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Parmenides n : a presocratic Greek philosopher born in Italy; held the metaphysical view that being is the basic substance and ultimate reality of which all things are composed; said that motion and change are sensory illusions (5th century BC)

Extensive Definition

For the Platonic dialogue see Parmenides (dialogue).
Parmenides of Elea (Greek: , early 5th century BC) was an ancient Greek philosopher born in Elea, a Greek city on the southern coast of Italy. He was the founder of the Eleatic school of philosophy, his only known work is a poem which has survived only in fragmentary form. In it, Parmenides describes two views of reality. In the Way of Truth, he explained how reality is one; change is impossible; and existence is timeless, uniform, and unchanging. In the Way of Opinion, he explained the world of appearances, which is false and deceitful. These thoughts strongly influenced Plato, and through him, the whole of western philosophy.


Parmenides was born in the Greek colony of Elea, which, according to Herodotus, had been founded shortly before 535 BC. He was descended from a wealthy and illustrious family. His dates are uncertain; according to Diogenes Laërtius, he flourished just before 500 BC, which would put his year of birth near 540 BC, but Plato has him visiting Athens at the age of 65, when Socrates was a young man, c. 450 BC, which, if true, suggests a year of birth of 515 BC. He was said to have been a pupil of Xenophanes, and regardless of whether they actually knew each other, Xenophanes' philosophy is the most obvious influence on Parmenides. Diogenes Laërtius also describes Parmenides as a disciple of "Aminias, son of Diochaites, the Pythagorean"; but there are no obvious Pythagorean elements in his thought. Parmenides was the founder of the School of Elea, which also included Zeno of Elea and Melissus of Samos. Of his life in Elea, it was said that he had written the laws of the city. His most important pupil was Zeno, who according to Plato, was twenty-five years his junior, and was his eromenos. Parmenides' biggest influence was on Plato, who not only named a dialogue, Parmenides, after him, but always spoke of him with veneration.


Parmenides is one of the most significant of the pre-Socratic philosophers. His only known work, conventionally titled On Nature, is a poem, which has only survived in fragmentary form. Approximately 150 lines of the poem remain today; reportedly the original text had 3,000 lines. It is known, however, that the work originally divided into three parts:
  • A proem, which introduced the entire work,
  • A section known as "The Way of Truth" (aletheia), and
  • A section known as "The Way of Appearance/Opinion" (doxa).
The poem is a narrative sequence in which the narrator travels "beyond the beaten paths of mortal men" to receive a revelation from an unnamed goddess (generally thought to be Persephone) on the nature of reality. Aletheia, an estimated 90% of which has survived, and doxa, most of which no longer exists, are then presented as the spoken revelation of the goddess without any accompanying narrative.
Parmenides attempted to distinguish between the unity of nature and its variety, insisting in the Way of Truth upon the reality of its unity, which is therefore the object of knowledge, and upon the unreality of its variety, which is therefore the object, not of knowledge, but of opinion. In the Way of Opinion he propounded a theory of the world of seeming and its development, pointing out however that, in accordance with the principles already laid down, these cosmological speculations do not pretend to anything more than mere appearance.


In the Proem Parmenides describes his journey from darkness to light. Carried in a whirling chariot, and attended by the daughters of the Sun, he reaches a temple sacred to an unnamed goddess (variously identified by the commentators with Nature, Wisdom or Themis), by whom the rest of the poem is spoken. He must learn all things, she tells him, both truth, which is certain, and human opinions; for, though one cannot rely on human opinions, they represent an aspect of the whole truth.

The Way of Truth

The Way of Truth discusses that which is real, which contrasts in some way with the argument of the Way of Opinion, which discusses that which is illusory. Under the Way of Truth, Parmenides stated that there are two ways of inquiry: that it is, that it is not. He said that the latter argument is never feasible because nothing can not be:
For never shall this prevail, that things that are not are. (B 7.1)
There are extremely delicate issues here. In the original Greek the two ways are simply named "that Is" (hopos estin) and "that Not-Is" (hos ouk estin) (B 2.3 and 2.5) without the "it" inserted in our English translation. In ancient Greek, which, like many languages in the world, does not always require the presence of a subject for a verb, "is" functions as a grammatically complete sentence. A lot of debate has been focused on where and what the subject is. The simplest explanation as to why there is no subject here is that Parmenides wishes to express the simple, bare fact of existence in his mystical experience without the ordinary distinctions, just as the Latin "pluit" and the Greek uei ("rains") mean "it rains"; there is no subject for these impersonal verbs because they express the simple fact of raining without specifying what is doing the raining. This is, for instance, Hermann Fraenkel's thesis (Dichtung und Philosophie des fruehen Griechentums, 1962) But many scholars still reject this explanation and have produced more complex metaphysical explanations. Since existence is an immediately intuited fact, non-existence is the wrong path because something cannot ever disappear just as something cannot ever come from nothing. In such mystical experience (unio mystica), however, the distinction between subject and object disappears along with the distinctions between objects, in addition to the fact that if nothing cannot be, it cannot be the object of thought either:
Thinking and the thought that it is are the same; for you will not find thought apart from what is, in relation to which it is uttered. (B 8.34-36)
For thought and being are the same. (B 3)
It is necessary to speak and to think what is; for being is, but nothing is not. (B 6.1-2)
''Helplessness guides the wandering thought in their breasts; they are carried along deaf and blind alike, dazed, beasts without judgment, convinced that to be and not to be are the same and not the same, and that the road of all things is a backward-turning one.'' (B 6.5-9)
Thus, he concluded that "Is" could not have "come into being" because "nothing comes from nothing." Existence is necessarily eternal. Parmenides was not struggling to formulate the conservation of mass-energy. He was struggling with the metaphysics of change, which is still a relevant philosophical topic today.
Moreover he argued that movement was impossible because it requires moving into "the void", and Parmenides identified "the void" with nothing, and therefore (by definition) it does not exist. That which does exist is The Parmenidean One which is timeless, uniform, and unchanging:
How could what is perish? How could it have come to be? For if it came into being, it is not; nor is it if ever it is going to be. Thus coming into being is extinguished, and destruction unknown. (B 8.20-22)
''Nor was [it] once, nor will [it] be, since [it] is, now, all together, / One, continuous; for what coming-to-be of it will you seek? / In what way, whence, did [it] grow? Neither from what-is-not shall I allow / You to say or think; for it is not to be said or thought / That [it] is not. And what need could have impelled it to grow / Later or sooner, if it began from nothing? Thus [it] must either be completely or not at all. (B 8.5-11)
[What exists] is now, all at once, one and continuous... Nor is it divisible, since it is all alike; nor is there any more or less of it in one place which might prevent it from holding together, but all is full of what is. (B 8.5-6, 8.22-24)
And it is all one to me / Where I am to begin; for I shall return there again.'' (B 5)

Perception vs. Logos

Parmenides claimed that the truth cannot be known through sensory perception. Only pure reason (Logos) will result in the understanding of the truth of the world. This is because the perception of things or appearances (the doxa) is deceptive. We may see, for example, tables being made from wood and destroyed, and speak of birth and demise; this belongs to the superficial world of movement and change. But this genesis-and-destruction, as Parmenides emphasizes, is illusory, because the underlying material of which the table is made will still exist after its destruction. What exists must always exist. And we arrive at the knowledge of this underlying, static, and eternal reality (aletheia) through reasoning, not through sense-perception.
''For this view, that That Which Is Not exists, can never predominate. You must debar your thought from this way of search, nor let ordinary experience in its variety force you along this way, (namely, that of allowing) the eye, sightless as it is, and the ear, full of sound, and the tongue, to rule; but (you must) judge by means of the Reason (Logos) the much-contested proof which is expounded by me. (B 7.1-8.2)

The Way of Opinion (doxa)

After the exposition of the arche, i.e. the origin, the necessary part of reality that is understood through reason or logos (that [it] Is) , in the next section, the Way of Appearance/Opinion/Seeming'', Parmenides proceeds to explain the structure of the becoming cosmos (which is an illusion, of course) that comes from this origin. The structure of the cosmos is a fundamental binary principle that governs the manifestations of all the particulars: "the aether fire of flame" (B 8.56), which is gentle, mild, soft, thin and clear, and self-identical -- this is something like the masculine principle -- and the other is "ignorant night", body thick and heavy -- this is something like the feminine principle.
The mortals lay down and decided well to name two forms (i.e. the flaming light and obscure darkness of night), out of which it is necessary not to make one, and in this they are led astray. (B 8.53-4)
The structure of the cosmos then generated is recollected by Aetius (II, 7, 1):
''Parmenides says that there are coronas's one enveloping or encircling another, one formed of rare, and the other of dense, others, mixed form of light and darkness, are in the middle. And Parmenides provides, surrounding all these, a [corona like a] wall of some kind, solid and just, under which is a corona of fire. And what is in the most center of all this [the core, kernel of the cosmos in the corona form] is again encircled by [a corona] of fire. And he provides the most middle [layer of corona] of the mixed coronas as the progenitor, for all beings, of all the movements and all the generations. He calls this [middle progenitor layer of corona] the goddess (daimona) that governs or that holds the key, or Justice (diken) or Necessity (ananke).

Interpretations of Parmenides

The traditional interpretation of Parmenides' work is that he argued that the every-day perception of reality of the physical world (as described in doxa) is mistaken, and that the reality of the world is 'One Being' (as described in aletheia): an unchanging, ungenerated, indestructible whole. Under the Way of Opinion'', Parmenides set out a contrasting but more conventional view of the world, thereby becoming an early exponent of the duality of appearance and reality. For him and his pupils the phenomena of movement and change are simply appearances of a static, eternal reality.
Parmenides' philosophy is presented in the form of poetry. The philosophy he argued was, he says, given to him by a goddess, though the "mythological" details in Parmenides' poem do not bear any close correspondence to anything known from traditional Greek mythology:
''Welcome, youth, who come attended by immortal charioteers and mares which bear you on your journey to our dwelling. For it is no evil fate that has set you to travel on this road, far from the beaten paths of men, but right and justice. It is meet that you learn all things - both the unshakable heart of well-rounded truth and the opinions of mortals in which there is not true belief.'' (B 1.24-30)
It is with respect to this religious/mystical context that recent generations of scholars such as Alexander P. Mourelatos, Charles H. Kahn, and the controversial Peter Kingsley have begun to call parts of the traditional, rational logical/philosophical interpretation of Parmenides into question. According to Peter Kingsley Parmenides practiced iatromancy. It has been claimed, for instance, that previous scholars placed too little emphasis on the apocalyptic context in which Parmenides frames his revelation. As a result, traditional interpretations have put Parmenidean philosophy into a more modern, metaphysical context to which it is not necessarily well suited, which has led to misunderstanding of the true meaning and intention of Parmenides' message. The obscurity and fragmentary state of the text, however, renders almost every claim that can be made about Parmenides extremely contentious, and the traditional interpretation has by no means been abandoned.
Parmenides' considerable influence on the thinking of Plato is undeniable, and in this respect Parmenides has influenced the whole history of Western philosophy, and is often seen as its grandfather. Even Plato himself, in the Sophist, refers to the work of "our Father Parmenides" as something to be taken very seriously and treated with respect. In the Parmenides the Eleatic philosopher, which may well be Parmenides himself, and Socrates argue about dialectic. In the Theaetetus, Socrates says that Parmenides alone among the wise (Protagoras, Heraclitus, Empedocles, Epicharmus, and Homer) denied that everything is change and motion.
Parmenides is credited with a great deal of influence as the author of an "Eleatic challenge" that determined the course of subsequent philosophers' enquiries. For example, the ideas of Empedocles, Anaxagoras, Leucippus, and Democritus have been seen as in response to Parmenides' arguments and conclusions.

Influence on the development of science

Parmenides made the ontological argument against nothingness, essentially denying the possible existence of a void. According to Aristotle, this led Leucippus to propose the atomic theory, which supposes that everything in the universe is either atoms or voids, specifically to contradict Parmenides' argument. Aristotle himself, proclaimed, in opposition to Leucippus, the dictum horror vacui or "nature abhors a vacuum". Aristotle reasoned that in a complete vacuum, motion would encounter no resistance, and thus infinite speed would be possible, something which Aristotle would not accept.


References and further reading

  • Parmenides: Being, Bounds and Logic
  • Austin, Scott (2007) Parmenides and the History of Dialectic: Three Essays, Parmenides Publishing, ISBN 978-1-930972-19-3
  • Bakalis Nikolaos (2005) Handbook of Greek Philosophy: From Thales to the Stoics Analysis and Fragments, Trafford Publishing, ISBN 1-4120-4843-5
  • The Presocratic Philosophers (Two Volumes)
  • Burnet J. (2003) Early Greek Philosophy, Kessinger Publishing.
  • Čapek, Milič (1991) The New Aspects of Time, Kluwer
  • Cordero, Nestor-Luis (2004) By Being, It Is: The Thesis of Parmenides. Parmenides Publishing, ISBN 978-1-930972-03-2
  • The Fragments of Parmenides
  • Curd, Patricia (2004). The Legacy of Parmenides: Eleatic Monism and Later Presocratic Thought, Parmenides Publishing, ISBN 978-1-930972-15-5 (First edition Princeton University Press 1998)
  • Gallop David. (1991) Parmenides of Elea – Fragments, University of Toronto Press.
  • Guthrie W. K. (1979) A History of Greek Philosophy – The Presocratic tradition from Parmenides to Democritus, Cambridge University Press.
  • Hermann, Arnold (2005) The Illustrated To Think Like God: Pythagoras and Parmenides-The Origins of Philosophy, Parmenides Publishing, ISBN 978-1-930972-17-9
  • Hermann, Arnold (2005) To Think Like God: Pythagoras and Parmenides-The Origins of Philosophy, Parmenides Publishing, ISBN 978-1-930972-00-1
  • In the Dark Places of Wisdom
  • Kirk G. S., Raven J. E. and Schofield M. (1983) The Presocratic Philosophers, Cambridge University Press, Second edition.
  • The Great Conversation: A Historical Introduction to Philosophy
  • Mourelatos, Alexander P. D. (2007) The Route of Parmenides: A Study of Word, Image, and Argument in the Fragments, Parmenides Publishing, ISBN 978-1-930972-11-7 (First edition Yale University Press 1970)
  • Nietzsche, Friedrich, Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, Regnery Gateway ISBN 0-89526-944-9
  • The World of Parmenides
Extensive bibliographies are available here and here; annotated bibliography
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