The Practicality of Parmenides' "On Nature"

You're right! If you back down, you don't just descend into error, you compound the error.

The Practicality of Parmenides' "On Nature"

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Below, a brief comment on two passages of Parmenides which I believe introduce larger issues worth thinking about. I joined a philosophy forum where everyone is earnest and eager to learn. It should be helpful to present passages from philosophic texts and talk aloud about how they work or don't work.

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The Practicality of Parmenides' "On Nature"

Parmenides is famous for holding change to be illusory. His reasoning may be thought overly grammatical. If we declare something "is," and we understand what "is," then what is must have had no origin (how could something emerge from nothing?), cannot pass away (it is, duh), must be finite (potentially apprehensible) yet endless (what is comprehends a lot of things). "Being" is a unified, unchanging whole, if being and truth are one.

Typically, Parmenides is understood as a response to Heraclitus, who held there is no constant but change. Nietzsche, in Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, associates Heraclitus with artistic creation and "play." Parmenides, on the other hand, is characterized by the terms "cold" and "abstract." However, Parmenides' actual thought comes to us in the form of a poem.

Poetry in the ancient world is very different from poetry nowadays. It's closer in status to The Bible than poetry night at a café. Still, our own exaggerations can be helpful in grasping what is at stake. If we think of Rupi Kaur when we hear "poetry" and Richard Dawkins when we hear "science," something like a merger of the two is occurring in Parmenides' poem On Nature.


Parmenides, in his poem, ascends and meets the goddess Truth. Truth, for her part, does not speak with any obvious subtlety. She declares that there are "only two ways of search that can be thought of." This sounds a bit restrictive, and sure enough, she clarifies her point less like a teacher and more like a fanatic:

"The first namely, that It is, and that it is impossible for anything not to be, is the way of conviction, for truth is its companion. The other, namely, that It is not, and that something must needs not be—that, I tell thee, is a wholly untrustworthy path. For you cannot know what is not—that is impossible—nor utter it..."

The goddess Truth says "It is" is "the way of conviction," with "truth" as "its companion." You are, it seems, to declare what is with "conviction." You're right! If you back down, you don't just descend into error, you compound the error. In this spirit, you post comments on Justin Bieber's and Phoebe Bridgers' YouTube channels saying "real music is dead," then upvote a bunch of Metallica videos.

Forking forest path
Photo by Jens Lelie / Unsplash

If you play with "It is not," you're going down "a wholly untrustworthy path," one which leads to having opinions. A good opinion won't try to articulate the exact truth, but tries to outline what's at stake or what's likely. This usually involves stating what is not the case or making clear our worst outcome in order to avoid it. Such reasoning is unacceptable to the goddess! "You cannot know what is not—that is impossible—nor utter it."

I recognize this goddess. I have a number of people in my life who have not read a book for decades. This is how they argue. There is truth, all else is idle speculation. They'll proclaim a "truth," of course, which is nothing but idle speculation, but can't be identified as such because everything else has been called that already. A preemptive strike on reason, if you will, in order to establish ignorance as truth.


To be sure, philosophers have taken Parmenides seriously for centuries as holding being as unchangeable. It's a powerful and perhaps necessary philosophical position. It doesn't seem terribly practical to keep collecting all these changeable truths, each dependent on circumstance. But it does seem like being and truth have a deeper linkage, that at some point our words aren't merely words.

Still, to insist on that linkage too strictly can invite trouble. If one insists, for example, that being = truth = unity = goodness, as Aquinas did, then philosophy slips into theology. Questions become answers perhaps too quickly. What we want is an insight into how insight works. That sounds fancy and mystical, but it can be helpful in knowing when we're prone to take the wrong path.

There's a detail at the opening of On Nature which strikes me as incredibly wise. Before Parmenides can meet with the goddess Truth, he has to pass through some locked doors:

"Avenging Justice keeps the keys that open them. Her did the maidens entreat with gentle words and skilfully persuade to unfasten without demur the bolted bars from the gates."

Justice opens the door to Truth. —So what, you say. Justice, truth, virtue: these are all the same way of saying high-sounding mush.— Well, not quite. The sticking point is that justice and truth are not equivalent. Of course people have to lie for the greater good. Many times they have to lie to save lives: some are so careless they don't realize other people depend on them, still others are simply butchers. Obviously society can't just be one big lie, but that has to do with the truth being necessary for justice, not that the two terms can be substituted for each other.

So. Maybe justice could lead to truth, if thought through carefully. But Parmenides doesn't even speak to Justice herself! Others do it, and he tells us nothing of the substance of what was said. I tend to believe that Parmenides' doctrine of being as unchangeable is a comment on a particular commitment to justice. We want being and truth to be the same, as we feel that would be most just. We have no idea what we're asking for, and a harsh, indecipherable answer to our demand is more than fair.


Quotations of Parmenides are from Burnet's translation (1892), available here: