Parmenides, it seems, began his philosophical career as a Pythagorean, but when still a young man, he attained the insight that reality consists of a solid homogeneous sphere, the appearances of diversity and change being altogether illusory. He set out this extraordinary doctrine in a poem in hexameter verse, consisting of a proem; “Aletheia” (“The Way of Truth”), a section expounding and defending the theory of the sphere; and “Doxa” (“The Way of Opinion”), a section in which he dealt with scientific theories (probably Pythagorean). The proem and “The Way of Truth” have been preserved substantially intact, but only a few fragments of “The Way of Opinion” remain.
The proem is an elaborate allegorical description of Parmenides’ journey into heaven. In a chariot drawn by “immortal mares,” he is conducted upward by the daughters of the Sun, who bring him to the “gates of the ways of Night and Day,” the keys to which “severely chastising Justice” holds. At the entreaties of the maidens, Justice opens the portals, revealing “the goddess” who addresses Parmenides:O youth, who come to our mansion in the company of immortal charioteers, welcome! It was no evil fate but right and justice that set you to travel on this way, far indeed from the path trodden by men. Meet it is that you should inquire into all things, the unshaking heart of well-rounded truth as well as the opinions of mortals in which is no true confidence at all. Yet none the less you shall learn all things, even how seeming things—all passing through each—must really be.
The goddess warns Parmenides against relying on the senses for knowledge of reality: “Keep your thought away from this way of inquiry, and by no means let much-tried custom force you this way, to ply the unseeing eye and the ringing ear and the tongue” (considered to be the organ of taste, not of speech). “Rather, judge by reason the much-disputed proof which I expound.” The much-disputed proof is strictly a priori, depending altogether on the law of identity:Well then, I shall tell you—and do you attend and listen to my word—what are the only ways of inquiry there are to think of. The first, that IT IS, and that it is impossible for it not to be, in the way of conviction, for it follows truth. The other, that IT IS NOT, and that it must needs not be,—that, I tell you, is a path that none can learn of at all. For you could not perceive what is not—that is impossible—nor even think of it; for it is the same thing that can be thought and that can be.
The goddess’s expressions are puzzling because it does not follow the rules of language (Greek or English) to say simply, “It is.” We want to know what the “it” stands for; and if “it” is (for example) a radish, the expression “A radish is” still makes no sense. A radish is what? Nevertheless, the sense of the passage is unmistakable: If there is something real (and there is), then whatever characteristics it has, it has just those characteristics, and none other. A is A. It is impossible to think of A not being A, for to say that A is not A would be in effect to say that the thing having the characteristic C does not have the characteristic C; and this would amount to saying something and immediately retracting it, so that altogether nothing would be said. It is in this sense that “it is the same thing that can be thought and that can be.” The goddess did not mean, of course, that there must be mermaids in the ocean because we can think of them. She meant that reality and thought must both be noncontradictory.
All this is perhaps innocent enough, but the goddess is going to use the principle thus laid down as a weapon to destroy belief in the reality of the world revealed by the senses. The first step is to draw the corollary “For this shall never be proved, that what-is-not is,” for “it is not possible for what is nothing to be.” The thought is that the word “nothing” means “that which is not”; consequently any sentence having the word “nothing” as its subject, and “is” as its verb, must be contradictory, “not to be thought of.”
Having established this, it is easy for the goddess to prove that “what-is is uncreated and indestructible.”...
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No serious thinker in the fifth century b.c.e. could dismiss Parmenides’ conclusions merely on the ground that they were incompatible with observed fact, because philosophy, which was still a new enterprise, consisted in an investigation of the world by reason. If in general the senses provided the data for the inquiry, no philosopher considered himself bound to conclude that things are in all respects as they appear to be. If the senses declared things to be a certain way, but reason indicated that they were otherwise, it was not by any means unheard of to dismiss the observations as deceptive. In throwing out all observation, Parmenides only carried to an extreme a preexisting practice.
Parmenides, the founder of formal logic, simply deduced the logical conclusion of the assumptions agreed on by his predecessors. These assumptions were as follow: (1) the stuff (whether water, the Boundless, mist, or fire) of which all things are made is of one kind only (monism); (2) this stuff, as such, is eternal, being neither created nor destroyed, neither augmented nor diminished (conservation of stuff); (3) the qualities of things and the things qualified are not distinguished (phenomenalism). Thus heat and brightness were not thought of as properties of a fire-substance; heat and brightness literally constituted fire; (4) change is a real phenomenon (reality of change).
Once these assumptions are made explicit, Parmenides’ philosophy becomes in a certain way obvious. If the stuff of things is ungenerated and indestructible, and if that stuff consists of its sensible...
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The Way of Opinion/The Way of Truth Problems in Parmenides’ System (Student Guide to World Philosophy)
It should not be thought, however, that Parmenides’ philosophy is free of internal problems. Besides the difficulty of the “outermost boundary,” the most obvious one is that it is not sufficient to reject sense-experience (or anything else) as illusion unless one can at least show the possibility of explaining, consistently with one’s general position, how the illusion occurs. However, such a possibility seems to be ruled out in Parmenides’ system. For if the assumption is made that in reality there exists nothing but a homogeneous rigid sphere, it seems that there cannot be any illusions at all because in order for there to be an illusion there must be—really be—a mind that is deceived, and a mind is by its very nature something that is changing or at least implies change (it thinks now one thought, now another).
There is the further paradox that Parmenides in effect reduced one of his premises to absurdity. As a matter of strict logic, all that Parmenides proved was that the four assumptions listed above are incompatible; the argument of itself did not show that the postulate of change was the one to be rejected. Parmenides evidently chose to deny it because of his (logically independent) argument for the impossibility of void (and perhaps also on religious grounds). Because there is no inconsistency in assuming at once monism, conservation, and change (as the atomists were to show), Parmenides’ reasoning would have been invalid without the premise of phenomenalism. Yet this premise seems incompatible with his conclusion that what-is is not at all what we perceive. Perhaps, however, Parmenides interpreted the third premise as implying only that what-is must have (or be) some kind of quality capable of entering into some kind of consciousness—the property in question might have been just awareness itself. The fact that Melissus argued explicitly that the One could not “suffer pain” suggests that he thought it could “suffer” something, in other words, be somehow conscious. This lends some slight support to the conjecture that Parmenides’ sphere, though undeniably a body, was also endowed with nondiscursive consciousness, whatever that might be. If so, then there is warrant for thinking of Parmenides as the father of idealism.
Barnes, Jonathan. The Presocratic Philosophers. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982. Contains three chapters mainly on Parmenides, along with numerous other references. Barnes puts Parmenides’ ideas into a modern philosophical framework. Includes a good bibliography.
Burnet, John. Early Greek Philosophy. London: Adam and Charles Black, 1930. A classic work on pre-Socratic philosophy, first published in 1892. Contains a clear, readable chapter on Parmenides and a chapter on Leucippus that suggests that Parmenides’ reference to what-is as a self-contained sphere may have given rise to...
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