The Vocabulary of Myth, Part XXXV

Parmenides’ “Way of Opinion”…

Light and Night, and Heracleitus’ Opposites…

Parmenides’ Doomed Monism…

Light and Night as Religious Categories…

The Inseparability of Ontology and Morality…


In the prologue to his poem, Parmenides’ goddess-muse promised to reveal to him “all things; both the unshakable heart of well-rounded truth and the opinions of mortals to which there is no true belief”.  The first half of his task has now been accomplished; true being has been proven to be “complete on every side like the body of a well-rounded sphere”, that is, unchanging, indivisible, unitary, and self-contained.

The goddess now turns to the false beliefs of mortals, and the second part of Parmenides’ poem, The Way of Opinion, commences:

Learn henceforth the beliefs of mortals, hearkening to the deceitful ordering of my words.  For they have made up their minds to name two forms, one of which it is not right to name—here is where they have gone astray–and have distinguished them as opposite…the one, an ethereal flame of fire, which is gentle, very light, the same with itself in every direction…that other…dark night, dense in bodily form and heavy…

One recognizes immediately in Parmenides’ “ethereal fire” the Logos-Fire of Heraclitus, and in the dense, nocturnal “other”, the Heracleitean “opposites” into which the Logos is ceaselessly metamorphosed.  But for Parmenides, Heracleitus’ solution to the problem of the One and the Many—the reciprocal transformation of everything into everything else in an eternal “war of opposites”—is fundamentally “deceitful”.

Where mortals “have gone astray” is in violating the unity of being, and imagining that it is compounded of such “opposites”.  In so doing, Heracleitus was himself only following the errant path of Anaximander and his Milesian disciples, who had attempted to make sense of the chaos of sensory experience by dividing it into the elemental contraries of the hot and cold, wet and dry.  But this is the way of false opinion; Parmenides’ way of truth recognizes only a Being that is indivisibly and immutably One.

Parmenides’ fastidious monism was ultimately doomed, of course; a dualism that acknowledged the stark opposition between a unitary and stable intellectual Reality on the one hand, and the multiplicity and transience of the physical world on the other, continued to be a salient of Pythagoreanism, Platonism, and Gnosticism down through the centuries.

No account of a changeable nature can reckon, in fact, without duality, inasmuch as change can only be understood in terms of the opposition between that which causes and that which suffers it.  For this reason, as early as the time of Hesiod, it was necessary to assume, within the cosmic unity, the opposition of the primordial mythological principles of male and female.  Nor could any of Hesiod’s successors ignore the existence of opposites, in one form or another, in giving their accounts of the origin of the cosmos and its ongoing sensible mutations.


Parmenides himself seems to abandon his unyielding monism in the ensuing verses of his poem, when his goddess-muse promises to vouchsafe to him

the nature of…the heaven…, whence it grew, and how Necessity, guiding it, fettered it to keep the limits of the stars.

…how sun and moon, the ether which is common to all, the Milky Way, and outermost Olympos, and the burning might of the stars, began to arise.

It is thus another cosmogony that is heralded, an account of the genesis of the world-order, though we have just been told that “becoming” is an empty “name”.

Parmenides’ cosmos is, in any case, a duality, and its existence depends, as for his predecessors, upon opposition:

But now that all things have been named light and night, and their powers have been assigned to each, everything is full at once of light and obscure night, both equally, since neither has a share in nothingness.

Light and darkness (night) are for Parmenides the two irreducible principles of nature; but unlike the elemental contraries of Anaximander, or the multitudinous opposites of Heracleitus, both light and night are.  That everything is “equally full” of light and night is a necessary inference from their true being, for “all is full of what is”, as Parmenides insisted in his Way of Truth.  From Parmenides’ concomitant premise that what is must be “all alike”, we may also infer that neither light nor night has a share in the other’s nature.  Each is a pure, unalloyed entity, implying that each is also eternal and unchanging.

In this regard, Parmenides’ “opposites” each possess, so far as possible, the character of the unitary Being of the way of truth.  Thus, while the account of the world-process that follows is merely “opinion”, it nonetheless partakes of the truth.  Parmenides’ cosmogony may therefore be understood as provisional, rather as Plato’s cosmogony will be qualified by its speaker Timaeus as “likely”, insofar as all statements about sensible phenomena–objects not of knowledge but only opinion–are only semblances and approximations of truth.


About Parmenides’ cosmogony, in any case, we know practically nothing, since only a couple of fragments have survived from this part of his poem.  Based on discussions of it by later authors, we can summarize the world-process as follows:

Since neither light nor night is subject to change, neither can come into being or pass away.  The cosmos arises, nonetheless, through a process of intermixture and separation of these eternal opposites which, once again, betrays the unmistakable influence of Anaximander.

Parmenides envisions the cosmos in its totality as a sphere, consisting of a series of concentric spheres.  The outermost is composed of the rarest, most fiery material (i.e., unalloyed light), the innermost of the densest (night).  The cosmos is generated when the fiery element travels outward to form the heavens, while the dense night sinks inward to form the earth, presumably under the influence of some sort of gravitational force or vortex motion, such as was first postulated by Anaximander.  The concentric spheres between these two extremes are, accordingly, composed of differing proportions of light and night.

At the dead centre of the cosmos stands the figure of Necessity, the goddess

who steers all things; for she is the beginner of all hateful birth and all begetting, sending the female to mix with the male and the male in turn to the female.

Once again, Parmenides’ primordial opposites are scarcely disguised religious categories, newly invested in the language of philosophy: i.e., the immemorial male (Parmenides’ “light”) and female (“night”) principles, the union of which is the necessary condition of “all begetting”.  In his typically Hellenic aversion to the world’s corporeality and mutability, Parmenides regards such begetting as “hateful”.  In this he once again anticipates the attitude of Plato and Platonists, and reminds us that, amongst the ancient Greek philosophers, ontology and morality have yet to disentangle themselves.

To be continued…


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