Actually it’s roughly a half-hour walk starting from here on Rue Humann to the Bibliothèque nationale et universitaire de Strasbourg where this blog post begins in this historic Lutheran humanist university town. But as you can see from the photo it’s a nice evening and the walk affords us a view of the cathedral on our way to visit the Strasbourg papyrus of Empedocles. (Some preliminary remarks here, cozily nestled behind JSTOR’s paywall.)
Painstakingly pieced together from recovered scraps and fragments which had been used to create a papier-mâché funereal death crown in Roman Egypt one can see how impossibly difficult it is (even with such fortuitous discoveries) to gauge what the Presocratics actually said in their own words. The puny collection of Presocratic papyrus fragments is mostly seasoning for a soup concocted of “fragments” and “testimonia”, that is (presumed) quotations in other works and indirect descriptions of their work transmitted by others. Out of this soupy concoction scholars draw bowlfuls of servings and try to work out what it is they are tasting. Then they construct their own soup-simulation flavour-packets in the form of books describing as best they can what it is they have ingested in their servings of Presocratic soup. People like me take in helpings of the simulated-soup (just add water and boil) and write blog posts on our experiences. Then we go on moonlit walks, perhaps stopping in for a bowl of soup somewhere (onion with Gruyère and best served with a Riesling if you follow) to think about what we have
learned experienced. My experiences so far have been worth it. Surely things were much better, you might ask, in the old days when the ancient biographies and hagiographies were sufficiently satisfying for the construction of our historical reality. Who wouldn’t prefer simple facts such as the fact that Empedocles met his death by falling into the crater of Mount Etna, leaving only his shoe behind as a sort of last memorial and testimony? Ha ha. Crazy philosophers always come to bad ends.
No. We can still have these stories and enjoy them. But historical critical methodology in the palaeographical and philological sciences gives us more still. And anyhow, such humanist pursuits are professionally much safer than in the days of Johann Sturm, to whom we owe a debt of gratitude for the university town that is Strasbourg. These days being forced into early retirement, as he was, is quite an uncommon occurrence, though in some dark pockets I suspect it happens more often and more clandestinely than people are generally aware. Why aye mon, the Riesling is going to my head.