Jean Bollack in English, a preview of a foreword to The Art of Reading, Part III

2016.04.07 | By Gregory Nagy

This posting of 2016.04.06 is Part III of what I started in the postings of 2016.03.09 and 2016.03.30, which were Parts I and II. In these postings, I preview the text of a foreword I am putting together for a 2016 book containing twenty-seven chapters based on articles and essays by Jean Bollack, The Art of Reading: from Homer to Paul Celan, translated into English by Catherine Porter and Susan Tarrow.

Detail of the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493). Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Detail from the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493). Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Ch.5. “Reading Myths” (Bollack 1997e)

§5. The intellectual rigor of Jean Bollack’s approach to the text leads him into debates with contemporaries in France who were developing explanatory models centering on the very nature of myth in ancient Greek civilization. In this essay, Bollack trains his sights on two French studies on Greek myth, one of which is a book by Jean-Pierre Vernant (1962; fifth edition 1992) and the other, an article by Marcel Detienne (1988). Both of these studies approach myth as a phenomenon that transcends any instantiation in the form of a text, whereas Bollack by contrast insists on the primacy of the text—and of the author who originally produced the given text within its own historical context. In the case of this essay, Bollack focuses on two of his favorite authors, Hesiod and Anaximander.

Ch.6. “Purifications” (Bollack 2003)

§6A. Pursuing his insistence on the primacy of the text in studying any myth that is mediated by a given text as produced by a given author, Bollack focuses here on the text known as the Katharmoi or Purifications of the so-called pre-Socratic thinker Empedocles of Akragas (modern Agrigento) in Sicily, who was a near-contemporary of classical tragedians like Sophocles. Reading this essay, we could easily be led to believe that Empedocles is Bollack’s all-time favorite Greek author. And what makes the Purifications of Empedocles so special? It is the nature of this text as a myth, which Bollack sees as something actually invented by Empedocles. As Bollack puts it, the Purifications is a piece of poetry that literally “invents a myth,” and he describes this myth as “a new story that purports to replace all the other stories that have ever been told, from Homer and Hesiod to the contemporary productions of Athenian tragedy.”

§6B. For Bollack, Empedocles is a social reformer who produced the text of the Purifications as a manifesto for political action on a universal scale. As we read in the Lives of Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius (second or third century CE), Empedocles renounced political deals that would have served the interests of the aristocracy in his city, though he sought the active support of like-minded elite thinkers in seeking a social order that transcended the polis or ‘city-state’.

§6C. This essay of Bollack explores also the complementarity of the Purifications with another celebrated poem of Empedocles, the Peri phuseōs—a title sometimes known as On Nature but better rendered as The Origins. Bollack here engages in some lively debates with Walter Burkert (1962, 1972) and with Marcel Detienne (1963, 1970) in the context of comparisons between the thinking of Empedocles and the thinking of his predecessor, Pythagoras.


Bollack, J. 1997e. “Lire le mythe.” In: Bollack 1997:131–136.

Bollack, J. 2003. “Dieu sur terre.” In: Empédocle. Les purifications. Un projet de paix universelle (ed. J. Bollack) 9–28. Paris.

Burkert, W. 1962. Weisheit und Wissenschaft: Studien zu Pythagoras, Philolaos und Platon. Nürnberg.

Burkert, W. 1972. Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism. Translated by E. L. Minar, Jr. from Burkert 1962. Cambridge, MA.

Detienne, M. 1963. La notion de daïmon dans le pythagorisme ancien: de la pensée religieuse à la pensée philosophique. Paris.

Detienne, M. 1970. “La cuisine de Pythagore.” Archives des sciences sociales des religions 29:141–162.

Detienne, M. 1988. “La double écriture de la mythologie entre le Timée et le Critias.Métamorphoses du mythe en Grèce antique (ed. C. Calame) 17–33. Geneva.

Vernant, J.-P. 1962. Les origines de la pensée grecque. 5th ed. 1992. Paris.