Parmenides' 'On the Order of Nature' and the reliability of Episteme over Doxa

Parmenides’ classic poem On the Order of Nature influenced many of Ancient Greece's most prominent thinkers. Though obscure, and archaic at times, On the Order of Nature can still elucidate valuable insights into the nature of existence. Parmenides’ views on the essence of being in the context of his narrative On the Order of Nature, are significant, as they set the stage for one to understand the underlying meaning of this classic. It can be suggested that the moral of Parmenides’ prose is that episteme, or an intellectual understanding of what it means to be, is of greater value than doxa, or a belief that derives from mere opinion.

    Parmenides’ On the Order of Nature begins with a portrayal of mares steering him towards his ultimate goal of real knowledge and wisdom. To Parmenides, the road to knowledge and wisdom is divine; since it is divine it would only be fitting that a sacred being would have access to it. Consequently, Parmenides, with the help of the Daughters of the Sun, petitions the goddess who guards the road to wisdom and knowledge to allow him entry. The goddess kindly welcomes Parmenides to travel the path of wisdom and knowledge, and she tells him that the road he wishes to tread is for the strong of heart. The goddess believes only those who are resilient can follow the trail of truth because the way to knowledge and wisdom is a path that is of a different essence than everyday existence, and the mundane world of appearance. The goddess also reminds Parmenides that looking beyond the world of appearance must derive from a correct way of evaluating what it means to be. She instructs Parmenides that what is, is, and what is not, is not, and that he should apply this basic logical framework to the world of appearance, so that he may understand the underlying truths of it. The basis for her claim is that all forms of life exist because of their conceivability; things that do not exist, do not, because they are impossible to conceive. Finally, with this strict paradigm of analyzing existence, Parmenides continues to evaluate the nature of life and its relation to the essence of knowledge and wisdom.

    On the Order of Nature continues with Parmenides obtaining a deeper understanding of the essence of existence by further adhering to the instructions of the goddess. The goddess continues Parmenides’ education on the nature of life by instructing him that nothing comes into existence or fades out of it. The logic behind her bold claim is that all beings are ultimately one eternal entity. The goddess states that all things are eternal because understanding time as a standard linear progression through past, present, and future is wrong. Instead, she argues that it is more plausible to believe that all that is, is in the present, since things that seem to be indicative of time, such as day and night, are in actuality just different facets of one and the same phenomenon. Furthermore, it is possible to reduce apparently distinguishable occurrences, like day and night, to be singular since they are not independently conceivable. Lastly, since existence is only one conceivable entity, and since time is a-temporal, one may infer that all that exists is a singular eternal being.

    After the goddess instructs Parmenides on the nature of being, she then begins to teach him the faults of sense perception, so that he may be able to better discern truth from falsehoods. According to the goddess, people err when they believe that the world of appearance is ultimate reality; existence is not a collection of particular entities, rather it is a singular eternal whole. The goddess ascribes to this view of life because it would be illogical to claim that there is more than one real being because being is identical only to itself. Thus, if there were numerous distinct entities, they would not be identical to one common basis, which is an absurdity since particular things are necessarily the result of an all-encompassing source. The goddess attributes this outlook to be a result of the mind alone, and not a product of the senses which only obscures knowledge due to their limited scope. Lastly, she claims that because sensory perception stops at comprehending only facets of being, it alone cannot grasp the totality of life, and thus it is not a perfectly dependable means for comprehending existence.

     Furthermore, the senses are faulty because when one observes something such as change, it is not change that is witnessed, rather it is just the temporal mind understanding reality in a way that emphasizes a certain aspect of being, and not it in its entirety. To better grasp what the goddess is trying to convey, one may refer to the phenomena of aging. I submit the reader to analyze this supposed process because though a person appears to be aging over time, the goddess would contend that they are not. I believe she would make this claim because time is a-temporal, and since nothing comes to be or fades from being, one may argue that identity is stable over time and that the appearance of aging is due to nothing more than a person’s lack of sensory perfection. Hence, just as the appearance of aging derives from the faulty opinion that change is real, change derives from a faulty perception that is a result of one’s inability to view reality from an eternal standpoint. Finally, because all things are unchanging, and because sense perception obscures one’s understanding of immutability, it is not indubitably reliable, and thus one must look to knowledge and wisdom to gain a complete understanding of the truth that underlies all appearances.

    In the last remaining fragments of Parmenides’ poem, the goddess reveals her knowledge of the divine source of being. She begins her explication on the force that engenders existence by claiming that it is akin to the power of the life-giving sun. The goddess makes this comparison because just as the sun shines light unto the world so that existence may continue, life emanates from a central point that enlivens all that it touches. Furthermore, the essence of reality, which lies behind the world of appearance, is identical to the divine source of being because all that is conceivable possesses existence and existence can only be identical to itself. Also, one may infer that knowledge can be gained of the divine source of being by embracing knowledge and wisdom since it is the best way to know the truth of existence. Thus, because the underlying truth of reality is a sacred life principle, and because knowledge and wisdom lead one to understand that sacred law; one should cultivate genuine reason, or episteme, to escape the errors of ordinary sense perception. Finally, basic sense perception, which is the reason one can misinterpret reality, is correctable, and the goddess believes that one should train one’s mind to reach episteme, which is of greater value than opinion, or doxa.

    According to the goddess, episteme, or rational knowledge, is of greater value than doxa, or a belief that derives from opinion. The goddess affirms the importance of episteme over doxa because ultimate reality, or the life-generating power that gives rise to the world of appearance, is accessible only by the mind’s use of knowledge and wisdom. One way in which the goddess conveys her claim is by instructing Parmenides that because knowledge and wisdom are of the same essence as the underlying truth of all things, it follows that they are of the utmost importance for those who wish to know the truth that lies beneath appearances. In other words, knowledge and wisdom, by being similar to the hidden truths of life, are essential qualities that one should harvest so that he/she may be able to reveal those truths. On the other hand, doxa, or knowledge through opinion, stops as far as one’s senses allow, and because it relies on the relativity of individual perception, and not upon the stability of reason, the goddess claims that it is incomplete and reveals half-truths at best. Therefore, since half-truths are not completely genuine, knowledge which derives from opinion cannot match knowledge based on reason alone because it is not completely of the nature of truth.

    The goddess also claims that because doxa is one’s initial understanding of the world, one should train one’s mind so that episteme may be gained, implying that it is of greater value than doxa. Since episteme is of greater significance than doxa, one may claim that it is a more mature way of understanding ultimate reality than knowledge through opinion. Also, because doxa is an inadequate way of analyzing the backdrop of the veiled world, one may claim that episteme, which is of a higher degree of knowledge than doxa, is adequate since it is the only other form of knowledge one can use to unravel the mysteries of existence. To the goddess, the hidden facets of life are accessible to those who cultivate their minds because doxa is basic, and only episteme is rigorous enough to divulge the complexities of life. Finally, since episteme derives from the mind alone, and since doxa is dependent on sense perception, it can be seen that the goddess is teaching Parmenides not only the usefulness of episteme, but also its value as a way to understand the dimensions of reality that are not immediately apparent.

     As a classic philosophical poem, Parmenides’ On the Order of Nature is beneficial to have knowledge of because of its influence on subsequent thinkers throughout many fields of discourse. This piece, I believe, has described Parmenides’ prose in an adequate way, and I hope that the reader may reflect on the knowledge that I have tried to convey. Furthermore, by showing the faults of doxa, or mere opinion, I have intended to illustrate how embracing knowledge based on reason, or episteme, is an indispensable tool for those who wish to know what may be the metaphysical foundation of everyday existence. Finally, I recommend an interpretation of Parmenides’ On the Order of Nature not only as an explication of what it means to be, but also as an exhortation of the guiding light of reason.