Polytheism and Science (II): Parmenides

Polytheism and Science (II): Parmenides

Parmenides of Elea in Southern Italy (fl. early 5th c. BCE) is commonly reckoned as the father of the mainstream tradition of ancient Hellenic philosophy, which was appropriated, at no small cost all around, by Christian and Muslim monotheists in the Middle Ages, to form, as Christian ideological hegemony waned, the core of the major European philosophies of the modern era—Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel—and which continues, albeit greatly problematized, to provide orientation to contemporary philosophy. This intellectual paternity of Parmenides has largely to do with his pioneering articulation of binary logic. What I would like to discuss here is the way in which Parmenides grounds binary logic in the theophany recounted in his poem, and, through this, how in general binary logic is rooted in polytheism.

The binary logic of Parmenides is not like the binary classification system particularly associated with the Pythagoreans in their famous table of opposites, and which is recorded by Aristotle (Metaphysics 986a22): limit/unlimited; odd/even; unity/plurality; right/left; male/female; rest/motion; straight/crooked; light/darkness; good/bad; square/oblong. Parmenides’ binary logic undermines the primacy of classificatory binarism like the Pythagorean table, and in the process, also establishes the very principle of metaphysical foundation by recourse to more radical principles. Parmenides’ ultimate binary—Being, which absolutely is, and Nonbeing, which absolutely is not—is indisputably more radical than the Pythagorean opposites. From this foundation, which is put forth in the first part of the poem, known as the Way of Truth (Alêtheia), the other kind of binary can be incorporated, and a version of this sort of oppositional cosmogony appears in the poem’s second part, the Way ofDoxa, or Appearance, in which ‘light’ and ‘night’ provide the dyadic substance of what appears. Clearly these are chosen, rather than any of the other opposites, because they are inherent to phenomenality, to appearance itself, which is permeated with evidence and with obscurity together (frag. 9.3).1 To be ‘apparent’ has a double meaning: it embodies the truth of what appears, but purely as it appears. It is only insofar as we fail to respect the logic of appearance itself that the other meaning comes into play, the sense of being merely apparent, and hencenot true.

Parmenides’ poem begins with a dramatic account of a spiritual journey he made in a chariot “upon the renowned [literally ‘of many words’, polyphêmon]2 road of the daimôn,”3 with an escort of Sun Maidens (Hêliades), who lead him to the House of Nyx (Night). I will not comment here on the significance of Parmenides’ soul-vehicle, the importance of mortality for Parmenides’ thought having been the subject of a recent study.4 Rather, I wish to emphasize the motif of revelation. The chariot arrives at the Gates of the Paths of Night and Day, at which point the Sun Maidens have “pushed back with their hands the veils from their heads,” (frag. 1.10). The Sun Maidens have thus doubly disclosed themselves, by “leaving the House of Night for the light,” and by unveiling. The Sun Maidens persuade Dikê, Justice, to open the gates.

At the house, Parmenides is received by a Goddess (thea) who is not otherwise named. Since She refers to “our house”, it would make sense to regard Her as Nyx, the ultimate oracular Goddess in Hellenic theology. Proclus, however, with an utterly mysterious specificity, refers to her as “the nymph Hypsipyle” (In Parm. 640), by which we should probably understand an epithet, “nymph of the high gate,” as gates (pylai) are repeatedly mentioned in frag. 1; but nothing more can be made of this. The rest of Parmenides’ poem consists of this Goddess’ speech to him, through which She promises that he will “learn all things, both the steadfast heart of well-rounded/well-lit5 truth, and the beliefs [doxa] of mortals, in which there is no true trust. But nevertheless you shall learn these things as well, how the things which seem [dokounta] had genuinely to be, permeating all things completely,” (frag. 1.28-32). The Goddess’ words at the end are ambiguous, and have occasioned much discussion, but what is indisputable is that Her teaching will include both a doctrine of truth and a doctrine of doxa, that is, of semblance, appearance, or belief, which are in one sense inherently untrustworthy, but also express a necessity of their own. What seems to be, may not truly be, but it does trulyseem. Doxa are genuine, dokimos, in that respect, in a play on words, and can thus sustain an account worthy of the Goddess. We are reminded again of the epistemological force of polytheistic affirmations that “All things are full of Gods” (Thales): there is an intelligibility appropriate to anything, however intrinsically obscure, whether in the depths of nature, or in the depths of the human mind, or on the fleeting and fluctuating surface of events.

The maidens from the House of Night enter into the light and push back their veils: what is common to the paths of Truth and of Appearance is disclosure, disclosure of Truth as true, of Appearance as apparent. Theophany is the real beyond the distinction of truth and appearance, but far from being “a single, undifferentiated unity,” as Gallop claims—utterly without justification but typical of modern scholarship—there are plainly many individuals there: the Sun Maidens, Nyx, Dikê, ‘Hypsipyle’, the Daimôn of frag. 12, Erôs, the indefinite totality of “all the Gods” mentioned in frag. 13, and others of whom it is less clear whether they are to be taken more as concepts than as deities, such as Anankê and Moira. Like Parmenides himself as the mortal subject of theophany, these Gods are the basis or support in the real for the dialectical testing or elenchos (frag. 7.5-6) embodied in the Goddess’ discourse, and must be, lest the latter undermine itself in paradox.

In this respect, we glimpse already, at the very beginning of Hellenic philosophy, something that will be explicitly articulated at its culmination: a domain prior to Being—for Being belongs to the Way of Truth in Parmenides’ poem. Just as in the Platonists of late antiquity, this domain beyond Being is that of the Gods, of individuals prior to essence, for essence is the product ofkrisis, of judgment, it is what has been tested through the elenchos the Goddess describes. This term, elenchos, or ‘refutation’ is used as well to refer to those dialogues of Plato’s which arrive at no definite solution, but in and through which concepts articulate themselves and things, as it were, argue for their being. But beyond truth and appearance, there is what simply discloses itself. This primordial disclosure is the primary activity of the Gods, it is theophany itself, and since theophany is the primary moment of ontology, along with theophany features basic to manifestation as such—logic, number, geometry—are imparted in their purest forms.

Binary logic, the it is or it isn’t, is the keystone of the Goddess’ discourse, and what She primarily wishes Parmenides to understand. In the form of on/off, or one/zero, it is also literally what the digital world, with its ‘logic gates’, is made of. But the binary nature of the Way of Truth is not like the binaries of the Pythagorean table. The opposites on the table are enantiomorphs, at once excluding and depending upon one another, but the Way of Truth cuts across them, for each in its way is, and on the Way of Truth there is only “that [it] is, and that [it] cannot not be,” on the one hand, and “that [it] is not and that [it] needs must not be,” (frag. 2) on the other. The traits of necessary being are woven all through things, and yet by coming to recognize these traits in their own right, they coalesce together, “because the same thing is there for thinking and for being” (frag. 3) and “things which, though far off, are yet firmly present to the mind” are not separated from one another—“you shall not cut off what-is from holding fast to what-is” (frag. 4).

The Way of Truth, therefore, is at once a criterion applied to each thing, and also produces something itself “ungenerated and imperishable, whole, single-limbed, steadfast, and complete … [it] is, now, all together, one, continuous” (frag. 8.3-6). On the Way of Truth we discover Being Itself, which is manifest along with everything that manifests itself. By thinking it, it is. It is not discovered in the sense that it was there, and then we found it, nor is it produced in the sense that it comes to be: in thinking, it is. A series of further determinations of being itself follow: it is indivisible (8.22); a plenum (24); a continuum (25); without beginning or end (27); unchanging (29); limited (31), but complete and lacking nothing (32-33); equal to itself in every way (49). It is being itself that is named, She explains, by all the things mortals posit as coming to be and passing away and changing in whatever fashion (38-41), which is to say no more, and no less, than that insofar as generation and destruction and transformation and mixture are, they are being; and this means that they are what being is, while being is not what they are—and it is this insight, the recognition of this asymmetry, which provides the transition to the cosmogony of appearance.

Dikê’s appearance in frag. 1 and again in frag. 8 (14-15) underscores that it is the Gods who, through Their presence in each of the poem’s sections, unite the multiple ‘paths’. But it must be remarked that modern commentators in general have not seen in the Gods any particular clue to the notorious difficulties of Parmenides’ poem, nor frankly taken account of them as anything more than allegorical decoration. But even if all of the Gods in the poem were reduced to conceptual equivalents, Parmenides’ logical insights would still be bounded by an irreducible field of forces, of mortality, agonism, and revelation; it would merely lack the secure grounding of entities whose manifestation, rather than bearing reference to Being, as beings do, is primarily productive of Being.

(The Greek text of Parmenides’ fragments, together with an English translation by John Burnet, are available from this site: http://philoctetes.free.fr/parmenides.htm.)

  1. Citations of Parmenides are according to fragment in the Diels-Kranz ordering and line number; translations are based on Parmenides of Elea: Fragments, trans. David Gallop (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984), but frequently modified.
  2. The word polyphêmon here may be of significance, in light of the famous Kyklops and son of Poseidon in the Odyssey, who is defeated by the skillful use of negation (Outis, ‘No one’).
  3. Often translated as the “road of the Goddess”, with reference to the Goddess who appears subsequently; but the latter is labeled rather as thea, and while the terms daimôn and theos are sometimes interchangeable, we ought not presume straightaway such loose usage. Note, moreover, the reference in the later part of the poem to a “daimôn who steers all things … (who) rules over hateful (stygeros, cf. Styx) birth and intercourse of all things,” (frag. 12).
  4. Vishwa Adluri, Parmenides, Plato, and Mortal Philosophy: Return from Transcendence (London: Continuum, 2011).
  5. Simplicius has eukykleos, Proclus euphengeos, and there is no way to resolve the question, least of all to propose a third alternative, as some editors have chosen. ‘Well-rounded’ would refer, presumably, to the benign circularity the Goddess attributes to Her discourse in frag. 5: “And it is all one to me where I am to begin; for I shall return there again.”
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One Comment


  1. First let me apologise for high jacking this thread.
    What is your opinion on this piece?

    I ask because I think he has completely misrepresented polytheist/animistic beliefs IMO, I am pretty irritated by the article.