Parmenides (early 5th Century BC)

POEM OF PARMENIDES English translation : John Burnet (1892 Early Greek Philosophy. Kessinger Publishing. ISBN 0-7661-2826-1. First published in 1892, this book has had dozens of editions and has been used as a textbook for decades.

Parmenides of Elea, known as a Presocratic (before Plato) philosopher, lived in 5th century BC.  Philosophers have considered him as the founder of the Eleatic school of philosophy with influential ideas on the nature of true being.  Plato refers to him as our father Parmenides and features him as the chief protagonist in the dialogue of Parmenides—usually an honor reserved for Socrates.  Plato considered Parmenides as a forerunner to the nature of being distinctions common to his own.

Aristotle says Parmenides did not speak well according to natural philosophy when he denied change, but he did speak well for some ungenerated and unchanging entities’ (Cael.3. 1. 298b18–21).  Even Plotinus mentions Parmenides by name and credits him with the distinction of developing the first concept of triadic being.

Parmenides poem was perhaps the first time a Western philosopher dealt with the nature of being.  (Earlier philosophers tackled questions of matter but not being itself.)  His word for being was ἐόν, participle of the verb “to be”.  This is the subject matter of the poem and his most notable contribution to philosophy.  Parmenides developed this concept through a literary device, a poem.

On Nature is Parmenides’ only surviving work.  As a poem, it demonstrates divine inspiration for his description of being while within the work he makes rational arguments to augment his credibility.

The poem begins with a journey to the abode of a goddess.  Whether this journey is a mere literary device, a dream, or a contemplative ascent continues to be debated.  Parmenides sets forth on “the far-fabled path of the divinity” by means of a chariot accompanied by the daughters of Helios, the sun-god.  These maidens take Parmenides to “the halls of Night” before which stand “the gates of the paths of night and day.” Under the persuasion of the daughters Justice, the guardian of these gates opens the gates and Parmenides is welcomed by the goddess who lives there. This is the same halls of the Night in Hesiod where the goddesses Night and Day alternately reside before they travel in the sky above the Earth.  More importantly the souls of the dead travel here for judgment.

Once he arrives the goddess takes Parmenides by the hand to explain to him the purpose of his trip.  Parmenides is an initiate into one of the mystery religions which were common at the time.  Here he will gain a special knowledge or wisdom revelation from these mystery gods.  Parmenides will learn the truth which mortal men do not know except through revelation.

“Meet it is that thou shouldst learn all things, as well the unshaken heart of persuasive truth, as the opinions of  mortals in which is no true belief at all.”(fr 1, 30)

According to Parmenides, the opinion of mortals, or what is perceived by the senses is entirely deceptive.  Through revelation and reason men can find persuasive truth.  As the goddess begins her dialogue on persuasive truth, it becomes evident that this truth is obtainable only through rational inquiry.

“The only two ways of search that can be thought of. The first, namely, that It is, (ἔστιν) and that it is impossible for anything not to be, (ουκ εστι μη ειναι) the way of conviction.”  (fr 2,4)

Parmenides directs rational inquiry to “what is.” Rational inquiry cannot include non-existence.  The inquiry begins with the premise “it is” and serves as the beginning and the basis of all attributes that follow.

In Parmenides’ epistemology, he wants the reader to look at reality, judge reality by eternal standards, and then grasp the truth about reality. He uses four sets of signs σήματα, to judge reality. These signs indicate what being really is (ἐόν): being is without birth and death, homogeneous, immobile and unchangeable, without development.

One path only is left for us to speak of, namely, that it is (ἔστιν).  In it are very many tokens that what is, is uncreated (ἀγένητον)and indestructible (ἀνώλεθρόν) alone, complete, immovable (ἀτρεμὲς) and without end.

Parmenides explains what real being means by first listing some attributes of real being:  uncreated, indestructible, immovable or immutable, and eternal.  In the next part of his poem, he will to establish though logical reasoning why these attributes belong to real being.

To say something is means it cannot have come into being, he argues.  If something came into being then it would have arisen either from nothing or from something.  It is impossible to arise from nothing.  Being cannot arise from something else because then it would be something else.  Therefore, it must always have existed.  Something that always existed cannot change (eternality and immutability).  This is true about something’s properties as much as its essence.  To change means the generation of new properties.  But new properties cannot come into existence any more than new being can come into existence.  To say the car becomes red is to imply there was a time when red did not exist.

In order to make sense of Parmenides it is necessary to postulate that he did not think that the only thing that exists is some immutable and eternal sphere.  He thought the sensible objects existed temporarily and the eternal objects existed side by side.

This duality between reason and sense perception is the forerunner of apophatic theology, the Platonic forms and the Neo-Platonist philosophy of Plotinus.  Parmenides definitely connects being with immutability.  Classical theologians are the inheritors of the true immutable being of Parmenides.  In fact, one can logically deduct a god with the attributes of classical theology (eternality, immutability, simplicity) from Parmenidean reasoning without need for revelation.

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