views updated Jun 08 2018


PARMENIDES . A Greek philosopher who lived between the second half of the sixth century bce and the first half of the fifth century bce, Parmenides was born in and lived in Elea, an Ionic colony on the coast of Campania, in an area then inhabited by the Lucani, who called the city Velia. He was a pupil of Xenophanes as well as a Pythagorean. Charged with the governance of the city, he gave Elea a long-lasting constitution regarded as the principal reason for its power. He also founded a philosophical school, which was monist and has become known historically as the Eleatic school. His closest followers were Zeno and Melissus. Parmenides wrote a long poem in hexameters titled On Nature, a difficult text even for his contemporaries. The work was lost in the early Middle Ages, and about twenty fragments of around 150 to 160 verses survive. Thus modern interpretation of his work is even more controversial. Parmenidean doctrine denies the real existence of diversity and change and asserts the unity of being. This doctrine has been regarded from time to time as the foundation of metaphysics, of logic, and of the theory of predication and as the methodology of scientific research based upon the principle of correspondence, that is, of "invariance."

Whatever the intention, it is a passionate espousal of l'esprit de géométrie, a radical departure from the normal manner of ethical or political discourse, despite the significant political role played by Parmenides in his native city. It is particularly revealing that, all this notwithstanding, Parmenides's discourse is set out in clear theological and religious terms from various related perspectives.

The doctrine is presented in the proem as the "revelation" of a goddess, in fact of the Goddess, probably Persephone, the titular goddess of the celebrated mystery cult of Demeter at Elea. Parmenides tells of a fantastic journey in a horse-drawn chariot, guided by the Heliades, the daughters of Helios, the Sun, who guide it to the Gate of Night and Day. When they reach there, they ask the gatekeeper, Dike, Justice, to open up and allow their charge to pass through. The poet thus manages to enter into the presence of the Goddess, who welcomes him and invites him to listen to her explain both "the unshakeable heart of well-rounded Truth" and "the opinions of mortals, in which there is no certainty at all"

In terms of the conventions particular to archaic Greece, the image of the chariot in the proem is a clear metaphor for poetry, often guided by the Muses, who steer the poet in the "right" direction. For Parmenides the chariot symbolizes poetic wisdom, sophia, encompassing as it does the tension regarding the Truth and the absolute poetic skill necessary to express this. The route here is "the way of the goddess," which takes the "wise man" in the direction of the "Ultimate Truth." The chariot is not guided by the Muses, the daughters of Memory, but by the Heliades, goddesses related to the light of the Sun, because Parmenides was not attempting to set out a mythical tale, like any other poet, but rather a scientific account. The motif of the gate is made still more complex because it is a specific gate that had always played a central part in the sphere of myth and cosmology, that is, the Gate of Day and Night, also called the Gate of the Sun, and is identified with the Gate of Hades. It towered in the extreme west, far from the region inhabited by humankind. Beyond this, just as in Parmenides, yawned the abyss, in Greek berethron, chaos, (chasma ), in other words the world of the dead, the realm of Hades and Persephone, the god and goddess of the netherworld, but also, according to Hesiod, the cosmic location in which were gathered the first principles of everything, the "roots," the "sources," the "limits," that is, the elements of matter.

After the proem, throughout the poem every abstract concept, every natural entity is represented in divine terms. Physical law becomes Justice (Dike) or Themis, the goddess of justice regarded by the Greeks as older and with greater authority than Dike, or Necessity (Ananke), the goddess of Homer and Hesiod, who ruled over the most powerful gods, or Moira (Fate), the ancient goddess of birth, life, and death. The abstract luminance was Truth (Aletheia), the epic goddess of truthfulness. Being itself was represented in the likeness of an imprisoned god in shackles, a obvious allusion to Prometheus in chains. In Parmenides, in complete form, the unique union that was to be characteristic of subsequent Greek cultural development is evident, a synthesis of absolute intellectual rationalism and the religious symbolism of the polytheistic tradition.

The astronomical section of the poem, following in the footsteps of Anaximander, sets out a map of the heavens in the form of spherical concentric bands on which individual stars were set out. These, or at least some of these, were clearly divine in form. The outer surface, the farthest away, including all the bands in order nearest to the earth, which was located in the center, was called in lay terms ouranos, "heaven," but also theologically Olympus eschatos, "the final Olympus." This alludes to the mountain on the summit of which, myth said, was situated the abode of the gods. In the center band, perhaps the heaven of Hesperus-Lucifer, correctly identified by Parmenides as one and the same star, is "the goddess who controls all things," especially regarding sexual congress, the source of life, thus a supreme goddess, probably Aphrodite. Eros also plays an important role. It is clear that the doctrine of divine intelligence and astral influences has already made its appearance.

There is no doubt that the pantheon of Parmenides is predominantly feminine. In particular the two principal divinities, the inspired revelatrix of the proem and the omnipotent one in the center of the heavens, are goddesses. Being, in Greek, Eon, single unchanging matter, which has no space in which to move, is neuter gender. The masculine, theologically speaking, is of marginal importance. This causes a difficulty of interpretation that is impossible to resolve because of the scarcity of available information. Some see the survival or reemergence in Parmenides of an ancient pre-Greek Mediterranean religion with a matriarchal basis (Untersteiner, 1958).

See Also

Empedocles; Metaphysics; Monism; Muses; Plato; Pythagoras; Xenophanes.


Burkert, Walter. "Das Proömium des Parmenides und die Katabasis des Pythagoras." Phronesis 14 (1969): 130.

Cerri, Giovanni. "Cosmologia dell'Ade in Omero, Esiodo e Parmenide." Parola del passato 50 (1995): 437467.

Cerri, Giovanni. Poema sulla natura, Parmenide di Elea: Introduzione, testo, traduzione, e note. Milan, 1999.

Couloubaritsis, Lambros. Mythe et philosophie chez Parménide. Brussels, 1990.

Coxon, A. H. The Fragments of Parmenides : A Critical Text with Introduction, Translation, the Ancient Testimonia, and a Commentary. Assen, Netherlands, 1986.

Diels, Hermann, and Walther Kranz. Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, vol. 1. Berlin, 1951. See pp. 217246. Reference edition.

Frère, Jean. "Aurore, Eros, et Ananke: Autour des dieux parménidiennes." Études philosophiques 60 (1985): 459470.

Jaeger, Werner Wilhelm. Theology of the Early Greek Philosophers. Oxford, 1947. See chap. 6.

Kingsley, Peter. In the Dark Places of Wisdom. Inverness, Calif., 1999.

Pellikaan-Engel, Maja E. Hesiod and Parmenides: A New View on Their Cosmologies and on Parmenides' Proem. Amsterdam, 1974.

Pugliese Carratelli, Giovanni. "La Theà di Parmenide." Parola del passato 43 (1988): 337346.

Tarán, Leonardo. Parmenides : A Text with Translation, Commentary, and Critical Essays. Princeton, N.J., 1965.

Untersteiner, Mario. Parmenide:, Testimonianze e frammenti : Introduzione, traduzione, e commento. Florence, 1958.

West, Martin L. Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient. Oxford, 1971.

Giovanni Cerri (2005)

Translated from Italian by Paul Ellis


views updated Jun 11 2018


Parmenides of Elea inaugurated Western metaphysical thinking; b. probably in the middle of the latter half of the sixth century b.c. He is reported to have been introduced to philosophy by a Pythagorean named Ameinias, and his cultural background at Elea, a Phocaean colony on the west coast of Italy, was Ionian. His philosophy was expressed in a poem of which considerable fragments, as quoted by ancient writers, survive.

Content of the Poem. Although this was composed as a literary unit, it is divided by commentators into three parts: a proem or apocalyptic introduction, a section on truth, and a section on opinion (δόξα) or things as they appear. Textual difficulties and ambiguities in key passages, as well as the poetic form, often leave the meaning highly controversial.

Introduction. In the proem, in imagery found to a large extent in Hesiod (Theog. 744761), Parmenides is borne from the dwellings of night aloft toward light on a chariot guided by sun maidens. Beyond the portals of the ways of night and day he is ushered into the presence of an unnamed goddess, there to be instructed in the knowledge of all things, first of the convincing truth, then of the unreliable "opinions of mortals," in the sense of being shown how things had to appear as they do (H. Diels, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker: Griechisch und Deutsch 3 v. [10th ed. Berlin 196061] 28B 1).

Truth. The way of inquiry following upon truth asserts that there is beingfor there not to be is not possible. The directly opposite way, namely, that there is no being and cannot be any, cannot even be entered by human thought (Frg. 2). But Parmenides is also barred by the goddess from another way, the way actually traveled by mortals. This is two-headed, reverberating, perplexed, unseeing, undiscerning; for it gives nonbeing the same status as being and yet distinguishes them, setting up for everything a way that goes simultaneously in opposite directions. It is the way of sense perception and hearsay, and has to be superseded by difficult reasoning.

The signposts identifying the legitimate way are as follows: being cannot become or perish, it is a whole, without motion or change, without end, without past or future, all together, indivisible, continuous, finite, lacking nothing, perfectly self-identical, entirely homogeneous, and uniquefor, since there is no nonbeing, there is nothing that could in any way come to be or cease to be, or divide or multiply being, or cause defect or difference in it. All apparent changes in the cosmos, and distinctions between being and nonbeing, are but conventional names for the one all-embracing reality.

Opinion. From the goddess, Parmenides then learns why things appear to mortals differently from the way they are. By custom, mortals set up two basic and opposite forms, light and night, one of which it is not legitimate to posit. Each is entirely self-identical and in no way the same as the other. Given equal status by human cognition, they fill everything and differentiate things from one another according to their relative predominance in each thing (Frgs. 69). Even individual cognition, with all conscious identity in a man, is but an ever-varying combination of the two basic forms, light and darkness (Frg. 16). In this framework cosmogony is taught Parmenides by the goddess (Frgs. 1015; 1719). Complete predominance of darkness in an individual's constitution is death (Frg. A 46), while full predominance of light, as the proem makes clear, allowed Parmenides during special inspiration to see things solely under the aspect of being.

Influence and Interpretation. Parmenides's teaching had wide influence in greek philosophy. His formal (in contrast to existential) notion of being, passed on through Aristotle and Neoplatonism, deeply impregnated scholastic, classical, and neoscholastic metaphysics, with the notable exception of that of St. Thomas Aquinas.

Interpreters differ widely over Parmenides. His doctrine of being, isolated from its poetic setting, is variously regarded as an abstract dialectic, a mystical experience, a philosophical monotone, or a sediment from preceding philosophies. His way of seeming, likewise isolated, has been viewed as a report of teachings rejected by him, or as tenets impossible to reconcile with his doctrine of being. Yet the contrast between light and night in the proem seems explained in terms of being and then carried through to the concluding section. No rational link between the sections is possible. In this cast the whole poem gives a consistent and penetrating account of both the way things are and the way they appear. Aristotle (Meta. 986b 3133; 1010a 23) is almost certainly right in reporting that for Parmenides beings meant sensible things only, and that the same reality known as one by reason appears multiple through sensation.

Bibliography: k. reinhardt, Parmenides und die Geschichte der griechischen Philosophie (2d ed. Frankfurt am Main 1959). w. j. verdenius, Parmenides: Some Comments on His Poem (Groningen 1942). g. vlastos, "Parmenides' Theory of Knowledge," American Philological Association, Transactions and Proceedings 77 (1946): 6677. j. h. m. loenen, Parmenides, Melissus, Gorgias (Assen 1959).

[j. owens]


views updated May 23 2018


The Greek philosopher Parmenides (active 475 B.C.) asserted that true being and knowledge, discovered by the intellect, must be distinguished from appearance and opinion, based on the senses. He held that there is an eternal One, which is timeless, motionless, and changeless.

Parmenides was born in Elea in southern Italy in the late 6th century B.C. Socrates, in Plato's Thaetetus, tells how as a young man he met Parmenides and Zeno on their visit to Athens about 450. Little else is recorded about the details of Parmenides's life. He wrote a didactic poem in hexameters, the meter of the Homeric epics and of the oracular responses at Delphi, in which he described a divine revelation. Fragments of the poem remain and provide a fair idea of what he attempted to prove, although even when the entire poem was extant there were problems of interpretation.

The poem consists of a prologue and discussions of the Way of Truth and the Way of Opinion. In the allegorical prologue, the narrator is carried on a chariot to the realm of Light by the daughters of the Sun. There he is met by an unidentified goddess whose revelations make up the rest of the work. The Way of Truth is the way of the intellect; it discovers True Being, which is unitary, timeless, motionless, and changeless although spatially limited. Its opposite, Non-Being, cannot be intellectually known and is therefore to be denied as a concept. The contradictory Heraclitean notion of Simultaneous Being and Non-Being is also denied.

The Way of Opinion, which is the usual path of mortals, deals with the evident diversity of nature and the world perceived through the senses. The validity of sense data and of the objects perceived through the senses is denied. Parmenides insists on not confusing the physical objects with those of the intellect, although in the light of this disclaimer his elaborate explanations of various physical phenomena are somewhat puzzling. These explanations, whether they represent a summary of popular beliefs, Pythagorean thought, or Parmenides's own attempts to explain the world in the most plausible way through the use of the (necessarily false) senses, contain a few shrewd observations in an astronomical scheme that is impossible to reconstruct. Underlying all physical reality are the external opposites, Fire and Darkness. A mixture of the two governs the makeup of all organic life.

Parmenides's importance lies in his insistence on the separation of the intellect and the senses. His allegorical discussion of the paths of thought represents the earliest attempt to deal with the problems of philosophical method.

Further Reading

The extant fragments of Parmenides's poem are collected in Hermann Diels, ed., Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker (1957), translated by Kathleen Freeman in Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers (1948) and discussed by her in The Pre-Socratic Philosophers (1946; 3d ed. 1953). Excellent discussions and commentaries on Parmenides are in G. S. Kirk and J. E. Raven, The Presocratic Philosophers (1962), and W. K. C. Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy (3 vols., 1962-1969). General discussions of Pre-Socratic philosophy as part of the development of Greek thought may be found in the standard histories of Greek literature, of which a noteworthy example is Albin Lesky, A History of Greek Literature (trans. 1966). □