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Topic #A6

Parmenides

 

21 September 2001

Scribes: Laura Giordano and Jennie Lin

 

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As we began our lecture on Parmenides of Elea, Professor Hutchinson indicated that there are two unique elements in the study of Parmenides’ thought.  The first is that because substantial fragments have been found of texts written by Parmenides’ own hand, we are able, for the first time, to be sure that he is a serious scholar who had taken into account within his theory, everything that was occurring in his universe, both philosophically and intellectually.  According to Professor Hutchinson, the “over-serious” tone of Parmenides’ poem is evidence of the rigid Greek metre that is also found in Homeric poetry, and this allows us to detect that the texts are authentic quotations of Parmenides instead of a loose paraphrase, which is often a combination of “light” and “heavy” verse.  The professor attributes this accurate preservation of Parmenides’ work to the “scrupulous” Simplicius, a scholar who came a thousand years after Parmenides.  The second unique element found in Parmenides writing is his “marriage” or synthesis of Pythagorean and Milesian theories and traditions. He was the first philosopher to do so.  Like many syntheses, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and Parmenides not only combined these two streams of thought, he also added to them and took them to a newer, deeper and more profound level.  Thus, according to Professor Hutchinson, the writings of Parmenides are not only synthetic and creative, but they are also progressive.  The professor notes that this synthesis of different philosophical systems is interesting as Parmenides lived in western Greece, and there were no indications that he’d visited Ionia (older Greece), where Milesian theories were likely to be found.  The conclusion that could be drawn is that there must have been travelers (like Xenophanes) who carried information about the Milesian system of thought to Elea. 

 

         Professor Hutchinson then went on to explain that Parmenides’ poem was divided into two main parts: the preface or introduction, and his cosmology.  Furthermore, his cosmology is divided into two parts; the first part is called the ‘Way of Truth’ and the second the ‘Way of Appearance’ or the ‘Way of Opinion’ as Professor Hutchinson refers to it.  Professor Hutchinson opened his discussion of Parmenides’ poem with the preface, stating that it was a depiction of an unknown person on a “weird trip:”

         My carriage was drawn by the mares which carry me to the limits

         Of my heart’s desire; they took me and set me on the renowned way

         Of the deity, which takes a man of knowledge unharmed through all.

         ……………….

         Thanks to the haste with which the maiden daughters of the Sun

         Drove the carriage, having left the abode of night and entered the light.

         ……………….

         The gates are of aither and they fill the huge frame of the gate,

         And vengeful Justice controls the alternating locks.

         (pp.56-57, F1 ll1-14)

 

At the end of this trip, we are introduced to a goddess who welcomes this unknown traveler.

Young man,

You have reached my abode as the companion of immortal harioteers

And of the mares which carry you.  You are welcome.

It was no ill fate that prompted you to travel this way,

Which is indeed far from mortal men, beyond their beaten paths;

No, it was Right and Justice.  You must learn everything-

Both the steady heart of well-rounded truth,

And the beliefs of mortals, in which there is no true trust.

(p. 57, F1 ll23 - 30)

 

The rest of the Parmenides’ poem is of the goddess speaking to the young man and revealing to him the esoteric truths about reality. The structure of the poem suggests that Parmenides has drawn from older stories of the Gods.  For example, according to the professor, the images that Parmenides conjures of “the gates of the paths of night and day” (p. 57, F1 ln11) are the manifestation of Justice at the gates of alternation of light and day.  Furthermore, although the concepts of light and dark are simple ideas in the preface, they are central themes in Parmenides’ cosmology in the latter part of the poem. 

 

Next, Professor Hutchinson moved on to discuss the second half of the poem where Parmenides discloses his cosmology.  Although the fragments for the second part of the poem are minimal in number compared to those of the preface, we can still establish that is was in fact an attempt by Parmenides to create a cosmological theory.  The first part of the cosmology (the ‘Way of Truth’) describes the way that it is.  In this, the way that it is is the way where there is real knowledge to be had; it also presupposes that there is no possibility for knowledge of what is not.  The second part of the cosmology (the ‘Way of Opinion’) describes the way that it is not, the way of not being and the untrue. Once Professor Hutchinson completed his outline of both the way that it is and the way that it is not, he stated that it is important to note the tension between the first and the second part of Parmenides’ cosmology.  This tension occurs because part one of his cosmology seems to undermine his second part.  Professor Hutchinson refers to this tension as the “classic puzzle” scholars of Parmenides must address, and states that there are three main “camps” of opinions that attempt to resolve this problem. 

 

The first of the three camps tells us to view Parmenides’ cosmology as an extended joke.  This means that we should view the first part of his cosmology as the way to truth and reality, and view the “Way of Appearance” with its “strange” notions of light and dark as a joke or “weird stuff” that we should guard ourselves against in our search for real knowledge about the world.  Professor Hutchinson then quoted a passage to illustrate where the support for this resolution of the tension is found in the words of the goddess in Parmenides’ poem. 

                           You must learn everything-

Both the steady heart of well-rounded truth,

And the beliefs of mortals, in which there is no true trust.

(p.60, F1 ll28-30)

 

The second “camp” of opinions is one which states that the second part of the cosmology is an account of how the world came to be as Parmenides was aware of it.  However, as an account, it is radically a failure in that it contradicts the constraints of the first part of Parmenides’ cosmology, which states that things that are not can’t be featured in any true theory of the world.  The third “camp” is the one favoured by Professor Hutchinson since it considers the poem as a Milesian cosmology where the two principles are light and dark – principles which are also evident in theories of Xenophanes as well as the Milesians, from whom Parmenides must have drawn these views. According to this third camp, we should view the poem as a basic cosmology, but with a methological preface; the function of this methological preface is not to undermine the adequacy of the account in the second part of the cosmology, but to point out that the account is but a mere opinion or hypothesis and thus cannot be called true knowledge.  To further emphasize his fondness of this camp, and to justify this third interpretation of the “classic puzzle,” Professor Hutchinson makes a reference to Timeaus, which is a cosmology of how the world came to be according to Plato.  The professor tells us that Plato also preceded his cosmology with a methological preface, one that is Parmenidian in nature.  This illustrates that no matter how strongly Plato believed his theories, he realized that any cosmology always falls short of true knowledge.

 

         Professor Hutchinson now posed the question: “What kind of cosmology does this amount to?”  To answer his own question, the professor refers to Plutarch’s testimony T2 on page sixty-one:

Actually, Parmenides has not done away with fire and water and crags and settlements of Europe and Asia, as Colotes says, because he has composed a cosmology as well, and he produces the whole phenomenal world out of and as a result of the combination of his elements, the bright and the dark.  He has a great deal to say about the earth, the heavens, the sun, moon, and heavenly bodies; he has an account of the creation of the human race; and in the true fashio of a scientist of old who is developing his own theory, rather than criticizing someone else’s he covers every issue of importance.

 

After having read this testimonial, Professor Hutchinson asserts that he wholly agrees with this interpretation of Parmenides’ theory, because he believes that Parmenides is simply criticizing his own theory instead of someone else’s; the poet has simply taken the standard table of contents from the Milesians, and then describes his own position on the theory. 

 

Professor Hutchinson then quoted other fragments in favour of this opinion:

                                             How the earth and sun and moon,

         How the aither, shared by all, the Milky Way, the outermost heaven,

         And the hot force of the stars, all strove to come into existence.

         (p.63, F10)

 

This fragment shows the similarity between Parmenides’ cosmology and the Milesian cosmology.  Then there’s F13:

         The narrower ones became filled with unadulterated fire,

         And subsequent ones with night, and a portion of flame permeates them;

         Between these is the goddess who controls all things,

         Since for all things she initiated vile intercourse and childbirth,

         Sending female to join with male and again conversely

         Male with female.

         (p. 63, F13)

 

This fragment shows that “somewhere up there” between night and fire, there exists the goddess who controls all things.  Professor Hutchinson posits this to be the Aphrodite, Goddess of Love and sexual love.  The presence of this goddess who is the first of the divine forces of the world is derived from Milesian, and even Phythagorean traditions.  The professor further notes T8, which is Parmenides’ theory of astrology, and T9, which attributes the identification of the morning and evenings stars as one and the same (Venus) to Parmenides. 

 

Professor Hutchinson also mentioned T10, T11, and T17, which all have to do with describing the human condition, but which are all based on opinion, and are not what could be considered to be knowledge.

Professor Hutchinson praises Parmenides’ work as elegant, since not only does it provide us with a reason why a cosmology is never knowledge, but also why we believe that it is knowledge:

…On the whole, Parmenides did not go into this [the operation of each of the five sense] with any clarity, but only said that there were two elements and that knowledge is due to one of them being in excess of the other.  For our thinking, he says, become different depending on whether the hot or the cold is predominant…However, even this kind of thinking needs a certain adaptation, as he says:

‘For thinking comes to men according to the condition which the blend

Of the much-straying body is in at any moment.  For it is the same thing

That the constitution of the human body thinks,

In each and every man.  For the full is what is thought.’

         (p.65, F18)

 

We should also consider Parmenides as a “hero of the mind” – an inspirational thinker and philosopher because he was truly committed to the process of logical argumentation.  His theory challenges us to criticize his conclusions about the world, and Professor Hutchinson reads us an excerpt from a fellow student’s position paper, in which the student admires the strength of Parmenides’ argument, but proposes that Parmenides did not provide enough justification for the premise that there is no such thing as nothing.  The professor agrees that it is not obvious that there is no such thing as nothing; in fact, there are those such as Epicurus who think that the world is largely full of nothing, and also those, like Aristotle, who think that there is no such thing as a void.   

 

However, Professor Hutchinson doesn’t take this premise about the existence of nothing to be the starting point of Parmenides’ theory.  In fact, the professor thinks that the starting point is the self-reflective question: “What is knowledge?”  Knowledge is something which has a condition that must first be met before being considered to be real knowledge; there must an object of thought which exists, and that has a relationship to the thinker himself.  This, Professor Hutchinson says, is the fundamental insight to Parmenides.  If the object of thought does not exist, there is no relationship to the thinker, and therefore it follows that you cannot have knowledge of it.  In other words, there can be no real knowledge of the non-existent.  The professor tells us that Plato also had this insight to Parmenides, and Plato believed that what can truly be grounds for knowledge that is true has to be a thing that is permanent in existence.  In spite of all this support, Professor Hutchinson says that although he does not expect us to be conviced by this condition for knowledge, he believes it to be a reasonable representation of Parmenides’ texts, and concludes by saying that Parmenides is the “first true genius of ancient Greek philosophy,” inspiring Zeno, Anaxagoras, Empedocles, and other acient Greek philosophers.