Parmenides: Stage 1
Issues among Presocratics studied so far:
change vs. permanence.
Milesians looked for a
permanent reality underlying change. They thought that change was real, but could be
understood only in terms of something permanent.
Heraclitus found change itself to be the only thing that was permanent. The search for a
permanent material substratum is illusory, he thought.
Now comes Parmenides — a turning point in the history of western philosophy - for he denies
the reality of change. For Parmenides, change is impossible. The very notion of change is
This is not just an
that Parmenides makes. Nor is it based on observation. (Quite
the contrary: things certainly do
to change.) Rather, it is the conclusion of a
, from more basic premises.
And it is not the only startling conclusion Parmenides draws. For he also holds that there is no
coming into existence, or ceasing to exist. According to Parmenides, everything that exists is
permanent, ungenerated, indestructible, and unchanging.
According to traditional interpretation (no longer universally accepted, but still common)
Parmenides goes even further, denying that there is such a thing as
. On this view,
Parmenides denies that there are
things, maintaining instead that only
(It’s not so clear, however, what he thought this one thing
Parmenides is without doubt the most difficult and obscure of the Presocratics. There are
numerous different and conflicting interpretations of the curious bits of prose, poetry, and
argumentation in the surviving fragments of his work,
The Way of Truth
. I won’t try to canvas
them all. I’ll just sketch out one line that makes some sense of what Parmenides says.
Parmenides was a native of Elea, a Greek city in southern Italy (somewhat south of present
day Naples), born about 515-510 B.C. His great work consists of a poem in two main parts.
154 lines of this poem have survived, almost all of which is from the first part. (Experts think
that about 90% of the first part has survived.) The two parts of the poem correspond to what
Parmenides called “the two ways.”
The Two Ways
Parmenides distinguishes two “ways” or “roads” of inquiry. He then argues against
one of these, and in favor of the other. The one he favors he calls
The Way of Truth