Lecture Seven: Tragedy 7.4

7.4 Being and nothing


Before concluding this lecture, it is tempting to make one final leap, perhaps speculative, about how the model we have discussed so far could be developed. Subordination of two different elements or poles entails an inequality in their weight or power: the stronger dominates the weaker, one has more, the other has less. If one pushes this model to the extreme, subordination becomes the absolute opposition between all and nothing, the maximum and zero, the positive and the negative. In this extreme form, subordination is still a relation between two poles, but now one of them is completely empty of any content, weight, or power, it is reduced to sheer nothingness; so much so that positing such a nothingness entails a performative contradiction. To posit anything, some sort of quality must be attributed to it, but attributing anything to nothing undermines the very act of positing nothing as such. However, in this extreme opposition, even the positive side is profoundly transformed. If the positive is the absolute antagonist of an absolute negative, then anything that is different from it (anything that is not the absolute positive) would count as non-positive, hence as the negative itself. If anything (say a human being) is something, and yet is different from the absolutely positive (a human being is not the absolute positive), then, such a thing must be a non-positive, hence, a nothing (because a human being is not the absolute positive, it is nothing at all). Difference can be conceived only as the radical alterity between the absolute positive and its complete negation. Whatever is not the absolute positive must be a nothing. Within the positive itself, no differentiation could remain. To the point that even the differentiation between the absolute positive and its negative might appear paradoxical (if the negative is nothing at all, how could the difference between the positive and the negative be real?). In any case, this absolute Positive is not a harmonious manifoldness of related differences, but a blank eternal and undifferentiated Being. Since nothing is left to the negative, the positive keeps all reality for itself. And yet, by concentrating reality in just one simple point, the absolute positive becomes also undifferentiated. It simply is, but nothing else could be said of it.

Consider how this model could be derived from the structure of subordination we discussed so far. In the Oresteia, there is a suggestion about the need for combining subordination with recognition, to defuse the risks engendered by subordination itself. This risk is voiced in the Erinyes’s claim that the younger gods have ‘made me nothingness’ (Orestes at Athens, VIII. 830, transl. Taplin 2018, 157). In the play, this is a figure of speech, and yet it hints at the way in which complete lack of recognition, along with repression and forceful dismissal of one’s agency, has the power of annihilating its victim. After all, the communitarian model of agency entails that one is identified as a doer and whatever hinders or even destroys one’s ability to act erases one’s own being altogether. The ending of the Oresteia shows a great attempt at taming the subordinate through recognition, without annihilating it completely. While this solution defuses the imminent treat, it keeps open the possibility that the subordinate will revolt again in the future. The problem of uncertainty is managed, but not solved. And this open-endedness might thus lead to take a further leap, envisaging a stronger, even extreme, model of subordination such as the one just sketched. Instead of taming the subordinate with recognition, one might go all the way down and annihilate it, depriving it of any reality. And yet, this will apply also to the dominating principle, which will be transformed into a pure, ineffable, positive presence, of which nothing more could be thought or said. The world of differences and becoming which usually manifests in between the two extremes of absolute positive being and absolute negative nothingness, cannot be real after all. Differences and becoming are themselves unreal because the only true difference is the absolute difference between absolute being and nothing.

From the little we know through the surviving fragments of his poem On Nature and the scattered witnesses collected in ancient sources, Parmenides (whose dates are uncertain but who was arguably active around the mid-fifth century BCE, and was thus a contemporary of Aeschylus) is the presocratic philosopher who explicitly articulated this absolute opposition between being and nothing.[1] In his poem, Parmenides describes his initiation by goddess Justice (Dike), who shows him two paths. The path of Day is the path of truth and states that being is, and not-being is not. Since the two are absolute opposites, being cannot become nothing, and nothing cannot come to be. Becoming is a contradiction. Along the path of Night, most mortal believe that becoming is the arising into being of what was nothing before, or the coming back into nothing of what was existent. But this cannot be the truth, becoming is an illusion at best, or the wrong interpretation of phenomenal evidence. Justice thus convinces Parmenides that he should pursue the path of Day and keep away from the path of Night. To remain within the truth, one should deny the world of multiplicity and becoming as it appears, dismiss its pretended reality, and remained assured by the absolute unity of being, which is eternal, incorruptible, and unmoving.

Parmenides is credited as the first philosopher who relied on logical argumentation to counter what seems obvious from empirical evidence (becoming, manifoldness) and to establish a metaphysical view (only pure being is). In today’s Western philosophy, Parmenides is still alive. Since the 1960’, Emanuele Severino (1927-2020) developed a complex and sophisticated metaphysical system based on the idea that Parmenides was essentially right on one point, namely, the fact that becoming cannot be interpreted as some sort of passage between being and nothing (or vice versa), because this passage is contradictory and (thus) inconceivable. Severino took this point further by articulating a full-blown eternalist metaphysics, in which all things, in virtue of being something rather than nothing, must be eternal and immutable. What manifests as becoming is thus nothing but the (infinite) disclosure of the eternals in their emerging into the horizon of appearing. In one of his key works, Essence of Nihilism (first Italian edition 1971, English translation 2016), Severino argued that derogating from Parmenides’s principle is the genuine essence of nihilism. Severino understands ‘nihilism’ as the belief that beings (which are to some extent acknowledged as being different from a sheer nothing) are identified with or reverted into nothingness at some point; they are conceived as subject to ontological destruction. The nihilist does not see the eternity of all beings that belong to them just in virtue of being different from nothing. Not seeing this point, they believe (at some level) that entities (which are not-nothing) can in fact turn into nothing. Hence, nihilism is a supreme form of contradiction, or a ‘folly’ as Severino would say. In Severino’s historical account, the whole of Western thought struggled to find ways of accounting for the reality of ontological becoming pace Parmenides’s denial of it, and because of that (according to Severino) the whole of Western thought provides in fact as one grand development of nihilism.

Moving from a different angle (and ignoring Severino’s project), Michael Della Rocca has advocated for what he called The Parmenidean Ascent (2020). Careful rational analysis of core concepts of Western metaphysics reveals that the sort of distinctions that they wish to establish are in fact untenable. Della Rocca interprets Parmenides as the first who argued against the positing of any real difference or distinction, since all efforts of positing genuine distinction ultimately fail to satisfy the principle of sufficient reason (according to which there must be a reason in virtue of which something is posited, no brute facts are allowed). On Della Rocca’s reading, Parmenides is a defender of strict monism. All differences need to be transcended and left behind. The real is completely undifferentiated and hence ineffable, all differences and distinctions are unreal or ill-conceived. According to Severino, Parmenides does indeed reject the reality of differences (hence the reality of any finite ordinary entity, like this table, this human being, that chair, and so on). But while for Severino this is an inconsistency on Parmenides’s side (because differences genuinely appear at the phenomenological level, hence they cannot be reduced to sheer nothingness, nor dismissed as illusory), Della Rocca rather defends Parmenides’s original attempt at proving that only an absolute being void of difference can be genuinely real. Despite this fundamental disagreement, both Severino and Della Rocca agree in regarding Parmenides’s method to establish his conclusions as primarily based on pure logical argumentation (for Severino, the principle of identity and non-contradiction is key, for Della Rocca the principle of sufficient reason).

Given how Parmenides has been interpreted, it might be hard to imagine something more remote from social concerns than his poem. And yet, Nuria Scapin, in her The Flower of Suffering. Theology, Justice, and the Cosmos in Aeschylus’ Oresteia and Presocratic Thought (2020) has shown that Aeschylus was himself receptive to the developments in presocratic philosophy and his notion of justice, for instance, can be seen in line with the sort of cosmological broadening and generalization that the concept was undergoing among presocratic thinkers. Without having to establish (even if it cannot be entirely ruled out) a direct link between Aeschylus and Parmenides, we can state that they were both part of the same culture, which was struggling with the enduring problem of mastery. Parmenides does not offer the same solution that emerges in the Oresteia, and yet this difference is predicated on a broader background in which a spectrum of possible options was explored.

If we take Parmenides’s idea of an absolute opposition as a way of developing an extreme model of subordination, then the political dimension of Parmenides’s thought emerges quite clearly. If the world of appearance is nothing but a phenomenon, which is often badly interpreted, then all social hierarchies and subordinations are equally sheer appearances, they belong to the path of Night, not to the path of Day. Moving towards absolute subordination, one actually escapes from subordination, insofar as no determinate or specific subordination (like those that most commonly apply to empirical human beings) remain as genuinely real. Accepting the absolute subordination of nothing to Being is thus a way of foregoing all other subordinations as unreal. This is a strategy analogous to those we already discussed in Lecture Six, which moves towards disembodiment and anesthetic transcendence.

This similarity does not necessarily entail or presuppose a direct historical link between Parmenides’s thought and the ancient Indian sources we discussed, although it does not exclude it either.[2] For present purposes, we can just notice that even within ancient Greek culture, the same spectrum of possibilities is present, and the option of moving towards transcendence is explicitly voiced. Perhaps the greatest gulf between what we know about Parmenides and what we learn from ancient Indian sources is the lack in the former of any clear hint at the practice of anesthetic trance. Parmenides seems to have the sort of hermeneutic framework to interpret the results of that practice but makes seemingly no reference to it. Perhaps he arrived at that interpretation through another route (traditional history of philosophy would support this option, stressing how Parmenides arrives at his conclusions through reason alone). Or perhaps Parmenides did not consider it appropriate to describe that practice in writing. We noticed that Dionysiac possession comes close in results to anesthetic trance but does not seem to make a leap into transcendence. Parmenides does make the leap, but seemingly without linking it to a specific trance-like method or practice.

Perhaps we need to take a broader approach in conceiving of the ways in which anesthetic trance is practiced or can be articulated. Let us maintain that its main goal is that of shutting down sensory inputs, unify and simplify the content of experience, to the point of reaching a seemingly intransitive form of awareness (in which no subject-object duality can be discerned anymore). This goal might be pursued through different roads. In Lecture Six we discussed how Upaniṣadic sages resorted to devices common in their context, such as the recitation of a sacred syllable or mantra, or the concentration on breathing (broadly understood as life-force). The basic mechanism of anesthetic trance is quite simple: powerful concentration on one object will withdraw attention from the senses, and without paying attention to their stimulation, sensory perception will progressively fade. The metaphysical and cosmological view of an underpinning undifferentiated unity behind all manifoldness can be read as a homological metaphor for the process of concentrating attention to one point, withdrawing it from its ordinary dispersal in the manifoldness of sensory experience. This suggests that anything that is powerful enough to manipulate attention in this way could be exploited for moving at least in the same direction. Now, Parmenides is credited as the founder of pure logic and argumentation, and his arguments are notorious for moving blatantly against empirical evidence. Could not be precisely this the sort of method he developed for inducing anesthetic trance? Not a sacred syllable, but a rational syllogism would do the same trick. In the next lecture, we shall come back to this idea.

Be that as it may, we know too little about the historical Parmenides in order to invest much more in speculation and guesswork. What can be reasonably stated is that ancient Greek thought is fully capable of conceiving of transcendence, and this conception can be seen in line with one possible extreme development of the model of subordination that pervades the Greek way of understanding mastery and selfhood. Historically speaking, there will be later attempts at deliberately cultivating anesthetic trance, in a form comparable to that used by Indian ascetics, to reach a direct experience of transcendence. But for that, we have to wait for Plotinus (204-270 common era), who lived in Alexandria and Rome, and who is mostly renowned as the founder of Neo-Platonism. There is solid historical evidence of Plotinus’s and Neoplatonists being knowledgeable about Indian thought and perhaps even practices.[3] The importance of this connection cannot be overstated, given that Plotinus played a crucial role in Augustine’s conversion and interpretation of Christianity, including Christian meditation (which in turn had a foundational role in the subsequent development of Western culture, as mentioned in Lecture Zero). But for as much these connections are fascinating, we shall leave them aside, since our main task is not that of tracing historical influences across the Hellenic and the Indian worlds, but rather to map the ways in which the self has been conceived and the problem of mastery associated with it has been dealt with.

Anaesthetic trance could have been at work in Parmenides’s thought, and it will be revived by Plotinus some eight centuries later. What comes in between, though, is the birth of classical Western philosophy, and especially the development of Plato’s own views, who was conversant and yet profoundly critical of Parmenides.

  1. For a general introduction and a collection of available fragments, see David Gallop, Parmenides of Elea. Fragments. A Text and Translation with an Introduction (1984).
  2. For a discussion of historical parallels, see Thomas McEvilley, The Shape of Ancient Thought (2002), chapter 2, especially pp. 48-59. McEvilley draws attention, for instance, to the view defended in the Chāndogya Upaniṣad (VI.2) by Uddālaka, who contends that Being alone (and not non-Being) is the only ultimate and real principle, which is strikingly similar to Parmenides’ own position.
  3. For a discussion of the possible historical links, see Thomas McEvilley, The Shape of Ancient Thought (2002), chapters 22, 23, 24; and Paulos Mar Gregorios (ed.), Neoplatonism and Indian Philosophy (2002).


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