I have sent the Master of Balliol College at Oxford University the following proposal:
I have put on my website www.juliustomin.org a paper on ‘Plato’s defence of Forms in the Parmenides’. My interpretation of the dialogue differs radically from the accepted views of the dialogue; would you allow me to present it to Balliol students and academics?
To make plain the main difference, let me quote Samuel Rickless’ entry in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on the Internet: ‘The Parmenides is, quite possibly, the most enigmatic of Plato’s dialogues. The dialogue recounts an almost certainly fictitious conversation between a venerable Parmenides and a youthful Socrates.’ My interpretation of the dialogue is based on the assumption that the conversation is not fictitious; when we take seriously its historicity, it ceases to be enigmatic.
Let me quote from my paper: ‘Allen writes in his ‘Comment’ [in Plato’s Parmenides, Yale University Press, 1997]: “The Parmenides is narrated by Cephalus of Clazomenae, who has heard it from Plato’s half-brother Antiphon, who heard it in turn from Pythodorus, a student of Zeno, who was present at the original conversation … This structure is designed to produce a sense of remoteness from the conversation (p. 69) … The conversation that follows is a fiction: it could not have occurred, and it is important to its interpretation to realize that it could not have occurred (p. 71)”.
Allen refrains from informing the reader that Plato in the introduction to the dialogue insists on the historicity of the discussion presented in it. Cephalus tells Adeimantus: “These gentlemen here are fellow citizens of mine, much interested in philosophy. They’ve heard that your Antiphon used to associate with a certain Pythodorus, a companion of Zeno’s, and that he can relate from memory the arguments that once were discussed by Socrates, Zeno and Parmenides, having often heard them from Pythodorus.” – “True,” said Adeimantus, “for when he was a youngster, he used to rehearse them diligently.” (126b-c) It is worth noting that in the Apology Socrates appeals to “Adeimantus the son of Ariston, whose brother Plato is present,” to testify against him if his brother suffered any evil at his hands (33d-34a). But most importantly, Adeimantus and Glaucon are Socrates’ main interlocutors in the Republic; by referring to them in the opening sentence of the Parmenides Plato points to the Republic in which he gives reasons why any arguments raised against the Forms must be fallacious.
Allen maintains that it is important to the interpretation of the Parmenides to realize that it could not have occurred in reality; pace Allen, I am inviting the reader to view the dialogue as Plato wants him to view it, i.e. as a reflection of an event that did take place. The first important thing to realize is the following: if Adeimantus and Glaucon were aware of their half-brother’s diligently rehearsing the arguments against the Forms he had learnt from Pythodorus, so the young Plato must have been aware of it.’
The significance of this fact can be fully appreciated only if we take seriously the ancient tradition that Plato’s first dialogue was the Phaedrus, in which Plato brings to the fore his theory of Forms. Parmenides’ arguments against the Forms presented in the Parmenides are arguments with which Plato had been acquainted since his early days, and which he found irrelevant as far as his view of Forms was concerned. My interpretation of the Parmenides is thus closely linked to my dating of the Phaedrus.
It all started with the visit of Dr Anthony Kenny, the Master of Balliol, in my philosophy seminar in Prague in 1980. I discussed the visit with Dr Kathleen Wilkes in Prague in May 1980. I told her that in his talk Dr Kenny maintained that Socrates was a good man but a poor philosopher, Plato a dubious character but a great philosopher, with which I disagreed. He presumably made a cut through Plato’s dialogues, identifying Socrates with those dialogues, which were not up to his standards of great philosophy. I told him that I did not make any such cut through Plato’s dialogues: ‘I haven’t found anything in Plato that would compel me to reject the ancient tradition that Plato’s first dialogue was the Phaedrus.’ Kathy exclaimed: ‘It can’t be.’ I suggested that we should read the dialogue together, and so she obtained a grant to work with me for a month (July-August 1980) in Prague.
During that month I obtained strong internal indications that the dialogue was written during Socrates’ life-time, as the ancient tradition indicates, and more precisely, that it was written prior to the death of Polemarchus in the hands of the Thirty Tyrants. For Socrates ends his palinode on love in the dialogue with a prayer that Eros may turn Phaedrus’ beloved Lysias to philosophy ‘as his brother Polemarchus has been turned to it’ (275b). This follows Socrates’ assertion that those who pursue philosophy live a blessed and harmonious life here on earth (256a-b). In Against Eratosthenes Lysias describes the death of his brother Polemarchus in the hands of the Thirty Tyrants. In view of Lysias’ testimony, to declare Polemarchus after his death an exemplary follower of philosophy, and as such endowed with blessedness here on earth, would be a mockery in the eyes of Plato’s readers, for the ancients believed that a man’s life can be considered good only if he meets a good end.
All my attempts to discuss Plato with Oxford academics have been so far rejected. As Justin Gosling once told me: ‘Nobody has time for it.’ What is important concerning the Parmenides is the fact that the difficulties in which the Platonic scholars have become implicated because of their rejection of the ancient dating of the Phaedrus can be viewed on the basis of a single passage, the passage in which Parmenides reflects on his criticism of the Forms: ‘And yet, these difficulties and many more still in addition necessarily hold of the characters (anankaion echein ta eidȇ), if these characteristics of things that are exist (ei eisin hautai hai ideai tȏn ontȏn), and one is to distinguish each character as something by itself (kai horieitai tis auto hekaston eidos). The result is that the hearer is perplexed and contends that they do not exist, and that even if their existence is conceded, they are necessarily unknowable by human nature. In saying this, he thinks he is saying something significant (kai tauta legonta dokein ti legein) and, as we just remarked (kai, ho arti elegomen), it’s astonishingly hard to convince him to the contrary. Only a man of considerable natural gifts will be able to understand that there is a certain kind of each thing, a nature and reality alone by itself, and it will take a man more remarkable still to discover it and be able to instruct someone else who has examined all these difficulties with sufficient care.’ (134e-135b, tr. R. E. Allen)
Allen remarks: ‘It is evident from this single passage that Parmenides does not suppose that his criticisms of the theory of Ideas are a mere tissue of fallacies. On the contrary, they are deep and serious, and raise difficulties that must be thought through if the theory of Ideas is to be sustained. Socrates, young and inexperienced, has not yet thought them through with sufficient care.’ (Allen, p. 203)
Allen’s remark that Parmenides supposes that his criticisms of the theory of Ideas are deep and serious strangely contrast with Parmenides’ words that a man who pronounces such criticisms ‘thinks he is saying something significant’. For these words clearly imply that all criticisms of the Forms, those put forward by Parmenides and many other criticisms that ‘necessarily hold of the Forms’ (anankaion echein ta eidȇ) only seem to be significant. Allan’s words ‘that Parmenides does not suppose that his criticisms of the theory of Ideas are a mere tissue of fallacies’ chime strangely with Parmenides’ insistence at 133b that a man who pronounces such criticism is putting forward fallacies (pseudetai, 133b7); it is to this passage that Parmenides refers at 135a5 with the words ‘and, as we just remarked’ (kai, ho arti elegomen). Allen’s assertion that Parmenides’ criticisms ‘raise difficulties that must be thought through if the theory of Ideas is to be sustained’, for ‘Socrates, young and inexperienced, has not yet thought them through with sufficient care’ can be properly ‘appreciated’ if we realize that in Allen’s view the criticisms raised by Parmenides are directed against the theory of Forms, which ‘is essentially that of the Phaedo and the Republic’ (Allen, p. 105). How could Plato possibly identify the Socrates of the Phaedo [in which we find Socrates in prison, discussing philosophy with his friends on his last day] and the Republic with the young and inexperienced Socrates of the Parmenides?
Dear Master, I hope you will consider my proposal favourably, and so I look forward to presenting my paper on the Parmenides to Balliol students and academics.