Parmenides was a revolution. He wrote a poem* about what makes a good poem, a theory that came with a rule for testing its truth. It was safe science, science safe for both individual and society.
Theories that don't come with their own rule for testing we have plenty of examples of. We have the religious fundamentalists who say they love us, and we should submit like children unthinkingly to their rules, and any uncomfortable results of the rules' application we have to submit to as part of the mystery and beauty of the love expressed in the relation of ruler and ruled. We have economists who say they love us too, and what is good for us is protection against people like religious fundamentalists who want to make too many rules, and in the beauty of the economists' love for us we are to accept unchallenged the painful results of their rule, again as part of the mystery of submission to rules which express the love of our leaders.
We think we are making purely rational decisions, choosing between world views. And we are choosing. But our failure to discuss in detail what in fact happens after following the rules shows that really we are choosing between beauties. We are passing from the theory, to love. We have experience with religious leaders being corrupt, we choose the economists. We have experience with the economists being corrupt, we choose the religious leaders. We finish our reasoning in attachment to one or other idea of being loved and safe.
Now turn to Parmenides' poem which as I said comes with its own rule for testing whether it is right:
Parmenides is taken on a journey to the gates of day and night, and passing through is instructed by a goddess. The truth is, he is told, there is no movement, no division in the world. But he needs to know about the false world in which there appears to be separate things changing, where something is, in one way, then is not, not in that way. Looked at and spoken of correctly the false world reminds us of the true.
The truth is we make poems, we talk, think about the world so as to be happy, which means to stop talking. When you stop talking the world seems to whole and still.
The poem is a product of the world of appearance. But everything in that world is not equally useless. Some ways of doing things there will get you home, some won't. Divinity holds sway there and insures the order of the passage.
Parmenides' poem is useful, is maybe the most influential thing ever made. It tells us that we want to make a relation, a passage between our reasoning about the world, and getting out of the world. Our problem is not just that we don't think, don't test the consequences of our theories. Our problem is that we skip a step and go directly from theory to love. We don't need to be told to make the passage across, we are already doing it. We need to be told to do it right.
* Parmenides Fragments:
The steeds that bear me carried me as far as ever my heart
Desired, since they brought me and set me on the renowned
Way of the goddess, who with her own hands conducts the man
who knows through all things. On what way was I borne
5 along; for on it did the wise steeds carry me, drawing my car,
and maidens showed the way. And the axle, glowing in the socket -
for it was urged round by the whirling wheels at each
end - gave forth a sound as of a pipe, when the daughters of the
Sun, hasting to convey me into the light, threw back their veils
10 from off their faces and left the abode of Night.
There are the gates of the ways of Night and Day, fitted
above with a lintel and below with a threshold of stone. They
themselves, high in the air, are closed by mighty doors, and
Avenging Justice keeps the keys that open them. Her did
15 the maidens entreat with gentle words and skilfully persuade
to unfasten without demur the bolted bars from the gates.
Then, when the doors were thrown back,
they disclosed a widepening, when their brazen
hinges swung backwards in the
20 sockets fastened with rivets and nails. Straight through them,
on the broad way, did the maidens guide the horses and the car,
and the goddess greeted me kindly, and took my right hand
in hers, and spake to me these words: -
Welcome, noble youth, that comest to my abode on the car
25 that bears thee tended by immortal charioteers ! It is no ill
chance, but justice and right that has sent thee forth to travel
on this way. Far, indeed, does it lie from the beaten track of
men ! Meet it is that thou shouldst learn all things, as well
the unshaken heart of persuasive truth, as the opinions of
30 mortals in which is no true belief at all. Yet none the less
shalt thou learn of these things also, since thou must judge
approvedly of the things that seem to men as thou goest
through all things in thy journey."
Come now, I will tell thee - and do thou hearken to my
saying and carry it away - the only two ways of search that
can be thought of. The first, namely, that It is, and that it is
impossible for anything not to be, is the way of. conviction,
5 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;
For it is the same thing that can be thought and that can be.
It needs must be that what can be thought and spoken of is;
for it is possible for it to be, and it is not possible for, what is
nothing to be. This is what I bid thee ponder. I hold thee
back from this first way of inquiry, and from this other also,
5 upon which mortals knowing naught wander in two minds; for
hesitation guides the wandering thought in their breasts, so that
they are borne along stupefied like men deaf and blind.
Undiscerning crowds, in whose eyes the same thing and not the
same is and is not, and all things travel in opposite directions !
For this shall never be proved, that the things that are not
are; and do thou restrain thy thought from this way of inquiry.
Nor let habit force thee to cast a wandering eye upon this
devious track, or to turn thither thy resounding ear or thy
5 tongue; but do thou judge the subtle refutation of their
discourse uttered by me.
One path only is left for us to
speak of, namely, that It is. In it are very many tokens that
what is, is uncreated and indestructible, alone, complete,
immovable and without end. Nor was it ever, nor will it be; for
5 now it is, all at once, a continuous one. For what kind of origin
for it. will you look for ? In what way and from what source
could it have drawn its increase ? I shall not let thee say nor
think that it came from what is not; for it can neither be
thought nor uttered that what is not is. And, if it came from
10 nothing, what need could have made it arise later rather than
sooner ? Therefore must it either be altogether or be not at
all. Nor will the force of truth suffer aught to arise besides
itself from that which in any way is. Wherefore, Justice does
not loose her fetters and let anything come into being or pass
15 away, but holds it fast.
" Is it or is it not ? " Surely it is adjudged, as it needs must
be, that we are to set aside the one way as unthinkable and
nameless (for it is no true way), and that the other path is real
and true. How, then, can what is be going to be in the
20 future ? Or how could it come into being ? If it came into
being, it is not; nor is it if it is going to be in the future. Thus is
becoming extinguished and passing away not to be heard of.
Nor is it divisible, since it is all alike, and there is no more
of it in one place than in another, to hinder it from holding
together, nor less of it, but everything is full of what is.
25 Wherefore all holds together; for what is; is in contact with what is.
Moreover, it is immovable in the bonds of mighty chains, without
beginning and without end; since coming into being
and passing away have been driven afar, and true belief has cast them away.
It is the same, and it rests in the self-same place, abiding in itself.
30 And thus it remaineth constant in its place; for hard necessity
keeps it in the bonds of the limit that holds it fast on every side.
Wherefore it is not permitted to what is to be infinite; for it is in need of nothing ; while, if it were infinite, it would stand in need of everything. It is the
same thing that can be thought and for the sake of which the thought exists ;
35 for you cannot find thought without something that is, to which it is
betrothed. And there is not, and never shall be, any time other, than that which
is present, since fate has chained it so as to be whole and immovable.
Wherefore all these things are but the names which mortals
have given, believing them, to be true –
40 coming into being and passing away, being and not being,
change of place and alteration of bright colour.
Where, then, it has its farthest boundary, it is complete on
every side, equally poised from the centre in every direction,
like the mass of a rounded sphere; for it cannot be greater or
45 smaller in one place than in another. For there is nothing
which is not that could keep it from reaching out equally, nor
is it possible that there should be more of what is in this place
and less in that, since it is all inviolable. For, since it is equal
in all directions, it is equally confined within limits.
50 Here shall I close my trustworthy speech and thought about the truth.
Henceforward learn the opinions of mortals,
giving ear to the deceptive ordering of my words.
Mortals have settled in their minds to speak of two forms, one of which
they should have left out, and that is where they go astray from the truth.
55 They have assigned an opposite
substance to each, and marks distinct from one another. To the
one they allot the fire of heaven, light, thin, in every direction
the same as itself, but not the same as the other. The other is
opposite to it, dark night, a compact and heavy body. Of these
60 I tell thee the whole arrangement as it seems to men,
in order that no mortal may surpass thee in knowledge.
Now that all things have been named light and night; and the things
which belong to the power of each have been assigned to these
things and to those, everything is full at once of light and dark night,
both equal, since neither has aught to do with the other.
And thou shalt know the origin of all the things on high,
and all the signs in the sky, and the resplendent works of the
glowing sun’s clear torch, and whence they arose. And thou
shalt learn likewise of the wandering deeds of the round-faced
5 moon, and of her origin. Thou shalt know, too, the heavens
that surround us, whence they arose, and how Necessity took
them and bound them to keep the limits of the stars . . .
How the earth, and the sun, and the moon, and the sky that is
common to all, and the Milky Way, and the outermost Olympos,
and the burning might of the stars
The narrower circles are filled with unmixed fire, and those
surrounding them with night, and in the midst of these rushes
their portion of fire. In the midst of these circles is the divinity that directs
the course of all things; for she rules over all painful birth and all begetting,
5 driving the female to the embrace of the male, and the male to that of the female.
First of all the gods she contrived Eros.
Shining by night with borrowed light, wandering round the earth.
Always straining her eyes to the beams of the sun.
On the right boys; on the left girls.
Thus, according to men’s opinions, did things come into
being, and thus they are now. In time (they think) they will
grow up and pass away. To each of these things men have
assigned a fixed name.