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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2315

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 science are consistently associated with Parmenides, either as originating with him or as being promulgated by him. For example, the simile that concludes the Aletheia—that what “is” resembles a well-rounded ball—may have a more prosaic but still-grander cosmic application to Earth as a sphere, poised in space. Fragment 14 refers to the moon’s shining, not of its own accord but by reflected light. Aëtius (c. 100 c.e.) and Diogenes Laertius ascribe to Parmenides the observation that the evening and morning star are the same body (Venus) as it travels through space. Strabo (who flourished during the first century b.c.e.), quoting an earlier source, refers to Parmenides as having divided Earth into five zones. Such astronomical and geographic interests, along with various references to his treatment of biology, anatomy, and psychology, suggest that Parmenides had a mind more concerned with the investigation of physical phenomena than his austerely logical treatment of “is” and “is not” would suggest.

Nevertheless, Plato’s contrary focus on Parmenides as primarily a metaphysician provides the earliest biographical and descriptive vignette of Parmenides. Plato’s account places Parmenides in Athens in 450, at the time of a quadrennial festival to the goddess Athena. According to Plato, the Eleatic visitor to Athens was then about sixty-five years old, already white-haired but still of a forceful and commanding appearance and quite capable, as Plato reveals in the rest of the dialogue, of engaging in a complicated philosophical discussion.

Unfortunately, there is nothing very specific in Plato’s physical description of Parmenides. One might hope that the picture would be filled out by the bust from the first century c.e. found during excavations at Elea in 1966. The bust matches an inscription, “Parmenides the son of Pyres the natural philosopher,” found in 1962; also, the inscription somehow connects Parmenides with Apollo as a patron of physicians. The existence of this statue obviously attests the regard in which Parmenides was held in Elea several centuries after his death. It is unlikely, however, that it actually portrays the visage of Parmenides, since it seems to be modeled on the bust of a later figure, the Epicurean Metrodorus (c. 300 b.c.e.), who was chosen to represent the typical philosopher.

In his account of Parmenides’ visit to Athens, Plato includes the detail that Zeno of Elea, who accompanied Parmenides on that occasion, had once been his lover. Athenaeus (fl. c. 200 c.e.) objects to this point as a superfluous addition that contributes nothing to Plato’s narrative. Whatever the case may be, Zeno and the slightly later Melissus (born c. 480 b.c.e.) are often grouped with Parmenides as the founders of an Eleatic school of philosophy. In particular, the intellectual connection between Parmenides and Zeno may be especially close. Both were from Elea (while Melissus was from the Aegean island Samos), and, according to Plato, Zeno’s paradoxes, purporting to show the impossibility of motion, were designed to support Parmenides’ doctrine concerning the unified nature of reality.

The determination of direct influences of Parmenides beyond the Eleatic school is more tenuous. Theophrastus (c. 372-287 b.c.e.), however, connects two other fifth century figures with him—the philosopher-poet Empedocles and Leucippus, the founder of atomism. Also, although he is from a later generation, it is generally agreed that Plato himself owed much to Parmenides.

Of Parmenides’ life after his possible visit to Athens in 450, nothing definite is known. Theophrastus’s implication that Leucippus studied with him at Elea should possibly be dated after 450. Also, Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 260-339 c.e.) implies that Parmenides was still living in 436 b.c.e.; this information leads scholars to believe Plato’s chronology over that given by Diogenes Laertius. According to Plutarch, Parmenides was a lawgiver as well as a philosopher, and subsequent generations at Elea swore to abide by his laws.


Some critics see fundamental flaws in Parmenides’ reasoning. According to the modern scholar Jonathan Barnes, for example, it is perfectly acceptable to say that it is necessarily the case that what does not exist does not exist, but Parmenides erred in holding that what does not exist necessarily does not exist. Even if this objection is valid, Parmenides’ lasting influence on subsequent thought is undeniable. Often, his arguments are presented without quibble in modern treatments of the history of philosophy, as having uncovered difficulties with which any process of thinking must cope.

It is also important to keep in mind the poetic medium that Parmenides used. His sixth century predecessors, such as Anaximander and Anaximenes, had used prose for their philosophical treatises. Parmenides, however, chose verse, perhaps to give some sense of the majesty and dignity of the philosopher’s quest. The ineffable quality that Parmenides claims for ultimate reality may also find an appropriate expression in poetry. Above all, the use of verse puts Parmenides in a rich verbal tradition, stretching back to the earliest extant Greek poetry, that of Homer and Hesiod, and to even earlier oral poetry. The most obvious parallels are with Homer’s Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614). For example, the cattle of the Sun are described in the Odyssey as neither coming into being nor perishing, and this idea is also central to Parmenides’ concept of what is. A close verbal parallel to Homer’s description of the paths of night and day in the Odyssey is also found in Parmenides. More generally, one may note that Odysseus, after his manifold adventures in the outer reaches of the world, eventually returns home to Ithaca and to his wife, Penelope, exactly as Parmenides would both partake of and yet, somehow, eschew the realm of pure thought for the mundane world of doxa.

Parmenides thus emerges as a prime mediator between ancient Greek and later philosophy. While casting his thought in terms of the poetic imagery, metaphors, and formulas used by Homer and Hesiod, he still insisted emphatically on the paramount importance of reason that his contemporaries and successors, such as Zeno, Leucippus, and Plato, framed anew.

Further Reading:

Barnes, Jonathan. The Presocratic Philosophers. New York: Routledge, 1996. Contains three chapters mainly on Parmenides, along with numerous other references. Barnes puts Parmenides’ ideas into a modern philosophical framework, and although his use of technical jargon and symbols is sometimes a bit heavy, he nevertheless handles the ramifications of Parmenides’ argument in magisterial fashion. Includes bibliography.

Burnet, John. Early Greek Philosophy. London: A. and C. Black, 1963. 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 atomism.

Finkelberg, Aryeh. “The Cosmology of Parmenides.” American Journal of Philology 107 (1986): 303-317. Treating the Doxa as an important part of Parmenides’ poem, this article deals principally with Aëtius’s report of Parmenides as referring to various rings that compose Earth: a fiery region within it, airy rings that are associated with the heavenly bodies, and so on.

Lombardo, Stanley, ed. Parmenides and Empedocles: The Fragments in Verse Translation. San Francisco: Grey Fox Press, 1982. A spirited if somewhat free translation, but the best source for getting some sense in English of the fact that Parmenides wrote in verse and that this point is important for understanding the effect he wanted to achieve.

Mackenzie, Mary Margaret. “Parmenides’ Dilemma.” Phronesis 27 (1982): 1-12. Discusses the appearance of second-person verb forms in Parmenides’ poem. The use of locutions such as “you think” must inevitably lead to an acknowledgment of plurality, and Parmenides’ inclusion of the Doxa in his poem may be explained in these terms.

Mourelatos, Alexander P. D. The Route of Parmenides. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1970. The main thrust of this work is Parmenides’ philosophical program. There is also a good introductory chapter on Homeric prototypes for Parmenides’ poetic technique. Contains Greek text of fragments of Parmenides but no translation.

Parmenides. Parmenides of Elea, Fragments: A Text and Translation, with an Introduction. Edited by David Gallop. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984. This volume consists of Greek text and English translation of the fragments of Parmenides, with English translations of the contexts in which the fragments occur. Also contains brief biographies (one to three sentences) of the ancient authors who quote or refer to Parmenides. The most convenient source for getting a general view of the ancient sources concerning Parmenides. Includes a good bibliography.

Plato. The “Parmenides” and Plato’s Late Philosophy. Translated by Robert G. Turnbull. Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1998. Primarily a translation of Plato’s dialogue, with extensive commentary. Several pages deal specifically with Parmenides, however, and there are also other scattered references to his poem.

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