Classics Parmenides
by
John Palmer
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 June 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0156

Introduction

Active in the earlier part of the 5th century BC, Parmenides of Elea is Presocratic philosophy’s most challenging and profound thinker. His reputation rests on the fragmentary remains of a hexameter poem in which he presents a detailed account of his mystical journey to the abode of a goddess who says she will provide him instruction that will come in two major phases (fr. 1). In the first phase she describes how he may direct his understanding along “the path of conviction” to apprehend “true reality” (fr. 2); she explains how she will lead him along this path and how he must avoid the path mortals ordinarily follow in their quest for understanding (frs. 6–7); and she demonstrates in an elaborate metaphysical deduction that “What Is,” or true reality, is “ungenerated and deathless, whole and uniform, and still and perfect” (fr. 8). In the second phase of her revelation, which she describes as “the notions of mortals, in which there is no genuine trustworthiness,” she presents a cosmology broadly in the tradition of early Greek cosmological accounts, though with important innovations such as its positing of two basic principles, light and night; its view of the moon as shining with a reflected light; and its identification of the earth as spherical in shape. Already in antiquity there was fundamental disagreement and a good deal of confusion about the fundamental upshot of Parmenides’s message, occasioned to no small degree by the novelty and obscurity of his own doctrine but also by the fact that Zeno of Elea came to be seen as his pupil and by the deformations of his doctrine by Melissus of Samos, Gorgias of Leontini, and certain other sophists. There continues today to be basic disagreement about whether he was in fact a monist and, if so, what type of monist he was; about whether he was motivated by the perceived inadequacies of the principles of earlier Presocratic cosmologies or by more purely logical concerns; and about whether his metaphysics committed him to regarding the changing world of everyday experience as unreal or merely as unsuitable as an object for understanding of the sort revealed to him by the goddess. As difficult as it may be, achieving a proper understanding of Parmenides’s thought is an important task, since Parmenides is normally regarded, in one way or another, as the pivotal figure in the history of early Greek philosophy, and he is in any case certainly among its most significant figures.

General Overviews

The works listed here discuss Parmenides within their more general treatments of the history of Presocratic philosophy. Each incorporates a different understanding of his philosophy and, to one degree or another, builds its broader narrative around it. Guthrie 1965 represents Parmenides as a strict monist whose critical attitude to the material monism of the early Milesian cosmologies led him to conclude that reality is a unity in the strictest sense, absolutely without variation or change, and thus that the world perceived by the senses is unreal. Guthrie then represents the subsequent pluralist physical theories of Empedocles, Anaxagoras, and the early atomists as variously responding to the challenge to the nascent project of cosmology by Parmenides and the second-generation Eleatics, Zeno and Melissus. The idea that Parmenides posed a fundamental challenge to which the later Presocratic cosmologists sought to respond also features centrally in Barnes 1982 and in Kirk, et al. 1983 (cited under Texts and Commentaries), although both follow Owen 1975 (cited under Principal Interpretive Lines) in regarding Parmenides’s metaphysical stance as motivated by logical concerns rather than by any specifically critical attitude toward his predecessors. Another prominent group of interpreters has taken Parmenides as making a positive and programmatic contribution to the tradition of Presocratic cosmology by specifying at a higher level what it is to be the nature or essence of a thing (rather than simply what is or exists) and thus what the principles of any viable account of the world need to be like. Curd 1998 and Graham 2006 both provide accounts of the development of Presocratic philosophy that presume versions of this view. Problems with the dialectical developments posited in these narratives, as well as the interpretations of Parmenides on which they are based, lead some to regard Parmenides as less a pivotal figure in the history of Presocratic philosophy than one whose significant achievements were ultimately more in line with its broader tradition. The fresh and stimulating introduction to Presocratic philosophy in Osborne 2004 dispenses with this dialectical narrative, while Osborne 2006 questions at a deeper level the idea that Parmenides represented a radical break, suggesting that historians’ construction of the dialectical narrative that casts him in this role neglects important features of the evidence.

  • Barnes, Jonathan. 1982. The Presocratic philosophers. Rev. ed. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

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    A synoptic treatment of the arguments of the Presocratic philosophers. Parmenides is the principal subject of chapters 9–11 (pp. 155–230), with discussion of Melissus, whom Barnes regards as the originator of “real” or strict monism, interspersed along the way.

  • Curd, Patricia. 1998. The legacy of Parmenides: Eleatic monism and later Presocratic thought. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

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    Reinterprets Parmenides as a “predicational monist,” defined as the view that “each thing can hold only the one predicate that indicates what it is” (p. 66). Argues that Parmenides’s agenda is more programmatic than destructive in proposing in the Way of Conviction criteria that must be satisfied by any viable account of what there is.

  • Graham, Daniel W. 2006. Explaining the cosmos: The Ionian tradition of scientific philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

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    Proposes a paradigm shift in early Greek cosmology from the “generating substance theory” (GST) characteristic of the early Ionians to the “elemental substance theory” (EST) of the later pluralists, Anaxagoras, Empedocles, and the early atomists. Parmenides is represented as critiquing GST in a manner that led to EST.

  • Guthrie, W. K. C. 1965. A history of Greek philosophy, Vol. 2: The Presocratic tradition from Parmenides to Democritus. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    The first and best two volumes of Guthrie’s six-volume history provide a comprehensive account of Presocratic philosophy from the Milesians to the atomists. Volume 1 (Cambridge, UK, 1962, reprinted in 1995) covers the Presocratic period down to Parmenides. While the first eighty pages of Volume 2 are devoted specifically to him, Parmenides also features prominently in Guthrie’s treatment of other Presocratics in relation to him.

  • Osborne, Catherine. 2004. Presocratic philosophy: A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    This engaging introduction asks students to question the first principles story that casts Parmenides as instigating a crisis in early Greek philosophy and cosmology by pointing to some of this narrative’s selective uses and misrepresentations of the evidence. Focuses on Parmenides’s role in developing the distinction between reality and appearance.

  • Osborne, Catherine. 2006. Was there an Eleatic revolution in philosophy? In Rethinking revolutions through ancient Greece. Edited by Robin Osborne and Simon Goldhill, 218–245. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    Questions whether Parmenides represents a pivotal and radical break in the tradition of early Greek philosophical cosmology and considers why modern historians have been committed to such a view.

  • Palmer, John. 2012.Parmenides of Elea. In The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta.

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    Provides a brief overview of Parmenides’s poem and surveys major types of interpretation. Part of the most authoritative web resource for philosophy.

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