Translation of and Brief Comment on Xenophanes’ Fragments

In this pdf, you will find my highly literal translation of the fragments of Xenophanes. They are based on the text of James H. Lesher, Xenophanes of Colophon (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001), with any deviations from Lesher’s text detailed in the footnotes. I have not recently revisited the Greek since my initial translation some time ago, so corrections are likely necessary and certainly welcome.

A brief comment on Xenophanes’ significance. It is my opinion that this Pre-Socratic figure is among the most under-appreciated in Classical thought, perhaps owing to Aristotle’s deprecation of him in Metaphysics A. But Xenophanes is of paramount importance on the question of the gods, for in the scant writings of his that we possess, he runs the gamut from Homeric to Aristotelean theology. He is captivatingly both of the moment and ahead of his time, so that he is for all time.

A cursory glance corroborates this aspect of Xenophanes’ writing. He reflects, first, on the rituals and trappings surrounding everyday religious experience, culminating in a rejection of traditional standards of excellence (e.g., B1). From here, he embarks upon a critique of the traditional gods, such as one finds in Homer and Hesiod (e.g., B11). The Platonic Socrates borrows this critique in Republic III, thus allowing him to replace the Olympian gods with Platonic forms. And, indeed, the same Aristotle who finds Xenophanes unworthy of even the most cursory treatment borrows from this line of argument the rudiments for his criticism of Platonic forms in Metaphysics B. What takes the cake is that those fragments in which Xenophanes presents his revised theology look suspiciously familiar to the theology Aristotle lays out in Metaphysics Λ (e.g., B25).

Thus we see that the extraordinary breadth and depth of Xenophanes’ thought cannot be denied. A fresh study of the extant fragments would be much welcomed, especially one taking into account what appears to be Aristotle’s highly ironic stance toward an otherwise marginal character in the history of philosophy. I am hoping to turn my notes on Xenophanes into an article on this question with the title “Rehabilitating Xenophanes,” once time permits. For now, I hope you find my translation and this brief comment helpful.

Article Posted – “On Two Socratic Questions” (On Plato’s Euthypro)

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Under the research section, I’ve posted a link to my new article on Plato’s Euthyphro, which I consider to be an examination of the possibility of posing Socrates’ famous question, ti esti touto. It was just published in The St. John’s Review.

In lieu of an abstract, here’s a shortened version of the first paragraph:

The most famous Socratic question—ti esti touto?—is often preceded by a far less famous, but more fundamental question—esti touto ti? Though this question is posed in many dialogues with respect to myriad topics, in every instance it receives but one answer: it is something, namely something that is. The dialogue devoted to why this question always meets with an affirmative answer would appear to be the Parmenides, for there Parmenides throws into question whether the eidē are, only to establish that, if we have opinions that there is some unity in being, such unity must be. Nevertheless, the dramatic setting of the Parmenides is the quarreling of the Pre-Socratic schools, and the popular dismissal of philosophy that their quarreling engendered. For a dialogue that establishes that the object of inquiry is simply because we have opinions about it, we must, as I hope to show, turn to the Euthyphro.

Article Posted – “Irony and Opinion: Plato’s ‘Theaetetus’ and the Absent ‘Philosopher'”

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Under the research section, I’ve posted a link to my new article on Plato’s Theaetetus, which I argue can also be understood to follow the Sophist and Statesman, and thus in some sense serve as the unwritten dialogue, the Philosopher. It was just published in The International Journal of the Platonic Tradition 10: 151-167.


This paper considers the unity of Socrates’ twin apparitions of sophist and statesman, alluded to in the Sophist. Examining how these apparitions are at work in the Theaetetus, I argue that the difficulty is that of combining the nurturing or educative role of the statesman with the sophist’s practice of refutation. Beginning from Socrates’ shift in appearance early in the dialogue, I argue that the cause of this shift is Theaetetus’ character, that this forces the general problem Socrates has in mind into a particular form, and that Theaetetus never fully grasps this fundamental, intractable problem. Consequently, the problem’s intractability shows why Socratic education is always refutative, and so combines the statesman and sophist’s respective arts. And because Theaetetus is the cause of Socrates’ shift, the philosopher’s appearance is always an ironic reflection of his interlocutor’s opinions: the dialogue the Philosopher would have to be named the Theaetetus.

Plato, Statesman 267d4-5

Ἐγὼ νῷν πειράσομαι τοῦτ᾽ αὐτὸ ὃ διανοοῦμαι νῦν ἔτι μᾶλλον δηλῶσαι.

After having defined the statesman as having an art of caring for human beings, the anonymous stranger from Elea suspects that young Socrates’ conclusion, that it is altogether and entirely (παντάπασι) thus, is overstated. Indulging his interlocutor’s request for elaboration, the stranger prefaces his argument with the above sentence, which we can preliminarily translate as follows:

(1) “I will attempt to clarify still more for the two of us this very thing that I am now thinking.”

This straightforward rendering fails to do justice to the actual complexity of the text, which proves much more difficult to translate – and interestingly so.

First, there is the issue of reflexivity. In the active, πειράω means “to attempt” or “to try.” In this sentence, it is in the middle, which does not change the sense, though it does emphasize the importance of the attempt to the one attempting, namely the stranger. The stranger seems to underscore his role by including the unnecessary, and thus emphatic, nominative pronoun ἐγώ. But in addition to the reflexivity built into the verb itself, the stranger includes the first person, dual pronoun νῷν as the indirect object either of πειράσομαι or of δηλῶσαι. These features thus refine the translation, and into two possibilities:

(2) “I will attempt for myself to clarify for the two of us still more this very thing that I am now thinking.”

(3) “I will attempt for myself for the two of us to clarify still more this very thing that I am now thinking.”

Second, there is the problem of the adverbs found between διανοοῦμαι and δηλῶσαι. Normally, an adverb modifies the verb that follows it. But if we group all three adverbs with δηλῶσαι, we get the following, quite odd translation of the two main verbs:

(4) “I will attempt to clarify now still more.”

The oddity is that a future attempt leads to a present clarification, as though the accomplishing of the thing attempted preceded the attempt itself. Thus it seems necessary, and really quite reasonable, to pair νῦν with διανοοῦμαι, so that the stranger makes a future attempt to clarify what he is presently only thinking. Young Socrates’ exhortation, Λέγοις ἄν, certainly confirms that he takes the stranger to be saying something of the sort. But, if we are willing to pair νῦν with διανοοῦμαι, what prevents us also from including ἔτι, or even also μᾶλλον?* Such a reading is supported by the choice of διανοέω over ἐννοέω, since the former emphasizes the process of thought and the latter the possession of a completed thought. That is, the stranger is still in the process of thinking. On this reading, we get the following translation of the subordinate clause:

(5) “this very thing that I am now thinking through still more.”

The implication of this translation is that the stranger emphatically remains in the process of thinking through his suspicion about their prior definition of the statesman. Even as he speaks to young Socrates, the stranger reflects within himself. Thus the very complexity in the sentence’s reflexivity is reflected in the ambiguity regarding the role of the adverbs in the larger syntax of the sentence. Just as the attempted clarification was to be both for the stranger privately and the two of them together as a pair, so too now the clarification for the two of them is to occur in tandem with the stranger’s continued and private thinking-through of his suspicion.

While the complexity of this sentence is something of a surprise, certainly the substance is less so. Readers of the Statesman are familiar with such an understanding of thinking from elsewhere in the trilogy. In Plato’s Sophist, the stranger defines thinking as “a dialogue that comes to be without voice within the soul with itself” (Sophist 263e3-5). They are likewise familiar with it from Socrates’ similar statement in the Theaetetus, namely that soul, “when thinking, appears to me nothing else than to be conversing, it asking and answering itself, asserting and not asserting” (Theaetetus 189e8-190a2). If we reflect on the ambiguous role of νῷν in our initial bit of text, we note that the stranger can only clarify something for young Socrates if he somehow dramatizes young Socrates in his mind. He must try to address young Socrates, and so not just the explicit clarification is shared, but also the implicit, more personal attempt (albeit on an internal and necessarily imitative level). With thinking, the middle voice always implies νῷν.

In contrast, the Statesman is the only dialogue in this trilogy that does not offer us a definition of thinking. Rather, with its awkward combination of long digressions and terse abbreviations, it seems more than the others to dramatize thinking. Such is perhaps to be expected of a dialogue with the purpose of making its speakers more dialectical (Statesman 285d5-8). Accordingly, what sets the stranger’s statement apart from those earlier definitions is precisely its dramatic character – it occurs in time, as all thinking and conversing must, and as no definition ever could. This makes the translation proposed in (4) quite interesting. For if the stranger is in the process of thinking his suspicion through, the suspicion stands both at the beginning and at the end of the process. In this way, the attempted clarification precedes its own attempt: “I will attempt my present clarification.”**

Perhaps this is why Plato chose to dramatize the attempt to become more dialectical through an analysis of the statesman. For if anything arouses suspicion, it is the failure of laws to anticipate all circumstances. The laws – the statesman’s second sailing (Statesman 300c2) – are the philosopher’s first sailing.

* When ἔτι precedes a comparative, the two usually go together.

** The stranger thus seems to be reflecting on young Socrates’ earlier, eager anticipation that the animal, to which the statesman tends, is man, as opposed to beasts. In the stranger’s correction of what he portrays as an erroneously hasty jump, he never denies that young Socrates’ suspicion is incorrect. While they know where they are headed, they aren’t sure how they will get there.

Article Posted – “…Going Further On Down The Road…”: The Origin and Foundations of Milesian Thought

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Under the research section, I’ve posted a link to my new article on Thales and Anaximander’s place relative to Hesiod and Heraclitus. It was just published in The Review of Metaphysics 70: 3-31.


Praised for its reliance on observation rather than myth, the Milesian school signals the dawn of science in the West.  Whereas Hesiod appeals to the long ago and far away to explain the here and now, Thales and his cohorts do the reverse.  In this reversal, we are their thankful, even faithful heirs. But with Hesiod not everything is myth and hearsay.  Indeed, Hesiod singles himself out by name as the bearer of a powerfully poetic and distinctly human wisdom that he consistently contrasts with Zeus’ divine wisdom.  In this article, the author argues that the Milesians attempt to gain access to divine wisdom, and thus disregard the ambiguities characteristic of human wisdom.  One sees this especially in a tension between Thales’ political wisdom and natural philosophy, and later between Anaximander’s cosmology and cosmogony.  The author concludes that Heraclitus appears to have been the first thinker to confront the Hesiodic worldview on its own terms, inasmuch as his attempt to bridge the divide between divine and human wisdom always keeps one eye on the ambiguities that pervade human experience.

Ibycus and Keaton


NB: The following is the introduction to a paper I’m in the process of writing, “Keaton’s Yoke.”

Love, looking at me meltingly

under dark-lidded eyes,

by all manner of charms throws me

into the limitless fishing-net of Cupridian [Aphrodite].

And I tremble as he approaches,

just as an aged, yoke-carrying horse that has carried off victory

unwillingly walks into contest with swift chariots. (Ibycus fr. 287)*

The resurgence of love in his old age prompts a fearful reflection in the aged Ibycus. Love sets a trap he must escape, but cannot for all its infinitude, just as an old racehorse’s prior victory lightens his yoke no less. Over and against his love, Ibycus experiences a fear borne of his reflection on the paradox of his situation. As death looms over him in his old age, he senses his mortal limits, returns to a race he has already won, and discovers that what he longs for is greater than what a finite victory could ever provide. The competition of rival lovers for the beautiful beloved is but an immediate contrivance for a distant object. Even a great champion’s victories are merely mortal, even the retired Ali never ceased speaking of his greatness as he shadowboxed for the cameras. As Ibycus discovers, human finitude cannot answer the question it itself raises.

But despite his fear, Ibycus’ reflection seems more comic than tragic, his bestial image of Love’s effects subverting all pretense to participation in the divine. That love’s object is spurious may engender fear, but fear takes us outside ourselves and so prepares us for laughter. For Ibycus, then, the tension between love and reflection is the cause of both fear and laughter, with the lover’s striving a sort of determined, risky stumbling. So if I had to imagine Ibycus’ face, it would be Buster Keaton’s, at once solemn, inquisitive, and confused. And if I had to connect these tatters of papyrus using celluloid film, again I’d turn to the unpredictable force of nature in Keaton’s acting and the reflective depth of his directing. As both actor and director, Keaton is both striving body and disembodied thought, both trapped in finitude and reflecting thereupon. Keaton may bear love’s yoke, but he knows the yoke’s on him.

*For the text, see David Campbell, Greek Lyric Poetry (London: Bristol Classical Press, 1982), 66. The translation is my own.

Aristotle, Metaphysics A.1

In Metaphysics A.1, Aristotle begins from the observation that “all human beings by nature grasp at knowing” (980a1), cites as evidence our liking of the senses (and sight, most of all) (980a1-4), and ends with the conclusion that “it is clear that wisdom is knowledge concerned with certain principles (ἀρχὰς) and causes” (982a2-3). Along the way, however, Aristotle observes that “we see (ὁρῶμεν) the experienced having greater success” in practice “than those having an account without experience” (981a14-15). The cause (αἴτιον) of this, Aristotle clarifies, is that “experience is a cognition of particulars, while art of generals, and all actions and becomings are concerned with the particular” (981a15-17). Aristotle identifies a problem of ignorance in practice for those having an art or an account. That he cognizes this problem as a cause suggests that Aristotle, too, possesses a sort of wisdom. But that he does so by sight suggests that only at the price of missing Aristotle’s particular wisdom do “we suppose (οἰόμεθα) knowing and understanding are more with art than experience and take (ὑπολαμβάνομεν) the artful to be wiser than the experienced” (981a24-26). The reason we are inclined to these suppositions is, Aristotle remarks, the honor attached to the artful (τοὺς ἀρχιτέκτονας) (cf. 981a30-b1). From the perspective of practice, then, the honored wisdom concerned with the ἀρχαί, if not the causes, would seem to be a reductive approach to what we see and experience, and thus to that extent a sort of δοξοσοφία (cf. Rhetoric 1387b32-33). At the very least, it is not Aristotle’s wisdom. He seems inclined to what we learn from sight and experience without recourse to ἀρχαί, to what he refers to not as the why, but as “the what,” τὸ ὅτι (981a29).