1902 Encyclopedia > Parmenides of Elea

Parmenides of Elea
Ancient Greek philosopher
(early 5th century BC)




PARMENIDES OF ELEA, the most notable of the philosophers of the Eleatic succession, is said by Diogenes Laertius (presumably on the authority of Apollodorus) to have been "in his prime " in Olymp. 69 ( = 504-500 B.C.); whence it would appear that he was born about 539. Plato indeed (Parmenides, 127 B; compare Theeetetus, 183 E, Sophist, 217 C) makes Socrates, who was born 470 or 469, see and hear Parmenides when the latter was about sixty-five years of age, in which case he cannot have been born before 519 ; but, in the absence of evidence that any such meeting took place, it is reasonable to regard this as one of Plato's many anachronisms. However this may be, Parmenides was a contemporary, perhaps a somewhat younger contemporary, of Heraclitus, with whom the first succession of physicists ended; while Anaxagoras and Empedocles, with whom the second succession of physicists began, as well as Protagoras, the earliest of those humanists whose rejection of physical research prepared the way for the Platonic metaphysic, were very decidedly his juniors. Belonging, it is said, to a rich and distinguished family, Parmenides attached himself, at any rate for a time, to the aristocratic society or brotherhood which Pythagoras had established at Croton; and accordingly one part of his system, the physical part, is apparently Pythagorean. To Xenophanes, the founder of Eleaticism,—whom he must have known, even if he was never in any strict sense of the word his disciple,—Parmenides was, perhaps, more deeply indebted, as the theological speculations of that thinker unquestionably suggested to him the theory of Being and Not-Being, of the One and the Many, by which he sought to reconcile Ionian monism with Italiote dualism. Tradition relates that Parmenides framed laws for the Eleates, who each year took an oath to observe them.

Parmenides embodied his tenets in a short poem called Nature, of which fragments, amounting in all to about a hundred and sixty lines, have been preserved in the writings of Sextus Empiricus, Simplicius, and others. Nature is traditionally divided into three parts—the " Proem," " Truth " (_____), and " Opinion " (____). In "Truth," starting from the formula the Ent (or existent) is, the Nonent (or non-existent) is not," Parmenides attempted to distinguish between the unity or universal element of nature and its variety or particularity, insisting upon the reality of its unity, which is therefore the object of knowledge, and upon the unreality of its variety, which is therefore the object, not of knowledge, but of opinion. In " Opinion" he propounded a theory of the world of seeming and its develop-ment, pointing out, however, that, in accordance with the principles already laid down, these cosmological specula-tions do not pretend to anything more than probability. In spite of the contemptuous remarks of Cicero and Plutarch about Parmenides's versification, Nature is not without literary merit. The introduction, though rugged, is forcible and picturesque; and the rest of the poem is written in a simple and effective style suitable to the subject. It is, however, a summary rather than an exposi-tion, and its brevity sometimes leads to obscurity. Partly for this reason, but partly also in consequence of the mutilations and the corruptions of the text, the interpretation of the system which Nature represents early became a matter of controversy.

"Proem."—In the " Proem " the poet describes his journey from darkness to light. Borne in a whirling chariot, and attended by the daughters of the Sun, he reaches a temple sacred to an unnamed goddess (variously identified by the commentators with Nature, Wisdom, or Themis), by whom the rest of the poem is spoken. He must learn all things, she tells him, both truth, which is certain, and human opinions ; for, though in human opinions there can be no confidence, they must be studied notwithstanding for what they are worth.

" Truth."—"Truth" begins with the declaration of Parmenides's principle in opposition to the principles of his predecessors. There are three ways of research, and three ways only. Of these, one asserts the non-existence of the existent and the existence of the non-existent [i.e., Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes suppose the single element wdiich they respectively postulate to be transformed into the various sorts of matter which they discover in the world around them, thus assuming the non-existence of that which is elemental and the existence of that which is non-elemental]; another, pursued by "restless" persons, wdiose "road returns upon itself," assumes that a thing is and is not," "is the same and not the same " [an obvious reference, as Bernays points out in the Rheinisches Museum, vii. 114 sq., to Heraclitus, the philosopher of flux]. These are ways of error, because they confound existence and non-existence. In contrast to them the way of truth starts from the proposition that " the Ent is, the Nonent is not. "

On the strength of the fundamental distinction between the Ent and the Nonent, the goddess next announces certain characteristics of the former. The Ent is uncreated, for it cannot be derived either from the Ent or from the Nonent; it is imperishable, for it cannot pass into the Nonent; it is whole, indivisible, continuous, for nothing exists to break its continuity in space ; it is unchang-able [for nothing exists to break its continuity in time]; it is per-fect, for there is nothing which it can want; it never was, nor will be, but only is ; it is evenly extended in every direction, and there-fore a sphere, exactly balanced; it is identical with thought [i.e., it is the object, and the sole object, of thought as opposed to sensation, sensation being concerned with variety and change].

As then the Ent is one, invariable, and immutable, all plurality, variety, and mutation belong to the Nonent. Whence it follows that all the states and processes wdiich we commonly recognize — generation and destruction, being and not-being [predicated of tilings], change of place, alteration of colour, and the like—are no more than empty words.


"Opinion."—The investigation of the Ent [i.e., the existent unity, extended throughout space and enduring throughout time, wdiich reason discovers beneath the variety and the mutability of things] being now complete, it remains in "Opinion" to describe the plurality of things, not as they are, for they are not, but as they seem to be. In the phenomenal world then, there are, it has been thought [and Parmenides accepts the theory, which appears to be of Pythagorean origin], two primary elements—namely, fire, wdiich is gentle, thin, homogeneous, and night [or earth], wdiich is dark, thick, heavy. Of these elements [which, according to Aristotle, were, or rather were analogous to, the Ent and the Nonent re-spectively] all things consist, and from them they derive their several characteristics. The foundation for a cosmology having thus been laid in dualism, the poem went on to describe the genera-tion of "earth, and sun, and moon, and air that is common to all, and the milky way, and furthest Olympus, and the glowing stars "; but the scanty fragments which have survived suffice only to show j that Parmenides regarded the universe as a series of concen trie rings i or spheres composed of the two primary elements and of combina-tions of them, the whole system being directed by an unnamed i goddess established at its centre. Next came a theory of animal | development. This again was followed by a psychology, which made mind depend upon bodily structure, thought [as well as sensation, which was conceived to differ from thought only in j respect of its object] being the excess of the one or the other of the I two constituent elements, fire and night. "Such, opinion tells us, was the generation, such is the present existence, such will be i the end, of those things to wdiich men have given distinguishing : names."

In the truism "the Ent is, the Nonent is not," ______, Parmenides breaks with his predecessors, the physicists of the Ionian succession. Asking themselves—What is the material universe ? they had replied respectively—It is water, it is _____, it is air, it is fire. Thus, while their question meant, or ought to have meant What is the single element which underlies the apparent plurality of the material world ? their answers, Parmenides conceived, by attributing to the selected element various and varying qualities, reintroduced the plurality which the question sought to eliminate. If we would discover that which is common to all things at all times, we must, he submitted, exclude the differences of things, whether simultaneous or successive. Hence, whereas his predecessors had confounded that which is universally existent with that which is not universally existent, he proposed to distinguish carefully between that which is universally existent and that which is not universally existent, between __ and ___. The fundamental truism is the epigrammatic assertion of this distinction.





In short, the single corporeal element of the Ionian physicists was, to borrow a phrase from Aristotle, a permanent ____ having ____ which change; but they either neglected the _____ or confounded them with the _____. Parmenides sought to reduce the variety of nature to a single corporeal element; but he strictly discriminated the inconstant _____ from the constant ____, and, under-standing by " existence " universal, invariable, immutable being, refused to attribute to the _____ anything more than the semblance of existence.

Having thus discriminated between the permanent unity of nature and its superficial plurality, Parmenides pro-ceeded to the separate investigation of the Ent and the Nonent. The universality of the Ent, he conceived, necessarily carries with it certain characteristics. It is one; it is eternal; it is whole and continuous, both in time and in space; it is immovable and immutable; it is limited, but limited only by itself; it is evenly extended in every direction, and therefore spherical. These propositions having been reached, apart from particular experience, by reflexion upon the fundamental principle, we have in them, Parmenides conceived, a body of infor-mation resting upon a firm basis and entitled to be called " truth." Further, the information thus obtained is the sum total of " truth;" for, as " existence" in the strict sense of the word cannot be attributed to anything besides the universal element, so nothing besides the universal element can properly be said to be " known."

If Parmenides's poem had had " Being " for its subject, it would doubtless have ended at this point. Its subject is, however, " Nature"; and nature, besides its unity, has also the semblance, if no more than the semblance, of plurality. Hence the theory of the unity of nature is necessarily followed by a theory of its seeming plurality, that is to say, of the variety and mutation of things. The theory of plurality cannot indeed pretend to the certainty of the theory of unity, being of necessity untrustworthy, because it is the partial and inconstant representation of that which is partial and inconstant in nature. But, as the material world includes, together with a real unity, the semblance of plurality, so the theory of the material world includes, together with the certain theory of the former, a probable theory of the latter. " Opinion " is then no mere excrescence ; it is the necessary sequel to " Truth."

Thus, whereas the Ionians, confounding the unity and the plurality of the universe, had neglected plurality, and the Pythagoreans, contenting themselves with the reduc-tion of the variety of nature to a duality or a series of dualities, had neglected unity, Parmenides, taking a hint from Xenophanes, made the antagonistic doctrines supply one another's deficiencies; for, as Xenophanes in his theo-logical system had recognized at once the unity of God and the plurality of things, so Parmenides in his system of nature recognized at once the rational unity of the Ent and the phenomenal plurality of the Nonent.

The foregoing statement of Parmenides's position differs from Zeller's account of it in two important particulars. First, whereas it has been assumed above that Xenophanes was theologian rather than philosopher, whence it would seem to follow that the philosophical doctrine of unity originated, not with him, but with Parmenides, Zeller, supposing Xenophanes to have taught, not merely the unity of God, but also the unity of Being, assigns to Parmenides no more than an exacter conception of the doctrine of the unity of Being, the justification of that doctrine, and the denial of the plurality and the mutability of things. This view of the relations of Xenophanes and Parmenides is hardly borne out by their writings ; and, though ancient authorities may be quoted in its favour, it would seem that in this case as in others they have fallen into the easy mistake of confounding successive phases of doctrine, " con-struing the utterances of the master in accordance with the principles of his scholar—the vague by the more definite, the simpler by the more finished and elaborate theory " (W. H. Thompson). Secondly, whereas it has been argued above that " Opinion " is necessarily included in the system, Zeller, supposing Parmenides to deny the Nonént even as a matter of opinion, regards that part of the poem which has opinion for its subject as no more than a revised and improved statement of the views of opponents, introduced in order that the reader, having before him the false doctrine as well as the true one, may be led the more certainly to embrace the latter. In the judgment of the present writer, Parmenides, while he denied the real existence of plurality, recognized its apparent existence, and consequently, however little value he might attach to opinion, was bound to take account of it : " pour celui même qui nie l'existence réelle de la nature," says Benouvier, " il reste encore à faire une histoire naturelle de l'apparence et de l'illusion."

The teaching of Parmenides variously influenced both his immediate successors and subsequent thinkers. By his recognition of an apparent plurality supplementary to the real unity, he effected the transition from the monism of the first physical succession to the pluralism of the second. While Empedocles and Democritus are careful to emphasize their dissent from "Truth," it is obvious that " Opinion " is the basis of their cosmologies. The doctrine of the deceitfulness of " the undiscerning eye and the echoing ear " soon established itself, though the grounds upon which Anaxagoras, Empedocles, and Democritus maintained it were not those which were alleged by Parmenides. Indirectly, through the dialectic of his pupil and friend Zeno and otherwise, the doctrine of the in-adequacy of sensation led to the humanist movement, which for a time threatened to put an end to philosophical and scientific speculation. But the positive influence of Parmenides's teaching was not yet exhausted. To say that the Platonism of Plato's later years, the Platonism of the Parmenides, the Philebus, and the Timxus, is the philosophy of Parmenides enlarged and reconstituted, may perhaps seem paradoxical in the face of the severe criticism to which Eleaticism is subjected, not only in the Parmenides, but also in the Sophist. The criticism was, however, pre-paratory to a reconstruction. Thus may be explained the selection of an Eleatic stranger to be the chief speaker in the latter, and of Parmenides himself to take the lead in the former. In the Sophist criticism predominates over recon-struction, the Zenonian logic being turned against the Parmenidean metaphysic in such a way as to show that both the one and the other need revision : see 241 D, 244 B sq., 257 B sq., 258 D. In particular, Plato taxes Parmenides with his inconsistency in attributing (as he certainly did) to the fundamental unity extension and sphericity, so that " the worshipped _____ is after all a pitiful ______" (W. H. Thompson). In the Parmenides reconstruction predominates over criticism—the letter of Eleaticism being here represented by Zeno, its spirit, as Plato conceived it, by Parmenides. Not the least important of the results obtained in this dialogue is the discovery that, whereas the doctrine of the " one " and the " many " is suicidal and barren so long as the " solitary one " and the " indefinitely many" are absolutely separated (137 _ sq. and 163 _ sq.), it becomes consistent and fruitful as soon as a " definite plurality" is interpolated between them (142 _ sq., 157 _ sq., 160 _ sq.). In short, Parmenides was no idealist, but Plato recognized in him, and rightly, the precursor of idealism.

Bibliography. —The fragments have been edited and annotated by G. G. Fülleborn (Fragmente des Parmenides, Züllichau, 1795), G. A. Brandis (Commentationes Eleaticae, Altona, 1813), S. Karsten (Philos. Graecor. Reliquix, I., ii., Amsterdam, 1835), F. W. A. Mullach (Aristotelis de Metis. Xenoph. et Gorg. disp. cam Eleaticorum fragm., Berlin, 1845 ; reprinted in the Fragmenta Philos. Graecor., Paris, 1860, i. 109-130), T. Vatke (Parmenidis doctrina qualis fuerit, diss, inaug., Berlin, 1864), and H. Stein ("Die Fragmente des Parmenides irepl _-So-eois," in the Symbola Philologorum Bonnensium in honorem F. Bitschelii collecta, Leipsic, 1867, ii. 763-806). The study of Karsten and Stein jointly is recommended. The well-known Historia Philosophiae Gr. et Rom. of Bitter and Preller contains all the important fragments. The extant remains have been translated into English hexameters by T. Davidson (Journal of Speculative Philosophy, St Louis, Mo., 1870, iv. 1-16), and paraphrased in English prose by W. L. Courtney (Studies in Philosophy, London, 1882, pp. 1-25).

The philosophical system has been treated by several of the writers already mentioned, especially Brandis, Karsten, and Vatke, by F. Riaux (Essai sur Parmenide cl'EUe, Paris, 1840), and by the historians of Greek philosophy, of whom it will suffice here to mention C. A. Brandis (Hamlb. d. Griechisch-__mischen Philosophie, Berlin, 1835), G. W. F. Hegel (Vorlesungen über d. Geschichte d. Philosophie, Berlin, 1840), Ch. Renouvier (Manuel de Philosophie Ancienne, Paris, 1844), L. Strümpell (Gesch. d. theoretischen Philosophie d. Griechen, Leipsic, 1854), J. F. Ferner (Lectures on Greek Philosophy, Edinburgh, 1866), J. E. Erdmann (Grundriss d. Gesch. d. Philosophie, 2d ed., Berlin, 1869), A. Schwegler (Gesch. d. Griech. Philos., 2d ed., Tübingen, 1870), F. Veberweg (Grundriss d. Gesch. d. Philosophie, 4th ed., Berlin, 1871 ; English translation, 3d ed., London, 1880), _. Zeller (Die Philosophie d. Griechen, 4th ed., Leipsic, 1876 ; English translation, Presocratic Philosophy, London, 18S1). On the cosmology, see A. B. Krieche (Die theologischen Lehren d. Griechischen Denker, Göttingen, 1840, pp. 97-116). On the relations of Eleaticism and Platonism, see W. H. Thompson, "On the Genuineness of Plato's Sophist," in Jour. of Philol., viii. 303 sq. (H. JA.)






The above article was written by: Henry Jackson, M.A., Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge.



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