|Born||c. 515/540 B.C.
Elea, Magna Graecia
More than 500 years before the time of Christ, a small group of philosophers was formulating fundamental ideas that would shape Western society for next 2,500 years. They were called the Eleatic School, and its primary founder was a Greek man named Parmenides.
Parmenides was born in the city of Elea after which his school of philosophy is named. Elea was located in a region of western Italy which was a Greek colony at the time. The date of his birth is somewhat uncertain, but it was almost certainly between 515 and 540 B.C.
His family was wealthy and commanded a high social status. This allowed Parmenides to concentrate on intellectual and educational pursuits rather than the common labor or military conscription of the lower classes.
Parmenides may have been a student of another giant of ancient Greek thought, Xenophanes, who was a well-known poet, theologian, and social critic. While it is uncertain if Parmenides knew Xenophanes personally, there is no doubt he was exposed to and greatly influenced by the elder thinker’s work.
The Philosophy of Parmenides
It might be said that two fundamental views of the world came out of ancient Greek philosophy. One was that all knowledge could be gained through the direct perception of the five human senses. This is very similar to the rational scientific model which holds sway today. The idea is that if something cannot be seen, touched, measured, etc., then it is not worth considering since it is something beyond our basic direct perception.
The other mode of thought held that the realm of a “pure mind” was the ultimate arbiter of reality, and that much of, if not everything that we perceive with our direct senses, is basically an illusion, or only a “shadow” of some other “form” or “model” that exists in the realm of pure mind. This is the philosophy most associated with Plato today, but the roots on this view can be traced to Parmenides and his Eleatic school.
Physical Reality and Delusions
Parmenides maintained that those who cling to solid physical reality and matter to explain the world were being fooled by their own minds. Rather, Parmenides said that only through the exploration of the mind itself and its thoughts, using a certain logical process, could mankind derive the true and fundamental nature of all existence.
His school argued for a “universal unity of being” which could not be perceived by the five senses alone. In fact, just looking at things and measuring objects could lead to a delusional view of reality, Parmenides said.
Influence on Other Philosophers
Parmenides was a major influence on Plato and Plato’s famous teacher, Socrates. Parmenides is often referred to as a “pre-Socratic” philosopher and Plato even named one of his Dialogues Parmenides, which indicates how much he valued and was influenced by his ideas.
It is from the works of these later scholars, such as Socrates and Plato, that we obtain the majority of our knowledge about the philosophy of Parmenides. That is because just one fragmented original work of Parmenides survives. It is a poem of 160 (surviving) lines called On Nature. The true title of the work is not known, and the original work may have been as long as 3,000 lines.
One of the most famous statements from On Nature predates another famous line of philosophy by some 2,000 years. In the 17th Century, René Descartes said, “I think; therefore, I am.” But in On Nature, 20 centuries earlier, Parmenides wrote: “For to be aware and to be are the same.”
Prelude to Quantum Mechanics
The philosophy of Parmenides would later be countered and overwhelmed by the basic materialism of Aristotle and Democritus, who argued forcefully for reliance on the physical senses to perceive and understand the world. Democritus, for example, is famous for having argued that the physical world is composed of tiny building blocks, which is the basis for atomic theory.
This material reality, or “building block universe,” has been embraced by mainstream science ever since — that is, until the early 20th century when Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Erwin Schrodinger and others began to develop quantum theory.
With quantum theory, the idea that we live in a purely physical world composed of basic building blocks of hard matter is now very much in question. But Schrodinger himself was still intrigued and influenced directly by the ideas of Parmenides.
Death and Legacy of Parmenides
Very little is known about the personal life of Parmenides. The dates of his death are generally not given in most historical accounts, although he probably lived to an advanced age. If he ever married or fathered children is unknown. Many of his philosophical ideas, however, still stand today and they are still being discussed 25 centuries after his death.