Saturday, 30 January 2016

Notes on Plato's Parmenides

By common agreement the dialogue entitled Parmenides is the most profoundly perplexing work in the Platonic corpus. It presents a situation in which the ageing sage, Parmenides, visits Athens and engages in discourse with a very young Socrates. Chronologically, according to conventional dates, this meeting was just barely possible, although it is almost certain that the encounter as Plato presents it is a fiction. All the same, as usual, we should note carefully Plato concern for verisimilitude. He does not engage in idle or baseless fictions. He very deliberately wants to raise the question in the reader’s mind as to whether or not this meeting really did take place. It seems not, but then again, maybe it did…

The dialogue has confounded readers throughout the centuries and has given rise to the most diverse interpretations. The present writer (in his academic guide) has himself indulged in this and has an interpretation of his own – one radically different to those commonly peddled in philosophical circles. His interpretation is based on two peculiarities of the work.

First, Plato has based the dialogue upon the festival of the Panathenea, the great festival of Athena. In this, the author notes, it forms a pair with the dialogue called the Timaeus. The author then supposes that this setting is significant and that the two dialogues, Parmenides and Timaeus, concern matters relevant to that festival. He therefore reads the two works together as a pair. This indeed was a common practice in the ancient world because the ancients considered the Parmenides Plato’s premier metaphysical world and as such it complements the Timaeus, his work on phusis. The present author goes further. He reads both works in the light of the mythological background of the Panathenaeic festival.

Second, he notes a few peculiar signals (clues) in the text which are generally ignored and treated as mere padding. In particular, there are some tell-tale references to a young character named Antiphon. We are told that he has learnt the whole of Parmenides’ speech by heart, yet he is now busy shoeing horses. Imagine: the one person in the dialogue who has fully internalized the teachings of Parmenides has retired to attend to the most menial of tasks. The present author is strongly of the view that there are no accidental details in a Platonic dialogue. These details, therefore, are of significance and are part of the dialogue for a very good reason. Moreover, concerning horses, we encounter a strange mixed metaphor in the text: horses and ships. This, to the present author, and in this mythological context, points to the god Poseidon. Poseidon and Athena: these dialogues concern this mythological pairing.

The author’s notes on the Parmenides are presented below. Since the Parmenides is the most dense and most wordy and most difficult of dialogues, he offers his interpretation in cartoon form:


Harper McAlpine Black

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