A curious thing about studying the Presocratics, the commentaries and secondary literature in particular, is how completely hidden remains the simple fact that what one is actually studying is ancient poetry. What generally confronts you in the commentaries are assertions, propositions, explanations, comparisons, and even (in the case of the nonpareil Jonathan Barnes) the occasional translation into the symbolic language of formal logic (for clarity’s sake I suppose). But what the Presocratics themselves wrote is what we would call verse. When you pore through hundreds of pages of analysis and then stop to consider this, the effect can be unsettling.
There are various ways to account for this. My preferred account would probably orbit around the schools of thought concerned with the Orality-Literacy spectrum of ancient culture and the history of cognition and its relationship to the technology of the word. (Think Ong, Havelock, Goody, and, for the pithy epigrams, Marshall McLuhan). Perhaps I will steer in that direction some day. But, wanting of time and present ability, I offer here simply few observations harvested from a Response by Catherine Osborne.*
Osborne is addressing a question and putative answer which, it seems to me, arises naturally now that the Presocratics happen to be the preserve of the Philosophy department, rather than Classics, or Theology, or Comparative Religion or Ancient Literature: Why did they “choose” to write in verse, that is, translate into a poetic medium what appears to be more naturally a prose message? But the very question of “choice,” argues Osborne, is false one. Indeed,
the poetry of Parmenides and Empedocles is steeped in the same epic language and forms as the work of Homer. But should we suppose that the Presocratic poets deliberately adopted this poetry, and these characteristic and reminiscent formulae, as a ‘medium’ in preference to some alternative ‘medium’ that was available? My claim is that Parmenides and Empedocles are as unconsciously and naturally poets as Hesiod and Homer were, and that like the earlier poets they formulate their thought directly in the familiar language of poetry. It is not serving as a medium for something else, their philosophy. (p. 25)
It is because we think of philosophy as a naturally prose genre, and that philosophy is the appropriate category in which to file the Presocratics, that the question even arises. But it is simply not a question for the Presocratics themselves.
Well I’ve held out long enough. Obligatory McLuhan soundbyte inserted here: The Medium is the Message. Or, as Osborne puts it prosaically, “the form that the thoughts take cannot realistically be detached from the poetic verse composition in which they are expressed, as though the thinker might have devised the two independently. .. Those words are the thoughts they think, and hence the content itself is poetic.” (p. 26) I believe there are some serious implications to this, and perhaps lengthy history of scholarly misreading that must be dealt with, given the incredibly denatured form in which the Presocratics are presented in most texts these days. And of course this all gives an occasion for fresh readings, of which Osborne’s in particular I’ve found quite helpful.
But enough of that. Here’s a cat gif for you.
And incidentally, the denaturing of ancient poetry in service of reconstituted scholastic logic chopping is, I suspect, a fate that not just the Greek Presocratics have suffered.
* Catherine Osborne (1997) Was verse the default form for Presocratic Philosophy? In: Form and Content in Didactic Poetry Edited by: Catherine Atherton. 23-35 Bari: Levente Editori.