Friday, October 9, 2015

Plato’s defence of the Forms in the Parmenides in the light of its dramatic setting

Subjected to Parmenides’ scrutiny, Socrates proved unable to defend the Forms, and Parmenides invited him to reflect on it: ‘Do you see then (Horais oun) how great is the difficulty (hosê hê aporia) if someone distinguishes as Forms beings in themselves (ean tis hȏs eidê onta auta kath’ hauta diorizêtai)?’ Socrates: ‘I do indeed (Kai mala). Parmenides: ‘Rest then assured (Eu toinun isthi) that you so to speak not yet even begin to grasp how great the difficulty is (hoti hȏs epos eipein oudepȏ haptêi autês hosê estin hê aporia), if you’re going to posit one Form each, of things which are, ever defining it as a separate entity (ei hen eidos hekaston tȏn ontȏn aei ti aphorizomenos thêseis).’ Socrates: ‘How come (Pȏs dê)?’ Parmenides: ‘There are many other difficulties (Polla men kai alla), but the greatest is this (megiston de tode): If someone should say that the Forms cannot be known (Ei tis phaiê mêde prosêkein auta gignȏskesthai) if they are such as we maintain they must be (onta toiauta hoia phamen dein einai ta eidê), to a man saying this (tȏi tauta legonti) one could not show (ouk an echoi tis endeixasthai) that he is saying a falsity (hoti pseudetai), unless he, who denied their knowability, happened to be a man of great experience (ei mê pollȏn men tuchoi empeiros ȏn ho amphisbêtȏn) and natural ability (kai mê aphuês), willing to follow a man who would show him the Forms in the course of a copious undertaking, beginning from a far (etheloi de panu polla kai porrȏthen pragmateuomenou tou endeiknumenou hepesthai).’ (133a11-b9)

The word pseudetai qualifies here as false the position of a man who forces the Forms to be unknowable, yet nothing in what Parmenides had said entitled him to do so. In this way Plato makes it clear that it is he who steps in to defend the Forms with all his authority. It is at this point that we must think of his brothers Adeimantus and Glaucon, who play an important role in the Republic, where it is at their insistence that Socrates transcends his philosophic ignorance (357a-368c) focussing on the Form of Justice and outlining the ideal state. There Plato devotes the three central Books, Books V, VI, and VII, to demonstrating that true being pertains only to the Forms, and that therefore only the Forms can be known; all other things are subject to constant change and can be apprehended only by opinion that lacks all certainty.

Parmenides 133a8-b9 fully justifies R. E. Allen’s remark: ‘Perhaps no more persistent thesis in the literature of Platonism, and anti-Platonism, has been advanced than that the criticisms in the Parmenides are meant to herald a rejection of the theory of Ideas or Forms found in the Phaedo and the Republic. Few claims are more demonstrably false.’ (Plato’s Parmenides with Comment by R. E. Allen, Yale University Press, 1997, p. 106)

Further on Allen maintains that ‘there can be no doubt that the criticisms [expressed by Parmenides in the dialogue, J.T.] are to be understood as directed against Plato’s own theory.’ (p. 108) He suggests that Plato’s motive ‘is not doctrine but education … [Parmenides’] aim is itself Socratic: it is to remove the false conceit of knowledge, to force Socrates to inquire further into questions he has answered correctly, and too soon. His method is the statement of perplexities, which Socrates, young and inexperienced in dialectic, cannot resolve.’ (p. 112)

Attempts to solve the problems presented by the criticisms of the Forms in the Parmenides by viewing it as an educational dialogue is proved wrong by Aristotle, for in the Metaphysics he views as valid the objections against the Forms, which are raised in the dialogue.

The most powerful defence of the Forms in the dialogue itself is presented by its dramatic setting: The criticism of the Forms that Parmenides raises in the dialogue were diligently memorised by Plato’s half-brother Antiphon when he was still a youngster (meirakion ȏn, 126c6); Antiphon himself could not have been much younger than Plato, born as he was at 422 B.C. or earlier (See Debra Nails, The People of Plato, Hacket Publishing Company, 2002, p. 31); Plato was born 427 or 429 B.C. The introductory dramatic setting of the dialogue tells Plato’s readers that he himself was well acquainted with objections against the Forms when he was young: the objections, which are raised against the Forms in the dialogue, or any other objections that may have been or may be raised had against them – ‘there are many other difficulties’ (133b4) – had no validity in the eyes of a man who knew the Forms.

Plato’s strategy for defending the Forms which is undertaken in the Parmenides can be properly understood and appreciated only if we take into account its dating. Plato was in his late sixties when he left Athens on his 3rd journey to Sicily in 361, and there can be little doubt that in doing so he intended to leave Athens for good, bent as he was on turning Dionysius II, the young ruler of Syracuse, into a philosopher king. Plato had five years to prepare for this event, for he contemplated it and prepared for it ever since his second journey to Sicily, which took place in 367-6. Before leaving Athens, Plato had to protect his disciples from objections against the existence of the Forms.  No arguments that he could have invented could possibly defend the Forms against objections of such men as Aristotle. The only way Plato could defend the Forms in his absence was by indicating that he himself was acquainted with arguments against the Forms from his early days, and by alluding to his greatest work, the Republic, as the long way, which men of great experience and natural ability should be willing to tread.

Let me end by returning to Allen’s remark, which I mentioned in ‘Three days in Prague devoted to philosophy – the third day’ (posted on September 11): ‘The conversation Plato here [i.e. in the Parmenides] 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) But it makes nonsense only of the history of philosophy in the fifth and fourth centuries as it has been constructed by Platonic scholars and their acolytes.

There can be little doubt that Plato’s Academy was full of rebellious voices ever since he went on his 2nd journey to Sicily. Plato had undertaken it in haste, without any preparation, at the bidding of Dion, yet with the intention to stay there so as to bring into reality the ideal state of the Republic with the help of Dion. It is worth noting that the year of Plato’s 2nd departure to Sicily is the year in which the seventeen years old Aristotle entered the Academy. As has been seen, Aristotle’s criticism of the Forms in Metaphysics A reflects Parmenides’ criticism of the Forms.

Parmenides 133a11-b9 clearly demonstrates that Plato wished to design the dialogue so as to protect the Forms against any possible objections. It would be a very strange strategy if he did so by suggesting that he was well acquainted with any objections against the Forms suggested by Aristotle, by any other rebellious Member of the Academy, or by any sophist at Dionysius’ royal court at Syracuse, if in fact the dramatic setting of the dialogue were just a false pretence.

To underline this point, let me repeat the salient points from the introduction to the dialogue. Cephalus tells us that he met Adeimantus and Glaucon in Athens, where he came with his friends ‘much interested in philosophy’ (mala philosophoi, 126b8), for they learnt that Antiphon (Adeimantus’, Glaucon’s, and thus Plato’s half-brother) often heard (pollakis akousas) from Zeno’s friend Pythodorus the arguments (tous logous) that Socrates, Zeno, and Parmenides once exchanged, so that he remembers them. Adeimantus (Plato’s older brother) confirms this as true (alêthê), explaining that Antiphon ‘rehearsed the arguments diligently when he was a youngster (meirakion ȏn autous eu mala diemeletêsen, 126b8-c7).

Parmenides’ criticism of the Forms in his discussion with the young Socrates must have been a historical fact, and it must have been known to be so.

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