Parmenides Introduction

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(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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...

(The entire section is 1,254 words.)