Parmenides Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Greek philosopher{$I[g]Greece;Parmenides} By exploring the logical implications of statements that use apparently simple terms such as “one” or “is,” Parmenides established metaphysics as an area of philosophy.

Early Life

In the mid-sixth century b.c.e., as the Persian Empire advanced through Asia Minor toward the Aegean Sea, some of the Greek city-states that were thus threatened accommodated themselves to the invaders. Others attempted to maintain their independence. In the case of one Ionian city, Phocaea, many of the inhabitants left Asia Minor entirely. They migrated to southern Italy, founding Elea around 540 b.c.e. Pyres, the father of Parmenides (pahr-MEHN-ih-deez), may have been one of the emigrants, or, like his son, he may have been born in Elea. At any rate, Parmenides’ family background was in Ionia.

It is therefore entirely natural that Parmenides would eventually compose verse in the standard Ionic dialect that had earlier been used for Homeric epics. Philosophical influences on the young Parmenides must be more conjectural, but at least some interest in the Ionian philosophers of the sixth century, such as Thales of Miletus and Anaximander, seems entirely reasonable for someone growing up in a Phocaean settlement.

The ancient traditions about Parmenides, on the other hand, connect him with the poet and philosopher Xenophanes. Born c. 570 b.c.e., Xenophanes was from Colophon in Asia Minor, and like the Phocaeans, he fled before the Persians to the western Greek world. Some contact between him and Parmenides is therefore quite likely. It is not so clear, though, that one should regard Parmenides as being in any real sense Xenophanes’ student. A better case can be made for a close association of Parmenides with the otherwise obscure Ameinias, to whom, after his death, Parmenides built a shrine, according to Diogenes Laertius (c. 200 c.e.). Ameinias was a Pythagorean, and thus one should add the sixth century philosopher and mystic Pythagoras to the list of early influences on Parmenides.

The date that Diogenes Laertius gives for Parmenides’ birth is around 540 b.c.e. Plato’s dialogue Parmenidēs (399-390 b.c.e.; Parmenides, 1793), on the other hand, is inconsistent with this date. Most of the dialogue is clearly invented by Plato, as it includes details of argumentation that Plato himself developed in the fourth century. The conversation between Parmenides, Socrates, and others, therefore, can scarcely have taken place as described by Plato; still, the overall setting of the dialogue, which implies that the title character was born around 515 b.c.e., may be chronologically accurate. Possibly, the date given by Diogenes Laertius arose from a reference in one of his sources to the founding of Elea around 540 b.c.e. as a crucial event in Parmenides’ background.

Life’s Work

Pondering the implications of earlier philosophy, which saw a single unifying principle—such as water, the infinite, or number—behind the various phenomena of the world, Parmenides strove to uncover a paradox residing in any such analysis. He wrote one treatise, in poetic form, in which he set forth his views. This work is generally referred to as Peri physeōs (only fragments are translated into English), although it is not certain that Parmenides himself so entitled it. Of this poem, about 150 lines are preserved in Greek, along with another six lines in a Latin translation.

Parmenides’ central concern, or at least that for which he is best known, lies in the implications of the Greek word esti, meaning “is.” According to Parmenides, of the two predications “is” and “is not,” only “is” makes sense. Merely to say “is not” gives some stamp of evidence to whatever one says “is not” and therefore involves self-contradiction. With “is not” thus rejected, all reality must somehow be single and unified, all-encompassing and unchanging. Such a view would seem to be essentially ineffable, but toward the middle of Parmenides’ fragment 8, which gives the core of his argument, what “is” is compared to a well-rounded ball, perfectly poised in the middle, with nothing outside itself.

Despite this thoroughgoing monism, the opening of Parmenides’ poem (fragment 1) refers to two paths of inquiry—one of aletheia (truth) and one of doxa (opinion). The argument about the primacy of “is” over “is not” follows the path of aletheia, while the latter part of fragment 8 follows the path of doxa. (These sections are generally known as the Aletheia and the Doxa.) Ancient authors did not, on the whole, find the Doxa interesting. It was therefore not so much quoted in antiquity, and only about forty-five lines from it are preserved. As a result, many modern treatments of Parmenides concentrate on the better preserved Aletheia. Such an approach may also find a precedent in Plato’s dialogue Parmenides. Other scholars, though, acknowledge Doxa as having been an integral part of the poem, and this approach is entirely supported by some of the ancient references to Parmenides. Aristotle (384-322 b.c.e.), for example, refers in Metaphysica (335-323 b.c.e.; Metaphysics, 1801) to Parmenides as having been constrained by phenomena to acknowledge change and multiplicity in the sensible world.

Aristotle’s line of interpretation is probably correct. Despite the paucity of direct information about the Doxa, several crucial ideas in ancient...

(The entire section is 2315 words.)