Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Phaedo and the Parmenides

In my last entry I questioned Allen’s claim that the narrative scheme of Plato’s Parmenides ‘is designed to produce a sense of remoteness from the conversation’ and thus indicate that ‘the conversation that follows is a fiction’ which ‘could not have occurred’ (Plato’s Parmenides, Translated with Comment by R. E. Allen, p. 69). Plato’s brother Adeimantus confirms as 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. Furthermore, Adeimantus says that when Antiphon was young he used to rehearse the arguments diligently.

Next, I queried Allen’s claim 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)’ (Allen, p.74). There is nothing in the Phaedo that suggests that Socrates came to entertain the Theory of Ideas in middle life.

Furthermore, I maintained that there is nothing in the Phaedo that should compel us to reject off hand the possibility that the very young Socrates became disappointed with the theories of philosophers on nature prior to his encounter with Zeno and Parmenides. ‘And yet’, I ended the entry, ‘reading the Parmenides and the Phaedo against the background of Parmenides’ poem On nature, I am compelled to see Socrates differently.’ I had in mind a passage in the Phaedo in which Socrates describes the state of mind in which he found himself after abandoning his search for ‘wisdom known as natural science’ (peri phuseȏs historian), his desire to discover or learn the reasons (tas aitias) for each thing, why each thing comes to be, why it perishes, and why it exists’ (Phd. 96a8-10):

‘Then I no longer understand nor can I recognize those other wise reasons; but if anyone gives me as the reason why a given thing is beautiful either its having a blooming colour, or its shape, or something else like that, I dismiss those other things – because all those other confuse me – but in a plain, artless, and possibly simple-minded way, I hold this close to myself: nothing else makes it beautiful except that beautiful itself, whether by its presence or communion or whatever the manner and nature of the relation may be, as I don’t go so far as to affirm that, but only that it is by the beautiful that all beautiful things are beautiful.’ (Phd. 100c9-d8, tr. D. Gallop)

In the light of this passage, the theory of Forms that Socrates adopted after his disenchantment with the philosophy of nature is not a newly invented theory; it is a theory deeply marked by Parmenides’ criticism of the young Socrates’ theory. (To Parmenides’ questioning of Socrates’ original theory of Forms is devoted my entry ‘Plato as a critic of Aristotle’, November 14.) Parmenides did not end his criticism of Socrates’ theory by rejecting the Forms, but by affirming them: ‘Only a man of considerable natural gifts will be able to learn that there is a kind of each thing (genos ti hekastou), a substance alone by itself (ousia autê kath’ hautên), and even more remarkable will discover this and will be able to teach it to someone who has examined all these difficulties with sufficient care.’ (Parm. 134e9-135b2) But he did not provide any reason for his affirmation of it, nor did he offer any solution for the objections he had raised against it. The state in which Parmenides thus left the young Socrates was a state of profound philosophic ignorance. But was not the state of philosophic ignorance a state too difficult to bear by a young man?
Allen determines Socrates’ age at that time as follows: ‘Since Socrates died at seventy in 399, the dramatic date of the conversation probably falls between 452 and 449 B.C. Granting those limits, it is possible to be more precise. The occasion of the meeting is the Great Panathenaea, the chief civic festival of Athens, which was celebrated, like the Olympic Games, at intervals of four years. That festival fell in 450.’ (p. 72)
Parmenides ended his criticism of Socrates’ theory of Forms by addressing him with the words: ‘Your impulse toward argument is noble and indeed divine. But train yourself more thoroughly while you are still young; drag yourself through what is generally regarded as useless, and condemned by the multitude as idle talk. Otherwise, the truth will escape you.’ (135d2-6, tr. Allen) What kind of training Parmenides had in mind? ‘To examine the consequences that follow from the hypothesis, not only if each thing is hypothesized to be, but also if that same thing is hypothesized not to be, if you wish to be better trained … Take, if you like, Zeno’s hypothesis, if many is. What must follow for the many themselves relative to themselves and relative to the one, and for the one relative to itself and relative to the many? If, on the other hand, many is not, consider again what will follow both for the one and for the many, relative to themselves and relative to each other. Still again, should you hypothesize if likeness is, or if it is not, what will follow on each hypothesis both for the very things hypothesized and for the others, relative to themselves and relative to each other. The same account holds concerning unlikeness, and about motion, and about rest, and about coming to be and ceasing to be, and about being itself and not being. In short, concerning whatever may be hypothesized as being and as not being and as undergoing any other affection whatever, it is necessary to examine the consequences relative to itself and relative to each one of the others, whichever you may choose, and relative to more than one and relative to all in like manner. And the others, again, must be examined both relative to themselves and relative to any other you may choose, whether you hypothesize what you hypothesize as being or as not being, if you are to be finally trained accurately to discern the truth.’ (135e9-136c5, tr. Allen)

This was not the road that could possibly lead Socrates to a theory of Forms immune to Parmenides’ critical objections. An attempt to find truth by pursuing ‘wisdom known as natural science’ (peri phuseȏs historian) was the most natural course for him to pursue next. Especially since Parmenides at the beginning of their discussion rebuked him as immature for leaving out of consideration the Form of man, fire, water, hair, mud and dirt: ‘You are still young, Socrates, and philosophy has not yet taken hold of you as I think it one day will. You will despise none of these things then’ (130a1-3, tr. Allen).

Along these lines, the entry I intended to write on December 5 was to be devoted to viewing the Parmenides against the background of the Phaedo. But on December 5 I realized that I had to do more work before making the attempt. For to accept the conversation of Socrates, Zeno, and Parmenides as essentially true means to change radically the view of Plato developed by Platonic scholars in the last two centuries. As Cornford puts it: ‘To suppose that anything remotely resembling the conversation in this dialogue [in the Parmenides, J. T.] could have occurred … would make nonsense of the whole history of philosophy in the fifth and fourth centuries.’ (Quoted by Allen as an argument ‘decisive by itself’, p. 74.)

Before venturing to go any further, I decided to read the Phaedo against the background of the Parmenides, which I finished yesterday. This confirmed me in my view that the Parmenides should be read as Plato presents it with reference to his brother Adeimantus, that is as essentially true (for which see my previous entry on ‘The narrative scheme of the Parmenides’).

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