Episode 36: Plato’s Parmenides and Metaphysics

Plato’s dialogue the Parmenides is a one-off. In it we see the elderly Parmenides (yes, him, the pre-Socratic philosopher) come to Athens and enter into dialectic with none other than the youthful Socrates as he is just setting out to pursue philosophy. After crushing the theory of forms, Parmenides decides that Socrates’ dialectical skills need some work, and he gives him a lesson in dialectic by expounding some of the most troubling and difficult-to-interpret chains of reasoning ever put to paper. In the process he seems to make not only Socrates’ theory, but his own theory, and everything else, impossible.

In this episode we look at the dialogue from a few angles, discussing the seminal article of E.R. Dodds which alerted the world to the metaphysical reading of the Parmenides lying coiled at the heart of Late Platonism, we run through the first hypothesis of the dialogue, and then expound the significance of this work for the later development of apophatic writing and belief in a truly ineffable transcendent principle arising in late antiquity.

Works Discussed in this Episode:

Peter Adamson’s History of Philosophy Podcast has an excellent episode devoted to the arguments of the first part of Plato’s Parmenides.

Dodds, E. R. (1928). ‘The Parmenides of Plato and the Neoplatonic One’, The Classical Quarterly 22 : 129-142.

Plato speaks of the Good beyond being (ἐπέκεινα τῆς οὐσίας) at Republic 509b8-9; in the episode I actually fall under the spell of the Late Platonists, and refer to the Good as the One – while our later authors conflate the two principles, this is not necessarily the case with Plato himself.

Plotinus says that Plato’s Parmenides is clearer than Parmenides the historical philosopher: Enn. V.1[10]8.24.

Recommended Reading:

A good introduction to Plato’s Parmenides from an analytic standpoint can be found at the Stanford online encyclopedia of philosophy.

  • Cherniss, H., 1932, ‘Parmenides and the Parmenides of Plato’, American Journal of Philology, 53: 122–138.
  • Gill, C., and McCabe, M. M. (ed.), 1996, Form and Argument in Late Plato, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Havlicek, A., and Karfik, F., 2005, Plato’s Parmenides: Proceedings of the Fourth Symposium Platonicum Pragense, Prague: OIKOYMENH Publishers.
  • Miller, M. H. Jr., 1986, Plato’s Parmenides: The Conversion of the Soul, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Patterson, R., 1999, ‘Forms, Fallacies, and the Functions of Plato’s Parmenides’, Apeiron, 32: 89–106.
  • Peck, A. L., 1953, ‘Plato’s Parmenides: Some Suggestions for its Interpretation’, The Classical Quarterly, 3/3: 126–150.

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