Becoming Socrates: Political Philosophy in Plato’s Parmenides
Interpreters of Plato’s Parmenides have long agreed that it is a canonical work in the history of ontology. In the first part, the aged Parmenides presents a devastating critique of Platonic ontology, followed in the second by what purports to be a response to that critique. But despite the scholarly agreement as to the general subject matter of the dialogue, what makes it one whole has nevertheless eluded its readers, so much so that some have even speculated it to be a patchwork of two dimly related dialogues.
In Becoming Socrates, Alex Priou shows that the Parmenides’ unity remains elusive due to scholarly neglect of a particular passage in Parmenides’ critique—a passage Parmenides identifies as the hinge between the dialogue’s two parts and as the “greatest impasse” facing Platonic ontology. There Parmenides situates the concern with ontology or the question of being within the concern with political philosophy or the question of good rule. In this way, the Parmenides shows us how a youthful Socrates first learned of the centrality of political philosophy that would become the hallmark of his life—that it, and not ontology, is “first philosophy.”
Forthcoming in 2018 from the University of Rochester Press.
Under the research section, I’ve posted a link to my new article on the fragments of Parmenides’ poem.
Abstract: In this paper, the author argues that the revelatory form Parmenides gives his poem poses considerable problems for the account of being contained therein. The poem moves through a series of problems, each building on the last: the problem of particularity, the cause of human wandering that the goddess would have us ascend beyond (B1); the problem of speech, whose heterogeneity evinces its tie to experience’s particularity (B2–B7); the problem of justice, which motivates man’s ascent from his “insecure” place in being, only ultimately to undermine it (B8.1–49); and finally the question of the good, the necessary consequence of man’s place in being as being out of place in being (B8.50–B19). What emerges is a Socratic reading of Parmenides’s poem, a view that Plato appears to have shared by using Parmenides and his Eleatic stranger to frame the bulk of Socrates’s philosophic activity.
N.B.: A version of this review was printed in The Review of Metaphysics with the editor’s incorrect revisions included. The following version includes the author’s corrections of the editor’s revisions.
In this pdf, you will find my highly literal translation of the fragments of Xenophanes. They are based on the text of James H. Lesher, Xenophanes of Colophon (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001), with any deviations from Lesher’s text detailed in the footnotes. I have not recently revisited the Greek since my initial translation some time ago, so corrections are likely necessary and certainly welcome.
A brief comment on Xenophanes’ significance. It is my opinion that this Pre-Socratic figure is among the most under-appreciated in Classical thought, perhaps owing to Aristotle’s deprecation of him in Metaphysics A. But Xenophanes is of paramount importance on the question of the gods, for in the scant writings of his that we possess, he runs the gamut from Homeric to Aristotelean theology. He is captivatingly both of the moment and ahead of his time, so that he is for all time.
A cursory glance corroborates this aspect of Xenophanes’ writing. He reflects, first, on the rituals and trappings surrounding everyday religious experience, culminating in a rejection of traditional standards of excellence (e.g., B1). From here, he embarks upon a critique of the traditional gods, such as one finds in Homer and Hesiod (e.g., B11). The Platonic Socrates borrows this critique in Republic III, thus allowing him to replace the Olympian gods with Platonic forms. And, indeed, the same Aristotle who finds Xenophanes unworthy of even the most cursory treatment borrows from this line of argument the rudiments for his criticism of Platonic forms in Metaphysics B. What takes the cake is that those fragments in which Xenophanes presents his revised theology look suspiciously familiar to the theology Aristotle lays out in Metaphysics Λ (e.g., B25).
Thus we see that the extraordinary breadth and depth of Xenophanes’ thought cannot be denied. A fresh study of the extant fragments would be much welcomed, especially one taking into account what appears to be Aristotle’s highly ironic stance toward an otherwise marginal character in the history of philosophy. I am hoping to turn my notes on Xenophanes into an article on this question with the title “Rehabilitating Xenophanes,” once time permits. For now, I hope you find my translation and this brief comment helpful.
Under the research section, I’ve posted a link to my new article on Plato’s Euthyphro, which I consider to be an examination of the possibility of posing Socrates’ famous question, ti esti touto. It was just published in The St. John’s Review.
In lieu of an abstract, here’s a shortened version of the first paragraph:
The most famous Socratic question—ti esti touto?—is often preceded by a far less famous, but more fundamental question—esti touto ti? Though this question is posed in many dialogues with respect to myriad topics, in every instance it receives but one answer: it is something, namely something that is. The dialogue devoted to why this question always meets with an affirmative answer would appear to be the Parmenides, for there Parmenides throws into question whether the eidē are, only to establish that, if we have opinions that there is some unity in being, such unity must be. Nevertheless, the dramatic setting of the Parmenides is the quarreling of the Pre-Socratic schools, and the popular dismissal of philosophy that their quarreling engendered. For a dialogue that establishes that the object of inquiry is simply because we have opinions about it, we must, as I hope to show, turn to the Euthyphro.
Under the research section, I’ve posted a link to my new article on Plato’s Theaetetus, which I argue can also be understood to follow the Sophist and Statesman, and thus in some sense serve as the unwritten dialogue, the Philosopher. It was just published in The International Journal of the Platonic Tradition 10: 151-167.
This paper considers the unity of Socrates’ twin apparitions of sophist and statesman, alluded to in the Sophist. Examining how these apparitions are at work in the Theaetetus, I argue that the difficulty is that of combining the nurturing or educative role of the statesman with the sophist’s practice of refutation. Beginning from Socrates’ shift in appearance early in the dialogue, I argue that the cause of this shift is Theaetetus’ character, that this forces the general problem Socrates has in mind into a particular form, and that Theaetetus never fully grasps this fundamental, intractable problem. Consequently, the problem’s intractability shows why Socratic education is always refutative, and so combines the statesman and sophist’s respective arts. And because Theaetetus is the cause of Socrates’ shift, the philosopher’s appearance is always an ironic reflection of his interlocutor’s opinions: the dialogue the Philosopher would have to be named the Theaetetus.
Under the research section, I’ve posted a link to my new article on Thales and Anaximander’s place relative to Hesiod and Heraclitus. It was just published in The Review of Metaphysics 70: 3-31.
Praised for its reliance on observation rather than myth, the Milesian school signals the dawn of science in the West. Whereas Hesiod appeals to the long ago and far away to explain the here and now, Thales and his cohorts do the reverse. In this reversal, we are their thankful, even faithful heirs. But with Hesiod not everything is myth and hearsay. Indeed, Hesiod singles himself out by name as the bearer of a powerfully poetic and distinctly human wisdom that he consistently contrasts with Zeus’ divine wisdom. In this article, the author argues that the Milesians attempt to gain access to divine wisdom, and thus disregard the ambiguities characteristic of human wisdom. One sees this especially in a tension between Thales’ political wisdom and natural philosophy, and later between Anaximander’s cosmology and cosmogony. The author concludes that Heraclitus appears to have been the first thinker to confront the Hesiodic worldview on its own terms, inasmuch as his attempt to bridge the divide between divine and human wisdom always keeps one eye on the ambiguities that pervade human experience.