© 1996 Bernard SUZANNE Last updated November 21, 1998
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The symbolic structure of Plato's Parmenides

February 4, 1996

This page is part of the "e-mail archives" section of a site, Plato and his dialogues, dedicated to developing a new interpretation of Plato's dialogues. The "e-mail archives" section includes HTML edited versions of posts that I submitted on various e-mail discussion lists about Plato and ancient philosophy.

To: plato-parmenides <plato-parmenides@freelance.com>
Date : February 4, 1996, 19:28:39
Subject : re: Parmenides the Pythagorean

While Christopher is busy trying to get back to Xenophanes and Pythagoras to find the source of Parmenides' doctrines as a prelude to studying the Parmenides of Plato, please allow me to submit to you the result of some investigations I made in Plato's own text to check the value he attributes to most of what's in the Parmenides. In order to do so, I studied in great detail the form and "scenic" details of the dialogue, as compared with the trilogy Theætetus, Sophist, Statesman, which relates in more than one way to the Parmenides, as hinted at by references to this dialogue in Theætetus, 183e and Sophist, 217c.

What I found shows that we should not take too seriously the "tedious game" of the Parmenides!... I started with the trilogy and the comment of Socrates that Theætetus is his "physical" image while Socrates the Young is his namesake, that is, his "logical" image. So I tried to see where it would lead to assume that each speaker in the trilogy "stands" in one segment of the "line" from the Republic, or, if you prefer, speaks at this "level" of "reality". Thus you have:

Based on these corelations, you get the following:

- The Theætetus is a dialogue that is looking for a definition of epistèmè only in the realm of the "visible" world: Socrates, the "visible sophos" talks with the "physical" image of the sophos, Theætetus. The discussion tries to find a relationship between the "real visible world" and its "material" images in our sensations. That's why there no way to find what we are looking for, even when a "material" logos is introduced at the end.

- The Sophist is an attempt to "short cut" the total span of the real by attempting a dialogue between Thæetetus and the Stranger, that is, between "physical" images and the "real" intelligible world: the sophist is the man who takes "sensible" images for "the real (intelligible) thing".

- The Statesman is a dialogue that is fully set in the intelligible world: it shows the "logical" image of the sophos, Socrates the Young, trying to reach toward the "real" intelligible idea propounded by the Stranger, that will make him a true sophos, that is, a philosopher-king, a true politician.

- But then, what is missing? Not one more dialogue after that, that would have Socrates talking to his young namesake to look for the definition of the philosopher: this dialogue is the one that should take the place of the Sophist, the one that bridges the gap between the second and third segments, between the visible and intelligible worlds by relating the "real" visible beings (Socrates) with their intelligible "images" (Socrates the Young) as the needed step toward an understanding of the intelligible "reality". Thus the Philosopher is not a missing dialogue: it is the exact "negative" of the Sophist, which should take its place, but is actually there for the one who knows how to read it (and the stranger hints at that by suggesting at some point that we may mistakenly have found the philosopher without searching it). What we are told thus is that the philosopher is the one who accept all levels of reality, both visible and intelligible, and proceeds one step at a time in his search for the truth, from the images in the senses all the way to the "idea"; and that true epistèmè is not "physical" science, but "political" science: not knowing how things work but how we should behave to become "men".

The second step is to do the same "game" with the Parmenides, where we get in effect three succeeding dialogues in one: Socrates-Zeno, Socrates-Parmenides and Parmenides-Aristotle. One way to do it is to see Socrates, presented as a "young boy" trying to become sophos from the lessons of an old teacher, and Aristotle, also a young boy, as standing in the place of Theætetus and Socrates the young: Socrates in the place of Theætetus, and Aristotle in the place of the other Socrates. Then obviously, Parmenides sees himself as the discoverer of the true intelligible "idea", thus standing in the place of the stranger, and his beloved pupil Zeno should be by that time the true visible philosophos that Socrates tries to become. With this approach, the dialogues in the Parmenides match exactly the dialogues in the trilogy, in the same order:

- Socrates with Zeno exhibits the same configuration as Theætetus with Socrates, and is bound to failure, because Zeno has nothing more to offer than a written transcription of his master's voice, a "materialized" theory translating into the many what Parmenides was saying of the one, in a book written while he was still young, and that he didn't even intended to publish had it not been stolen and made public against his will; and by the way, once he has read it, he is totally unable to stand for it and must leave his "father" defend itself;

- Socrates with Parmenides equals Theætetus with the Stranger, and is mere sophistry (but whose fault is it? all "images" Parmenides is trying to give of "forms" are "material" images that he refutes one after the other because they don't perfectly match his idea of ideas);

- Aristotle with Parmenides replaces the other Socrates with the Stranger: it should be the real thing, but is it? Is there a beginning of a true discussion with someone who asks for the yougest respondant so that he doesn't bother him much in his tedious game of words?

Yet, the fact is, this "equation" of the speakers overlooks one detail: they are not placed in order of age. So let's try again:

With this arrangment, we get the following reading of the three dialogues:

- Socrates with Zeno should be the dialogue that's missing in the trilogy: the "philosopher", at the border between the visible and the intelligible world. But Zeno is unable to stand by the role that is expected from him, because Parmenides doesn't teach "philosophy", and Socrates, who could save the show, cannot get him to talk in a sensible way: he doesn't even stand by his book, supposedly a work from his youth, stolen and published against his will;

-Socrates and Parmenides displays a new arrangment, unseen in the trilogy: from the real visible to the real intelligible; but this doesn't work either, because it ignores the need for a mediation: Parmenides, by the way, is the one who said that it is the same to be and to be thought, and that is what he is trying to "display" right now!

- Eventually, Parmenides with Aristotle exhibits the arrangment of the Sophist, and that's what it is, pure sophistry!

To comfort this view, I proceeded to closely compare the introduction to the Parmenides with the introduction to the trilogy, and it is bewildering! On the one hand, we get the story of the discussion with Parmenides because Pythodoros ("the gift from the Pithoness", the self-proclamed mouthpiece of the god speaking from an underground cave!) kept retelling it before young Antiphon ("the echo-man") who managed, god knows why, to memorize it word per word, but didn't bother to ask questions or make sure he understood, and didn't become a philosopher by it, but rather returned to caring for his horses (read with the Phædrus in mind, "real" horses are an image for a "material" soul). And now, Cephalus comes from a far away country to ask Adeimantus and Glaucon, the partners of Socrates in the Republic, guess what?.. to introduce them, not to Socrates himself, who was one of the "heroes" of the discussion, but to their half-brother Antiphon, who is no philosopher, to get the story from him! And each intermediary in the story adds to it its own layer of "x said", showing that he is but a tape recorder playing a taped speech without being involved or moved by it. Besides, we move from the bottom up: Pythodoros was only the "host" of the discussion, and didn't take part in it. His oikos was the "body" in which the discussion took place, the "material" dimension of it. He is at the level of the epithumetikon soul. Antiphon, with his horses, relay between past and present, is at the level of the middle soul, the thumos, but is only following his desires (for horse breeding), and simply "recites" (echoes) speeches that he doesn't understand. And he recites them for a Cephalus, that is for a "head", but a empty head who in turn "recites" the speech to whomever wants to hear it (that's what the dialogue is: Cephalus' recitation in direct style), adding his own layer of "x said that y said that..." Head maybe, but logos certainly not! Sorry for the neoplatonists, but I can't see that as the ultimate truth from Plato, or at least not without a lot of "decoding"...

On the other hand, we see Euclid ("man of good fame"), a true "intermediary soul" (unlike Antiphon, whose place he occupies in the introduction to the trilogy) spending time making sure he got the story of Socrates' discussion with Theætetus straight, going back to him, interrogating him again and again, putting the stuff in writing to make sure he won't forget it (compare this use of writing with the one of Zeno with Parmenides' theories). When asked by Terpsion ("the man whose desires are fullfilled") to tell the story, he doesn't want to trust his memory, and gets him at his place to have it read by a slave (he "masters" the stuff) in an appropriate setting, at leisure, quiet mind in a quiet body. and he shows that he made the story his by explaining that he deleted the "x said..." to make the story more lively. Here we move from the top down, as should be done by a soul leading his body: the story came from Socrates himself, the logos of this "soul", and Euclid the thumos made it his, and made sure it would be able to retrieve it when needed to fullfill his epithumiai (Terpsion, the "material" part of the soul, coming back from the fields, as we are told at the beginning, that is, from the "nature"), in a life where physical and intellectual needs are simultaneously satisfied in perfect harmony (both men resting while listening to the slave).

Plato and his dialogues : Home - Biography - Works and links to them - History of interpretation - New hypotheses - Map of dialogues : table version or non tabular version. Tools : Index of persons and locations - Detailed and synoptic chronologies - Maps of Ancient Greek World. Site information : About the author.

First published December 8, 1996 ; Last updated November 21, 1998
© 1996 Bernard SUZANNE (click on name to send your comments via e-mail)
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