Parmenides Plain and Simple

Before moving to the article, meditate on the following quote inspired by Parmenides.

Temporary is not real. –Hegel (1770-1831)


This article is not closely Hekate related but understanding Parmenides will help you understand Platonism. Read this article, buy the platonic dialogue Parmenides, read at least twice, slowly, following all the logical puzzles and come back to the article. You may also proceed with the surviving excerpts from Parmenide's poem and further studies on the nature of the On.

Parmenides is one of the most difficult platonic dialogues to follow and understand, due to its nature. It belongs to metaphysical dialogues of Plato with Theaitetos, Sophistes, Politikos and another one, Philosophos which was never written. In the last dialogue plato would respond to the basic problem how the eternal influences the material world, and how the human logic understands the context of eternal. (Ulrich Von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff) The platonic theory of Ideas is battling against the eleatic theory of the One. And in the beginning we see that the theory of Ideas has some problems but in the end, the theory of the One has contradictions which are revealed by the methods of the eleatic school.

Around 450 b.C. the 20 year old boy, Socrates, is discussing with two philosophers of the Eleatic school, the founder Parmenides and his best student, Zenon. There is an audience too. Parmenides is 65 years old and Zenon is 20 years younger than him. Elea was an hellenic city of southwest Italy. The philosophers were presocratics, famous for their new theories which shake up the idea of how other philosophers saw nature, the One and reality. They were too important as they set the questions, which were still looking for answers. Like for example, why the universe was created at time x and not earlier or later? What was the cause?

Parmenides (515  b.C.) made philosophers see nature differently. He considered himself as someone who managed to help moving away of the world of illusions. He also said that a Goddess revealed to him some ideas, but not many of his verses have been survived. The poem doesn’t belong to poetry of his age. It is a philosophical poem, with dogmatic teachings with proofs, which have the intention to educate people. Plato and Ksenophanes were influenced by him. Socrates considered him to be a wise philosopher. Plato incorporated the teaching that our senses are not always telling the truth and we should seek with our mind to find it. So, we have the division between the world of senses and the mental world. We also see that each what is entirely true is also unchanging, immortal and uncreated. (Anthony Gottlieb, The Dream of Reason) Maybe unborn instead of uncreated? So we have a world that isn’t changing, the world we can approach using logic. For Plato this world was not One, but it contained many things, like Ideas. Aristotle considered craziness much of the teachings of Parmenides, if they were followed to the end and ignore the data we have available.

Though in the dialogue, Parmenides will speak most of the time using his method and reaching illogical conclusions there is tense in the beginning of the dialogue and maybe later. Socrates though young, remembered the dialogue and the theories of the Eleatic School years later as we find him in Theaitetos saying  to Theodoros “Parmenides is by the expression of Homer, someone I respect and at the same time terrific… he had an unusual depth. (183 e – 184 a).

The Nature of the One

Parmenide’s school was teaching about the nature of One. The fellow philosophers in Italy were teaching about an essence which unites nature.  Parmenide’s established a new thought.  The unity of nature exists because of the nature of the One. This mysterious one is the One thing/deity/energy/universe that consists all reality. The One is one and not many. It is unique. It is perfect. Full, complete, limitless, boundless, infinite, out of time, unmoving, unknown, with no beginning, no form, out of definition. It is also unborn, eternal. The existence of One Being is confirmed from lack of existence of a non-Being. The change that we see in our world is nothing more than a deceit.

Socrates didn’t like some of the conclusions on the One and he expresses that those can’t be true. Young Socrates didn’t had the ability to start questioning his opponent as we see in other dialogues. He suggests a further examination of the sentences to see if those conclusions will come up. There are contradictions, from the series of questions set by Parmenides, which come to the surface like that the One doesn’t exist and in end we see that if the One doesn’t exist then nothing exists. The arguments in the beginning of the dialogue fall in the third part of the dialogue. Another contradiction that we see is that the One cannot be the same of different by itself.

Parmenides was teaching that it is impossible to think and speak about the non-is, about what is not. As this is a too general meaning, if we further examine it, we see that we can speak about the Is and about the non-Is.

The Dialogue

The discussion was heard by Pythodoros, who transferred it to Antiphon. Antiphon lived close to the hill of Nymphs, where today is the first observatory of Hellas. Adeimantos, the brother of Plato, took Kephalos to the house, because Kephalos has traveled from Klazomenes of Asia Minor, to hear the discussion and Antiphon was the only one who was alive then to transfer it. This discussion was narrated after the death of Socrates.

The hypothesis is that the two Eleatic philosophers came to Athens for the Grand Panathenea celebration. Socrates went to hear them as Zenon was reading from his book. Socrates didn’t agree with Zenon and he asked him a question. Zenon’s conclusion was that the things can’t be many as in that case they should be similar and dissimilar. As this can’t happen, the things are one, One. Socrates objected by saying that the things can be many and at the same time participate in both situations of similarity and dissimilarity. The discussion had just begun.

In the dialogue, Socrates presents the theory of Ideas, which impresses Parmenides for its innovation and he also proves wrong some of the teachings of the school. Parmenides examines the theory of Ideas and how they can participate in species but Socrates cannot respond to the examination properly as he hasn’t developed his logical thinking so much. Socrates explains that the genre is a thought and such it is not in things but in human mind. Parmenides objects by saying that every thought is an Idea. Here he confused the ideas that comes to our minds when we think of something with the essence of genre that Socrates was referring. Socrates says that the Ideas is an example/model and the things that take their name from that ideas are images of that Idea. So the thing is not the Idea but a copy of the Idea. Parmenides objected by saying that to have similarity we should have symmetry, so the things should look like the idea, which is not happening. But really, this link is not a link of similarities. Parmenides objected again that if we have the two separate worlds that are suggested by Socrates then God cannot participate in our own, as he knows the things of his own world. He accepts that each world has its limitations. So the relationships are limited in the boundaries of each world. Parmenides believed that everything is one and our world is an illusion. But, according to Parmenide’s objection God cannot do anything to us, he can’t even know anything on us. He has no power to our world, which is not happening. He also knows nothing for our world, but it has been stated in the dialogue that God is the one who knows everything as he lives in the world of Ideas, who are not changing. Socrates told him that we are illogical if we say that God cannot know the humane things. Parmenides responded that he follows the theory of Socrates, so that theory has a weak spot. Parmenides took the syllogism of Socrates and further developed it to an absolute state, which leads to severe boundaries between the two worlds (the thinkable and the observable).  But Parmenides wants to say that because for him there aren’t two different worlds, but One.

The discussion now has a new form with wise Parmenides and the young Aristotle, who later became a politician. Parmenides chose Aristotle because he would be more easy going than any other participant. On that part, the theory of Parmenides that we cannot have the knowledge of the reality has been crashed by the many contradictions that show up in the discussion of the second part of this dialogue from 137 to 166. For example if the One exists then it should be. If it is, then it should belong in time and move in time. Things that have contradictions with other sentences of the dialogue.

Parmenides is taking over to explain to young Socrates and Zenon his ideas about the One, but as the discussion goes, the conclusions are not logical and as there are attempts to present them differently, having logical mistakes in the sentences, which are not conceived by the audience, neither young Socrates, the conclusions contradict the first attempt on the nature of the One till in the end, Plato uses the tools of the Eleatics against them.

In 137c we see a new hypothesis “if there is the One”, meaning the one reality, the one world, then nothing else could happen except of not being many things, so it should be a part of everything. Everything has all the parts and it misses nothing. If it has many parts, then how it is one? So, the One shouldn’t have many parts . If it has no parts then it shouldn’t have beginning and ending. In that case, it is infinite, plus shapeless. If it is shapeless it shouldn’t exist, neither to itself or on something else. If it was inside one place, it should have been surrounded by parts. So different parts would touch it. But we said that the one has no parts, so we couldn’t have any touching. If it existed in itself, then itself would surround it. In that case the inside and the vessel should have been different. So the one exists nowhere! (138b) We have a great disproof here on his theory. Parmenides continues saying that the one could not change form because it wouldn’t be one. The one cannot also move, not even spin around itself because this motion needs parts and it has only one part. He claims also that it cannot be in one place because that place couldn’t be the same in which it exists. But it has been stated previously that it cannot move. Here we see that it cannot be still. Another disproof.  The one can’t be the same with itself neither different with itself. If it could be different then it wouldn’t be one. If it would be something similar with another thing, it would be the other and not the one (139c). Another disproof. The one couldn’t be similar with itself neither dissimilar. As if it could be similar it would be the same. But the same should have a different nature than the one (140). If the One exists it could be younger and older at the same time. It would be older in time but since there is no younger to compare, the comparison should be done by itself, so it could be younger too (141). But the one due to this contradiction it cannot exist in time, so every expression about the One and the past or future would be wrong. The One should exist in the present. But in that case the one should be Become or Is. But as it has no past it shouldn’t exist in the present. Now if the One exists it should participate in an essence (142b). But what kind of essence is that? It can’t be the same with the One. The essence divides in many small parts an bigger parts and each entity has it inside. So, the parts of the essence are countless (144b). So the One should exist in parts in many things. But the One should be cut off the essence, it should be many, infinite in numbers. The conclusion is that the one is definitely many as it is shared in many things (144c). Another disproof. In 146 we see how Plato uses the method of Parmenides to show again that it will lead to paradox. The question we see in the conclusions is that possible the One to be different than the One? No. So it couldn’t be different by itself. So it is not a part of itself and it isn’t different from itself, it should be identified as itself. It seems that the one can be the same in itself and out of itself. So it can be different from itself! (146c) In 153c we see the conclusion that the One has parts. If it has parts, it has beginning and an ending. If it has a beginning it should be created after that beginning. So, how it is One, as the beginning id before that? Another disproof.

The Two Worlds

Socrates teaches that there are two worlds. The thinkable world, where the Ideas exist and the observable world, where we live. Our world can communicate/participate (=the meaning of the world methexis) with the observable world. The things of our world can have relations among them but they can also participate and connect with the other world. The relations are limited in each world. So the God who lives in the thinkable world has the complete knowledge, which is an Idea. We live in the observable world, can reach knowledge/science but never in itself, so our knowledge can never be complete. (133-134)


Plato, Parmenides, Κάκτος

Plato, Theaitetos, Γεωργιάδης

E.A. Taylor, Plato. The Man and his Work, Methuen & Co Ltd (Κυκλοφορείται στα ελληνικά από τις εκδόσεις του Μ.Ι.Ε.Τ.)

Platon, Ulrich Von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff (Πλάτων, Κάκτος 2005)

Κωνσταντίνος Μπέης, Πλάτωνος Ακαδημία, Ανοικτή Βιβλιοθήκη

Anthony Gottlieb, The Dream of Reason (Το έργο κυκλοφορείται στα ελληνικά από τις εκδόσεις Ενάλιος)

Abel Jeanniere, Platon, Editions du Seuil 1994 (Πλάτων, Παπαδήμας 2008)

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