The Three Paths of Night

The metaphysical poem of the Eleatic philosopher Parmenides begins with a description of a journey to “where the gate of the paths of Night and Day is” (Parmenides, 2016, p. 35). There he meets the goddess, supposedly Night herself (Burkert, 1969), who informs him of the ways of inquiry that lead to wavering and unwavering understanding.

The traditional understanding of the revelation given to Parmenides by Night is that she outlines two paths, one of which is true and another false. If we follow this reading of the poem, Parmenides seems to be advocating a strict form of monism that denies all plurality and change. However, due to several considerations that will become clear as we go along, there is reason to think that the goddess is making a different argument.

In Parmenides’ poem, the goddess is not distinguishing the only way of being from non-being but rather distinguishing three different modes of being: (1) necessary being; (2) necessary non-being; and (3) contingent being. According to her, two paths of investigation lead to understanding instead of wandering:

The one, that “is,” and that it is not possible that “is not,” Is the path of conviction (peithô), for it accompanies truth; the other, that “is not,” and that it is necessary that “is not” (Parmenides, 2016, p. 39)

These are the paths of necessary being and necessary non-being, respectively. The understanding gained through either is not subject to change. The goddess then warns Parmenides of the second path:

I show you that it is a path that cannot be inquired into at all. For you could not know that which is not (for this is impracticable) Nor could you show it. (Parmenides, 2016, p. 39)

That which cannot be cannot be thought or shown. For example, imagine a square circle or show me a married bachelor.

The third path is that of mortals, of those who suppose that ““this is and is not” is the same and not the same, and that of all things the path is backward-turning” (Parmenides, 2016, p. 41). The goddess seems to be saying that mortals mistakenly think that objects of genuine understanding (i.e., objects that must exist and objects that must not exist) can be subject to change. Nevertheless, wandering or wavering understanding is still understanding (Palmer, 2020).

Two-path interpretations of the poem tend to equate the path of the mortals with the path “that “is not,” and that it is necessary that “is not””” (Parmenides, 2016, p. 39). These interpretations, however, ignore that the first two paths lead to unwavering understanding (eisi noêsai) while the third leads to wandering understanding (plagkton nöon).

Furthermore, why does Parmenides bother to present a fundamentally flawed cosmology—the path of the mortals—if his reasoning shows that such things cannot possibly exist? If we recognize three paths instead of two, we solve this apparent mystery. So the goddess is not suggesting, as many interpreters think, that nothing exists in the way mortals believe, but that things that exist only contingently cannot lead to certain understanding.

Parmenides is not denying the existence of change. He is merely distinguishing that which necessarily is from that which is but may not be. He denies change only for the objects of unwavering understanding. Parmenides’ deductions about the nature of What Is (to eon) in later fragments make perfect sense on this interpretation: What must be cannot have an origin or end, nor can it change in any way, for change would require that it be in some way different from what it necessarily is.


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

Palmer, J. (2020). Parmenides. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2020). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University.

Parmenides. (2016). Testimonia, Part 2: Doctrine (D) (A. Laks & G. W. Most, Trans.). Harvard University Press.

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