Is Change Impossible?

Imagine a world where change is impossible. People do not grow old. Nothing has changed since the beginning of time, and everything will stay the same until its end. In fact, time has no beginning or end. This is the world we see through the Greek philosopher Parmenides’ eyes. “Whatever is, is,” Parmenides stated with finality, meaning that movement and change were only illusions. He held that since truth is unchanging, so is reality. Parmenides believed it is impossible to think about that which does not exist.

In the days of the pre-Socratic philosophers, Parmenides was born in Elea, Italy, to a noble family. He grew up a pampered and educated prince in his ruling family. Although not much is known about his early life, Parmenides began his career as a thinker by studying under Xenophanes and Anaximander, two of his contemporaries. He had probably already been introduced to the great philosophical ideas of his time by childhood teachers, but his interest piqued after learning of the philosophers’ greatest concern: the Arche.

Thinkers before Socrates were primarily interested in discovering what the substance was from which all else came. This substance, or source, they called the Arche. However, they argued hotly over what the Arche was. Thales, one of the earliest known philosophers, believed the Arche was water, since it was powerful and essential to life. Anaximander held that the Arche was not material at all, but something more infinite and spiritual. He called this substance the “apeiron”, which means “without limit” or “the boundless”. Heraclitus, an unconventional contemporary of Parmenides, refined the idea of the Arche. Heraclitus thought the Arche was fire, a symbol of the ever-changing nature of the world. However, he taught that another force worked alongside the Arche to change and shape matter. He called this other force “logos”, “the word”.

Parmenides was greatly influenced by the whirlwind of ideas spreading throughout Greece and the Greek colonies in Italy. He actually began his career as a lawyer, drafting legislation to improve the economy of Elea, but he is better known as the Father of Metaphysics. Despite studying the ideas of Anaximander and Xenophanes, Parmenides ultimately rejected most of their ideas. He documented his ideas in a book written in hexameter. In his manuscript, he attempted to explain that change is impossible, since change causes a thing to transition from “not-being” to “being”. He argued that “not-being” cannot exist and concluded that there could be no coming into existence or ceasing to exist. Nothing changed; change was just a faulty perception of the world. Parmenides believed that the material world had no bounds and would never end.

Parmenides committed a logical fallacy which flowed throughout his entire system of belief, a fallacy we still make today. His arguments were all based on a presupposition, something he believed without explaining why he believed it. His presupposition was that there is no such thing as void or “not-being”. Of course, if this were true, there would be no imagination, no innovation. Every new technology ever created was first imagined, before it actually existed. And from personal experience, we know that change is not only possible, but happens daily, even moment-by-moment.

Parmenides and his method of thought, though flawed, contributed much to the discipline of philosophy. He asked questions such as: What is real? What exists? How do we know? Today the study of ontology continues to ask these questions. Parmenides influenced many later philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, who went on to create entirely new branches of thought and study.

When we imagine the world of Parmenides, a purely static and unchanging world, we can realize the importance of change. Every leaf, every flower, every new year of life, all speak to the beauty and value of this concept so central to our human identities: change.

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