Refuting Oneself Elegantly: Plato’s Third Man Argument

In the Parmenides, Plato did what he knew would be done by someone else anyway: he refuted a central plank of his own philosophy, the Theory of Forms. When Aristotle came along to do what Plato had already foreseen and further the refutation, the argument was already old hat. Nevertheless, Aristotle had chosen a far better example to illustrate the point, an example which also lent itself to a snappy title by which the argument is now known: the Third Man argument.

The Third Man argument is a nifty delight that is often confusingly expounded. I reckon I can do better, so here now I explicate either triumphantly or to no avail.

The Simple Part

There’s a single Form for each recognisable object or quality in the real world, all of which are the imprecise and inferior copies of their respective ideal Forms. Thus, we can recognise all real-life rectangles as rectangles, for instance, because we have the Form or essence of rectangles in our heads. So when presented with soccer pitches, books and rulers, we can assign them to the group headed by the ideal rectangle that we have a mental picture of and dub them all rectangles.

The Confusing Part
Soccer pitches, books and rulers are very distinct yet are nevertheless rectangles. If these rectangles are so distinct from each other, the one ideal rectangle must be just as distinct from the variety of rectangles in the real world as the real-world rectangles are all distinct from each other. Thus, how can the one ideal rectangle be of use in categorising all real-world rectangles as rectangles? Alternatively put, if the one ideal rectangle is itself a rectangle that heads the group that includes soccer pitches, books and rulers, how is the ideal rectangle itself recognised as a rectangle let alone as the ideal rectangle?

The ideal rectangle must itself be recognised as an ideal rectangle just as a real-world rectangle is recognised as a real-world rectangle. A real-world rectangle is recognised as a real-world rectangle via the ideal rectangle. Thus, if we want to identify the ideal rectangle as the ideal rectangle, we can do so only via the ideal of the ideal rectangle.

The Easy Part Once You’ve Understood the Confusing Part
Of course, we’ve now got ourselves a reductio ad infinitum or an infinite regress: if the ideal of the ideal rectangle is needed to identify the ideal rectangle, then the ideal of the ideal of the ideal rectangle will be needed to identify the ideal of the ideal rectangle and so on to infinity. And if we’ve got an infinite regress, than the Theory of Forms doesn’t explain much at all.

The Third Man Argument in But Three of its Forms

Substitue man for rectangle in the explanation above and you have Aristotle’s Third Man argument (the first man is the real-world man, the second the ideal man, the third the ideal of the ideal man). Substitute large for rectangle in the explanation above and you have Plato’s own refutation of his Theory of Forms. (Large, though, is a confusing example because it’s so difficult to imagine an ideal of something that is a relative quality. Cold is the absence of heat, so small can be considered the absence of large, nevertheless it’s still difficult to conceive of the ideal of large). Leave rectangle as rectangle in the example above and you have my own somewhat simplified version of the Third Man argument.

On How to Read Shakespeare

Take any text that introduces Shakespeare to the beginner, and ever so shamefully little mention will be made of meter. Instead, time will be spent speaking about themes, about characterisations, about motives. Rather than bringing into relief one of the fundamental tools of Shakespeare’s trade and training the ear to hear, what can be idly “discussed” to and fro for arguable gain are emphasised. Sadly, such a sorry situation is made worse by actors often taking liberties with the meter in performance.

Puck’s epilogue in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is yet another moment of Shakespearean brilliance and a fine example of how Shakespeare employs meter to reinforce meaning (stressed syllables are underlined):

If we shadows have offended
Think but this, and all is mended:
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend.
If you pardon, we will mend.
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearn-ed luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call.
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.

Puck, the merry prankster, is here speaking not in pentameter, but in the more playful and fun-loving tetrameter. So instead of every line containing five stressed syllables or beats, as Shakespeare usually writes his verse, Puck speaks predominately in four-beat lines of rollicking merry glee.

Shakespeare also sets up a call and response by making Puck’s first two lines end on weak beats that are emphatically answered with the lines that follow, each of which ends on the strong beat and feature one less syllable to accentuate the last word of each line.

Those lines are unevenly syllabled for another reason too. Each line of verse is ordinarily even-numbered in length, so the lines’ seven syllables go hand in hand with the sense that something does indeed need amending, as Puck confesses.

And the pièce de résistance, the thing that makes Shakespeare the king of verse, is the final two lines of the epilogue that turn from seven-syllable lines of trochees (DA-dums) to eight-syllable lines of iambs (da-DUMs). Iambic is the predominant rhythm of English prosody, the natural flow of an Anglophone’s speech, and just as Puck promises to restore amends, he himself reinforces what he says by turning from uneven trochees to well-balanced iambs and speaking in English’s natural rhythm.

In Puck’s epilogue, Shakespeare deftly works the meter to support the text’s meaning, all of which go over the head of the beginning student whose introductory books speak only of grander subjects and ignore the humbler merits of musical meter. Shakespeare is perhaps more for the ear than he is for the insights into human behaviour, and ignoring the ear’s joys is as silly as swallowing whole a blueberry cheesecake without it even brushing past the tongue.

Mike Patton’s Mondo Cane

7.5 out of 10: The music of Italy’s past beautifully recreated and updated even if Patton could do with a bit more sincerity

Mike Patton’s muse leads him down musical byways long left fallen by the wayside. He’s an aural adventurer, as intrepid as Magellan, and on this occasion fateful crosswinds have blown him towards Italy.

Bologna was Patton’s home whilst married to his Italian bride, and, amongst other things, his time there had him speaking Italian fluently and falling in love with what amounts to Italy’s golden oldies from the 50s and 60s. Mondo Cane, a mildly profane Italian saying that means more or less “the world’s gone to the dogs”, is Patton’s paean to these songs. He gathers together a 40-piece orchestra to faultlessly recreate their lush musical backdrops and a 15-strong band to add a more modern and Pattonesque touch to proceedings. And although the band sometimes overdoes the modern and zany, the orchestra is a stunning thrill ride, the violins swelling the melodies of Ore D’Amore and Senza Fine to dizzy heights, and songs such as 20 Km Al Giorno and Deep Down positively swing.

These songs, however, show up Patton’s one overriding weakness: while he’s capable of singing pretty much anything, Patton is an arch-ironist, more at home singing pastiches and experimenting sonically than with any kind of sincere conveying of emotion. In this, he shares company with the likes of Frank Zappa and Ween, encyclopaedic experimenters who never seem to be taking anything at all seriously despite how much they love music. The songs on Mondo Cane, though, are overdramatic and emotional — and they’re meant to be sung that way. L’Uomo Che Non Sapeva Amare translates to “The Man Who Didn’t Know How to Love”, and the way Patton sings, you begin to wonder if it mightn’t be autobiographical.

Nevertheless, the arrangements and orchestrations are so delightful, the melodies so memorable, that Mondo Cane is a triumph. Like Loveage and Peeping Tom, the product of this Mondo Cane project is an album that people who aren’t Patton fanboys can still love, even if the radio dial on these antipodean shores has never before heard the likes of it.