Comparing Parmenides and the Atomists, The Nature of Reality

          Questioning the nature of reality is how philosophy came to be. Thales can be credited with beginning the process, by attempting to determine what everything is made out of. He may have been off the mark by saying everything is made of water, but by asking that first essential question of philosophy, “what is the true nature of this world?” Thales began a seemingly never-ending chain of questioning the nature of reality. Parmenides and the Atomists too contributed greatly to the development of philosophy. Though they certainly had different views, Parmenides’ declarations greatly influenced the Atomists and gave them a foundation of prior questioning to build from.

            Parmenides’ assertion is “It is.” The ‘it’ he spoke of is reality, and everything that exists. The ‘is’ of his statement is Parmenides belief that everything in existence now has always been in existence, and will never cease to be; i.e., it is. In terms of the One, that which Thales believed to be water, Parmenides believed to be being or reality.  Being is the One and only One or ‘it’, Parmenides proposed, because if Being were not one, then there must be something to divide it. But to be divided, there must be something other than Being to be divided by, which would suggest there to be something other than Being, which there is not.

            As stated above, Parmenides purported that everything in existence has always been, and will always be in existence. In other words, there is no “becoming.” He believed change to be an illusion caused by the senses, and that change and movement are impossible. Parmenides proposed this to be true because for something to “become”, it must come out of an already existent material. In other words, nothing can come out of nothing, for Being is the only thing that is. In this light, Parmenides happened upon the idea of the conservation of matter, a scientific law that we find in modern science. He believed that anything in existence cannot become non-existent.

            Parmenides also believed that Being, the material word, is spatially finite. He believed it was real in all directions, but spherical in shape, in fixed dimensions. Though he is often seen as an idealist, Parmenides was quite the materialist, in that Being was the existence of things. Nonetheless, he did believe absolute reality, “of which the world is a manifestation, consists in thoughts, in concepts” (Copleston 51).

            The Atomists, Leucippus and Democritus, continued to question the nature of reality. While Parmenides believed all Being was the One, and much less focused on the many that made up the one, it seems the Atomists were more focused on the many rather than the One. As their given name “Atomists” suggests, Leucippus and Democritus proposed that everything is made of an infinite amount of units, called atoms. Like Parmenides, the Atomists contributed this idea to modern science as well as indulging in the essential philosophical questioning of what reality and existence truly are.

            The atomists believed in the void, or nothingness before reality as we know it came to be. The void was so-called nothingness, though both Democritus and Leucippus believed there to be atoms in the void, which would render it not in fact, nothing. Regardless, reality as we know it came to be due to atoms hitting each other and becoming attached; and joining with other like atoms. The movement of atoms is a topic not explained by Leucippus or Democritus, however, they did not believe in a One driving force behind it, i.e. Love, God, etc,.

            Though Parmenides may not have agreed with the Atomists’ idea of the void and the creation of reality, he would agree when the Atomists proposed that every atom has always been, and there is no creation of new ones or destructions of old. Parmenides and the Atomists disagree on the dimensions of reality, however. While Parmenides believed that reality and the material manifestation of it is spherical, the Atomists believed it was like a disc floating in air, reminiscent of Anaxagoras.

            While neither Parmenides nor the Atomists hit the target precisely, they certainly laid some groundwork and proposed very well thought hypotheses. Both contributed to modern science as well as questioning the nature of reality. By trying to make sense and assign explanations to the world around us, Parmenides and the Atomists began to answer very difficult questions, and were great catalysts in developing philosophy.


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