Unchanging-Being

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1. WHAT IS UNCHANGING-BEING?

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A good many interpreters have taken the poem’s first major phase as an argument for strict monism, or the paradoxical view that there exists exactly one thing, and for this lone entity’s being totally unchanging and undifferentiated. On this view, Parmenides considers the world of our ordinary experience non-existent and our normal beliefs in the existence of change, plurality, and even, it seems, our own selves to be entirely deceptive. Although less common than it once was, this type of view still has its adherents and is probably familiar to many who have only a superficial acquaintance with Parmenides.

The strict monist interpretation is influentially represented in the first two volumes of W. K. C. Guthrie’s A History of Greek Philosophy, where it is accorded a critical role in the development of early Greek natural philosophy from the purported material monism of the early Milesians to the pluralist physical theories of Empedocles, Anaxagoras, and the early atomists, Leucippus and Democritus. On Guthrie’s strict monist reading, Parmenides’ deduction of the nature of reality led him to conclude “that reality [is], and must be, a unity in the strictest sense and that any change in it [is] impossible” and therefore that “the world as perceived by the senses is unreal” (Guthrie 1965, 4–5). Finding reason and sensation to yield wildly contradictory views of reality, Parmenides presumed reason must be preferred and sensory evidence thereby rejected as altogether deceptive. His strict monism, on Guthrie’s view, took particular aim at the monistic material principles of Milesian cosmology:

[Parmenides] argues with devastating precision that once one has said that something is, one is debarred from saying that it was or will be, of attributing to it an origin or a dissolution in time, or any alteration or motion whatsoever. But this was just what the Milesians had done. They supposed that the world had not always existed in its present cosmic state. They derived it from one substance, which they asserted to have changed or moved in various ways—becoming hotter or colder, drier or wetter, rarer or denser—in order to produce the present world-order. (Guthrie 1965, 15-16)

A particular focus of Parmenides’ criticism, on this view, was Anaximander’s idea that the opposites are initially latent within the originative principle he called “the Boundless” (to apeiron) prior to being separated out from it: if these opposite characteristics existed prior to being separated out, then the Boundless was not a true unity, but if they did not exist prior to being separated out, then how could they possibly come into existence? It is thus illegitimate to suppose that everything came into being out of one thing (Guthrie 1962, 86–7). In addition to thus criticizing the theoretical viability of the monistic material principles of the early Milesian cosmologists, Parmenides also is supposed to have criticized the Milesian union of the material and moving cause in their principles by arguing that motion and change are impossible and inadmissible conceptions (Guthrie 1965, 5–6, 52).

As we have seen, Parmenides’ insistence on the point that whatever is, is, and cannot ever not be leads him to be harshly critical of the ordinary run of mortals who rely on their senses in supposing that things are generated and undergo all manner of changes. Parmenides directs us to judge reality by reason and not to trust the senses. Reason, as deployed in the intricate, multi-staged deduction of fragment 8, reveals what attributes whatever is must possess: whatever is must be ungenerated and imperishable; one, continuous and indivisible; and motionless and altogether unchanging, such that past and future are meaningless for it. This is “all that can be said about what truly exists,” and reality is thus revealed as “something utterly different from the world in which each one of us supposes himself to live,” a world which is nothing but a “deceitful show” (Guthrie 1965, 51). Parmenides nonetheless proceeded in the second part of his poem to present an elaborate cosmology along traditional lines, thus presenting readers with the following crux: “Why should Parmenides take the trouble to narrate a detailed cosmogony when he has already proved that opposites cannot exist and there can be no cosmogony because plurality and change are inadmissible conceptions?” (Guthrie 1965, 5). Guthrie suggests that Parmenides is “doing his best for the sensible world…by giving as coherent an account of it as he can,” on the practical ground that our senses continue to deceive us about its existence: “His account of appearances will excel those of others. To ask ‘But if it is unreal, what is the point of trying to give an account of it at all?’ is to put a question that is not likely to have occurred to him” (Guthrie 1965, 5 and 52).

The most persistent approach to understanding the poem is to accept that for some reason—perhaps merely following where logic led him, no matter how counterintuitive the results—Parmenides has concluded that all of reality is really quite different than it appears to our senses. On this view, when Parmenides talks about “what is,” he is referring to what exists, in a universal sense (that is, all of reality), and making a cosmological conclusion on metaphysical grounds—that all that exists is truly a single, unchanging, unified whole. This conclusion is arrived at through a priori logical deduction rather than empirical or scientific evidence, and is thus certain, following necessarily from avoiding the nonsensical positing of “what is not.” Any description of the world that is inconsistent with this account defies reason, and is thus false. That mortals erroneously believe otherwise is a result of relying on their fallible senses instead of reason. Thus, the account in Opinion lacks any intrinsic value and its inclusion in the poem must be explained in some practical way. It can be explained dialectically, as an exercise in explicating opposing views (Owen 1960). It can also be explained didactically, as an example of the sort of views that are mistaken and should be rejected (Taran 1965). This strict monism has been the most common way of understanding Parmenides’ thesis, from early times into the mid-twentieth century.

This reading is certainly understandable. The text repeatedly sets forth its claims in seemingly universal and/or exhaustive contexts (for example, “It is necessary for you to learn all things…” C/DK 1.28b, “And only one story of the way remains, that it-is…,” C/DK 8.1a-2). The arguments of C/DK 8 all describe a singular subject, in a way that naturally suggests there is only one thing that can possibly exist. There is even one passage which is commonly translated and interpreted in such a way that all other existence is explicitly denied (“for nothing else either is or will be except what is…” C/DK 8.36b); however, the broader context surrounding this line undercuts this interpretation, on either selection of the variant Greek transmission. The broad range of topics in Opinion seems to be intended as an exhaustive (though mistaken) account of the world, which the abstract and singular subject of Reality stands in corrective contrast to. Perhaps the most significant driving force for understanding Parmenides’ subject in this way is Plato’s ascription to him of the thesis that “all is one” and Aristotle’s subsequent similar treatment.

While this view is pervasive and perhaps even defensible, many have found it hard to accept given its radical and absurd entailments. Not only is the external world experienced by mortal senses denied reality, the very beings who are supposed to be misled by their senses are also denied existence, including Parmenides himself! Thus, this view results in the “mad,” self-denying position that Descartes would famously show later was the one thing we could never deny as thinkers—our own existence. If there is to be any didactic purpose to the poem overall—that is, the youth is to learn how to not fall into the errors of other mortals—the existence of mortals must be a given; since this view entails they do not exist, the poem’s apparent purpose is entirely undercut. Surely this blatant contradiction could not have escaped Parmenides’ notice.

It is also difficult to reconcile the apparent length and detailed specificity characteristic of the account offered in Opinion (as well as the Proem), if it is supposed to be entirely lacking in veracity. Providing such a detailed exposition of mortal views in a traditional cosmology just to dismiss it entirely, rather than continue to argue against mortal views by deductively demonstrating their principles to be incorrect, would be counterintuitive. If the purpose is didactic, the latter approach would certainly be sufficient and far more succinct. The view that Parmenides went to such lengths to provide a dialectical opposition to his central thesis seems weak: a convenient ad hoc motivation which denies any substantial purpose for Opinion, implying a lack of unity to the overall poem.

Though the strict monist view remains pervasive in introductory texts, contemporary scholars have tended to abandon it on account of these worrisome entailments. Yet, there seems to be no way to avoid these entailments if Parmenides’ subject is understood as: i) making a universal existential claim, and if ii) the account offered in Opinion is treated as inherently worthless. Thus, alternative accounts tend to challenge one or both of these assumptions.

If the problems of strict monism are to be avoided while maintaining the apparent universal, existential subject (that is, “all of reality”), it makes sense to seek some redemptive value for Opinion so that Parmenides neither: a) denies the existence of the world as mortals know it, nor b) provides an extensively detailed account of that world just to dismiss it as entirely worthless. The primary strategy for redeeming the Opinion’s value has been to emphasize the epistemic inferiority of the Opinion, while denying its complete lack of veracity. Such approaches also tend to simultaneously downplay any ontological/existential claims made in the poem.

Emphasizing the epistemic distinctions, it can be pointed out that the conclusions offered in Reality are reached through a priori, deductive reasoning—a methodology which can provide certainty of the conclusion, given the premises. The Greeks tended to associate such knowledge with divinity, and thus the conclusions in Reality can also be understood as “divine” (note that it is narratively achieved via divine assistance, the poem’s spokes-goddess). On the other hand, there is no “true trust” or reliability to mortal accounts (C 1.30), either in the traditional divine v. mortal distinction or in Parmenides’ poem. Parmenides attributes this failing to the fact that mortals rely entirely upon fallible, a posteriori sense experience. However, while mortal accounts may be fallible, as well as epistemically inferior to divine (or deductive) knowledge, such accounts may still be true. By passing along the goddess’ logos via his poem, Parmenides has shown how mortals can overcome the traditional division between divine (certain) and mortal (fallible) knowledge. If it is just that Opinion is uncertain, and not completely false, then it can have intrinsic value. The account in Opinion could thus be “likely” in the sense that it is the best account that can be offered, even though the mortal approach does not yield certainty like divine methodology does. It is for these reasons that Parmenides provides his own, purportedly superior, cosmology.

Emphasizing the epistemological differences between these sections is not altogether wrong, as the explicit epistemic contrasts between these accounts in the poem are undeniable. However, holding the sole failing of Opinion to be its lack of epistemic certainty can hardly be the entire story. The conclusions offered in Reality remain irreconcilable with the account in Opinion, and the entailment that mortals still do not really exist to learn from Parmenides’ poem if the divine account is true, persists. Furthermore, other aspects of the poem are not adequately addressed at all. How is Opinion a “deceptive” account, other than it might be if we are misled by fallible senses (but it might also be true!), and we just cannot be certain?  How do mortals err by accepting being and not-being to both be actual, and by “naming opposites”? Even if it is granted that reliance on senses can result in these errors, it seems that any lack of error on these points would once again lead back to strict monism (if “what is” remains existential and universal) and its world-denying problems.

Attempts to resolve these issues have tended to rely upon positing an ontological hierarchy to complement the epistemic hierarchy. The account revealed by the divine methodology of logical deduction in Reality reveals what the world, or at least Being, must fundamentally be like. However, the world as it appears also exists in some ontologically inferior manner. Though any account of it cannot be truly correct, since mortals actually live in this lower ontological level, learning the best account of reality at that level remains important. In short, such views trade upon a distinction between: a) an unexperienced though genuine reality, which corresponds with divine epistemic certainty (Reality), in contrast to b) a lower-level of “reality,” accounts of which are epistemically uncertain, as well as deceptive in that they tend to obscure deeper ontological truths (especially if they are taken to describe all that there is).

A number of objections can be raised to this interpretative approach. However, they tend to boil down to anachronistic worries about the “Platonization” of Parmenides, by Plato and his successors, even down to the Neoplatonist Simplicius. The ontological gradations posited on this view (in addition to anachronistic translations of Parmenides’ Greek along such lines) would suggest that Parmenides very closely anticipated the ontological and epistemological distinctions normally taken to be first developed in Plato’s Theory of Forms. While Parmenides certainly made some very basic yet pioneering advances in epistemic distinctions—advances which very likely in turn influenced Plato—the far more refined distinctions and conceptions required for this interpretation of Parmenides are almost certainly the result of interpreters reading Platonic distinctions back into Parmenides (as Plato himself seems to have done), rather than the distinctions genuinely being present in Parmenides’ own thought. The pervasiveness of such “two-world” interpretative accounts likely says far more about Plato’s extensive influence, as well as the importance of finding some way out of the world-denying entailments, than it does about Parmenides’ own novelty.

It is also quite difficult to offer a convincing explanation for what possible grounds Parmenides could have for ascribing superiority to his own account of the apparent world offered in Opinion, in comparison to any other mortal offering of his time. The content certainly doesn’t appear to be superior. The echoes to other accounts, such as Anaximander’s and Hesiod’s, are rather obvious and not at all novel. While his cosmological claims may contain some novel truths (moon gets its light from the sun, etc.), these claims are still cast in a deceptive framework—the “naming error” of mortals. The defense that Parmenides’ own account is superior on the grounds that Opinion is the simplest account possible, relying upon a dualism of conflicting opposites, fails to explain how it would be superior to any similar dualistic account. Furthermore, the methodology does not appear to be superior in any way—Parmenides abandons his pioneering deduction in Reality, resorting to a traditional mythopoetic approach in Opinion.

2. WHAT IS THE ESSENTIAL DIALECTIC OF UNCHANGING-BEING?

The Essential Dialectic of Unchanging-Being is:

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3. WHAT IS THE INTERMEDIARY DIALECTIC OF UNCHANGING-BEING?

The Intermediary Dialectic of Unchanging-Being is:

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4. WHAT IS THE COMPLETE DIALECTIC OF UNCHANGING-BEING?

The Complete Dialectic of Unchanging-Being is:

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