At the end of yoga class, you are supposed to lie like a breathing corpse. I think it has to do with being in the moment – as in – if you were a corpse that could actually breath, why would you be thinking about anything else? Prone to impatience, I absolutely hate this moment and usually spend those last few minutes thinking very poorly about whoever thought that would be a good way to send me back into the world. A breathing corpse?
However, there is a moment that is like this in Plato’s Parmenides. It’s dialogue which forces you to twist your brain into all kinds of uncomfortable positions, and, at the end of it, you don’t need someone else to tell you to lie there like a breathing corpse. You have no other reality. Simultaneously, within the complexity of the arguments themselves, Parmenides draws our attention to our own potential to exist outside of time (to live as it were like breathing corpses), discovering what it is that we share with what he describes as the One, and with each other. While explicitly about metaphysics, the dialogue shows how an understanding of the highest of metaphysical truths can have significant political impact.
The content of the dialogue focuses on the nature of the One and its relationship to the realm of the many, or the natural world of which we are a part. Given that the dialogue a) is physically set after Socrates has died, but recounts a story of when he was a young man, and b) on several occasions references the distinction between the young and the old as well as the nature of time itself, the reader is asked to think about her own relationship to time, specifically, when her time, as we understand it, will end. More particularly, the dialogue seeks to address if there is any continuity between the One that exists eternally and the many who come into and out of time, such that we too might share something of eternity.
At the same time, the dialogue speaks to the nature of justice. The story is crowded with Plato’s loved ones and friends, including three of his brothers, his teacher Socrates, one of Socrates’s teachers, Parmenides, and a young man named Aristotle, who, if he isn’t the Aristotle that Plato taught, he is certainly intended to remind us of him. Parmenides, who is described as both admiring Socrates and dedicating love poems to the One, enters the conversation to ask Socrates in what way the things of the natural realm participate in the principles of goodness, beauty and justice (130c-131b). Do these absolute truths have any bearing on the natural world and, if so, how? This point is sharpened when Parmenides moves to the example of masters and slaves (134e). If all humans participate in the same nature (the form of the human) and commonly share in the principles of justice and beauty, how can it be that some humans are considered less than others? That the dialogue is set after Socrates has been unjustly executes by Athens, make Plato’s question even more poignant.
Addressing these questions, Parmenides leads Aristotle through a series of complicated arguments, the first set of which examine the consequences that occurs if we assume that the One exists. In thinking about the existence of the One, Parmenides says that if it exists, it must be, or participate in the nature of being. Ascribing being to the One, however, implicates a commonality between it and us. It exists, has being, and so do we. And while the nature of our existences may be radically different, that we each are, suggests a fundamental relationship between our natures. Having found this far, Parmenides then leads the unwitting Aristotle away from the One and into the nature of the many. While the point is not explicit, Parmenides cautions against thinking that resemblance in one way suggest an exact similarity. To say that we exist and so does the one, does not mean that because we grow old, so does the one. Parmenides point is to Sharon our focus. What is the consequence for our natures that we share the same Being in which the One also participates. While the conversation up to this point reveals several ways in which we differ from the one, existing as it is always in motion, coming into and out of being, and thus never quite the same as we were before, towards the end of the first set of arguments, Parmenides described what he calls the “Instant”(156d).
Describing the way that we are always changing and coming into being- growing older, smarter, faster or slower – Parmenides reflects that each of these also points to something that has ceased to be – our ill-spent youths, the capacity to subsist on Swedish berries and chocolate milk, eventually our very selves. Breaking it down, Parmenides notes that logically we can cognizant a moment when something that is at rest but about to be in motion, when it is neither really at rest or in motion. After all, if motion and rest are opposites and we can’t simultaneously do both, there has to be the slightest of “seconds” when I do neither in order to change from one to the next. This “in–between time,” Parmenides describes as the Instant.
And indeed, Parmenides says that the Instant is “in-between time,”for there is no actual time in which we can be simultaneously doing opposite things – resting and walking, being young and being old, living and dying. It is a moment, an instance, in which we, like the One, can understand ourselves as being outside of time, even if we are are not literally outside of time. In that Instant, we are neither moving nor at rest. In some fundamental way, we just are, and this being-ness is something that we can understand ourselves as sharing with the One as well as with everything else that also is.
Given that these “instances” are occurring all of the time because I am constantly changing, every moment becomes an opportunity to recognize the degree to which I share in the timeless – a place where Socrates at least has suggested – the beautiful, the good, and the just also reside. Further, if in that instant, I were to look around, I would see, intermingling amongst these principles, everything else that exists in the world with me. Thought differently, all I have to do to participate in the Instant is to look around the world for the images of beauty, goodness and justice that reside there, just as they reside in some timeless fashion in a purely intelligible realm. Doing this, questions about the nature of slaves vs the nature of masters become farcical, even monstrous.
In the Phaedo, the dialogue which depicts Socrates’s death, he says he left this conversation with Parmenides and turned his attention to things more specifically human. This turn, however, is not a turn away from Parmenides or from the One, for Parmenides indicates that the proper investigation of the highest of things, is to be found in an investigation of what we might consider the lowest (130e). And having so turned our attention, one might discover, as Socrates does, that these things are not so lowly after all. Hence, he talks with his friends on the day of his death, stroking the hair of Phaedo, a young man who used to be a slave.