(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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.

The presentation of the dialogue is somewhat complicated. Cephalus repeats an account originally given by Antiphon of the...

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Absolute Ideas

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

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All Is One

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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.


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