The Tradition Surrounding Parmenides of Elea

Parmenides of Elea, of the early 5th century BCE, was the the founder of the Eleatic school of philosophy and the author of a philosophical poem entitled On Nature. In On Nature, Parmenides lays out an overwhelmingly original ontology, as well as he describes two ways to view reality: The first is the The Way of Opinion (doxa, δόξα), which details the opinions of mortals as we know them from our everyday lives: The Way of Opinion is the world-view that is derived from a myriad of sensory impressions, all of which lead to mental representations and ultimately to mental concepts. But the Way of Opinion is false and deceitful, as the world of the senses is one that misrepresents reality to us. Which is why Parmenides also speaks of another way to view reality: The Way of Truth (aletheia, ἀλήθεια), which is a world-view wherein all is one, change is impossible, existence is timeless, and the cosmos completely uniform and unchanging.

Traditionally, this Way of Truth has been taken by a great many philosophers such as Hegel, etc. etc. to mean, that Parmenides posits a deductive logical system above the world of the senses. In the course of this paper I will attempt to show why I believe this interpretation to be mistaken.

Moreover, the ideas of Parmenides would influence Plato to develop his theory of the Forms. And through Plato, Parmenides would influence almost the entirely of later Western philosophy. However, as we shall also see in this paper, Plato is likely to have either misunderstood Parmenides, or knowingly altered Parmenides’ doctrine to suit his own ends in first pronouncing his theory of the Forms and the latter would not at all be surprising, given Plato’s genius and originality.

Thus the traditional interpretation of Parmenides’ philosophy is that he declared the world to be a deductive logical system, that our senses deceive us and that according to the Way of Truth, the world is completely static, unchanging and motionless, with nothing coming-into-being and nothing ceasing-to-be. In the figurative words of Friedrich Nietzsche, Parmenides presented the world as solidly frozen in ice.[i]

Furthermore, Parmenides has traditionally been contrasted with Heraclitus (ca. 535 – 475 BCE), for where Parmenides claims that the world is a motionless block, the tradition surrounding Heraclitus would have the latter say, that all is but flux and motion; that “everything flows,”[ii] or that “πάντα χωρεῖ καὶ οὐδὲν μένει καὶ δὶς ἐς τὸν αὐτὸν ποταμὸν οὐκ ἂν ἐμβαίης” – that “all things move and nothing remains still, and you cannot step twice into the same stream.”[iii]

[i] Nietzsche, Friedrich: Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks (Regnery Publishing 1998) p. 69

[ii] Though there is no Heraclitus fragment containing these words (the motto comes from Simplicius) it is still a fitting characteristic of fragments such as DK B2, B12, B30, B90. Whether we take this to be the true thrust of Heraclitus’ thought or not, the fact never the less remains that the later tradition surrounding Heraclitus would make him out to be “the philosopher of flux”. With his ever vivid language, Nietzsche also commented on the contrast between Heraclitus and Parmenides, calling Heraclitus ‘fire’ and Parmenids ‘ice’. Nietzsche, Friedrich: Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks (Regnery Publishing 1998) p. 69, and also: Bernays, Jacob: Gesammelte Abhandlungen ed. H. Usener (Berlin 1885), vol. I, p. 62 for another early proponent of this view.

[iii] Plato: The Cratylus, 402a