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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 December 2019

Mikolaj Domaradzki*
Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan


This paper discusses the problem of Democritus’ allegoresis. The question whether Democritus practised allegoresis is usually answered affirmatively. Thus, for example, Jean Pépin, in his classic work on the development of allegorical interpretation, forcefully asserts that ‘Démocrite pratiqua d'abord une allégorie physique’ and that ‘il poursuivit aussi l'allégorie psychologique’. In one way or another, this view has been embraced by Luc Brisson, Ilaria Ramelli, Ilaria Ramelli and Giulio Lucchetta, Gerard Naddaf, to name just a few scholars who have recently examined the issue. However, those who find allegoresis in Democritus are often somewhat perplexed at what they discover. For instance Naddaf, in his otherwise excellent study, assumes that ‘Democritus believed that Homer was indeed a visionary sage with a privileged utterance that he intentionally transmitted allegorically’, upon which he concludes that Democritus’ position is ‘inconsistent and disconcerting given his place in the pantheon of Ionian rationalism’. This shows that the claim that Democritus practised allegoresis stumbles upon the following problem: if Democritus was a rationalist, then the question arises how his rationalism can be reconciled with his alleged belief that Homer deliberately disguised his poems as allegorical prefigurations of various Democritean views. Indeed, one may legitimately ask how rational it would be on Democritus’ part to ascribe to Homer the intention of being interpreted as a precursor of atomist philosophy. The purpose of the present paper is to shed some light on this conundrum and to offer a reconsideration of certain accounts that have been suggested so far.

Research Article
Copyright © The Classical Association 2019

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I would like to thank CQ’s anonymous reviewer for useful comments and helpful suggestions. Also, I wish to thank André Motte for his comments and encouragement.


1 Pépin, J., Mythe et allégorie: Les origines grecques et les contestations judéo-chrétiennes (Paris, 1976), 101Google Scholar.

2 Brisson, L., Introduction à la philosophie du mythe, vol. 1: Sauver les mythes (Paris, 1996), 56Google Scholar.

3 Ramelli, I., ‘Saggio integrativo: Breve storia dell'allegoresi del mito’, in ead. (ed.), Anneo Cornuto: Compendio di teologia greca (Milan, 2003), 440Google Scholar.

4 Ramelli, I. and Lucchetta, G., Allegoria, vol. 1: L'età classica (Milan, 2004), 71Google Scholar.

5 Naddaf, G., ‘Allegory and the origins of philosophy’, in Wians, W. (ed.), Logos and Muthos: Philosophical Essays in Greek Literature (Albany, 2009), 116Google Scholar.

6 Naddaf (n. 5), 116–17.

7 Unfortunately, in English and French literature on the subject, the term ‘allegory’ is often used indiscriminately. This has been rightly bemoaned by Pépin (n. 1), 487, who has observed that allegorical expression and allegorical interpretation are ‘malheureusement confondues sous le même vocable d’“allégorie”’. In German literature, on the other hand, Allegorie is consistently reserved for ‘allegorische Dichtung’, and Allegorese for ‘allegorische Deutung’. See e.g. the classic paper by Steinmetz, P., ‘Allegorische Deutung und allegorische Dichtung in der alten Stoa’, RhM 129 (1986), 1830Google Scholar; also Domaradzki, M., ‘The sophists and allegoresis’, AncPhil 35 (2015), 247–58Google Scholar (in what follows, I use some of the findings presented there).

8 Pépin (n. 1), 488.

9 DK 28 B 1. See e.g. Bowra, C.M., ‘The proem of Parmenides’, CPh 32 (1937), 97112Google Scholar or Fränkel, H., ‘Parmenidesstudien’, in id., Wege und Formen Frühgriechischen Denkens: literarische und philosophiegeschichtliche Studien (Munich, 1955), 158–62Google Scholar. While there is some dispute over whether Parmenides’ proem is allegory (see e.g. Palmer, J., Parmenides and Presocratic Philosophy [Oxford, 2009], 51–3CrossRefGoogle Scholar), the most important thing for the purpose of the present considerations is that Parmenides’ proem is a composition rather than an interpretation. Incidentally, one would think that this allegory (apart from diction and metre) might also have contributed to Diogenes Laertius’ (9.22) famous judgement that Parmenides (along with Hesiod, Xenophanes and Empedocles) ‘philosophizes through [his] verses’ (διὰ ποιημάτων φιλοσοφεῖ). Where no English reference is provided, the translation is my own.

10 The text is that of Kouremenos, T., Parássoglou, G.M., Tsantsanoglou, K., The Derveni Papyrus: Edited with Introduction and Commentary (Florence, 2006)Google Scholar. To the best of my knowledge, no scholar has questioned the authenticity of this allegoresis, although there is less scholarly consensus as to the intentions of its author. For an overview, see Kouremenos, Parássoglou, Tsantsanoglou (this note), 45–58 and Betegh, G., The Derveni Papyrus: Cosmology, Theology and Interpretation (Cambridge, 2004), 349–80CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 Thus I cannot agree with Radice, R., ‘Introduzione’, in Ramelli, I. and Lucchetta, G., Allegoria, vol. 1: L'età classica (Milan, 2004), 7Google Scholar, that allegoria be defined as ‘un'interpretazione casuale e rapsodica dei simboli’ and allegoresi as ‘una interpretazione sistematica, oltre che filosoficamente motivata dei medesimi’. Characterizing both allegory and allegoresis as kinds of interpretation makes it impossible to do justice to the various forms of hermeneutical activity of the Presocratic ‘physicists’.

12 In a somewhat similar vein, Dawson, D., Allegorical Readers and Cultural Revision in Ancient Alexandria (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1992), 5Google Scholar differentiates between ‘reading’ and ‘interpretation’.

13 Over ninety years ago, Wehrli, F., Zur Geschichte der allegorischen Deutung Homers im Altertum (Borna and Leipzig, 1928), 1Google Scholar rightly noted that at times it can be hard to differentiate between ‘grammatikalische Erklärung’ and ‘allegorische Deutung’.

14 For a recent discussion, see Domaradzki, M., ‘The beginnings of Greek allegoresis’, CW 110 (2017), 299321Google Scholar with further references (in what follows, I use some of the findings presented there).

15 As noted, for example, by Lanata, G., Poetica preplatonica: Testimonianze e frammenti (Firenze, 1963), 106Google Scholar: ‘la minuta esegesi testuale’.

16 Translation by Tsantsanoglou and Parássoglou (n. 10), 130–1. The original ἤθελε is rendered as ‘intend’ also by Laks, A. and Most, G.W., ‘A provisional translation of the Derveni papyrus’, in Laks, A. and Most, G.W. (edd.), Studies on the Derveni Papyrus (Oxford, 1997), 12Google Scholar as well as Betegh (n. 10), 17. R. Janko, on the other hand, renders it as ‘wish’ (‘The Derveni papyrus [Diagoras of Melos, Apopyrgizontes logoi?]: a new translation’, CPh 96 [2001], 1–32, at 21) or ‘want’ (‘The Derveni papyrus: an interim text’, ZPE 141 [2002], 1–62, at 15). Whichever translation is chosen, it is evident that the Derveni author attributes to Orpheus the intention of an allegorical composition.

17 For good discussions, see, for example, Barnes, J., The Presocratic Philosophers (London and New York, 1982), 74Google Scholar or Kirk, G.S., Raven, J.E. and Schofield, M., The Presocratic Philosophers: A Critical History with a Selection of Texts (Cambridge, 1983), 174CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

18 Long, A.A., ‘Stoic readings of Homer’, in Lamberton, R. and Keaney, J.J. (edd.), Homer's Ancient Readers: The Hermeneutics of Greek Epic's Earliest Exegetes (Princeton, 1992), 4166Google Scholar. Long follows in the footsteps of Steinmetz (n. 7), 18–19, who also assumes that allegoresis presupposes an intention on the part of the author: ‘Unter allegorischer Deutung oder Allegorese wird dabei der Versuch verstanden, unter der Annahme, hinter dem wörtlichen Sinn einer Dichtung habe der Dichter bewußt einen tieferen Sinn verborgen, eben diesen verborgenen Sinn als das vom Dichter in Wahrheit Gemeinte zu erkennen.’

19 For a good account, see Brancacci, A., ‘Democritus’ Mousika’, in id. and Morel, P.-M. (edd.), Democritus: Science, the Arts, and the Care of the Soul (Leiden and Boston, 2007), 181205Google Scholar.

20 All these testimonies have been analyzed by Philippson, R., ‘Democritea I. Demokrit als Homerausleger’, Hermes 64 (1929), 167–75Google Scholar, who has shown that none of them is to be identified with allegoresis: ‘Wir können demnach feststellen, daß Demokrit in den Fragmenten, die sich auf seine Homerdeutung beziehen, den Dichter nirgends allegorisch ausgelegt hat; nirgends nimmt er an, daß dieser in Personen und Vorgänge sittliche oder physikalische Gedanken hineingeheimnißt habe.’ (at 175). Philippson's conclusions are accepted by Lanata (n. 15), 262–6.

21 See e.g. Pépin (n. 1), 101–2; Brisson (n. 2), 56; Ramelli (n. 3), 440; Ramelli and Lucchetta (n. 4), 71; and Naddaf (n. 5), 116. For citations, see nn. 25 and 46 below. Neither fr. 30 nor fr. 2 has been included in Lanata (n. 15), albeit the latter is mentioned briefly (at 266). Luria, S., Democritea. Collegit, emendavit, interpretatus est (Leningrad, 1970)Google Scholar places fr. 30 (= 580) under the section De origine cultus deorum and fr. 2 (= 822) under the section De ratione bene dicendi et scribendi. Taylor, C.C.W., The Atomists: Leucippus and Democritus. Fragments. A Text and Translation with a Commentary (Toronto, 1999)CrossRefGoogle Scholar places fr. 30 (= D14) under the section Theology and fr. 2 (= 170) under the section Literary criticism and theory of language. Finally, Laks, A. and Most, G.W., Les débuts de la philosophie. Édition et traduction (Paris, 2016)Google Scholar place fr. 30 (= LM 27 D210) under the section Origine de la croyance aux dieux and fr. 2 (= LM 27 D293) under the section Sagesse et folie.

22 To cite one example, Ramelli and Lucchetta (n. 4), 71 have no doubts that the two fragments warrant the conclusion that ‘Democrito interpretava i poemi omerici secondo principi allegorici, in senso sia fisico sia etico’.

23 In their latest edition, Laks and Most (n. 21) emend the text slightly: «τῶν λογίων ἀνθρώπων ὀλίγους» φησίν «ἀνατείναντας τὰς χεῖρας ἐνταῦθα, ὃν νῦν ἠέρα καλέομεν οἱ ῞Ελληνες, <εἰπεῖν> ‘πάντα घεὺς ἐνθυμέεται καὶ πάνθ' οὗτος οἶδε καὶ διδοῖ καὶ ἀφαιρέεται καὶ βασιλεὺς οὗτος τῶν πάντων.’» (LM 27 D210). While the most important emendation suggested by Laks and Most is ἐνθυμέεται in lieu of μυθέεται, the above translation (‘Zeus considers everything’) could be retained or, alternatively, the line could be rendered as ‘Zeus ponders everything’ (see LSJ: ἐνθυμέομαι).

24 In his excellent discussion of the Zeus–air equation, Betegh (n. 10), 196 points to the confusion owing to ‘the ambiguity and shifting semantic field of the word αἰθήρ’ (which he illustrates with Eur. fr. 941 Nauck). Betegh does not, however, mention Democritus in his survey of the Zeus–air identification.

25 As many scholars assume. See e.g. Pépin (n. 1), 101: ‘allégorie physique’; Ramelli (n. 3), 440: ‘allegoresi fisica’; Ramelli and Lucchetta (n. 4), 71: ‘allegoresi fisica’; Naddaf (n. 5), 116: ‘allegory’.

26 Steinmetz (n. 7), 19.

27 Laks, A., Diogène d'Apollonie: La dernière cosmologie présocratique (Lille, 1983), 102Google Scholar has some reservations about classifying Diogenes’ approach as allegoresis. For scholars who in one way or another do categorize Diogenes’ interpretation as an instance of allegoresis, see e.g. Pépin (n. 1), 101; Brisson (n. 2), 56; Betegh (n. 10), 309; Ramelli and Lucchetta (n. 4), 70–1; Naddaf (n. 5), 117; and, especially, Janko, R., ‘The physicist as hierophant: Aristophanes, Socrates and the authorship of the Derveni papyrus’, ZPE 118 (1997), 6194Google Scholar, at 80.

28 Buffière, F., Les mythes d'Homère et la pensée grecque (Paris, 1956), 90Google Scholar n. 20 suggests that the idea that Zeus knows everything might be a reference to Il. 24.88.

29 Thus αἰνιγματώδης (7.5), αἴνιγμα (7.6) and αἰνίζεσθαι (9.10, 10.11, 13.6, 17.13).

30 See n. 16 above.

31 See Kouremenos, T., ‘Introduction’, in Kouremenos, T., Parássoglou, G.M., Tsantsanoglou, K., The Derveni Papyrus: Edited with Introduction and Commentary (Florence, 2006), 42–3Google Scholar.

32 Plutarch famously relates (De aud. poet. 19E–F) that it is only ‘now’ (νῦν) that ἀλληγορία has replaced what ‘long ago’ (πάλαι) used to be termed ὑπόνοια. In the Classical period, the latter is sporadically attested in the relevant sense (Xen. Symp. 3.6; Pl. Resp. 2.378d6–8), but it has been well established in research on allegorical interpretation that the term most often employed by the early allegorists was neither ἀλληγορία (which is late) nor ὑπόνοια (which is rare) but rather αἴνιγμα. See especially Struck, P.T., Birth of the Symbol: Ancient Readers at the Limits of their Texts (Princeton, 2004), 3950CrossRefGoogle Scholar and 170–9. Cf. also Buffière (n. 28), 48–9; Ford, A., The Origins of Criticism: Literary Culture and Poetic Theory in Classical Greece (Princeton, 2002), 72–6, 85–7Google Scholar; Naddaf (n. 5), 112 and Obbink, D., ‘Early Greek allegory’, in Copeland, R. and Struck, P.T. (edd.), The Cambridge Companion to Allegory (Cambridge, 2010), 16Google Scholar. For excellent discussions of the relation between the earlier term ὑπόνοια and its later equivalent ἀλληγορία, see Buffière (n. 28), 45–8; Pépin (n. 1), 85–92; Whitman, J., Allegory: The Dynamics of an Ancient and Medieval Technique (Cambridge, Mass., 1987), 263–8Google Scholar and Blönnigen, C., Der griechische Ursprung der jüdisch-hellenistischen Allegorese und ihre Rezeption in der alexandrinischen Patristik (Frankfurt am Main and Berlin, 1992), 1119Google Scholar.

33 Tellingly, Luria (n. 21) does not place the fragment in the section devoted to Homer (De Homero) but rather in the section devoted to the origins of religious cult (De origine cultus deorum). Similarly, Laks and Most (n. 21) place the fragment in the section devoted to the origins of religious beliefs (Origine de la croyance aux dieux) and not in the section devoted to Homer (Exégèses d'Homère). Finally, Taylor (n. 21) also places this fragment under the section Theology rather than Literary Criticism. Janko (n. 27), 86–7 surmises that fr. 30 may be a mocking allusion to Diogenes or the Anaxagoreans.

34 Luria (n. 21) places this fragment in two different sections: De caeli origine (397a) and De Homero (821), though the latter is accompanied by the note: Non pertinet ad Homeri interpretationem Democriteam (at 848). Laks and Most (n. 21) place the fragment under the section Exégèses d'Homère, but they also observe: ‘Certains interprètes pensent que Démocrite est cité ici seulement pour la théorie de la nourriture du soleil et non pour l'exégèse d'Homère’ (at 1037 n. 2). In particular, Philippson (n. 20), 169 has argued that ‘Demokrit läßt die Sonne wie die übrigen Gestirne aus den Ausdünstungen der Erde entstehen.’ Lanata (n. 15), 266 follows Philippson: ‘Democrito viene ad affermare semplicemente che il sole, come le altre stelle, è formato dalle esalazioni della terra.’

35 As noted by Luria—see nn. 33 and 34 above.

36 Though anachronistic, such characterizations are frequently employed with regard to ancient rationalizations of mythology. See the classic work by Cole, T., Democritus and the Sources of Greek Anthropology (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1967)Google Scholar. Also, Kany-Turpin, J., ‘Theories of religion’, in Brunschwig, J. and Lloyd, G.E.R. (edd.), Greek Thought: A Guide to Classical Knowledge (Cambridge, Mass., 2000)Google Scholar, 513 labels Democritus’ approach as ‘anthropological’, and Ford (n. 32), 145–6 likewise discusses Democritus’ ‘cultural anthropology’. In a similar vein, Long (n. 18), 41–66 characterizes the Stoics interchangeably as ‘ethnographers’ and ‘cultural anthropologists’.

37 This assumption is made by Naddaf (n. 5), 116–17 (see n. 6 above).

38 Pace Naddaf (n. 5), 117, whose assumption (see the previous note) leads him to the above-cited conclusion that Democritus’ position is ‘inconsistent and disconcerting’ (see n. 6 above).

39 Thus, Luria (n. 21) places it in three different sections (Theoria cognitionis [67], De anima [452] and De Homero [820]), Taylor (n. 21) places it under the section Psychology (107a), whereas Laks and Most (n. 21) place it under the section L’âme et la pensée (D133).

40 LSJ: ἀλλοφρονέω.

41 The latter makes similar reference at Metaph. Γ 5.1009b28–30: τὸν ῞Ομηρον … ἐποίησε τὸν ῞Εκτορα … κεῖσθαι ἀλλοφρονέοντα.

42 Wehrli (n. 13), 71.

43 Philippson (n. 20), 170, on the other hand, takes fr. A 101 to illustrate ‘wie D. die γλῶσσαι Homers sachlich, ohne allegorische Seitensprünge zu erklären sucht’. While I agree that we do not have an instance of allegoresis here, I take the fragment rather to be a case of appropriation of poetry for the purpose of explaining an abstract concept. Thus I think that Buffière (n. 28), 276 n. 68 aptly writes that Democritus ‘s'appuyait … sur Homère’.

44 Philippson (n. 20), 175. Following Philippson, also Lanata (n. 15), 265 stresses that this interpretation ‘non porta ad attribuire alcun senso riposto al testo di Omero’.

45 Laks and Most (n. 21) cite here Schol. bT: Δημόκριτος δὲ ἐτυμολογῶν τὸ ὄνομα, φησὶν ὅτι φρόνησίς ἐστιν, ἀφ' ἧς τρία συμβαίνει, εὖ λογίζεσθαι, λέγειν καλῶς, πράττειν ἃ δεῖ (LM 27 D293b).

46 See e.g. Pépin (n. 1), 101: ‘allégorie psychologique’; Brisson (n. 2), 56: ‘allégorie psychologique’; Ramelli (n. 3), 440: ‘allegoresi di tipo etico’; Ramelli and Lucchetta (n. 4), 71: ‘esegesi allegorica di tipo etico’; Naddaf (n. 5), 116: ‘psychological allegory’.

47 E.g. Wehrli (n. 13), 60 n. 1; Pépin (n. 1), 102; Ramelli (n. 3), 508 n. 60; Ramelli and Lucchetta (n. 4), 72 n. 77.

48 See n. 32 above.

49 As, for example, M. Dixsaut, Platon et la question de la pensée (Paris, 2000), 162 rightly points out: ‘L’étymologie devient alors non seulement le moyen privilégié de l’éxégèse, elle est en elle-même exégèse.’ Buffière (n. 28), 60–5 gives a useful discussion of etymology understood precisely as a ‘moyen d'exégèse’. Cf. also Peraki-Kyriakidou, H., ‘Aspects of ancient etymologizing’, CQ 52 (2002), 478–93CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

50 LSJ: ἔτυμος and ἔτυμον, τό. On the complex relation between ἔτυμος and ἀληθής, see T. Krischer, ‘ΕΤΥΜΟΣ und ΑΛΗΘΗΣ’, Philologus 109 (1965), 161–74.

51 Cf. e.g. Cra. 422d1–2, 427d1–2; see also Euthyd. 277e4.

52 Plato might be alluding here to Antisthenes, who is reported (Decleva Caizzi 56 = Giannantoni V A 192) to have commented on Athena's rebuke of Ares at Il. 15.123–42 in the following manner: ‘if a wise man does something, he acts in accord with utmost virtue, just as Athena admonishes Ares three times’ (εἴ τι πράττει ὁ σοφός, κατὰ πᾶσαν ἀρετὴν ἐνεργεῖ, ὡς καὶ ἡ ᾿Αθηνᾶ τριχῶς νουθετεῖ τὸν ῎Αρην). The idea that Athena warns Ares three times could somehow be connected with Democritus’ interpretation of Tritogeneia as producing three human capacities. Furthermore, in one of his works Antisthenes might have identified Athena with thought or wisdom (Athena or On Telemachus would be the most likely candidate). However, the above-cited testimony should not be classified as an instance of allegoresis (as, for example, does Ramelli [n. 3], 445, who finds here ‘una chiara interpretazione allegorica’). Antisthenes does not interpret the goddess in any allegorical way and his comment does not reveal any ὑπόνοια. Thus nothing justifies categorizing this as allegoresis.

53 The sophists, on the other hand, combine use of allegory with ethnographic rationalization of mythology. See Domaradzki (n. 7), 254–7.

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