Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.10.09


Mary Louise Gill and Paul Ryan (trans.), Plato's Parmenides. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1996. Pp. viii + 175. $32.95. ISBN 0-87220-329-8 (hb). $9.95 ISBN 0-87220-328-X (pb).


Reviewed by Scott Carson, Dept. of Philosophy, Ohio University, Athens, OH, carsond@ohiou.edu.

Word Count: 1,872.

If asked to make a ranking of Plato's dialogues on the basis of readability, philosophical perspicuity, and pedagogical accessibility, most people would, I think, put the Parmenides dead last. That is why Gill and Ryan's new edition is so welcome: it makes a very good start at rectifying all three problems. The book is both a new translation of the Parmenides (by Gill and Ryan) and an elementary introduction to the philosophical problems posed by the dialogue (by Gill), and on both counts it is highly to be recommended. In her introduction Gill has brought to bear her customary clarity, pleasant style, and sound philosophical judgment, and her translation with Paul Ryan achieves a level of readability and accuracy (nevertheless faithful to its extremely problematic text) that will serve as a model for future translations of the dialogue.

The primary venue for this book, like the others in this series from Hackett, will be the college classroom, but I think it is fair to say that scholars working on the dialogue (or, indeed, the late dialogues generally) will find much of value here above and beyond the translation itself. For the student, though, nothing could be more timely than an elementary-level textbook that carefully acclimates the reader to the difficulties of Plato's later period. The undergraduate student, in particular, is not helped by the fact that this dialogue is so complicated in its argumentation that it is almost easier to read in Greek than in English. The difficulties faced by the translator who must make clear the argumentation of the Parmenides, which is not known for its purple prose, are brought into high relief in the following famous passage (162a4-b8, in the translation of G. and R., p. 170):

"So if it is not to be, it must have being a not-being as a bond in regard to its not-being, just as, in like manner, what is must have not-being what is not, in order that it, in its turn, may completely be. This is how what is would most of all be and what is not would not be: on the one hand, by what is, if it is completely to be, partaking of being in regard to being a being and of not-being in regard to being a not-being; and, on the other hand, by what is not, if in its turn what is not is completely not to be, partaking of not-being in regard to not-being a not-being and of being in regard to being a not-being." -- "Very true." -- "Accordingly, since in fact what is has a share of not-being and what is not has a share of being, so, too, the one, since it is not, must have a share of being in regard to its not-being." -- "Necessarily." -- "Then the one, if it is not, appears also to have being." -- "Apparently." -- "And of course not-being, if in fact it is not." -- "Doubtless."

Doubtless indeed. Those of us who, like Young Aristotle, are content to let Parmenides drone on, saying "Whatever" to the stages of his argument, cannot help but marvel at the skill with which G. and R. have managed to make the unreadable readable. (Cornford so despaired of the task that he eliminated entirely the responses of Young Aristotle and printed his translation as a continuous exposition on the part of Parmenides. In my view his translation is no more readable than any other for this device.) This translation, even apart from Gill's introductory material, will go a long way towards helping the inexperienced (or perhaps unwary) undergraduate make her way through this difficult text. And there are some nice touches: the text at 128c1-2 has KAI/TOI W(/SPER GE AI( LA/KAINAI SKU/LAKES EU)= METAQEI=S TE KAI\ I)XNEU/EIS TA\ LEXQE/NTA, which G. and R. render "even though you chase down its arguments and follow their spoor as keenly as a young Spartan hound." One does not encounter the word "spoor" very often, but upon reflection one must admit that it is precisely what is needed: in a dialogue that is not known for the bright imagery and crisp metaphors of the early and middle periods this translation is able to make words like I)XNEU/EIS and TA\ LEXQE/NTA come alive without seeming forced.

In her commentary Gill divides the dialogue into its two traditional parts and gives summaries of the various arguments in each, labeling her progress through the dialogue by Stephanus page; thus the introduction is rather like a commentary, though not on the same scale as Burnyeat's massive (250 pages) introduction to the Theaetetus in the same series. Her summary is admirably complete (except for the curious omission of Stephanus pages 148-155) without being tediously paraphrastic. Best of all, her pedagogical intuition is remarkable: at precisely those points where my own students have failed to understand a particular argument Gill provides a helpful explication of the motivation and reasoning behind the lemma. For the most part her interpretation is consistent with what other recent commentators have had to say (such as Meinwald, Miller, and Allen) yet original enough to warrant serious consideration by the research scholar.

One of the main interpretive hurdles for any teacher of the Parmenides is the question of the relationship of the two parts of the dialogue. To judge from the recent literature, most commentators seem to think that jumping this hurdle involves a two-step explanatory sequence: first, explain the nature of the antinomies of the second part, and second, once the antinomies have been explained, show how their explanation also affords a solution to the problems of self-predication and separation of the forms of the first part. In this way the apparently disparate halves of the dialogue are made into a coherent whole. As a rule commentators are reluctant to approach this problem U(/STERON PRO/TERON, so they begin by summarizing the first part with little or no commentary, then they summarize the second part, then they explain the second part, and finally they show how the explanation of the second part provides illumination for understanding the first part. Gill's introduction follows a similar plan, though she offers a fair amount of analysis for the first part in the course of her discussion of it, thus providing more help to the student.

Every commentator, of course, will offer his or her own version of the explanatory link between the two halves. For Meinwald the dialogue was Plato's attempt to draw a distinction between a PRO\S E(AUTO/ relation and a PRO\S TA\ A)/LLA relation, a distinction reminiscent of Russell's theory of types, according to which we may say "The Just is just PRO\S E(AUTO/", but "The Just is just PRO\S TA\ A)/LLA" is trivially false (given the definition of the Just). For Allen the Parmenides was a teaching text intended to challenge the students at the Academy by presenting them with a complex, reticulated aporia designed to show them that there are insoluble problems associated with applying the theory of Forms to unrestricted terms such as Being, Unity, Sameness, Difference, and the rest. Like Meinwald (and against Allen), Gill sees the Parmenides as dogmatic rather than aporetic; like Allen she presents it primarily as a teaching-text intended to challenge Plato's own students (as well as the rest of us) by concealing its doctrine amidst the alternately brilliant and fallacious argumentation of the logic-chopping Parmenides, the theorizing of the talented but inexperienced Young Socrates, and the acquiescence of the useless Young Aristotle.

For Gill the denouement of the dialogue comes in the very last paragraph, in the summary of the final deduction of the second part. There Parmenides says (166b7-c5, p. 175 G. and R.):

"Then if we were to say, to sum up, 'if one is not, nothing is,' wouldn't we speak correctly?" -- "Absolutely." -- "Let us then say this -- and also that, as it seems, whether one is or is not, it and the others both are and are not, and both appear and do not appear all things in all ways, both in relation to themselves and in relation to each other." -- "Very true."

The key, according to Gill, is to see that there are really two conclusions to this last Deduction, one following upon correct (O)RQW=S, 166c1) thinking (if the One is not, then nothing is), the other apparently (W(S E)/OIKEN, 166c3) following from the antinomies of the second part (regardless of whether the One is or is not, etc.). Gill's claim is that Plato wants his students to see (or, better, to discover) that the apparent conclusion, which is a bald contradiction, only follows from the antinomies if one allows the supposition that the One cannot be both One and Many; the arguments for this supposition were blithely accepted by the Young Aristotle but were the most poorly defended by Parmenides. The difficult lesson of the dialogue, then, is that the student of the Academy, in order to progress beyond the naive idealism of Plato's early period and the problematic idealism of his middle period, must discover how it is possible for the One to be both One and Many.

This solution, almost Aristotelian in its drawing of a linguistico-metaphysical distinction for the purpose of dissolving a philosophical puzzle, while reminiscent of Meinwald's strategy, is highly original and deserves careful consideration. Is the distinction between the "two conclusions" of the eighth Deduction a real one -- are we really given a clue about the "solution" to the puzzles of this dialogue in the form of verbal hints (O)RQW=S and W(S E)/OIKEN) -- or is the dialogue, as other commentators have suggested, a soul-searching attempt on Plato's part to save his idealism from the problems of self-predication and separation, only to conclude in apoplectic aporia? My suspicion is that Gill is on to something, particularly if we read the Parmenides, as it seems likely we were meant to, in conjunction with the Theaetetus, the Sophist, and the Statesman. In those dialogues it seems clear enough that Plato did not abandon his theory of Forms (one can argue, I think, that the Forms are conspicuous by their absence in the Theaetetus: without Forms we are left in aporia), so one is tempted to hope that the problems raised and apparently left unanswered in the Parmenides are part of a wider project on Plato's part to recast his idealism in a form that would be more palatable to some of his harsher critics. Making clear to students such a possibility is always a challenge to the teacher of Plato's philosophy, but Gill has provided timely help, and she closes her introduction with the sound pedagogical advice that students work out their own answers to Plato's challenge and then read the later dialogues in a new light.