Parmenides Analysis

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(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Little is known of Parmenides’ (pahr-MEHN-eh-deez) life except that he created some of the laws of his native Elea and perhaps visited Athens in 450 b.c.e. Diogenes Laertius states that he was a Pythagorean in his youth and a pupil of Xenophanes. Scholars note, however, that there are no significant Pythagorean elements in Parmenides’ philosophy, and they question his relationship to Xenophanes. He wrote a poem under the traditional title, Peri physeōs (fifth century b.c.e.; The Fragments of Parmenides, 1869, commonly known as On Nature), one-third of which is extant. In the conventional form of epic hexameter, Parmenides promulgates his new philosophical ideas, which led to the foundation of the Eleatic School.

In On Nature, Parmenides introduces the theme of philosophical instruction: A young charioteer, the philosopher himself, embarks on a journey in the domain of the goddess of truth, justice, and retribution in order to learn the nature of true existence. Following Xenophanes’ monotheistic understanding of the universe, Parmenides proclaims that true reality is solely “an object of thought and speech,” and if “that which exists, cannot not-exist,” then “there is not that which does not exist.” This theoretical premise is announced by the just goddess, who teaches the young philosopher about the two ways of learning. One is the way toward true knowledge, that reality is “unoriginated, imperishable, whole, indivisible, steadfast and complete”; the other is the way toward false opinion, based on sense perceptions, that reality is originated, perishable, multiple, divisible, and in constant change over time and space.


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Parmenides’ denial of multiplicity was criticized by the pluralists, Empedocles, Anaxagoras, and the Atomists but was defended by his pupils of the Eleatic School. Zeno of Elea demonstrates logistically that multiplicity does not exist, for nothing can be both definite and indefinite. Melissus of Samos, the only member of the school outside Elea, elaborates on Parmenides’ doctrine by explaining that the one, unoriginated and indivisible reality is not timeless but everlasting; that it is not limited but infinite because if it is unoriginated and imperishable, then it does not have beginning or an end; and that void and motion do not exist. Although Melissus is the last representative of the Eleatic School, Parmenides’ philosophy lays the foundation for Plato’s theory of forms and the epistemological dichotomy between true knowledge and false perceptual opinion by interrupting the Pre-Socratics’ continuous interest in natural philosophy.

Further Reading

(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

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.

Curd, Patricia. The Legacy of Parmenides. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998. Curd offers a new interpretation of Parmenides that finds an important place for the “Doxa” and that makes his work more continuous with the rest of pre-Socratic philosophy. One of her principal claims is that while the thesis that there is only one thing may fairly be attributed to Melissus of Samos, a later figure who was inspired by Parmenides, it should not be ascribed to Parmenides himself. Contains an extensive bibliography.

Finkelberg, Aryeh. “The Cosmology of Parmenides.” American Journal of Philology 107 (1986):...

(The entire section is 1,023 words.)