Friday, September 11, 2015

Three days in Prague devoted to philosophy – the third day

The third day of the event was devoted to ‘Plato’s Parmenides in the light of Aristotle’s criticism of the theory of Forms’. One person came, my son Marek, who was ready to listen to my talk. To begin with, I asked him to read the introductory passages to my post of December 4, 2014 ‘The narrative scheme of the Parmenides’:

‘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 writes: ‘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, p. 69) … 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)

I view the narrative scheme of the dialogue and its meaning very differently. 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)’

While Marek read these passages, I found the passage I was looking for; it stands in my post from December 9, 2014, but I shall quote it from Allen’s book, for in the post I slightly curtailed it to suit the context: ‘The conversation Plato here reports is fiction. Cornford’s argument by itself is decisive: “To suppose that anything remotely resembling the conversation in this dialogue could have occurred … would make nonsense of the whole history of philosophy in the fifth and fourth centuries.”’ (p. 74)

After this prelude, I devoted my talk to explaining what a different picture of the historical Parmenides, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle we obtain, if we look at the dialogue – and at Aristotle’s related criticism of the theory of Forms in his Metaphysics – in the light of Plato’s introduction to the Parmenides in which his brother 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 and rehearsed them diligently.

If there are reasons for viewing the conversation between Socrates, Zeno and Parmenides 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. One would expect that the Czech classicists would be willing and ready to defend the accepted academic views, and consequently their views, on Plato’s Parmenides; I had invited every one of them. I hope that next year they will attend the meeting devoted to the dialogue; Jan Hus Foundation will sponsor the event. 

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