Isabela Vasiliu-Scraba


In the last attempt to understand partaking of the divine world of Ideas, Plato repeats himself, which, we must admit, is something utterly new, especially after having had to face, so far, the difficulty of an unutterable parsimony in the presentation of difficulties in partaking. But it is not the argumentation with regard to partaking that appears twice, although, in the translation of this last part we will have the opportunity to notice the perpetuation of an error in translation, -which implicitly presupposed the very fact that Plato had supposedly repeated himself right during the succession of arguments.

The fact is, however, that Plato repeats himself only in pointing out for the reader that the Theory of Ideas is something extremely difficult to illustrate, something for the understanding of which one needs natural talent, as well as painstaking experience in the realm of philosophy. Furthermore, for those who wish to verge upon the Platonic philosophy, there is a demand for endless persistence to understand some inferences that are merely allusive:

“-There are many difficulties, but the greatest of all is this: -If an opponent argues that these Ideas, being such as we say they ought to be, must remain unknown, no one can prove to him that he is wrong, unless he who denies their existence be a man of great ability and knowledge, and is willing to follow a long and laborious demonstration; (133c) he will remain unconvinced, and still insist that they cannot be known.

-What do you mean, Parmenides? said Socrates.” (see Plato, PARMENIDES, 133b-c).

This is the passage indeed repeated, at first some kind of introduction to the last stream of thought, a statement the content of which will be repeated, with the occasion of concluding the discussion about the Theory of Ideas (135b), with just a brief addition, certainly not devoid of deep signification. In this statement (133b-c), which refers in general to the fate of understanding the Platonic doctrine of Ideas, and particularly to the first of the implications of the hypothesis which will follow, one should notice, on the one hand, Plato’s fear that not all his virtual readers are endowed with the gift that would enable them to understand him, however much some of them might have striven with various philosophical works and however acquainted they might be with philosophical thought in general. One can easily notice the extent to which his fears were justified.

On the other hand, the Greek philosopher’s opinion is that his writings on the Theory of Ideas, although implying suppositions that are complex and hard to comprehend, should be treated “willingly”. But the time passed since Plato’s death has demonstrated well enough that all the comments on the Platonic work were (and, sadly, still are) based on Aristotle’s comments, which lack exactly the willing to understand Plato. The reason for this was either the ambition of youth, or the anger of not having remained Plato’s successor in the headship of the Academy, or simply the fact that his way of thinking was different.

Directly linked to the hypothesis that is about to follow, Parmenide’s statement anticipates, by its subtle formulation, one of the surprising conclusions of the hypothesis, the one according to which the Ideas remain unknown to men, Plato preparing, this way, the ground for approaching such a difficulty.

Therefore, under the pretext of conceiving someone who denies the doctrine of Ideas, Plato hits two targets in a single strike. The first, with regard to the posterity of his work, and the second, with regard to the following difficulties of a partaking that implies a relation of dependence, similar to that of a master and a slave, the master being what he is by his relation with the one who is subordinated to him, while the slave is a slave only by his relation to a master. With this example, Plato wishes to present a total separation between the Divinity (the Idea of Good subsisting by itself) and those who will never know it, underlining the interconnection of people concerned only with worldly matters, the people who, forgetting about the existence of Divinity, only know themselves to be slaves to other people, the only dependence they admit being the dependence on other people.

Following the question of young Socrates (“What do you mean, Parmenides?”), which, in subsidiary, hides his amazing nurtured by the postulation of a radical separation between the divine world of Ideas and the world of men, the old Parmenides commences to illustrate the greatest of all the difficulties in the Theory of Ideas:

“-In the first place, I think, Socrates, that you, or any one who maintains the absolute existence of Ideas (the subsistence of Ideas by themselves), will admit that they cannot exist in us.

-No, said Socrates; for then they would be no longer absolute.” (see Plato, PARMENIDES, 133c).

One can notice the emphasis put, from the very beginning, on the distinction between the subsistence of the Idea “by itself” and “in us“, which hints to the transcendence of the Idea, through the (forced) denial of its immanence.

In the formulation of Parmenide’s assertion one can note how Plato considers Socrates next to any other man (“I think, Socrates, that you, or any one…”), so that Socrates shouldn’t take all the credit for the acceptance of an affirmation of utter surprise, as Socrates himself had preached to his disciples the search of Divinity through self-knowledge.

We said that the stipulation contained in the first statements of the last hypothesis regarding partaking through a relation of dependence is far-fetched, for in the case of the hypothesis regarding partaking of the Idea considered in its immanence, as “thought” (132b) did not exclude transcendence.

In that case, called by us the second privileged moment of the debate about partaking, the general postulate of the separation between the Idea and those who partake of the Idea remained perfectly valid, even though the Idea was presumed “to show itself in the soul”. The same thing had happened with the other hypothesis, the one that marked (in our opinion) the first privileged moment of the debate about partaking, when the “metaphor of the day” had been invoked.

Therefore, things will now be very clear, enabling us to follow the shortest path towards emphasizing an aberration:

“-You speak well, he said; and therefore when Ideas are what they are in relation to one another, their essence is determined by a relation among themselves, and has nothing to do with the resemblances, or whatever they are to be termed, which are in our sphere, and from which we receive this or that name when we partake of them. And the things which are within our sphere and have the same names whith them, are likewise only relative to one another, and not to the Ideas which have the same names with them, but belong to themselves and not to them.

-How do you mean? said Socrates.” (see Plato. PARMENIDES, 133d-134a).

The old Parmenides’ statement commences with an irony: “you speak well” (kalos légeis). And indeed, it becomes Socrates well to wonder “how would Ideas subsist in us if they subsist by themselves“, when Socrates himself had been the one to take as his creed the words inscribed on the frontispiece of Apollo’s temple in Delphi, “Know thyself“, in other words, search for the God (which exists outside you) within yourself, for it is there that you shall find him.

With such a beginning, one should not be surprised by its sequel, in which Parmenides assert that there wasn’t any relation between the partakers and the Ideas, that partakers only have relations between themselves, that right those who receive their names from the Ideas, when they partake of them, – however that partaking would be conceived, either as resemblance or as whatever it is to be termed -, have no relation at all with the Ideas from which they take their names.

The foundation on which Parmenides builds his argumentation is as weak, as the one presented in the hypothesis about the “Patterns” (see our study about this hypothesis). If those belonging to the divine world are what they are by themselves and not through their relation to something placed on an inferior hierarchical level, then those who try, by being righteous, to imitate as much as possible the Idea of Justice (the Righteousness in its essence), would only have a relation with those similar to them, a conclusion which is obviously false.

Socrates’ brief contribution to the good development of the dialogue by asking“How do you mean?” is not only meant to create the impression of continuity; it also indicates Socrates’ rightful puzzlement when faced with such mischievous an allegation.

That is because, in utter contradiction with the premises put by him (as supporter of the Theory of Ideas) to the discussion of partaking, Parmenides seems now to show how the men which are righteous are righteous only through their reciprocal relations, the determination “right” implying, except for its being homonymous with Righteousness itself subsisting by itself (or Righteousness in its essence), no other correlation by which the world of righteous men would be related to the divine world of absolute Righteousness.

In order to highlight the ironic assumption of relations established exclusively on the horizontal axis, between those who are alike, Parmenides resorts to the example with the master and the slave:

“-As if, Parmenides answered, some one of us should be the master or servant of any one; he who is servant is not sevant (133e) of the Mastership, nor he who is master, master of the Slavery; but he sustains both these relations as being a man; while, in the mean time, Dominion itself is that which it is from its relation to Servitude; and Servitude in a similar manner is Servitude with reference to Dominion. (134) The Ideas which subsist by themselves have nothing to do with us, nor we with them; they are concerned with themselves only, and we with ourselves. Do you see my meaning?

-Yes, said Socrates, I quite see your meaning.” (Plato, PARMENIDES, 133 d-134 a).

For a mind that is familiar with philosophy, in bringing about the problem of the radical separation between the divine world of Ideas (which subsist by themselves) and the world of men, it wouldn’t have been necessary to illustrate with the master and the slave. Hence the answer that Socrates gave, denoting the understanding (maybe too effortless) of the example, which couldn’t have misled anyone, being extremely clear.

But, had not Plato lowered the level of the debate to this example, the text of the dialogue, in this area, would have remained incomprehensible for many readers. Most of the commentators, after having been mislead by this last part of the discussion about partaking, have at least been able to rephrase this example with much engagement, failing to notice Plato’s irony scattered all over the illustration.

Had they followed closer what Plato wrote in all of his dialogues, the commentators wouldn’t have found it difficult to realize that, according to the beliefs of the Greek philosopher, those who live in the world of men, be they masters or slaves, with no distinction among them, are, by their double nature, human and divine at the same time, slaves to Mastership in itself, marking the omnipotence of Divinity, in spite of the fact that not all men are aware of this relation of dependence.

According to Plato, only philosophers are aware of their position of slaves to Mastership (the omnipotence of Divinity), for it is them only who, being immersed at the deepest in the divine matters, try to share the true knowledge (the absolute knowledge).

Just as the two worlds, the divine one and the human one, appear to be totally separated, in the example offered by old Parmenides, divine knowledge and the knowledges accessible to men will appear to be separated in a similar way. And this is where we find out what Plato believes to be the basic preoccupation of partakers: they appear to be interested in knowledge, definitely not in any knowledge, not in one of the various kinds of knowledge whose objects reside in the world of senses, but in the only science that leads to truth, the absolute knowledge of Good subsisting by itself.

This fact will become more obvious from the first (bizarre) conclusion of the hypothesis – a very unusual one, as we have noticed, given its scarcely masked irony -, a conclusion reached by the old Parmenides who, nevertheless, will be careful enough to maintain the   hierarchy among the types of knowledge. He will first present the superior knowledge (the absolute knowledge), the only one whose object consists in the Ideas themselves (standing for the true beings, according to Plato), to refer only afterwards to the inferiors knowledges which find their objects in the world of senses:

“-And will not knowledge -I mean absolute knowledge- answer to absolute truth?

-Certainly.” ( see Plato, PARMENIDES, 134 a)

In the remark that follows immediately afterwards, the one regarding the plurality of knowledges, Plato expresses in general terms the fact that, regardless of which kind of knowledge we take into account, the first thing that we will say about it consists in the statement that it has an object, that any kind of knowledge concerning the world of senses is knowledge of something.

It is nearly unbelievable to what extent this banal statement, – put by Plato in the following terms: “-But will every knowledge -which is-, be the knowledge of something -which is-, or not? -Certainly it will.”(“Hekaste de au ton epistemon he estin, hekastou ton onton, ho estin, eie an episteme. e ou; -Nai.”) -, came to be distorted by translation.

And as we come to the end of our comments on the problem of partaking, having reached the last hypothesis about partaking, we will take our time to show how, by translation, the most difficult dialogue from the Platonic work can become even more difficult, right in those passages where Plato hadn’t intended to puzzle the reader with any subtlety of thought.

I had mentioned, in the beginning, a translation error that started with F. Astius (or whoever else before him), to be perpetuated in various variants of the translation of the dialogue Parmenides in modern languages: an error built upon the erroneous assumption that Plato had repeated himself, in the course of argumentation.

Well, it is a fact that Plato, when the course of argumentation is concerned, does not repeat himself. If, preserving the hierarchy, Plato had presented the object of the absolute knowledge (the true knowledge), the Greek philosopher would not present again the problem of absolute knowledge in a statement following immediately after the first presentation.

Translating the dialogue into Latin, Astius supposed that Plato could hint at “absolute” knowledge, right after having persuaded the reader that the true   knowledge refers to the world of Ideas.

In the manner followed by those who perpetuated his mistake, Astius implicitly assumed that Plato had either generalized a singular situation – as in the case of absolute knowledge (which is utterly ludicrous), or misplaced the absolute knowledge within the plurality of “knowledges” that have their objects in the phenomenal realm, situation that is equally ludicrous.

The translators seem to have completely forgotten the dialogue Teetet (about the true knowledge), where Plato uses the singular for the absolute knowledge, which can only be one, that about the divine world of Ideas, to use the plural only for the plurality of human “knowledges”. In Theetet these “knowledges” are compared to cages held by men, in order to indicate the difference between the absolute knowledge, which is an interior knowledge, and the multiple “knowledges” about those placed in the phenomenal world, simple exterior possessions, not implying any inner transformation of those who possess many “knowledges”.

According to F. Astius, the statement with regard to the plurality of human knowledges which, being knowledges, must each have an object, refers to whichever absolute knowledge (“Quaeque rursus scientiarum quae per se est cuiusque rerum per se exstantis erit scientia; nonne?”), as if absolute knowledge hadn’t been unique.

It seems that even a distinguished translator can become confused in a plurality of knowledges which would all be “absolutes”, and can overlook the fact that Plato said about absolute knowledge what should have been said in the first statement regarding the knowledge superior to any other kind of knowledge. Therefore, according to the Greek philosopher, there is only one knowledge that can be absolute, that referring to the Ideas subsiting by themselves.

The interesting fact is that Auguste Diès not only takes over the error belonging to F. Astius, generalizing, as Astius had done before, the singular situation of absolute knowledge, but also tries to provide a basis for it, failing to notice how the quotation from Politeia (438 c), invoked by him, turns things back where they belonged.

In a footnote at the bottom of the page containing the second remark, the one regarding the plurality of knowledges (“Tout science essentielle déterminée sera, par suite, science d’un être essentiel déterminé; n’est il pas vrai?”), Auguste Diès remarks that Plato himself had mentioned in the dialogue Politeia the fact that a distinction should be made between the one and only essential (absolute) knowledge and the multiple knowledges whose objects reside in the world of senses (“La science en soi est science de l’objet en soi; telle science déterminée, science de tel objet déterminé”, POLITEIA, 438c).

Therefore, as no translator could spontaneously give up the habit of underlining subtleties exactly where, in the subtle dialogue Parmenides, they fail to appear, we will illustrate how this second statement regarding the plurality of knowledges is rendered in other translations.

Léon Robin, for what Astius had translated as subsisting by itself (“quae per se est”), prefers, like Auguste Diès, to employ the term essence, making a further mess not only with the essence, but also with the capital letters denoting the multitude of sciences in the absurd generalization of the singular situation regarding the science in its “essence” (the absolute science):

Chaque Science, par suite, dans son essence, c’est de chaque Réalité, dans son essence, respectivement, qu’elle sera science? N’est pas?”(Platon, PARMENIDE, 134 a).

Benjamin Jowett, for “quae per se est” proposed by Astius, uses the term absolute, as it is sometimes used, thus preserving and proliferating the error of multiplying the absolute and unique knowledge: “And each kind of absolute knowledge will answer to each kind of absolute being?” (Plato, PARMENIDES, 134 a).

Otto Apelt also preserves that “quae per se est” originating in the Latin translation made by Astius, as he preserves the error of multiplying the absolute knowledge too, but he displays originality in understanding the Greek text by dividing the object in fragments to be dealt with by every “absolute” knowledge , – a distribution obviously non existent in the Platonic text: “Und so wird jede einzelne Wissenschaft an sich jedesmal ein Wissen des entsprechenden Teils des an sich Seienden sein. Oder nicht?” (Platon, PARMENIDE, 134 a).

Nevertheless, we should make something clear. All the betrayals of the Platonic text originate not in ignorance with regard to the meaning of certain Greek terms, but in the natural impossibility of translating something one fails to understand. Translations always reflect what the translators had understood from the text of the Greek philosopher. And as the most obscure Platonic dialogue is involved, to counsel with the previous translations is as normal as possible a fact, as it is natural to preserve some translating solutions. Of course, this implies the risk of perpetuating some mistakes, as we have just underlined, by the example of the remark regarding the plurality of knowledges.

To conclude presenting the series of various translations of this remark, we will stop at a translator who couldn’t have been influenced by the choice made by Astius in translating, and who, therefore, made an accurate translation in the first place. Dealing with the translation of the dialogue Parmenides while in India, Thomas Taylor translated correctly the first part of the statement, without altering the meaning of “every science which is (he estin)” by introducing the determination “absolute” or “essential.. Nevertheless, Th. Taylor, noticing that Plato had already spoken about “absolute truth” and was about to speak about “our” truth, failed, in his turn, to resist the temptation of offering, in his translation, a generous formulation to include, topsy-turvy, both kinds of truth. That is why he corrupts the good beginning of the sentence, adding an unfortunate ending, by introducing the word truth which, in the context of the statement, becames the starting point in the falsification of the meaning: “But will every science which is (he estin), be the science of true being, or not?” (Plato, PARMENIDES, 134 a).

As one can easily notice not only from the translations of the dialogue Parmenides in various idioms, but also, especially, from the comments alongside this subtle masterpiece, Plato has remained, after ages, scarcely understood.