It has been a very long time since I last blogged about the Pre-Socratic philosophers. Far too long. I was held back for a long time by life, general sleepiness, and also by an emotional hang-up regarding the current pre-Socratic in question: Parmenides. In a word, I felt I could not really understand him, but I was convinced that I ought to, and that intellectual benefit would follow understanding.
Only one work attributed to Parmenides has survived from antiquity, and it has survived only in long, though fragmentary quotations. It was divided into two parts: “The Way of Truth”–nearly all of which is preserved–and “The Way of Opinion,” which is preserved only in fragments. The Penguin Classics book I’m reading has this to say about it:
Parmenides’ poem is a bizarre production. The second half of it is confessedly ‘deceitful'; but then, why write it? The first half is not intended to be deceitful, but the views it expresses are paradoxical in the extreme. Moreover, Parmenides is not a friendly writer: his meaning is never plain at first glance, and several lines of his poem are obscure to the point of unintelligibility. None the less [sic], Parmenides had, through the medium of Plato, an unrivalled influence on the course of Western philosophy.
I’ll be honest: the poem did not much interest me, and I felt I couldn’t really master it, anyway. My problem revolved around just two particular parts of it, both preserved as quotations by other ancient writers:
Parmenides was the first to declare that the earth is spherical and lies in the middle [of the universe] (Diogenes Laertius).
This comes in the part of the chapter in the volume I’m reading devoted to “The Way of Opinion.” Incidentally, I wonder if the phrase “middle of the universe” might just mean “amid the heavens,” rather than “in the centre of the universe” in the Ptolemaic understanding.
A heart-breakingly-beautiful phrase occurs–apparently–in the section on the “Way of Opinion”–it describes the moon:
night-shining, wandering about the earth, another’s light.
This quotation is preserved in Plutarch, who paraphrases and quotes Parmenides in regards to the moon, which “goes alone about in need of another’s light, as Parmenides says, ‘always gazing at the rays of the sun.'”
So the question is, is Parmenides parodying some intellectual idea of the moon as a reflector of the sun’s rays (but then, how could he be the “first” to say such things?), or is he actually putting this view forward seriously? It’s in the supposedly “deceitful” section on “opinion.” (Or at least, it is presented that way.) I put this question to a Classics email listerv I belong to, and received these two responses from academics:
For Parmenides, the truth is that “Being is”–eternal, one, intelligible, unchanging. Opinion is where we spend our time, and exalted opinions like the sphericity of the earth are not to sneeze at.
A second scholar wrote as follows:
If I understand this stuff (which I may not: in grad school I enjoyed reading the proem to Parmenides’ epic, but Monist philosophy leaves me cold generally–or feeling like a fly trapped in amber, to be more precise), my guess is that anything relating to phenomena would be from the second half of the poem, describing the cosmos of δοξὰς … βροτείας (fr. 8.51f). And that’s where Diels lists the Plutarchian fragments.
What Parmenides was actually arguing in his work is subject to some dispute. But if he was (as he seems to be) a strictish Monist, he wouldn’t believe that the moon actually rotates around the earth, or that it gets its light from the sun, or any of that, because it implies that motion and change exist. In Eleatic Monism, everything is one; there is no motion or change; time is an illusion (and “lunch-time doubly so” in the words of a philosophical classic). But we can also try to understand the world of appearances at face value; hence the cosmological section.
Anyway, that’s my read of it.
The trouble is, first, I found the line about the moon to be among the most beautiful lines of poetry in the world. Second, I want Parmenides to be putting forward this view seriously, because then that would be a sign of his prescient modernity.
I suppose I don’t need Parmenides to be serious if I just want to find an ancient antecedent to modern science; after all, there is still Eratosthenes, who more or less accurately calculated the circumference of the Earth (no small feat, especially more than one and a half millennia before Galileo’s telescope!). But it’s the poetry of that line about the moon that I so desperately love. I want it to have been his sincere idea of what the universe looked like.
So much for Parmenides and the moon.
On another note, I found this line rather interesting:
What can be said and thought of must be; for it can be, and nothing cannot.
This is supposedly from the Way of Truth, which is a tad disappointing, because it reminds me of Anselm’s Ontological argument for the existence of God–an argument that always struck me as particularly weak, even when I was a theist convinced that one could “prove” the existence of the patriarchal god of fundamentalist Christianity.
Finally, I present a bit of humour:
[Simplicius, on Parmenides:]I am compelled to write at length on this point because people now are largely ignorant of the ancient writings.
That last was written 1500 years ago!