Note on Plato’s Parmenides, 137c-142a

Benardete says Plato’s intellectual biography of Socrates is in three parts. In the Phaedo, Socrates describes his break with Anaxagoras; the inability to put body and soul together crippled his own thought (see Plutarch, “Life of Pericles” for a sketch of this). In the Symposium, Socrates details his encounter with Diotima and what he learned of eros and piety from her. At hand is the Parmenides, where a young Socrates tries initially to dismiss Parmenides and his student Zeno. They’re both obsessed with the “One,” so much so that it looks like Zeno’s thought reduces to “Not Many” (128b). Young Socrates wants to know why a theory of forms isn’t plausible, where forms which are beings generate the world as we know it (128e-130a). The debate over whether everything is One (if we take “Being” as “One:” change is an illusion, for what “is” cannot change) or whether the only certainty in the world is change (“you can’t step into the same river twice”) would fall away, as it makes perfect sense that all things in the world participate in the forms of One and Many (Socrates’ example, 129c-d: the body is many things, obviously, and it can readily be identified as one).

Young Socrates makes a lot of sense. So much sense that you get the distinct feeling the “forms,” in the way he’s positing them, would destroy philosophy. It looks like we need a defense of seemingly pointless questions and abstract debates. It’s not Socrates’ thought alone which is the problem as much as “Whence the philosopher?” If people believe philosophy strictly as rigorous science – if it becomes completely divorced from its New Age/hippie tendencies (those things where “self-knowledge” becomes a serious question) – then the philosopher becomes an impossibility. Young Socrates is concerned, rightly, with the content of the forms Justice, Beauty, Good (130b). But he is adamant there are no forms of hair, mud, dirt (130c-d). He is bowing to convention completely; he has thoughts about politics and some philosophical views, but has not brought into being political philosophy. We note, further, that Parmenides identified eros as the first and oldest of the gods, and Zeno in this very dialogue is said to be his lover. Is philosophy Socrates’ eros yet?

1. I have not finished reading this dialogue yet. I don’t have access to the secondary sources I need to do more serious work on it (Stanley Rosen’s Preface to the 2nd Edition of his Symposium commentary would be most helpful, as would Robert Brumbaugh’s “The Purpose of Plato’s Parmenides“). All I want to do is put forth some notes on the first of Parmenides’ arguments with Aristotle, where he asserts that “One is” and therefore “experiences nothing.” This is immediately contradicted by his second argument, where “if the One is, the One experiences all things” (Whitaker 5).

The biggest problem I’m having with this dialogue is staying organized. The irony is that the dialogue is very tightly organized, and I know Plato is saying something pretty directly in terms of the uses and abuses of form (har har). Is it a rebuke of Parmenides? Probably not; Parmenides’ concern with the “One” is easy for many philosophers to ignore. We want knowledge that’s effectual, thus forgetting that being able to give some kind of account of the whole matters. Much of our knowledge is a standing in a space of reasons (to borrow – not precisely and in a very different context – from Sellars).

2. To get to “if the One is, it experiences nothing,” we have to take a rather tortuous road:

  • the One is not many, nor is it a whole (!), nor does it consist of parts (a whole is defined as that which has parts). (137c-d)
  • the One has “no beginning nor end nor middle;” it lacks shape entirely (137d-138a)
  • the One has nothing to do with place (138a-b)
  • the One is motionless, and cannot even be said to be at rest (!) (138b-139b)
  • “Same” (!) and “other” fail to describe the One (139b-e)
  • “Like” and “unlike” also fail (139e-140b)
  • the One “will be neither equal nor unequal to itself nor anything else” (140b-140d)
  • the One has nothing like “age;” it is completely divorced from time, which is where beings occur.  (140e-141e)

That summary makes no sense as it currently stands, I know.  I want to rebuild the argument piece-by-piece.  Right now, I’ve put exclamation points next to things that would make insisting on “the One” a more intuitive argument (the question of the whole, an unchangingness concerning what “is,” an emphasis on something being the same within things that exist). You’ll note that Parmenides in this one part of his “gymnastic” rejects all those considerations.

3. Lots of things are missing from the summary, but most absent is that each argument “builds” from the previous ones. The lack of shape is from the lack of parts. The lack of place is from the lack of shape, so much so that one sees “shape” and “place” as “how parts or things relate.” This leads to the near-mystical conclusion that the One is not anywhere, for it is “neither being in itself nor anything else” (138b). Does that make any sense? It doesn’t seem so to me, and yet it seems to be a working definition of “place” for Parmenides.

The arguments only continue to build in this manner, up to a point.  Motion requires place or at least parts that can move. Fair enough, but then we hear that to be at rest, the One needs to be “in the same thing” (139a). But again, from above, we “learned” that the One cannot be in itself or another.

With the “same/other” question, the logic shifts to another ground. Whether or not the One is the same or other than anything else or itself depends more on what is meant by “the One” than any convoluted concern about “parts” or “being in itself or anything else.” The like/unlike concerns follow this pattern (we don’t mean “the One” as simply “the Same;” “like” is tied to sameness) as does equal/unequal (again, “Same” comes into play).

4. With all of this in hand, Parmenides’ proof that the One has nothing to do with experience follows. In order to have age, something must be like something else that is in time. The One obviously fails this test. Can the One simply be in time? No, because anything in time exists at one moment where it is “younger” and another where it is “older.” That alone isn’t a problem, except that Parmenides asserts that as something in time becomes older, it is also becoming younger with respect to itself.  How exactly the One relates to itself is a great mystery, given the logic used to argue that the One has nothing to do with place. I confess I’m not entirely clear on what the argument exactly is in this section. It does sound like at 141c-d the equality/inequality argument is being used to show the One has no experiences like the things that age.

In any case, I think I’ve been clear that some of the argumentation Parmenides uses feels pretty slippery. Maybe it holds very tight at some logical level beyond human ken, but note how emphatically young Aristotle assents to the one time something can actually be understood (141e, “most true!”). Does that mean everything being thrown around is mere rhetoric? What we need to do is reevaluate what is going on. What exactly was the significance of discussing “the One,” anyway?

5. The first four arguments are a bit weird; if we say “shape” is really the matter of “time,” then time and place are framed by quantities of matter (whole? in parts?) and matter in motion/rest. Place, parts and motion/rest are almost completely absent from the second group of four arguments. Parts are implicit in the initial argument about the same, like/unlike, inequality (greater than/less than), but nowhere is the first argument about parts  failing to define the One specifically mentioned.

By implication: “time” is the major problem hiding in Parmenides’ seemingly rigorous logic. He tried to cover it up with the first four arguments, tried again with the last four, and it still ended up defining his investigation into “One is” entirely. That the One was motionless should have ended the discussion. But his own thought wouldn’t let “One” be at rest: in what would it rest? The question seems to point to place rather than time, but it was the very formal definition of time (time as shape) that led not only to a rejection of time, but a rejection of place.

Intuitively, this should be making some sense. Time as a philosophic concern is an enormous problem when considering how all things are One, or what “Oneness” might be, etc. But now we have another challenge. Parmenides isn’t Timaeus or Glaucon or some other Socratic interlocutor whose thought is fundamentally flawed. He’s someone who is in the process of teaching Socrates as he deploys these arguments. I don’t know that he wants Socrates to absorb a specific teaching about time, as much as he wants to point to something tying the One to the forms.

6. It would seem that the forms are over and done with; Parmenides made very serious criticisms of them before embarking on this gymnastic. But Parmenides has just gone through a ton to say if One is, it experiences nothing. In other words, he’s left a space open for Socrates’ “forms” to be “beings” in some sense (135b-c).

The necessity of the forms is that without them, we can’t communicate. Words have to correspond to something that all of us relate to, at some point. But that doesn’t make the forms “logical atoms” or perfect instances of things. Kripke once pointed out regarding naming that you could use the name Aristotle perfectly just by asking “Who is Aristotle?” Even “What is Aristotle?” would be grammatical. The forms are something closer to that. The One isn’t the forms – it’s actually the opposite of the forms – but is just as necessary for human thinking, and just as much a “blank.”

To see this, note 141e-142a:

[Parmenides:] …the One neither is one nor is – if it’s necessary to trust this very speech.

[Aristotle:] I’m afraid so.

[Parmenides:] But whatever is not – could there be anything for it or of it, should it not be?

[A:] And how could there?

[P:] So, then, there’s no name for it nor account, nor is there any knowledge of it nor perception nor opinion.

[A:] It appears not.

[P:] And, then, it’s not named nor spoken of nor opined nor known, nor do any of the things that are perceive it.

[A:] It doesn’t look like it.

[P:} Well, then, is it possible that this is the way it is concerning the One?

[A:] No, it sure doesn’t seem so to me, at least!

“Is not:” we do have a name, “nothing.” And when propositions turn out to not reflect reality, we say they are “false” or “untrue” because the opinion or perception involved was faulty. In fact, opinion and perception as concepts take that we make mistakes into account. It sounds awkward to say “true opinion” or to constantly talk about one’s sense-perceptions being wrong.

The way concerning the One (just as the forms) is the via negativa. Positive knowledge – like knowing the specific character of the form of Justice – is not easy to come by. But you can know what Justice isn’t, and that reflects on the whole (I know this properly belongs to Justice, not Courage, etc.). There’s a huge irony here, of course. What seems to be a restrained approach to knowledge actually pushes the character of knowing outside of time. You’re going to start getting, for example, a “form of Justice” where Justice is transpolitical – “do no harm” – even as there are laws to obey and allies to help and enemies to kill and to disobey the law is unjust. And that’s just the beginning of the problems. For all we know about how the sexes operate through studying things like hormones and evolutionary biology, it isn’t clear we’ve made happier couples of any sort.

7. Again, these are very preliminary thoughts – I still have to account exactly for how the One and forms relate, at the very least – and are subject to change. I don’t advise anyone pick up the Parmenides any time soon. I’m tempted to abandon this project until I have the right secondary sources, at which point I’ll try again.


Whitaker, Albert Keith. Plato’s Parmenides. Newburyport: Focus/R. Pullins, 1996.

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