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Parmenides (VI-V century B.C.)

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Who Is?:

Parmenides is probably the first great philosopher of the Western canon. His philosophy seems to have embodied several of the distinctive traits of Ancient Greek philosophy, most notably the exclusive reliance on reason; Parmenides had a deep influence on Plato’s and Aristotle’s thinking, whose work can by and large be seen as a response to Parmenides’s.

Life:

We do not know many details about Parmenides’s life. He was apparently born out of a wealthy family and took active part in the life of his city, contributing to write its laws. We know that he lived approximately between 515 and 450B.C. (the dates are largely based on Diogenes Laërtius biography of Parmenides, which however was compiled in the third century A.D.) Parmenides was born and lived most of his life in Elea, today Velia, a town along the coast of contemporary Campania, southern Italy, which had been founded just a few decades before Parmenides’s birth. Here he established one of the most fertile movements of Ancient Greek philosophy, the Eleatic school. Active for over a century, the school included a few other important figures in Ancient Greek philosophy, such as Zeno of Elea, a student of Parmenides most famous for his logical paradoxes and, according to Aristotle, the inventor of dialectic.

"On Nature":

Parmenides’s main philosophical influence was probably Xenophanes of Colophon, but it is likely that he had also familiarity with Pythagoras’s teachings. As many of his contemporaries, Parmenides spelled out his philosophical doctrines with a poem, On Nature. Of the original 3,000 lines approximately, 160 are known today. The poem was divided in three parts.

The first part is a proem, in which Parmenides describes the journey of a young many on a chariot, going from darkness to light. The image, which we find also in the works of Plato, was a recurrent one also in ancient Buddhism; it may hence witness a kinship between the Western and the Indian philosophical traditions. The chariot is lead by the daughters of the sun to the temple of a goddess, that we may identify with nature of wisdom. It is the goddess to speak in the rest of the work.

The second part speaks about the way of truth. This is the most philosophically poignant section. It is here that Parmenides draws the utterly simple but extremely profound distinction between what there is and what is not, or between being and not being. Being is all that there is; not being cannot be. Under many respects, part two of Parmenides’s poem marks the birth of Western philosophy.

The third part lays down the way of opinion. This is the way in which most humans live their life, according to Parmenides: they believe in what appears to them, without properly using their reason to see below the surface. Philosophy is a way of life: philosophers go beyond the surface of appearance, they travel from the darkness of commonplace to the light of truth. In order to carry on their journey, they use reason to prove seemingly incredible conclusion. Parmenides’s attitude will be shared also by most of the subsequent Ancient Greek philosophers, including Plato and Aristotle. Just think of Plato’s allegory of the cave.

Monism:

Parmenides is best known for his radical metaphysical view. According to him, true knowledge says that all there is to the world is one thing, being, which never changes, so never dies, never came into existence, has no boundaries and no detachable parts. In other words, Parmenides was a monist. Another great figure of early modern philosophy will embrace a monism resonating of Parmenides’s: Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677).

Further Online Readings:

"Parmenides" at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/parmenides/

The life of Parmenides as narrated by Diogenes Laërtius:
http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Lives_of_the_Eminent_Philosophers/Book_IX#Parmenides

Parmenides’s poem:
http://www.ellopos.net/elpenor/greek-texts/ancient-greece/parmenides-being.asp

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