Parmenides in the dialogue introduces the greatest difficulty concerning the Forms 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 (etheloi de panu polla kai porrȏthen pragmateuomenou tou endeiknumenou hepesthai, 133a11-b9).
The objection that the Forms cannot be known is thus qualified as false right from the outset. This qualification transcends the Parmenides by pointing to a man ‘demonstrating the Forms in the course of a copious and lengthy undertaking’. Plato points thus to the Republic in which he 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. Plato’s pointing to the Republic is prepared in the introductory scene to the Parmenides, in which Plato’s brothers Adeimantus and Glaucon mediate its narrative; in the Republic they compel Socrates to transcend his philosophic ignorance, outline the Form of justice and ascend to the Form of the good.
After thus pointing to the Republic as the place where the true solution of the difficulty is to be looked for, Plato in the Parmenides discusses the suggestion that the Forms are what they are in their relation to one another, but not in relation to things among us, and that the things among us are related only to one another, but not to the Forms (133c8-d5). Parmenides elucidates this point to Socrates by an example: ‘If one of us is a master or slave of someone (ei tis hêmȏn tou despotês ê doulos estin), he is surely not a slave of master itself, what master is (ouk autou despotou dêpou, ho esti despotês, ekeinou doulos estin), nor is a master the master of slave itself, what slave is (oude autou doulou, ho esti doulos, despotês ho despotês), but being a man (all anthrȏpos ȏn), both these belong to a man (anthrȏpou amphotera taut’ estin). But mastership itself (autê de despoteia) is what it is of slavery itself (autês douleias estin ho esti), and slavery in like manner (kai douleia hȏsautȏs) is slavery itself of mastership itself (autê douleia autês despoteias). Things in us do not have their power in relation to things there (all’ ou ta par hêmin pros ekeina tên dunamin echei), nor things there in relation to us (oude ekeina pros hêmas). Rather (all’), as I say (ho legȏ), things there belong to themselves and are relative to themselves (auta hautȏn kai pros hauta ekeina te esti), and things among us are in the same way relative to themselves (kai ta par’ hêmin hȏsautȏs pros hauta). Or don’t you understand what I mean (ê ou manthaneis ha legȏ)?’ – Socrates: ‘Of course I understand (Panu ge manthanȏ)’ (133d7-134a1)
The significance of Parmenides’ chosen example, of his question, and of Socrates’ confident ‘Of course I understand’ will become clear when Parmenides returns to it at the closing stage of the difficulty, and Socrates reflects on it.
Parmenides goes on to focus on the main point, the difficulty concerning the knowability of the Forms: ‘And knowledge too (Oukoun kai epistêmê), that which is knowledge itself (autê men ho esti epistêmê), would be of that which is the truth itself (tês ho estin alêtheia), of that it would be knowledge (autês an ekeinês eiê epistêmê)?’ – Socrates: ‘Of course (Panu ge). – Parmenides: ‘Yet again, each of the sciences (Hekastê de au tȏn epistêmȏn), which is (hê estin), would be knowledge of each of the beings, what each is (hekastou tȏn ontȏn, ho estin, eiê an epistêmê). Not so (ê ou)?’– Socrates: ‘Yes (Nai)’ – Parmenides: ‘But the knowledge which we have (Hê de par hêmin epistêmê), wouldn’t it be knowledge of the truth which we have (ou tês par hêmin an alêtheias eiê), and again each science which we have (kai au hekastê hê par hêmin epistêmê), wouldn’t it happen to be knowledge of each of the things that we have (tȏn par hêmin ontȏn hekastou an epistêmê sumbainoi einai)?’ – Socrates: ‘Necessarily (Anankê)’. – Parmenides: ‘Moreover (Alla mên), we do not have the Forms themselves, as you agree (auta ge ta eidê, hȏs homologies, oute echomen), nor can they be among us (oute par hêmin hoion te einai).’ – Socrates: ‘Of course not (Ou gar oun).’ – Parmenides: ‘But presumably, the kinds themselves, what each is, are known by the Form of knowledge itself (Gignȏsketai de ge pou hup’ autou tou eidous tou tês epistêmês auta ta genê ha estin hekasta)?’ – Socrates: ‘Yes (Nai).’ – Parmenides: ‘Which we don’t have (Ho ge hêmeis ouk echomen).’ – Socrates: ‘No (Ou gar). – Parmenides: ‘So none of the Forms is known by us (Ouk ara hupo ge hêmȏn gignȏsketai tȏn eidȏn ouden), since we do not have a share of knowledge itself (epeidê autês epistêmês ou metechomen).‘ – Socrates: ‘It seems not (Ouk eoiken).’
If Plato’s Parmenides had been interested merely in presenting Socrates with the greatest difficulty confronting the Forms, this was the point to stop. For Parmenides announced the difficulty as follows: ‘There are many other difficulties, but the greatest is this: If someone should say that the Forms cannot be known, if they are such as we maintain they must be’ (133b4-6). Discussing the Forms ‘as we maintain they must be’, at this point Parmenides appears to have proved the objection to be sound: ‘None of the Forms is known by us, since we do not have a share of knowledge itself.’ (134b11-12)
But this clearly was not Plato’s intention, for when Parmenides introduced ‘the greatest difficulty’, he qualified it as false: ‘To a man saying this one could not show that he is saying a falsity, unless he 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’ (133b6-9). After highlighting ‘the greatest difficulty’ in the strongest terms in the lines that begin at 134a3 and end at 134b12, Parmenides now goes on to show the difficulty as paradoxical, impious, and thus wrong.
Parmenides begins to undermine the validity of the objection against the knowability of the Forms by highlighting its negative consequences: ‘Unknown to us (Agnȏston ara hêmin) is the beautiful itself (kai auto to kalon), which is (ho esti), and the good (kai to agathon), and everything we at this point accept as being the Forms themselves (kai panta ha dê hȏs ideas autas ousas hupolambanomen)’. – Socrates: ‘That’s the danger’ (Kinduneuei)’ (134b14-c2).
I accept Allen’s imaginative ‘at this point’ for Parmenides’ dê, for up to this point Socrates appears simply to follow and accept as valid the case Parmenides makes for the argument against the possibility of knowing the Forms. Socrates’ ‘That’s the danger’ should be taken seriously as the expression of great unease he begins to experience at this point. Allen completely misjudged the situation when he translates Socrates’ Kinduneuei: ‘Very likely’. Equally misleading is Allen’s rendering of Parmenides’ response to Socrates’ Kinduneuei: ‘Consider then whether the following is still more remarkable.’ Parmenides says: ‘See then the following, which is even more alarming than this (Hora dê eti toutou deinoteron tode)’.
Socrates asks: ‘What kind of thing (To poion)’, and Parmenides begins to explain: ‘You’d say, presumably (Phaiês an pou), that if there is a kind itself of knowledge (eiper esti auto ti genos epistêmês), it is much more exact (polu auto akribesteron einai) than knowledge that we have (ê tên par hêmin epistêmên), and so too of beauty, and all the rest (kai kallos kai t’alla panta houtȏ).’ – Socrates: ‘Yes (Nai).’ – Parmenides: ‘Then if anything else has a share of knowledge itself (Oukoun eiper ti allo autês epistêmês metechei), nobody has the most exact knowledge more than god (ouk an tina mallon ê theon echein tên akribestatên epistêmên)?’ – Socrates: ‘Necessarily (Anankê).’ – Parmenides: ‘Will then the god be able (Ar’ oun hoios te au estai ho theos) to know things among us (ta par’ hêmin gignȏskein), having knowledge itself (autên epistêmên echȏn)?’ – Socrates: ‘Why not (Ti gar ou)?’ – ‘Because, Socrates, we agreed (Hoti hȏmologêtai hêmin, ȏ Sȏkrates) that neither those Forms have the power they have in relation to things among us (mête ekeina ta eidê pros ta par hêmin tên dunamin echein hên echei), nor things among us in relation to those (mête ta par hêmin pros ekeina), but only themselves in relation to themselves (all’ auta pros hauta hekatera) .’ – Socrates: ‘This has been agreed (Hȏmologêtai gar).’ (134c5-d8).
Plato’s Parmenides goes on to show the absurdity of this agreement by returning to the master-slave example: ‘Then if in the god’s realm (Oukoun ei para tȏ theȏi) is the most exact mastership itself (hautê estin hê akribestatê despoteia) and the most exact knowledge itself (kai hê akribestatê epistêmê), neither would their mastership ever master us (out an hê despoteia hê ekeinȏn hêmȏn pote an desposeien), nor would knowledge know us (oud an epistêmê hêmas gnoiê) or anything else where we are (oude ti allo tȏn par hêmin). But similarly (alla homoiȏs), we do not govern them (hêmeis te ekeinȏn ouk archomen) by our authority here (têi par hêmin archêi), and we don’t know anything divine (oude gignȏskomen tou theiou ouden) by our knowledge (têi hêmeterai epistêmêi), and they again (ekeinoi te au), by the same account (kata ton auton logon), are not our masters (oute despotai hêmȏn eisin) and don’t know human things (oute gignȏskousi ta anthrȏpeia pragmata), being gods (theoi ontes).’ – Socrates: ‘But surely, it would be too strange an account (Alla mê lian thaumastos ho logos), if one were to deprive the god of knowing (ei tis ton theon aposterêsei tou eidenai).’ (134d9-e8)
Parmenides rounds up the discussion concerning the Forms by reiterating that ‘in these and many other difficulties are the Forms necessarily involved (tauta mentoi kai eti alla pros toutois panu polla anankaion echein ta eidê), if these Forms of beings exist (ei eisin hautai hai ideai tȏn ontȏn), and if one is going to define each Form itself (kai horieitai tis auto ti hekaston eidos) (134e9-135a3) … it will take a man of considerable natural gifts (kai andros panu men euphuous), who will be able to learn (tou dunêsomenou mathein) that there is a certain kind of each thing (hȏs esti genos ti hekastou), and being by itself (kai ousia autê kath’ hautên), and an even more admirable man (eti de thaumastoterou) who will discover it (tou heurêsontos) and will be able to teach it to someone else (kai allon dunêsomenou didaxai) after having sufficiently and well examined all these things (tauta panta hikanȏs dieukrinêsamenon).’ (135a7-b2)
With these words Parmenides points to Plato, who is to come.