On Nature

Parmenides

Welcome, noble youth, that comest to my abode on the car that bears thee tended by immortal charioteers ! It is no ill chance, but justice and right that has sent thee forth to travel on this way. Far, indeed, does it lie from the beaten track of men ! Meet it is that thou shouldst learn all things, as well the unshaken heart of persuasive truth, as the opinions of mortals in which is no true belief at all. Yet none the less shalt thou learn of these things also, since thou must judge approvedly of the things that seem to men as thou goest through all things in thy journey.


These are the opening words of a goddess, as spoken to the pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides in his poem commonly known as “On Nature”. Parmenides himself was a physician and philosopher active in Elea (an island at the west coast of modern day Italy) during the earlier part of the 5th century BC. His work later came to influence Greek philosophy in an immense way and he is probably most known to us today due to that Plato was to name a dialogue after him (“The Parmenides”). However, the poem is not a text in the manner of the typical Athenian philosophy of dialectics that was to come after him, but rather a text of divine revelation given to an initiated priest of the mysteries of the god Apollo Oulios (Apollo the healer) and his son Asclepius which were practiced on the island of Elea during the time of Parmenides. Here healing was performed through the practice of ritual incubation, where the one to be cured was to sleep in a sacred cavern and in dream be bestowed with the treatment for ones ailment. There are interesting parallels to be drawn to these religious and medical methods and practices, and the narrative of “On Nature”. The goddess, to whom Parmenides has travelled, is named Night and resides in the underworld. This is a place of judgement and initiation, making the journey to her abode a matter of mystical descent (katabasis), where the neophyte is initiated into the divine mysteries of Nature. Physics as well as the art of medicine and healing to the pre-Socratics were all arts steeped in metaphysics, mysticism and magic. They were about finding the root of the universe itself, about decoding the foundation of the cosmos, not to merely observe and take advantage of them but most importantly communicate with them. In this sense, philosophy was a spiritual science of revelation as well as an art of living and a manner of interacting with the universe.


A lot can be said about the philosophical and esoteric nature of the poem and on the life of Parmenides1, but the main focus here however will be on the words of the goddess as quoted above. What is said is that she will teach him the difference between the ontological categories of “all things”, which later in the text also is referred to as simply “what is”. This category is opposed to “what is not”, which is also described as “the opinions of mortals”. There is much that has been and can be discussed concerning the metaphysical matters in these words, but let us to begin with reflecting on the notion of this dichotomy as described by the goddess. According to her, there are things which are real in the most basic ontological sense and there are those that just simply not are, and these things are those that mankind commonly believe to be real – they are his opinions. The first category of things, the truth, is all that is and nothing else other than that exists, which means that Parmenides principally denies the existence of mere opinion. An esoteric interpretation of this would be that he here speaks of something like an insight into the difference between the concepts of gnosis (intuitive, unmediated knowledge of Nature) compared to doxa (how things appear or seem). Truth as revealed through gnosis or revelation confirms existence as grounded in itself, it is unshaken and unquestionable through its own being, while the existence as seen through doxa could rather be seen as contingent or questionable as it is mediated through the lens of human sensorial perception, questionable deduction, preconception and opinion. Existence as it is revealed to the gnostic is unchanging, it is definite and eternal, since it precedes the motion of time and causation2. The Goddess thus inform Parmenides that “all that is”, always remain immovable and is without change. This matter has later vexed and been misunderstood by many a philosopher, since from a regular causal perspective everything in the world obviously seem to be in flux and moving, thus making the claim that nothing ever changes an almost absurd remark. But we must rather understand it to mean that the core reality of the world, existence in itself, is unmovable and unchanging and that what appears to change is rather the perspective of the observer. The opinions of man are but perspectives of the central object which remain steadfast or rather shadows cast by the sun of truth. Gnosis is then the knowledge which truly transcends the barrier between subject and object in an absolute and immediate manner, something which is usually denied when compared with for example Kantian epistemology. What we here speak of is something like a realization of “the eternal present” or the “ungraspable instant” of the third hidden face of Janus, as Guenon once described it3. Gnosis is in this sense a transformation (a movement beyond form) from the contingent into the primary and direct nature of being, a phenomenological state of awareness of our own self as existing, in and by itself in an everlasting present. Or as the Neoplatonic philosopher and theurgist Iamblichus said in his “De Mysteriis”, when speaking of the nature of the gods and daemons:

Therefore, even as they have their being always after the same manner, so also the human soul is conjoined to them by Knowledge according to the same principles; never by any conjecture, opinion or reasoning which have their beginning in Time pursuing the essence which is beyond all these, but by pure and faultless intuitions which it received out of eternity from the gods being conjoined with them in these principles.

Parmenides on Nature


There is something quite interesting to be seen here, if we are to put this notion in contrast to the state of our modern world. We have found ourselves in a type of society that praises the opinions of man over the firm truth as proposed in Parmenides poem. All about us we see opinion and the freedom to express it as the absolute good, something of the highest of values that we are to kill and die for. The words which mask the world, the subjective notions that obscures the object making everything relative and vague, have all ascended to become the ideal manner through which we are to understand ourselves and reality. Even so, we are here not even talking about a type of episteme which is rather a form of knowledge based upon logic and empiricism, but rather an even more degenerated form of knowing which is not even grounded in reason or sense. Still not even episteme is enough. It only will take us as far as our logic and sense grants us. It has led us into the nihilism of a materialistic abyss, the iron age where man has lost the golden chain through the corridors of sophistic debate. Here, the real, that which actually is, has been set aside and have been hidden for us and is said not to even exist. Modern man thus prides himself of his illusionary perception of reality and says that he knows Nature, simply by observing it and by placing his opinions on top of it. But he has not understood it, for understanding must be rooted in existence, as revealed through gnosis.


Blood and spirit are not matters of sophistic argumentation, but are of the real. They are of the eternal, the unswaying principle of true knowing which lies beyond the vague semantics and thoughts of modern man. They are not born out of cultural structures, of wishful thinking or actually by any theoretical form. Yet they have been shrouded for us through this very rhetoric that spreads now like grey clouds to hide the sun of our true selves. To return to the source, to the acuasal reality of ourselves, we first and foremost need to step out of the pattern of mere opinion and seek out the hidden nature which precedes them, the divine spark which lies buried deep within us. Modern science, as effective and developed as it might appear, can not help us with any of this either. The pre-Socratic philosophers knew that our science must equally be rooted in the spirit as well as in the soil we walk upon. Nature and existence must be lived and understood, known and communicated with, not only observed and discussed. Our selves can not be known in defining them through theory, but must be faced directly. And to do such a thing, we must like Parmenides and like the heroes and demi-gods of old, descend into the underworld – the place of absolute dread and darkness where only those that are willing to throw away the fool’s gold hanging like a noose about our necks, may enter. For as the ancients knew and the wise of all ages know, the true home of sun is in the depths.


This article appears in the upcoming issue of the official TBO journal: THE FLAMING SWORD.

Footnotes

  1. For more on this subject, see: Kingsley, Peter: In the dark places of wisdom
  2. In a terminology more commonly used in TBO, we are here talking about something of an acausal quality. Plato later established his concept of the forms in to refer to this principle, although Parmenides had a quite much broader yet at the same time less metaphysically “costly” idea of the acausal.
  3. “Some Aspects of the Symbolism of Janus” in Fund. Symb. pp.90-91