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An Overview of Parmenides Philosophy of being

 Parmenides of Elea  (515 - 460) BCE

The contributions of the Ancient Greek philosopher, Parmenides, on Western philosophy are immeasurable. His thoughts and beliefs were highly influential in philosophical circles and helped to shape modern day thinking about matters such as reality and existence. In this post, we give a quick overview of Parmenides' profound philosophy.

He is particularly noted for his contribution to the debate about reality and existence. He argued that change is impossible and that reality exists as a single, unchanging whole. His works included divining how experiencing this necessary oneness is possible for human beings in their daily life.

parmenides nature of being

Parmenides philosopher

An Overview of Parmenidean Philosophy

"Parmenides nothing comes from nothing"

THE Greeks were not addicted to moderation, either in their theories or in their practice. Heraclitus maintained that everything changes. Parmenides retorted that nothing changes. 

Who is Parmenides in philosophy 

Parmenides was an Ancient Greek philosopher who lived from 515 to 450 BCE and was born in Elea, located in present day Italy. He was a student of the pre-Socratic philosopher Xenophanes and is famous for his philosophical treatise “On Nature” which argued that reality is one self-existent being. His philosophy heavily influenced Plato, Aristotle and later Western philosophers.

Parmenides life

According to Plato, Socrates in his youth (say about the year 450 B.C.) had an interview with Parmenides, then an old man, and learnt much from him. Whether or not this interview is historical, we may at least infer, what is otherwise evident, that Plato himself was influenced by the doctrines of Parmenides. The south Italian and Sicilian philosophers were more inclined to mysticism and religion than those of Ionia, who were on the whole scientific and sceptical in their tendencies. But mathematics, under the influence of Pythagoras, flourished more in Magna Grecia than in Ionia; mathematics at that time, however, was entangled with mysticism. Parmenides was influenced by Pythagoras, but the extent of this influence is conjectural. What makes Parmenides historically important is that he invented a form of metaphysical argument that, in one form or another. He is often said to have invented logic, but what he really invented was metaphysics based on logic. Parmenides was the scholar of metaphysics.

Parmenides influence on Plato

 Parmenides’ greatest influence, from the point of view of impact on the entire subsequent history of philosophy, was on Plato and the Platonists. Plato admired Parmenides greatly; he has him worsting Socrates in a late dialogue, and he derives from him the view that the senses and what they tell us about the world of appearances  the familiar world around us, which seems plural and subject to time and change  deceive us as to the true nature of reality. That is a theme which has underwritten an enormous amount of what philosophy and, later, science has achieved.

Diogenes follows Aristotle in saying that he was a pupil of Xenophanes, but that he did not agree with Xenophanes’ views. 

Diogenes says that it was also claimed that Parmenides studied with Anaximander, and that at one point in his life he associated closely with a Pythagorean called Ameinias, of whom he was very fond, as evidenced by the fact that when the latter died he built a shrine to him ‘as to a hero’. One reason suggested for this devotion was that Ameinias had persuaded Parmenides to dedicate his life to philosophy. Some in the doxographic tradition described Parmenides as a Pythagorean, and there is no reason to think he might not have been one in his earlier days, though by the time he wrote his poem he no longer was.

Parmenides claims that ''Nothing comes from nothing'' this things is common in Greece too. 

Parmenides poem on nature

The doctrine of Parmenides was set forth in a poem On Nature. He considered the senses deceptive, and condemned the multitude of sensible things as mere illusion. The only true being is "the One," which is infinite and indivisible. It is not, as in Heraclitus, a union of opposites, since there are no opposites. He apparently thought, for instance, that "cold" means only "not hot," and "dark" means only "not light." "The One" is not conceived by Parmenides as we conceive God; he seems to think of it as material and extended, for he speaks of it as a sphere. But it cannot be divided, because the whole of it is present everywhere.

What is Parmenides philosophy ?

Parmenides’ philosophy heavily emphasized the use of reason and logic in uncovering knowledge about existence. He believed that reason was the path to discovering certain truths about reality, such as the fact that all things—in particular, change and motion—were illusions and instead were part of a larger unchanging singular universal truth. Therefore, by using logic and reasoning, Parmenides argued that one could uncover what he called “being” which captured his belief in an ultimate universal truth within existence.

Parmenides metaphysics

Parmenides viewed the What Is as physical. One fragment describes it as a sphere, and Aristotle stated that Parmenides did not believe in any sort of non-physical reality. Nor does he speak of a ‘god’ or ‘gods’ in connection with reality (the goddess of the poem is a literary device merely), but appears to regard What Is as the universe itself, as everything viewed in totality as one thing  a plenum or complete fullness of physical reality.

Parmenides developed a two-part system of philosophy, reasoning that the truth of existence must be either mental or physical. He argued that our minds are able to comprehend an “unchanging Being” within which our physical and mental realities exists. He maintained that reality, in both its physical and mental aspects, is limited to what can be apprehended by the intellect, and is an unchanging being composed of single substance. This philosophy became known as Parmenidean Dualism.

Parmenides philosophy of being

The reflection of Parmenides takes its rise from observation of the transitoriness and changeableness of things. The world, as we know it, is a world of change and mutation. All things arise and pass away. Nothing is permanent, nothing stands. One moment it is, another moment it is not. It is as true to say of  anything, that it is not, as that it is. The truth of things cannot lie here, for no knowledge of that which is constantly changing is possible. Hence the thought of Parmenides becomes the effort to find the eternal amid the shifting, the abiding and everlasting amid the change and mutation of things. And there arises in this way the antithesis between Being and not-being. 

The absolutely real is Being. Not-being is the unreal. Not being is not at all. And this not-being he identifies with becoming, with the world of shifting and changing things, the world which is known to us by the senses. The world of sense is unreal, illusory, a mere appearance. It is not being. Only Being truly is. As Thales designated water the one reality, as the Pythagoreans named number, so now for Parmenides the sole reality, the first principle of things, is Being, wholly unmixed with not-being, wholly excludent of all becoming. The character of Being he describes, for the most part, in a series of negatives. There is in it no change, it is absolutely unbecome and imperishable. It has neither beginning nor end, neither arising nor passing away.

If Being began, it must have arisen either from Being or from not-being. But for Being to arise out of Being, that is not a beginning, and for Being to arise out of not-being is impossible, since there is then no reason why it should arise later rather than sooner. Being cannot come out of not-being, nor something out of nothing. Ex nihilo nihil fit.

This is the fundamental thought of Parmenides. Moreover, we cannot say of Being that it was, that it is, that it will be. There is for it no past, no present, and no future. It is rather eternally and timelessly present. It is undivided and indivisible. For anything to be divided  it must be divided by something other than itself. But there is nothing other than Being; there is no not-being. Therefore there is nothing by which Being can be divided. Hence it is indivisible. It is unmoved and undisturbed, for motion and disturbance are forms of becoming, and all becoming is excluded from Being. It is absolutely self-identical. It does not arise from anything other than itself. It does not pass into anything other than itself. It has its whole being in itself. It does not depend upon anything else for its being and reality. It does not pass over into otherness; it remains, steadfast, and abiding in itself. Of positive character Being has nothing. Its sole character is simply its being. It cannot be said that it is this or that; it cannot be said that it has this or that quality, that it is here or there, then or now. It simply is. Its only quality is, so to speak, “isness.”

But in Parmenides there emerges for the first time a distinction of fundamental importance in philosophy, the distinction between Sense and Reason. The world of falsity and  appearance, of becoming, of not-being, this is, says Parmenides, the world which is presented to us by the senses.

True and veritable Being is known to us only by reason, by thought. The senses therefore, are, for Parmenides, the sources of all illusion and error. Truth lies only in reason.

This is exceedingly important, because this, that truth lies in reason and not in the world of sense, is the fundamental position of idealism.

The doctrine of Being, just described, occupies the first part of the poem of Parmenides. The second part is the way of false opinion. But whether Parmenides is here simply giving an account of the false philosophies  of his day, (and in doing this there does not seem much point,) or whether he was, with total inconsistency, attempting, in a cosmological theory of his own, to explain the origin of that world of appearance and illusion, whose very being he has, in the first part of the poem, denied—this does not seem to be clear. The theory here propounded, at any rate, is that the sense-world is composed of the two opposites, the hot and the cold, or light and darkness. The more hot there is, the more life, the more reality; the more cold, the more unreality and death.

What position, now, are we to assign to Parmenides in philosophy? How are we to characterize his system? Such writers as Hegel, Erdmann, and Schwegler, have always interpreted his philosophy in an idealistic sense. Professor Burnet, however, takes the opposite view. To quote his own words: “Parmenides is not, as some have said, the father of idealism. On the contrary, all materialism depends upon his view.” Now if we cannot say 

What Were the Two Parts of Parmenides' Philosophy?

Parmenides’ philosophy was based on two parts: the Way of Truth and the Way of Opinion. The Way of Truth was his inquiry into reality, while the Way of Opinion was focused on human impressions and beliefs. According to Parmenides, his endeavor with these two parts was meant to question commonly accepted notions and redefine traditional thinking by seeking a new way of looking at the world. We need not concern ourselves with the latter. What he says about the way of truth, so far as it has survived, is, in its essential points, as follows:

"Thou canst not know what is not that is impossible nor utter it; for it is the same thing that can be thought and that can be."

"How, then, can what is be going to be in the future? Or how could it come into being? If it came into being, it is not; nor is it if it is going to be in the future. Thus is becoming extinguished and passing away not to be heard of.

"The thing that can be thought and that for the sake of which the thought exists is the same; for you cannot find thought without something that is, as to which it is uttered." 
Since ''what is not'' does not exist there can be interaction and no change. 

Parmenides more say '' you could not know what is not, nor can you say what cannot be thought cannot exist. Since we cannot think of nothing, therefore there can be no void or vacuum.''

Parmenides theory of change and Parmenides argument 

The essence of this argument is: When you think, you think of something; when you use a name, it must be the name of something. Therefore both thought and language require objects outside themselves. And since you can think of a thing or speak of it at one time as well as at another, whatever can be thought of or spoken of must exist at all times. Consequently there can be no change, since change consists in things coming into being or ceasing to be.

This is the first example in philosophy of an argument from thought and language to the world at large. It cannot of course be accepted as valid, but it is worth while to see what element of truth it contains.

We can put the argument in this way: if language is not just nonsense, words must mean something, and in general they must not mean just other words, but something that is there whether we talk of it or not. Suppose, for example, that you talk of Jawaharlal Nehru. Unless there were a historical person who had that name, the name (it would seem) would be meaningless, and sentences containing the name would be nonsense. Parmenides maintains that not only must Jawaharlal Nehru have existed in the past, but in some sense he must still exist, since we can still use his name significantly. This seems obviously untrue, but how are we to get round the argument?

Let us take an example unicorns are an imagined species. Some sentences in which the word "unicorn" occurs are true, and some are false, but in each case not directly. Consider "a unicorn has one horn" and "a cow has two horns." To prove the latter, you have to look at a cow; it is not enough to say that in some book cows are said to have two horns. But the evidence that unicorns have one horn is only to be found in books, and in fact the correct statement is: "Certain books assert that there are animals with one horn called 'unicorns.' All statements about unicorns are really about the word "unicorn.

But it is obvious that, in most cases, we are not speaking of words, but of what the words mean. And this brings us back to the argument of Parmenides, that if a word can be used significantly it must mean something, not nothing, and therefore what the word means must in some sense exist.

What, then, are we to say about Jawaharlal Nehru ? It seems we have only two alternatives: one is to say that he still exists; the other is to say that, when we use the words Jawaharlal Nehru ," we are not really speaking of the man who bore that name. Either seems a paradox, but the latter is less of a paradox, and I shall try to show a sense in which it is true.

Parmenides assumes that words have a constant meaning; this is really the basis of his argument, which he supposes unquestionable. But although the dictionary or the encyclopaedia gives what may be called the official and socially sanctioned meaning of a word, no two people who use the same word have just the same thought in their minds.

Jawaharlal Nehru himself could use his name and the word "I" as synonyms. He could perceive his own thoughts and the movements of his body, and could therefore use his name with a fuller meaning than was possible for any one else. His friends, when in his presence, could perceive the movements of his body, and could divine his thoughts; to them, the name "Jawaharlal Nehru " still denoted something concrete in their own experience. After his death they had to substitute memories for perceptions, which involved a change in the mental processes taking place when they used his name. For us, who never knew him, the mental processes are again different. We may think of his picture, and say to ourselves "yes, that man." We may think "the first President of India If we are very ignorant, he may be to us merely "The man who was called ' Jawaharlal Nehru .'" Whatever the name suggests to us, it must be not the man himself, since we never knew him, but something now present to sense or memory or thought. This shows the fallacy of the argument of Parmenides.

This perpetual change in the meanings of words is concealed by the fact that, in general, the change makes no difference to the truth or falsehood of the propositions in which the words occur. If you take any true sentence in which the name "Jawaharlal Nehru " occurs, it will, as a rule, remain true if you substitute the phrase "the first President of the United States." There are exceptions to this rule. Before Washington's election, a man might say "I hope Jawaharlal Nehru will be the first President of the India ," but he would not say "I hope the first President of the United States will be the first President of the India" unless he had an unusual passion for the law of identity. But it is easy to make a rule for excluding these exceptional cases, and in those that remain you may substitute for "Jawaharlal Nehru " any descriptive phrase that applies to him alone. And it is only by means of such phrases that we know what we know about him.

Parmenides contends that, since we can now know what is commonly regarded as past, it cannot really be past, but must, in some sense, exist now. Hence he infers that there is no such thing as change. What we have been saying about Jawaharlal Nehru meets this argument. It may be said, in a sense, that we have no knowledge of the past. When you recollect, the recollection occurs now, and is not identical with the event recollected. But the recollection affords a description of the past event, and for most practical purposes it is unnecessary to distinguish between the description and what it describes.

This whole argument shows how easy it is to draw metaphysical conclusions from language, and how the only way to avoid fallacious arguments of this kind is to push the logical and psychological study of language further than has been done by most metaphysicians.

Parmenides philosophy summary

 Note that Parmenides does not offer mere assertions in the section on Truth; he offers arguments. The striking contrast between the two sections of the poem lies in the fact that in the first we are asked to consider that What Is has to be comprehensive it has the character of tautology to say ‘whatever is, is’  and that one cannot think or say What Is Not because What Is Not is by definition nothing. It appears paradoxical to think that one might have Nothing as the object of one’s thought. One might reasonably have much to say about how in fact we talk about what is not the case (but which is possible, or was the case, or will be the case but is not so yet, and so on), and one might question the claim that the realm of the real and the realm of the conceivable are necessarily the same and exclusive. But at least these are deep challenges, and philosophy has grappled with them throughout its history. This is very different from saying ‘there is fire and dark night, and the mixture of the two, and in the midst of things the divinity that directs their courses …’ We see from earlier Pre-Socratics that not all such theorizing  ‘the arche is water … is air’  is mere assertion, but rests on some sort of observational and inferential support; but the ‘way of seeming’ in Parmenides’ poem does not have quite that character, even if it borrows from what was undoubtedly an observational base in asserting that fire is of the heavens, because where could the light of the heavenly bodies come from if they were not themselves fires or emanations of fire? And as it happens, they are indeed fires or, for the more local of them, reflections of fire.

What subsequent philosophy, down to quite modern times, accepted from Parmenides, was not the impossibility of all change, which was too violent a paradox, but the indestructibility of substance. The word "substance" did not occur in his immediate successors, but the concept is already present in their speculations. A substance was supposed to be the persistent subject of varying predicates. As such it became, and remained for more than two thousand years, one of the fundamental concepts of philosophy, psychology, physics, and theology. I shall have much to say about it at a later stage. For the present, I am merely concerned to note that it was introduced as a way of doing justice to the arguments of Parmenides without denying obvious facts.

Parmenidean philosophy is a system of inquiry based on the logical concept that reality exists as one. This proposition is at the core of his philosophical thought because it served to explain the contradictions in the existing worldviews. According to Parmenides, only what can be logically thought through and consistently argued for should be accepted as true. To do this, he employed a number of methods including skepticism, critical analysis and deductive reasoning. Therefore, he argued that reality is unitary and that ultimately, all things are interconnected in some fundamental way.

Parmenides’ philosophy heavily emphasized the use of reason and logic in uncovering knowledge about existence. He believed that reason was the path to discovering certain truths about reality, such as the fact that all things—in particular, change and motion—were illusions and instead were part of a larger unchanging singular universal truth. Therefore, by using logic and reasoning, Parmenides argued that one could uncover what he called “being” which captured his belief in an ultimate universal truth within existence.

Parmenides was not quite as obscure a writer as Heraclitus, but the hexameter verse in which his system is expounded nevertheless creates difficulties for a clear interpretation. Despite that, he marks a highly significant moment in the history of philosophy; he is a turning point, for the influence he exerted on those who came after him was enormous, whether they accepted his views or disagreed with him. His followers Zeno and Melissus defended his theory of the One, Zeno with his famous paradoxes  Achilles and the tortoise and the rest: see below aimed at demonstrating the impossibility of time and change, while any thinker who accepted the reality of change and plurality had to address Parmenides’ arguments and find ways of overcoming them.


A History of Western Philosophy Book by Bertrand Russell
Graham, D. W. (ed.), The Texts of Early Greek Philosophy: The Complete Fragments and Selected Testimonies of the Major Presocratics, 2 vols., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010
Barnes, J., The Presocratic Philosophers, 2nd edn, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982
Hussey, E., The Presocratics, London: Duckworth, 1995 Kirk, G. S., J. E. Raven and M. Schofield, The Presocratic Philosophers,
2nd edn, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984 Osborne, C., Presocratic Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004

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