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Language-Games in Parmenides' Proem

Gabriela Cursaru

Université de Montréal/University of Cincinnati

Language and word play are crucial to Parmenides' poem. That is especially the case in the proem, which, as any incipit, is of pivotal importance.A verse-by-verse analysis of the proem allows us to discern the semantic and syntactic similarities with the pre-Parmenidian poetic traditions. From a structural standpoint, the entire poem proceeds, as it were, in circles (Osborne 1998: 33-34, Miller 2006: 15). Recent scholarship has explored its cyclical design, especially in B8, the central fragment of the poem (e.g. Sellmer 1998). Ruben highlights the ring-like structure of the whole fragment, orbiting around a center located in the middle (B 8.19). This is where we encounter for the first time the participle τὸ ἐόν. As to the proem, Schwabl underlines its pentad compositional structure, while Steinrück notes a "belle construction en anneaux". It is of no small importance, therefore, that the goddess' speech – which Parmenides uses in order to adequately express his doctrine of Being and the order of all things – ends in the same place where she begins (B5.1-2), namely, as a truly circular discourse around ἔστι (and its related forms), which corresponds precisely to the timeless circularity of τὸ ἐόν.

In this paper, I wish to consider a significant detail of the proem: the use of εἰσι in B1.11. It appears in the middle of the proem, as part of a collage of two Homeric half lines (ἔνθα πύλαι, Il. 8.15, and Νυκτός τε καὶ Ἤματός εἰσι κελεύθων, Od. 10.86). At first sight, the middle of the proemis a simple digression, as suggested by the usage of the present tense (B1.11-14). I will argue that this apparent digression is the focal point of the action and leads to the climax of the entire journey. In this manner, εἰσι prefigures the goddess' speech centered around ἔστι. At the beginning of line 11, ἔνθα, the poetical homologue of νῦν and ἐν ταὐτῷ (both hallmarks of Parmenides' realm of Being), indicates when and where the transition between the two worlds is granted by Δίκη, and the encounter with the anonymous θεά could take place. While in B1.1-10, the unnamed κοῦρος is passively transported on "the divinity’s many-worded road" under the unwavering guidance of the Ἡλιάδες κοῦραι, after having opened the gate(s) located at the crossroads between Night and Day, the maidens "guide the chariot and horses straight along the way" (B1.21). This constitutes the privileged path – "remote from the paths of men" (B1.27) – to the home of the one and only goddess able to convey "the unshakeable heart of well-convincing" truth (B1.29).

The language and imagery of paths is highly significant here. My thesis is that the epic middle of the proem,  opened by ἔνθα/εἰσι, also indicates the passage from one way/path of inquiry to another: from the way of multiple opinions of the "men who know nothing" and who wander helplessly around because of their "wandering thought" (B6.4-7); to the "way of truth" oriented by ἀλήθεια and dominated by inferential reasoning about the nature and structure of what is/what is said to be. In order to depict the deceptive world of human δόξαParmenides uses poetic formulas, verbatim appropriations of terms and expressions that hark back to different archaic traditions, intertextual references and other literary strategies (e.g. repetitions, pairs/antitheses, verbal rings, doublets/words with double meaning, see Strauss Clay 117-125). Conversely, it is through the speech addressed by the goddess to the privileged κοῦρος that the second path of inquiry is described (from B2 onward). Εἰσι (and B1.11-14) anticipates the final stage of the κοῦρος' journey, his encounter with the goddess, as well as the goddess' speech around ἔστι. In short, the plethora of language-games of Parmenides' proem underlie the philosophy of the whole poem. 

Session/Panel Title

Language and Naming in Early Greek Philosophy

Session/Paper Number

87.5

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