Peter Kingsley- Parmenides, Zeno, Empedocles and Gorgias : Stillness’ Golden Chain
Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA are excerpts from Peter Kingsley’s trailblazing and influential book, ‘Reality’.
With our last two posts presenting some key ideas and concepts emblematic of Gorgias of Leontinoi, Peter Kingsley tells us now about a discreet and mostly unnoticed chain of transmission where Parmenides of Elea, Zeno of Elea, Empedocles of Akragas and Gorgias revealed and then unfolded a plan to help us be aware of the illusions of the world we live in and proposed specific methods to pierce these tenacious and seductive veils preventing us to apprehend reality ‘as is’.
We invite you to discover and steadily peruse all the books of Peter Kingsley, as their participate to a bitter-sweet eye-opening process that sends us into the adventure of a life-time: Ourselves. Untainted. Human, at last.
…/…’For this is the way the tradition works. The more Empedocles appears to disagree with Parmenides, the more he really agrees. What seems like polemics is an endless dance of pirouette on pirouette by two people who know that the greatest deception of all is to tell the truth and who laugh with each other in the awareness in the awareness that the greatest truth is to deceive.’
‘This tradition is an endless source of surprise. Parmenides begins with total stillness and then slips into movement. Zeno starts with movement and, without ever leaving it, dissolves it. Empedocles, too, makes movement the starting point and cornerstone of his whole teaching-only to touch repeatedly, in passing, on the utter motionlessness behind it.
Everything about this tradition is subtlety. It slides as smoothly from one position into another as a snake, shedding its skin so many times you can find yourself wondering which is the skin and which is the snake. But behind the sliding is always the stillness. All this slipping between position and position has nothing to do with intellectual uncertainty or compromise. Parmenides and Zeno and Empedocles are not some philosophical fence-straddlers, trying to claim there could be a theoretical justification for adopting contradictory doctrines at the same time. On the contrary: If you look closely at what they teach and at the way they teach it, slipping into and out of regions that to us are so familiar, you will realize their agility in shifting between one standpoint and another is just as significant as any of the standpoints themselves.
For to notice this subtle, persistent movement is to be watching their magic-is to see them casting their spell in a world of illusion, deceiving in a realm of deception.’
‘The line running from Parmenides’ teaching through Empedocles’ didn’t stop there. In fact we are told how it was continued; through whom. But no one either cares, or dares to uncover what it really implies. Ancient writers quite often mention in passing that Empedocles had a successor. To quote the words of an author who neatly summed up the situation as a whole: “Parmenides was the teacher of Empedocles, who was the teacher of Gorgias.” And such a statement, if anyone ever comes across it nowadays, will be politely smiled at; then put aside. For, if treated with the seriousness it deserves, it has the power to destroy everything we take most seriously.
Both Gorgias and Empedocles were from Sicily. Nothing could be easier than to understand how one could have come into contact with and been influenced by the other. But that’s not the problem. The trouble is that there is no room for this little line in the world as we know it. Even in our history books, our carefully scripted mythologies of rationality, no place has been left for it because it goes where on all accounts nothing should. This one single line cuts a swathe right through the middle of what have become the most deeply entrenched assumptions. That it should run from Parmenides, a ‘Monist’, to the ‘Pluralist’ Empedocles is bad enough; but that it should run from them to Gorgias is far worse. At least Parmenides and Empedocles were both philosophers. And yet, Gorgias has become to be considered something very different from any philosopher.
He used to be known as a sophist. In fact, he was sometimes even referred to as the father of the sophists. And however much individual scholars might try to shift or redefine the dividing line between sophists and philosophers, the division stands.’
‘By Gorgias’ time people were already ruining Parmenides’ teaching with their minds. Parmenides himself had made the situation as plain as he could. His poem was a sacred text; a path to the stillness that lies beyond the grasp of our restless, wandering minds. But the trouble is that these minds are so deceptive they will do whatever they can to prevent anyone accepting a gift from the gods. He had offered a chariot for travelling into another world. The response of philosophers has been to dismantle it and smash it, jealous that anyone would want to get away. What they did was to begin reasoning with Parmenides, trying to improve what he said, criticizing him for not making better sense; adjusting his logic to make it more palatable, more pleasing, more persuasive. Rather than to allow it to perform its real purpose, which is to initiate the devastating process of changing us, they took the other route of changing it. In other words they did what always happens when the mind gets hold of something. They brought it down to their level: made it their own.
And Gorgias had already had enough.
A master of concealing wisdom behind what seems like tedious nonsense, he was fed up with so much tedious nonsense masquerading as wisdom. And in this line, so infinitely mysterious no one nowadays would ever want to allow such a tradition could exist, he did something that for a long time people have realized he was doing-although without understanding why on earth he did it. He took Parmenides’ teaching and totally destroyed it. Parmenides has argued that everything is, and that whatever you perceive or recognize or talk about has to exist simply because you perceive or recognize or discuss it. Gorgias argued, following the same logical principles, that nothing exists and that even if something did exist no one would be able to perceive or recognize it; and that even if it did exist and could be perceived or recognized, nobody would be able to say a word about it to anyone else.
Through his own words he was communicating the impossibility of communicating anything. And, in doing so, he turned the whole of Parmenides’ teaching upside down. That teaching had lead to absolute fullness. Gorgias’ led to absolute emptiness. He took away the everything offered by Parmenides only to replace it with sheer nothingness. And the most important aspect of all of this, which it can be so easy to miss, is that Gorgias makes no attempt whatsoever to refine or correct Parmenides’ logic by producing something more reasonable. He is not trying to be realistically modest or cautious; to act as a mediator on behalf of common sense. On the contrary, he is being just as radical as Parmenides himself-and he reaches the same ultimate conclusion that our complicated world of existence and non-existence, of change and movement, is utterly illogical and completely unreal.
His reply to Parmenides is so clean it leaves nothing behind; no residue, no trace of any sticky compromise. He is so effective in undermining his position that, in the last resort, Parmenides’ position and his own become the same. In either case the world as we know it is demolished and whatever we cling to desperately, whatever we identify with so intelligently, is destroyed.
The paradox is that, by cancelling out Parmenides’ teaching with such rigorous thoroughness, he ended up staying perfectly true to it. And this is a very real paradox. For even though Parmenides was the father of western logic, what he himself taught had to be destroyed. Because he allowed no room for our wandering minds to operate, it was far too real; for too still. Westerners had a great adventure ahead of them that required they forget all about stillness-for a while.
But Gorgias’s act of destruction was altogether different from Plato’s murder of Parmenides. Both were needed, although for quite separate reasons. Plato had to destroy the purity of Parmenides’ teaching so as to keep this world of compromise intact. Gorgias had to keep the purity of the teaching intact by destroying the compromise. Plato’s action was essential from the point of view of this world we live in but relatively unimportant from the perspective of the tradition Parmenides belonged to. Gorgias’ action was essential from the point of view of the tradition, but relatively unimportant from the point of view of the world we live in.
And this is why, scholars have made so little efforts to understand it. Inevitably they fall back on asking if Gorgias was being serious or playful with his strange display of logical virtuosity, without realizing how feeble such a question is.
For Gorgias came from a tradition of jokers. And yet the humor of Parmenides, or Empedocles, is far more just playful. Their laughter is more serious that all our trivial solemnities put together. Their jokes are only a reflection of what to them is the joke of the human condition; and the aim of their humor is to demolish our imaginary seriousness until a much greater seriousness is left.
As to Gorgias himself, any doubt about whether he is being serious or not appears more than a little naïve when we consider a certain statement he is said to have made:
“Destroy seriousness with laughter, laughter with seriousness.“
The point he is making is very simple. Just like Empedocles with his twin principles of Love and Strife, we have to be able to master laughter as well as seriousness while not identifying with either. And to do this is to be free-not only from taking anything seriously but even from not taking it seriously.
Then playfulness is no longer just playfulness, or seriousness only a matter of being serious. Instead, they both are being used alike in the service of that indefinable something which lies behind them both.’