Godhead’s Wisdom


Athena’s Birth from Zeus’ Head.

What was it that Empedocles did refuse to reveal? Why didn’t he tell what he was « forbidden to say »? What was he afraid of, – this famous sage from Agrigento, this statesman, this gyrovague shaman and prophet? Why this pusillanimity on the part of someone who, according to legend, was not afraid to end up throwing himself alive into the furnace of Etna?

Empedocles wrote:

« I ask only what ephemeral humans are allowed to hear. Take over the reins of the chariot under the auspices of Piety. The desire for the brilliant flowers of glory, which I could gather from mortals, will not make me say what is forbidden… Have courage and climb the summits of science; consider with all your strength the manifest side of everything, but do not believe in your eyes more than in your ears.”i

Empedocles encourages us to « climb the summits of science » …

The Greek original text says: καὶ τὸτε δὴ σοφίης ἐπ’ ἄίκροισι θοάζειν, that translates literally: « to impetuously climb to the summits (ἐπ’ ἄίκροισι, ep’aikroisi) of wisdom (σοφίης sophias) ».

But what are really these « summits of wisdom »? Why this plural form? Shouldn’t there be just one and only one « summit of wisdom », in the proximity of the highest divinity?

In another fragment, Empedocles speaks again of « summits », using another Greek word, κορυφή, koruphe, which also means « summit, top »:

« Κορυφὰς ἑτέρας ἑτέρηισι προσάπτων

μύθων μὴ τελέειν ἀτραπὸν μίαν.”ii

Jean Bollack thus translated this fragment (into French):

« Joignant les cimes l’une à l’autre,

Ne pas dire un seul chemin de mots. »iii, i.e.:

« Joining the summits one to the other,

Not to say a single path of words.”

John Burnet and Auguste Reymond translated (in French):

« Marchant de sommet en sommet,

ne pas parcourir un sentier seulement jusqu’à la fin… »iv i.e.:

« Walking from summit to summit,

not to walk a path only to the end…”

Paul Tannery adopted another interpretation, translating Κορυφὰς as « beginnings »:

« Rattachant toujours différemment de nouveaux débuts de mes paroles,

et ne suivant pas dans mon discours une route unique… »v

« Always attaching new and different beginnings to my words,

and not following in my speech a single road…”

I wonder: does the apparent obscurity of this fragment justify so wide differences in its interpretation?

We are indeed invited to consider, to dig, to deepen the matter.

According to the Bailly Greek dictionary, κορυφή (koruphe), means « summit« , figuratively, the « zenith » (speaking of the sun), and metaphorically: « crowning« , or « completion« .

Chantraine’s etymological dictionary notes other, more abstract nuances of meaning for κορυφή : « the sum, the essential, the best« . The related verb, κορυφῶ koruphô, somewhat clarifies the range of meanings: « to complete, to accomplish; to rise, to lift, to inflate« .

The Liddell-Scott dictionary gives a quite complete review of possible meanings of κορυφή: « head, top; crown, top of the head [of a man or god], peak of a mountain, summit, top, the zenith; apex of a cone, extremity, tip; and metaphorically: the sum [of all his words], the true sense [of legends]; height, excellence of .., i.e. the choicest, best. »

Liddell-Scott also proposes this rather down-to earth and matter-of-fact interpretation of the fragment 24: « springing from peak to peak« , i.e. « treating a subject disconnectedly ».

But as we see, the word κορυφή may apply to human, geological, tectonic, solar or rhetorical issues…

What is be the right interpretation of κορυφή and the ‘movement’ it implies, for the fragment 24 of Empedocles?

Peaking? Springing? Topping? Summing? Crowning? Completing? Elevating? Erecting? Ascending?

Etymologically and originally, the word κορυφή relates to κόρυς, « helmet« . Chantraine notes incidentally that the toponym « Corinth » (Κόρινθος) also relates to this same etymology.

The primary meaning of κορυφή, therefore, has nothing to do with mountains or peaks. It refers etymologically to the « summit » of the body, the « head ». More precisely, it refers to the head when « helmeted », – the head of a man or a woman (or a God) equipped as a warrior. This etymology is well in accordance with the long, mythological memory of the Greeks. Pythagorasvi famously said that Athena was « begotten », all-armed, with her helmet, « from the head » of Zeus, in Greek: κορυφἆ-γενής (korupha-genes).

If we admit that the wise and deep Empedocles did not use metaphors lightly, in one of his most celebrated fragments, we may infer that the « summits », here, are not just mineral mountains that one would jump over, or subjects of conversation, which one would want to spring from.

In a Greek, philosophical context, the « summit » may well be understood as a metaphor for the « head of Zeus », the head of the Most High God. Since a plural is used (Κορυφὰς, ‘summits’), one may also assume that it is an allusion to another Godhead, that of the divine « Wisdom » (a.k.a. Athena), who was born from Zeus’ « head ».

Another important word in fragment 24 is the verb προσάπτω, prosapto.

Bollack translates this verb as « to join, » Burnet as « to walk, » Tannery as « to attach”, Liddell-Scott as « to spring »…

How diverse these scholars’ interpretations!… Joining the summits one to the other… Walking from summit to summit… Attaching new beginnings to a narration… Springing from peak to peak, as for changing subjects…

In my view, all these learned translations are either too literal or too metaphorical. And unsatisfactory.

It seems to me necessary to seek something else, more related to the crux of the philosophical matter, something related to a figurative « God Head », or a « Godhead »… The word koruphe refers metaphorically to something ‘extreme’, — also deemed the ‘best’ and the ‘essential’. The Heads (koruphas) could well allude to the two main Greek Godheads, — the Most High God (Zeus) and his divine Wisdom (Athena).

More precisely, I think the fragment may point to the decisive moment when Zeus begets his own Wisdom, springing from his head, all armed….

The verb προσάπτω has several meanings, which can guide our search: « to procure, to give; to attach oneself to; to join; to touch, to graze » (Bailly).

Based on these meanings, I propose this translation of the first line of fragment 24:

« Joining the [God] Heads, one to the other ».

The second verb used in fragment 24 (line 2) is τελέειν, teleein: « To accomplish, to perform, to realize; to cause, to produce, to procure; to complete, to finish; to pay; (and, in a religious context) to bring to perfection, to perform the ceremony of initiation, to initiate into the mysteries (of Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom) » (Bailly).

Could the great Empedocles have been satisfied with just a banal idea such as « not following a single road », or « not following a path to the end », or even, in a more contorted way, something about « not saying a single path of words »?

I don’t think so. Neither Bollack, Burnet, nor Tannery seem, in their translations, to have imagined and even less captured a potential mystical or transcendent meaning.

I think, though, that there might lie the gist of this Fragment.

Let’s remember that Empedocles was a very original, very devout and quite deviant Pythagorean. He was also influenced by the Orphism then in full bloom in Agrigento .

This is why I prefer to believe that neither the ‘road’, nor the ‘path’ quoted in the Fragment 24, are thought to be ‘unique’.

For a thinker like Empedocles, there must be undoubtedly other ways, not just a ‘single path’…

The verb τελέειν also has, in fact, meanings oriented towards the mystical heights, such as: « to attain perfection, to accomplish initiation, to initiate to the mysteries (of divine Wisdom) ».

As for the word μύθων (the genitive of mythos), used in line 2 of Fragment 24, , it may mean « word, speech », but originally it meant: « legend, fable, myth ».

Hence this alternative translation of μύθων μὴ τελέειν ἀτραπὸν μίαν (mython mè teleein atrapon mian) :

« Not to be initiated in the one way of the myths »…

Here, it is quite ironic to recall that there was precisely no shortage of myths and legends about Empedocles… He was said to have been taken up directly to heaven by the Gods (his « ascension »), shortly after he had successfully called back to life a dead woman named Panthea (incidentally, this name means « All God »), as Diogenes of Laërtius reportedvii.

Five centuries B.C., Empedocles resurrected “Panthea” (« All God »), and shortly afterwards he ‘ascended’ to Heaven.

One can then assume that the Fragment 24 was in fact quite premonitory, revealing in advance the nature of Empedocles’ vision, the essence of his personal wisdom.

The Fragment 24 announces an alternative to the traditional « way of initiation » by the myths:

« Joining the [God] Heads, one to the other,

Not to be initiated in the only way of the myths. »

Empedocles did not seem to believe that the myths of his time implied a unique way to initiation. There was maybe another « way » to initiation: « joining the Most High Godhead and his Wisdom …

_______

iEmpedocles, Fragment 4d

iiEmpedocles, Fragment 24d

iiiJ. Bollack, Empédocle. Les origines, édition et traduction des fragments et des témoignages, Paris, Éditions de Minuit, 1969

ivJohn Burnet, L’Aurore de la philosophie grecque, texte grec de l’édition Diels, traduction française par Auguste Reymond, 1919, p.245

vPaul Tannery, Pour l’histoire de la science hellène. Ed. Jacques Gabay, 1990, p. 342

viPythagoras. ap Plu., Mor. 2,381 f

viiDiogenes of Laërtius, VIII, 67-69

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