Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1254
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."