Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Plato's Second Letter and the Parmenides

I ended 'Plato's dialogues (Republic, Theaetetus, Parmenides, Symposium) and his Seventh and Second Letters’ with a hypothesis that the Parmenides was written not only to arm his disciples in the Academy against the hostile questioning of the theory of Forms, but to prepare Dionysius for Plato’s promised return to Syracuse as well, and that Plato’s Letters might corroborate this hypothesis.

Plato’s Second Letter, written to Dionysius, opens as follows: ‘I hear from Archedemus [‘A disciple of Archytas of Tarentum, the Pythagorean scientist’, notes Bury] that you think that not only I myself should keep quiet but my friends also from doing or saying anything bad about you … I do not say this as though what Cratistolus and Polyxenus have told you is to be trusted; for it is said that one of these men declares that at Olympia he heard quite a number of my companions maligning you..’ (310a4-d2, tr. Bury) The Olympic Festival referred to took place in 364; the Second Letter was written two years after Plato’s return to Athens.

Dionysius appears to have been puzzled (aporoumenos) about ‘the nature of the First’ (peri tês tou prȏtou phuseȏs), complaining that it had not been demonstrated clearly enough to him. Plato explains ‘in a riddling way’ (di’ ainigmȏn, 312d7-8): ‘All things are related to the King of All, for whose sake they all are, and which (ekeino) is the cause of all things fair’ (312e1-3). The King of All can be identified with the Good of the Republic, which bestows on all things their being (to einai) and existence (kai tên ousian), and yet it is not existence (ouk ousias ontos tou agathou), but lies far beyond it in dignity and power (all’ eti epekeina tês ousias presbeiai kai dunamei huperechontos, 509b7-10); the Good is neuter, and in the Second Letter Plato slips from the King of All in line 312e1-2, who is masculine, to neuter ekeino in line 312e2 and to in line 313c1.

Plato reminds Dionysius of the discussion they had ‘in the garden, under the laurels’ (313a7), when he revealed to him the truth concerning ‘the First’. Dionysius declared that he had formed this notion himself and that it was a discovery of his own (313a6-b1). Plato recollects: ‘I said, however, that I had never met with any other person (ou mên allȏi ge pot’ ephên entetuchêkenai) who had made this discovery (touth’ hêurêkoti); on the contrary most of the trouble I had (all’ hê pollê moi pragmateia) was about this very problem (peri tout’ eiê).’ So then, after you had either, as is probable, got the true solution from someone else, or had possibly (by Heaven’s favour) hit on it yourself, you fancied you had a firm grip on the proofs of it, and so you omitted to make them fast; thus your view of the truth sways now this way, now that, round about the apparent object; whereas the true object is totally different.’ (313b3-c1, tr. Bury)

This resonates with the Parmenides where Socrates confronted Zeno and Parmenides with a theory of Forms and the latter asked: ‘Now tell me, have you yourself thus distinguished (autos su houtȏ diêirêsai), as you say (hȏs legeis), certain Forms separately by themselves (chȏris men eidê auta atta), and separately again the things that have a share in them (chȏris de ta toutȏn au metechonta, 130b1-3)?’ Without waiting for Socrates’ answer, he went on asking: ‘And likeness itself, does it seem to you to be something separate from the likeness which we have, and ‘one’ of course (kai hen dê) and ‘many’ (kai polla) and all those things (kai panta) that you just heard from Zeno?’ Socrates answered: ‘It seems so to me (Emoige).’ (130b3-5) The question, whether Socrates himself conceived the theory, is broached but left unanswered, as is the question whether Dionysius had heard the doctrine concerning the First principle from someone else (su de isȏs men akousas tou), or hit on it himself (kata tout’ hormêsas, Epist.II, 313b4-6). ‘But your view of what you imagined to be true jumps now this way, now that’ (all’ aittei soi tote men houtȏs, tote de allȏs peri to phantazomenon, 313b7-c1) says Plato to Dionysius in the Second Letter; Parmenides makes Socrates’ view of the Forms ‘jump now this way, now that’ in course of his questioning in the Parmenides.

In the Second Letter Plato rounds off the censure of Dionysius by indicating what it takes to reach the truth: ‘Nor are you alone in this experience; on the contrary, there has never yet been anyone, I assure you, who has not suffered the same confusion at the beginning, when he first learnt this doctrine from me (mou to prȏton akousanta); and they all overcome it with difficulty, one man having more trouble (echȏn pragmata) and another less, but scarcely a single one of them escapes with but a little.’ (313c1-5, tr. Bury) In the dialogue Parmenides rounds off his questioning of Socrates by pointing out that one could not show (endeixasthai) to an objector against the Forms ‘that he is saying a falsity (hoti pseudetai), 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’ (panu polla kai porrȏthen pragmateuomenou, 133b6-c1). These words echo the words that Plato said to Dionysius in the garden under the laurels: ‘most of the trouble I had (all’ hê pollê moi pragmateia) was about this very problem’ (313b4). English translations of these two passages obfuscate their affinity.

In the Parmenides Plato leaves ‘unanswered’ the objections against the Forms raised by Parmenides, who notes that those objections, and many others on top of those, pertain to the Forms of necessity (anankaion echein ta eidê, 135a1), so that ‘only a man of considerable natural gifts’ will be able to understand that there are the Forms (135a5-b2). As the introductory scene to the dialogue clearly indicates, Plato himself was acquainted with such objections since his early days; the message, which is thus incorporated in the Parmenides, is that no objections against the Forms can sway a man who can properly contemplate them. This message was relevant both concerning Dionysius and Plato’s disciples in the Academy.

Dionysius’ court appears to have been teeming with sophists bent on refuting Plato’s theory; as in the Academy, Plato did not bother with attempting to argue against their ‘refutations’ of the Forms. In the Second Letter Plato wrote to Dionysius: ‘You were surprised at my sending Polyxenus to you’ (peri de Polyxenou ethaumasas hoti pempsaimi soi, 314c7-d1) – Polyxenus appears to have invented the ‘Third Man’ argument against the Forms. Plato responds to Dionysius’ surprise: ‘Now as of old I repeat the same statement about Lycophron [‘A contemporary sophist’, notes Bury; Novotný notes ‘Sine dubio sophista qui nonnullis Aristotelis locis commemoratur’.] also and the others you have with you, that, as respects dialectic, you are far superior to them all both in natural intelligence and in argumentative ability’ (314d1-4, tr. Bury). His voicing Parmenides’ objections against the Forms in the Parmenides without ostensibly arguing against them goes hand in hand with his sending Polyxenus to Dionysius.

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