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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Parmenides of Elea (Greek, early 5th century BCE) was an ancient Greek philosopher born in Elea, a Greek city on the southern coast of Italy. He was the founder of the Eleatic school of philosophy. Parmenides was also a priest of Apollo and iatromantis. The single known work of Parmenides is a poem which has survived only in fragmentary form. In this poem, Parmenides describes two views of reality. In The Way of Truth (a part of the poem), he explains how reality is one, change is impossible, and existence is timeless, uniform, and unchanging. In The Way of Opinion, he explains the world of appearances, which is false and deceitful. These thoughts strongly influenced Plato, and through him, the whole of western philosophy.


On Nature

Parmenides is one of the most significant of the pre-Socratic philosophers. His only known work, conventionally titled On Nature, is a poem which has only survived in fragmentary form. Approximately 160 lines of the poem remain today; reportedly the original text had 3,000 lines. It is known, however, that the work was originally divided into three parts:

  • A proem (Greek: προοίμιον), which introduced the entire work,
  • A section known as "The Way of Truth" (aletheia, ἀλήθεια), and
  • A section known as "The Way of Appearance/Opinion" (doxa, δόξα).

The proem is a narrative sequence in which the narrator travels "beyond the beaten paths of mortal men" to receive a revelation from an unnamed goddess (generally thought to be Persephone or Dike) on the nature of reality. Aletheia, an estimated 90% of which has survived, and doxa, most of which no longer exists, are then presented as the spoken revelation of the goddess without any accompanying narrative.

Parmenides attempted to distinguish between the unity of nature and its variety, insisting in the Way of Truth upon the reality of its unity, which is therefore the object of knowledge, and upon the unreality of its variety, which is therefore the object, not of knowledge, but of opinion. In the Way of Opinion he propounded a theory of the world of seeming and its development, pointing out, however, that, in accordance with the principles already laid down, these cosmological speculations do not pretend to anything more than mere appearance.


In the proem, Parmenides describes the journey of a young man from light to the "halls of Night" ("the daughters of the Sun made haste to escort me, having left the halls of Night for the light"). Carried in a whirling chariot, and attended by the daughters of the Sun, the man reaches a temple sacred to an unnamed goddess (variously identified by the commentators as Nature, Wisdom, or Themis), by whom the rest of the poem is spoken. He must learn all things, she tells him—both truth, which is certain, and human opinions, which are uncertain—for though one cannot rely on human opinions, they represent an aspect of the whole truth.

The Way of Truth

The section known as "the way of truth" discusses that which is real and contrasts with the argument in the section called "the way of opinion," which discusses that which is illusory. Under the "way of truth," Parmenides stated that there are two ways of inquiry: that it is, on the one side, and that it is not. on the other side. He said that the latter argument is never feasible because nothing can not be:

For never shall this prevail, that things that are not are. (B 7.1)

There are extremely delicate issues here. In the original Greek the two ways are simply named "that Is" (ὅπως ἐστίν) and "that Not-Is" (ὡς οὐκ ἐστίν) (B 2.3 and 2.5) without the "it" inserted in our English translation. In ancient Greek, which, like many languages in the world, does not always require the presence of a subject for a verb, "is" functions as a grammatically complete sentence. Much debate has been focused on where and what the subject is. The simplest explanation as to why there is no subject here is that Parmenides wishes to express the simple, bare fact of existence in his mystical experience without the ordinary distinctions, just as the Latin "pluit" and the Greek huei (ὕει "rains") mean "it rains"; there is no subject for these impersonal verbs because they express the simple fact of raining without specifying what is doing the raining. This is, for instance, Hermann Fränkel's thesis. Many scholars still reject this explanation and have produced more complex metaphysical explanations. Since existence is an immediately intuited fact, non-existence is the wrong path because a thing cannot disappear, just as something cannot originate from nothing. In such mystical experience (unio mystica), however, the distinction between subject and object disappears along with the distinctions between objects, in addition to the fact that if nothing cannot be, it cannot be the object of thought either:

Thinking and the thought that it is are the same; for you will not find thinking apart from what is, in relation to which it is uttered. (B 8.34-36)
For to be aware and to be are the same. (B 3)
It is necessary to speak and to think what is; for being is, but nothing is not. (B 6.1-2)
Helplessness guides the wandering thought in their breasts; they are carried along deaf and blind alike, dazed, beasts without judgment, convinced that to be and not to be are the same and not the same, and that the road of all things is a backward-turning one. (B 6.5-9)

Thus, he concluded that "Is" could not have "come into being" because "nothing comes from nothing". Existence is necessarily eternal. That which truly is [x], has always been [x], and was never becoming [x]; that which is becoming [x] was never nothing (Not-[x]), but will never actually be. Parmenides was not struggling to formulate the laws of conservation of mass and conservation of energy; he was struggling with the metaphysics of change, which is still a relevant philosophical topic today.

Moreover he argued that movement was impossible because it requires moving into "the void", and Parmenides identified "the void" with nothing, and therefore (by definition) it does not exist. That which does exist is The Parmenidean One, which is timeless, uniform, and unchanging:

How could what is perish? How could it have come to be? For if it came into being, it is not; nor is it if ever it is going to be. Thus coming into being is extinguished, and destruction unknown. (B 8.20-22)
Nor was [it] once, nor will [it] be, since [it] is, now, all together, / One, continuous; for what coming-to-be of it will you seek? / In what way, whence, did [it] grow? Neither from what-is-not shall I allow / You to say or think; for it is not to be said or thought / That [it] is not. And what need could have impelled it to grow / Later or sooner, if it began from nothing? Thus [it] must either be completely or not at all. (B 8.5-11)
[What exists] is now, all at once, one and continuous... Nor is it divisible, since it is all alike; nor is there any more or less of it in one place which might prevent it from holding together, but all is full of what is. (B 8.5-6, 8.22-24)
And it is all one to me / Where I am to begin; for I shall return there again. (B 5)

Perception vs. Logos

Parmenides claimed that there is no truth in the opinions of the mortals. Genesis-and-destruction, as Parmenides emphasizes, is a false opinion, because to be means to be completely, once and for all. What exists can in no way not exist.

For this view, that That Which Is Not exists, can never predominate. You must debar your thought from this way of search, nor let ordinary experience in its variety force you along this way, (namely, that of allowing) the eye, sightless as it is, and the ear, full of sound, and the tongue, to rule; but (you must) judge by means of the Reason (Logos) the much-contested proof which is expounded by me. (B 7.1-8.2)

The Way of Opinion (doxa)

After the exposition of the arche (ἀρχή), i.e. the origin, the necessary part of reality that is understood through reason or logos (that [it] Is), in the next section, the Way of Appearance/Opinion/Seeming, Parmenides proceeds to explain the structure of the becoming cosmos (which is an illusion, of course) that comes from this origin.

The structure of the cosmos is a fundamental binary principle that governs the manifestations of all the particulars: "the aether fire of flame" (B 8.56), which is gentle, mild, soft, thin and clear, and self-identical, and the other is "ignorant night", body thick and heavy.

The mortals lay down and decided well to name two forms (i.e. the flaming light and obscure darkness of night), out of which it is necessary not to make one, and in this they are led astray. (B 8.53-4)

The structure of the cosmos then generated is recollected by Aetius (II, 7, 1):

For Parmenides says that there are circular bands wound round one upon the other, one made of the rare, the other of the dense; and others between these mixed of light and darkness. What surrounds them all is solid like a wall. Beneath it is a fiery band, and what is in the very middle of them all is solid, around which again is a fiery band. The most central of the mixed bands is for them all the origin and cause of motion and becoming, which he also calls steering goddess and keyholder and Justice and Necessity. The air has been separated off from the earth, vapourized by its more violent condensation, and the sun and the circle of the Milky Way are exhalations of fire. The moon is a mixture of both earth and fire. The aether lies around above all else, and beneath it is ranged that fiery part which we call heaven, beneath which are the regions around the earth.

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