Parmenides of Elea (Born c. 515 BCE)

views updated Jun 11 2018

(born c. 515 BCE)

Parmenides of Elea, the most original and important philosopher before Socrates, was born c. 515 BCE. He changed the course of Greek cosmology and had an even more important effect upon metaphysics and epistemology. He was the first to focus attention on the central problem of Greek metaphysicsWhat is the nature of real being?and he established a frame of reference within which the discussion was to be conducted. The closely related problem of knowledge, which to a great extent dominated philosophy in the fifth and fourth centuries, was raised at once by his contrast between the Way of Truth and the Way of Seeming. His influence can be found in Empedocles, Anaxagoras, and the atomists; it is strong in most of Plato's work, particularly in the vitally important dialogues Parmenides, Theaetetus, and Sophist.

Plato in his dialogue Parmenides describes a meeting in Athens of Parmenides, Zeno, and Socrates. Parmenides was then about 65, Zeno about 40, and Socrates "very young." Though the meeting is probably fictitious, there is no reason why the ages should be unrealistic. Since Socrates died in 399, when he was about 70, and since he was old enough in Plato's dialogue to talk philosophy with Parmenides, the meeting would have to be dated about 450, making Parmenides' birth about 515. An alternative dating (Diogenes Laërtius, Lives IX, 23, probably from Apollodorus's Chronica ) puts his birth about 25 years earlier, but this can be explained away.

Plato's remark (Sophist 242d) that the Eleatic school stems from Xenophanes is not to be taken seriously. Parmenides founded the school in the Phocaean colony of Elea in southern Italy, and its only other noteworthy members were his pupils Zeno and Melissus (the tradition that the atomist Leucippus was from Elea is probably false).


The work of Parmenides is not extant as a whole. Plato and Aristotle quote a line or two; from later writers, particularly Sextus Empiricus and Simplicius, about 150 lines can be recovered. Parmenides wrote in hexameter verse. All the fragments seem to come from a single work, which may have been called On Nature ; it is unlikely to have been very long, and the fragments may amount to as much as a third of the whole. The survival of a long consecutive passage of more than sixty lines (Fr. 8) is of the greatest importance; it is the earliest example of an extended philosophical argument.

The poem begins with a description of the poet's journey to the home of a goddess, who welcomes him kindly and tells him that he is to learn "both the unshakeable heart of well-rounded Truth, and the beliefs of mortals, in which there is no true reliability" (Fr. 1). The rest of the poem consists of the speech of the goddess in which she fulfills these two promises.

The interpretation of Parmenides is thoroughly controversial, and a short article cannot do more than offer one possible account, with a brief mention of the more important and plausible variants. In the interests of brevity many expressions of doubt have been omitted.

The Proem

Sextus Empiricus (Adversus Mathematicos, VII, 111ff.) quotes 32 lines that he asserts to be the beginning of Parmenides' On Nature (Fr. 1). The poet describes his journey in a chariot, drawn by mares that know the way and escorted by the Daughters of the Sun. The Sun Maidens come from the Halls of Night and unveil themselves when they come into daylight. There is a gateway on the paths of Night and Day, with great doors of which the goddess Justice holds the key. The Sun Maidens persuade Justice to open the gates for themselves and Parmenides, and they pass through. "The goddess" welcomes him kindly as a mortal man in divine company, shakes his hand, and sets his mind at rest by telling him that it is right and just that he should have taken this road. He must now learn both the truth and the unreliable beliefs of mortals.

Although few examples of contemporary poetry have survived for comparison, it is safe to say that this proem is a mixture of tradition and innovation. The "journey" of the poet is a literary figure closely paralleled in an ode by Pindar (Olympian 6). There, as for Parmenides, the journey is an image of the course of the song; the poet rides in a chariot, a gate has to be opened, the team knows the way, and the road is notably direct. The route followed by Parmenides' chariot, although straight and swift, is impossible to chart. The details are vague. What is clear is that the whole journey is nowhere on earth, but in the heavens, and that it begins in the realm of darkness and ends in the realm of light. This imagery is confirmed by other indicationsthe escort of Sun Maidens and their unveiling.

It can hardly be doubted that the journey symbolizes progress from ignorance to knowledge on a heroic or even cosmic scale. The epic verse form signifies a deliberately heroic context, for earlier philosophers probably wrote in prose (though Parmenides may also have chosen verse as being more memorable). Parmenides' journey in search of knowledge must recall Odysseus's journey to Hades (Odyssey XI) to get directions from Teiresias to guide him on his way home. The location of Parmenides' journey recalls the magic regions of this part of the Odyssey, where in one place dawn follows immediately upon nightfall because "the ways of night and day are close together" (X, 86) and where in another place there is no daylight at all, since Night envelops everything (XI, 19). There may also be reminiscences of the journey of Phaethon in the chariot of the Sun.

Sextus, after quoting Fragment 1, gives a detailed allegorical interpretation of it, and in this he has been followed by some modern scholars. But this is wrong; it is impossible to trace a consistent allegory, and in any case detailed allegory was a later invention.

The identity of the goddess is puzzling. The wording of the proem itself suggests that she is the same as the goddess Justice who holds the keys of the gates; in a later fragment, however, she speaks of Justice in the third person (possibly even in Fr. 1.28; certainly in Fr. 8.14). It may be that Parmenides left the identification intentionally vague. Simplicius does not mention the goddess at all but introduces his quotations as if the first person referred to Parmenides himself. The Neoplatonists appear to have called her "the nymph Hypsipyle" (that is, High Gate; Proclus, "Commentary on the Parmenides " Book IV, Ch. 34).

It is probably wrong to say that in his proem Parmenides is setting himself up as a mystic or that he is claiming to have received a divine revelation. If mysticism entails some privileged access to truth through nonrational means, then Parmenides was no mystic. The fragments show that he argued for his conclusions; his goddess tells him to use his reason to assess her words (Fr. 7.5). A single visionary experience is ruled out by the opening of the proem, in which the tenses show that the journey is a repeated oneperhaps repeated every time the poem is recited. Unless the claim of every poet to be inspired by the Muses is itself a claim to a divine revelation, this seems to be an inappropriate description of Parmenides' experience.

At the time of its composition, the proem was probably understood as a claim that the poet had something of great importance to say. The course of his divinely inspired song was a path that led to the light of knowledge. By making Justice responsible for opening the gate for him, he claimed that this was a right and proper path for him to follow and, therefore, a path that led to truth. By putting the whole of his doctrine into the mouth of a goddess, he claimed objectivity for it; it was not beyond criticism, since the goddess instructed him to judge it by reason, but it was not to be regarded as a merely personal statement by Parmenides.

The Three Ways

The goddess begins by telling Parmenides what are the only possible ways of inquiry. She describes three ways, produces reasons for ruling out two of them, and insists on the remaining one as the only correct one.

First two ways are stated, each being defined by a conjunctive proposition. The first is "that it is, and cannot not be; this is the way of Persuasion, for she is the attendant of Truth." The second is "that it is not, and must necessarily not be, this I tell you is a way of total ignorance" (Fr. 2).

The literal meaning of Parmenides' Greek in these propositions is hard to see. The verb "to be" is used in the existential sense. He uses it in the third person present indicative without any subject expressed. Some interpreters say that there is no subject to be understood; however, without any subject the sentence is incomplete, and no doubt the impersonal subject "it" is to be regarded as contained in the verb, as it often is. What this "it" refers to has to be derived from the rest of the argument and will be discussed shortly.

Immediately after the statement of the first two ways, the second way is ruled out on the ground that it is impossible to know or to utter what does not exist: "Whatever is for thinking and saying must exist; for it can exist [literally, 'is for being'], whereas nothing cannot" (Fr. 6). The line of thought seems to be that the object of thought can exist, and since "nothing" cannot exist, the object of thought cannot be nothing. But it must either exist or be nothing; hence, it must exist. The basic premises then are that "nothing" is nonexistent (presumably regarded as tautological) and that the object of thought can exist (that is, it is possible to think of something).

Parmenides makes it quite plain, by the use of inferential particles, that there is an argument in this passage (though this has been denied) along the lines described. It is therefore legitimate to fill in the basic proposition of the Way of Truth ("it is") from the grounds on which it is based. The unexpressed subject of this proposition must be "the object of thought or knowledge" (this is convincingly shown by G. E. L. Owen, "Eleatic Questions"). The Way of Truth will therefore show what can be said of a thing if it is to be a proper object of thought; the first step is to assert that it must be, that it should not be is unthinkable. Subsequently, the subject is referred to as τ óν ("that which is," "what is real," "what exists").

After ruling out the second way, the goddess continues with a warning against a third way, the way followed by mortal men, who wander about senselessly, knowing nothing and getting nowhere. Their characteristic error is that they have made up their minds that "to be and not to be is the same and not the same" (Fr. 6). The third way can be identified with "the beliefs of mortals" mentioned at the end of the proem and discussed in detail in the main body of Parmenides' work, after the Way of Truth (this identification is often denied). Mortals treat existence and nonexistence as the same in that they attach them both to the same objects by supposing that things sometimes exist and sometimes do not (that is, that there is change) and by supposing that some things exist that contain less of being than others and therefore contain some nonexistence (that is, that there is difference). They treat them as not the same in that they suppose they have different meanings. The language in which the censured doctrine is expressed is reminiscent of Heraclitus, but Heraclitus is certainly not the only mortal who suffers from Parmenides' lash here.

The third way is ruled out by pointing to an alleged contradiction in it. It asserts that "things that are not, are" (Fr. 7). From the arguments of the recommended way, described later, it would appear that what is objectionable in the third way is its assumption of intermediate degrees of existence, of things that exist at one time but not another, at one place but not another, or in one way but not another. Ordinary habits of speech and the data of sense perception would lead a man along this path; the goddess gives a warning to "judge by reason the hard-hitting refutation that I have uttered."

The Way of Truth

The Way of Truth has now been shown by elimination to be the right way. The long Fragment 8 proceeds to make deductions from the basic proposition that "it" (the object of thought and knowledge if the analysis given above is correct) "exists and must exist."

Its first property is that it is ungenerated and indestructible. It cannot have come into being out of what does not exist since what does not exist is absolutely unthinkable and since there would, moreover, be no explanation of why it grew out of nothing at one time rather than another. There is no growth of what exists (and no decay either, but Parmenides offers no separate argument for that); hence, "either it is or it is not" (Fr. 8.16)and that decision has already been made. It is, as a whole, entirely.

Since there is no growth or decay of what exists Parmenides argues that no distinctions can be made within it. There are no degrees of beingdifferences of density, for instance; the whole is full of continuous being. What exists is single, indivisible, and homogeneous. Here Parmenides apparently moves from the temporal continuity of being to its spatial uniformity; in the same way Melissus, his pupil, argues for the absence of a beginning or end in time and then assumes the absence of a beginning or end in space (Melissus, Frs. 34).

Next follows an assertion that since there is no generation or destruction, there is no motion or change in what exists. This argument is expanded by Melissus (Fr. 7). Any form of change or rearrangement implies the destruction of a state of affairs that exists and the generation of one that does not exist. Thus, Parmenides concludes that what exists "remains the same, in the same held fast in the bonds of limit by the power of Necessity" (Fr. 8.29). It already is whatever it can be. Motion, as a species of change, is apparently denied by the same argument.

The last section of the Way of Truth is particularly difficult. Parmenides repeats his assertion that there is no not-being and there are no different degrees of being; what exists is equal to itself everywhere and reaches its limits everywhere. From this he concludes that it is "perfect from every angle, equally matched from the middle in every way, like the mass of a well-rounded ball" (Fr. 8.4244). There is no agreement among modern scholars as to whether this is a literal assertion that what exists is a sphere (a view held by John Burnet and F. M. Cornford) or only a simile indicating that it is like a ball in some respect other than shape (a view held by H. Fränkel and Owen). The latter view seems more probable. Parmenides' stress lies on the qualitative completeness, or perfection, of what exists, not on its spatial extension. The point of the simile might be put like this: As a ball is equally poised about its center so that it would make no difference which direction you took if you examined it from the center outward, so what exists is all the same from any center.

The Way of Seeing

Having completed her account "about truth," Parmenides' goddess fulfills her promise to describe mortal beliefs. Only about forty lines survive from this part of the poem. The fundamental difference from the Way of Truth is made clear at the outset: Mortals give names to two forms, and that is where they are wrong, for what exists is single. They assume the existence of two opposites, Fire and Night, probably characterized in terms of sensible opposites such as hotcold, lightdark, lightheavy, softhard. Using these two forms as elements, the Way of Seeming apparently offered a detailed account of the origin of the stars, sun, moon, earth and all the things on the earth "as far as the parts of animals" (Simplicius, In de Caelo 559.25), some embryology, sense perception, and doubtless other things. The details are unimportant (though Parmenides is credited with the first assertion that the morning star is identical with the evening star, according to Diogenes Laërtius, Lives IX, 23); the interesting and puzzling thing is that he should have added a cosmogony to the Way of Truth at all. Modern scholars differ about his intention.

Eduard Zeller took the cosmogony to be an account of the beliefs of Parmenides' contemporaries; Burnet called it "a sketch of contemporary Pythagorean cosmology." However, there is no evidence for this. Such a review would seem to be pointless, and in antiquity the cosmogony was recognized as Parmenides' own. One can ignore the suggestion that it represents those of his early beliefs that were later superseded. The discussion now turns on this point: Is the Way of Seeming granted relative validity as a sort of second best, or is it wholly rejected? If it is wholly rejected, why did Parmenides write it?

Recently, the first view has been defended as follows by, for example, W. J. Verdenius, Gregory Vlastos, Hans Schwabl, and W. R. Chalmers. The goddess in the prologue promised that Parmenides would learn about mortal beliefs as well as truth and would hardly have done so if they had no validity at all. Unless the phenomenal world is granted some degree of reality, the philosopher himself, the learner of truth, appears to be condemned to nonexistence; however, the mind, described in physical terms in the Way of Seeming (Fr. 16), is the faculty that grasps what is real in the Way of Truth. Moreover, some of the language of the Way of Seeming deliberately echoes that of the Way of Truth. The two opposites, Fire and Night, transgress the canons of truth by being distinguished from each other, but they are each described as self-identical and as containing no nonexistence, like the real being of the Way of Truth (Frs. 8.5759, 9.4). Later writers in antiquity, notably Aristotle (Metaphysics A5, 986b2734), took Parmenides to be yielding to the necessity of providing his own account of the phenomenal world. For reason, Aristotle said, there was just one being, but for sense perception more than one. Others have argued that the Way of Truth is the way an immortal looks at the world sub specie aeternitatis, whereas the Way of Seeming is the way mortals see the same world in time. Many variations on these themes have been suggested.

The contrary view, defended recently in differing forms by Owen, A. A. Long, and Leonardo Taran, has more justification in the text of Parmenides. The goddess makes it clear enough that the Way of Seeming is wholly unreliable (Frs. 1.30, 8.52) and that the Way of Truth leaves no room whatsoever for intermediate degrees of reality. The text itself contains a statement of the intention: "Thus no judgment of mortals can ever overtake you" (Fr. 8.61; the metaphor is from chariot racing). Although this is ambiguous, the likeliest sense is that Parmenides is equipped by the Way of Seeming to defeat any mortal opinion about the phenomenal world. All descriptions of the phenomenal world presuppose that difference is real, but the Way of Truth has shown that what exists is single and undifferentiated. The transition to the Way of Seeming is made by pointing to the fundamental mistake in assuming even the minimum of differentiation in realitythat is, in assuming that two forms of what exists can be distinguished (Fr. 8.5354). Once this assumption is made, a plausible description of the phenomenal world can be offered, but anyone who has followed Parmenides thus far will recognize the fundamental fallacy in even the most plausible description. This explanation is more consistent with the later history of Eleaticism, for Zeno and Melissus showed no interest in positive cosmology.

Parmenides and Greek Philosophy

There is general agreement that Parmenides followed the Milesians, Heraclitus, and Pythagoras and preceded Empedocles, Anaxagoras, and the atomists (the thesis of K. Reinhardt that Heraclitus answered Parmenides has been generally rejected). Ancient tradition credits him with a Pythagorean teacher, Ameinias (Diogenes Laërtius, Lives IX, 21). It is often said that the rigorous deductive method of the Way of Truth was learned from the mathematicians, who at that time in Italy were likely to be Pythagoreans, but the truth is that too little is known of the mathematics of the time to allow this to be more than a guess.

In general, the relevance of Parmenides to earlier philosophy is fairly clear, though there is room for doubt about his attitude toward individual men. (Various scholars have found in the text attacks on Anaximander, Anaximenes, Heraclitus, and the Pythagorean school.) All previous systems had assumed the reality of change in the physical world and attempted to explain it. Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes held that the world evolved from a simpler state into a more complex one. Anaximander's view was that different substances ("the opposites") grew out of a primitive undifferentiated "indefinite"; Anaximenes gave a more precise description of the manner of differentiation and said that the original substance, air, turned into other substances by rarefaction and condensation. Heraclitus apparently abandoned the idea of an original simple state, asserting that everything in the world is always changing"an ever-living fire." In somewhat less materialistic language the Pythagoreans produced a cosmogony based on the imposition of limit upon the unlimited. Parmenides' critique was equally damaging to all of these theories, since his argument, if accepted, condemned all difference as illusory.

It is often said that Parmenides' attack on the reality of the physical world depends on his confusion of two senses of the verb "to be"the existential and copulative. It cannot logically be true that a subject is and at the same time is not (existentially); from this Parmenides is supposed to have concluded that it cannot be true that a subject is black and at the same time is not white and hence that all differentiation is impossible. The surviving text does not bear this out. Parmenides' premise (and his fundamental fallacy) was, rather, that "what is not" is absolutely unthinkable and unknowable. Every change would involve the passage of what is into what is not, and hence every attempt to describe a change would involve the use of an unintelligible expression, "what is not."

The argument of the Way of Truth is metaphysical and would apply to any subject matter whatsoever; it is false to suppose that it applied only to Pythagorean cosmogony or only to the materialist cosmogonies of the Ionians. But that Parmenides' primary intention was to criticize the earlier cosmogonists seems clear from the addition of the Way of Seeming to the Way of Truth. His own Real Being was certainly not a ball of matter, as Burnet and others thought. On the other hand, it was not something to which spatial terms were wholly inapplicable. It filled the whole of space and thus was in some sense a competitor of other accounts of the cosmos. The main effects of his work, too, were on cosmology.

The error of Parmenides' ways was not seen immediately, perhaps not until Plato's Sophist. Their immediate effect was to produce theories that attempted to save the natural world from unreality without transgressing Parmenides' logical canons. In brief, they produced theories of elements. Empedocles envisaged a cosmos made of the four elements that were later made standard by Aristotleearth, water, air, and fire. He satisfied some of Parmenides' criteria by making his elements unchangeable and homogeneous. What he refused to accept from Parmenides was that difference was impossible without diminution of reality; his four elements were asserted to be different from one another yet equally real. He explained apparent change as the rearrangement in space of the unchanging elements. Anaxagoras went further to meet Parmenides by asserting that all natural substances, not just a privileged four, were elementary and unchangeable. The atomists responded in a different way; they accepted that no qualitative difference is possible but rescued the phenomenal world by asserting that "what is not" exists in the form of voidthat is, as empty space separating pieces of real being from each other. (The equation of void with "what is not" is sometimes attributed to Parmenides himself, but it was probably first made by his follower Melissus, who explicitly denied its existence in his Fragment 7.)

Plato inherited from Parmenides the belief that the object of knowledge must exist and must be found by the mind and not by the senses. He agreed that the object of knowledge is not something abstracted from the data of sense perception but a being of a different and superior order. He differed, however, in that he allowed the sensible world to have an intermediate status, as the object of "belief," rather than no status at all (Republic 477b and elsewhere). He differed more significantly, too, in that he reimported plurality into the real and knowable by distinguishing different senses of "not-being" (Sophist 237b ff. and 257b ff.).

See also Anaxagoras of Clazomenae; Anaximenes; Aristotle; Atomism; Cosmology; Diogenes Laertius; Empedocles; Epistemology; Heraclitus of Ephesus; Leucippus and Democritus; Melissus of Samos; Metaphysics; Neoplatonism; Nothing; Plato; Pythagoras and Pythagoreanism; Quantum Mechanics; Sextus Empiricus; Simplicius; Socrates; Space; Thales of Miletus; Xenophanes of Colophon; Zeno of Elea.


Fragments and ancient testimonia are in Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, edited by H. Diels and W. Kranz, 10th ed. (Berlin, 1961), the standard collection. Fragments with English translation and commentary are in G. S. Kirk and J. E. Raven, The Presocratic Philosophers (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1957), but the commentary is rather inadequate. They are also found in Leonardo Taran, Parmenides (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1965), and in Italian, with a long bibliography, in Mario Untersteiner, Parmenide (Florence: Nuova Italia, 1958).

The most important recent studies are H. Fränkel, "Parmenidesstudien," in his Wege und Formen frühgriechischen Denkens (Munich, 1955), and G. E. L. Owen, "Eleatic Questions," in Classical Quarterly, n.s., 10 (1960): 84102.

Other studies are H. Diels, Parmenides Lehrgedicht (Berlin: G. Reimer, 1897); John Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy (London, 1892); K. Reinhardt, Parmenides und die Geschichte der griechischen Philosophie (Bonn, 1916); W. Kranz, "Über Aufbau und Bedeutung des Parmenideischen Gedichtes," in Sitzungsberichte der Deutschen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin 47 (1916): 11581176; Eduard Zeller, Die Philosophie der Griechen, 6th ed., Vol. I (Leipzig, 1919), Ch. 1; F. M. Cornford, "Parmenides' Two Ways," in Classical Quarterly 27 (1933): 97111, and Plato and Parmenides (London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1939); G. Calogero, Studi sul eleatismo (Rome, 1932); and Harold Cherniss, Aristotle's Criticism of Presocratic Philosophy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1935).

Some more recent studies are W. J. Verdenius, Parmenides: Some Comments (Groningen, Netherlands, 1942); Olof Gigon, Der Ursprung der griechischen Philosophie von Hesiod bis Parmenides (Basel, 1945); Gregory Vlastos, "Parmenides' Theory of Knowledge," in Transactions of the American Philological Association 77 (1946): 6677; Hans Schwabl, "Sein und Doxa bei Parmenides," in Wiener Studien 66 (1953): 5075; C. M. Bowra, Problems in Greek Poetry (Oxford, 1953); Eric A. Havelock, "Parmenides and Odysseus," and Leonard Woodbury, "Parmenides on Names," in Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 63 (1958); W. R. Chalmers, "Parmenides and the Beliefs of Mortals," in Phronesis 5 (1960): 522; A. A. Long, "The Principles of Parmenides' Cosmogony," in Phronesis 8 (1963): 90107; J. Mansfeld, Die Offenbarung des Parmenides und die menschliche Welt (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1964); and W. K. C. Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy, Vol. II (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1965).

David J. Furley (1967)

Parmenides of Elea

views updated May 18 2018


(b. ca 515 b.c.; d. after 450 b.c)

natural philosophy.

Parmenides’ dates are inferred from the dramatic situation in Plato’s Parmenides. A different chronology, which ultimately comes from Apollodorus of Athens, should be rejected, since it is based on an attempt to place Parmenides’ birth in 540/539 B.C., the year of the founding of Elea. (See Tarán, Parmenides, pp. 3–4).

Parmenides puts forward his philosophy in a poem in dactylic hexameter. Mainly through Simplicius, who cities it in his commentaries on Aristotle’s Physics and De Caelo, we have approximately 155 lines of it; there are, in addition, six lines extant only in a Latin translation. More information on his thought may be obtained from Plato, Aristotle, Theophrastus, and the doxogrphers who depend mainly upon Aristotle and Theophrastus. Because one must depend on others for his thought and because of Aristotle’s notorious tendency to interpret his predecessors in the light of his own philosophy, the indirect information about Parmenides cannot be taken at face value but must be analyzed critically. (This has been done by Cherniss in Aristotle’s Criticism of Presocratic Philosophy. On the secondary sources of information about Parmenides, see Tarán, Parmenides, pp.269–295.)

To emphasize the objectivity of his method, Parmenides presents his doctrine through a nameless goddess whom the poet reaches after traveling in a chariot driven by the daughters of the sun. According to this goddess, only two ways of inquiry can be conceived of: that which asserts the existence of being and that which accepts as necessary the existence of not-being. Since it is impossible to think that which in no way is, only the first way can be pursued. Nevertheless the goddess, with a probable allusion to Hearaclitus’ doctrine of the unity of contraries, attacks as the extreme of folly those mortals who believe that being and not-being are the same and yet not the same. She asks her hearer to judge her argument by reason and not to let himself be led astray by the senses; for there is but one way, that which maintains that only being exists. By assuming that there is no tertium quid between being and absolute not-being, the goddess construes a tight and cogent reasoning which shows that that which is (being) must be ungenerated, imperishable, homogeneous, changeless, immovable, complete, and unique. These characteristics are meant to emphasize from the negative side the unique and unalterable existence of being, for it is implied that if being did not have any one of these characteristics, one would have to admit the existence of something different from being; and such an admission, given the original assumption, would be tantamount to accepting the existence of not-being. Consequently mortals’ opinions about the phenomenal world are meaningless, since they refer to something that has no existence whatever. Yet the pupil must learn the opinions of men, for it is essential to know the source of error so that no one should outstrip him. The minimal error is the belief, conscious or not, that difference is real. Since the minimal difference implies the existence of two things, the goddess shows how from it a whole world of different and change can be derived. In accordance with this purpose of offering a cosmogony or cosmology as a model of reference, the goddess describes doctrines that were more or less current at Parmenides’ time.

Parmenides’ basic mistake is his misapplication of the law of the excluded middle to the disjunction being:: not-being Otherwise his reasoning is flawless, and none of the philosophers who came immediately after him was able to refute him. The refutation was reserved for Plato, especially in his Sophist; but Plato recognized the importance of Parmenides’ attempt to apply the exigencies to logical proofs to thought and its object.


The fragments of Parmenides’ poem and most of the evidence from secondary sources are in H. Diels and W. Kranz, eds., Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, 6th ed., I (Berlin, 1952), 217–246.

Modern works dealing with Parmenides are P. Albertelli, Gli Eleati. Testimonianze e frammenti (Bari, 1939); K. Bormann, Parmenides. Untersuchungen zu den Fragmenten (Hamburg, 1971); J. Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy, 4th ed. (London, 1930), 169–196; G. Calogero, Studi sull’eleatismo (Rome, 1932); H. Cherniss, Aristotle’s Criticism of Presocratic Philosophy (Baltimore, 1935); H. Diels, Parmenides Lehrgedicht. Griechisch und Deutsch (Berlin, 1897); H. Frankel, Wege und Formen fruhgriechischem Denkens, 2nd ed. (Munich, 1960); W. K. C. guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy, II (Cambridge, 1965), 1–80; U. Holscher, Parmenides. Vom Wesen des Seiendes (Frankurt, 1969); J. B. McDiarmid, “Theopharastus on the Presocratic Causes,” in Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, 61 (1953), 85–156; J. Mansfeld, Die Offenbarung des Parmenides und die menschliche Welt (Assen, 1964); A. Mourelatos, The Route of Parmenides (New Haven, 1970); G. Reale, in his ed. of E. Zeller’s Die Philosophie der Griechen, La filosofia dei greci nel suo sviluppo storicoI , pt. 3 (Florence, 1967); K Reinhardt, Parmenides und die Geschichte griechischen Philosophie (Bonn, 1916); L. Tarán, Parmenides. A Text With Translation, Commentary, and Critical Essays (Princeton, 1965); M. Untersteiner, Parmenide. Testimonianze e frammenti (Florence, 1958); W. J. Verdenius, Parmenides. Some Comments on His Poem (Groningen, 1942); and E. Zeller, Die Philosophie der Griechen, 7th ed., W. Nestle, ed., I (Leipzig, 1923), 679–741.

Leonardo TarÁn