13. Reading the Cosmogonies*

There is not just one cosmogony, there are many, a whole typology of cosmogonies; every philosopher could have his own: a typical form could be taken up again and knowingly modified. It was a major step forward when, instead of constructing a fictitious continuity or evolution, I was able to differentiate, according to the doxography, between closed, unique worlds, like that of Parmenides (Bollack 2006), and worlds open to the limitless, like that of the atomists. The world as we see it or as we make it differs from other worlds by the way its elements are brought together in a circumscribed or self-limited space. When matter flowed in, at the initial instant, it was compact, concentrated by a force of attraction; when a mass broke away, as in Empedocles’ cycle, the result was, on the contrary, a primal dissemination that had to be contained.
The processes are radically different, and the phases are linked differently, depending on whether one creates a nihilo, as Democritus does, or whether one reconstitutes according to a model and a known outcome. It may be the same game, but it is played according to different rules.
This staging places construction in the foreground. The more a thing shows itself as “made,” the more it also conceals itself to the benefit of a hypothesis and of a body of knowledge. What is discovered in the atomists, when they avoid dogmatism, can serve for all schemas without exception.
Thus it becomes clear that we are dealing with explanatory systems or guides for thought, ideologies, we might call them, and this led certain thinkers, such as Heraclitus, and no doubt others before and after him, to give them up completely. This epistemological critique has not prevented Heraclitus’ interpreters from attempting to reassemble the elements of his analysis of physical speculations in multiple ways. A world he never thought of has been fabricated for him. Everything has been brought back into positivity. However, the original archaic systems are much less naïve than they are believed to be. They derive from rigorous thought, as for example with Parmenides, for whom the world is developed on the basis of an irreducible antithesis.
The rigor of this thought may appear arbitrary, but not its logic, as it unfolds here. The rivalry among cosmogonies shows well enough that the stakes were high, that the vision was not purely physical, but that each system had to transmit a form of mastery. From this point on, one is led to wonder: what were these “worlds,” with which novices and disciples were invited to live in the Schools? The followers of a master had to know how to internalize the precise and particular form of one of these worlds in preference to another, in order to think and express that world. Others, such as Heraclitus, took the opposite approach, rejecting constraints and promises borrowed from religious associations. Matter—the elements as well as their products, from the particles to the stars—was free, available, and open to reshaping; at the same time, matter was becoming enigmatic and totalizing within the underlying logic expressed by the organization of the great bodies of the world; it became a matter to be deciphered, an intellectual exercise.

Work Cited

Bollack, J. 2006. Parménide. De l’étant au monde. Paris.


[ back ] * Originally published as “Lire les cosmogonies,” in: Jean Bollack, La Grèce de personne: les mots sous le mythe (Paris, 1997), pp. 181–182.