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
thing exists. (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
; the other
he says is “a
path completely unlearnable.” His argument is contained in fragments
Come now, I will tell you .
.. the only ways of inquiry there are for thinking: the
one, that it is and that it is not possible for it not to be, is the path of Persuasion
(for it attends upon Truth), the other, that it is not and that it is necessary for it
not to be, this I point out to you to be a path completely unlearnable, for neither
may you know that which is not (for it is not to be accomplished) nor may you
For the same thing is for thinking and for being.
That which is there to be spoken and thought of must be. For it is possible for it to