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Parmenides, Stesichorus, and Antilogy in Plato’s Phaedrus

Kenneth Draper

Williams College

In the Phaedrus, Plato puts intertextuality to thematic use, showing how the absorption, scrutiny, and revision of others’ logoi is tantamount to the never-ending process of philosophy itself (Nightingale 1995: 133-71). In this paper, I examine the particular role that two authors, Parmenides and Stesichorus, play in this program. While scholars have discussed allusions to one or the other, no one has closely examined the two sets of references together (on Parmenides, see Slaveva-Griffin 2003; on Stesichorus, see Demos 1997, Capra 2014: 27-55). Yet these allusions reinforce one another, working in concert to make an argument about the proper use of antilogy in philosophical dialectic.

            The most extensive treatment of the Parmenidean allusions is that of Slaveva-Griffin. She shows that Plato interweaves Parmenidean form and content, reusing the chariot journey as an allegory for illumination and modeling aspects of the immortal soul on Parmenides’ undying Being. But just as important, I would argue, is the antilogical framework from which these Parmenidean details are taken. For Parmenides’ poem falls into two halves: in the first (the aletheia), the goddess explains to the charioteer the way things are; in the second (the doxa), the way they seem. At the conclusion of the first, the goddess says, “Here I end my trustworthy discourse and thought concerning truth; henceforth learn the beliefs of mortal men, listening to the deceitful ordering of my words” (fr. 8.50-52, trans. Kirk, Raven, and Schofield). Yet it seems that for all its deceit, the doxa advertises itself as a better approximation of truth than competing traditional accounts of the phenomena (Kirk, Raven, and Schofield 1983: 254). The goddess describes this account, after all, as “how the things believed would have to be” (ὡς τὰ δοκοῦντα / χρῆν ... εῖναι, fr. 1.31-32).

            In the Phaedrus, Socrates likewise offers two contradictory accounts: his first speech details the shortcomings of the lover, and his second speech, or palinode, elaborates the virtues of eros. It is in this second speech that we find the Parmenidean allusions. I believe that these references call our attention not only to the status of the second speech as divinely revealed truth but also by extension to the similarities between Socrates’ first speech and Parmenides’ doxa. For Socrates similarly idenfities his first speech as at once divinely inspired and false. Furthermore, this speech counters Lysias’ speech much as Parmenides’ doxa counters the accounts of competing sophoi—by making similar arguments in a more persuasive way. Finally, each logos is juxtaposed with an antilogy by the same author, one that counters its illusions with truth.

            Plato’s reuse of Stesichorus is more overt. Socrates explicitly cites Stesichorus’ palinode as a model for his own recantation in his second speech. Reading the Stesichorean allusions against the Parmenidean ones reveals telling similarities. Like Parmenides, Stesichorus composed two antilogies, in his case an ode and a palinode that perhaps formed two halves of a single poem (Sider 1989, Kelly 2007, Capra 2014: 37-39). Again, the two accounts contrast illusion and truth. Stesichorus’ palinode, after all, claimed that Helen did not go to Troy but that an eidolon went in her place, a visual trick as deceptive as Parmenides’ perceptible world. Finally, each author credits a divinity with the revelation responsibile for their true logos.

            What does Plato stand to gain from these allusions? In the discussion of rhetoric in the second half of the dialogue, Socrates subjects antilogike, the rhetorical practice of arguing both sides of the case, to skeptical critique (261c-261e). But Parmenides and Stesichorus provide valuable models for antilogical argument that operates differently. Rather than arguing each side of a case without interest in the truth, each author produces his own version of a traditional logos only to revise and correct this logos through divine assistance. Coming to grips with a false logos can put one on the road to illumination.

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Argumentation in Plato

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