Ancient Philosophers: The Eliatic School, Parminedes

Classic Philosophers: The Great Thinkers of Western Philosophy

Ancient Philosophers: The Philosophy of the Early Greek Naturalists, by Jonathan Dolhenty

I. The Eliatic School: Parminedes


The most noted thinker of the Eleatic School is Parmenides, who was born at Elea about 540 B.C. He was called “the Great” by Plato. He was author of a poem about nature which he divides into two parts: Voices of Truth and Voices of Opinion. A few fragments remain.

Xenophanes’ criticism of popular religion and anthropomorphism was taken up and transferred by Parmenides to cosmic nature. Here also we find ourselves face to face with Unity, which is the totality of reality.

There is an extant fragment of Parmenides which summarizes his theory of knowledge. “Nothing can be but what can be thought.” This statement indicates that Parmenides is the first philosopher to affirm the identity of being and intelligibility. According to his thought, however, intelligibility seems to mean a clear representation of the imagination.

Of far greater interest were Parmenides’ metaphysical speculations, which upset Greek thought and influenced the subsequent development of metaphysics. The principle of Parmenides is: “Being is. Non-being is not.” Let us try to grasp what this statement involves, for it is more difficult than it may seem at first glance.

Let us consider the first part of the principle: Being is. We know that Parmenides’ predecessors, such men as Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, and Pythagoras, posed the question of what is the ultimate element or the source of the becoming and multiplicity of beings. Their answers varied and included water, fire, number, and other elements. Commenting on these solutions, Parmenides said that there can be doubt about what they meant by water, fire, and the life; but regardless of what they meant, each element they chose was being. Therefore: Being is. Whatever is not being does not exist and cannot be conceived. Thus he concludes: Being is. Non-being is not.

From this principle Parmenides drew some very interesting conclusions:

(a) Being is one. Indeed, each being should distinguish itself from every other being. Now such a distinction should proceed either from being or from non-being. But neither is possible. The distinction cannot come from being because the second being, in so far as it is being, agrees with the first and cannot be distinguished from it. Moreover, such a distinction cannot come from non-being, for non-being does not exist and cannot be conceived. From nothing comes nothing. Therefore, being is one.

(b) Becoming is also impossible. Nothing can become what it already is. For example, white cannot become white, for it is already white. But every becoming is nothing other than becoming a being. Thus, being becomes being by becoming, which is utterly inconceivable. Therefore, being is one and exists in its absolute immutability. Birth and death are illusions.

The One of Parmenides is not born; it is eternal, immutable, and always itself. Moreover, it is limited, since in Greek philosophy the unlimited is a sign of imperfection, and it is conceived as a finite sphere. It is the same One as that of Xenophanes but it is divested of all divine and religious attributes and reduced to one pure metaphysical and logical principle.

If the One is being and becoming is non-being, what then is all the cosmic becoming, including the life of man? Is it all a dream, an illusion? Parmenides leaves the problem unsolved. If he had solved it in conformity with his principles, the answer would have had to be affirmative and the life of the universe would appear a complete mystery.

The late Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty was the Founder and President of The Center for Applied Philosophy and the Radical Academy, and is Honorary Philosophy Editor at The Moral Liberal. The Moral Liberal has adopted these projects beginning with a republishing and preserving of all of Dr. Dolhenty’s work. “Classic Philosophers: The Great Thinkers of the Western World” was designed and organized by Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D. Copyright ©1992 -2011 The Radical Academy. Copyright renewed in © 2011 -2013 The Radical Academy (a project of The Moral Liberal).

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