The Parmenides is narrated by Cephalus of Clazomenae who came to Athens with his friends. They met Adeimantus and Glaucon (Plato’s brothers) in the Agora. The two were his old friends and greeted him heartily: ’if you need anything we can help you with, tell us.’ He told them that the very purpose of their coming to Athens (from Clazomenae in Asia Minor) was to see them and ask their help, for his friends, deeply interested in philosophy, had learnt that Antiphon (Adeimantus‘and Glaucon’ half-brother) often heard from Zeno’s friend Pythodorus the arguments that Socrates, Zeno, and Parmenides once exchanged, so that he remembers them. Adeimantus confirmed this to be true (alêthê): ‘for he rehearsed the arguments diligently when he was a youngster’ (126b8-c7).
Adeimantus and Glaucon point us to the Republic in which they play an important role; there they compel Socrates to transcend his philosophic ignorance (Republic 357a-368c), to construct the ideal state as the embodiment of the Form of Justice, and outline the road to the Forms.
Glaucon points us to the Symposium with its outline of the road to the Form of beauty. The introductions to the Parmenides, the Republic, and the Symposium bear marked similarities that bind them together. In the Symposium, like in the Parmenides, we learn that the narrative is mediated: Apollodorus, the narrator, was a child when the symposium took place; he had heard it from Aristodemus and was well prepared to deliver it for he had narrated it to Glaucon before narrating it to his friends. Apollodorus opens the dialogue with the words: ‘Concerning the things about which you ask to be informed I believe that I am not ill prepared with an answer. For the day before yesterday I was coming from my home at Phalerum [a harbour] to the city, and one of my acquaintance [Glaucon], who had caught a sight of me from behind, calling out playfully in the distance, said: “Apollodorus, halt! … I was looking for you, only just now, that I might ask you about the speeches in praise of love, which were delivered by Socrates, Alcibiades, and others, at Agathon’s supper. Phoenix, the son of Philip, told another person who told me of them; his narrative was very indistinct, but he said that you knew, and I wish that you would give me an account of them”.’ (172a-b, tr. Jowett) The Republic, narrated by Socrates, opens as follows: ‘I went down to the Piraeus [an Athenian promontory with three harbours] with Glaucon the son of Ariston … we turned in the direction of the city; and at that instant Polemarchus the son of Cephalus chanced to catch sight of us from a distance as we were starting on our way home, and told his servant to run and bid us wait for him.’ (327a-b, tr. Jowett)
In my first reflections on ‘A year on my blog with Plato’s Parmenides’ I wrote: ‘In the Parmenides it is a very young Socrates who is instructed in philosophy by the venerable Parmenides; in the Symposium the wise woman Diotima introduces presumably an even younger Socrates to the Form of beauty and thus prepares him for his life devoted to philosophy.’ This needs to be qualified, for Diotima is not sure whether Socrates would ever be able to see the Form of beauty: ‘These are the lesser mysteries of love, into which even you, Socrates, may enter (Tauta men oun ta erȏtika isȏs, ȏ Sȏkrates, k’an su muêtheiês); to the greater and more hidden ones which are the crown of these, and to which, if you pursue them in a right spirit, they will lead, I know not whether you will be able to attain. But I will do my utmost to inform you, and do you follow if you can’ (209e5-210a2, tr. Jowett). Jowett’s ‘the greater and more hidden mysteries’ stands for Plato’s ta de telea kai epoptika, which Liddell and Scott translate ‘the highest mysteries’. What is lost in these explications is seeing, which is expressed in epoptika, seen by the mind’s eye.
‘The lesser mysteries of love’, into which even Socrates may enter, Diotima describes as follows: ‘Wisdom and virtue in general’ (phronêsin te kai tên allên aretên), especially ‘the greatest and fairest sort of wisdom (tês phronêseȏs), which is concerned with the ordering of states and families, and which is called temperance and justice (sȏphrosunê te kai dikaiosunê). And he who in his youth has the seed implanted in his soul, when he grows up and comes to maturity desires to beget and generate … when he finds a fair and noble and well nurtured soul … to such a one he is full of speech about virtue and the nature and pursuits of a good man, and he tries to educate him.’ (209a3-8, tr. Jowett) The young Socrates entered this stage somewhat prematurely in Parmenides’ view: ‘You undertake to mark off something beautiful and just and good and each one of the Forms (hekaston tȏn eidȏn) too soon, before being properly trained. I realized this yesterday, when I heard you discussing with Aristoteles. Believe me, your impulse toward argument is noble and indeed divine. But train yourself more thoroughly while you are still young.’ (Parmenides 135c8-d4, tr. Allen; Allen translates hekaston tȏn eidȏn ‘each one of the characters’.)
Concerning the ascent to the Form of beauty, the Beauty itself, Diotima says: ‘He who would proceed aright in this matter should begin in youth to seek the company of corporeal beauty … in the next stage he will consider that the beauty of the mind is more honourable than the beauty of the outward form … he will create many fair and noble thoughts and notions in boundless love of wisdom (en philosophiai aphthonȏi); until on that shore he grows and waxes strong … He who has been instructed thus far in the things of love (hos an mechri entautha pros ta erȏtika paidagȏgêthêi), and who has learned to see the beautiful in due order and succession, when he comes towards the end (pros telos êdê iȏn) will suddenly perceive (exaiphnês katopsetai, ‘suddenly will see’) a nature of wondrous beauty … which in the first place is everlasting, not growing and decaying, or waxing and waning; secondly, not fair in one point of view and foul in another, or at one time or in one relation or at one place fair, at another time or in another relation or at another place foul … but beauty absolute, separate, simple, and everlasting, which is imparted to the ever-growing and perishing beauties of all other beautiful things, without itself suffering diminution, or increase, or any change.’ (211a4-b5, tr. Jowett)
Jowett’s ‘he will suddenly perceive a nature of wondrous beauty … beauty absolute, separate, simple, and everlasting, which is imparted to the ever-growing and perishing beauties of all other beautiful things, without itself suffering diminution, or increase, or any change’ obscures the fact that Plato formulates here the theory of participation of sensible things in the Forms as it is viewed by a person that attained the vision of the Form of beauty. Let me follow the original more closely: ‘He will suddenly see a beauty of remarkable nature (exaiphnês katopsetai ti thaumaston tên phusin kalon) … in itself and with itself (auto kath’ hauto meth’ hautou), of simple form (monoeides), eternal (aei on), all the other beautiful things participating in it in some way like this (ta de alla panta kala ekeinou metechonta tropon tina toiouton): as all the other things come to be and perish (hoion gignomenȏn tȏn allȏn kai apollumenȏn) the beauty itself becomes neither greater nor smaller, nor suffers any change (mêden ekeino mête ti pleon mête elatton gignesthai mêde paschein mêden).
Let me further note that Jowett’s ‘when he comes towards the end will suddenly perceive a nature of wondrous beauty’ for Plato’s pros telos êdê iȏn exaiphnês katopsetai ti thaumaston tên phusin kalon in line in line 210e4 loses the etymological connection with ta de telea kai epoptika in line 210a1, where Diotima expresses her doubt, whether Socrates will ever be able to reach this stage.
Plato went to Sicily in 367, shortly after the death of Dionysius, the tyrant of Syracuse. He went there on the insistence of Dion, an aristocrat and devoted follower and friend of Plato. Dion believed that with Plato’s help the young Dionysius could be turned to philosophy and Syracuse become the ideal state of the Republic. But Dion was exiled soon after Plato’s arrival, and Plato spent there an unhappy year, pining after his teaching in the Academy: ‘leaving my own occupations, which were certainly not discreditable ones’ (katalipȏn tas emautou diatribas, ousas ouk aschêmonas, Seventh letter, 329b1-2, tr. Harward).
Plato left Sicily in 366, agreeing to return: ‘At that time there was a state of war in Sicily. Dionysius said that, when he had put the affairs of his empire in a position of greater safety for himself, he would send for Dion and me again … I agreed to come again on these conditions.’ (Seventh Letter, 338a4-b2, tr. J. Harward)
Aristotle’s criticism of the theory of Forms in the 1st book of the Metaphysics allows us to surmise that objections against the Forms were ripe among some of Plato’s disciples in the Academy. Before leaving Athens, Plato had to protect his disciples from objections against the Forms. He returned to Sicily in 361 and had thus five years in which to think of how to prepare his disciples for his departure. But how could he do so if he had no telling arguments with which he could refute the arguments raised against the Forms? That this was so is made abundantly clear by Aristotle, who as a Platonist raised arguments against the Forms in the first book of Metaphysics, using the first person plural in the sense ‘we Platonists’, and pointedly repeated the same arguments in the 13th book after distancing himself from Platonists. These arguments are raised against the theory in the Parmenides, where they are left unanswered, yet declared as false (133b7) and only seemingly ‘saying something’ (dokein te ti legein, 135a6).
Parmenides in the Parmenides voices some of the most telling arguments against the Forms, while declaring the Forms immune against any arguments. This strategy could be adopted by Plato 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’, if Parmenides in turn subjected Socrates’ Forms to criticism, and if those arguments were learnt and diligently rehearsed by Plato’s half-brother Antiphon in his adolescence. For then it means, that Plato was well acquainted with such arguments against the Forms long before Aristotle and others raised them in the Academy, and that such arguments have no power against those who can see the Forms.
Parmenides introduces the greatest difficulty concerning the Forms in the Parmenides as follows: ‘If someone should say that the Forms cannot be known, one could not show to him that he is saying a falsity (hoti pseudetai), unless the objector happened to be a man of great experience and natural ability, willing to follow a man who would show him the Forms in the course of a copious and lengthy undertaking’ (133a11-b9). The objection that the Forms cannot be known is thus qualified as false from the outset. ‘A copious and lengthy undertaking’ points to the Republic in which Plato demonstrated that only the Forms can be known, for only they truly are; all other things are subject to constant change and can be apprehended only by opinion that lacks the certainty of knowledge. The words ‘lengthy undertaking’ do not render the full force of Plato’s porrȏthen pragmateuomenou, which means ‘undertaking the task from afar’; in the Republic it takes Plato the first five books before he tackles the task in the sixth and seventh book. This is why after writing the Parmenides he decided to write the Symposium, in which the journey to the Forms is described powerfully in a concise manner.
In the Symposium, Diotima’s depiction of the Form of beauty parries Parmenides’ main objections against participation of sensible things in the Forms. Parmenides asks Socrates: ‘Do you think, as you say, that there are certain Forms by partaking of which these other things have got their names?’ When Socrates agrees, Parmenides goes on arguing: ‘Then each participating thing partakes either of the whole Form or of a part of it … So being one and the same, it will be as a whole at the same time in many things that are separate, and thus it would be separate from itself.’ (Parm. 130e5 – 131b2) Diotima depicts Beauty as ‘being in itself and with itself, of simple form, eternal, in which all the other beautiful things participate so that while all the other things come to be and perish the beauty itself becomes neither greater nor smaller, nor suffers any change.’ (Symp. 211b1-5)
Aristotle’s passionate plea directed against the Forms in the 1st book of the Metaphysics indicates that after Plato’s departure from Athens the Parmenides jointly with the Symposium, and with the Republic to which they both are pointing, had the effect Plato had hoped for. Aristotle says in despair: ‘In general, though philosophy seeks the cause of perceptible things, we have given this up, for we say nothing of the cause from which change takes its start; but while we fancy we are stating the substance of perceptible things, we assert the existence of other substances, while our account of the way in which they are the substances of perceptible things is empty talk; for ‘sharing’ (to gar metechein), as we said before, means nothing (outhen estin)’ (992a24-29, tr. W. D. Ross with a minor change; Ross translates heteras men ousias einai phamen ‘we assert the existence of a second class of substances’, I have translated ‘we assert the existence of other substances’).