1.3 Heraclitus vs. Parmenides

Jan 12, 2020 | ch1 Introduction, Cognitive Psychology, Courses

In this lesson, we compare the theories of two ancient Greek philosophers: Heraclitus, the philosopher of change, and Parmenides, the philosopher of permanence. In what ways they are different and how they are alike?

Pre-Socratic Philosophy

Among the pre-Socratic philosophers, there are two who often contradicted each other: Heraclitus and Parmenides. Pre-Socratic philosophy just means the philosophy that came before Socrates (470-399 BCE). In this lesson, we look at two of these philosophers: Parmenides and Heraclitus. We will look at Heraclitus more closely first.

Heraclitus, The Obscure

Heraclitus (535 – 475 BCE) lived in Ephesus. He was known as ‘the Obscure’ because he expressed his thinking with phrases that are often difficult to interpret. His main points were:

  • Fire is the principle from which everything proceeds. Like many pre-Socratic philosophers, Heraclitus sought a creative principle, a force from which all things proceeded. He identified with fire. But it is necessary to understand that, for Heraclitus, fire is a symbol. It’s always in movement, and represents the constant change of the universe.
  • Panta rhei. In Greek, panta rhei means ‘everything flows’. Life is a continuous change. This is the essential point of the doctrine of Heraclitus. All this change is not chaotic though; it is ordered by a law that Heraclitus calls logos (‘word’, ‘thought’ or ‘reason’). The logos is an invisible universal harmony that governs and orders the continual change of the world. Therefore, all things change, but the logos remains.

The most famous affirmation of Heraclitus refers to the continuous change: ”we both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not.”

Parmenides, The Permanence

Parmenides (about 540 – 470 BCE) lived in Elea. The most important work of this philosopher was a long poem composed in hexameters (verses of six syllables), in which he explains his philosophy. It has an epic form, but instead of telling the life of a hero, Parmenides explains his philosophy, his conception of life and existence.

The poem tells us that there are two ways to access knowledge: the Way of Truth, which allows us to access real knowledge and the Way of Opinions, which is deceptive and full of contradictions. Moreover, in order to arrive at true knowledge, we must be guided by reason (logos), not by sensations.

To understand Parmenides’ thought, it is essential that we examine the concept ‘that it is not’. ‘That it is not’ can not be named, not even thought. Therefore, philosophy must be based on that it is. Nothingness does not exist, so it can’t act as a basis for any thought.

Once we admit the impossibility of nothingness, of ‘that it is not,’ we can see the characteristics of ‘that it is’.

  • ‘That it is’ is eternal – it is neither born nor dies; it has always existed and will always exist. This is because, if it were not eternal, we would have to accept that there is a moment, at birth or death, in which being becomes non-being. And not being is impossible.
  • ‘That it is’ is unique and cannot be divided. For in order to be divided, a void must exist, which is nothingness, which does not exist.
  • ‘That it is’ is immobile, it does not change, because in order to be able to move or change, it would be necessary again the presence of the void, of nothingness.

Parmenides represents the ‘that it is’ as a sphere because in a sphere the matter is distributed in a perfectly uniform way, without empty spaces.

Heraclitus vs Parmenides

We see here, therefore, two thinkers of classical antiquity who developed ideas that seem contrary. On the one hand, we have Heraclitus, the defender of eternal change and continuous movement; on the other hand we have Parmenides, who asserted that what exists is eternal, always identical and immobile.

In the following chart, you can see some of the most striking differences between the two philosophers.


Heraclitus and Parmenides: the Similarities

Now, let’s take a look at the similarities between these two men. Heraclitus tells us about a world that flows, that changes. But Heraclitus asserted that this change was governed by a law, the logos, universal harmony. And this law never changes, it is eternal.

If we look at the most famous metaphor of Heraclitus, the river, we see that, indeed, the river always changes, because the waters it has today are not the same as it had yesterday. But the course of the river, the order that follows, is always the same, is invariable. Thus, Heraclitus also admitted some permanence.

For his part, Parmenides claimed that nothing changes, everything is invariable, since the being is eternal and immutable. But the appearance of being, that is, how it appears before our eyes, can vary, for it depends on the combinations of the elements that form it. In this way, Parmenides also admitted some movement and change.

On the other hand, it is interesting that these two philosophers, who are very influential in later theories, and who are often presented as opposites, express themselves in much the same way, with a rather obscure and uneven style. The two wanted to remove vulgar or uneducated people from their doctrines, so their phrases are sometimes difficult to interpret.

Lesson Summary

Let’s take a moment or two to review what we’ve learned.

Two great pre-Socratic philosophers, Heraclitus and Parmenides, had some contrasting ideas. Heraclitus, known as ‘the Obscure’ for his difficult, vague phrasing, believed in:

  • Fire, a symbol for change in the universe; the principle from which everything proceeds. It’s always in movement and represents the constant change of the universe.
  • Panta rhei , ‘everything flows.’ Life is a continuous change but is ordered by logos (‘word’, ‘thought’ or ‘reason’), an invisible universal harmony.

Some main takeaways from the philosophy of Parmenides included the concept of ‘that it is not,’ cannot exist. ‘That it is‘ is eternal, unique, and immobile. His poem explored the Way of Truth, which allows us to access real knowledge and the Way of Opinions, which is deceptive and full of contradictions.

Thus, the two philosophers contrast one with another: the philosopher of the movement versus the philosopher of permanence. But, Heraclitus admits something of permanence, as Parmenides admits some change.

1.4 Rationalism vs. Empiricism: Similarities & Differences
1.2 Ancient Greek Philosophy: Introspection & Associationism