Nietzsche on Parmenides

From ‘Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks’

While each word of Heraclitus expresses the pride and the majesty of truth, but of truth grasped in intuitions rather than attained by the rope ladder of logic, while in Sibylline rapture Heraclitus gazes but does not peer, knows but does not calculate, his contemporary Parmenides stands beside him as counter-image, likewise expressing a type of truth-teller but one formed of ice rather than fire, pouring cold piercing light all around.

Once in his life Parmenides, probably at a fairly advanced age, had a moment of purest absolutely bloodless abstraction, unclouded by any reality. This moment–un-Greek as no other in the two centuries of the Tragic Age–whose product is the doctrine of Being–became for Parmenides’ own life the boundary stone that separates two periods. At the same time however, this moment divides pre-Socratic thinking into two halves. The first might be called the Anaximandrian period, the second the Parmenidean proper. The first, older period of Parmenides’ own philosophizing still bears Anaximandrian traces; it brought forth an organized philosophic-physical system in answer to Anaximander’s questions. When later Parmenides was seized by that icy tremor of abstraction and came face to face with his utterly simple proposition as to being and non-being, his own previous teachings joined the rubbish-heap of the older doctrines. Still, he seems not to have lost every trace of paternal good-will toward the sturdy and well-made child of his youth, and he helped himself out by saying, “There is only one right way, to be sure, but if one wishes for a change to try another, then my former view, as to quality and consistency, is the only right one.” Guarding himself by this approach, he awarded to his former physical system a dignified and extensive position, even in that great poem on nature which was meant to proclaim his new insight as really the only way of truth. This paternal solicitude, even considering that it might have crept in by error, presents the only trace of human sentiment in a nature wholly petrified by logical rigidity and almost transformed into a thinking machine.

Parmenides, whose personal acquaintance with Anaximander does not seem unbelievable to me, and whose starting position from Anaximander’s doctrines is not merely credible but evident, had the same distrust toward a total separation of a world which only is and a world which only comes-to-be that Heraclitus too had seized upon and which had led him to the denial of all being. Both men sought a way out of the contradictoriness and disparity of a double world order. The leap into the indefinite, undefineable, by which Anaximander had once and for all escaped the realm of come-to-be and its empirically given qualities, did not come easy to minds as independent as those of Heraclitus and Parmenides. They sought to stay on their feet as long as they could, preserving their leap for the spot where the foot no longer finds support and one must jump to keep from falling. Both of them looked repeatedly at just that world which Anaximander had condemned with such melancholy and had declared as the place of wickedness and simultaneously of atonement for the unjustness of all coming-to-be. Gazing at this world, Heraclitus, as we have seen, discovered what wonderful order, regularity and certainty manifested themselves in all coming-to-be; from this he concluded that coming-to-be itself could not be anything evil or unjust. His look was oriented from a point of view totally different from that of Parmenides. The latter compared the qualities and believed that he found them not equal, but divided into two rubrics. Comparing, for example, light and dark, he found the latter obviously but the negation of the former. Thus he differentiated between positive and negative qualities, seriously attempting to find and note this basic contradictory principle throughout all nature. His method was as follows: he took several contradictories, light and heavy for example, rare and dense, active and passive, and held them against his original model contradictories light and dark. Whatever corresponded to light was the positive quality, whatever corresponded to dark, the negative. Taking heavy and light, for example, light [in the sense of ‘weightless’] was apportioned to light, heavy to dark, and thus heavy seemed to him but the negation of weightless, but weightlessness seemed a positive quality. The very method exhibits a defiant talent for abstract-logical procedure, closed against all influences of sensation. For heaviness surely seems to urge itself upon the senses as a positive quality; yet this did not prevent Parmenides from labelling it as a negation. Likewise he designated earth as against fire, cold as against warm, dense as against rare, feminine as against masculine, and passive as against active, to be negatives. Thus before his gaze our empirical world divided into two separate spheres, the one characterized by light, fieriness, warmth, weightlessness, rarification, activity and masculinity, and the other by the opposite, negative qualities. The latter really express only the lack, the absence of the former, positive ones. Thus he described the sphere which lacks the positive qualities as dark, earthy, cold, heavy, dense, and feminine-passive in general. Instead of the words “positive” and “negative” he used the absolute terms “existent” and “nonexistent.” Now he had arrived at the principle–Anaximander notwithstanding that this world of ours contains something which is existent, as well as something which is nonexistent. The existent should therefore not be sought out-side the world and beyond our horizon. Right here before us, everywhere, in all coming-to-be, there is contained an active something which is existent.

But now he was left with the task of formulating a more exact answer to the question “What is coming-to-be?” And this was the moment when he had to leap to keep from falling, although for natures such as Parmenides’ perhaps all leaping constitutes a kind of falling. Suffice it to say that we shall enter the fog, the mysticism of qualitas occulta and even, just a little, the realm of mythology. Parmenides, like Heraclitus, gazes at universal coming-to-be and at impermanence, and he can interpret passing-away only as though it were a fault of nonexistence. For how could the existent be guilty of passing away! But coming-to-be, too, must be produced with the help of the nonexistent, for the existent is always there. Of and by itself it could not come-to-be nor could it explain coming-to-be. Hence coming-to-be as well as passing-away would seem to be produced by the negative qualities. But since that which comes-to-be has a content which is lost in the process of passing away, it presupposes that the positive qualities (for they are the essence of such content) likewise participate in both processes of change. In brief, we now have the dictum that “For coming-to-be, the existent as well as the nonexistent are necessary; whenever they interact, we have coming-to-be.” But how are the positive and the negative to get together? Should they not forever flee each other, as contradictories, and thus make all coming-to-be impossible? Here Parmenides appeals to a qualitas occulta, to the mystic tendency of opposites to attract and unite, and he symbolizes the opposition in the name of Aphrodite and the empirically well-known relationship between masculinity and femininity. It is the power of Aphrodite that weds the opposites, the existent with the nonexistent. Desire unites the contradictory and mutually repellent elements: the result is coming-to-be. When desire is satiated, hatred and inner opposition drives the existent and the nonexistent apart once more-and man says, “All things pass.”

But no one lays hands with impunity on such fearsome abstractions as “the existent” and “the nonexistent.” Slowly, upon touching them, the blood congeals. There came the day when a strange insight befell Parmenides, an insight which seemed to withdraw the value from all his old combinations so that he felt like throwing them away like a bag of old worn-out coins. It is usually assumed that an external influence, in addition to the inwardly compelling consistency of such terms as “existent” and “nonexistent” shared in the invention of that fateful day. This external event is supposed to be Parmenides’ acquaintance with the theology of that ancient far-travelled rhapsodist, singer of mystic nature deification, the Colophonian Xenophanes. Throughout an extraordinary lifetime, Xenophanes lived as a travelling poet and through his travels became a widely informed and widely informative person who understood how to ask questions and tell stories. Heraclitus counted him among the polyhistorians and among “historical” natures in general, in the sense already alluded to. Whence and when he picked up the mystical tendency toward the one, and the “one forever at rest,” no one can now reconstruct. Perhaps it was the concept of an old man finally settled down, one before whose soul there appeared, after all the mobility of his wanderings and after all his restless learning and looking, the highest and greatest thing of all, a vision of divine rest, of the permanence of all things within a pantheistic archetypal peace. To me, by the way, it seems no more than accidental that in the same place, in Elea, two men should be living for a while who both carried in their minds a concept of unity. They did not form a school; they had nothing in common which one might have learned from the other and then passed along to others in turn. For the origin of their concepts of unity was a totally different one in each case, a downright opposite one in fact. If one of them did know the doctrine of the other, he would have had to translate it into a language of his own, even to understand it. But even in such translation the specific import of each would surely have been lost. Whereas Parmenides came to the unity of the existent purely by adherence to his supposed logic, spinning it out of the concepts of being and nonbeing, Xenophanes was a religious mystic who with his mystic unity belongs very typically to the sixth century. Even though he was not as cataclysmic a personality as Pythagoras, he shared his tendency and compulsion to improve human beings, to cleanse and to heal them, as he wandered from place to place. He is the teacher of ethics, though still on the rhapsodic level; in later times he would have been a Sophist. In his bold disapproval of the current mores and values he has not his equal in Greece. And to disapprove, he by no means withdraws into solitude, like Heraclitus and Plato, but stands up before the very public whose jubilant admiration of Homer, whose passionate yearning for the honors of the gymnastic festivals, whose worship of anthropomorphic stones he scourged wrathfully and scornfully, yet not in the quarrelsome fashion of a Thersites. The freedom of the individual finds its high point in Xenophanes, and it is in this almost boundless withdrawal from all conventionality that he is related more closely to Parmenides, not in that ultimate divine unity which he once saw in a vision befitting his century and which has hardly the expression or terminology in common with Parmenides’ one being, not to mention origin.

It was rather an opposite frame of mind in which Parmenides found his doctrine of being. On a certain day and in a certain frame of mind he tested his two interactive contradictories, whose mutual desire and hatred constitute the world and all coming-to-be. He tested the existent and the nonexistent, the positive and the negative properties-and suddenly he found that he could not get past the concept of a negative duality, the concept of non-existence. Can some-thing which is not be a quality? Or, more basically, can something which is not, be? For the only single form of knowledge which we trust immediately and absolutely and to deny which amounts to insanity is the tautology A = A. But just this tautological insight proclaims inexorably: What is not, is not. What is, is. And suddently Parmenides felt a monstrous logical sin burdening his whole previous life. Had he not light-heartedly always assumed that there are such things as negative qualities, nonexistent entities, that, in other words, A is not A? But only total perversity of thinking could have done so. To be sure, he reflected, the great mass of people had always made the same perverse judgment; he had merely participated in a universal crime against logic. But the same moment that shows him his crime illuminates him with a glorious discovery. He has found a principle, the key to the cosmic secret, remote from all human illusion. Now, grasping the firm and awful hand of tautological truth about being, he can climb down, into the abyss of all things.

On his way down he meets Heraclitus–an unhappy encounter. Caring now for nothing except the strictest separation of being from non-being, he must hate in his deepest soul the antinomy-play of Heraclitus. Propositions such as “We are and at the same time are not,” or “Being and nonbeing is at the same time the same and not the same,” tangle and cloud everything which he had just illuminated and distinguished. They drove him to fury. “Away with those people,” he screamed, “who seem to have two heads and yet know nothing. Everything is in flux with them, including their thinking. They stand in dull astonishment before things and yet must be deaf as well as blind to mix up the opposites the way they do!” The irrationality of the masses, glorified in playful antinomies and lauded as the culmination of all wisdom was now a painful and incomprehensible experience.

And then he really dipped into the cold bath of his awe-inspiring abstractions. That which truly is must be forever present; you cannot say of it “it was,” “it will be.” The existent cannot have come to be, for out of what could it have come? Out of the nonexistent? But the nonexistent is not, and cannot produce anything. Out of the existent? This would reproduce nothing but itself. It is the same with passing away. Passing away is just as impossible as coming-to-be, as is all change, all decrease, all increase. In fact the only valid proposition that can be stated is “Everything of which you can say ‘it has been’ or ‘it will be’ is not; of the existent you can never say ‘it is not.”‘ The existent is indivisible, for where is the second power that could divide it? It is immobile, for where could it move to? It can be neither infinitely large nor infinitely small, for it is perfect, and a perfectly given infinity is a contradiction. Thus it hovers: bounded, finished, immobile, everywhere in balance, equally perfect at each point, like a globe, though not in space, for this space would be a second existent. But there cannot be several existents. For in order to separate them, there would have to be something which is not existent, a supposition which cancels itself. Thus there is only eternal unity.

And now, whenever Parmenides glances back-ward at the world of come-to-be, the world whose existence he used to try to comprehend by means of ingenious conjectures, he becomes angry with his eyes for so much as seeing come-to-be, with his ears for hearing it. “Whatever you do, do not be guided by your dull eyes,” is now his imperative, “nor by your resounding ears, nor by your tongue, but test all things with the power of your thinking alone.” Thus he accomplished the immensely significant first critique of man’s apparatus of knowledge, a critique as yet in-adequate but doomed to bear dire consequences. By wrenching apart the senses and the capacity for abstraction, in other words by splitting up mind as though it were composed of two quite separate capacities, he demolished intellect itself, encouraging man to indulge in that wholly erroneous distinction between “spirit” and “body” which, especially since Plato, lies upon philosophy like a curse. All sense perceptions, says Parmenides, yield but illusions. And their main illusoriness lies in their pretense that the non-existent coexists with the existent, that Becoming, too, has Being. All the manifold colorful world known to experience, all the transformations of its qualities, all the orderliness of its ups and downs, are cast aside mercilessly as mere semblance and illusion. Nothing may be learned from them. All effort spent upon this false deceitful world which is futile and negligible, faked into a lying existence by the senses is therefore wasted. When one makes as total a judgment as does Parmenides about the whole of the world, one ceases to be a scientist, an investigator into any of the world’s parts. One’s sympathy toward phenomena atrophies; one even develops a hatred for phenomena including oneself, a hatred for being unable to get rid of the everlasting deceitfulness of sensation. Henceforward truth shall live only in the palest, most abstracted generalities, in the empty husks of the most indefinite terms, as though in a house of cobwebs. And be-side such truth now sits our philosopher, like-wise as bloodless as his abstractions, in the spun out fabric of his formulas. A spider at least wants blood from its victims. The Parmenidean philosopher hates most of all the blood of his victims, the blood of the empirical reality which was sacrificed and shed by him.

And this was a Greek who flourished approximately during the outbreak of the Ionian Revolt. In those days it was possible for a Greek to flee from an over-abundant reality as though it were but the tricky scheming of the imagination-and to flee, not like Plato into the land of eternal ideas, into the workshop of the world-creator, feasting one’s eyes on the unblemished unbreakable archetypes, but into the rigor mortis of the coldest emptiest concept of all, the concept of being. Let us be exceedingly careful not to interpret such a remarkable event according to false analogies. The Parmenidean escape was not the flight from the world taken by the Hindu philosophers; it was not evoked by a profound religious conviction as to the depravity, ephemerality and accursedness of human existence. Its ultimate goal, peace in being, was not striven after as though it were the mystic absorption into one all-sufficing ecstatic state of mind which is the enigma and vexation of ordinary minds. Parmenides’ thinking conveys nothing whatever of the dark intoxicating fragrance of Hindu wisdom which is not entirely absent from Pythagoras and Empedocles. No, the strange thing about his philosophic feat at this period is just its lack of fragrance, of color, soul, and form, its total lack of blood, religiosity and ethical warmth. What astonishes us is the degree of schematism and abstraction (in a Greek!), above all, the terrible energetic striving for certainty in an epoch which otherwise thought mythically and whose imagination was highly mobile and fluid. “Grant me, ye gods, but one certainty,” runs Parmenides’ prayer, “and if it be but a log’s breadth on which to lie, on which to ride upon the sea of uncertainty. Take away every-thing that comes-to-be, everything lush, colorful, blossoming, illusory, everything that charms and is alive. Take all these for yourselves and grant me but the one and only, poor empty certainty.”

The prelude in Parmenides’ philosophy is played with ontology as its theme. Experience nowhere offered him being as he imagined it, but he concluded its existence from the fact that he was able to think it. This is a conclusion which rests on the assumption that we have an organ of knowledge which reaches into the essence of things and is independent of experience. The content of our thinking, according to Parmenides, is not present in sense perception but is an additive from somewhere else, from an extra-sensory world to which we have direct access by means of our thinking. Now Aristotle asserted against all similar reasoning that existence is never an intrinsic part of essence. One may never infer the existentia of being from the concept being-whose essentia is nothing more than being itself. The logical truth of the pair of opposites being and nonbeing is completely empty, if the object of which it is a reflection cannot be given, i.e., the sense perception from which this antithesis was abstracted. Without such derivation from a perception, it is no more than a playing with ideas, which in fact yields no knowledge. For the mere logical criterion of truth, as Kant teaches it, the correspondence of knowledge with the universal and formal laws of understanding and reason, is, to be sure, the conditio sine qua non, the negative condition of all truth. But further than this, logic cannot go, and the error as to content rather than form cannot be detected by using any logical touch-stone whatever. As soon as we seek the content of the logical truth of the paired propositions “What is, is; what is not, is not,” we cannot in-deed find any reality whatever which is construrted strictly in accordance with those propositions. I may say of a tree that “it is” in distinction to things which are not trees; I may say “it is coming to be” in distinction to itself seen at a different time; I may even say “it is not,” as for example in “it is not yet a tree” when I am looking at a shrub. Words are but symbols for the relations of things to one another and to us; nowhere do they touch upon absolute truth. Above all, the word “being” designates only the most general relationship which connects all things, as does the word “nonbeing.” But if the existence of things themselves cannot be proved, surely the inter-relationship of things, their so-called being or nonbeing, will advance us not a step toward the land of truth. Through words and concepts we shall never reach beyond the wall of relations, to some sort of fabulous primal ground of things. Even in the pure forms of sense and understanding, in space, time and causality, we gain nothing that resembles an eternal verity. It is absolutely impossible for a subject to see or have insight into something while leaving itself out of the picture, so impossible that knowing and being are the most opposite of all spheres. And if Parmenides could permit himself, in the uninformed naivete of his time, so far as critique of the intellect is concerned, to derive absolute being from a forever subjective concept, today, after Kant, it. is certainly reckless ignorance to attempt it. Now and again, particularly among badly taught theologians who would like to play philosopher, the task of philosophy is designated as “comprehending the absolute by means of consciousness,” even in the form of “The absolute is already present, how could it otherwise be sought?” (Hegel) or “Being must be given to us somehow, must be somehow attainable; if it were not we could not have the concept.” (Beneke) The concept of being! As though it did not show its low empirical origin in its very etymology For esse basically means “to breathe.” And if man uses it of all things other than himself as well, he projects his conviction that he himself breathes and lives by means of a metaphor, i.e., a non-logical process, upon all other things. He comprehends their existence as a “breathing” by analogy with his own. The original meaning of the word was soon blurred, but enough remains to make it obvious that man imagines the existence of other things by analogy with his own existence, in other words anthropomorphically and in any event, with non-logical projection. But even for man-quite aside from his projection–the proposition “I breathe, therefore being exists” is wholly insufficient. The same objection must be made against it as must be made against ambulo, ergo sum or ergo est.

The second concept, of more content than being, likewise invented by Parmenides though not used by him as skillfully as by his disciple Zeno, is that of the infinite. Nothing infinite can exist, for to assume it would yield the contradictory concept of a perfect infinity. Now since our reality, our given world, everywhere bears the stamp of just such perfect infinity, the word signifies in its very nature a contradiction to logic and hence to the real, and is therefore an illusion, a lie, a phantasm. Zeno especially makes use of indirect proof. He says, for example, “There can be no movement from one place to another, for if there were such movement, we would have a perfect infinity, but this is an impossibility. Achilles cannot catch up with the tortoise which has a small start over him, for in order to reach even the starting point of the tortoise, Achilles must have traversed innumerable, infinitely many spaces: first half of the interval, then a fourth of it, an eighth, a sixteenth, and so on ad infinitum. If he in reality does catch up with the tortoise, this is an un-logical phenomenon, not a real one. It is not true Being; it is merely an illusion. For it is never possible to finish the infinite.” Another popular device of this doc-trine is the example of the flying and yet resting arrow. At each moment of its flight it occupies a position. In this position it is at rest. But can we say that the sum of infinitely many positions of rest is identical with motion? Can we say that resting, infinitely repeated, equals motion, which is its contrary? The infinite is here utilized as the catalyst of reality; in its presence reality dissolves. If the concepts are firm, eternal and exist-ent (remembering that being and thinking coincide for Parmenides), if in other words the infinite can never be complete, if rest can never become motion, then the arrow has really never flown at all. It never left its initial position of rest; no moment of time has passed. Or, to express it differently: in this so-called, but merely alleged reality, there is really neither time nor space nor motion. Finally, even the arrow itself is an illusion, for it has its origin in the many, in the sense-produced phantasmagoria of the non-one. Let us assume that the arrow has true being. Then it would be immobile, timeless, uncreated rigid and eternal-which is impossible to conceive. Let us assume that motion is truly real. Then there would be no rest, hence no position for the arrow, hence no space-which is impossible to conceive. Let us assume that time is real. Then it could not be infinitely divisible. The time that the arrow needs would have to consist of a limited number of moments; each of these moments would have to be an atomon–which is impossible to conceive. All our conceptions lead to contradictions as soon as their empirically given content, drawn from our perceivable world, is taken as an eternal verity. If absolute motion exists, then space does not; if absolute space exists, then motion does not; if absolute being exists, then the many does not. Wouldn’t one think that confronted with such logic a man would attain the insight that such concepts do not touch the heart of things, do not undo the tangle of reality? Parmenides and Zeno, on the contrary, hold fast to the truth and universal validity of the concepts and discard the perceivable world as the antithesis to all true and universally valid concepts, as the objectification of illogic and contradiction. The starting point of all their proof is the wholly unprovable, improbable assumption that with our capacity to form concepts we possess the decisive and highest criterion as to being and nonbeing, i.e., as to objective reality and its antithesis. Instead of being corrected and tested against reality (considering that they are in fact derived from it) the concepts, on the contrary, are supposed to measure and direct reality and, in case reality contradicts logic, to condemn the former. In order to impose upon the concepts this capacity for judging reality, Parmenides had to ascribe to them the being which was for him the only true being. Thinking and that single uncreated perfect globe of existentiality were not to be comprehended as two different types of being, since of course there could be no dichotomy in being. Thus an incredibly bold notion became necessary, the notion of the identity of thinking and being. No form of perception, no symbol, no allegory could help here; the notion was utterly beyond conceiving, but-it was necessary. In its very lack of any and all possibility for being translated into sensation, it celebrated the highest triumph over the world and the claims of the senses. Thinking and that bulbous-spherical being, wholly dead-inert and rigid-immobile must, according to Parmenides’ imperative, coincide and be utterly the same thing. What a shock to human imagination! But let their identity contradict sensation! Just that fact guarantees better than anything else that this was a conception not derived from the senses.

One might advance against Parmenides a sturdy pair of arguments ad hominem or ex concessis. They would not bring the truth to light, to be sure, though they do expose the falsehood inherent in the absolute separation of senses and concepts, and in the identity of being and thinking. In the first place: if thinking in concepts, on the part of reason, is real, then the many and motion must partake of reality also, for reasoned thinking is mobile. It moves from concept to concept. It is mobile, in other words, within a plurality of realities. Against this, no objection can be made; it is quite impossible to designate thinking as a rigid persistence, as an eternally unmoved thinking-in-and-on-itself on the part of a unity. In the second place: if only fraud and semblance emanate from the senses, and if in truth there is only the real identity of being and thinking, what then are the senses themselves? Evidently a part of semblance, since they do not coincide with thinking, and since their product, the sensuous world, does not coincide with semblance. But if the senses are semblance, to whom do they dissemble? How, being unreal, can they deceive? Nonbeing cannot even practice deceit. Therefore the whence of illusion and semblance remains an enigma, in fact a contradiction. We shall call these two argumenta ad hominem one, the argument based on the mobility of reason; two, the argument based on the origin of semblance. From the first follows the reality of motion and of the many, from the second the impossibility of Parmenidean semblance. In both cases, we are still accepting Parmenides’ main doctrine concerning being as well-founded. But this doctrine merely states, “The existent alone has being; the nonexistent does not.” Now if motion has being, then what is true of being in general and in all cases is true of motion: it is uncreated, eternal, indestructible, without increase or decrease. But if semblance is denied of this world (by means of the question as to its origin), if the stage of so-called coming-to-be, of change -in other words our whole multi-formed restless colorful and rich existence-is protected against Parmenidean discard, then it is necessary to characterize this world of interaction and transformation as a sum of such truly existent essences, existing simultaneously in all eternity. In this sup-position too there is no room for transformation in a narrow sense, i.e., for coming-to-be. But what we have now is a multiplicity which has true being; all the properties have true being, as has motion. About each and every moment of this world, even if we choose moments that lie a millenium apart, one would have to be able to say: all true essences contained in the world are existent simultaneously, unchanged, undiminished, without increase, without decrease. A millenium later exactly the same holds true; nothing has meanwhile changed. If, in spite of this, the world looks totally different from time to time, this is not an illusion, not mere semblance, but rather the consequence of everlasting motion. True being is moved sometimes this way, sometimes that way, together asunder, upwardly downward, withinly in all directions.

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