Tuesday, November 24, 2015

A year on my blog with Plato’s Parmenides

On October 5, 2014, I wrote to Professor Drummond Bone, the Master of Balliol: ‘My next paper will be on Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle as their thoughts are reflected and interlinked in Plato’s Parmenides. The Parmenides is a late dialogue; in my view Plato wrote it in preparation for his third and last journey to Sicily. Aristotle was at that time 23 years old and had been for 6 years in Plato’s school. Plato’s Parmenides is preoccupied with criticism of the theory of Forms, which we find in the opening book of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. A great 19th century German scholar Siebeck believed that the Parmenides was directed against criticisms urged by Aristotle in discussion with Plato. Ross notes that Siebeck’s ‘theory has but little evidence in favour of it’ (Ross’ note on Met A, Ch. 9, 991a12, 13). I believe that Siebeck is right, but it will take a lot of work to properly support his view.’

I hoped against hope that the Master would invite me to present the paper at Balliol, for I had always enjoyed presenting ‘papers’ without a paper in my hand, before writing any paper on the proposed subject. For whenever I had an opportunity to do so, I chose a subject to which I had devoted a lot of thought, and then I always found it the greatest and most rewarding challenge to rethink the subject on the spot, anew, for an interested audience.

I found an inspiration for doing so in my late teens, in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus speaks to his disciples about persecutions awaiting them: ‘You will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. This will be a time for you to bear testimony. Settle it therefore in your minds, not to meditate beforehand how to answer; for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand and contradict.’ (21, 12-15)

I have always read the Gospels in a secularised way. Face to face with ‘kings and governors’, not thinking of ‘what will they ask?’ ‘what shall I say?’, trusting in their cause, Jesus’ disciples were most likely to derive their answers from the most relevant parts and aspects of their experience as Christians, and thus make their responses most powerful. I was privileged to follow Jesus’ guidance on many occasions: during my first imprisonment in mid 1950s, and then again in the late 1970s, whenever I was interrogated by the police.

But I find Jesus’ advice most important, most fruitful and rewarding when I have an opportunity to talk on philosophy. Concerning Plato’s Parmenides, I enjoyed two such occasions. Three years ago I was invited to give a talk on the dialogue to a group of Plato enthusiasts led by Noel Bolting (his group is called Noboss). And then I was allowed to give a talk on it in the Institute of Philosophy of the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague. On these two occasions there was nobody able or willing to challenge my views in the discussion, which was a pity, for my views on the dialogue challenge the very foundations of the Platonic scholarship of the past two centuries, constructed on the view that Plato conceived the theory of Forms some ten years after the death of Socrates. Regrettably, I shall not be given an opportunity to discuss the dialogue properly before writing the paper, for both the Master of Balliol and the Director of the Institute for Philosophy and Religious studies at Charles University left my offers to present my talk on the dialogue to their students and colleagues unanswered; and so I shall do my best to write the paper without it. Instead, I shall review the entries on my blog devoted to the theme, choosing, reordering, and revising the passages relevant to the task.

From ‘Plato as a critic of Aristotle’, posted on November 14, 2014:

In the 1st book of the Metaphysics Aristotle writes: ‘Above all one might discuss the question what on earth the Forms contribute to sensible things, either to those that are eternal or to those that come into being and cease to be. For they cause neither movement nor any change in them. But again they help in no wise either towards the knowledge of the other things (for they are not even the substance of these, else they would have been in them), or towards their being, if they are not in the particulars which share in them.’ (991a8-14, tr. W. D. Ross) Ross notes: ‘This argument is met by Plato in Parmenides 134 D; this is one of the points relied on by Siebeck for the proof of his theory that the Parmenides (with the Sophist and the Philebus) was directed against criticism urged by Aristotle in discussion..’

The importance of Siebeck’s theory becomes apparent if we compare Parmenides’ criticism of the Forms in the Parmenides with Aristotle’s criticism of Plato’s theory of Forms.

Parmenides opens his enquiry about the Forms by asking Socrates: ‘Do you mean that there are certain Forms by partaking of which these other things get their names? As for example those things that partake of similarity become similar, of largeness large, of beauty and justice just and beautiful?’ When Socrates answers: ‘Yes, certainly’, Parmenides argues: ‘If being one and the same, it would be present as a whole at one and the same time in many things that are separate from it, it would thus be separate from itself (kai houtȏs auto hautou chȏris eiê, 131b1-2).

Siebeck points out that this argument against the Forms can be found in Aristotle’s Metaphysics Z: ‘Now if the animal in the horse and in the man is one and the same, as you are with yourself, how will the one in things that exist apart be one, and how will this animal escape being separate even from itself’ (kai dia ti ou kai chȏris hautou estai to zȏion touto, 1039a34-b2, tr. Ross; Ross translates Aristotle’s chȏris ‘divided’; to elucidate the mutual relation of these two passages, I translate it as ‘separate’, as it stands in Plato’s text). (See H. Siebeck, ‘Platon als Kritiker aristotelischer Ansichten’, Zeitschrift für Philosophie und philosophische Kritik 107 Band, Leipzig 1896, pp. 3-5)

When Socrates admits that it is not easy to deal with this difficulty, Parmenides asks him whether it was not the following consideration that has led him to assume each Form to be one: ‘When a number of things seems to you to be large, it perhaps seems to you that there is one and the same Form as you look on them all; hence you conceive of the large as one.’ When Socrates admits that Parmenides is right, the latter asks: ‘And what about the large and all the other large things, if in your mind you look at them all in the same way, will not again some large appear by virtue of which they all appear large? – So another Form of largeness will make its appearance, which came to its being over and above the largeness itself and the things participating in it; and upon all these again a different one, by which they all will be large. And so there will not be one of each Form for you, but their multitude will be infinite.’ (132a1-b2)

Siebeck notes that this argument appears in the 1st book of Aristotle’s Metaphysics as ‘the Third Man’ (tritos anthrȏpos, 99b17, Siebeck p. 3).

Socrates does not give up: ‘But may not each of the Forms be just a thought of them (toutȏn noêma), to which it would appertain to be born nowhere else than in souls; for in this way each would be one and would no more suffer what was said just now (132b3-6).’ Parmenides asks: ‘Is each thought one, but a thought of nothing?’ (133b7) Guided by Parmenides, Socrates admits that each thought is a thought of something that is one, which that thought thinks to be present over all, to wit a Form which is one, ever being over all, and that all this appears to be so by necessity. Parmenides asks: ‘Is not this necessity the necessity that compelled you to say that things participate in the Forms?’ (132c9-10) Parmenides thus reduces Socrates’ new suggestion to his original theory of Forms with all its difficulties.

It appears that Aristotle had the Parmenides in front of his eyes when he wrote in the 1st book of Metaphysics: ‘According to the assumption on which our belief in the Ideas rests, there will be Forms not only of substances but also of many other things (for the thought is one (to noêma hen) not only in the case of substances but also in the other cases, and there are sciences not only of substance but also of other things, and a thousand other such difficulties confront them).’ (990b22-27, tr. W. D. Ross, with one exception; Ross translates Aristotle‘s to noêma hen ‘the concept is single’, which obscures the relation between Aristotle’s passage and Parmenides’ argument).

Socrates makes one more attempt to save the Forms: ‘It appears to me that these Forms stand in the nature as paradigms; the other things resemble them and are likenesses of them and this participation of other things in the Forms is nothing other than their becoming a resemblance of them.’ Parmenides asks: ‘If something resembles the Form, must not the Form be similar to that which is like it, in so far as it resembles it? – And must not that which is like that which is like it of necessity participate in the same Form?’ Parmenides thus shows Socrates that his Forms viewed as paradigms end up being infinitely multiplied, and concludes: ‘So the others do not partake of the Forms by similarity, but one must look for something else by which they partake.’ (132d1-133a6)

Aristotle notes in the 1st book of the Metaphysics: ‘To say that the Forms are paradigms and that the other things share in them is to use empty words and poetical metaphors.’ (991a20-22)

From ‘A note on the 3rd book of Aristotle’s Metaphysics’, posted on October 16, 2014:

The difficulties that Aristotle puts forward in the 3rd book concerning the theory of Forms are closely related to the arguments on the basis of which he refutes the theory in the 1st book of Metahysics; these arguments resemble those that Parmenides urges against the Forms of young Socrates in Plato’s Parmenides. Thanks to Siebeck, I began to consider the possibility that Plato wrote the Parmenides in preparation for his third and last journey to Sicily. What are my reasons for this dating of the dialogue?

In the opening part of the Parmenides we learn that Zeno, a disciple of Parmenides was reading his treatise to interested listeners, one of whom was Socrates. Towards the end of the reading Parmenides entered the party, accompanied by Aristotle who ‘later became one of the Thirty’ (127d2-3). The Thirty would have put Socrates to death had their rule not been overthrown (Cf. Plato, Apology 32c-d, 7th Letter 324b-325a; Xenophon, Memorabilia I.ii.29-38). All those who knew of Aristotle’s objections to Plato’s Forms were bound to ask: Isn’t Plato pointing his finger at his disciple of the same name? Isn’t Aristotle bent on destroying Plato’s theory of Forms, and thus obliterating Plato as a thinker?

Parmenides subjected Socrates’ theory of the Forms to severe questioning, refuting with ease the reasons on the basis of which Socrates had considered the Forms, as well as the arguments he came up with in the course of the ensuing discussion. Yet instead of rejecting the theory as indefensible, Parmenides ended the discussion with a passionate defence of the Forms: ‘The Forms are necessarily involved in these and many more difficulties, if these Forms of things exist and one is going to define each Form as something in itself. So that the hearer is bound to be in difficulty and to argue that the Forms do not exist, and even if they do exist, they must of necessity be unknowable to human nature; and he will seem to have reason on his side, and as we were remarking just now, will be very difficult to convince. Only a man of considerable natural ability will be able to learn that there is a kind (genos ti) of each thing, an absolute essence (ousia autê kath’ hautên) … If a man, casting an eye over all the present and any similar difficulties, will not allow the Forms to exist and will not define the Form of each single thing, he will not have anything to which to turn his mind, and so he will utterly destroy the power of reasoning’. (134e8-135c2)

Before leaving Athens, Plato had to protect his disciples from objections against the existence of the Forms; although he directed his defence of the Forms at every one of his disciples, he appears to have aimed it especially at Aristotle, who was the most gifted among them and who had urged arguments against the Forms. Aristotle could not but see the dialogue as a question directed at him: will he prove to be ‘a man of considerable natural ability able to learn that there is a kind of each thing’, or will he fail?

The unceremonious manner with which Aristotle in the 1st book of the Metaphysics rejected the Forms on the basis of arguments marked in the Parmenides as irrelevant, while speaking about himself as one of Plato’s disciples – using the first person plural in the sense of “we Platonists” – indicates that he wrote the 1st book after Plato left Athens for Sicily and before he returned. Nobody expected that Plato would come back; he was in his late sixties when he went to Sicily, and he went there to help establish a state in which philosophers would rule.

Ross notes that the 3rd book of the Metaphysics refers to the 1st book as “our prefatory remarks” (995b5) and “our first discussions” (997b4)’, that the 3rd book ‘announces itself as following the 1st book’, and that the close connexion between the 1st book and the 3rd book is further indicated by the use of the phrase ‘the science which we are seeking’ (hê epistêmê hê zêtoumenê) and the use of the first person plural in the sense of “we Platonists”. (W. D. Ross, Aristotle’s Metaphysics, OUP 1924, p. xv) Convinced as I have become that the 1st book was written in the interval between Plato’s leaving Athens in 361 BC and his return from Sicily in 360 BC, the close connection between it and the 3rd book made me believe that the latter was written during that period as well.  But my reading aloud and recording the 3rd book compelled me to revise this dating, for I found that in all relevant respects it stands in sharp contrast to the 1st book.

In the opening sentence of the 6th, that is the last chapter of the 3rd book, Aristotle asks: ‘In general one might raise the question (aporêseie an tis) why after all, besides perceptible things and the intermediates [i.e. the mathematical objects], we have to look for another class of things, i.e. the Forms which we posit’ (ha tithemen eidê, 1002b13-14). He argues that ‘if there are not – besides perceptible and mathematical objects – others  such as some maintain the Forms to be, there will be no substance which is one in number, but only in kind: – if then this must be so, the Forms also must therefore be held to exist. Even if those who support this view do not express it accurately, still this is what they mean, and they must be maintaining the Forms just because each of the Forms is a substance and none is by accident.’ After thus making a powerful case for the Forms, Aristotle refers to his earlier considerations that questioned the viability of the theory of Forms: ‘But if we are to suppose both that the Forms exist and that the principles are one in number, not in kind, we have mentioned the impossible results that necessarily follow.’ (1002b12-32, tr. W. D. Ross.)

Aristotle devoted his 3rd book to the task of facing and overcoming difficulties, aporiai, opening it as follows: ‘For those who wish to get clear of difficulties [euporêsai literally ‘walk well’] it is advantageous to discuss the difficulties [diaporêsai; the prefix dia gives diaporêsai the force of ‘going through all the difficulties’] well; for the subsequent free play of thought [euporia, literally ‘easy walking’] implies the solution of the previous difficulties [tȏn aporoumenȏn], and it is impossible to untie a knot of which one does not know. But the difficulty of our thinking [hê tês dianoias aporia] points to a “knot” in the object; for in so far as our thought is in difficulties [hêi gar aporei], it is in like case with those who are bound; for in either case it is impossible to go forward.’ (Tr. W. D. Ross, 995a27-33) Aristotle’s listeners/readers were bound to be reminded by these opening lines of Plato’s Symposium, in which Poros (‘ways and means of achieving, discovering’), the son of Mêtis (Wisdom), fathers Eros. Devoting his whole life to the pursuit of philosophy (philosophȏn dia pantos tou biou, 203d7), Eros is all the time on the roads, all the time searching; yet what he finds is again and again escaping him (203b-204a). 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. Playfully alluding to these two dialogues, Aristotle in the 3rd book of the Metaphysics dons the cloak of a searching philosopher and retrospectively marks the arguments raised against the Forms in the 1st book as part of an on-going investigation.

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