For the 5th century BCE pre-Socratic philosopher and leading figure of the Eleatic school Parmenides, truth is universal. It contains everything, unifies all. It is All and, therefore, One. Because of this, truth has the unshakable attribute of certainty. Accordingly, if something cannot pass the test of universality, it cannot generate certainty, so it cannot be the truth. If it is not the truth, it is an opinion – that which has no property of certainty and leaves one in perpetual doubt caused by confused thoughts. So, if you asked Parmenides how to avoid uncertainty in life, he’d probably advise you to focus on what is universal – the truth – rather than on changing opinions.
Parmenides differentiates between these as two paths: the path of Truth and the path of Opinion. Indeed, he identifies these as the only two ways of thinking available to us. In pursuit of knowledge, one must strive to walk the path of Truth and look for the unifying All. It is important, Parmenides warns us, to recognise and avoid the path of Opinion for it leads one away from the certainty of truth and into the realm of flawed thinking where, as he describes rather unflatteringly:
“Doubt and Perplexity guide them – Guide in their bosoms the wandering mind; and onward they hurry, Deaf and dumb and blind and stupid, unreasoning cattle”Parmenides in Davidson1
What is the truth for Parmenides? He conceives of the true path as that which acknowledges that Being Is and Non-Being Is Not. It cannot be that that which is (Being) is not (Non-Being). Similarly, it cannot be that that which is not (Non-Being) is (Being). We cannot conceive of ‘nothing’ having existence. Non-existence properly belongs to that which does not exist. Only that which exists has (and is accurately allowed to have) existence. Consequently, there can be only existence for if we think that being is nonexistent it is the same as saying that nothing exists. In other words, our mental category of an existing nothingness is a fallacy. For Parmenides, therefore, the path of Truth is expressed in true thoughts while the path of Opinion is fraught with misguided thoughts. Only true thoughts can lead to the certainty of truth.
Accordingly, it is of vital importance to pay attention to one’s thought patterns, habitual ways of interpreting the world in distinct units, in opposing categories (e.g. light/darkness, life/death), recognise the nature of this habit as that of opinion where the units and categories serve as mere tokens of the all-encompassing truth of Being-Is, and direct one’s mind to walk the path of truth, deliberately train one’s thinking to look behind the apparent separateness, the perceived change, and see beyond into the realm of certain truth that is a complete and unified All. That is where true knowledge lies, which can be reached by reason alone.
We should be careful, however, not to allocate the teaching of Parmenides to the philosophical category of idealism. The conceptual division between matter and thought that is so familiar to us was not yet as clearly formulated in Parmenides’ lifetime. Moreover, any such separation would contradict his notion of the truth being a unifying All, his ‘Being Is’ idea:
- Thomas Davidson, Parmenides. The Fragments, 1869