Xenophanes and Parmenides

The search for the “One” led the philosophers of the School of Miletus and the Pythagoreans to various principles and basic statements. The specific answers they gave are not so important to us today. It is much more interesting that they departed one step from mythological thinking and began to formulate rationales for their statements. Authorities didn’t have to be respected, doubts were allowed. What is even more interesting, however, is that in this effort they have already come across a number of problem areas that should prove to be fundamental for future sciences. These fields can be described by the concepts of “infinity” and “motion”.

The “Eleates”, those philosophers of the 6th and 5th centuries BC who lived in a Greek settlement Elea on the west coast of southern Italy, were to raise awareness of a third problem area of such importance. It was the question: How can we obtain reliable knowledge?

Thus, three fundamental questions are already under discussion in such an early period of our intellectual history. And each of these questions or problem areas stood for an area of philosophy at that time: “infinity” for mathematics, “motion” for physics and the question of reliable knowledge for what we call today epistemology. We know it by now: When you tackle big tasks, other big tasks also come into focus. And even if the original task cannot be mastered, there is usually fruitful insight in the treatment of the subsequent problems. In the technological field today, this is called “spin-off”. I will always keep an eye on these fundamental questions in the course of the later blog posts.

Who were the Eleates and how did they answer the question of reliable knowledge? Their most important representatives were Xenophanes (about -570 to about -470), Parmenides (about -515 to about -455) and Zenon of Elea (-490 to about -430).  Let us take a look, which possibilities of knowledge they saw and how the concept of motion came to the fore again, and in the wake of it the concept of infinity. 


Xenophanes was at first probably a Rhapsode, someone who recited Epen Hesiods and Homers, but also appreciated and recited elegies or mocking poems. He only settled in Elea after a long life in which he had got to know many a foreign culture.

Xenophanes takes a completely new view on the question of the possibilities of knowledge.  In a fragment (Mansfeld & Primavesi, 2011, pp. 229, No.32) it says:

The gods did not reveal everything to man at the very beginning, but in the course of time they seek and find what is better.

That is now strikingly topical. Here, already 2,500 years before our time, the knowledge of modern science theory is formulated that knowledge grows in a kind of evolution. We see this particularly clearly in the development of modern physics: the theories are adapted to the ever-increasing number of observations and experimental results. The range of validity of a theory thus becomes ever larger; it becomes “better”. A theory that does not work well enough in such a process of adaptation will at most become a topic in the history of physics. Using the example of motion, we will soon see clearly how such better theories will look in the course of the development of physics.

 Xenophanes thus formulates a path to knowledge in which people search and find something “better”, quite in contrast to mythological thinking, which “seeks nothing, always speaks apodictically and claims to be simply true” (Schupp, 2003a, p. 87).

But there is no mention of the possibility of once being in a definitive possession of the truth. On the contrary – according to Sextus Empiricus (160 to 210) Xenophanes (Mansfeld & Primavesi, 2011, pp. 231, No.39) says it:

Of course, no man has seen the clear, and there will be no man who has seen it with regard to the gods and all the things I declare. For even if one had succeeded to an extraordinary degree in saying perfection, he would still not be aware of it: In all things, there is only assumption.

The sentence “In all things there is only assumption” even presupposes that all our reliable knowledge of the world of all things, even if it exists in the form of physical theories, is ultimately based on certain basic thoughts, principles or equations.

Xenophanes therefore only calls our findings “opinions”, whereby this term does not mean arbitrariness, but the idea that our findings can still be outbid by a better opinion. The opinion could, however, be regarded as “similar to truth”, since it was as well founded as possible in each case. Xenophanes does not believe in the possibility of a revelation of a final truth, as Parmenides later accepts it. 

One can thus call Xenophanes the first decided metaphysical agnostic. There is nothing definitive to say about a God and the world as a whole. The theses of the Ionian philosophers may have seemed too ambitious to him, too far removed from empiricism, which he regarded as more important than the embellishment of myths.

Thus, he contrasted the idea of the Greeks that the goddess Iris appears in a rainbow with a natural explanation: “What they call Iris is also a cloud, one that looks purple, light red and yellow-green (Mansfeld & Primavesi, 2011, pp. 223, No. 21). He also relied more on common sense: “For all is of earth, and all ends as earth” (ibid. No. 4) and “The sea is the source of water, the source of wind” (ibid. No. 23a). 

Xenophanes also discovered that every culture formed its gods in its image: “The Ethiopians claim that their gods are blunt-nosed and black, the Thracians blue-eyed and redheaded” (Mansfeld & Primavesi, 2011, pp. 227, No. 28)
“But if the oxen and horses and lions had hands or could paint with their hands and works, as men do, the horses would paint like horses, the oxen like oxen like gods” (ibid. No. 30).

 He, on the other hand, sets a “single God, the greatest among gods and men, neither in form similar to mortals nor in thought” (ibid. No. 35).

Here we also see in ancient Greece the idea of a single god appearing. Whether we have a separate root of monotheism in front of us here is probably difficult to decide. In other fragments, however, we read how he also speaks of “gods”. The development of monotheism in the early religions is a highly exciting topic, but we do not want to address it here. We are more interested here in how Xenophanes imagines the only God (Mansfeld & Primavesi, 2011, pp. 231, No. 37):

He always stays in the same place, without any motion.

So, the only God distinguishes a place and represents absolute rest. Also, Anaximander had already spoken of an absolute state of rest, but it was the Earth that stood in perfect rest in the centre of the world.  So here it is the only God.


Parmenides from Elea is regarded by some as a pupil of Xenophane, but in any case he is said to have known his works. He is probably regarded as the most prominent philosopher from the time before Socrates. Relatively many fragments of his writing ABOUT NATURE (Περι φύσεωζ = Peri Physeos) have been preserved. But his speeches are considered “dark” by all. This has earned him a special prominence among the pre-Socratics, for his work invites a wide variety of interpretations. There has also been much discussion about the right interpretation of the fragments.

I don’t want to get involved. On the one hand one should have penetrated deeply into the language of that time, on the other hand it does not seem so important to me to know the thoughts of a thinker as exactly as possible. It is much more interesting to know which new thoughts a thinker has brought into the discussion with which motives and how important these are for the treatment of important questions. Parmenides is also primarily concerned with the question of how to acquire knowledge, and his merit is at least that he makes an alternative quite clear with regard to this question. He speaks of two very different ways of knowledge.

The first way is like a revelation. In this way the knowledge of the being is given to one. For Parmenides, it is a goddess who leads a human being to an absolute certainty about what exists by means of a “destiny”. He dresses these thoughts in the story of a journey to the goddess Dike. In a fragment we read (Mansfeld & Primavesi, 2011, pp. 321, No.4):

So, the goddess, […] received me confidently and spoke the following words: “Young man, […]. It is not an evil destiny that has led you away through this path to reach your goal […], but divine providence and justice. So, it is appropriate that you experience everything: on the one hand the unshakable heart of the well-rounded truth, ….

To the well-rounded truth belong then the statements about the “being”: This is timeless, there is no origin and decay. It is “because unborn also imperishable”, it is “present together in the present as a whole, one, connected”. It is also an indivisible continuous, because “… it is not divisible, because it is quite similar. And there is not a stronger being here or there that could hinder its connection, nor a lesser one. […] That’s why it’s quite coherent, because being is close to being.” And:

As the same and persisting in the same and on itself it is, and in this manner remains firmly in the same place. (Mansfeld & Primavesi, 2011, pp. 327, No.11).

Here again we encounter the topos “absolute rest”, i.e. no motion, no change of place. The extraordinary, the imperishable and the comprehensive had to have a motion which is exceptional compared to other motion. According to the view of the world at that time, such a motion could only be rest. Even today it seems to us humans that this is often the case. However, we are not always aware that motion is not a property, but a two-digit relation, i.e. a motion in relation to another object, in everyday life. This unconscious and erroneous assumption that there is absolute rest should allow Zenon of Elea his so-called movement paradoxes, with which we want to deal in the next blog post.

But let us first consider this first path of the Parmenides to true knowledge. While according to Xenophanes the knowledge about the “perfect”, about the “gods and all things” is denied to us, according to Parmenides man can only attain this knowledge if it is revealed to him.

This is now water to the mills of mythical thought. Here an unshakable truth is promised. There is no uncertainty from possible criticism and constant changes in knowledge, as was the case with the Milesians and the Pythagoreans.

Now, every human being will probably never get along completely without a mythical component in his world view, also he may stand firmly to his convictions of such a kind. But a person who believes that the deepest secrets of the world are revealed to him personally as reliable knowledge easily risks seeing this knowledge as obligatory for all other people. It does not always have to be a goddess or a god, one can also feel a strong sense of the evidence of one’s ideas, which one may regard as a profound unshakable truth.

But now we know that different people can also experience very different revelations and feelings of evidence. When power and mission are added to an unshakeable conviction, even from a single source of revelation, different faith communities can gradually develop that divide society. Intolerance, contempt, oppression and annihilation of dissenters was indeed often the result. Violence has been perpetrated in every form.

So, what is the second way to knowledge for Parmenides? According to the above fragment, the young man, on the other hand, should also experience: the opinions of mortals who do not possess true reliability.

The second way is thus the way of the usual mortals, who can only arrive at “opinions”. According to Parmenides, however, this knowledge is at most truth-like and uncertain when measured against the abundance of the existing. Here the influence of Xenophanes shines through: We mortals have insights that can only be regarded as “opinions” in view of our knowledge of what exists. We only find “names” for what we explore:

Therefore, all the name that mortals have set is in trust that it is true. Emergence and decay, being and non-being, changing place and changing the bright colour. (Mansfeld & Primavesi, 2011, pp. 329, No. 11).

To give something a “name” does not yet mean to recognize it: Thus, according to Parmenides, the existing is in reality motionless. But we see motion. They’re just “names,” they just seem to exist. On our own, we can only develop delusions that cannot be reliable. This thesis has of course attracted a lot of attention, as it has the charm of the extraordinary, the anti-intuitive.

Both paths to knowledge were taken in the following millennia. In an effort to understand the world in which we live, the thinkers have, more or less consciously, adopted one side or the other, with sometimes dramatic consequences for the living together of people and the further development of humanity.

With concern to the reliability of the acquired knowledge, the thoughts of Parmenides about the two ways of knowledge are in stark contrast to what has been shown in the course of time. The “opinions” about nature proved to be highly reliable, because their fundamentals were directly inquired by nature – through observations and experiments. The fact that we can use this knowledge in the form of the development of technical devices is evidence of this. But the situation with revelations is quite different. There can be no question of reliability here.

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