The One and the Many — Part One

Easy, calm your

haste! Approach to lead our passage!

This bridge is upper.


Thus come to castle.


A password thanks.

Yes, pearse.

Well, all be dumbed!

O really? [2]

1. Yussive smirte and ye mermon answerth from his beelyingplace below the tightmark, Gotahelv!

2. O Evol, kool in the salg and ees how Dozi pits what a drows er.


- James Joyce, (1882–1941, ‘Finnegans Wake’

Royal Canal at Castleknock, Dublin

Another excerpt from the ‘Night Lesson’s episode in ‘Finnegans Wake’, one of my favourite sections of the novel, given that it is a parody of all scholarship. ‘Approach to lead our passage!’ The initial letters spell Atlop, an anagram of Plato, (427–347 BC). ‘The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato’, said Alfred North Whitehead, (1861–1947), which is of course absurd but together with Socrates he is most certainly a central figure in the history of Western philosophy. And on the subject of parodies, one of the most interesting of Platonic dialogues is the ‘Parmenides’ (‘surely the greatest artistic achievement of the ancient dialectic’, as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, (1770–1831), described it); not merely because it relates of one of the very few occasions when Socrates gets his comeuppance, athough he is a very young man at the time of the dialogue, probably about 18 years old, but also because towards the end of the dialogue Parmenides, (late 6th/early 5th century BC), now about 65 years of age, one of the best known philosophers of the time, embarks upon some argumentation at such a high level of abstraction it is almost as if he is parodying himself.

The only known work by Parmenides is actually a poem, ‘On Nature’, of which only fragments survive, and in which he presents two view of reality, the way of opinion and the way of truth. (He describes being escorted by maidens (naturally): ‘the daughters of the Sun made haste to escort me, having left the halls of Night for the light’, that is, escorted from the ordinary daytime world to an extraordinary destination, out of the way of human paths). The way of opinion is the way of sense perception; and misled by such we form false and deceitful conceptions. The way of truth leads us away from the illusory towards two modes of enquiry, that it is, on the one hand; that it is not, on the other. The latter can be ruled out: ‘It needs must be that what can be thought and spoken of is; for it is possible for it to be, and it is not possible for what is nothing to be’. There is no thing that can not be; rather, and contrary to all appearances in this world of diversity, in reality (what is-is) there exists but one thing; reality is the One, the timeless and the unchangeable one thing.

‘Black Circle’, Kazimir Malevich, 1915

Plato’s ‘Parmenides’ may be summarised as follows:

1. Zeno had argued that if Being is many, it must be both like and unlike, which is impossible; but Zeno forgets that, although the universals likeness and unlikeness are not identical, particular things can be alike in some respect, and unlike in some other respect.

2. Socrates claims that there are absolute ideas (forms) of the just, the beautiful, the good, and the true; but perhaps there are no ideas of vile materials such as mud, hair, and dirt.

3. Parmenides has various criticisms of the Doctrine of Ideas: If an Idea is one and yet exists in many things, it is separated from itself; and if Ideas cover things with only parts of themselves, anything partaking of smallness would be smaller than absolute smallness.

4. Furthermore, Parmenides argues, the Doctrine of Ideas leads to an infinite regress of Ideas; and if the Ideas are absolute, they cannot be known by us.

5. Parmenides then demonstrates his sophistical skill by arguing that if the one is, the one is not; and if the one is not, nothing is.

The ‘Parmenides’ presents an intriguing and astute criticism of the Platonic Doctrine of Ideas, in its underdeveloped state that is, for here it is a youthful Socrates that is advancing the theory. The Doctrine of Ideas is the theory that the physical world is not as real or true as the timeless, absolute, unchangeable Ideas; all objects of this world are imitations of non-physical essences, that is to say, Forms, or Ideas, that inhabit an intelligible realm. Socrates as a young man met Parmenides, and indeed it may be the case that the conversation occurred as reported in the dialogue, but it is perhaps more likely that Plato, having heard that at one time young Socrates met the ageing Parmenides, utilised this bit of historical information as a dramatic centre about which to build a summary of Parmenidean criticism of his Doctrine of Ideas, thereby taking some of the edge of the criticism by portraying Socrates as intelligent and able yet lacking maturity in his thinking. Consequently, the ‘Parmenides’ provides evidence that perhaps Plato was never entirely satisfied with the Doctrine of Ideas, and that, like all great philosophers, he kept returniing to his central thesis, subjecting it to critical scrutiny and modifying it in accordance with the discoveries of its deficicencies.

Piet Mondrian, ‘Lozenge with Four Lines and Gray’, 1926

As the dialogue begins, Socrates hears Zeno read from some of his writings that argue against pluralism, that Being is many. Socrates provides a summation of Zeno’s thesis, that it states that ‘if being is many, it must be both like and unlike, and … this is impossible … ‘. Socrates then points out that this was merely a circumlocutory way of defending Parmenides’ doctrine that All is one, for to claim that Being is not many and to state that it is one is to make one and the same claim. Zeno agrees but goes on the defensive by pointing out that his argument is designed to demonstrate the inconsistency in upholding the doctrine that Being is not one, but many.

Socrates then professed not to see the irregularity of saying that things could be both like and unlike, for he agrees that it would be paradoxical to say in regard to the Idea of likeness that things might share could not, in itself, as an absolute nature, be unlikeness; but things, as distinguished from absolute Ideas, or natures, could very well be alike in some other respect or degree, and unlike in some other respect or degree. To say that things are one simply because it is possible to speak of them as partaking of the Idea of the many, is only to utter a truism. Socrates thus presents an argument that leaves the impression that the view held by Parmenides and Zeno may very well be trivial, a mere truism.

Apparently both Parmenides and Zeno were annoyed and impressed by Socrates’ criticism, but the aged and revered Parmenides had no intention of allowing the youthful Socrates to escape scrutiny of his own views; and thus he embarks upon a close scrutiny of Socrates’ distinction between Ideas in themselves (or kinds of things) and things of certain kinds (partaking of Ideas). He succeeds in drawing from Socrates an admission that Socrates believes in Ideas (such as the Idea of likeness) which can be considered as distinct from that which partakes of the Ideas. Socrates emphatically asserts that there are absolute Ideas of the just, of the beautiful, of the good and such matters, but he was not certain that there are any ideas of of human, of fire, of water; and he was certain that there were no absolute Ideas of such vile materials as hair, or mud, or dirt.

‘Artist’s Shit’ (Merda d’artista), 1961, Piero Manzoni (Contents 30 gr net. Freshly preserved. Produced and tinned in May 1961)

Notwithstanding his expression of certitude upon that particular point, Socrates concedes that he has sometimes thought that there is an Idea of everything, but he was afraid that such an extreme view would turn out to be nonsensical. And Parmenides retorts, somewhat condescendingly, that Socrates reluctance to extend his view was a result of his youth, and that the time would come when he would ‘not despise even the meanest things … ‘

Then, by using the language of things to talk about Ideas, Parmenides attempted to show the difficulties of claiming that many things can partake of a single absolute nature or Idea. If the whole Idea is one and exists as one in many things, then it is separated from itself (resulting in a condition, Parmenides implicitly suggests, which would not be possible). Socrates responds by saying that the Idea is like the day, ‘one and the same in many places at once…’ But Parmenides then takes advantage of this spatial metaphor to argue that just as a sail spread over many people covers each with only a part of itself, so an Idea spread over many things would cover each with only a part, not the whole, of itself. But if Ideas cover things with only parts of themselves, then things partaking of equality, for instance, would in fact be partaking of less than equality (since but a part of equality); and things partaking of smallness would be partaking of part of smallness, and since a part is smaller than the whole of which it is part, the part would be smaller than the absolutely small (which is absurd). Hence, Parmenides concludes, there are difficulties in Socrates’ view, whether the Idea covers things as a whole or only in part. Socrates conceded that he had no ready answer to this criticism.

Another objection was then advanced by Parmenides. If one compares greatness (the Idea) to great things, it would seem that, according to Socrates’ way of thinking, there must be another Idea by way of reference to which greatness and great things can be seen to be alike in partaking of this second greatness. But there is no end to this mode of analysis, and one begins to wonder about the method.

Sonia Delaunay, ‘Rhythm Colour no. 1076’, 1939

Further criticism by Parmenides leads to the rejection of the suggestion by Socrates that the Ideas might be only thoughts (for if the Ideas are only thoughts, the thoughts have no objects; but if, on the other hand, the thoughts are of Ideas, there are Ideas). Socrates then proposes that Ideas are patterns and that to say that something partakes of an Idea (or nature) means only that it fits the pattern, is like the pattern in some respect. But Parmenides then uses a variant of one of his former arguments to maintain that this view would involve another infinite regress of Ideas (for the pattern would be like the copy in respect of a certain Idea, and the Idea would be like the pattern in respect of a third Idea, ad infinitum).

Another difficulty involved in the claim that there are absolute Ideas, Parmenides tells Socrates, is that if the Ideas are absolute and not relative to us, they cannot be known by us, since all our knowledge is relative to us.

Furthermore, he continues, God surely has absolute knowledge, but if so, he cannot know human beings by reference to the absolute Ideas which he has (for the relative cannot be understood by the absolute … one can see why Parmenides was so highly regarded, quite the master of dialectic). Yet to know them in any other way would be to know them in an inferior fashion. Thus, in Socrates view, God is either ignorant in part, or knows in some inferior fashion.

Having made Socrates uncomfortable with his adroit criticism, Parmenides then gives the young philosopher some advice concerning his profession. He suggested that Socrates follow the practice of considering the consequences of any proposed hypothesis and also the consequences of the denial of the hypothesis. Socrates asked for an example, and after some urging Parmenides agreed to illustrate the method he endorsed by considering the hypothesis that one is (that Being is one) and then that one is not (that Being is not one).

The arguments that Parmenides then presents are so notoriously abstract and convoluted I shall leave them until part two. It has been suggested that it is most profitable to pay attention to the logical play (generally thought to be undertaken in dead seriousness although to me it has something of self-parody about it) in this latter part of the ‘Parmenides’, if only to learn what happens when a philosopher mistakes logical facts for facts about the world, together with the uselessness of such analysis; and for those of you unsympathetic towards Hegel’s philosophical methodology you may be inclined to think that Parmenides is anticipating Hegel here (taking logical facts to be facts about the world). But in part three I shall discuss Hegels explanation of where Parmenides is going wrong, which really does concern a matter that is quite profound about how we humans think.

To be continued….

A digression:

Parmenides’ thesis in a nutshell is that what is is one, in Greek hen to on, and so, though the One is alluded to in ‘Finnegans Wake’, it appears as the original hen:


About that original hen’.

(Notes: Ahahn = amen; and Hahn, (German), rooster; and ahn, (German), suspect.

And with the original hen original sin is also here suggested, hereditary sin, inherited from sinful choice of the first man of the human race; and to hen, (Greek) the One, the origin of all things (in philosophy)).

Associations and connections, there is no end to them……

‘A Variation of Sadness’, 1957, René Magritte

Notes to ‘Finnegans Wake’ quote:

1. passage = an indefinite portion of a discourse or writing, usually of small or moderate length, taken by itself; and Maitland: ‘Life and Legends of St. Martin of Tours’: ‘when the Festival of the Saint’s ‘Passage’ (or passing into eternity) fell on a Saturday’.

2. upper= to or in a loftier place or position; higher, further up’ and over; and Thom’s Directory of Ireland/Dublin, Chapelizod section: ‘Chapelizod, a village partly in Palmerstown parish, Uppercross barony, but chiefly in the parish of the same name, Castleknock barony’.

3. prolegomenon = a preliminary discourse prefixed to a literary work; especially a learned preface or preamble

4. ideareal =sidereal, of or relating to the stars or constellations.

5. Yussive = Yusuf (Arabic), Joseph; and Joseph Smith founded Mormons.

6. beelying = belie, to lie near; and buryingplace.

7. tightmark = tidemark, indicator consisting of a line at the high-water or low-water limits of the tides.

8. Gotahelv! = go to hell; and Göta Elv (Swedish), ‘Gota River’, River in SW Sweden; and Gott (German), god; and helf (German), help.

Waterfalls of the Göta älv in Trollhättan, Sweden

9. pearse = obsolete form of pierce; and please.

10. dumbed = dumb, to render dumb, silent, or unheard; and I’ll be damned!

11. evol = love

12. drows er = drawers; and backwards, mirror-like.

‘The Spirit of Plato’, William Blake, c. 1816–1820



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David Proud

David Proud


David Proud is a British philosopher currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on Hegel and James Joyce.