Big Ideas

David Cowles

Feb 17, 2022

Homer, the blind poet, and Parmenides, the pre-Socratic philosopher, provided European civilization with its first comprehensive view(s) of the world. Homer gave us the Iliad, an epic poem detailing major events during the Trojan War, and the Odyssey, an epic focused on the experiences, thoughts and values of one man, Odysseus, himself a Trojan warrior.

Homer, the blind poet, and Parmenides, the pre-Socratic philosopher, provided European civilization with its first comprehensive view(s) of the world. Homer gave us the Iliad, an epic poem detailing major events during the Trojan War, and the Odyssey, an epic focused on the experiences, thoughts and values of one man, Odysseus, himself a Trojan warrior.


Less well known, Parmenides gave us On Nature, also an epic poem, unfortunately now preserved only in fragments. Like Homer, Parmenides divided his opus into two distinct parts: Aletheia (Truth) and Doxa (Appearance).


Now Doxa is just what you’d expect: “It has been named all things that mortals have established, trusting them to be true: to come to be and to perish, to be and not to be, to shift place and to exchange bright color.”


This is a world we all recognize: a world of discrete objects and events, coming to be and passing away, interacting and exchanging qualities. In other words, a world of appearances.

But Aletheia is something else again: “ ‘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…Nor is it divisible since it is all alike…and full of ‘what is’…”


Is Aletheia Parmenides’ Iliad and Doxa his Odyssey? Check it out:


The Iliad is all about ‘big ideas’: the relationship of the gods to the world, causality, friendship, loyalty, courage. These are not things that can be experienced in themselves; they are structures and values underlying all human experience. In that sense, Homer’s Iliad is a precursor to Parmenides’ Aletheia.


The Odyssey, on the other hand, focuses squarely on experience: specifically, the thoughts and feelings of one man (Odysseus), his aspirations, his stratagems, his frustrations, and the choices he makes along the way. As such, Odyssey is precursor to Doxa.


Of course, we sample the patterns and values of the Iliad through the experiences of its various characters. It is a story, after all, not an essay! But the narrative is transparent: we can see through the specific events of the day to the elements common to all human experience.

Likewise, through the experiences of Odysseus, we confront the Iliad’s ‘big ideas’. But the Odyssey is not transparent; we have to dig through highly individualized experiences to get to the shared structures and values that underpin all experiences.


Aletheia : Iliad :: Doxa : Odyssey. The analogy is not perfect (no analogy ever is) but it holds.

As I interpret Parmenides, both Doxa and Aletheia are real. But the phenomena of Doxa cannot be accounted for in terms of Doxa alone. The universe must have a complimentary aspect, Aletheia, to make Doxa possible. The Way of Truth is an imperceptible but necessary foundation for what we experience in the Way of Appearance.


Simply put, in order for actual entities to come to be and then perish, they must also be eternal. In order for things to change, they must also endure. In order for things to move, they must also be fixed. The phenomena of Doxa are possible only if they are rooted in the noumenon of Aletheia.

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