HERACLITUS AND PARMENIDES Of Heraclitus we have about 140 fragments, some of dubious authenticity, all of them seemingly obscure and open to endless interpretation. He affirms change and becoming when he says, "Other and other waters touch those who go into the same river," a typical saying of Heraclitus in that a logical thought is couched in physical, everyday terms--water, a river, a body. Change and becoming are thought in terms of life and death: being is overcome by not-being and viceversa, a quality is conquered by its opposite, and so the cosmos, always becoming, is a field of constant war: "War is the father and king of all things, it shows some as gods, some as men, it makes some freemen and others slaves." The becoming of the cosmos is explained in physical terms: fire dies and is changed into air, air dies and becomes water, water dies to become earth, and so on, an interchanging of life and death between different elements which, however, would be wrong to call "a process," because "process" means something moving only one way--forward--whereas Heraclitus insists, in fragment after fragment, that this sequence of transformations in the cosmos goes both ways. In his own words, "The way up and the way down are one and the same." This is his deepest insight: all becoming is circular (notice that, indeed, in a circle the way up and the way down are one and the same). The same is true of human life: "In us the living and the dead, wakefulness and sleep, youth and old age, are one and the same: for the ones are changed into the others, and reciprocally." Heraclitus apparently believed in the cyclic recurrence of all things, including our lives. The German philosopher Nietzsche tried to revive that doctrine at the end of the 19th century. The circular nature of becoming was to mark deeply another famous German philosopher, Hegel (beginnings of 19th century).
Parmenides, on the other hand, has left us long fragments of a poem written in the same meter as the Homeric epics; although there is no lack in it of goddesses and mystical symbols, the main thrust is austerely logical. The poem has two parts: the first is "the way of Truth," the second, "the way of Opinion." Parmenides' main truth is: We cannot think nor say not-being. Thus, he rejects outright the possibility of what I called the horribly difficult thought of not-being. Let me explain how he does it. Suppose I say, "Dragons are not (i.e. they don't exist)." Parmenides would reply: either there are dragons out there, in which case you are uttering a lie, or there are not, in which case your word "dragon" (and your thought) are about nothing. But a thought or a word cannot be about nothing, words and thoughts are like arrows, or like wasp stings: they must hit a target. If you say, "But my word `dragon' hits an idea of dragon I have in my mind," he would reply, "Then you're changing the subject: your word means an idea, not an object out there, and in that case, when you say that dragons are not, you're uttering a lie, for you say that the idea is in your mind." Similarly, if you tell Parmenides that elephants are not flying animals, he will reply the following: "You're saying that flying elephants are not, but as I told you before..." In summary, we cannot say that something is not, nor can we say that A is not B. Remember that Aristotle's principle of contradiction states that you cannot say at once that A is B AND A is not B; but Parmenides was far stricter: he stated that we cannot say that A is not B, period. The consequences of this strict logic are stunning. Change and becoming are stopped in their tracks, and differences between things are erased, for saying A is different from B is tantamount to saying A is not B. For Parmenides the truth about our universe is that it is timeless, eternal, motionless, perfectly uniform, the same all throughout. Being no fool, he knew that's not the way we experience it with our senses, so he allowed for the way of opinion (dóxa). The word dóxa meant not only opinion but appearance, prestige, fame, and many other things. What Parmenides was after, then, is the truth behind appearances, and what he was saying is that becoming and change are merely appearances; true being is changeless. I said before that philosophy struggles with the difficult thought of not-being, and also that all philosophy is paradoxical. I may add now that at the time of the Greeks as well as in our own, the number of people who care to think those difficult thoughts is very small: philosophy is by nature elitist.
Heraclitus and Parmenides seem to be on opposite sides: one affirms becoming and change, the other denies them. Heidegger, however, has written that those two philosophers say the same thing. We cannot trust Heidegger at his word, for in the same book, An Introduction to Metaphysics (published in 1935) he wrote that the US and the Soviet Union "are metaphysically the same"; Heidegger was a Nazi, a thoroughly unsavory character. What he said about Heraclitus and Parmenides (who, for all we know, may have been pretty unsavory characters themselves), makes good sense, though. Remember that being means appearing, emerging and enduring. What's enduring, true being for Heraclitus is not endless becoming but its circular path: things change, being turns into not-being, life turns into death, but change itself is cyclical, repeated for ever, eternal: it truly is. For Parmenides, true being is whatever is changeless behind the appearance of change. In their differing ways, both philosophers struggled to rescue eternal being from the flux of appearance and change. Both, heroically, tried to stamp becoming with the seal of being, which is the intellectual way of abolishing death. Remember the bully Gilgamesh, who was no intellectual: he tried to become immortal, and failed. Philosophers try it in a different way, by thinking immortal thoughts.
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The History of Ancient Philosophy
Parmenides’ position begins with the statement that “What is is and what is not is not” and that these two statements are mutually exclusive and not interchangeable. So something that is must always be, it can never perish or change because then it will become what “is not”. He believes that something that “is not” is unintelligible and that only things that can be thought of are real and only real things can be thought of. Therefore for something to pass into the realm of not being then it can no longer be thought of and is not considered real.
By the same reasoning things must never have had a starting point because that would imply that before that point it did not exist and therefore it was and is not real. He takes this idea even further to say that nothing has a past or a future. Even the immediate past and future do not exist because it means there was change. For Parmenides change means that something has passed from being one thing to another and therefore is not that original thing, and will soon change into something else. This constant change that we see every day does not actually happen and cannot be considered real. All things must be the way they are now and have always been and will be. Parmenides idea of the universe was one that was completely unchanging with one beginning or end and nothing like time or motion. With the same logic he argued that the world cannot consist of many things. If I have a desk and an apple then I can say that the desk is not the apple and the apple is not the desk.
Since it is impossible to think of something that is not then there must not be and apple or a desk. Parmenides believed that the universe is completely whole and one. He envisioned the universe as a sphere completely solid with no room for motion or ability for change. All the things that we see and the changes that we sense are not real, only this one sphere is real.
Zeno does not directly argue the ideas of Parmenides but instead uses tricks with math and infinity to attack plurality and motion. The first is about Achilles and a turtle. Achilles and a turtle are going to run a race. Let us say the Achilles runs ten times as fast as the turtle and the turtle gets a tem meter head start. While Achilles runs the first ten meters the turtle runs 1/10 of a meter. Achilles then runs 1/10 of a meter but the turtle pulls ahead 1/100 of a meter. This continues forever and Achilles can never win the race. This is supposed to prove an apparent paradox in the concept of motion. Another is about men in a stadium.
If one line of men is standing still and two more line pass on one side parallel and in opposite directions that it would seem that a man in the middle line is passing one man in the still line and he passed two in the moving line. Zeno says that it is impossible for a man to be passing both one man and two men at the same time. Again he is remarking on the paradox of what we perceive as motion. The flaws in both these arguments are apparent with a little thought. In the first argument he is simply playing with numbers. You can take any number and divide it into parts indefinitely, but if you gave real values to the speeds of Achilles and the turtle you would immediately see the expected outcome of Achilles victory. The second argument falsely assumes that the fact that the third row of men is moving does not matter.
Parmenides touched on some truths even if it was unintentional. His original statement of what is is and what is not is not seems strait foreword and obvious. Thing either exist or they don’t. His next step I quite a leap though. The idea that just because something is it can never not be or not have been. We see some quality of this in the idea that matter is never created or destroyed, he may have been on the right track even though his idea was false. His ideas on change however are completely wrong. Change does not necessarily mean something no longer exists. Since matter is never created or destroyed then the way we get new things is through change. Our world is in a constant state of change. These two miss representations of realty make for a very odd view of the universe. The idea that everything we see is an illusion and that the universe is one and unchanging are obvious falsehoods.
Heraclitus’ philosophy was fundamentally different from that of Parmenides. First off Heraclitus has a very mythological point of view. He borrows heavily from culture and traditions while adding his own ideas. He talks of the four elements and their struggle. He gives the cosmos very human qualities. Heraclitus speaks of logos, which is the basic order of things, and Parmenides speaks of the oneness of the universe which is somewhat of a similarity. Parmenides’ point of view is much more scientific. He uses logic and reason to draw conclusions from truths. Even though the conclusions that the Eleatic philosophers reached were wrong I think it is their methods that have had a lasting influence.
Before them philosophy was mainly in the realm of the mythological. People would make statement explaining nature in abstract ways. The Eleatic philosophers tried to use reason to determine truth. I think reason survived because although it did not work for them it certainly does work now. The more knowledge we have the easier it becomes to use reason and logic to seek truth. It is also easier to argue for and harder to argue against a reasonable and logical point. This is very different from the philosophy of someone like Heraclitus which requires faith to believe in their point of view.