Wrestling with the Eleatics in Plato's Parmenides

In Athletics, Gymnastics, and Agon in Plato. Sioux City, IA, USA: pp. 185-198 (2020)
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This paper interprets the Parmenides agonistically as a constructive contest between Plato’s Socrates and the Eleatics of Western Greece. Not only is the dialogue set in the agonistic context of the Panathenaic Games, it features agonistic language, employs an agonistic method, and may even present an agonistic model for participation in the forms. The inspiration for this agonistic motif may be that Parmenides and his student Zeno represent Western Greece, which was a key rival for the mainland at the Olympics and other Panhellenic festivals. This athletic rivalry was complemented by a philosophical rivalry, which is dramatized in the dialogue by pitting a very young (flyweight) Socrates against the Eleatic (heavyweight) Parmenides. Through dialectic, an agonistic form of philosophy attributed to the Eleatics, Plato subjects his theory of forms to a variety of conceptual challenges. This process is described as gymnasia (training) at 135d, and the power of dialectic and philosophy itself are said to depend on it. The object of gymnasia (136c) is to achieve a full view (kyriōs diopsethai) of the truth. This philosophical “vision” corresponds to the physical fitness achieved through athletic training, and it distinguishes philosophers (lovers of wisdom) from philtheamones (lovers of images) as explained at Republic 475d-476c. Just as trained athletes are able to participate in the contest while spectators merely watch it, philosophers are able to discern intelligible forms through the particulars that participate in them. In the words of the Seventh Letter 341c, it takes prolonged communion (synousia) with an idea to ignite the philosophical light in one’s soul. The Parmenides’s gymnasia provides an agonistic model for this process, inviting its readers to participate in philosophical training and develop a vison that transcends the material in a way these Eleatic spectators were unable to do.

Author Profiles

Heather Reid
Exedra Mediterranean Center, Siracusa, Sicily
Lidia Palumbo
University of Naples Federico II


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