Parmenides Addresses Plato, as Adam Smith Addresses Us

plato esotericism memory parmenides

Jon Murphy & Andrew Humphries for AdamSmithWorks

Did Adam Smith misremember Cicero's story or is Smith winking to his true audience across time?

"The wise man seeks to be thought worthy by the best judges, those who would or ought to approve of our work, conduct, and character, no matter when that person is to be found."

May 24, 2023
We published a scholarly article entitled “His Memory Has Misled Him? Two Supposed Errors in Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments,” in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization (2021). In that article we address two supposed errors in Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS). Here we tell about one supposed error. We suggest that Smith might have made the seeming error on purpose.

Responding to a misconception about his theory of moral sentiments, namely, that it implies that the sentiment of the crowd or “the community” is the standard of praiseworthiness, Smith writes, on the contrary,
To a real wise man the judicious and well-weighed approbation of a single wise man, gives more heartfelt satisfaction than all the noisy applauses of ten thousand ignorant though enthusiastic admirers.
He illustrates his point with a story about Parmenides addressing Plato:
He [the real wise man] may say with Parmenides, who, upon reading a philosophical discourse before a public assembly at Athens, and observing, that, except Plato, the whole company had left him, continued, notwithstanding, to read on, and said that Plato alone was audience sufficient for him. 
(TMS, 253.31)
The approbation of one wise man, Plato, not the noisy applause of ignorant admirers, was sufficient for Parmenides.

But no such meeting between Plato and Parmenides could have occurred. And Smith surely knew that.

Parmenides was approximately 88 years older than Plato. If Parmenides had addressed Plato aged 20, Parmenides would have to have been 108!

Smith, in his History of Astronomy (p. 53), calls Parmenides an “antesocratic sage,” indicating that he knew that Parmenides was a pre-Socratic. Moreover, Smith was surely familiar with the dialogue titled Parmenides by Plato, and he was well aware of a uniqueness of that dialogue: In Parmenides, Socrates is but a tyro, and a diffident auditor, while Parmenides plays the role of the senior philosopher and authority. Anyone mindful of the dialogue Parmenides would be able to see that there is no way that Plato could have met Parmenides. It is extremely unlikely that the impossibility of Plato meeting Parmenides could have escaped Smith: Plato is both the author of Parmenides and auditor of Parmenides, in Smith’s story. Smith is winking at us!

Parmenides might be able to address Plato—or us—in spirit. But of course, Smith knew that Parmenides could not have addressed Plato in the flesh.

A general reader today might not recognize how ahistorical the story is, but it would be analogous to writing of Adam Smith lecturing to John Stuart Mill! In fact, the difference between Mill’s birthyear of 1806 and Smith’s of 1723 is 83 years, less than that between Parmenides and Plato.

The editors of TMS, D.D. Raphael and A.L. Macfie recognize the problem and cite the corrected story, but account for it as a lapse of memory:
Smith's memory has misled him. Cicero, Brutus, li.91, tells the story about Antimachus reading a long poem before an audience that eventually consisted only of Plato. The philosopher Parmenides (even if in his old age he met the young Socrates, as Plato's dialogue Parmenides supposes) must have died before Plato was born.
(TMS, 253 n.27)
Smith thus makes two changes to the story: he substitutes Parmenides for Antimachus and “a philosophical discourse” for a poem. Smith knew his Cicero. How could Smith make such blunders?

In Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing, Arthur Melzer explains that “implausible blunders,” “errors of fact,” and “misquotations” have been common techniques of esoteric writing (Melzer, 2014, 55). Although Smith was writing near the close of the period in which esoteric writing was accepted as common, and although Smith is unusual in seeming to deny the existence of esoteric writing (History of Ancient Logics and Metaphysics, 121-123n*; Melzer, 2014, 28), there is some interest in ways in which Smith might have written esoterically, at least indirectly and ironically. Smith may have written in ways to make his views more acceptable and politically palatable than he could have achieved by being more direct (see Klein & Merrill, 2021). One purpose of esotericism, Melzer explains, is pedagogical—giving hints and making the reader ponder the matter more deeply, as in the Socratic method. If Smith did intentionally alter the story as told by Cicero, it makes sense to see it as pedagogical esotericism.

If intentional, what might have been Smith’s motive in misrepresenting the story?

First, the story illustrates the contrast between the approval of an undiscerning crowd and a discerning individual. Smith’s moral and aesthetic theory emphasizes the idea that man wants, not only to be approved of, but to be worthy of approval. And this worthiness is measured, not by the approval of just anyone, but by a wise, informed, and impartial spectator.

There are several moments in TMS in which Smith shows great admiration for Plato. Smith associates Plato with the most extensive sense of justice—estimative justice (TMS, 270). Estimative justice is estimating or evaluating an object or idea with a degree of esteem of which it is due, and pursuing it accordingly.

Smith’s substitution of a philosopher (Parmenides) for Antimachus (a poet), and a philosophical discourse for of a poem as the object that is estimated by the auditor, Plato, supports the idea that Smith intended the story to be a wink that would draw special attention to his own philosophical work as the object of estimation. We think it is reasonable to think Smith is saying “I seek the approval of the most virtuous. That is the judge one should seek.”  Smith is reiterating that his moral system does not depend on the crowd.

Second, Cicero tells us that Antimachus’ poem was deliberately aimed at a few wise men rather than the throng. In Cicero’s original telling of the story, Antimachus’ poem is full of obscure allusions that only a few will appreciate. Might Smith have been riffing on this part of the story as an obscure allusion to speak to those who are most knowledgeable and critical in the history of philosophy? Might he have been inviting his own readers to consider: For whom is Smith writing? The assent of the throng, or the approbation of the few? Who really is the wise man?

Finally, Smith has Plato judge Parmenides, although they could not have been contemporaries. By imagining that such thinkers meet out of time, Smith may have been signaling that it is not the actual approval of any living man that he most deeply desired. The wise man seeks to be thought worthy by the best judges, those who would or ought to approve of our work, conduct, and character, no matter when that person is to be found. In other words, proper approval comes not simply from living spectators, but higher spectators who may be across time or even outside of time. 

If the interpretations that we are offering here have merit, there then arises another question, and one we do not attempt to address here. Smith takes the story from Cicero and erases Antimachus. Smith could have put any number of “antesocratic” philosophers in his place. Why Parmenides? In selecting Parmenides, was Smith telling us something about what he thought of Parmenides teachings? Was Smith telling us something about how Parmenides relates to Plato? 

We are not prepared to address the “Why Parmenides?” question. We can say, however, that Parmenides was respected in his own time and seems to have been highly influential on Plato. Smith seems to be positing that Parmenides would have recognized Plato’s wisdom and sought his approval as a wise judge. Do not settle for the approval of the crowd. Search for the approval of sages in time to come.

It is, of course, possible that, as Raphael and Macfie suggested, Smith merely erred. But we find it very unlikely Smith would have changed the story by mistake. We also think it worthwhile to think through how this seeming error might have been something of a playful and even poignant wink to his readers. In any case, Smith’s story reminds us that our sentiments are to be judged not by the throng, or even necessarily by our contemporaries, but by a higher judge. Our sentiments and actions necessarily take place in the context of our time and place, but when we act and when we judge the praiseworthiness of our actions and our sentiments, we should think beyond the here and now and ask that eternal question: am I doing good in the eyes of an ideal impartial spectator, or am I just appearing to do so to ignorant though enthusiastic admirers?

Jon Murphy is an Instructor at Western Carolina University and Fellow at the Institute for an Entrepreneurial Society at Syracuse University. He will be joining the faculty of Nicholls State University as an Assistant Professor of Economics in August 2023. Dr. Murphy holds a Ph.D. from George Mason University. His personal website is

Andrew G. Humphries is a Postdoctoral Research Scholar in the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University. He earned his Ph.D. in Economics from George Mason University, his M.Ed. in Education from Endicott College, and his B.A. in Liberal Arts from St. John’s College, Santa Fe.

This essay is part of the AdamSmithWorks series Just Sentiments curated by Daniel B. Klein and Erik Matson. New essays will be published on the fourth Wednesday of the month. You can read more about the series in this Speaking of Smith post, "Just Sentiments- Welcome!". Klein and Matson lead the Adam Smith Program in the Department of Economics at George Mason University, in association with the Mercatus Center. In the program, they study big ideas in jurisprudence, politics, ethics, and economics as they were pursued during the original arc of liberalism, especially in the 18th century in Britain.

Klein, Daniel B., and Thomas W. Merrill. 2021. Adam Smith, David Hume, Liberalism, and Esotericism: Introduction. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 184
Melzer, Arthur M. 2014. Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Murphy, Jon and Andrew Humphries. 2021. His Memory Has Misled Him?  Two Supposed Errors in Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 184
Smith, Adam. 1980. Essays on Philosophical Subjects. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, Inc.
Smith, Adam. 1982 (1759). The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, Inc.