The Silence of Socrates: Plato’s Parmenides

The action of the Parmenides dialogue comes to us at several degrees of removal. The dialogue is initially told by Cephalus (recall the name of the old Patriarch from the Republic) who described what happened to him when he first came to Athens as an immigrant from the West Coast of Asia Minor -he came upon Adeimantus and Glaucon (Plato’s brothers). Adeimantus offered anything he wanted in his power. Cephalus asks for Adeimantus’s half brother Pyrilampes, and his own Antiphon, who spent a great deal of time with Pythodorus who was a companion of Zeno. Antiphon heard the recounting of the speeches between Socrates, Zeno, and Parmenides that he memorized them from Pythodorus. Therefore Pythodorus is the originator the recollection, Antiphon is the reluctant reporter  (he is a blacksmith worker), Cephalus is the narrator, and Plato is the writer to whom we owe this dialogue. In many ways it is a great book shrouded in secrecy, as evidenced by the multiple layers of disconnect the audience experiences.

Antiphon recalls that Parmenides was quite old and was the vision of a true gentleman, Zeno was middle aged, and Socrates was considerably younger. Socrates begins with a probing analysis of Zeno in his seeming contradictions between the many and the one -his ontological doctrine. Parmenides and Zeno are amused at Socrates’s vigor.

At one point in Socrates’s interrogation, Antiphon thought Parmenides and he were going to become become angry. However, Parmenides merely laughs off Socrates claiming that he is still too young and is in need of more philosophic training -though Socrates appears to have continued his line of questioning into his own old age. Socrates gives an account of the forms and he is questioned by Parmenides until Parmenides is pressured by the others to give an account of the oneness of being. Parmenides gives eight central arguments in total.

Throughout Parmenides’s long poetic diatribe, told in the form of a dialectic conversation, Socrates is silent, along with other interlocutors present. Socrates’s silence is unique, as he is typically engaging young students the marketplace in Athens, in a public manner, though the dialogues don’t always give evidence of this.

For this reading I used Albert Keith Whitaker’s translation of Plato’s Parmenides as part of the Focus Library’s collection.

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