Pre-Socratics Journal, Part 3: “Shining with Another’s Light”: My Problem with Parmenides

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!

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Thinking of Heraclitus

Gold creek water and foam

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Leaves and Sunlight

Leaves and Sunlight

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Anatomy of a Lego Project

Galaxy Traveler whole front view

For the last two weeks or so, my son and I have been building Lego. He’s lucky, because he not only has all my own old Lego from my childhood, but the Lego of my friend Andrey, who donated his from the same time period, and then a number of used vintage space Lego sets I bought on eBay years ago. A few days ago, he asked me to make him a really big spaceship, so I complied. Presenting, then, the Galaxy Traveler!

Galxaxy Traveler I

The next picture shows the opposite angle of the ship:

Galaxy Traveler whole

The Galaxy Traveler actually has the ability to separate into a number of discrete parts. The main part of the Galaxy Traveler (aka, “the Traveler”) has disengaged from the rest of the ship in the next photo:

The Partner and the Stationary separate from the Traveler

The next photo shows all three of the major component parts, from left to right: the Partner ship, the Stationary (a portable base equipped with high-powered communications equipment), and the Traveler itself:

The Partner separates from the Stationary

The photograph below shows the inside of the Stationary, which can connect either to the Partner, or the smaller Traveler, or both:

Reclining in the Stationary

The Partner is equipped with a very small vehicle, the Rover…

The Rover leaves the Partner

…while the smaller Traveler has its own secret: a docking bay containing…

The Traveler opened up

…a small one-man ship called the Solo!

And the Solo comes out!

The next several shots show the cockpits of, respectively, the Partner and the Traveler:

Cockpit of the Partner

Cockpit of the Traveler

What can I say? It was fun!

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Well done, Ontario!

Today the most populous province in Canada sent the minority Liberal Party, run under their shiny new, and LGBT member Kathleen Wynne–to majority government status. I am delighted! As most of the best writers in the Globe and Mail knew–except the official editorial board members themselves–this was an election that had see the provincial–in both meanings–Tories under their satanic leadership shown the door in no uncertain terms; too much was riding on this election for the Tories to have been elected under Tim Hudak. I’m very glad he’s resigning; Ontario will be the better off for it.

I’d like to flesh out just what I meant by the word “satanic” above. Essentially, Tim Hudak threatened, or rather, promised to cut 100,000 public service sector jobs. He then said that he would create over a million jobs, net. However, he counted each job created multiple times–one for every year over a series of years–but did not count the 100,000 public sector jobs cut more than once. He made other significant errors, too; for instance, a certain number of jobs would be created anyway, even without his plan. Economists had a field day taking apart his claims. From the third-linked article above:

First, Mr. Hudak’s determination to deny the undeniable raised questions about his character when confronted with tough situations. Imagine a truly important scandal: perhaps one involving risks to public safety, or malfeasance of some kind – things that can’t be brushed off as “matters of opinion.” (Math is not actually an opinion, anyway.) Will obfuscation and denial define his response to other challenges?

Second, the debate over the numbers inspired analysts to take a closer look at the assumptions behind the PC plan, not just its math, and this raised deeper worries about the intellectual and political pedigree of the Conservative platform. There were two separate consulting reports misreported by the Tories in their jobs tally. One was from the Conference Board of Canada, on the effect of corporate and personal tax cuts; it was unconvincing, but inoffensive.

The other report, however, became hotly controversial – and for good reason. It was prepared by a U.S. consultant Benjamin Zycher, who has worked for many far-right causes (some funded by the Koch brothers of Tea Party fame), has strongly advocated so-called “right-to-work” laws for Ontario, and has expressed startling opinions on subjects ranging from environmentalism to how Michelle Obama received her Princeton degree.

Mr. Zycher’s report for the PCs has been thoroughly criticized by several economists for shoddy methodology, data errors, and more. But it’s the underlying philosophical assumptions of his work for the PCs that should raise the loudest alarms. His economic model of “deregulation” is actually based on Ontario mimicking the fiscal policies and labour laws of places like Mississippi and Arkansas – and then asserting that this will make Ontario richer. (Of course, Ontario is already far richer than those places.) The mere fact the PCs would hire this man to flesh out their electoral platform is another indication of how far right they have aimed. [Original hyperlinks not included; see the link above for the original article itself.]

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Gold Creek near Maple Ridge, BC

Gold Creek near Maple Ridge, BC

A few weeks ago, I and my family went to Gold Creek, where I took these pictures. I don’t have really much to say, except that it is a lovely, if dangerous spot. I believe that some acquaintances of my parents were killed on the falls many years ago. There was also a fatality there last year. For some reason, there is little warning, apart from one sign.

Gold Creek's Lower Falls near Maple Ridge, BC, II

Gold Creek's Lower Falls near Maple Ridge, BC

Gold Creek beautiful green water

Gold Creek's Lower Falls

Gold Creek couple

I must say that I loved the couple, and especially the girl in the image above. She was very poetic.

Gold creek water and foam

Gold Creek beautiful green water

Gold Creek Lower Falls through the trees

Gold Creek through the trees

Mountains from Gold Creek in Maple Ridge, BC

Gold Creek's clear water and stones, near Maple Ridge, BC

Trees and path near Gold Creek

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Two BBC Articles, and a Defense of “Cafeteria-Style” Spirituality

I see from the BBC that Lawrence Kasdan is a co-writer of the new Star Wars movie. That is great news, as The Empire Strikes Back is easily the best of any of the Star Wars movies.

There is also an interesting piece there that addresses this question in the affirmative: Is it better to be religious than spiritual?. Quite frankly, I never really get the common complaint made by members of various religious traditions that the generically “spiritual” are practicing “cafeteria-style” spirituality. There is no such thing as a “pure” religion. Judaism was formed by a whole range of influences from the worship of the Canaanite storm deity Baal to the child-sacrifices of the Phoenicians to the dualistic, eschatological concepts of Persian Zoroastrianism, for instance. Buddhism was influenced by Taoism and Hinduism. The terms “Hinduism” and “Buddhism” themselves are very broad. And as I’ve said many times before, the so-called Abrahamic religions are fraught with problems when generalizing. Mohammed and Bernard of Clairvaux have much more in common with each other than either Mohammed would with Rumi, or Bernard would with Thomas Merton. And that’s to say nothing of how much Christianity was influenced by Hellenistic Greek pagan philosophical writers. So all the current religious traditions can claim to be about as pure-blooded as Muggle-sired Voldemort in J.K. Rowling’s world.

When one practices “cafeteria-style” spirituality, one is freed up to enjoy the best parts of each religion and spiritual tradition, while leaving untouched and untasted their tendencies towards cruelty toward one’s fellow humans and stultification of the world of ideas.

Apart from that–and the fact that so many religious traditions in the West prioritize preaching, an event in which a clergyman tells people how to think about very specific things, from doctrines to history to sexual morality–I do see the draw of belonging to a religious tradition. The pull for me is (apart from a good building) good liturgy–liturgy as art, if you will. There’s something very beautiful, in particular, about the Roman Catholic mass. If the whole thing was held to be a performative art form rather than a celebration of specific doctrines concerning Jesus of Nazareth and those influenced by him, I would go to church possibly every month.*


*There’s one significant problem that I have noticed with respect to religious communities, though–and the communities need not be deistic–and that is the lording over others practiced by charismatic leaders, and the intense bickering and backbiting and guilt-tripping that goes on in church settings. There is so much outright manipulation (and even brain-washing) going on that the whole point of “community” is for me completely lost. For that reason, I am very wary of those who vaunt their “community” in modern religious settings.

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Hierarchy of an ex-hockey fan when on the play-off bandwagon

Vancouver Canucks
Montreal Canadiens
Edmonton Oilers
Colorado Avalanche (formerly Quebec Nordiques)
Ottawa Senators
Winnipeg Jets
Toronto Maple Leafs*

Ambivalent on most US teams. Pittsburgh Penguins are fine.

The worst: New Jersey Devils, Dallas Stars, Chicago Blackhawks, and the Boston Bruins. Go Habs, go!


*Disclaimer: A born-and-raised Vancouverite, I lived in Toronto for two years and loved the city. I just always disliked the Leafs and having to watch them all the time on CBC, rather than the Habs. Now, of course, I never get a chance to see any hockey on TV or online.

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An short update to the previous post

I’m slightly embarrassed at the repetition of certain words and sentences in my previous post; I was tired when I wrote it, and it’s not my best. It is, however, very much representative of my thoughts on the so-called Fair Elections Act. After having emailed my MP and every single Senator with an email address (pretty much all of them except Barizeau, Wallin, and Duffy, whom I didn’t want to email anyway), I have heard from a few. I’ll post a synopsis of the responses I’ve received in the near future.

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The Fair Elections Act Again: On Political Oversight of Polling Stations

I just sent the following email to every single senator, except for four (one with no email, and Barizeau, Wallin, and Duffy). Since I addressed each by name, that mean I actually sent several dozen emails, rather than one merely CC-d to them all.

Dear Senator,

I am writing about the proposed Fair Elections Act that the Conservative Party is pushing through both chambers of government right now. I believe, as with Sheila Fraser and many respected public servants and others, that this bill is nothing short of an attack on Canadian democracy.

Although the government has removed one of the two worst aspects of the bill–the elimination of vouching, which would have had the potential to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of votes–it has just reinstated the very worst provision, one that would allow incumbent political parties to choose central poll supervisors (“Fair Elections Act back on fast track after 45 amendments submitted“).

Elections in Canada until now have been, in the main, positive models for other countries in the world that are less democratic. Allowing motivated political hacks to oversee the polling stations of their ridings removes not only the appearance of fairness, but confidence in the electoral process and its results. This move greatly weakens Elections Canada, and will lead to corruption within the very system of elections by which our country is governed.

Senator, I am asking you to vote this bad, bad bill down in its entirety. Failing this, I would ask you to vote down this specific provision and all others that would make the practice of our elections less fair.

In my opinion, this entire bill deserves to die, and the Harper Government has lost the mandate of the people. Now is the time for the Senate–known, with some justification, as a chamber of cronyism and patronage–to live up to its potential as the chamber of “sober second thought.” Resist the the urge coming from the PMO to ram this thoughtlessly-written bill through into law. Earn your keep; don’t let the Prime Minister use you after trying to destroy the very office of the Senate. The so-called “Fair Elections Act” is nothing short of a disgrace to our government (and to the history and tradition of the Conservative Party). Even worse, this bill is an attack on the fabric of our country as a democracy. Please vote it down and resist it at every level.

Thank you very much for your consideration of this matter.

Yours Sincerely,
N. etc.

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