Plato went to Sicily in 367 B.C. to help Dion in an attempt to turn Dionysius II to philosophy, but Dionysius became suspicious that the real intentions of Dion were to deprive him of his power, and he expelled him from Sicily, asking Plato to stay. In 366 Plato returned to Athens making a compact with Dionysius that the latter would invite him back and that he would return to resume educating him in philosophy. Back in Athens, Plato’s task was to prepare his students and followers in the Academy for his departure by fortifying them against those who argued against the Forms. With this aim in mind he wrote the Parmenides.
In this dialogue Parmenides raises a set of arguments against the Forms, insisting that the Forms are of necessity beset by arguments against them (1234e9-135a1), but that whoever brings up such arguments ‘is wrong’ (pseudetai, 133b7): ‘only a man of great natural gifts will understand that there are Forms’ (135a7-b1). Parmenides affirms the Forms without countering any of the arguments he has raised against them. The historical Parmenides could not defend the Forms as true beings because of his theory that ‘All is one.’ It is Plato who steps in in Parmenides 133b4 to affirm the Forms; at 135c5 Parmenides becomes himself again.
The historicity of Parmenides’ encounter with young Socrates and his criticism of his theory of Forms provides the basis for Plato’s defence of the Forms by means of this dialogue. Antiphon, Plato’s younger half-brother, ‘diligently rehearsed the arguments in his teens, though now, like his grandfather of the same name, he spends most of his time on horses’ says Adeimantus, Plato’s older brother, in Parmenides 126c6-7. When Antiphon grew up, he lost interest in philosophy, which in itself indicates in what light Plato wants us to see Parmenides’ arguments against the Forms. But much more importantly, we are supposed to realize that Plato was well acquainted with arguments against the Forms from his early days, and that he viewed all such arguments as irrelevant. He proved the irrelevance of any arguments against the Forms in the Republic, to which he directs the reader in the opening sentence of the Parmenides: ‘When we arrived at Athens from our home in Clazomenae, we met Adeimantus and Glaucon in the Agora’; Adeimantus and Glaucon are Socrates’ main interlocutors in the Republic. In Republic 475c-480a13 Socrates argues that only those who can see the Forms have knowledge; all those who argue against them can’t see them; they have therefore only opinion (doxa), which occupies the region between knowledge and not-knowing and is directed to that which lies between being and not- being; this is why any arguments against the Forms are irrelevant. By thus joining the Parmenides with the Republic, Plato provided his disciples and followers with the defence of Forms designed to resist any attack against them after his planned departure to Sicily.
When Plato was leaving Sicily in 366 B.C. he was to stay in Athens only for a year; Dionysius was to invite him back in the summer (eis hȏran etous, Plutarch, Dion XVI, 4). But as Plato’s stay in Athens protracted, if he was to return to Sicily, he had to counter the influence of sophists bent on disparaging Plato and his philosophy, to whom Dionysius began to lend an ear. The Parmenides was as good for this purpose as it was for the students in the Academy, but its link to the Republic was unfortunate as far as Dionysius was concerned, as I have pointed out in my preceding post. And so he wrote the Sophist in which he establishes the link to the Parmenides with the words of Theodorus in the opening paragraph: ‘Here we are, Socrates, true to our agreement from yesterday; and we bring with us a stranger from Elea, who is a disciple of Parmenides and Zeno, and a true philosopher.’ (tr. Jowett)
Socrates tells Theodorus that he should like to ask the Stranger what people thought about sophist, statesman, and philosopher in Italy: ‘I want to know whether by his countrymen they are regarded as one or two; or do they, as the names are three, distinguish also three kinds, and assign one to each name? (217a6-8) – Theodorus: ‘I dare say that the Stranger will not object to discuss the question. What do you say, Stranger?’ – Stranger: ‘I am far from objecting, Theodorus, nor have I any difficulty in replying that by us they are regarded as three. But to define precisely the nature of each of them (kath’ hekaston mȇn diorisasthai saphȏs ti pot’ estin) is by no means a slight or easy task (ou smikron oude raidion ergon, 217b2-3).’ – Theodorus: ‘You have happened to light, Socrates, almost on the very question which we were asking our friend before we came hither, and he excused himself to us, as he does now to you; although he admitted that the matter had been fully discussed (epei diakȏkenai ge phȇsin hikanȏs), and that he remembered the answer (kai ouk amnȇmonein, 217b7-8).’ – Socrates: ‘Then do not, Stranger, deny us the first favour which we ask of you; I am sure that you will not, and therefore I shall only beg of you to say whether you like and are accustomed to (poteron eiȏthas hȇdion) make a long oration on a subject which you want to explain to another (autos epi sautou makrȏi logȏi diexienai legȏn touto ho an endeixasthai tȏi boulȇthȇis), or to proceed by the method of question and answer (ȇ di erȏtȇseȏn). I remember hearing a very noble discussion in which Parmenides employed the latter of the two methods (hoion pote kai Parmenidȇi chrȏmenȏi kai diexionti logous pankalous paregenomȇn), when I was a young man and he was far advanced in years (egȏ neos ȏn, ekeinou mala dȇ tote ontos presbutou, 217c2-7).’ – Stranger: ‘I prefer to talk with another when he responds pleasantly, and is light in hand (Tȏi men alupȏs te kai euȇniȏs prosdialegomenȏi raion houtȏ); if not, I would rather have my own way (ei de mȇ, to kath’ hauton, 217d1-3).’ (Tr. Jowett; Jowett’s ‘and is light in hand’ renders the Stranger’s euȇniȏs, which is an expression borrowed from horsemanship; hȇnia is ‘bridle’, ‘reins’; euȇniȏs thus means literally ‘guided by reins well, with ease’).
This opening discussion in the Sophist refers to the Parmenides; most obviously comes to mind Parmenides 137a4-b8. Parmenides: ‘When I remember how, at my age, I must traverse such and so great a sea of arguments, I am afraid. Still, I must oblige you, especially since, as Zeno says, we are alone among ourselves. Where then shall we begin? What shall we hypothesize first? Since it seems I must play this laborious game, shall I begin with myself and take my own hypothesis? Shall I hypothesize about the one itself, what must follow if one is or one is not? – By all means, said Zeno. – Then who will answer me? He asked. Perhaps the youngest? For he would give least trouble, and be most likely to say what he thinks. At the same time, his answering would give me a chance to rest.’ (Tr. R. E. Allen)
Less obvious is the link between Parmenides’ ‘When I remember how (kai moi dokȏ memnȇmenos), at my age, I must traverse such and so great a sea of arguments …’ and Theodorus’ reference to the Eleatic Stranger ‘he excused himself to us, as he does now to you; although he admitted that the matter had been fully discussed, and that he remembered the answer (kai ouk amnȇmonein).’ It appears that such discussions as the Stranger performed concerning sophist in the Sophist, as Parmenides performed concerning the contradictory thesis that ‘being is’ and ‘being is not’ in the Parmenides, and Zeno in his treatise, which he had read before the actual dialogue started in the Parmenides, were part and parcel of the philosophical activities in the Eleatic school.
Concerning Zeno we learn in the Parmenides that he and Parmenides came to Athens for the Great Panathenaea, and that Socrates and others assembled to hear him reading his treatise (epithumountes akousai tȏn tou Zȇnȏnos grammatȏn, 127c3): ‘When the reading was finished, Socrates asked to hear the hypothesis of the first argument again. When it was read, he asked, “What does it mean Zeno? If things which are, are many, then it must follow that the same things are both like and unlike, but that is impossible; for unlike things cannot be like nor like things unlike. Isn’t that your claim?” “It is,” said Zeno. “Then if it is impossible for unlike things to be like and like things unlike, it is surely also impossible for there to be many things; for if there were many, they would undergo impossible qualifications. Isn’t this the point of your arguments, to contend, contrary to everything generally said, that there is no plurality? And don’t you suppose that each of your arguments is a proof of just that, so that you in fact believe you’ve given precisely as many proofs that there is no plurality as there are arguments in your treatise? Is that what you mean, or have I failed to understand you?” “No,” said Zeno, “you’ve grasped the point of the whole treatise.” (127d6-128a3, tr. Allen)
Parmenides tells us in the dialogue that Zeno’s arguments represented the type of exercise that a would be philosopher should undergo. When Socrates proved incapable of answering Parmenides’ arguments against the Forms, Parmenides criticised him: ‘For you undertake to define something beautiful and just and good and each one of the Forms too soon, before being properly trained’ (Prȏi gar, prin gumnasthȇnai, horizesthai epicheireis kalon te ti kai dikaion kai agathon kai hen hekaston tȏn eidȏn, 135c8-d1). When Socrates asked him, what kind of training he had in mind (tis ho tropos tȇs gumnasias), Parmenides replied: ‘This (Houtos), which you heard from Zeno (honper ȇkousas Zȇnȏnos). Except that (plȇn) I admired it when you said to him (touto ge sou kai pros touton eipontos), that you did not allow (hoti ouk eias) inquiry to wander among the things we see nor concern them (en tois horȏmenois oude peri tauta tȇn planȇn episkopein), but rather concern those things (alla peri ekeina) which one would most especially grasp by rational account (ha malista an tis logȏi laboi) and believe to be Forms’ (kai eidȇ an hȇgȇsaito einai, 135d7-e4).
Parmenides here refers to Socrates’ challenge addressed to Zeno: ‘If someone (ean de tis), concerning things that I just mentioned (hȏn nundȇ egȏ elegon), were first to distinguish (prȏton men diairȇtai) separately (chȏris), alone by themselves (auta kath’ hauta), the Forms (ta eidȇ), such as (hoion) likeness and unlikeness (homoiotȇta kai anomoiotȇta), and multitude and the one (kai plȇthos kai to hen), and rest and motion (kai stasin kai kinȇsin), and all such things (kai panta ta toiauta) and then should show that these things among themselves can be combined and distinguished (eita en heautois tauta dunamena sunkerannusthai kai diakrinesthai apophainȇi), this I should greatly admire’ (agaimȇn an egȏge thaumastȏs, 129d6-e3).
Socrates appears to have thought that the Forms cannot be combined and distinguished among themselves, that each of them is alone by itself and only thus truly is; on this basis he viewed his Forms as a threat to Parmenides’ thesis that ‘Allis one’. This is how Pythodorus, the narrator, and the rest of the audience took it, expecting Parmenides and Zeno to be annoyed at every word of Socrates. ‘Instead, they paid close attention to him (tous de panu te autȏi prosechein ton noun), and frequently glancing at each other (kai thama eis allȇlous blepontas) they smiled as if in admiration of Socrates (meidian hȏs agamenous ton Sȏkratȇ, 130a5-7).’ Obviously, this wandering (tȇn planȇn) among those things (peri ekeina) which one would most especially grasp by rational account (ha malista an tis logȏi laboi) was something with which Parmenides and Zeno were well acquainted and in which their disciples were well trained.
Parmenides responds to Socrates’ challenge in discussing his own thesis that ‘All is one’; all the hypotheses concerning it display contradictory attributes regarding the one under discussion, which Parmenides, Zeno, and young Socrates himself, viewed as proofs that it was impossible for the one to be in this way, thus indirectly affirming that ‘All is one’, the Parmenidian one. In response to Socrates’ challenge, Parmenides thus turned the tables on Socrates.
As has been seen, in the Republic Plato deprived arguments against the Forms of relevance by placing all those, who proffered them, into the realm of opinion (doxa), wandering between being, of which they are deprived, and not-being. He could not do this with Parmenides whose eye was firmly fixed on pure being. In the Sophist the Eleatic Stranger had to revise his teacher’s teaching in order to secure for sophists the place delineated in the Republic, that is the realm between being and not-being, and to ascertain that the Forms can be combined among themselves and distinguished without losing their true being in the process.
The Stranger addresses Theaetetus, his young interlocutor, with a request, and Theaetetus asks, what request (To poion). Stranger: ‘That you will not think I am turning into a sort of parricide (Mȇ me hoion patraloian hupolabȇis gignesthai tina).’ – Theaetetus: ‘In what way (Ti dȇ)?’ – ‘We shall find it necessary in self-defence to put to the question that pronouncement of father Parmenides (Ton tou patros Parmenidou logon anankaion hȇmin amunomenois estai basanizein), and establish by main force (kai biazesthai) that what is not, in some respect has being (to te mȇ on hȏs esti kata ti), and conversely that what is (kai to on au palin), in a way is not (hȏs ouk esti pȇi).’ – Theaetetus: ‘It is plain (Phainetai) that the course of the argument requires us to maintain that at all costs (to toiouton diamacheteon en tois logois).’ (241d1-8, tr. F. M. Cornford)