What is Eleatic Philosophy?

An Introduction to the Eleatics

Milesian philosophers believed that the world was ultimately one of chaos and that it was only the discovery of the arche, or the supreme substance underlying all reality, that could attempt to make order of the world. The Eleatic school of philosophy heartily disagreed with this. 

The Eleatics are a school of philosophers from Elea in modern-day Turkey who believed that the world was one of complete order and unity, so much so that the observation of change, motion, or decay was actually only an illusion. This radical school of philosophy explored the depths of human reason by making bold claims about the metaphysical state of the universe and the importance of man’s reason to make sense of it.

A Unified Universe

The Eleatic philosophers are grouped not only by their geographic location in the city of Elea but also by their shared views on the nature of reality.

The Eleatics fundamentally believed that nature was unified and ordered. Reality, they suggested, should be understood according to the doctrine of the One. 

Anything that exists or that is true is a part of this One, and nothing can stand apart from it or against it. Eleatic philosophers even went on to radically suggest that any observation of change, decay, or even the separation of objects and things was merely an illusion.

This proposition flies in the face of the Milesian school of philosophy, which believed the world was in a constant state of chaos and disordered flux.

An Introduction to Parmenides

Parmenides was a pre-Socratic philosopher who is considered the founder of the Eleatic school of philosophy. Despite being considered today the father of metaphysics, he was actually extremely interested in politics and wrote the governing rules for the ancient city of Elea.

However, Parmenides’ legacy resides in his metaphysical propositions for the universe and his influence on the philosophers who followed. 

Parmenides was the first philosopher to propose the theory that all reality was ultimately the One and that change, motion, and death were merely an illusion.

In discussing the nature of reality, Parmenides wrote, “…it is unborn and imperishable, whole, unique, immovable and without end. It was not in the past, nor yet shall it be, since it now is, altogether, one and continuous.”

Nothing From Nothing

Parmenides believed in a monistic view of the world, in which all reality is completely unified and unchanging. He argued that, for something to exist or be born, it must come from a substance that existed before it, as something cannot come from nothing.

All trees come from seeds, all children come from parents, et cetera. Parmenides wrote, “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.”

He also believed it is also impossible for something that is to become something that is not, since he believed nothingness to be illogical.

If all reality is part of one being, and something can only exist if it comes from something that also exists, then nothing can truly die or become nonexistent, since that nonexistence stands in contradiction to existence.

Parmenides’ Paradoxes

The concept of nonexistence was not the only one that Parmenides disagreed with; he also believed that observations of motion were wrong as well. In fact, Parmenides believed motion itself was impossible.

Just as he believed that everything must come from something and, therefore, all existence is one, unified substance, he also believed it was impossible for nothingness to generate. In other words, something cannot come from nothing

Taking this concept a step further, Parmenides believed it was impossible for something to move from a state of being to non-being. He saw that it was illogical to believe that something that does not exist – in this case, non-being or nothingness – does, in fact, exist.

Thinking this sounds paradoxical? You’re right. Paradox actually means ‘contrary to appearance,’ which is exactly what Parmenides proposed, that the appearances we observe of reality are wrong.

All is One

Similar to Parmenides’ belief that death or nonexistence was illogical, he also proposed that it was a mistake to believe that there are separate or distinct objects.

Nothing could stand in opposition to the One or the supreme form of being or it wouldn’t exist. Since nothing can stand in contradiction to it, he argued, that also meant that nothing could be separate from it. If everything is part of the One, then all actually is one. 

To believe that a person is separate from a tree or from a building or even another person is merely a trick of our senses, Parmenides believed, for if something exists it must be part of the One.

Additionally, for an object to be separate from another, there must be empty space separating them. That empty space is merely another example of nothingness or what is not _ and nothingness is an impossibility.

Seeing the World Through the Mind’s Eye

It was Parmenides’ belief that what we observe to be change, motion, or even death is merely an illusion. In fact, he proposed the notion that all of our senses were faulty and even deceptive.

Parmenides believed that it is only through the use of reason, or the ‘mind’s eye,’ that we have any hope of understanding the world around us. 

This emphasis on reason and logical deductions to form a working theory of the universe represents a major shift from the common use of religion and mythology to explain the cosmos.

The emergence of rationalism that is seen in the Eleatic school of philosophy directly influences many of the philosophers who followed and even extends down to us today. 

Parmenides’ articulation of the proposed disparity between true reality and observations of reality is the first articulation of the duality of reality and appearance, a concept that is embedded today in modern Western thought.

A Deeper Aspect to Nature

To truly understand reality, Parmenides insisted on abandoning the senses and, instead, turning to purely abstract and logical reasoning for knowledge.

After abandoning one’s own senses that might lead one to believe in a changing, inconsistent universe and developing the mind’s eye, reality would be understood as one unified, static fullness.

This strict adherence to logic and deduction forms an ontology that, while difficult to buy into today, has shaped modern society’s understanding of how true reality may not be fully articulated or understood by relying on one’s own senses alone.

For example, listening to a piece of music would not betray the nature of sound waves to the listener, nor would sitting in a chair help someone understand the atomic structure of that chair.

Our senses can guide us, but as Parmenides points out, they cannot teach us or even reveal to us the true nature of existence.

Zeno’s Paradoxes

Parmenides’ radical and paradoxical thinking would go on to inspire many philosophers after him, such as Zeno of Elea and, most notably, Plato.

Zeno of Elea was Parmenides’ student and is most well-known for his work on paradoxes that were meant to defend Parmenides’ theories. 

He called these arguments ad absurdum because he hoped to point out the illogical nature or absurdity of some assumptions or observations and how those assumptions ultimately lead to contradictions.

While many of Zeno’s paradoxes have been disproved through the centuries, Aristotle actually credited Zeno as being the inventor of the dialectical method, or the exchange of propositions and counters to them, to arrive at a logical conclusion.

The Eleatic Influence

While modern science may not support some of Parmenides’ more radical claims, his strict insistence on the importance of logic and deductive reasoning does hold firm today.

Ultimately, he rejected the epistemological soundness of relying on or even using sensory experience to understand the world. 

True understanding could only come through logic and reason. This formulation of an indivisible and unified ‘Oneness’ composing reality is in direct opposition to Milesian philosophers, who saw reality as innately fractured and knowledge to be an attempt to produce an order from that chaos. 

The main criticism of the Eleatic school is that it proposes pure metaphysics, or ideas of the ultimate reality, while also attempting to explain natural philosophy.

Despite these criticisms, the Eleatic influence remains significant, and it developed many early theories of the nature of reality that are still maintained today.

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