Parmenides of Elea (c. 515 – 450 B.C.E.) was a Greek pre-Socratic philosopher, born in Elea, a Greek city on the southern coast of Italy. He is reported to have been a student of Xenophanes, a teacher of Zeno of Elea, and a major thinker of the Eleatic school.
Earlier pre-Socratic philosophers identified the ultimate principle of the world with its elements (“water” in Thales; “air” in Anaximenes; “number” in Pythagoras) or an unspecified element “undetermined” in Anaximander). Parmenides comprehended both existential and logical characteristics of the principle, and formulated them as a philosophical doctrine. Earlier pre-Socratics presupposed that the principle was logically identical with itself (the principle of self-identity) and it exists by itself (self-subsistence) as an immutable, immobile, eternal being. Although earlier thinkers implicitly presupposed these ontological and logical characteristics of the principle, they never conceptualized and presented them in explicit form.
Parmenides conceptualized self-existence and logical self-identity as the first principle of philosophy. In other words, Parmenides established self-reflexivity and self-sufficiency of truth. That is truth exists by itself without change for eternity. He ascribed perfection and permanence as the qualifications to the true being or existence. Evaluating from this criteria, Parmenides disqualified all beings subject to change and alternation as non-being or mere appearance, not true existence.
He characterized the ultimate reality as “one” and “whole.” Individuals and diversity we experience in the phenomenal world are, according to Parmenides, the illusory perception of mortals. His insight to the self-subsistence of eternal being as the ultimate reality may also be comparable to the idea of God as a self-subsisting being in monotheistic traditions.
Parmenides divided philosophical inquiries into two ways: “the Way of Truth” and “the Way of Seeming or Opinion.” The former is the sphere of ontology and logic, permanent and unchanging, accessible by reason alone. The latter is the sphere of phenomena, change, and alteration, accessible by senses and ordinary perception. Only the “Way of Truth” is a path to truth and the “Way of Seeming” leads to false beliefs, illusion, and deception. Parmenides interpreted previous philosophers as belonging to the latter path.
The sharp distinction between the world of unchanging true reality and that of changing phenomena was succeeded by philosophers such as Plato and Democritus. Plato identified immutable, permanent true reality with ideas, and Democritus with atoms. Parmenides’ concept of existence as permanence is a sharp contrast to that of Heraclitus who conceived existence as flux, or a process. His thought is quite one-sided and radical, but it is also challenging and provocative. Aristotle later tried to clarify various senses of being, which led him to the formation of metaphysics whose central theme is the question of being.
Parmenides is known as the first philosopher who brought the question of ontology and logic into the foreground of philosophical investigations.
Much of Parmenides’ life is unknown. In Parmenides, Plato portrayed Parmenides visiting Athens and having a dialogue with young Socrates. The historical accuracy of the account is uncertain. In Theaetetus, Plato described Parmenides as noble and reverend. Diogenes Laertius and Plutarch also reported that Parmenides legislated for the city of Elea (Diels and Kranz 28A1). Plutarch wrote:
Parmenides set his own state in order with such admirable laws that the government yearly wears its citizens to abide by the laws of Parmenides.
Parmenides wrote On Nature, and presented his philosophy in an epic poem written in hexameter verse, the same poetic form as the works of Homer and Hesiod. The poem consists of three parts: the prologue, the Way of Truth, and the Way of Seeming or Opinion. All of 155 lines survive in Simplicius’ commentary to Aristotle’s physics. Diels and Kranz estimated 90 percent of the Way of Truth and 10 percent of the Way of Seeming survived. The poem describes a mythical story of Parmenides’ journey to the world of light and the message a goddess revealed to him. Commentators agree on the difficulty of interpreting and translating Parmenides’ poem.
The distinction between the Way of Truth and the Way of Seeming is the first attempt in Greek philosophy to distinguish between reality and appearance, or essence and phenomena, which had lasting effects on the subsequent history of Western philosophy.
In the Way of Truth, Parmenides presented his ontology: a real being is timeless, immobile, immutable, permanent, unborn, imperishable, one, and whole. Parmenides did not discuss what that was, which exists permanently, but highlighted the fact of existence as the truth.
There is only one other description of the way remaining, namely, that What Is. To this way there are very many sign-posts: that Being has no coming-into-being and no destruction, for it is whole of limb, without motion, and without end. And it never Was, nor Will be, because it Is now, a Whole all together, One, continuous; for what creation of it will you look for?
One should both say and think that Being Is; for To Be is possible, and Nothingness is not possible.
Parmenides represented the real being as a sphere, a symbol of perfection for the Greeks.
But since there is a (spatial) Limit, it is complete on every side, like the mass of a well rounded sphere, equally balanced from its center in every direction; for it is not bound to be at all either greater or less in this direction or that.
In the Way of Seeming, Parmenides dismissed changes and motion as illusory, which we experience as real in everyday life. In everyday parlance, we speak of absence, void, and non-being or non-existence as if they are real. Coming into being is perceived as a process from non-being to being, and disappearance from being to non-being. For Parmenides, non-being in a genuine sense is a total absence or a sheer nothing that cannot be in principle an object of thought. What we can think of has existence by the fact of being thought. The moment one thinks something, an object of thought is posited as a being. Thinking inherently involves positing an object of thought.
To think is the same as the thought that It Is; for you will not find thinking without Being, in (regard to) which there is an expression.
Parmenides presented a view of truth, which is known as a correspondence theory of truth. In this view, truth is defined as the accordance of idea with reality. Since Parmenides conceived the eternal and unchanging being as the sole reality, true knowledge is a realization of this being and this knowledge is attainable not by senses but by reason alone.
For this (view) can never predominate, that That Which I Not exists. You must debar your thought from this way of search, nor let ordinary experience in its variety force you along this way, (namely, that of allowing) the eyes, sightless as it is, and the ear, full of sound, and the tongue, to rule; but (you must) judge by means of the Reason (Logos) the much-contested proof which is expounded by me.
In our everyday discourse, we distinguish beings according to their kind, mode, and sense of existence. Diversity of beings is established based upon differences in these existential characteristics. What is common to all beings is the fact of existence. Parmenides conceived the fact of existence as the common denominator to all beings and conceptualized it as the One. True knowledge is the realization of the fact of to-be as the first principle of being. Our perception of diversity among beings is, for Parmenides, merely a view of mortals in the World of Seeming.
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