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Parmenides I

David Cowles

Sep 1, 2022

Who says there was no Facebook before Zuckerberg? It was just called ‘philosophy.’

What is the single most important work in the Western philosophical tradition? Is it Plato’s Timaeus? Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason? Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigation? Or something else entirely?

We all have our favorites, which makes for great late night conversation, whether in a dorm room in Topeka or an edgy bar in Berlin.

How about Fragment 8 from Parmenides’ ontological poem On Nature? How do I get that on the list?

On Nature was composed in the 5th century BC by Parmenides of Elea, a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, widely regarded as both ‘the father of Western philosophy’ and ‘the father of Western science.’

(If you shop ‘Parmenides’ on Amazon, you’ll find works by Martin Heidegger…and by Karl Popper.)

On Nature is the oldest surviving, substantially extant, work of European philosophy in our possession. That said, the text consists of just 20 fragments, and there is no consensus as to how these fragments originally fit together.

Nevertheless, the core of the poem’s argument is contained in the single fragment, commonly known as “Fragment 8.”

On Nature divides Being into two modes: the “Way of Truth” (Aletheia) and the “Way of Seeming” (Doxa). Most scholars hold that the realm of Aletheia is preeminently real…but that of Doxa? Not so much!

Commentators holding this view tend to understand Doxa through the prism of Eastern philosophy (Maya) or Jewish wisdom literature (Vanity)…both perfectly valid perspectives, but not the only possible perspectives.

In fact, Fragment One confronts head-on the prospect of such an interpretation…and demolishes it: “But nevertheless you shall learn…how the things that seem had to have genuine existence, permeating all things completely.” Doxa is real, genuine, and universal…as is Aletheia!

I will argue: first, that there can be no adequate account of reality that does not include both Aletheia and Doxa (even though, as we shall see shortly, the two models appear to be mutually exclusive); and second, that this is clearly stated in On Nature, the West’s first book of pure philosophy.

Complementarity is the use together of two mutually inconsistent models to account for a single phenomenon. We’d like to think we ‘invented,’ or at least discovered, Complementarity sometime during the first half of the 20th century, but we didn’t! Examples of Complementarity, unnamed to be certain, dot the entire landscape of Western Intellectual History.

To attribute the idea of Complementarity to Parmenides seems radical because it is supposedly so anachronistic. According to the standard model of cultural evolution, Parmenides should not have been able to conceive such an idea 2500 years ago. But he did! Res ipsa loquitur!

Despite our self-congratulatory preconceptions, the text of On Nature clearly suggests an interpretation based on Complementarity. The cognoscenti have developed a linear model of intellectual progression that includes a more or less rigid timeline.

Resurrection theology in Job? No way. Anarchism in Judges? Ditto. Complementarity in Parmenides? You get the drift.

That is not how real process, intellectual or otherwise, works. The venture we call Intellectual History begins with a massively non-linear network of ideas, competing for connections. Survival of the fittest, social media on steroids.

(Who says there was no Facebook before Zuckerberg? It was just called ‘philosophy.’)

Whatever gets the most connections in any single ‘round’ wins that round…and that round only. Unlike Hall of Fame voting in most Professional Sports, memes can keep looking for connections until the end of time. Occasionally, a meme that has fallen on rocky ground surprises even itself and starts to connect. In that case, I often say that this is an idea whose time has come. As soon as a meme starts to make connections within a particular network, it begins to shape that network. The result is History!

Fragment 8 spells out what it means to exist in the mode of Doxa: “To come to be and to perish, to be and not to be, and to shift place and to exchange bright color.”

To exist in the mode of Doxa is to exist relative to other existents, to be one among many. In the mode of Doxa, all being is contingent. A potential entity may or may not become an actual entity. On the stage of Doxa, everyone is playing Hamlet all the time (“to be or not to be”).

In Doxa entities are engaged in the perpetual process of becoming and perishing; by themselves they never really are! They only exist as nodes in a network: “No network, no nodes!” we chant from our dorm rooms.

Entities in the mode of Doxa exist only in relation to other entities. One of those entities is Aletheia, the entity of all entities, the entirety.

Entities in the mode of Doxa can be analyzed according to many schemata: subject-predicate, substance-accident, existence-essence (Sartre), actual entity-eternal object (Whitehead), Dasein-Wassein (Heidegger), etc.

Parmenides’ Doxa seems to ‘borrow a page’ from Heraclitus: everything flows! Everything is in flux, perpetually. As we like to say today at our ubiquitous $199 self-help seminars, complete with a complimentary boxed lunch of course, “Change is the only constant.” What we used to call ‘Stability’ is now just a measure of variations in the rate of change.

At first blush, this model is very attractive; it seems to correlate well with everyday experience. But there is one problem. According to this model, there is no ‘Present’ and therefore no Presence, no true here and now.

To be ‘present’ we need to step out of Heraclitus’ river of time, but Doxa is all enveloping; it has no off ramp. At best, ‘here’ and ‘now’ are infinitesimal limits abstracted from the continuity of the flow, but that is certainly not what we mean when we speak of ‘the Present.’ In the mode of Doxa, there is only ‘then and there,’ ‘past and future,’ and relative positions in ‘space and time.’

Understood this way, Doxa accounts for absolutely nothing! We don’t experience the then and there, the past and future. We believe that they are real, but we cannot experience them directly.

We can only experience the here and now, the Present; what we know of then and there, past and future, we know only indirectly through its influence on our present experience. But in Doxa, there is no such thing as present experience.

Aletheia to the rescue! In the mode of Aletheia, “…what-is is not generated and imperishable…whole, single-limbed, steadfast, and complete, nor was it once, nor will it be, since it is, now, all together, one, continuous… Thus, coming-to-be is extinguished and perishing, not to be heard of.”

In the mode of Aletheia, there is no generation, no corruption. What-is is, whole and entire, indivisible and complete. There is no space (here and there), no time (past and future), no extension (dispersing and gathering). There is only Presence:

“For what coming-to-be of it will you seek? In what way, and whence, did it grow? Not from what-is-not… And what need could have impelled it to grow later or sooner, if it began from nothing?”

The concept of ‘the past’ implies that there was once a stable state-of-affairs different from the current state-of-affairs, and the concept of ‘the future’ implies that there will one day be another stable state-of-affairs different from what is now.

But in the mode of Aletheia, nothing can ever be different from what is and what-is is eternal. Therefore, in the mode of Aletheia, there is only Presence.

Further, if there were a past and/or a future, that past would have to differ from this present and this present from that future. That in turn would suggest that whatever-is is not always ‘complete.’ But that too is impossible:

“…it is not right for what-is to be incomplete; for it is not lacking, but if it were, it would lack everything… Therefore, it must either be completely, or not at all.”

While to exist in the mode of Doxa is to be one among many, to exist in the mode of Aletheia is simply to be one.

To exist in the mode of Doxa is to be in perpetual flux, from generation to decomposition, but to exist in the mode of Aletheia is simply to be, whole and entire, unchanging, eternal.

But understood this way, Aletheia accounts for absolutely nothing either! We don’t experience permanence, eternity, wholeness, any more than we experience past and future. We only experience flux; we only experience what is incomplete, what is in motion. Yet, when we do experience these phenomena, we experience them in the present.

So, to summarize, we only experience in the present, but we only experience phenomena that have no present. Wrap your head around that one!

I think it’s time college students learned a new chant, don’t you think? “No Doxa, No Aletheia!” Catchy! Or, “No Aletheia, No Doxa!” Just as good. In fact, I am imagining the two slogans alternating endlessly as call and response across the quad: “Marco! Polo!”

How do we account for stability in the midst of flux, and how do we account for flux in the context of stability? This is one of the core problems of philosophy.

We can see, I think, that a model of reality that is all flux or all permanence won’t account for much…or for anything. Things that genuinely exist must be both stable and changing.

How is that possible? How can anything be ‘both stable and changing?’ Only in the mode of Complementarity!

Imagine a continuum ranging from absolute flux to absolute stability. What we call ‘being’ can only manifest itself in a narrow corridor located somewhere in-between the two extremes. Call it the ‘Being Belt!’

How much could the universe differ from what-is and still function as a ‘universe?’ How ‘fine-tuned’ is the Being Belt, anyway?

To make this point, 20th century British philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead quotes a verse from a famous Anglican hymn:

Abide in me! Fast falls the even tide.

What is Being but the juxtaposition of stability and change? Given the fact that neither Doxa nor Aletheia by itself can account for every, or any, phenomenon of everyday experience, are we not entitled at least to conjecture that Parmenides intended us to understand the world using the two models together, viewing the universe stereoscopically?

The wave-particle duality in Quantum Mechanics is often cited as the paradigmatic example of a Complementary relationship. According to prevailing thought, the behavior of subatomic particles cannot be explained unless one assumes that they are both waves and particles, even though such an assumption appears to entail a contradiction.

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” (Emerson). Apparently, God does not have a ‘little mind!’

Also consider the poem’s narrative content. At the beginning of Fragment One, the goddess sends mares to bring Parmenides over “the much speaking route of the goddess that carries everywhere unscathed the man who knows.”

When Parmenides comes into the presence of the goddess, she greets him: “Welcome, for it is no ill fortune that sent you forth to travel this route (for it lies far from the beaten track of men) but right and justice. And it is right that you should learn all things…” But it is Fragment 5 that seals the deal:

“And it is all one to me where I am to begin; for I shall return there again.”

This is language lifted from non-orientable topology. It suggests that Doxa and Aletheia form a reality that is locally two-sided but globally one-sided, i.e., that is Complementary.

As you pass along the Mobius Strip that is embedded in every non-orientable space, you keep coming back to your starting point (a bit like Alice in Through the Looking-glass) …but every time you return, you find your ‘orientation’ has reversed.

This is exactly what happens in Dante’s Divine Comedy. At the lowest rung of the Inferno, Dante and Virgil encounter Satan, encased in ice, but standing upright. However, when Dante begins to climb Mount Purgatory and looks back, what does he see? Satan, still encased in ice, but now upside down!

Apply this model to Parmenides’ topology of Nature. For every “spot” on the “strip,” there are two potential orientations: the extensive orientation of Doxa and the eternal orientation of Aletheia.

Surprise: Doxa and Aletheia, supposed polar opposites, turn out not to be so very different from one other after all. In fact, they turn out to be the same thing, just seen in two different orientations, i.e., from two different perspectives.

What then really distinguishes the Way of Seeming from the Way of Truth?

“… From here onwards, learn mortal beliefs…they distinguished opposites in body and established signs apart from one another (language) …all things have been named light and night and these, according to their powers…”

Alfred North Whitehead, in his seminal work of systematic philosophy, Process and Reality, concluded that any ‘processional’ model of reality must include at least three ‘undefined’ terms (i.e., terms whose meaning must be taken for granted without further definition); for Whitehead those terms are: ‘One, Many and Creativity.’

We might attempt an even more general formulation. Every processional model of reality must include a principal of disjunction (‘or’ in the language of logic) and a principal of conjunction (‘and’) and a transformative function (Whitehead’s Creativity).

The one becomes many and the many becomes one, the great loom of Being.

If this model be taken as the universal substructure of all processional models, Parmenides’ model passes the test. Aletheia is ‘one,’ Doxa ‘many’, but what of the ‘transformative function?’

Initially, Parmenides invokes ‘the goddess’ herself to play this role:

“In the midst of these is the goddess who steers all things; for she rules over hateful birth (Doxa) and the union of all things (Aletheia)…”

But ultimately, the role of the goddess is not to rule, but to create a third mode of being that can unite the other two:

“… She devised Love (Erota), first of all the gods…”

In Doxa, there is a disjunctive function (“hateful birth” by which the One becomes Many) and a conjunctive function (“the union of all things” by which the Many becomes One) and a transformative function (Erota, love).

Thus, Parmenides identified and defined the minimal conditions necessary for ‘process’ to occur, and he did it 2,400 years before Whitehead. In this, Parmenides anticipated Trinitarian theology, Monothreeism™, as well as 19th century German dialectics (e.g., Marx).

Eager to confirm their time-bound models of intellectual development, critics may be willing to dismiss a few fragments of poetry from the 5th century BCE, but will they just as willingly dismiss the 19 complete and extant works reliably attributed to John and Paul?

We have found in Parmenides an ontology that respects the reality of phenomenal events, but situates those events in the broader context of Eternal Being. This has been the Holy Grail of Western philosophy for millennia. Now we find out that we’ve had the Grail in our possession all along, from the very outset in fact. Dorothy never left Kansas. She just needed to click her heels together to see that.

Surely, this justifies our claim that Fragment 8 is at least among the most important works in the Western philosophical tradition!


Image: Bust of Parmenides discovered at Velia, thought to have been partially modeled on a Metrodorus bust.[1]


David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at

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