“It is necessary to say and to think that being is, for it is possible for it to be, but it is not possible for ‘nothing’ to be.” – Parmenides.
In our review of pre-Socratic theories of ultimate reality, we have examined the mathematical conception of Pythagoras, the almost mystical assertions of Heraclitus, and the theoretical physics of the Milesians and the atomists. Our next thinker, Parmenides (circa 540-480 B.C.E.) adopts an entirely novel approach which challenges the validity of the thinking of the others and deploys pure logic to arrive at the earliest existentialist view of reality.1
Born in Elea, a Greek port city on the Italian peninsula, Parmenides left behind some 130 verses of a poem (On Nature) describing an imaginary encounter with a goddess in a celestial realm. She reveals two routes to knowledge: the ‘Way of Truth’ (or the ‘Path of Persuasion,’ aka aletheia) and the ‘Way of Seeming’ (or ‘Appearances” or mortal opinion, aka doxa). Most of what remains of the poem concerns the former.
Using an ontological-like argument, Parmenides states Being either is or it is not, but since Nonbeing is unthinkable, Being must exist and Nonbeing cannot. We learn that the fundamental sustainer of the philosopher’s life is the actuality of being; it is his peace (hesychia). Being cannot be expressed in terms of anything else; it can only be contemplated. Thinking and being are in fact the same as Descartes is later to discover.2
But pure thought and logic impose other features on Being. It is unborn as existent things cannot arise from nothingness. Likewise it is imperishable: how can Being become nothingness? Being is also one, cohesive, continuous, and indivisible otherwise there would be nothingness dividing it into parts. It is also unique as nothing can exist outside of Being. It is whole on all sides, comparable to a sphere – equal in all dimensions from its center. Last it is changeless, or as Parmenides says “It is immovable in the limits of its mighty bonds without beginning or cessation…the same and abiding in the same [place], it is set by itself, and thus it abides there firm and unmoved.”3
The journey to it is thought itself, the yearning for truth. This is not thinking in the common sense, but an authentic thinking “in the nous” on being as a whole, not split or differentiated. It is a transcendental thinking, imageless, pre-categorical or trans-categorical. Thinking has become an absolute. So informed, we can readily identify the erroneous path of the Way of Appearance where illusion arises from the splitting of the one into the many by “name-giving” that leads to belief in the “half-being.” 4 For example, the seeming opposites, such as night and day or hot and cold, are deceptions.
(continued next post)
1In the interest of brevity I will not discuss his followers, Zeno of Elea and Melissus, but note that the three together are often called the Eleatics. Parmenides is by far the most influential of the three, while Zeno comes across more as a sophist-logician, and Melissus offers little that is original.
2Jaspers, Karl, The Great Philosophers, Volume II. Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., New York, 1966. Page 25.
3Ibid., page 26.
4Ibid., page 27-28.