The Vocabulary of Myth, Part XXXIII


His Philosophy as another Sacred Revelation…

His Rejection of Heracleitus…

His Absolute Rationalism…


For Heracleitus, the world is a one and a many.  As perceived by the senses, it is a chaotic spectacle of multiplicity, change, and decay.  As penetrated by the intellect, however, reality is eternal, immutable, and unitary.  The one, universal Logos-Fire undergoes a multiplicity of transformations under the sensible aspects of the elements, and yet, hidden beneath these superficial forms, it remains an immutable One.

The response to Heracleitus by Parmenides was a categorical denial.  If reason (as the highest human faculty) tells us that the world is a One, for Parmenides this means that it cannot also be a many.

Parmenides was born (c. 515 B.C.) in Elea, a Greek colony in southern Italy (the home of the Pythagorean and Orphic sects, whose influences upon him are myriad and palpable).  In addition to his debt to Orpheo-Pythagoreanism, Parmenides’ biographers suggest plausibly enought that he was a pupil of Xenophanes.  In any case, Parmenides’ thought represented an essential link between these earlier traditions and Plato.  If Plato’s account in the dialogue named for him (Parmenides 127 b) is accurate, he visited Athens c. 450, where he may well have encountered the youthful Socrates.  Parmenides’ influence on Plato himself is in any case beyond doubt.


Parmenides is the author of a “book”, written in hexameters, divided into two parts, and introduced by a prologue that seems to have survived more or less intact.  In the prologue, Parmenides describes a visionary journey across cosmic pathways, in a chariot driven by the goddess-daughters of the sun, who lead him through the gate that divides night from day, into the light of justice and truth, and to the knowledge of all things.   Parmenides’ prologue has obvious affinities with the proem of Hesiod’s Theogony, in which the Boeotian shepherd is visited by the Muses, who “breathed a divine voice into my mouth”, so that, instructed by these goddess-daughters of Memory, he may reveal to mankind the as-yet unrevealed truths about the gods and the cosmos.  Like Hesiod’s, Parmenides’ book is, in short, a sacred revelation; like Hesiod, Parmenides is a prophet; and all of this reminds us again that philosophy has yet to distinguish itself from theology and myth (if it ever did).

In Parmenides’ prologue, the goddesses promise to instruct him not only in the truth, but also in “the false opinions of mortals in which there is no true belief”.  Parmenides thus divides his poem into two parts, the first of which (“The Way of Truth”) is an exposition of reality, the second (“The Way of Opinion”), of the opinions of mortals which, though they seem to reflect the truth, are nonetheless false.  And indeed, Parmenides’ contrapuntal poem is the locus classicus of that characteristic and longstanding topos in Greek ontology, the opposition between appearance and reality.


The second and third fragments that survive from the “Way of Truth” are unambiguous assertions of Parmenidean realism, and both anticipations of and pre-emptive strikes against the revolutionary relativism that would later be championed by the Sophists:

For thought and being are the same.

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.

Like most of the fragments that come down to us from the Pre-Socratics, these are deliberately cryptic.  But, in the broader context of Parmenidean thought, their meaning seems to be plain enough.  Since it is impossible to think about nothing, Parmenides here argues, one cannot think of what is not; whenever one thinks, one is thinking about some object of thought, which therefore (i.e., as an object of thought) exists.

From this seemingly innocuous proposition, Parmenides proceeds to deduce the absolute rational principle of non-contradiction, and to use it as a bludgeon against Heracleitean empiricism:

…mortals…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.

For never shall this prevail:  that things that are not, are.  But hold back your thought from this way of inquiry, nor let habit born of long experience force you to ply an aimless eye and droning ear along this road; but judge by reasoning the much-contested argument that I have spoken.

To say that something is “the same and not the same”—to affirm and deny its existence in the same breath—is characteristically, notoriously, Heracleitean.  For Heracleitus, fire and earth, day and night, justice and injustice, are “the same” inasmuch as everything in the world is inevitably converted into its opposite.  But they are also “not the same”, inasmuch as the senses perceive their mutual differentiation.


The Heracleitean way of thinking becomes most problematically acute when it is extrapolated to the rudimentary ontological opposites, being and not-being.  From one perspective, being and not-being are distinct from another; from another perspective—given that everything that is comes into being from what is not—they are “the same”.  What was not, comes into being, exists for a time, passes away, and exists no longer.  In this sense, “the road of all things” (the whole world-process of becoming) is a “backward-turning one”.

But for Parmenides, the alternation between being and not-being cannot truly take place; for it is impossible to think of not-being.  We cannot say of a thing that it “no longer exists”; for if it no longer exists, it is nothing, and it is impossible for nothing to be the object of thought or speech.  Not-being is not the opposite of being in the same way in which night is the opposite of day–since not-being stands for nothing at all.   Accordingly, it is nonsensical to speak of “coming to be” and “passing away”, inasmuch as to pass away means to become non-existent, which is impossible.  Conversely, if to “come into being” means to “come out of not-being”, that too is impossible.


Common sensory experience may well persuade us that being comes into existence from not-being.  But the question is not to be decided by “habit born of long experience”, employing “aimless eye and droning ear”, as though we were “beasts without judgment”.  Such questions must be arbitrated by reason and argument alone.  Though it is already nascent in Pythagoras, Xenophanes, and Heracleitus, it is in Parmenides that we first encounter that absolute and uncompromising rationalism (and concomitant rejection of the empirical testimony of the senses) that is the keynote of Greek, and thereafter, Western philosophy down the centuries.

To be continued…

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