The World’s Longest and Least Funny Joke

Plato’s dialogues can be rather difficult. And of all the dialogues, Parmenides may be the most baffling. And within Parmenides, the second part, where Socrates has tapped out and Aristoteles acts as Parmenides’ primary interlocutor, is particularly confounding. And the conclusion of the second part is the most enigmatic passage of the lot. But none of that is going to stop me from telling the world just what I think about it, because that’s the kind of guy I am.

It is my position that the conclusion of Parmenides is a goof.* It is a joke at the expense of Parmenides and his followers, a parody of his overly formal, but ultimately meaningless philosophy. To see how I arrived at that conclusion, we need a bit of background.

The dialogue ends like this:

[Parmenides]: “Then let us say that, and we may add, as it appears, that whether the one is or is not, the one and the others in relation to themselves and to each other all in every way are and are not and appear and do not appear.”

[Aristoteles]: “Very true.”

[END]

Out of context, it is clear why I take that conclusion to be a joke. By itself, it is an incomprehensible mashing together of contradictory conditions. Read it again; it simply does not make sense.

But the context of the dialogue matters, and all this talk about the one and contradictions do not come out of nowhere. In the first half of the dialogue, the characters primarily focus on Socrates’s famous theory of forms. Parmenides points out several potential problems with the forms, ultimately concluding that Socrates has some work to do.

In the second half, things go a bit pear-shaped. Parmenides, now conversing with Aristoteles, goes through the process of analyzing his own theory of “the one”. His plan is to “consider not only the consequences which flow from [the hypothesis that all reality is one], but also the consequences which flow from denying the hypothesis.” The result of an exhaustive exchange, without the ornamentation typical of most Platonic dialogue, is the nonsense quoted above.

There are a few features of the dialogue that make the concluding line look less like an actual philosophical position held by Plato, and more like a jab at Parmenides’ own philosophy.

In the first place, interpreting Plato is always difficult because he never speaks with his own voice. He generally speaks through the character of Socrates, but that does not mean that everything the character Socrates says should be interpreted as Plato’s own belief. Indeed, Plato has Socrates say a number of things that are pretty clearly NOT what Plato believes, often with the intent of mocking or patronizing his interlocutors. Consider, for example, the end of Ion, where Socrates professes to believe that the rhapsode Ion is divinely inspired, second-hand, by the same muse who inspired Homer. Parmenides is especially obscure when attempting to attribute any ideas directly to Plato. The main narrator is Cephalus, but he was not present for the conversation between Parmenides, Zeno, Socrates, and Aristoteles. Cephalus hears about the conversation from Antiphon. But even Antiphon was not present for the conversation. Antiphon claims to have heard it from Pythodorus, in whose house the conversation supposedly took place. So that final line uttered by Parmenides reaches us fifth-hand. And, notably, Socrates is out of the conversation by that point, so it seems incredible that the line represents what Socrates actually thought, let alone what Plato thought. And if it is not what Plato actually thought, then Plato must have believed there was something wrong about it, if not laughably wrong.

In the second place, Plato is funny, and he meant to be. As mentioned above, Socrates clearly intends to mock some of his interlocutors, and the end of Ion is a great example of him toying with an unworthy interlocutor. And in the Apology, part of the charge leveled against Socrates was that the young men of Athens found the Socratic take-downs of prominent men so amusing. This undermined the youth’s respect for their elders, among other things. Although the character Socrates argues that he was only trying to help his interlocutors find out whether their ideas were built on philosophical bedrock, it seems clear that he occasionally took joy in making them look foolish. So making Parmenides look foolish does not seem out of character for Plato.

It may be argued that the ending of Parmenides is unlike Ion, etc., because in other dialogues, Socrates corners his interlocutors and confronts them with the absurd results of their logical missteps. In Parmenides, however, Socrates is not an active participant in the conversation by the end. He does not twist Parmenides into the absurd conclusion; Parmenides does that to himself. But that distinction could be explained by the age and experience of the character of Socrates. In dialogues with later dramatic dates, an older Socrates is willing to wield the interlocutors’ logical blunders like a slapstick, but the young Socrates, not yet confident in his own philosophy (as demonstrated in the first half of Parmenides,) and faced with the older and respected Parmenides and Zeno, simply observes the absurd conclusion without comment. That doesn’t mean that Plato didn’t chuckle to himself as he wrote that last line.

And finally, the conclusion is a philosophical dead end. There is simply nowhere to go from there. The theory of forms, as discussed in the first half of the dialogue, went on to become a great hallmark of Platonic philosophy, not the one and it’s implicit self-contradictions. So either the last line of Parmenides is an extremely complex but profound and valid philosophical conclusion that remains inexplicably absent from the rest of Plato’s work, or it actually is as silly and nonsensical as it appears on its face. And because I do not understand it, I choose to believe it is not serious.

Parmenides is a joke, bring on the next book.

Beer of the week: Colbitzer Weizen – This hefeweizen comes from Germany’s Hofbrauhaus Wolters. It pours with a big sticky head. The aroma has the classic yeasty notes of the style. The flavor is pleasant, with hints of bread, banana and clove. I would like more of a spice bite at the end, but this is a pretty good beer at a really good price.

Reading of the week: Parmenides by Plato, 126a-128e: As a final bit of support for my theory that the dialogue is a satire of Parmenides’ philosophy, this week’s reading includes the part where Zeno explicitly states that people “jeer at [Parmenides] and assert that if the all is one many absurd results follow which contradict his theory.” Before the philosophical substance of the dialogue begins, Plato primes us for the idea that Parmenides’ ideas are laughable.

Question for the week: Sometimes, satire is so on-point that it is difficult to identify as satire. (See also Poe’s Law.) Is that good satire because it is so close to what it is mocking, or is it bad satire because it does not serve its purpose if people can’t tell whether it is earnest?

*My claim is a big one, and somewhat unusual for this blog. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, which explains the length and depth of this post. To the rest of my analysis above, I would also like to add the weight of an appeal to authority. (Whatever value that may be.) In the book Plato’s Parmenides Reconsidered, Mehmet Tabak apparently argues that Parmenides does not have an important philosophical message, but is primarily a satirical criticism of Plato’s philosophical opponents. I learned of Dr. Tabak’s book near the end of drafting this blog post, so although I have not actually read it, I am more than willing to assume that Dr. Tabak makes all the same points that I do, and that he supports my conclusion entirely.

Advertisements

Fitting the Crime

This is the twenty-sixth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXVI: Continental Drama

What do John Wilkes Booth, Marcus Junius Brutus, and William Tell have in common? That question would hardly need answering if not for the fact that so many people only remember William Tell for shooting an apple off of his son’s head. Aside from that spectacular display of marksmanship, Tell’s truly remarkable act was the assassination Hermann Gessler, the Austrian governor in Switzerland. And like every other political assassin, Tell had his reasons.

In Friedrich Schiller’s dramatization of the Tell legend, Gessler is a cruel despot. The law that drives the plot of the story is one which makes it a capital offense not to kneel before Gessler’s hat, hung upon a pole. It is the enforcement of this draconian rule that brings Gessler and Tell into conflict.

By the way, the word “draconian”, like so many other words, enjoys popular usage without its origin being generally well-known. Draco was a legislator, but not a tyrant. Just about 2,600 years ago, he promulgated the first written legal code for the city of Athens. And the Draconian Code was a doozy.

According to Plutarch, “Draco’s laws… were too severe, and the punishment[s] too great; for death was appointed for almost all offences, insomuch that those that were convicted of idleness were to die, and those that stole a cabbage or an apple to suffer even as villains that committed sacrilege or murder. So that Demades, in after time, was thought to have said very happily, that Draco’s laws were written not with ink but blood; and he himself, being once asked why be made death the punishment of most offences, replied, ‘Small ones deserve that, and I have no higher for the greater crimes.'”

Anyway, Gessler was cruel, particularly in his treatment of fathers. For failing to kneel to a hat, Tell was forced to choose between execution and shooting an apple off of his son’s head. Another father was blinded for not informing on his son. It’s clear that to Schiller and the Swiss who regard Tell as a hero, one’s allegiance to family is far more important than one’s allegiance to civil authority. A hierarchy of values that Gessler, like most civil authorities, resented.

Beer of the week: Wolters Pilsner – Tell was Swiss and his son was called Walter. This beer is German and is called Wolters. Close enough? I want to like Wolters more. The brand was acquired by the international beer behemoth InBev a while back, but has since become independent once again. Unfortunately they make a pretty average German pils. It is pale gold, with a quickly fading head of large bubbles. The aroma is faint, and primarily of malt. Nothing special. Also, it’s been a while since I complained about the “German Purity Law” as a marketing gimmick, but this beer is another offender. “Hops extract” was almost certainly not invented yet when the Reinheitsgrebot was enacted, yet it is an ingredient in this beer that is purportedly “brewed in strict accordance to the German Purity Law.” (Which, by the way, is not draconian, because it is not enforced at all.)

Reading of the week: William Tell by Friedrich Schiller, Act One, Scene One – Although Gessler is clearly the villain of the play, the Swiss may have driven him to his cruelty. The first act of defiance by Tell is helping the murderer of a government official escape justice. (To be fair, we learn that the murder was committed in response to “unseemly overtures” the official had made to the killers wife, which lends further support to the reading that the real moral of the play is to prioritize familial loyalty over obedience to civil authority.) But everybody that the murderer encounters in this scene approves of the killing and is willing to aid him in making his escape. Gessler must rule with an iron fist if the people will not even consent to the prosecution of an axe murderer. (Did I mention that the murder was committed by cleaving the official’s skull with an axe?)

Question of the week: Criminal penalties generally serve four purposes: rehabilitation, retaliation, prevention (preventing the offender from offending again by being incarcerated, incapacitated, or dead), deterrence (setting an example to deter others from offending.) How does one even begin to balance those objectives?