Was Parmenides a mystic?
This is one of the questions about Parmenides that I will seek to answer in this post as we return to the Presocratic philosophers. As I study the Presocratics, I am discovering things I never anticipated. Because of my modern perspective, I started this blog viewing philosophy as a purely rational endeavor.
What has surprised me is how many philosophical mystics I am running into. Among them include not only Parmenides, but ancients like Heraclitus, Pythagoras, Epimenides, Socrates, and Plato, not to mention Chinese thinkers such as Lao Tzu. And this tradition continues strongly into the Catholic faith with intellectual mystics such as St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Hildegard of Bingen, and others.
The other thing that I am learning is how in touch with the divine the Presocratics were. For them, having a naturalistic explanation for things did not at all preclude the involvement of God; in fact, it enhanced it. Where they made advancements in thinking was in moving away from superstitious mythology. They were against superstition, not spirituality. One could say that by opposing superstition, they deepened not only our understanding of the physical universe, but of God as well.
Modern thought teaches that these thinkers viewed anything spiritual as “superstitious” and that they sought their explanations for things entirely in the physical. By abandoning “myth” – that is, all religion – they became “enlightened.” Thus we recreate the Presocratics in the image of our modern, rationalistic, materialistic gods. The reviews of books written by modern authors about the mysticism of the ancients are often qualified with phrases such as “an intriguing book, although the author’s perspective is at odds with numerous modern critics.”
As such, we virtually ignore the ancient philosophers’ mystical experiences and discourses on divinity. They make us uncomfortable and don’t fit into the mold of what we would like them to be. This is especially true in regard to their mysticism. Not all ancient philosophers were mystics, but all were spiritual. And in the lives of philosophers like Parmenides, mysticism played a large part.
Why do we have such a difficult time in the West holding the intellectual and the spiritual together? And where did this false dichotomy originate? The purpose of this blog is to explore such questions.
In this post, we are going to take a look at a fascinating poem by Parmenides, the only extant work of his that survives.
The poem, divided into three sections, portrays Parmenides as just as much a mystic as a philosopher. The first part of the poem is a fantastical story of Parmenides’ journey to the underworld to receive enlightenment by an unknown goddess. I will explore the idea that the story itself is a metaphor for a mystical experience. The second or main part of the poem is where we get a heavy dose of the philosophy – the nature of reality and the nature of thought – that is given to Parmenides by the goddess. It is, to say the least, unique, groundbreaking, and very original.
Most people, for reasons stated above, ignore the mystical part of the poem and go right to the philosophical second part. This is a shame for I think there are a lot of intriguing ideas here. For this reason, I will spend the rest of this post concentrating on this mystical aspect of Parmenides and devote the next post to his philosophy.
Parmenides is one of my favorite Presocratic philosophers (after Heraclitus) and one of the most interesting by far. Many feel that he is the most important thinker of the Presocratic world.1 He threw the gauntlet down, so to speak, in challenging those who came after him with his unique scientific and logical thought. After Parmenides, philosophical thinking could not remain the same, his ideas even challenging and sharpening the minds of both Plato and Aristotle. All of this came from a man whose life was as mysterious as it was interesting. He, who had a sharp philosophical mind, also wrote Homeric type poetry.2
It is quite certain that Parmenides was born in the city of Elea on the western coast of southern Italy.3 Elea, one of many Greek settlements in southern Italy, was just south of the Bay of Salerno. That area is now called now called Ascea.
As far as the year of his birth, there is much more uncertainty. There are two accounts of the year of his birth: 540 B.C., according to Diogenes Laertius, or 515 B.C., according to Plato.4
This is important because, again according to Plato, Socrates met a 65-year-old Parmenides in Athens during the festival of the Great Panathenaea.5 Plato describes Socrates as “quite young then,” which would put the young Socrates at about age 20. If Socrates was around 70 at the year of his death, then that would put the year of his birth at around 515 B.C. But Plato constructed his Parmenides in such a way that we would question its historicity.6 In other words, he seemed to want us to view it as fiction.
On the other hand, in Plato’s Theatetus and Sophist, he has Socrates refer to a meeting that he once had with Parmenides. No wonder scholars debate this issue! Overall, it does not really matter, although it would be nice to think that the two actually met. Regardless, Plato has the young Socrates participating in the first part of the dialogue with Parmenides and his younger associate, Zeno. But because of his age and inexperience, Socrates does not do so well.7 It is as if this dialogue was set up as “training” for aspiring philosophers. It is similar to an experienced boxer sparring with a young child who wants to be a boxer. The older boxer lets the youngster get a few punches in, but overall, lets him know that he has a long way to go.
But the operative question is: What were Socrates and Parmenides debating about?
The debate centered around the poem that Parmenides wrote. Some of the ideas in Parmenides’ poem were so radical that his assistant, Zeno, wrote a book to defend them.8 According to Diogenes Laertius, the poem was entitled “On Nature.”9 But, this probably was not the original title as many Presocratic works eventually came to have that generic title.
Even though we don’t have his complete poem, Parmenides is the first philosopher for whom we have a substantial number of fragments. This makes it possible to reconstruct a good portion of the poem.10 In addition, the large amount of fragments allow us to know not only Parmenides’ conclusions, but also his reasoning that led him to his conclusions.
The reconstructed fragments are traditionally divided into three sections: an introduction, central section, and conclusion.11 The introductory section is called the Proem (“preamble”), which we have in its entirety. The central section, called the Aletheia (“truth”), contains epistemological guidelines and metaphysical arguments. We have most of this section. The conclusion contains a concluding cosmology and is entitled Doxa, which means “opinion” in classical Greek. Unfortunately, there’s still a large portion of the poem’s conclusion that is missing.
The Proem consists of Parmenides taking an incredible journey to the “House of Night” in the underworld to meet an unknown goddess.12 At the beginning of the poem, he is abruptly whisked away by a team of horses guided by the seven maiden daughters of the sun god Helios:
“For on it did the wise steeds carry me, drawing my car, And the maidens showed the way. And the axle, glowing in the socket-
For it was urged round by the whirling wheels at each End – gave forth the sound as of a pipe, when the daughters of the Sun, hasting to convey me into the light, threw back their veils.”13
You can experience the intensity of the moment as you read this – the smell of the mares, the beauty of the maidens, the high-pitched sound of the whirring wheels, and intense glow of the axle. The Greek word for “glowing” literally means “blazing” or on fire.14 It is appropriate that the chariot of the sun god should be ablaze with fire.
You can feel the majestic chariot shaking from the pull of the powerful steeds. The chariot is truly majestic for it is that of Helios himself. Everything is happening at breakneck speed as the maidens dramatically throw back their veils as they embark on Parmenides’ journey with him.
Parmenides’ Journey Into the Underworld
The poem continues:
“from off their faces and left the House of Night. There are the Gates of the Ways of Night and Day, fitted above with a lintel and below with a threshold of stone. They themselves, high in the air, are closed by mighty doors, and Avenging Justice keeps the keys that open them.15
The Heliades, Helios’ maiden daughters, continue to guide the majestic chariot back to the underworld from which it came.16 They took the same circular path taken by both the sun and moon, starting from the underworld, rising in the east and setting in the west. According to both Homer and Hesiod, the House of Night was located deep within the underworld. The House of Night had two almost paradoxical purposes.
The first purpose of the House of Night was to house the sun and the moon when they were not making their respective treks across the day and night skies. The second purpose of the House of Night was to be an abode for the souls of the dead. Traditionally, this was the place where departed spirits went to be judged. As such, it was a dark and terrifying place. Hesiod called it “a horrible dwelling of dark night” (Theogony 744).17 This imagery goes all the way back to and is rooted in Babylonian mythology.
Parmenides and the maidens finally arrive at their destination to find two imposing, tightly shut doors that seemed to be floating in the air.18 These were the Gates of Night and Day, the sole entrance into and out of the House of Night. Beyond them is the deep and terrifying chasm and complete darkness of the House of Night.
Avenging Justice – The Gatekeeper
The scene is indeed imposing:
“They [the gates] themselves, high in the air, are closed by might doors, and Avenging Justice keeps the keys that open them”
According to Greek myth, this murky underworld was the final destination of all souls after death, not only as a habitation, but also so they can receive justice for the deeds done on earth. No one enters without first standing before their tribunal.
This tension mounts as Parmenides, sitting in the parked chariot, beholds the awe-inspiring gates, wondering what is going to happen next. In addition, the dreadful image of the goddess, Avenging Justice, must have been a truly terrifying sight indeed. Eventually, the maidens speak to Lady Justice:
“The maidens entreat [the goddess Justice] with gentle words and skillfully persuade To unfasten without demur the bolted bars from the gates Then, when the doors were thrown back, They disclosed a wide opening, when their brazen Hinges swung backwards in the”
“Sockets fastened with rivets and nails. Straight through them, On the broad way, did the maidens guide the horses and the car..”19
But rather than facing his own judgment, he is ushered in to see the goddess after the gentle entreaties of the maidens. As an aside, everyone along Parmenides’ journey is female.
Parmenides and the Goddess
He finally meets the unnamed goddess:
“…and the goddess greeted me kindly, and took my right hand in hers, and spoke to me these words: Welcome, noble youth, that comes to my abode on the care.”
“That bears thee tended by immortal charioteers! It is no ill Chance, but justice and right that has sent thee forth to travel On this way. Far, indeed, does it lie from the beaten track of men!”20
After the warm welcome, the goddess informs Parmenides that he has not died. Indeed, he may have been wondering, for only the dead come to this foreboding place that lies at the farthest edge of existence – “from the beaten track of men.” She tells him that he arrived there “by no ill chance,” but was summoned by no less than “justice and right.” The phrase “by no ill chance” is a euphemism for death.
Parmenides had passed the test with Justice at the gates of the House of Night. He was worthy to enter into divine truth. This is a theme that we will see repeatedly throughout philosophy – the importance of virtue in knowing the truth. Socrates caused a revolution in Athens by emphasizing this teaching. His successors, Plato and especially Aristotle, expanded upon his work by tying together truth and virtue. We eventually see this on a much larger scale with the medieval Catholic philosophers, with their heavy emphasis on virtue as a prerequisite for enlightenment to the truth.
The Goddess Leads Parmenides Into Truth
The goddess reveals to Parmenides the reason he was summoned:
“Meet it is that thou should learn all things, as well The unshaken heart of persuasive truth, as the opinions of”
“Mortals in which is no true belief at all. Yet none the less Shalt thou learn of these things also, since thou must judge Approvingly of the things that seem to men as thou goes Through all things in thy journey.”21
The goddess makes a clear delineation between “unshaken persuasive truth” and “the opinions of mortals in which there is no true belief at all.” Parmenides seems to be right on track with Heraclitus in acknowledging the existence of transcendent truth, but also acknowledging that most people remain in darkness:
“Unapprehending even when they’ve heard, similar to the deaf. The proverb is witness to their being “absent though present.”22
Heraclitus called this divine truth the “logos.” He said that the logos, even though accessible to all, is perceived by very few. In this way, he is saying the same thing as Parmenides – “as the opinions of mortals in which there is no true belief at all.”
Both seem to be saying that the only way to true enlightenment is through divine revelation. Two conditions are required for this. First of all, the divinity must choose to reveal, and secondly, the individual must choose to receive. In Heraclitus’ case, he puts the onus on human beings. From his perspective, the logos is pervasive and accessible to all, but it is man that refuses to be receptive and thus he remains dull-witted. This fits well with Heraclitus’ characteristic pessimistic view of man.
But really, Heraclitus is not too far off of the mark. Just look at a large swath of any society. Most people in any culture seem to remain unenlightened to the truth as they go about their daily lives. Heraclitus’ view of human responsibility also comports with Jesus’ words:
“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.23
Parmenides, on the other hand, views transcendent truth as something quite impossible for people to grasp unless divinity chooses to reveal it. And for him, divinity is highly selective to whom it reveals the truth. Jesus also has something similar to say on this view:
“At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.”24
Of course one could argue that the reason the Father chose to hide His Truth from the “wise and learned” is because of their disposition of pride and arrogance. So really, this puts the onus back on man and does not at all contradict Parmenides’ view, since he, too had to pass inspection with Lady Justice in order to be deemed worthy of receiving revelation. So is the burden on God to reveal or on man to receive? The answer is both.
Light Out of Darkness
The operative question in all of this is simply: What is the significance of Parmenides’ katabasis? Katabasis literally means “downward journey,” and in particular, when applied to mythology, signifies a downward trip to the underworld.
Parmenides’ katabasis poses a great paradox and a dilemma in his poem, one which has confused many readers and even scholars. It is apparent that Parmenides gets enlightened with the truth, aletheia, from the goddess (the subject of the next post), only as he descends to the deepest, darkest realm of the dead – the House of Night. For some modern scholars, this paradox is just too much to comprehend. For example, one author states:
“Since ancient times it has often been interpreted as a journey into the clear light of knowledge, to enlightenment, but closer attention reveals that Parmenides starts in the upper world and is taken to the underworld, which was traditionally the place of the roots of night and day, and the birthplace of the sun.”25
Another author, through a series of gymnastics with the Greek text, interpreted Parmenides as ascending rather than descending, thus making his experience of enlightenment more congruous with the proper direction -up – of such a journey.26
It seems that we moderns, no matter how learned, cannot wrap our minds around such paradoxes. Notice how both authors above juxtapose “enlightenment” with the “underworld.” Why is this? It is because for us, in the West, ignorance and enlightenment are polar opposites; they are mutually exclusive. How can one gain knowledge in a state of ignorance?
The Way Up Is Down
In the quote above, the author acknowledges that the underworld “was traditionally the birthplace of the sun.” He really states the answer to his dilemma here but doesn’t seem to recognize it. He doesn’t recognize that it is only out of the deepest darkness and death come “clear light enlightenment” and life. Parmenides’ journey is both a journey into the clear light of knowledge and the underworld of darkness. He receives the light of truth from the goddess in the midst of deep darkness. This is truly a paradox.
This tradition of enlightenment through katabasis has a rich tradition, not only with the Greeks, but in almost every other culture including the Islamic, Hindu, and Buddhist religions as well as Japanese, Egyptian, and Norse mythologies.
So who has it wrong – the ancients or the moderns?
Christianity is also rich with this motif. Christian tradition states that Christ descended to Hades after his death and before his resurrection in order to preach the Gospel to the righteous souls in Hades, free them from their prison, and lead them to heaven.27 In the deepest place, in the heart of the earth, souls were given the light and life of the Gospel. As Christians, we also have the tradition of the “dark night of the soul,” where it is often through suffering, confusion, and even a sense of abandonment that we see God more clearly.
In the Divine Comedy, Dante seeks to climb the mountain toward the light of God, but he is thwarted. Virgil tells him that he must first go down into the darkest regions of the earth of Hell and then Purgatory before he can see the light of God. In the poem, the character Dante had many sins to deal with, but the worst – by his own admission – was the sin of pride. It was his pride that kept him from seeing God. In order to gain knowledge, he must first be humbled in order to see that he is truly ignorant. For Dante, and really for all of us, the way up is down. Virgil tells Dante:
“But you must journey down another road,” he said to me, when he saw me lost in tears “If you ever hope to leave this wilderness.”Dante, Inferno Canto 1,91-93
In my posts on Socrates, I explained how he course-corrected philosophy, a school that had lost its way, by emphasizing that the starting point of true knowledge is in first realizing that one is ignorant. The paradox is that if a person refuses to do this, he or she will remain in ignorance. One must first admit ignorance if one wishes to be enlightened.
This is why we moderns have such a hard time with Parmenides’ poem. It seems like an irreconcilable contradiction to us. We can’t understand how one can be enlightened by first going into the darkness of ignorance. And this is a contradiction for us because of our pride. We exhibit a hubris that is characterized by thinking that we are smarter than those who have come before. We refuse to humble ourselves and acknowledge that those who have come before may be smarter than us in certain areas.
If we refuse to humble ourselves and acknowledge our darkness, then in darkness we will remain. The irony of this is that as we teach future generations this technique of overturning the knowledge of our ancestors, future generations will eventually overturn our knowledge. As Jesus said, “He who lives by the sword will die by the sword.” Then every generation will be left, not to build upon prior generations, but to reinvent the wheel again and again, leaving each generation stilted in its development. The depth of ignorance and confusion in the West today is simply astounding to me, and what is more astounding is that we refuse to acknowledge it.
I leave you with two quotes. One is from a modern Japanese artist named Hideaki Sorachi.28 He said:
“The night is darkest just before dawn. But keep your eyes open; if you avert your eyes from the dark, you’ll be blind to the rays of a new day…so keep your eyes open, no matter how dark the night ahead may be.”
The other quote is from Jesus, who said:
“If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin. But since you claim you can see, your guilt remains.”
Carry on the conversation by leaving a comment below. If you enjoyed this article, please share. Thank you!
- Waterfield, Robin, translator and commentator, The First Philosophers, p. 49, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000
- Palmer, John, “Parmenides,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), section 1 “Life and Writings,” https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2020/entries/parmenides.
- DeLong, Jeremy C., “Parmenides of Elea,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, section 1, ‘Life,’ https://iep.utm.edu/parmenid
- Palmer, John, “Parmenides”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, section 1 ”Life and Writings”
- Plato, Parmenides, Mary Louise Gill and Paul Ryan, translators, p.4, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., Indianapolis, 1996
- Plato, Parmenides, p.1
- Plato, Parmenides, p.10-11
- Coxon, A. H. The Fragments of Parmenides: Revised and Expanded Edition. Ed. and Trans. Richard McKirahan. Las Vegas: Parmenides, 2009, pp. 260-70 as cited in “Parmenides of Elea,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, section 2, “Parmenides’ Poem”
- Waterfield, Robin, translator and commentator, The First Philosophers, p. 49
- DeLong, Jeremy C., “Parmenides of Elea,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, section 2, “Parmenides Poem”
- Waterfield, Robin, translator and commentator, The First Philosophers, pp. 49-50
- Burnet, John, Poem of Parmenides, English translation, 1892, lines 5-9, http://philoctetes.free.fr/parmenidesunicode.htm
- Rickert, Thomas. “Parmenides, Ontological Enaction, and the Prehistory of Rhetoric.” Philosophy & Rhetoric, vol. 47, no. 4, 2014, pp. 472–493. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.5325/philrhet.47.4.0472
- Burnet, John, Poem of Parmenides, English translation, 1892, lines 10-14
- DeLong, Jeremy C., “Parmenides of Elea,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, section 2a, “The Proem”
- Palmer, John, “Parmenides,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, section 1 ”Life and Writings,” section 2.1 “Proem”
- Burnet, John, Poem of Parmenides, English translation, lines 15-21
- Burnet, John, Poem of Parmenides, English translation, lines 23-28
- Burnet, John, Poem of Parmenides, English translation, lines 28-33
- Please see Post 34 of this blog.
- Matthew 7:13-14
- Matthew 11:25
- DeLong, Jeremy C., “Parmenides of Elea,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, section 2a, “The Proem”
- Owens, Joseph. “KNOWLEDGE AND ‘KATABASIS’ IN PARMENIDES.” The Monist, vol. 62, no. 1, 1979, pp. 15–29. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27902572.
- For more information on this, please see: Saunders, Father William, “Did Jesus Descend into Hell,” Catholic Education Resource Center, 2003, https://www.catholiceducation.org/en/culture/catholic-contributions/did-jesus-descend-into-hell.html
Bibliography and Sources:
DeLong, Jeremy C., Parmenides of Elea, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://iep.utm.edu/parmenid
Kingsley, Peter, In the Dark Places of Wisdom, The Golden Sufi Center, Point Reyes, California, 1999
Kingsley, Peter, Reality, new revised edition published by Catafalque Press, London, 2020
Palmer, John, “Parmenides”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Section 1 “Life,” https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2020/entries/parmenides.
Plato, Parmenides, Mary Louise Gill and Paul Ryan, translators, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., Indianapolis, 1996
Waterfield, Robin, translator and commentator, The First Philosophers, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000