Parmenides and sanity

I’m currently “re-studying” philosophy. Studying might be a bad term since I’m mostly listening to Leonard Peikoff’s excellent History of Western Philosophy lectures. Well, only two lectures really since we’re just now covering Plato’s forms.

I wonder what it was like to live at in ancient Greece. . . not in the physical sense . . . but in the psychological or philosophical sense. Without the distraction of technology or the development of science, did these fundamental problems seem exponentially more pressing and important? I believe that our approach to philosophical questions guides our lives, but was this fact more apparent to the Greeks, when these questions were cutting edge and new?

In some ways it seems like it was that way for some people back in the day. For instance I learned about one Heraclitian who stopped speaking altogether because he decided that, since everything is in flux, words couldn’t actually have meaning.

Now today we see a lot of religious zealotry, I know that. But it seems rare that you see someone take a metaphysical conclusion and just make a decision to go mute like it’s the latest iTunes update. “Well I’ve thought about it and words don’t have meaning so . . . . ” Is this because the fundamental ideas and questions were so novel and raw at this point in history? I’m not sure.

Well regardless of what Heraclitus thought, we then get to Parmenides, who tries to answer a lot of the problems raised by previous thinkers. One of the things he deals with is whether things actually exist or not (Heraclitus pretty much says no by the way. . .) Parmenides seems to be the first person to consciously assert that non-existence isn’t really a thing:

“For never shall this prevail, that things that are not are.”
(Copied and pasted without shame from wikipedia.)

Now in Parmenides’ case, this is all mixed up with some more crazy views of his (like for instance: motion doesn’t exist). Either way, this fact about existence – it has a moral and psychological element to it that a lot of us spend time avoiding. It isn’t so far from, if not the same as, Aristotle and Rand’s insistence that things are what they are, and that we have to either accept reality or suffer the consequences. So even if these questions aren’t as fresh, we still have to deal with them.

What does it mean to accept reality? It can’t just mean just accepting how things are. “That’s just how it is” is a fairly crude excuse for not improving your standard of living or psychological or physical health. Maybe it would be better to say “My eyes are open to the facts of the situation, as well as all the possibilities of improving it.” Or, as a 7 year old student of mine adorably put it: “You should never say: ‘I can’t do that’, you should say: ‘That’s hard and I’ll work hard to do that’.”

Sometimes it’s obvious to accept the facts of our external reality, but more difficult looking inward. As a person who “over-thinks” almost everything, one of the things I’ve had to learn to accept is that not every emotion requires action. The fact of feeling strong emotions such as anger, frustration, or what have you doesn’t mean I need to “deal with them” in the sense of any existential action.

Sure, I can deal with my emotional health. I can think about my childhood, my defense mechanisms, my values and my automatic though processes, etc. I can work through a lot of stuff – maybe? But in the moment, accepting that I’ll feel emotions and that sitting with them, and letting them just be there in my body, even meditating with them, is in some cases the best course of action.

So that’s my take home from you Parmenides, whether you would accept it or not: acceptance but not resignation.

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