44. Parmenides and Being

Parmenides' philosophy was communicated via a poem illustrating the idea of eternal being and the divine origin of the universe.

If you are looking for a purely rationalistic discussion on Parmenides’ philosophy and his idea of eternal being, you have come to the wrong place.

The majority of the websites out there take the rational approach, but we cannot separate the man from his ideas. Therefore, if you are looking for a more holistic approach to understanding Parmenides’ concept of oneness and the idea of eternal being, please proceed.

His philosophy was an outworking of his own being and his experiences; it was not a purely rationalistic endeavor as we tend to view philosophy in the modern era. In fact, it was anything but that – it wasn’t that it was irrational. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In reality, it was suprarational. We moderns are trapped in a rationalistic matrix, which is why we are so miserable. If there is any hope for us, we must become familiar with and understand the concept behind the little known world of suprarational thought.

Please do not proceed with this post unless you have read the previous two posts (post 42 and post 43), for Parmenides’ philosophy arose organically and naturally out of his mystical experiences and his poetry. If Parmenides were alive today, he would be ridiculed and dismissed by the Academy. But yet if philosophies derived by such origins are nonsensical, why have they endured and why do they continue to be discussed by scholars?

As mentioned in post 42, the heart of Parmenides’ philosophy lies in his poem, which is his only extant work. After arriving at the heart of the earth – Hades – the goddess instructs him:

“Suitable it is that thou should learn all things, the unshaken heart of persuasive truth, as well as the opinions of mortals in which is no true belief at all.”

-I, 28-30

It is time for Parmenides to be instructed in “all things.” Immediately, there is a delineation between true and false ways; there are two paths that we can go by. The true path is deemed “the unshakable heart of persuasive truth” and the false merely as “the opinions of mortals in which is no true belief at all.” The word “unshakable” implies absolute truth: eternal, immortal, and immutable.

The Two Ways

The unshakable way of truth is juxtaposed against the opinions of mortals. The goddess is saying that the opinions of mortals count for nothing since they contain “no true belief at all.”

Divine revelation is also contrasted with the thoughts of mere mortals. An immortal goddess is the source of eternal truth. The opinions of humans, on the other hand, perish because they perish.

In the West today, we have eschewed divine revelation completely. We have no such category. In fact, anyone trying to stake such a claim will not be taken seriously and perhaps be mocked and ridiculed. Truth, for us, consists exclusively of the opinions of men. And because of this, the concept of truth has degraded to the point of purely relativistic thinking. This in part accounts for the utter cultural destruction that we are now witnessing in the West.

Like the residue at the bottom of a pot after all of the water has boiled away, so too we have boiled down the pursuit of truth, post-Enlightenment, to dry rationalistic thinking. Truth has become an abstract mental exercise. For example, we consider the development of AI to be the next leap forward in the realm of “thinking.”

Parmenides the Priest Receives a Divine Oracle

We have to remember that Parmenides was a priest of Apollo, and Apollo was the god of the Oracle of Delphi. As such, what we have – and what most people fail to see – is that Parmenides is receiving a divine oracle. Just as the priestesses at Delphi were the conduits for the divine oracles from Apollo to the people, so too Parmenides was the conduit of the divine oracle from the goddess to the people.

That is why the goddess says to Parmenides, “Come now, I will tell thee.” This is the oracle. The goddess then says to him, “Do thou harken to my sayings and carry them away.” After he has heard her truth, after he has had his fill, he must fly back like a bird to the land of the living and feed those who lack the truth. He is expected to fulfill his role as a priest.

Greek oracles, like those of Delphi, did not communicate in straightforward propositional truth but rather in enigmatic statements, proverbs, and plays-on-words. They did this by means of flowery, metaphorical, and cryptic poetic language.1 I contend that where most people go astray in interpreting Parmenides’ poem is that they forget that it is a poem!

The other thing to note is that the idea of truth as propositional truth statements did not come into full bloom until Aristotle. It is now the primary way that we view truth in the West. Prior to Aristotle, and we see this in works such as The Iliad and The Odyssey, truth was presented as a personal narrative.

In summary, then, an oracle was a narrative personally communicated by poetic, metaphorical, or enigmatic means. The modern problem in interpreting Parmenides is that we fail to recognize this. Let’s not make the same mistake as we are about to enter the tall grass.

Parmenides’ Philosophy: The Path to Persuasive Truth

Let’s consider the two ways mentioned above – the way of persuasive truth versus the opinions of mortals. The question is: How do we discover the way of persuasive truth? Is it even possible? We cannot go on if there is no clear path.

The goddess establishes that the first path affords only two possibilities. So of the two ways, the first way itself has two ways. This has led some commentators to say that there are really three paths. I say that if we are taking a purely logical and rationalistic approach to this, then that is true. But, if we approach this problem in terms of an enigma, then there indeed are only two ways. I will explain below.

The goddess reveals the two ways of searching for persuasive truth:

“What I will tell you the only two ways of search that can be thought of. The first – that it is, and that it is impossible for anything not to be – is the way of persuasion, for persuasion is the companion of truth. And as for the other – that it is not, and is necessary not to be. This, I can tell you is the wholly untrustworthy path. For there is no way you can recognize what is not – there is no traveling that path – or telling anything about it.”

-II, 1-8

To Be or Not to Be? That Is the Question

The other problem with interpreting Parmenides’ philosophy is that we focus on his monism – that all things are one – as the central theme. And we juxtapose that with Heraclitus’ idea that all things are in flux and nothing remains the same. But this approach to Heraclitus is not true, either! (Please read my posts on Heraclitus to find out why and what Heraclitus really meant to say.)

The central theme of Parmenides’ poem can be summed up in the word “exists.” In the above quote, it is termed “that it is.” The poem uses the Greek word ἐστιν – the third person singular for the verb “to be.” It can be literally translated as “it exists.” The whole of this oracle rests upon this one word. This is the key to understanding Parmenides’ philosophy.

The corollary of “it exists” is “and that it is impossible for anything not to be.” So in regard to the path of persuasion, this is the only possibility. In order to discover the truth, one must start with the premise that things exist and that there is no such thing as non-existence. In other words, nothingness does not exist. That is why the poem states, “And as for the other [possibility to persuasive truth] – that it is not, and is necessary not to be.” This is the path of non-existence. Parmenides calls this path the “wholly untrustworthy path.” He goes on to write, “For there is no way you can recognize what is not – there is no traveling that path – or telling anything about it.”

So there is only one real possibility in regard to the first way, the way of persuasive truth, and that is to acknowledge existence. Without existence, there is no truth. With existence, the way of persuasion is open and truth is the companion of persuasion. The idea of non-existence is not even a remote possibility in the pursuit of truth.

The bedrock, then, of this oracle and Parmenides’ thought is that existence, not monism, forms the basis of truth. Being is everything. This oracle reveals what had never been revealed prior – that Being is the heart of reality. That is why Parmenides is considered the founder of ontology. The implications of this for Western civilization, and indeed the world, are deep and profound.

Existence Is Essential

If we understand this, then it become obvious that there are only two ways. There has never been three ways, only two. What about that second way of the first way of persuasive truth – the way of non-existence? Well, that path is just that, non-existent! It is not as if there is truly a road with a roadblock that says, “Road Closed.” If that were the case, then there would indeed be three paths, with one path out of commission. But if that is the road to non-being, then the road itself does not exist.

The point of the goddess at first telling us that there are only two ways and then opening up a third possible way, as a subset of the first way, is to illustrate that there are only two ways. Since non-existence is impossible, this makes the third way a non-way since it does not exist.

She opens up this non-way to highlight the original point that existence is all that matters. This is the kind of insight that is gained by approaching this poem as an enigmatic oracle rather than a series of propositional statements. And this is why commentators have gone ’round and ’round over this debate of three paths or two.

The Opinions of Mortals

So, there are only two possible paths for humans to take – the way of persuasive truth and the way of the opinions of mortals.

We have established that in the first way, it is impossible to entertain the idea of non-existence. Being is central.

The second way, the opinions of mortals, is also one of confusion:

“This I bid thee ponder…upon which mortals knowing nothing wander in two minds as two-headed beasts; for hesitation guides the wandering thought in their breasts, so that they are born along stupefied like men deaf and blind. Undiscerning crowds, in whose eyes the same thing and not the same is and is not, and all things travel in opposite directions.”

-VI, 5-9

This harkens back to my discussions of Heraclitus. He saw the divine Logos as central to all reality, but stated that most people wandered aimlessly through life, having the divine Logos in and all around them but failing to see it.

According to Parmenides’ philosophy, what are these mortals failing to grasp, so much so that they live more like animals than humans? More on that later.

The Idea of Eternal Being

In regard to Being and the path of persuasive truth, the goddess goes on to say:

“One path only is left for us to speak of, namely, that ‘it exists.’ That what is is uncreated and indestructible, alone, complete, immovable and without end. Nor was it ever, nor will it be for now it is, all at once, a continuous one. For what kind of origin for it will you look for?”

-VIII, 1-6

Now we are getting to the heart of the matter. If the central premise is existence or Being, then the implication of this is eternity. It is impossible for Being to be temporal, for if it were, it would not be Being. If it were temporal, then at one point it would have not existed, which by definition is non-being.

What about Being coming into existence from non-being? This, even for a goddess, is patently absurd. Note:

“For what kind of origin for it [being] will you look for? In what way or from what source could it have drawn its increase? I shall not let these say nor think that it came from what is not. For it can neither be thought nor uttered that what is not is. And, if it came from nothing, what need could have made it arise later rather than sooner? Therefore must it either be altogether or be not at all.”

-VIII, 6-12

If existence or the eternality of being is central to reality, then the above statement is the coup de grâce that destroys all other contrary opinions. Many people get lost in the details of Parmenides’ philosophy as communicated through this poem and fail to see the utter simplicity.

The argument is this – something cannot come for nothing. It is impossible.

Parmenides and the Origin of the Universe

Parmenides’ argument for the existence of Being is quite devastating to the Big Bang Theory of the origin of the universe. It is metaphysical truth such as this, that it is impossible for something to arise out of nothing, that shines the spotlight on the utter absurdity that a singularity could have come into existence out of nothing to form the universe as we know it.

I love looking for contenders against this principle on the Internet, people who say that indeed the universe could have come from nothing. In post 23, I dealt with the idea that the universe began as a singularity that spontaneously formed with a void that came out of nowhere.2

Recently I found another contender for something coming out of nothing. People try to violate this principle, to do an end run around it, in order find an explanation for a non-deistic origin of the universe. In post 23, I asked where the void came from. Well, the answer is from quantum fluctuations.

In an article entitled, “Spontaneous creation of the universe from nothing,” the authors state the following:

“Explicit solutions of the WDWE (Wheeler-DeWitt equation) for the special operator ordering factor p=-2 (or 4) show that, once a small true vacuum bubble is created by quantum fluctuations of the metastable false vacuum, it can expand exponentially no matter whether the bubble is closed, flat or open.”3

-arXiv:1404.1207[gr-qc]

Notice the language used above: “…once a small true vacuum bubble is created by [italics mine] quantum fluctuations….” We know instinctively that we cannot violate Parmenides’ principle, so in essence we have no “spontaneous creation of the universe from nothing,” but rather a universe created by quantum fluctuations.

So the question becomes where did the quantum fluctuations originate if there was absolutely nothing? We are forced either to provide an origin for them or to say that they always existed. If we go down the road of providing an origin for the quantum fluctuations, we are going down the road of the infinite regress which Aristotle said was impossible. If we go down the other road, we run into an eternal originator of the universe, which would have to be a divine being.

Truth is a pesky thing. No matter how hard we try to suppress it, it doesn’t go away. And if Parmenides’ philosophy regarding the idea of eternal being is absurd and nonsensical, why do we take him so seriously over two millennia later? Parmenides is not going away, and even though we have abandoned metaphysics, we still realize that we have to come to terms with his challenge that something cannot arise from nothing. When a high school student raises her hand and asks her science teacher where the singularity came from, that’s Parmenides whispering into her ear.

Is Reality an Illusion?

Now this is where it really gets interesting and swerves off into Twilight Zone land. But stay with me to the end and it will all make sense.

It follows that if non-existence is impossible, then Being must be eternal. That is why Parmenides said, “That what is is uncreated and indestructible, alone, complete, immovable and without end. Nor was it ever, nor will it be for now it is, all at once, a continuous one.” If that is the case, then there was never a time when Being did not exist and therefore, never a time when it came into existence from non-existence.

Since Being defines all things, then it is impossible for anything to go in and out of existence and thus, it is impossible for anything to change. Change states like being born and dying are illusions. The only conclusion from these premises is that all things are one. There are no distinctions. In that, we have the monism that Parmenides is so famous for.

But his monism is not the centerpiece of his thinking; it is merely the outworking of his central idea of the eternality of Being. His argument is valid in that the conclusion flows from the premises. In other words, if his statements about Being are true, then the only conclusion is that there are no distinctions in the universe contrary to what our senses tell us. Reality as we know it is an illusion. What is going on here?

The Parmenides Challenge

Did Parmenides really believe that reality is an illusion? The short answer is that it doesn’t really matter. What matters is the fact that his argument is cohesive and he has left it for us to deal with. Remember, as I stated above, we are not dealing with straightforward propositional truth, but rather we find ourselves in the realm of narrative truth as expressed through enigmatic poetry. As such, the challenge here is not to memorize a series of propositions so that we can pass the test, but to interact with his narrative, to wrestle with the ideas in order to force us to go deeper into the truth.

As was characteristic of oracles in the ancient world, the prophet or prophetess would put the oracle back onto the hearer. The listener was ultimately responsible for what he or she decided to do with the newfound knowledge. Parmenides gives us more of a problem or puzzle to be solved if we are to make sense of the universe. We are like escape artists Parmenides has put in a box. In order to make sense of the universe, we have to find a way out.

The Legacy of Parmenides’ Philosophy of Being

Before we deal with his illusory world, let’s discuss his most important legacy: Being. Parmenides moved philosophy light years ahead by this one discovery that Being or existence is the fundamental basis of all things. It is what all things share in common and what makes the universe one.

Remember above that I said the entirety of Parmenides’ poem rests on one word: the third person singular of the verb “to be,” which is ἐστιν. This is literally translated as “it is.” There are two aspects of this phrase “it is,” the subject and the predicate. The “it” is the essence of what something is, what makes it unique such as being a bird or a cat, etc. The “is” is the gift that Parmenides gave us – the idea of Being or existence that all things have in common.4

For Parmenides, since Being is wholly one, unchangeable, and eternal, the “it” is an illusion. But regardless, if we accept the “it” as real, then we have a profound duality in the universe of essence/existence.5

Two questions we may ask about anything are “Is it?” and “What is it?” Most modern Western philosophers are only concerned about the latter question, but the former is far more profound and, I think, interesting. I will get into this idea of essence/existence in depth in future posts.

The Wonder of Being

It is at this point that we should all take a pause and reflect on this wonderous idea of eternal Being. We should not take this for granted. We should not lose our appreciation of the richness of this concept and fall into the state of what Heidegger calls “the forgetfulness of being.”6

Long before Heidegger, the poet Shelly said,7

“The mists of familiarity obscure us from the wonder of our being.”

-“On Life,” by Percy Shelly

This ties in with what is mentioned above with the second way of the opinions of mortals or what is called “the way of seeming.” Parmenides, like Heraclitus, says that we can look at the same world through two different perspectives.

The “way of seeming” is looking at things at face value – seeing the particulars but being unable to perceive the grand unity of Being in the universe. Therefore, if we live only for individual experience and objects and fail to see the overarching grand unity of the universe, then we are living like brute beasts.

On the other hand, those who have insight are those who indeed perceive the underlying order and unity of the universe. These are people on the only true path, the way of persuasive truth. So the Way of Truth and the Opinions of Mortals are two different ways of looking at the universe, one for an eternal unified perspective and one from a temporal diverse perspective only.8

Those who perceive the universe without taking eternity into account think that they understand, but in reality, they do not.

As the great Chinese Taoist mystic, Chuang Tzu (c. 300 B.C.) stated:

“Great thinking sees all as One; small thinking breaks down into the many.”9

The One and the Many

The universe consists of unified Being. We cannot forget that Parmenides did not expound his ideas in a vacuum. We also cannot forget the Ionian philosophers that I spent considerable time on in earlier posts. It is now that we have a tension between the two schools – the Ionian and the Eleatic, which consisted of those from Elea that included Parmenides and Xenophanes, among others.

The Ionian philosophers – hailing from Ionia – such as Thales, Heraclitus, and Anaximenes were looking for the archê or the source of all things. They realized, too that without an overarching principle, the universe would be a nonsensical mishmash of diverse elements. So, they proposed things like water, fire, and air.

The problem was that after the primordial substance gave rise to the universe and embedded all things, it would be divided into many. Thus for the Ionians, the diversity swallowed up the unity.

With Parmenides, in order to preserve the unity, he had to erase any distinctions for the diversity. For him and other Eleatics, the unity swallowed up the diversity.

It was Parmenides’ counter to the Ionians that set up the tension that would continue in metaphysics up through the medieval period where they understood the universe in terms of the One and the Many. In fact, as I mentioned in previous posts, this is the fundamental philosophical problem to be solved. All other problems arise from that.

The issue has always been that emphasizing the one destroys the many and emphasizing the many destroys the one. But on the other hand, if this problem is not solved, the universe does not make sense on a fundamentally deep level.

In addition, it has practical ramifications. Think of all of the emphasis on “diversity” today with nary a word on what unifies us. This has led to much strife and division in the West.

Unfortunately, the interest in this problem has largely waned since the Enlightenment. It is my hope that one day philosophers will rediscover metaphysics and take this problem seriously again. I seek to discuss this problem in many future posts since this is really a subtheme of my blog.

Parmenides’ Puzzle for Future Generations

So what did Parmenides accomplish and what about his illusory universe?

In essence, he made a well-needed course correction to the Ionian philosophers. They were careening too far in one direction, and like major course corrections, say, on a large ocean liner, it is often necessary to turn the wheel far into the other direction.

Parmenides was correct in that their archês got diluted into their objects and thus failed to be a unifying principle. By setting up a complement to that, was he saying that his unity of all things was truly the fabric of the universe? Or was he setting up for us a puzzle to be solved?

Regardless of his intentions, it has become a puzzle to be solved on two accounts, the illusory universe and the tension between the One and the Many. The first account of the illusory universe has already been solved, for when Parmenides pointed to Being as “uncreated and indestructible, alone, complete, immovable and without end,” he was really pointing to the Being from which everything else derives its being – the great “I AM10.”

The Greeks of the ancient world, and anyone else for that matter, did not have a concept of nothing nor of an eternal God that is outside of time and space. But it makes sense that the divine revelation that Parmenides received pointed to an uncreated, immutable, and eternal Being. Since he, too was limited in his knowledge, this could only be something within the framework of the universe, Being. He thus attributed divine attributes to all things since all things have Being. An unchangeable illusory universe follows from that.

Later Hebrew revelation gave us the great I AM, the very essence of Being itself. So, Parmenides was not too far off the mark when he posited Being as the fundamental principle of the universe, for God Himself defines Himself as such.

The very essence of God is existence. God’s very name is Being. He is the immutable, eternal, and complete entity that Parmenides was really beholding.

Now if this Being is outside of time and space, then everything in the universe can participate in or share the one Being of God, deriving their Being from His. This enables everything to have the fundamental principle of Being without obliterating the distinctions. So with the Hebrew God involved in the picture, we participate in the fundamental unity of Being as well as a truly diverse and real universe. Parmenides’ argument is valid based on his premises, but it is not sound since he did not, nor could he, factor in Being that was outside of space and time.

As stated above, the other aspect of Parmenides’ puzzle is the relationship between the One and the Many. This is not so easy to solve, but it is worth exploring in depth in future posts.

Which Path Will You Choose?

Most of the analysis of what Parmenides said gets lost in the details and fails to see the big picture. Parmenides was commissioned to share what he learned with the world that it may make a difference. We can remain on the path of only perceiving a world that is temporal and passing away along with ourselves, or we can look upward to behold the grand order of the universe, to be in awe at the very fact of existence itself.

Which path will you choose? One leads ultimately to nihilism and hopelessness, the stupefied opinions of mortals, deaf and blind. The other is the path of true enlightenment, realizing that all existence is rooted in the eternal, immutable, and infinite Being of beings, the great I AM, the source and end of all things who infuses the universe with meaning and beauty. Only then is life worth living.

The paradox is that in all of the modern analyses of Parmenides, we fail to miss his main point that as a Western society, we are on the road to nowhere.

I end with two quotes. The first is from Lao Tzu:

“The unnamable is the eternally real. Naming is the origin of all particular things.”

And finally, a quote from Max Weber:

“The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world.”

How can meditating on the concept of Being enable us to once again view the world with awe and enchantment? Please comment below. Thank you!

Footnotes

  1. Tserkezis, Eleftherios, “Would the Oracle of Delphi really speak prophesies as riddles, or is that just modern media?” August 28, 2019
  2. Please see the following article: Tate, Karl, Alternatives to the Big Bang Theory Explained, SPACE.com, February 21, 2014
  3. Donghshan He, Dongfeng Gao, Qing-yu Cai, “Spontaneous creation of the universe from nothing,” Cornell University, April 4, 2014
  4. Clark, W. Norris, S.J., The One and the Many, A Contemporary Thomistic Metaphysics, p. 26, University of Notre Dame, Press, Notre Dame, Indiana, 2014
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Chalmers, W. R., “Parmenides and the Beliefs of Mortals.” Phronesis, Vol. 5, No. 1, 1960, p. 22, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4181660
  9. Clark, W. Norris, S.J., The One and the Many, A Contemporary Thomistic Metaphysics, p. 73
  10. Exodus 3:14

Bibliography

  1. Clark, W. Norris, S.J., The One and the Many, A Contemporary Thomistic Metaphysics, University of Notre Dame, Press, Notre Dame, Indiana, 2014
  2. Kingsley, Peter, In the Dark Places of Wisdom, The Golden Sufi Center, Point Reyes, California, 2019
  3. Kingsley, Peter, Reality, Catafalque Press, London, revised edition 2020
  4. Laertius, Diogenes, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, translated by Pamela Mensch, Edited by James Miller, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2020
  5. Plato, Parmenides, Translated by Mary Louise Gill and Paul Ryan, Introduction by Mary Louise Gill, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., Indianapolis, 1996
  6. Sworder, Roger, Science & Religion in Archaic Greece, Sophia Perennis, San Rafael, California, 2008


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