respectively.

In the sixth, final chapter (173-189) Ferrari relates the fact he believes he has brought out, that the world of doxai is both necessary and incompatible with truth, to Greek Tragedy, given that that realm also presents a barrier between two worlds across which communication is difficult at best. He offers such examples as the dilemma in Aeschylus, Sup., where King Pelasgus must either accept a petition and thereby incur war or reject it and thereby defy the gods' protection of suppliants. I only suggest here that merely noting commonality with a general phenomenon such as dilemma does not help us much: the idea needs further characterization. (For example, a recent book on ancient and early modern tragedy is said – see BMCR 2010.12.61 – to stress the alienation of the drama's protagonist from everyone else around him. If so, how might the Parmenides fragments display either his lack of integration with his community or Being's lack of integration with becoming?)

In his parting words ("Congedo," 191-195), Ferrari compares his reading with those of others from Aristotle to Gadamer. He then suggests that such recent developments as the apparent verification of subatomic particles acting on each other without any actual mechanism recall the statement of B4 that even absent things are present at least to the mind. He sums up nicely with the statement that, according to Parmenides, without at-tention to the "true" Way we would lack perception but that without the other we would not even be.

Some miscellaneous issues: Ferrari attempts to reach a broad audience by only using Greek characters in blocks of text or in notes, and by supplying Italian for all citations; yet I question whether many non-classicists will wade through all the intricate detail, par-ticularly since there are no indices. The bibliography that concludes the work (197-207) is quite up to date. Typographical errors are neither absent nor frequent. I have one quibble: I wish commentators would state clearly the source of their text; here Ferrari (e.g., 33) prints the pre-DK reading by Karstens of τωὐτόν for ταὐτόν in 8.34, without indicating its origin.

In sum, those students of the Presocratics who insist that Parmenides would not abide contradiction may well ignore this book, but the rest will profit by spending time with it.


1.   There is no need to list studies of the Way of Truth here, but the issue has now been starkly posed by Nestor-Luis Cordero, "The 'Doxa of Parmenides' Dismantled," AncPhil 30 (2010), 231-246: he denies that the other entity was even an object of interest to Parmenides.
2.   See J. Palmer, Parmenides and Presocratic Philosophy (Oxford 2009), 352-354, and his references.
3.   Indeed, Diels (as cited by Ferrari himself, 42) long ago explained the ellipsis of the proemium's B1.31 and 1.32 in one of our sources as a case of homeoarchton. What mechanism, then, explains Simplicius or his source omitting 8.34-41 from his account of 8.50-61, and by what means were they inserted after 8.33 in his report in another location of 8.1-52?
4.   "Il ritorno del kouros: tradizione epica e articolazione narrativa in Parmenide 28 B 1 D.-K.," in D. Accorinti and P. Chuvin, eds., Des Géants à Dionysos. Mélanges de mythologie et de poésie grecques offerts à F. Vian (Alexandria 2003), 469-479; La fonte del cipresso bianco. Racconto e sapienza dall'Odissea alle lamine misteriche (Turin 2007), 97-114.

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