Clarity Counts

Clarity Counts March 2, 2018

If you want an American to dislike Plato, then give them Parmenides as the first book they read. The text descibes a particular style of doing philosophy and shows it and shows it and shows it. Most of us think philosophy is a “word salad,” talkative people saying things instead of doing or worse, hiding what is true behind a screen of words. Philosophers are “talky men” and beyond a doubt Parmenides seems like a talky man. He does not just make an argument that hinges on words and what they mean, he keeps making them.

Yet there is great value in what Plato is teaching in Parmenides. The young Socrates is there and he is learning the technique that is at the heart of all true liberal-arts education. He is learning clarity. In life we can know a thing without being able to define it and our experiences are trustworthy generally, but being able to define a term helps in the not-so-rare cases where we misunderstand our experiences.

Athens had a rotten educational system that was harming the young men of the city, while also having violent enemies outside the city. The rulers of Athens were going to call on the youth to save them only to find that the young folk were not all that into suffering to maintain the status quo.  Socrates loved Athens enough to stick with the community even when they decided they preferred him dead. One reason to kill him was his insistence on clarity.

The rulers of the city claimed to be democrats, but really were exploiting their cultural power to maintain control. They had rules and standards about what made a person a citizen and what excluded and the gods help you if you deviated from their ideas. Simultaneously, they prided themselves on being “open minded.” You could advance any number of ideas (Motion is everything! Motion does not exist!) and they would pay to hear you. Theater was bawdy and also dealt with serious themes. (What are going to do with these kids?)

Clarity about the unspoken rules?


Young Socrates is pictured in Parmenides as keen to learn. Tyrannically, democrats who rule by manipulating the populace are not afraid of learners. They can be handled. In fact, the educators smile tolerantly about Socrate’s youthful options.

Socrates is no threat. Why? Socrates limits the arguments. He is not willing to stand alone, challenge his “betters,” or consider distasteful ideas. He puts limits on what can be discussed that he has learned from the establishment in the City . . .a kind of distaste in considering that. To defend his ideas (about ideas!), he would have to push further than he is willing to go and take chances he is not yet willing to take.

Fortunately for him, the thinker he meets (Parmenides) may be wrong (from Plato’s point of view), but he is relentless in his pursuit of clarity. Parmenides is not willing to accept appearances and will push an argument that seems ridiculous until someone can explain exactly why the argument fails.

Parmenides wants clarity. To do advanced theorizing, science, art, or literature, requires doing more than being able to fetch and object or use a word. Precision matters. You can put a log across a creek to build a kind-of-bridge without it, but you will never get the Golden Gate Bridge in that way. A person does basic math without a conceptual framework or clarity (One fish! Two fish!), but calculus will never be discovered. We can pray to God without much theology, but we might also miss the deeper things of God if we stay childish in our devotion.

Clarity is hard work. It is not necessary in all cases, but is vital to higher civilization if that civilization wants to avoid decay. The obvious problems get solved. The issues caused by the very virtues that made the city great, the lazy corollary vices that went with the virtues, are missed without clarity.

Parmenides pushed Socrates toward clarity. Young Socrates grew up to be a man who would not let an assumption go if it was defended in a lazy manner. Athens decided to reject clarity and ancient Athens died not long after killing Socrates. Thank God his work was not lost and so has inspired humankind every since: clarity counts. Just now, ask for clarity when someone tells you they are for justice or love. Ask for definitions if they are about to use power to enforce their views of justice or love.

Be Socrates.

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