Early Greek Philosophy by John Burnet, with Burnet's notes
85. The Poem 87. The Method of Parmenides

From Chapter IV., Parmenides of Elea

86. "It Is"
In the First Part of his poem, we find Parmenides chiefly interested to prove that it is; but it is not quite obvious at first sight what it is precisely that is. He says simply, What is, is. There can be no real doubt that this is what we call body. It is certainly regarded as spatially extended; for it is quite seriously spoken of as a sphere (fr. 8, 43). Moreover, Aristotle tells us that Parmenides believed in none but a sensible reality.28 Parmenides does not say a word about "Being" anywhere,29 and it is remarkable that he avoids the term "god," which was so freely used by earlier and later thinkers. The assertion that it is amounts just to this, that the universe is a plenum; and that there is no such thing as empty space, either inside or outside the world. From this it follows that there can be no such thing as motion. Instead of endowing the One with an impulse to change, as Herakleitos had done, and thus making it capable of explaining the world, Parmenides dismissed change as an illusion. He showed once for all that if you take the One seriously you are bound to deny everything else. All previous solutions of the question, therefore, had missed the point. Anaximenes, who thought to save the unity of the primary substance by his theory of rarefaction and condensation, did not observe that, by assuming there was less of what is in one place than another, he virtually affirmed the existence of what is not (fr. 8, 45). The Pythagorean explanation implied that empty space or air existed outside the world, and that it entered into it to separate the units (§ 53) . It, too, assumes the existence of what is not. Nor is the theory of Herakleitos any more satisfactory; for it is based on the contradiction that fire both is and is not (fr. 6).

The allusion to Herakleitos in the verses last referred to has been doubted, though upon insufficient grounds. Zeller points out quite rightly that Herakleitos never says Being and not-Being are the same (the old translation of fr. 6, 8); and, were there nothing more than this, the reference might well seem doubtful. The statement, however, that, according to the view in question, "all things travel in opposite directions," can hardly be understood of anything but the "upward and downward path" of Herakleitos (§ 71). And, as we have seen, Parmenides does not attribute the view that Being and not-Being are the same to the philosopher whom he is attacking; he only says that it is and is not the same and not the same.30 That is the natural meaning of the words; and it furnishes a very accurate description of the theory of Herakleitos.



Burnet's Notes

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28. Arist. De caelo. Γ, 1. 298 b 21, ἐκεῖνοι δὲ (οἱ περὶ Μέλισσόν τε καὶ Παρμενίδην) διὰ τὸ μηθὲν μὲν ἄλλο παρὰ τὴν τῶν αἰσθητῶν οὐσίαν ὑπολαμβάνειν εἶναι κτλ. So too Eudemos, in the first book of his Physics (ap. Simpl. Phys. p. 133, 25), said of Parmenides: τὸ μὲν οὖν κοινὸν οὐκ ἂν λέγοι. οὔτε γὰρ ἐζητεῖτό πω τὰ τοιαῦτα, ἀλλ' ὕστερον ἐκ τῶν λόγων προῆλθεν, οὔτε ἐπιδέχοιτο ἂν ἃ τῷ ὄντι ἐπιλέγει. πῶς γὰρ ἔσται τοῦτο "μέσσοθεν ἰσοπαλὲς" καὶ τὰ τοιαῦτα; τῷ δὲ οὐρανῷ (the world) σχεδὸν πάντες ἐφαρμόσουσιν οἱ τοιοῦτοι λόγοι. The Neoplatonists, of course, saw in the One the νοητὸς κόσμος, and Simplicius calls the sphere a "mythical figment." See especially Bäumker, "Die Einheit des Parmenideischen Seiendes" (Jahrb. f. kl. Phil., 1886, pp. 541 sqq.), and Das Problem der Materie, pp. 50 sqq.

29. We must not render τὸ ἐόν by "Being," das Sein or 1'être. It is "what is," das Seiende, ce qui est. As to (τὸ) εἶναι it does not occur, and hardly could occur at this date.

30. See above, fr. 6, n. 2.




















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