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Parmenides is fascinating as a penetrating criticism of the theory of ideas, or forms, in its undeveloped state, as propounded by the youthful Socrates. According to the report given by Antiphon—a report of the conversation between Parmenides and Socrates, with some assistance from Zeno and Aristoteles—Socrates met Parmenides when the latter was about sixty-five years old and famous for his poem Peri physes (fifth century b.c.e.; The Fragments of Parmenides, 1869; commonly known as On Nature), in which he argued, with great ingenuity, that “All is one.” It may very well be that this conversation occurred as reported, but what is more likely is that Plato, having heard that at one time young Socrates met the aging Parmenides, used this bit of historical information as a dramatic center about which to build a summary of Parmenidean criticism of his theory of ideas, taking some of the edge off the criticism by portraying Socrates as clever but immature in his thinking. Consequently, Parmenides serves as evidence that Plato was never entirely satisfied with the theory of ideas. Like all great philosophers, he kept coming back to his central thesis, subjecting it to critical scrutiny and modifying it in accordance with the discoveries of its weaknesses.

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The presentation of the dialogue is somewhat complicated. Cephalus repeats an account originally given by Antiphon of the meeting between Parmenides and Socrates. The actual conversation presumably occurred several years earlier.

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Socrates had gone with others to hear the writings of Zeno, who was visiting Athens with Parmenides. After hearing Zeno read from some of his writings, Socrates summed up Zeno’s thesis as stating that “if being is many, it must be both like and unlike, and . . . this is impossible.” The youthful Socrates then pointed out that this was simply a roundabout way of supporting Parmenides’ doctrine that all is one, for to claim that Being is not many and to state that it is one is to make one and the same claim.

Zeno agreed with Socrates, but he defended himself by saying that his argument was designed to show the inconsistency in upholding the doctrine that Being is not one, but many.

Socrates then professed not to see the extraordinariness of saying that things could be both like and unlike. It would be paradoxical, he agreed, to say in regard to the idea of likeness that it could somehow partake of unlikeness; after all, the likeness that things might share could not in itself, as an absolute nature, be unlikeness. However, things—as distinguished from absolute ideas, or natures—could very well be alike in some respect or to some degree and unlike in some other respect or degree. To say that things are one simply because it is possible to speak of them as partaking of the idea oneness, while at the same time they might, in some other respect, partake of the idea of the many, is only to utter a truism. The impression left by Socrates’ argument was that the view held by Parmenides and Zeno might very well be trivial, nothing but a truism.

Absolute Ideas

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Apparently both Parmenides and Zeno were upset and impressed by Socrates’ criticism, but the venerable Parmenides had no intention of allowing Socrates to escape scrutiny of his own views. He began to probe Socrates’ distinction between ideas in themselves (or kinds of things) and things of certain kinds (partaking of ideas). He drew from Socrates the admission that Socrates believed in ideas (such as the idea of likeness), which can be considered as distinct from that which partakes of the ideas. Socrates emphatically asserted that there are absolute ideas of the just, the beautiful, the good, and such matters, but he was not certain that there are ideas of man, fire, and water—and he was certain that there are no absolute ideas of such vile materials as hair, mud, and dirt. Nevertheless, Socrates did admit that he sometimes thought that there is an idea of everything—that even the most vile things partake of absolute ideas—but that he was afraid that this extreme view would turn out to be nonsensical. Parmenides replied, in a somewhat condescending manner, that Socrates’ reluctance to extend his view was caused by Socrates’ youth, that the time would come when he would “not despise even the meanest things.”

Then, by using the language of things to talk about ideas, Parmenides attempted to show the difficulties of claiming that many things can partake of a single absolute nature or idea. If the whole idea is one and exists as one in many things, then it is separated from itself (resulting in a condition, Parmenides suggested implicitly, which would not be possible). Socrates responded by saying that the idea is like the day—”one and the same in many places at once.” However, Parmenides then took advantage of this spatial metaphor to argue that just as a sail spread over many people covers each with only a part of itself, so an idea spread over many things would cover each with only a part—not the whole of itself. However, if ideas cover things with only parts of themselves, then things partaking of equality, for example, would in fact be partaking of less than equality (a part of equality); and things partaking of smallness would be partaking of part of smallness, and because a part is smaller than the whole of which it is part, the part would be smaller than the absolutely small (which is absurd). Hence, Parmenides concluded, there are difficulties in Socrates’ view, whether the idea covers things as a whole or only in part. Socrates conceded that he had no ready answer to this criticism.

Another objection was then advanced by Parmenides. If one compares greatness (the idea) to great things, it would seem that, according to Socrates’ way of thought, there must be another idea by reference to which greatness and great things can be seen to be alike in partaking of this second greatness. However, there is no end to this mode of analysis, and one begins to wonder about the method.

Further criticism by Parmenides led to the rejection of the suggestion by Socrates that the ideas might be only thoughts (for if the ideas are only thoughts, the thoughts have no objects; but if, on the other hand, the thoughts are of ideas, there are ideas).

Socrates then proposed that ideas are patterns and that to say that something partakes of an idea (or nature) means only that it fits the pattern, is like the pattern in some respect. However, Parmenides then used a variant of one of his former arguments to maintain that this view would involve another infinite regress of ideas (for the pattern would be like the copy in respect of a certain idea, and that idea would be like the pattern in respect of a third idea, ad infinitum).

Another difficulty involved in the claim that there are absolute ideas, Parmenides told Socrates, is that if the ideas are absolute and not relative to us, they cannot be known by us, since all our knowledge is relative to us. Furthermore, he went on, God surely has absolute knowledge, but if so, he cannot know human beings by reference to the absolute ideas that he has (for the relative cannot be understood by the absolute). Yet to know them in any other way would be to know them in an inferior fashion. Thus, in Socrates’ view, God is either ignorant in part or knows in some inferior fashion.

All Is One

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Having with his adept criticism made Socrates uncomfortable, Parmenides then gave the young philosopher advice concerning his profession. He suggested that Socrates follow the practice of considering the consequences of any proposed hypothesis and also the consequences of the denial of the hypothesis. Socrates asked for an example, and after some urging Parmenides agreed to illustrate the method he endorsed by considering the hypothesis that one is (that Being is one) and then that one is not (that Being is not one).

To follow the logical analysis then offered by Parmenides, who supposed that he was somehow getting at the nature of reality, it is necessary to understand what might be meant by the claim that all is one—a claim sometimes put by the alternative expressions, “One is” and “Being is one.” To say that all is one may be to say that whatever is must be one with whatever is—at least in respect of being. (My eraser and pencil are one in that they both are—they both exist.) If one tries to think of something that does not exist, then it is either something that is not part of the one that is (for example, a mermaid)—or else, if it is something like empty space, then it is empty space; it has being, and is one with anything else that has being. If one then refuses to talk about anything at all except in terms of its being or not being, it is of course evident that everything that is is one with everything (else) that is. However, one should not say “else,” or even “everything,” because to do so involves making a distinction in terms of something other than being.

Once this game is started, it is easy to take advantage of the multiplicity of uses of the word “is” and of the word “one” to defend the claim that “One is” or that “Being is one, not many.” Parmenides was so skillful at this game that his fame persists to this day, and he was persuasive enough to impress both Socrates and Plato, partly because they themselves sometimes played similar games under the same misconception: that they were learning about reality metaphysically.

To show Socrates how philosophy should be practiced, Parmenides sought the aid of young Aristoteles to give him the right answers to the questions put by Parmenides. Considering first the alternative that one is, he quickly established that if one is, it cannot be many; if it cannot be many, it can neither be a whole nor have parts (because in either case, it would be many). Because only something other than the one could limit the one, if the one is, it has no beginning, middle, or end; hence, it is unlimited, formless, existing nowhere, neither resting nor moving, and never in anything. The one could not be the same as or different from itself or anything other than itself; it could neither be equal to nor unequal to itself, nor to anything other; it could be neither the same age as, nor younger than, nor older than itself nor anything other. Finally, Parmenides concluded that no mode of being could be attributed to the one; consequently, the one is not. The assumption that the one is had yielded the conclusion that the one is not.

Parmenides then explored the proposition that the one is not, but only after having decided that if the one is, it partakes of being; and if it partakes of being, it must have being in every part and be infinitely multiple, thus not one. Further considerations only enforced the conclusion that if the one partakes of any mode of being, it must be multiple and not one. However, if the one is not, and if there is consideration of the hypothesis that the one is not, then the meaning of the expression “If one is not” is known. Furthermore, there is not only knowledge of the one who is not, but the one who is not must be something if it can be considered; however, on the other hand, being cannot be attributed to the one because it is not. As that which is not, the one must be different from the others which are; it must be like itself, which is not. Working out the implications of various interpretations of the ambiguous claim that the one is not, Parmenides finally came to the conclusion that if the one is not, nothing is, and he finished by saying: “Let this much be said; and further let us affirm what seems to be the truth, that, whether one is or is not, one and the others in relation to themselves and one another, all of them, in every way, are and are not, and appear to be and appear not to be.”

It is worth one’s while to attend to the logical play (undertaken in dead seriousness) in the latter part of Parmenides, if only to learn what happens when a philosopher mistakes logical facts for facts about the world; and the uselessness of such analysis makes the earlier discussion, concerning the Platonic ideas, seem all the more important by contrast. One receives the impression that Plato (and Socrates) enjoyed the game that logic makes possible, but at the same time they tended to regard Sophistical skills as unimportant, even improper, when contrasted with the practice of true philosophy.

The following passage—elementary in its logical development but sparkling enough to impress his uncritical listeners, the youthful Socrates and the guileless Aristoteles—serves as a final example of the sort of wordplay that occupied Parmenides and led to his famous thesis that “all is one.”The one which is not, if it is to maintain itself, must have the being of not-being as the bond of not-being, just as being must have as a bond the not-being of not-being in order to perfect its own being; for the truest assertion of the being of being and of the not-being of not-being is when being partakes of the being of being and not of the being of not-being—that is, the perfection of being; and when not-being does not partake of the not-being of not-being but of the being of not-being—that is the perfection of not-being.

“Most true,” commented the guileless Aristoteles.


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Additional Reading

Brumbaugh, Robert S. Plato for the Modern Age. New York: Crowell-Collier, 1962. A good introduction to Plato’s thought and the Greek world in which he developed it.

Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy: Greece and Rome. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969. Copleston devotes several clear chapters to a discussion of the full range of Plato’s view.

Cropsey, Joseph. Plato’s World: Man’s Place in the Cosmos. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. Discusses Plato’s views on human nature with attention to his political theories.

Gonzalez, Francisco, ed. The Third Way: New Directions in Platonic Studies. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1995. A helpful sampling of late twentieth century research on Plato, his continuing significance, and trends of interpretation in Platonic studies.

Irwin, Terrence. Plato’s Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. A thorough study of Plato’s moral philosophy, including its political implications.

Jones, W. T. The Classical Mind. Vol. 1 in A History of Western Philosophy. 2d ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1969. A reliable introduction to the main themes and issues on which Plato focused.

Kahn, Charles H. Plato and the Socratic Dialogue: The Philosophical Use of a Literary Form. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. A study of Plato’s use of the dialogue form as a means for exploring and developing key philosophical positions and dispositions.

Kraut, Richard, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Plato. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Eminent Plato scholars analyze and assess key Platonic dialogues and issues in Plato’s thought.

Moravcsik, J. M. E. Plato and Platonism: Plato’s Conception of Appearance and Reality in Ontology, Epistemology, and Ethics and Its Modern Echoes. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1992. A scholarly study of Plato’s key distinction between appearance and reality and the continuing impact of that distinction.

Pappas, Nikolas, ed. Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Plato and the “Republic.” New York: Routledge, 1995. Helpful articles that clarify key Platonic concepts and theories.

Rutherford, R. B. The Art of Plato: Ten Essays in Platonic Interpretation. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995. Well-informed essays on key elements of Plato’s theories.

Sayers, Sean. Plato’s “Republic”: An Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000. An accessible commentary on the works of the philosopher.

Tarrant, Harold. Plato’s First Interpreters. Ithica, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000. An examination of the earliest debates about Plato’s ideas.

Tuana, Nancy, ed. Feminist Interpretations of Plato. University Park: Pennsylvania State University, 1994. Scholarly essays evaluate Plato’s understanding of gender issues and appraise his philosophy from the perspectives of feminist theory.

Williams, Bernard A. O. Plato. New York: Routledge, 1999. An excellent biographical introduction to the thoughts of the philosopher, clearly presented. Bibliography.

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