R. E. Allen prefaces his ‘Comment’ on Plato’s Parmenides with a motto from Kitto’s Form and Meaning in Drama: ‘the connexion between the form and the content is so vital that the two may be said to be ultimately identified … it follows that it is quite meaningless to consider one of them without constant reference to the other’. In the opening words of the ‘Comment’ Allen describes the narrative scheme of the dialogue: ‘The Parmenides is narrated by Cephalus of Clazomenae, who has heard it from Plato’s half-brother, Antiphon, who heard it in turn from Pythodorus, a student of Zeno, who was present at the original conversation.’ (Plato’s Parmenides, Translated with Comment by R. E. Allen, Yale University Press, 1997, p. 69). He then interprets it: ‘This structure is designed to produce a sense of remoteness from the conversation … The conversation that follows is a fiction: it could not have occurred.’ (p. 71) ‘The Parmenides is fiction, meant to be read as such.’ (p. 73)
I view the narrative scheme of the dialogue and its meaning very differently, for the introductory discussion is as follows: “When we arrived at Athens from our home in Clazomenae, we met Adeimantus and Glaucon in the Agora. Adeimantus took my hand and said, ‘Welcome, Cephalus, and if you need anything here that we can provide, please say so.’ ‘Why really,’ I replied, ‘we’re here for that very reason: to ask something of you.’ ‘You have only to state it,’ he said. ‘What was the name,’ I said, ‘of your half-brother on your mother’s side? I don’t remember. He was just a boy, the last time I came here from Clazomenae; but that was a long time ago now. His father’s name, I think, was Pyrilampes.’ ‘Quite so,’ he said, ‘and his own is Antiphon. But why do you ask?’ ‘These gentlemen here,’ I said, ‘are fellow citizens of mine, much interested in philosophy. They’ve heard that your Antiphon used to associate with a certain Pythodorus, a companion of Zeno’s, and that he can relate from memory the arguments that once were discussed by Socrates, Zeno, and Parmenides, having often heard them from Pythodorus.’ ‘True’ (Alêthê), he said. ‘Well,’ I replied, ‘that’s what we want, to hear these arguments.’ ‘No difficulty there,’ he said. ‘When Antiphon was young he used to rehearse them diligently … if you will, let’s call on him’ … So we set out to walk, and found Antiphon at home … When we asked him to go through the arguments, he at first hesitated – he said it was a difficult task. But finally, he complied.” (Translation R. E. Allen)
The introductory discussion is between Cephalus of Clazomenae and Plato’s brother Adeimantus. Adeimantus confirms that it is true (alêthê) that Antiphon ‘can relate from memory the arguments that once were discussed by Socrates, Zeno, and Parmenides, having often heard them from Pythodorus’; he tells Cephalus that when Antiphon was young he used to rehearse the arguments diligently.
Plato presents his two brothers in the Republic as men deeply interested in philosophy. In the 6th book of the Republic Socrates emphasizes that love of truth and rejection of lies is characteristic of a philosopher (485c). Throughout the length of the Republic Plato’s two brothers attentively follow every word of Socrates; in the Parmenides they do not depart after introducing Cephalus to Antiphon; they presumably enjoy Antiphon’s narrative just as Cephalus and his friends do. If there are reasons for viewing the conversation between Socrates, Zeno and Parmenides narrated by Antiphon as a fiction, which could not have occurred, the reasons must be powerful enough to overturn the expectation of its truthfulness invoked by the narrative scheme.
Allen maintains that ‘neither the historical Parmenides nor the historical Socrates could have spoken as they will here be made to speak. Their chief topic of discussion is the Theory of Ideas, a theory which, if the historical Socrates held a version of it, he came to entertain in middle life (Phaedo 96a-100a) … Those who were to read the Parmenides were students in the Academy, who would have read and remembered the Phaedo. They could hardly have supposed, what is in any case patently absurd, that Socrates held as a lad of twenty the theory he there defends on the day of his death. The Phaedo itself forbids this view: it tells us that Socrates, when young, devoted himself to the study of the physical philosophers (96aff.), and that it was not until he had abandoned their sort of speculation that he developed the theory of Ideas’ (99d-100b). (p. 74-75)
Pace Allen, there is nothing in the Phaedo that suggests that Socrates came to entertain the Theory of Ideas in middle life. Socrates says ‘When I was young I was remarkably keen on the kind of wisdom known as natural science (peri phuseȏs historian); it seemed to me splendid to know the reasons (tas aitias) for each thing, why each thing comes to be, why it perishes, and why it exists. And I was always shifting back and forth, examining, firstly, questions like these: is it, as some said (hȏs tines elegon), whenever the hot (to thermon) and the cold (to psuchron) give rise to putrefaction, that living creatures develop? And is it blood that we think with, or air, or fire? Or is it none of these, but the brain that provides the senses of hearing and seeing and smelling, from which memory and judgment come to be; and is it from memory and judgment, when they’ve acquired stability, that knowledge come to be accordingly? Next, when I went on to examine (skopȏn) the destruction of these things, and what happens in the heavens and the earth, I finally (teleutȏn) judged myself to have absolutely no gift for this kind of enquiry.’ (96a7-c2, tr. D. Gallop)
It is worth noting at this point that Aristotle says in the 1st book of Metaphysics that Parmenides [in the part of his poem devoted to the world as it is apprehended by our senses] posited ‘two causes (duo tas aitias) and two principles (kai duo tas archas), hot and cold (thermon kai psuchron)’ (986b333-4). Furthermore, Plato in the Parmenides presents us with Socrates who, although ‘quite young’, was well versed in Parmenides’ poem [On nature (Peri phuseȏs)]. For after a brief exchange with Zeno Socrates turns to Parmenides ‘Zeno has written to much the same effect as you … In your poems, you say that All is one, and you provide fine and excellent proofs of this. He, on the other hand, says it is not many, and himself also provides proofs great in multitude and magnitude. So you say one, he says not many, and each so speaks that though there is no difference at all in what you mean, what you say scarcely seems the same.’ (128a-b, tr. Allen)
If we find in the Parmenides Socrates well versed in Parmenides’ poem, I see no reason to reject off hand the possibility that Socrates’ disappointment with Anaxagoras’ treatise on Intellect (nous, Phaedo 97b8-99c6) – with which his preoccupation with natural science ended (Phaedo 99d4-5) – and his taking refuge in discourse, in concepts, in which he thereafter examined the truth of things (edoxe dê moi chrênai eis tous logous kataphugonta en ekeinois skopein tȏn logȏn tên alêtheian, 99e4-6), took place prior to his encounter with Zeno and Parmenides. And yet, reading the Parmenides and the Phaedo against the background of Parmenides’ poem On nature, I am compelled to see Socrates differently.