Greek Philosophy – Parmenides
Parmenides (510 – 450 BCE) was born in Elea, a Greek colony on the southern coast of what is today Italy, near Croton, the place Pythagoras set up shop. Parmenides became known as the founder of the Eleatic School, and Zeno and Melissus, who we will cover next, were the school’s second and third famous philosophers. Born from a wealthy family, Parmenides became known as an excellent orator and legislator. He was known for leading an admirable life, and the phrase ‘a Parmenidean life’ was known to later Greeks as a noble existence of simplicity, morals and discipline.
Xenophanes may or may not have taught Parmenides, but either way he was clearly a major influence. We saw in studying Xenophanes that there are potential problems in his thought, as he claims the One, monotheistic being, does not move but shakes and causes all things by its thought. Parmenides seems to be trying to resolve these problems, but to do so he enters into different yet equally paradoxical waters.
Diogenes Laertius says Parmenides was taught by a Pythagorean named Ameinias. Parmenides seems to agree completely with Pythagoras’ account of the universe, but strangely believes this is mere mortal opinion and illusion, how reality appears to us but not the whole truth of how it actually and fully is. Parmenides even states that males are conceived in the right part of the uterus, and females from the left, following the paired oppositions of the Pythagoreans.
Parmenides had a large influence on Plato. Plato revered Parmenides, in his dialog The Sophist calls him ‘Our father Parmenides’. In Plato’s early dialogues, Socrates sounds very much like Heraclitus, questioning whether human beings can ever be said to truly know anything. In the middle and late dialogues, Socrates begins pursuing the true and the good, giving it order and shape. Modern scholars are in general agreement that Plato increasingly placed Parmenides and Pythagoras over Heraclitus in his dialogs through the mouth of Socrates, dividing the cosmos into the immortal and unchanging above and the mortal flux of opinions and shadows below. The forms of things, the eternal models from which all things come, are unchanging, and so knowledge of these can be absolute and true. Plato follows Parmenides in dividing truth and knowledge from appearance and opinion.
Like Heraclitus, we only have the opening and fragments of Parmenides’ only work, On Nature, a work of poetry like that of Xenophanes and with the same title as the work of Heraclitus. In it, an unnamed goddess instructs the narrator, Parmenides himself, who journeys from darkness to light (“leaving the house of night for the light”) accompanied by daughters of the sun in a chariot. The daughters pull back their veils from their heads, a gesture likely standing for enlightenment and revealing.
The word ‘apocalypse’ comes from ancient Greek for ‘revealing’. While Christianity, with its origins partly in Greek philosophy, has associated the word with the end of the world, this would merely be the final apocalypse, any great revealing of truth being an apocalypse and thus a wide variety of ‘apocalyptic literature’. Parmenides’ On Natureis an example of this genre. The ascent into the heavens to acquire knowledge and descent into the world and/or underworld is a theme common in ancient cultures including the Homeric Greek myths. Parmenides is being converted and initiated into the mysteries, found in mystery cults like that of Pythagoras. The cosmos contains secrets that only revealed to the few who make the journey.
For Parmenides, there are two roads, one day and the other night, with gates and doors in the sky. Strangely, this means that as Parmenides ascends into the sky, he leaves the house of night below, only to find the doors, the destinations of the roads of day and night, to be up in the sky. Justice, the goddess Dike, holds the keys to the two doors. She is said to be ‘avenging’, implying that she allows the good through the door of day and pushes the bad through the door of night based on merit. The daughters of the sun convince Dike to open the doors with soothing words, and the chariot presumably flies through the door of day to meet with ‘the goddess’, either Dike or some other unnamed divinity.
Parmenides, departing from Homer and Hesiod, says that this goddess (possibly Dike) governs all things, and that of all the gods she created Love first, likely Aphrodite, known to the Romans as Venus. She explains that though there is no reliance on the opinions of mortals, but that opinions and appearances are a part of the larger whole which can be found on the road of and through the door of day, the light. The goddess says that Parmenides must learn the persuasive truth, far above the common ‘beaten path’ of humanity. This implies that various opinions, contradicting philosophical positions, are not persuasive as the one common truth is (a position identical with Heraclitus).
Parmenides argues that because we speak and think about something, something must exist as opposed to nothing. Thought is likened to the limbs of a body, and the unity behind the thought in an individual mind is the same unity for everyone and the cosmos itself. This means that the oneness of a particular being (say, a frog), the conception of it as a particular being (our concept of the frog), our conception of ourselves as having perceptions and conceptions of the being, and the unity of the cosmos are all one and the same unity, misunderstood and misthought by the mind to be here at a certain time and there at another.
The way of truth is described, and differentiated from the way of appearance/opinion. Again, this is identical to Plato’s separation of knowledge, which must be unchanging, from opinion, which is partial, relative and mortal. It is also similar to the Pythagorean Y. The way of night and day are distinguished as that which is and that which is not, two approaches. Parmenides suggests that thought, when fallen and foolish, takes things apart and makes them different for us in thinking they are different, obscuring the unity of things in the One that is whole reality. In naming things, ‘marking’ them, we are the ones who separate and unify our reality, obscuring or revealing the great unity as much as we can.
The lower way is quite identifiable as the position of Heraclitus, in which all things change and so there is only perspective and relative truth. Parmenides sounds exactly like Heraclitus in condemning his position, arguing those who say that being and nonbeing are the same and are not the same, and who say that the road of all things turns back on itself, are deaf and blind wanderers. Recall that Heraclitus said the road forward is the road back, and day and night are one. Parmenides sees Heraclitus as a common sleeper, incapable of distinguishing between day and night and thus in darkness, while Heraclitus would say Parmenides is a foolish expert who thinks he knows the complete and unchanging truth, who thinks he can separate day from night, and is thus in darkness. Most scholars today accept that Parmenides is writing this in direct response and opposition to the work of Heraclitus.
Parmenides argues that which permanently IS must be eternal and unborn, just like Xenophanes says about his infinite god that is being, and also the same as Heraclitus says of the cosmic fire that gives rise to all things. Because change and becoming involve nonbeing, as Heraclitus argues, being cannot involve any change as being does not admit any nonbeing. While Heraclitus says there is only one unchanging thing, the supreme One cosmic fire, as opposed to the many particular beings that change, Parmenides argues that because there is only one unchanging thing, including all particular things, all particularity and change is an illusion.
Nothing comes from nothing, Parmenides argues, “Ex nihilo, nihil fit”, in the Latin, from which we get the phrase ‘ex nihilo’, out of nothing or nowhere. All nonbeing, including divisions and differences between things, does not exist. While later Neoplatonists would say that there are many types of nonbeing which exist as not-being in particular ways, Parmenides is rather saying that all types of nonbeing do not exist at all, are illusions given to us by our thoughts.
Some have identified this ‘out of nothing, nothing comes’ with the later law of conservation of energy , that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. Some philosophers of science like Feyerabend have pointed out that versions of big bang theory of modern physics violate this principle, and that something coming from nothing is not seen anywhere nor duplicatable in a laboratory and therefore scientifically unverifiable.
Unlike physicists, Parmenides argues that all motion, all change, is illusion and false. Time is an illusion, an idea found in some Indian thought. Parmenides argues that if things are moving, then they must move into nothingness or void, participating with it, and because nothingness does not exist this is impossible. Parmenides returns to the same two arguments, first that being cannot be involved with nonbeing, and second that nonbeing cannot be. Heraclitus could argue that categorical nothingness does not exist (and indeed we have not found any absolute vacuums or voids), but relative being and nonbeing do exist and commingle. For Heraclitus, this is true insight, whereas for Parmenides this mixture is a confusion and illusion of thought.
Parmenides says that in truth, “Coming to being is extinguished, and destruction unknown”.
The cosmos does not think or speak, but its awareness is its thinking all things statically. While the same can be said of its speech, its order, another paradox emerges. If the One is undivided and without differentiation, what order is there? There can be no true order other than indivisible and uncharacterizable unity, like the infinite of Xenophanes.
Thought and being are the same, and one must think and say for things to be. For Parmenides, any separation of things into particulars is an injection of nonbeing into being, a corruption via thought of the original form and order. Additionally, human thoughts and concepts are temporary and changing, and so being itself can not be said or thought. In this, Parmenides is in complete agreement with Heraclitus. Both believe that reality is a superior One, which is above human comprehension. Heraclitus also allows for it to be unchanging insofar as it is the continuous change of all. Heraclitus and Parmenides are both said to be influenced, if not taught directly, by Xenophanes. To resolve the paradox of Xenophanes’ infinite, Heraclitus says that the stability is consistent instability of things, the unchanging is the constant changing of things, while Parmenides says that the changing of things and the multiplicity of things is an illusion.
The One is a continuous thing, is indivisible, and does not have parts or differences in itself. This again is identical to Xenophanes, but Parmenides extends this to all particular things, saying that their particularity and differentiation is illusion. He compares being to a sphere, without parts and continuous along its surface. Some have argued Parmenides believed being to be spherical in shape, others that he is arguing being is without shape of any kind and he is merely using the sphere as a metaphor.
Remember that Heraclitus was the first to use the term ‘Logos’ for the order of the cosmos, identifying it with speech. For Parmenides, we can’t know truth through perception, but only by Logos, by order itself, though Parmenides, like Xenophanes, is committing himself to saying that the One does not move or actively order as that would be change and difference. Like Heraclitus, Parmenides says the truth and knowledge is aetherial light, identifiable with the higher elements, and untruth and opinion is darkness. Similarly, the road to permanence is separate from the road to destruction. Both Pythagoras and Parmenides apply this to individual human conduct and the physics of the cosmos.
Parmenides seems to agree with Anaxagoras’ and Pythagoras’ description of the formation of the cosmos and how it came to be by separation of the elements, which is strange as he believes this not to exist. Scholars agree that Parmenides’ goddess describes Pythagorean cosmology and then says that this is the opinions of mere mortals. Thus, Pythagoras is completely correct about what the cosmos looks like to human beings, which is wrong and an illusion. Like an optical illusion, we all misperceive things the same way.
Persian Zoroastrians believed that Ahriman, the evil spirit or God, polluted the world in the beginning, known as ‘the lie’ and ‘the drug’, in Persian ‘druj’, from which we get our word ‘drug’. Like Heraclitus, Parmenides shares a decently monotheistic cosmos with the Zoroastrians, and identifies order with Logos even though the cosmos can not move or speak the way that mortals do.
Parmenides’ claim that all change is illusion and unreal is known to modern scholarship as ‘The Eleatic Challenge’. Philosophers responded with their own answers, showing that Parmenides was influential but also controversial. Human thought is always both agreement and disagreement, just as Heraclitus says that arguing against each other we agree, and singing together we compete. Democritus, called the laughing philosopher by Juvenal, and the atomists who we will study soon tried to resolve the paradox with unchanging atoms that do not change themselves and are eternal but recombine to make the changing things we perceive. Once again, the unchanging is just beyond our perception even if it is within our comprehension.
Einstein believed in ‘block time’, that while we perceive time as moving that all of time already exists as a static whole. The philosopher of science Popper, who taught the more skeptical Feyerabend, called Einstein ‘Parmenides’ as an insult for holding this view. Einstein was a determinist, saying, “God doesn’t play dice with the universe”. Later chaos theorists criticized Einstein as not enough of a relativist, not believing enough in relativity, as Einstein argued that time and space are relative but not necessity and chance, as necessity is absolute and chance is an illusion. Chaos theorists argued that necessity and chance, like time and space, are also relative, a relativist position much like Heraclitus and unlike Parmenides.