The Vocabulary of Myth, Part XXXIV

Parmenides’ Way of Truth, continued…

The Supremacy of Reason…

Being and Not-Being…

Parmenides’ Abolition of Movement, Change, and the World-Process…

Parmenides and Plato…


The Greeks’ habitual critique of sensory experience is already implicit in Heracleitus, who lamented that “eyes and ears are bad witnesses to men if they have souls that do not understand their language”.  Eyes and ears tell us that the world is multiform, but to the intellect, the “Logos is one and common to all”.  Parmenides carries the Heracleitean doctrine of the opposition between the subjectivity and particularity of experience, and the objective universality of the Logos (i.e., reason), to its inevitable conclusion.  If the rational intelligence alone can make sense of experience, then intelligence is supra-ordinate to it; and if the data of sense come into conflict with the conclusions of sovereign reason, the former must yield to the latter.

This is the case, above all, with the apparent phenomena of coming into being and passing away:

One way remains to be spoken of:  the way that is.  Along this road there are very many indications that what is is unbegotten and imperishable; for it is whole and immovable and complete.  Nor was it at any time, nor will it be, but it is now, all at once, one and continuous.

For what begetting of it would you search for?  How and whence did it grow?  I shall not let you say or think “from what is not”; for it is not possible either to say or to think that it is not.  Again, what need would have driven it, if it began from nothing, to grow later rather than sooner?  Thus it must exist fully or not at all.  Nor will the force of conviction ever allow anything over and above itself to arise out of what is not; wherefore Justice does not loosen her fetters so as to allow it to come into being or pass away, but holds it fast.

Concerning these things the decision lies here:  either it is, or it is not…How could what is perish?  How could it have come to be?  For if it came into being, it is not; nor is it if ever it is going to be.  Thus coming into being is extinguished, and destruction unknown.

What is cannot have come into being from what is not, for not-being has not in it that which would enable it to engender anything.  Nothing will come of nothing (as Lear said, echoing this ancient ontological principle).  Conversely, if what is cannot have come from what is not, what is cannot pass into what is not.  It remains as impossible, then, for what is to cease to be, as it is for it to come into being.

The language of temporal process or “becoming”, as it had been spoken by all of the Pre-Socratic cosmologists, is misleading, according to Parmenides.  For “that which is”—being per se—exists “now, all at once”.  It exists, that is, non-temporally, as something “unbegotten”,”imperishable”, “immovable”, “one and continuous”.  Here, of course, Parmenides anticipates Plato’s own fundamental ontological antinomy (as expressed in the Timaeus, 27 d) between “that which always is and has no becoming…and that which is always becoming and never is”, which in the Phaedo Socrates reduces to:  the eternal, immutable, indivisible (unitary), incorporeal, and intelligible on the one hand; and the temporal, mutable, divisible (multiple), corporeal, and sensible on the other.  For Plato, only the objects that belong to the former category are knowable (and knowable only by the intellect) and truly exist.  Everything else (that is, everything that we perceive through the senses in the physical cosmos) is demoted by him to a kind of pseudo-reality, or appearance:  a false copy or reflection of what truly is.


And indeed, there can be no doubt that Parmenides is Plato’s authority for these momentous ontological disjunctions, as we see when Parmenides turns to the task of deducing those characteristics which must of rational necessity belong to what is:

Nor is it divisible, since it is all alike; nor is there any more or less of it in one place which might prevent it from holding together, but all is full of what is.

Look steadily at those things which, though absent, are firmly present to the mind.  For it cannot cut off what is from clinging to what is, either scattering it in every direction in order or bringing it together.

Being, says Parmenides, is indivisible.  (We recognize this though it is “absent” from the senses, because it is “present” to the rational mind.)  Being cannot be broken up into multiple “parts” or “portions” of itself, but exists in its unitary wholeness everywhere.  It cannot be “scattered” or “brought together” “in order”.  In this last statement, Parmenides seems to be referring to (while denying) some sort of cyclical process, which should already be familiar to us.  As the phrase “in order” suggests, he is referring to the process of world-formation and world-dissolution, which has preoccupied the Pre-Socratics since the age of Anaximander.

For Anaximander, as we recall, the world-order comes into being through the separation of the elements earth, water, air, and fire out of “the Infinite”, by a kind of vortex motion; then it passes away when the vortex ceases to spin and the elements are homogeneously reunited.  But Anaximander’s “world-process” was an inference from sensory observation, which Parmenides rejects, because it cannot survive the scrutiny of reason:

But motionless in the limits of mighty bonds, it is without beginning or end, since coming into being and passing away have been driven far off, cast out by true belief.  Remaining the same, and in the same place, it lies in itself, and so abides firmly where it is. Necessity holds it in the bonds of the limit which shuts it in on every side, because it is not right for what is to be incomplete.  For it is not in need of anything, but not-being would stand in need of everything.

Neither the world nor anything in it can come into being or pass away, but all being remains “motionless” and immutable (“the same”).  This, says Parmenides, is a matter of “Necessity”, “Justice”, and “right”, employing the same moral language as Anaximander had employed when he spoke of the need for “reparations” and “justice” whenever the elements violated their apportioned boundaries or limits (moirai).  But in Parmenides the ancient daimonic concepts of limit, justice, and necessity are now simultaneously moral and intellectual.  It is necessary for things to be so because it is rational, and thus rationality itself inherits from religion the mythological potency and sanctity with which it was first freighted in Heracleitus’ logos-doctrine, and which would later be developed in Plato, for whom what is true and real in the ontological sense, is also what is divine and supremely good in the theological/moral.


Parmenides thus, once again, refuses to forego the urgent language of religion and mythology, the more so because he is speaking the dispassionately intellectual language of dialectic:

For there is not, nor will there be, anything other than what is, since indeed Destiny has fettered it to remain whole and immovable.  Therefore those things which mortals have established, believing them to be true, will be mere names:  “coming into being and passing away”, “being and not-being”, “change of place and alteration of bright colour”.

One can see why being must be motionless, for in order for a thing to move, it must have a place to move to.  But clearly there is no place into which being could move, since, as Parmenides has already said, “all is [already] full of what is”.  Motion, division, and change of place or quality are “mere names”, which mortals, “beasts without judgment”, employ by habit, errantly assuming them to be true.


In denying change per se, Parmenides throws down a gauntlet before his Ionian predecessors, for to study nature and the world-process is to study movement and alteration.  But Parmenides consigns these to the rank of sensory illusions, and therefore nominal constructions.  In so doing, he rendered the philosophical project of reconciling experience with reason all the more formidable, while preparing the ground for the emergence of Plato’s fateful doctrine of Ideas.

To be continued…