When Parmenides met Socrates
Parmenides clearly had an influence on Plato. The assertion that we live in a world of appearances, which gives the illusion of change and difference that Parmenides thinks are impossible, makes its way into Plato’s sensible world of phenomena, while the concept of a higher metaphysical reality- the world of Ideas, is somewhat similar to Being, which is eternal, unchanging, and singular, although I suspect more encompassing.
The story goes that a young Socrates met an older Parmenides and his student Zeno, when they visited Athens. Almost immediately, they got to talking about Parmenides’s ideas on Being, with Parmenides asserting the unity of Being, while Zeno denied its plurality. The young Socrates, instead, asserted both absolute Ideas and sensible things that take part in those Ideas. Parmenides pokes many holes in the Platonic concept, but he still seems fond of it and of the young man. Meanwhile, it strikes me as a better concept.
Again, what Parmenides says, as I understand him, is that there is nothing outside of Being, because anything else would be non-being and it is impossible to conceive of non-being. So the change, plurality, and difference that we see in the world around us are illusory- delusions of the average man. Frankly, I can understand this only in the most abstract sense: everything is, and so nothing is not. However, even just saying that Being is and it is unified seems to imply two different things: unity and being. Already I’m flunking out of the Eleatic school. Also, things still seem to pass in and out of being, which I have trouble accepting as illusion. Finally, Parmenides seems to imply (although Plato gave us the concept) something like eternal unified time. This is why Karl Popper told Einstein that “block time” reminded him of Parmenides. But, that’s a whole other kettle of fish.
In a sense, Plato “works” for me where Parmenides doesn’t. The distinction, as I see it, is that Parmenides asserts that nothing can exist outside of Being, which is itself neither matter nor thought, while Socrates has to assert at least two different kinds of “being”: that of Ideas or Forms, and that of sensible things. Certainly, the world of sensible things is lower and lesser, but it’s not non-existent. I feel that, if we accept Parmenides’s idea that only Being exists, we have to accept that the world of appearances does not exist (or just that our sense of it is totally wrong) and that all ideas are one, which is Being. As Woody Allen might say, if the sensible world doesn’t exist, at the very least it screws up our dinner plans.
Parmenides points out several problems with the theory of a world of Ideas, not the least of which is that we would seemingly have no direct access to it. We only have access to specific and relational things, but the Ideas are absolute and not relative, and therefore seem to require us to think something that doesn’t exist in our world. Since we can’t, we can’t really grasp the Ideas mentally. But, certainly we can come close, right?
A more interesting problem that Parmenides points out about a world of Ideas outside of the sensible is that we couldn’t think something that is not real, which is actually very profound. Jaybird and Freddie’s illuminating discussion of the moral fabric of the universe is very much a discussion of this issue. I’m not sure at all that Parmenides even has the concept of imagining something unreal however, which is strange because he has the concept of illusions.
According to Plato, the world of ideas is different and separate from the sensible world. Take, for example, the idea “2+2=4”. This idea is eternal and unchanging, in spite of the fact that any physical thing that might take part in the idea (four apples for example) will eventually decay and disappear. Two plus two will always equal four. As an idea, it never came into being (two plus two always equaled four), nor will it cease to be. Moreover, the purely mathematical idea has no physical existence, but is grasped (imperfectly) through the mind. As a math professor I knew liked to put it, and drove the students nuts doing so: “in the physical world, there is no such thing as a line”.
In ordering the world, we make use of all sorts of ideas, which Plato calls the Forms, and we might just call abstract concepts. During an average moment in the world, we are flooded by a mass of sensory data, which our mind organizes immediately in terms of underlying concepts. When I look at the lawn, I know it’s green because I have a concept of “Greenness” that is unchanging and which all green things “take part in”. I know the tree outside is tall because my mind has access to the concept of “tallness”, I know my wife is beautiful because I have access to “Beauty”, and so forth. If I didn’t have these categories to organize my perception, I would be lost in a flood of random information.
For Plato, the realm of the Forms, or the “absolute essences” is separate from the physical world; there is a division between matter and thought. Philosophy requires us to turn away from the world of appearances to the world of Ideas. Ultimately, he sees this as the soul’s movement towards God.
I think Plato sees the world of Forms as a higher level of reality, but I don’t think he sees the sensible world as non-existent, even if it is a misleading world of illusion.
When he says the sensible world takes part in the Forms, I envision something like a mirror pointed at the sun, which takes part in the sun’s light and reflects it outwards, but is not, itself, the sun. The world of sensible things reflects the light of the Forms, while not being perfect copies of the Forms.
When we start talking about a physical world that blooms forth and withers away and a divine realm of Ideas (elsewhere called the Logos) that is the eternal and unchanging realm of God, the parallels between Greek and Hebrew thought become interesting. A religious way of looking at this might be to see this particular world-moment as an era of parallel revelation that changed the order of being for mankind. A secular viewpoint would have to see it as being, nevertheless, a conceptual leap forward that enabled later abstract thought- especially mathematical and philosophical- to hit the ground running.
1. Here I was using Plato’s dialogue Parmenides, although I might have strayed from it a bit.
2. Naturally, then, I’d like to get to Republic/Timaeus/Critas next. I think I’ll do them a bit out of order though, in order to give more time to The Republic, which is sort of a big deal, as they say.