Parmenides c. 515 B.C.–c. 450 B.C.
Greek philosopher, poet, and lawmaker.
Credited by Bertrand Russell with the invention of "metaphysics based on logic," Parmenides represents a dividing point in the history of Presocratic philosophy. Utilizing the first deductive proofs in Western philosophy, Parmenides and his fellow Eleatics, including Zeno, revealed fundamental flaws in the cosmologies previously believed in, thus setting the Presocratics who followed Parmenides on a different course of reasoning. While Parmenides's writing style is rarely praised, he was a pioneer, credited by Richard D. McKirahan with being "the first to undertake explicit philosophical analyses of the concepts: being and coming to be, change, motion, time, and space." Parmenides asserted that anything that can be thought of must exist and that anything that does not exist cannot be thought of or talked about. He also believed that what exists is one and that since it is timeless such words as "past" and "future" do not apply. Parmenides insisted that change was impossible, a concept that had great impact on later philosophers. In his single known work, a hexameter poem sometimes called "On Nature," Parmenides relates in the first person a journey by chariot to the edge of the world where Night and Day meet. There he is welcomed by a goddess who explains that she will tell him of two subjects. The first can be called The Way of Truth, and the second can be called the Way of Opinion. It is the second way which mortals follow.
Very little is known concerning Parmenides's life. He was the son of Pyres and a citizen of Elea, a Greek colony in southern Italy founded in 540 B.C. His date of birth is commonly thought to be circa 515-510 B.C. According to Diogenes Laertius, Parmenides was part of a wealthy, distinguished family. Precise dating of anything in his life, including when he wrote his poem, is not possible. Attempts to determine dates in the life of Parmenides usually center around dates of Heraclitus, but the dates of Heraclitus are now highly suspect. There is also no agreement on whether or not Parmenides is referring to Heraclitus in his poem. It is not possible to determine even which of the two men preceded the other, although it is typically assumed that Parmenides followed Heraclitus. Diogenes wrote that although Parmenides was a pupil of Xenophanes, he did not agree with his teachings. Proclus wrote that Parmenides was a Pythagorean, but evidence in the poem itself indicates that Parmenides turned away from this school of thought. Parmenides founded the so-called Eleatic School, the other representatives of which were Zeno and Melissus. Plato says that Parmenides visited Athens when he was about sixty-five years old and talked with a very young Socrates, on whom he made a major impression. Because Socrates's birth date is reliably 470 or 469 B.C. and because Plato would not have referred to Socrates as very young unless he was less than twenty-five, it seems that Parmenides was some forty years older than Socrates. This reasoning yields the approximate birth date given above. Parmenides's effort was the first and second-to-last time a Greek expressed a philosophical system in the meter and epic verse of Homer. The only other Greek to do so was Empedocles, who used Parmenides as his model. Plutarch credits Parmenides with writing the laws that the people of Elea swore annually to uphold. These laws were reportedly in effect for some five centuries. Parmenides died circa 450 B.C.
Parmenides wrote a single dactylic hexameter poem, sometimes called "On Nature," in what is now called ancient Greek. While it is possible that Parmenides wrote other pieces, there is no evidence that he did so. Much of what survives—some 154 lines—was included in a commentary by the Neoplatonist scholar Simplicius. Simplicius had access to the original when he copied portions, and his copy is deemed quite accurate, although with an occasional lacuna. The prologue, often referred to as the proem, survives due mostly to Sextus Empiricus. The proem consists of thirty-two lines of allegory in which Parmenides travels in a chariot pulled by wise mares. After the figure of Jus tice lets him through a bolted gate where Night and Day meet, Parmenides is addressed by a goddess who promises to teach him all things. Then the goddess tells him of two mutually exclusive ways, the Way of Truth and the Way of Opinion. The Way of Opinion is false and deceitful and is the path followed by mortals. This portion of the poem, considered by scholars to be the least important, is represented by very few remaining fragments; Herman Diels estimates them to include ten percent of what was written in the original. Diels estimates that ninety percent of the Way of Truth survives.
It is not known when Parmenides first composed his poem or first recited it. In the sixth century A.D., when Simplicius copied the large portions of Parmenides's poem that exist today, he did so because the work was already scarce in his time. Simplicius wanted his readers to be able to refer to the poem to better understand Simplicius's commentary on Aristotle's Physics. It appears that there are occasional gaps in Simplicius's copy, or in the rendition of Simplicius's scribes. These gaps, and what originally filled them, are a source of much disagreement and debate among experts. Arguments abound over the arrangement of particular fragments, whether or not words were left out, and whether or not particular words were copied incorrectly. Some word choices that seem more appropriate to the sense of meaning do not work as well metrically, and vice versa. The standard edition of Parmenides's poem in the original Greek is Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, edited by Hermann Diels. Since the fifth and all editions following were revised with notes by Walter Kranz, the work is commonly referred to as Diels-Kranz. The Diels-Kranz line numbers are also the accepted standard. One fragment, quoted by Plato and Simplicius, is usually considered a misquotation of another fragment and is not included in Diels-Kranz. This fragment is sometimes called the Cornford fragment after Cornford, of one of its staunch defenders. Even if one were a master of ancient Greek, the difficulties in understanding Parmenides's use of it would still be extreme. It is thus advisable to read several different English translations of Parmenides to gain a clear understanding of the poem.
Parmenides was widely respected in ancient times. He was enormously influential to the philosophers of his era, causing many to break completely with what was believed before him. But exactly what Parmenides expresses in his poem is the subject of much debate. The earliest Greek author who attempted to explain Parmenides's writing was Plato, but Plato's interpretation is not universally accepted. After earlier descriptions of Parmenides's meaning, Socrates refused to discuss it any further, partly so as not to misinterpret it. This safest of reactions has not been followed by scholars since. Parmenides is extremely difficult to understand and seems self-contradictory to many who study him. Sometimes the contradictions are defended as misrepresentations of what Parmenides said. Leonardo Tarán asserts that Aristotle patently misrepresented some of Parmenides's views and that Plato did not accurately describe them either. Edward Hussey calls Parmenides's verse sometimes "downright clumsy." Michael C. Stokes observes that Parmenides wrote in "riddling fashion," and Jonathan Barnes contends that "Parmenides's Greek is desperately hard to understand" and that aspects of it represent an "almost impenetrable obscurity."
Principal English Translations
Philosophy before Socrates, edited by Richard D. McKirahan, Jr. 1994
Parmenides of Elea: Fragments, edited by David Gallop 1984
The Presocratic Philosophers, edited by G. S. Kirk, J. E. Raven, and M. Schofield 1983
The Presocratic Philosophers, Volume 1, Thales to Zeno, edited by Jonathan Barnes 1979
A History of Greek Philosophy, edited by W. K. C. Guthrie 1965
Parmenides, edited by Leonardo Tarán 1965
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SOURCE: B. A. G. Fuller, "The Eleatic School," in History of Greek Philosophy: Thales to Democritus, Henry Holt and Company, 1923, pp. 143-79.
[In the following excerpt, Fuller considers the difficulties and ramifications of Parmenides's logical assertions, explaining how Parmenides's work was rein-forced by Zeno through his paradoxical motion scenarios and modified by the skeptic Me lis sus.]
The flight of philosophy from the coasts of Asia Minor to the southern shores of Italy is full of ro mance and adventure. Before the Lydian Empire and all the wealth of Crœsus had fallen into the hands of the victorious Persians, the philosopher Thales, it will be remembered, advocated in vain the union of the Ionian cities in a single league, the better to withstand the advancing hosts of Cyrus. A Pan-Ionian Congress which was finally convened to consider the emergency turned a deaf ear also to the suggestion of another statesman, Bias of Priene, that all the lonians should desert their hearths en masse and seek a new home in the island of Sardinia far in the western seas. But the advice of Bias proved to be not altogether barren, and bore its fruit in two cities when at length the barbarians were actually at their gates and the Persian siegeworks began to overtop their walls. Phocasa, on the coast somewhat north of present-day Smyrna, was the first of the Ionian cities to be attacked. Its inhabitants...
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SOURCE: Bertrand Russell, "Parmenides," in A History of Western Philosophy, and Its Connection with Political and Social Circumstances from the Earliest Times to the Present Day, Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1945, pp. 48-52.
[In the following excerpt, Russell argues that Parmenides did not consider the perpetual change in the meaning of words, leading to the fallacy of the impossibility of all change.]
The Greeks were not addicted to moderation, either in their theories or in their practice. Heraclitus maintained that everything changes; Parmenides retorted that nothing changes. Parmenides was a native of Elea, in the south of Italy, and flourished in the first half of the fifth century B.C. According to Plato, Socrates in his youth (say about the year 450 B.C.) had an interview with Parmenides, then an old man, and learnt much from him. Whether or not this interview is historical, we may at least infer, what is otherwise evident, that Plato himself was influenced by the doctrines of Parmenides. The south Italian and Sicilian philosophers were more inclined to mysticism and religion than those of Ionia, who were on the whole scientific and sceptical in their tendencies. But mathematics, under the influence of Pythagoras, flourished more in Magna Grecia than in Ionia; mathematics at that time, However, was entangled with mysticism. Parmenides was influenced by Pythagoras, but the extent of...
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SOURCE: Edward Hussey, "Parmenides and Zeno," in The Presocratics, Duckworth, 1972, pp. 78-106.
[In the following excerpt, Hussey considers the proofs in Parmenides's poem, attempts to explain what "that which is" means, and summarizes the arguments of Parmenides's disciple Zeno.]
The foundation, around the year 540, of the city of Elea in southern Italy has already been mentioned. The city settled down to an undistinguished and provincial history. But in philosophy, at least, its name is as immortal as any other, on account of two of its citizens who were active as thinkers in the first half of the fifth century: Parmenides and his pupil Zeno, the former born in all probability about 515, the latter about 490.
Parmenides is the first Presocratic of whose thought we still have a nearly complete and continous exposition in his own words. That this is so is due entirely to one man, the Neoplatonist scholar Simplicius. In his commentary on the Physics of Aristotle, written early in the sixth century A.D., Simplicius quotes large extracts from the poem of Parmenides, in illustration of Aristotle's remarks on it, expressly because, as he says, the book had become scarce. It is therefore almost possible to approach Parmenides in the way intended by Parmenides himself; this chapter will follow that way as far as it can be established.
It is worth noticing that...
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SOURCE: G. S. Kirk, J. E. Raven, M. Schofield, "Parmenides of Elea," in The Presocratic Philosophers: A Critical History, second edition, Cambridge University Press, 1983, pp. 239-62.
[In the following excerpt, originally published in a different form in 1957, Kirk, Raven, and Schofield attempt to explicate Parmenides's poem, portions of which they deem to be of "ineradicable obscurity. " Greek words that were originally included in this essay have been omitted.]
Parmenides' Hexameter Poem
Parmenides is credited with a single 'treatise' (Diog. L. 1, 16, DK 28A 13).1 Substantial fragments of this work, a hexameter poem, survive, thanks largely to Sextus Empiricus (who preserved the proem) and Simplicius (who transcribed further extracts into his commentaries on Aristotle's de caelo and Physics 'because of the scarceness of the treatise'). Ancients and moderns alike are agreed upon a low estimation of Parmenides' gifts as a writer. He has little facility in diction, and the struggle to force novel, difficult and highly abstract philosophical ideas into metrical form frequently results in ineradicable obscurity, especially syntactic obscurity. On the other hand, in the less argumentative passages of the poem he achieves a kind of clumsy grandeur.
After the proem, the poem falls into two parts. The first expounds 'the tremorless heart of...
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SOURCE: Scott Austin, in an introduction to Parmenides: Being, Bounds, and Logic, Yale University Press, 1986, pp. 1-10.
[In the following excerpt, Austin introduces Parmenides's poem and considers claims that it is self-referentially inconsistent.]
Parmenides was born in Elea, a Greek colony in southern Italy. He was the founder of Western rational theology, as well as of scientific explanation as we now know it. His innovations in logic, in the metaphysical characterization of ultimate reality, and in the construction of standards for explanation have been passed down to us by Plato and Aristotle, who departed from his insights only in order to further the quest for truth that he had begun. He may also have been a civic leader: it is reported that he constructed a code of laws for his city. He is supposed to have sat at the feet of the philosopher Xenophanes when the latter traveled through Italy, and this seems possible in view of his verbal echoes of Xenophanes; perhaps more probable is the story of Parmenides' devotion to his teacher, a noble Pythagorean of humble birth.1 Plato (Parmenides 127A-B) dramatically represents Parmenides and Zeno as having talked to Socrates in Athens when Socrates was very young; however doubtful this story may be as a way of dating people exactly,2 it may nevertheless be useful as a rough index of contemporaneity and would place Parmenides'...
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SOURCE: Richard D. McKirahan, Jr., "Parmenides and Elea," in Philosophy before Socrates: An Introduction with Texts and Commentary, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1994, pp. 151-78.
[In the following excerpt, McKirahan clarifies some of the more difficult passages in Parmenides 's work and answers objections to the poem.]
Significance and Life
Parmenides' philosophy marks a turning point in the history of thought. Neither his style of argument nor his astonishing conclusions could be overlooked even by those who strongly disagreed with him. Like Heraclitus, Parmenides pushed the limits of his thinking beyond the range of subjects found in the early Ionian philosophers, though his ideas, like those of Heraclitus, have implications for the entities and cosmic processes which his predecessors proposed. If Heraclitus was the first person to approach things philosophically instead of scientifically, Parmenides deserves recognition for introducing deductive arguments to philosophy and for acknowledging their compelling force, and for using this new tool to raise basic philosophical questions: What conditions must exist ing things satisfy? Is reality what our senses tell us it is? How we can tell? He was also the first to undertake explicit philosophical analyses of the concepts: being and coming to be, change, motion, time, and space. And he was the...
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Barnes, Jonathan. "Parmenides and the Objects of Inquiry." In The Presocratic Philosophers, pp. 155-75. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979.
Philological study, original translation, and logical formulations of Parmenides's arguments.
Burnet, John. "Parmenides of Elea." In Early Greek Philosophy, pp. 169-96. New York: Meridian, 1957.
Original translation of Parmenides's poem and consideration of the work's meaning and importance.
Furth, Montgomery. "Elements of Eleatic Ontology." In The Pre-Socratics, pp. 241-70. Garden City: Anchor Books, 1974.
Examination of what "being" means in Parmenides's poem, a work Furth sees as eleactic.
Guthrie, W. K. C. "Parmenides." In A History of Greek Philosophy, pp. 1-79. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965.
Original translation and explication of Parmenides's poem and discussion of alternative interpretations.
Long, A. A. "The Principles of Parmenides' Cosmogony." In Studies in Presocratic Philosophy, pp. 82-101. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975.
Examination of the controversial lines in Parmenides's work pertaining to mortal beliefs....
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