Parmenides, Ontology and the Stoics

There are two takes on reality, two kinds of knowledge, two kinds of science. In this work the traditional sciences, traditional knowledge we call left side. This kind of knowledge relies on a priori knowledge. Right side knowledge is unconditioned by any a priori and must be developed using pure reason alone. The two kinds of knowledge sit on opposite sides of a great divide. A deep understanding requires a deep understanding of this great divide. The ancients had their say on the matter. Consider, for example Parmenides who came after Heraclitus but before Empedocles.


Parmenides was one of the first to put forward a clear view of the structure of reality from a reasoned perspective. The philosophy of Being, ontology, starts with him. His poem, On Nature, recounts the epic voyage of the young man on his quest for knowledge.

The tone is dramatic and urgent. Despite only disparate fragments of the text remaining, one can almost hear the pounding hooves and see the sparks flying as the wise chariot steeds gallop at a furious pace through the black darkness on the renowned way of the Goddess. Streaking towards where Dark meets Day, maidens show the way. There is no room for dilly-dallying here. This is not the time for fine-spun arguments. It is time to confront the truth. The goddess, with her own hands unerringly conducts this man who knows through things. Wheels swirling, the chariot axle glows red in the socket and gives forth the sound of a pipe as they approach the gates. The daughters of the Sun hasting to convey him to the light, take back their veils. Having arrived at the gates of the ways of Night and Day, after much persuasion they pass through the gates. The young man is greeted kindly by the goddess. She welcomes him to her abode, far from the beaten tracks of mortal men.

She invites him to have an open and critical mind, to learn all things, but above all the unshaken heart of persuasive truth. There are two takes on reality. On the one side there is that taken by mortal men as they blindly stumble about in a world of opinions. On the other hand, away from the world of fickle beliefs, there is another world that harbours unshakable truth, a world where reason holds sway. At the epicentre of this world of reason is the simple truth that there are two possibilities. The goddess declares:

“The first, namely, that It is, and that it is impossible for anything not to be. This is the way of conviction.”

She then recounts the other possibility:

“The other, namely, that It is not, and that something must needs not be.” She then explains, “That, I tell thee, is a wholly untrustworthy path. For you cannot know what is not – that is impossible – nor utter it.”

The Parmenidean Paradigm

An epic journey is always a good ploy to get the reader into the right frame of mind. Excuse the pun. Parmenides’ allegory like any allegory can be read in many ways. One could see the tale as taking place on two levels, a logical foreground a gender background. The background imagery displays the feminine in all its plurality, culminating in the abode of the goddess. There the ethereal feminine welcomes the singular masculine, he who knows through things. However, he is but a youth still in quest of knowledge. Nevertheless, he knows he has been conducted here for a purpose.

Across the unsaid background tapestry, spreads the ephemeral abode of goddess and teaming maidens. It is far from the world of mortals and untainted by their bumbling subjectivity. This is the pure feminine, so pure that it is totally devoid of attribute. It is completely unknowable. She is not even real. The goddess, the feminine incarnate, explains that “you cannot know what is not.” You can only know what is. It looks as if the goddess has negated herself out of existence.

This is Ground Zero of rationality. Many thinkers have come here over the ages, each making their own interpretation. Parmenides paints his picture in great clarity. On one side, we have the land of mortals enmeshed in opinions. On the other side is the immortal land of Truth. This other side is what we have been referring to as the right side take on reality. It is in this domain that Parmenides must construct his version of monism philosophy. He must explain Oneness. Like all who have toiled in this domain, he must tackle the dialectic of the One and its other. His reasoning is stark, even brutal: The One is, the Other is not.

As we have seen in previous sections, right side reasoning is expressed in oppositions and oppositions applied to oppositions, a dialectical, semiotic form of thinking. Left side reasoning starts from given preconditions such as opinions, traditions, rumours, gossip, innuendos, measurements, experiences, sensations, axioms, stabs in the dark, fabulation, and sometimes wicked self-serving deception, just as the good goddess explained: This is the natural lot of mortals. Right side reasoning has no preconditions. It must start from the primary opposition. It is here that we find the primordial form of Ground Zero. The task for the philosopher, the ontological scientist, is to provide an explanation of Ground Zero in terms of the primary opposition. The understanding of this primary opposition varies, depending on the thinker. In the case of Parmenides, his position can be summarised as follows.

  • What is the primal entity?
    Answer: It.
  • What is its specificity?
    Answer: It is.
  • What is the primary opposition?
    Answer: The opposition between what is and what is not.
  • What exists?
    Answer: Only what is exists, what is not does not and cannot exist.
    Comment: What is determines the knowable. Even more strongly, it determines the known. The deep essence of It is known. It is, end of story. What is not determines the inherently unknowable. The totally unknowable is tantamount to not existing.
  • Where is the origin of the primal entity located, i.e., where is Ground Zero?
    Answer: In the eternal present.

The above five points do not cover the complete ontological paradigm of Parmenides. Like any ontologist worth his salt, Parmenides must provide the enveloping rationale for why the above points are necessary.

David Furley has honed in on a passage from the narration that attempts to explain the noyau of the argument, the raison d’être of It:

The last section of the Way of Truth is particularly difficult. Parmenides repeats his assertion that there is no not-being and there are no different degrees of being; what exists is equal to itself everywhere and reaches its limits everywhere. From this he concludes that it is “perfect from every angle, equally matched from the middle in every way, like the mass of a well-rounded ball” (Furley)

We see here Parmenides’ attempt to explain First Classness, the central, all enveloping characteristic of rational reality. A world satisfying First Classness must be totally unconstrained in every way, the ultimate in perfection. It is here that resides the great challenge to ontology. This is the task confronting us. We have to understand such a world that is totally unconstrained with no one behind the scenes pulling strings, and no king pin calling the tune wether seated on high, low, in the middle, in or out of reality.

If there were to be hidden forces at work behind the scene, then a fundamental science of reality would be impossible. On the other hand however, if reality is left free to be dominated by the draconian requirement of the totally unconstrained system, then indeed it must be exactly that, a totally unconstrained system (the only constraint allowed) The iron laws of First Classness(FC) spring in to play, the laws of ontological fair play organise fair play. In this great riddle, there is only one answer and, as the goddess said, only one “unshaken heart of persuasive truth.”

Reconciling the coming into being, the genesis of reality, with FC is not easy. The very notion of a determined beginning violates FC as this privileges the starting point entity from all others. FC does not allow privileged entities and there is nothing more privileged than coming first. Parmenides resolved that violation by saying that an entity at the beginning does not exist, as it no longer is. He then argued that it never could have existed, finally ending up with the formula of the only thing real is the eternal present and nothing changes.

It is interesting to look at how the Stoics resolved the problem, as they too adopted a doctrine based on FC. For the Stoics, the only immortal was Zeus. They were pantheists so the universe was the body of Zeus. The body changes, is born and dies away in the conflagration but Zeus stays immortal throughout the process. The universe had a beginning and eventually ended up in the conflagration. In this more complex scenario, avoiding the violation of FC becomes more difficult. The beginning and the end of the Cosmos in the conflagration become privileged moments, one preceding all that will exists and one succeeding, thus violating FC. The Stoic solution was that time was circular with the whole story exactly repeating itself the next time around. In this way there are no privileged points in time and FC is not violated. This Eternal Return solution retained many aspects of the Parmenidean solution. Bodies in the past did not exist, nor did those in the future. The only bodies that exist are those in the present. By eternal repetition of the cycle, nothing really changed and no state of being was irreconcilably privileged over any other. FC was respected.

Parmenides’ allegory of the young man streaking across the heavens waved on by the veiled daughters of the Night, heading straight for the abode of the goddess evokes the image of a spermatozoid streaking to a rendezvous with the unfertilised egg. However Parmenides’ does not allow the union to be consummated.

There will be no masculine principle uniting with the feminine principle in this scenario, despite the atmospherics being full of it. The closest we get to any explicit such union is at the level of logic: one proposition in the affirmative and the other in the negative and never the two shall meets. Parmenides pitched his paradigm at the loftiest level and really could not embrace any explicit masculine feminine union as this would imply an explicit beginning and so violate FC. For a work around for this conundrum, we have to wait for Empedocles.

In the meantime we understand that there are two ways of understanding reality, one is the Way of Truth and the other is the Way of Opinion. For Parmenides, the only repository of truth was in the One, a pureness of eternal, ungenerated Oneness. It is that unique Being that “neither was nor will be, because it is in its wholeness now, and only now.” In truth only the One is.

For Parmenides “The only true reality is Eōn—pure, eternal, immutable, and indestructible Being, without any other qualification. Its characterizations can be only negative, expressions of exclusions, with no pretence of attributing some special quality to the reality of which one speaks” (Calogero, 2010) As for the Way of Opinion, this is the world of appearances, a misleading world of falsehood. It is this Being and only this Being that truly, objectively is. All else is illusory.

Parmenides provided a vivid image of how the very deepest reality could be comprehended. This image in useful to carry forward in one’s mind in the development to follow.

Ontological Calculus of Empedocles to the Stoics

This is not a scholarly work. In writing about Empedocles and the Stoics, for example, we imply that this is the way they thought and expressed their ideas. Clearly this is not the case. Rather than being scholarly, our approach is to fundamentally reverse engineer ancient thinkers’ concepts. As a consequence what we write is often more of what the ancients could have thought, and sometimes what they should have thought, if they remained true to their doctrines.

Keeping this in mind, we will now repeat the summary of Parmenides doctrine and adapt it to the next phase in the development of ancient physics. In order to develop the theory of the Four Elements, the initial structure of Parmenides must be pushed to the next stage. What follows is a brief summary of this next step, as seen from a modern perspective. The key idea is what we call ontological gender. It is this structure that explains how the fundamental starting point for our unifying science. The ancients got there first, but there is some cleaning up to do.

We have already considered these concepts in earlier sections, but here is yet another angle.

The Gender Paradigm

  • What is the primal entity?
    Answer: Any entity whatsoever.
  • What is its specificity?
    Answer: Entity has the attribute of absolute non-specificity.
    Comment: This attribute, that of absolute non-specificity, is an entity in its own right, in accordance with First Classness.
  • What is the primary opposition?
    Answer: The opposition between what has the attribute and what is the attribute.
    Comment: The entity that has the attribute determines feminine gender, the entity that is the attribute determines masculine gender. This is the definition of ontological gender. These two entities are different by gender but indistinguishable.
  • What exists?
    Answer: Only what is exists.
    Comment: This follows Parmenides but adds some detail: Only what It, that entity of pure masculine gender, fundamentally exists. The pure feminine entity has something (the attribute of total non-specificity) but when it comes to whether it is, clearly it is not. Having something differs from being something. However, the pure feminine entity, although different, is indistinguishable from the pure masculine. Parmenides glossed over that point.
  • Where is the origin of the primal entity located, i.e., where is Ground Zero?
    Answer: The location is that determined by the primal entity.
    Comment: The whole Cosmos gyrates around this location. Thus, Ground Zero can be thought of as any location whatsoever.

This summary has added in some innovations that don’r belong to the ancients. However, it is in keeping with a strictly generic approach that the Stoics were pioneering.. The summary represents where they were heading more than where they were at.

Traditional sciences, what we call left side sciences, express all knowledge in terms of attributes of things. This is quite reasonable because it is impossible to directly know the thing that has the attribute. The knowledge of things is always indirectly achieved via attributes of things. Note also that in pure left side science, an attribute is not a proper thing as it is in pure right side science.

In our work we are endeavouring to develop the right side science that does not rely on any preconditions whatsoever. Harvesting attributes as a precondition for theorising is a fundamental left science activity, but not so for right side science. Thus, all the empirical attributes that abound in left side sciences are forbidden on the right side. If right side science is to have any attributes then it has to reason them into existence, not measure them. This reasoning process leads to the attribute par excellence, that of masculine gender.

Then comes the incredible aspect of right side science. This is the only attribute we need! All other attributes can be constructed from it or with it. We enter into the web of gender intrigue. The only guiding principle at our disposal is that of FC. FC demands that an attribute must be capable of being considered as an entity in its own right: In this context it becomes the masculine qua feminine MF. What is good for the gander is also good for the goose. The feminine entity must also enjoy the possibility of being considered as an attribute in its own right: It becomes the feminine qua masculine FM. Here we are starting to get compound gendered entities, depending on roleplaying. The other two combinations are the pure gendered entities qua themselves, notably the masculine qua masculine MM and the feminine qua feminine FF.

In the process we have advanced from the primordial Parmenides paradigm through to the Doctrine of the Four Roots of Empedocles and later developed into the four-element doctrine of the Stoics.

There are four elements that have mixed gender MF, FF, FM, and MM entities, corresponding respectively to expansive air, water, converging water and fire.

These binary terms can be thought of as noun adjective pairs where F and M can play the role of noun or adjective, depending on their position in the pair. These terms are the elementary terms of the generic code. The genetic code is the biological instance of the generic code where the four letters, using RNA notation, are A, U, G and C respectively.

As a side note, it is interesting to look for traces of generic structure in natural languages. English, because of its huge vocabulary and penchant for labelling things does not offer fertile ground. However, French is a good place to look as it retains a strong version of gender typing. In fact it is rather pure in this regard as it even allocates gender to the names of countries. Ignoring gender constructs though and just considers the noun adjective example:

   une histoire vraie

which means a true story. Reversing the noun adjective order gives

   une vraie histoire

which means a made up story, providing a certain kind of negation of the first construct.

In the generic code, reversing MF to give FM produces an even more dramatic kind of negation, as will be seen. MF and FM, or air and water in the old book, are really like chalk and cheese.

D. J. H. Moore

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