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(Complete with theoretical fun-house mirrors and idealized, metaphorical ball games) _________________________ Zach Barron
Reed College Portland, OR
“It is all continuous.” (8.241). There is no beginning and no end and all is infinite by necessity. At least, that’s what Parmenides would tell you. Parmenides of Elea employed traditional reason in a rather radical manner to conclude that this sort of logical continuity is the only way to explain what existence is. His poem survives only in fragments but his influence on Platonic thought is evident. Parmenides attempted to answer the question of being by denying the testimony of the material senses and turning to reason as the sole source on which to base his philosophy. Parmenides’ argument stems from the premise that there are only two paths of inquiry; “The one, that it is and that it is not possible for it not to be… the other, that it is not and that it is necessary for it not to be.” (2.3-2.5). This introduction establishes existence, reality, and being as a very general and formless “it”. Throughout the fragments this ambiguous “it” serves almost exclusively as the title for all that exists in the universe. The purpose of this apparently vague term becomes increasingly apparent as the argument is developed. Parmenides tells us that only one of the proposed paths is feasible. That path is the way of “it is.” It’s interesting to note that in his explanation of this one logical path he refers to it as “the path of Persuasion (for it attends upon Truth).” (2.4). This implies that for his purposes persuasion is comparable with truth. Both terms are capitalized and thus elevated to a state of higher significance (at least by the translator if not Parmenides). This seems to be a reflection of the Greek political and social systems that paraded oratory and rhetoric as glorified qualities similar to physical prowess. Especially for a philosopher like Parmenides, persuasion would not have been viewed as a sort of trickery or sleight of word but rather an essential and valued ability to convey a certain point of view.
The only text that will be cited in this document is the chapter on Parmenides (pages 43-51) in A Presocratics Reader and all citations are noted with the fragment number followed by the line(s) discussed.
The path of persuasion and truth, the path of “it is,” is contrasted with the way of “it is not.” Parmenides warns us that this way of thinking will ultimately get its advocates nowhere because if it is not, it cannot be thought. Nothing can be said about that which you cannot consider and does not exist. Parmenides cautions that this way is “completely unlearnable.” (2.6) and no amount of deliberation can possibly yield any further enlightenment than it is not, never has been, and never will be. Directly from the premise that “it is” Parmenides develops his short but essential fragment three; “…the same thing is for thinking as for being.” (3.1). As short as that statement is it remains complex and open to a number of interpretations. The point that flows most fluently with the rest of Parmenides’ argument is the basic idea that if it exists, it can be thought about. The way his statement is phrased Parmenides implies that the inverse must also be true. The idea that if you can conceive it, it must be real is less readily admitted by the general public. That concept is much less intuitive but only because of the conflicting views of what it means to think. Our modern idea that we can think of anything violently collides with Parmenides’ belief that you can only truly think of something that is. You may think that you’re thinking of a dragon but there is no such thing as a dragon so you cannot recreate one in your mind. Parmenides thinks on two levels. There is the basic level of reflection in which thought can only reflect the physical world and something must be tangible to exist in that sense. In this way the mind is simply a mirror but Parmenides suggests that this mirror is merely an illusion. By denying the physical perceptions of reality and accepting only that which reason tells him must be so Parmenides can say that “the same thing is for thinking as for being” (3.1) and not fear the implications of inverting the sentence. In this way of thinking neither a dragon nor a book are ultimately real. A physical book can be destroyed and if all books were destroyed all that would remain is the idea of book. Parmenides’ mental mirror can only reflect that which has physical substance so if all books were destroyed books would pass out of existence in this corporeal way of thinking. This gives rise to the second, mirror independent, way of thinking in which nothing can pass into or out of existence. The only thing that Parmenides can be sure of in this elevated state of reason is that he is thinking and therefore there is existence and to label what it is that exists it not possible or necessary to go beyond that amorphous “it”. To qualify the claim made in fragment three Parmenides proposes that “That which is there to be spoken and thought of must be. For it is possible for it to be, but not possible for nothing to be.” (6.1-6.2). That is to say that indeed, if it is possible to think about something that something must exist. This calls into question what it means to exist. Assuming that Parmenides is discussing what is possible in his metaphysical realm of existence this statement serves purely to solidify fragment three. I propose however, that Parmenides is attempting to bridge the gap between physical and metaphysical existence. In each case that existence is much less about individual people and objects than it is about confirming that there is existence. If something exists then everything exists and Parmenides doesn’t have to judge the world by what has come into his experience. An experientially based existence leaves room for individual perceptions of truth and conflicting views of what is real. For the Egyptians hippopotami are very real but to the tribes north of Greece such a beast can only be confined to abstract myth. Not so in Parmenides way of thinking. If the hippopotamus is simply a part of “it” neither the hippo’s physical state of being nor how individuals perceive that reality really matter.
Parmenides concludes that the only real existence is the one that is free of the mental mirror. In this way of thinking nothing can be created or destroyed. Everything that exists is infinite. In this argument the “it” that he throws about so liberally is now shaped into a round ball, “evenly balanced in every way from the middle.” (8.44). This round ball analogy is one that shows his view of existence as independent from physical testimony and unchanging for everything. There is no truth of book and certainly none of dragon but both are contained in the greater existence of “it” as everything. The details of that “it” are irrelevant so long as there is existence and this is what Parmenides has proved. He emphasizes the unchanging nature of existence by stating not only that “being ungenerated it is also imperishable” (8.2) but also that it is “not lacking; if it were, it would lack everything.” (8.32-8.33). That which is real is inviolate and complete. Both self contained and all encompassing it is everything because nothing could exist outside of its limits. Here Parmenides ends his discourse. The obvious contention that most readers take with Parmenides’ poem is the idea that you can’t think about that which isn’t real. Of course I can think about a dragon, I’m writing about a dragon! The fact that the word exists bears testament to the fact that I can think and talk about this imaginary creature. If I have never seen an elephant how is it real and a dragon, of which I’ve read descriptions, is not real? How is it possible to say that I can’t think about that which isn’t real? Parmenides would argue that in fact, you are not thinking of an elephant or a dragon. Is there an elephant in your head? Of course not. When you say that you are thinking of an elephant, which elephant are you thinking of? The elephant must have been born at some specific time and will die at some later time. In this way the elephant only exists between its birth and death. So before it was born and after it died it did not exist? If something exists, if something is, that is its state of being. Following the premise that it is or it is not, it cannot not exist and then spontaneously come into being. Likewise it is impossible for it to degenerate and go out of being. The idea of a dragon must have been created at some point by some imaginative individual and before that point the concept of dragon did not exists. Therefore it is not. This response hinges on the acceptance of the premise that the only paths of being are the two that Parmenides proposes. Using his argument that nothing can be created or destroyed this is a satisfactory response. It relies on the same argument that develops his poem. However, if you deny the premise that either it is or it is not, from the outset this argument will not convince you of anything.