Bertrand Russell of the Russell Paradox fame brought up a literary device comparable to the concept of three faces while discussing some aspects of the philosophy of Parmenides. This article further investigates this resemblance.
Parmenides of Elea lived in the south of Italy during the fifth century BCE. His philosophy had been written as a poem about a fictitious journey he made to the abode of the goddess of night. The poem describes the revelations he received from the goddess. Only some fragments of his poem remain. Plato wrote his earliest dialogue on a fictitious meeting between Socrates, Parmenides, and his student, Zeno of Elea in Athens.
Before looking further at Parmenides’s philosophy, let us discuss what we mean by “three faces”. In a previous article published on Medium, I described three existences that a person maintains in this world. We all live three lives: Autobiographical, Biographical, and Historical. These can be figuratively described as follows:
Once born, each one of us, at some point in time, occupies three different lives; the person who lives, the person who lives in others’ memories, and the person who will live in mementos and stories left behind.
Parmenides on Reality
The goddess of the night tells Parmenides that there are two aspects to her revelations. They are the way of conviction dealing with ‘the well-rounded reality’ and the notions of mortals with no ‘genuine trustworthiness.’ She tells him that the reality that begins from nothing is immortal, whole, uniform, still, and perfect. Philosophers interpret this as a belief in one Being, ‘the One’. She claims that reality (” What Is”) is perfect in every direction and is alluded to as a globe. The comparison to a globe may be interpreted as a symbolic reference to perfection and uniformity rather than an imposition of a limit. Thus, the allusion to a limit can be about the quality of the One and not about its Form. In other words, the One can still be limitless. Parmenides, as per certain interpretations, believed that a thought attached to a name cannot exist if the name does not represent something real. Let us elaborate on this, next.
Russell on Parmenides
Bertrand Russell discussing Parmenides examines the notion of name and what it signifies. He takes the first President of the US, George Washington, as his example to illustrate his arguments. Let us have a look at his viewpoint here.
Russell says that as per Parmenides’s view of reality, not only George Washington lived in historical times, but for us to refer to him by his name, he should still exist in some sense. However, George Washington has been dead for a long while.
To untangle the above, Russell discusses the following.
1. George Washington, who could perceive his thoughts and sense his body, is the only one, more than anyone else, who could use his name with a ‘fuller meaning.’
2. The name, George Washington, could mean something concrete to his family and friends who stayed around him, perceived his movements, and could divine his thoughts. After his death, they had to ‘substitute memories for perceptions’.
3. For many of us who live after he was long gone, he may only represent the man “who was called George Washington.” Our mental processes are now different from what his contemporaries felt.
These three existences of George Washington, after a little contemplation, appears to resemble the three faces that were discussed in the article quoted above.
How to Reconcile Parmenides and the three existences
According to Parmenides, the past cannot make sense to us, if it doesn’t exist now in some sense. Thus, ‘change’ that Philosophers like Heraclitus emphasised should be an illusion.
From Parmenides’s point of view, the name George Washington does not represent ‘What Is.’ Even though his various existences give us different mental constructs about the person called George Washington, the name now refers to the person who presently represents only his historical existence. As Russell pointed out, if Parmenides can appear to us today, he would argue that ‘our memory of George Washington’, if taken as a source of knowledge, is in our mind now. Hence, the past should still exist in some shape or form. Thus, his concept of ‘What Is’ transcends time and justifies his objection to the idea of change.
Three faces are purely about memories and the ‘reality’ of those memories in an epistemological sense. But it is only the historical existence of Washington, an extended form of biographical existence, that is before us now. Thus, in a rudimentary sense, we can link this to the bundle theory of the self as proposed by Hume. In this sense, our three faces can be thought to act as a bundle. Even though the bundle transcends time, the individual components in it necessarily do not. Parmenides perhaps thought about the bundle that overcomes changing perceptions.
Palmer, John, “Parmenides”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2020/entries/parmenides/
Russell, B., 1961. A History of Western Philosophy, London: Routledge
Three faces of Eve, A Medium article, URL= https://medium.com/next-top-writers/three-faces-of-eve-c1914b0b2324