Parmenides of Elea

The venerable and terrible father

by Thomas Masini

Ontology arises from the words of Parmenides of Elea, pupil of Xenophanes and – as Plato wrote in Theaetetus – «both venerable and terrible» father  of philosophy.And, in one of Plato’s dialogues‒ the Parmenides ‒we get a glimpse of Parmenides during his visit to the Great Panathenaeans: «[…]he was already very old, with white hair, handsome and noble, about sixty-five years of age».

Truly a great father, even today, after more than two thousand five hundred years, the fragments of his poem are rich in thought. But why are they so important, studied, quoted and loved? This is the question we shall now try answering.

The Parmenidean poem On Nature inaugurates what is known as ontology, the science of Being as “Being”. Belonging to those pre-Socratic thinkers that Aristotle called “physiologists” ‒ those who philosophically studied nature (physis) ‒, Parmenides’ research, however, focuses on a more abstract and fundamental question: what is Being? In other words, what nature possesses that which unites everything that exists, not with respect to its singular characteristics, but simply because it exists? The only thing that can be preached about everything that exists is its participation in existence, that is, in Being. And so, philosophy in its inexhaustible search for the arché must start from Being. 

It is not a question of enunciating a character, a quality of its own, but of recognizing the true and profound meaning of Being: Being is.

This is the way that Parmenides travels, on a chariot pulled by mares, «in the glorious pathway, / Lip to the Goddess that guideth through all things man that is conscious», and after having passed «the gates of the paths of the Night and the paths of the Day-time» that are enclosed in the ether with great doors guarded by Justice» so he continues: «the goddess receives me with gladness, and taking my right hand /Into her own, thus uttered a word and kindly bespoke me».

What words can follow such a majestic proem? Probably the most fatal of all human thoughts:

Listen, and I will instruct thee ‒ and thou, when thou hearest, shalt ponder‒

What are the sole two paths of research that are open to thinking?

One path is: That Being doth be, and Non-Being is not:

This is the way of Conviction, for Truth follows hard in her footsteps.

Th’ other path is: That Being is not, and Non-Being must be;

This one, I tell thee in truth, is an all-incredible pathway.

Nor thou never canst know what is not (for none can conceive it),

Nor canst thou give it expression.

[Parmenides, fr. 2] 

Parmenides goes on a journey in search of the truth, and the Goddess teaches the philosopher what path to follow if one wishes to conquer knowledge. 

The first: “whatever is is, and what is not cannot be”, is the positive path, the path of affirmation; being is–this is not tautology ‒and it cannot not be. Of all that is, namely, of all that exists as a part of Being, it is necessary to say that “it is”. It is necessary to recognize and affirm its existence. It is not a question of enunciating a character, a quality of its own ‒ even though important ‒ but of recognizing the true and profound meaning of Being: Being is. From this simple, pure and diamantine consideration one can draw unimaginable consequences. The sense of Being, its “nature”, its “essence” is that of being : of the whole Being (what is au fond the same in every different thing, what establishes every existing thing ‒the whole universe, every galaxy, planet, mountain, animal, plant, blade of grass and fluff bunny ‒ as something that exists), one can preach the same thing: it is. By following this path, the path of Being that is, and cannot not be, one comes to a true and profound understanding of the Truth.

The second: “whatever is not isn’t, and cannot be” is the negative path, the path of negation: non-Being is not, and it is impossible that it is. If the whole field of existence, which is equivalent to saying “the field” tout court, belongs to Being, then non-Being belongs to no field: it is total deprivation, it is nothing that exists and, therefore, nothing at all. There is nothing of which one can say that it is not”, even if it exists only as an abstract or imaginative idea. The non-Being is an emptiness of content, and even the words “non-being”, “emptiness”, “none” belong to the field of Being, but their reference, what they would like to indicate, is non-existent; they are like darts thrown at a void dart board: they exist, but throwing them has no objective whatsoever. The non-Being, Parmenides writes, cannot be said or thought:

Speaking and thinking must needs be existent, for IS is of being.

Nothing must needs not be; these things I enjoin thee to ponder.

[Parmenides, fr. 6, 1-2]

There are then not one, but two paths that the wise man must avoid: the path of non-being and the path «wherein men, empty of knowledge, / Wander forever uncertain, while Doubt and Perplexity guide them». This second is the path of confusion, the path of two-headed mortals «Herds that are wont to think Being and Non-Being one and the self-same,/ Yet not one and the same; and that all things move in a circle».

Truth (alétheia) warns us while we travel the berserk road of opinion (dòxa): the two paths cannot be mixed up, Being and non-Being are opposed by necessity and according to Justice. And this wandering is doubly insane because it identifies what is supremely different, and because it confuses what is with nothingness, and therefore tries to operate the impossible: to make something be what it is not and to make something not be what it is; «Never I ween shalt thou learn that Being can be of what is not».

By following the first path, the one that “is“, the Goddess teaches us what we should say and think about Being:

[…]what is is birthless and deathless,

Whole and only-begotten, and moveless and ever-enduring:

Never it was or shall be; but the All simultaneously now is,

One continuous one; for of it what birth shalt thou search for?

How and whence it hath sprung? I shall not permit thee to tell me,

Neither to think: ‘Of what is not’, for none can say or imagine

How Not-Is becomes Is;

[Parmenide, fr. 8, 3-9.]

Being is similar to a “well-rounded sphere”, without cracks, nor crevices, nor alterations or changes. It has always and forever will be what it is, because it is identical to itself and it is not possible that it is anything other than what it is.

Moveless, moreover, and bounded by great chains’ limits it lieth,

Void of beginning, without any ceasing, since birth and destruction

Both have wandered afar, driven forth by the truth of conviction.

Same in the same and abiding, and self through itself itself it reposes.

Steadfast thus it endureth, for mighty Necessity holds it ‒

Holds it within the chains of her bounds and round doth secure it.

Wherefore that that which IS should be infinite is not permitted;

For it is lacking in naught, or else it were lacking in all things.

[Parmenide, fr. 8, 26-33]

In Being there is no birth nor death, because the certainty that comes from Truth shows the impossibility of their happening. If, in fact, birth and death existed, understood as the passage from non-Being to Being and vice versa, then one should say that there are moments in which the Being (which is) is not yet or no longer. But this is pure folly, because if the fact of be belongs to the Being as its sense, then it is not possible that the Being may no longer belong to it. Since the impossible, the absurd, the contradictory is opposed to it, the inflexible necessity of which we speak is to be understood as an unlimited and unchangeable power. In other words, necessity is such because if another possibility were given (the violation of the affirmation “Being is”), this would then be identified with the possibility that what is impossible is possible.

The datum of experience, the world that flows daily before our eyes cries out: there are things that are not, then are, and then are no longer. Our entire life is the experience of the constant and unstoppable becoming of what does not remain but basically passes and disappears. How to reconcile this evidence with the Truth that the Goddess teaches Parmenides, without having to say that everything we experience is pure illusion, madness, error and deception of the senses? How is it possible to “save phenomena“? Nevertheless, what is certain is that everything that is, can only be. 

Let us take our leave, for now, with Parmenides words:

All things now being marked with the names of light and of darkness,

Yea, set apart by the various powers of the one or the other,

Surely the All is at once full of light and invisible darkness,

Both being equal, and naught being common to one with the other.

[Parmenide, fr. 9]

All quotations of Parmenides’ text derive from: Thomas Davidson, The fragments of Parmenides, translated into English hexameters; with introduction and notes by Thomas Davidson, 1869.