What is the most important single work in Western philosophical tradition? Is it Plato’s Timaeus? John’s Gospel? Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason? Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations?
We all have our favorites and it makes for a great late night parlor game, whether in a college dorm room in Topeka or an edgy bar in Berlin. My personal choice? Parmenides’ Fragment 8! (When was the last time that one came up in conversation?)
On Nature, an ‘ontological epic’ composed by the 5th century BC, pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, Parmenides, is the oldest work of European philosophy that remains substantially intact. That said, our text of the poem consists of 20 fragments and there is no consensus on the ordering of these fragments in the original work. Nevertheless, the core of the poem’s argument is contained in the fragment most often numbered “Fragment 8”.
The poem is divided into two sections: The “Way of Truth” (Aletheia) and the “Way of Seeming” (Doxa) or “Appearance”. Parmenides uses On Nature to present two utterly inconsistent and contradictory models of reality. Did Parmenides regard one as right and the other as wrong? Or one as real and the other as illusory? Or was Parmenides simply unable to choose between the two? (This last option is apparently the view of Plato whose dialogue, The Parmenides, presents Parmenides as confused and non-committal.)
The dominant theory, however, is that Aletheia (Truth) is what’s real and Doxa (Appearance) is mere illusion. Commentators holding this view see Doxa through the prism of Eastern philosophy (Maya) or perhaps Jewish wisdom literature (Vanity).
But Parmenides refutes this interpretation head-on in Fragment One: “But nevertheless you shall learn…how the things that seem had to have genuine existence, permeating all things completely.” Being in the mode of Doxa is genuine and universal. The original Greek makes this point much more forcefully: “pantos panta peronta” (where the root “pan” means “all”). You don’t need to read classical Greek to get the point! You can’t say “universal” any more forcefully in any language.
In contrast, Fragment 8 says this about what-is in the mode of Aletheia: “…it neither disperses itself every way everywhere according to cosmic order, nor gathers itself together.”
In this essay, we take the view that there can be no complete account of Being that does not include both Aletheia and Doxa, even though the two models are in every respect mutually exclusive and have absolutely no elements in common. Further, we take the even more radical position that this is exactly the relationship between Aletheia and Doxa that Parmenides intended.
Using two mutually exclusive models together to account for a phenomenon is called “Complementarity”. Folks like to think that we discovered ‘Complementarity’ sometime in the first half of the 20th century. Consider wave-particle duality in Quantum Mechanics, for example. According to contemporary theory, the behavior of sub-atomic particles cannot be explained unless one assumes that they are both waves and particles, even though such an assumption appears to entail a contradiction and relies simultaneously on two models that have no common elements.
To attribute the idea of Complementarity to Parmenides is ‘radical’ because it is supposed to be anachronistic. He is not supposed to have been able to discover such an idea 2500 years ago. But despite our prejudices, the text of On Nature clearly leads us to an interpretation based on Complementarity and I would prefer to accept the text on its own terms rather than insist on squeezing that text into very poorly fitting, preconceived forms.
Fragment 8 further defines what it means to exist in the mode of Doxa: “To come to be and to perish, to be and not to be, and to shift place and to exchange bright color.”
To exist in the mode of Doxa is to exist relative to other existents, to be one among many. In the mode of Doxa, existence is contingent. An entity may be or not be. And if it is at all, it comes to be and then ceases to be. Furthermore, an entity in Doxa varies its position in spacetime relative to other entities. Entities in Doxa are always in the process of becoming (positively or negatively); as we shall see later, by themselves they never really are. They derive their “genuine existence” only by subsisting in Aletheia…but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Entities in the mode of Doxa can be analyzed into subject-predicate, substance-accident, ‘existence-essence’ (Sartre), ‘actual entity-eternal object’ (Whitehead), ‘Dassein-Wassein’ (Heidegger), etc… They exhibit both a ‘thatness’ and a ‘whatness’ and the former is independent of the later.
At this stage of our inquiry, Parmenides’ Way of Seeming seems similar to Heraclitus’ world view. Everything is in flux, perpetually. Change is the only constant. Stability is a measure of variations in and among rates of change.
At first blush, this model is very attractive; it seems to correlate well with our everyday experience. But there is one problem. According to this model, there is no real Presence, no true here or now. At best, ‘here’ and ‘now’ are infinitesimal limits abstracted from the continuity of the flow but that is certainly not what we mean when we speak of the Present. According to the mode of Doxa, there is only then and there, past and future, and relative distances in space and time.
Understood this way, Doxa accounts for absolutely nothing. We don’t experience the then and there, the past and future. We believe that they are real, that they exist, but we cannot experience them directly. We can only experience the here and now, the Present, and what we know of then and there, past and future, we know only indirectly through our Present experience.
To be in the mode of Aletheia is, however, something quite different: “…what-is is ungenerated and imperishable…un-beginning and unceasing…whole, single-limbed, steadfast and complete; nor was it once, nor will it be, since it is, now, all together, one, continuous…Thus coming-to-be is extinguished and perishing not to be heard of.”
In the mode of Aletheia, there is no generation, no corruption. What-is is whole and entire, indivisible and complete. There is no space (here and there), no time (past and future), no extension (dispersing and gathering). There is only Presence. In fact, there cannot be any past or future in the mode of Aletheia:
“For what coming-to-be of it will you seek? In what way, 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?…how could what-is be in the future? And how could it come to be? For if it came to be, it is not, nor is it if at some time it is going to be.”
‘Past’ implies that something was once different from what is now and ‘future’ implies that something will someday be different from what is now, but in the mode of Aletheia nothing can ever be different from what is now; therefore, there can only be Presence.
Further, if there were a past and/or a future, that past would have to differ from this present and present from that future. This in turn would imply what-is is not always ‘complete’. But that too is impossible:
“…it is not right for what is to be incomplete; for it is not lacking, but if it were, it would lack everything…Therefore, it must either be completely or not at all.”
While to exist in the mode of Doxa is to be one among many, to exist in the mode of Aletheia is simply to be one. To exist in the mode of Doxa is to be in a perpetual process of change, beginning with generation and ending with death; but to exist in the mode of Aletheia is simply to be, unchanging, eternal.
But understood this way, Aletheia accounts for absolutely nothing either. We don’t experience permanence, eternity, wholeness. We only experience what is in flux, what is incomplete, what is in motion (internally and externally). But we do experience these phenomena in the Present. Perhaps we might say that we experience the events of Doxa from the perspective of Aletheia.
Given the obvious fact that neither Doxa nor Aletheia alone is able to account for all of the phenomena of our everyday experience – in fact neither Doxa nor Aletheia alone is able to account for even a single phenomenon of our experience – are we not entitled to conclude that Parmenides intends us to understand ‘Nature’ by using both models together?
Of course, it is certainly possible to read Parmenides as a dualist, to imagine that there are two worlds, one characterized by extension and change, one characterized by eternity and permanence. After all, many Christians (even Aquinas?) seem to hold such a view. I have argued (above) that read this way, the poem makes no sense. But beyond that, is such a reading even consistent with the overall structure and narrative content of the poem?
Consider the structure of the poem in the broadest possible sense. On Nature consists of two parts, the Way of Truth and the Way of Appearance. Therefore, on the most superficial reading, the implication is that ‘Nature’ somehow includes both Truth and Appearance.
Consider also the poem’s narrative content. At the beginning of Fragment One, the goddess sends mares to bring Parmenides over “the much speaking route of the goddess that carries everywhere unscathed the man who knows”.
When Parmenides comes into the presence of the goddess, she greets him: “Welcome, for it is no ill fortune that sent you forth to travel this route (for it lies far from the beaten track of men) but right and justice. And it is right that you should learn all things…”
This would be a great deal of trouble to go to if the result were to be just another gnostic dualism. But it is Fragment 5 that seals the deal once and for all:
“And it is all one to me where I am to begin; for I shall return there again.”
This is the language of non-orientable topology. It suggests that Doxa and Aletheia form a reality that is locally two sided (‘ways’) but globally one-sided. As you pass along the Mobius Strip embedded in every non-orientable surface, you keep coming back to your starting point…but everytime you return, your orientation has reversed.
Now apply this to the topology of ‘nature’ according to Parmenides. For every “spot” on the “strip”, there are two alternating orientations: the extensive orientation of Doxa and the eternal orientation of Aletheia. What is really surprising about this is that Doxa and Aletheia, supposed polar opposites, turn out not to be so very different after all. In fact, they turn out to be the same thing, just seen from the different perspectives of two mirror-image orientations.
What then really distinguishes the Way of Seeming from the Way of Truth?
“…From here onwards learn mortal beliefs…they distinguished opposites in body and established signs apart from one another…all things have been named light and night and these according to their powers (are applied) to these things and to those.”
Of course, such naïve dualism never works and Parmenides understood as much. Naïve dualism merely creates two worlds instead of one and each of these worlds raises all the same ontological issues and problems as the single world of monism. To be a relevant tool for modeling actual experience, a dualism requires some sort of ‘bridging agent’ to bring the two realms into relation with one another.
Parmenides invokes the agency of ‘the goddess’: “In the midst of these is the goddess who steers all things; for she rules over hateful birth and the union of all things…” But ultimately, the role of the goddess is not to rule but to create a third term to unite the first two.
“…She devised Love (Erota) first of all the gods…”
British philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, in his seminal work of process philosophy, Process and Reality, concluded that a processional model of reality requires three ‘undefined’ terms (i.e. terms whose meaning can be taken for granted without further definition); for Whitehead those undefined terms were: One, Many and Creativity.
We might attempt an even more general formulation. Every process based model of reality must include a principal of disjunction (‘or’ in the language of logic) and a principal of conjunction (‘and’ in the language of logic). Since disjunction implies plurality, our model also ultimately assumes three undefined terms: disjunction and its products and conjunction.
If this model (or Whitehead’s) be taken as the universal substructure of all process based models, it is important to note that Parmenides’ model (Doxa) meets that test; his terms are Light and Night and Love. In his Doxa, there is a disjunctive function (“distinguished opposites”) and a conjunctive function (“the union of all things”).
Parmenides identified and defined the minimal conditions necessary for “process” to occur. In this, Parmenides anticipated Marx’s Dialectical Materialism by two dozen centuries (Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis) and Trinitarian theology by half a millennium (Father, Son, Spirit).
The Trinitarian parallel is especially interesting as the Christian doctrine of Trinity is another example of the Complementarity in early Western thought. According to that doctrine, God is one and God is triune and God can only be grasped via the simultaneous affirmation of both, apparently contradictory, propositions.
Another process based model, the creation story in Genesis, probably precedes Parmenides’ account. It too contains the necessary elements:
“God then separated the light from the darkness. God called the light ‘day’ and the darkness he called ‘night’. Evening came and morning followed – the first day.”
Genesis continues the theme of ‘separation’ for five ‘days’. On the sixth day of creation, God introduces his ‘bridging agent’, Mankind: “God created mankind in this image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them…and God said to them, ‘Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it.'”
In Genesis God is initially introduced as an agent of division (a necessary part of all process) but ultimately from those divisions arises an agent of unification: Mankind. At first read, Mankind may appear a poor counter weight to ‘the creator of heaven and earth’. But there is something enormously profound going on here. Mankind is created in God’s image. Perhaps Mankind is God’s image in the same way that Aletheia is Doxa’s image, i.e. his mirror image on the non-orientable surface of the world.
Further, Mankind is not just a collection of atomic individuals. Mankind is also the locus of the Incarnation, the Christ, God-become-Man. The New Testament book, Colossians, refers to Christ as “the image of the invisible God”.
This interpretation is challenging. It implies that theologies of Trinity and Incarnation were already implicitly present in the first chapter of Genesis. But according to such an interpretation, it is Christ, the Son of God, wholly man and wholly God, who bridges the multiple dualisms of the created world and instantiates the Biblical version of Aletheia, the Kingdom of Heaven.
The parallel extends further. Both Plato and Simplicus quote Parmenides regarding what-is in the mode of Aletheia:
“Such, changeless, is that for which as a whole the name is ‘to be’.” In Exodus (and thereafter) the name of God is Yahweh, “I am what am.”
We have found in Parmenides an ontology that respects the reality of phenomenal events but situates those events in the broader context of Eternal Being. In many ways, this is the holy grail of philosophy for which we have been searching for millennia…only to find out now that we already had the grail in our possession at the very outset of our journey. Surely, this justifies our claim that Fragment 8 1s the most important single document in the Western philosophical tradition.
Much of Western thought (and some Eastern thought as well) boils down to the following argument: either ‘Earth’ is real and ‘Heaven’ is not or ‘Heaven’ is real and ‘Earth’ is not. Parmenides staked out the position that both ‘Heaven’ (Aletheia) and ‘Earth’ (Doxa) are ultimately real. Far from being irreconcilable opposites, Heaven and Earth, Aletheia and Doxa, are just two opposite ‘orientations’ (see above) of one and the same reality.
Put differently, Aletheia and Doxa are two different ways of seeing the same thing. Process and Reality (Whitehead) suggests something similar. Any actual entity may be exhaustively described in terms of the process by which it comes to be (what it is for itself); but it may also be exhaustively described in terms of its ‘satisfaction’ or ‘superject’ (what it is for others). As with Doxa and Aletheia, the two modes have no terms in common. Concrescent process knows nothing of satisfaction or superject; likewise, superject knows nothing of the process that constitutes it.
Think of the most common illustration used to explain the concept of Gestalt. Seen one way, it is a drawing of two faces staring at each other (Doxa?); seen the other way, it a drawing of a single vase (Aletheia?). Both interpretations are equally valid and both accurately describe the same reality; but it is virtually impossible to ‘see’ both at once. Instead, we come to understand the Gestalt by alternately seeing the vase, then the faces, then the vase, ad nauseum until we are absolutely convinced that both images are equally valid.
The perpetually vanishing existents of Doxa subsist eternally in Aletheia. Without Doxa, Aletheia would be empty; without Aletheia, Doxa would have no real existence. Aletheia acquires its content from Doxa; Doxa acquires its reality from Aletheia. Without both, neither!