The Way of Opinion/The Way of Truth

by Parmenides
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 108

Parmenides, it seems, began his philosophical career as a Pythagorean, but when still a young man, he attained the insight that reality consists of a solid homogeneous sphere, the appearances of diversity and change being altogether illusory. He set out this extraordinary doctrine in a poem in hexameter verse, consisting of a proem; “Aletheia” (“The Way of Truth”), a section expounding and defending the theory of the sphere; and “Doxa” (“The Way of Opinion”), a section in which he dealt with scientific theories (probably Pythagorean). The proem and “The Way of Truth” have been preserved substantially intact, but only a few fragments of “The Way of Opinion” remain.

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The Goddess

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1504

The proem is an elaborate allegorical description of Parmenides’ journey into heaven. In a chariot drawn by “immortal mares,” he is conducted upward by the daughters of the Sun, who bring him to the “gates of the ways of Night and Day,” the keys to which “severely chastising Justice” holds. At the entreaties of the maidens, Justice opens the portals, revealing “the goddess” who addresses Parmenides:O youth, who come to our mansion in the company of immortal charioteers, welcome! It was no evil fate but right and justice that set you to travel on this way, far indeed from the path trodden by men. Meet it is that you should inquire into all things, the unshaking heart of well-rounded truth as well as the opinions of mortals in which is no true confidence at all. Yet none the less you shall learn all things, even how seeming things—all passing through each—must really be.

The goddess warns Parmenides against relying on the senses for knowledge of reality: “Keep your thought away from this way of inquiry, and by no means let much-tried custom force you this way, to ply the unseeing eye and the ringing ear and the tongue” (considered to be the organ of taste, not of speech). “Rather, judge by reason the much-disputed proof which I expound.” The much-disputed proof is strictly a priori, depending altogether on the law of identity:Well then, I shall tell you—and do you attend and listen to my word—what are the only ways of inquiry there are to think of. The first, that IT IS, and that it is impossible for it not to be, in the way of conviction, for it follows truth. The other, that IT IS NOT, and that it must needs not be,—that, I tell you, is a path that none can learn of at all. For you could not perceive what is not—that is impossible—nor even think of it; for it is the same thing that can be thought and that can be.

The goddess’s expressions are puzzling because it does not follow the rules of language (Greek or English) to say simply, “It is.” We want to know what the “it” stands for; and if “it” is (for example) a radish, the expression “A radish is” still makes no sense. A radish is what? Nevertheless, the sense of the passage is unmistakable: If there is something real (and there is), then whatever characteristics it has, it has just those characteristics, and none other. A is A. It is impossible to think of A not being A, for to say that A is not A would be in effect to say that the thing having the characteristic C does not have the characteristic C; and this would amount to saying something and immediately retracting it, so that altogether nothing would be said. It is in this sense that “it is the same thing that can be thought and that can be.” The goddess did not mean, of course, that there must be mermaids in the ocean because we can think of them. She meant that reality and thought must both be noncontradictory.

All this is perhaps innocent enough, but the goddess is going to use the principle thus laid down as a weapon to destroy belief in the reality of the world revealed by the senses. The first step is to draw the corollary “For this shall never be proved, that what-is-not is,” for “it is not possible for what is nothing to be.” The thought is that the word “nothing” means “that which is not”; consequently any sentence having the word “nothing” as its subject, and “is” as its verb, must be contradictory, “not to be thought of.”

Having established this, it is easy for the goddess to prove that “what-is is uncreated and indestructible.” She asks, “For what birth of it will you seek out? In what way and from what source its increase? I forbid you to say or to think that it came from what-is-not; for how what-is-not could be is neither speakable nor thinkable.” The argument implied is a simple dilemma: If there is an origin of what-is, that origin must be either what-is or what-is-not. However, it cannot be what-is-not, for if so, the contradictory sentence “What-is-not is the origin of what-is” would be true, which is absurd. Also of course to say that the origin of what-is is what-is, while in a sense true, is so only trivially. Therefore what-is is uncreated.

The goddess advances another argument to prove the same conclusion: “And, if it came from nothing, what need could have made it arise later rather than sooner?” This is really an argument from an assumed causal principle; even if the objection be waived that “what-is-not” is unthinkable, mere nothingness or negation could not, by definition, afford any reason or cause why something, if it were to originate out of it, should suddenly appear at one time rather than another. However, without such a reason, nothing could appear at any time; hence, if there ever were a time at which there was just nothing at all, then there never could be anything at any other time. This argument was attractive to many subsequent philosophers, including Saint Thomas Aquinas and Thomas Hobbes. A similar argument (not given) would show that annihilation is also impossible. “Thus is generation extinguished and destruction not to be heard of.”

The conclusions reached are those that were agreed to by all Greek philosophers before and after Parmenides: Nothing comes from nothing, and nothing disappears into nothing. However, the goddess makes additional conclusions:Nor is it divisible, since it is all alike, and there is no more of it in one place than in another, to hinder it from holding together, nor less of it, but it is completely filled with what-is. Wherefore it is wholly continuous; for what-is is in contact with what-is. It is immovable in the bonds of mighty chains, not starting, not stopping, since generation and destruction have been banished afar, driven back by true conviction. Wherefore all these things are but names which mortals have given, believing them to be true—generation and destruction, being and not being, change of place and alteration of bright color.

These astounding conclusions are drawn as corollaries, without further argument. Motion was supposed to be impossible because if anything were to move, it would have to move into empty space; but because empty space would be “what-is-not,” there cannot be any empty space. As for “alteration of bright color” or other qualitative change, this could not take place either, for if an apple, previously green, were to become red, this would entail the disappearance of the greenness into nothing, and the appearance of redness from nothing, both equally impossible because they are contradictory. The goddess has another surprise for Parmenides.It abides the same, remaining in the same place, by itself; thus it stays, rooted to the spot. For mighty Necessity keeps it in the bonds of a limit which shuts it in round about. For this reason it is not right that what-is should be without an end. For it is not wanting; if it were, there would be need of everything. . . . Since, then, it has an outermost boundary, it is limited from every side, like the mass of a well-rounded sphere, extending equally from the center in every direction.

This emphatic assertion of a spatial limit to what-is is perhaps the hardest of all to absorb because one immediately is led to ask, in Parmenidean fashion, What is outside it? If more of what-is, then there is no limit after all; but if what is outside what-is is what-is-not, then it cannot exist as a limit. Indeed Parmenides’ follower Melissus of Samos ventured to correct the master on this point; he asserted that what-is is spatially infinite. Parmenides’ thought seems to have been that infinity (being without end) entails incompleteness and hence could not be predicated on what-is, which is perfect; indeed it was characteristic of Greek thought to prefer the tidy to the vast. However, this at most extenuates Parmenides without acquitting him of manifest inconsistency.

“Here shall I close my trustworthy reasoning and thinking for you about the truth,” says the goddess. “Henceforward learn the beliefs of mortals, giving ear to the deceptive order of my words.” After this unpromising beginning comes an account of the nature of things, more in keeping with the general tenor of early Greek thought. For instance, Parmenides states that the Moon shines by light “borrowed” from the Sun. However, the fragments of this part of the poem are too few to reconstruct the system with certainty. The purpose of including cosmological information seems to have been to forestall derisive criticism of Parmenides as ignorant of the science of his day: “I am telling you everything about this plausible cosmology, so that you may not be surpassed in insight by any mortal.”

The Philosopher’s Reasoning

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No serious thinker in the fifth century b.c.e. could dismiss Parmenides’ conclusions merely on the ground that they were incompatible with observed fact, because philosophy, which was still a new enterprise, consisted in an investigation of the world by reason. If in general the senses provided the data for the inquiry, no philosopher considered himself bound to conclude that things are in all respects as they appear to be. If the senses declared things to be a certain way, but reason indicated that they were otherwise, it was not by any means unheard of to dismiss the observations as deceptive. In throwing out all observation, Parmenides only carried to an extreme a preexisting practice.

Parmenides, the founder of formal logic, simply deduced the logical conclusion of the assumptions agreed on by his predecessors. These assumptions were as follow: (1) the stuff (whether water, the Boundless, mist, or fire) of which all things are made is of one kind only (monism); (2) this stuff, as such, is eternal, being neither created nor destroyed, neither augmented nor diminished (conservation of stuff); (3) the qualities of things and the things qualified are not distinguished (phenomenalism). Thus heat and brightness were not thought of as properties of a fire-substance; heat and brightness literally constituted fire; (4) change is a real phenomenon (reality of change).

Once these assumptions are made explicit, Parmenides’ philosophy becomes in a certain way obvious. If the stuff of things is ungenerated and indestructible, and if that stuff consists of its sensible qualities, then it is out of the question for it to change. For to say that it changes is precisely to say that it has a property at one time and lacks it at another, a conclusion that contradicts assumptions two and three. Thus what-is must be at least “frozen.” However, there cannot be any diversity in it, if the premise of monism is taken seriously.

Parmenides’ argument against motion on the ground that motion requires empty space, and empty space would be what is not and therefore nonexistent, is an obvious sophism. Oddly, though, his successors Empedocles and Anaxagoras deferred to it and denied the possibility of a vacuum. They attempted to make reason agree with observation by giving up the postulate of monism in favor of six kinds of stuff (Empedocles) or as many stuffs as there are perceived differences (Anaxagoras); and they tried to account for motion in a plenum as displacement, illustrated by a fish swimming in a jar “full” of water. Failing to see that the argument that empty space is nothing is independent of Parmenides’ main contentions, and that change is inconsistent with the postulates of conservation and phenomenalism, they exposed themselves to the Parmenidean rebuttal of Melissus, who pointed out that “If there were a many, these would have to be of the same kind as I say that the One is. For if there is earth and water, and air and iron, and gold and fire, and if one thing is living and another dead, and if things are black and white and all that men say they really are,—if that is so, and if we see and hear aright, each one of these must be such as we first decided, and they cannot be changed or altered, but each must be just as it is.”

In fact, if Parmenides’ conclusions are to be escaped without abandoning either conservation or logic, it is necessary (besides clearing up the quibble about “empty” and “nothing”) to distinguish between a thing and its properties (to abandon phenomenalism) and to distinguish, within properties, between qualities and relations. F. H. Bradley’s Appearance and Reality (1893) demonstrated that if the reality of relations is denied (if relations are conceived as qualities or predicates of the things related), then a Parmenidean view of reality is inescapable. Of the ancients, Democritus, Plato, and Aristotle were the only philosophers who displayed some grasp of Parmenides’ essential points and tried to come to grips with them. It is doubtful whether any of them was altogether successful.

Problems in Parmenides’ System

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It should not be thought, however, that Parmenides’ philosophy is free of internal problems. Besides the difficulty of the “outermost boundary,” the most obvious one is that it is not sufficient to reject sense-experience (or anything else) as illusion unless one can at least show the possibility of explaining, consistently with one’s general position, how the illusion occurs. However, such a possibility seems to be ruled out in Parmenides’ system. For if the assumption is made that in reality there exists nothing but a homogeneous rigid sphere, it seems that there cannot be any illusions at all because in order for there to be an illusion there must be—really be—a mind that is deceived, and a mind is by its very nature something that is changing or at least implies change (it thinks now one thought, now another).

There is the further paradox that Parmenides in effect reduced one of his premises to absurdity. As a matter of strict logic, all that Parmenides proved was that the four assumptions listed above are incompatible; the argument of itself did not show that the postulate of change was the one to be rejected. Parmenides evidently chose to deny it because of his (logically independent) argument for the impossibility of void (and perhaps also on religious grounds). Because there is no inconsistency in assuming at once monism, conservation, and change (as the atomists were to show), Parmenides’ reasoning would have been invalid without the premise of phenomenalism. Yet this premise seems incompatible with his conclusion that what-is is not at all what we perceive. Perhaps, however, Parmenides interpreted the third premise as implying only that what-is must have (or be) some kind of quality capable of entering into some kind of consciousness—the property in question might have been just awareness itself. The fact that Melissus argued explicitly that the One could not “suffer pain” suggests that he thought it could “suffer” something, in other words, be somehow conscious. This lends some slight support to the conjecture that Parmenides’ sphere, though undeniably a body, was also endowed with nondiscursive consciousness, whatever that might be. If so, then there is warrant for thinking of Parmenides as the father of idealism.


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Additional Reading

Barnes, Jonathan. The Presocratic Philosophers. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982. Contains three chapters mainly on Parmenides, along with numerous other references. Barnes puts Parmenides’ ideas into a modern philosophical framework. Includes a good bibliography.

Burnet, John. Early Greek Philosophy. London: Adam and Charles Black, 1930. 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.

Cornford, F. M. Plato and Parmenides. London: Kegan Paul, 1939. A general account of Parmenides’ poem and Plato’s dialogue Parmenides. Contains text, introduction, and running commentary.

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.

Furth, Montgomery. “Elements of Eleatic Ontology.” In The Pre-Socratics: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Alexander P. D. Mourelatos. 1974. Reprint. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1993. Furth offers an imaginative reconstruction of Parmenides’ central argument in dialogue form. The anthology is the standard collection on the pre-Socratics.

McKirahan, Richard D., Jr. Philosophy Before Socrates. Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett, 1994. Contains translations of key pre-Socratic fragments, which are then explored by McKirahan in a remarkably clear and accessible way. Includes a discussion of Parmenides and the other Eleatic philosophers. This is perhaps the best place for a new student of pre-Socratic philosophy to begin.

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. It pays particular attention to the way in which material in the “Doxa” parallels statements in the “Aletheia,” often through a more or less explicit appeal to paradox. Contains Greek text of fragments of Parmenides without translation.

Owen, G. E. L. “Eleatic Questions.” In Logic, Science, and Dialectic. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1986. Owen’s article has been enormously influential in shaping the standard reading of Parmenides. In it, he describes “Aletheia” as the philosophically important part of the poem and states that the ultimate conclusion of Parmenides’ argument is that only one thing really exists.

Taran, Leonardo. Parmenides. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1965. Contains Greek text, translation, commentary, and critical essays. Taran argues that the subject of “Aletheia” is Being and that Parmenides regards the sensible world as an illusion.

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