Ecology of Being

Ecology of Being

In Plato’s Parmenides, the young Socrates meets the venerable Parmenides and his partner Zeno at the Panathenaia. There, the two great philosophers from Elea in southern Italy proceed to school Socrates in the art of dialectic, in the requisites for a theory of forms, and in the nature of the One-that-is-not-one.

In my previous column, I spoke about the emergence of binary logic in Parmenides’ poem. In Plato’s Parmenides, we see this logic put to work in the rigorous dialectical structure Parmenides teaches: for any hypothesis, we must think through the consequences if it is, and the consequences if it is not; but in addition,

Parmenides: [W]henever you suppose that anything whatsoever exists or does not exist or has any other attribute, you ought to consider the consequences with reference to itself and to each of the other things that you may select, and several of them, and all of them together; and again you must study these others with reference both to themselves and to any one thing you may select, whether you have assumed the thing to exist or not to exist, if you are really going to win through to a sight of the truth after a complete course of discipline [gymnasamenos]. (Parm. 136b-c, trans. G. Morrow and J. Dillon)

We can see from this that anything we are going to consider is necessarily already thoroughly involved in relations to many other things. It should not seem strange, then, that in Plato’s further development of the Eleatic legacy, the intelligible, the world uncovered by thought, takes on the character of an ecology.

We next meet up with a man from Elea in Plato’s Sophist, where Socrates talks to a mysterious stranger from the home of Parmenides and Zeno. This dialogue not only comments upon the thought of Parmenides and his successors in the Eleatic school, but also refers back to Plato’s dialogue Parmenides through the symbolism of the Panathenaia. The Parmenides is rich with allusions to the festival at which it is set, and the dialectic is even described by Parmenides in the quote above as a kind of gymnastic contest, just like those held at the festival. The elaborate demonstration of the method Parmenides provides in the dialogue’s second section, from 137c to the end, is itself akin to a philosophical version of the epic poems recited by rhapsodes in the festival’s musical contest. Finally, references to horses, a subtle one near the beginning, in the frame narrative (126c-127a), and Parmenides’ overt comparison of himself to an old race-horse (137a), evoke the equestrian contest.

(It can never be pointed out too often that horsemanship, in every culture that practices it, is a symbol for a host of analogous relationships: horse and rider are at once body and soul; the emotional and desiring powers of the soul and its reasoning faculty; and the soul itself and the spirit or God who rides it. The presence or absence of a mediating vehicle—the chariot—or technical devices—bridle, etc.—modify the symbolism accordingly. Note that Athena Herself gifts Bellerophontês with the bridle for Pegasus, for She is the patron of all the arts by which the soul disciplines and directs itself, and through which souls together constitute a social and political order through which they may mutually flourish.)

Beyond this, however, there is the purpose of the festival itself, celebrating the Gigantomachy, the war of the Giants and the Olympians, Athena’s special role in which was commemorated by the presentation of Her statue with a peplos on which scenes from this struggle were depicted. And it is this struggle in particular which is evoked by the Eleatic stranger in the Sophist, who speaks of a philosophical Gigantomachy, between those who affirm the reality only of what is tangible, and who are akin to the Giants, and those who affirm instead only what is pure form, and who are like the Olympians. The Stranger finds both sides wanting, however, and brings them to a figurative settlement: what is is neither simply material nor purely ideal—what is, ispower(s):

Stranger: I suggest that everything which possesses any power [dynamis] of any kind, either to produce a change in anything of any nature or to be affected even in the least degree by the slightest cause, though it be only on one occasion, has real being. For I set up as a definition which defines being, that it is nothing else than power. (Sophist 247d-e, trans. H. N. Fowler, modified)

To be, then, is to have the power to affect and to be affected—relation, in the most basic sense. Since this is active and passive power alike, it cannot help but bridge the opposing sides in the mythic Gigantomachy, because power is exerted irrespective of who is victor or vanquished. Moreover, to affect or be affected is so broad as to encompass every kind of mythic interaction, and not solely the agonistic kind. Even the simple contemplation of one’s beauty by another, as in the meta-myth of the Timaeus, where the demiurge contemplates the animal beauty of his fellow God as a thing in itself, is a complex of powers of affecting and being affected for both members of the encounter. And the Stranger’s solution settles the philosophical Gigantomachy as well, because the partisans of the tangible, of sensation and experience, must admit that it is the power of things to affect them and of themselves to be affected by them of which they truly speak; and the partisans of ideas must admit that to know and to be known are powers, that even simply to be known is to be affected, and that without this dynamic continuum, knowledge cannot exist.

Compare to this the climax of the first part of the Parmenides, at which point Socrates has begun to grasp the difficulties in his nascent theory of ideas. The supreme difficulty with the theory, Parmenides points out, is that the relationship between the world of ideas and the world of everyday things proves paradoxical. If the ideas “are not relative to our world, nor our world to them, but each only to themselves,” then perfect knowledge and perfect mastery will be with the Gods, but neither will reach us:

Parmenides: Then, if this most perfect mastership and this most accurate knowledge are with the God1, his mastership can never rule us, nor his knowledge know us or anything of our world; we do not <under this view> rule the Gods with our authority, nor do we know anything of the divine with our knowledge, and by the same reasoning, they likewise, being Gods, are not our masters and have no knowledge of human affairs. But surely this is a most amazing argument, if it makes us deprive the God of knowledge. (Parm. 134d-e, trans. H. N. Fowler)

Parmenides makes clear that this argument means that the theory of ideas, at least as framed in a naïve fashion, cannot stand. It is a reductio ad absurdum to assert anything that would have as its consequence that the Gods are deprived of knowledge or authority, or that we could have no appropriate knowledge of Them or experience Their authority. The theory of powers in the Sophist answers to this impasse, by conceiving the ideas, in their purely intellectual sense, as a subset of something broader and deeper, namely the network of relations, of actions and affections, in which all beings, simply as beings, interact with one another, and nothing is entirely isolated from the influence of anything else.

None of this entails that the Gods are just like us. Rather, it is a question of what must be the case in order that we are even able to speak of Their difference. And Gods as divine individuals (henads) also transcend any economy in which They are involved, including the devotional economy itself. The Gods are more than the sum of Their relations, and yet to form relations, and to be implicated to some degree in those relations, is Their way.

So the Eleatic stranger concludes that “absolute being … revered and holy [semnon kai hagion],” must possess “motion and life and soul and mind” (Sophist 248e-249a). It cannot, therefore, be an idea, a form, but must be something very closely akin to the Gods Themselves. And we see from Plato’s Phaedrus what that is: Their way of life. For the place in which the Gods gather together is where “truly existing essence, with which all true knowledge is concerned” (Phaedrus 247c) is to be found. Here the Gods have Their banquet (247a), for “divine intelligence … is nurtured on mind and pure knowledge” (247d). To be with one another, thus, is the true nourishment of the banquet. Those things that constitute real being are “the things with which the God is engaged qua divine” (249c). Does this mean that, in a sense, as Socrates asks in the famous question of the Euthyphro, that something is holy just in being loved by the Gods? Yes, in a sense, but it is also the case that the Gods love nothing that is not lovable in itself, that Their will is not arbitrary or ‘capricious’, that term monotheists love to cast with such wounding intent upon the Gods of the Pagans. A will can, and must, be both free and good, and virtue is nothing other than the way of life of noble animals, whether mortal or divine, just as Being, in the absolute sense, is nothing other than the being together of the finest beings.

  1. The polytheist need never be troubled by the use of ‘the God’ in ancient Greek, as the usage in no fashion resembles the monotheist’s use of ‘God’, but rather is freely interchangeable with ‘the Gods’ as a class of entity, as we see in countless texts. The generic singular is used in Greek for any class of objects, just as we say in English that “The lion is a large, tawny feline predator,” which means the same as “Lions are large, tawny feline predators”. Use of the former rather than the latter is not taken by us to imply the controversial doctrine of monolionism.
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One Comment


  1. P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    Very interesting! I wish I had more to say on this than that, but it’s all I can currently manage…!?!