Saturday, January 10, 2015

Plato’s defence of the Forms in the Parmenides

In the entry of October 16 (‘A note on the 3rd book of Aristotle’s Metaphysics’) I expressed the view that Plato wrote the Parmenides in defence of the Forms, and that he did so before his third journey to Sicily. Objections against the theory of Forms were ripe among Plato’s disciples in the Academy. Plato appears to have had no telling arguments for protecting the Forms – as a Platonist Aristotle raised arguments against the Forms in the first book of Metaphysics, using the first person plural in the sense ‘we Platonists’ and he repeated the same arguments in the 13th book after distancing himself from Platonists – yet before leaving Athens he had to protect his disciples from objections against the Forms. How could he do so if he had no telling arguments with which he could prove their existence? By pointing out that those, who could see the Forms, were immune against any arguments raised against them; for this he vouched with his whole life in philosophy, ever since he conceived the Forms on his encounter with Socrates (for this see The Lost Plato on my website, especially the first four chapters).

In the Parmenides Plato endows some of the most telling arguments against the Forms with the authority of Parmenides, declaring the Forms immune not only against them, but against any arguments. This strategy could be adopted by him only if the discussion between Socrates, Zeno and Parmenides staged in the dialogue did take place in reality, if Socrates in his youth contemplated the Forms and on that basis challenged Parmenides’ thesis that ‘all is one’, and if Parmenides in turn subjected Socrates’ Forms to criticism. For in that case he must have been acquainted with arguments against the Forms long before he began to teach philosophy in the Academy.

Cepahlus and his friends, all much interested in philosophy (panu philosophoi, 126a8), came to Athens from Clazomenae in Asia Minor to ask Adeimantus and Glaucon to introduce them to Antiphon: ‘They have heard that 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,’ Adeimantus replied (Alêthê, ephê, legeis, 126c4), ‘for when Antiphon was young (meirakios gar ȏn), he used to rehearse the arguments diligently (autous eu mala diemeletêsen), though now, like his grandfather of the same name, he spends most of his time on horses (126c6-8).’

Adeimantus was Plato’s older and Glaucon his younger brother; Antiphon, their half-brother, was several years younger than Glaucon. Socrates refers to Adeimantus in his defence speech in the Apology. Accused of corrupting the youth of Athens, Socrates appeals to all those with whom he ever discussed philosophy to come forward and testify against him, if he ever had given them a bad advice in their youth, ‘or if they do not like to come themselves, some of their relatives, fathers, brothers, or other kinsmen, should think of the evil their families have suffered at my hands. Now is their time. Many of them I see in the court … and there are the brothers of several who have associated with me … Adeimantus the son of Ariston, whose brother Plato is present.’ (33d4-34a1, tr. B. Jowett)

Adeimantus’ testimony in the Parmenides is brief, but it is essential for our understanding of the dialogue. Firstly, he testifies to it that what Cephalus and his friends heard in Clazomenae, a town in Asia Minor, was true: Socrates, Zeno and Parmenides met in Athens and discussed philosophy; Antiphon did learn their arguments from Pythodorus. Secondly, and for our understanding of the dialogue most importantly, he testifies to it that in his youth Antiphon diligently rehearsed the arguments.

Plato’s younger brother, Glaucon, has no voice in the Parmenides, yet his presence in the dialogue side by side with Adeimantus is significant. For it was Glaucon who in the Republic prompted Socrates to give a proper account of justice: ‘Socrates, do you wish really to persuade us, or only to seem to have persuaded us, that to be just is always better than to be unjust?’ (357a4-7) In course of the discussion between Socrates, Adeimantus and Glaucon, which Glaucon thus initiated, Plato erected his ideal state, which only those are fit to govern who can see the Forms.

To induce Socrates to undertake a proper defence of justice, Glaucon argued that people practice justice unwillingly, as a necessity, not as good in itself; people do so with good reason, for a man practicing injustice is better off and leads a better life than a man devoted to justice. Adeimantus joined his voice to that of Glaucon, arguing that the appearance of justice is what matters, not justice as such, for the reputation of being just brings about social and political advantages. He ended his appeal to Socrates with the words: ‘In your exposition (tȏi logȏi) show (endeixêi) to us not only that justice is better than injustice, but show what either of them on its own (autê di’ hautên) does to its possessor, and that in doing so to men the one is a good and the other an evil, whether seen or unseen by gods and men.’ (367e1-5)

On hearing the arguments of the two brothers Socrates addressed them with the words: ‘There is something truly divine in you if you have not been convinced that injustice is better than justice, being able to argue as you have done for the superiority of injustice. And I do believe that you truly are not convinced – this I infer from your general character, for had I judged only from your speeches I should have mistrusted you.’ (368a5-b3)

Readers of the Parmenides must have been reminded of these passages in the Republic when Parmenides introduced the most powerful argument against the Forms with the words ‘If someone argued that the Forms (ta eidê), being such as we say they ought to be, must remain unknown, no one could show him that he is wrong, unless he who denied their existence be a man of great ability and knowledge’ (133b4-8), and when he then closed all arguments against the Forms with the words ‘Only a man of considerable natural gifts will be able to learn that there is a kind of each thing, a substance alone by itself, 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.’ (135a7-b2)

Parmenides in the dialogue introduces his most powerful argument against the Forms – in Jowett’s translation – as follows: ‘If an opponent argues that these ideas (ta eidê), being such as we say they ought to be, must remain unknown, no one can prove to him (ouk an echoi tis endeixasthai, 133b7) that he is wrong, unless he who denies their existence be a man of great ability and knowledge, and is willing to follow a long and laborious demonstration (etheloi de panu polla kai porrȏthen pragmateuomenou tou endeiknumenou hepesthai, 133b9).’ (133b4-c1) Reading Jowett’s translation, one must wonder what kind of proof or proofs had Plato in mind. Allen translates: ‘If someone should say that it doesn’t even pertain to the characters (ta eidê) to be known if they are such as we say they must be, one could not show him (ouk an echoi tis endeixasthai) he was wrong unless the disputant happened to be a man of wide experience and natural ability, willing to follow many a remote and laborious demonstration (etheloi de panu polla kai porrȏthen pragmateuomenou tou endeiknumenou hepesthai).’

On the face of it Allen confuses the matter, for Jowett’s ‘no one can prove to him’ better preserves the correspondence between ‘prove’ for endeixasthai in b7 and ‘demonstration’ for endeiknumenou in b9, than Allen’s ‘show’ in b7. And yet, Allen’s ‘one could not show him’ renders more sensitively Plato’s ouk an echoi tis endeixasthai; the task is to render endeiknumenou in harmony with endeixasthai. In b9 Plato does not speak of a man willing to follow a demonstration that the Forms exist, he speaks of ‘following a man who is showing (endeiknumenou)’ the Forms.

Both Jowett and Allen render as ‘laborious’ Plato’s pragmateuomenou, which is a participle corresponding to the participle endeiknumenou and elucidating it. Among the many meanings of pragmateuomai registered by Liddell & Scott in their Greek-English Lexicon, such as ‘busy oneself’, ‘take trouble’, ‘work at a thing’, we do find under II. 1. ‘treat laboriously’ as an elucidation of pragmateuomai in Plato’s Protagoras 361d and Hippias Major 304c. But it is questionable whether Socrates wants to speak of his philosophical activities as ‘laborious’ when he says in the Protagorasconcerned about my whole life (promêtheuomenos huper tou biou tou emautou pantos) I am engaged in all these matters (panta tauta pragmateuomai)’; by panta tauta pragmateuomai he refers to his life-long preoccupation with the question ‘what virtue is’ (Prt. 361d3-5). In the Hippias Major too he refers to his life-long engagement in philosophy; Hippias and other sophists of his ilk say ‘how foolish and petty and worthless are the matters with which I occupy myself’ (pragmateuomai, Hip.Ma. 304c5-6, tr. B. Jowett). Translating pragmateuomenou by ‘laborious’ in the Parmenides is unfortunate, for pragmateuomenou denotes there activity of a philosopher leading ‘a man of wide experience and natural ability’ towards the Forms, which is a matter of profound joy, leading to true happiness.

Perhaps the best elucidation of the given passage in the Parmenides can be found in the Seventh Letter, where Plato speaks about that which is knowable and truly is (ho dê gnȏston te kai alêthȏs estin on, 342b1): ‘It does not admit of exposition like other branches of knowledge; but after much converse about the matter itself (peri to pragma) and a life lived together, suddenly a light, as it were, is kindled in one soul by a flame that leaps to it from another, and thereafter sustains itself (341c5-d2) … the man who has heard of this, if he has the true philosophic spirit and that godlike temperament which makes him akin to philosophy and worthy of it, thinks that he has been told of a marvellous road lying before him, that he must forthwith press on with all his strength, and that life is not worth living if he does anything else. After this he uses to the full his own powers and those of his guide in the path, and relaxes not his efforts, till he has either reached the end of the whole course of study or gained such power that he is not incapable of directing his steps without the aid of a guide (chȏris tou deixontos’ (340c1-d1, tr. J. Harward). Tou deixontos is the future participle of the verb deiknumi, which refers to the guide as the man who is to show his follower that which is knowable and truly is, that is the Forms; it directly corresponds to the participle endeiknumenou in Parmenides 133b9.

There is no other dialogue in which Plato describes the road to the Forms in such detail, so comprehensively and so powerfully, as he does in the Republic. It is to the Republic that he in the Parmenides directs his followers when he is about to leave Athens for Sicily, where he intends to devote the rest of his life to bringing the ideal state of the Republic to life. Discussing justice with Adeimantus and Glaucon in the Republic, Socrates unveiled the Form of justice and outlined the social and political structure of the ideal state, which only those can run who can see the Form of justice. Against this background the arguments against the Forms raised by Parmenides become irrelevant.

When we realize that Plato dramatically staged the Parmenides so as to direct the reader’s mind towards the Republic, we can appreciate the significance of Adeimantus’ brief characterization of Antiphon ‘when Antiphon was young, he diligently and thoroughly rehearsed (eu mala diemeletêse) the arguments, though now, like his grandfather of the same name, he spends most of his time on horses’. As a youngster, Antiphon delighted in arguments against the Forms and in all the contradictions in which Parmenides involved ‘the one’: ‘Youngsters, when they first get the taste for arguments, they argue for amusement, always using arguments to effect contradiction (aei eis antilogian chrȏmenoi)’, Socrates points out to Glaucon in Republic 539b2-5. Such spiritual nourishment could not generate in Antiphon a lasting commitment to philosophy; those, whose mind is turned to real philosophy, become committed to it and delight in it the more the older they get.

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