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Parmenides I

David Cowles

Sep 1, 2022

“Parmenides anticipated Trinitarian theology and 19th century German dialectics (Hegel, Marx). May we refer to his cosmology as Monothreeism™?”

On Nature is the oldest work of European systematic philosophy still largely extant. The verse epic 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’. 

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 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 ones.

In fact, Parmenides anticipated such a heterodox interpretation and took pains to confront it head-on: “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 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). I believe that view in consistent with Parmenides’ text and verified by our personal experience. Hold on tight! 

We know that Al Gore invented the internet, but who invented the concept of ‘Complementarity’ - the convergence of two mutually inconsistent models to account for a single phenomenon? We’d like to think we did! 

We ‘invented’, or at least discovered, complementarity sometime during the first half of the 20th century; only we didn’t! Examples of complementarity, unlabeled of course, dot the landscape of Western Intellectual History. To attribute the idea of complementarity to Parmenides seems crazy because it is so radically 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 developed a rigid, linear model of intellectual progress. Phylogeny recapitulates ontogeny! Just as a ‘young child’ should not be expected to grasp complex or abstract ideas, neither should an ‘earlier civilization’. Resurrection theology in the Book of Job? Anarchist political theory in the Book of Judges? Complementarity in Parmenides? Impossible!

Hog wash! Children are able to entertain challenging ideas better than we can – their minds have not yet ‘seized-up’ like engines deprived of oil. Likewise, the pre-Socratic philosophers of Ancient Greece had a much deeper appreciation of ‘what-is’ than most of their modern counterparts.

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 ‘the Academy’. 

Whatever memes make the most connections wins. But unlike Hall of Fame voting in most Professional Sports, memes can keep looking for connections until the end of time. The game isn’t over until an amply proportioned individual sings (God per chance?)

Occasionally, a meme that has fallen on rocky ground surprises itself and starts to make connections. In that case we often say that this is an idea whose time has come. And as soon as a meme starts to make connections within a particular network, it begins to shape that network. The result is the non-linear process we know as ‘History’! 

On Nature 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, just as in the mode of Aletheia, what-is is…necessarily. In the realm of Doxa, entities are engaged in the perpetual process of becoming and perishing; they never really are

Events in the mode of Doxa can be variously analyzed: 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 perpetual flux. 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 (Doxa) 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 ‘here and now’. 

To be ‘present’ we need to step out of Heraclitus’ River of Time, but Doxa has no off ramp. At best, ‘here’ and ‘now’ are infinitesimal ‘points’ abstracted from the continuous 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’. When everything is in flux, nothing really is.

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 can only experience them indirectly, as they are felt through the Present. And if there is no real Presence…

Aletheia to the rescue! In the mode of Aletheia, “…what-is is ungenerated 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.” There is no generation or corruption. 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, now…and forever. 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 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. The origin of ‘becoming’ is ‘the lack’ (Sartre). Therefore, what-is must lack nothing. To be is neither to become nor to perish; it is simply to be, eternally.

Understood this way, Aletheia accounts for nothing either! We don’t experience permanence, eternity, wholeness, any more than we experience past and future. We only experience in the Present and what we experience are phenomena that are not present. Wrap your head around that one!

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 any model of reality that is all flux or all permanence won’t account for much…or anything. 

Things that genuinely exist must be both stable and changing; but 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 between the two extremes. Call it the ‘Being Belt’!

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 his two models together, effectively 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 sub-atomic 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’! Nor do children.

Now consider the poem’s narrative content. At the beginning of the epic, when Parmenides first 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…but right and justice. And it is right that you should learn all things…” And later, “…It is all one to me where I am to begin; for I shall return there again.” 

Parmenides uses language that we recognize today as characteristic of non-orientable topology, another concept supposedly inaccessible to him at that time. It suggests that Doxa and Aletheia form a reality that is locally two-sided but globally one-sided, i.e., a Mobius Strip. 

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 Lookingglass), but every time you return, you find that your ‘orientation’ has reversed.

This is exactly what happens in Dante’s Divine Comedy. At the lowest rung of the Inferno, Dante encounters Satan, encased in ice, but standing upright. However, as 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 On 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, supposedly polar opposites, turn out not to be so very different from one another 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...”

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), a principal of conjunction (‘and’), and a transformative function:  

ʌ, ˅, ↔

The one becomes many and the many becomes one; it is Penelope’s great loom of Being. If this model is 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’? Parmenides invokes the goddess herself for 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…”

Thus, Parmenides identified the minimal conditions necessary for ‘process’ to occur, and he did it 2,500 years before Whitehead. Parmenides anticipated Trinitarian theology and19th century German dialectics (Hegel, Marx). May we refer to his cosmology as Monothreeism™? 

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 now that we’ve had the Grail in our possession all along, from the very outset in fact. Dorothy never left Kansas…and she just needed to click her heels together to see that.

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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