top of page

Parmenides, Zeno, and Whitehead

David Cowles

Feb 20, 2024

“Parmenides was the world’s first Existentialist, the first to ‘split the atom’, to separate Existence from Essence.”

On Nature is Europe’s oldest substantially extant work of Systematic Philosophy. An ontological epic, it was composed in the 5th century BCE by Parmenides Hot Link of Elea, a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, widely regarded as both ‘the father of Western philosophy’ and ‘the father of Western science’. 

The poem considers Being in two modes: the “Way of Truth” (Aletheia) and the “Way of Appearance” (Doxa). Aletheia is ‘Being on a budget’. It’s missing things we normally associate with what-is – things like extension (space & time), motion (including all forms of change, e.g. birth, death, growth), and qualia (sensations, perceptions, etc.). 

“What’s left?” Exactly! Parmenides isolates the ‘substance’ of Being from whatever extraneous and contingent ‘appearances’ it might assume. Here’s what he says about it: 

“…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… 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? …It is not lacking, but if it were, it would lack everything…Therefore, it must either be completely, or not at all.”

Parmenides was the world’s first Existentialist, the first to ‘split the atom’, to separate Existence from Essence. 

Aletheia is a continuous medium (it’s ‘simple’, it has no structure); therefore, the rules of Arithmetic apply. Zeno devised several paradoxes to prove that a world where Arithmetic (Real Number Theory) applies cannot accommodate ‘motion’ (change, growth) of any kind. 


Zeno proved that Olympic Gold Medalist Achilles can never catch up to a lowly Tortoise in a road race, provided the reptile has a head start. Nor can Greece’s great archers ever hit a target.  

“I shot an arrow into the air; it fell to earth I knew not where…” (Longfellow) Well, this poet didn’t know it, but he was on to something:  he ‘knew not where’. Exactly! We can never know. Future is the perpetually receding final frontier.

But Longfellow did not go nearly far enough. According to Zeno, he never shot an arrow and therefore no arrow ever landed…anywhere. Longfellow was on the right track…but he wasn’t Parmenides, was he?

Aletheia is the substructure of Being. It‘s what it means ‘to be’, not what it means ‘to be something’. In fact, ‘being something’ is a form of ‘bad faith’ (Sartre) – it’s a way of not being, of burying freedom in inertia.

Aletheia is the sound of one hand clapping! To account for actual experience, Parmenides needed another hand; he needed to give Being another aspect: “To come to be and to perish, to be and not to be, to shift place and to exchange bright color.” He called this aspect of Being, Doxa (Appearance). 

To exist in the mode of Doxa is to exist relative to other existents, to be amid others who are. In the mode of Doxa, ‘red’ is not just red; it is red in contrast to ‘blue’ and ‘green’.

“…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...”

In Doxa, nothing is ‘necessary’, everything is ‘contingent’, while in the mode of Aletheia, whatever-is just is: there is neither necessity nor contingency. In Doxa, entities are perpetually becoming and perishing; as a result, they never really are


So it’s Aletheia to the rescue! If Aletheia is Being without ‘beings’, Doxa is ‘beings’ without Being. Only together do they constitute a World.

According to Alfred North Whitehead, any Systematic Philosophy requires three ‘undefined terms’: one, many, creativity - the one becoming many, the many becoming one. 

“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)…” 

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

Love is logos. It is creativity. Erota is how ephemeral entities in Doxa come to experience the eternity of Aletheia. It is how Aletheia comes to see itself. Love changes everything, Love preserves everything.

“But nevertheless you shall learn…how the things that seem had to have genuine existence, permeating all things completely.” Was Parmenides laying the groundwork for the Gospel of John?

“In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God and the Logos was God…All things came to be through the Logos.” (1: 1 – 3) Doxa is real, genuine, and universal…as is Aletheia! Like “love and marriage” before the Summer of ‘67, they “go together like a horse and carriage”.

In Aletheia, the Tortoise always leads Achilles. His head start is permanent, fossilized in amber or etched into a certain Grecian Urn. But in Doxa, Achilles smokes T’s reptilian a**.

Doxa sounds like home. So why do we need Aletheia? (Sound familiar? “Why do we need God?”) But there’s a problem. In Doxa everything is ceasing or coming to be. Nothing is, now. There is no ‘Present’ and therefore no ‘Presence’. When everything is in flux, nothing really is.

To be ‘present’ we need to step out of Heraclitus’ River of Time, but Doxa has no off-ramps. At most, ‘here and now’ is an infinitesimal point abstracted from the continuous flow, but that is certainly not what we mean by ‘the Present’.

Aletheia converts the infinitesimal point masquerading as the Present in Doxa into an ‘infinite atemporal’ (eternal) line perpendicular to Doxa in Aletheia. That’s Presence!

 Combining Parmenides with Whitehead, we might attempt an even more general formulation of ‘process’. Every processional model of reality must include a principal of disjunction (‘or’ in the language of logic, “many” in Whitehead’s scheme), a principal of conjunction (‘and’, “one”), and a transformative function (“creativity”): 


ʌ, ˅, ↔ 


The one becomes many, the many, one; Being is Penelope’s loom. The ‘transformative function’? That’s Erota of course, Love. 


Keep the conversation going.

1. Click here to comment on this TWS.
2. To subscribe (at no cost) to TWS and ATM, follow this link.
3. We encourage new articles and reprints from freelance writers; click here to view out Writers’ Specs.

Do you like what you just read and want to read more Thoughts? Subscribe today for free!

- the official blog of Aletheia Today Magazine. 

Have a thought to share about today's 'Thought'.png
bottom of page