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Parmenides

(b. c. 515 bc)


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Of Elea is said to have legislated for his native city and (c.450 bc) to have visited Athens in his sixty‐fifth year (Plato Parmenides). His philosophical poem, in hexameters (see metre, greek, 4(b)), survives in large fragments. It opens with the narration of a journey taken by the initiate poet‐speaker, apparently from the world of daily life and light to a mysterious place where night and day cross paths and opposites are undivided. Here he is greeted by a goddess whose instruction forms the remainder of the work. She urges him to cease relying on ordinary beliefs and to ‘judge by reason the very contentious refutation’ of those beliefs that she offers. Her address attends closely to logical rigour and connection. The proem is suffused with religious language, and one might conjecture that an initiation in reason is being substituted for the perception‐suffused initiations of religious cult.

Central to the goddess's teaching is the idea that thought and speech must have an object that is there to be talked or thought about. So, if something is sayable or thinkable, it must be: ‘You cannot say or think that it is not.’ On this basis, she concludes not only that nothingness or the non‐existent cannot figure in our speech, but also that temporal change, internal qualitative variation, and even plurality are all unsayable and unthinkable—on the grounds that talk about all these will commit the speaker to making contrasts and entail the use of negative language. Thus, whatever can be talked or thought about must be ‘without birth or death, whole, single‐natured, unaltering, and complete’.

A subsidiary argument invokes an idea of sufficient reason to rule out cosmogony: if what is had a beginning in time, there must have been some reason for that beginning. But what reason could there be, if (by hypothesis) there was nothing there previously?

Having described the ‘Way of Truth’, the goddess then acquaints her pupil with the deceptive contents of mortal beliefs. The cosmogony that follows is not intended to have any degree of truth or reliability. It is presumably selected because it shows the fundamental error of mortals in its simplest form. The decision to ‘name’ two forms, light and night, commits mortals to contrastive negative characterizations.

Parmenides was a great philosophical pioneer, who turned away from the tradition of Ionian cosmogony to attempt something fundamentally different: a deduction of the character of what is from the requirements of thought and language. His views were developed by his followers Melissus and Zeno 1. Empedocles, Anaxagoras, and Democritus all felt the need to respond to his arguments in defending plurality and change, though they did so without addressing his fundamental concern about language and thought. The core of his argument thus remained untouched until Plato's Sophist, in which the Eleatic Stranger proposes a new understanding of the relation between language and the world in order to break the strong grip of the argument of ‘father Parmenides’.

Subjects: Classical Studies — Philosophy.


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