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The awe with which Plato regarded the character of ‘the great’ Parmenides has extended to the dialogue which he calls by his name. None of the writings of Plato have been more copiously illustrated, both in ancient and modern times, and in none of them have the interpreters been more at variance with one another. Nor is this surprising. For the Parmenides is more fragmentary and isolated than any other dialogue, and the design of the writer is not expressly stated. The date is uncertain; the relation to the other writings of Plato is also uncertain; the connexion between the two parts is at first sight extremely obscure; and in the latter of the two we are left in doubt as to whether Plato is speaking his own sentiments by the lips of Parmenides, and overthrowing him out of his own mouth, or whether he is propounding consequences which would have been admitted by Zeno and Parmenides themselves. The contradictions which follow from the hypotheses of the one and many have been regarded by some as transcendental mysteries; by others as a mere illustration, taken at random, of a new method. They seem to have been inspired by a sort of dialectical frenzy, such as may be supposed to have prevailed in the Megarian School (compare Cratylus, etc.). The criticism on his own doctrine of Ideas has also been considered, not as a real criticism, but as an exuberance of the metaphysical imagination which enabled Plato to go beyond himself. To the latter part of the dialogue we may certainly apply the words in which he himself describes the earlier philosophers in the Sophist: ‘They went on their way rather regardless of whether we understood them or not.’
The Parmenides in point of style is one of the best of the Platonic writings; the first portion of the dialogue is in no way defective in ease and grace and dramatic interest; nor in the second part, where there was no room for such qualities, is there any want of clearness or precision. The latter half is an exquisite mosaic, of which the small pieces are with the utmost fineness and regularity adapted to one another. Like the Protagoras, Phaedo, and others, the whole is a narrated dialogue, combining with the mere recital of the words spoken, the observations of the reciter on the effect produced by them. Thus we are informed by him that Zeno and Parmenides were not altogether pleased at the request of Socrates that they would examine into the nature of the one and many in the sphere of Ideas, although they received his suggestion with approving smiles. And we are glad to be told that Parmenides was ‘aged but well-favoured,’ and that Zeno was ‘very good-looking’; also that Parmenides affected to decline the great argument, on which, as Zeno knew from experience, he was not unwilling to enter. The character of Antiphon, the half-brother of Plato, who had once been inclined to philosophy, but has now shown the hereditary disposition for horses, is very naturally described. He is the sole depositary of the famous dialogue; but, although he receives the strangers like a courteous gentleman, he is impatient of the trouble of reciting it. As they enter, he has been giving orders to a bridle-maker; by this slight touch Plato verifies the previous description of him. After a little persuasion he is induced to favour the Clazomenians, who come from a distance, with a rehearsal. Respecting the visit of Zeno and Parmenides to Athens, we may observe—first, that such a visit is consistent with dates, and may possibly have occurred; secondly, that Plato is very likely to have invented the meeting (‘You, Socrates, can easily invent Egyptian tales or anything else,’ Phaedrus); thirdly, that no reliance can be placed on the circumstance as determining the date of Parmenides and Zeno; fourthly, that the same occasion appears to be referred to by Plato in two other places (Theaet., Soph.).
Many interpreters have regarded the Parmenides as a ‘reductio ad absurdum’ of the Eleatic philosophy. But would Plato have been likely to place this in the mouth of the great Parmenides himself, who appeared to him, in Homeric language, to be ‘venerable and awful,’ and to have a ‘glorious depth of mind’? (Theaet.). It may be admitted that he has ascribed to an Eleatic stranger in the Sophist opinions which went beyond the doctrines of the Eleatics. But the Eleatic stranger expressly criticises the doctrines in which he had been brought up; he admits that he is going to ‘lay hands on his father Parmenides.’ Nothing of this kind is said of Zeno and Parmenides. How then, without a word of explanation, could Plato assign to them the refutation of their own tenets?
The conclusion at which we must arrive is that the Parmenides is not a refutation of the Eleatic philosophy. Nor would such an explanation afford any satisfactory connexion of the first and second parts of the dialogue. And it is quite inconsistent with Plato’s own relation to the Eleatics. For of all the pre-Socratic philosophers, he speaks of them with the greatest respect. But he could hardly have passed upon them a more unmeaning slight than to ascribe to their great master tenets the reverse of those which he actually held.
Two preliminary remarks may be made. First, that whatever latitude we may allow to Plato in bringing together by a ‘tour de force,’ as in the Phaedrus, dissimilar themes, yet he always in some way seeks to find a connexion for them. Many threads join together in one the love and dialectic of the Phaedrus. We cannot conceive that the great artist would place in juxtaposition two absolutely divided and incoherent subjects. And hence we are led to make a second remark: viz. that no explanation of the Parmenides can be satisfactory which does not indicate the connexion of the first and second parts. To suppose that Plato would first go out of his way to make Parmenides attack the Platonic Ideas, and then proceed to a similar but more fatal assault on his own doctrine of Being, appears to be the height of absurdity.
Perhaps there is no passage in Plato showing greater metaphysical power than that in which he assails his own theory of Ideas. The arguments are nearly, if not quite, those of Aristotle; they are the objections which naturally occur to a modern student of philosophy. Many persons will be surprised to find Plato criticizing the very conceptions which have been supposed in after ages to be peculiarly characteristic of him. How can he have placed himself so completely without them? How can he have ever persisted in them after seeing the fatal objections which might be urged against them? The consideration of this difficulty has led a recent critic (Ueberweg), who in general accepts the authorised canon of the Platonic writings, to condemn the Parmenides as spurious. The accidental want of external evidence, at first sight, seems to favour this opinion.
In answer, it might be sufficient to say, that no ancient writing of equal length and excellence is known to be spurious. Nor is the silence of Aristotle to be hastily assumed; there is at least a doubt whether his use of the same arguments does not involve the inference that he knew the work. And, if the Parmenides is spurious, like Ueberweg, we are led on further than we originally intended, to pass a similar condemnation on the Theaetetus and Sophist, and therefore on the Politicus (compare Theaet., Soph.). But the objection is in reality fanciful, and rests on the assumption that the doctrine of the Ideas was held by Plato throughout his life in the same form. For the truth is, that the Platonic Ideas were in constant process of growth and transmutation; sometimes veiled in poetry and mythology, then again emerging as fixed Ideas, in some passages regarded as absolute and eternal, and in others as relative to the human mind, existing in and derived from external objects as well as transcending them. The anamnesis of the Ideas is chiefly insisted upon in the mythical portions of the dialogues, and really occupies a very small space in the entire works of Plato. Their transcendental existence is not asserted, and is therefore implicitly denied in the Philebus; different forms are ascribed to them in the Republic, and they are mentioned in the Theaetetus, the Sophist, the Politicus, and the Laws, much as Universals would be spoken of in modern books. Indeed, there are very faint traces of the transcendental doctrine of Ideas, that is, of their existence apart from the mind, in any of Plato’s writings, with the exception of the Meno, the Phaedrus, the Phaedo, and in portions of the Republic. The stereotyped form which Aristotle has given to them is not found in Plato (compare Essay on the Platonic Ideas in the Introduction to the Meno.)
The full discussion of this subject involves a comprehensive survey of the philosophy of Plato, which would be out of place here. But, without digressing further from the immediate subject of the Parmenides, we may remark that Plato is quite serious in his objections to his own doctrines: nor does Socrates attempt to offer any answer to them. The perplexities which surround the one and many in the sphere of the Ideas are also alluded to in the Philebus, and no answer is given to them. Nor have they ever been answered, nor can they be answered by any one else who separates the phenomenal from the real. To suppose that Plato, at a later period of his life, reached a point of view from which he was able to answer them, is a groundless assumption. The real progress of Plato’s own mind has been partly concealed from us by the dogmatic statements of Aristotle, and also by the degeneracy of his own followers, with whom a doctrine of numbers quickly superseded Ideas.
As a preparation for answering some of the difficulties which have been suggested, we may begin by sketching the first portion of the dialogue:—
Cephalus, of Clazomenae in Ionia, the birthplace of Anaxagoras, a citizen of no mean city in the history of philosophy, who is the narrator of the dialogue, describes himself as meeting Adeimantus and Glaucon in the Agora at Athens. ‘Welcome, Cephalus: can we do anything for you in Athens?’ ‘Why, yes: I came to ask a favour of you. First, tell me your half-brother’s name, which I have forgotten—he was a mere child when I was last here;—I know his father’s, which is Pyrilampes.’ ‘Yes, and the name of our brother is Antiphon. But why do you ask?’ ‘Let me introduce to you some countrymen of mine, who are lovers of philosophy; they have heard that Antiphon remembers a conversation of Socrates with Parmenides and Zeno, of which the report came to him from Pythodorus, Zeno’s friend.’ ‘That is quite true.’ ‘And can they hear the dialogue?’ ‘Nothing easier; in the days of his youth he made a careful study of the piece; at present, his thoughts have another direction: he takes after his grandfather, and has given up philosophy for horses.’
‘We went to look for him, and found him giving instructions to a worker in brass about a bridle. When he had done with him, and had learned from his brothers the purpose of our visit, he saluted me as an old acquaintance, and we asked him to repeat the dialogue. At first, he complained of the trouble, but he soon consented. He told us that Pythodorus had described to him the appearance of Parmenides and Zeno; they had come to Athens at the great Panathenaea, the former being at the time about sixty-five years old, aged but well-favoured—Zeno, who was said to have been beloved of Parmenides in the days of his youth, about forty, and very good-looking:—that they lodged with Pythodorus at the Ceramicus outside the wall, whither Socrates, then a very young man, came to see them: Zeno was reading one of his theses, which he had nearly finished, when Pythodorus entered with Parmenides and Aristoteles, who was afterwards one of the Thirty. When the recitation was completed, Socrates requested that the first thesis of the treatise might be read again.’
‘You mean, Zeno,’ said Socrates, ‘to argue that being, if it is many, must be both like and unlike, which is a contradiction; and each division of your argument is intended to elicit a similar absurdity, which may be supposed to follow from the assumption that being is many.’ ‘Such is my meaning.’ ‘I see,’ said Socrates, turning to Parmenides, ‘that Zeno is your second self in his writings too; you prove admirably that the all is one: he gives proofs no less convincing that the many are nought. To deceive the world by saying the same thing in entirely different forms, is a strain of art beyond most of us.’ ‘Yes, Socrates,’ said Zeno; ‘but though you are as keen as a Spartan hound, you do not quite catch the motive of the piece, which was only intended to protect Parmenides against ridicule by showing that the hypothesis of the existence of the many involved greater absurdities than the hypothesis of the one. The book was a youthful composition of mine, which was stolen from me, and therefore I had no choice about the publication.’ ‘I quite believe you,’ said Socrates; ‘but will you answer me a question? I should like to know, whether you would assume an idea of likeness in the abstract, which is the contradictory of unlikeness in the abstract, by participation in either or both of which things are like or unlike or partly both. For the same things may very well partake of like and unlike in the concrete, though like and unlike in the abstract are irreconcilable. Nor does there appear to me to be any absurdity in maintaining that the same things may partake of the one and many, though I should be indeed surprised to hear that the absolute one is also many. For example, I, being many, that is to say, having many parts or members, am yet also one, and partake of the one, being one of seven who are here present (compare Philebus). This is not an absurdity, but a truism. But I should be amazed if there were a similar entanglement in the nature of the ideas themselves, nor can I believe that one and many, like and unlike, rest and motion, in the abstract, are capable either of admixture or of separation.’