Friday, December 20, 2013

What the Prologue Might Mean

In ancient times, the prologue was treated allegorically. Each detail was assigned someprecise allegorical   significance. But, while Parmenides might have had some allegorical intent, I don't think that was his primary thrust. Mostly, I think the prologue served to provide divine sanction for his philosophical vision and to place his philosophical insight outside the "common abidence of mankind." (Heidegger, or at least his translator's phrase.) (it might be worth taking a look at Lucretius' prologue to Venus as a direct imitation of Parmenedes)

There are elements of note:

The verb in the first line is present tense. "The mares carry me. . ." The journey is not something that happened in the past, it is something that continues. (This could also play into the statement later that being is timeless, an eternal present.)

Moving through the gates of night and day places him in the fiery realm, which the physics part of the poem says surrounds all.  In general though, his physics is the least interesting part of the poem. 

There may be some significance in the idea that the daughters of Helios steer the chariot. It may also be important the the goddess justice guards the gate. What that importance might be, though, is unclear to me.

I think one of the goddess' final statements in the prologue is significant--at least for how I understand the philosophy here. She says it is necessary for P to learn all things through asking. She says she will tell him the truth (alethea) but also the common opinion of men and, this is the significant part, why it is necessary that men believe as they do. The mistaken beliefs of men are necessary--not simply ignorance.  

I will talk about this more later, but I think it helps explain why, after describing being as one, unchanging and timeless, he goes on to provide a sort of theogany that describes the origins and nature of things. It is because these beliefs are necessary for men. It is how they must believe to operate in the world.


Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Prologue

So here is the prologue to Parmenides poem. It was written in hexameters in imitation of Homeric verse, but, after working through the Greek and Coxon's notes carefully, I have rendered it into Dante's terza rima. Why? Just because:

the mares that carry me bore me
as far as my hopes had ever aspired
they had taken me and set me
on the goddess’ path ​inspired
by innumerable discussions​     on this way
they bear me through all stages   ​​untired
to meet her face to face​​     a man who can say
he is a man of knowledge    ​in this way I
was carried   ​the clever mares  ​they
strain at the chariot steered by
maidens     ​the axel burning and singing
like pipes within the center eye
of the silver inlayed wheels​    straining
whenever the daughters of the sun
urged them to carry me​​     having
pulled back the scarves they wore on
their heads as they left the house of night
for that of light​​     between the sun
and the night​    between dark and light
stands a gate   ​a great lintel stone
seals both top and bottom​    tight
against the architrave where it shone
in the fiery realms​    the keys
which punishing justice holds    ​alone
allows the opening of these
two gates​   the maidens persuaded her
with soft words to please
push aside the locking bars
briefly     which were bound
to the gates with pegs and poles and were
designed to turn in their sockets around
the poles opening the gateway there
so the maidens having found
the way clear drove the chariot and mares
straight through the gates and along the road
and the goddess greeted me there
taking my hand in hers and told
me the following​      young man
you have arrived at our abode
in the company of deathless charioteers and
horses​​     no ill fate sent you to travel
on this path which leads to a land
far removed from the usual
places trod by man​     you must
learn everything by asking​    the dual
paths ​      both the persuasive thrust
of truth with its untrembling heart
and the beliefs of mortals which you cannot trust
but you will also learn at the start
how it is necessary that those
things men believe to be should be a part
of the general belief that goes
through all things to the end

Monday, December 16, 2013

An Aside on Purpose

Although I realize I have few if any readers, never-the-less, I think I should note that this discussion has more than academic interest to me. I try to read those things that help me find some meaning in and understanding of my existence. I do not believe that we are given meaning through some external agent, some god. I believe life has an intrinsic value, because given the cold calculus of the universe and the vagaries of evolution, every individual existence is miraculous. But, beyond the simple fact of existence, I believe it is up to each of us to give our life meaning. I read books that help me find that meaning. I am not attracted to easy answers or sentimental self affirmations. I want something that looks at the whole of life and death without glossing over the uncomfortable aspects.

That being said, I have to admit that I also like tomes. I like big books that purport to hold the whole world between their covers. I like fragments in other languages, especially Ancient Greek, that can be teased for meaning, little cryptic riddles that can yield surprising images or insights. I like the scholarly, the difficult, the obscure. On the negative side, I think it gives me a slight sense of power, like some magus possessing a secret, hard to acquire knowledge. It boosts my ego. All my life I was praised for being smart. Tomes and fragments reinforce that former praise. If I can read this stuff, I must be smart. 

But I also know, I am not that smart. I am no scholar. My main insights are more emotional than intellectual, and the primary output from my reading Parmenides is a series of poems inspired by the emotions and images evoked by the process. Ultimately, it is in my poetry that I find meaning.

Still, one of the things I have learned over my 58 odd years is that one must at least entertain one's self. Working through the Greek of Parmenides' poem and writing my poems in response entertains me. 

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The argument

Parmenides' poem starts with a prologue in which he is transported beyond the gates of day and night in a chariot drawn by immortal horses steered by the daughters of the sun. As Heidegger puts it, "far beyond the usual abidence of man" he is greeted by a goddess who reveals to him the truth.

She tells him there are only two ways that can be thought: either being is, or being is not. She then warns against the path of not being. How can you say that nothing is? That way leads only to paradox and confusion. The other, and correct path, is that being is. She then defines some of these properties. Being is one, because how could it be differentiated from itself. Being is whole. It has no beginning and no end. Time is an illusion. This is the gist, though the meat is in the details which I will talk about in later posts.

The final, and probably longest part, of the poem was a discussion of the common understanding of nature with its comings and goings. There is not much of this section left. But in the existing fragments he discusses the fiery essence of the universe, it's various realms, and even how progeny inherit from their parents.

Many have noted the contradictions between the elements. The prologue involves movement and a normal sense of time.  How is that possible given the changeless nature of being? And why do the third part in which the goddess imparts the common understanding of those who do not understand the true nature of being? If being I some and unchanging how can the discussion, or anything for that matter, progress or change?

I think it is actually possible to reconcile these contradictions, and actually find something of more than academic value here.

Friday, December 13, 2013


I have been working my way through the Greek text of Parmenides philosophical/poetic fragment. In part, I am doing so because Heidegger's writings and lectures persuaded me that there was something of value there. The very last lecture of his life was on Parmenides and the nature of truth or alethea. 

Alethea is made up of two parts: a privative "a" and the word Lethe. A privative is a negation. We use exactly the same negation in the words "atypical," "atonal," and "asymptomatic." Lethe, as a proper noun, is the river the dead cross as they enter the underworld. Wading through its waters washes away all memory of their lives in the world, even memory of their self. When they reach the other bank, they are nothing but shadows in the dark.  Lethe means concealment, forgetting, oblivian. So alethea means unconcealment, rememberance, and presence. Alethea is a key term in Heidegger's works. He spends great effort contrasting it to the Latin "veritas" which defines truth as the correct correspondence between what's said and what is the fact. His entire lecture series on Logic is devoted to this distinction.

In his Parmenides, Heidegger identifies the goddess who presents Parmenides with the path of true as Alethea. But there is nowhere in the poem itself where that identification is made. She shows P the truth, but nowhere does it say she is truth. If anything she is associated with Dike, justice. I don't think that necessarily weakens H's argument, but it does show one of his tendencies. Heidegger tends to make leaps of imagination and judgement in his interpretations of Greek texts. He justifies it by saying he is trying to understand the Greek in a Greek way.

Coxen, whose text I am using, is more scholarly, though he also notes that alethea is more appropriately translated as "reality" than truth. Coxen's problem, one that Heidegger"s methods were an attempt to correct, is that he has a tendency to too easily gloss the Greek words into modern conceptual language. This is anachronistic. These concepts didn't exist for the Greeks. Their philosophy and their philosophical language presents a struggle, a groping for words to express their ideas. The poetry and the power of these early philosophers is in the struggle. And, as Heidegger continually insists, there were elements, crucial elements, present in that early struggle epithet words and ideas, that we're lost later.