A Poem at the Edge of Reality

In the beginning an immortal goddess explained reality to a mortal man. Or at least, she tried. She told him to be silent and just listen to her words, and so that’s what he did. All we know about her message comes from a poem that he wrote and that has been a source of deep fascination for intellectuals ever since. It attempts to describe an experience and a blinding insight at the very limit of what words can express – he met the goddess in a strange place at the edge of reality where he heard things that seemed impossible to refute and yet impossible to accept. His name was Parmenides. He lived around twenty-five centuries ago and came from a town called Elea on the coast of southern Italy. As for the goddess, she never gave him her name.

         Western culture begins with deities and their messages to human beings. Often enough, what they had to say just reflected what people already knew or believed, but in a few rare and precious cases there is something strikingly original about it – something unheard-of, something that’s profoundly puzzling and amazing, because it challenges our common assumptions about the world and how it works. Parmenides’ poem is a major example. Strangely enough, but very significantly too, nobody agrees about what it means. The parts that we know (for some of it is lost) consist of just about 160 lines of metric Greek, and yet an enormous number of incredibly learned studies have been written about those few pages of text. Why? Because when we read them, we feel that they are important. Something is being said here that had never been said before but could perhaps be true. And yet every reader, without a single exception, has found it extremely hard to say exactly what it is.

Therefore please don’t expect me to solve the riddle either, by simply telling you in plain words what the goddess meant. I may not even be able to tell you what she said – or what Parmenides claims he had heard from her – for it is far from certain, to say the least, that her words can survive translation into modern English. To show you what I mean by this, I will focus on her most important opening statement, right at the beginning of the speech that Parmenides wrote down. What follows is just a small sample of how specialists have tried to express those Greek words in English. Prepare yourself to be surprised or perhaps disappointed, at least initially, for it may not be what you expect. The goddess is telling Parmenides that if we want to find the truth about reality, there is just one route that will lead us towards it, namely


that it is or it is not

that either a thing is or it is not

that IT IS and … IT ISN’T cannot be

that [itis, and that [itcannot not be

that it is and it cannot not be

that is, and is not possible not to be

[to think] that “is,” and that it is not possible not to be

that It Is, and it is not possible for Is not to be

that [it] is and that [it] is not not to be

that a thing is, and that it is not for not being

both that “is” and that “it is not the case that ‘is not’”

that it is and that it is impossible for it not to be

this, that it-is and that not-to-be is not


That’s it! (or would you say that it isn’t?!). The Greek of fragment 3.2 says ἡ μὲν ὅπως ἔστιν τε και ὡς οὐκ ἔστι μὴ εἶναι. This enigmatic, frustrating, untranslatable sentence lies at the very heart of a poem about a mysterious divine encounter that has been presented, in standard philosophy textbooks, as the opening salvo of Western logic. Although Parmenides never claimed a single philosophical insight of his own, posterity gave him all the credit for his message from the goddess. Or all the blame, for in another famous text from antiquity (possibly intended as satire) he is portrayed as some kind of hyper-logical maniac who vanishes right before the reader’s gaze into a rabbit hole of abstractions from which there can be no return.

         But was it really about logic? In spite of all those disagreements about what the goddess meant, there is no doubt that she was saying something truly extraordinary. She was asking Parmenides to dismiss everything he had ever taken for granted. Literally everything – all the evidence of his senses and all the ideas in his mind. She told him that mortal humans do not see reality the way it is because our minds can’t help imagining distinctions that in fact are not there. We think that some things exist while others do not, but that is false: nothing unreal exists

Nothing unreal exists – give yourself a few moments  to let that sink in. It means that there is no such thing as unreality. Anything we ever experience is real, without a single exception, and so that has to include even what we call our illusions. I just wrote that in our imagination we draw distinctions that in fact are not there – but if this is true, it means that there’s no distinction either between illusion and reality, so even this unreal distinction itself must actually be real!

This is what she says, and the mind boggles. We can’t accept it. We think “that can’t be true, it’s such an obvious contradiction, there must be some way to resolve it!” –  and so we embark on the path of logic. Without even noticing it, we take the very road that the goddess tells Parmenides to avoid. For it is precisely this path, she explains, that is taken by all those ignorant mortals who are so confused about reality that they find themselves very clever. In fact these people just wander in circles, like mindless zombies, thinking that it’s possible to have it both ways – that some things are real while some others are not, and yet that those that aren’t real are somehow real as well. Please note: the goddess doesn’t present Parmenides with a logical puzzle that he’s expected to solve (the same way that you, I’m pretty sure, are trying right now). She doesn’t engage him in dialogue. She isn’t teaching him philosophy. She is simply telling him what reality is. Strange as it might seem, the whole of Western philosophy is based on a stubborn refusal to accept her message.

The reason for those two-and-a-half thousand years of mental resistance is that the goddess’s argument could not possibly be ignored, because it made perfect rational sense. And yet it could not be accepted either, because it seemed to make no sense at all. Consider the following. Does the past exist, somewhere, somehow? Clearly it doesn’t, for it’s gone forever and we can’t go anywhere to retrieve it. Does the future exist, somewhere, somehow? Clearly it doesn’t either, for it hasn’t yet come to be. If so, then what does exist? Only this infinitesimal fleeting moment “right now” – all else will have to be just memory and expectation, mere images in our minds. And yet that cannot be true either, for if nothing unreal exists, then both what we can remember or imagine and what we can’t, although it did happen or could happen (in fact, anything that ever happened or is yet going to happen), is exactly as real as whatever we are experiencing in this moment right here and now! This can only mean that time itself is an illusion but the illusion is real.

What kind of man was Parmenides, the first human being to ever write down such thoughts, and how did he get to meet the goddess? We are told that he came from a wealthy family and was involved in the making of laws for his town, Elea. After meeting an otherwise unknown “poor but noble” man called Ameinias, he appears to have decided to pursue a life of “stillness.” They were both followers of Pythagoras, a mysterious thinker and charismatic leader who had come from the island of Samos in the Eastern Aegean to southern Italy (then known as Magna Graecia, “Great Greece,” because there were so many Greek settlements there) and had founded a contemplative tradition that remained active after his death. Pythagoras was neither a philosopher nor a scientist or mathematician, and he didn’t invent the famous theorem that carries his name – those are all later projections. He and his followers did not believe in incorporeal realities or mathematical abstractions that lead away from our world of sensual experience towards some spiritual otherworld. Instead, they were convinced that it was possible for human beings to see beyond delusion and get to know the mysterious “unmoving heart of true reality.” But such knowledge could not be attained just by thinking or logical reasoning – it could only be seen or experienced directly, as an inner revelation that could dawn upon a person who had been searching for the truth. A person like Parmenides.

So how did it happen? How did he meet the goddess? The short answer is that we do not know, but the longer answer is that we can guess. In the thrilling opening scene of his poem, Parmenides writes how he found himself rushing down “through all things” along the crowded road of the daimon Atē, the unreliable goddess of mischief, delusion and blind folly – but then he was led right up towards the other goddess, the one who would open his eyes about reality. He writes that the mares that were carrying his wheeled chariot were being guided by young maidens, servants of the goddess, “daughters of the sun” who knew the way to the gates between night and day, darkness and light, mortal ignorance and divine knowledge. In soft whispers they persuaded the gatekeeper (another female deity, known as Dikē, Justice) to open the gates and let them through. And so it is that Parmenides was kindly received by the goddess in her own home, the place of true reality. 

Unlike the busy road of those who follow logic, this was not a realm filled with “many voices.” It must have been a place of profound silence, perfectly suited to the Pythagorean practice of “stillness” and deep inward contemplation. It appears that the followers of Parmenides, who remained active in Elea for many centuries after his death, used to meet in a building of their own that had a subterranean chamber – a phōleos or “dark place.” Only in such an utterly secluded location, where the senses could not be reached by stimuli that came from the outside world, could the goddess’s presence be sensed and her voice be heard. Surrounded by the nothingness of utter darkness, Parmenides may even have seen her image appear in his mind. In this place where nothing seemed to be, in fact she was everything and everywhere. This underworld place was not the place of death, she pointed out to him, for nothing exists but omnipresent life. This is reality, she was telling him. Now you know. This is it. 

         It has been said that humans cannot bear too much reality. Parmenides’ message from the goddess made an enormous impression on his contemporaries and on all those who came after. It was utterly new and revolutionary, impossible to ignore for anybody who heard of it and made a true effort to grasp its meaning, and yet so cryptic and impossibly weird that it forced you to keep thinking further and ever further in your attempts to figure it out. The goddess had set a ball rolling that has never stopped since. But of course, from the beginning there were those who just found it a blatant absurdity and were making fun of her One Reality. A younger Pythagorean and friend or follower of Parmenides, Zenon of Elea, responded by turning the tables on these critics: “Ah, you think that your logic is so superior? Well, watch me – what about this?” He would ask them, for instance, to consider what happens if you shoot an arrow. In order for it to reach the target, it wil first have to cover half of the distance (½), right? Right. But before getting there, it must first have covered half of that distance (¼), right? Sure thing. And yet, before ever getting there, it will first have to cover half of that distance () – or would you say it won’t? You get the point – there’s just no end to dividing any distance from A to B, and so it’s logically impossible for any arrow to ever reach any target. All movement becomes logically impossible. There have been endless attempts to solve this riddle, but Zenon’s point was that you just cannot rely on pure logic. Arrows reach their targets – that is reality. “Of course you guys can’t figure out how such a thing is possible,” Zenon was telling the critics, “but that’s because you’re wandering in logical circles along the route of confusion that the goddess told you not to take!” 

         How do you argue with the words of a goddess? Ever since Parmenides, all those who wanted to understand the true core of reality have found that they couldn’t avoid his poem. Whatever paths their minds were taking throught the labyrinth of human thought, sooner or later they would all find themselves back at the same place where it all began. For how could anything else exist than reality itself? Even the smartest among all those seekers (or rather, precisely the smartest) felt that perhaps they couldn’t measure up to the man from Elea. “I fear that perhaps we do not understand what he was saying…,” the brightest of them all is said to have admitted to a friend, “and still less his reasons for saying it.” Perhaps indeed. 

[in memory of Demetrius Waarsenburg, 1964-2021]                                                                   

Torre Velia

1 She told him to be silent…: Parmenides frgm. 2.1. … at the edge of reality: Gallop, Parmenides of Elea, 7 (“a place where opposites are undivided … where all difference or contrast has disappeared”). 2 … nobody agrees …: for the two chief schools of interpretation, see Blank, “Faith and Persuasian in Parmenides,” 167-168; Martin, Parmenides’ Vision, 1.  4  Fragm. 2.3. In chronological order: Kirk & Raven, The Presocratic Philosophers (1960), 269 (“the usual translation” and K&R’s translation); Lombardo, Parmenides and Empedocles (1982), 13; Gallop, Parmenides of Elea (1984), 55; Waterfield, The First Philosophers (2000), 58;  Kingsley, Reality(2003), 60; Cordero, By Being, It Is (2004), 191; Geldard, Parmenides and the Way of Truth(2007), 23; Palmer, Parmenides and Presocratic Philosophy (2009), 365; Coxon / McKirahan, Fragments of Parmenides (2009), 56; McKirahan, Philosophy before Socrates (2010), 146, 154; Blackson, Ancient Greek Philosophy (2011), 20; Martin, Parmenides’ Vision (2016), 19. 5 … another famous text …: Plato, Parmenides. … a kind of hyper-logical maniac…: I’m reminded of Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 30 “The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.” For Plato’s portrayal as a polemical satire, see e.g. Apelt, Untersuchungen; Cornford, Plato and Parmenides, v-x; Mario Molegraaf in Plato, Verzameld werk, vol. 3, 165-173; and especially Tabak, Plato’s Parmenides ReconsideredNothing unreal exists (cf. Kingsley, Reality, 73-76 “nothing doesn’t exist”); the alternative “nothing real exists” is categorically rejected as an utter dead end (frgm. 2.5-7). … let that sink in: frgm. 6.2 (phraxesthai: Kingsley, o.c., 83 “You ponder that!”; Palmer, Parmenides and Presocratic Philosophy, 369 and McKirahan, Philosophy Before Socrates, 146 “these things I bid you ponder”).  8 … the very road …: frgm. 6.4-9. … very clever …: I accept Martin’s innovative argument about the eidōs phōs in frgm. 1.3 (Parmenides’ Vision, 33-37). … have it both ways: frgm. 6.5 (dikranoi). Stubborn refusal: e.g. Gallop, Parmenides of Elea, 3 (“footnotes to Plato … footnotes to Parmenides”). 9 Consider the following… : frgm. 8.5-6; cf. McKirahan, Philosophy before Socrates, 164-166. Only this infinitesimal fleeting moment: with personal thanks to Daniel Waterman. … exactly as real: this reading confirms Kingsley’s interpretation (Reality, 69-72) of the famous frgm. 3 to gar auto noein estin te kai einai as “what exists for thinking, and being, are one and the same” (against the background of frgm. 2.2). 10 Parmenides’ life: Kirk & Raven, Presocratic Philosophers, 263-264 (Diogenes Laertius). Stillness: hēsuchia (on muēseis psuchēs, “initiations of the soul” following Iamblichus biography of Pythagoras, see Montiglio, Silence, 27-28). … neither a philosopher nor a mathematician: decisive argumentation in Burkert, Lore and Science, 208, 215, 217 (with quotation from Rohde), 278, 298, 303, 406, 466, 476, 482; for Pythagorean number symbolism as distinct from mathematics, see Burkert, o.c., 401-482; Brach, La symbolique des nombres. Theorem: Burkert, Lore and Science, 462-465; Kahn, Pythagoras, 32. Later projections: Burkert, Lore and Sciencepassim; also e.g. Kahn, Pythagoras, 13-15, followed by various attempts at “rescuing” Pythagoras for science and mathematics, as most extensively in Zhmud, Pythagoras, 17-18, 60 (but see e.g. Netz, Review; Macris, Review). … did not believe …: Burkert, Lore and Science, 32, 73. … unmoving heart of true reality: Parmenides frgm. 1.29 (Alētheiēs eupeitheos atremes etor). Eupeitheos (persuasive) is more common (Diels & Kranz, Fragmente, vol. 1, 230) but many editors in the wake of Diels & Kranz have followed Simplicius’ eukukleos (well-rounded; Gallop, Parmenides of Elea, 52 note 1). For alētheiēs as “reality” rather than “truth” I follow e.g. Palmer, Parmenides and Presocratic Philosophy, 363, and Coxon (McKirahan), Fragments of Parmenides, 54. … seen or experienced directly …: Burkert, Lore and Science, 20-21, 424 about noein (with reference to the key discussion in von Fritz, “Νοῦςνοεῖν,” 236-242); cf. Hanegraaff, Hermetic Spirituality, 12-14 and passim.  11 “through all things”: frgm. 1.3 (pant’), and cf. 1.32 (dia pantos panta perōnta); see Martin, Parmenides' Vision, 44. I accept Martin’s ground-breaking argument in Parmenides’ Vision, 33-37: “many-voiced” must indicate that this is the noisy crowded road (the “third route” dismissed by the goddess, frgm. 6.4-9, see text) taken by all those who think they are clever but are actually under dominion of the goddess Atē, “she who blinds all” (Homer, Iliad 91.19). Diels & Kranz’ pant’ astē does not occur in any of the manuscripts (which instead have pant atēpantatēpanta tē; Martin, Parmenides' Vision, 48). … the gates between …: concerning the much-debated question of on which side of the gates is light (day) and on which side is darkness (night) (e.g. Burkert, “Proömium,” 6-9), I suggest with Burkert that the answer must be both: the divine light of true knowledge is found in the darkness of night (e.g. Kingsley, Dark Places of Wisdom), whereas the realm of bright daylight is in fact the realm of ignorance, but the goddess’s nondualistic logic implies that true reality and human illusion (frgm. 8.50-52) are ultimately both real. See the perceptive remarks by Burkert, "Proömium," 15-16: “neither above nor below … No, Light and Night are both just superficial aspects of the one Being [des einen Seienden]; the thinker must go beyond their antagonism.” 12 … not a realm of “many voices”: ref. to frgm. 1.2., as opposed to the path of hēsuchia. … the followers of Parmenides: Ustinova, “Truth Lies at the Bottom,” 37-44; eadem, Caves, 191-209 (with further references in note 103; for phōleospholarchos: eadem, “Truth,” 28-33; eadem, Caves, 197-199). … the senses …: on the effects of sensory deprivation, see Sacks, Hallucinations, 34-44; for relevance to Greek antiquity, see Ustinova, Caves, 33 with note 108 and eadem, Divine Mania, 23-25. … not the place of death: frgm. 1.26 and Burkert, “Proömium,” 29: “For in Greek … the refusal of nonbeing, ouk esti mē einai, also means unambiguously: there is no death” (for the very strict Hermetic parallel, see Hanegraaff, Hermetic Spirituality, 271-275).  13 It has been said … : cf. T.S. Eliot, “Human kind / cannot bear very much reality” (Four Quartets I; in Collected Poems, 178). … impossible to ignore…: Kirk & Raven, Presocratic Philosophers, 319ff (“The Post-Parmidean Systems”). The arrow argument is part of several similar arguments concerned with motion: Kirk & Raven, o.c., 291-297. 14 “I fear that perhaps …”: Plato, Theaetetus 184a.

Apelt, Otto, Untersuchungen über den Parmenides des Plato, n.p.: Weimar 1879.

Blackson, Thomas A., Ancient Greek Philosophy: From the Presocratics to the Hellenistic Philosophers, Wiley-Blackwell: Malden / Oxford 2011.

Blank David L., “Faith and Persuasion in Parmenides,” Classical Antiquity 1:2 (1982), 167-177.

Brach, Jean-Pierre, La symbolique des nombres, Presses Universitaires de France: Paris 1994.

Burkert, Walter, “Das Proömium des Parmenides und die Katabasis des Pythagoras,” Phronesis 14 (1969), 1-30.  

----, Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism, Harvard University Press: Cambridge Mass. 1972.

Chesterton, Gilbert K., Orthodoxy, John Lane: London / New York 1909.

Cordero, Néstor-Luis, By Being, It Is: The Thesis of Parmenides, Parmenides Publishing: 2004.

Cornford, Francis MacDonald, Plato and Parmenides: Parmenides’ Way of Truth and Plato’s Parmenides translated with an Introduction and a Running Commentary, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co: London 1939.

Coxon, A.H., The Fragments of Parmenides: A Critical Text with Introduction and Translation, the Ancient Testimonia and a Commentary (orig. 1986; revised edition with new translations by Richard McKirahan, new Preface by Malcolm Schofield), Parmenides Publishing: Las Vegas / Zurich / Athens 2009. 

Diels, Hermann & Walther Kranz, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, vol. 1, Weidmannsche Verlagsbuchhandlung: Berlin 1951.

Eliot, T.S., Collected Poems 1909-1962, Faber & Faber: London 1963.

Fritz, Kurt von, “Νοῦςνοεῖν, and their Derivatives in Pre-Socratic Philosophy (Excluding Anaxagoras): Part I: From the Beginnings to Parmenides,” Classical Philology 40:4 91945), 223-242.

Gallop, David, Parmenides of Elea: Fragments, University of Toronto Press: Toronto / Buffalo / London 1984.

Geldard, Richard G., Parmenides and the Way of Truth, Monkfish: Rhinebeck 2007.

Hanegraaff, Wouter J., Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination: Altered States of Knowledge in Late Antiquity, Cambridge University Press 2022.

Kahn, Charles H., Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans: A Brief History, Hackett: Indianapolis / Cambridge 2001.

Kingsley, Peter, In the Dark Places of Wisdom, Element: Shaftesbury / Boston / Melbourne 1999.

----, Reality, The Golden Sufi Center: Point Reyes, California 2003.

Kirk, G.S. & J.E. Raven, The Presocratic Philosophers: A Critical History with a Selection of Texts, At the University Press: Cambridge 1960.

Lombardo, Stanley, Parmenides and Empedocles, Wipf & Stock: Eugene, Oregon 1982.

Macris, Constantinos, Review of Leonid Zhmud, Pythagoras and the Early PythagoreansRevue de Métaphysique et de Morale 1 (2014), 142-146.

Martin, Stuart B., Parmenides’ Vision: A Study of Parmenides’ Poem, University Press of America: Lanham / Boulder / New York / Toronto / Plymouth 2016.

McKirahan, Richard D., Philosophy before Socrates: An Introduction with Texts and Commentary, Hackett: Indianapolis / Cambridge 2010.

Montiglio, Silvia, Silence in the Land of Logos, Princeton University Press 2000. 

Netz, Reviel, Review of Leonid Zhmud, Pythagoras and the Early PythagoreansIsis 104:3 (2013), 606-607.

Palmer, John, Parmenides and Presocratic Philosophy, Oxford University Press 2009.

Plato, Verzameld Werk (Mario Molegraaf, transl.), Bert Bakker: Amsterdam 2012.

Sacks, Oliver, Hallucinations, Picador: London 2012.

Tabak, Mehmet, Plato’s Parmenides Reconsidered, Palgrave MacMillan: New York 2015.

Ustinova, Yulia, “Truth Lies at the Bottom of a Cave: Apollo Phōleutērios, the Pholarchs of the Eleats, and Subterranean Oracles,” La Parola des Passato: Rivista di Studi Antichi 59 (2004). 25-44.

----, Caves and the Ancient Greek Mind: Descending Underground in the Search for Ultimate Truth, Oxford University Press 2009.

----, Divine Mania: Alterations of Consciousness in Ancient Greece, Routledge: London / New York 2018.

Waterfield, Robin, The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and the Sophists, Oxford University Press 2000.

Zhmud, Leonid, Pythagoras and the Early Pythagoreans, Oxford University Press 2012.


  1. Dear Dr. Hanegraaff,

    given the long interval since you last wrote here, I had been afraid that your blog was discontinued, and I am very glad to see that this is not the case. And this post has made it worth to wait…

    Am I right to presume that you mostly agree with Kingsley's (and Gemelli Marciano's) understanding of Parmenides? I first came across Kingsley almost ten years ago and have since become quite convinced by him, but if he is right, it means – as you mention – that the history of Western philosophy has been rather different from what it is usually assumed to have been. Seeing this position being supported by someone of your expertise gives me confidence that I am on the right track here, so thank you a lot!

    I should also say that this is probably the most poetic post you have written on your blog so far – which is apt given that it is about a philosopher who was also a poet. And that fascinatingly evocative picture at the head of your post: was it created just for this occasion? Or, if not, where did you get it from?

    Best wishes,
    Claus Hollenberg

    1. Thank you very much for your response and your nice comments on the poetic language of this piece. Kingsley is largely responsible for evoking my interest in Parmenides, but eventually my understanding of his poem has moved away from his perspective in several important respects. One of them has to do with Stuart Martin’s work, which I quote (see the notes), and which has been strangely neglected as far as I can see. The way I see Parmenides is also informed by my work on the Hermetica, especially their metaphysical nondualism (which, again, has been overlooked), and I’m intrigued by Kingsley’s claim of a continuity from Pythagoreanism and Parmenides through the Hermetica to the Sufi pioneer Du l’Nun up to Suhrawardī. I talk about all that in my recent book Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination. As for the image: I simply found it on the internet…

  2. Dear Dr Hanegraaff,

    I have read most of your books and “Hermetic Spirituality” may be your best (so far). The possible Pythagoreanism – Hermetica – Dhu'l Nun – Suhrawardi connection is indeed one of the most intriguing and pertinent questions in the history of esoteric tradition. I agree with you that Ebstein (in his Dhu'l Nun article) is actively downplaying the esoteric aspects of his Sufi; even Van Bladel (“Arabic Hermes”) seems to be giving the idea that Suhrawardi had a real Hermetic influence too much of a short shrift, following Walbridge's concept of “Platonic Orientalism”, whereas Kingsley could already show that some of these “oriental mirages” did in fact have a historical foundation.

    Thank you very much for the tip regarding Stuart Martin. I have already ordered his book and am curious to see in which respects his interpretation differs from Kingsley's (from the content description, he seems to be going in much the same direction).

    The picture, in my view, captures very well the moment from Parmenides's poem when the gates are opened and the traveller gets entry to the realm of the god(des)s. For the entering figure seeming to being female herself: I noticed how in your “Hermetic Spirituality” you wrote that the “only child” undergoing the ritual in PGM IV is a daughter – I can't remember having found a mention of the initiate's gender in any other text.


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