Category: Persons

Parmenides and Heraclitus

Parmenides and Heraclitus, the most important Presocratic philosophers, had exercised great influence upon Plato. His dialogues bear the witness: herepresents their views as a pair of opposing extremes, which his own philosophy aspires to surpass.

The relation of Parmenides to Heraclitus

Ancient biographers consider that Parmenides of Elea reached his philosophical pick at around 500 B.C., thus making Heraclitus either his contemporary or his descendant (within the range of one generation). Likewise, Plato’s crude historical account in the Sophist (242d) places the “Ionian Muses” (i.e. Heraclitus) after the “Eleatic sect” (i.e. Parmenides). At any rate, it would be too reckless to take the dramatic encounter between Parmenides and Socrates in the Parmenides at face value - thus, postdating Parmenides. The dialogue insists on determining the ages of the discussants in an effort to raise the dramatic reliability of an otherwise impossible meeting.


By proclaiming that everything around us exists, subsists and is, Parmenides sought the unity of the world in its Being (to eon) – and not in any of its constituents (water, air, fire, etc.). In the Proem of his Poem, the philosopher describes his journey towards a nameless goddess, who promises to teach him “everything”. The section of Alêtheia (Truth) comes next, and probes into the notion of Being by setting apart (fr. 2) two routes of inquiry. The first, the route of Being, stresses “that is and that it is impossible not-to-be”, and is designated as “the path of persuasion, for it follows upon truth”. The way of Not-Being lies at the antipode for it upholds “that is-not and that it is necessary not-to-be”; and “this is a path without any tidings; for neither could you know Non-Being –for this is impossible– nor could you express it”. In what follows, the goddess lays out a number of “signs” (fr. 8) by which she orientates the route of Being; while, at the same time, voicing an implicit criticism against the Milesians. The affirmation of Being is maintained through the explicit rejection of both Not-Being per se, and the possibility of its intermingling with Being – in what could be shaped as a “third route” (fr. 6, 7). In the second section (Doxa), the goddess traces out the fundamental mistake that mortals commit: their opinions dichotomize the world according to two contrary forms – that of Light and the other of Night. What comes next is the presentation of a valid cosmogonic and cosmologic system (fr. 8: 60) within which the two contrary forms do not exclude one another but commingle, and thus effectuate the configuration of the world.

“Now since everything has been named Light and Night and what corresponds to their powers has been attributed to each thing, everything is full of Light and invisible Night together – both equal, since Nothing partakes in neither” (Parmenides, B 9, trans. P. Thanassas).

Heraclitus employed a prosaic style, but expressed his theories in aphorisms by adopting an oracular diction. While he propounded that things are constantly changing and mutating, his theory did not exhaust on the assumption that “everything flows” (a phrase that is spuriously attributed to him). On the contrary, he maintained that the ceaselessly transforming world is united and coherent. These two qualities are predicated on the Word (Logos): a principle that permeates and organizes the world, interconnects its beings under relations of proportionality, and functions as the criterion of every true statement. Even the states of affairs that appear opposing each other reconcile in this profound unity, which Heraclitus calls “wise” and depicts in “fire”. Even though this unity is constantly taking up various forms, it subsists without dismissing its substance.

“Of the Logos which is as I describe it men always prove to be uncomprehending, both before they have heard it and when once they have heard it. For although all things happen according to this Logos men are like people of no experience, even when they experience such words and deeds as I explain, when I distinguish each thing according to its constitution and declare how it is” (Heraclitus, B 1; trans. J. E. Mahon).
Plato’s reception

Plato expresses emphatically his respect and esteem for Parmenides. Socrates calls him “venerable and awe-inspiring”, and voices his concern that he might not understand his words (Theaetetus 183e-184a). Parmenides’ influence upon platonic metaphysics was decisive: Platonic forms are informed with the essential attributes of the parmenidean Being; they are single, simple, immutable, ungenerated and imperishable. In the Parmenides, the elderly Parmenides plays the leading part and gives the young Socrates an important lesson on forms and dialectics. Variably, in the Sophist and the Statesman, central is the role of the anonymous Eleatic Visitor. He concedes that the clear-cut distinction between Being and not-Being fails to account for the existence of falsehood, likelihood, and illusion. Therefore, he appropriates Not-Being to the idea of Otherness, without endorsing, however, the existence of an “absolute” not-Being, thus avoiding the parricide (Sophist 241d).

In both the Parmenides (128a-b) and the Sophist (244b), the philosophy of Parmenides is epitomized in the phrase “the all is one”; and this gave him the title of the philosopher of the Oneness and of immobility. On the other hand, Heraclitus is identified with the advocates of an extreme version of his theory (such as Cratylus), and is thence represented as the philosopher of indeterminate change and constant flux. Indeed, Plato will accept the thesis of the Heracletians that the world of appearances is flux ridden. On another note, the attribution of the doctrine of the coincidence of opposites to Heraclitus -a doctrine ruling out the possibility of knowledge- will designate him as a harbinger of sophistic (Crat. 402a; Theait. 152d-e, 179e-180c). In fine, Parmenides and Heraclitus are displayed as occupants of diametrically opposite positions, which should be overpassed and eventually surpassed by the philosophy of Plato.

Author: Panagiotis Thanassas
  • Kirk, G.S, Raven, J.E., Schofield, M, The Presocratic Philosophers. Cambridge, 1983.
  • McCabe, Μ.Μ. Plato and his Predecessors: The Dramatisation of Reason. Cambridge, 2000.
  • Thanasas, Panaghiotis. Parmenides, Cosmos, and Being: A Philosophical Interpretation. Milwaukee, 2007.
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