Parmenides of Elea

Continuously walk on the road of Reason; never arouse yourself with the imperceptible. But the road never appears on the front of life—it is only staged and mystified on its back. In Parmenides we see a much different concretion than that of Heraclitus and… And what? It bothers the mind; it excites the spirit. Poetry and philosophy arrive at a coherence, here. This “coherence” permeates the trace and line draped around Philosophy, so far, in abstraction. Present what is, artistically through incursion in thought and excursion of poems. Proem and poem. Parmenides knows that whatever comes in his direction, will be dealt in a proper manner. When our philosopher speaks, the Divine is to be heard. Such is the point of his disdain: there is no other way of comprehending and dissenting than through intervention. How can there be a becoming if what is already is? Procedural sublimation of conflicting pluralities is illusory, for our philosopher. Sense perception is to be understood as incapable of reaching truth, if it concerns itself solely with contradictions.

As it was with Heraclitus, with his disgust towards common opinions, so it was with Parmenides. He presented his own words as the enunciation of Truth, stemming from a Goddess. Truth was divine and had to be declared in a poetic form. Such is the reason, from the beginning of his poem until the moment the Goddess reveals the Truth itself, for the existence of a sacred movement—followed with sacred images and fantastical allegories—in  the staging of Parmenides’ thought. Positioned as a philosopher-poet, Parmenides delivered his thought in such manner. His poem dealt with a major problem of Philosophy: that of being. In this case, although making himself to be a carrier of divine words, Parmenides expelled instead philosophical words. Such interrelation to the religious is, without a doubt, a result of the influence he absorbed from Pythagoras’s religious sects. As a citizen of Elea, he was made to be concerned with the public interests of the Polis, subjected to the discursive reason that reigned within the confines of the city.

Parmenides, like Heraclitus,  gazes at universal coming-to-be and at impermanence, and he can interpret passing-away only as though it were a fault of nonexistence. For how could the existent be guilty of passing away! But coming-to-be, too, must be produced with the help of the nonexistent, for the existent is always there. Of and by itself it could not come-to-be nor could it explain coming-to-be. Hence coming-to-be as well as passing-away would seem to be produced by the negative qualities.1

His poem would start with a journey. Through it, the poetical thinker was to be conducted in a species of a winged carriage, led by the daughters of the Sun—the Muses. They would hurry him towards the residence of the Light, unveiling his head for the Truth. This un-concealing is possible only through the divine spoken word. The journey presents itself as the passage from night to-day: from forgetfulness to Truth, from ignorance to wisdom. Following through this, Parmenides arrives at the doors of the ways of Night and Day, sustained by columns and stone sills. Yet they appear closed. Dike, the Goddess of Justice, would be in possession of the doors’ keys.

By convincing the Goddess, through the use of soft words and persuasive singing, the muses are able to remove the locks from the door, giving way for the car—quickly entering a road. There, a benevolent goddess receives Parmenides and grants him with two different paths: one of truth, and other of opinion. The way of truth was the way of what-is, truthful reality, Alethea; the second path consisted of illusions, doxa, which had to be avoided—for thinking is to stick to truth. From there, the poem unveils itself into two parts: in the first, our philosopher in question is concerned with truth’s way; in the second, with doxa’s way.

Even Heraclitus, who casts himself in the role of a prophet, does not go so far. Heraclitus does broadly hint that he is an authorized spokesman for divine wisdom; but Parmenides simply lets the divinity speak for herself. This is the rhetorical, and perhaps also the philosophic justification for his elaborate proem: to make use of the form of a divine revelation in order to exploit and at the same time transcend the traditional Greek pieties on the subject of the deficiencies of human knowledge. Parmenides’ allegory permits him to denounce human blindness with the utmost rigor and generality, while at the same time being able to claim absolute certainty for the doctrines he will propound himself.2

But let us take a step back, in a Germanic fashion: who precisely is this Goddess? For one could presume that the Goddess of Truth is one that has been made to carry out Truthfulness as a whole. However, she is Truth itself and through itself. Truth is the Goddess; she is first and foremost Truth. The “speaker”, to denominate who pronounces of the poem, does not proclaim to carry out “revelations” mandated by a divine entity. Parmenides transforms the essence of Truth, as conception, into a personality. We see before our eyes a mythical experiment of one who becomes not only Divine, but also Truth itself. What does the use of the word “truth” tell us? It does not tell, but rather presents un-concealedness itself, a conflict between what is shown to us and what is not. A struggle that must be waged, so that we are able to grasp what is truth in its entirety. Such differentiation must be made within our senses. Modernity sees Truth as something that is alien to conflict, to struggle: it stands above all that is contradictory. Yet, steps have to be taken carefully. In Parmenides’ thought, the essence of Truth is itself always-already a conflict; through conflict is how what is … is. But truth can only be a mode of disclosing what has been taken away in concealedness; Truth stands in opposition to what appears—it is, thus, contradictory. Concealedness permeates the essence of truth: that which is not ought to be apprehended as falsity. While he enunciates such Truth, Parmenides determines:

For it is the same thing that can be thought and that can be.3

However, how can we understand such an affirmation?What does it mean to say that the same is both to think and to be? For him, in the path of Truth there is no distance between what is, what exists as reality, and what is thought. When one approaches things which exist through thought by considering them as truthful realities, it is immediately observed that they are—in other words, they are shown as real beings. In another hand, everything that is thought must be and exist, under the condition of enunciating the truth. A truthful «thinking» does not only enunciate that which is, but comprehends what is insofar it is real. Truth’s condition already presupposes, thus far, the acceptance that is only possible to think what is—one must also consider thought’s own existence and being, since it consecrates reality itself. This way shows us that to think and to tell the truth are one and the same with all that is real. If reality is what is imposed in the form of being, so is being; it is not possible to enunciate what is not, the nothingness [no-thing, perhaps?], non-being.

Here, Parmenides challenges us to think what does not exist. For him, to imagine the nothing or to conceive both what-is-not and non-being are impossibilities. The nothing does not exist, because it is not possible to think what-is-not, what does not declare itself as the existent reality. Thusly, by presenting the Truth enunciated as the Goddess, Parmenides concludes that being is and non-being is not. Now it can be said that the figurative construction found by the beginning of the poem belongs to a universe of ancient truth—of sages, poets and seers. However, when the Goddess tells us that there is a sameness between thinking and being and, in sequence, that being is while non-being is not, she is merely placing the listener (and the reader) at Philosophy’s core. Parmenides fosters the truth from and by the Goddess, but what he does is think philosophically. And what he thinks marks a new moment in the history of though.

The philosopher chose the word being to embody the principle of true thought, thus refusing his predecessors’ words. First he rejected the physical and mutable principles of Heraclitus; denied numerical duality as the origin of the world. With such rejections, he sought to offer a principle that would be the most evident through thought: being as being. After all, was it not already evident that which was thought had already been displayed as a form of being? Independently of what constitutes a thing, one cannot contest that they are—that they exist as things to thought. But what does it mean to have “being” as the foundational principle?

It is the power of Aphrodite that weds the opposites, the existent with the nonexistent. Desire unites the contradictory and mutually repellent elements: the result is coming-to-be. When desire is satiated, hatred and inner opposition drives the existent and  the nonexistent apart once more – and man says, “All things pass.”5

The word “being,” eon,6 is used as a singular and plural substantive. It serves the purpose of designating that which exists; all existent things can be designated by a common name: being. It is convenient explaining that in any language a common singular substantive can also be used to appoint the group of individuals it signifies. For example, when one uses the word “tree,” one can either refer to either a particular tree or to trees in general (to all existing trees). The same can be done to the word “human” (a particular human, or all human individuals). In a language where the word “being” is used as a substantive, as is the case in Greek language, one can notice that its employment normally designates all that exists. Thus, a human is, a horse is, a river is, and everything that exists can be designated by the word being. By using it as a substantive, Parmenides will attach to it the status of absolute principle. There he speaks of an absolute being, placing the problem of beginning for the fist time: instead of relying on natural elements, such as water, air or fire, he relies on a concept that is universal—being able to reunite totality with that which exists. When in Philosophy it is spoken of a universal concept, it is done so in a way of delineating a notion of thinking that refers to many real individuals. For example, the universal concept of “human” differs both from the existing human individual and from the abstract representation of such individual in the mind. That is because both the existing “human” and its reproduced image are individual forms, while the universal concept subsumes all said individuals. The concept, here, is precisely the common notion that is applied to individuals alike, giving an identity to what is unified in thought.

Instead of being corrected and tested against reality (considering that they are in fact derived from it) the concepts, on the contrary, are supposed to measure and direct reality and, in case reality contradicts logic, to condemn the former. In order to impose upon the concepts this capacity for judging reality, Parmenides had to ascribe to them the being which was for him the only true being.7

Thinking of “being” as concept, Parmenides comprehended it in the most ample sense – reuniting in itself a real existing totality. Proposing “being” as the first concept, as the concept of concepts, considered to be the real principle of all, it arises above all others as an “absolute” being. And it is as a real principle that absolute being attributes itself to everything which is either an object of discourse or thought. In Truth’s way, one can not only think and say what is, but what is thinkable and say-able exists; what is not thinkable and not say-able does not exist, now, in a much more radical way. Through the consequent development of “absolute being”, Parmenides would formulate two logical principles of philosophical reasoning: the principle of identity and the principle of non-contradiction. Here, “principle” denotes “first rules” that must be followed throughout the unveiling of our own reasoning, not in a cosmological sense. The principle of identity explicitly presents what is, being able to be thought and said, must be identical with itself – remaining an impossibility to think or say of its opposite (nothing or non-being). Now, if the affirmation of an identical being requires the negation of its opposite, to affirm simultaneously being as its own opposite would imply, in the eyes of the philosopher, to fall in contradiction. And according to the principle of non-contradiction, if being is, non-being is not.

Now since light and night have been given all names, and the names corresponding to their potencies have been given to these things and those, all is full of light and invisible night together, both of them equal, since in neither is there Nothing.8

Being must be here understood as a unity, for everything is always-already existent in the world: becoming would be nothing other than an illusion, as we shall see later on. Parmenides was overtly concerned with unity, with “Oneness9“—but what is that? Our philosopher does not conceive it as a sum of “parts,” rather it is devoid of any parts and is precisely not a whole; it has no limitations imposed on itself; it cannot either move itself or remain rested. Conversely, Parmenides’ own ambiguity gives rise to an apparent contradiction: existence appears as a plurality of “parts,” even if those were to be contained under an absolute unitary being; a point is taken, precisely: the contradictory concept of “Oneness” turns into an impossibility through ambiguity. With being’s formulation as a universal concept, from the logical principles of identity and non-contradiction and the speculation delineated around Nature’s own original being, Parmenides would be considered by his own successors as a “founder” of Logic and a precursor of Ontology.

A being cannot arise from another being, for it would not be possible to concede “becoming” as a proper force of any kind: transforming a being into something radically different from itself. Because by being different it would have to contradict itself—playing the role of a non-being. Since non-being is not, there cannot possible be two beings, but only one. As its eternal character, being must be indestructible and one with itself, for Parmenides. If “being” were to have a start (the product of a becoming), then logic would assume the previous existence of a non-being; and being must be One, inasmuch as the existence of other being would entail it the condition of non-being of itself. After all, non-being cannot be either thought or spoken, considering that it is not. And more: being is, too, completely unmovable. For “moving” would imply the assumption that being could be changed and become something else. It had also to be indivisible, continuous and unfettered barren of emptiness and nothingness. Rigorously following the principles of identity and non-contradiction, Parmenides expanded thought beyond mere sensuous observation; the extraction of logical conclusion from already established premisses and elaborating, for the first time, a Universal theory accompanied by the notion of being. From this, he would distance himself from his own contemporary thinkers, who would include movement and change as core concepts in their theories. However, Parmenides develops an entirely rational cosmology, in which being recollects as the origin—eternal, immobile, indivisible, continuous whole: making the sphere its image.

All sense perceptions, says Parmenides, yield but illusions. And their main illusoriness lies in their pretense that the non-existent coexists with the existent, that Becoming, too, has being. All the manifold colorful world known to experience, all the transformations of its qualities, all the orderliness of its ups and downs, are cast aside mercilessly as mere semblance and illusion. Nothing may be learned from them10.

What could one do with the perceptions of movement, change and diversity? Be that as it may, there starts the second section of his poem. Our mortal’s opinions were originated from sensibilities. Through our senses, the world appears to be in constant change, performing itself in multiple ways. But our senses can only produce a false knowledge, one that betrays thought and its truthfulness, providing only illusions. Those who follow the sensuous roads are condemned to doxa, with its illusions diverted from truth. The opinions of mortals constitute unstable, mutable and ephemeral objects; opinions that know nothing but imprecision of appearances, that is: of something capable of refraining from its perceptible appearance to, instead, appear as something distinct. Ascribing such knowledge to the corporeal senses, and opposing it to pure knowledge (or pure Reason), Parmenides is left with the task of condemning the first and appointing the second as the way to Truth. Nonetheless, by giving pure thought and language the honor of truth, freeing both from doxa’s domain. And this was his great contribution: the elaboration of pure reason.

 

V. S. Quintas

 


  1. NIETZSCHE, Friedrich. Philosophy in the tragic age of the Greeks. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 1962, pp. 73.
  2. KAHN, Charles H. The Thesis of Parmenides. In: Essays on Being. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 149.
  3. COXON, Allan H. The Fragments of Parmenides. Las Vegas:  Parmenides Publishing, 2009, pp. 58.
  4. Cf. HEIDEGGER, Martin. Identity and Difference. New York:  Harper & Row, 1969. “Different things, thinking and Being, are here thought of as the Same. What does this say? It says something wholly different from what we know otherwise as the doctrine of metaphysics, which states that identity belongs to Being. Parmenides says: Being belongs to an identity. What does identity mean here? What does the word [tò autó], the Same, say in Parmenides’ fragment? Parmenides gives us no answer. He places us before an enigma which we may not sidestep. We must acknowledge the fact that in the earliest period of thinking, long before thinking had arrived at a principle of identity, identity itself speaks out in a pronouncement which rules as follows: thinking and Being belong together in the Same and by virtue of this Same.”
  5. NIETZSCHE, op. cit., pp. 73-74.
  6. Cf. KAHN, op. cit., pp. 179.
  7. NIETZSCHE, op. cit., pp. 87.
  8. COXON, op. cit., pp. 88.
  9. One could refer back to Heidegger’s “Same” in regards to “Oneness”.
  10. NIETZSCHE, op. cit., pp. 79

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