Parmenides and non-Parmenides
First off, I’m not sure we can say the philosophy of Parmenides exactly “works”. That is, I don’t think we can take his ideas as precepts. Because, essentially, Parmenides speaks of the impossibility of speaking truthfully about things that do not exist. So, even this paragraph is a problem: Parmenides does not exist, so I can’t talk about him.
On the other hand, maybe philosophy is simply not precept-giving. To live “philosophically” seems to mean living in and through ideas, but not necessarily by ideas. It is essentially non-creedal. I think the ideal model for living philosophically is Proust’s narrator, who lives through thoughts, but never really comes down to a final creed as much as a series of interesting ideas and impressions. Parmenides gives us interesting and very profound ideas, but nothing like the “last word” on the subject of Being.
Parmenides of Elea comes to us most directly through a poem, which later writers called “On Nature”, that only exists in fragmentary form. The poem begins with Parmenides being carried along the “resounding road of the goddess” by a chariot drawn by two wise mares, led by two maidens who go “wherever there is light”. They come to a gate separating the “ways of Night and of Day”. Here he meets an unnamed goddess, who addresses Parmenides: “It is necessary that you should learn all things, as well the unshaken heart of well-rounded truth; as there is no true belief in the opinions of mortals. Nevertheless, you shall learn these (opinions) also, how the appearances, which pervade all things, had to be acceptable.”
I take the goddess to be basically a literary conceit: Parmenides wants to put forth his ideas and justifies those ideas by presenting them as divine revelation. I also suspect her promise to explain appearances suggests why the first part of the poem, the Aletheia, seems at odds with the second, the Doxa.
The goddess doesn’t make her revelation easy. In lines 31-40, she tells us that there are only two ways of inquiry that can be conceived: 1.“one says ‘exists’ and ‘it is not possible not to exist’” This is the “way of persuasion” (following truth). The other (2) says “exists-not” and that “not to exist is necessary”; the goddess says that “this is a path that is wholly unknowable”. In other words, there is Being and there is non-Being and the second is logically unthinkable.
This reminds me of Plato’s distinction between Being and Appearing. Henri Bergson calls non-Being a “pseudo-idea”, and Parmenides is basically saying that there is a choice but that all explanations from non-Being (and it stands to reason cosmological explanations in particular) are unknowable. He says “we can think and say Being” but, “nothing is not.”
On one hand, this is an easy statement to accept. I cannot say, “There is no two-headed man” because I’m making a truth statement about something that does not exist, which is therefore a statement devoid of meaning.
On the other hand, think of all the things we can’t talk about. I can’t even tell you a story about Rufus at age five falling down and needing stitches because “Rufus at age five” is a being that “does not exist”. If you cut out everything that “does not exist” we can talk about very little.
Parmenides also rules out explanations of change. He tells us that Being cannot be generated from non-Being. Parmenides: “Being is ungenerated and imperishable, whole, unique, immovable and complete. It was not once nor will it be, since it is now altogether, one, continuous.” So we can’t talk about the past or the future, or anything outside of Being without speaking untruth! Some have taken Parmenides to be talking about a sort of eternal present. Past and Future are a measure of process, and unknowable, while Being is an identity within a sort of “atemporal eternity”. Maybe a softer line is that Parmenides is just saying that Past and Future can’t be predicated from Being, and although they might exist, they’re unknowable.
Maybe this is going too far and we should just say that, if we want to know truth, we can only speak of the fact of Being. One notes how “existentialist” this is.
Plato characterizes Parmenides idea of Being as a “doctrine which asserts that all things are one and that there is no change or movement whatever in this one reality.” Elsewhere, the doctrine of the Eleatic school is held to be “the unity of all things”. This is also a serious dilemma that Leonardo Tarán summarizes: “since any difference from Being is absolute non-Being, and as such unthinkable, no account of the world of difference and change can be valid.”
Parmenides goes on to explain that people have erred in separating two forms, one an ethereal flame and the other a dense body of night. The identity of what is precludes the existence of anything else, including, according to the goddess, the way of the senses, which is non-Being. Nevertheless, the rest of the poem talked a lot about the sensible world, including physiology, cosmogony, and psychology. Some suggest the Aletheia and the Doxa are therefore at odds. Nietzsche tried to explain the Doxa as a youthful work and the account of Being as written in old age; even though they’re at odds, Parmenides kept the Doxa for nostalgic reasons. It’s a bit of a stretch. I think Parmenides is just describing what we cannot describe: the world of Appearances.
Ultimately, what I take from Parmenides is a sort of radical skepticism about how much we can logically or accurately say about the world. We can take Parmenides not a doctrine so much but a corrective to excessive confidence about our own interpretations of the world of appearances, which are not untrue (here’s where I might disagree with Parmenides) but remain, on some level, subjective fictions, and not objective truth statements. Given the intensity of human conflicts about these interpretations, it probably is useful to take our own interpretations with a grain of salt.
1. I’d like to start digging into Plato next. If there are any other pre-Socratics that we simply cannot skip over, please let me know.
2. Also, it might be a bit of horn-tooting, but I’d just like to note that, in the last week or so, at the League, we’ve discussed: the Pope and the current scandal, health care cost controls, Heraclitus and Parmenides, fiscal austerity in Lithuania, the meaning of the Resurrection in Christian doctrine, Sappho, Conservative Rap, Red Tories, Ugandan anti-gay laws, energy security, the GOP’s political rhetoric, Easter, serious reading, and about a half-dozen other things. That’s certainly something to praise, I think.