Mixed Genre Reviews

The Thinking Root

The Poetry of Earliest Greek Philosophy

Translated by Dan Beachy-Quick
Milkweed Editions ($18)

by John Bradley

There’s something about the writing of the ancient Greeks that calls out to the present like a mythical siren; Kenneth Rexroth, Dudley Fitts, Mary Barnard, and Anne Carson are a few of the translators who have heard this siren call. Dan Beachy-Quick is another, as shown by his recent translations of Sappho (Wind-Mountain-Oak, Tupelo Press, 2023) and sixth-century BCE Greek poets (Stone-Garland, Milkweed Editions, 2020). Now, with The Thinking Root, he offers skillful translations of some early Greek philosophers: Heraclitus, Thales, Empedocles, and five others.

Beachy-Quick’s sensitive translations use fresh language to cast new light on the words of these early thinkers. Before discussing his translations, though, it’s necessary to consider his approach to these texts, which he shares in an introduction:

The hope of this small volume of translations is to offer some experience of what it might be to think as these thinkers thought. To do so means the translation takes an unusual path. Sensing that the standard scholarly presentation that cites the sources in which the texts are found acts mostly as a scaffolding that traces a thinking while also obscuring it, I decided to see what would happen if these attributions were removed, if we had to encounter these words as one might find a broken shard in a field, and then another, and again, knowing somehow they fit together into a vessel entire, but not knowing how to assemble it, not knowing if all the parts have been found, or even if all the shards belong to the same pot.

While the translation of Greek fragments is a challenge for any translator, Beachy-Quick’s approach seeks to heighten the intensity of this challenge rather than tame it with scholarly “scaffolding.” Here are some texts by Anaxagoras that possibly gain by Beachy-Quick’s approach, where we encounter the writing as isolated shards. Note how strange and at the same time familiar they sound, as if the pre-Socratic philosopher were also a quantum physicist and Zen master rolled into one:

What you see is a vision of what cannot be seen.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Of the small there is no smallest, but smaller yet always exists (for what is is not not to be).

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

All other things share some inner portion, but the Mind is boundless and self-ruling and joined to no other substance, but only it is alone—alone in itself.

Many early Greek philosophers often wrote in an aphoristic style, perhaps to better express the paradoxical nature of the universe. Heraclitus in particular enjoyed the abrupt energy of the aphorism:

The road up and the road down are one road.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

In hell souls smell.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Asses prefer shit mixed with straw to gold.

Empedocles could sound like a doctor who writes poetry on the side:

The heart, nurtured in the blood’s echoing ocean,
is where in humans what is best called thought is—
for the blood around the human heart is thought.

Some Greek thinkers favored the question and response, that most basic form of conveying complex thought. This exchange by Thales could be a passage from one of the famous Taoist thinkers, Lao-Tzu or Chuang-Tzu:

“Death,” he said, “is no different than life.” “If so,” someone said, “why don’t you die?” “Because there is no difference,” he said.

Perhaps the most enigmatic text in The Thinking Root comes from Heraclitus and consists of only three words: “I sought myself.” In his introduction to Heraclitus, Beachy-Quick tells us that this phrase could be translated as “I searched myself. I searched for myself. I searched through myself.” What a rich and mysterious statement. Beachy-Quick goes on to note how this complexity of seeking bears on his approach to translation: “What each translation reveals isn’t a fact but a thoughtful suspicion.” No wonder he’s such a good translator—there’s humility and honesty expressed here.

One hopes that Beachy-Quick will offer more of his “thoughtful suspicions” of ancient Greek texts in future, as The Thinking Root offers so much to ponder and savor. Here’s one last offering, this one by Empedocles: “Blessed, who gains the gold mine of a mind god-given— / wretched, who cares most for dark doctrines about the gods.” A gold mine is an apt metaphor for how Beachy-Quick treats the writing of these early Greek philosophers, and his sense of wonder and respect for it is contagious.

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