The First Philosophers:
Studies in Ancient Greek Society

by George Thomson


5. Parmenides and Herakleitos

Next, we must consider more closely the relationship in which Parmenides stood to Herakleitos. Which of them was the earlier? In the preceding pages it has been assumed that the floruit of Herakleitos is to be placed in the closing years of the sixth century B.C., when Ionia was under Persian rule. This is the tradition preserved by Diogenes, and it is supported by the letters lie is supposed to have written to King Dareios. These letters are forgeries, but that does not invalidate their evidence on this point; for their author, who shows himself to be well acquainted with his subject, was naturally concerned to make them conform with the known facts. Further support is forthcoming from Parmenides himself, who condemns the vulgar notion that 'it is and it is not the same and not the same' (p. 292). It is true that this notion is implicit in the very idea of becoming, which had been taken for granted by ordinary people, and also by the Milesian philosophers; but Herakleitos was the first to state it in this challenging form, which brings out the contradiction inherent in it; and therefore it is natural to suppose that Parmenides was referring to him.

Against this, there is a tradition, preserved by Eusebios, which puts the floruit of Herakleitos some fifty years later, making him a contemporary of Zenon, who was a pupil of Parmenides. This date has been accepted by some authorities, who quote in support of it the following passage from Plato:

In our part of the world the Eleatic set, who hark back to Xenophanes or even earlier, unfold their tale on the assumption that what we call 'all things' are only one thing. Later, certain Muses in Ionia and Sicily perceived that safety lay rather in combining both accounts and saying that the real is both many and one, and is held together by enmity and friendship. [31]

The 'Muses in Ionia and Sicily' are Herakleitos and Empedokles respectively; of that there is no question. Parmenides, however, is not mentioned; only Xenophanes. There is nothing in this passage to show that Parmenides preceded Herakleitos. The statement of Eusebios is therefore to be rejected.

I have dwelt on this point, because the later date has recently been reaffirmed by Szabó in an otherwise excellent article on early Greek dialectics. Szabó maintains that the development of thought from Parmenides to Herakleitos reveals the following sequence. First, we have the popular belief that reality is many (thesis); this was controverted by Parmenides, who held that reality is one (antithesis); and this in turn was controverted by Herakleitos, who held that reality is both one and many (synthesis). A pretty formula, but it does not fit the facts; for, apart from the chronological evidence, it takes no account of Pythagoras, who held that reality is two. Moreover, it rests, as it seems to me, on an incorrect assessment of the place of Herakleitos in the evolution of Greek thought.

Since the standpoint of Herakleitos is so close to that of dialectical materialism, we are tempted to infer that his work marks the culmination of early Greek philosophy; and there is a certain sense in which this is true. We must, however, take care not to be misled by the modern analogy. We must remember that the general trend of ancient philosophy was from materialism to idealism, whereas modern philosophy has moved in the opposite direction—from idealism to materialism. There is thus a certain affinity between Herakleitos and Hegel. Each of them stands at a turning‑point. But, whereas Hegelian dialectics represents that which is new and developing, the dialectics of Herakleitos represents that which is old and dying away. This distinction is vital. In Herakleitos the dialectics of primitive thought, which had been formulated for the first time by the Milesian school, received, under the impact of Pythagoreanism, which marked a further stage in the development of abstract thinking, a stage leading to idealism, its full and final expression. Yet, for this very reason, the dialectical materialism of Herakleitos is already pregnant with its opposite. As we have observed, his ever‑changing yet everlasting fire is an abstraction; and the very regularity of the changes to which it is subject invites the objection that really there is no need to postulate any change at all. This step was taken by Parmenides. In denying the reality of change, he did no more than draw out the implication inherent in his predecessor's theory of perpetual change by carrying still further the process of abstraction and substituting for the fire of Herakleitos his own absolute One. Thus, we may say that the transition from Herakleitos to Parmenides marks the passage from quantity to quality in the evolution of idealism. It is his work, therefore, rather than that of Herakleitos, which signalises the emergence of what was new and developing in ancient thought—the moment at which the ideological fetters of primitive society were finally swept away.

6. Ideology and Money

We are now at the end of our survey of early Greek philosophy, from Thales to Parmenides. What is its underlying tendency, and how is that tendency to be related to the development of the society that produced it? Our answer to these questions may be stated provisionally as follows.

Aristotle wrote:

Most of the earliest philosophers regarded as beginnings of things only those in material form. That from which all things that are derive their being, that out of which they first come into being, and into which they finally pass away, its substance persisting despite changes of conditions—this they call the beginning or principle of things, and hence they consider that it neither comes into being nor perishes, since its nature, being such as has been described, is always preserved. [32]

Aristotle is here summarising their views in his own words, which they would scarcely have recognised; yet what he says is essentially true. As we pass from Thales to Anaximander and Anaximenes, from the Milesians to Pythagoras and Herakleitos and finally to Parmenides, we find the concept of matter becoming progressively less qualitative and concrete, until Parmenides confronts us with a pure abstraction, timeless and absolute. The Parmenidean One represents the earliest attempt to formulate the idea of 'substance'—an idea which was developed by Plato and Aristotle, but only brought to maturity in modern times by bourgeois philosophers. What was the origin of this conception?

Remembering that the society in which these philosophers lived and worked was characterised by the rapid growth of a monetary economy, let us turn to Marx's analysis of commodities:

If then we leave out of consideration the use‑values of commodities, they have only one property left, that of being products of labour. But even the product of labour itself has undergone a change in our hands. If we make abstraction from its use‑value, we make abstraction at the same time from the material elements and shapes that make the product a use‑value; we see in it no longer a table, a house, yarn, or any other useful thing. Its existence as a material thing is put out of sight. Neither can it any longer be regarded as the product of the labour of the joiner, the mason, the spinner, or any other definite kind of productive labour. Along with the useful qualities of the products themselves, we put out of sight both the useful character of the various kinds of labour embodied in them and the concrete forms of that labour; there is nothing left but what is common to them all; all are reduced to one and the same sort of labour, human labour in the abstract.

When they assume this money shape, commodities strip off every trace of their natural use‑value and of the particular kind of labour to which they owe their creation, in order to transform themselves into the uniform, socially recognised incarnation of homogeneous human labour. [33]

In Capital Marx gave the first scientific analysis of those mysterious things called commodities. A commodity is a material object, but it only becomes a commodity by virtue of its social relation to other commodities. Its existence qua commodity is a purely abstract reality. It is at the same time, as we have seen, the hall‑mark of civilisation, which we have defined as the stage at which commodity production 'comes to its full growth'. Hence, civilised thought has been dominated from the earliest times down to the present day by what Marx called the fetishism of commodities, that is, the 'false consciousness' generated by the social relations of commodity production. In early Greek philosophy we see this 'false consciousness' gradually emerging and imposing on the world categories of thought derived from commodity production, as though these categories belonged, not to society, but to nature. The Parmenidean One, together with the later idea of 'substance', may therefore be described as a reflex or projection of the substance of exchange value.

In order to establish this conclusion, it would be necessary to discuss systematically some fundamental problems of modern as well as ancient philosophy; and that cannot be attempted here. That is why I have described it as provisional. Nevertheless, enough has, I think, been said to indicate that the money form of value is a factor of cardinal importance for the whole history of philosophy.


31 Euseb. 81. 1‑3, Pl. Soph. 242d; Reinhardt 155‑6, 221‑3. [Parmenides und die Geschichte der griechischen Philosophie. Bonn, 1916.]

32 Arist. Met. 983b. 6.

33 Marx C 1. 4‑5, 82‑3. [Capital. Vol. 1. London, 1946]

SOURCE: Thomson, George. The First Philosophers: Studies in Ancient Greek Society. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1972. (First published 1955, 2nd ed. 1961, reprinted with corrections, 1972.) Chapter XIV, "Being," sections 5 & 6, pp. 297-301.

The First Philosophers: Studies in Ancient Greek Society (Contents & Prefaces) by George Thomson

The First Philosophers: Studies in Ancient Greek Society: Chapter XV: Materialism and Idealism by George Thomson

The First Philosophers: Studies in Ancient Greek Society: Chapter XVI: False Consciousness by George Thomson

Intellectual and Manual Labor: Contents by Alfred Sohn-Rethel

“The Thunderbolt, Interpenetration and Heraclitus” by David H. DeGrood

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