Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.8.11


Albert Keith Whitaker (trans.), Plato's Parmenides. Focus Philosophical Library. Newburyport, MA: Focus Publishing, R. Pullins Co., 1996. Pp. 92. $5.95. ISBN 0-941051-96-X (pb).


Reviewed by Beau David Case, Ohio State University.

This is the second volume in the new "Focus Philosophical Library." The first volume in the series, Plato's Sophist, was well received (BMCR 97-3-12). The series complements the publisher's "Focus Classical Library", of which one volume was reviewed in this forum (BMCR 2.5.2). This new volume is edited by Albert Keith Whitaker, Junior Olin Fellow, Committee on Social Thought, University of Chicago, who also serves as series editor.

The physical structure of the text is as follows: Introduction (p. 1-20), Selected Bibliography (briefly annotated) (21), Translator's Note (22), Translation (based upon the editions of Burnet [OCT] and of Moreschini [Bibliotheca Athena]) (23-89), and Glossary and Index of Major Terms (90-92). In addition, the Introduction and the Translation together contain over three dozen informative footnotes of the explanatory and intertextual variety. Finally, although the books is a paperback printed on acidic paper, it is in fact well bound and durable, and should withstand much harsh use by students and library users.

The most striking physical feature is the running headers which detail the reader's position within the dialogue, such as "II. One: Same and Other ... Aristotle and Parmenides," in addition to page numbers and Stephanos numbering of the text. It is rare today to find a text which provides helpful markers for the reader (or re-reader). The unnamed layout editor is to be commended for keeping the reader in mind. Also keeping the student reader in mind is the publisher, who is to be complimented for having kept the price uncommonly low. This feature alone makes the volume attractive for an undergraduate survey course.

The Introduction, divided into separate topical sections, includes basic information on Plato and his works, an outline of the dialogue, the figures of Parmenides, Zeno and Socrates, and a brief analysis of the dialogue including its intent and significance. For the most part the Introduction is well-written, sound, easy to follow, and, most importantly, answers many questions which the student will have. The bulk of the Introduction will be briefly summarized below.

At the outset the reader is told that in the dialogue one "may learn something about the source of Socratic philosophy, especially as it relates to earlier Greek philosophy" (2). First, the eccentric figure of Parmenides, who seems to contradict his written beliefs by the words Plato places in his mouth, is present for the important reason that in Socrates' "eyes at least, Parmenides is the true founder of philosophy" (7), for as he states in Theaetetus 152d-153a, Parmenides is not of "'the army' of Homer," those who believe in "universal flux and beginning," as exemplified in Iliad 14.302, "Ocean and Mother Tethys, the genesis of the Gods." Rather, "Parmenides did not believe that flux and perception reign supreme" (6). Furthermore, Whitaker details that "an incongruous Parmenides" (7) is presented for the benefit of the young Socrates: "If everything that Plato's Parmenides says were the truth of Parmenides' poem, then ... we can say that the only result of Parmenides' exposition would be to engender belief in young Socrates, belief that these arguments present the truth.... He, and we, cannot rest content with belief in what others say; we must work for knowledge" (8).

Second, the "double-tongued" figure of Zeno is present in order that his "arguments, far from being verbal trickery or manipulation, bring out into the open the latent questions that our own ways of speaking carefully keep alive" (9), and his "speech forces the mind to hold together and see as apparent two very attractive appearances" (10). Thus, "Zeno's double-tongued arguments achieve the same result as Parmenides' poetic presentation of [Parmenides'] Way of Truth" (10).

Regarding the source of Socratic philosophy, the reader first is referred to Phaedo 96a-100b, where Socrates relates his transition in personal interest from physical investigations to speeches: "Socrates turned to forms ... because if there is a single and separate form for each thing, then by carefully defining each form we can render our speech about all things precise, powerful and true" (13). Yet, "the point of Parmenides' conversation with young Socrates ... [is] that the forms themselves, the things that Socrates wants to explain everything else -- these things themselves are inexplicable!" (13) This undoing and confusion "has raised our wonder to a new level" (14), and this is what it is for "philosophy to take hold" (13; and 130e).

The final part of the Introduction concerns the "gymnastic," the "worklike game" which, "if you do not practice it, 'the truth will escape you'" (14). It is the "surface of the conversation between Aristotle and Parmenides ... the collision of two opposites: gravity and levity" which is important here (15). The "highest matters" are discussed in "very silly" and contradictory ways (16). Over the course of a few pages Whitaker goes on to show that "neither the levity nor the gravity of the surface can, in truth, be separated off and discarded: they are one. The highest things, such as the One, defy precise representation by or in human speech. Each time you think you have it, you are in truth leaving something out. Or, to put it another way, whenever you try to speak about the One or other such things, you necessarily import certain turns of speech, certain assumed images of the thing you are talking about, imaginations which confound your apprehension of the intelligible" (18).

Not all of the Introduction will be as easy for the student to follow. It is likely that the discussion of "Young Socrates and the Forms" and the "gymnastic" will prove too difficult for the undergraduate reader without help from their instructor. Overall, however, it can be said that by reading the Introduction, the student will gain an important basic understanding of, and appreciation for, the dialogue. And, although the Introduction is short compared to that of a couple of other translations on the market, it serves well its intended audience: students and first-time readers, for whom brevity will suffice.

Now we turn our attention to the translation. At least nine widely available English translations of the Parmenides exist -- G. Burges, F.M. Cornford, A.E. Taylor, T. Taylor, J. Warrington, R.E. Allen, H.N. Fowler, M.L. Gill and P. Ryan, and B. Jowett -- the latter four of which are in print. Let us take a sample passage, 134C, from these latter four texts and then compare them to the same passage in the text under review.

"You'd say, I take it, that if indeed there is a certain kind of knowledge by itself, it is much more exact than knowledge among us. So too of beauty, and all the rest.... Then if indeed anything else has a share of knowledge itself, wouldn't you deny that anyone but god has the most exact knowledge?" (The Dialogues of Plato, vol. 4, Parmenides. R.E. Allen, ed. and trans. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984, 13)

"You would say, no doubt, that if there is an absolute kind of knowledge, it is far more accurate than our knowledge, and the same of beauty and all the rest?... And if anything partakes of absolute knowledge, you would say that there is no one more likely than God to possess this most accurate knowledge?" (Plato, vol. 4, Cratylus, Parmenides, Greater Hippias, Lesser Hippias. Loeb Classical Library, vol. 167. H.N. Fowler, trans. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977, 227)

"Surely you would say that if in fact there is knowledge -- a kind itself -- it is much more precise than is knowledge that belongs to us. And the same goes for beauty and all the others.... Well, whatever else partakes of knowledge itself, wouldn't you say that god more than anyone else has this most precise knowledge?" (Parmenides. Mary Gill and Paul Ryan, eds. and trans. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1996, 137)

"And there is a subjective knowledge which is of subjective truth, having many kinds, general and particular.... Then the beautiful and the good in their own nature are unknown to us?... I think we must admit that absolute knowledge is the most exact knowledge, which we must therefore attribute to God." (The Dialogues of Plato Translated into English, vol. 4. 3rd ed. B. Jowett, ed. and trans. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1892, 11)
And now Whitaker:
"You would probably say that if there is in fact a certain kind itself of Knowledge, it is far more precise than the knowledge among us, and the same for Beauty and all the rest.... And so if anything else does partake of Knowledge itself, wouldn't you say that god, more than anyone else, possesses this most precise knowledge?" (33)
The sample passages above all are representative of the respective works as a whole. In this reviewer's opinion all the translations are more or less equal: each has remained faithful to the Greek, each provides a modern English version despite the fact that they were composed in different decades, and, although none are examples of fine English literature, each has done they best they could with a difficult text. More importantly, each of the translations on the market offers something different. Allen's is a commentary; Fowler's provides the facing Greek; Gill's and Ryan's is an introduction; Jowett's is a translation of Plato's complete works; and, Whitaker's is a translation of Parmenides alone at an unusually inexpensive price. Public libraries may be better served by a volume of Plato's collected works, but Whitaker's slim volume certainly has a place in college survey courses and all academic libraries.